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Applied Energy Research Center: New Focus on Sustainable Energy

As the specter of rising energy costs continues to haunt businesses and institutions, innovative solutions are being conjured up in university research labs across the country. The best of these ideas need to be nurtured and brought to the marketplace, and that’s exactly where the Applied Energy Research Center (AERC) at Penn State Behrend fits in.

Advanced Energy Research Center

Penn State Behrend student interns run a heat simulation at Spinworks, a Keystone Innovation Zone company that is affiliated with the Applied Energy Research Center.

AERC was formed in January 2006 to take all the disparate sustainability issues that are being investigated in Penn State Behrend’s engineering and science schools and focus them on the goal of providing solutions to the problem of rising energy costs for industry.

“Researchers with a great deal of expertise in their field may have a hard time making it work as a business,” says Dr. Thomas Wortman, who coordinates the project. “We can help transfer that technology into something practical.”

Strong Portfolio Candidates

Many of the startup businesses originating in the AERC will be strong candidates for the BFTP portfolio. The AERC has several applied research goals, including:

  • Applying new and emerging technologies to lower energy consumption in industrial processes
  • Transferring energy-saving innovations to industrial sponsors and inventing patentable technologies
  • Developing energy-efficient technologies and products for the industrial, power generation and transportation marketplace

The idea of harnessing applied research at the university level to benefit Pennsylvania industry was fueled in large part by Ben Franklin Technology Partners. “The idea came through years of talking with BFTP’s Steve Brawley and Jim Kosco,” Wortman says. “They kept telling us that the best way to get things done, especially in terms of spinning out companies from new technology, is to focus our efforts.”

BFTP’s Central/Northern offices are located in Knowledge Park, part of the Erie Keystone Innovation Zone, or KIZ, a very favorable business environment for startups. AERC is located just down the hill from Knowledge Park in Behrend’s new Research and Economic Development Center. The ultimate goal is to spin off new businesses to manufacture innovative products and retain these companies within the state.

Job Generation for Region

“Having AERC within walking distance of Knowledge Park will help to get that job done,” Wortman says. “We expect to generate 200 advanced-manufacturing jobs in this region over the next five years — and at that point, we’ll just be getting started.”

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Wortman also emphasizes the educational benefits to the students at Behrend, including energy and entrepreneurial awareness, new courses in energy-efficient technologies and internships.

“Brain drain is a huge issue in Pennsylvania,” says Wortman, referring to the flight of highly qualified graduates who seek employment outside the Commonwealth. “AERC can have tremendous impact on helping retain technically educated employees within the state.”

Private Sector Companies Welcome

Erie-based Spinworks, LLC, a manufacturer of energy-efficient silicon carbide inserts for industrial furnaces, is a great example of how AERC works. Five years ago, Behrend faculty member Tom Briselden carved out Spinworks from a technology he helped develop. Now he is working with AERC on research and development activities that could lead to new products.

“Spinworks is sponsoring several research projects in which they get to take advantage of AERC’s equipment and expertise,” says Wortman. “At the same time, our undergraduates get valuable experience conducting hands-on research with real-world applications.”

Wortman emphasizes that innovative products need not emanate from within a university. “We welcome private sector companies to approach the center for help in research and development activities if they can help improve energy efficiency,” he says. “We hope they’ll find that the benefits of locating in the KIZ and working with the center are substantial enough to put down some roots, set up shop and help create jobs for our graduates.”

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This article was featured in
Keynotes May, 2006
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