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BY DON BOROUGHS
ILLUSTRATION BY ELLEN WEINSTEIN
FEATURE: FLIGHT TO ACHIEVEMENTCOVER STORY

A PLACE IN THE SUN

Seeking escape from the rust belt, Michigan and its universities try to grow a green economy.


The sun can barely filter through gray skies over the crook of Michigan’s Thumb, but inside Hemlock Semiconductor Corp., molten polysilicon gives off its own light as it is purified at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The finished rods of polycrystalline silicon are destined for solar panel manufacturers throughout the globe. Already the world’s largest producer of silicon for solar cells, Hemlock is in the midst of a $1 billion Michigan factory expansion.

A hundred miles southwest in Battle Creek, a glow is also coming from below as sparks fly from arc welders assembling the support structure for a machine as long as a football field. It will churn out solar panels for United Solar Ovonic, the company’s fourth Michigan expansion plant in as many years.

“If we are smart and we are aggressive, we will reshape Michigan’s economy.” – Michigan Gov. Jennifer GranholmMeanwhile, in Ann Arbor, electrical engineering professor Stephen Forrest is blithely unaware of the clouds as he tests photovoltaic compounds under the tropical glare of a solar simulator lamp in his University of Michigan laboratory. Forrest’s conviction that he’s on his way to developing photovoltaic paint that could turn entire automobiles into solar panels brightens his day, no matter what the weather. He hopes to soon move the technical department of his start-up Global Photonic Energy Corp. to Michigan.

The skies over the Great Lakes State have almost never seemed so gloomy. With double-digit unemployment — the nation’s highest — and automakers careering toward bankruptcy, optimism is in short supply. But in the capital, Gov. Jennifer Granholm clings to the hope that the state’s budding alternative energy industry might eventually reach a critical mass and turn the economy around. Since January 2009, Michigan has designated $555 million in refundable tax credits for companies developing advanced battery technologies. “We want to lead the nation in developing those solutions and in manufacturing the products that reduce carbon emissions,” Granholm told Prism. “If we are smart and we are aggressive, we will reshape Michigan’s economy.”

For smarts, Granholm is counting on the faculty of more than a dozen engineering schools in the state to supply ideas, technology, and a rising stream of graduates equipped for green industry. Michigan ranks fourth among the 50 states in the number of new engineering graduates. “We are dependent on the universities, particularly the colleges of engineering, to help us to bring the economy back around alternative energy,” says Keith Cooley, former director of Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Growth and CEO of incubator company NextEnergy. “They are absolutely key to this process.”

As Timothy Schulz, dean of engineering at Michigan Technological University, says, “It would be very difficult for a state to pull this off if it didn’t have the support of its engineering colleges; and this is a state that does.” Adds Forrest, U of M’s vice president for research, “We’re all going on this trip together because we have this tremendous resource that can be a crucial part of the economic transformation.”

“It would be very difficult for a state to pull this off if it didn’t have the support of its engineering colleges; and this is a state that does.” - Timothy Schulz, Dean of Engineering, Michigan Technological University

 

Even before Granholm put her alternative-energy campaign into overdrive, local engineering schools were already accelerating toward their own green revolution. At Michigan State University, engineers have taken the campus-wide “Be Spartan Green” campaign to heart. Dean Satish Udpa says that the number of faculty and students working on renewable energy has “at least doubled or tripled” in the past few years. Wayne State University in Detroit introduced a master’s degree in alternative energy technology in 2005.

At about the same time, U of M’s Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, which helps expand the university’s $45 million in energy research, broadened its purely nuclear research portfolio into a range of green energy sources, from wind to waves. Collectively, the three largest research universities — Michigan State, U of M, and Wayne State — spent $79.5 million on alternative energy research in 2007, a figure that has since grown considerably. Dave Munson, dean of engineering at U of M, notes that though the green energy developments in the state and the universities are not necessarily coordinated, “we’re all headed in the same direction.”

The trajectory is established, but the velocity will pick up as Michigan gets a boost from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Last year, candidate Barack Obama made the key energy speech of his presidential campaign on the campus of Michigan State, promising: “We will invest more in the clean technology research and development that’s occurring in labs and research facilities all across the country and right here at MSU.” This year, President Obama made good on that pledge when he signed a stimulus bill that reserves nearly one-tenth of its funds, $80 billion, for energy efficiency and renewables.

Among the stipulations of the package are that $2.5 billion be spent on research into energy efficiency and renewable energy. At U of M, which already ranks third among the nation’s universities for federal science and engineering grant money, Phoenix Energy Institute director Gary Was comments, “It’s pretty sweeping . . . It will definitely affect our landscape in a positive way.” Already, four groups — A123Systems Inc., Compact Power Inc., Johnson Controls Inc., and Kokam America Inc. — have announced plans for advanced battery manufacture in the state, with the promise of $1.7 billion in investments and the creation of 6,700 new jobs.

