Solar Panels

A Passion for Alternative Energy That Crosses Borders

As early as I can remember, science and engineering, after the Lord and my wife, have always been my main loves. Reflecting on my early years I recall three things that led me to where I am today. The first was that I grew up in what by today’s standards would be considered, “economically suppressed conditions.” (Clearly by the world’s standards, growing up poor in the United States was not a significant hardship.) However, since the public library was “free,” I did spend a lot of time there. At the library I discovered a book titled something like, “Laser, the light fantastic.” The book contained a really cool picture of a Flash Gordon-type of death-ray machine zapping aliens.

Greg Mowry

Greg Mowry

While I now smile at this memory, it did stimulate my imagination and ultimately led me to research optics and laser technology. The next thing that strengthened my love for science and engineering is a bit compounded: the space race along with the television series, “Star Trek.” The phrase, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” still echoes in my mind. All three gave me a thirst for discovering the unknown. (I am still trying to invent a warp drive and a teleportation device.) Finally, attending Davenport Central High School solidified my future in science and engineering. Davenport Central had math, chemistry and physics courses taught by former college professors, all of who were exciting and had an eye to the future. These teachers inspired me. Davenport Central also had access to a state-of-the-art IBM-360 computer (which dates me if you know anything about these) and a great shop program.

At Iowa State University (ISU) I earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in metallurgical engineering with a solid-state emphasis. Today that curriculum would be akin to a combined mechanical and materials engineering curriculum. There I worked as a junior researcher in the Rare Earth Information Center of Ames Laboratory under Dr. Spedding and Dr. Gschneidner. Today they are considered to be the fathers of rare-earth metal research. Both of these men, along with a host of other scientists and technicians at Ames Lab, helped hone my skills as a scientist. My work in magnetics began at Ames Lab and continues to this day. Magnetism and its applications are fascinating.

While at ISU I also was inspired to eventually pursue electronics and electric machines. A visiting professor from India was instrumental in this process. He taught the required ENGR-350 and ENGR-410 course equivalents (electricity and controls) that all non electrical engineers ‘had to take’ and his style so resonated with me that I developed a love for these topics as well. After graduating from ISU and with corporate support while working at Hewlett-Packard and later Seagate Technology, I worked on advanced degrees at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota. At Stanford I worked on a non-thesis M.S. program in electrical engineering and afterward received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering with a minor in physics from the University of Minnesota. My Stanford work focused on micromagnetic phenomena while my Ph.D. dissertation involved high-power semiconductor lasers.

Both Hewlett-Packard and Seagate Technology (two of the three large corporations that I worked for) required that all young engineers/scientists partner with experienced senior-level mentors. My mentors noted in me an aptitude for academics and discussed the possibility of ultimately transitioning from industry to academia. When the offer to join the School of Engineering at the University of St. Thomas materialized, it occurred at a time when my family and I were poised to pursue the opportunity for which I had prepared a lifetime. This launched my adventures at St. Thomas.

While working at Seagate Technology I also had the opportunity to take a significant amount of job-related international travel. Over the years this significantly altered my views on people, wealth, entitlement; and ways of doing business. My travels ultimately provided the stimulus and direction for applying the results of my research.

If one were to list the disciplines that are important or useful for alternative energy research, then the list would minimally include physics, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, energy systems and electronics. In an unplanned and serendipitous manner, my career (the accumulated degrees and experiences in almost all of these disciplines) was an excellent preparatory process for this research.

My first international research project (and first alternative energy project) came shortly after arriving at St. Thomas. The project involved collaborative work with faculty at the Technical University of Moldova (TUM) in the capital city of Chisinau. The research launched me into the world of both small and large power systems as well as solar, wind and hydro-based alternative energy systems. I led a team of six St. Thomas students to the TUM during a long and cold J-Term circa 2005. The team performed extremely well and the research progressed so fast that it was clear to me that alternative energy research would become my last great focus area. In addition, it became very clear that there was a need to develop small, robust and economic power (and water) systems for use in developing countries. The success of this research could make a significant and positive impact in many developing countries.

The alternative energy research and development that began in Moldova ultimately expanded into multiple research lines – all with a humanitarian focus. To date this has included: Developing the alternative energy power systems for a150-bed hospital in Dodoma, Tanzania, inventing a method for erecting grid-size wind turbines (for use in developing countries) that does not require cranes, inventing a new catalyst and heat exchanger for portable biodiesel productions systems for use in developing countries, a village solar-power-lighting project in Uganda, a small wind turbine project that is currently ongoing, development of a technical MSME program at St. Thomas that has a power requirement and the pending announcement of a technical MSEE at St. Thomas, which contains a significant power, power electronics, electric machines and alternative energy emphasis. This work has engaged several dozen undergraduate and graduate students over the past seven years. Many of these students are now working in energy related fields. The research has also spawned multiple senior design and additional research projects.

There is a great need for social entrepreneurship with the goal of developing economical and robust systems that provide fresh water and electricity. The engineering challenges are significant but surmountable. It simply takes will and funding. Engaging students in these research projects resonates with the students who often view social entrepreneurship, with an engineering emphasis, as a positive and valuable alternative to conventional corporate careers. The work is exciting. It is one thing to perform research that ultimately helps develop systems using the techy toys that we have available in developed countries; e.g. the United States. The question is whether the research can pave the way for engineering systems that help people in developing countries, where the techy toys and spare parts are not available and where the work will be done without technician support. This is not to mention what happens when people come to depend on these systems and they fail (hence the need for economics and

The work that the student teams and I have performed has demonstrated that research with a social entrepreneurial focus can lead to discovery, peer-reviewed technical publications, patents and importantly, solutions and products that benefit society. To me this demonstrates a holistic approach that integrates career, heart, mind and soul.

Over the years I have lost track of the number of undergraduate and graduate students who have been engaged by my research; however, they all are an integral element in all of my research.

My research projects are selected so that students will be challenged as they grow and mature, learn to solve problems and earn that “sense of ownership” that comes from substantive contributions toward a common vision. I make sure that the students are engaged in tasks that I cannot do; or more often then not, do not know how to do. This empowers the students because they develop the solutions, not me.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to meet and work with an amazingly diverse and truly wonderful group of colleagues, sponsors and friends (along with a very supportive family) while helping others. It was either in Tanzania or Uganda that I saw a billboard that read, “Our most valuable resource is our people.” This statement resonated with me and captures why I truly enjoy my work and my student researchers, and why I invest myself in this endeavor while remaining focused on the people whom I help.

Greg Mowry is associate professor at the School of Engineering.

 From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.