Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research

The University of Louisville is answering Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear's call to lead Kentucky's research efforts in renewable energy research and sustainability issues. In collaboration with the state, UofL established the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering in 2009. The Conn Center provides leadership, research, support and policy development in renewable energy; advances the goal of renewable energy; and promotes technologies, practices, and programs that increase efficiency for energy utilization in homes, businesses and public buildings. To accomplish these objectives, the Conn Center conducts and facilitates R&D on potentially commercializable renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. The center’s scientific and technical thrusts are devoted to the following areas: Advanced Energy Materials Manufacturing and Characterization; Solar Energy Conversion; Power Electronics; Energy Storage; Biofuels/Biomass Conversions; and Energy Efficiency. The center employs top-notch scientists and engineers as theme leaders for directing these research efforts and to enable collaborations with faculty researchers and industry partners across the state.

Overall Objectives

The center’s main objective is to foster development of transformational concepts and accelerate the translation of technology concepts from the lab to pre-commercial scale via large-scale device prototyping. Through innovative R&D at an accelerated pace and development of Kentucky’s workforce and renewable resources, the center's ongoing goal is to seek outcomes that enhance global energy security, maintain US technological leadership, and improve high-tech manufacturing activity in Kentucky. The Conn Center facilitates the exchange of expertise and interest for Kentucky institutions and industries interested in renewable energy and energy efficiency to develop clean, reliable, affordable energy sources that improve our energy security, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and provide economic prosperity.

Core Research Facilities

The Conn Center labs currently occupy 22,000 square feet. The facilities are open to multiple industry users and are accessed by faculty and staff. Current unique capabilities include:

  • A multi-user, state-of-the-art, advanced materials characterization facility for optical, structural, and chemical characterization of nanoscale materials.
  • Basic test facilities for various energy conversion devices such as solar cells, lithium ion batteries, photocatalysts, thermionics, and thermo-electric fuel cells.
  • Bulk production of advanced nanomaterials such as nanowire/nanotube powders and large area nanowire arrays.
  • Roll-to-roll manufacturing R&D facilities for solar cells; a continuous catalytic reactor for biofuels; and spray technology for lithium ion batteries.• Waste to energy research facilities include both batch and upward flow anaerobic digestion reactors.
  • Biomass/biofuels research facilities include continuous hydrolysis reactor and continuous packed bed (100 gm) catalyst test reactor.

Core Scientific and Technical Staff

The eight permanent center staff members in 2013 include four highly accomplished engineers and scientists as theme leaders, two administrators, and two technicians. Immediate growth is expected to expand personnel by four new theme leaders and one additional technician. In addition to permanent staff, the center employs eight post-doctoral fellows, supports six to eight faculty associates, and hosts about twenty PhD students and twenty undergrad/masters students annually. The center director is Dr. Mahendra Sunkara, Professor of Chemical Engineering.

Center Budgets and Funding

Highlights of Conn Center's budgets in 2013 include:

  • Baseline budget: $1M/yr from UofL
  • Endowments: $5M (three at $2M, 1M, 2M each)
  • Active R&D grants in FY 2013: About $3.5 - 4.5 M in federal/state research contracts
  • Industry research/service contracts: Approx. $350K/yr

The Conn Center is currently raising $1M/yr in additional baseline funding and needs to achieve a goal of about $5M/yr in research expenditures by 2017.

Outreach and Community Engagement Activities

The Conn Center devises, supports and implements several outreach activities to inspire high school kids, undergraduate students and the community at large. These activities include center laboratory tours, renewable energy specific courses, the production of kinetic educational exhibits for K-12 students, mentored research projects for middle school and high school students, an annual solar flight competition, and participation in the Department of Energy’s intercollegiate solar decathlon house competition. The center also facilitates the organization of a biennial workshop on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (RE3), from which educational presentations are featured online at conncenter.org. In addition, the center administrates the University of Louisville’s $50,000 Leigh Ann Conn Prize in Renewable Energy, which recognizes outstanding accomplishments worldwide in the field of renewable energy research.

Research Productivity

Conn Center researchers averaged four publications per year each with a total output of 25 publications in 2012 with the goal of increasing annual publications to 75 per year. Productivity in patents is approximately four filings per year and will increase to ten applications per year by 2015 with a goal of two licenses per year. To date, the center’s research innovations have led to the formation of two companies. The first is Aliphajet LLC, which produces jet fuel using our catalyst system, and the second is Advanced Energy Materials LLC, which produces nanomaterials at Kg scales for numerous renewable energy applications, including solar cells, catalysts, and battery systems.

Technical Advisory Board

The Conn Center reports administratively to the Dean of the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, Dr. Neville Pinto. The Dean chairs the center’s technical advisory board that sets the strategic agenda and directions for the center. This 8-member board consists of eminent business leaders, academic and industry scientists and engineers, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s Cabinet Secretary for Energy and the Environment. They ensure that the efforts of the center remain congruent with the legislative mandate from the state, accomplish the goals set forth by the University, and are responsive to the current state-of-the-science for renewable energy research, environmental stewardship, and public energy policy. This Board meets formally twice a year to set the center's short-term and long-term strategies, monitor progress toward established goals, and advise on specific issues.

For More Information

Detailed information on the Conn Center’s research themes, personnel, facilities, outreach, educational workshops, the Leigh Ann Conn Prize, and much more can be found online at http://conncenter.org. Contact via email at conn.center@louisville.edu or by phone at 502/852-8597502/852-8597.