#UAAGrad finds convincing strategies to heat rural Alaska

April 20, 2016
Jordan Batac

Jordan Batac will graduate in May with a degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in electrical engineering. Behind her is the masonry heater she’s been studying for her capstone project. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)


As Jordan Batac crosses the Alaska Airlines Center stage on May 1 to accept her mechanical engineering degree with a minor in electrical engineering, she will fulfill the promise that drew her young parents from the Philippines to Alaska decades ago.

They came for opportunity; their daughter seized it at UAA.

Jordan will be the first in her family to finish college, and the first engineer in the Batac clan. She’s also one of 32 mechanical engineering graduates this May, an unprecedented number.

Jordan points to support from three important corners of her life, all beginning with the letter “F”: family, friends and faculty. Talk with her a little longer and a few more alphabetical letters slip out: “A” for ANSEP and “M” for mentor.

I learned her story when we met in a greenhouse behind the old engineering building, which is currently closed for refurbishing. The greenhouse is the site of an engineering project that Jordan has worked on for the past two years, each time with a team of fellow engineering students.

Ancient technology, remade for rural Alaska

The light and airy greenhouse houses a student-designed and built masonry heater on one end, and a conventional wood stove on the other. Masonry heaters are an ancient form of heating stove designed to keep dwellings warm. They’ve been common in Europe since the 12th Century, and in China even further back.

UAA’s engineering faculty and students have been tinkering with this ancient technology to see if they can create a small-size version capable of heating a typical rural Alaska dwelling. Historically, these radiant-heat masonry stoves are built big and heavy. They burn any kind of solid fuel—even wet scrap wood— at a very high temperature. The high heat pulls all the available energy out of the fuel source, uses it to circulate through and warm a series of internal flues and channels that deeply toasts the masonry, allowing the stove to radiate heat long after the fire has gone out.

Jordan didn’t build the experimental model; it was the work of three other students in 2014, plus faculty. Their goal was to design a rural-friendly masonry heater with off-the-shelf components that anyone could build. Their ultimate goal is 600-pound kits, with online directions, so rural residents might build them onsite as an alternative heating source.

We mentioned the conventional wood stove in one corner of the greenhouse. The two stoves are housed here to facilitate the testing that Jordan and others have done. Her first year on the project, Jordan tested the efficiency of the masonry heater against the traditional wood stove.

High versus low temperatures

The material properties of the firebrick in a masonry heater allow for extremely high temperatures and complete combustion of the fuel source. A wood stove, in contrast, is often made of cast iron and limited to lower temperatures and more incomplete combustion.

They’re not only slower,” said Jordan, “but the majority of your fuel is escaping through exhaust as particulates.”

Traditional wood stoves also have a hotter surface temperature than a masonry heater, making them more dangerous in the home environment. And the lower-temperature burning levels allow creosote accumulation in the chimney flue, another latent fire hazard.

Capstone project aims to measure particulates

All Jordan’s work on the masonry heater her first year, as a junior, was volunteer. For a senior capstone project, she and a team of fellow students decided to find a way to measure emission particulates.

A student-built device to measure particulates from a stove

Jordan Batac and her capstone team designed this piping system to capture particulates from a wood stove and from a masonry heater. They are looking for evidence to make use of masonry heaters more appealing for rural residents. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Batac)

“We were looking for another way to make this stove more appealing for people in rural communities,” Jordan said. “We decided that we’d quantify the particulate emissions coming out of each system.”

The team is graded on its deliverables. “So the first thing we did is sit down with our professors and ask, ‘What do you want? What do you expect from us by the end of the semester? What final product?’”

Once they knew that, they brainstormed ways to capture the particulates, considering magnetic fields to track particles, but ultimately settling on an HVAC system. They used a fan to cool the flue temperature enough so they could capture particulates in paper filters. Their plan was to run the same test on both the conventional wood stove and the masonry heater. They still had a day of experiments on the masonry heater and then results to analyze, but Jordan was confident the higher combustion masonry stove would emit fewer particulates than the traditional wood stove. She just wanted proof.

What it took to get here

Hearing Jordan talk about the influences in her life is moving. She starts easily with her parents. Her father has just retired as a grocery store produce manager. Her mother stayed home with their children.

“My father worked really hard for us. Even when he had a bad day at work, he’d tell us, ‘I will do anything for you!’ He was committed for us. I appreciate that,” she said.

