[bld]College graduates-to-be are being bombarded with media statements about the sad state of Michigan’s economy. According to current media coverage, students will have to leave the state to find a decent job, and the November election has only increased the negative coverage. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has racked her brain trying to come up with ideas to boost Michigan’s declining economy and job market, and with the help of MSU and its researchers, she may have finally found one that will work. Granholm’s Jobs Today, Jobs Tomorrow economic plan is a 10-year plan that will hand out $100 million a year through 61 proposals to create jobs in Michigan through the 21st Century Jobs Fund.
The proposals, 505 in all, were cut down to 179 after a review process by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which then made the final recommendations to the Michigan Strategic Economic Investment and Commercialization Board. This board selected the top 61 proposals they felt would benefit Michigan’s economy through interviews with each project team. Of these 61 winning proposals, MSU researchers were the brainwork behind 11 of them, earning $13.1 million. [bus]
The “Development and Demonstration of a Low Coast Hybrid Drive Train for Medium and Heavy Duty Vehicles” was the largest earning project coming from MSU, earning just over $2.4 billion for their proposal. The project, led by Elias Strangas, but also including professors from MSU and Kettering University, focuses on producing hybrid buses for use in large cities. The project concentrates on the “power train,” which is what absorbs the energy from the constant stopping and going in city driving, and how to transfer that idea to larger vehicles, such as city buses. Strangas and his team have already been in contact with Eletra, a leader in the development of hybrid buses.
“Eletra has produced hybrid buses in Brazil, and (they) are interested in expanding to the U.S., but here they will be using our technology,” Strangas said. “First we need to produce the company, but we expect around 60 jobs in about three years… and we are going to first use the buses in the city of Flint.”
Other high earning projects include Lawrence Drzal’s “Low Cost, Multifunctional Nanomaterial Additive for Polymers and Composites” and Harold Schock’s “Advanced Combustion Systems for Ethanol Fueled Engines using Microelectronic Control.” Drzal’s project, which earned just over $2 million, deals with “graphite that you dig out of the ground.” This graphite, when coupled with certain elements, can create a very stable form of plastic material, according to Drzal.
“The value is from the fact that graphite has some very unusual properties which when you add the graphite to a plastic, those properties [are added] to the plastic,” Drzal said. “It’s a very strong and stiff material… that when added to a plastic, air, oxygen and nitrogen cannot go through the plastic. Then also, graphite is very stable in high temperatures, so if you add it to a plastic it will reduce the flammability. Typically plastics do not have any of those properties.”
Several other MSU professors have aided Schock in his research about developing advanced ethanol fuel engines. In essence, Schock’s engines would be much more efficient than today’s engines.
“The idea is that ethanol has particular properties which are different than gasoline…so in order to most efficiently operate an engine in ethanol, the calibrations and geometries of the engine are required that might be different than those required for gasoline,” Schock said. “Our research is aimed at figuring out what are the optimum geometries that one can make use of the properties of ethanol that are different than gasoline to give it the highest efficiency possible.”
The ratings for technical strengths and experience ratings given to Schock’s project were very high, which Schock believes helped set his project above the rest in the eyes of the commercialization board. [life]
“I think they liked the idea that some of the technologies we proposed to develop might also be applicable to gasoline engines,” Schock said. “I think that they felt that along with MSU’s experience in agriculture and biology…that ethanol development was a good area to be working on.”
Even though these researchers received a great amount of money for their ideas, they are just that: ideas. Much of the work for the projects is still in the preliminary stages, and Schock said there is still plenty of work ahead for these researchers.
“The key is that we’ve been doing everything that we’ve done so far with the few grams of material that we create in the laboratory,” Drzal agreed. “In the laboratory, it takes us maybe about half a day to make a little bit of a nano-graphite platelet. So the 21st Century Jobs Fund Proposal will basically help move us along to commercialization.”
The key component in the money was to provide the resources to make more of the nano-graphite material their project is based on, Drzal said. With the money, much more of the material can be created and then used for testing and experimentation.
“If you go to a company that could use this material and you tell them what great properties it has, the next thing they ask you is, ‘Oh we’d like to try it out, and we’d like 10-20 pounds to evaluate,’” Drzal said. “Well, it would take us a few months to make 10-20 pounds of material with the equipment and things that we have now. But with the 21st Century Jobs Fund, it is going to allow us to number one, scale that up and produce maybe 10-20 pounds of material everyday. Number two, it’ll fund more research directed at making these materials compatible with a larger variety of polymers.”
Drzal hopes that his material, which can be added to plastics to give them more desirable properties, will be used in automotive, furniture and aerospace applications industries.
“So, the end result of this is that there would be a company located somewhere in Michigan that would sell it and therefore create jobs and so forth,” Drzal said.
Although the overall objective for Granholm’s plan, which is in its first year, is to create more Michigan jobs, these winning proposals by MSU researchers have been in the works for years. Drzal and his students, including three Ph. D students, have been working on their project since 1999.
“We are very excited about this; we hope to set up a company here in the Lansing area,” Drzal said. “We already got somebody interested in starting the process of setting up a company as well.”
It will still be a few years before Granholm’s plan can be called a success or a failure – she even may not be in office to see it through. But, if the Jobs Today, Jobs Tomorrow pitch becomes successful, the jobs created in Michigan as a result will be due to the development of these projects by MSU researchers. MSU graduates may have more hope of remaining in the state, and they will be able to drive more fuel-efficient cars while doing it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *