At IUPUI ‘green energy’ center, baked beans are more than food
At IUPUI’s engineering school, Peter Schubert offers a glimpse into the future of green energy.
The engineering professor pokes his head in a fuel cell lab. There, researchers are trying to replace hydrogen in fuel cells with ethanol, by fermenting food waste.
“We thought baked potatoes would be the best, but baked beans trounced ‘em,” Schubert says.
He cuts across a corridor to a battery lab, where the goal is to improve lithium batteries. One approach uses air instead of liquid in the battery’s internal workings, so it doesn’t explode as readily, Schubert explains.
From there it’s off to a manufacturing space along Michigan Street where a team built a biomass gasifier, a complex machine worthy of a Rube Goldberg contest. It can make hydrogen from corn stalks or other plant material and also generates enough heat to supply hot water or space-heating needs for a home or business.
“You could run a farm with energy from waste,” Schubert says, pointing to the contraption.
Used to be the engineering school at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis didn’t delve deeply into RD. Faculty and staff focused on teaching and would leave the research to the main Purdue campus in West Lafayette. But that’s changing, in large part thanks to the Lugar Center for Renewable Energy headed by Schubert, who comes from private industry and has an Edison-like inventive urge.
Since becoming the center’s director in late 2011, Schubert has grown its research staff to 44 and brought on board 13 entrepreneurs-in-residence (mostly retired scientists and business types). The research has spawned four start-up companies and almost more projects than Schubert can track.
The center accounted for almost a third of the 54 patent applications and 69 invention disclosures coming out of IUPUI’s engineering school last year. Both the invention and patent counts have more than doubled since 2010, said David Russomanno, who’s overseen a growth spurt at the school since taking over as dean four years ago.
Last year the school expanded into the $27 million Science and Engineering Laboratory Building, where the Lugar energy center was given two labs and brand new office space.
For Schubert, who holds a Ph.D. in engineering from Purdue and is a prolific inventor with over 40 patents to his name, directing the Lugar energy center seems a perfect fit.
“He’s a brilliant man. He’s involved in so many areas of renewables. He is way out on the cutting edge,” said Lee Saberson, a retired engineer for Emerson Electric and other companies who consults with the center as an entrepreneur-in-residence.
Schubert developed an interest in green energy out of self-interest. He got his driver’s license in the 1970s when the Arab oil embargo sent pump prices soaring.
“Just when I’m about to drive, there’s no gas,” he recalls. Later, the teen-aged Schubert was chagrined to read a flyer about how the Soviet Union was out-distancing the United States in nuclear fusion, and his career in energy research was sealed.
Schubert spent 22 years at auto parts maker Delphi Electronics in Kokomo (becoming a member of its hall of fame) and five years at the original Packer Engineering in Naperville, Ill. At Packer, Schubert had a loose leash to do research that “helped society.” Among his work: designing space-based solar power systems and getting a patent on turning asteroids into silicon.
When Packer auctioned off much of its intellectual property in 2012, Schubert used $10,000 in university funds to buy the hydrogen storage and other technologies he helped develop while working there. Those patents are now driving some of the research at the Lugar energy center.
“What are the large problems facing humankind? I always thought energy is at the heart of it,” Schubert says. “My overriding passion is developing technologies that help humans live in peace. It’s just a blast. I have fun every day.” As for his research staff, “We’ve got some really awesome people here.” he says.
Russomanno says the Lugar energy center under Schubert “really has been a catalyst for increasing the awareness of the work we are doing around energy.”
“Peter brings a lot of enthusiasm to the directorship. He is a great ambassador.”
The center gets its name from Lugar, the six-term U.S. senator from Indiana who retired from the Senate last year. He used his clout in Congress to direct federal funding to IUPUI to pay for research on lithium ion batteries and fuel cells. They remain a focus of the center’s research.
Lugar’s name lends the center credibility and helps with fundraising, says Schubert. At least some of the time. Last year Schubert sought donations to endow a chair at the center and no one donated. This year Schubert is taking a different tack, asking for money from utilities around the state to fund renewable energy research. At least one has agreed to write a check, he says.
What the center really needs to distinguish itself, Russomanno says, is a multi-million-dollar grant that would fund a significant project with multiple researchers.
But even with a retired U.S. senator on your masthead, that’s hardly a given. Energy research grants are among the most competitive to land, with fewer than one in ten federal applications approved, Russomanno says.
That’s why the center also aims to commercialize its research. Saberson says he has high hopes for the commercialization of a circuit, developed by one of the center’s researchers, that efficiently converts solar-energy-derived DC power to AC. The circuit allows solar panels to feed power back into the electrical grid.
“We’re excited that it’ll be commercially very viable,” says Saberson, who’s helping publicize the circuit to potential users and investors.
The IUPUI engineering school’s most successful commercial spin off was educational software called ANGEL Learning that one of its professors created. The course management software, used by high schools and colleges, was bought in 2009 by Blackboard Inc. for $95 million.
Proceeds from that academic success story paid handsome dividends to the engineering school. It used $5 million from the Angel Learning commercialization to help pay for the Science and Engineering Lab Building.
Schubert has little doubt one of the Lugar energy center’s research projects could pay off in a similar way. Maybe that crazy biomass gasifier will catch the eye of a moneyed investor. Or his researchers will perfect a way to replace expensive platinum in fuel cells with ethanol from leftover baked beans.
Call Star reporter Jeff Swiatek at (317)444-6483. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSwiatek