Partnerships can fuel sustainability research, economy
Academia, industry, and government come together to make California a hub of clean tech innovation.
By Harry Mok
Originally published in UC Newsroom
UCLA professor Yang Yang is developing technology that could revolutionize solar power and help green the planet.
But his research may not have made it out of the lab without the help of industry partner Solarmer Inc., which has licensed the technology.
"Eventually, we want to create technology that people can afford and are willing to purchase," Yang said. "While we work on the state of the art, a company like Solarmer can bring it to market."
Solarmer's licensing deal for Yang's technology is just one example of the many partnerships University of California researchers have with private companies seeking to advance green technology developments and to meet their own or regulatory sustainability goals. While these university-industry partnerships further research on emission-reduction, alternative fuels and energy efficiencies, they can also create jobs. In some cases, they have the potential to change the way an entire industry operates.
Solar power everywhere
Solarmer is using technology created in Yang's materials science lab and further advanced at the California NanoSystems Institute to develop cost-effective, flexible, semi-transparent solar panels that can be used in ways impossible with traditional silicon photovoltaics.
Solarmer is developing Yang's polymer technology, which he says could be a "game changer," into small solar panels for portable electronic devices such as mobile phones, smart fabrics with solar cells built-in and building materials, such as windows, roofs and walls.
Solarmer, which expects to have products on the market in 2011, was founded in 2006 and employs 26 people.
"If the technology in every engineering professor's lab can create that many jobs, the economy would be in a better situation," Yang said.
His lab is also experimenting with a polymer containing solar cells that can be mixed into different colors. The polymer, or plastic, could one day be used to create murals or just be applied to walls to harvest power from indoor light. While solar polymers are not new, Yang's lab has created photovoltaic technology for a polymer that has higher energy conversion rates than previous designs.
"We're constantly working, trying to push the technology to the next level and then we are actually exploring different applications of our technology," Yang said, "...because energy is everywhere, is surrounding us. It's a matter of how can we recycle it and re-collect them and then use it."
Many government grants require universities to have industry partnerships for their potential economic benefits. But such collaborations help further academic research goals as well, said Michael Sword, executive director for Strategic Research Initiatives at UCLA.
"What we're hoping when we get funding is to attract top-notch graduate students and help develop centers to create technology that will help us solve some of the enormous problems with energy, pollution and climate change," said Sword, who is also campus liaison to CleanTech Los Angeles, a business, government and university consortium working to develop a green industry hub in the city.
Sleek truck design
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is part of a development team working on aerodynamic drag reduction for semi-trucks.
In another potentially industry-changing partnership, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has teamed with truck manufacturer Navistar Inc., the NASA Ames Research Center and the U.S. Air Force to develop aerodynamic drag-reduction devices for semi-trucks.
A savings of 12 percent may not seem like a lot, but when it works out to $10 billion a year, it's a significant amount.
That's how much the trucking industry can save in fuel costs if all semi-trucks are outfitted with new aerodynamic technology to reduce drag.
"Making our trucks more fuel efficient means we not only travel further using less fuel, but it means we can get our goods to the general public in a more timely, and ultimately, less expensive way," said Ron Schoon, chief engineer of aerodynamics at Navistar Inc.
Along with saving 3.4 billion gallons of diesel a year, the devices can also keep the equivalent of 36 million tons of carbon emissions from being released into the atmosphere.
"This is a technology that could easily be installed on the tractor trailer trucks that are out on the highway today," said Kambiz Salari, Livermore Lab's lead scientist on the project. "And 12 percent is just the beginning. We expect to increase that savings even more during the current series of wind tunnel tests. Its time to market is incredibly quick. In just three years, we could see these devices on the road and realize the real fuel savings."
Computer simulations — using some of the Livermore Lab's largest computer platforms and most advanced computational fluid dynamics codes — have identified critical regions around semi-trucks, such as the trailer base, underbody and the gap between the tractor and trailer, where aerodynamic devices can mitigate drag.
Testing of the devices is being carried out in the world's largest wind tunnel at the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex, housed at NASA Ames in Mountain View, near San Francisco.
Seeing the efficient light
UC does a lot of research that shines a light on problems. At the California Lighting Technology Center, scientists are doing that and more, literally. The center works to develop cutting-edge, energy-efficient lighting technologies.
The center is a collaboration of UC Davis, the California Energy Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. The goal is to produce energy-efficient lighting (including using daylight) through partnerships with utilities, lighting manufacturers, consumers, builders, designers and government agencies. The center's mission is to also educate the next generation of lighting engineers and designers.
Much of the center's research involves developing lighting for offices and homes using technology such as LED, which offers energy savings of 40 percent to 50 percent over conventional systems. The center has laboratories for the development and demonstration of next-generation lighting and daylighting technologies.
The center is working with industry partners such as Wal-Mart to test the integration of skylights with electric systems to find the most efficient way to provide light in stores.
"The center here has at any particular time, 50 to 60 industry partners representing the broad cross section of the United States lighting (industry) to be able to help us get these new technologies into the marketplace," said Michael Siminovitch, director of the California Lighting Technology Center.
Published: Wednesday, June 02, 2010