Stanford University engineer Shanhui Fan envisions a future where we don't just drive electric cars, we drive them on highways embedded with evenly spaced metal coils, generating electrical currents that charge the car wirelessly as it barrels down the road – car and coil never touch.
While Fan and his Stanford team have shown that a highway system like this is feasible, it will take a lot more research, and additional funding, to implement it at large scale. That's where Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) comes in.
"GCEP is a cooperative effort between private industry and researchers worldwide to address the global energy demand while reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change," said GCEP Director Sally Benson, a research professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford. "Big-idea research efforts like Professor Fan's are at the heart of GCEP's mission."
GCEP recently celebrated its 10th anniversary during its annual research symposium at Stanford.
Since 2002, GCEP has invested more than $130 million into 80 research programs at Stanford and 38 other institutions worldwide. While most of the programs are for innovative technologies with a 10- to 50-year time horizon, GCEP's ambitious research portfolio – like the proposed electrified highway system – is already paying off.
When GCEP was founded a decade ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just released a report presenting the strongest evidence to date that human activity was warming the planet, and that developing countries with the least resources were the most vulnerable.
While the seriousness of climate change was understood back then, research on sustainable energy was lacking at many universities, and Stanford was no exception. "It wasn't even on our strategic radar," said Jim Plummer, dean of the Stanford School of Engineering, at the GCEP symposium.
In 2001, Plummer, Lynn Orr, then dean of the School of Earth Sciences, and Stanford Professors Jerry Harris, geophysics, and Jeff Koseff, civil and environmental engineering, began conversations with company representatives at ExxonMobil and Schlumberger about a new approach to university-based energy research.
Working closely with Brian Flannery and Frank Sprow of ExxonMobil, they crafted an agreement in which leading companies would support university research by harnessing the creativity of faculty and graduate students to develop promising new technologies. Two other companies deeply involved in the energy sector – GE and Toyota – soon joined ExxonMobil and Schlumberger in pledging support for the new Global Climate and Energy Project. In 2011, DuPont joined as GCEP's fifth corporate sponsor.
'Wanted: High-risk, high-reward research'
Soon after GCEP was formed, Orr, the project's first director, and a group of Stanford colleagues set out on a world tour to arrange workshops on key research areas and call for proposals from prominent researchers across Europe and Asia.
Since then, GCEP has supported 165 investigators and more than 700 graduate students and postdocs investigating 16 major areas of energy research. The project has directed its support to research that would be judged too risky for traditional funding sources but with the potential for big payoffs and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from energy use.
For example, one Stanford team is exploring the possibility of locking up carbon dioxide as a stable mineral below the Earth's surface, rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere. Another group has advanced the study of bioelectricity by demonstrating for the first time that electrons can be captured directly from living algae cells.
A high-risk portfolio must be highly diversified, said Orr, who now heads Stanford's Precourt Institute for Energy. It's the engineering equivalent of not putting all of one's eggs in the same basket, and may be the only successful strategy for addressing the energy crisis. "We need to have as many ideas as possible flowing into the competitive landscape where energy operates," Orr said. "And that's where universities are important."
This goal of achieving a well-rounded research portfolio drives the decision making behind the funding. At the annual symposium, Benson described how GCEP prioritizes its energy pursuits: Leading scholars in different energy fields, dubbed research theme leaders, are always looking for gaps in the GCEP portfolio. GCEP uses their advice before issuing worldwide calls for proposals in unexplored areas that might have the greatest potential. "This combination of bottom-up, faculty-driven proposals with strategic identification of the areas with greatest impact keeps the research portfolio fresh and targeted to the most pressing needs," Benson said. "GCEP keeps evolving in response to opportunities and challenges that we see in the energy landscape."
GCEP's philosophy is that devoting resources to research programs in the early stages of development can help them eventually generate momentum. Stanford geophysics Professor Biondo Biondi, for instance, is involved in a broad range of seismic research, but last year had an idea for a promising exploratory project: using seismic technology to detect the early warning signs of problems with underground carbon storage. Biondi knew it would be difficult to get a grant for his pioneering work, so he applied for GCEP funding. One year into the program, Biondi said that the idea is worth pursuing long term.
About 40 percent of GCEP funding has been invested in research beyond the Stanford campus. Some programs have gone on to generate large-scale, independent research centers. For example, a 2007 GCEP study on artificial photosynthesis by Caltech scientists Nathan Lewis, Harry Gray and Harry Atwater was the inspiration for the Department of Energy's Joint Center on Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), a major program established at Caltech in 2010 to develop artificial solar fuel technologies.
Other GCEP programs are building a presence in Silicon Valley. In 2008, Yi Cui, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford, used the results of his research on high-energy lithium batteries to create a company called Amprius, one of three startups spun off from GCEP-funded research.
At the symposium, Stanford President John Hennessy acknowledged GCEP's role in bringing energy research into the academic spotlight. "We sat back and realized that energy was going to be a really big research topic for the university," Hennessy said. "GCEP was the beginning of that process."
Stanford is uniquely suited to host a program like GCEP, added Orr, recalling how readily the university threw its support behind the project. "Stanford is a place where the idea of taking on a big challenge is not only OK, but expected," he said.
Kendra Kuhl, a chemical engineering graduate student, experienced this culture firsthand. "I knew about GCEP just from being at Stanford," she said. "It has raised awareness about energy issues and more realistic ways of looking at them." Kuhl said that being part of a GCEP-funded program has allowed her to communicate with leaders in the energy industry, and that GCEP's summer seminars have broadened her awareness of the issues.
"What I'm proudest of over the 10-year period is the creation of a group of people who flow through these research groups, then go out and change the world," Orr told a symposium panel discussion.
Today, more than 200 Stanford faculty members are conducting research on a wide variety of energy challenges – from solar power and carbon sequestration to policies that encourage energy efficient behavior. According to several GCEP participants, the breadth of the research at Stanford has led to a more collaborative culture, allowing scientists to make fruitful connections outside of their departments. Biondi, for example, hopes that his presentation at the symposium will attract people interested in supporting a new seismic monitoring project. "In science there is a lot of serendipity, with the right communication at the right time, and this has been a great venue for such communication," he said.
Kelly Servick is a science-writing intern at the School of Engineering at Stanford University.