The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is partnering with energy companies to create cleaner energy solutions, from using the basic elements of charcoal to make better solar panels to turning waste carbon dioxide into valuable fuels.
The 9-year-old MIT Energy Initiative — or MITEI, pronounced like “mighty” — is focused on creating better solar power, cost-effective battery energy storage for electric grids, and new types of both biofuels and biochemicals, MIT professors said Friday at IHS CERAWeek in downtown Houston.
Jeffrey Grossman, MIT professor of materials science and engineering, believes we have moved past the silicon age of the tech world and into the materials-design age when we can create and design new products and materials.
“We can go nano,” he said, talking about materials design on the extraordinarily tiny level of nanotechnology.
He is focused on developing materials for more efficient solar panels and energy storage. For instance, current solar panels using silicon are inefficient because they don’t absorb the sun as well. Carbon is cheap and a much better absorbent, so he’s focused on using graphene — the base element of graphite and charcoal — for better and lighter solar cells.
Another project involves reverse engineering the combustion process to make fuels out of carbon dioxide. The initiative would take waste emissions from power plants and use non-peak electricity in the catalyst process from wind and solar farms for the process, said Yogesh Surendranath, MIT assistant professor of chemistry.
“It’s the nexus of the CO2 problem and the energy storage solution,” he said.
Professor Yet-Ming Chiang is honing in on using cheap and abundant sulfur to make the next generation of lithium-sulfur batteries that could be used to store energy from solar panels and release electricity onto power grids as needed.
The goal is to make battery storage economical for energy companies.
“We’ve all been focusing higher energy density and not so focused on cost,” Chiang said.
Major power company Exelon Corp. this week partnered with the MIT Energy Initiative as a member company.
Exelon has a bevy of wind farms, including several in Texas, and the company is investing in energy storage. But president and CEO Christopher Crane also touts Exelon’s moving to the most environmentally friendly natural gas-fired power plants.
Chicago-based Exelon is currently building the most new power in Texas with two gas-fired facilities under construction, near Houston and Fort Worth, for a combined 2,000 megawatts of new power. One megawatt is typically enough to power 200 homes on a hot Texas day.
Exelon is using combined-cycle gas turbines manufactured by General Electric that are the first of their kind in the U.S. and waste much less water.
“The nature of these units is very impressive. They’re air-cooled, so we don’t have a significant dependency on water,” Crane said in an interview at IHS CERAWeek. “They use about 10 percent of the water of our other plants. They’re very efficient. … The flexibility of the units is significant.”
That’s important in a state like Texas that relies on a lot of intermittent wind power, he said.
Likewise, GE is moving its headquarters to Boston in part to move closer to the talent at places like MIT, chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said.
“What we saw in Boston was really the opportunity to be around so many thinkers, so many schools,” Immelt said at IHS CERAWeek. “We wanted to use that as a home-field advantage.”