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It's always sunny at VU's solar energy lab
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It's always sunny at VU's solar energy lab

VALPARAISO | Ants beware: Valparaiso University has what amounts to the world's largest magnifying glass.

Sunlight reflects off a 20-foot-by-20-foot mirror on the eastern edge of campus, through two-story-tall Venetian blind-like louvers and into a massive honeycomb-shaped concentrator that uses dozens of small, curved mirrors to focus the light into a powerful beam – similar to one magnifying glass-wielding kids would use to fry ants on the sidewalk.

How powerful can a little sunshine be? The reactor that harnesses the concentrated solar energy can get hotter than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers and undergraduate students at Valparaiso University's James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Research Facility are trying to solve problems with the renewable energy source – which currently provides 1 percent of the nation's energy – such as that it is unevenly distributed and not always available. They are trying to figure out how large solar farms in Arizona could generate energy that could shipped to overcast Seattle, or used to make a fuel that could power buses in Chicago at night.

Their efforts were celebrated Thursday at the 21st Innovators Cafe at the Valparaiso College of Engineering, where the solar research lab studies how to produce energy and commodities, such as magnesium for lighter, more fuel-efficient automobiles. The Gerald I. Lamkin Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center and The Society of Innovators of Ivy Tech Community College Northwest sponsored the event to educate leaders from across the region about who is innovating and how.

Existing solar technologies can compete on price with coal, nuclear and gas, said keynote speaker Marl Maassel, vice president of the Indiana Energy Association. Homeowners and businesses already can buy solar energy from their utilities, but renewables account for only 9 percent of the nation's energy, and more research needs to be done.

The college is delving into big global issues that need to be solved, and equipping its graduates with the technical expertise to do so, Maassel said.

"These are the kinds of things that are really going to drive our world into the future," Maassel said. "These are the kinds of things that are going to help developing nations. These are the kinds of things that are going to solve the problems of the industrialized world. This is the type of thing that is really going to advance our society to the next level. When you come to an event like this, these are the times and these are the people that give you hope for the future. The investment you see here, the time and the talent that is coming to Valparaiso, is going to benefit us all going forward."

Students and faculty at the lab are researching how to convert water into the fuel hydrogen, and splitting zinc oxide into oxygen and zinc, which can be used in fuel cells to generate electricity.

"The facility here has the potential to change the way energy is stored and used," university president Mark Heckler said.

The research lab opened last summer and already has procured a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a new, less energy-intensive way to produce magnesium, which is the lightest structural metal and is expected to become more common in automobiles. It also secured a $300,000 grant to make hydrogen fuel.

Solar energy will play an increasingly significant role in the global economy, since climate scientists are saying emissions must be drastically reduced and down to zero by the end of the 21st century, said Robert Palumbo, professor of mechanical engineering. Sunlight will become a fuel that will be used in transportation and as a substitute in the processes of making steel, magnesium, zinc and cement.

Sunlight could galvanize steel sheet or propel vehicles in California, where the sun is shining all the time, Palumbo said. It could be stored in more advanced fuel cells.

"A bus in Chicago at night could run on sunlight in disguise," he said.


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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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