The MIT Energy Initiative’s latest round of seed grants for energy research is supporting early-stage or novel work in areas including energy and water, hydraulic fracturing, solar energy, biofuels, energy storage, electricity generation and distribution, and building systems.
A total of $1.9 million was awarded to 13 research projects lasting up to two years. The funded projects span eight departments and three schools.
As in the past, the call for proposals welcomed submissions on any energy-related topic, but this year it expressed particular interest in proposals addressing the energy-water nexus. In response, proposals were submitted on water desalination, oil-water interfaces, and water use and recovery during natural gas and oil development. Six of the water-related projects were funded. All the funded projects are listed below, some of which are highlighted in the following paragraphs.
The effectiveness of enhanced-oil recovery (EOR) techniques depends critically on the use of surfactants to reduce tension at oil-water interfaces. However, the optimal surfactant formulation for a given EOR application depends on the selection of surfactants and the specific reservoir conditions. Daniel Blankschtein of chemical engineering is developing a computational methodology that can predict the effect of a specific surfactant formulation on interfacial tension at the molecular level, given only the chemical structure of the surfactant molecules and key reservoir conditions. The new computational methodology will expedite the search for the best surfactant(s) for a given situation and will also provide fundamental knowledge that may lead to further advances in EOR techniques.
Mircea Dinca of chemistry is working on porous materials specially designed for use in water desalination and in adsorption-based heating and cooling systems. One promising class of such materials is metal-organic frameworks (MOFs)—crystalline materials with large surface areas, extensive free internal volumes, and nanometer-range pores whose size and surface composition can be tuned to modulate the energy of their interaction with water. Despite these attractive features, MOFs are rarely explored as adsorbents for water because most decompose when exposed to moisture. Dinca is formulating new molecular building blocks that will help mitigate the water sensitivity and make possible the development of water-stable MOFs tailored for use in water-adsorption-based devices.
Eugene Fitzgerald and Mayank Bulsara of materials science and engineering are advancing methods of making multi-junction solar cells on silicon (rather than germanium) substrates for use in terrestrial solar concentrator systems—an approach that will combine high efficiency with low cost and enable more advanced solar power system-level concepts. Key components are a multi-junction solar cell made with novel materials and band gaps, and a graded-layer technology that will prevent the high defect formation that usually occurs when solar cell stacks are deposited on silicon substrates. The researchers will also pursue a novel solar cell architecture and integration sequence aimed at achieving voltage-matching of the sub-cells, thereby reducing the power losses and voltage drops associated with traditional designs.
Cullen Buie of mechanical engineering and Martin Bazant of chemical engineering are developing a high-efficiency hydrogen bromine battery for large-scale energy storage. Their innovative design relies on laminar flow—layers of fluid flowing in parallel without mixing—to separate the reactants. This approach eliminates the membrane separator that poses technical challenges in conventional electrochemical cell design. Other benefits include the superior mass transfer characteristics of concentrated liquid bromine and the fast reaction kinetics of hydrogen-halogen electrochemistry. Given its potential ultra-high power density and low cost, this technology could be a game-changer in large-scale energy storage—and perhaps in the economic viability of intermittent power sources such as solar and wind.
Commercial buildings and data centers are filled with direct current (dc) loads such as computers, electronic devices, and lighting. Supplying electricity to such sites from a dc power distribution system rather than the alternating current (ac) power grid could significantly cut energy losses. To support that practice, David Perreault and Khurram Afridi of electrical engineering and computer science are developing small dc-dc converters that can convert the incoming electricity to the significantly lower voltages required by computers, electronics, and LED lights. The converters will provide ultra-high efficiencies and high performance across wide ranges of input voltage and output power.
To help urban planners and architects develop new urban sustainability concepts, Christoph Reinhart and Leslie Norford of architecture are developing improved methods of analyzing building energy use, water runoff patterns, and walkability in new and existing developments at the neighborhood and city scale. To support those analyses, they are expanding their current urban modeling interface by integrating models that can analyze local microclimates (including temperatures and wind pressures on buildings) and three-dimensional (rather than flat) terrains. They will evaluate their expanded tool by applying it to an urban energy model of Cambridge and by testing it in a new MIT class called Modeling Urban Energy Flows.
Jing Kong of electrical engineering and computer science and Tingying Zeng of the Research Laboratory of Electronics propose a novel method of transferring graphene onto transparent, flexible substrates for energy-related devices—an alternative to the expensive indium tin oxide (ITO) now widely used. Their approach calls for using chemical vapor deposition to grow large-area graphene films on copper foil and then transferring the films onto the desired surfaces. They will investigate the chemical modification of the substrate surfaces for strong adhesion as well as possible ways to reuse the copper. If successful, their approach could be environmentally benign, cost-effective, and suitable for industrial applications.
Much work has focused on using algae to produce high-energy lipid compounds that can be readily processed into biodiesel. These lipids are typically found within cells, and efficiently extracting them has proved a challenge. Sallie Chisholm and Steven Biller of civil and environmental engineering are exploring a new approach inspired by their discovery that a common marine bacterium naturally releases lipids into the growth medium in the form of small vesicles—budded-off cellular material enclosed by a lipid layer. Biller is examining that cellular capability with a goal of developing a biofuel production scheme wherein the lipid-rich vesicles are collected from the medium without the need to harvest cells or separate lipids from the bulk biomass.
Funding for the new grants comes chiefly from MITEI’s Founding and Sustaining Members, supplemented by funds from the Grantham Foundation, David desJardins ’83, and John Bradley, and gifts from other generous alumni. Alumni contributions particularly serve to enhance the reach of the MITEI Seed Fund Program across campus.
To date, the Seed Fund Program has supported 103 early-stage research proposals, with total funding of more than $12 million.
Spring 2012 Seed Fund Projects
Predicting Interfacial Tension Reduction at Oil-Water Interfaces to Facilitate Surfactant Design for Enhanced-Oil Recovery Applications Daniel Blankschtein, Chemical Engineering