Stanford University's Precourt Institute for Energy (PIE), TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy and Precourt Energy Efficiency Center (PEEC) have awarded nine faculty seed grants totaling $2.2 million for promising new research in clean technology and energy efficiency.

Seed funding supports early work on concepts that have the potential for very high impact on energy production and use. A committee of Stanford faculty and senior staff awarded the grants to researchers from a broad range of disciplines, including engineering, economics and psychology.

"We received 30 proposals from across the campus," said PIE Director Lynn Orr, a professor of energy resources engineering and member of the selection committee. "We looked for projects where the investigators had moved into new areas of energy research for which the potential payoffs justified taking the risk associated with early-stage proposals. After a lively debate, we chose nine projects with the strongest potential for impacting the supply or use of energy."

Precourt Institute grants

The Precourt Institute for Energy, the umbrella organization for energy research and education at Stanford, will fund the following four studies:

Nanostructured Polymers for High-Performance Batteries: This project explores the use of specially designed nanostructured polymers to make high-energy, low-cost, flexible and stretchable batteries. The goal is to produce stable, high-capacity lithium-ion batteries and eventually develop novel all-polymer batteries at scale. Principal Investigator (PI): Zhenan Bao, chemical engineering. Co-PI: Yi Cui, materials science and engineering (Stanford)/photon science (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory).

Ultrathin Light Absorbers for Solar Cells: One way to lower the cost of solar power is to dramatically reduce the thickness of light-absorbing layers in solar cells. The goal of this project is to develop novel, light-trapping nanomaterials that reduce the absorber layer thickness 100-fold compared to conventional thin film solar cells. The proposed concept could dramatically reduce solar cell manufacturing costs, according to the researchers. PIsStacey Bent, chemical engineering, and Mark Brongersma, materials science and engineering (MSE).

Splitting Water at High Temperatures: Researchers have long sought effective ways of using sunlight to split water into oxygen and clean-burning hydrogen fuel. Most solar-driven water-splitting experiments are conducted at room temperature. The long-term goal of this project is to develop a water-splitting device that operates at high temperatures (up to 400 C), dramatically improving solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiencies. PIsWilliam Chueh, MSE/PIE, and Nick Melosh, MSE.

Hybrid Materials for Reversible Capture of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide: The project goal is to develop a low-cost technique for capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide using organic-inorganic hybrid materials. The researchers propose using copper and other metals to make synthetic materials with electronic properties that enable the controlled capture and release of atmospheric carbon dioxide. PI: Hemamala Karunadasa, chemistry.

PEEC awards

The three projects funded by the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center focus on how consumers make decisions when buying cars, appliances and even light bulbs. "Taken together, these studies should advance our understanding of how to overcome the barriers to energy-conscious decisions and behaviors, which sometimes have financial – as well as environmental – benefits," said PEEC Director Jim Sweeney, professor of management science and engineering.

Experiments with Appliance Choice: This study examines whether some groups of consumers alter their decision-making process when buying major household appliances due to behavioral nudges, such as ecolabeling. The study will characterize consumer classes and monitor neural activity in each group via brain imaging with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Observations of shifts in the manner of decision processing would imply a need to reassess policies for behavioral nudges. Current policy design assumes that nudges do not alter the decision-making process a consumer employs, for example, switching attention from financial to environmental concerns. PI: Brian Knutson, psychology.

Promoting Sustainable Vehicles: Will drivers buy more environmentally friendly vehicles in response to information about present benefits rather than future environmental gains? If so, such informational programs could be far less expensive than tax breaks and far more feasible politically than a carbon tax. In this controlled study, researchers will supplement not very useful sticker information with operating cost comparisons with comparable cars, and bundling the cost of the car with the cost of operating it. PI: Jonathan Levav, Graduate School of Business (GSB).

The Dynamic Effects of the Light Bulb Ban: New regulations effectively ban incandescent light bulbs in much of the world. Does the new prominence of lighting alternatives – compact fluorescent, LED, halogen incandescent – cause consumers to consider not only immediate prices but long-term costs? On the producer side, did the current spurt in lighting innovation require the new regulations? Was manufacturer inertia due purely to consumer inattention? The answers may illuminate the role for government policy in spurring innovation. PIsMar Reguant and Lanier Benkard, GSB.

TomKat Center awards

The TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy is supporting two quite different investigations this year. "The two projects hold major promise in advancing transportation and electricity, not only toward more sustainable models, but also in ways that seek the best economic outcomes," said TomKat Center Director Stacey Bent, professor of chemical engineering. "Wireless charging of moving cars may seem fanciful, but it could make more sense in the long term when you consider all of the energy used by carrying more batteries."

Wireless Power Transfer to a Moving Vehicle: In a follow-up to an earlier study, the researchers will test the feasibility of using magnetic resonance technology to transmit electricity from roads to moving vehicles. The long-term goal is to develop roadways that wirelessly charge electric cars and trucks cruising at highway speeds. The proposed technology has the potential of dramatically increasing the driving range of electric vehicles and transforming highway travel.PI: Shanhui Fan, electrical engineering.

Reliability vs. Cost Tradeoffs in California Renewable Energy Investments: This project will quantify the added costs of serving California's electricity demand with an increasing share of intermittent renewable generation, such as wind and solar energy. The analysis will account for the major drivers of these costs, such as backup generation resources, large energy storage systems, active demand-side participation and alternatives, such as transmission upgrades and changes in how the system is operated. The research also will assess managing intermittency under different wholesale power market rules and different mechanisms for financial support of renewables.

PIsFrank Wolak, economics/Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, and Burton Richter, SLAC/PESD.

Additional support for the 2012 seed grants was provided by Wendy and Eric Schmidt and the Stinehart/Reed Awards.

This article is written by Mark Shwartz and Mark Golden of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University. The article originally appeared in the Stanford Report/