MIT Energy Initiative awards fourth round of seed grants

Nancy W. Stauffer December 4, 2009 MITEI

In October 2009, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) announced its fourth round of seed grants supporting innovative, early-stage research projects across the Institute.

Total funding of $1.7 million was awarded to 12 projects, each lasting between one and two years. The projects span nine departments, and half of them involve collaborations across departments. As in previous rounds, many of the awards went to junior faculty and to faculty new to energy-related research. View the complete list of awarded projects.

“We were pleased to see that the response to this fourth call for proposals was as strong as ever,” said Ernest J. Moniz, director of MITEI and the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems. “We received 55 submissions from across the Institute, demonstrating the wealth of innovative concepts at MIT and the depth and breadth of the Institute’s capabilities for helping to meet global energy challenges.”

One theme running through the new group of projects is the design and use of novel materials to enhance performance and make possible new functions in energy-related technologies. Advances in materials play a key role in eight of the projects, which together involve faculty from five departments. In many cases, the goal is to enhance systems for energy storage—a critical task if we are to take full advantage of intermittent renewable resources such as solar and wind.

For example, Jeffrey Grossman, a first-year faculty member in materials science and engineering, is studying an unusual organometallic compound that—when exposed to sunlight—isomerizes, meaning that certain reactive bonds in it rearrange. Exposure to a catalyst causes the molecules to revert to the original structure, giving off substantial amounts of stored heat. The isomer will not revert until it is exposed to the catalyst, so the stored energy can be released whenever and wherever it is needed. As an added benefit, the isomerized compound is transparent, so sunlight can be absorbed by the entire volume rather than just the surface, as in some other solar energy processes.

In another project, Professor Carl Thompson of materials science and engineering and Professor Yang Shao-Horn of the same department and mechanical engineering are working on processing nanostructures for electrochemical energy storage. Using carbon nanotubes and silicon nanowire arrays in lithium batteries is a promising route to achieving high charge and discharge rates, high charge capacities, and reliability over many charge-discharge cycles. But performance is highly dependent on the precise structure of the tubes and wires. Using special fabrication processes, Thompson and Shao-Horn are working to optimize battery performance by designing and tuning the nanostructures, including nanotube length and diameter, array density, and numbers of walls in multi-wall tubes as well as nanowire diameter, spacing, and orientation.

Another materials-related project focuses on novel nano-engineered surfaces that can be used in separating water from oil and gas in ultra-deepwater wells. Collaborators are Professors Kripa Varanasi and Gareth McKinley of mechanical engineering and Professor Robert Cohen of chemical engineering. By using nanoengineered, textured surfaces (to achieve high surface-to-volume ratios) along with special surface chemistry and surface topography, the team aims to make subsea separators significantly smaller and more efficient. With such devices, separation could be conducted on the ocean floor, making it unnecessary to bring the mixture up to the surface.

At MIT—as elsewhere—the life sciences community is demonstrating a rapidly growing interest in energy. Accordingly, one of the new seed grant projects is led by Professor Chris Kaiser, the head of the Department of Biology and a newcomer to the energy field. His project focuses on developing an organism that can efficiently convert plant biomass to a useful energy source such as ethanol. He and his team are working to understand the fungal cellulosome (a complex of enzymes that efficiently breaks down cellulose) so that they can insert it into yeast, an organism that excels at fermentation. The genetically modified yeast could then perform both steps needed for biomass processing: breaking down the plant cellulose and fermenting the product.

While most of the projects focus on technology, Professor Fiona Murray of the MIT Sloan School of Management is instead trying to understand how incentives—in particular, innovation prizes—affect the rate and direction of technological innovation in the energy arena. To that end, she and her colleagues in the MIT X-Prize Lab and the MIT Leadership Center are undertaking a detailed, data-driven empirical analysis of the decisions, approaches, and processes used by teams responding to an X-Prize competition that offers a $10 million award for advances supporting development of a highly energy-efficient vehicle. Results from Murray’s project should provide guidance to U.S. government agencies that are now considering prizes as a mechanism to focus R&D attention on energy and other issues of national importance.

Funding for the new grants comes chiefly from MITEI’s Founding and Sustaining members supplemented by funding from the Chesonis Family Foundation, Doug and Barbara Spreng, the Singapore-MIT programs, and MITEI.

To date, MITEI’s seed grant program has supported 54 early-stage research proposals, with total funding of more than $6.5 million. In addition, eight groups have been awarded smaller, shorter-term ignition and planning grants.

“We’re very excited that our early seed grant projects—funded in January 2008—are beginning to yield significant research results,” said Robert C. Armstrong, deputy director of MITEI and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “In some cases those seed projects are now evolving into major MIT energy research programs.”

The autumn 2009 issue of MITEI’s magazine, Energy Futures, includes articles that report results from five early seed grant projects, one from each of MIT’s schools.

Autumn 2009 Seed Fund Projects

Theory of ultrafast Li-ion battery materials
Martin Bazant (Chemical Engineering)

Efficient solid-state lighting based on III-nitride nanowires and catalyst engineering
Karl Berggren (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), Silvija Gradečak (Materials Science and Engineering)

Designing new materials for sunlight—thermal energy storage
Jeffrey Grossman (Materials Science and Engineering)

Development of nanoparticle-laden molten salts for heat transfer in high-temperature solar and nuclear applications
T. Alan Hatton (Chemical Engineering), Jacopo Buongiorno (Nuclear Science and Engineering)

Genetic identification and expression of efficient cellulose degrading complexes from fungi
Chris Kaiser (Biology)

Innovation policy, innovation prizes, and the energy economy: analyzing the role of prizes as a policy mechanism for energy innovation
Fiona Murray (Sloan School of Management)

Learning from nature: design principles for resilient bioenergy systems
Martin Polz (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Integrated ribbons for solar cell applications
Marin Soljačić (Physics), Yoel Fink (Materials Science and Engineering)

Understanding and controlling of the flow of thermal energy in nanostructured materials for energy conversion

Edwin Thomas, Martin Maldovan (Materials Science and Engineering)

Processing of nanostructures for electrochemical energy storage
Carl Thompson (Materials Science and Engineering), Yang Shao-Horn (Mechanical Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering)

Nanoscale hetero-interfaces for reversible solid oxide fuel cells in energy storage
Harry Tuller (Materials Science and Engineering), Bilge Yildiz (Nuclear Science and Engineering)

Nanoengineered surfaces for subsea separation of fluid-fluid (oil-water) mixtures
Kripa Varanasi, Gareth McKinley (Mechanical Engineering), Robert Cohen (Chemical Engineering)

Seed Fund

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