Aly Eltayeb PhD ’15, MBA ’17 wants to save the planet—and he doesn’t want to wait until he’s completed his education to do it. As an undergrad and professional in his home city of Cairo, Egypt, he worked to develop better biofuels. But when he came to MIT as a graduate student in 2010, he saw a different way forward. Rather than fueling a renewable revolution, he focused on the need for a near-term energy transition.
“We have trillions of dollars of assets that use fossil fuels, so we can’t just turn them all off,” says Eltayeb. “We need to find a solution over the coming decades that will allow us to continue using all that economic value without destroying the environment.”
For Eltayeb, that solution is carbon capture and utilization. He found it when he arrived at MIT to begin a PhD in Chemical Engineering Practice, a unique dual degree program that blends a PhD in chemical engineering with an MBA. The program struck a chord for Eltayeb. “I love science, but I don’t want to be a scientist,” he says. “My real passion is solving real-world problems.”
In the lab of T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering Practice and director of the David H. Koch School of Chemical Engineering Practice, Mike Stern PhD ’13, had developed the technology Eltayeb carried forward. Scrubbers that absorb carbon dioxide out of emission gases have been around for decades, but carbon capture technology hasn’t been widely deployed. Older technology runs on steam that requires expensive modification to the internal workings of the power plant. Hatton and Stern lowered the barrier to adoption by creating a steam-free plug-and-play system that uses electricity to trigger chemical reactions that capture CO2.
In fact, Stern and Hatton had answered most of the pressing scientific questions. They had also burned through a good deal of the funding they’d won to support their investigations. When Eltayeb stepped in, the project was perched on the edge of the so-called Valley of Death. “It’s no longer science, but it’s not a product,” he says. “Who funds that?”
In the energy industry, the Valley is wide and deep. “We’re not putting together an app you can just roll out. The energy space is really large scale,” says Eltayeb. “MIT is an incredible place to work on these types of problems.”
At first, Eltayeb thought that his path would be that of a traditional startup: find venture capital money, build a product, sell it to utility companies. But mentors pointed him toward an alternate route: win grants to develop the technology at MIT, then develop corporate partnerships to advance it.
With the encouragement of the MIT Technology Licensing Office, he applied for two grants, a Massachusetts Clean Energy Center award and an MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation Ignition grant. He won both.
The Ignition award gave him an entree into the Deshpande Center community of mentors, fellow entrepreneurs, and potential customers. With the help of this community, Eltayeb learned that, instead of utility companies, oil companies might have more promise as customers because they have a use for the captured CO2. They can use it to push oil out of wells to maximize extraction and then keep it sequestered underground. “Think of the implications,” he says. “With our technology, you can get oil out of the ground and burn it with a lower carbon footprint.”
In the lab, Eltayeb used the new funding to build prototypes and ratchet up performance. His current prototype is significantly more efficient than the previous one, and closer to commercialization.
In 2015, Eltayeb and colleagues in the Hatton lab won a second Deshpande grant. They also won a $1.5 million Transformational Carbon Dioxide Technology grant from the Department of Energy to advance their technology’s efficiency. “It’s exciting,” says Eltayeb, who is due to complete his MBA in 2017. “We’re hoping to show that it actually works.”