USTAR and museum bring science to community

By Catherine Meidell
Utah Statesman
February 26, 2010
Jeff Muhs

Jeff Muhs of the Energy Dynamics Lab said intuitive lighting systems may be on the market three to four years from now.

The Leonardo, a museum based out of Salt Lake City, collaborated with USU’s USTAR program to explain local science projects to community members. Wednesday’s presentation focused on USU’s multiple research projects designed to conserve energy.

“There are some incredible things happening at USU,” said Lisa Davis who works in communications at The Leonardo. “We are completely bowled over by what’s happening in those labs. We are privileged to be here.”

The museum aims to become an institution recognizable across Utah. Its program “After Hours” is designed to help Utah residents understand science research cultivating in their area. This is the first time The Leonardo has come to Logan and plans to highlight more scientific breakthroughs in the future, said Jacoba Mendelkow Poppleton, USTAR’s public relations specialist.

“The Leonardo museum has a lot of functions, but one of these is about outreach,” Poppleton said. “It’s science and culture merging because it’s important to connect with the community.”

Wednesday night, one of nine USTAR teams was represented during a presentation at local restaurant The Italian Place. USU’s research in biofuels was highlighted in the presentation, “The Energy Revolution,” by two USU professors and one student researcher.

Professors, students and community members listened to the speakers explain, in detail, a handful of projects USU research teams are diligently working on to decrease the amount of wasted energy.

Jeff Muhs, USTAR’s energy lab director, said, “We have a big problem. We’re importing 60 percent of all the oil: $1 billion of oil is imported a day.”

He said the use of energy imports goes through a cycle that begins with the increase of oil prices, then food prices. After prices go up there is resource depletion and, finally, a change in climate. To stop the cycle there needs to be “game-changers” or an energy revolution, Muhs said. Muhs’ team of researchers in the Energy Dynamics Lab is working to save electric energy through an intuitive lighting system because lightbulbs consume 20 percent of the energy used by all electrical appliances. The system’s sensors will be able to anticipate the lighting needs of users. Lighting will be adjusted based on the number of people in a room and activities taking place. Lighting will also be adjusted according to the age of the person in the room.

Muhs said, “If you look down at a piece of paper, you’re going to have completely different lighting needs.”

The project comes with many challenges, he said, which include real-time scene interpretation, task identification and predictive lighting control. He said the key to creating successful developments for energy conservation is thinking outside of the box, which is what the idea for the intuitive lighting system required. Most of the research currently done in the U.S. is “lower level” and revolves mostly around inventing more efficient light bulbs, he said.

With revolutionary ideas in energy conservation come many challenges that go beyond technicalities. Muhs said the biggest issues in developing new technology are social, political, organizational and personal. These are the biggest setbacks in science, he said.

“It’s easy to live in a system and it’s hard to change,” Muhs said. “It’s hard to think beyond it. It’s easier for anyone to pick at a crazy idea.”

Currently, lighting systems are designed in a way that suggests energy will never run out, he said, and after noticing this issue, USU research teams sought to change it.

Davis said 20 percent of people think they are being energy efficient, and the other 80 percent are not because conserving energy is not convenient.

“You have to make conserving energy easy, too, for people,” Davis said. “It needs to be easy, affordable and have a nice return on the investment.”

USU energy research student Lynsey Talbot works with USTAR’s algae project. She explained the process her research team performs in order to extract energy from algae, but did so in simple terms so the presentation’s attendees could comprehend the science behind the project. Talbot said that during natural gas drilling, nitrate-rich water is found and used to house the algae. Algae feed off the nitrates in the water and absorbs more of the metals than needed to survive. The byproduct of this process can be used in algae fuel, which Talbot said is 20 percent cleaner to burn because it contains less sulphur.

Potential sites for the project are evaporation ponds located in the Uintah Basin of Vernal. There is a plentiful amount of water there to work, which is what algae research teams need because it is sometimes difficult to find water in Utah’s desert climate.

The last segment of the presentation was conducted by Kevin Shurtlef, a member of USTAR’s technology outreach team. He elaborated on USU projects, as well as University of Utah projects, that aim to make coal a cleaner mineral to burn for energy. He said USU conducted a project that isolated microbes to eat coal and then “burp” the natural gas. This creates much cleaner emissions when burning coal.

Shurtlef said, “We need cleaner ways to burn coal since 83 percent of the electricity burned in Utah is coal because it’s cheap.”

The entire presentation was accompanied by questions from the audience and discussion.

Davis said, “There is a lot of really great research at USU directed toward a really big issue.”

She said The Leonardo plans to host more events in Logan in hopes of educating community members on scientific issues and breakthroughs. The museum will open a new building in Logan spring 2011.

© 2010 Utah Statesman


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