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Faculty Researcher Explores Solar Air Heating In Agricultural Settings

Sanjay Shah discusses temperature conditions in a swine nursery with graduate student Li Yu to evaluate the effectiveness of a solar powered heating system.

Sanjay Shah discusses temperature conditions in a swine nursery with graduate student Li Yu to evaluate the effectiveness of a solar powered heating system.

Faculty Focus: Shah Seeks Real-World Solutions

Written by Rebecca Nagy

During his undergraduate work in India, Sanjay Shah realized the important role agricultural engineering could have in feeding the world.

A native of Nepal, Shah received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from India before returning to Nepal to work on farm machinery design for eight years. He then attended Louisiana State University to pursue his master’s degree in agricultural engineering with a focus in water resources management and received his doctoral degree in water quality from Virginia Tech.

After working for three years as an Extension specialist at West Virginia University, he joined NC State in 2003.

At NC State, his focus areas include poultry waste management and agricultural air quality. Shah also works in research and Extension related to livestock barn environmental control.

Recently, he saw the potential of solar energy use in livestock barn heating, not only for reducing heating fuel use but also for improving the indoor air quality. He is working with his graduate student Li Yu and Mark Knauer, an Extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science, to test a low-cost solar air heating technology. This low-cost alternative to the more expensive traditional solar air heaters could have an immediate impact on poultry and pig producers.

How did you end up in this field?

When I started my bachelor’s in agricultural engineering, I saw what an impact agricultural engineering could have in feeding the world. I grew up in a developing country where agricultural mechanization is at a very low level and a lot of the work is still done manually. I felt that mechanizing agriculture would be really beneficial to improving the life of the farmers. I’m really proud of the work that I do and I’m proud of the people that I work with. I really look forward to working with them.

What is your approach to research?

My focus is on trying to solve problems that currently exist.

I like to do research that has immediate application, and I also think about whether a research project might be cost-effective on farms. If there’s a research project that’s more theoretical, I will probably step back from that and focus on things that will have an immediate application. Of course, my colleagues might look at the long-term and decide they might like to do research that might bear fruit a few years down the line. But my focus is on trying to solve problems that currently exist. I also look for solutions that are scalable, meaning, can a technology that I am developing or evaluating be scaled up to be used in a commercial facility? Another piece that I consider is retrofitability. Can the technology that I am evaluating or developing be used on existing facilities?

How do you incorporate your research in the classroom?

I believe in integrating research, Extension and teaching. What I will frequently do is use examples of my research projects as well as my Extension projects in the classroom so that students will have a better idea of what goes on in the real world. This way they get to deal with current problems using data sets that have been generated in real life.

What does your Extension work include?

I do quite a bit of Extension on composting horse waste as well as poultry waste and composting of poultry mortalities. Other mortality disposal methods can be expensive so composting is more cost-effective and environmentally friendly. Another area that I work in is improving heating, cooling and ventilation in livestock barns. We grow larger and leaner animals these days, and these animals generate more heat than older genetic lines so they need more cooling and ventilation. In addition to that, I work with producers to make sure that they can maintain acceptable indoor air quality conditions as well as try to limit emissions of pollutants to the outside.

What kind of impact do you think Extension has?

I feel that as an Extension professional I have this unique responsibility of being the bridge between the end user – maybe the farmer – and the researcher. Even though I do my own research, I collect problems from the producers and communicate them to my peers in the research and Extension community. Sometimes if that is a project that has not been explored I do the exploration myself. That is how the solar air heater project came about. I have the opportunity to pass on solutions back to the producers. Sometimes you also learn things from producers that you might not read in a textbook. And sharing that information with other producers helps them in improving performance and productivity on their farms.

What would you tell future students the benefits are of joining BAE?

Biological and agricultural engineering offers a really unique opportunity for undergraduate students to get involved in research. They can ask their professors if they have any job openings in research. They can work part-time during the school year and even full time in the summer working on these research projects.

Biological and agricultural engineering offers a really unique opportunity for undergraduate students to get involved in research.

They gain valuable experience which might not be available in bigger engineering departments. That’s a big plus. I’ve had students come from other departments that say BAE offers that opportunity to interact with faculty and do hands-on research in actual projects. They get experience in fieldwork, lab work, data analysis and modeling which is valuable as these students graduate from this department and enter the workforce.

What projects are you working on right now?

I am working with my graduate student Li Yu at the Lake Wheeler Swine Unit on a solar air heater that uses low-cost landscape fabric as the solar collector. Obviously, solar air heating is nothing new. There are established technologies that heat barns and displace propane or natural gas. That technology is effective but expensive. A lot of farmers cannot afford to buy metal solar air heaters which may cost more than $100 per square meter, not including the cost of installation. Based on a suggestion from Dr. Mike Boyette, my previous graduate student Mark Poole and I decided to evaluate the landscape fabric as a solar air heater. The landscape fabric has much higher porosity – about 80 percent compared to about one percent with solar. I was kind of skeptical whether it would really work but we tried it out at the lab scale and it turned out to be really effective. And we now have a full-scale installation in a 60-head nursery at the swine unit. I am quite hopeful that this solar air heater will provide renewable heat energy at a tiny fraction of the cost that a metal air heater would need.

What impact could this research in low-cost solar heating have?

I think that my work in using low-cost solar air heaters would be beneficial to producers. Even though North Carolina is quite warm, we feel that there’s plenty of opportunity to use solar heating to offset propane costs. There is a lot of need for propane to heat young animals during the winter as well as during the cooler seasons. If we can make its use widespread throughout the U.S. and perhaps throughout the world, we will be able to displace a lot of fossil fuels and at the same time be able to improve air quality inside the barns by reducing combustion of fossil fuels inside the barn.