Miniature ultrasound sensors embedded in windmill blades could help avoid catastrophic failures and reduce wind power costs by replacing field inspections with online monitoring.
Stanford University students Alex Guo and Kevin Zheng have set out to show that their sensor system, developed in the laboratory of electrical engineering Associate Professor Boris Murmann, can be commercialized. Then they plan to develop applications for monitoring pipelines, trains, planes and other critical infrastructure.
Guo and Zheng's Humblade is one of 11 new projects trying to get Stanford technology into the real world with financial support from a program of the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. The other inventions getting pushed out of the lab cover a broad spectrum of clean energy technologies, from software that helps design energy-efficient buildings to a device that turns otherwise wasted heat into electricity. To compete for grants, the student-led teams must have a Stanford faculty adviser, like Humblade's Murmann. The program also connects each winner with an industry mentor.
The new teams hope to match the success of the teams that the Energy Innovation Transfer Program selected in its first year. The TomKat Center program provided about $800,000 in grants to the first group of seven projects in 2013-14. Since then, the resulting enterprises have garnered about $12 million in investments and other funding, including an acquisition by a publicly traded company.
"We provide financial support for the development of a prototype, refinement of a business plan and market trials. But the ultimate goal is that the students learn what it takes to move from laboratory invention to commercialized technology," said Stacey Bent, director of the TomKat Center and professor of chemical engineering. "We're seeding the sustainability ecosystem with new technologies, but also with talented, passionate, experienced entrepreneurs."
The Innovation Transfer grants have helped researchers bridge the gap between government support for scientific research and private sector investment in clean energy technologies. That gap has been particularly difficult to overcome in the capital-intensive energy sector the past few years. Venture capital investments in the area known as "cleantech" declined to $129 million in the first quarter of 2015 from $1.1 billion in the first quarter of 2011.
"In choosing the winners, we spend a lot of time exploring the optimal use of the teams' ideas and technologies. Most institutional investors don't have the time or resources for this," said Brian Bartholomeusz, the program's executive director. "In turn, the mentors and other connections provided by the university have been generous with their time and incredibly helpful to the students we've selected."
"Before we received any grant funding from the federal government,
before we received any venture capital funding—
all of which we have now—
TomKat was the first organization to say,
‘There's something here and we
want to support it,’” said Bryce Meredig of
Citrine Informatics, an awardee in
the Innovation Transfer Program’s first year.
Six teams in addition to Humblade won awards at the end of spring term:
Cuberg is developing a solid-state electrolyte for the next generation of lithium-ion batteries. This new electrolyte is expected to raise energy capacity, lengthen lifetime and eliminate the flammability of the liquid electrolyte conventionally used in lithium-ion batteries. Faculty adviser: Associate Professor Yi Cui, Materials Science & Engineering. Team: Mauro Pasta and Richard Wang.
eDROP will enroll thousands of California residents in a program that uses an array of proven tactics to get people to reduce electricity demand when power supply is tight. Such "demand response" programs must improve to enable greater use of intermittent solar and wind energy. Adviser: Assistant Professor Ram Rajagopal, Civil & Environmental Engineering. Team: Siddharth Patel, Matt Duesterberg and Curtis Tongue.
SEE seeks to make the shipping industry – responsible for 3 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions – more efficient with software that reduces the movement of empty containers. Adviser: Professor Seungjin Whang, Graduate School of Business. Team: Adam Compain, Will Harvey and Diego Canales.
Spark Thermionics is prototyping a new type of thermionic energy converter based on a micro-fabricated architecture developed at Stanford. The team members expect that the device, when manufactured, will convert heat to electricity at a record-setting efficiency in a package scalable from watts to megawatts. Adviser: Professor Roger Howe, Electrical Engineering. Team: Dan Riley, Jared Schwede and Nandita Bhaskhar.
Spectrum's cloud-based software rapidly provides feedback on the sustainability of a new architectural design, covering a building's entire lifetime. The program is compatible with standard, three-dimensional architecture programs. Adviser: Assistant Professor Michael Lepech, Civil & Environmental Engineering. Team: John Basbagill.
VISDOM's web-based software helps electric utilities design and evaluate programs to manage electricity demand. Users can interactively analyze and visualize large amounts of data to improve demand-side incentive programs. Adviser: Assistant Professor Ram Rajagopal, Civil & Environmental Engineering. Team: June Flora, Chin-Woo Tan and Sam Borgeson.
Four projects that were awarded grants during the autumn term are well under way:
Keewi helps consumers lower their electric bills by eliminating wasteful standby power. The device adapts to consumer behavior, while also fostering energy-saving actions. Adviser: Assistant Professor Ram Rajagopal, Civil & Environmental Engineering. Team: Rommy Joyce, Jennifer Tsau, Andrew Ging and James Ging.
Opus 12 is developing technology to recycle carbon dioxide into transportation fuel that can compete on cost with fuels made from crude oil. The process requires only electricity, water and carbon dioxide. Adviser: Associate Professor Thomas Jaramillo, Chemical Engineering. Team: Etosha Cave, Kendra Kuhl and Nicholas Flanders.
Summer Technologies' Pasture Map helps ranchers optimize land use and grazing, significantly reducing livestock resource requirements. The mobile management platform also results in healthier grass and topsoil, which sequesters carbon dioxide. Adviser: Professor Peter Vitousek, Biology. Team: Christine Su, Joel Kek and Dapheny Wono.
Vorpal is developing a handheld device for sterilizing liquids using pulsed electric field technology as an energy-efficient alternative to pasteurization and other means of purification. Ideal for emerging economies, the device can purify about 100 liters of water using a common 9-volt battery or run on a small solar panel. The technology is expected to retain its efficiency in large-scale applications. Adviser: Assistant Professor Juan Rivas-Davila, Electrical Engineering. Team: Luke Raymond and Wei Liang.
The TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy was created in 2009 with a gift from Stanford alumni and husband-and-wife team Thomas Steyer and Kat Taylor.
This article was originally published in the Stanford Report on July 29, 2015