How does an abandoned Colorado power plant become a world-class facility for energy solutions, with diverse initiatives ranging from industrial engines to clean cookstoves? Dr. Bryan Willson, Director of Colorado State University’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory (EECL), describes the building’s history, rebirth, and role in making Fort Collins a hot spot for clean energy, and in driving innovation on a global scale.
A production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Written, hosted, and audio produced by Matt Ringelstetter. Art Molella, executive producer. Amanda Murray, podcast program manager. Joyce Bedi, webmaster. Dr. Bryan Willson presented the full version of this talk, “The Power of the Power Plant as Place: How Renovation Led to Innovation,” during the Lemelson Center’s New Perspectives Symposium, November 7, 2009, at the National Museum of American History. Podcast released Tuesday, April 20, 2010. Music is “Function!” by junior85, from the Free Music Archive.
Tell us what you think! Take our podcast survey.
Matt Ringelstetter: When examining places of invention, it is often the spaces that matter. Individual workspaces have the potential to inspire the creative process, allowing ordinary people to accomplish amazing things. Just think about workspaces in your own life. Maybe it’s the bench in your garage where you fix your child’s bike, saving the day. Or your desk at the office where you routinely exceed all of your employer’s expectations; you know what I am talking about. With the right set-up and the right place, innovation and ingenuity can flourish. In this episode of Inventive Voices, we will hear about just such a place as Dr. Bryan Willson discusses the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory [EECL] at Colorado State University. Almost two decades ago, Dr. Willson approached the city government of Fort Collins with an interesting proposition: using an abandoned 1930s power plant as the site for his new lab. What follows is the story of how the EECL in the Fort Collins area gradually became a hot spot for innovations and energy solutions. Dr. Willson recently spoke at the Lemelson Center’s symposium on hot spots of invention. Let’s listen in as he shares the story of the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory and some of the interesting projects they are working on.
Bryan Willson: Thank you, it has been really fascinating today and last night, hearing this theme of what makes a region unique, and there are some very unique things about the place I come from, Fort Collins. It is an area that has really become known as an energy hot spot. And the area we are talking about is northern Colorado, specifically around Fort Collins and slightly up and down the I-25 corridor. So, looking at the early years, there really was not a basis of energy research and product development in the Fort Collins area. We did have one employer that had a tangential role in energy. That was a company then called Woodward Governor. They made speed governors that controlled the speed of equipment. Essentially, the only thing they would need to know about an energy device was what the bolt pattern was on the primary actuator; whether it was a diesel injector or a water valve for a hydraulic control.
Similarly, at Colorado State University, we did not have a program of engines and energy research. We had done good work on solar thermal energy but not on engines. This was a 1940s power lab, but big gap between; I have got a 50-year gap between anything going with engines between the 1940s until the 1990s. I arrived in 1992 with the task of reinvigorating the design program at the university. We started looking for very ambitious programs to facilitate excitement around design. The Department of Energy, within weeks that I arrived, announced a program to define which university could build the best methanol-fueled vehicle. It turned out that Colorado State was able to do quite well in that student competition. A couple of years later, similar competition around natural gas vehicles; again we did very well in those. This really wasn’t research, these were student competitions, but it also really solidified something really key that has been a factor in our success and that is the huge role that students can play in real-world innovation.
Based on that early work, we were able to secure research funding but we had no facility. The university had promised laboratory space when I had arrived at the university, but three-and-a-half years into the six-year tenure clock, I still did not have a building, I still didn’t have a laboratory. So that really led to the origins of the EECL.
So again, this is maybe one of the factors that are recurring. There was a factor here that said I had to take the risk because there was no other way to find space. I was on the board of the science museum we had just launched and we had looked for space and one space that we had looked at was the old Fort Collins power plant, which was built in 1935, continued as a functioning power plant until 1972, and then served as a switching station until 1988. It was essentially fully decommissioned in 1988 and in 1992 it was essentially an abandoned facility.
Being somewhat desperate, with the tenure clock ticking, I somewhat naively called the city up and said, “Could I have that building?” Somewhat surprisingly they said, “Gosh, we don’t have any better offers.” It took about two days to come to an agreement. It took about eighteen months, almost two years, for the university to come up with the actual contract. But anyway, within weeks of the handshake agreement we moved into the facility on a tentative basis.
Now a couple of things to note about this: the building was deteriorating rapidly. Of the 3,500 windows, almost half of them were gone. This was a power plant, but the power had been removed. You could plug in a 1,000-watt heater, but if you plugged in a second one, it blew the circuits for the entire facility. We had a 30,000-square-feet building. Power plants are built to get rid of heat. It does that really well, and in the middle of Colorado, with no heat, no insulation, no windows, it was interesting early years. The university really was quite reluctant to take on a building with this somewhat crumbling history so they declared it, essentially wiped their hands free of the facility, and I was allowed to take it on with the idea that there would no CSU funds or budget.
