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The Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology is poised to grow.
Six years after its founding, the institute is set to move into its own building for the first time. The 84,000-square-foot Sustainability Institute Hall will be a space that officials say should foster growth in the center's work in sustainable technologies.
The hall will have new laboratories, a fuel-cell power unit and many new energy-efficient characteristics.
Nabil Nasr, assistant provost for academic affairs and director of GIS, said the building will give the institute the ability to grow in both its research and development capabilities and its academic offerings.
Founded in 2007 with a $10 million grant from Paychex Inc. chairman Thomas Golisano, the institute has worked on academic and research programs focusing on sustainable production, sustainable energy, sustainable mobility and ecologically friendly information technology systems.
In 2008 the institute introduced its first Ph.D. program, the world's first doctorate in sustainable production. Academic offerings expanded again with a master of science program in sustainable systems in 2010.
Nasr talked with the Rochester Business Journal about how GIS is helping to shape the future of sustainable technology and production and how the new building will benefit the institute and the community.
ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL: How will this new building allow the Golisano Institute to expand?
NABIL NASR: The whole initiative to grow the institute, which the building is a big part of, adds significant resources that we did not have before. This basically allows us to expand our reach and capabilities in areas we did not have the resources to expand in before.
We want to be at the cutting edge of sustainable technology and to focus on the commercialization of technology, reaching out to industry to help them. There's a huge focus on economic development, and we want to be a resource to the community and to the state, to be a model for research and development that others can emulate.
There are several examples of how we're expanding. One is our work in the microgrid. We lose power from the energy grid so that by the time it comes to our facility some of that energy is lost in generation and transmission. In our building we use on-site generation to get higher efficiency.
Our building is powered with many new technologies, and we use them as part of our research labs. We have fuel cells, biomass, geothermal, windmills and a large battery system. It all provides significant testing of technology.
Having a microgrid, or smart grid, is an area that's exciting because it can have a significant impact on organizations or developing industries. Communities will also be able to use these things to reduce energy consumption.
We also have great technology to work on fuel cells, and the test beds we're building are going to be very unique. We're building a vehicle dynamics lab that will be primarily used for new technology for new propulsion and things we haven't been able to do before.
The building itself will be a smart building, so we will collect thousands of points of data and use that to see how smart buildings of the future will operate. In a building, you typically lose heat through the glass of the windows, so we have a small wire that heats the outside of the window to compensate for any heat difference between the inside and outside.
There's also an occupancy sensor that knows if I'm in a room or not and starts providing the heat inside the window if the room is occupied. There are those sensors throughout the building, and we optimize heating and cooling based on this data.
RBJ: How important is it for the Golisano Institute for Sustainability to have its own building?
NASR: We think of our building as a resource for our community and the industries we work with. It's important to have an expansion in our laboratories to prove our technology and be able to demonstrate it to our partners. Without this building, it would be difficult to work on the technologies that we do.
We've also been growing and have a Ph.D. program and a master's program in sustainable manufacturing. We continue to hire more people and add more students and more graduates. That growth makes it critical to have this expansion.
RBJ: How will this new building affect economic development?
NASR: We're working on so many different fronts, expanding our capabilities and activity in terms of technology incubation, working with so many companies, far more than we did at any time in the past.
What excites me personally is the new partnerships on the technology development side that turn into their own spinoff companies. The number of companies that have graduated and done well after starting in our facility as small ideas is growing. Some of them have contracts in the millions and are hiring many people today, and we hope to see a lot more of that in the future.
You can't really grow without the resources we're going to have. Our approach is very different; we don't really do theoretical work with limited validation. Our motto is to move from research to implementation, so we have to be able to show that the technology we develop can be used. The building is critical to grow those capabilities. We can do a lot more now, but the chances of what we work with actually being done in real life would be small if we just worked in the theoretical side.
RBJ: What accomplishments are you most proud of through the first six years of the institute?
NASR: The most exciting part for me is that in the past we helped companies and walked away, and now with this academic program we're graduating students and spreading the knowledge much farther. One of the students from our first class is now teaching at Clemson University and spreading what she learned here. We need more people trained and educated in this area.
The other thing I'm very proud about is the incubation of companies. Seeing things start to happen here and then a few years later those companies are winning contracts of $100 million or more, that's really exciting, because not only have companies stayed in the area and contributed to economic growth in the region, they're also bringing a real value in the technologies they use.
RBJ: What do you see in the future for GIS?
NASR: We actually see a lot of companies that are really interested in getting to some solid ideas and solid technologies that could make a difference in this area. The challenge is a lot of smaller and (midsize) companies will need a push to get going in this area, and some larger companies might have an internal push to be cleaner but lack the awareness.
But we're constantly seeing companies that are interested, and the ones that come to us don't even have to work in the clean technology industry; they just might want to improve their production or sustainable design.
In our society, manufacturing is where wealth is created. We need to have cars to drive, and need smartphones and gadgets to sustain our standard of living. The question is how do we make those in a sustainable fashion, in a way that can be sustained in the long term.
That's what we're all about, having that production continue in a way that doesn't degrade the environment. Regardless of what things people are making, they need to look closely at their processes and ask, "How do we make a product in a safe way for workers and make sure the product is optimized for its use and has a process to dispose of it safely?"
Our role is the transformation of that industrial system to make sure we can sustain it and have something to hand over to our children.
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