Power From Nature
From a multi-million dollar center focused on a hot new field in solar energy to a project on a novel way to store the sun’s energy, federal funding is helping MIT researchers not only explore the fundamental science behind promising energy systems, but also turn their work into products in the marketplace. Marc Baldo heads the Center for Excitonics at MIT, which focuses on the nanoscale packets of energy — excitons — key to photosynthesis. Although scientists have long known about excitons, “it’s only recently that we’ve started to have the tools to understand them,” says Baldo, an associate professor of electrical engineering.
Ultimately, he says, “we’re interested in physically moving excitons around. If we can control where they go, then we can control energy on the nanoscale.” And that could lead to new materials and devices for energy production and storage. “It’s a very hot field,” says Baldo, associate director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics.
Funded by a $19 million grant through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Center for Excitonics at MIT is one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) established nationwide in 2009 to pursue advanced scientific research on energy. MIT is also home to a second EFRC, the Solid-State Solar-Thermal Energy Conversion Center, run by Prof. Gang Chen.
“I think without the EFRCs, we’d have a much more scattershot, less coordinated approach to solving major energy problems. And, frankly, a lot of innovation would probably take longer to occur,” says Baldo, noting that the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) played a key role in the establishment of both MIT EFRCs. “They organized us, mentored us, and gave us critical feedback on our proposals.”
Jeffrey Grossman also notes the importance of federal support for his research, and MITEI’s role in landing that support. Two years ago Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg Career Development Associate Professor of Power Engineering, won a $150K seed grant from MITEI to develop a material that can absorb solar energy, then release it on demand, and repeat the process over again. Such “rechargeable heat batteries” have been studied since the ’70′s, but they could not be recharged many times. Grossman soon proved the potential of a new material involving nanotechnology “that can undergo this cycle of charging and discharging thousands of times without degradation.”
Last September, Grossman and four MIT colleagues were awarded a $3 million grant over three years from the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Four other MIT teams have also won ARPA-E grants.
Grossman explains that the ARPA-E award isn’t just monetary. “What ARPA-E does so well is identify high-risk, high payoff opportunities, then help inventors think about how to commercialize them. So the ARPA-E funding allows us to bridge the gap between this exciting basic research and potential high-impact energy applications.”
MITEI not only gave Grossman the opportunity to begin the work, but also gave him the connections to take it further, he says. “It’s a classic seed-fund success story.”