Yet, state funding has not kept pace with the universities’ ambitions. The governor’s proposed budget for the 2010 fiscal year cuts $100 million out of higher education overall, to help close a yawning budget deficit. At the same time, Governor Granholm has asked the universities not to raise tuition. Michigan State’s Udpa notes that over the course of his academic career, the portion of the university budget paid for by the state has fallen from more than 60 percent to less than half that. “We’ve gradually morphed from a state university to a state-assisted university,” the engineering dean says.

Still, some state money has been directed into colleges of engineering to kick-start energy efforts. The Lansing government has funded 16 new faculty members at Michigan State who specialize in the “bioeconomy,” including several engineering professors. The Michigan Public Service Commission is sponsoring U of M research into adapting the state’s electrical grid to cope with plug-in cars and renewable energy, particularly the growing number of windmills near the Great Lakes’ shores. Research Scientist Duncan Callaway, one of the beneficiaries of the project, notes, “Without the strong support of the governor, it wouldn’t have happened.”

The most sweeping state effort to involve the universities in green industry takes place inside what Granholm’s administration calls “Centers of Energy Excellence.” Within these six centers, state funds are channeled through promising companies and on to universities with expertise that can strengthen the firms’ technology. Michigan Tech, for instance, is receiving $300,000 to help convert the sugar-rich wastewater from a northeastern Michigan wood-panel manufacturer into 1 million gallons of ethanol fuel per year by 2011.

The university is deeply committed to research on extracting cellulosic ethanol from forestry byproducts — what MTU engineers call “wood to wheels.” Michigan Tech’s second Center of Energy Excellence project will split $2 million with Michigan State to work with what may become the nation’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant, in the Upper Peninsula. This joint venture between Massachusetts-based Mascoma Corp. and the J. M. Longyear forestry company aims to produce 40 million gallons of ethanol annually. Altogether, six companies have been designated Centers for Energy Excellence, with four universities assisting them.

It’s Still About Cars

The fact that three of the six are in liquid fuels and two in car batteries may be a sign of the shape that Michigan’s green energy industry is likely to take. Despite pockets of interesting activity in solar, wind, and water power, an analysis of research spending in 2007 on alternative energy at MSU, U of M, and Wayne State showed that well over half is spent on propulsion, power, and fuels. The new Michigan economy may well be a greener version of the old one, driven by the automobile.

That suits the U of M just fine. “The University of Michigan is arguably the best university in the world for automotive issues,” claims Callaway. As a result, Ann Arbor has become a magnet for automobile technology companies, such as Boston’s lithium battery manufacturer A123Systems, which keeps its advanced research office there. Forrest says that battery companies are not only attracted by the university’s expertise — A123 purchased a battery technology company started by chemical engineering professor Levi Thompson — but also to its auto-industry connections. “The university provides the skills, we provide the workforce, and we provide facilities and relationships with customers,” explains the vice president for research. “So how can you lose?”

Forrest sees the electrification of the automobile as the opportunity of a generation — for the university, its engineering graduates, U.S. automakers, and the Michigan economy. “It’s the most exciting time in automotive industry since the invention of the internal combustion engine,” he enthuses.

Others at the university also recognize the opportunity. “We have to change the curriculum,” says engineering professor Ann Marie Sastry. “The curriculum is shaped around the internal combustion engine.” So Sastry, whose rapid-fire speech and frenetic work pace suggest that she herself might be lithium powered, pulled together a new master’s degree program in nine months. Today, the energy systems engineering major has 75 students, 50 of them General Motors engineers who have been sent to get up to speed on electrification.

Indeed, GM is scrambling to shift to green. The company helped shape the curriculum, contributed $5 million to the U of M’s Advanced Battery Coalition for Drivetrains, and snapped up most of the university’s first energy systems students for summer internships. Brett Stawinski, one of the first round of interns, says that many of his peers have already accepted GM job offers. The 23-year-old car fanatic who grew up in suburban Detroit, starts what he calls “pretty much the ultimate job,” this summer. One professor recounts overhearing a GM executive say, “‘We’re now hiring just about any engineer who can spell the word ‘battery.’”

The automaker is just the largest of many Michigan employers embracing the electric-car revolution. Several engineering graduates have gone to Sastry’s own lithium battery start-up, Sakti3, which has attracted millions of dollars in venture capital and state funds. California’s Tesla Motors, maker of the $109,000 electric Roadster, keeps a technical office outside Detroit. Compact Power, a subsidiary of LG Chem Ltd. of Korea, has just signed a lease on a 14,000-square-foot building near Detroit, where it will assemble the first battery packs for the Chevy Volt. And A123 has applied for $1.84 billion in federal loans to begin building lithium auto batteries, starting with a factory in southeastern Michigan. “It may sound boastful to say Michigan will be the epicenter of electrification,” says Sastry. “It’s not.”

The University of Michigan doesn’t have a monopoly on the automotive electrical effort. Michigan Tech has a graduate course in advanced propulsion technologies that it’s using to upgrade the qualifications of 60 displaced automotive engineers, in collaboration with GM and the Engineering Society of Detroit. At Michigan State, materials scientists within the school of engineering are also partnering with A123 Systems.

