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December 20, 2014

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Now that’s green energy

UNLV scientist works on way to harvest the power of algae

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Steve Marcus

Oliver Hemmers, executive director of the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies at UNLV, says algae would be a smart fuel alternative until the use of an even cleaner renewable source can be perfected.

Oliver Hemmers has modest goals for his new job. Among them, he would like to break America’s dependence on foreign oil, remake the chemical industry and cut carbon emissions.

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How is he going to do this?

“My personal preference is algae,” says Hemmers, a chemist by training.

Hemmers is the new director of the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies at UNLV, so he knows what he’s talking about. The research projects on his resume received more than $6 million in funding. He’s spent time working on high-energy X-ray spectroscopy projects at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he had occasion to meet Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, the new energy secretary.

And while Hemmers thinks many technologies will play a role in the United States’ energy future — solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear — the most promising one in the short term is algae. By which he means algae as a source of biodiesel fuel. They would replace crude oil in the chemical industry, fit into our current energy infrastructure with the least disruption and slow greenhouse gas emissions as even cleaner sources of energy are developed.

There are non-algae sources of biofuel — corn, switch grass, soy beans — but they have several disadvantages, Hemmers says. They require a great deal of land and compete with food crops. Beyond that, they grow slowly and require energy to harvest. Sometimes the end product — ethanol from corn, say — requires more energy to produce than it provides.

By comparison, algae are highly efficient, grow quickly and can, best of all, be grown in vats. Hemmers says vats are important because in a vat, with the appropriate tubes and lights, you can transform algae agriculture into an industrial process for producing a highly predictable strain of algae. Maybe even more important, you can provide the perfect mix of light, nutrients and carbon dioxide to double the mass of the algae not every couple of months but every couple of hours.

There are two added bonuses to vats, Hemmers says. You can put them almost anywhere (Nevada would be good, lots of light and a decent temperature) and you can use them to capture the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power plants (Germany is already doing this with coal plants).

And now all Hemmers has to do is get funding, find lab space, build an algae vat and demonstrate that it can work for long periods of time.

Hemmers has a few immediate advantages here. The vats would be a continuation of biodiesel research he started when he was merely the director of UNLV’s Office of Strategic Energy Programs (a title he still retains) and Hemmers has experience with the Energy Department (plus he knows the new energy secretary). And when it comes to finding lab space, well, there are advantages to being the director of an entire university building.

But in the long run, Hemmers’ biggest task may be to elevate UNLV as a research institution. For that, he has to attract researchers who know how to attract funding.

“Once you have that, it’s a self-feeding, self-growing mechanism,” Hemmer says.

Better than algae, even.

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