Energy is an incredibly complicated, massively intricate problem to solve. And MIT graduates love that. By 2050, 9.6 billion people will inhabit the planet, and by some estimates, we’ll need 80% more energy than today. The young alumni on these pages are among the scores of MIT people dreaming up fresh ways to harness nuclear, wind, and solar power; optimize our use of fossil fuels; and create smarter systems to support the development of energy solutions.
CHALLENGE: Convince banks to put capital into the wind industry
SOLUTION: Financial risk analytics that show the benefits of investing in wind
You never know where the wind will take you, as Teasha Feldman-Fitzthum ’14 has discovered. She started out as an MIT undergraduate trying to predict wind patterns and ended up as CTO and cofounder of a company that provides financial risk analytics to the wind industry.
What Feldman-Fitzthum learned at MIT is that predicting the wind wasn’t the industry’s biggest problem. “The bigger problem was getting [projects] financed, convincing banks that renewables are a good idea and that they make money,” she says, noting that the industry is rich with investment opportunities; about $60 billion is spent every year on US wind projects.
Feldman-Fitzthum cofounded Cardinal Wind with Michael Reynolds MBA ’14 last June to make it easier for potential investors to see the benefits of investing in wind, which is already generating enough power to keep more than 130 million metric tons of CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere. Her motivation was simple: “I love technology and innovation. I love that we have this world that runs on electricity, but wouldn’t it be great if we weren’t killing the planet?”
Wind power generation is expected to more than double by 2018, yet investors have been slow to embrace such projects, which are capital-intensive and face complex financial and technical challenges. Cardinal Wind’s financial risk analysis software enables investors to evaluate projects to see how various factors will affect revenue, operations, costs, and returns.
“We are telling them how this will turn out,” Feldman-Fitzthum says, noting that the software is expected to be ready for pilot testing in September. “We’re tricking Wall Street into changing the world.”
CHALLENGE: Expand funding opportunities for socially beneficial energy startups
SOLUTION: A vehicle for philanthropists to give charitably to for-profit ventures
Long lead times and high startup costs make new energy companies a tough sell for investors. Yet, such companies offer broad social benefits by addressing the root causes of climate change. Sarah Kearney SM ’12 thought: Why not tap philanthropists to supply the gap funding needed to get energy startups to profitability?
Last year, Kearney founded the PRIME Coalition to do just that. “We built PRIME to complement traditional angel and venture investors. What we do differently is explicitly prioritize charitable impact,” says Kearney, who serves as executive director of the nonprofit. “We select specific investment opportunities based on which could actually move the needle in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, are attractive to follow-on investors, but would otherwise have difficulty finding ample financial support.”
Private US-based foundations have approximately $600 billion in assets and every year pay out about $50 billion in grants. Yet, as of 2013, less than 0.1% of those grants went to anything related to energy innovation.
PRIME works to funnel more money into promising technologies by helping motivated philanthropists take advantage of a rarely used financial vehicle called a PRI, or program-related investment, to fund for-profit ventures while still gaining the tax benefits of charity. At the same time, PRIME works with entrepreneurs to help them market the charitable potential of the businesses they’re building.
“Until this year, the grant mechanism we enable at PRIME had never been applied to early stage energy innovation,” Kearney says, noting that her nonprofit brokered its first, proof-of-concept deal in May. The deal provided seed capital for a grid-capacity energy storage startup from a syndicate of four philanthropic investors that includes superstar couple Will and Jada Smith’s family foundation. “Our goal at PRIME is to make this type of grant-making more commonplace for philanthropic families and foundations that might be interested in the advancement of science across sectors to solve big social problems — to make grants fuel capitalism in a way that could benefit humanity for generations to come.”
CHALLENGE: Increase the percentage of plastic waste that can be recycled
SOLUTION: A chemical process that converts a wide mix of plastics into oil
Recycling is a messy job. Takeout containers, food packaging, and even diapers get mixed into the waste stream—and plastic recycling is particularly finicky, because different grades of plastic typically cannot be processed together. That’s why only 8% of plastic gets recycled each year.
PK Clean, a startup founded by CEO Priyanka Bakaya MBA ’11, is tackling this problem using a novel chemical process developed at MIT that can convert a wide mix of plastics—even dirty plastic—into oil.
