University renews renewable energy push

Center for Renewable Energy works to clear ideas, resources

12/15/2011 - By: John Trent
Miles Greiner Miles Greiner, as interim director of the Center for Renewable Energy, is leading the campus' multi-disciplinary effort to transfer the University's renewable energy know-how to the state, and the world.

Renewable energy is not just an important topic in the United States. As was evident Tuesday during a poster session at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) with representatives from the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan in attendance, interest in renewable energy stretches throughout the world.

Perhaps most importantly, this interest includes creating collaborative relationships between academic and research institutions such as the University of Nevada, Reno, DRI, UNLV and organizations such as the Royal Scientific Society.

"Our country is similar to others (in the Middle East) in that we have big stress in our water resources, and we hardly have energy sources apart from the sun," said Tareq Al Hadid, executive director of external affairs for the Royal Scientific Society. "So (renewable energy) is a field of great interest for us."

Alan Gertler, research professor of atmospheric sciences at DRI and a past director of the University's atmospheric sciences program, said meetings such as the one Tuesday can lead to partnerships that can marshal renewable energy expertise from all corners of the globe. Wednesday's gathering included seven scientists and energy industry representatives from Jordan as well as a host of the University and DRI's renewable energy researchers.

"You can see the obvious overlap of the work we do," Gertler said. "In the areas of biomass, geothermal, smart materials, solar ... all of these areas overlap in terms of what the various groups do and what the interests are."

Miles Greiner, interim director of the University's Renewable Energy Center - a multi-disciplinary effort to combine all of the University's renewable energy resources under one administrative umbrella - presented an overview of the work of more than 15 University researchers and dozens of students who are currently involved with renewable energy projects.

"This is a group of individuals who are highly active in renewable energy," Greiner explained. "In addition to this work, the center is also working to serve as a renewable energy clearing house."

Greiner said the University's Renewable Energy Center features both curriculum development and research and development.

The educational component includes a recently developed Renewable Energy minor, with an engineering and a non-engineering track. The educational push has also included an online component for the business community, as well as an international exchange program.

"We're trying to further our exchange program," Greiner said, noting that already agreements are in place with universities in Korea and China.

The center's research effort has focused on five areas: biomass and biofuels, geothermal, solar, smart materials and hydrogen, Greiner said.

Of the many examples Greiner cited, one of interest to the Jordanian group was the work of John Cushman, a professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources. Cushman, one of the University's most accomplished researchers and academic advisors, has made promising findings in creating alternative energy sources from crops such as oil seeds, and in creating biofuels from algae in wastewater.

John Akerley, a master's degree candidate in mechanical engineering from Reno, said his post-graduate research in developing new ways to improve the efficiency and size of air-cooled condensers - the size and efficiency of which can prove cost-prohibitive for energy companies and often "lock" power plants to nearby water sources for cooling - has given him a deeper insight into the value of renewable energy.

"If we can find ways to reduce the size of condensers and increase their efficiency, it would really help," said Akerley, who runs computer simulations of small grooved passages in models of condensers. The grooves represent the potential to create greater heat transfer, which in turn can help engineers reduce the size and increase the efficiencies of future generations of condensers. The smaller, more mobile and more efficient heat condensers can become, the more likely energy costs can be reduced.

"I'm learning a lot," Akerley said. "Environmental computational research is a good skill to have. It's good to have research opportunities like the ones I'm involved with, and it's also good to have the curriculum opportunities that the University has to get more people interested in renewable energy."

Joko Sutrisno, a post-doctoral scholar in chemical and materials engineering at the University, agreed.

As he explained some of the research he has done in creating and refining polymer membrane processes - considered a vital purification process in making alternative energy sources such as hydrogen more viable and cost-efficient - Sutrisno also noted what had drawn him from Indonesia to the University to study under the tutelage of Alan Fuchs, an associate professor of chemical and materials engineering.

"I love this kind of stuff," Sutrisno said, smiling. "It's a great opportunity, to not only improve existing technology, but to be involved with something that is really environmentally friendly. It's a nice way to do research and help make the world more environmentally friendly."

Although he was speaking of his own specialized research into membrane protein extraction methods and how it related to osmosis, Ben King, an associate professor of chemistry and one of the campus' rising young researchers, summed up well the theme of possibility that many mentioned during Tuesday's gathering.

"I think we have something really new," King said, his voice quietly determined, "something that can work."


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