While his past involves evading East German soldiers in a custom Ford 500, his legacy may be a power, water and refrigeration system that can help restore safety and order after emergencies.
This memorable phrase concludes a novel by British author E.M. Forster, but it could easily be the motto of UF engineering dynamo and donor Dr. Bill Lear, a native of Gainesville.
An award-winning inventor of novel fuel systems and associate fellow of AIAA, Lear taught for more than three decades in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE), where he was deeply involved as a student mentor and faculty advisor. Since becoming associate professor emeritus and splitting his time between Gainesville and San Rafael, California, Lear has only increased his productivity. Still researching part time for UF, he is developing noise-suppression technology for NASA’s Urban Air Mobility program and is a driving force behind MAE’s outreach to engineering alumni around the globe.
When COVID-19 hit, MAE pivoted to virtual alumni meetups and recruited Lear to host Cocktail Connections, as the late-afternoon events were branded.
“My blood is orange and blue. My father was the first Ph.D. graduate of our college.”
— Dr. Bill Lear —
Each month, participants receive a Connections box with snacks and techie Gator gear, like cups that turn orange or blue when wet, and it is Lear’s job to ensure his fellow engineers stay engaged … and on their toes.
“The important thing is that it’s fun,” Lear said in a recent interview. “I might start things off by posing a question like, ‘I started working at UF the same year as some UF football player won the Heisman Trophy. Guess the name of the player and the year.’”
(The answers are “1966” and “Steve Spurrier,” but it’s something of a trick question, as Lear explained: “I had a summer job at UF in 1966 just after graduating from Gainesville High School. So, I ‘started working at UF’ that year.”).
Lear believes it is vital that alumni have opportunities to maintain a close connection with the department and university. “So many wonderful things are happening,” he said. “How would you know if you didn’t stay connected?”
An Innovator’s Early Roots
Lear’s own deep connection with the Gator Nation began — no exaggeration — in the womb.
“My blood is orange and blue,” Lear said. “My father was the first Ph.D. graduate of our college. I was literally born [on the future campus].”
The hospital, Alachua General, was situated where UF Innovation Square now stands, and the future innovator grew up in Gainesville in the 1950s and ‘60s, one of four siblings. (Lear’s sister, Elizabeth Lear, has been on the faculty of Levin College of Law for more than 30 years.) Their father, Dr. W. Edward Lear (PHD ’53), taught electrical engineering for 18 years at UF; mom Mary Lear was an Alabama native whose family were active in politics.
Lear’s father’s lab was situated on the fourth floor of Weil Hall, which had a perfect view of the stadium’s south endzone.
“Sometimes we would simply watch the game from his office,” Lear remembered. “That was pretty cool.”
A natural at math and science, Lear knew he was destined for a career in engineering. His first invention was a forerunner of today’s digital thermostat, designed in the 1970s when he was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama.
“It was the beginning of the energy crisis, and everybody was thinking about ways to save energy,” Lear said of his MacGyvered solution, rigged up with a plug-in timer.
‘Dukes of Hazard’ in East Germany
Three years into his studies at Alabama, Lear was called up for U.S. military service. He served as a sergeant in Potsdam, Germany, just outside West Berlin, in the former Soviet military zone.
“That was back in the days when East Germany was not recognized by the U.S., which were very tense times,” said Lear, who trained as a German linguist. “My little group was the only official U.S. presence in East Germany.”
“We were the focal point of diplomatic pressure sometimes,” he added. “So, we would drive around in fast America cars, waving the flag and so forth, but we kept an eye on the other side. Made sure there wasn’t a lot of armor headed west, you know?”
Keeping an eye out for Uncle Sam required keen nerves and nimbleness, and Lear, as the designated “wheelman,” drove the Americans’ seven-liter Ford custom 500, which was “a little jacked up to make it better off road.” Lear recalls harrowing games of cat and mouse with East German soldiers and Stasi agents, who were intent on blocking the Americans’ car and demanding their credentials. If they were detained, the Soviets would take over and accuse the Americans of “vile acts.”
“My job was when we saw them coming, I had to get away, and it was really ‘Dukes of Hazard’ stuff — blast across fields and leap streams,” he remembered with a smile.
A Researcher & Inventor Makes His Mark
Germany was also where Lear met his American-born wife, Pamela, who was traveling through Europe at the time. A mutual friend introduced them in West Berlin, and sparks instantly flew: “She broke off her travels, and we were married after returning to the U.S.,” he says.
Back home, Lear reenrolled in the University of Alabama to earn his bachelor degree in mechanical engineering in 1976, followed by a doctorate from Stanford University in 1984. That same year, he returned to Gainesville to join the faculty of UF’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.
By that point, he had coauthored several papers on energy generation, focusing on the breakdown of the electric field in open-cycle disk generators.
The next three decades would see Lear blaze trails as an investigator, inventor and educator. His research focuses on novel gas-turbine and aero-propulsion systems, high-temperature-reacting gas-dynamic systems and low-temperature fuel cells, resulting in 120 publications and 12 patents. In 2014, he was honored with the Energy Systems Award from the AIAA, the world’s largest aerospace technical society.
Lear’s creative process begins with focusing on the big picture, he says.
“I’m an energy systems person, first and foremost … but what really motivates me is to invent something that will do some good,” he said. “I envision the overarching problem and look at how I can solve it based on a system that is — I hate to use the term ‘revolutionary’ — but is certainly a major step forward, or why else do it? Then I drill down into the research level, into the specific details and steps that are needed to make the project happen.”
“That’s how I like to work,” he added. “Do a few different kinds of siloed research and bring them together at the system level.”
