Mahawili Advocates Innovation

February 11, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — Imad Mahawili doesn't look at things like other people do.

"When you see a cow, think 200 watts. Renewable," he said.

When he sees Lake Michigan, he imagines a row of wind turbines far out on the lake, generating thousands of megawatts of electricity — far more than we make in Michigan now from coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

If there is an alternative/renewable energy guru in the state of Michigan, Mahawili is probably it. What he and his staff are working on in West Michigan can help make a difference in the future economy of the entire region.

Mahawili is the executive director of the Grand Valley State University Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center on the shore of Muskegon Lake. He has held that position since the $4 million alternative energy center opened in 2003.

There are three components of MAREC, according to Mahawili. First, it is a research center where alternative energy sources are demonstrated and knowledge is shared. Its second function is to serve as a business incubator for alternative-energy ventures. Over the last four years, five private companies have leased space at MAREC, benefiting from the research done there and its technical capabilities. Three of those companies "are ready to launch," said Mahawili.

"The third component is education," he said. "I want to influence young people."


Name: Imad Mahawili

Organization: Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center

Title: Executive Director

Age: 59

Birthplace: Baghdad, Iraq

Residence: Grand Haven

Family: Wife, Michele; five children ages 18 to 34.

Business/Community Organizations: Muskegon Rotary

Biggest Career Break: Being selected to spend his senior year of high school as an exchange student in Michigan.

His life story includes experiences and accomplishments that explain his motivation to reach young people with his message about our — their — energy future. Mahawili was born in Baghdad in 1948. His father, a military officer who highly prized education, sent his son to a high school in Baghdad run by American Jesuits, "the best gift my father could have given me," he said.

The Jesuits, who have a long intellectual tradition, "taught me how to learn," said Mahawili. He was a diligent student and won a scholarship to be an exchange student in the United States for his last year of high school. He spent the 1965-1966 school year in Petoskey, when he was 17.

"I was infected by the virus of freedom and free thinking," he said.

He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and then a Ph.D., both from the Imperial College of the University of London. He now holds 21 U.S. patents, with five more pending.

In 1974, he was granted a visa to work in the United States, and accepted a job as a research chemical engineer at E.I. du Pont de Nemours in Wilmington, Del. Five years later, he left that company and was involved with several start-up companies over the next 16 years.

In 1996, he founded Micro C Technologies Inc., a Grand Rapids company he owned and headed. His company's success was based on his inventions in heating and temperature measurement technologies for rapid thermal processing of semiconductor devices.

In 2003, Micro C was purchased by Hitachi Kokusai of Japan. The new owners transferred all of the company’s assets to Japan — including intellectual properties and the 10 systems built in Grand Rapids — to begin the manufacturing and commercial phase of the business there.

Mahawili, the father of five, is determined to get his message across to the youth of America because "life is easy" for them here — but that is going to change as energy costs increase and the American standard of living faces potential decline.

"They are going to be faced with enormous challenges, especially in the state of Michigan," he said, which must import 93 percent of the energy used from other states.

"What's coming at (youth today) is the challenge of the energy tsunami. We have to educate them."

World issues now are "all about energy," he said. American society, and all its attendant material benefits, runs mainly on oil, coal and natural gas. U.S. policy is a response to our energy dependency on other parts of the world.

"We have to worry: Where are the innovations in alternative energy?" said Mahawili.

MAREC opened with highly acclaimed demonstrations of alternatives. It generates its own energy supply with a 250 kW molten carbonate fuel cell and a 30 kW photovoltaic solar array on the roof, and stores some of it in an 80 kW buffering nickel metal hydride battery. Late in 2007, the MAREC staff completed installation of a 1.8 kW wind turbine of the size and type that homeowners around the nation are now buying.

Michigan's potential for energy independence, according to Mahawili, is found in two of our abundant and renewable resources: biomass and wind. But Michigan is far behind many other states in legislative policies that encourage use of renewable energy sources in place of coal, oil and natural gas.

California is “the state we need to watch," said Mahawili.

One of Mahawili's first tasks when he started at MAREC was to write a comprehensive grant application for the proposed construction of a plant that converts animal waste and other farm biomass into methane, which is used to generate electricity. His proposal resulted in an experimental $2.7 million biogas energy plant now functioning at the den Dulk dairy farm in Ravenna.

A cow produces enough manure each day to make enough methane to generate 200 watts of electrical energy.

Den Dulk is one of the largest dairies in Michigan, with thousands of cows. The farm’s manure, constantly being fed into the methane digester, should yield up to 200 kW, using both a micro-turbine generator and a reciprocating generator engine.  The plant also recovers the heat from the micro-turbine and uses some of it to heat the biodigester.

The biogas plant is also a potential solution for problems associated with large farms, where untreated animal wastes have sometimes caused bacterial pollution of adjacent watersheds. Manure used as fertilizer also emits methane into the atmosphere, which has 23 times the negative impact on the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

The biogas plant removes 99 percent of the biological pathogens in the manure. The liquid portion of the remaining material is still nutrient-rich and can be safely used as a fertilizer, and the solid portion can be used as bedding in the barns.

"Lay people across the whole U.S. are thinking of energy solutions," said Mahawili. "I call them passionate enthusiasts." His goal is to “convert that passion into commercial reality."

Here is where the education of the young today must emphasize science, technology and finance. Successful commercialization of an idea, he said, starts with innovation, a technological concept based on a "sound foundation in the sciences." Then the concept must pass the test of being able to generate financial returns for its backers, in a competitive marketplace.

The passion evident today for energy independence will fuel the push for new ideas in renewable energy, Mahawili said, but it must be done economically. “Otherwise, people won't buy it."

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