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Engines for Change: UNLV Engineering, Economic Development Drive Regional Climate Innovation Partnership


 UNLV, regional academic partners awarded milestone 'Engines' grant from NSF to translate sustainability ideas into tangible technologies.

Drought. Continuously warming temperatures. Rapid population growth. It's a formula for disaster that — if unabated — will threaten the vitality, livability, and economic future of the Southwest.

Scientists and economic development partners at UNLV are joining with others across the region to do something about it: The UNLV campus will host a meeting of the members of the newly funded National Science Foundation (NSF) Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine (SWSIE) on March 1.

Led by Arizona State University, the SWSIE effort will assemble a unique consortium of partners — including UNLV and the Nevada-based Desert Research Institute, University of Utah, and Arizona's Maricopa Community College — to combine research with industry and governmental policy to bring critical technologies to market that mitigate sustainability and climate concerns across the region.

The multi-million dollar project is aptly named an "Engine" for its long-term goal: To catalyze economic opportunities by addressing water sustainability, renewable energy, and carbon footprint reduction in the desert Southwest.

"SWSIE is very different from a normal grant," says Jacimaria Batista, who is co-leading the charge for UNLV. Batista, a professor of civil and environmental engineering with UNLV's Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering and renewable energy expert, will oversee the university's research and academic progress as the grant's Knowledge Translation co-lead.

"This program goes beyond pure faculty and student research," Batista said. "It takes things a step further by successfully translating sustainability ideas into technology using research and industry collaboration as the tools. At its core, the Engine is about entrepreneurship and its translation into technologies that will make the Southwest region more sustainable."

The "Engine" idea is a first for the NSF, which in the past only funded basic research, Batista says. NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan says the inaugural NSF Engines awards aim to expand the frontiers of technology and innovation and spur economic growth across the nation through unprecedented investments in people and partnerships.

The application process, which took more than a year of planning, was extremely competitive. The SWSIE project is among a handful chosen nationwide from a pool of 34 semi-finalists.

Tackling the Climate Crisis with Hands-On Work
Among UNLV's roles in the SWSIE partnership is a focus on recruiting industry partners to work with faculty and community members who have an idea to develop water and energy technologies that promote sustainability and lower the carbon footprint of the Southwest.

"Let's suppose that someone in Nevada wants to develop a means to capture and reuse the water wasted in wet cooling of buildings," says Batista. "UNLV, using the infrastructure to be created by SWSIE, will connect the person with industry that has the technical knowledge to advance their idea into a prototype and eventually into a product, using the intellectual property agreements and venture capital opportunities facilitated by our economic development team."

For example, UNLV engineering researchers are pulling water out of the arid Mojave Desert air through a technique known as atmospheric water harvesting. The work, which has already been supported by a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, has incredible commercial potential and has evolved into a partnership with Arizona State University.

Turning Bright Ideas Into Tangible Technology
UNLV's Office of Economic Development will play a critical role in linking industry with research to develop technologies that address critical needs.

"Nevada is very interested in sustaining its current enterprises like hospitality, entertainment, and gaming, but also in diversifying the economy, providing economic resiliency, and vibrant innovation ecosystem," says project Workforce Development lead Zachary Miles, UNLV senior associate vice president for economic development. "The findings from the consortium will help to drive forward innovations in water, carbon, and energy to create businesses and jobs that will benefit our students and our citizens."

The UNLV College of Engineering — which encompasses faculty members with expertise that squarely fits the aims of the grant, including sustainability, renewable energy, materials, and energy-water nexus — will play a prominent part in supporting SWSIE. As the grant matures, project leaders will ramp up cross-campus and inter-university collaborations, drawing in support from faculty across disciplines as varied as hospitality and business. Faculty will work alongside industry partners such as the Southern Nevada Water Authority, regional energy utilities, casino resorts, and others to develop technologies and concepts that address sustainability in the Southwest.

Future Funding and Growth
The NSF will fund SWSIE's initial development and growth with $15 million over the next two years. And good work reaps good rewards: The engine can be renewed for up to 10 years with $160 million in funding available for each Regional Engine.

The majority of UNLV's inaugural award of $1 million will be used as seed money to hire three graduate students — offering them opportunities to bring fresh ideas while also bulking up the young scientists' resumes — as well as a project manager and a technology transfer expert to help steer the project.

Ultimately, SWSIE aims to create an economic and social ecosystem that allows the tri-state region to thrive and not simply survive.

"Together with partners throughout Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, we'll leverage our vast collective network of research, economic development, and workforce partners to create opportunities and turn bright ideas into life-changing products and services," says Miles.

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