At IUPUI ‘green energy’ center, baked beans are more than food

photo3At 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 R&D. 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

IUPUI Music Academy turns children into composers

Don’t tell the youngsters sitting in front of large computer monitors with earphones clamped to their ears that they are engaged in something serious like problem solving. They are having too much fun composing music tracks in an IUPUI Music Academy summer class.

The children are creating six 33-bar tracks using the Garage Band software, which allows users to become composers, regardless of their knowledge of music.

“It’s really fun,” said 9-year-old Lilly. Cameron, 11, looked forward to showing his father his latest compositions. “I showed him what I had done (in a previous) class. He was kind of confused, but I helped him.”

The children are among 35 youths from an all-day sports camp at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who were enrolled in the weeklong Music Academy class, which meets for 90 minutes a day.

The IUPUI Music Academy is an independent community music school, operating under the auspices of the Department of Music and Arts Technology in the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI. It was established in 1996 as an outreach program for the communities surrounding the IUPUI campus.

In addition to engaging with the sports camp youngsters this summer, the Music Academy also worked with 74 TRIO Upward Bound first-generation college-bound students and 35 high school girls from across the country who participated in the School of Engineering and Technology’s Preparing Outstanding Women for Engineering Roles program, sponsored by Rolls-Royce. The classes for the high school students have concluded.

Participants in Preparing Outstanding Women for Engineering Roles are invited to the program after expressing an interest in that field. The weeklong experience includes activities like a trip to the Honda auto plant, where the girls met with female engineers. It also includes sessions devoted to GarageBand.

GarageBand strikes a natural chord with younger people, said E.J. Choe, an assistant professor of music and director of the IUPUI Music Academy. “The Christmas wish list of this generation begins with products whose names begin with the letter ‘I’: iPad, iPhone, iPod.

“This marries an old art form with technology, which lures them into music, whether they play an instrument or not,” she said. “Everyone wants to be a composer, and kids quickly learn how to use the software to do it.”

There is a strong connection between engineering and music, said Terri Talbert-Hatch, assistant dean of student services. “Introducing them to GarageBand is a way to show them that technology can be fun. The name of the GarageBand class may not have the word engineering in it, but it’s all about technology, solving problems and being creative.”