So it was really a bootstrapped approach, which was very difficult at first, and it also caused us to operate in a different manner, develop new business structures that are very unusual at universities. And as difficult as that was at the beginning, in many ways, those business structures and that business orientation has been one of our most important assets. For anyone who works at university, the ability not to deal with university facilities maintenance is also a great asset. The early days were fairly different than most university laboratories. This [indicating PowerPoint slide] was standard attire in the laboratory in the winter; down jackets, long underwear, wool boots, and gloves. It was four years before we had bathrooms in the facility.
We were finally able to, I was able to, get a state historical grant by convincing the state that this was the finest example of art moderne architecture in northern Colorado. I still have no idea what art moderne architecture is, but that actually did allow us to for the first time to start replacing windows and upgrading the building.
In the early days we did as much science as we could, but much of what we did was focused on keeping the lights on. We did some interesting projects. We developed a set of hybrid electric buses. If you have ever been to Denver, the buses on the Sixteenth Street mall, we developed the power train for those. We did a lot of other things. We developed a series of natural gas-powered race cars for the Gas Research Institute. We tested a series of perpetual motion machines for the Society of New Science. Essentially, someone would call and essentially, as long as it had money, we would probably be interested in doing it.
Okay, so let’s talk about a bit of the role of the lab in innovation. I am going to talk about one program. You have got to compress natural gas to put it in the pipelines. There is about 250,000 miles of pipeline in the U.S. and it takes a lot of power for that. The power to compress natural gas comes from engines like this, large massive engines [indicating PowerPoint slide]. We were doing paper studies for this industry when I started the lab and in 1992, shortly after taking over the lab, they asked us if we would take on the task of setting up a facility to do high-risk research to reduce the emissions and fuel consumption from these facilities. And again, my principal rule was, if it pays, we were interested. To do this required a huge amount of labor and we were able to do that primarily using students. We would use graduate students to guide the science, but we always had a horde of undergraduate students helping to actually do a lot of the fabrication work and were also somewhat blessed by the fact that we were able to attract a number of students who had great mechanical skills.
We developed a series of technologies for the industry and probably the most important of those is what is called high-pressure fuel injection. These engines produced very high levels of NOx, oxides of nitrogen. We couldn’t prove why that was so high, but we had a hypothesis. We didn’t have the computation fluid dynamic tools of the time to prove it, but we were able to, if our hypothesis was right, the answer seemed obvious, and that required using more energy for injection.
So we went to the Woodward Governor Company in town and they built us a high-pressured fuel valve. It worked; we were able to reduce the emissions by almost 70 percent, reduce fuel consumption by eight percent, and that technology has been widely adopted. At this time the pipeline industry wouldn’t allow us to patent things that they were funding, so we never received royalties for this, but we were able to help create this industry and not only develop the product with Woodward, but also the industry funded us to develop, to take the same technology and develop products for their competitors, the companies called Herberger and Dresser-Rand and Digicon.
So the pipeline industry is now funded—this particular facility for eighteen years—and the cumulative impact of the work that we have done, now that these technologies have been implemented, is the same as removing 120 million modern automobiles from the highway. At Woodward the impact was fairly profound in that when we started working with Woodward the only thing they did was govern—control—the speed of machinery. This project really moved them into the area of combusting control and they have then kept that trajectory and have now moved directly into much broader areas of energy control. It also really established a reputation for us for working on large problems, or, as they would say—I started in shipbuilding and the saying was, “If you want to launch big ships, go where the water is deep.” We modified that slightly: “Go big or go home.” We have continued doing a lot of work on large engines and essentially this industrial engine industry is now populated by the laboratory’s students.
The most recent engine we had put in is sitting right outside of my office. It is a Caterpillar 3516C engine. What you need to know about that is that it is about 1.8 megawatts, which could generate enough electric power for about 1,200 U.S. homes. We are working with Caterpillar to develop the next-generation technology for this, including such things as, we have developed a system that uses focused lasers instead of spark plugs to ignite the mixture.
I want to talk now about something else that really, I guess I would say, has been a hallmark of what we are doing and may be along the lines of the “go big or go home,” and that is the issues of scale. It is really predicated by our belief that our research only has widespread impact when we use that knowledge to develop solutions and then when those solutions are implemented.
Certainly, the work we did with large engines was as much about the implementation as the science. So we have really adapted a very thoughtful and methodical approach to developing technology solutions for important societal problems, and then driving the implementation on a massive scale. I won’t go into this in detail, but it really involves not only developing the technology, first with R&D and then developing a technology base, turning that technology base into solutions, but then taking the solutions and putting them in production, which means designing for production and helping to set up supply-chain partnerships and then ultimately helping with distribution of the products, which means focusing on public awareness, marketing, sales, and logistics. Again, somewhat out of the realm of what we would normally see at universities.
