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Tech Tour Day Three: Finnish French Toast, Medical Miracles, Green Racing And A Mineral Wonderland

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This is what a native copper vein looks like at Michigan Tech's A.E. Seaman museum. Matt Roush photo.

This is what a native copper vein looks like at Michigan Tech’s A.E. Seaman museum. Matt Roush photo.

HOUGHTON — You gotta love the Suomi.

It’s a family restaurant in historic downtown Houghton, famous for its Finnish pancakes and its French toast made out of sweet Finnish bread.

It’s the perfect way to start any day in Houghton, and it’s the way I started the second day of my Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report 2012 Fall Tech tour visit at Michigan Technological University.

In the absence of my usual tour guide, Jennifer Donovan, Michigan Tech director of public relations — pulled away this weekend by a family emergency — I was picked up by Dennis Walikainen, a senior editor in Michigan Tech University Marketing and Communications.

We were supposed to be joined at breakfast by Jeremy Worm,  research engineer in Michigan Tech’s Mechanical Engineering operation. Believe it or not he too was called away by a family emergency.

Well, Dennis and I had our Finnish French toast, and I got caught up on Jeremy’s work by phone.

Worm is in charge of Michigan Tech’s takeover of a 55,000-square-foot former snowplow factory, and its transformation into the Michigan Tech Advanced Power Systems Research Center. A year ago they were just getting started. Now, powertrain test cells have been built and are functional.

Worm said one cell tests engines of virtually all types and sizes, while the other tests torque conversion gear like transmissions. Projects with General Motors and Mahle Powertrain are on tap for the center.

The center is also involved with Argonne National Laboratories and a host of industry partners, including GM, on a project to make auto racing more environmentally friendly by converting it to ethanol.

“It turns out E85 is really a great race fuel, better than the fuel these teams currently use,” Worm said. “It’s cheaper, it has better volumetric characteristics.”

Worm and his team are currently studying the use of E85 as a race fuel in combustion chambers and will soon publish their results.

The center is also home base for a 53-foot trailer that’s been converted into the Michigan Tech Mobile Sustainable Transportation Lab. “We’re starting to get the lab out on the road and use it for short courses and outreach for precollege kids to get them excited about science,” Worm said. It’s also been to locations as diverse as Alpena, Detroit and Washington, D.C. for outreach.

Worm’s other project is a Michigan Tech-built hybrid dune buggy, the Configurable Hybrid Electric Vehicle, that combines a 25-hp gasoline engine and a 13-hp electric motor.

“It has proven itself to be a successful tool, a platform to allow students to model a change in a vehicle in software and then build that change in hardware, and see how those changes make the vehicle different,” Worm said. “They can change the gear ratio of the car and see how that changes the drivability and top speed of the car.”

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From Suomi, it was on to Michigan Tech’s Minerals and Materials Engineering  building for a visit with Yun Hang Hu, who’s only trying to save the world in several ways — among them,  converting greenhouse gases into useful material, and markedly improving the performance of solar photovoltaic panels.

Hu’s research into the conversion of CO2 was published last year in the Journal of Physical Chemistry. Basically, Hu wants to build units that would be placed in carbon dioxide gas flows and combine the carbon dioxide with lithium nitride, an easily obtained and plentiful material. The resulting chemical reaction gives you carbon nitride and lithium oxide. In crystalline form, carbon nitride is a super-hard material with industrial applications. In amorphous form, carbon nitride is a semiconductor with applications in electronics. The leftover lithium oxide, meanwhile, can be recycled into more lithium nitride.

Hu says he’s designing a converter using the technology for use in power plants.

On the solar power side, Hu is working on adding graphene, a relative of graphite, to solar cells. All that does is increase the efficiency of the solar cells by more than 50 percent.

As if that wasn’t enough, Hu is working on solid-state hydrogen storage using a metal-organic framework like a microscopic net. Under pressure, hydrogen gets absorbed on the surface of the net. To release the hydrogen, reduce the pressure.

Hu was effusive in his praise of Michigan Tech, where he went from newly hired associate professor to tenured full professor in just five years.

“I appreciate here very much,” he said. “They have allowed me to grow my work very fast.”

Yeah, well, no big deal. Solve a big chunk of the greenhouse gas problem, make solar panels 50 percent more efficient and give the so-called hydrogen economy a big boost, and they’re likely to like you!

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From Hu’s lab I went to a wonderland — Michigan Tech’s new A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum.

This amazing collection of mineral specimens was formerly housed in one of Tech’s academic buildings, making parking and locating the museum difficult.

Today it’s in a brand-new 9,000-square-foot building at the southern edge of Tech’s campus, adjacent to Sherman Field, Tech’s football stadium, and where it shares a parking lot with Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Complex.

To put it simply, if you’ve ever been the least bit interested in rocks and minerals, and if you’re in the U.P., you MUST get to this museum, if for nothing else to see what an 800-pound vein of native copper looks like, not to mention the coolest collection of fluorescent minerals on the planet. Simply amazing. (And you can look for yourself at http://www.museum.mtu.edu/collection/galleries.htm,)

The museum was named after Arthur Edmund Seaman, who joined the staff of what was then the Michigan College of Mines in 1890 and who bought many of the oldest specimens to use in training miners.

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From the museum, it was time for lunch at the Pilgrim River Steakhouse with Michigan Tech president Glenn Mroz and vice president for research David Reed, who were nice enough to see me despite it being both Homecoming and Family Weekend.

