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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

After Vice President Visit To Milwaukee, UWM Clean Energy Researchers Discuss Electric Future

Clean energy researchers
Chuck Quirmbach
Clean energy researchers meet the news media after Vice President Kamala Harris visited. From left to right: researchers Adel Nasiri, Ezana Mekonnen, Ryo Amano, Farah Nazifa Nourin, Wilkistar Otieno and Andrew Graettinger.

The visit by Vice President Kamala Harris to UW-Milwaukee on Tuesday highlighted some of the local science underway to improve use of cleaner forms of energy.

Harris toured UWM labs in a building near 1st Street and Capitol Drive. She talked about the billions of dollars in research and development money in President Joe Biden's proposed $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure bill.

As she was leaving, the vice president seemed impressed with the science she had seen. "This is incredibly important. Thank you, thank you," Harris said to her hosts.

About an hour later, the university invited in local news reporters to meet its researchers and hear about some of the projects underway.

The Wind Tunnel Lab at UWM.
Chuck Quirmbach
The Wind Tunnel Lab at UWM used to test new, quieter wind turbines.

In one lab, a fan with blades six feet long spins furiously. It's part of a wind tunnel that's used for experiments that try to make wind turbines more efficient and quieter — so perhaps more of the tall structures can be installed in urban areas. Mechanical engineering professor Ryo Amano said he and his team are looking at shaping turbine blades more like some bird wings, an example of a concept known as biomimicry.

UWM Prof. Ryo Amano with some of the turbine blade models being tested in the wind tunnel lab.
Chuck Quirmbach
UWM Professor Ryo Amano with some of the turbine blade models being tested in the wind tunnel lab.

"So that if you make that kind of treatment, it makes the controlling much better. So, that the nature gives us a very good idea," he said.

Amano added it may be possible to boost the power that comes off wind turbines by five or 10%.

Amano also directs the Industrial Assessment Center at UWM, one of 31 Department of Energy sites at U.S. universities that are available to do free evaluations of manufacturers, trying to help them reduce waste and save energy.

Ph.D student and lead energy auditor Farah Nazifa Nourin said one energy saver can be simply changing the company's lighting. "Like halogen — those are not energy efficient. We recommend you can go with the LED, and there are some incentives if you go with the LED from the government," said Nourin.

Ezana Mekonnen of Imagen Energy (left) and UWM Prof. Adel Nasiri, with components of the Imagen electric vehicle charger.
Chuck Quirmbach
Ezana Mekonnen of Imagen Energy (left) and UWM Professor Adel Nasiri (right), with components of the Imagen electric vehicle charger.

In another part of the UWM research building, academics and a start-up company are working on a more compact and faster charging system for electric vehicles. Ezana Mekonnen is chief technology officer for Imagen Energy. He said while it typically takes four to eight hours to recharge an electric car, his firm's product can do so in 15 minutes.

"Fifteen minutes is a reasonable stop for a grocery store, highway stops, any places where you can see yourself spending 15 minutes. This is a great solution," he said.

Mekonnen said Imagen is working on a distribution deal with a California-based company, Volta Charging. That firm counts on getting a lot of investors to hold down the typically higher consumer cost for using faster chargers.

There are other charger manufacturers, and other universities, federal labs and private firms doing clean energy research. In some cases, financial analysts have raised questions about marketplace profitability of cleaner energy. Plus, Republican critics of Biden are upset about the size of the proposed infrastructure package, including some of the research and development money. And, some drivers may want to keep their gas guzzler or are not able to afford a newer car.

But despite hurdles, UWM Associate Dean for Research Andrew Graettinger is among those who believe use of cleaner fuels, including solar panels, will become much more widespread over the next 10 to 15 years.

"The cars are going to be electric, more electric heating in our homes, more stationary batteries, more grids that are smart. So, all of these things, wind turbines, they're all leading to a future that's going to happen. We're not going to be living in the past. We're going to go to an electric future," he said.

One that scientists say is needed to get away from carbon-based fuels like coal and oil, and slow climate change.

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