Doing clean energy right

In researching new energy technologies, the U doesn’t go it alone

The role of academic research in commercial development is like teaching a kid to ride a bike: Give a boost and stand back. Right?

Wrong, says John Sheehan.

Sheehan, the science director for the University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), says collaboration between academia and industry is vital every step of the way along the road to new technologies. 

“If we want to be successful in building a renewable energy economy, we need to have an integrated research and deployment pathway where research and commercialization talk with each other throughout,” he says. 

“This is why from the outset IREE has made working with outside companies and other organizations a priority,” says Richard “Dick” Hemmingsen, managing director with IREE.

Ongoing dialogue directs new ideas and technology to commercial developments, while input from private industry sharpens the focus of applied research. Public-private relationships help bring in big federal research grants and create jobs in the private sector, many close to home.

A good example is the Eolos Wind Energy Research Consortium, a group of universities, national labs, and industrial firms (including local companies WindLogics, 3M, Barr Engineering and many others) that seeks to help the nation produce 20 percent of its electricity from wind energy by 2030 through research and workforce training. The consortium, led by the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory in the University’s College of Science and Engineering (CSE), began with a stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“IREE support, both in terms of generous cost-share contributions and facilitating connections with key industrial partners during the early stages of this effort, was instrumental for the University to be successful in this major national initiative,” says EOLOS director and civil engineering professor Fotis Sotiropoulos. 

The value of the consortium flows three ways: to the University, to member companies, and to the public. 

“In 3M’s case we have many, many technologies,” says Mike Strommen, new business development manager for 3M’s Renewable Energy Division. “The value to us is that we can commercialize these and provide value to our shareholders.

“The value to the public is that these are going to reduce the cost of generating electricity. Ultimately, too, you have a Minnesota-based company that, if we’re successful, will bring more jobs—all over the world, potentially, but surely in Minnesota.”

WindLogics specializes in building mathematical models of wind flow, such as around turbines. Working in the Eolos consortium “makes available to us other expertise and people with skill sets we don’t have,” says CEO Mark Ahlstrom. “It also creates an environment for communication and interaction, not just with the academic community but with private-sector companies. The spin-off activity from University research directly and indirectly has been a huge asset for our area.”

Collaboration is also key on the windswept farm country of southwestern Minnesota, where IREE is funding a project to solve the problem of how to store energy from wind. The University’s West Central Research and Outreach Center near Morris is working with the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council to make a “wind energy refinery.”

Wind is intermittent and uneven. Moreover, many wind sites are a long way from electricity-using population centers. So Michael Reese, the center's renewable energy director, is using power from the center’s 1.6-megawatt wind turbine to produce hydrogen and nitrogen gas. Working with University researchers from the departments of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, Reese will test three different processes to combine the two gases into anhydrous ammonia, a potential fuel in its own right and a vital fertilizer used in every farm town in America.

By using wind energy rather than natural gas—the conventional source of anhydrous ammonia—Reese hopes to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture while producing a locally valuable product. The U’s Department of Applied Economics is analyzing the costs of using renewable energy to make ammonia.

Says Reese, “We’re taking basic research, going through development at the lab, identifying the best technology and best processes, taking them up to field scale, and then following up with the economic evaluation. We’re trying to remove the ‘silos’ you occasionally see at the University.”

At CSE’s Center for Sustainable Polymers, IREE funded early research and catalyzed partnerships that helped seal the deal on a three-year, $1.5 million investment from the National Science Foundation to develop environmentally friendly advanced polymers to replace plastics, rubber and glue derived from fossil fuel.

“IREE funding was critical to our success,” says center director and chemistry professor Marc Hillmyer. “Getting these NSF grants is extremely competitive. To go in with ideas is okay, but to go in with ideas and preliminary results supporting those ideas makes for a much more compelling case.”

Success could lead to an even bigger phase 2 award, says Hillmyer, “so we’re talking about a serious opportunity to put the Center for Sustainable Polymers on the national and global map for basic research in the area of renewable, degradable green plastics.”

The center’s approach to polymer research provides a model for University research in the future, says Hillmyer—heavy on collaboration in funding and research. Nearly two dozen affiliates—including 3M, Dow, Ashland, Aveda, Cargill and Cambria—fund graduate students and equipment purchases and provide input on research.

Industry participation “was tremendously well received by the National Science Foundation,” Hillmyer says. “To actually translate ideas in the laboratory to real-world technology takes involvement from real-world ‘technologists.’”