April 27, 2015

Grant awarded for ‘Energy Boost’ program

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Southern Illinois University Carbondale will be the home of a new program focused on finding energy solutions and training the workforce of the future that will make it tick, thanks to a multimillion dollar grant. 

The Illinois Clean Coal Review Board has approved a $4.6 million grant for the Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center (ACERC) at SIU, which will establish the program known as “Energy Boost.” The new program, which will create a new interdisciplinary academic unit, will be charged with finding advanced coal and energy technologies while training a workforce to implement those solutions in the private sector during the years to come. 

Overall, officials say the grant will increase enrollment at SIU while also improving job placement, funding sources and collaborative relationships. It will pay for additional faculty, staff and graduate assistant positions, along with funding scholarships, capital improvements and research efforts. 

The grant, paid out over four years, also is aimed at meeting specific goals set by the Illinois Clean Coal Review Board. These goals include increasing research and development of the most promising coal and energy-related technologies; increasing funding for advance coal energy research at SIU, and supporting and spinning off cutting-edge research for use in the commercial sector. 

Randy Dunn, president of the SIU System, said the new program is a natural extension of the university’s commitment to energy research that dates back more than three decades. 

“We appreciate the confidence of the Illinois Clean Coal Review Board,” he said. “Our faculty and researchers are nationally and internationally known for their work to develop clean, efficient and sustainable energy. This program will also create new opportunities for our students to make meaningful contributions throughout their careers.” 

The grant comes on the heels of the state’s suspension of a grant that funded the Illinois Clean Coal Institute, which SIU ran in cooperation with the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. That unit and the activities associated with the new grant are unrelated, officials said. 

ACERC, formerly known as the Coal Extraction and Utilization Research Center, is the regional leader in interdisciplinary advanced coal and energy research. Tomasz Wiltowski, director of the ACERC, said the unit is poised to lead the university and the region into the dynamic energy environment of the future. 

“There is a lot of intellectual capability housed on this campus in many colleges and departments and our vision is to work together in an interdisciplinary fashion to solve these problems and to make advancements in these fields,” Wiltowski said. 

The grant proposal was authored by Wiltowski, the principal investigator on the project, his co-principal investigator, Kanchan Mondal, associate professor of mechanical engineering and energy processes, and ACERC staff. 

Wiltowski said he began working on the idea about a year ago after watching the clean coal review board operate for many years. 

“I thought, why shouldn’t we have a part of this here at SIU?” he said.. 

The Energy Boost program will be headquartered in the ACERC building, located near Morris Library on the SIU campus. The funding eventually will impact facilities at the Illinois Coal Development Park in nearby Carterville, the College of Engineering buildings on campus, the Southern Illinois Research Park and the McLafferty Annex, which officials plan to convert into an interdisciplinary research building. 

In order to expand on the high-impact research already occurring at ACERC, the grant will fund new faculty and researcher positions. The new positions will focus on pressing issues, including energy technologies, coal utilization and carbon dioxide chemical sequestration, among others, and develop new or adapted energy processes 

The new, interdisciplinary unit will focus on advanced energy concepts and research. It will build on the existing Professional Science Master’s for Advanced Energy and Fuels Management Program, while establishing an undergraduate minor in energy before moving toward establishing a degree-granting program. 

The program will work toward building a world-class energy labor force by supporting 30 scholarships worth up to $5,000 per year each for up to four consecutive years for students in energy-related programs of study. It also will pay for six graduate student assistantships in those fields as well as cooperative, hands-on positions for undergraduate and research assistants to work side-by-side with ACERC researchers and university faculty. 

The program also will push toward commercialization of new coal and energy technologies, thus increasing the return on the investment by the state. It will pay for researchers to conduct basic, applied and proof-of-concept studies that will provide opportunities for advances in energy and coal use, while providing economic opportunity for the region. The funding also will pay for marketing the new program’s availability in an effort to recruit top talent – both in students and faculty researchers – to commit to SIU. 

The grant also will pay for brick-and-mortar upgrades the existing facilities at the Illinois Coal Development Park in Carterville, establishing it as the region’s energy technology test site for collaborative research in the field of advanced coal and energy technology. The grant will pay for repairs, refurbishments and new laboratories at the site, as well as a full-time facilities manager to oversee their care. 

Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville and chair of the Clean Coal Review Board, said members wanted to put the money where it would have the most long-lasting impact and that SIU is a well-known leader in coal and energy research. 

“So often you spend money and you look back and wonder where it went,” Luechtefeld said. “This, we hope, will pay long-lasting dividends, with graduates from those fields finding good jobs. We hope this program will be known nationwide and that in 10 years we can look back and see the benefits.” 

State Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro and secretary of the Clean Coal Review Board, said the Energy Boost project will expand high-impact clean coal and energy education and research. 

“This will strengthen SIU's Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center's national and international reputation as a leader in coal and energy research, resulting in the attraction of talented faculty and students,” Bryant said. “Through this project, we expect SIU will produce knowledgeable and experienced graduates for the energy workforce in the state, across the nation and worldwide." 

SIU and ACERC have a longstanding, worldwide reputation for excellence in coal technology and other energy research areas, Wiltowski said.  Since 2004, SIU has received three awards from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fossil Energy’s grant program for clean coal technology.  Current projects totaling $600,000 are underway from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement related to mining reclamation.  

SIU researchers also are well versed in studying hydrogen fuel cells, magnetic refrigeration, electrochemical energy storage and photovoltaic technology, among others technologies. Bringing in additional researchers and faculty members likely will enhance the university’s success in winning additional grants from outside sources, Wiltowski said. 

The money for the new grant comes from a 1999 law that established a $250 million “Clean Energy Community Trust” funded by ComEd to provide financial assistance for projects that help improve energy efficiency, develop renewable energy resources and support environmental protection. Out of that trust, $25 million was earmarked for clean coal projects.