Tech tour Day Eight: MSU's Magnificent

Tech tour Day Eight: MSU's Magnificent

October 1, 2009/Great Lakes IT Report

Tech tour Day Eight: MSU's Magnificent by Matt Roush

The phrase 'world class' gets tossed around so much it's almost lost meaning.

But if the phrase still means anything, you've got to hand it to Michigan State University, whose sprawling campus, 47,000 sharp students and 5,000 faculty cover every academic discipline worth covering with uniform excellence.

State is the prototype for the nation's land grant universities established under the Morrill Act of 1862. It was the first institution of higher learning in the United States to teach scientific agriculture. It still does -- but it also splits atoms, creates advanced materials, builds whole new industries with the science of its spinoffs and conducts nearly $400 million a year in sponsored research. (And OK, my objectivity might be colored just a bit green because I have a kid here, too.)

I spent the day with Russ White of the university's public relations staff, a veteran radio guy and all-around good egg, and part of the day with Russ' wife Lynda, who handles PR for the university's sprawling College of Engineering.


I started the day in a very familiar place for MSU -- with a bunch of animals in the College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as Anthony Pease, section chief of diagnostic imaging at the MSU veterinary teaching hospital.

Pease was proud to show me a new toy, a $2.9 million large-opening magnetic resonance imaging machine capable of diagnosing problems in any animal weighing up to a ton. It's the only machine of its kind on the planet at an academic institution.

The machine's six-ton magnet is cooled by liquid helium and sits on a 10-foot-thick slab of conctrete so it won't sink below ground level. It's also placed on springs to cut the effects of nearby vibrations. And it features a 70-centimeter center opening nearly 50 percent bigger than a standard MRI.

MRIs work by sending out powerful radio waves tuned to resonate with the hydrogen atoms in the water throughout any living thing. The machine picks up the vibrations caused by those radio waves, producing a beautifully detailed image of structrures beneath the skin.

Pease said the machine will be used to diagnose and study everything from Alzheimer's to strokes to arthritis in animals -- knowledge that often translates into improved human medicine.

After checking out Pease's new baby, I also got to walk around the veterinary hospital, which has separate wings for larger farm animals and small pets -- and some of the coolest art anywhere, formal photographic portraits of its staff with their pets large and small.


My next stop was in MSU's cavernous College of Engineering building and the laboratories of Jeff Sakamoto, assistant professor in the department of chemical engineering and materials science.

And as a matter of fact, yes, Sakamoto is a rocket scientist. Well, at least he worked in the space program. While at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Sakamoto  helped develop the batteries that have kept the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity bopping around the Red Planet's surface long past their sell-by date.

However, Sakamoto said he was a teen-age gearhead and has always loved cars. So now he's in Michigan and "back home" in terms of industry, helping develop batteries that will make electric cars a reality (and fun to drive to boot).

Among several areas of research interest, Sakamoto is working on electrode materials that will boost batteries' energy density. He's also working with the Ann Arbor office of A123 Systems, the Massachusetts battery company that bought T/J Technologies, the battery spinoff of University of Michigan professor Levi Thompson and his wife Maria.

Sakamoto is working on electrode coatings that will help batteries discharge and recharge very quickly, crucial to the success of the electric car. He's going beyond traditional solid materials to electrodes built in a honeycomb shape that allows for faster discharging and recharging, as well as greater energy density.

Sakamoto's other research features a material called skutterudite that someday will help draw electricity out of waste heat, including the heat from auto exhaust. He showed me a tiny, one-by-one-inch device that cranks out 40 watts at 40 amps on heat difference between the two sides of the metal. Sakamoto also encapsulates the device in an aerogel -- a very light heat-resistant glass that's 99 percent air -- to keep the material from oxidizing during use.

A video of some of Sakamoto's work can be viewed at


After having way too much fun talking space stuff with Dr. Sakamoto, Russ and I headed back out to the southern, agricultural end of MSU's sprawling campus, to a mobile air quality research lab supervised by Jack Harkema, a University Distinguished Professor of pathobiology and diagnostic investigation.

The 53-foot-long, 18-ton semi-trailer is the second of its kind built by MSU. AirCARE 1 is on a long term project in Los Angeles, while AirCARE 2 is being refurbished for a lengthy visit to Dexter, west of Ann Arbor, to study the health effects in a rural area of air pollution carried in on the wind from elsewhere. (The capital letters are an acronym for Collaborative Air Research Effort.)

The lab is the product of $10 million worth of collaboration between MSU and UM.

The lab "is equipped to conduct air quality research and toxiciology studies in centers of air pollution," Harkema said. "We look at the health effects of air pollution, especially particulate pollution, which comes from diesel exhaust, coal fired power plants and the iron and steel industry. We concentrate on susceptible populations like children with athsma or people with cardiovascular disease."

Harkema's actually a veterinarian by training, so the lab conducts studies on both people and animals.

It's staffed by five to 10 scientists who stay long term in the area of the study.

"We stay at a site a couple of weeks to a couple of years depending on the nature of the research," Harkema said. "The typical visit is a month or two."

A stack on top of the trailer sucks in 5,000 liters of air per minute and studies the particulates inside. Inside the trailer is a sophisticated 450-square-foot lab.


My last stop at MSU was with Dave Jones, senior vice president for business development at MBI, the former Michigan Biotechnology Institute.

MBI is still a Michigan not-for-profit but for the past three years it has been owned by the Michigan State University Foundation, which collects the money from MSU patents and uses the money to advance research and economic growth at MSU.

Jones said it's the job of MBI to "de risk" technology in biomaterials, taking a professor's intersting lab bench experiment from laboratory scale production to pilot plant.

Jones said MBI has a staff of about 30, a multidisciplinary group that includes biologists, chemists, engineers and business experts "everything needed to de-risk a new technology."

Today's MBI, Jones said, "focuses on renewable fuels and biobased chemicals. We don't do basic research but we do the next step. We take that technology, we bridge the gap between that fantastic idea someone has to a commercial product or technology package, and we take that technology package and license it out to industry."

MBI helps a would-be spinoff company find growth capital, and helps a technology to be licensed find an appopriate corporate partner.

MBI's big home run these days is polylactic acid, or PLA, a biopolymer now produced by a Cargill unit called Nature Works. It's used in plastic cups, bottles, trays and more.

MBI and MSU are also responsible for succinic acid, a bioproduct that replaces petrochemicals in stretchy fabrics like Spandex.

And it's working with an old tech pal of mine, MSU professor Bruce Dale, on new technology for creating cellulosic ethanol.

The institute is working today on bio-baesd food additives, pesticides, cosmetic products and food ingredients, taking them from bench scale to proof of concept.

Jones said MSU and MBI are now a "global desination for people to study what's going on with the bioeconomy." He said biofuels would be the engine for the growth of the bioeconomy based on government incentives to get America off foreign oil, but that a whole lot of other bioproducts will be part of our lives soon too.


Reluctantly, with a phone call to my nursing student daughter, I left East Lansing. But I'm also excited to wrap up the tech tour with my favorite scrappy, fighting Michigan town, a place that refuses to die in a world that is past writing it off -- namely, Flint. I'll be looking at the cool technology at Kettering University, as well as joint econmic development collaborations between Kettering, the University of Michigan-Flint and Mott Community College. Watch this space Monday for more fun with tech-based economic development.

Posted on Thursday, October 01, 2009 (Archive on Wednesday, November 11, 2015)
Posted by rcline  Contributed by rcline