Newsmaker Q&A: Head of engines lab taking on new role

Bryan Willson is a professor of mechanical engineering at CSU, the founder and director of the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory and former director of the CSU Clean Energy Supercluster. Willson was named as one of Scientific American’s “10 individuals who have made significant contributions to guiding science to serve humanity on a global basis” in 2009. In an interview with the Business Report, Willson spoke of a major facelift the engines and energy lab is getting this year, and his new role at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Question: What is the most exciting thing happening right now at the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab?

A: We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff going on. There’s cool stuff we’re working on in several areas. The biggest thing is the (already-announced) building expansion. … A 65,000-square-foot expansion, tripling the size of the lab to 100,000 square feet, giving us the room to become one of the global leaders in energy innovation. It should be completed by late 2013.

Right now we are largely technically focused. In the new space, we’ll expand our technical work, but it will also give us the opportunity to do more, in a broader range of activities from policy to energy education.

Currently we have 60 to 70 students working in the lab. In the new facility we’ll have classrooms and we’ll be hosting many more design projects, so we’ll essentially touch hundreds of additional students every year.

Q: What can we expect from the Clean Energy Supercluster this year?

A: I’m going to give you two pieces of information here:

(As reported last month), I’m no longer directing the Supercluster. I’ve taken on another role. Currently I’m on loan to the Department of Energy for a couple of years with the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy).

I’m working as the program director at ARPA-E. It’s a new agency within the Department of Energy. Think of it as an energy innovation skunk work that reports to the secretary of energy. It gets around some of the hierarchy within the department.

It’s modeled after DARPA, the agency that developed the stealth fighter and predator drones, really high-risk stuff. In an attempt to accelerate innovation, we’re going to do the same thing for energy.

Because of my long history with natural gas, which is a big deal in energy right now, I was approached to launch this program. Our work will be around natural gas, primarily to reduce environmental impact and develop innovative new uses for natural gas.

ARPA-E has been around only three years but has a reputation for doing exciting, cool stuff already.

I’m back here (in Colorado) now. I’m essentially allowed to retain a certain amount of time to keep things going at the laboratory, but I’m not teaching or running the Supercluster or working with our joint research institute in China anymore.

I’ve got an apartment in D.C., and I commute right now between there and Colorado. In the next few weeks, I’ll travel more around the country. I’ll spend a third of my time in D.C., a third with other projects, and a third in Colorado.

It’s a good time to be in the industry.

Q: How has the decline of the solar and wind energy industries affected your work?

A: Here at the lab, we were never did that much work with wind and solar. Just integrating them into electric grids. Our work was always more on the grid side, so we never really worked on the devices. So it hasn’t really affected us.

We do a lot of work on renewables here in the lab, but the work that we’ve done – the work that hasn’t gotten the most attention, but that we’ve done for more than 20 years – is develop solutions to reduce the environmental impact of natural gas. We’ve been able to reduce pollution by the same amount as removing 150 million automobiles from the highway. It’s had huge impact, but hasn’t got much attention. But all of the sudden there is a lot of attention on natural gas.

One of the lab’s new projects I have, which I can’t use the name of yet, but we’re working with a consortium that consists of one of the major environmental organizations and a group of natural gas companies to assess environmental impacts of oil and gas production.

Our work is really in six areas. We work with internal combustion engines, natural gas technology, advanced biofuels, smart grids, technology for the developing world and advanced building technologies.

The last of these, advanced building technologies, is largely driven by work on our own building. It will be one of the most advanced energy structures ever built, including many first-of-their-kind energy innovations. We will build it without a chiller, using night cooling and thermal storage. Instead of a boiler we’ll generate electricity, and then use waste heat to heat the building. We’re designing our own high performance lighting systems. We will have solar, wind and even algae production on the roof.

It was a goal we had to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the new technology so that we can de-risk them so they’ll be applied more widely. This is a building people will get on an airplane to come see to understand where the state-of-the-art in advanced building technology is.

Q: If you were setting national policy on green energy today, what would you do?

A: What we’ve done successfully at the laboratory is to take technologies and figure out how to get them implemented on a wider scale. The challenge is that we need to accelerate the pace of moving technologies from the lab into widespread production. That’s something we’ve always focused on, is one of the reasons I was approached by ARPA-E, and is one the things that attracted me to the agency.

Q: Much of your work, and your award from Scientific American in 2009, suggests that you think on a global scale. Why is thinking big necessary in energy and engineering?

A: We all compete for the same oil, and the carbon dioxide and pollution we produce go into the same atmosphere. We can’t draw boundaries in the atmosphere or even the marketplace to segregate our country from the rest of the world. Which is the reason why it’s important to think globally.

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