Mansfield – The University of Connecticut couldn’t quite close the deal 45 years ago, when William F. Hartman was trying to decide whether to start his academic career here or at the University of Minnesota.
But it did Thursday when Hartman returned as chief operating officer of Fraunhofer USA, the affiliate of a European leader in applied research and development.
Fraunhofer, an inventor of the MP3 technology behind the iPod, announced a partnership with UConn to create the Fraunhofer Center for Energy Innovation.
Thunder rumbled overhead, prompting smiles among the VIPs from academia, industry and government sheltering under canopy to christen Fraunhofer’s latest U.S. research center.
“Where’s Ben Franklin when we need him?” said Daniel C. Esty, the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
They are not going to try to capture lightning, but one of the center’s focuses will be storage technology, whether in high-tech batteries or through other new technologies.
“Imagine if we could store energy and deploy it in the peak hours of those hottest summer days,” Esty said.
UConn, Esty’s department and Fraunhofer each are providing $2.4 million over the next four years for the center.
“It’s what we see as the seed money to get it up and running,” Esty said. The center’s principal investigators will pursue matching funds and other money for specific projects.
There are 60 Fraunhofer centers in Germany and seven in the U.S., all affiliated with major universities, pursuing research on everything from lasers to molecular biology to renewable energy.
Fraunhofer established its first centers in the U.S. at the University of Michigan and Boston University. Lasers are the focus at Michigan, manufacturing innovation at BU.
The center at UConn will be second in the U.S. focusing on energy. The other is affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hartman said the centers support research and assist in the transfer of technology – bringing ideas and technology to the marketplace.
They typically grow out of collaborations on specific projects, but not all the relationships grow into full-blown research centers.
“There have been quite a few that didn’t make it,” he said. “In general, we are very successful.”
Funding is important, as well as academic and other resources. The Connecticut deal moved quickly.
“It only took a year and a half for this to happen,” he said.
Esty said UConn Provost Mun Choi, then the dean of engineering, already was in talks with Fraunhofer when he approached him about increased research on energy.
The deal struck with Fraunhofer allows the state to share in the intellectual property rights of research that leads to commercial technologies.
The new center will focus on microgrid engineering, micro-turbines, batteries and other storage technology, and small-scale energy generation, such as fuel cells.
One possibility for micro-turbines is generating hydroelectric power without dams. Small turbines could be turned by the unimpeded flow of rivers, tidal waters or even the outflow of sewage plants.
In 2002, the Fraunhofer Center for Molecular Biology opened at the Universit of Delaware, dedicated to research on “molecular farming” — growing plants used in the production of pharmaceuticals.
Hartman said it already has achieved a breakthrough: an automated process for growing plant protein used in vaccines.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the German consul to the U.S., Rolf Schutte, joined UConn’s president, Susan Herbst, and chairman, Larry McHugh, at a ceremony announcing the deal.
“This is part of positioning Connecticut as a leader in clean energy,” Malloy said.
Energy regulatory reform and the cost of electricity have been issues every year since Malloy took office in January 2011.
The governor, who is up for re-election next year, noted a recent milestone: Connecticut was identified by the federal government as the only state in New England whose electricity prices dropped last year.
“That’s a pretty momentous event,” Malloy said.
The state still has the most expensive electricity in the region and among the most expensive in the U.S.