MIT Energy Initiative announces 2015 seed grant awards

Melissa Abraham and Nancy W. Stauffer June 9, 2015 MITEI

The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) has announced its latest round of seed grants to support early-stage innovative energy projects. A total of $1.65 million was awarded to 11 projects, each lasting up to two years.

Including the latest round of grants, the MITEI Seed Fund Program has supported 140 innovative, energy-focused research projects for a total of nearly $17.4 million in funding over the past eight years. The program supports researchers from throughout MIT’s five schools to collaborate in exploring new energy-related ideas, and it attracts a mix of established energy faculty as well as many who are new to the energy field. Funding is provided by MITEI’s Founding and Sustaining Members and by philanthropic contributors.

“The MITEI seed fund awards build on our successful track record of support for innovative thinking around key energy challenges,” says MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong, the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “There is tremendous potential in these innovative early-stage projects. This round of grants includes important collaborative research efforts that seek to address key global energy and climate challenges.”

This year, MITEI received a total of 60 proposals from across the Institute. Applications came from 82 researchers in 29 departments, labs, and centers (DLCs). Twenty-five applications represented collaborations between two or more researchers, including 21 that spanned multiple DLCs.

Each of this year’s winning proposals was chosen for its potential to advance critical energy-related research. Examples of topics addressed include improved batteries and ultracapacitors for energy storage, more efficient conversion of energy resources into valuable fuels, new approaches to desalinating brackish water, and novel methods and materials for oil and gas drilling and recovery.

Opportunities for new faculty

As in past years, the winners this year include a number of new faculty members who will pursue creative ideas that could have a significant impact in the energy field. The following five projects are being led or co-led by four faculty members who came to MIT last academic year (2013–2014).

Multi-dimensional materials for improved thermoelectric performance

When a thermoelectric material is hot on one side and cold on the other, it generates electricity—a behavior that could be useful in harnessing the energy in waste heat from, say, car engines and power plants. But so far, the conversion efficiency has been too low for widespread use of these promising materials. The problem is that high electrical and thermal conductivity generally go hand in hand, so temperatures in an electrically conductive sample will quickly equalize. Assistant Professor Joseph Checkelsky of physics will be synthesizing novel materials with nanoscale geometries that permit fine-tuning of thermal and electrical properties separately, making possible conversion efficiencies high enough to be commercially viable. His first task: to build a device that can measure the conversion efficiencies of the materials he and his group fabricate.

Scalable three-dimensional battery electrodes

Electrodes used in today’s rechargeable batteries are basically flat—a design that makes them inexpensive to manufacture but vulnerable to mechanical failure and leads to a trade-off between storing a lot of energy and delivering it quickly. Associate Professor A. John Hart of mechanical engineering is leading work to develop battery electrodes with a novel structure that will provide mechanical robustness as well as high energy density and fast delivery simultaneously. The team will fabricate electrodes, explore how their geometry influences performance and durability, and conceptualize methods for their large-scale production. If successful, the new electrodes could one day be the key to improved high-performance batteries for uses ranging from portable electronics to electric vehicles.

High-speed printing of two-dimensional materials for energy systems

Atomic layer sheets of graphene and molybdenum disulfide could be used to make ultra-thin, flexible energy devices and storage materials. But current methods of growing and printing such two-dimensional layers are typically slow, wasteful, and effective on only limited types of surfaces. Hart and Professor Jeffrey Grossman of materials science and engineering are combining their expertise in precision engineering and computational methods to investigate a novel printing process that will permit the high-speed, large-area, continuous printing and stacking of two-dimensional layers onto a variety of substrates. In the final phase of their project, they hope to use their printing process to demonstrate new device concepts.

In-situ and above-ground chemical oxidation strategies for treating hazardous flowback water generated from hydraulic fracturing

During hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations, the natural gas that emerges is accompanied by water containing potentially hazardous chemicals, some injected with the fracturing fluids and some picked up underground. Removing them before the water is recycled or discharged can be difficult and costly. Assistant Professor Benjamin Kocar of civil and environmental engineering is examining strategies for reducing the contaminants that reach the surface and for degrading those that do. One strategy calls for supplementing the injected fluids with strong oxidants that will transform natural minerals in shale surfaces into a form that will bind and retain hazardous constituents, thereby immobilizing them below ground. Other work focuses on new methods of treating complex organic mixtures above ground using inexpensive photocatalysts activated by ultraviolet light from sunshine or artificial sources.

