True to its name, the Phoenix Project is undergoing a resurrection.

Angela Cesere
Morgan Wilkins, a former intern with the College Republican National Committee. Wilkins suggested bringing “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” and “Fun with Guns” to campus. (PETER SCHOTTENFELS/Daily)

When it was founded in 1948, the project’s mission was to find safe uses for atomic energy. After 1956, the North Campus lab even housed a nuclear reactor, which was later shut down.

Fifty-eight years later, the University Board of Regents has tweaked the project’s mission. Now instead of advocating peaceful fission, the project will be responsible for coordinating energy research across campus.

The lab will be called the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute. The University is allocating $9 million to the creation of the institute.

Engineering Prof. Gary Was, who will be the institute’s first director, said Phoenix will help connect researchers working on similar projects.

“(The institute) will provide a unified voice and a focal point for energy research,” Was said. “Sometimes just collecting and getting the researchers together is a significant challenge.”

The laboratory space itself is undergoing an $11 million facelift funded by money from the state and University. Regents approved the renovation in May.

The Phoenix Project was originally part of a memorial to 585 students, alumni, faculty and staff members who died in World War II. The idea was to find ways to use the nuclear technology that ended the war not for destruction, but for human welfare.

Once completed, the lab will house Engineering Prof. Levi Thompson’s Hydrogen Energy Technology Lab as well as common space for the institute’s projects.

“At the present time, the institute is not going to be enormous in terms of its bricks-and-mortar presence,” Was said.

The lab won’t be used as much for research space as it will as a collaboration center.

Was said that in addition to researching new methods for sustainable, clean and affordable energy, the institute will also work in the public policy sector.

Was said the University could be a leader in public policy and the social aspects of the energy development.

Historically, the University has been known for its automotive and nuclear energy programs. Was said the institute is aiming to strengthen research in other fields such as hydrogen and solar energy, as well as how those technologies could interact with public policy.

Was will have three associate directors in the categories of science and technology, public policy and outreach. He will report to Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research.

“The interdisciplinary culture compared to other top research institutions gives us a big advantage because energy research is interdisciplinary in nature, and draws upon disparate fields,” Forrest said in a written statement. “This institute will bring together U-M’s energy research activities to achieve maximum impact.”

Once established, the institute will principally be funded through private foundations, industry partnerships and federal government project bids, Was said.

The University hopes to recruit top faculty to the institute. Some of the institute’s funding will be devoted to creating new chair positions and fellowships in LSA, the College of Engineering and the Rackham Graduate School.

Was said he also hopes to attract big names in energy research to campus by hosting an energy symposium in February at Rackham Ampitheatre.

As the institute launches, Was said he will focus on making sure researchers and faculty across campus become involved through a series of workshops designed to advertise the project’s opportunities.

Was said he will also hire new faculty to strengthen key areas of research.

The re-establishment of the institute was a key recommendation from the Michigan Energy Research Council, a commission led by former University President James Duderstadt to find ways to strengthen hydrogen energy research.

Phoenix basics

– The offices of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute will be housed at 2301 Bonisteel Blvd. on North Campus.

– The institute will bring together researchers from across campus as a central hub for energy research.

– The University has allocated $9 million to establish the institute.

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