Laboratories, startup space planned for Pitt’s energy research center

Energy researchers at the University of Pittsburgh will advance electric grid and storage technology — and offer low-cost startup space for other engineers — as part of the university’s new space in the sprawling Energy Innovation Center, school officials announced Thursday.

Pitt has begun construction on four individual laboratories and administrative offices covering 18,600 square feet of the building, the former Connelley Trade School on Bedford Avenue in the Lower Hill District.

The announcement marked the first concrete details from the university, which occupies about a quarter of the building’s leased space and is the largest tenant, after more than three years of planning.

Pitt chancellor Patrick Gallagher and other school officials made brief remarks to a large crowd of faculty, students and industry partners gathered in what was an industrial shop for students at the Connelley school.

The room, which was bare of much besides a podium and a table of breakfast pastries and with large windows overlooking Downtown, is slated to serve as Pitt’s administrative offices at the center.

“This may look like a garage — and we all love the idea of innovation in a garage and the lone inventor,” Mr. Gallagher joked. “But, actually, innovation is a ... contact sport that requires that kind of shoulder rubbing between the innovators, the market, the corporate partners, the community.”

School officials portrayed the facility as a way to enable large-scale research by providing more space than currently available at the Swanson School of Engineering in Benedum Hall in Oakland.

Gregory Reed, a Pitt professor and director of the school’s Swanson School’s Electric Power Initiative, will oversee research in a 5,100-square-foot power grid laboratory — experimenting with ways to modernize electric generation, transmission and distribution, and to commercialize smart grid technology.

“Energy technologies have really been a major part of our region’s heritage, if you think about it, from Drake to Westinghouse,” Mr. Reed said. “As we move into the 21st century, I really think it’s our responsibility to build upon that legacy.”

The other two areas of study include: a 3,040-square-foot space for research into energy conversion and battery storage that can harness renewable energy power for later use; and a 600-square-foot space for the development of materials needed for harsh conditions, such as high temperatures and highly corrosive environments.

The latter research will be led by Pitt professsor, Brian Gleeson, chairman of mechanical engineering and materials science, who left his lab behind at his previous position Iowa State University but still conducts research there.

Pitt will also offer incubator space for engineering startups — preferably those focused on energy issues and connected to the school.

“Engineers can be natural entrepreneurs, but when they are starting out, they need to focus less on paying the rent and more on innovation,” said Mark S. Redfern, vice provost for research.

One interested startup is Interphase Materials, which was founded by Pitt engineering alum Noah Snyder and researches additives for the coating industry that are environmentally friendly and improve industrial efficiency. It has business offices at AlphaLab and uses a “very small” manufacturing space at Pitt’s Applied Research Center in Harmar Township, Mr. Snyder said.

“We fit in with the spirit of what they’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “We think it’s a perfect place for us.”

Mr. Reed said the school has already held discussions with several partners in the energy industry, including Eaton Corp., which sponsored Pitt’s graduate student lab on its Oakland campus, and Duquesne Light Co., the Pittsburgh electric utility that announced in November it would work with Pitt to experiment with microgrid technology.

Grace M. Bochenek, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park, was among the crowd at the center and said after the announcement that she would like to include federal energy researchers.

“A place like this is a window of opportunity,” Ms. Bochenek said.

School officials’ first glimpse of the space came on a cold day in December 2012, said David A. Vorp, associate dean for research in the Swanson School of Engineering. At the time, it was just an empty, neglected building with broken windows.

“It still looked like the old abandoned Connelley school, so it was dirty, equipment laying around, floors were all buckled,” Mr. Vorp said. Researchers across disciplines had expressed interest, he said, but the most developed ideas — along with realistic visions for scaling up their technology — came from energy researchers.

“I’m hoping that this will prove to the the dean, the chancellor, the provost that the risk it took to put us in here is paying off,” Mr. Vorp said.

Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

First Published March 3, 2016 10:44 AM

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