Midway through a tour of Colorado State University’s Powerhouse Energy Campus, Bryan Willson took a detour to show me a toilet. I thanked him but told him I didn’t have to go.
The porcelain seat was housed in a chic outhouse in view of the Poudre River. Willson was more interested in showing me a second view behind plexi-glass on the back of the structure: a machine that resembled a futuristic garbage disposal. Powered by a small battery, the device pulverized, dried and burned human waste.
“This individual combustor could handle about 500 people in a 24-hour period,” said John Mizia, director of the Advanced Biomass Combustion Lab.
The prototype has been years in the making. One day, Mizia hopes that a reiteration of his lab’s model will aid in preventing disease in the roughly 30% of the world that lacks access to safe disposal of human waste.
The toilet is just one of many innovative prototypes littering the laboratories and grounds of the Powerhouse. For nearly three decades, the campus has been attempting to engineer solutions to modern problems. Energy Institute researchers developed efficient, large-scale natural gas engines, stabilized renewable energy grids and built hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars in addition to the cool toilet.
Willson now wants to expand operations. CSU hopes to build a second campus across the river from the current Powerhouse, just a few blocks from Old Town in Fort Collins. The new campus will be poised to meet the increasing demands for research on green technology.
“Powerhouse 2 will, hopefully, focus on the broader scope of climate and decarbonization solutions,” he said.
The proposed site is adjacent to Innosphere Ventures, a science and technology business incubator that frequently collaborates with the Energy Institute to help researchers become entrepreneurs. It’s also near the city’s new Poudre River Whitewater Park.
“The vision is that, between the Powerhouse, Powerhouse 2 and Innosphere, you have this continuous innovation campus that just happens to have an awesome whitewater park in the middle,” Willson said.
Bloomberg estimates that the world will need to invest $2.4 trillion annually until 2035 to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Although the bulk of these funds would likely be directed toward large-scale infrastructure, investing in solutions-based engineering is just as important. Even something as simple as constructing a building needs to be re-evaluated from the ground up.
In the early days of the Powerhouse, during the 1990s, the facility was called the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab. One of the first research projects housed in the lab attempted to optimize the efficiency of the natural gas-fired reciprocating engines that run along America’s pipelines.
“How do we make low carbon cements and low carbon steels?” Willson asked. “All of these are questions we don’t know the answer to now. Smart people will be coming up with ideas and then enterprises get them implemented at scale.”
It’s a vision that has traction beyond northern Colorado. In June, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that the institute would receive $1 million of grant money as part of its Energy Program for Innovation Clusters. The funding will allow Innosphere and the institute to co-develop the Rockies/Plains Energy Accelerator for Commercializing Hardtech.
That may sound like a mouthful, but the concept is relatively simple. The acceleratorprogram will provide facilities, mentorship (through Innosphere) and capital (from the federal grant) to early-stage businesses focusing on decarbonization technologies.
The first cohort of 10 businesses from the Rockies and Great Plains states will be selected in December, and, starting in January, will spend a year in the accelerator.
“They’ll spend the first six months in Innosphere’s training,” said Jeff Muhs, Energy Institute associate director for programs and initiatives. “Marketing, finance, attracting the right team, business development. Then, the last six months they’ll get some sort of service — whether it’s an economic analysis of the technology, some prototyping, a life cycle analysis of the carbon footprint or something else they’d like to get done.”
The federalgrant was framed by lawmakers as a step towards the Biden administration’s goal of a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Like the Powerhouse, which contains innovation-oriented businesses in addition to lab space, the program lies at the nexus of academia, government spending and private enterprise. Nine other “innovation hubs” around the country, including public universities and business incubators, received comparable grants to fund similar work.
Of course, $1 million is a relatively small amount when compared to the ambitious goals that it targets.
“We do 10 to 15 million dollars of research a year,” Willson said. “It’s tiny from that standpoint, particularly to serve 12 states. But it’s really a show of support for this network. Everything we’re doing here is to have an impact nationally and globally.”
Because “hardtech” companies are more costly to get off the ground than, say, software companies, many fail before they are able to make a difference. Muhs, for one, has faith that lawmakers will continue to realize the value of that innovation.
“I think that, over the next 20 years, there’s going to be a lot of funding for these innovation clusters,” he said. “There’s going to be a massive reinvestment in the U.S.”