MIT Energy Initiative awards 10 seed fund grants for early-stage energy research

Francesca McCaffrey and Nancy Stauffer
May 2, 2017

Nicholas Fang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, won an MITEI Seed Fund grant to continue his research into developing efficient ceramic support structures for catalytic converters used in power plants and in the automotive industry. This photo shows a piece of 3-D-printed cellular ceramic substrate with 100-nm-thin walls that has exhibited excellent thermal conductance and mechanical strength, with the potential for waste gas catalytic conversion. Photo: Huifeng Du and Xiang Xiong

This article was originally featured on the MIT News Page.

Supporting promising energy research across a wide range of disciplines is one of the core tenets of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). Every spring for the past 10 years, the MITEI Seed Fund Program has awarded funding to a select group of early-stage energy research projects. This spring, 10 projects were awarded $150,000 each, for a total of $1.5 million.

“Providing support for basic research, especially research in its early stages, has proven to be an incredibly fruitful way of fostering creative interdisciplinary solutions to energy challenges,” says MITEI Director Robert Armstrong, the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “This year, we received 76 proposals from applicants with innovative ideas. It was one of the most competitive groups of proposals we’ve seen.”

To date, MITEI has supported 161 projects with grants totaling $21.4 million. These projects have covered the full spectrum of energy research areas, from fundamental physics and chemistry to policy and economics, and have drawn from all five MIT schools and 28 departments, labs, and centers (DLCs).

This year’s awardees represent three MIT schools (Science, Engineering, and the Sloan School of Management) and seven DLCs, with research specialties ranging from chemical engineering to management to aeronautics and astronautics. Five out of the 10 awarded projects focus on advancing energy storage technologies, a key area for enabling the transition to a low-carbon future.

Moving forward on clean energy goals

Valerie Karplus, the Class of 1943 Career Development Professor and assistant professor of global economics and management at MIT Sloan, has been awarded a grant for a project focusing on the response of industrial firms to energy-efficiency policies. Using detailed data from firms in China, Germany, and the United Kingdom, she will investigate what characteristics of firms determine how policy affects production costs and firm competitiveness. “We know very little about how policy interventions interact with an organization's structure and practices to ultimately influence energy use behaviors,” says Karplus. “This project will uncover how the quality of management in energy-intensive manufacturing companies affects the ease of meeting—and potentially exceeding—energy and environmental policy goals.”

Karplus’s fellow Seed Fund grantees are all working toward achieving these goals as well, in a variety of ways. Troy Van Voorhis, the Haslam and Dewey Professor of Chemistry, and Yogesh Surendranath, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemistry, are one such team. They were awarded a grant to support their development of new, more efficient graphene-based catalysts for fuel formation. If successful, their work could facilitate the clean generation of fuels capable of storing energy in chemical bonds for later release.

Interdisciplinary research applies diverse skill sets to energy challenges

Fikile Brushett, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Audun Botterud, a principal research scientist in the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, are one of several teams leveraging interdisciplinary collaboration. By combining their expertise in battery technology and in power grid operations, Brushett and Botterud are developing new laboratory-scale methods of testing the performance and economic viability of grid-scale batteries under realistic operating conditions. “Implementation of application-informed methodologies can enable better evaluation of today’s technologies and can guide the development of next-generation battery systems for power grids with increasing shares of renewable energy,” says Botterud.

Another interdisciplinary project from this year’s round of grants focuses on developing novel computational tools that aid the design of new molecules. Based on first-principles modeling and data-driven models that leverage available literature, researchers Heather Kulik, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Youssef Marzouk, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, are creating a novel approach that predicts the behavior of new molecules and updates predictions on the fly using recent advances in machine learning and uncertainty quantification. The goal is to use computer simulation rather than laboratory testing to guide the design of molecules optimized for selected uses. Their first tools focus on optimizing lubricant molecules critical to increasing vehicle fuel economy.

Building on past successes

A key goal of the MITEI Seed Fund Program is to provide support that will enable early-stage energy research projects to take root and thrive over the long term. Amos Winter, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, along with colleagues Ian Marius Peters, a research scientist in the Photovoltaics Research Laboratory, and Tonio Buonassisi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, won a 2016 seed grant for a cost-optimized solar desalination system. The team has since received additional funding from Tata Projects, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, UNICEF, and USAID to further develop their technology, which has led to pilot plants in Chelluru, India, and in Gaza. The goal is to bring clean, energy-efficient, and cost-effective solutions to areas with a lack of clean drinking water. Tata Projects is planning to commercialize the technology.

A seed grant also led to follow-on funding for Noelle Selin, an associate professor in both the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in EAPS. Under a 2013 seed grant, they identified new ways to evaluate the success of emissions-control measures tailored to reduce particulate pollution. Selin and collaborators are continuing that work under a 2015 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In some cases, seed grants have catalyzed follow-on funding for different applications of the initial developments. For example, Laurent Demanet, an associate professor of applied mathematics, recently received funding from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to support work he has been performing under a 2013 seed grant focused on improving methods of locating subsurface oil and gas reservoirs. In that work, he developed new mathematical techniques for creating maps of the subsurface from passive seismic surveys, where the only source of waves is the ambient seismic noise of the Earth. The Air Force is interested in this line of work because of the potential of the same mathematical techniques for passive aircraft navigation.

Spinoff companies have also emerged from seed grants. Cambridge Electronics, for instance, evolved from Tomás Palacios’s 2008 seed grant work on nitride-based electronics. “The MITEI seed funding for our gallium nitride power electronics project was key to getting that research effort started in our group,” says Palacios, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “It allowed us to get some initial results that we then used to win further funding from other sponsors.” On graduating, the student leading the project — Bin Lu SM ’07 PhD ’13 — and colleagues started Cambridge Electronics, which Palacios says is “on track to make a real impact on energy use by changing the way electricity is processed in the world.”

Funding for Seed Fund grants comes chiefly from MITEI’s Founding and Sustaining Members, supplemented by gifts from generous donors. A full list of the 2017 awarded projects and teams is below.

  • "3D printed ultrathin-wall cellular ceramic substrates for catalytic waste gas converters." Nicholas Fang, Department of Mechanical Engineering
  • "Can small, smart, swappable battery EVS outperform gas powertrain economics?" Sanjay Sarma, Department of Mechanical Engineering
  • "Computational design and synthesis of graphene based fuel forming catalysts." Troy Van Voorhis and Yogesh Surendranath, Department of Chemistry
  • "Designer electrocatalysts for energy conversion: Catalytic O2 reduction, CO2 reduction, and CH4 activation with conductive metal-organic frameworks." Mircea Dinca, Department of Chemistry
  • "Electrokinetic suppression of viscous fingering in electrically enhanced oil recovery." Martin Bazant, Department of Chemical Engineering
  • "Management capabilities and firm responses to energy efficiency policies." Valerie Jean Karplus, Sloan School of Management
  • "Next generation quantitative structure property relationships for lubricants from machine learning and advanced simulation." Heather Kulik, Department of Chemical Engineering, and Youssef Marzouk, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
  • "PMU data analytics platform for load model and oscillation source identification." Konstantin Turitsyn, Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Luca Daniel, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
  • "Predicting technical performance and economic viability of grid-scale flow batteries." Audun Botterud, Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, and Fikile Brushett, Department of Chemical Engineering
  • "Thin-film metal-organic framework membranes for energy-efficient separations." Zachary Smith, Department of Chemical Engineering