Pitt to open engineering labs off-campus

By Dale Shoemaker / News Editor

Making new metallic alloys for jumbo jet and turbine engines and turning Oakland into a self-sufficient power grid could both become realities within the next five years, according to researchers who will work in a new 18,600-square-foot lab off campus.

The lab, located within the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District, will house three engineering labs and one innovation lab, Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering announced earlier this month. Construction on the labs, which will receive $8.9 million in funding from Pitt, is set to finish this fall.

Engineering researchers said the labs will give them the space and freedom to explore microgrid technology and work with corporate contracts. A microgrid is a self-contained power network where all the energy a small community —  like a college campus — uses is produced on-site.

“Engineers can be natural entrepreneurs, but when they are starting out they need to focus less on paying the rent and more on innovation,” Mark Redfern, the vice provost for research who helped develop the innovation lab at the EIC, said in a statement. “By hosting the incubator space, we can allow them to potentially create Pittsburgh’s next successful startup.”

The labs are located in the former Connelly Trade School, which provided vocational training for high school students until it closed in 2004. The Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation now rents space in the building to 14 tenants, including Pitt and Penn State. Occupying about one-fourth of the building’s total space, Pitt is now the EIC’s largest tenant.

Three Pitt engineering professors will lead each of three labs and the Innovation Instiution will run the fourth.

David A. Vorp, the associate dean of research and a bioengineering professor at Pitt, said the new space will open up opportunities for both research and revenue, which wasn’t always possible in the Benedum Hall laboratories because of Pitt’s status as a state-related university.

“Historically there have been a number of challenges with our faculty performing research that is heavily industry-related, such as fee-for-service work,” Vorp said in an email. “The vision for the EIC was to create space off campus where some of these challenges are resolved and will allow some of our faculty to work more closely with industry.”

According to Gregory Reed, the director of Pitt’s Center for Energy who will oversee the Electric Power Technologies Laboratory, the new lab space will allow him to conduct research on both alternating current and direct current electricity, partly in conjunction with local companies, such as Duqesne Light.

“It’s going to be similar to a lot of Duquesne Light distribution centers,” Reed said. “We’re trying to build a facility that’s accessible to the energy industry.”

Vorp said Pitt researchers at the EIC will not profit from the corporate-funded research, but the contracts “will bring in enough revenue … to cover most of the costs.”

With the new lab space, Brian Gleeson, professor and chair of mechanical engineering and materials science who will oversee the High-Temperature Corrosion Testing Laboratory, can now look at how high temperatures and corrosive conditions affect metals in Rolls-Royce and airliner engines.

Working with up to 15,000 volts in the alternating current lab — an outlet in a typical home or office conducts about 120 volts — Reed said he and other electrical engineers will be able to research how to produce and deliver electricity more efficiently.

Reed said much of the research will focus on microgrid technology.

Reed said he is working with Duquesne Light on a microgird at the company’s Woods Run facility, and he and other researchers are looking at microgrids for Oakland. There are no formal plans yet, but Reed said Pitt could help establish a microgrid for the neighborhood within five years, though the urban landscape poses logistical issues.

“College campuses are starting to be some of the first adopters of microgrid technology,” he said. “But for a school like Pitt, it’s a little more difficult in an urban setting.”

Gleeson said the new lab in Pittsburgh will allow him to permanently relocate from his lab at Iowa State University. In the High-Temperature Corrosion lab at Pitt, Gleeson can explore how temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit affect engines in cars, airplanes and ships.

His lab analyzes, for example, how the metal that makes up an airliner’s turbine engine withstands corrosion from air pollution, heat and high altitude.

Gleeson, like Reed, was involved in the planning of the laboratories that began about two years ago, Reed said.

“Let’s face it, it’s a nice facility. I think it will be in the showcase for our school to show what we can do,” Gleeson said.

Reed said the work he’ll be able to do in the EIC will set him and his team ahead of other researchers.

“This is right on the cutting edge — we’re very excited,” he said. “It puts us on the forefront of the industry but also on the forefront of institutions in the nation.”

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