Editorial: Pragmatic high-tech

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What we like most about a recent grant awarded to a lab at WPI is that it’s so … Worcester.

For a city where innovation tends to be fueled by equal parts pragmatism and smarts, a million dollars to help researchers improve battery recycling for electric cars fits right in.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute announced last month that a novel process for recovering ingredients from lithium-ion batteries — the kind used in electric and hybrid cars — caught the eye of the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium. The consortium is a collaboration of carmakers FCA US (formerly known as Chrysler), Ford and General Motors, and it selected the WPI team, led by Yan Wang, for a contract worth $1 million to further develop and scale up the procedure.

The process invented at WPI is a practical success because it can work on lithium-ion batteries made by different manufacturers using various cathode chemistries. Basically, spent lithium-ion batteries are broken down to produce a powder, and the powder can then be used to produce new cathode materials for new batteries for these fuel-efficient cars of the future.

Voilà. Pragmatic and brilliant — and good for the environment to boot.

“Batteries are among the costliest components of electric and hybrid vehicles,” Wang, who directs WPI’s Electrochemical Energy Laboratory, said in the statement from the school.

“If we can reduce the cost of lithium-ion batteries through this process, while also recovering and reusing large amounts of materials that are currently being thrown away, we can offer a value-driven path towards improved industry sustainability,” he said.

The competitively bid, two-year contract award is half funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, with the rest picked up by WPI and a battery manufacturer.

It’s a worthy endeavor, and $1 million is a significant contract to be sure. But many might have missed this news, or paid it little mind.

For in Worcester, it’s not all that unusual to see headlines of this formula: “[Name of institution] awarded [huge amount of money] to study [something super worthy].” A case in point is the Worcester Business Journal’s take on the battery breakthrough: “WPI secures $1 million hybrid car research award.”

We are rich in resources and possibility, here in Worcester. Few cities can boast such regular displays of brain power put to practical use.

We take for granted, perhaps, how special a place we have here at the headwaters of the Blackstone River, where a city grew up with roots deep in both industry and education. Early mill owners and industrialists included, for instance, Ichabod Washburn, who in Worcester made huge innovations in wire manufacturing — and who co-founded WPI.

Ironworking and machine manufacturing in the 1800s helped build a city that is still innovating, in areas ranging from biomolecules to fire safety, robotics to video games, and other products and ideas. And through decades of enormous change, Worcester’s tradition of industry and innovation has been boosted almost all along the way by the melding of our education base with our manufacturing one.

Rocketry, RNA interference (Nobel Prize for that one), stem cells, education, the birth control pill, wearable electronic devices, and progress in understanding and combating diseases such as Down syndrome, ebola and diabetes are just are few examples of important contributions from Worcester over the years, many of them connected to the University of Massachusetts Medical School (which spent $250.3 million on research last year) and/or to other local institutions of higher learning.

Education is the linchpin.

The greater Worcester area has something not many cities do: a slew of vibrant, pioneering schools. We’re about a dozen strong in colleges and universities, and they include places where cutting-edge thinking, dreaming, researching and producing are happening every day.

Having so many such schools in close proximity helps keep the cauldrons of learning bubbling in each place. Labs compete, professors and students talk, companies and other institutions close by contribute resources and ideas, municipal officials step in with incubator spaces and funding assistance — and in such ways local innovators up their game.

Worcester’s manageable size, longstanding practical bent and outstanding organizations are its calling card for competing in today’s global, competitive “innovation economy,” and making the world a better place along the way.

We are not Cambridge, with its Harvard and MIT academic anchors (plus Lesley and three other lesser-known institutions of higher learning: Cambridge College, Episcopal Divinity School and Longy School of Music). But our schools are more in number, generally more accessible in various ways, and for our money present a pretty impressive aggregate of excellence and opportunity.

HECCMA, the Higher Education Consortium of Central Massachusetts, consists of 12 member institutions, nine of which are in Worcester. Each boasts a notable record in the niches they occupy. They are: Anna Maria College in Paxton, Assumption College, Becker College, Clark University, College of the Holy Cross, MCPHS University, Nichols College in Dudley, Quinsigamond Community College, Tuft University’sCummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, Worcester State University, Worcester Polytechnic University and University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Each helps put our city in the driver’s seat of progress — soon, perhaps, in an affordable electric car, with WPI’s fingerprints on the greenly engineered battery.

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