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Renewing Nevada's Economy

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Arianna Bennett
Channel 2 News

Wednesday we took a look at what the University of Nevada is doing to strengthen the old mining industry in the Silver State. Today, we focus on the university's push for a new industry that's becoming a very big player in Nevada-- renewable energy.

The university came out with a new program this semester, and is now encouraging everyone--not just scientists--to enroll. Especially here in Nevada, research into renewable energy isn't just about science anymore. It's an issue of public policy and business. And for some of the students, it's about security from unemployment.

"We synthesize materials in this lab that can be used for fuel cells and batteries," University professor and researcher Alan Fuchs explained, while showing us around his lab, where he and his students synthesize polymers that become part of fuel cells.

They don't look like much now, but their lumps of polymer could be the future of fuel.

"These really are sort of next generation types of devices," Fuchs said.

In these labs at the University of Nevada, researchers are developing new ways to power our world-- from fuel cells like the ones in Fuchs' lab, that's stronger and more efficient than the ones we use now, to biomass pellets that burn longer and cleaner than wood, and come from products that normally just get thrown away.

"What we're trying to do is find something that's a little bit more sustainable," university researcher and professor Chuck Coronella said, "and biomass is quite sustainable, especially if you look at waste products."

These projects are all part of the university's push for renewable energy research. About three years ago they created a center for it, and this year they're launching an online certification program that is geared, not just toward scientists, but toward anyone who might need the knowledge. That includes engineers, public policy majors, and MBAs.

"A continuing education program like this online certificate is very important," College of Engineering Dean Manos Maragakis said, "for them to be able to become more competitive in what they do, and grow their skills."

That's one of the factors that attracted MBA student Quinn Lundbom to the online renewable energy program. He's not a scientist, but he knows that if he combines his business degree with this sought-after knowledge, he has a good chance of finding a job, even in this economy.

"It's something that I think that a lot more jobs are opening up for, and that's one reason why I did it along with the MBA," Lundbom said, "so I could have both, variety."

And he brings experience from working in the Nevada Air National Guard. After seeing the amount of fuel burned up by military planes, it makes what he learns in class about renewable energy a lot more pertinent.

"We do burn a lot of fuel in our planes," Lundbom said, "and that would be the first step I think, biofuel."

Renewable energy is a fast-growing industry worldwide, with traditional fossil fuels becoming less plentiful, more expensive, and increasingly tied up in global politics. And here in Nevada we have the perfect recipe for a flourishing renewable energy industry, with abundant resources in solar, wind, and geothermal energy along with abundant resources in unemployed Nevadans.

It's a platform that the university hopes to build on.

"It is a great opportunity for this state to diversify its economy, develop leadership, and become nationally and internationally known," Maragakis said.

The University of Nevada isn't the first school to put a renewable energy program online, but it is one of just a handful of schools to offer it. So administrators say they hope to see students across the country, as well as international students enrolling in the class.

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