Academic research has played, and continues to play a central role in solving world’s energy and environmental challenges. Many discoveries born in university labs led to breakthrough technologies, which have then been spun-out into new companies. Such promising cleantech startups as Ambri, Aquion Energy, D.light, and Amyris to name a few – have been started in the labs of MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and UC Berkeley respectively.
Over the last decade some of the best universities in the United States have been engaged in research projects aimed at converting the science into new cleantech technologies. Working across disciplines, researchers in university labs have been advancing the science in such fields as renewable energy sources, sustainable transportation, energy storage, resources efficiency, energy efficiency and others. In this article I would like to present ten promising research projects held at the moment in different American universities. Bringing together world-class researchers and engineers, these projects are working on new cutting-edge technologies that could transform the way how we obtain, distribute, store and use energy.
Bio-GTL: Single-Step Methane to Liquid Fuels
The Bioinformatics and Metabolic Engineering Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by Professor Greg Stephanopoulos are developing a comprehensive process to directly convert methane into a usable transportation fuel in a single step. MIT’s unique technologies integrate methane activation with fuel synthesis, two distinct processes required to convert methane that are typically performed separately. Today, activating methane prior to converting it to useful fuel is a high-temperature, energy-intensive process. MIT’s unique approach would use nitrate instead of oxygen to oxidize the methane, which could increase the energy efficiency of methane activation and ultimately convert it to fuel.
Why it matters:
Natural gas is an abundant natural resource, which is often used for heating, cooking, and electrical power generation. Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, an energy-rich compound that is not widely used for transportation. Currently, there are no commercially viable biological approaches to convert methane into liquid fuel, and synthetic approaches are expensive and inefficient at small scales. To take advantage of natural gas in transportation, new biological processes that use special microorganisms called “biocatalysts” are needed to transform methane into liquid fuel. These small-scale processes could be carbon neutral or better, providing a clear environmental advantage over traditional fuels.
If successful, MIT’s technology will dramatically improve the efficiency of methane activation and synthesis, potentially transforming the landscape of natural gas utilization for production of liquid fuels. An improved bioconversion process could create cost-competitive liquid fuels that would significantly reduce the demand for oil.
Behavioral Initiatives for Energy Efficiency
A team of researchers from more than 10 departments at Stanford University is collaborating to transform the way people interact with energy-use data. The team is building a web-based platform that collects historical electricity data, which it uses to perform a variety of experiments to learn what triggers people to respond. Experiments include new financial incentives, a calculator to understand the potential savings of efficient appliances, new Facebook interface designs, communication studies using Twitter, and educational programs with the Girl Scouts. Economic modeling is underway to better understand how results from the San Francisco Bay Area can be broadened to other places.
Why it matters:
Energy-sensing technologies like smart meters are being rapidly deployed to help inform consumers about their energy-use choices. For example, in the U.S. it is expected that 50% of all homes will have smart meters by 2020. Giving homeowners greater access to their energy-use data is a positive step, but such efforts require an understanding of human behavior in order to optimize the potential energy and cost savings to homeowners. If successful, Stanford’s web-based energy services platform and new behavioral experiments would help homeowners save energy, improve their energy efficiency, and reduce their monthly utility bills.
Capturing CO2: Metal Organic Framework Research
The University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) is developing a method for identifying the best metal organic frameworks for use in capturing CO2 from the flue gas of coal-fired power plants. Metal organic frameworks are porous, crystalline compounds that, based on their chemical structure, vary considerably in terms of their capacity to grab hold of passing CO2 molecules and their ability to withstand the harsh conditions found in the gas exhaust of coal-fired power plants. Owing primarily to their high tunability, metal organic frameworks can have an incredibly wide range of different chemical and physical properties, so identifying the best to use for CO2 capture and storage can be a difficult task. UC Berkeley uses high-throughput instrumentation to analyze nearly 100 materials at a time, screening them for the characteristics that optimize their ability to selectively adsorb CO2 from coal exhaust. Their work will identify the most promising frameworks and accelerate their large-scale commercial development to benefit further research into reducing the cost of CO2 capture and storage.
Why it matters:
Coal-fired power plants provide nearly 40% of all electricity in the world. While coal is a cheap and abundant natural resource, its continued use contributes to rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere. Capturing and storing this CO2 would reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas levels while allowing power plants to continue using inexpensive coal. Carbon capture and storage represents a significant cost to power plants that must retrofit their existing facilities to accommodate new technologies.
If successful, UC Berkeley’s new methods for identifying the most suitable metal organic frameworks for use in carbon capture technology will be an indispensable tool for future researchers and dramatically reduce the cost of this technology. Enabling cost-effective carbon capture systems could accelerate their adoption at existing power plants. Carbon capture technology could prevent more than 800 million tons of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere each year.
