Energy research positions U-M to thrive during turbulent times

The recently announced partnership between the University and General Motors to develop advanced batteries for electric vehicles is far more than a $5 million research coup.

The new Advanced Battery Coalition for Drivetrains, announced Jan. 12, is an archetype for the kind of collaborative energy-research partnership that will allow U-M to thrive in troubled times while helping to diversify and revive the state's economy, says Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest.

"Energy is probably the number one challenge facing humanity this century, and the University of Michigan is well-positioned to seize this opportunity and to help find solutions," Forrest says. "We have the cross-disciplinary expertise, and our industry partnerships are already in place, so we're ahead of many of our peer institutions on this topic."

Forrest delivered his annual report on research and scholarship to the Board of Regents on Thursday (Jan. 22). He highlighted major research accomplishments of the past year and looked ahead to future challenges and opportunities.

The current emphasis on U-M energy research comes as struggling automakers tout plans for a new generation of fuel-efficient vehicles and as a new U.S. president pledged in his inaugural address "to harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories."

But U-M's energy focus is neither a reaction to the current economic crises nor a response to the new federal priorities. It's the product of years of strategic planning, Forrest says.

Several years ago, U-M identified energy research as an emerging area of opportunity, in part because it plays to longstanding University strengths in engineering, the basic sciences, the social sciences and public policy. It also allows U-M to capitalize on its well-established industrial partnerships.

In 2006 the University launched the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute to develop, coordinate and promote multidisciplinary energy research and education across the institution. On the federal level, U-M administrators — including Forrest — advocated for the formation of a new agency under the Department of Energy: the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

The agency, known as ARPA-E, was created in 2007 but was not funded. However, the House of Representatives version of the 2009 stimulus appropriations bill, released Jan. 15, contains $400 million for ARPA-E energy research projects.

If the funding is approved, researchers are well positioned to compete for a significant share, Forrest says.

"Federal energy research has been woefully underfunded, but the government has woken up to the fact that we're losing a huge competitive opportunity, and the University of Michigan played a role in that reawakening," he says. "We've been helping to set the national agenda."

In addition to research on advanced vehicle batteries and other transportation-related innovations, the University and its private-sector partners are eager to expand projects in other areas: low-cost, thin-film solar cells and the production of next-generation wind turbines, for example.

"There is a tremendous convergence of events happening right now, and here we are sitting right in the center of it," Forrest says.

During Thursday's presentation to the Board of Regents, Forrest also reviewed research highlights of the past year. U-M research spending reached $876 million in Fiscal Year 2008, an all-time high and a 6.4 percent increase over the previous year.

While the federal commitment to the U-M research effort edged up 2.7 percent last year, industry sponsorships surged 11 percent, following a nearly 15 percent jump the previous fiscal year.

U-M licensed 13 new business startups last year — among the highest of any U.S. university — and took in $25 million in licensing income. Last year also saw the launch of the Business Engagement Center, which provides one-stop shopping for businesses seeking student talent, university expertise, professional development for employees and research partnerships.

"The strength, depth and diversity of our research program will help us weather these turbulent times and provide some stability to the state of Michigan, as well," Forrest says.