The MIT Energy Initiative's third round of seed grants for energy research will support innovative work on solar power, nuclear power, fuel cells, biofuels, and more. Several projects are inspired by natural systems such as gecko feet and bacterial antennas.
Total funding in this round of seed grants exceeded $1.5 million. Thirteen projects received grants ranging from $60,000 to $150,000 and lasting from one to two years, while two additional projects were awarded smaller, shorter-term "planning grants."
"We were especially pleased to see that more than half the awards in this round went to junior faculty," said MITEI Director Ernest Moniz. "And as in the previous rounds, many of the awardees are new to energy-related research."
A few examples will demonstrate the creativity and diversity of the funded research. In one project, Sangbae Kim, who joins the mechanical engineering faculty in May 2009, aims to develop remote-controlled robots that can perform monitoring and maintenance of deep-sea oil pipes and drilling facilities -- tasks critical for safe and environmentally appropriate operation. The robot must walk along underwater pipes for inspection and then stop to perform maintenance, so the researchers are designing a foot inspired by the remarkable adhesion system that enables geckos to adhere to and traverse all kinds of surfaces.
In another biology-related project, Professor William Green and Assistant Professor Kristala Jones Prather, both of chemical engineering, are using computational and experimental methods to identify biofuel molecules that promise significant performance advantages in engines over conventional fossil fuels and can be made in high yields using metabolic engineering.
Assistant Professor Alfredo Alexander-Katz of materials science and engineering is also looking to nature for help in designing high-performance photovoltaic devices. His work focuses on the light-harvesting antennas of photosynthetic green bacteria, which have the ability to harvest essentially every photon that they encounter. Understanding how these natural systems self-assemble will help researchers design novel artificial systems that can harvest light with high efficiency.
Other solar-related projects focus on solar concentrators. For example, Associate Professor Marc Baldo of electrical engineering and computer science is working to improve the "luminescent solar concentrator," a device in which glass or plastic is coated with dyes that absorb light and then re-emit it for collection by solar cells attached at the edges. Such devices work well with diffuse light but have weak absorption of sunlight in the infrared -- a shortcoming that the researchers will address by incorporating rare earth ions into the glass or plastic substrate.
To speed the development of hydrogen fuel cells, Sylvia Ceyer, the John C. Sheehan Professor of Chemistry, is investigating alternatives to the commonly used platinum catalyst, which is expensive and readily poisoned by common fuel contaminants. One candidate is a novel, less-expensive alloy that may do the job of the platinum -- catalyzing reactions that form water on the electrodes.
A project led by Assistant Professor Marilyne Andersen of architecture focuses on innovative window systems that can reduce the need for energy-consuming lighting, heating, and cooling but are rarely implemented, in part because predicting their performance in a given space is difficult. Andersen is developing new metrics that will generate realistic estimates of their energy-saving potential as well as other benefits such as visual and thermal comfort, health, and productivity.
Funding for the new grants comes from MITEI's founding and sustaining members (http://web.mit.edu/mitei/about/members.html), supplemented by the Chesonis Family Foundation, other private donors and MITEI. For a complete listing of the new seed grants, go to http://web.mit.edu/mitei/news/spotlights/recipients-04-09.html.
To date, MITEI's seed fund program has supported more than 50 early-stage research proposals plus ignition and planning grants. "We expect to see high-impact results from this program over the next several years, providing the foundation for future major MIT energy research efforts," said Robert Armstrong, deputy director of MITEI.