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Tech Tour Day Nine: Top Notch Energy, Environment, Medical Tech At GVSU

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Heidi Jiao and her students with their portable power system for a Malawi hospital. Grand Valley State University photo.

Heidi Jiao and her students with their portable power system for a Malawi hospital. Grand Valley State University photo.

GRAND RAPIDS (WWJ) – If there’s any one of the state universities Michigan created in the early 1960s that has grown beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, it would have to be Grand Valley State University.

Now home to nearly 25,000 students, with a beautiful country campus in Allendale and a rapidly growing city campus in the heart of the revitalized downtown of Grand Rapids, Grand Valley has pursued new areas of study and research with an entrepreneurial spark that’s rare in a government institution.

I started my Thursday in Grand Rapids bright and early at 8 a.m. with a prime example of that spark, Arn Boezaart, director of Grand Valley’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon.

Boezaart was really enthused about one of the companies in the MAREC’s incubator, Energy Partners LLC, founded by a retired business professor at Grand Valley, Jim Wolter.

Boezaart said the main problem with solar power is intermittency — solar panels don’t generate power at night, and generate less when it’s cloudy. The solution to this so far has been huge, utility-scale battery banks. But Wolter hit on the idea of putting a small battery on every single solar panel. Each battery has enough capacity to store a full day’s peak output from each individual solar panel. He’s marketing the battery packs as Solar 24.

Wolter and Boezaart showed off the battery packs at this week’s Solar Power International Show in Chicago, and Boezaart said there was great interest. Wolter is also an investor in a Muskegon battery company called Harding Energy that will supply the lithium-ion batteries for the Solar 24 system. The company received funding from the Business Accelerator Fund of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Wolter said from the floor of the show Thursday afternoon. He said the device’s controls are flexible enough to store any percentage of the panel’s power for later use.

At the show, he displayed a 110-watt solar panel with a 200-watt-hour battery. He’s applied for three patents on the technologies involved.

Boezaart said MAREC is actively working on establishing community solar power installations in Michigan, in which a group of people or a neighborhood pool their resources to build solar.

“For a lot of people solar is hard to figure out,” Boezaart said. “Is my roof pointed in the right direction? Do I really want to drill holes in my roof? Community solar is the emerging way to work on affordability and accessibility of solar power for the average consumer.”

MAREC offers community groups an eight-hour workshop, “A Roadmap To Community Solar,” on demand, and has published “A Guidebook For Community Solar Programs In Michigan Communities.” For information on bringing the workshop to your group, contact Kim Walton, MAREC program director, at waltonk@gvsu.edu or (616) 331-6907.

MAREC is also wrapping up its third year of gathering data on offshore wind power in Lake Michigan with a research buoy that looks like a small heavy-duty pontoon boat. The buoy and the research were funded by a $1.4 million three-year federal grant. The buoy uses pulsed laser light to measure wind speeds up to 175 meters (575 feet) above lake level.

The buoy spent spring, summer and fall 2012 35 miles offshore, halfway between Muskegon and Milwaukee, gathering data on the potential of wind power in Lake Michigan should the state ever decide to pursue it.

Boezaart said the data showed there’s huge potential for offshore wind in Michigan — and the turbines wouldn’t have to be all that high to take full advantage. The data show the median wind speed hits 8 meters per second (18 mph) at 75 meters high (250 feet) and doesn’t get much better all the way up to 175 meters. That means 100-meter wind turbines could be placed in the middle of the lake — and would be completely invisible from either shore. (The curvature of the Earth will hide a 100-meter object below the horizon in about 15 miles.)

This year, the buoy spent the season six miles offshore between Muskegon and Whitehall, getting near-shore data for comparison purposes. It will be brought back to shore in December.

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Next up was a talk with Jonathan Engelsma, a professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems, and John Farris, a professor in the School of Engineering, who have turned physical therapy for patients recovering from stroke and traumatic brain injury into a video game.

The two said they were approached by Grand Valley’s physical therapy faculty about a new approach to helping these patients regain range of motion in their torso.

They came up with a battery-powered accelerometer and Bluetooth radio attached to a vest worn by the patient. The patient’s movements would transmit inputs from the accelerometer into the game. The game resembles the arcade classic Pole Position, except that the patients steer and drive the car by moving their torso forward, back, left and right — quite literally leaning through the turns. (There’s also a bicycle race version for patients who were hurt in car crashes and might not appreciate a racing game.)

The game’s back-end software is serious medicine, recording the patient’s maximum movements and progress over time. The game also lets therapists set goals for individual patients.

Engelsma and Farris said the sensor unit would cost about $50 to build, making the vest affordable for physical therapy departments. It’s currently being evaluated by Grand Rapids’ world-famous rehabilitation hospital, Mary Free Bed Hospital, and four more are being built for testing by other area physical therapists.

Also, an interdisciplinary team of Grand Valley engineering, computer science and business students will present the vest at the Michigan Collegiate Innovation Prize competition Saturday at Michigan State University.

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Next, I visited with Heidi Jiao of the School of Engineering, who’s working on a portable solar power unit for hospitals in the developing world.

