Campus as Lab: Princeton Facilities and Bocarsly Lab Collaboration

Posted on April 13, 2016

Article by Olivia Grah '19

The Office of Sustainability’s Campus as Lab program promotes the study of Princeton University's campus as a model for sustainability problem solving. Because of the breadth of areas covered by the program, it is intrinsically interdisciplinary and frequently requires collaboration between academic and operational departments. campus as lab logo

A recent partnership between Princeton Facilities and the Bocarsly Lab in the Chemistry Department exemplifies the aim of Campus as Lab to promote Princeton as a living, learning laboratory.

The Princeton Energy Plant uses co-generative technologies to provide heating, cooling, and power to the Princeton campus through the production of electricity, steam, and chilled water. Critical to the plant’s operation is the control of the pH of the campus steam and condensate system to prevent corrosion and bacterial growth. Plant operators measure pH on site and then adjust the acidity levels of the steam and condensate prior to it going out through the campus system for heating and cooling. However, because incorrect water pH can cause structural damage in the system, Princeton Facilities requires another measurement in conjunction with its own to independently confirm the levels.

Prior to the collaboration with the University Chemistry Department, Facilities sent water samples to a lab in Boston for an independent check on its pH measurements. This resulted in an expense to the Facilities department and a two-day delay for test results. Recognizing the inefficiency in this transaction, Facilities contacted Frick Chemistry Laboratory building manager Alice Monachello to connect with a Princeton research group to conduct the testing on campus.

Dr. Andrew Bocarsly of the Princeton Bocarsly Lab of electrochemistry welcomed the collaboration, explaining that pH “influences a number of experiments and is a standard measurement of the Lab.” Undergraduate student researcher An Chu ‘17 in the Bocarsly Group now conducts the pH testing. Testing result turnaround is now one hour and the cost to Facilities is limited to pH probe and reagent replacement.

student in a lab An Chu '17 working in the Bocarsly Lab

The pH measurements are conducted using pH probes. Chu describes pH probes as electrochemical cells that, when dipped into condensate, produce a measurable voltage dependent on the acidity difference between the probe and the sample. Four probes are used in the measurement, and then the Bocarsly Lab returns the results to Facilities as an average with a standard error. Campus operations thus benefit from faculty research in this interdisciplinary approach that uses the campus as a laboratory. 

Bocarsly summarizes the testing as “an educational component” of the Bocarsly Lab’s work and cites the Princeton School of Engineering’s interest in the interface and output of the campus solar array as another example of administration/faculty collaboration.

For Bocarsly and Chu, their interest in aiding Facilities stems from a “shared enthusiasm to spread science to people who don’t usually encounter it” which, for Chu, operates as “the biggest motivation in terms of [his] investment in [the] project.”