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WMU Professor Leads Alternative Energy Charge

Posted to on Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Universities around the country are ramping up programs in alternative energy. So what do students learn and will it help them find jobs? Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus met up with a Western Michigan University professor and students who are taking alternative energy as far as it can go….100 miles to the gallon.

Dr. John Patten calls himself a treehugger. And his car?

“I call it my clean, green, transportation machine.”

Patten spent $10,000 on a windmill. It stands 50 feet above the huge new engineering complex at Western Michigan University. Patten wired it to a plug in the parking structure. He says he wants to set an example for his kids.

“My daughter is in Copenhagen this week at the UN Conference on Climate Change. I don’t know anybody else’s children that are there. I think she’s there in part because of the crazy things her dad does with the solar energy and the wind energy and the plug in car.”

In October, Patten thought his peers would also be going the extra mile for alternative energy.

“Ok we went to a plug in hybrid electric vehicle conference in Detroit. All the big players were there. The federal government, state government and industry. I was the only person who brought a personal vehicle. I tried to get ahead of time set up a place to plug in. That didn’t work. When I got there I tried to find a place to plug in. That didn’t work.”

So Patten drove back to Kalamazoo in his Toyota Prius Hybrid, disappointed. He had to settle for 50 miles to the gallon. Normally, he’s getting over 100 miles to the gallon thanks to a battery pack in the trunk. He bought it from A123 Systems for $10,000. They’re from Massachusetts. But their building a new battery plant in Livonia.

Inside a classroom, Dr. Patten shows a chart he made. He drove his car for a year. His windmill puts out 1,500 kilowatt hours a year. He needed 1,200 kilowatts hours to drive for a year.

“If you had a wind turbine like that for every electric car out there basically would meet the needs of that electric car, a $10,000 small wind turbine could handle a car.”

Patten can drive for weeks on pure electricity alone. But charging at home and at work only gets him 30 miles before the charge is gone and it shifts into regular hybrid mode. About 65% of the time he’s in hybrid and 35% of the time in pure electric. That’s when averaging in longer trips.

“We did some cost analysis. But the bottom line is neither the wind turbine nor the plug in electric vehicle will pay for themselves. They’re new technologies. The prices are really high. A lot of the work we do is aimed at driving down those prices from a $10,000 turbine to a $1,000 turbine, from a $10,000 option on a plug in hybrid to a $1,000 option. So that’s kind of where we have to go. We have to lower that price by a factor of ten to make it economical.”

Patten heads Western’s Manufacturing Research Center. They work on fuel cells, bio fuels, wind, solar and plug in hybrids. Schools like this are getting millions of dollars in federal stimulus money. But it’s short term. So are high gas prices the only way to get the public to support alternative energy?

“Yeah forced is one way to look at it. Certainly taxing energy or taxing the pollution associated with energy would be one way to motivate people to look at alternative energy.”

2,500 engineering students here are working on dozens of projects. A favorite is the Sunseeker. It’s a yellow solar race car. A tiny cockpit is surrounded by a large flat black surface of solar panels. Student Tim Gaston is from Livonia. He’ll go to The North American Solar Challenge in Wichita. Two years ago he was driving in a technical support vehicle when the Sunseeker broke down.

“We think that there were a couple seams in the front that weren’t sealed correctly. The wheels were not covered with pharings. So a sharp turn and a gust of wind were more than the latches could handle. So the hole ray just blew off and went summer saulting through the air.”

Until the race starts in April, the Sunseeker will be parked here in the polymer and plastics lab. Tim Gaston says it’s been fun working on a $375,000 experimental car. And he’s gotten caught up in the principle it stands for.

“You see everything going in that direction. You might not have a choice in it. But if we can start planning for a better tomorrow today. It will be that much further along rather than dealing with what we have until it runs out.”

More traditional engineering still exists. And Alex Satonik from Kalamazoo will also enter a competition for aeronautical students.

“This is our half scale prototype. This year we have to build a remote control airplane that can fly with 10 softballs inside and carry 5 baseball bats on the outside. We build and we fly it. We hope it doesn’t crash.”

Satonik hopes to get hired making airplanes. Dr. John Patten hopes so too because tens of thousands of alternative energy jobs can’t replace the hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs Michigan has lost.

“The alternative and renewable energies are just a piece of the puzzle. There’s got to be other technologies, medical devices, life sciences that come into play. Plug in hybrid electric vehicles may replace some of the gas powered vehicles. Each one of these will contribute a certain percentage. Will they all add up to equal what the auto industry lost? It’s hard to tell. My crystal ball is not that clear. Will they all add up to provide employment for the graduates of our engineering programs? I think they will.”

Audio MP3: WMU professor leads alternative energy change

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