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DOE secretary promotes research collaboration at UNM

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U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz speaks at the Southwest Regional Energy Innovation Forum at the University of New Mexico. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz kicked off a day-long forum on energy innovation Tuesday at the University of New Mexico attended by scientists, researchers and private investors from across the Southwest.

The Southwest Regional Energy Forum is aimed at sharing information about regional advances in materials science that can improve renewable energy technology and accelerate its deployment. In particular, participants hope to build closer collaboration among themselves and between the public and private sectors to bring more innovative technologies to market.

It’s part of a national U.S. Department of Energy effort to promote collaboration around the country that draws on the strengths and opportunities unique to different regions.

“President Obama’s administration…is looking to double down on energy innovation,” Moniz told forum participants. “We want to get more investible opportunities out there in a way that draws upon the unique capabilities and needs of different regions of the country. That’s why we’re here.”

Previous forums focused on things like marine and ocean technologies in Rhode Island and coal and carbon-capture technologies in Kentucky.

The UNM forum, which includes scientists from three DOE labs in New Mexico and Colorado and from research universities throughout the Southwest, is focused on materials science. That’s an area of particular strength here, with high-tech capabilities to manipulate materials at the nano scale at Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory and at university facilities such as UNM’s Center for High Technology Materials.

“LANL is a leading institution for fuel cell development,” Moniz said. “In the electronics area, Sandia is developing thin-film ceramic components for high-temperature electronics with greater functionality and resilience.”

And, in nuclear technology, labs and universities like UNM are developing more possibilities for nuclear power using new materials, such as alternative coolants like salt to manage high reactor temperatures.

“Developing and using technologies to manipulate materials at the nano scale offers tremendous possibilities,” Moniz said.

The DOE also wants to get more federal funds to locally directed research and development initiatives. President Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposal to Congress includes initiatives to assign some of the DOE’s research and development funds to regional clean energy innovation partnerships around the country, allowing those local efforts to better address their needs and draw on their strengths, Moniz said.

Overall, the Obama administration has proposed a 21 percent increase for research and development of clean energy technologies in FY 2017, allocating $6.4 billion for those initiatives. It’s part of the president’s commitment to “Mission Innovation” — a commitment signed by 20 countries at the climate change talks in Paris last December that called for doubling investments in clean energy development from $15 billion to $30 billion over the next five years.

Alongside that government-level commitment, 28 major global investors from 10 countries with leadership from Bill Gates formed the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,” which commits those business leaders to pool resources for investment in new, innovative energy technology development and deployment.

That commitment reflects strong focus on building public-private sector partnerships in energy innovation, something the labs and universities in New Mexico and the Southwest are aggressively pursuing, said Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, who also addressed the forum along with Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM.

“UNM and the national labs are working with the private sector and nonprofits on technology transfer to turn research into products to create new businesses and jobs,” Udall said.

UNM Vice President for Research Gabriel Lopez said the forum and collaborative efforts to push clean energy innovation are urgent given the impact of global climate change.

“We need to focus on ways we can work collaboratively to quickly move technology from the labs to the commercial sphere,” Lopez said. “We need rapid deployment of innovative energy sources … There may only be a brief window of opportunity.”

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