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Updated 10:00 AM February 9, 2009

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Faculty support national network of energy-innovation institutes

Former President James Duderstadt and several colleagues are urging the federal government to establish a network of several dozen major energy-research institutes to quickly convert breakthrough inventions into market-ready technologies.

The plan's lead proponents include Gary Was, director of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, and university presidents Michael Crow of Arizona State University and Gordon Gee of Ohio State University.

They advocate the creation of a network that links the nation's best scientists and engineers at research universities, corporations and federal laboratories. The goal is to rapidly develop clean and efficient next-generation energy technologies.

"Both the magnitude and character of federal energy innovation programs remain inadequate to address the scale, urgency and complexity of the energy challenges faced by this nation," says Duderstadt, a University Professor of Science and Engineering. "The nation needs a bold campaign to solve one of the most complex problems the nation has ever encountered."

Duderstadt, Crow and Gee will discuss the energy-institute concept today (Feb. 9) at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Duderstadt is the lead author of a new Brookings paper outlining the proposal. The co-authors are Was, Robert McGrath of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution, Michael Corradini of the University of Wisconsin, Linda Katehi of the University of Illinois, Rick Shangraw of Arizona State University and Andrea Sarzynski of George Washington University.

The proposal calls for the establishment of several dozen "energy discovery-innovation institutes" — known as e-DIIs — across the country. The concept, developed by a 2005 National Academy of Engineering commission chaired by Duderstadt, aims to couple fundamental scientific discoveries with the innovation needed to commercialize and deploy new technologies.

In some ways, the e-DIIs represent a 21st century adaptation of the land-grant models of agriculture and engineering experiment stations and extension services to address the nation's energy challenges.

The competitively awarded core facilities would be based at major research universities and federal research labs, and would receive about $200 million a year from the federal government. The total federal commitment to the program would grow to roughly $6 billion per year.

In 2009 the federal government spent about $3.4 billion on non-defense, energy-related research and development, comprising just 1.7 percent of the federal R&D budget. Comparisons with federal R&D investments addressing other national priorities, such as public health, national defense and space exploration suggest that investment in federal energy must grow nearly tenfold — to perhaps $20 billion or $30 billion per year — to adequately address 21st century challenges.

"This proposed network of discovery-innovation institutes could have a transformational effect on our ability to exploit new forms of energy," says Stephen Forrest, vice president for research.

Each e-DII hub would foster partnerships between the nation's best scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and investors. Each institute would focus on a single theme, such as renewable-energy technologies, advanced petroleum extraction, carbon sequestration, biofuels, transportation technology, carbon-free electrical power generation and distribution, or energy efficiency.

"We believe that Michigan can successfully compete for an energy discovery-innovation institute — with core federal funding of $200 million per year — that focuses on transportation systems and fuels," Was says. "This will require a close collaboration between the state's research universities, industries, entrepreneurs, state and local governments, and nearby national laboratories.

"If we're successful, this institute would lead the nation in transforming the automobile and electric power industries to achieve energy security and dramatic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions."

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