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WiSys to distribute $1 million in research funds

Madison, Wis. - The growing body of university research under development beyond the confines of the University of Wisconsin-Madison could grow at an even faster pace as the result of a $1 million allocation approved Friday by University of Wisconsin System presidents and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

The grant will provide funding over a four-year period for researchers at UW System schools. The focus, however, extends beyond the length of the grant, according to Maliyakal John, general manager for WiSys.

WiSys, a non-profit technology transfer and licensing organization, will receive the grant money from WARF, its parent organization, and distribute it to the most promising research proposals as judged by a committee of experts. WiSys serves 12 four-year campuses, 13 two-year colleges, and UW-Extension facilities, several of which have plans to move beyond instruction.

"There are several campuses moving aggressively towards research and development," John said. "We are looking at a five- to 10-year time frame in which we intend to have many centers for technological development. This isn't immediate, but it is a trend we are seeing."

The most prominent of these projects is the Research Growth Initiative at the UW-Milwaukee, which would like to stimulate technology transfer in much the same way that UW-Madison does. One-quarter of the university's research proposals recently were judged to be in the top 10 percent of their fields nationally, and the university is pressing for facility improvements to accommodate its researchers. One professor, James Cook, has developed an anti-anxiety drug that has been licensed to Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Elsewhere, UW-La Crosse researchers Aaron Monte, Marc Rott, and Leah DeFoe have been granted a patent for their discovery of anti-infective agents derived from Comptonia Peregrina, a native American plant.

UW-Oshkosh has became the first Wisconsin campus and only the 10th nationwide to join the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Renewable Energy Initiative. The Oshkosh campus now leads the state in renewable energy use, having purchased 11 percent of its electricity from Wisconsin Public Service's "Nature Wise" program, a renewable initiative that uses wind and biomass energy from a dairy farm and landfill in northeastern Wisconsin.

Going international

Last month, researchers from UW-Platteville began exploring technological advances from a German electrode developer that could reduce the cost of hydrogen fuel cells by a factor of 10.

The German company, Gaskatel GmbH, develops, produces and distributes electrochemical electrodes, converters, and sensors. It has enlisted the expertise of Platteville chemistry professor Jim Hamilton, an authority on H2 alkaline fuel cells, material science, and polymer synthesis utilization. He will conduct long-term research on the effectiveness of Gaskatel's designs.

As a result of this partnership with Gaskatel, UW-Platteville will tap one of the few non-federal fuel cell programs in the country and have access to the potential commercialization of forthcoming products in North America.

Hamilton and three student researchers are collaborating with electrical engineering professor Nader Safari-Shad, who will perform mathematical modeling for the control units in order to simulate behavior. The team will monitor the current, voltage, exhaust, and other factors in long-term testing to analyze the chemistry and physics of the electrodes and develop solutions to any technical failures they identify.

People should not hold their breath for a wave of affordable, environment-friendly hydrogen-powered cars just yet. General applications of hydrogen technology are still several years away. "As we move toward an alternative energy economy, it has to be a combination of everything - wind, solar, insulation - to make things work because you won't be able to replace [fossil fuels] with a single solution," Hamilton said.

Gaskatel's fuel cells are special because they use streamlined sensors and technical control systems to regulate cell pressure and humidity, among other factors. In addition, their catalysts utilize nickel, a cheaper metal than common alternatives such as platinum and rhodium.

Despite these improvements, the inherent physical limitations on the basic technology continue to present a formidable challenge to researchers. Developing feasible, cost-effective ways to separate the gas from water and store it will be a significant hurdle to clear.

"One problem is that all hydrogen comes from oil," Hamilton said. "There is no other practical source."

UWP contributed approximately $4,700 to jump start the program through its Chancellor's Opportunity Grant, and Gaskatel provided the catalytic electrodes and test equipment.

Request for Proposals

WiSys is spearheading the effort to stimulate innovation and generate prestige for UW System scientists and their respective universities, in effect taking a cue from its parent organization. WARF has obtained more than 1,500 patents on inventions of UW-Madison professors, and derives revenue from nearly 1,400 license agreements with companies worldwide. The foundation has given approximately $800 million back to UW-Madison to fund research.

To secure part of the available grant money from WiSys, professors at UW System schools will submit their research proposals to a committee of scientific experts from inside and outside the system. "This is seed money that will keep growing," John said. "We will continue protecting and patenting, and all the revenue we generate comes back to the campuses for further research and development."

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