Conn Center Celebrates Ten Years of Renewable Energy Research Success

August 7, 2020

Research faculty and staff fo the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research

Research faculty and staff of the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research

With seven grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), six competitive grants from the Department of Energy (DOE), and four industry grants or gifts – all in just the last two years, Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research has much to be proud of. In fact, for the last decade the Center has created momentum and established a growing sense of success, capability and peer-reviewed endorsement, said Andrew Marsh, assistant director of the Center.

“The mission of the Center is to foster the basic bench-level science behind materials-based renewable energy technologies that are economically viable, and when possible, translate successful innovation toward commercialization. But it’s our researchers that make it all happen. They take the initiative to put together teams to respond to challenges for funding, then focus the work to advance the research.”

UofL established the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering in 2009 in honor of major donors Hank and Rebecca Conn. The Conns had a powerful vision when they approached the university and Speed School in 2008, working with (now) Dean Emeritus Mickey Wilhelm to find ways to positively impact the future of the university and influence challenges facing our society. The couple has also established the Conn Legacy Society to enable donors university-wide who want to make a difference.

Over the last decade, the Conn Center has established leadership, research, support and policy development in renewable energy. The Center operates with highly capable Theme Leaders, who each focus on one of the specific research aspects of the renewable energy spectrum. These research themes include Solar Manufacturing, Solar Fuels, Biofuels & Biomass Conversions, Energy Storage, Advanced Energy Materials, Materials Characterization, and Energy Efficiency & Conservation.

Since its inception, the Conn Center’s charge has been to advance the goal of renewable energy and promote technologies, practices, and programs that increase efficiency for energy utilization. The Center promotes partnerships among colleges and universities, local industries, and non-profit organizations and specifically seeks federally funded resources, which are highly competitive and peer reviewed. By focusing on innovative R&D and industry service at an accelerated pace, the Center finds outcomes that maintain US technological leadership and improve high-tech manufacturing in Kentucky.

Marsh said that the Conn Center’s researchers and students move forward constantly, which creates news and high impact publications. “The Theme Leaders are able to be focused largely on research, which has helped us to address opportunities that focus special talents and promote collaboration,” he said.

For example, one cross-disciplinary team is being led by Dr. Thad Druffel, Theme Leader for Solar Manufacturing R&D. He is working with Chemical Engineering professor Delaina Amos, who specializes in printer ink formulations, and Chemistry Professor Craig Grapperhaus, who works with synthesis and tuning reactivity of metal complexes. This core team, along with their students and Center researchers, is funded by the Department of Energy to develop a method of manufacturing solar cells.

“What we want for our alumni and donors to understand is that it takes support to create these teams, which include faculty and students,” said Marsh. “There are essentially two ways for them to get involved. The first is by making tax-deductible gifts to the university that support basic energy science, research buildings, and endowed theme leaders. The second is investing with a start-up or other entity as technologies are moved to marketplace through the university Commercialization EPI-Center. This is how proven research concepts ‘graduate’ from the university and continue development into commercial ventures,” he said.

For facilities, the Conn Center Materials and Energy Technologies (MET) Service Center, works with industries to solve a broad diversity of challenges related to materials engineering in fields of physics and chemistry. Through an arsenal of tools and expertise for analyzing, testing and characterizing research materials, the MET, led by Dr. Jacek Jasinski, can provide analysis, assessment or in-depth collaborations for regional industries.

In outreach, the Conn Center has maintained an active engagement with area high school students seeking mentorship for science fairs.  Successful competitors in regional and national competitions sparked interest culminating in a coordinated effort with Berea College’s Partners for Education to recruit high school students from Kentucky’s Promise Zone counties for Research Summer Camp.

The Center also hosted a series of Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Workshops, featuring over 100 talks from industry, governmental and academic leaders in the field. As the Center’s visibility to a worldwide community of renewable energy research has increased, so too have the number of international scholars, interns, and faculty at the center on self-funded residencies and research exchanges.

Marsh noted that federal funding for research from agencies such as NSF and DOE signals that tax dollars are being invested into the future of our energy and its economy. “Energy is one of our greatest challenges, affecting quality of life, education, health and commerce, so what we are working on won’t fall out of fashion,” said Marsh. “What’s exciting is to know that these energy challenges have been well vetted, dissected, and promoted through the entire field of scientific exploration, and match with infrastructure, which is a huge asset and should bolster confidence in their support.”

Marsh said the story of the Conn Center over the last ten years has been the ability to move research with great integrity and quality results – as a baseline. “We value dexterity tempered with urgency, as the timeline on climate change is looming large and Kentucky’s economic problems are happening now.”

Since the Center’s formation, the staff has grown from four people to consistently over 40 people, including faculty, undergrad and grad students and visiting scholars. For students, it’s an intense, multidisciplinary environment.

Undergraduate students are able to co-op with the Conn Center in their third and fourth years for an immersive experience working alongside grad students, post docs, faculty, and theme leaders. PhD students are integral to the work across themes, working on multiple publications and grant-funded research, and defining their own projects for dissertation research. Graduates have been placed in national labs, materials production firms, and corporate R&D settings on the cutting edge of technology development and deployment. These include Intel, GM R&D, and Applied Materials and Sandia, Los Alamos, Lawrence Berkeley national labs.

For Masters’ Studies, the Conn Center just announced a new MS degree program in Materials and Energy Science & Engineering. This one-year degree is designed for professionals within the field of materials and energy science wanting to significantly advance their careers and develop the skillset needed to support and implement new energy technologies. It’s diverse, allowing students to come in from different fields and grow their expertise across renewable energy topics.

Over the last decade, the Conn Center has created success in each research theme area to grow funding from gifts, contracts, and federal grants. Commercialized technologies originating from the Center are thriving in the marketplace, and having a real effect on the economic prosperity of Kentucky, and beyond.

“Investing in renewable energy science will continue improving quality of life, our environment, and our economy,” said Marsh. “That is the legacy we’re committed to building.”