Richard Johnson, director of the NIU-ROCK Program
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Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
July 8, 2008
Savanna, Ill. — Savanna-based N-Ovation and Naperville-based Packer Engineering owe their partnership to the “matchmaking” skills of Northern Illinois University’s ROCK program.
ROCK (short for Rapid Optimization of Commercial Knowledge) is the outreach arm of NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. Created in 2003, the program’s purpose is to help small manufacturing companies in the Rock River Valley become contributors to the Department of Defense supply chain, and to harness the resources of NIU to improve the manufacturing climate throughout northern Illinois.
The program quickly amassed a huge network of companies and inventors across the region, and soon ROCK’s skills as a matchmaker began to emerge. As they made their rounds and learned what challenges companies faced, they would do their best to link those companies with researchers or resources at NIU. Sometimes, however, the better solution was to introduce them to companies with complementary technologies.
Such was the case with N-Ovation and Packer Engineering.
Dick Johnson, director of the ROCK Program, had met Gary Frederick of N-Ovation when Frederick approached him to learn about the micro-machining projects taking place at EIGERlab in Rockford. That initial conversation led to collaboration on some projects, and ultimately a discussion about a device Frederick was creating that would allow farmers to extract nitrogen from the air to make their own fertilizer. It was a proven, viable idea, but one that required a lot of electricity.
Coincidentally, through work on some projects at the Rock Island Arsenal, Johnson met Peter Schubert of Packer Engineering who was designing a small power plant fueled by crop waste that could generate more than enough electricity for the average farm. His challenge was what to do with that excess electricity? (Since selling it to power companies is often not lucrative.)
Johnson immediately recognized the potential synergy.
“Gary needed cheap electricity to make fertilizer to grow crops; Peter had a generator powered by crop waste, which created excess electricity,” says Johnson. “The opportunities were obvious.”
Johnson made introductions and also helped the newly created team draft a grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, applying for funds under a program that sought creative uses for “spare biomass,” like corn stalks, etc. It was that application that resulted in a $1 million USDA grant that is helping fund the research and development work needed to complete prototypes of the machinery and move the program forward.
Johnson also introduced N-Ovation and Packer to faculty at NIU’s engineering school who are providing engineering assistance and research to support the efforts of the companies. Some of those activities also might involve graduate and undergraduate students from NIU who will get firsthand experience developing cutting edge technology.
NIU engineering faculty are currently assisting with the high voltage electronics for the nitrogen extractor and mapping out the chemical process map for the crop waste gassifier that fuels the power plant.
“This project embodies what ROCK is all about,” says Johnson. “It’s using the resources of the university to advance new technologies, stimulate the economy and provide unique research and learning opportunities.”
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