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) are developing a supercapacitor using graphene – a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms -to substantially store more energy than current technologies. Supercapacitors store energy in a different manner than batteries, which enables them to charge and discharge much more rapidly. The Georgia Tech team approach is to improve the internal structure of graphene sheets with ‘molecular spacers,’ in order to store more energy at lower cost. The proposed design could increase the energy density of the supercapacitor by 10-15 times over established capacitor technologies, and would serve as a cost-effective and environmentally safe alternative to traditional storage methods.
Why it matters:
Battery-related challenges are preventing the widespread use of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and electric vehicles (EVs). HEVs and EVs are propelled by an electric motor that is powered by rechargeable battery packs. These battery packs have faced problems that prevent HEVs and EVs from being able to travel as far as gasoline-powered vehicles. Additionally, they also take a long time to recharge. There is a critical need to find more effective ways to power HEVs and EVs. Improvements in capacitors – electronic devices that help store electricity and move it from the battery pack to the electric motor – have the potential to significantly improve the performance of these vehicles. If successful, Georgia Tech’s high-performance supercapacitor would enable quick charging and massive energy storage for HEVs, EVs and portable electronics.
Smart Window Coatings
The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) is developing low-cost coatings that control how light enters buildings through windows. By individually blocking infrared and visible components of sunlight, UT Austin’s design would allow building occupants to better control the amount of heat and the brightness of light that enters the structure, saving heating, cooling, and lighting costs. These coatings can be applied to windows using inexpensive techniques similar to spray-painting a car to keep the cost per window low. Windows incorporating these coatings and a simple control system have the potential to dramatically enhance energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption throughout the commercial and residential building sectors, while making building occupants more comfortable.
Why it matters:
Buildings account for 40% of all energy, and the energy lost through typical windows can boost a building’s energy bill as much as 25%. Today’s best window technologies–which dynamically control transmittance of sunlight to reduce both cooling requirements in the summer and heating requirements in the winter – can be cost prohibitive for homeowners and commercial building managers. In order to support the widespread installation of efficient window technologies, we need to make substantial improvements in the heat- and light-transmission properties of windows while achieving significant reductions in price.
If successful, UT Austin’s low-cost window coatings would yield a 5-fold reduction in the cost of “smart window” production, enabling more consumers to adopt the technology and drive down building energy consumption. Better building efficiency would limit electricity and fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Improvements in heating and cooling efficiency could also save homeowners and businesses thousands of dollars on their utility bills.
Improving Solar Generation Efficiency with Solar Modules
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are developing a solar module that splits sunlight into individual color bands to improve the efficiency of solar electricity generation. For Photovoltaic (PV) to maintain momentum in the marketplace, the energy conversion efficiency must increase significantly to result in reduced power generation costs. Most conventional PV modules provide 15-20% energy conversion efficiency because their materials respond efficiently to only a narrow band of color in the sun’s spectrum, which represents a significant constraint on their efficiency. To increase the light conversion efficiency, researchers will assemble a solar module that includes several cells containing several different absorbing materials, each tuned to a different color range of the sun’s spectrum. Once light is separated into color bands, Caltech’s tailored solar cells will match each separated color band to dramatically improve the overall efficiency of solar energy conversion. Caltech’s approach to improve the efficiency of PV solar generation should enable improved cost-competitiveness for PV energy.
Why it matters:
Photovoltaic solar electric systems are a growing clean energy alternative to traditional sources of electricity generation, such as coal-burning power plants. One of the biggest obstacles to the widespread deployment of PV systems is the fact that they are rarely cost competitive with conventional sources of electricity. New PV technologies must improve solar energy conversion efficiency while driving down costs in order to make them broadly competitive with traditional power generation methods. If successful, Caltech’s solar system would convert greater than 50% of incoming light energy into electrical power at a cost well below $1/watt.
Cloud Computing for the Grid
Cornell University is creating a new software platform for grid operators called GridControl that will utilize cloud computing to more efficiently control the grid. In a cloud computing system, there are minimal hardware and software demands on users. The user can tap into a network of computers that is housed elsewhere (the cloud) and the network runs computer applications for the user. The user only needs interface software to access all of the cloud’s data resources, which can be as simple as a web browser. Cloud computing can reduce costs, facilitate innovation through sharing, empower users, and improve the overall reliability of a dispersed system. Cornell’s GridControl will focus on 4 elements: delivering the state of the grid to users quickly and reliably; building networked, scalable grid-control software; tailoring services to emerging smart grid uses; and simulating smart grid behavior under various conditions.
Why it matters:
Today there is a critical need to modernize the way electricity is delivered from suppliers to consumers. Modernizing the grid’s hardware and software could help reduce peak power demand, increase the use of renewable energy, save consumers money on their power bills, and reduce total energy consumption – among many other notable benefits.
If successful, Cornell would create an efficient and cost-effective way to build and control the smart grid, the advanced infrastructure that will replace today’s outdated electric grid. A more efficient and reliable grid would also help protect businesses from costly power outages and brownouts that stop automated equipment, bring down factories, and crash computers.
