Six novel energy research projects win MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund grants

Kelley Travers MITEI

This spring, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) awarded funding to six novel energy research projects at $150,000 each for a total of $900,000. As recipients of MITEI’s 2021-2022 Seed Fund grants, these projects represent new lines of research and analysis with potential for high impact across longer time horizons.

“Our energy systems are rapidly changing,” says Robert C. Armstrong, the director of MITEI. “The Seed Fund Program supports the sort of high-risk, high-reward innovation and research that is necessary to meet our growing energy needs while accelerating the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions harming our planet.”

Highly competitive, the program received 41 proposals from 57 different principal investigators (PIs) across MIT’s various departments, labs, and centers.

The winning projects span a wide breadth of topics and lines of inquiry in the energy space. They include satellite-based remote sensing for emissions and energy infrastructure monitoring, tools designed to support electrifying urban transportation fleets, a process that will capture and mineralize carbon dioxide (CO2) from flue gas emissions, and more. Brief descriptions of the six projects follow.

Electrochemical carbon capture

The International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario predicts that carbon capture technologies must scale globally from 40 million tonnes in 2020 to 10 gigatonnes/year in 2070 to keep global temperature rise to below 2 C. This project aims to develop a less energy- and capital-intensive carbon capture technology, leveraging a novel electrochemical process that exploits nitrate-carbonate conversion to separate CO2 from a process stream and output a concentrated CO2 stream.

PIs: Betar Gallant, the Class of 1922 Career Development Professor in Mechanical Engineering, and T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering Practice

CO2 mineralization and lithium extraction

Demand for lithium—which is used in electric vehicles, large-scale energy storage, and more—is rapidly increasing. But the current process to produce lithium from brines requires large areas of land and can have significant impacts on the environment. This project proposes a new approach that will utilize a hybrid electrochemical-thermal process in a compact system to purify lithium brine, which will then be mineralized by CO2 captured from flue gas emissions. This will allow not only for the efficient recovery of lithium as a pure carbonate product, but also for the capture and mineralization of CO2.

PIs: T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering Practice, and Kripa Varanasi, a professor of mechanical engineering

Optimizing energy investment decisions

This project aims to provide better guidance for investments at the project level and at local scales by filling an important gap in decision analytics and optimization. The researchers will develop a novel optimization framework that will allow for multi-sector (energy, water, environment) project portfolio investment decisions, allowing a user to strategically select different project combinations that together provide greater benefits at lower costs, while also incorporating variability in the individual project performances.

PIs: Olivier de Weck, the Apollo Professor of Astronautics and Engineering Systems, and Afreen Siddiqi, a research scientist in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Recycling CO2

This project focuses on copper as an electrocatalyst for the conversion of CO2 into valuable chemical products such as hydrocarbons and alcohols. The research team intends to perform systematic studies decoupling and leveraging the impacts of nanoscale (surface structure) and mesoscale (particle spacing, loading, and support) phenomena to overcome the stability limitations of copper, enabling efficient CO2 reduction.

PI: Ariel Furst, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Professor

Electrifying urban transportation fleets

As battery storage costs decline, interest has increased in decarbonizing the transportation sector, which relies heavily on fossil fuels. In the United States, many transit agencies have committed to 100% bus electrification. To aid efforts like these, this project will develop advanced decision-support tools and tailored-solution algorithms for planning electrification strategies for urban transportation fleets. It will consider detailed fleet operations and corresponding power grid impacts, while also analyzing the environmental justice and social equity dimensions of the energy transition.

PIs: Audun Botterud, a principal research scientist at the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, and Dharik Mallapragada, a principal research scientist at MITEI

Monitoring emissions and energy infrastructure

Energy companies currently rely mostly on ground-based networks to analyze emissions rates, potential leaks, and other hazards to the power supply. This project proposes to improve the way these companies monitor their infrastructure and investments by exploring the use of space-based remote sensing, ranging from the detection of methane emission leaks to the prevention of wildfires by monitoring vegetation overgrowth, dryness, and power line equipment health.

PI: Kerri Cahoy, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics

To date, the MITEI Seed Fund Program has supported 199 energy-focused projects through grants totaling $27.3 million. This funding comes primarily from MITEI’s Founding and Sustaining Members, supplemented by gifts from generous donors.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

Carbon managementElectric powerPolicyTransportation Seed Fund

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