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Investing in innovation and improving efficiencies

July 5, 2009

Don't be fooled by the name, Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory: Students, faculty, and staff working on any given day in the Colorado State University EECL aren't working on engines per se.

Improving engine efficiency is certainly within the scope of work at the lab, but students - under the tutelage of the lab’s director, Bryan Willson - are working on global solutions such as systems that will produce biodiesel from algae on a massive scale and cookstoves that will help curb indoor air pollution in developing nations.

Largest of its kind

The laboratory is the largest of its kind in North America at one of the top research institutions in the nation (Colorado State University ranks fourth in annual research expenditures in the nation when compared with its peers without a medical school, according to the most recent figures from the National Science Foundation). The mission of the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory is to “create innovative energy solutions and entrepreneurial models that benefit the human condition and achieve global impact.”

That mission coincides with the university’s mission and that of its new Superclusters – a business model that was created in 2007 to bring the university’s innovative research to the marketplace more quickly. Applying Michael Porter’s concept of business clusters, the Superclusters are organized around the university’s areas of strength such as clean energy solutions and cures and vaccines for infectious disease and cancer.

Innovation for the public good

Translated into a university setting, the cluster concept helps scientists in different disciplines come together to work on common goals while also helping industry navigate the complexities of a university for licensing and patenting. The goal is to make the university look and act more like a business and encourage public/private partnerships and collaboration.

“Superclusters are designed around the idea that we can pull together a critical mass of faculty in an area where Colorado State University has strong expertise; we can leverage those strengths in developing solutions to address challenges facing societies worldwide,” said Interim President Dr. Tony Frank. “We oriented these Superclusters around areas where the solution could be addressed for commercialization – taking the ideas, the intellectual property, the innovation that comes out of groups of scientists and students from across disciplines and translating it into the commercial space for the public good.”

Collaboration is key to innovation at Colorado State University, including the groundbreaking work occurring in the engines lab. Willson, the lab’s director, also doubles as the director of the academic side of the Clean Energy Supercluster. His role is to help connect researchers across campus who may be working in the area of clean energy.

Willson himself helped create two of the university’s spinoffs: Envirofit International, a company that is helping poorer countries solve indoor and outdoor air pollution problems, and Solix Biofuels, which aims to develop algae into biodiesel on a mass scale.

“When I’m giving tours of the lab, I like to tell people that the next round of breakthroughs in energy are going to happen where more than one discipline intersect,” said Morgan DeFoort, co-director of the engines lab. “It’s not going to be physicist working alone. It’s the physicist working with the chemist. Or the biologist working with the mechanical engineer. It’s the more complex problems – those are where the breakthroughs for the next few decades – even the next century – are going to occur.”

Engineering complex systems

The EECL at Colorado State is known for tackling large, complex environmental problems such as air pollution – issues that relief agencies around the world don’t have the funds or the time to address. Willson, the founder of the lab, often says, “the bigger the problems, the better.”

The first major breakthrough to occur at the engines lab was in 1999. That was the first year that students competed in the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge, ultimately developing a snowmobile that was 300 times cleaner than a stock model. In 2003, students Tim Bauer and Nathan Lorenz, along with Willson and Paul Hudnut, business instructor, took that innovation to the next level and created Envirofit International, a non-profit corporation and leader in creating sustainable, scalable businesses that help solve global health and environmental problems.

Tackle indoor & outdoor pollution

Envirofit developed a bolt-on, direct-injection retrofit kit for carbureted two-stroke engines that are major polluters in the developing world. This easily installed, direct-injection retrofit technology drastically reduces pollution by 70 to 90 percent while improving fuel economy more than 35 percent, which gives taxi drivers long-term financial savings.

Those two-stroke engine retrofit kits are being sold in the Philippines with expansion planned in other developing countries.

Lorenz and Bauer, the two students who helped create Envirofit, now work for the company and have helped steer the business into another major area of concern in the developing world: indoor air pollution.

Envirofit has developed a cleaner burning cookstove that reduces emissions while using less fuel and increasing efficiency. The stoves are now being disseminated throughout India as students in the engines lab continue to work on improving the technology.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 3 billion people - or nearly half the world's population - cook their daily meals over open fires indoors using biomass such as wood or dung. A majority of the heat is wasted, and up to 20 percent of the biomass is transferred into such toxic materials as carbon monoxide, benzene and formaldehyde. Indoor air pollution, as a result, kills 1.6 million people every year.
In 2006, the Shell Foundation committed up to $25 million in grants to Envirofit to design and disseminate 10 million cookstoves across the developing world. Stoves are already being delivered in India.

Engines and Energy Conversion Lab saving lives

To meet Envirofit’s goal to disseminate the stoves, the company is working with DeFoort and his students at the EECL to perfect the technology. As many as 40 or 50 students work in the lab at any given time – most of them undergraduate students – on a variety of different projects.

Christian L’Orange, a graduate student in the laboratory, works with DeFoort, who is the technical lead on the research and development efforts that support Envirofit’s cookstoves enterprise. DeFoort has four graduate students and six undergraduate students working with him.

Through Envirofit and his work in the lab, L’Orange has learned that engineering offers a multitude of career paths. He’s responsible for designing the test hood in India that measures stove emissions.

“It’s engineers that are doing something different,” L’Orange said of the lab. “Being an engineer doesn’t just mean that you’re designing gears or cars or robots. Working with Envirofit – it was the first project that anyone had talked about that was completely different.”

And the differences don’t stop there: Students at Colorado State University are learning what it means to collaborate with their peers in other disciplines. They’re working with business professors such as Hudnut who are helping to build new business models to sell such products as Envirofit’s to people in poor nations who need them. Or with sociocultural anthropologists, like Mac McGoldrick, programs manager for the EECL, who is helping students learn to appreciate cultural differences that will help Envirofit sell their products.

“There’s a unique, collaborative culture that exists at Colorado State because of our ability to be entrepreneurial,” DeFoort said. “You find that willingness to collaborate here more than at any other university.”

Students learning from collaboration

Collaborative experiences are also creating new entrepreneurs: Some of the first seed funding from the Clean Energy Supercluster helped a group of students in the College of Business’ newest master’s program create a new company.

Through the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise master’s degree program, students have created Powermundo, which is a for-profit organization that aims to connect sustainable products of companies such as Envirofit with the people in developing nations who need them. The students are working with Tom Dean, a business professor, and DeFoort.

The master’s degree is an 18-month program that teaches students to use entrepreneurial, sustainable approaches to address great global challenges of poverty, environmental degradation and poor health. The degree requires three months of field work in a developing nation or area that lacks resources to build sustainable businesses.

The goal of the master’s degree program is ultimately to help some of the world's three billion people who live on less than $3 a day.

“Though the Clean Energy Supercluster is really young, here’s an example of how it’s investing across the spectrum,” DeFoort said. “We have these students who have launched a company and they were greatly enabled by Supercluster funding. The Supercluster spans the spectrum from early stage R&D to later-stage commercialization.”

Colorado State University – and companies like Envirofit – are capitalizing on these opportunities ahead of other higher education institutions, DeFoort said.

“There aren’t Envirofits out there,” he said. “The approach in the developing world has only recently turned entrepreneurial. We’ve got a five-year headstart.”

Originally published in ICOSA magazine, March/April 2009.

Contact: Emily Wilmsen
Phone: (970) 491-2336