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University of Wisconsin - Madison College of Engineering

Welcome to the Badger Engineering Perspective, where we explore some of the ways new developments in engineering can improve our work, play, and everyday lives.

This podcast is a product of the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In this episode, we talk to Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Engineering Physics Mike Corradini about the new Wisconsin Energy Institute, which will create a centralized home for new renewable energy research when it opens in January of 2013.


CT: When the brand new Wisconsin Energy Institute opens its doors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this winter, it will join the ranks of the world-class Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery as a highly collaborative venture housed in an energy-efficient, greenspace-rich building that makes an example of the technologies it hopes to perfect and mainstream.

Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, and in part by the University, the building will be a focal point of renewable energy research for the campus, housing research that could help the lessen our dependence on fossil fuels in the coming decades.

CORRADINI: In my view, the ability to find oil cheaply and easily is gone. So we're looking at much more costly oil. But is there a lot of oil out there? Yeah. So now we ask a different question: Is there a lot of oil? Are we willing to pay for it, or are we willing to deal with the environmental impact? So that's a policy question. My guess is the cost of oil is going up, we're not going to be as willing to deal with the environmental issues unless we want to pay for the cleanup. So we're looking for other ways to essentially get the same sorts of products and services. The same thing we could say for coal, the same thing we could say for natural gas.

CT: Michael Corradini, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Engineering Physics, is a founding member of the Wisconsin Energy Institute.

The Institute will house several research groups devoted to sustainable energy, including the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative, with other space for promoting and developing other renewable technologies. Faculty from seven different departments, including Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, biochemistry, and agronomy, will make their homes there.

Both of the bionenergy centers are devoted to research that leads to technology for converting biomass -- plant matter such as corn or switchgrass -- into vehicle fuels.

CORRADINI: The simplest way of saying this is that we know how to do it, but we'd like to do it faster, better and cheaper. And all of that implies that you have to have innovations in the basic sciences and then apply that to certain techniques or processes which leads back to innovations and new companies, new businesses, new ways of doing business. We're never satisfied, or else we'd be churning butter.

CT: Ultimately, replacing fossil fuels with renewable fuels like these could benefit consumers in several ways, Corradini says. For one thing, it can make gasoline -- and generally moving yourself from point A to point B -- cheaper. (final take)

CORRADINI: If all goes as we hope, we're going to find ways to use what is considered now waste to essentially properly convert and use various processes to make synthetic fuels. and that means we're going to replace oil petroleum with these fuels, whether it be a few percent or a larger fraction, and that will essentially reduce the pressure on the cost of oil. And that means the cost of all of this will hopefully go down and be much more competitive.

CT: The environmental impacts of extracting and burning gasoline, such as pollution, could be reduced. And, because petroleum is used extensively in making household goods such as plastic packaging and hair products, those goods too could become products of renewable materials. (final take)

CORRADINI: A substantial fraction -- a few percent, 10 percent, 20 percent -- of petroleum products that are used don't make transportation fuels, they're chemical feedstocks for a lot of the stuff that have in our home, in our office, that we use. Cups, plastics. Almost every piece of plastic that you can imagine really has its source as a petroleum product. And the concept of a biorefinery, which is, you essentially use the biomass. The end product now isn't a fuel, it's an intermediate product that's a chemical that can replace petroleum, for a lot of usable products--it's just as important because they have high value, it reduces the pressure on petroleum in another way and it can essentially then affect things both economically and environmentally. So that's a big thing.

CT:  Living up to the sustainability theme, the facility will itself encourage saving resources. On-site showers and limited parking stills will encourage alternative methods of transportation, and it'll have a large amount of green space to help with stormwater management and provide recreation space. The building incorporates water and energy efficiency measures, solar panels, and recycled materials, and an on-site garden will demonstrate plants used in making biofuels to members of the public.

One development College of Engineering researchers are already studying is the idea of the microgrid: a self-contained system for generating electricity from a combination of sources, including renewable ones such as solar and wind. Because these are sources with inconsistent outputs of power, with lulls at night or in still weather, microgrids must be developed not just to harvest power effectively, but also to most effectively store it and reuse that stored power.

CORRADINI: To do all of this conditioning--take the electricity, store it, then after it's stored 5 hours later, 8 hours later, tend it out for other use--means you're going to have to have electrical circuits, power electronics, and associated switchgear to essentially store the energy, then re-release it at a different time.

CT:  Furthermore, most systems also include an option for burning natural gas to supplement renewable sources. The heat produced can be used to generate power, or heat homes and businesses. But fitting all these different capacities together, Corradini says, makes for a complex systems integration problem.

CORRADINI: And so now you're trying to intermix from a systems integration electrical energy production, sometimes by renewable energy, sometimes by battery, sometimes by natural gas, with essentially the heat that you have produced by essentially burning the fuel. Again, you have to integrate these things so they can be used when they're supposed to be used in a commercial property, an industrial setting, or even a residential setting. And that's what a microgrid is. It basically says I'm going to produce my power locally, but I'm going to have to store it, I'm going to have to redeliver it to a use and I'm going to do some space conditioning with the waste heat that I produce in all of this activity. It's a complicated systems integration problem.

CT: To explore this problem, the Institute will have its own microgrid on-site, combining real and simulated conditions like low wind, high sun, and other fluctuations to help researchers develop techniques to enable microgrids to adapt better to day-to-day variation. The project is lead by Grainger Professor of Power Electronics and Electrical Machines Thomas Jahns, who is using a lower-power microgrid elsewhere on campus until the Wisconsin Energy Institute opens.

When it does, Corradini says, the open layout of the building and mix of researchers from different disciplines will contribute to new partnerships and ideas. Already, bioenergy researchers are looking at ways to incorporate biofuels, in lieu of natural gas, into future microgrids.

CORRADINI: So now instead of me using natural gas as my fuel to use if I don't have renewable solar or wind, I might use a biofuel. So already I'm thinking about how I can w ork together in these system integration problems. The very fact that they'll be in a building together talking about this, you'll see an awful lot more of this sort of integration. Also you'll have a chance to run seminars, have workshops where people can hear what everybody else is doing. Proximity breeds collaboration.

CT: And it's no surprise, Corradini says, that engineers will be among the Wisconsin Energy Institute's future residents, including Jahns. Energy, and the energy solutions of the future, must plug into an already-complex set of systems: a task Corradini says engineers tackle every day.

CORRADINI: I think engineers bring to the picture the systems concept. If we go back and use the microgrid as an example. It's not necessarily the photovoltaic cell, it's not necessarily the windmill, it's not necessarily the biofuel that I would use. But it's putting all of those together in a system so they address an overall need which is essentially a power, an electricity and space conditioning for a region and you essentially have to put all the pieces together in a workable system. So I think systems engineering, the systems concept to most of these products or processes, is what engineering brings to it.

CT: The Wisconsin Energy Institute will open its doors in January of 2013. For the College of Engineering, I'm Christie Taylor.

Thanks for listening to the Badger Engineering Perspective. This podcast is a product of the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Visit for more information and a transcript of this podcast.