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Ohio Aerospace Institute: connecting the dots since 1989

Donald W. Majcher and Mike Heil of the Ohio Aerospace Institute. Photos | Bob Perkoski
Donald W. Majcher and Mike Heil of the Ohio Aerospace Institute. Photos | Bob Perkoski

It doesn't always make the news. It's seldom in the limelight. But working behind the scenes, the Ohio Aerospace Institute is a facilitator -- a bridge builder -- the caulking in the cracks.

"Their mission is not to be a visible piece of the collaboration," says Peter Buca, vice president of technology and innovation at Parker Hannifin's Fluid Connector's Group in Cleveland. "They're there to make other companies, other organizations, succeed. It's their essential value."

Founded in 1989 to help build Ohio's aerospace economy, the OAI is a joint initiative of the NASA Glenn Research Center, the Air Force Research Lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, the State of Ohio, 10 public and private universities, and companies involved in aerospace.

It draws its funds from a variety of sources: federal grants and contracts, industry revenue, and the Ohio Board of Regents.

It lays claim to having managed more than $206 million in funds and more than 250 federal awards.

It has formed collaborations with more than 100 industry, university and government organizations.

All with an eye toward linking industry, universities and government together for common benefit, Buca says. He should know, having worked for years with the Cleveland-based not-for-profit both in his role at Parker and as a member of OAI's advisory board. He says Parker has worked on a number of projects in which OAI has provided technical expertise and helped the company make valuable connections to other organizations.

"We've made many new relationships and connections because of OAI's ability to connect us, to collaborate. They've also helped us in research projects (in which) we simply could not find the right connections to make them work. And OAI would find those people for us."

And that leads us to pond scum. Well, in a minute, anyway. First, consider airborne wind turbines.

NASA Glenn is currently reassessing its capabilities in advanced and alternative energy, says Robert (Joe) Shaw, the agency's chief of business development and partnerships. A top priority is wind power.

"And OAI came across a small company called Joby Energy in California, and they have a rather unique idea for wind power from airborne wind turbines," Shaw says. "And their concept is really nicely aligned with NASA's capabilities in aeronautics and, in particular, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Well, through whatever means OAI came upon this small startup company, they brought them to NASA and said 'we think you have some things in common.'"

Introductions were made. There was a meeting of the minds.

"And today we're working to put together a formal agreement with Joby Energy to collaborate on various areas of research and engineering relative to airborne wind turbines. (And) OAI deserves 100 percent of the credit for finding this opportunity."

That almost brings us to algae. Almost.

Gerald Noel is director of sponsored programs at Central State University in Wilberforce. He also serves as associate director of the Ohio Space Grant Consortium -- a collaboration administered by NASA Glenn and for which OAI is the lead institution. Noel says the organization has been important to the entire state in facilitating scholarships and fellowships to students studying in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. But particularly for small institutions like his, which often lack the budgets of Ohio's large universities.

OAI also steers grants to faculty who participate in NASA Glenn's faculty fellowship program. Case in point -- Victor Aimiuwu, professor of physics at Central State, who participated in the program last summer. His assignment: to test whether "the equilibrium temperature in space would actually be the one predicted" for solar cells in simulated space conditions. He says that experience -- and OAI's $14,000 grant to fund his fellowship -- has allowed him to continue his own research and involve some of his students.

And THAT brings us to pond scum. In fact, translating space science to algae isn't such a leap if you consider a program in which OAI is playing a management role: developing oil from algae and turning it into an economical jet fuel.

"The Air Force is interested in this for energy security reasons because for the foreseeable future airplanes are going to be flying on hydrocarbon fuels," explains Michael L. Heil, OAI's president and chief executive officer. "And the source of that hydrocarbon now is petroleum. But as we know, we import a lot of petroleum, and the Air Force wants to have secure reliable domestic sources of hydrocarbons for fuels. . . the area we've been looking at is algae."

OAI is one of three organizations in Ohio that are using a congressional appropriation to lead development of algae-oil for commercial purposes, says OAI's algae project manager Carol Cash; others are the Edison Materials Technology Center in Dayton and the Center for Innovative Food Technology in Toledo.

"The other applications for this are far beyond jet fuel," says Donald Majcher, OAI's vice president of technology and innovation partnerships. "This could go into other types of transportation fuels, it could go into heating oil, it could go into even renewable plastics, it could go into pharmaceuticals."

Enter Phycal, a Cleveland-area company that is among the growing number of players in the algae-oil industry. Jeff Bargiel, the company's business development specialist, says OAI made $340,000 in federal funds available to it for the first year of the collaboration, which ends in June. The award has sped plans to develop new technology and build a pilot refinery in Hawaii, which could be producing its first jet fuel as early as the end of the year.

Bargiel says his company's relationship with OAI began well before the current project. For example, the organization has worked closely with the company to assist with the federal grant process.

"So, when they heard what we were doing with the algae, they said, 'well, jet fuel's aerospace, and that's something we think we'd like to be involved in."

Buca says OAI is often underappreciated because the role it plays is difficult to measure in dollar terms. But, he says, OAI's value should not be underestimated.

"I'm just convinced that there's so much value in the unexplored connections between Ohio organizations," he says. "I've got to believe that if that's a huge potential value for Ohio, then an organization like OAI -- with its collaboration expertise -- if they're properly directed, if they're given proper resources to actually make an impact, it's got to be a good thing."

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