While local residents squawk at the prospect of yet another scorching, triple-digit summer day, engineering professor Bob Boehm basks in the rays.
Boehm (pronounced like sunbeam) leads UNLV's Center for Energy Research and its highly trained team of faculty and student researchers. Their outdoor laboratory along Flamingo Road offers an ideal proving ground for companies searching for better ways to harness the power of the sun's rays.
Partnerships with private manufacturers allow professors to fulfill their role in advancing science while enriching student learning. Developing industries, meanwhile, get the independent expertise needed to overcome the hurdles inherent in making technologies commercially viable.
"In the solar industry -- like many technology fields -- private companies need to prove to investors and peers that their systems have a successful track record," says Boehm, who's been directing the center since its founding in 1993.
Take the example of Amonix, a manufacturer of utility-scale solar power systems. Company founder and chief technology officer Vahan Garboushian, says, flat out: "Without utilizing the center, Amonix technology would not be where it is today."
The company recently opened a North Las Vegas manufacturing facility, creating 278 green jobs. Working with UNLV, "further confirmed the need for solar technology in sunny and dry climates," Garboushian says. "Nevada has the ideal climate, environment, and local expertise for solar resources to be expanded."
The partnership began in 2003 when Boehm was awarded a contract from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to measure the energy performance of Amonix's concentrated solar power system. The system was installed on the campus' solar site and modified as the technology developed. In 2009, the company installed its 7700 system, the world's largest pedestal-mounted solar system, on campus.
Engineering professors and students jumped at the chance to learn from the latest technology, and to advance it. A number of design changes resulted that "improved the performance, lowered the cost, and increased the reliability of our systems," says Amonix research scientist Ken Stone.
For example, much of the Amonix system hinges on its ability to concentrate sunlight with inexpensive lenses. Boehm and his staff helped pinpoint gaps in efficiency, such as dirt buildup, and tested ways to clean the lenses without interfering with production. They're also working with Amonix researchers to improve the way the units move with the sun and to prevent them from becoming overheated.
"Having the units on campus also provides a great show place for visitors to come and learn about Amonix technology," Stone says. That sort of show-and-tell can be important to attracting federal and private investment for the development of Nevada's solar infrastructure.
As a complement to the research partnership, center staff participate in the installation and maintenance of Amonix units in Nevada and neighboring states, giving the company needed manpower and giving UNLV students -- who work on many Amonix projects -- valuable experience. Amonix systems have been installed at a Southern Nevada Water Authority treatment facility and at Nevada Energy's Clark Generation Station.
"Students become well-versed in many aspects of the solar industry -- not just research -- as a result of working on these projects," says Boehm. "The opportunity to work with actual equipment on campus and off site is a valuable way for our students to learn about
Amonix and for Amonix to learn about students who could potentially become employees."
According to Amonix's Stone, public/private partnerships do more than advance the individual goals of a private company or university; they move entire industries ahead.
"Partnerships between universities and industries are very important for the U.S. to maintain a world lead in technology development and implementation," he says. "Universities provide critical resources and conduct research and development that help small businesses develop, which ultimately accelerates the commercialization of technology."
And all that can lead to more jobs. "We are all hoping to see Las Vegas become a center for companies that develop solar systems," Boehm says. "This would provide both high-tech and manufacturing jobs."