WCU signs partnership agreement with Brazil-based renewable energy company

A Brazil-based renewable energy corporation is locating the headquarters of its U.S. operations at Western Carolina University to take advantage of faculty resources and laboratory space in developing new technology to help bring the world’s first “green Olympics” to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Representatives of Western Carolina and Vale Energy Solutions (Vale Soluções em Energia, or VSE) signed documents Monday, Oct. 11, formalizing the public-private partnership agreement.

WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo called the agreement a true “win-win scenario” for the university and the company.

“VSE will benefit from our faculty expertise and other resources. WCU faculty will benefit from having access to new high-tech equipment, and WCU students will benefit from hands-on educational experiences, internships and international exchange opportunities in Brazil,” Bardo said.

The region and the environment also could be big winners because of the partnership, he said.

“If the project works like we think it will, we may be able to build a manufacturing facility to make these new turbines, which could mean as many as 300 new jobs. We hope those jobs will be here in Western North Carolina,” Bardo said. “This could result in a new way to generate power that is not reliant upon petroleum, which will be better for our environment.”

The new relationship is designed to enable VSE and its U.S. subsidiary, TAO Sustainable Power Solutions, to work with faculty and staff in WCU’s Kimmel School to engineer a new turbine power system that runs on renewable energy sources. TAO will occupy offices located on the second floor of WCU’s Center for Applied Technology building.

“VSE is interested in developing this technology because Brazil does not have a lot of petroleum,” Robert McMahan, dean of the Kimmel School, said after the signing ceremony. “What Brazil does have a lot of is sugar cane, which can be fermented and used to create ethanol. The company turned to us for the expertise to make it happen.”

The agreements call for the company to bring to WCU several pieces of high-tech equipment necessary to create two state-of-the-art aerospace engineering labs, including devices to analyze the strength and vibration of turbine blades and to test their stress and thermal characteristics, McMahan said.

James Pessoa, president and CEO of VSE and TAO, said the agreement represents just the first step in a long-term partnership. “This is a great honor for me and for VSE to be here to sign and to celebrate our technological collaboration agreement for the development of advanced turbines,” Pessoa said. “I’m certain that this is the starting point of a long-range and very fruitful collaboration between VSE and Western Carolina University.”

Among possible projects in the future is a potential “game-changer,” another new form of turbine that would produce not only non-polluting energy but also fresh, drinkable water from such sources as salt water, brackish water and industrial effluent, he said, calling the project “a game-changer.”

Steve Warren, chairman of the WCU Board of Trustees, called the partnership a celebration of “a different way of thinking about how a modern-day university educates its students,” as the university has embraced a new form of scholarship that enables students and faculty to apply their scholarly work in ways that can help the surrounding region.

“With the courage and ambition of VSE, combined with the path-finding vision of an extraordinary chancellor, we celebrate a new way forward that provides an opportunity to increase the depth of the education of our students and provide jobs for the people of this region,” Warren said.

“(Poet) Edwin Markham once wrote that ‘decisions are the hinges of destiny.’ Upon this decision – the decision to combine a new approach to education with a company whose charge it is to develop environmentally responsible energy technologies – a brighter destiny awaits us, as we continue to find our new way forward,” he said.

VSE discovered the capabilities available at WCU in its Center for Rapid Product Realization through an engineering consultant who lives in nearby Franklin and whose son is a student at Western Carolina. Known as the Rapid Center, the facility focuses on education and applied research in core areas of product development, rapid prototyping, laser machining, re-engineering and parametric modeling.

The “engagement arm” of the Kimmel School, the Rapid Center provides technical assistance to companies, organizations and entrepreneurs. Over the past five years, it has worked with more than 250 businesses across the Southeast on projects ranging from a new form of artificial poplar siding for houses to a device to help patients with rehabilitation from knee surgery, and from packaging for a Christmas tree ornament manufacturing company to tiny fiber-electronic connectors.