Big batteries spark AES higher ed

October 23, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Advanced energy storage, or AES, is the new catch phrase in West Michigan higher education this year, as at least three factories ramp up for production of large and complicated lithium-ion battery systems for electric and hybrid-electric vehicles.

GVSU, Grand Rapids Community College, Muskegon Community College and Ferris State University all maintain close ties to industry in West Michigan and all have responded to requests for help in preparing the work force for the Johnson Controls, LG Chem and Fortu PowerCell plants that are up or coming in Holland and the Muskegon area.

Paul D. Plotkowski, dean of Padnos College of Engineering & Computing on the GVSU downtown Grand Rapids campus, is a member of the AES task force coordinated by the Lakeshore Advantage economic development agency in Zeeland.

Plotkowski said GVSU is planning to introduce new elective courses next year in AES materials, electrochemistry and mobile power systems in the undergrad and graduate engineering degree programs.

“We also plan to introduce certificates that will reflect the completion of a focused set of courses in this area,” he added.

But that’s next year. The Padnos College at GVSU already offers many courses that are at the heart of the AES field, including courses in sustainable energy, power electronics, electromechanics and others.

GVSU also has a unique program it calls its interdisciplinary engineering major.

“This program allows a student to customize an undergraduate engineering degree,” said Plotkowski, and is “used primarily by students interested in an emerging field like advanced energy. It is intended to allow a student to design a custom program that draws from our various engineering offerings as well as offerings from other fields offered by the university. This program is ideal for a student to use to do a program focused on AES, and we have faculty putting in place recommended plans of study that would guide students to do just that.”

GVSU also has been making strategic additions to its faculty in response to AES production here. In July, the university announced the appointment of Suresh Mani, a chemical engineer with experience in the battery industry, to the post of associate director of research and technology at the GVSU Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon. More recently, Lindsay Corneal joined GVSU’s engineering department, and Plotkowski said the university is looking to add one more professor to its engineering faculty.

In addition to his work at MAREC, Mani will help the Padnos College develop its battery technology curriculum. Mani was previously at A123 Systems in Ann Arbor where he conducted R&D in battery technology. He was the principal investigator on a NASA project to develop advanced batteries for space, which involved two NASA centers, a battery manufacturer and two universities. He holds a master’s and doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in chemical engineering.

Corneal holds an applied science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Windsor, an MBA from Lawrence Technological University, and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Michigan State University. She spent six years as a product engineer at DaimlerChrysler (now Chrysler LLC).

The school of engineering at GVSU actually was founded with help from local industry, beginning in the 1980s, according to Plotkowski. “We’ve always been a partnership with local industry and we’ve always tried to be responsive to industry needs,” he said.

Bruce Adair, director of business services at Lakeshore Advantage and coordinator of the AES task force, noted that GVSU “responded very quickly on this. The task force and Lakeshore Advantage are very pleased with their quick movement.”

He also mentioned that Grand Rapids Community College has been “deeply involved” in setting up the training programs for both LG Chem and Johnson Controls.

GRCC is currently developing an AES certificate, which entails about 30 credit hours of study, according to Dan Clark, dean of academic outreach. The AES certificate program, which Clark said will probably begin in the fall of 2012, will require the addition of new courses and revising of existing courses.

“It will also mean setting up some labs,” said Clark, and acquisition of new equipment for them.

GRCC officials met with representatives of Johnson Controls and LG Chem, and is using their input “in terms of what courses we need to develop, what kind of lab equipment would be helpful for us to get in place,” said Clark. “We are absolutely using the experienced people in the industry” for those decisions.

The new battery factories have or will have many openings for machine operators, and the certification from GRCC would certainly fit some of those jobs, he said, but he added that the certification is geared toward technicians, which is a higher level job in the factory environment.

The AES task force was formed last year, according to Adair. Early on, it got advice from Ann Marie Sastry, a University of Michigan engineering professor generally considered to be the guru of research and development of lithium-ion batteries for electric-drive vehicles.

Adair noted that Sastry made clear then that there is really no such thing as an established bachelor’s or master’s degree program in AES. Experts in the field are coming from an education focused on material sciences, industrial engineering, chemical engineering and others.

“When we talk to the companies themselves, they’re not looking for somebody who has a bachelor’s degree in advanced energy storage,” said Adair. “They’re looking for well-rounded individuals who have a background in advanced energy storage, and that’s where I think Grand Valley has been very, very adept at moving in to this.”

Companies that will be supplying LG Chem and Johnson Controls in Holland and Fortu PowerCell in Muskegon Township also are keenly interested in AES training for the new workers they will hire. One of those companies is Trans-Matic in Holland, so Bob Stander, the company’s vice president of advanced product development, is a member of the AES task force.

Trans-Matic and H&T Battery Components of Marsberg, Germany, created a joint venture called HTTM LLC, which is already producing in Holland battery containers and cover assemblies for Johnson Controls.

Stander said Trans-Matic works most closely with Ferris State University, Muskegon Community College, GVSU, WMU and Michigan Tech. The company recruits some of those top students for its apprenticeship program, which has about 10 students working at Trans-Matic at any given time.

Fortu PowerCell GmbH, a German-Swiss company that plans to develop and produce lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries near the Bayer Crop Science facility in Muskegon Township, has not yet been in touch with Lakeshore Advantage — but Muskegon Community College has been talking to Fortu, even before the news broke last year that the company is going to invest about $623 million at the site, creating as many as 700 jobs in the years to come.

Dan Rinsema-Sybenga, director of business and industrial training at Muskegon Community College, said MCC has had direct contact with company officials in Germany. Actual construction at the site is expected to begin any day, he added, and the first phase of production is expected to be underway about one year from now, employing about 125 people.

Fortu is “very open to our experience in work force development and training,” said Rinsema-Sybenga.

Fortu workers who will be hired here won’t need an advanced degree, he said, because the R&D work is being done in Switzerland and Germany. However, MCC offers four courses that can help provide a basic foundation of the type of knowledge Fortu wants its production workers to have, he added.

“They want every one of their employees to have some basic understanding of how a battery works and the issues (in battery production),” said Rinsema-Sybenga.

MCC is now grouping those four courses in a package it recommends to students who may want to work at the plant.

He said MCC also has been discussing with Fortu a possible customized class similar to a two-credit seminar on battery chemistry, which new hires at the Fortu plant would be required to take, possibly online. It won’t delve into Fortu’s proprietary battery chemistry, he said, but rather will be an introduction to conventional battery science.

“The key would be to take these foundational classes — that’s what Fortu is looking for in their production workers,” said Rinsema-Sybenga.

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