One of Lear’s notable inventions is a modified gas-turbine engine that cuts fuel costs and lowers emissions. The engine is small enough for a truck and powerful enough for a naval ship.
In the early 2000s, Lear collaborated with fellow MAE professor S.A. Sherif on a project that drew on their strengths as future-oriented problem solvers. As military and disaster specialists know, first responders rely on three essentials to restore order at a hazard site: water, electricity and refrigeration. However, providing all three must-haves quickly and simultaneously is extremely difficult.
Aware of the urgent need for solutions, NASA and the U.S. Army funded Lear and Sherif’s research into developing a mobile all-in-one system to generate and supply the three basics, made small enough to fit inside a large truck or military jet. The invention combines a gas-turbine power plant with a heat-operated refrigeration system; the refrigerator’s cool air makes the turbine more powerful and efficient, while waste heat from the turbine fuels the refrigeration. The engine can run on either fossil fuels, biomass fuels or hydrogen, and it captures about one gallon of water for every burned gallon of fuel.
In 2006, Lear and Sherif built a small-scale prototype of the invention, which UF patented. Known as PoWER (Power, Water Extraction, and Refrigeration system), the machine is now in the initial stages of seeking funding for a full-scale prototype.
“We’re knocking on doors,” he said, noting that government and private investors are interested.
“My Dad, Superman”
In conversation, Lear’s curious, analytical mind leaps from musing on the “strange games” of Cold War diplomacy to offering solutions to the 2021 Texas power-grid failure (“Change the architecture to micro grids so if the rest of the grid goes down and your generation is still there, you can disconnect…and have your own little island there.”).
While original power solutions are his specialty, Lear admits his San Rafael residence does not feature any of his unique energy systems. That’s because he and his wife live there part time, and he doubts their landlord would appreciate any tinkering with the power supply.
But being plugged into the mainstream grid is okay for now, he says: He and Pamela are in California to be near their daughter, Heather Lear (BA ’10, MA ’11), who manages programs at the Spirit Rock mindfulness retreat center, in the Bay Area.
From his West Coast perch, Lear is busy conducting research, connecting with engineering alumni and leaving a legacy through his generous support of MAE.
And, of course, he’s busy being Dad Emeritus to Heather, whose appreciation of her father’s ingenuity goes way back. As a college student, she even penned a poem in his honor, which was published in the Gainesville Sun.
The words are those of an admiring daughter, but many others who know Lear will agree with its sentiments.
My Dad, Superman, by Heather Knight Lear
He can lift a tree by himself and carry it all the way into the house
Then expertly guide it into our Christmas tree stand.
He can carry his world on his shoulders, taking her for a long nature walk.
He doesn’t need sleep like ordinary people.
His driving inspiration is literally to make the world a better place.
Fighting hard against ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and shoddy engineering.
He has super cool high-tech toys.
His lab is the future — of energy, transportation, vision.
Using biofuels, fuel cells, and super-efficient turbine engines to create a better tomorrow.
Five Text Messages with Dr. Bill Lear
I’m going with an oddball choice, Duct Tape Madrigal
What Are They Saying About Bill Lear?
“Bill Lear has been a valued colleague and key member of the MAE family for many years. He is an extremely innovative engineer specializing in thermodynamics, plasmas and compressible flow with significant contributions focused on energy conversion with fuel cells, distributed power systems and turbomachinery. Dr. Lear has been particularly active serving the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and its Terrestrial Energy Systems technical committee, leading to the honors of AIAA Associate Fellow and the international AIAA Energy Systems Award in 2014.”
— Dr. Warren Dixon, Dean’s Leadership Professor and Chair, UF Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
“Bill is a true gentleman and one cool dude, who never complains when it ‘rains.’ He and I collaborated on over $15,000,000 of funded research in a wide range of topics, from fuel cells to pavement evaluation technologies. During these efforts, Bill never had an issue with funding breakdown, work structure or credit when things went well. He is always willing to take on the most difficult jobs or the tasks that were most behind schedule, and does so with a welcoming humility that endeared himself to all…. His most respected trait is his strong moral compass: he is always willing to stand up for what is right.”
— Dr. James Fletcher, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering, University of North Florida, and UF MAE Adjunct Research Professor
“Bill was an everyday point-of-contact for me during some of the most formative years of my life…. I am very thankful for his patience, mentorship and friendship. He is the textbook definition of the enthusiastic scholar, a fine teacher and an exemplary researcher.”
— Former research assistant Matthew Inman (BSAE ’10, MS ’11, PHD ‘14), now senior mechanical engineer at Aerosonic
“I have known Professor Lear for over 30 years, since my graduate school days at the University of Florida (1988-90). At UF, he was not only a member of my master’s thesis committee but a significant mentor throughout my research project. Fortunately for me, I have interacted and worked with Bill way beyond my M.S. days, as a colleague at Pratt & Whitney, a collaborator on research projects and a longtime friend. He was instrumental in my decision to ultimately pursue my Ph.D. at Stanford, and I could always count on his advice and encouragement at every phase of my career …. I can also say that Bill is a pretty good racquetball player—much better than I.”
— Dr. Eric Petersen (MS ’90), Director, TEES Turbomachinery Laboratory, professor and holder of the Nelson-Jackson Chair, Texas A&M University)
“Dr. Lear’s vast technical acumen always filled in the knowledge gaps. I got to witness his knowledge from hydrogen fuel cells to vision systems to heat transfer analysis. As the genius he is, he has always been very considerate, thoughtful, and it was a pleasure working with him.”
— Ali Shahin (BAE, ’19), solutions engineer at TIBCO, former lead research engineer for MAE’s Raised Pavement Marks Assessment project for the FDOT