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September 29, 2011

Precourt Institute and TomKat Center award new energy research grants

The Precourt Institute for Energy and the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy are awarding a new round of faculty seed grants for promising research in clean technology and large-scale solar power.

By Mark Golden and Mark Shwartz

Stanford University's Precourt Institute for Energy (PIE) and TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy are awarding eight faculty seed grants totaling more than $2.2 million for promising new research in renewable energy.

"The intent of the seed grants is to help jumpstart new projects with the potential for high impact and future funding," said PIE Director Lynn Orr, professor of energy resources engineering.

"These awards will enable researchers to demonstrate 'proof of concept' and carry out much-needed early experimentation and analysis," said TomKat Center Director Stacey Bent, professor of chemical engineering.

Precourt Institute clean technology awards

This year, PIE is awarding its second round of faculty seed grants to support innovative technologies that use the sun and the air to generate power.  

"We received many outstanding proposals – Stanford faculty have lots of good ideas for energy research," Orr said. "It was tough to choose among them."

The following three projects are being funded by PIE:

Lithium-Air Batteries: The lithium-air battery is a clean technology that uses oxygen from the atmosphere to generate electricity. Proposed in the 1970s, lithium-air
batteries have attracted growing attention, because their theoretical storage capacity is more than 10 times higher than the best lithium ion batteries. Unfortunately, the sluggish nature of the air cathode has substantially reduced the battery's performance. In this project, the researchers propose developing an efficient cathode catalyst made of low-cost carbon nanomaterials and metal oxides.

Principal Investigator (PI): Hongjie Dai, chemistry.

Solar Thermal Energy for Household and Commercial Use: The growing demand for electricity has led to the production of micro-combined cooling, heating and power (m-CCHP) systems – small units that provide energy to cool, heat and power individual homes and businesses. The goal of this project is to design a novel m-CCHP system that uses an engine powered by solar thermal energy and natural gas to generate electricity.

PI: Lambertus Hesselink, electrical engineering. Co-PIs: Sanjiva Lele, mechanical engineering/aeronautics and astronautics; and James Gibbons, electrical engineering.

Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells: Dye-sensitized solar cells use a special dye sandwiched between two semiconductors to convert sunlight into electricity. To make the process more efficient, the researchers propose synthesizing new dyes that will do a better job of keeping the negative charge carriers in one semiconductor away from the positive charge carriers in the other semiconductor. They expect to generate more current and achieve a higher voltage.

PIs: Daniel Stack, chemistry, and Michael McGehee, materials science and engineering (MSE).

TomKat Center large-scale solar awards

The TomKat Center is funding five seed grants for research aimed at making large solar power installations more cost competitive and efficient, and to help deal with solar energy's hard-to-predict output.

"We chose to look at large-scale solar power because it could help us get to an energy system that supports a sustainable future," Bent said. "But there are very complex, very important barriers to overcome."

The center used a new thematic research approach that brings together experts from various disciplines to work on different aspects of a major problem – in this case, greater deployment of large-scale solar power. Researchers receive seed grants in four areas of expertise: energy storage; generation and conversion; transmission and distribution; and land and water impacts.

"To put in place the energy systems of the future, we need to develop sustainable energy services and also understand their impact on land, water and energy markets," Bent said.  "Those challenges require the skills of researchers across the university, and building those connections is a major goal of the TomKat Center."

The following projects are being funded by the TomKat Center, with additional support from PIE:

Enhanced Photovoltaics: The goal of this project is to boost the efficiency of thin-film solar cells by adding upconverters, a group of materials that allow additional sunlight to be absorbed by the solar cell. The researchers hope to show that such materials could help a new generation of photovoltaics surpass the current 20 percent efficiency milestone (research area: generation and conversion).

PIs: Jennifer Dionne and Michael McGehee, MSE.

Consuming Renewable Power: Unexpected cloud cover frequently cuts solar supplies, requiring reserve-generating capacity with high financial and environmental costs. Instead, the researchers hope to demonstrate a better way to manage the inherent variability of solar power by matching solar power generators with large consumers who can ramp usage up or down in sync with somewhat random supplies (research area: transmission and distribution).

PI: Ram Rajagopal, civil and environmental engineering (CEE).

Regenerative Fuel Cells: One way to deal with the intermittent nature of solar power is by storing some of it for use when output drops. The research team plans to develop a new type of alkaline fuel cell that can store electricity by producing hydrogen and oxygen molecules from water, and later generate power when the molecules are allowed to recombine to make water (research area: energy storage).

PI: Thomas Jaramillo, chemical engineering; Co-PI: Curtis Frank, chemical engineering.

Evaluating Ecosystems:  The researchers will develop a new accounting method to value the preservation, use and enhancement of the natural ecosystems around large solar-generating facilities. New solar power plants are difficult to finance because they often compete against old power plants burning fossil fuels. A rigorous, market-based valuation of ecosystem services for competitive large-scale solar power generation could lead to changes in renewable energy market economics (research area: land and water impacts). This project is jointly funded by PIE.

PI: Michael Lepech, CEE. Co-PIs: David Freyberg, CEE; Stefan Reichelstein, Graduate School of Business; and John Weyant, MSE.

Environmental Impacts in the Southwest: This proposal examines the effects of large solar plants on land and water resources in the American Southwest, with a focus on precipitation impacts, opportunities for integrating agriculture and solar infrastructure in desert regions, and the consequences of climate change and disturbance of soil for dust accumulating on solar panels (research area: land and water impacts). This project is also jointly funded by PIE.

PIs: Chris Field, Noah Diffenbaugh and David Lobell, environmental Earth system science.

"Any of these research projects individually may provide a big push in the right direction," Bent said.  "Taken together, they may truly shift our thinking about how to tackle the barriers toward significant penetration of large-scale solar power."

Stanford University launched PIE and the TomKat Center on Jan. 12, 2009.

Established with support from alumnus Jay Precourt, PIE serves as the hub of energy research and education at Stanford. PIE's mission is to advance the goal of major and rapid energy transformations by supporting cutting-edge energy research and creating effective avenues of communication among scholars and others seeking energy solutions. The PIE research awards are supported by Jay Precourt, the Schmidt Family Foundation and the Stinehart/Reed Donor Advised Fund.

The TomKat Center was created with a gift from Stanford alumni and husband-and-wife team Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor. Its goal is to harness the skills and creativity of Stanford's leading science, technology and policy experts to transform the world's energy systems for a sustainable future.

Mark Golden and Mark Shwartz are communications/energy writers at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.



Stacey Bent, TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy: (650) 723-0385,

Lynn Orr, Precourt Institute for Energy: (650) 725-6270,

Mark Golden, Precourt Institute for Energy: (650) 724-1629,

Mark Shwartz, Precourt Institute for Energy: (650) 723-9296,

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