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SBU Grads Partner with Shinnecock Nation on Renewable Energy Project

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CME 420 students Eliana Matsil, Daniel Arnold and Michael Harris. Matsil will continue this work as she pursues her master’s degree. Photo by Debra Scala Giokas.

Daniel Arnold, Michael Harris and Eliana Matsil, all 2024 graduates of the Chemical and Molecular Engineering program at Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, chose to perform their senior thesis research for CME 420 as part of a large, federally funded project on hydrogen as a clean fuel.

The entire project covered generating hydrogen, storing it and then using it to produce electricity in fuel cells, where its only byproducts are water vapor and warm air, with greenhouse gas emissions near zero. Other work had already shown that hydrogen-powered fuel cells can be more than twice as efficient as the conventional technologies that are only now being challenged by the advent of electric vehicles.

CME 420, a course required for graduation, involves completion of a directed laboratory research project in the highly selective Chemical and Molecular Engineering program. 

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In front of the solar panels at the Shinnecock Reservation, left to right: Wayne Gutshow (consultant), Professor Miriam Rafailovich, Daniel Arnold, Eliana Matsil, Michael Harris and Housing Director for the Rehabilitation Program for the Shinnecock Indian Nation Phil Brown. Photo credit: Miriam Rafailovich.

At the beginning of their senior year, students find a mentor, design a research project, write a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that is vetted by Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), develop a time plan, and defend the proposal before an external panel of faculty and industry representatives. In the spring semester, the students perform the research, following their execution schedule, and at weekly meetings, present relevant literature in multiple journal clubs, or discuss the continual progress of their research with the class, and problem solve together. 

In the final weeks of the semester, the students defend their thesis before the external panel and submit their thesis for peer review to JUCER, an online journal that they edit and publish.  

The Office of Naval Research funded the overall project to demonstrate renewable energy technologies to enhance energy resilience for our nation’s seafarers. The project’s Principal Investigator, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering Miriam Rafailovich, developed an innovative partnership with the Shinnecock Nation, a federally recognized tribe, based on the project’s potential for sustainable renewable energy.

Phil Brown, Shinnecock Nation director of housing, noted that the Nation had recently constructed housing units whose long-term energy needs could best be served by onsite resources. “Our people have always felt a strong kinship with the environment that sustains us. Collaborating with the University was a great opportunity for us to develop a green energy resource that will help to support us while protecting the place where we live,” Brown said. 

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Left to right: Wayne Gutshow (consultant), seniors Eliana Matsil, Daniel Arnold and Michael Harris, and Phil Brown. Photo credit: Miriam Rafailovich.

The Nation was making a green infrastructure investment to provide for renewable energy delivery on its reservation in Southampton, NY. They wanted to assess the utility and performance of different green energy technologies and storage modalities. The students needed to collect data on, and model the performance of, the hydrogen generation, storage and fuel cell operational processes. The complementarity of their needs sealed the deal.

“I am proud of the students,” said Rafailovich, “as they used both their technical skills and their interpersonal skills. They worked on a real-life project that has the potential to affect many lives to come.”

Matsil will pursue her master’s degree in this area, advancing knowledge of the engineering of systems and technologies for utilizing hydrogen as a green resource. “If the system works and is proven to be economically viable,” Brown said, “there is a Shinnecock owned company, Waa Nee Shee Energy LLC,  that can bring this to market and make it available to other indigenous Nations across the country with limited access to grid power.”

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs is among the federal agencies that will be made aware of these activities. 

The students’ final project report will be submitted to the Office of Naval Research, where their findings will also be of interest to the Navy and their fellow services. The U.S. Department of Defense maintains more than 600 bases around the world, many of them in locations where onsite, off-the-grid energy resources may be useful.

Stony Brook University’s Chemical and Molecular Engineering program has had accreditation from ABET, the engineering accrediting body, for the last 10 years. Fewer than 20 percent of U.S. universities with engineering programs have departments of materials science and engineering, where CME is housed.

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