First URC Seed Grant Produces Major Return on Investment

Posted by James / on 05/13/2009 / 0 Comments

A $523,282 seed grant from Michigan's University Research Corridor has already helped generate a U.S. Energy Department recommendation for $12.5 million in additional federal support.

The URC, an alliance of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, was founded to leverage the power of Michigan's research universities to transform the state's economy. Last May, the URC announced its first seed fund grants to provide startup support for two "revolutionary but feasible" energy projects and the largest has helped bring new federal grants to Michigan.

The URC grant went to a team that recently won the support of U.S. Department of Energy officials recommending a $12.5 million grant for a new Energy Frontier Research Center at MSU, one of 46 to be established nationwide. The project aims to advance the scientific understanding of the thermoelectric energy conversion process, potentially leading to more efficient utilization of energy resources.

University Research Corridor scientists from MSU, UM and WSU, along with Northwestern University, Ohio State University, UCLA and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are all collaborating on the project. More than $8 million of the recommended $12.5 million would be spent within the state of Michigan, according to initial estimates.

The URC support focuses on the synthesis, characterization and implementation of bulk nanocomposite thermoelectric materials while the recommended $12.5 million grant would build upon that research, supporting a much broader thermoelectric materials research effort that also explores bulk nanocomposites as well as many other diverse approaches.

UM also won support for its own Energy Frontier Center to explore new materials to better convert solar energy to electricity, winning DOE funding of about $19.5 million.

"Thermoelectric solid state energy conversion offers a means of increasing the efficiency of the utilization of energy sources by converting some of the energy lost as heat into electricity," said principal investigator Donald Morelli, MSU professor of chemical engineering and materials science, and adjunct professor in physics and astronomy.

Morelli is collaborating with Stephanie Brock, WSU associate professor of chemistry; Jeffrey Sakamoto, MSU assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials; and Ctirad Uher, a UM physics professor.

In 2008, the URC universities decided it was critical to take advantage of their proximity and different specializations to collaborate and produce research they could not do alone. In order to advance "revolutionary but feasible" outcomes in alternative energy, the URC granted $900,000 in research funding for URC faculty for up to three years.

Thirteen research projects that address energy materials, clean energy sources, transmission and storage, and/or energy policy were considered; two multi-institutional grants were funded, including one led by Morelli in collaboration with WSU and UM.

"This new energy initiative is particularly exciting for us as researchers, because it supports basic science," said Ian Gray, MSU's vice president for research and graduate studies. "This is an opportunity to explore better solutions to known problems, build the theoretical foundation for new discoveries and, ultimately, change the way we approach energy utilization. MSU is proud to join with our colleagues in these other institutions in leading the way."

The project allowed this URC team to draw the strengths from each university to begin development of more efficient low-cost thermoelectric materials for industry. This technology could be applied to power generation and heating and cooling systems to improve energy efficiency of industrial processes.

"The goal of these URC-funded projects was to bring together teams of scientists from all three institutions to collectively work on a research project that would be difficult to address independently," said Hilary Ratner, WSU vice president for research. "In addition, this seed funding was aimed at developing these projects to a point so that they would be competitive for programs such as the Energy Frontier Research Center. We are extremely pleased that our investment helped Dr. Morelli and all of the URC scientists on this project receive this prestigious award from DOE."

UM Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest noted that seed funds are essential for taking promising ideas beyond campus boundaries.

"The URC was founded with the purpose of creating new economies based on innovations that emerge from the research labs of its large cadre of researchers," Forrest said. "This is one of many examples of how we are putting our own resources to work to ensure a bright and competitive future for our region and state."

The URC was launched by the state's three research university presidents in late 2006 to align their resources to transform, strengthen and diversify Michigan's economy.

-- Source: University Research Corridor


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