This year is the 70th anniversary of Idaho National Laboratory being founded and the 10th anniversary of the lab’s biggest collaboration with Idaho’s colleges.
The Center for Advanced Energy Studies was dedicated by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter in February 2009, and it fully opened its labs for university research soon after. The 55,000-square-foot building was built and operated in a partnership between INL and Boise State University, Idaho State University, University of Idaho and University of Wyoming, which joined the effort later.
The building is owned by the state of Idaho, and INL leases 68 percent of the building, INL’s website said. The four universities lease 8 percent of the building. Over the last decade, tens of millions of dollars have been invested to finance research between the colleges that could not have been done by a stand-alone effort.
“The building facilitates a place to do that work, but the process of planning and building brought the universities and the lab together before it opened,” Bob Smith said.
Smith was University of Idaho’s CAES associate director for the first nine years of the program, including the four years of planning before research could begin. When he became the associate director and talk first began on creating the center, the university would have one or two students a year that pursued advanced degrees in nuclear engineering. Now, the university says that 55 students are involved in CAES research during an average year.
The idea to create the Center for Advanced Energy Research first came up in 2005, when Battelle Energy Alliance took over operations at what was then called the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. One of the requirements in the government contract with Battelle was the creation of a joint research location where colleges could work on research without needing high-level security clearance.
“The original thinking was that there needed to be a facility where the research could be begun by university students and faculty, but also by the laboratory staff. Somewhere where the access wouldn’t be restricted and the labs weren’t necessarily classified,” said Richard Jacobsen, who was dean of the ISU College of Engineering when the project was first announced.
There had been collaborations between the state’s three largest colleges in the past. Fred Gunnerson, former director of the University of Idaho campus in Idaho Falls, said Jacobsen had pushed for more cooperation on the western side of the state, and he oversaw a number of programs between ISU and U of I in Idaho Falls. Before CAES, those tended to be more sporadic, stand-alone projects organized directly by the staff.
“It was one-on-one programs based on whatever common interests were shared by a researcher at one college and a professor at another,” Gunnerson said.
The three Idaho universities combined to pay half the original cost of the $14 million center during the initial stages, with Idaho National Laboratory paying for the rest. Construction started in February 2007.
The start of CAES coincided with the Department of Energy launching the Nuclear Energy University Program in the spring of 2009. The initiative provides millions of dollars each year to university research and student scholarships in order to better organize the nuclear work being done across the country. In the first year, eight research projects were funded out of the Idaho colleges and CAES received a total of $8 million before it was fully operational.
“We punched quite a bit above our weight, in terms of the portion of federal grants we were getting from the start,” Smith said.
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin was a representative in the Idaho State House during the push to create CAES. She and other members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee had to convince Otter to pass a one-time funding budget for CAES in 2009. By the end of that first year, there was no need to convince other legislators that the center was worthwhile.
“Once these research grants started coming in, it was easy to see how good of an investment CAES was going to be for Idaho,” McGeachin said.
Damon Woods worked remotely with CAES while getting his master’s degree from Boise State University from 2010 to 2013. He was involved in research on wind turbine design, one of the early CAES research projects that received major funding and press attention. A research team based in the Idaho Falls center built and erected the wind turbines near the campus, while Woods and other students created data models for the real-time data gathered by them from Boise.
The first time that Woods visited the Idaho Falls CAES building in 2010, he was impressed by the displays in the lobby. Although the Center had just started, it was already certified as an energy-efficient building through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system and had displays set up of the turbines and solar panels that local researchers had worked on.
“Seeing what people from across the state had come to spend their summers working on, and the technology I’d read about in books actually there on the site, was pretty neat,” Woods said.
Some of the focus at CAES has changed over the past decade. Both Smith and Jacobsen said the focus of the research has gradually shifted from the alternative energy field to focus more on nuclear work. The center also has increased its research into cybersecurity and the technology available for research, including the Computer-Assisted Virtual Environment that provides a virtually immersive 3D environment for studying a number of topics.
Jacobsen served as Idaho State University’s associate director at CAES from 2010 to 2011, then returned to the position in 2015. He said the increase in nuclear research went hand-in-hand with other projects that focus on alternative energy.
“I believed right down to my toenails that there was going to be a renaissance of nuclear energy in this country as part of the green energy effort,” Jacobsen said.
CAES’ success helped pave the way for two new state-backed buildings now under construction near CAES on INL’s Research and Education Campus in Idaho Falls.
The Cybercore Integration Center will focus on cybersecurity research and education. The other building, called the Collaborative Computing Center or C3, would be an 80,000-square-foot building meant to house an advanced supercomputer for research and scientific simulation.
CAES was largely financed by about $10 million in bonds, which are expected to be paid off soon. The Cybercore and C3 buildings are being paid for through a deal where the state Building Authority sold the $90 million in bonds used to fund the project, then leased the land to the state Board of Education, which in turn is leasing it to INL. INL will pay the state $6,120,000 a year.
The two new buildings are expected to add $102 million a year to the local economy, according to numbers compiled by the Research and Business Development Center in Rexburg.
After graduating from BSU, Woods switched over to the University of Idaho to continue working on his Ph.D., which also relied on collaborations with CAES. Woods travels with groups of other students from both Boise State and U of I while researching energy-efficient designs for buildings through one of 28 federally-organized Industrial Assessment Centers in the county.
Boise State is technically listed as the lead university for the Industrial Assessment Center but the program is run through CAES’ office in Boise and Woods said the program would not be able to exist without the involvement of multiple colleges.
“I feel lucky that CAES has allowed me to work with both of these colleges for both of my degrees,” Woods said.
Reporter Nathan Brown contributed to this article.