Jiao said the cousin of a Grand Valley business professor, Star Swift, is a doctor at a hospital in Malawi. And she complained about the unreliability of the country’s power grid.

“Lights go out without warning, often when doctors are doing surgery or delivering a baby,” Jiao said. “Our solution is to use solar. The sun is plentiful in Malawi.”

So, Jiao and three Grand Valley graduate students built a portable, suitcase-sized unit that contains battery, lighting, and a surgical suction unit. It’s connected to a small solar panel outdoors. It’s designed to supply power for two days on a one-day solar charge.

Jiao said the system cost about $1,000 to build but could be built for less in large-scale production.

The prototype unit “is currently installed in the hospital and they are using it. And the feedback is very positive, so they want more. We are trying to figure out how we can supply them more, discussing the logistics of how to do it. Our intention is to help them as much as we can.”

Jiao came to Grand Valley in 2004 after getting a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Penn State. A native of China, she’s been working with solar energy technology for 20 years, including a stint at Lucent Technologies.

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My next visitors were Ryan Thum, assistant professor at GVSU’s Annis Water Resources Institute, and graduate student Syndell Parks. And we spent a fascinating half hour talking about weeds in the lake.

No, really. Invasive species aren’t just zebra mussels and Asian carp. There are also plenty of problematic plant species plaguing Michigan that rode in from overseas in freighter ballast. One particular problem child is called the Eurasian watermilfoil, which has been around since the early 1900s. The plant has tiny, fine leaves, a bit like dill. Its color ranges from spring green to reddish brown. It attaches to the bottom in water from a few feet deep to 20 feet deep and grows toward the surface, spreading out in mats on the surface, making the water nearly unusable for swimming and boating.

“What we’ve discovered is that not all Eurasian watermilfoil is created equal,” Thum said. “There are different types of them in color, density of leaves, and it hybridizes with a native species called the northern watermilfoil that is less offensive and doesn’t spread as rapidly. And some populations are also evolving resistance to common herbicides.”

The really geeky stuff, Thum said, is to use genetic analysis to identify different types of milfoil. “You can tell these guys apart with your eye, but really in order to know if you’re dealing with a hybrid, a parental northern or an Asian, you really need a DNA test,” Thum said.

So Thum and Parks are spinning out a business to analyze the plants and determine what’s the best course of action to take against them — herbicides, physical removal with the aquatic version of a weed-whacker, or in the case of the relatively benign native species, leaving it alone.

Thum and Parks went through the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program to try to identify customers for their service, contacting regulators, herbicide companies, herbicide applicators, environmental consultants and lake associations in Wisconsin and Michigan.

“We found a rather tepid customer response, but I think it will evolve that people need it,” he said of the DNA analysis.

The business Parks plans to run is called Aquatic Identification Services.

Thum said his current research involves identifying the genetic underpinnings of aquatic weed growth and herbicide resistance.

“If we can identify the genes responsible for herbicide resistance, we will no longer have to apply herbicide and see if it works, we can use a genetic assay to see if it will work,” Thum said. “It has a huge implication for how chemical manufacturers warranty their products, and huge environmental implications.”

Thum said there are also other, less effective control mechanisms, including introducing particular species of weevils and moths whose larvae eat the plants, and objects placed on the lake bottom that change lake currents and chemistry in ways that deter plant growth.

More at http://www.gvsu.edu/wri/thum/.

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My final visit at Grand Valley was with Rebecca Davis, associate professor of nursing, who’s working on research to make retirement homes friendlier to people with cognitive deficits such as early Alzheimer’s disease.

Davis joined Grand Valley in 2000. She has a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Georgia State University, a master’s from Grand Valley and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and along the way has worked as a nurse in critical care, oncology, surgical and home care settings.

But her specialty is gerontology, and she wants to know what helps the brain stay young and what makes some people forgetful — and others not. Alzheimer’s, she said, in particular attacks the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and spatial relationships, which is one of the reasons why one of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s is getting lost — even on a trip the patient has made hundreds, maybe thousands of times.

Davis is working with UM’s Virtual 3D Lab on a study using visual cues and landmarks placed in key areas of hallways and intersections of retirement homes to improve the ability of people with cognitive deficits to get around without getting lost. The study is funded by a two-year, $316,000 National Institutes of Health grant.

“There’s a lot of research showing people in nursing homes spend an awful lot of time in their rooms doing nothing,” she said. “Many senior centers are a maze. We’re looking at how the brain works and how we can improve these environments so people can find their way better. You shouldn’t be afraid of your home, afraid that you can’t find anything and you don’t know where anything is.”

The study involves a virtual reality simulation projected on a 12-foot screen, and study participants move through the environment using a joystick and wear eye-tracking glasses to determine what they’re looking at as they move around.

About 30 people have been enrolled in the study, and another 50 are needed — both normal controls and people with early Alzheimer’s. If you’re interested in participating and are in the Grand Rapids area, contact project director Cathy Weisbeck at weisbeca@gvsu.edu or (616) 331-5569.

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And that wrapped up my morning in Grand Rapids, checking out the amazing tech and research under way at Grand Valley. The tech tour wraps up Friday at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. I’ll let you know what’s going on in Broncoville soon.

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