The University announced plans this week to strengthen its development of alternative energy sources such as hydrogen by creating a multidisciplinary initiative.

During Monday’s address to the Faculty Senate, a board of elected faculty representatives, University President Mary Sue Coleman announced that the initiative would “explore the challenges and risks of moving from a petroleum-dependent society to one that relies upon hydrogen for its energy.”

Coleman cited the United States’s disproportionately high energy use as a reason to establish the initiative. The United States consumes 24 percent of the world’s energy but contains less than 5 percent of the planet’s population.

Coleman called the country’s energy use one of the most pervasive challenges to society and said hydrogen represents a promising alternative to petroleum.

“Hydrogen is clean, it is efficient, and it can be produced from renewable resources,” she said.

Levi Thompson, an associate Engineering dean, will lead the initiative with a staff of about 30 that will probably grow, he said.

The staff will include graduate students, post-doctoral students, faculty, researchers and others, he said.

The University-wide initiative will be housed in the Phoenix Memorial Laboratory on North Campus.

The lab is currently being used for nuclear energy research, a program that will be incorporated into the new initiative.

The lab will need costly renovations before it can house the initiative, which does not yet have an official name.

Thompson said he expects the total cost of the initiative to approach $20 million, with the renovations to the lab costing roughly $10 million.

He added that it is not yet clear when renovations to the lab will begin.

Thompson said he expects Phoenix to become the nation’s leading hydrogen research facility.

Coleman said that strong programs in engineering, medicine, natural resources, business and public policy will allow the University to take a leading role in developing hydrogen as a feasible energy alternative.

The University has been working on energy-related issues for a while, Thompson said, adding that the research has been both technical and policy based, involving various schools and departments in the University.

“We envision an energy institute that would be an umbrella organization for energy research,” he said.

Thompson said he believes alternative energy sources will first be used in portable electronic devices such as cell phones and will later be adapted to larger objects such as cars.

One of the largest obstacles to hydrogen-based fuel has been its high cost. Currently, the cost of hydrogen fuel cells is about $10,000 per kilowatt, The Michigan Daily reported in January.

But Thompson is pioneering a method called microfabrication that has the potential to significantly lower the price tag.

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