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Stanford Faculty Receive 11 Seed Grants for Early-Stage Energy Research

Stanford University's Precourt Institute for Energy, the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy have awarded 11 seed grants totaling $2.2 million for promising new research in clean technology and energy efficiency.

Energy-efficient vehicles are among the research areas funded by seed grants from the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy.

The seed funding supports early work on concepts that have the potential for very high impact on energy production and use. Through a competitive process, two committees of faculty and senior staff awarded the grants to Stanford researchers from a broad range of disciplines, including engineering, physics, economics, business, communication and education.

"We received 42 proposals from across the campus to explore new ideas where the potential payoffs warrant taking the risk inherent in proof-of-concept work," said Precourt Institute Director Lynn Orr, a professor of energy resources engineering. "There were lots of good proposals, which induced a lively debate in the selection committee. The projects selected offer a variety of approaches to the overall goal of a clean, affordable, efficient energy system."

Precourt Institute for Energy grants

The Precourt Institute for Energy, an umbrella organization for energy research and education at Stanford, will fund the following three studies and jointly fund one study to be administered by the TomKat Center:

Functionalized Graphene-Platinum Composites for Fuel Cells: Investigators will test if dispersed platinum nanoparticles grown on graphene (one-atom thick sheets of carbon) can reduce the amount of expensive platinum needed in fuel cells while functioning as a highly efficient catalyst. Principal Investigators (PIs): David Goldhaber-Gordon, Physics; Fritz Prinz, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

Self-Regenerating Fuel Cells Running on Natural Gas: To help in the design of self-restoring catalysts for ceramic fuel cells, which could run on natural gas rather than hydrogen, this project will illuminate the fundamental chemical and structural transformations involved. PIs: Robert Sinclair Materials Science and Engineering; William Chueh, Materials Science and Engineering and the Precourt Institute.

An Electricity/CO2 Market Simulation Incorporating Renewables: A game in which business students try to maximize profits from power plants will be refined to replicate more fully California's markets for electricity and carbon dioxide emission permits. Multiple controlled experiments may produce valuable insights for policymakers. PIs: Mark C. Thurber, Program on Energy and Sustainable Development; Frank A. Wolak, Economics.

Precourt Energy Efficiency Center awards

The five studies funded by the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center (PEEC) focus on improving the performance of hybrid cars, natural ventilation systems in buildings and programs that financially motivate utility customers to use electricity more efficiently. "For the most part, we are looking at how to make the most of efficiency technologies already emerging, though we are also trying to help lay the groundwork for the very dynamic electricity system of the future," said PEEC Director Jim Sweeney, professor of management science and engineering.

Trip Estimation Techniques to Better Manage Hybrid Vehicle Batteries: This project will develop techniques to predict the most probable trip a car is taking based on the driver, time of day, location, trip starting point and other parameters. Such predictive ability could help maximize the electric part of the car and minimize the gasoline side. PIs: John D. Fox, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory/Applied Physics; William Dally, Computer Science; Jonathan Levav, Graduate School of Business.

Improving Predictions of the Efficiency of Natural Ventilation in Buildings: Designing buildings that rely on natural ventilation for temperature control is a relatively new science and has often resulted in uncomfortable occupants. This work seeks to advance the design and operation of such buildings to yield increased overall building efficiency without sacrificing comfort. PIs: Gianluca Iaccarino, Mechanical Engineering; Martin Fischer, Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Better Decision Making for Policies and Programs to Reduce Electricity Use: This project seeks to aid decision making in energy-efficiency initiatives – from government policies to business campaigns – by identifying critical changes in public opinion regarding efficiency technologies and their adoption. PIs: Roy Pea, Education; Michael Bernstein, Computer Science; Martha Russell, H-STAR (Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute).

Visualization of Smart Meter Data for Critical Peak Pricing: Using data from 2,000 businesses, this work will build software to identify businesses that are good candidates for financial incentive programs to reduce electricity use or shift usage to off-peak times. The system will include a visualization and interaction front end for engaging selected customers. PIs: Ram Rajagopal, Civil and Environmental Engineering; June A. Flora, H-STAR.

Efficiency and Group Behavior in Power Distribution Networks: Many local devices that can either generate electricity, like rooftop solar panels, or store energy, like electric cars, are expected to help reduce the costs of the traditional system, especially as intermittent renewable energy provides a bigger fraction of our energy use. This novel study examines the "micro grids" that owners of these resources likely will form for negotiating with their local utilities. PIs: Ramesh Johari, Management Science and Engineering; Ram Rajagopal, Civil and Environmental Engineering.

TomKat Center awards

The TomKat Center is supporting three investigations this year aimed to boost the output of wind farms, invent a new kind of solar cell and use carbon dioxide as a way of storing electricity. "These are projects that we think could eventually lead to less expensive ways of generating and storing renewable energy," said TomKat Center Director Stacey Bent, professor of chemical engineering. "Lowering costs on both those counts is the key to a sustainable energy future."

Electrochemical Splitting of Supercritical Carbon Dioxide: This project looks at the fundamentals of splitting CO2 under supercritical temperature and pressure to form CO, which can be used as a fuel to produce electricity as needed. The researchers hope the process can recover much of the energy used to break down the CO2 and become a carbon-neutral way to store renewable power. PIs: Mark Cappelli, Mechanical Engineering; Reginald Mitchell, Mechanical Engineering; Tsuyohito Ito, Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University, Japan.

Making Large Wind Farms More Productive, Less Expensive: Researchers will test the benefits of positioning smaller turbines among the primary turbines in a large wind farm, along with other new operational approaches. The study, jointly funded by the TomKat Center and the Precourt Institute, will also develop a model for designing and operating new wind farms based on terrain and environment. PIs: Sanjiva K. Lele, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Mechanical Engineering; John Weyant, Management Science and Engineering.

Junctionless Solar Cell for Enabling Third-Generation Photovoltaics: The investigator hopes to demonstrate the low cost and high productivity of new, junctionless solar cells with transparent electrodes on commonly available semiconductor materials, such as silicon or germanium. Such cells could be stacked on top of each other and, combined with other advantages, could lead to greater than 50 percent efficiencies. PI: Krishna Saraswat, Electrical Engineering.

Additional support for the 2013 seed grants was provided by Wendy and Eric Schmidt and the Stinehart/Reed Awards.

Mark Golden writes about energy research at Stanford University for the Precourt Institute for Energy.

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