MTRAC hosts project review in Houghton

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette From left, Michigan Tech Sustainable Futures Institute Director David Shonnard; Brenda Da Costa, director of Tech’s Michigan Translocational Research and Commercialization program; Denise Graves, university relations director with the Michigan Economic Development Corp.; and past funding recipient Andrew Barnard, assistant professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics at Tech are seen prior to the review of eight applications for the MTRAC program Friday.

HOUGHTON — The prospects for a variety of high-tech projects through Michigan were determined by what happened at Michigan Technological University Friday.

The oversight committee for the advanced material MTRAC (Michigan Translocational Research and Commercialization program) met to review eight proposals for funding. Tech hosts MTRAC’s Applied Advanced Materials Hub, one of five university-based MTRAC hubs funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The one-year grants are intended to help projects at a crucial early stage to bring them closer to commercial development.

Eight finalists, winnowed from an original group of 14, gave 10-minute presentations. Michigan Tech was represented, as was the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. One proposal came from a research institution, the Metropolitan Detroit Research and Education Foundation.

The committee, composed of venture capitalists and industry representatives, will look at factors such as the level of innovation, whether the proposed milestones are achievable within the year.

“They will vet the milestones for true access to capital, or will this really make a difference in getting this technology out into the commercial market,” said Denise Graves, university relations director with MEDC and part of MEDC’s entrepreneurship and innovation team.

One of the eight proposals comes from a team led by David Shonnard, a chemical engineering professor at Tech and director of the Michigan Tech Sustainable Futures Institute. The proposal uses a high-temperature conversion process to turn waste plastic into high-value products.

The path of plastics has largely been in one direction: crude oils, to monomers, to polymers, to commercial use, concluding in a landfill or giant masses of ocean debris.

“Our process can help create more of a circular economy of these materials, so you avoid these downstream problems, because the materials are kept in production for multiple cycles, and making new polymers again,” he said.

These funds would be a key step along the path to making the project a reality, Shonnard said.

“The MTRAC funding will be the first step along the actual commercialization path, and hopefully after a year of MTRAC funding, that will open other avenues of further support for commercialization,” he said.

Andrew Barnard, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering, received an MTRAC award in advanced materials in 2017, and is currently in another MTRAC project that received funding through the University of Michigan’s automative MTRAC.

Going through the MTRAC process is a good exercise in thinking about who will be willing to buy their product in the end.

“At the university, we sometimes don’t think along those lines,” he said. “We think about the next cool thing, but we don’t think about how we actually transition it from the university to an industry partner. That’s sort of what this program helps us to do.”

His latest project is active noise control technology, which can be used in products that make noise through pipes and ducts. For car exhaust systems, bulky mufflers could be replaced by a loudspeaker made of carbon nanotubes, which Barnard began looking at through the advanced materials MTRAC.

The first MTRAC propelled them to more funding through the National Science Foundation, Barnard said.

Since Michigan Tech began participating in MTRAC more than five years ago, many proposals have been reviewed. The committee has awarded $915,000, which has brought in more than $12.5 million in follow-up funding.

Deliberations take place at the end of the meeting. Announcements will likely be made next week, Graves said.