Fulbright Scholar Returns After Visit to Morocco

Imagine a building capable of regulating climate control; adjusting the heat, activating the air-conditioning and even sending surplus solar energy it generated to the main power grid.

A year ago, Dr. Driss Benhaddou, an associate professor at the College of Technology received a grant from the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program to continue his work on developing the algorithms that “smart” buildings could use to transmit sensory information to a main system. His grant is for the academic year started last fall at Al-Akhawayn University in Morocco, his native country.

The Fulbright Program, the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program, aims to increase mutual understanding between the United States and other countries. Fulbright grant recipients are selected based on academic or professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields.

Benhaddou’s overall research involves optical networking, routing protocols and network optimization. Six years ago, he started working on a related area, wireless sensor networks involving small devices called motes.

A mote can fit into the palm of a hand and is powered by two AA batteries. Relatively inexpensive to make, motes can be used to interface with all sorts of sensors. They work as a group through radio frequency technology forming what is called a Wireless Sensor Network (WSN).

One of the challenges in using motes is with the routing protocols, or transferring information from one point to another in a timely and efficient manner with little loss of data.

Benhaddou has been working on routing procedures and applications for motes. His work under the Fulbright grant focuses on developing algorithms that will optimize and manage the energy consumption in the building and interact with a smart grid.

“The main thing I accomplished, thanks to the Fulbright grant, is investigating building efficiency management,” Benhaddou said.

The idea is to place a series of motes throughout a building. The motes would transmit information such as temperature and humidity from different parts of the building to a main system, or to a smart grid.

Once at the main system, the information would be evaluated and the system would decide what to do, such as increasing or lowering the temperature.

“My goal is to develop the algorithms so that a computer can decide what to do about with the information,” he said. “It’s as if the building would have its own brain.”

“We also want the building to be able to communicate with the smart grid so it could decide how to consume, buy and even sell back energy to the grid,” he said. “It would make the building as energy efficient as possible.”

Benhaddou introduced the research project to students in Morocco, and is serving as advisor to Nacer Khalil, who is studying for his PhD under his supervision. Nacer is currently working on energy efficiency in a micro-grid environment. UH spends millions of dollars on air-conditioning, chilled water and steam that is supplied to 70 buildings and facilities at the main campus. Energy efficiency systems have the potential to create a 40 to 50 percent reduction. 

A significant amount of energy will be derived from solar panels and other renewable sources. “In the event that there are high winds and excessive sun exposure to these generators, energy storage is also being taken into account to supply energy at times when it is cloudy or not sufficiently windy,” said Khalil. Optimizing both consumption and production are key objectives being evaluated in this research.

 “The Fulbright organization wants students to be exposed to global issues. Energy is global and the smart grid is global,” he said.