The good news, Mroz and Reed said, is that sponsored research at Tech continues to rise — to $72 million last year, up from $44 million five years earlier.

And the university continues to push entrepreneurship and economic empowerment in the U.P.

“I was at a meeting at the White House last week where we talked about creating an entrepreneurial culture and ecology, with lots of points of entry within the community and the university, and it’s really all starting to happen,” Mroz said.

The bad news? Well, state support remains an iffy issue, and the federal government, if it does nothing to avert the drastic cuts both parties agreed to last year to avert a showdown over the nation’s debt ceiling, will probably soon be slashing research funding overall.

Returning to the good news, Tech has hired 150 faculty in the last five years, while only about 100 have left or retired, resulting in a net increase of about 50 faculty university-wide.

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After lunch it was time for a fascinating socio-political discussion with William Breffle, associate professor of natural resource economics in Tech’s School of Business and Economics.

Breffle described himself as a conservative free marketeer when it comes to economic issues. Yet he acknowledged that there are places where the market fails, such as accounting for pollution let into the environment by private companies and the military — and that’s where he comes in, studying how so-called “externalities” can be eliminated for the benefit of the public through economic evaluation of environmental “disamenities.”

“My work focuses on sustainability and carrying capacity,” Breffle said. “I want to start people thinking about the fact that the economy from a natural resource standpoint is an open system, and we’re going to have to startt treating our waste stream as a necessary but negative side effect of production if we’re going to have long term sustainability of economic services that benefit people.”

Simply put, he said, “It seems as though we don’t care about future generations when it comes to our debt and climate modification. And it becomes a moral issue because the people aren’t even here yet to express their preferences for a clean environment. They aren’t here to vote, and federal and state governments enact regulations and conduct policy in ways that are too myopic to benefit the future as much as they should.”

He said he wants to help a Great Lakes-wide study of pollution problems to deal with the negative combination of numerous ongoing and related problems throughout the broader watershed. He said we can all enjoy a comfortable lifestyle through better technology and education.

“The market works most places most of the time,” Breffle said. “I look at places where it doesn’t and that’s where my career is centered.”

Breffle also said Tech’s business school is healthy and growing, led by programs like an Applied Portfolio Management Program that has tech students managing $1.2 million in reach assets, and a regular 10-second elevator pitch competition. Tech also offers a unique economics program, a master’s of applied natural resource economics.

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After talking economics and energy with Breffle, it was back to a heavier duty science focus with Lanrong Bi, assistant professor of chemistry. She’s working on new probes that target the mitochondria within our cells for detection of oxidative stress, which could lead to quicker diagnosis of diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

The mitochondria are the energy centers in cells — indeed, they’re what crank up the energy in cells enough to allow for organisms with billions of cells, like us. But the mitochondria are also a major site of attack by so-called free radicals, excess oxygen that creates stress in cells.

Bi has worked out novel mitochondrial-targeted fluorescent probes to detect the level of mitochondrial oxidative stress in the cells.

Mitochondrial oxidative stress is implicated in aging and many disorders including neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, stroke, age-related macular degeneration and cancer. Recently, Bi and her team have developed two new mitochondria-targeted fluorescent probes, MitoProbes, which can specifically localize in mitochondria and can be used for in vivo and in vitro mitochondrial oxidative stress detection.

“It’s very very probable this will turn into a common diagnostic test,” Bi said.

There are also mitochondrial markers for the aggressiveness and metastasis potential of cancers that would be an advance over current diagnostic tools.

Bi arrived at Tech from Columbia University, after post-doctoral studies in France and earlier studies in China.

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I wrapped up the formal part of my visit to Tech with Bill Worek, who was named the new dean of Tech’s engineering school back in April. Previously, he was professor and department chair of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

From 1998 to 2009, Worek also was director of UIC’s Energy Resources Center, overseeing an increase in outside research funding from $500,000 to $3.5 million and a tripling in the number of professional staff. In addition, Worek served as director of graduate studies and is currently a visiting scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Sustainable Technology Department.

Worek is one of three recently hired deans at Michigan Tech — the others are in business and forestry — and Worek said he’s working with them to create more interdisciplinary programs.

“I feel we could all contribute in the area of wood, given Michigan Tech’s location and the attractiveness of wood as a fuel source — it’s renewable, and by definition its net CO2 production is zero,” he said. “There are challenges in particulates and in combustion. The challenge is putting that into a business case that makes sense.”

Worek said he was attracted to the Michigan Tech spot because of the quality of its faculty research. He said one of his challenges is that a lot of people don’t know enough about the quality of that research — unless they’re already members of the Michigan Tech family.

“For external visibility, you just have to be diligent about it,” he said.

Today’s Tech has a student body of about 7,000, about 4,000 of whom are involved in the university’s engineering programs.

“It is a good time to be an engineering student,” Worek said, considering the huge demand for engineers and technical workers today.

And he said Tech can grow with that demand, provided it can find quality professors to do the teaching.

He also said Tech has to be aware of the growing popularity of entrepreneurship among today’s young engineers.

And he said he too was concerned about a lack of federal investment in innovation and research, particularly compared to China and Europe.

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And so ended my visit to Michigan Tech, as usual a great kickoff to the Tech Tour. The folks at Central Michigan University, Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, Western Michigan University and Michigan State University will have a tough time topping its research projects in both quality and quantity.

And thanks a million to Dennis Walikainen, along with Kara Sokol, director of integrated marketing, and Marcia Goodrich, magazine editor, who took me around campus Friday and Saturday.

(For complete Tech Tour coverage, visit this link).

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