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Using heat to generate electrical power is notoriously inefficient.

But where there is inefficiency, entrepreneurs like Shekar Balogopal of Ceramatec see opportunity. The South Salt Lake research and development firm recently landed a $2.4 million federal grant to adapt its patented ceramic membrane technology for a heat engine that is hoped to enhance the conversion of solar energy into electrical power.

"The sun is the really big resource. I'm sure we will use the sun in much bigger ways. We need to figure out how to do that at a cost that competes. That's the challenge," said Lynn Orr, the Undersecretary of Energy for research during a tour last week of Ceramatec's cinder-block complex on 900 West. He visited Salt Lake to see some of Ceramatec's federally funded research and announce the latest grant to support Balagopal's work.

Here some 82 researchers and support staff toil on a variety of projects geared toward energy innovation with about 60 percent of the funding coming from federal sources. James Mosby, for example, is exploring ways to convert poultry renderings into fuels with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A breakthrough could open new uses for bones and gore coming from Utah's turkey industry.

"We are taking waste and turning that into a value material," Mosby said after showing Orr around his lab. "Thirty to 40 percent of the bird is wasted. I'm talking chicken guts."

The latest grant is part of $102 million research program Department of Energy is running to promote clean energy innovation. Fourteen of the projects have received $32 million to perfect concentrating solar power, or CSP, a technology that uses mirrors to reflect sunlight onto receivers that convert solar energy into heat.

DOE is lauding these investments in front of international climate negotiations to convene next month in Paris. Officials framed the research as evidence of the Obama Administration's goal to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025.

Small businesses like Ceramatec play a key role in energy innovation, according to DOE.

"This is an excellent example of how small businesses drive all kinds of innovative changes in the way we provide energy and deliver it in a way that's clean and efficient and addresses climate change, and generate jobs," said Orr, a former Stanford professor now serving as the principal advisor to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on clean energy technology and research. "You always want a mix. Our part is to get lots of ideas in the pipeline push the ones that grow fastest and see what happens."

Ceramatec, which got its start in the 1970s as one of the first University of Utah spinoffs, is now looking to turn thermal heat into electrical power using equipment that doesn't require moving parts.

The idea is to deploy sodium ionic expansion by adapting existing ceramic membrane technology for use in a heat engine. DOE wants to see if such heat engines can be used in solar power generation. In contrast with photovoltaics, concentrating solar power generates electricity the conventional way. It uses heat to produces steam that drives a turbine, which is only about 35 to 45 percent efficient, meaning most of the energy is lost in translation from heat to electricity. Ceramatec's innovation could raise the efficiency beyond 50 percent.

"This is really the early stage. If we could pull this off, it has a a shot at making a difference. We are trying to help nudge the process. Research is what we do when you don't know exactly what you're doing. There are lots of niches where this can fit, but you have to do the up front part," Orr said.

Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. He can be reached at or 801-257-8713.

Twitter: @brianmaffly