Collegiate rivalries get a lot more headlines than collegiate collaborations. The media’s focus on collegiate competition is as true in Colorado as it is across the nation. But here in Colorado, the reality is that we’re home to one of the nation’s strongest university collaborations, made even stronger by the participation of an internationally acclaimed federal laboratory. The Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory is a six-year-old research consortium among the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (or NREL, a U.S. Department of Energy lab) and the University of Colorado Boulder. Independently, each of the four institutions has world-class clean energy research programs. Together, the four institutions comprise the most powerful clean energy research center in the world.
A Uniquely Successful Collaboration
The Collaboratory was formally launched in January, 2007, with three principal goals: to create and commercialize clean energy technologies, to serve as an economic driver for the State of Colorado and to train the next generation of scientists and engineers in energy disciplines. Nearly seven years later, the Collaboratory continues to thrive and expand.
The Collaboratory began to take shape in early 2006, with multi-institutional and bipartisan support from the outset. Then-Senator Ken Salazar invited the leaders of NREL and the three universities to engage in a conversation about collaborative research. Former Senator Hank Brown, then serving as the President of the University of Colorado System, immediately offered his support to the effort, as did the leaders of CSU, Mines and NREL. With the commitment of all four institutions, the Colorado General Assembly—with the critical support of Governor Bill Owens—enacted legislation to provide state funding to be used solely as “matching funds,” which were essential to attract federal research funding.
The state funding provided between 2007-2009 played a critical role in the success of the Collaboratory. In total, the General Assembly provided $6 million over the course of those years. From January, 2007 through the end of 2012, the Collaboratory employed that $6 million to attract more than $50 million in federal, industry and other private funding to the Colorado institutions and the Colorado economy, a return to the state of more than 8 to 1, making good on the Collaboratory’s commitment to serve as an economic catalyst for Colorado. That was only the beginning.
Outstanding Research Drives Economic Development
Federally funded research grants to Collaboratory institutions include advanced biofuels, algal biofuels, new materials for photovoltaic cells, the physics and chemistry of geologic sequestration of carbon, and, most recently, the potential to use beetle-killed timber as feedstock for the production of biofuels.
Industry funded projects have focused on renewable energy technologies such as the production of fuels and industrial chemicals from biomass (wood chips, crop residue, algae, etc.), solar and wind power, and research to reduce the adverse environmental impacts of fossil fuels by capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to climate change. Over the past seven years, more than 50 companies have engaged with the Collaboratory institutions in these research efforts, from small Colorado start-ups to Fortune Global 100 companies, including: Abengoa Solar, Applied Materials, Ascent Solar, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Cool Planet, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Ecopetrol-IPC, General Motors, Gevo, Kimberly Clark, Lockheed Martin, Mitsubishi, OPX Biotechnologies, Rentech, RES Americas, Sharp, Shell Global Solutions, Suncor, Sundrop Fuels, SunEdison, Tokyo Electron, Total, Toyota, Valero, Vestas, WindLogics, W.R. Grace, Weyerhaueser and ZeaChem.
In the coming months, the Collaboratory will launch new cooperative research efforts in energy storage technologies, such as batteries, fuel cells and thermal storage for electricity generation. And, in the coming year, the four institutions will commence collaborative research focused on energy systems management, improving both reliability and efficiency at all scales – from heating, cooling and providing electric power within a single building, to ensuring the reliability, efficiency, security and sustainability of regional power grids.
As our research portfolio has expanded, so too have our research partnerships. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), both based in Boulder, have partnered with the Collaboratory, and we include respected researchers from nearby universities on a project-by-project basis.
- What’s the Magic?
The Collaboratory succeeds because of the strong commitment from the highest echelon of institutional leaders to the youngest faculty members and research professionals in each institution. A mutual respect prevails among the researchers at the four institutions. Not surprisingly, talented researchers are anxious to work with others who share their interests. Recognizing the potential benefits, the leaders at NREL and the universities have given their researchers the green light to enter into research activities with their peers at the other Collaboratory institutions, and the researchers have enthusiastically embraced these opportunities.
As Coloradans, we sometimes take for granted the shared commitment and mutual respect that are so much a part of our communities and our daily lives, but these are the qualities that allow the Collaboratory to succeed. In my conversations with colleagues outside of Colorado, representatives of more than a few states have commented that we’re lucky in Colorado – the public universities in these other states simply won’t cooperate. We’re fortunate in Colorado to have leaders at our universities and at NREL who understand that collaboration is the pathway to stronger institutions and to a vibrant innovation community. And we’re blessed with political leaders who value and foster this collaboration.