This year's MIT Clean Energy Prize, a competition sponsored by Massachusetts utility company NSTAR and the U.S. Department of Energy, drew 80 entries from 47 universities around the country. The top prize of $200,000, selected yesterday by a team of judges representing industry, venture capital, government and academia, went to a team called Cool Chip Technologies, made up of three graduate students from MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and Sloan School of Management.
The contest, now in its fourth year, is open to teams from any U.S.-based university, and is the leading student-run, student-focused energy business-plan competition in the country. Past participants have gone on to collectively raise more than $88 million in financing.
The 80 entries were initially winnowed down to 25 finalists, with five in each of five separate tracks: transportation, deployment, clean non-renewables, energy efficiency and renewables. Last week, after judging at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, one finalist was selected for each of the tracks, and each finalist team received a $15,000 prize. In addition, the $200,000 grand-prize winner becomes a finalist in the energy category in the MIT $100K Business Plan Competition, whose winner will be selected on Wednesday, May 11.
The grand-prize winner
The winning team, Cool Chip Technologies, was the category winner in energy efficiency and infrastructure. Team member William Sanchez, an EECS doctoral candidate, says the group proposes to develop an improved cooling system for the processor chips used in data centers, which could produce significant savings on the energy used for such centers without any sacrifice in computing performance. Half of the operating costs of data centers are for cooling, Sanchez says, a figure that could be cut by 40 percent using the team's improved fan design. The technology, the team says, could provide significant improvements in a segment of the industry that has made little progress in the last four decades, and could lead to savings of $6 billion a year for industry and the military.
Sanchez, who is set to receive his PhD this year, is the CEO of the start-up company. His teammates are Steven Stoddard, vice president of technology and operations, a joint Sloan and School of Engineering graduate student in MIT's Leaders for Global Operations program; and Daniel Vannoni, vice president of business development and finance, an MBA student at Sloan. Sanchez says the technology was developed at MIT under a grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and at one of the national laboratories. He says the team is pursuing licensing of both technologies and is in discussions with both parties. The company plans to commercialize the technology by having the cooling systems manufactured under contract, and they hope to have the product ready to go on sale late next year.
"The science is proven and understood," Sanchez says. The remaining development work at this point "resides on the quality, reliability and lifetime" of the cooling systems, which are based on an innovative fan design.
Meet the other finalists
A team called Ubiquitous Energy, which includes members from MIT and Harvard, won in the renewables category. The team, led by Miles Barr, an MIT graduate student in chemical engineering, aims to commercialize a technology developed in the laboratories of MIT professors Karen Gleason and Vladimir Bulovic. The system allows solar cells to be printed at low cost on any flexible surface, including paper or fabric. The team hopes to develop a solar charger, the size of a standard sheet of paper, which could be used in off-grid locations in developing countries for charging cell phones or lanterns.
The clean non-renewables category was won by an MIT team called PK Clean, which has patented a process for making fuel from discarded plastic — which they describe as "the most painful form of waste" because it lasts so long without degrading when dumped in landfills. The process would allow the team to tap into the multibillion-dollar fuel market, while also reducing disposal fees for the waste from $50 to just $10 per ton. The team plans to build a 20-ton-per-day pilot facility, and its members say they could make fuel for existing cars and trucks for the equivalent of $25 to $30 a barrel, transforming mountains of waste into barrels of oil.
In the transportation category, the winning team was Made in the Commonwealth, a team including four MIT students as well as a student from Boston University. The team plans to produce renewable fuels for jet aircraft, as well as gasoline, diesel and natural gas for other vehicles, at a new refinery in Massachusetts. Led by Matthew Pearlson, a graduate student in the Engineering Systems Division, the team hopes to raise $20 million this year to begin fuel production.
Finally, in the deployment category, the winning team was Linkcycle, which aims to streamline the process businesses use to conduct a life-cycle analysis of products. Rather than the present system, which relies on consultants to perform an analysis from scratch for every new client, their approach is to develop an online platform for sharing basic data that applies to many different products, thus making the analysis less expensive and more transparent, and verification easier. They estimate their process will halve the typical cost of performing such analyses.
Tom May, NSTAR's president, said during last week's semifinal competition that the entries were so impressive that he couldn't imagine choosing among them. "I wouldn't want to be a judge," he said.