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 Motorsports engineering and furniture design students build Formula-style race car

391007_w296INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Formula-style race car competing this week in Lincoln, Neb., is the unique collaborative work of students from two diverse programs on the IUPUI campus – motorsports engineering and furniture design.

The vehicle is one of more than 90 cars entered in the Formula SAE student design competition organized by SAE International, formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Students from the motorsports engineering program in the Purdue School of Engineering & Technology at IUPUI designed, built and tested the majority of the IUPUI race car. However, the bodywork is the team work of motorsports students and students in the furniture design program of the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI.

“This inventive collaboration is a perfect example of the relevance of art and design to a broad array of applications beyond ‘fine art.’ It also serves as an example of the opportunities afforded to students at IUPUI by faculty who are more than willing to work across school boundaries with their colleagues,” said Glennda McGann, assistant dean for development and external affairs at Herron.

Pete Hylton, associate professor of mechanical engineering technology, is director of the motorsports engineering program at IUPUI, the first U.S. university to offer a bachelor’s degree in motorsports engineering.

Furniture craftsman Cory Robinson, associate professor and chair of Herron’s fine arts department, directed the Herron students working on the race car project.

“It was very interesting to see the kinds of machines that they use to make furniture….and to figure out how to translate our needs to their equipment,” said Nikky Saxon, a motorsports engineering student who worked on the race car project. “The Herron students were very helpful and easy to work with.  It was a great experience.”

According to the description on the SAE website, the concept behind Formula SAE is that a fictional manufacturing company has contracted a design team to develop a small Formula-style race car for a non-professional weekend autocross racer. Each collegiate team designs, builds and tests a prototype based on a series of rules set up both to ensure onsite event operations and promote clever problem solving.

Motorsports engineering students developed the IUPUI race car’s basic shape using 3D computer modeling to fit a shape around the chassis, including an aerodynamic underbody which provides ground effects. The shape of the underside of the body creates down-force by channeling the airflow through a venturi shaped passageway, similar to what is done on IndyCar and Formula One racecars.

The IUPUI engineering students handed off their design to the Herron students who went to work using their school’s gantry mill — typically used to shape wood for furniture design projects — to shape the pieces which were assembled to form the car’s required body shape.

A fiberglass mold was then made of this shape, and finally a composite layup was made using that mold and it was cured with the help of Indy Performance Composites to complete the body parts.  These were then fitted to the chassis, which is a steel tube-frame configuration built with materials donated to the program by AED Motorsports of Indianapolis.

“We were able to make a much more complex shape by using the Herron gantry mill,” Hylton said. “We were able to design the car on the computer using 3D modeling and translate that to hardware using the gantry mill. Working with specialists from another (non-engineering) realm is excellent experience for our students….and very real world.”

The IUPUI vehicle completed its tech inspection Wednesday as one of less than 40 entries to accomplish that requirement on Day 1 of the four-day racing event.

Design judging took place Thursday. Dynamic competitions such as acceleration, skidpad, autocross, and endurance events will take place today and Saturday.

IUPUI last competed in Formula SAE in 2011 when the school was the top finishing rookie team at the event held at Michigan International Speedway.

For further information, contact Motorsports Engineering Director Pete Hylton at or FSAE faculty advisor, Andy Borme at


Imaging symposium presents opportunities to learn from IUPUI experts, build collaborative research

The IUPUI Imaging Research Symposium takes place from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, in the Lilly Auditorium of University Library, 755 W. Michigan St.

Academic and industrial researchers and investigators are invited to learn more about the imaging technologies available at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis during a daylong event that includes 20-minute talks, poster displays, special guest lectures and opportunities to tour IUPUI imaging laboratories.

Presentations by campus researchers will highlight several IUPUI imaging capabilities as well as the applications of advanced imaging methods to address current scientific, medical and engineering questions. The goal of the symposium is to promote knowledge of the IUPUI imaging community and to foster collaborative research opportunities.

Experts from the Indiana Institute for Biomedical Imaging Sciences, the Indiana Center for Biological Microscopy, the Nanoscale Imaging Center, The 3D Imaging of the Craniofacial Complex Center and the Electron Microscopy Center, all members of the IUPUI Imaging Research Initiative, will discuss their imaging facilities and their research.

Invited guest speakers include Dr. Daniel C. Sullivan from Duke University Medical Center and Andrew J. Bowling of Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis.

Sullivan will discuss “Quantitative Imaging in Medicine” from 1:30 to 2:15 p.m. and Bowling will discuss “Imaging & Crop Development” from 2:15 to 3 p.m. Guided tours through several IUPUI imaging laboratories will be available from 3 to 4:30 p.m.

More information and a registration form are available on the IUPUI Imaging Research Initiative website or by emailing Mark Holland at

Lecture: Rachel Armstrong: “The Technology of Nature”

October 30
Indianapolis Museum of Art
DeBoest Lecture Hall
Co-sponsored by the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Tickets are free to the public. Please order using the form below. 

Rachel Armstrong is Co-Director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in Architecture & Synthetic Biology at The School of Architecture & Construction, University of Greenwich, London. Senior TED Fellow, and Visiting Research Assistant at the Centre for Fundamental Living Technology, Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark. Rachel is a sustainability innovator who investigates a new approach to building materials called ‘living architecture,’ that suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems. She works collaboratively across disciplines to build and develop prototypes that embody her approach.

Dr. Armstrong designs sustainable solutions for the built and natural environment using advanced new technologies such as, Synthetic Biology – the engineering of living systems – and smart chemistry. Her research prompts a reevaluation of how we think about our homes and cities and raises questions about the urban environment of the future. She creates open innovation platforms for academia and industry to address environmental challenges such as carbon capture & recycling, smart ‘living’ materials and sustainable design.

Her award winning research underpins her bold approach to the way that she challenges perceptions, presumptions and established principles related to scientific concepts and the building blocks of life and society. She embodies and promotes new transferrable ways of thinking ‘outside of the box’ and enables others to also develop innovative environmental solutions.