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November 1, 2014

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UNLV’s place in the sun

Nearly two years ago former President Bill Clinton challenged an audience of Las Vegas business and civic leaders to take the fledgling alternative energy industry to the next level. No other region in the country, he said, is better positioned to capitalize on thermal, wind and solar energy.

A statewide symposium being hosted today and Thursday at UNLV demonstrates how four colleges at the university are taking the challenge to heart, developing expertise in solar research, hydrogen fuel, wind power, biofuel and sustainable architecture.

More than 100 UNLV professors and graduate students are conducting 25 alternative energy research projects, most in partnership with the federal government, utilities and private companies.

The partners turn to UNLV because of the vast testing ground available in the desert Southwest, said Bob Boehm, director of the university's Center for Energy Research. Much of UNLV's research efforts are in the engineering and sciences colleges, with an emphasis on testing and improving available technology.

"It's a natural fit," Boehm said. "Just like the hotel college has the Strip to work with, we have all this sunlight to work with."

His research center continues to monitor the Zero Energy House, an ongoing partnership with Pinnacle Homes to assess various ways to make a home self-sufficient, meaning it generates more energy than it uses.

UNLV is in the second year of monitoring the southwest Las Vegas home and its nearly identical neighbor, and so far, the house has lived up to its name. Boehm and School of Architecture Director Michael Kroelinger are working with area developers on how they might economically adapt some of the methods used in the Zero Energy House into future Nevada homes.

"We hope to impact how things are built in Southern Nevada," Boehm said.

Kroelinger was awarded a $2.1 million grant to help area business and community leaders incorporate renewable and sustainable energy technology. Most of the money is going toward seed grants to help foster interdisciplinary research at UNLV into renewable energy, Kroelinger said.

The university is working with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Nevada Power and the Interior Department on using solar power to help meet their energy needs. The Water Authority, as the largest energy user in the state because it pumps water, has become a major partner for the university in testing renewable energy technology.

The Water Authority also is home to UNLV's hydrogen filling station, which uses solar-generated electricity to separate hydrogen from water - a greener method than the more cost-effective way of generating hydrogen , from natural gas. UNLV has several research projects on improving the process, Boehm said.

The Water Authority is also using three hydrogen converted vehicles built by UNLV students, and is looking at building a field of 40 photovoltaic billboards to generate electricity.

UNLV is testing one of the billboards, designed by Amonix, on Flamingo Road near the campus, and there are three more the university is monitoring for Nevada Power. Boehm has also worked with Solargenix and Boulder City to develop the Solar One plant in Eldorado Valley and continues to work on development of a solar technology center there.

Numerous other researchers, including chemistry professor Clemens Heske, nanotechnology professor B.J. Das, and engineering professor Darrell Pepper, are investigating ways to optimize solar and hydrogen fuel cell technology and make it more cost effective. Pepper is also evaluating water and wind power possibilities in Nevada.

Chemistry professor Oliver Hemmers, director of UNLV's strategic energy programs office, is studying ways to more efficiently create biodiesel.

Much of the ongoing research, however, is testing products that use solar energy and researching how to apply that technology in unique ways.

Research engineer Rick Hurt is testing a product that uses a rooftop mirror to track and collect sunlight throughout the day, beaming it through fiber optic cables to ceiling lights indoors. The hybrid lights beam out the natural sunlight, which is clearer and brighter than fluorescent lighting, without the heat put out by direct sunlight, Hurt said. When it gets dark or there is cloud cover, the hybrid lights automatically revert to fluorescent lighting.

Electrical and computer engineering professor Rama Venkat is exploring how to use the same technology to light LED displays throughout the day. That would allow business or government entities to set up electronic billboards in rural areas, operating only on sunlight and a small solar generator, Venkat said. The technology could also be used in a hybrid form to light the displays on the Strip.

He's also exploring how to lessen the cost of the multimillion-dollar Strip displays by using cheaper LED lights and white LED lights , which can replace the less energy efficient red, green and blue LEDS that together form white light.

The Center for Business and Economic Research has explored the economic and political issues that will ultimately determine what technology reaches the marketplace, and when.

"All of this comes down to price and what impact will this have on the economy," center director and economics professor Keith Schwer said.

Nevada is "richly endowed with renewable energy sources, but unfortunately right now those are not as cost effective," Schwer said. "But as the cost of other energy sources goes up and the technology improves , our day is coming."

The university's energy research depends on grants and contracts, Boehm said. The only state funding is for salaries for professors, who teach full course loads in addition to their research. The variability of grant funding makes it hard to draw to the program doctoral students, who need a three-year commitment, but there are numerous one-year opportunities for master's students.

Lack of campus space is probably the biggest obstacle for UNLV's budding energy researchers. But off campus, researchers have the Mojave Desert.

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