“It’s not a beautiful plastic stream. We’ve had to really innovate,” Bakaya says. In addition to dealing with contamination, recyclers have to address the fact that “plastic” isn’t actually one kind of material. The term encompasses a wide range of complex polymers with different molecular structures and physical properties, including melting points.
PK Clean gets around this problem by breaking down plastic’s large carbon chains to reduce the mixed materials to their lowest common denominator. The process converts 70% to 80% of plastic into oil, which the company sells; and 10% to 15% into hydrocarbon gas, which PK Clean uses as fuel for its operations.
In 2013, the company opened its first commercial recycling plant in Salt Lake City; it can convert 20,000 pounds of waste plastic into 60 barrels of oil every day. Still, Bakaya wants to do more. “Long term, we want to position ourselves to come up with innovative solutions for all kinds of waste streams,” she says.
CHALLENGE: Reduce the health and environmental risks of conventional nuclear plants
SOLUTION: A new kind of meltdown-proof reactor fueled by existing nuclear waste
Leslie Dewan ’06, PhD ’13, envisions a world where energy is cheap, plentiful, and carbon-free—thanks to nuclear power. She and Mark Massie SM ’10 have designed a new kind of reactor with the potential to convert the 270,000 tons of nuclear waste found on earth today into enough energy for the next 72 years, based on the US Energy Information Administration’s predictions for future electricity consumption.
“If you want enough carbon-free electricity production to meet the world’s needs,” says Dewan, CEO and cofounder of Transatomic Power, “you have to have nuclear in the mix along with solar and wind.”
Building new nuclear power plants is controversial because the waste generated by today’s light water reactors is highly radioactive and because reactors can melt down, releasing radiation into the environment.
Transatomic addresses these concerns head-on. Its advanced molten salt reactor can be fueled by existing nuclear waste—which Dewan says the company views as “a resource to be tapped rather than as a liability that needs to be disposed of”—and it cannot melt down.
The crucial innovation relates to how the reactor uses fuel. Most reactors today use uranium fuel rods, which need to be actively cooled to prevent meltdown. Transatomic employs uranium dissolved in liquid salt, which does not require active cooling. And, if the power fails, the nuclear material drains passively away from the core, making the reactor “walk-away safe.”
Using molten salt also enables Transatomic to draw 92% more energy from the uranium—thus its ability to reuse existing spent fuel rods and to significantly reduce the burden of radioactive waste on the planet. The company plans to break ground on a prototype facility in 2020.
CHALLENGE: Overcome aesthetic objections to opaque solar cells
SOLUTION: Transparent photovoltaics that expand potential use to virtually any surface
The sunlight hitting the surface of the Earth could power the planet many times over. Miles Barr is working to put solar panels on enough of that surface to harness that power—invisibly.
“What we’re doing at Ubiquitous Energy is commercializing a transparent version of a solar cell,” says Barr SM ’08, PhD ’12, cofounder and CEO of the startup, which builds clear, thin-film photovoltaics. “Conventional solar technology is opaque, shiny, and generally black or blue. We’re eliminating the aesthetic complaints, maximizing the potential surfaces you can put the cells on.”
Historically, makers of solar cells have only been interested in efficiency—getting the most energy possible out of the light hitting the cell’s surface. Ubiquitous Energy’s innovation was to sacrifice some efficiency in order to expand potential usage to virtually any surface. The company’s technology, which emerged from the labs of MIT faculty member Vladimir Bulović and Michigan State University faculty member Richard Lunt, selectively harvests infrared and ultraviolet light, allowing visible light to pass through to the eye.
“It’s kind of a trick, but the cell looks visibly transparent,” Barr says, noting that Ubiquitous Energy has started pilot production on cells that can fit right on the screens of small electronic devices and charge batteries using ambient lighting.
Letting visible light through means Ubiquitous Energy’s cells could produce only up to two-thirds as much power as the best opaque solar cells. But Barr says the trade-off is worth it. “The transparency opens up a lot more surfaces for application.”
Barr hopes one day the windows of skyscrapers will be covered with photovoltaics, all producing electricity from the sun.