Electrochemical methane upgrading at carbon-supported catalysts

Methane is an abundant, low-carbon fuel, but it is difficult to store and transport, so huge amounts of it are simply wasted. Converting methane gas into liquid methanol would permit the widespread use of this valuable resource, particularly for transportation. Industry performs that conversion but in a two-stage process that is both energy- and capital-intensive. Assistant Professor Yogesh Surendranath of chemistry is developing a method of converting methane into methanol in a single step inside a device operating at low temperatures. Key to the process is using a combination of catalysts specially designed and well-tuned to work together to produce methanol efficiently and selectively. Once the process has been optimized, the research team will begin developing a prototype device for direct methane-to-methanol conversion.

Past successes

Past MITEI seed fund awards have helped launch a number of successful startups. For example, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Donald Sadoway’s work as part of a seed fund project led to the founding of Ambri, a company that is developing novel, low-cost, long-lifespan batteries for utility-scale energy storage. FastCAP Systems, under founder and CEO Riccardo Signorelli PhD ’09, is commercializing breakthrough ultracapacitor technology that received early support from a seed fund grant awarded to Professors Joel Schindall and John Kassakian of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science with then-graduate student Signorelli. Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Kripa Varanasi’s past seed fund projects have led to two startups. One, LiquiGlide, has created liquid-impregnated surfaces that are designed to be hyper-slippery to viscous fluids, ice, hydrates, and more. And Varanasi’s collaboration with Karen Gleason, professor of chemical engineering and MIT’s associate provost, led to the formation of DropWise, a company that is commercializing technology to make durable coatings on steam condenser surfaces that can dramatically improve efficiency in both electricity generation and desalination, thereby reducing fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

“MITEI seed funding was among the early funding I received which laid the foundation for basic research that ultimately led to the startups LiquiGlide and DropWise, which I co-founded,” says Varanasi. “These awards can be incredibly instrumental in helping to move projects from the research stage into the real world.”

The MITEI Seed Fund Program has awarded new grants each year since it was established in 2008. For more information, go to the MIT Seed Fund web page.

Recipients of MITEI seed grants, Spring 2015

Mult-dimensional materials for improved thermoelectric performance

Joseph Checkelsky

Encoded hollow particles for use as proppants

Patrick Doyle
Chemical Engineering

Multi-wave imaging of subsurface heterogeneity: Characterization and monitoring of geologic hazards, infrastructure, and fluids

Michael Fehler
Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Stephen Brown
Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Daniel Burns
Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences

Scalable three-dimensional battery electrodes

A. John Hart
Mechanical Engineering

High-speed printing of two-dimensional materials for energy systems

A. John Hart
Mechanical Engineering
Jeffrey Grossman
Materials Science and Engineering

High-temperature supercapacitors based on nanostructured surfactant ionic liquids

T. Alan Hatton
Chemical Engineering

In-situ and above-ground chemical oxidation strategies for treating hazardous flowback water generated from hydraulic fracturing

Benjamin Kocar
Civil and Environmental Engineering

Electrochemical methane upgrading at carbon-supported catalysts

Yogesh Surendranath

Robust nano-engineered composite ceramic surfaces for harsh environments with applications to corrosion and fouling mitigation

Kripa Varanasi
Mechanical Engineering

Hierarchical CNT electrodes for capacitive-based brackish water desalination

Evelyn Wang
Mechanical Engineering
Carl Thompson
Materials Science and Engineering
Brian Wardle
Aeronautics and Astronautics
Karen Gleason
Chemical Engineering and Office of the Provost

Data analytics for behavioral energy efficiency: Linking mobility and energy services through ICT-based behavioral feedback

P. Christopher Zegras
Urban Studies and Planning
Moshe Ben-Akiva
Civil and Environmental Engineering

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. Subscribe today

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