Closed-Loop System Using Waste Heat for Electricity
Yale University is developing a system to generate electricity using low-temperature waste heat from power plants, industrial facilities, and geothermal wells. Low-temperature waste heat is a vast, mostly untapped potential energy source. Yale’s closed loop system begins with waste heat as an input. This waste heat will separate an input salt water stream into two output streams, one with high salt concentration and one with low salt concentration. In the next stage, the high and low concentration salt streams will be recombined. Mixing these streams releases energy which can then be captured. The mixed saltwater stream is then sent back to the waste heat source, allowing the process to begin again. Yale’s system for generating electricity from low-temperature waste heat could considerably increase the efficiency of power generation systems.
Why it matters:
There is a critical need to increase the efficiency of existing power generation technologies. One approach is to capture waste heat for use in separate power generation systems. Because this waste heat is unavoidable in traditional power generation, it can be considered a renewable energy source. Systems that generate energy from waste heat could dramatically increase the amount of power generated at a given location simply by making full use of the existing conditions rather than adding a new fuel source.
If successful, Yale’s closed loop system would create a low-cost energy efficient system for power generation from low-temperature waste heat. Finding cost-effective ways to store and use thermal energy could create a profitable thermal fuels industry that spurs economic growth and creates cost savings for consumers. Thermal fuel technologies have zero net greenhouse gas emissions and can also reduce fossil fuel consumption, helping curb production of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global climate change.
Genetically Enhanced Sorghum and Sugarcane
Researchers at the University of Illinois (UIUC) are working to convert sugarcane and sorghum -already 2 of the most productive crops in the world – into dedicated bio-oil crop systems. Three components will be engineered to produce new crops that have a 50% higher yield and produce easily extractable oils. This will be achieved by modifying the crop canopy to better distribute sunlight and increase its cold tolerance. By directly producing oil in the shoots of these plants, these biofuels could be easily extracted with the conventional crushing techniques used today to extract sugar.
Why it matters:
Biofuels offer renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fuels that reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero. However, traditional biofuels production is limited not only by the small amount of solar energy that plants convert through photosynthesis into biological materials, but also by inefficient processes for converting these biological materials into fuels. Farm-ready, non-food crops are needed to produce fuels or fuel-like precursors at significantly lower costs with significantly higher productivity. To make biofuels cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels, biofuels production costs must be cut in half.
If successful, UIUC’s project will enable some of the most productive crops to be grown for biofuels in new climates and on land unsuited to food crops. This could lead to more large-scale production of renewable biofuels to replace petroleum-based fuels. Because plants naturally absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, the level of greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels is less than half that of petroleum fuels.
Customized Tidal Power Conversion Devices
Brown University is developing a power conversion device to maximize power production and reduce costs to capture energy from flowing water in rivers and tidal basins. Conventional methods to harness energy from these water resources face a number of challenges, including the costs associated with developing customized turbine technology to a specific site. Additionally, sites with sufficient energy exist near coastal habitats which depend on the natural water flow to transport nutrients. Brown University’s tidal power conversion devices can continuously customize themselves by using an onboard computer and control software to respond to real-time measurements, which will increase tidal power conversion efficiency. Brown University’s technology will allow for inexpensive installation and software upgrades and optimized layout of tidal power generators to maximize power generation and mitigate environmental impacts.
Why it matters:
Renewable energy is critical to the world environmental and economic security. Today all over the world there is a drastic need for safe, clean, and cost-effective alternatives to coal and other fossil fuels. If successful, Brown University’s tidal power conversion device would reduce the costs of producing electricity from flowing water and reduce harmful emissions associated with energy production because there are no emissions associated with tidal power conversion.
Universities are playing a crucial role in energy innovation process. Academic research, in which scientific and engineering labs are working together in such fields as biology, chemistry, physics, materials and computer science, is a principle source of new knowledge and breakthrough concepts that could fundamentally alter our energy system. At the same time, one of the biggest issues of academic research projects is how to implement their results in real-life solutions. Unfortunately, plenty of great scientific and technological ideas stay at the shelf once research projects have been completed.
Promising solutions, discovered in university laboratories can’t effectively address energy challenges unless and until they are successfully transferred to the market as commercial products and services. There are many pathways for spreading new knowledge that arises from academic research, including technology transfer to established companies through licensing, or creation of new firms through academic entrepreneurship. At the same time, commercialization of university research remains relatively successful and largely concentrated in just a handful of leading universities. Many of world-class universities are still not engaged at all in academic entrepreneurship and only few of them cooperate with business to a high level.
In order to maximize the number of transformative energy innovations, the technology transfer from universities to industry and business needs to become much more widespread. The current model of university technology transfer offices has to be improved to better encouraging entrepreneurship, helping researchers with product development, and assisting them in the search for industrial partners. To accelerate innovation and help deliver real-life solutions to pressing energy challenges, the role of university itself needs to be extended. A university in 21st century should not only be a hub of scientific knowledge, but also a bridge between research findings and real world impact.