Given the great scope and complexity of the energy challenges facing society, innovative research collaborations across disciplines hold the most potential to produce transformative technological breakthroughs.
Through the Grainger Institute for Engineering, an incubator for transdisciplinary research in the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering, the college is poised to drive advances that help solve technological challenges in several areas, including energy and sustainability, which is the newest focus area in the institute.
Todd Allen, a senior visiting fellow at the policy think tank Third Way, is returning to UW-Madison to lead the energy and sustainability thrust area in the Grainger Institute for Engineering.
Allen served as a faculty member in the UW-Madison Department of Engineering Physics for 10 years before taking a leave of absence in 2013 to serve as deputy director of science and technology at the Idaho National Laboratory.
“I’m excited to return to UW-Madison in this new role as thrust lead in the institute,” Allen says. “It’s a great opportunity to create some new, innovative approaches to cross-disciplinary research collaboration and education at the university, which will enable us to make a greater impact on energy issues.”
While working at Idaho National Laboratory, Allen was in charge of overseeing all energy and national security research at the lab, and he focused on bringing together researchers from disparate groups for fruitful collaborations.
For example, Allen points to a successful collaboration between a staff member in the lab’s national security group and researchers working on nuclear fuel issues.
The staff member was working on harnessing advanced digital image processing to identify subtle changes in an image that might indicate a security threat. On the nuclear fuel side, researchers want to ensure the fuel maintains its integrity and doesn’t crack or leak, so they conduct visual exams to see if cracks might be forming.
“It’s a big national lab, and the nuclear fuel people had never met the national security people,” Allen says. “But once you figure out how to connect these different researchers, they really wanted to work together because the nuclear researchers saw how they could improve their ability to understand what was going on in the fuel by connecting to the technology that the nuclear security staff member was working on for a totally different reason.”
Similarly, Allen aims to create opportunities to bring together UW-Madison faculty members from various disciplines to tackle big energy challenges in new ways. “The significant energy and sustainability challenges are bigger than a typical single faculty member’s group, which tends to focus deeply on certain technical areas,” Allen says. “With the Grainger Institute for Engineering thrust, the idea is to figure out clever combinations of people’s skills in order to address these big energy problems.”
Dan Thoma, director of the Grainger Institute, says Allen’s outstanding track record as a UW-Madison faculty member combined with his leadership experience at Idaho National Laboratory make him an excellent fit for this new role.
“In his time away from campus, Todd has been contributing to the national discourse on energy issues and has made a lot of contacts,” Thoma says. “He has the connections and the leadership ability to influence the national conversation on energy topics, and the right skill set to lead the development of large-scale multidisciplinary programs in the area of energy and sustainability.”
Allen’s background is in nuclear engineering, and in addition to his responsibilities as a thrust lead in the institute he will rejoin the engineering physics faculty and run his own research group. Allen is also a faculty affiliate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. His research interests include fuels and materials for nuclear energy systems, with a focus on radiation damage and corrosion.
“The engineering physics department has hired a junior faculty member, Adrien Couet, in the same research area, and I want to be very supportive and helpful to him as he builds up his research program,” Allen says.
Beyond developing large-scale research programs that help solve critical technological challenges, Allen ultimately wants the cutting-edge work at UW-Madison to help influence national energy policy.
“I want to help make better connectivity between the faculty members and the work they’re doing at UW-Madison and the people in policy space, so our work can have an even greater positive impact on society,” he says.
Author: Adam Malecek