An example of that is with the student group we had developed a solution for reducing pollution from two-stroke-cycled snowmobiles. That won a lot of awards and got a lot of attention. But we recognized that that technology would really have its most impact in the developing world. In Manila, where the pollution that you see is large, about half of it is caused by these two-stroke taxicabs that are used in the city. We had developed a solution that would reduce pollution from two-stroke engines by 90 percent. However, even though we work with people like Caterpillar, Cummins, John Deere, the pipeline industry—we have a lot of industrial partnerships—no one wanted to take on the task of developing technology solutions for the bottom of the pyramid. In rough terms, each of these motorbikes or these tricycles puts out the pollution of about 50 modern automobiles. There are 50 to 100 million of these two-strokes in Asia, so you are looking at over two-and-a-half billion car equivalents of pollution.
So we sort of rolled up our sleeves and decided that it was too important not to do this, so we established a company called EnviroFit International and developed that technology into a retrofit kit, set up a supply chain so we have wiring, we get the fuel injectors from the U.S., we have our heads diecast in the Philippines, we get wiring harnesses from Taiwan, stator components from China, we have an air pump made in India, a filter in Australia, a computer from Europe, and it gets assembled in the Philippines. We then have been working city by city with local governments and the Tricycle Owners and Drivers Associations to implement that. So this was, as important as this technology has been—I will have to say that its implementation has not been nearly as fast as we wanted, but what it did do is it built an organization that, for the first time, had developed and disseminated a technology product specifically developed for the developing world.
And that really led us to look at even larger problems, and of those, probably the biggest one is household energy. Half the world’s population cooks on solid fuels—on wood, dung, crop residues. The smoke from cookstoves is one of the leading causes of death for children. It is a solvable problem that kills two million people a year. There is a global need for half a billion cookstoves. The impact falls primarily in Africa and Asia. This is a technology we primarily compete with: the three-stoned fire or the so-called “improved” wood cookstoves that are often implemented but are almost never effective.
We were able to launch a program to, for the first time, to do fundamental science on cookstoves, computational fluid dynamic modeling, validated by experiments, extensive testing, and extensive emission measurement. We have now worked all over the world on cookstoves. This [indicating PowerPoint slide] is a program we conducted with UC Berkeley in China.
So, about two-and-a-half years ago, we were approached by the Shell Foundation to ask if we could apply what we have learned in terms of developing products through Envirofit and apply the work that we were doing in our laboratory, fundamental work, to develop a new line of cookstoves with the goal of getting 10 million stoves into production. These [indicating PowerPoint slide] were our first four stoves and they reduce emissions by about 75 percent, reduce fuel use by half, save one-and-a-half tons of CO2 per stove per year. However, they all use ceramic combustion chambers and those are an item that has been very difficult. They are heavy and they are fragile and expensive. So we did a long-term program to develop new alloys that would allow us for the very first time to make a long-life, affordable stove with a metal combustion chamber, but as important as the technology is, we need a half a billion stoves. No one is going to write a big enough check to donate them, so we have had to—we want people to buy them. So we sought to make an aspirational product that people would seek to own.
So we are now—we manufacture these in China, we have been shipping to four states in southern India. Right now we are selling about 10,000 stoves a month with this new stove that has just started shipping that will increase that. We are launching later this year in Africa, next year in Latin America. We have also set up sales and distribution. We work through local shops, through women’s self-help groups, even through a van campaign. We made a short Bollywood movie about two families. One cooks on a traditional three-stone fire; she is kind of mousy and he is fat, the kids are sickly, and the house is dirty. But the family with the EnviroFit stove, she is beautiful, he is strapping, the kids are gorgeous, and the house is clean. It is not real subtle, but if you have ever watched Bollywood, that is seldom subtle.
Some things that I will say that have really been factors for the EECL is focusing on long-term strategic issues, trying to figure out where, skating to where the puck will be, figuring out what will be the big issues in a few years down the line and beginning to work on them, even before funding becomes available. If we are going to do something, we are going to do it at scale so we can have impact, which means that we also have to turn down a lot of projects to avoid near-term distractions. But, also fundamentally, we are still an educational institution and students are our primary product, but they are also our greatest resource.
In the community itself, what is fortunate is that Fort Collins is really a small, stand-alone community, about one hour from Denver. It has about 150,000 people, but within an hour we have the resources of Denver. Highly educated workforce, very strong community, university-industry linkages, and very involved local government.
So with that, I appreciate the opportunity to tell you not only what we have done with the building, but how the building in some ways has played at least a role in what is now a hot spot of innovation in the area of clean energy. Thank you.
Matt Ringelstetter: That was Dr. Bryan Willson of Colorado State University discussing the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory. It is interesting to note the connection between a creative workspace, such as the lab that Bryan Willson started, and the creative ideas in the field of energy solutions that come out of it, and what better way to start a lab that focuses on energy solutions than by reusing an existing building? If you would like to let us know what you thought of this podcast you can send an e-mail to email@example.com, submit a review on our iTunes page, or answer the anonymous survey found at invention.smithsonian.org/video. For the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center and Inventive Voices, this is Matt Ringelstetter. Tune in again next month as we take another look at the people, places, and spaces in the world of invention.