But the largest renewable program at MSU lies in biofuels, an implicit bet that the internal combustion engine is with us for the foreseeable future. Bruce Dale says that about one third of his fellow chemical engineering professors now work in renewables. “Our department of chemical engineering probably has the strongest concentration of people working in the bioeconomy of any place I know,” notes Dale. “We’ve got what it takes.”

‘Don’t Close Off Options’

The effort extends far beyond chemical engineering, as Michigan State leverages its inherent strengths in agricultural engineering and plant sciences. “There is more collaboration between plant sciences and engineering than at any other time in our history,” says Dean Udpa. “The conference rooms are booked up.” Eann Patterson, chair of the department of mechanical engineering, notes that the cooperation goes “right across the spectrum,” from crop scientists investigating genetic plants and maximizing yields to agricultural and chemical engineers processing biofuels and mechanical engineers designing engines to use those fuels.

At one end of that spectrum, Dale has worked with MSU crop scientist Mariam Sticklen. She just patented a genetically modified corn plant that produces high levels of enzymes to break down the cellulose in its stalks and leaves into sugars and starches. It’s a significant step toward the goal of converting crop waste into renewable fuels. At the other end, mechanical engineers take advantage of a cold room for testing biofuels in engines at MSU’s new $10 million Energy & Automotive Research Laboratories. The reason: Biofuels react differently from petroleum-based fuels to cold temperatures.

Since Michigan State’s emphasis is on the tricky alchemy of cellulosic biofuels, years may pass before this work makes a significant dent in Michigan’s unemployment or the nation’s petroleum bill. MSU chemical engineer Dennis Miller, who works on butanol and other high-performance biofuels, says, “We’re looking at five to ten years down the road for these advanced biofuels.”

Granholm’s government has demonstrated its enthusiasm for batteries and biofuels by spending tens of millions of dollars in tax credits and other incentives to lure companies in these industries to Michigan. The governor has remained quiet, however, on the subject of one carbon-neutral energy source in which Michigan has a distinct advantage: nuclear energy. Some would like that to change. The University of Michigan has the top-ranked nuclear engineering program in the nation. As the rest of the world finds renewed interest in this technology, enrollment has jumped from 28 undergrads to 120 in just the past 10 years. Nuclear engineering professor Gary Was says that most of those graduates will find work — but out of state. “We all would like to see a world powered by solar, but it’s going to take generations to get there,” notes Was, “so it’s prudent that we don’t close off options.”

Weighing Risks, Besting the Competition

The entire energy industry is fraught with risk today. Lansing has pledged $23.5 million in incentives for one cellulosic ethanol plant, for example, when no such facility has ever been erected before. And grain-ethanol companies elsewhere are filing for bankruptcy. Electric cars and widely varying solar technologies could take off in many different directions — or not at all. United Solar Ovonic recently announced plans to eliminate 70 positions at existing factories and postpone hiring for the Battle Creek facility “until demand improves.” Ironically, the company is battling not only the recession but also competition resulting from expansion in Hemlock Semiconductor’s Michigan silicon production.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what technologies are going to win,” warns the U of M’s Callaway, adding that the governor “is taking a high-risk, potentially high-return approach.” Lansing economic consultant Patrick Anderson worries that “governments in general have a terrible track record of picking out the next technology that’s going to work.”

The same might be said about universities. Michigan State engineering professor Lawrence Drzal argues against drastically narrowing curricula to prepare students for one aspect of the changing energy industry. He says that schools must avoid “trying to become a boutique university and creating a curriculum that responds to the latest trend.” He adds, “The latest and greatest thing to do today might not be the latest and greatest 15 years from now.” Several years ago, more than one Michigan university accepted assistance from Ballard Power Systems Inc. to adapt its curricula to the fuel cell-powered future. At the time, GM was promising fuel cell vehicles “by 2004 or sooner.” Though fuel cells may yet have their day, GM abandoned that course, and Ballard has exited from the automotive fuel cell business.

Will the state be able to reverse its downward trajectory on the back of this fickle industry? Even Granholm admitted to Prism: “It would be overly optimistic to say that we’ll be able to recoup 700,000 jobs, which is what we’ve lost.” One of the governor’s greatest ambitions, for example, is to attract wind turbine manufacturers to Michigan. Yet, in 2008, the entire American wind power industry created just 13,000 manufacturing jobs, and few are in Michigan.

But Michigan’s declining auto industry can give strength to the ascendant energy business. Mark Morelli, president of United Solar Ovonic’s parent company, says he has been building factories in the state in part because he finds “a ready-made workforce here that wants to work and is steeped in the tradition of engineering, R&D, manufacturing, and operations.” Michigan State’s Udpa adds: “There are other states that have talent, but we are hungry, a lot hungrier than other states.”

It is clearly too soon to draw conclusions, but in Michigan, some cloud cover may be lifting. In 1908, when the Ford Motor Co. began building the Model T, it employed fewer than 2,000 workers. University of Michigan Vice President for Research Forrest notes that renewable energy “has all of the same aspects to it that the electronics industry and auto industry had: It’s going to be world dominating in scale; it’s going to take an enormous amount of intellectual input... and we can make a big difference.” He adds: “We’re going to do great again — you watch it.”

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.

 

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