Market Approach For Energy Center

June 27, 2003
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The opportunity to move new energy technologies from the laboratory to the ultimate testing ground of the marketplace is what drew the new director of Grand Valley State University's energy research center in Muskegon.

Imad Mahawili, a scientist and entrepreneur, views the "market approach" of the research center as blending with his professional background in research and forming and sustaining businesses.

"That part of my gift I want to give back," Mahawili said last week as he was introduced as the new executive director and director of research for the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon.

"This position provides a unique opportunity to integrate my technical background and extensive entrepreneurial career with my desire to serve our society and educate young minds," he said.

Grand Valley State is developing the center, scheduled for occupancy this fall, as part of the Edison Landing high-tech commerce and residential park along Muskegon Lake, a state-designated SmartZone dedicated to researching and commercializing alternative fuels such as stationary hydrogen-powered fuel cells to provide power to buildings.

The Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon will serve as both a research center and a business incubator for alternative-energy ventures. Mahawili sees the research center and business incubator, designed to help to bring new fuel cell technologies to market, "as a timely and critical vision for the development of economically viable technologies for alternative and renewable energy resources for our nation."

"We will have ideas we will help to implement," he said.

During his career, Mahawili founded, served as CEO and later sold two Grand Rapids area companies, IsoComforter Co., a maker of orthopedic medical devices, and Micro C Technologies Inc., which produces semiconductor thermal processing equipment. He has sold both companies. He holds a bachelor's degree and doctorate in chemical engineering from the Imperial College of the University of London.

"He is a man of high energy who will be leading the Grand Valley energy projects as we go forward," said Tom Schad, GVSU's vice president for finance and administration.

The Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center will itself serve as a pilot for alternative energies. Electricity will come from a fuel cell-power generator and solar photovoltaic cells, with power stored in nickel hydride batteries. A heat recovery system will help to heat and cool the facility.

While construction of the center nears completion, one of the more unique aspects of the entire SmartZone project — the installation of a larger fuel-cell power station to power the entire business park — faces uncertainty.

At a cost $30 million, the power station right now is cost prohibitive, Schad said.

"It's a thrilling idea that's easy to embrace, but it's tough finding the money for it," he said. "We'd love to do it. It's getting the economics to work out."

That is precisely one of the issues that Mahawili hopes the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center can help to address for the alternative fuel industry.

While a promising technology, fuel cells remain costly for now, Mahawili said. Once the technology evolves further and the cost factor is addressed, fuel cells can become commonplace, he said.

"The economics have to be there," Mahawili said. "It will become more attractive economically in the future, and I mean just a few years, not decades."               

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