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Subzero sustainability

ASU engineers working on some cool savings for industrial frozen-food storage.
October 1, 2018

An ASU engineering research team’s energy-saving solution for frozen-food storage could mean big cost savings for grocer, utility

Sometimes something sweet requires serious smarts.

Kristen Parrish’s work focuses on integrating energy-efficiency methods into the design, construction and operational processes of buildings.

Robert Wang’s expertise in thermal science includes the applications of thermoelectricity, thermal-energy storage and phase-change materials and processes.

Together they are a formidable force in the quest for … well-preserved, quality ice cream.

Their know-how is especially valuable if you have very large facilities filled with vast quantities of food that must be kept frozen under precise technical specifications to maintain its optimal attributes as an edible.

Parrish and Wang, associate professors in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, are working on just such a project with Arizona’s Salt River Project water and power utility and Viking Cold Solutions, the leading thermal-energy storage provider to the low-temperature cold-storage market.

The companies and the ASU researchers are experimenting with Viking Cold Solutions’ novel thermal-energy storage and cooling technology in the 10,400-square-foot ice cream freezer in the Bashas’ Family of Stores grocery chain’s 800,000-square-foot distribution center in Chandler, Arizona. 

The ice cream freezer uses a good portion of the total power required to operate the entire facility, which hums constantly with the running of refrigeration equipment and electrical systems.

“Annually, the facility requires the equivalent amount of energy needed to power almost 1,000 homes for a year,” said Chico Hunter, SRP’s research and development manager.

That includes providing the energy to keep the ice cream storage space at a constant minus-18 degrees Fahrenheit.

The thermal-energy system being tested in a Bashas’ ice cream freezer employs “ice packs” of phase-change materials that can transform repeatedly from liquid to solid and back to liquid again. The materials are encased in plastic and placed on the racks of shelving throughout the storage facility. Photo courtesy of Salt River Project

Parrish and Wang, along with Nexant, an industrial energy consulting and services company, are monitoring and measuring the performance of the system, which offers the advantage of a low-tech chemical and mechanical cooling technique.

The thermal-energy system utilizes proprietary, food-safe phase-change material formulas composed of deionized water and inorganic salts held in individually sealed plastic cells. The cell modules are designed to be installed above the storage racks in the ice cream freezer.

As phase-change material transitions from liquid to solid and from solid to liquid, the system absorbs or releases large amounts of energy while maintaining a stable temperature.

“It’s sort of like the ice packs you put in your lunchbox,” Parrish said. “They store the cold. The idea is to get enough cold stored in them that you can run the refrigeration compressors in the freezer for a lot less time during peak hours and still maintain the same cold temperatures throughout the storage space.”

“Keeping a space cold is essentially a process of removing heat,” Wang explained. In this system, as the phase-change material encased in the plastic melts, “it absorbs the surrounding heat and keeps the freezer cold.”

An important feature of the method is “it’s a passive energy process,” Wang said. “No electricity is needed to drive the melting process of the phase-change material.”

The benefit SRP and Bashas’ hope to reap from the project is not simply energy efficiency but also significant energy cost savings. The thermal-energy process enables Bashas’ to reduce the amount of time it has to run the facility’s conventional electrical refrigeration system during more expensive peak-load hours — that’s between 2 and 7 p.m. each day when customer demand is highest for SRP and when the cost of power is up to three times as high as during nonpeak hours.

Bashas can now run the electrical refrigeration system mostly during nighttime hours when costs are lower.

“The less expensive and more efficient nighttime refrigeration run time refreezes the phase-change materials, and those ice packs are then able to maintain stable temperatures in the facility to keep the ice cream adequately frozen during much of the daytime peak-load period,” said SRP research engineer Alejandra Mendez.

“We have been able to shed about five hours of running conventional refrigeration off the peak-load time and shift it to the nighttime operations,” Mendez said.

Such peak-load shifting, especially in large industrial facilities that operate day and night, also saves SRP money in the long run.

“The more power we have to deliver during peak-load times, the more we will have to purchase power elsewhere to meet that demand or eventually have to build more power plants,” Mendez said.

“The thermal-energy storage technology also offers the advantage of making the overall system more sustainable and cost-effective,” Mendez added. “With a non-mechanical, passive energy-storage technology, you won’t need to make expensive upgrades to an existing refrigeration system.”

The ultimate goal of the project is to determine whether users’ electric bills can be adequately reduced to offset much of the installation costs.

“If that’s the case,” Hunter said, “we hope to develop a customizable thermal-energy storage system incentive plan to offer to customers who will implement these measures.”

ASU engineers (from left) Robert Wang and Kristen Parrish discuss energy systems operations inside the 10,400-square-foot ice cream freezer at Bashas' Chandler, Arizona, distribution center with Salt River Project research engineer Alejandra Mendez and senior engineer Catherine O’Brien. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

ASU engineers Parrish and Wang hope to see positive signs for the system’s future capabilities once there is complete data on its performance over this year’s hot and humid summer.

