Commercialization priority for Lugar energy center

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A visitor to the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy asks Director Peter J. Schubert for a peek at the laboratory.

“Sorry,” an associate replies. “That can’t be done without at least a day’s notice.”

The 5-year-old center hidden somewhere behind the maze of walls at the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI is starting to sound like Area 51, the secret military base in Nevada. That might be because the technology being developed inside is shaping up to have big commercial and military potential.

“Research in a vacuum is not going to get us to the goals we have,” said Schubert, an engineer in private industry until taking the job last September.

Many of the 36 researchers affiliated with the center are from Purdue University’s School of Engineering. Others come from biology, chemistry, physics, environmental affairs and public policy arms of Purdue and Indiana University.

The last two disciplines reflect the political issues surrounding renewable energy that might be more complex than the technology itself. Think of the stink over ill-fated federal incentives to solar-panel makers.

An architect of such incentives, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, toured the Lugar center last fall in recognition of some federal funding to the university.

Much of the work here is aimed at improving renewable and traditional energy generation. One day, while touring a Hoosier Energy generating plant, Schubert learned that certain components are cooled with hydrogen.

The gas isn’t cheap to ship to such a facility, but what if it could be produced on-site? Schubert’s researchers came up with a reactor that can use waste from nearby farms and convert it to hydrogen at a generating plant site. He plans a visit to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to explore getting more funding to further develop the idea.

If that doesn’t light your fire, there’s the project under way to use sea water to store electricity for offshore wind turbines. Sodium in the water could be used in a battery that would store electricity and feed it to the grid when the wind isn’t blowing.

Schubert Schubert

“That’s another one I’ll be going to [Washington] D.C. about,” Schubert said.

Researchers here also think they have a better design for a fuel cell, a liquid-filled device that generates electricity. Fuel cells have been used aboard spacecraft for decades and increasingly are eyed for power storage on earth.

Many fuel cells use platinum, which isn’t cheap and can be easily corrupted by contaminants in the liquid fuel. The center came up with a substitute membrane and lower-cost metals that not only are cheaper but can work with less-refined versions of ethanol.

Some of the expertise in bioreactors Schubert brought to the center from his former job as senior director of research at Packer Engineering Inc., in Naperville, Ill.

The longtime engineering firm went bust amid the economic downturn. But Schubert owned some of the intellectual property and patents. He holds about 35 patents and has been principal investigator on several research projects for NASA and the departments of energy and agriculture.

The Lugar Center itself has about 20 patents, either held or pending.

Schubert said he was struck by a speech Sen. Lugar gave about a year ago lamenting how a lot of technology was not making it to market.

“The takeaway for me was, by golly, we have to have some commercial successes,” Schubert said.

The center has been collaborating with several firms locally on technology applications, he said.

“[Schubert] has embraced the spirit of collaboration more than we’d done in the past,” said John Mainella, assistant dean for development and external relations at Purdue’s School of Engineering and Technology.

The center has helped foster renewable-energy collaboration between university researchers and industry in a way that “makes it certainly unique in the state,” said Paul Mitchell, president and CEO of Energy Systems Network, a not-for-profit clean-energy initiative based in Indianapolis.

Yet the center operates on a modest budget and with just two staff members, plus a grant writer. It doesn’t have a big endowment as would an organization at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I would describe the Lugar Center as the little engine that could … They punch bigger than their weight,” Mitchell said.

Sen. Lugar, who has long been involved in energy policy issues, gladly lent his name and support to the center.

He lost the Republican primary battle last May to State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Schubert said Lugar’s departure is likely “a wash” as far as the center’s funding prospects, and that Lugar’s name will command attention for years to come.•

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