MTU Research Award Winner Drives Automotive Industry Innovation — and Inspires the Next Generation

The 2022 Michigan Tech Research Award Winner stands in front of the APS LABS sign outside one of the research facilities he oversees.
The 2022 Michigan Tech Research Award Winner stands in front of the APS LABS sign outside one of the research facilities he oversees.
Fifteen patents, 67 journal papers, 110 symposia papers and numerous teaching, research, professional and industry awards. Add 2022 Michigan Tech Research Award winner to Jeff Naber’s list of accomplishments.

For a body of research, teaching and service that have helped establish Michigan Technological University as an international leader in power and energy systems research, Jeffrey Naber has earned the University’s 2022 Research Award.

There’s the hum of a productive day underway as students and staff go about their midmorning tasks in the Advanced Power Systems Research Center (APSRC) at Houghton County Memorial Airport Industrial Airpark. Jeff Naber directs the flow of activity, checking in with Huskies monitoring the 200-plus channel instrumentation board for the engine dynamometer test cell and checking out the progress as another group prepares the latest in Michigan Tech’s fleet of autonomous vehicles for a demo. 

About the Award

The annual Michigan Tech Research Award sets a high bar for outstanding achievement in sustained research or a single noteworthy breakthrough. Nominations open each spring. The winner receives a plaque and $2,500 cash award. 

How do you maneuver a heavy-duty off-road-capable pickup in a confined space with a tight turning radius? Very slowly. But it’s easy to see that despite some nerves, the student in the driver’s seat and his spotters are well-prepared and having a blast. It’s equally clear that Naber is confident the job is in capable hands. This is a place where expectations are met. After he points to the designated parking spot, he moves on to a visitors’ tour of the mobile lab without looking back.

Researcher and Professor Jeff Naber is shown with students and staff in and around the autonomous pick-up at APS-LABS.
Tech’s 2022 Research Award winner Jeff Naber and some of the students and staff he worked with this summer take a break to demo Tech’s autonomy pickup. 

It’s no wonder that Naber is very much at home in the 55,000 square-foot test and research facility. It’s part of the Advanced Power Systems (APS) LABS that he helped establish in 2007. He has served as APS LABS director since 2008 and was at the helm in 2014 when APSRC was declared one of Michigan Tech’s core facilities. In fiscal year 2021, the Tier 1 research center had contracts for $9.5 million in external funding.

The oversight might seem overwhelming. But thinking big-picture, long-term and leading-edge is not a daunting task for Naber. Over the course of his research career the Richard and Elizabeth Henes Endowed Professor in Energy Systems in Michigan Tech’s mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics department has tallied more than $43 million in external research funding — including 15 years of continuous funding from multiple industry partners. During that time, he’s also inspired hundreds of students and fostered working relationships with government and industry entities, focused on the shared mission to use education and research as vehicles for clean, efficient and sustainable power and powertrain systems. 

Four cars, a pickup, a semi-trailer and a mobile lab are part of the APS-LABS mobility fleet at Michigan Tech.
APS LABS facilities include the 55,000-square-foot Advanced Power Systems Research Center (APSRC); the 5,500-square-foot Alternative Energy Research Building with an energy and combustion laboratory; and an expandable mobile lab equipped with a powertrain test cell, a configurable hybrid electric vehicle and smart interactive microgrid, all pulled by a class eight semi-truck for off-site education. 

Nominators mentioned Naber’s contribution to the automotive industry’s knowledge base, numerous publications — some known as classics in the field — and thousands of citations. He was also praised for his ability to couple deep knowledge of automotive technology with a keen understanding of industry needs. 

“Dr. Naber is one of those rare individuals who can manage a large externally funded research program, personally advise and graduate a large number of Ph.D. and M.S. graduate students, produce foundational scholarly work, perform major external and internal service, successfully lead as director of the Michigan Tech Advanced Power Systems Research Center and be recognized with awards by his peers and students in these areas,” said Bill Predebon, the recently retired 25-year chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at MTU. 

"Jeff is a world-renowned researcher in fuels and engines. His creative contributions to the field are exemplary."Bogdan I. Epureanu, director, University of Michigan Automotive Research Center

Nominator Jaal Ghandhi had been collaborating with Naber for quite some time when he discovered a new dimension to his colleague's contributions. It happened during a visit to campus.

“One characteristic that distinguishes a truly outstanding scholar from one who is merely exceptional is their ability to make those around them better. I visited MTU in 2017, and one of the most impressive things I learned on my visit was not that Jeff was a superstar — I already knew that — but that he has mentored a number of junior faculty, many of whom did not have background in engines, and has built a quite formidable team," he said.

