Illinois Energy Sector Amps Up innovation

From advanced batteries and biofuels to clean coal, wind and solar power, Illinois is on the leading edge of energy independence and sustainability.

By
Heather R. Johnson
On Tuesday, May 26, 2015 - 13:36

From advanced batteries and biofuels to clean coal, wind and solar power, Illinois is on the leading edge of energy independence and sustainability. Pioneering work is taking place at startup companies such as Xerion Advanced Battery Corp. in the Research Park at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and world-class research institutions like Argonne National Laboratory based in Lemont. At the University of Southern Illinois – Edwardsville, the National Corn to Ethanol Research Center is conducting research into corn and cellulosic ethanol, advanced biofuels, and specialty chemicals. In Peoria, the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research is focusing on bioenergy and new uses for renewable resources. In Elgin, Winergy Drive Systems develops gearboxes for wind turbines. The company is part of a global corporation that has delivered 100 gigawatts of gearbox capacity for wind turbines. Almost one-third of wind turbines around the world use the company’s gearboxes. The state has 35 manufacturing facilities alone related to wind energy including Trinity Structural Towers. Overall, wind energy supports more than 3,000 jobs in Illinois.

Energy Leadership

Meanwhile, research is leading to development and application of technologies that contribute to the economically viable and environmentally sound use of another Illinois natural resource – coal. The Illinois Clean Coal Institute is dedicated to the development and use of Illinois' extensive coal resources as a fuel source for the 21st century. At Argonne National Laboratory, researchers are working to help build an economy fueled by safe, clean, renewable energy as well as one that is free from dependence on foreign oil. That is expected to have a tremendous impact on the economy while significantly reducing America’s carbon footprint. To achieve that goal, teams of scientists and engineers at Argonne are advancing the basic energy sciences, focusing their research and development on a broad portfolio of sustainable and clean energy technologies. They are seeking innovations in transportation, energy storage and alternative energy sources – including nuclear, solar and biofuels – that are critical to the future of renewable energy in the U.S. Illinois has taken a leadership role in development of new energy technologies, says John Busbee, CEO of Xerion Advanced Battery.

“I believe that the leading role Illinois has taken in energy technologies stems directly from the R&D focus at the world-class research institutions in the state. Synergies from developments across diverse science and engineering fields have led to the opportunity to commercialize complete solutions, rather than individual technologies with slower adoption rates,” he says. Those developments can have powerful results. “All of these developments have led to a surge in small-business activities, which I strongly believe is the backbone of job and revenue growth," Busbee says. "If sufficient companies can be created in an environment that allows them to thrive, a critical mass could be created to open new growth channels and solve some of the pressing national energy problems in a profitable and pragmatic fashion.”

Public-Private Partnership

The National Corn to Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) shares similar goals.

“No matter what the project, the goal is always the same: to spur industry innovation and drive technologies toward commercialization,” Executive Director John Caupert says. In addition to biofuels, the NCERC’s research explores animal and human nutrition, mycotoxins and compositional analysis. Researchers are also active in bio-based material research, including specialty chemicals and other bio-based products. The NCERC is an example of a public-private partnership that continues to deliver returns on the taxpayers’ investment. Its initial funding was primarily from the state and federal government, but today, the NCERC is funded exclusively through contractual research for the private sector and competitive grant awards.

“At the NCERC, the public and private sectors truly work hand in hand. Public funding support made the center a reality, but the private sector helps keep the NCERC on the cutting edge of technology through capital gifts of the latest technology and equipment,” Caupert says. To date, more than 50 technologies have passed through the NCERC’s labs on their way to the commercial marketplace, he says. “These technologies generate economic stimulus, new jobs and efficiency gains that directly benefit consumers,” Caupert says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heather Johnson is a freelance writer and Nashville native currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area.