Engineering students, art conservators work on display system

Extremely rare and high-profile objects on display in museums — an ancient Egyptian mummy, for example, or the Declaration of Independence — are exhibited in hermetically sealed cases that reduce oxygen levels and protect the items from damaging humidity.

Such cases may be state-of-the-art, but they’re also expensive. And they’re almost certainly too costly for small and medium-size museums, which face similar preservation issues for their most valuable collections.

In an effort to address that need, a Delaware company that has been developing new technology for display cases turned to University of Delaware students for help in testing and improving its design.

A multidisciplinary design team, consisting of students majoring in environmental and chemical engineering and in art conservation, worked with Seaford-based Xergy on the project.

The group presented its results at the Senior Engineering Design Celebration, held in December at UD’s Clayton Hall and showcasing about 40 projects completed by teams of students collaborating with industry partners.

Xergy is a startup working on new technology it hopes will transform the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry with more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient systems. The same way the technology is used for cooling buildings might also be applicable to refrigerating food or protecting museum artifacts, said Bamdad Bahar, the company’s founder and president.

“We were looking into a partnership with the Department of Art Conservation, and after talking with them, we suggested they might collaborate with the College of Engineering,” Bahar said.

Xergy, he said, had worked with the college’s senior design program in previous years and had seen “excellent outcomes” in those projects.

Five engineering students who formed a team to work on testing Xergy’s display-case technology were joined by Yan Ling Choi, a senior majoring in art conservation who also has a strong background in chemistry. She provided information about the needs museums have for preserving their collections and assisted in the testing process.

“Preservation is so important,” Choi said. “Preventing damage from happening is what we focus on because once something is damaged, that can’t be reversed.”

As the team’s project began to take shape, Choi said, “My role was to present the museum perspective” about such factors as acceptable levels of humidity in preserving materials. Because another goal was to filter out substances that could damage the objects inside a display case, Choi suggested which potential contaminants the team should target in its testing.

In the end, the students were able to use two electrolyzer cells — in which the process of electrolysis converts water into oxygen and vice versa — on a prototype display case to reliably control humidity and oxygen levels while limiting exposure to contaminants such as ozone. The team also made recommendations for future work in further optimizing the process.

“You can control the humidity and the oxygen at the same time, on a molecular level,” Choi said. “This is such great technology that if we can apply it to the museum field, it will be much better than what is being used now.”

Dennis Palica, one of the team’s chemical engineering students, said he was especially interested in the range of possible uses for the technology.

“I think this was one of the more rewarding projects I’ve worked on,” he said. “The applications for museums are great, but so is the possible application in food preservation and other areas.”

Kelli Kearns, an environmental engineering student on the team, said working with an art conservation student was a valuable learning experience in addition to the hands-on engineering experience with the project itself.

“I think this is the direction engineering is going in,” she said. “We’ll be working with people from other disciplines to solve a lot of different problems.”

In addition to Kearns and Palica, the engineering students on the team were Kevin Clark, Marcos Miranda and Matt Baker.