The gifted mentorship program in the Anchorage School District delivered another influence. Jordan was always a good student. She loved math and science. Her parents wondered if she might want to be a doctor. Jordan didn’t think so – life and death issues seemed more than she would be comfortable managing. Engineering? Maybe, she said. So as a junior in high school, she was paired with a woman engineer from BP, Jenny Jemison, a UAA alumna.

Jordan confesses that before she met Jemison, she thought “engineers sat behind desks, old people probably, clicking their lives away. I didn’t want to do that.”

A mentor among mentors

Then she met the live-wire reservoir engineer, and her stereotypes slipped away. “She’s

Jenny Jemison

UAA engineering alumna Jenny Jemison became an influential mentor for Jordan Batac during her junior year in high school. (Photo courtesy of UAA COE Advisory Board)

a very jolly person,” Jordan said with a smile. Jemison introduced her to other engineers, and Jordan realized they were very active, and truly relished doing field work. “They were living the life!” she said. She and Jemison worked on a project together, went to the university and interviewed professors, and Jordon got to volunteer on an engineering project with younger people. She was busy and the whole experience was fun.

Then Jemison began mentioning ANSEP, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. “She kept encouraging me,” Jordan said. “Did you get the application in? The deadline’s next week, you know…”

For her part, Jordan was lukewarm but went along. Suddenly, it was the summer after her junior year, and she was going to school at ANSEP. “I figured I could do anything for a summer,” she confessed. But that was the summer that changed everything for Jordan.

First, she built a bridge out of balsa wood and stressed it until it failed. That was just plain fun. Next, she was invited to continue taking a college class at UAA during her senior year in high school. “I took calculus 2. It was a great way to get introduced to college before you’re really a student there,” she said.

And the summer after high school graduation, she was back at ANSEP. Part of that experience included a two-month internship at BP. “It was cool to see how professionals behave. I worked on how I present myself, something you don’t really get in school. I got to see how I could improve.”

 A word about faculty and friends

Jordan is clear: she cannot leave UAA without recognizing UAA’s engineering faculty, including the close-knit community that is ANSEP.

Here’s just one little story of how they helped her. She was trying to decide what kind of engineer to be. She heard that a mechanical engineer can do anything because “it covers basically anything that moves.” That sounded good; she’d be a mechanical engineer.

Until she found out that one thing mechanical engineers can’t do is electrical. That cast her decision to doubt. Trying to find an answer, she did her own research and she sought out faculty members to talk it over with.

“I went up to them with this dilemma,” she said. They gave her concerns careful consideration, asking her about what kind of problems she most liked to solve, suggesting she might major in both areas, or select one as a minor.

“UAA’s faculty is amazing!” she said. “They listen. They set time aside for you. You can go into their office and they’ll hear you out. They don’t just consider that you’re a student. They also see you as a person.”

Her shout-out list began: Jennifer Brock, Jeff Hoffman, Nicolae Lobontiu (“I love his teaching style…”), Jens Munk (“He was a huge help with my EE minor!”), Todd Peterson…She finally had to give up. “I give a shout-out to them all! I adore them. They are literally lifesavers,” she said.

Navigation advice

Any opportunity to interview a senior who has learned to navigate UAA well is an opportunity to pass his or her wisdom along to students coming behind. I asked Jordan—what advice did she have for new Seawolves trying to find their way at UAA.

Of course, lean on friends and faculty, she said. “They will be there for you when you need them. And you’ll need them!”

But as her own personal mantras, she chose two special messages, one from her family, and one from a good school friend.

First, from her family. “This comes from my background. Growing up, I was always told to do my best. If your best isn’t good enough, that’s OK, but the fact that you did your best, that is all that you need to do.”

Jordan admitted she had her moments of struggle. “Personally, I feel disappointed in myself if I don’t do my best. And any time I want to give up, I think of my family.  I want to be able to support them in the future, like they have supported me up till now.”

The other bit of advice comes from a classmate. She remembers it vividly, from her freshman year. Her classmate reluctantly gave a class presentation. “He didn’t want to do it, but once he got up there, he nailed it,” she said. “So someone asked him what advice he had for his fellow students. And he said, ‘Never underestimate yourself!’”

Jordan took that one to heart. We probably all should.


Written by Kathleen McCoy, UAA Office of University Advancement

University of Alaska Anchorage - University Advancement
3211 Providence Dr. Suite 236 - Anchorage, AK 99508
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