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UC Merced Heating Up Mongolia’s Harsh Winter

February 3, 2014

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 primary source of heat in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is burning coal, and, more recently, chopped-up tires – both highly pollutant.

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 Celsius, 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.

Winston’s research – among that of other faculty members – helps UC Merced reach across the globe to share resources and knowledge. Mongolia National University also just 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.”

Departments within the Mongolian government are also excited about the potential.  

The Department of Energy and the Department of Green Development have shown significant interest in this technology, too,” Angle said.

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 KW of heat, which could heat a large five-story building, Winston said.

Widyolar has never been to the Far East, and said he didn’t really know what to expect from the trip other than what his work entails.

I might have to teach a few people how to use the system, and I’ll be setting up the framework, the plumbing and the sensors,” he said.

But for a student who joined the first undergraduate class at UC Merced and stayed to get his master’s, the adventure is what’s attractive about it.

I’m ready to go,” he said. “I hope there are more opportunities like this out there.”