While Southern Nevada's abundant sunshine is less than ideal for your home cooling bill, it has an upside: some of UNLV's brightest students are harnessing the power of the sun's rays to improve clean energy technology.
UNLV has capitalized on the state's sunny surplus by forming research partnerships with manufacturers and national labs. Some of the things they want to know: whether the latest advances will hold up in scorching conditions and how to improve the efficiency of new technologies.
For both undergraduate and graduate students, these partnerships offer access to invaluable research experiences. And while solar research is an obvious fit for the region's sun-soaked climate -- and one of the university's strengths -- it's not the only form of student-led clean energy research flourishing on campus.
A (Ful)bright Future
Ever wonder what happens to the efficiency of a solar panel when it gets dirty? Recent engineering graduate Leo Banchik looked into it for solar manufacturer Amonix by testing the company's system on campus. He found that dust on the system's Fresnel lenses, which concentrate the solar energy, does in fact decrease performance. Then he helped develop a procedure for monitoring the dirt buildup. He followed up that project by teaming with classmates to design and build an inexpensive device for small-scale solar generators that can improve efficiency by tracking the sun on two axes.
"It's all about leaving the world in a better place than I found it," said Banchik. "Coal's time is up as an energy source. We need to find ways to make clean energy more efficient, and that's what I plan to do."
His research accomplishments don't stop there. As an undergraduate intern last summer at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab -- an opportunity made possible by his affiliation with UNLV's well-regarded Center for Energy Research -- Banchik placed third in a national research competition. He designed and built a sensor that uses gold nano-particles to detect small traces of harmful mercury vapor in the air.
Banchik recently earned a coveted Fulbright Scholarship, which will take him to a top research lab in Madrid, Spain, this fall to expand on his work with specialized solar cells.
What's the Efficiency, Kenneth?
When Amonix needed to know the field efficiency of its latest generation of solar lenses, it turned to the UNLV Center for Energy Research -- and graduate research assistant Ken Hynes -- for help.
The mechanical engineer is young, but graduated at the top of his class in 2009 with several years of practical experience from working with the center.
"There's currently no research pointing to a device that can measure overall optical efficiency of a Fresnel lens. So, being the first, there's a lot that goes into it," said Hynes, who designed and built a custom measurement system. "It's exciting to know that the company will be able to use the information we get to improve the efficiency of its lenses and its overall system."
Hynes' design uses a copper heat collector to capture light from the concentrating Fresnel lens. Water constantly flows through the system and removes the heat while inlet and outlet water temperatures are recorded. By capturing data from the system and running a few established formulas, Hynes is able to determine how much energy is transmitted through the lens and hits the solar cell.
A new group of student researchers will carry on Hynes' project while he moves on to his next challenge: The United States Air Force.
Fuel cells could change how we power our nation -- from replacing the internal-combustion engine in vehicles to supplying power to buildings -- but they're too expensive to be practical. Driving that expense is platinum, a precious (and costly) metal used as a catalyst to turn hydrogen and oxygen into water and release energy.
Timo Hofmann, who recently received his doctorate in chemistry from UNLV, is working to bring down the cost of production. Through a subcontract with Argonne National Laboratory as part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Fuel Cell Program, Hofmann is investigating what makes platinum work so well and how less expensive metals might do the trick.
"A combination of palladium and copper shows promising performance, about 75 percent as well as platinum, with lower cost, but the durability needs to be demonstrated," said Hofmann, now a postdoctoral researcher here. "It's a challenging project, but we have the unique tools at UNLV to understand how these metals work together at the atomic level."
Hofmann's work sheds light on how catalysts degrade in real conditions and how tailoring the electronic structure of promising new catalysts could improve performance.