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NSF Engines muster local resources to compete with Silicon Valley and Boston

June 01, 2023
By: Michele Hujber

The recently awarded NSF Engine Type 1 development awards are intended to bring technology-based economic development to vast swaths of the US landscape, including those that Silicon Valley and Boston have long overshadowed. This week we kick off an examination of some of the proposals led by SSTI members that were selected by NSF for funding.

Five of the nine projects led by SSTI members are in EPSCoR states (Kansas State University, University of Nevada-Reno, University of South Carolina, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and University of Hawai’i). Their projects span the U.S. and include such diverse areas as the Kansas State University-led project to develop biotechnology-based products for the biosecurity, biodefense, and biomanufacturing sectors, and the University of South Carolina-led project to develop cybersecurity solutions for maritime transportation.

Leveraging unique foundational assets

Each project leverages the foundational assets of the region. “The NSF Engines program is focused on use-inspired research, with nonprofits, industry, and workforce development all looking at our regional assets and strengths,” said Dr. Mridul Gautam, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Nevada, Reno, and project director for the university’s NSF Engine development award to advance the circular economy for lithium batteries. “We considered how we could bring all (our resources) together to serve the goals of the country.”

The current awards are Type I Awards of $1M over two years. These are development awards, and, as Gautam noted, “NSF is hoping (awardees will) bring together different elements of the ecosystem and be ready to create a regional engine that will help create products which are of relevance to the nation based on their own strengths. If we do a good enough job of bringing people together, we apply for the Type II Award, which is a $160 million, 10-year award.”

In Nevada, the foundational resource to be leveraged is lithium. The state contains the only operating lithium mine in the U.S., the largest lithium mine in North America under construction, and significant sources of lithium in clay and brine. The Engine team aims to pioneer a complete lithium supply chain, from resource management of materials, to rejuvenating, repurposing, and recycling of lithium batteries, and discover and develop the future generations of batteries.

“We have lithium in the ground. We have the Gigafactory that uses lithium to make batteries. And we have the recycling companies that are coming up so that these batteries can be recycled back into new batteries,” said Co-Project Director and technical lead Dev Chidambaram. “But the mining companies and the recycling companies are not fully commercial yet and the commissioning of their projects require a ‘lithium-aware’ workforce.”

“Part of the engine's requirement is that we work with the companies to address those challenges, to help them move into commercialization and provide the necessary workforce,” Chidambaram added. “So, when these companies figure out all their processes, they have these plants running with qualified personnel. That's economic development for the region.”

Rallying regional resources

The University of Nevada generated its NSF Engines proposal based on an intensive process of gathering stakeholders and brainstorming with them about what they might accomplish as an NSF Engine. They held an in-person stakeholder summit with representatives from all corners of the economy, including government, academia, nonprofit, and industry, to begin a conversation about what an innovation ecosystem based on the lithium lifecycle might look like. The clean energy economy, and specifically the battery industry, is identified as a crucial part of the Nevada’s government’s 5-year economic development plan for the state.

“We started to coalesce ideas around the idea of the economy of the lithium life cycle,” said Carrie Bushá, proposal capture manager at the university, who was instrumental in the development of the proposal. “We had guided discussions for hours and hours about what the lithium life cycle means for our region specifically and for Nevada.” She noted that the various stakeholders see the lithium lifecycle from different perspectives. “We all have needs, different needs to come out of it,” she said.

“This award is to help us all have those meaningful and sometimes difficult conversations so that we know what use-inspired research means, what economic development in this area means, what workforce development that's focused on the lithium lifecycle means, and what resources we need to achieve that in the long run,” Bushá added. “Our process was thorough enough to convince NSF that we've got the ball rolling and that they can invest in us and we would be successful in this two-year Type I Award to further solidify the engagement from our community.”

What the future may hold

The region became the first state to manufacture electric vehicle batteries with the Tesla Gigafactory and is now home to several next-generation battery startups. Recently, the region has started to attract several recyclers and repurposers of lithium batteries that have begun commissioning large facilities. The broader impacts of the work undertaken through this NSF development award will support the move toward clean, reliable domestic energy production to fuel a prosperous American economy.

“After we build this, we don't just sit around,” Chidambaram said. “We have to go beyond the lithium batteries that we are doing today. We initially start with the needs of today but simultaneously work on the workforce and research and innovation needs for tomorrow. That's how the engine keeps running beyond the NSF investment period.”

“It's about quality of life,” Gautam said. “Ultimately, that's how this is going to impact Nevada and, hopefully the nation.”

Gautam noted that people often ask him for the “secret sauce” in Nevada that has enabled the R&D-based innovation ecosystems to develop so fast. “The answer is simple,” he said. “We talk to each other quite often. And if anybody has a need or something to offer, we're just a phone call away.”

“Everybody is rowing in the same direction,” Gautam added.

This article was prepared by SSTI using Federal funds under award ED22HDQ3070129 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

nsf, batteries, innovation