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Grainger gifts fund programs to explore promising new technologies

Sara Chilton, Office of Development, College of Engineering
(217) 244-7673;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Revolutionary research into the fundamentals of electrical power and other promising areas of engineering will be emerging from the laboratories of the University of Illinois College of Engineering, thanks to three new major gifts from The Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest, Ill.

One gift will establish and provide funding for the Grainger Program in Emerging Technologies. The program is designed to increase awareness among faculty and students of how new developments in engineering science and technology can create commercially viable products and services.

The Grainger Program is unusual in that it will close the gap between federal funding, which often focuses on new ideas without requiring that their practical utility be demonstrated, and industrial support, which typically targets only proven technologies. David E. Daniel, the dean of the College of Engineering, said that the two-year Grainger Program will fund up to 14 grants of $100,000 each. Each grant is subject to a thorough screening process involving both faculty members and representatives from engineering industries.

"We want to provide grants for risky but potentially high-impact ideas," Daniel said. The program will provide grants for two kinds of projects: early-stage, highly novel ideas that could have a major impact on technology and business; and mature-stage, "development" projects that will close the gap between a proven idea and a viable product.

"Partnering with industry is very important," Daniel said. "We are clear in our vision that these projects should have the potential to have a high economic impact on the state of Illinois. We don’t expect all of them to be successful, but we are definitely looking for ideas that could achieve that kind of breakthrough."

Two additional Grainger gifts totaling $10 million have endowed the Grainger Center for Electric Machinery and Electromechanics (CEME) and a Grainger Director’s Chair, which will support the center’s director. Established in 1999 with annual funding from the foundation, the Grainger CEME is dedicated to research and development of innovative electrical power systems and technologies. Its director, Professor Philip T. Krein, will be the first holder of the Grainger Director’s Chair.

The Grainger CEME will also be making grants to promising new projects. "We want to do some new and different things," Krein said. "We want to live up to the charge we have been given (by The Grainger Foundation), to discover and develop new electric power technologies."

The Grainger CEME will be focusing on a number of specific areas for exploration. Of critical importance is electric motor design. "Electric motors have been around for a hundred years without much change in design," Krein said. "But in the last couple of decades there have been two fundamental changes in our technology: We have new and improved materials, and we now have the ability to use direct electronic controls. We need a much broader array of different types of motors, different applications, different sizes, with a higher degree of efficiency. We need to ask the question, How would we design an electric motor if we were starting from scratch today?"

One promising area for exploration, Krein said, is the technology called MEMS, or microelectromechanical systems. MEMS devices contain both circuitry and moving parts on a tiny silicon chip. Their mechanical devices can be used as sensors, like the collision sensors used in automobile air bags. "At these small sizes, the mechanics change a lot," Krein said. "We need to explore the full context of the system, think more broadly about energy sources themselves." MEMS-level research also raises the need to develop three-dimensional visualization techniques, now made possible by rapid increases in computational power.

"These are areas crying out for systems-level thinking," Krein said. "We are setting up the interdisciplinary capabilities to address such complex questions. Illinois is uniquely suited to put together these kinds of interdisciplinary, cooperative teams." The Grainger CEME has set up a collaborative network with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Purdue, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Georgia Tech, as well as supporting projects on the Illinois campus. "We will be taking significant research risks, well beyond the conventional," Krein noted, adding, "the mission of CEME is deliberately framed to encourage a broad range of science and technological applications."

The Grainger Foundation was established by William W. Grainger, a 1919 electrical engineering graduate of the University of Illinois. Grainger founded W.W. Grainger Inc. in 1927 as a mail-order business selling electric motors. His eight-page catalog has grown to 4,000 pages, and W.W. Grainger Inc. has become a national leader in the distribution of maintenance, repair, and operating (MRO) supplies and components.

The Grainger Foundation also made possible the Grainger Engineering Library Information Center, which opened in 1994, the Grainger Awards Program, and the Grainger Lecture Series. The 1979 Grainger Chair in Electrical Engineering was the first endowed academic position to be established in the College of Engineering. It is currently held by Professor Peter W. Sauer, also a researcher in electrical power systems and co-director of the Advanced Power Applications Laboratory, also funded by The Grainger Foundation.

"W.W. Grainger Inc. had its roots in the electrical power industry," Krein said. "Mr. Grainger knew that electrical energy is central to the economy, to our nation’s growth. Of all the things that have changed the world in the last 100 years, electrification has been listed No. 1 in several surveys of experts. There’s every reason to believe it will be just as central in the future."