Inside University of Houston’s new high-tech research center (photos)

HOUSTON — The University of Houston has been showing off its high-tech energy research center to political and industry leaders since it moved the expanding program to the former site of Schlumberger’s U.S. headquarters in 2009.

Today, the 74-acre site is the centerpiece of some of UH’s most high-tech endeavors, serving as a classroom, business incubator and scientific lab.

FuelFix joined a tour with Ireland’s Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd this week to get an inside look at the innovative programs that some of the world’s brightest researchers are leading there.

Adapting solar nanotech

Shay Curran, associate professor of physics, explained a new nanotechnology coating that was developed at the facility. He serves as CEO as C-Voltaics, the company born out of research conducted at the school.

The signature product is an invisible protective coating that can be applied to wood, glass, fabric and metals in order to prevent damage caused by water and moisture. Curran said the technology was originally developed to keep solar panels clean — since dirt and smudges can reduce their ability to harness energy — but it can be used in more consumer-level applications.

Video: University puts first nanotechnology product to the test 

The components that lock together to form the protective barrier are 80,00 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, he said.

Curran — who shows off the technology by pouring water on a variety of substances that have received the coating (wood, cloth, colleagues’ clothing) — says the product he’s developed isn’t toxic, unlike an earlier version used by some chemical companies that was phased out several years ago.

He’s working to get a version of the product, called Cara, into home improvement stores where he sees it as something customers would want to apply to wood. He also says it could be a game-changer in medical settings if it could be applied to bedding and other surfaces to keep them free of bodily fluids and contagions.

“The end goal is to have a successful business,” he said.

Transmitting power

Next on the tour is Building 15 — the “Energy Device Fabrication Lab” — where researchers are developing low-cost, high-efficiency tape that can transmit power. One application, says T.J. Wainerdi, business director for energy research, would be to use the conductive tape to transmit power from offshore wind turbines.

SuperPower: Energy players team up in UH research park

The school has more than 17,000 square feet of facilities as part of the fabrication lab that also finds ways to apply superconducting technologies to different types of lighting and solar cells. Wainerdi notes that last year — as the U.S. solar industry declined — the lab benefited from the sector’s “fire sale” and purchased technology needed for solar research at a fraction of the price.

Clean engines

The last stop is Building 14A, which houses the Texas Center for Clean Engines and Emissions. There, Henry Ng — a former engineer from the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago — helps lead an effort to test the efficiency and emissions of alternative fuel engines.

The centerpiece of the endeavor is a climate-controlled garage that has, as Ng describes it, a “treadmill” for semis where researchers can compare how truck engines perform with diesel fuel versus natural gas.

He says he is focused on improving engines powered by natural gas, which is known for being a clean and inexpensive fuel.

“Unfortunately, because (natural gas) is cheap, a lot of people say ‘why do you want to make it more efficient?'” says Ng.

In reality, he says, gas-powered vehicles should be able to improve their efficiency and reduce their emissions of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.

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UH enhances energy research with multimillion-dollar lab