Inside UW’s cutting-edge Clean Energy Testbeds, researchers seek breakthroughs to help the planet

Technical director Devin MacKenzie in front of a roll-to-roll printer for solar cells and more at the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Testbeds. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The students and technicians in white lab coats look like they could be testing and developing processes and prototypes for just about anything. But at the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Testbeds in Seattle, they are helping to facilitate leading-edge research that will reduce the time, energy and money needed to turn innovative discoveries into scalable clean energy products.

In the race to meet demand for alternatives to fossil fuels and ultimately combat climate change, time is of the essence.

Created by the UW’s Clean Energy Institute, which was founded in 2013, the Testbeds opened in February in a 15,000-square-foot former sheet metal fabrication building near the school’s Seattle campus. GeekWire visited the facility this week to check out what’s happening behind the scenes.

Since it launched, the open-access Testbeds has attracted users ranging from startups and UW spinouts to big corporations such as Microsoft. Researchers and companies are looking to take advantage of access to unique instruments to rapidly develop technologies in solar harvesting, energy storage, and grid integration.

The testbed is not just an experimental lab, said Daniel Schwartz, UW professor and director of CEI.

“It takes and prototypes, designs, builds the processes, devices, services at a scale where you could bring in an investor and they would say, ‘That is an authentic thing, I can see how that thing works … I could see how that could be scaled up, I could see how that could take the world over,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz, along with Testbeds technical director Devin MacKenzie, stressed how difficult it is to make money in clean energy, and how the UW’s aim is to greatly reduce the cost of going from idea to actual working prototype. Having access to equipment and PhD-caliber technicians eliminates the need to build a startup to facilitate all of those resources.

In a “Scale-up and Characterization” lab, work is done on solar and storage devices as well as the testing of manufacturing processes.

MacKenzie showed off a new multistage roll-to-roll printer for solar cells, batteries, sensors, optical films, and thin-film devices. The 30-foot-long machine, which was custom built for the facility and funded by the Washington Research Foundation, is one of the most advanced roll-to-roll systems in the world and the only one of its kind in the U.S.

The machine was acquired to support the development of low-cost materials and processes for ultra-low-cost solar cells that could be manufactured at large scales with a dramatically lower carbon footprint than silicon, according to the UW.

Testbeds’ Devin MacKenzie, left, and Dan Schwartz with the solar simulator in the “Scale-up and Characterization” lab. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The lab is also home to a solar simulator — a large-scale “photovoltaic performance measurement system” capable of full module testing — as well as a controlled humidity and temperature room, simulators, environmental test chambers, battery cyclers, electron microscopes, X-ray spectrometers, and more.

A “Systems Integration” lab allows users to test energy devices against real and simulated system environments.

Dan Schwartz, left, and chemical engineering professor Venkat Subramanian, right, and research scientist Chintan Pathak in front of a 30 kW/40 kWh battery energy storage system. Subramanian and Pathak are using it to measure the performance of energy devices and algorithms when integrated into real and simulated system environments. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

UW electrical engineering professor Dan Kirschen and a PhD student showed off how they can “simulate the behavior of the grid in quite a bit of detail in real time” by demonstrating their model of a solar farm and what happens to energy production when a cloud passes over the farm.

Tests help to determine how and when batteries can be used to maintain voltage at an acceptable level for power customers.

Devin MacKenzie, director of the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Testbeds, in a lab at the Seattle facility. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Another research initiative housed in this lab is the Transactive Campus Energy Systems project. The first-of-its-kind regional partnership with UW, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington State University seeks to develop and demonstrate the technologies to cost effectively balance energy use among buildings, campuses, and cities.

Kirschen leads the project for UW and Testbeds users can access data that researchers are drawing from devices and systems across UW’s campus.

UW electrical engineering professor Dan Kirschen shows off the Transactive Campus Energy Systems project at Clean Energy Testbeds. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Current users of the Testbeds include:

Learn more on the Clean Energy Testbeds website.