"The technical diversity of the team and its relative cohesiveness puts Michigan Tech in a great position moving forward."Jaal Ghandhi, Grainger Professor of Sustainable Energy, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Naber has graduated 20 students seeking doctorates (seven were co-advised) and 67 who earned master’s degrees. He’s currently advising 12 Ph.D. students and one master’s student, and regularly works with undergraduate research assistants. His efforts in curriculum development were also mentioned by nominators for their importance to both the University and the field. For example, Naber co-developed the graduate certificate in hybrid vehicle engineering in partnership with General Motors — and with U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funding. He also co-developed the automotive systems and controls graduate certificate. 

"He is an incredible experimentalist, leader, research project fundraiser and mentor of colleagues and students. He is one of my role models for how to create opportunities for industry and academia to work together in ways that are career-launching for our students."Gregory M. Shaver, professor of mechanical engineering, Purdue University

Nominators also praised Naber’s service to the industry through organizations including SAE International, U.S. DRIVE and the Michigan Alliance for Greater Mobility Advancement. Naber is also an active program and proposal reviewer for the National Science Foundation and DOE.

$43M+ external funding as principal investigator (PI) or co-PI

2,666 citations since 2017

Top 10% student evaluations from Michigan Tech Provost

15 Patents

In his own words, 2022 Research Award Winner Jeff Naber reflects on achievements met and challenges to come in his research, teaching and service.

Q: What is the main focus of your work?

JN: My research lies at the intersection of energy, power and mobility. Safe, clean, reliable, affordable power and transportation impact everything we do and are critically important to all our communities, especially those disadvantaged. 

Q: Where do you get the inspiration for your projects? Why do you care about your research?

JN: I work with a large network of collaborators and partners, both internal and external, including many industry partners. This provides insight and portals to new challenges and opportunities. I find it exciting to work at the intersection of old and new technologies with experts in my field and in varying disciplines to find new solutions that evolve and revolutionize advances in power and transportation. 

Q: You cover a lot of ground in your work — literally. How do you keep all the moving parts of the various centers, teaching, industry activities and service flowing smoothly?

JN: I work with a great group of staff across the university in all units including the department and VPR’s (vice president for research’s) office. At the Center, I am extremely fortunate to work with a great group of professional and administrative staff. They take care of operations, conduct research, mentor undergraduate and graduate students, and provide administrative and financial oversight and management. 

"I see my contribution as building teams. This includes building a team of staff and working with faculty at MTU and other research organizations outside of MTU."2022 MTU Research Award winner Jeff Naber

Q: You’ve won teaching awards and earned praise for mentorship of tenure-track faculty. What kind of advice do you offer students? How do you help faculty succeed?

JN: For students, take this time where you are engrossed in learning and surrounded by resources to challenge yourself and build the knowledge and skills that will provide a foundation for your life. It’s a special time of opportunity.

For faculty, seek mentors both internal and external to universities including federal laboratories and industry. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great set of mentors throughout my life from my undergraduate research experience to graduate studies, including co-op and post doc.

Research Forum: Save the Date

Naber’s work will be showcased in the first of two Research Forum lectures this fall on Wednesday, Oct. 12. The work of John Vucetich will be featured on Thursday, Dec. 1. Both lectures begin at 4:30 p.m. in Memorial Union Building Ballroom A, with time for socializing for 30 minutes before and after. 

Q: How does your experience working in industry shape the educational, research and industry partnerships you help to foster at Michigan Tech?

JN: A diversity of experiences has helped me understand needs and opportunities. Working with industry and partnering with industry in federal grant opportunities is a cornerstone of my research. These are not all OEMs (original equipment manufacturers). It includes suppliers, startups, engineering service companies, and federal labs and agencies. 

Leveraging and building these relationships to understand what skills employers are looking for ensures our students are prepared to jump in and make a difference. 

Q: What do you find most fun and interesting about your work? 

JN: Working with students, staff and other researchers and seeing students grasp and understand concepts and build these into new skills. 

Q: What’s the future of automotive research? How will Michigan Tech be a part of it?

JN: As I discuss in the Automotive Systems course, there are several disruptors occurring simultaneously in the automotive industry. These include energy sources and carriers, safety systems, automated and connected technologies, and new models for use and ownership. These provide challenges and opportunities in many fields for decades to come. It’s an exciting area for research and development for Tech and our students. It’s no longer just mechanical engineering; there is a larger group of departments and faculty getting involved across Tech.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.