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MIT Energy Initiative awards fifth round of seed grants

Nancy W. Stauffer July 14, 2010 MITEI

The MIT Energy Initiative’s latest round of seed grants for energy research will support innovative work on solar energy conversion, fuel cell catalysts, algorithms for energy-efficient computing, systems for integrating renewable technologies into smart grids, and more.

This round of seed funding awarded a total of $1.9 million to 13 projects, each lasting between one and two years. The funded projects span 10 departments, laboratories, centers, and institutes.

“Once again the response to our call for proposals was strong, with 44 submissions involving a total of almost 70 researchers,” said Ernest J. Moniz, director of MITEI and the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems.  “As before, the proposals included surprising, thoughtful, and potentially impactful concepts and ideas. The task of choosing among them was challenging for the review committee, which consists of faculty on the MIT Energy Council and representatives from MITEI’s Founding and Sustaining members.”

As in previous rounds, many of the new awards involve junior faculty and faculty not previously engaged in energy-related research. For example, Cynthia Rudin, assistant professor of statistics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, is seeking to increase the reliability of the electric power grid—a growing challenge due to aging infrastructure combined with the evolution of new ways of using the grid. Rudin and others have developed statistical methods that predict the vulnerability of components—information that helps utility companies design maintenance plans that reduce service failures and increase public safety. But such predictions must also be “actionable,” that is, there must be no intermediate steps between the design of the vulnerability model and the prioritization of repair work. Rudin’s team will develop a framework for “actionable ranking” that will immediately yield methods for improving the reliability and safety of electrical distribution networks.

In another project, Evelyn Wang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is focusing on thermal management for concentrated solar energy conversion systems. Such systems could deliver as much as 25% of the world’s projected power needs by 2050. However, increasing their power production requires concentrating sunlight onto smaller and smaller areas of the solar absorber, which leads to significant heat generation and reductions in electricity output. Wang and her team are developing an innovative, completely passive nanofilm-based cooling system that can achieve high rates of heat removal with low thermal resistance. The cooling achieved will permit even higher concentrations to be used, enabling major advances in solar conversion technologies and other important energy systems.

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the focus of a project led by Alison Malcolm, assistant professor, and Michael Fehler, senior research scientist, both of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and MIT’s Earth Resources Laboratory. The industrial viability of CCS requires reliable techniques for determining the amount and location of the sequestered carbon dioxide (CO2) and for detecting potential leakage. The oil industry has seismic-based methods that can almost certainly be adapted to perform those tasks, but their high cost will likely preclude their use at every sequestration site. The researchers are therefore developing new imaging methods that should be able to—with a significantly smaller data set—delineate the spatial distribution of injected CO2 in a reservoir and other methods that can act as alarms, detecting CO2 leakage through the cap rock. The methods are designed to work together, guaranteeing the stable sequestration of the CO2 in the subsurface.

In another project, John Joannopoulos, Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics and director of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), and Srinivas Devadas, professor of electrical engineering and computer science—both newcomers to MITEI—plus Ivan Celanovic, research engineer in the ISN, are addressing power electronics and their role in incorporating renewable energy generation sources into the future smart grid. The MIT team will develop and deploy novel digital tools for the design and testing of power electronics-enabled renewables integrated into the smart grid. Enabling real-time simulations with ultra-high fidelity will revolutionize the design of power electronics since it will allow real-time measurement and control of prototype systems that can be redesigned, refined, or tuned for increased reliability and efficiency. The concept will be demonstrated on two representative systems—the variable speed wind turbine and the hybrid-electric vehicle.

Martin Bazant, associate professor of chemical engineering, is focusing on a different energy-related concern: the growing global shortage of fresh water. Massive amounts of energy are required to transport or produce fresh water from seawater, especially for remote locations. A critical goal for energy-related research and policy is therefore developing new means of water desalination and purification. In this seed project, Bazant and his colleagues will focus on “shock electrodialysis,” a novel electrochemical approach to achieving those processes. The approach exploits the spontaneous separation of salt and charged impurities from pure water in charged porous media, passing current to electrodialysis membranes. The researchers will explore the basic physics of desalination shocks in microstructures and will begin to engineer a new class of desalination systems that are both energy efficient and well suited for small-scale, portable applications such as in remote regions or for the military.

Funding for the new grants comes chiefly from MITEI’s Founding and Sustaining members supplemented by funds from the Chesonis Family Foundation, an anonymous donor, and MITEI.

To date, MITEI’s seed grant program has supported 67 early-stage research proposals, with total funding of more than $8.4 million. In addition, eight groups have been awarded smaller, shorter-term ignition and planning grants.

“As projects from the first few rounds of awards are completed, we’re receiving reports, papers, and presentations that have resulted from them,” said Robert Armstrong, deputy director of MITEI and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “Some of those novel projects have already had significant practical impacts, while others have led to long-term funding, opening up new and exciting areas of research for the Institute.”

Spring 2010 Seed Fund Projects

Energy-efficient Desalination by Shockelectro-dialysis in Porous Media
Martin Bazant, Chemical Engineering

Energy-Efficient Algorithms
Erik Demaine, CSAIL

Solar Energy Conversion Using the Phenomenon of Thermal Transpiration
Nicolas Hadjiconstantinou, Mechanical Engineering

Synthesis of Bimetallic Nanoparticle Structures as Catalysts for Fuel Cells
Klavs Jensen, Chemical Engineering

Advanced Multi-core Processor Architectures for Power Electronics Controls and Simulation: Enabling Efficient Integration of Renewables into Smart Grid
John Joannopoulos, Physics, Ivan Celanovic, Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, Srini Devadas, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Multi-Functional Self-Assembled Photonic Crystal Nanotexture for Energy-Efficient Solid State Lighting
Lionel Kimerling, Materials Science and Engineering

Subsurface Change Detection for CO2 Sequestration
Alison Malcolm, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Michael Fehler, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences

Self-Assembled Polymer-Enzyme Nanostructures for Low Temperature CO2 Reduction
Bradley Olsen, Chemical Engineering

A Novel Framework For Electrical Grid Maintenance
Cynthia Rudin, Sloan

Novel Bioprocess for Complete Conversion of Carbon Feedstocks to Biofuels
Gregory Stephanopoulos, Chemical Engineering

Ultra-Low Drag Hydrodynamics Using Engineered Nanostructures for Efficiency Enhancements in Energy, Water, and Transportation Systems
Kripa Varanasi, Mechanical Engineering

Nanofilm-based Thermal Management Device for Concentrated Solar Energy
Evelyn Wang, Mechanical Engineering

Experimental Study of Millimeter-Wave Rock Ablation
Paul Woskov, Plasma Science and Fusion Center


The Spring 2010 issue of MITEI’s magazine, Energy Futures, includes articles that report results from five early seed grant projects.


Seed Fund
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