UC Merced heating up Mongolia’s harsh winter

One of the world’s oldest civilizations – with the worst air pollution and the coldest capital city – will employ cutting-edge technology from the newest UC campus starting in February.

Professor Roland Winston, who leads the UC Merced-based UC Solar Institute, just returned from a trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. He met with the owner of Mongolia National University, a 15-year-old institution with about 9,000 students, to discuss installing a solar-thermal unit on one of the campus buildings to generate 3 kilowatts of steam heat for a portion of the campus.

The World Health Organization in 2011 said the country’s air is the poorest in the world, filled with particles that can cause serious health problems. The country’s population is about 3 million and most Mongols live in and around Ulaanbaatar, while the rest are mainly nomads who carry their houses – called gers – with them. Gers are made with layers of felt for walls and ceilings, and are heated with coal-burning stoves.

The annual average temperature in Ulaanbaatar is 0 degrees Celsius, or 32 F, and the country is subject to some of the harshest winter weather anywhere with temperatures often well below zero.

“If it will work there, it will work anywhere,” Winston said of the “XCPC” solar-thermal unit. Typical solar collectors likely wouldn’t work as well because they require tracking equipment that is affected by extreme temperatures. Winston, a pioneer in nonimaging optics, and his students have developed a unit that doesn’t track and can generate high heat.

“We’re very proud of this unit,” Winston said. “We’ve been working on it since 2006.” It’s the same technology used at the Castle Research Facility to cool buildings.

Mongolia National University became the newest UC Solar affiliate as a result of Winston’s visit.

The trip and the solar-thermal demonstration unit were funded by UC Merced Foundation trustee Bob Angle, who connected Winston with some of the people he met in Mongolia. He learned about UC Solar through campus publications, and saw the potential for reducing pollution in a country he calls “strikingly beautiful.”

Since his first visit in 2002 as a tourist, Angle has returned every year. He sees how the country and culture are changing.

“As more people move to and near Ulaanbaatar, the steam-generating heating plants have reached capacity,” he said. “The energy captured from the solar collectors could replace or reduce the use of coal and other polluting fuels.”

Former UC Merced student Bennett Widyolar, originally from Irvine and now a research scientist with UC Solar, is in Mongolia installing the unit. He will complete a series of tests to make sure it performs as promised before returning home. The system will be turned on in mid-February.

If the XCPC provides steady, reliable heat despite the extreme climate, the university will seek funding for about 33 other units in hopes of generating 100 kilowatts of heat, which could heat a large five-story building, Winston said.

Professors earn cancer funding

Three UC Merced faculty members received research funding from the University of California Cancer Research Coordinating Committee.

The recipients are professor Jennifer Manilay, $52,000; Matthew Meyer, $45,000; and Tao Ye, $50,000. All three are in the school of natural sciences.

The committee, made up of faculty members from all 10 campuses, reviews applications for scientific merit and relevance to combating cancer. The funding, from gifts and bequests to the UC for cancer research, is awarded for applied clinical research and basic research.

The committee aims to use the funding to provide seed money for innovative approaches to battling cancer and to encourage research by assistant professors who are beginning their careers with the UC.

Each year, the committee awards about 35 grants and 64 percent of recipients have been able to later secure extramural awards for the research projects.