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MIT Energy Initiative announces 2014 seed grant awards

Seed fund program logo, which looks like a lightbulb in hands

The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) has announced its latest round of seed grants to support early-stage innovative energy projects. A total of more than $1.6 million was awarded to 11 projects, each lasting up to two years. With this latest round, the MITEI Seed Fund Program has supported 129 early-stage research proposals, with total funding of about $15.8 million.

This year’s winners address a wide range of topics including new methods of designing and using catalysts; assessment of natural gas technologies; novel design concepts for batteries, energy harvesters, and capacitors; and investigations into public opinion on various state energy policies.

As in the past, the call for proposals welcomed submissions on topics across the spectrum of energy and related environmental research, with interdisciplinary research strongly encouraged. In addition, this year’s call sought to promote submissions on two particular themes: natural gas monetization and materials for energy. Past themes have included topics as diverse as the role of big data and the energy-water nexus.

In response to the call, MITEI received a total of 49 proposals from across the Institute. Once again, proposals came from well-established energy experts as well as from new faculty who need startup support and others who are applying their expertise in different fields to energy for the first time.

Below are examples of projects led by new assistant professors now engaged with MITEI through the Seed Fund Program:

  • Hybrid metal-organic materials for sustainability: Much attention is focused on the development of crystalline and amorphous network materials for gas storage. Assistant professor Niels Holten-Andersen of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and assistant professor Jeremiah Johnson of the Department of Chemistry are working to combine metallosupramolecular assembly with polymer networks to create a new class of hybrid metal-organic materials. These novel materials will unite the well-controlled physical properties of polymers with the promising functional properties of metal-facilitated self-assembly. The materials will be versatile, robust, and capable of self-healing and “tunable” self-assembly. They can thus be optimized for applications such as carbon capture, wastewater filtration, and natural gas storage, and for use in devices including fuel cells, rechargeable batteries, and solar cells.
  • Computational tools for catalyst design: The ability to convert methane gas—a primary component of natural gas—directly to liquid methanol at often-remote recovery sites would dramatically alter how this valuable fuel is stored, transported, and used. However, despite decades of effort, no lab-developed catalyst for achieving that conversion has been commercialized. Building on novel computation techniques, assistant professor Heather J. Kulik of the Department of Chemical Engineering is developing an “inverse” molecular catalyst strategy that begins with the desired outcome—stability, efficiency, and selectivity for direct methane conversion—and searches for chemical compounds that yield those characteristics. Once the computational framework is established, she and MIT collaborators will use it to guide experimental catalysis work and to gather feedback for further framework development, including generalization to other critical chemical reactions.
  • Energy harvesting from ambient vibrations: Energy-harvesting systems may be used to generate electricity for portable electronics, sensors, medical implants, and other small devices by using ambient sources such as walking vibrations and water waves. In such sources, the energy “lives” in a wide range of temporal and spatial scales, so taking full advantage of it requires harvesting from a broad band of frequencies. Assistant professor Themistoklis Sapsis and professor Alexander Slocum of the Department of Mechanical Engineering are designing a mechanical system for harvesting energy from such broadband sources that mimics the efficient and robust mechanism that governs energy transfers across different scales in turbulent flows. If successful, these mechanical analogues of turbulence could transform the way energy-harvesting systems are designed, yielding much higher conversion efficiencies than achieved in traditional configurations.
  • Public opinion and state energy policy: In recent years, many important developments in energy policy—including regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions and increasing renewable energy production—have occurred at the state level. But little attention has been paid to the role of public opinion in the state energy policy process. To clarify that role, assistant professor Christopher Warshaw and professor Adam Berinsky of the Department of Political Science will measure public opinion on an array of state-level energy policies using existing data and original surveys. In addition, they will examine whether the public holds state-elected officials accountable for their energy policy decisions, and they will examine whether state policy outcomes are responsive to changes in public opinion. Their findings will provide new insights into the politics of energy policy in the United States.
  • Evaluating quantum dots as thermoelectric materials: Thermoelectric devices can convert waste heat from car engines, power plants, and other sources directly into electricity. The best thermoelectric materials incorporate performance-enhancing nanoscale features, but fabricating them generally requires expensive methods not cost-effective at scale. As an alternative, assistant professor William Tisdale of the Department of Chemical Engineering is evaluating the thermoelectric performance capabilities of colloidal quantum dots (QDs), nanoscale semiconductor crystals whose electronic structure and behavior are defined by particle size and shape. By using novel laboratory techniques to synthesize QD materials, Tisdale will examine how surface chemistry and crystal packing affect charge and heat transport in colloidal QD materials—an understanding that will make possible enhanced thermoelectric performance and the optimization of inexpensive solution-based processes for fabrication of large-area energy conversion devices.
  • Time-dependent climate impacts of natural gas deployment: Fuels emit a variety of greenhouse gases during their life cycles, and those gases have different radiative efficiencies and removal rates. As a result of those variations and a changing climate, the impact of a technology depends on its time of use—dynamics that are not reflected in static climate metrics like the global warming potential. Assistant professor Jessika Trancik of the Engineering Systems Division is developing and testing new, dynamic metrics that can better assess the climate impacts of natural gas and other fuels with significant life-cycle methane emissions. With an initial focus on natural gas deployment in the electricity and transportation sectors, she will then use those metrics to inform the optimization of technology portfolios that allow for maximum energy consumption while meeting climate targets and performance standards imposed by policy.

Funding for the new grants comes chiefly from MITEI’s Founding and Sustaining Members, supplemented by funds from John M. Bradley ’47, SM ’49 and an anonymous donor, and gifts from other generous alumni. Alumni contributions help expand the scope of the MITEI Seed Fund Program and enable participation of faculty from across the Institute.

Recipients of MITEI seed grants, spring 2014:

Assessment of technologies at different scales to monetize natural gas under uncertain and dynamic conditions
Paul Barton, chemical engineering

Dual-mode lithium-bromine seawater battery
Martin Bazant, chemical engineering
Cullen Buie, mechanical engineering

In-cylinder catalysis for ATR: Piston driven chemical reactors
Leslie Bromberg, Plasma Science and Fusion Center
William Green, chemical engineering
Wai Cheng, mechanical engineering
John Brisson, mechanical engineering

Integrated photovoltaic–electrochemical devices to reduce CO2 for fuel production
Tonio Buonassisi, mechanical engineering
Yang Shao-Horn, mechanical engineering

Nanostructured high-performance electrostatic capacitors
John Hart, mechanical engineering

Hybrid metal-organic materials based on gelation and self-assembly: A new class of materials for sustainability
Niels Holten-Andersen, materials acience and engineering
Jeremiah Johnson, chemistry

New computational tools for direct methane-to-methanol catalyst design
Heather Kulik, chemical engineering

Efficient nonlinear energy harvesting from broad-band vibrational sources by mimicking turbulent energy transfer mechanisms
Themistoklis Sapsis, mechanical engineering
Alexander Slocum, mechanical engineering

Quantum confined materials for thermoelectrics
William Tisdale, chemical engineering

Evaluating time-dependent climate impacts of natural gas deployment
Jessika Trancik, Engineering Systems Division

Public opinion and state energy policy
Christopher Warshaw, political science
Adam Berinsky, political science

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