From human-powered vehicles to biological
nanostructures, Layton brings new energy to COT
It’s mid-March, and Brad Layton, the inaugural director of the UM College of Technology’s new Energy Technology Program, dangles over the fence at Free Cycles, a bicycle scrapyard in Missoula. He’s trying to grab bits and pieces of gear his students need to build the transmission of a solar-powered car they’ve entered in a fast-approaching national competition.
“Fortunately,” Layton later recalls, “the owner, my friend Bob Giordano, came along and unlocked the gate, so we could scrounge at our leisure.”
Two weeks later, thanks to a $2,000 donation from the UM Kless Revolving Energy Loan Fund, as well as a donated motor and a generous offer from UM Facilities Services Director Hugh Jesse to pay travel costs, the team of six students from the COT and UM’s central campus completed the project and arrived at the 2012 Shell Eco-marathon in Houston. There they revealed their hard work — a vehicle that collects more power than it uses — alongside much larger university and corporate teams with budgets of $100,000 or more.
“We didn’t win, but we had a fantastic learning experience,” Layton says. “The team really went above and beyond expectations and built a car that we are very proud of and which definitely turned some heads at the competition. They’re already planning for next year.”
Layton also took another team of students to the American Society of Mechanical Engineering Human Powered Vehicle Challenge in May.
Although only a piece of what the Energy Technology Program encompasses, Layton says participating in such competitions inspires students to put knowledge into practice and also connects them with the much wider worlds of research, innovation and business. And perhaps they also reflect the reason he was drawn to mechanical engineering in the first place — as a way of blending physics with art.
Layton launched his career as a Ph.D. biomedical engineer from the University of Michigan by way of a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under “Bicycle Science” author David Gordon Wilson, followed by a faculty appointment at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His background helped create the deep satisfaction he gets from building things.
But building things is hard, he says, and cannot be done in a vacuum. Hence the need to scrounge — for parts at bike shops, for help from various local manufacturers to piece them together, for space in neighbors’ garages for his students to work while their official lab space at UM’s business incubator is under renovation. It’s Layton’s builder-and-connector mentality that has, in the year and a half since he and his family arrived in Missoula, helped him forge bridges between departments at the COT and UM’s central campus, as well as within the wider business and intellectual community, for the purpose of developing a world-class curriculum around emerging sustainable energy technology.
On a practical level, the Energy Technology Program gives students the know-how to design, build and install solar panels, wind turbines and other energy infrastructure, while also providing the theoretical background and knowledge to envision solutions to some of the problems these technologies contain, or to come up with completely new ideas.
“I’d love to see students eventually applying for federal Small Business Innovation Research grants,” he says. “Some of their ideas could have the ability to be spun off into real commercial ventures with some advice and startup funding.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays Layton teaches courses on mechanical and solar power, building energy efficiency and the future of energy technology. His 200-level courses are webcast so that an employee at the Belgium Consulate in Washington, D.C., or folks in Texas, California and Indiana can learn alongside his more typical COT students — ones who are perhaps testing the academic waters in a two-year program or people who have left or lost former jobs and want to retrain for new careers.
The rest of the week he’s busy meeting with students, shuttling between campuses, connecting with local business and policy leaders, and keeping his eye on some basic research projects with collaborators at Drexel and Villanova universities that involve biomechanical nanostructures in human and plant cells, notably collagen and cellulose.
His big future interest related to energy technology, however, is photosynthesis.
Layton’s excitement is palpable as he describes how nature has evolved proteins capable of harvesting photons one at a time and transforming this energy into excited electrons, which in turn power the metabolic networks that lead to protein synthesis, complex sugar synthesis and other cellular building blocks. Research now is under way to isolate these proteins and to put their electron transfer mechanisms to work.
When and if this pirating of photosynthesis proteins happens, it has the potential to revolutionize the photovoltaic industry in a way that plastics revolutionized the packaging industry, Layton says. Specifically, the energy technologies for capturing solar energy will become much less energy intensive themselves — that is, the necessary reactions can occur at lower temperatures — and this may get the industry over one of its major hurdles. Current photovoltaic technology requires silicon to be melted at temperatures around 1,500 degrees Celsius. This typically puts a big energy — read carbon — footprint on solar power that takes a while to recover.
So regarding the search to someday harness the true power of photosynthesis, “energy technology research can’t really get much greener than this,” he says. Bringing such big ideas to the COT inspires his energy technology students and, who knows, may lead to a trophy at next year’s Eco-marathon or ASME event.
— By Caroline Kurtz
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