KU Unveils Fuel Cell Technology Center

June 17, 2005
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FLINT — Kettering University opened its Center for Fuel Cell Systems and Powertrain Integration Wednesday and believes it holds the promise of speeding the development and commercialization of fuel cells for stationary and mobile applications statewide.

Kettering announced in January 2004 that it had secured a $3 million funding package for construction of the center, specialized equipment and necessary infrastructure.

The Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded Kettering a $1.8 million grant toward the building project, which was combined with a $500,000 grant from the state of Michigan and $700,000 contributed by private industry and Kettering partners.

Industry partners included Ford Motor Co., General Motors, NextEnergy, Advance Measurements Inc., General Hydrogen and the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command.

The new 8,600-square-foot center is spread over two floors within the university’s C.S. Mott Engineering and ScienceCenter, which opened in 2002. A major portion of the C.S. Mott building’s lower level had been left empty to allow for the fuel cell center, said Kettering spokeswoman Patricia Mroczek.

The center is designed to harness the region’s science and engineering research and development assets to help new and existing startup companies spin their innovations off into new products and services. It includes laboratories, fuel cell testing and research areas, a teaching studio, control room and an assembly and display area.

“The assembly and display area is an area where we can showcase the center’s technology and bring high school and grade school kids in to get them excited about technology,” said K. Joel Berry, Ph.D., head of Kettering’s mechanical engineering department and director of the fuel cell center.

“With the technology, equipment and type of activity we have, we will be able to work with companies throughout Michigan. This is a resource for Michigan and the Midwest.”

Berry has been with Kettering for 18 years, is a 1979 graduate of General Motors Institute (now Kettering) and has degrees from MichiganStateUniversity and CarnegieMellonUniversity, as well.

At the heart of the fuel cell center is a business incubator that both new and existing companies can use to research and test promising fuel cell technologies. The incubator can accommodate eight to 10 startup companies, Berry said.

Incubator tenants will have access to business office space, administrative support, shared laboratory space and equipment, as well as consulting services provided by Kettering faculty, technicians and graduate students.

“The reason why a person would come to the Kettering incubator is for our state-of-the-art, high-end testing facilities and other services that the university provides.”

He said the center offers fuel cell engineering education for the next generation of engineers who will develop future technologies to ensure a sustainable and energy secure environment.

Besides fuel cell technology startups, the incubator is open to companies in alternative energy, nanomaterials, computer simulation and high-tech manufacturing, Berry said.

Staff is currently putting together some marketing materials for the incubator. The lease rate will be between $18 and $25 per square foot per year and Berry anticipates the typical tenant will need about 300 square feet. He expects most tenants will spend from three to five years in the incubator.

A technology advisory panel makes recommendations on candidates for the incubator space. One of the criteria for leasing space is the potential for a candidate’s technology to be commercialized within three to five years, Berry said.

“The goal is for tenants to develop technology commercialization plans so they are in a position to go out and seek venture funding. Our goal is to help these companies grow, and then within three to five years spin those companies off into larger companies that will create more jobs. Ultimately, the goal is to generate new jobs.”

The center has been Berry’s baby from start to finish. He put together the EDA grant application and was instrumental in drumming up private industry investment and support for the center, too.

“Dr. Berry has made all these dreams come true in three years,” Mroczek pointed out. “He just got it in his head that he was going to make this thing happen and he did.”

The fuel cell center is located literally a block from the very site along the Flint River where the city’s auto manufacturing industry was born. Flint’s early settlers made wooden wheels for horse buggies and wagons there. It became a production site for “newfangled” automobiles when Buick Motor Co. incorporated in September 1903, moved from Detroit to Flint and broke ground on its first engine plant. The site eventually evolved into the home of a modern Chevrolet manufacturing plant known for decades as “Chevy In The Hole.”

Berry said the idea of establishing a fuel cell technology center came to him while listening to President George W. Bush’s state of the union address four years ago.

“It was very clear that the nation was going to take a very active effort in terms of developing fuel cells systems for everyday applications, and then the state of Michigan announced the NextEnergy initiative,” he said.

“Considering that Flint was the first place for the automotive industry, and considering that fuel cells have the potential to maybe replace the internal combustion engine, the center will be a contributor to the next automotive revolution.”

At some point, the university would like to develop a KetteringResearch & TechnologyPark where spin-off businesses from the fuel cell center could locate. Although no plans for a research park are on the drawing board as yet, Berry said Kettering has 20 acres of land in a designated Renaissance Zone just across the street from the university that would be ideal for a research park.   

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