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USU Eastern is poised to be an 'economic engine' for Castle Country

Robert Behunin addresses the chamber.

Sun Advocate reporter

As the nation moves into 2013 amid unceasing rhetoric about the country's economic future, there's a bit of good news for this region. It is the potential for USU Eastern to become an economic development engine for Castle Country, a potential that already has seen a $1.6 million investment by the university and the prospect of a privately-financed multimillion-dollar coke processing facility in the near future.

The word came from USU Vice President for Commercialization and Regional Development Robert Behunin, who spoke at last week's Carbon County Chamber of Commerce banquet.

Behunin's PowerPoint presentation was a response to USU Eastern Chancellor Joe Petersen and the chamber, who had asked for an in-depth look at the public/private partnership which developing between the Castle Country community and the college.

"Utah State University as a land grant university is famous for these types of partnerships," he said.

Behunin was enthusiastic this partnership and many of the "great things" happening at Utah State are taking place in rural Utah. Even though the main campus is based in Logan, much of Behunin's presentation focused on rural communities and the work being done there.

Before diving into the specifics of what is happening in Utah's Eastern Corridor, Behunin went through the college's development personal as well as their vocational structure concerning the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative or USTAR.

According to the college's website, the program is an innovative and far-reaching initiative of the Utah State legislature to bolster Utah's high-tech economy by investing in university research programs and recruiting new, high-caliber faculty.

"Right now we have five institutes, 12 spinouts, and remember that because that is going to be important to you all," he explained. "When we talk about how legislative funding starts things, it's not a perpetual motion machine. We are supposed to become self-sustaining. So out of the 10 teams we have, six receive no more USTAR state funding at all. They are making their own money, making their own way in the world and doing great things."

Over an 18 month period, the program has received $153,625,702.

According to Behunin, "This is the enterprise that we want to share with you. This is why we are here. This is what we are doing. And we are going to get into some particulars so we can help you access this large revenue stream."

To demonstrate more directly the program's initiatives, Behunin explained USU's Utah Advanced Transportation Initiative.

The group as built an electric bus that charges without being plugged in. "Maybe some of you have seen this on the news, maybe you saw it on the jumbo-tron in Times Square, maybe you read about it in Popular Mechanics because we have been everywhere," he said. "This bus has a charging pad that sits in the ground where it picks people up and receiver pad. So when the bus pulls over the charging pad it charges wirelessly. It pushes a 25 kilowatt current to the bus with no degradation of the field. Doesn't hurt your hearing aid or your pacemaker and it doesn't fry your cell phone."

According to Behunin, this is the first bus of its kind and it was developed at Utah State.

"Why is this important to coal country," he asked. "Well, we aren't carrying our fuel with us and we are relaying on the electrical generation infrastructure to put that in place. So Rocky Mountain Power loves it and by the way Questar loves it."

Behunin reported that the Czech Republic recently signed a $1.9 million contract to build 30 of these buses this year and 60 next year.

"We are going to rely on some of Joe Peterson's people right here in the technical area to develop training manuals. And who is going to retrofit these buses and who is going to fix them? We don't do that at Logan, but we know USU Eastern has the capacity to train those people, hundreds of them. So we are looking to that alliance to be able to do that."

Following the discussion of additional applications including flowmeters, spider silk and weather- driven space initiatives, Behunin focused on coke. The clean coke that is.

USU's regional development in Carbon County revolves around finding a way to burn coal in a more environmentally friendly manner.

"For the last two years, we have taken the old WETC facility, re-branded it, revitalized it and have renamed it the Carbon Energy Innovation Center. We have secured a $500,000 equipment donation $250,000 of UCAT funding, $150,000 funding from a private company and then I have plopped in another $700,000 out of my budget. That is right around $1.6 million that USU is investing in this community to scale up and build a pilot plant at the old WETC facility."

The plant is a clean coke briquettes plant based on technology partially developed by Dr. Scott Hill and Combustion Resources. Current projections indicate that by the end of February, a full scale, operating pilot plant should be producing between two to four tons of material per day. Estimations provided by Behunin point to 100 new jobs. $2 million in annual royalties for the college.

"This is pretty exciting stuff for us, and I hope it's exciting for you," said Behunin. "The innovation and the opportunity here can take lower BTU coal out of slag piles and make it useful. This is a $57 million plant that would be here in your community with private money, not state."

Behunin also took his time with the chamber to announce a spin off project which has already taken off from the clean coke tech.

"Tonight we are announcing in front of you the chamber of commerce, the formation of BRAVAS Clean Coke Technology. This is a fully fledged spin-off of Utah State, ready to take private investment and move forward," he said.

According to Behunin, the money raised by these projects will not be sent to Logan. It will remain here in Carbon County.

"We want to unleash the talent of those who are creating innovative technology through energy production," he concluded.

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