The researchers expect to have sufficient data to present the project’s results to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers at the organization’s conference in January.

The phase-change material has already allowed Bashas’ to run compressors less often during the hottest hours of the day — the peak-load time when electrical power is most expensive — resulting in lower operating costs, Parrish said. She and the other ASU researchers are in the process of determining the overall energy impacts of the phase-change material.

Parrish, a civil engineer, has successfully teamed with SRP in the past to improve residential energy efficiency by applying her building operations expertise and research.

The ice cream freezer project is giving Wang an opportunity to apply his varied expertise to the energy sector.

The work is also providing a real-world research opportunity for students. Neda Askari, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering — with a focus on the latter field — and Prathamesh Vartak, a materials science and engineering doctoral student, are helping to measure the efficiency of the thermal-energy storage system and to model the energy and cost impacts of such systems.

Beyond the value the endeavor may yield for Bashas’ and SRP, Parrish and Wang are hoping it leads to blueprints for successfully replicating the system in a variety of other large-scale industrial freezer operations.

The project extends an almost 30-year partnership between SRP and ASU.

“We communicate about the needs we have and then once a year our staff meets with ASU people to brainstorm new projects,” Mendez said. “Then we match the professors with SRP’s people to tackle specific challenges.”

There are currently more than 45 collaborative research projects involving more than 30 ASU faculty members — most of them within the Fulton Schools.

Said Hunter, “It’s great to have a place nearby where we can access all that expertise.”

Top photo: An ASU engineering team is working with the Salt River Project utility, the Viking Cold Solutions company and the Bashas’ Family of Stores grocery chain on a thermal-energy system to reduce the costs and the amount of electrical power needed to keep large food storage facilities refrigerated at subzero temperatures. Pictured (from left) holding frozen ice cream are Associate Professor Robert Wang, doctoral students Prathamesh Vartak and Neda Askari and Associate Professor Kristen Parrish. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Gift establishes Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions

October 1, 2018

Couple’s philanthropy will support student success and launch an initiative to revitalize Maryvale community

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.

Mike and Cindy Watts took over a tiny lawnmower-rental company in 1977 and worked day and night for 40 years to grow it into the thriving enterprise that Sunstate Equipment Co. is now. Though their business was about backhoes and forklifts, they knew that their company’s real assets were the people.

“We focused on the culture of the company, and it’s all about people,” said Mike Watts, who, as CEO of Sunstate, learned to invest in his employees. “We would provide opportunities and encourage their growth and development.”

Today, the Watts family is continuing to invest in people with a gift that will further Arizona State University’s mission to increase access to higher education and to partner with the community. And on Monday, ASU announced the historic renaming of its public service college to the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

In announcing the gift, ASU President Michael M.Crow said that while the university is dedicated to helping the community, the gift from the Watts is an example of how the citizens can step up to improve the university.

“How do you make a democracy more successful? How can you design a university that can be of the community and committed to the community’s success?” he said. “For all that we bring, we cannot do that by ourselves. The community and its leaders, its citizens, must also engage and help advance the institution.”

The $30 million investment is one of the largest gifts in ASU history and demonstrates a continuation of the Watts’ commitment to advancing the prosperity of Arizona by harnessing the power of the university and its broad array of programs to transform neighborhoods, cities and the state.

Crow said through their legacy of giving and partnering with ASU, the Watts are role models.

“They have stepped up in a way that through their investment, this college can expand its intellectual footprint and its impact in the community itself,” he said.

Mike Watts said on Monday that seeing the family name on the college is meaningful if it encourages other donors to support the university.

“It’s more meaningful if, as the students see the name up there, they know that we’re supporting them,” he said.

Jonathan Koppell, dean of the college, noted at the beginning of the ceremony that the Downtown Phoenix campus is built on lands that were long populated by indigenous people, whose innovative canals still exist today.

“They offer a lesson applicable to today’s gathering: Through their commitment to collective action, they took a hostile environment and built a place where we can live,” he said. “That's what public service and community solutions means.”

Cindy Watts said that collaboration is key.

“Ignorance is a great source of suffering, and our intention is to alleviate that suffering through all of these programs,” she said. “From our hearts, we are so honored to do this.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

The announcement was part of the Community Solutions Festival, with dozens of tables showcasing the many academic units and student projects in the public service college.

The Watts' gift will fund scholarships and professorships — including one devoted to Native American issues — support student programs and launch a unique initiative to revitalize the community where the Watts grew up, called the “Maryvale Revitalization Project and One Square Mile Initiative.”

“These are two individuals who care deeply about their community, and they decided that the best way to make a difference was through ASU,” Koppell said.

“That’s really powerful because it speaks to the role that we have assigned ourselves — to be an active agent for change by working in partnership with organizations in the community.”

Finding their start in Maryvale

Mike and Cindy Watts have warm memories of Maryvale, a thriving, working-class community where they lived in the 1960s.

They met at a Maryvale High School graduation party and then went for a drive with friends, stopping to jump out of the car and dance along to the radio on Central Avenue.

