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

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Eight individuals and teams from MIT were recently awarded $150,000 grants through the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) Seed Fund Program to support promising novel energy research. 

The highly competitive annual program received a total of 82 proposals from 88 researchers representing 17 departments, labs, and centers at MIT. The applications, which came from a range of disciplines, all aim to help advance a low-carbon energy system and address key climate challenges. 

“The breadth of creative, interdisciplinary research proposals that we received truly reflects the Institute’s increasing focus on curbing the effects of climate change,” says MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong, the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. He also noted that a large number of proposals focused on energy storage, signifying the central role that these technologies will play in deep decarbonization.

The winning projects will address topics ranging from hurricane-resilient smart grids and zero-emission neighborhoods to new, low-cost batteries for grid-level energy storage.

Building hurricane-resilient smart grids

In 2017, Hurricane Maria left more than 1 million Puerto Ricans without power — many of whom did not have their electricity restored until months later. As stronger hurricanes become increasingly frequent, extreme weather is proving to be a growing critical threat to electric power grids and energy infrastructure. 

First-time seed fund awardees Kerry Emanuel and Saurabh Amin aim to develop a foundational design approach for building hurricane-resilient smart grids. They will combine their expertise in hurricane physics and power system control to develop new strategies that can greatly increase the resilience of power grids and allow for quicker restoration of service.

“The goal is to reduce overall grid damage and avoid prolonged outages after storms by integrating strategic resource allocation and microgrid control strategies,” says Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. 

“Unlike a traditional centralized grid that depends on a reliable supply of bulk power, our design approach accounts for the uncertain failure rates of grid components due to hurricane winds and floods, and leverages the flexibility enabled by distributed energy resources, like reconfigurable microgrids, localized renewable energy, and storage devices,” adds Amin, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.

This interdisciplinary research holds promise for advancing the science of climate risk management and helping government agencies and energy utilities work together to develop flexible operational strategies in preparation for future storms.

Biological self-assembly to improve catalysis

According to Ariel Furst, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, 500 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) are expected to be produced from industrial processing and fossil fuels over the next five decades. An important way to reduce the carbon footprint of one of these main emitters — industrial processing — is to transform CO2 into useful products. 

The first step in this transformation process is to reduce CO2 to carbon monoxide through a method such as electrocatalysis. This reaction — in which a small-molecule catalyst interacts with an electrode — can often be imprecise and limited. With this in mind, Furst plans to use her seed fund grant to explore how the specific placement of the small-molecule catalysts affects catalytic efficiency in CO2 reduction.

“We provide a unique perspective to this work by combining the inherent power of biology with these electrocatalytic transformations,” says Furst, who is both a new MIT faculty member and first-time seed fund grant winner. 

She will use self-assembled nanostructures composed of deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA) to control the precise positioning of molecular catalysts on electrode surfaces. This research will allow her to evaluate spatial effects on catalytic efficiency, from which she can extrapolate design parameters that can be applied to other classes of catalysts in the future. 

Rapid material design for solid-state batteries

Another first-time seed fund award team will use their grant to develop an automated synthetic process to speed up the discovery, design, and construction of new ceramic material components for solid-state lithium-ion batteries (SSBs), which have the potential to increase safety and energy efficiency as compared to more conventional liquid-electrolyte batteries.

One of the major challenges with implementing SSBs is the need for a high ceramic manufacturing temperature to make key components, resulting in a high-cost, time-consuming synthesis that doesn’t easily translate into industrially relevant manufacturing. Looking to overcome this obstacle, the team has identified the potential for a low-temperature process to synthesize the ceramic components. 

The interdisciplinary team consists of a material ceramicist, Thomas Lord Associate Professor Jennifer Rupp of the departments of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); an automation expert, Professor Wojciech Matusik of EECS; and a material informatics expert, Atlantic Richfield Associate Professor of Energy Studies Elsa Olivetti of DMSE .

Leveraging their distinct expertise, the research team will work with students to couple machine learning techniques and automated synthesis to revise ceramic processing and enable rapid material screening, device design, and data analysis for performance engineering. 

“This work has the potential to fundamentally alter the way research is conducted in the battery community,” says Rupp. “The higher throughput pathway will allow more discoveries to be made in less time and will enable researchers to focus on altering battery design toward performance.”

The MITEI Seed Fund Program has supported 185 early-stage energy research projects through a total of $24.9 million in grants since its establishment in 2008. This funding comes primarily from MITEI’s founding and sustaining members, supplemented by gifts from generous donors.

Recipients of the 2020 MITEI Seed Fund grants are as follows:

“Building Hurricane-Resilient Smart Grids: Optimal Resource Allocation and Microgrid Operation” — Kerry Emanuel of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Saurabh Amin of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering;
“DNA Nanostructure-Immobilized Electrocatalysts for Improved CO2 Reduction Efficiency” — Ariel Furst of the Department of Chemical Engineering;
“Enabling High-Energy Li/Li-Ion Batteries Through Active Interface Repair” — Betar Gallant of the Department of Mechanical Engineering;
“Extremely Low-Cost Aluminum-Sulfur Battery Running Below 100 Degrees Celsius for Grid-Level Energy Storage” — Donald Sadoway of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering;
“Low-Cost Negative Emissions From Concentration Swing Absorption” — Jeffrey Grossman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering;
“Rapid Material Discovery for Solid-State Batteries: Coupling Low-Cost Processing With Material Screening and Performance Optimization Using Machine Learning” — Jennifer Rupp of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Wojciech Matusik of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Elsa Olivetti of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering;
“Sorption Enhanced Steam Methane Reforming With Molten Sorbents for Clean Hydrogen Production” — T. Alan Hatton of the Department of Chemical Engineering; and
“Towards Zero-Emissions Neighborhoods: A Novel Building-Grid Optimization Framework” — Audun Botterud of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and Christoph Reinhart of the Department of Architecture.

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