They’ve been partners ever since.

“If everybody who entered business could have a spouse that would support them like she did for me, there would be a lot more people going into business,” said Mike Watts.

He described those early years, when they couldn’t get a bank loan so they sold the family car and lived off the money while negotiating to take over a shop that rented lawnmowers.

“I had several job offers and we would talk about it — ‘Are you still in the belief we can buy this business and do it?’ And she never once said, ‘I think you should take this job.’ That made me feel supported,” he said.

“It was a good bet on my part,” said Cindy Watts, who was the bookkeeper for the business when they finally were able to buy it. “I was in full support. It was exciting.”

In the 1980s, the Phoenix area began sprawling and their business, dependent on construction, started thriving.

“I knew what it took to build a business and find value in other people,” said Mike Watts, who retired as CEO a year and half ago. “It wasn’t motivation for money. It was motivation for growth. I found that through the proper channeling of people, it would build the business.”

Cindy Watts agreed.

“To me, it’s important to offer the opportunity to every human being to meet their potential,” she said. “We’re all human, we all want the same thing, we want to be happy and be free of suffering. We need one another.”

Over the past several decades, Maryvale has struggled with crime and poverty, and its residents have lower levels of education than other areas of Phoenix and in Maricopa County. Compared with all Maricopa County residents, Maryvale has triple the number of residents without a high school diploma, 39 percent vs. 13 percent for the county.    

Koppell said the One Square Mile initiative will concentrate ASU programs in one area and help connect existing initiatives.

“Let’s try doing it all in concert so that the same families that are getting the benefit of a nutrition program are also getting the benefit of a tutoring program and are also getting help starting their small business and are also shown how to be better financial managers,” he said.

“We’ve already discovered lots of cool things going on that are disconnected, so one of the roles we can play is to be a facilitator, a coordinator.”

Carina Ledesma is grateful that the Watts family sees hope in Maryvale, where she grew up.

“There are no words to explain how much this means to me, how much this means to the students who will be receiving this financial assistance, and how much it means to the community,” said Ledesma, who has found her passion in social work, helping domestic violence survivors and children in the foster-care system.

“Just like there’s some bad, there’s so much good there. There are so many teens who want to go to school.”

Ledesma, who earned a bachelor’s of social work and is now pursuing a master’s of social work at ASU, said she faced low expectations when she was in high school, and that young people there need people like Mike and Cindy Watts to believe in them.

“They need someone who says, ‘You live in Maryvale, but you’re going to make it. Here is all this help, and there are all these resources. One day you’re going to graduate, and you’re going to do what you love to do.’ ”

Opening up opportunities

Graduates of public-service colleges become social workers, law-enforcement officers and government workers. So gifts like this are unusual, Koppell said.

“When you think about multimillion-dollar gifts, you think of a business school or a law school, partially because the alumni of a school of social work or a school of public affairs aren’t generally in a position to give those kinds of gifts to their alma mater,” he said.

The Watts’ investment will help fund the college’s hands-on learning programs for students, like the Community Solutions Co-op, a service-learning initiative in which students work to resolve local issues, and the Spirit of Service Scholars, the flagship program that provides in-depth policy and leadership training to students from all majors. Scholars will provide mentorship at Maryvale schools.

It will also help fund the Student Social Entrepreneurship Fund, which offers seed money to students with promising entrepreneurial solutions to social challenges, and the Undergraduate Research Program, where students team up with professors on research that examines societal challenges, gaining valuable research, presentation and publication experience.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

One important objective of the gift is to provide experiences to students who otherwise may not be able to afford them. A pool of money will be available to help fund internships, study-abroad trips and undergraduate research.

Koppell said the timing of the gift is significant.

“It couldn’t happen at a more important time in our history, when the belief in public service and the confidence in public institutions is at a low point,” he said.

Mike Watts said that he and Cindy are confident in ASU’s ability to make an impact.

“We’ve seen proof that things can be taken across to the finish line,” he said.

The couple hopes their gift provides hope.

“I have always felt that giving people a reason to be optimistic, to believe in dreams is important,” Mike Watts said about helping the Maryvale community.

“Part of the initiative that we hope to work with the college on is the development of that, a belief system, not just in themselves but in the opportunities that exist in the U.S. and in Maryvale.”

A point of pride for the college is that it is home to ASU’s most diverse student body, with the highest percentages of minority, college transfer, employed students, veterans and first-generation students. The college also boasts the Public Service Academy, the nation’s first leadership program where students receive leadership training and experience to work across the public, private, nonprofit and military sectors.  

“Mike and Cindy Watts embody the guiding principles of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions,” said ASU Foundation CEO Gretchen Buhlig. “They are deeply engaged in the community and dedicated to addressing social problems, serving as agents of change for the solutions we want to see in the world. Their transformational investment and leadership will shape the future of public service education.”

Video by Jordan Currier/ASU

Top photo of Cindy and Mike Watts by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News