Producing energy can be inefficient, expensive, or toxic to the environment—or some unsuccessful combination of the three. Nonetheless, Jesse Hinricher reasons it doesn’t have to be.
Hinricher, an MIT senior majoring in chemical engineering, has been carrying out a research involving specialized batteries that could be plugged into the grid to provide renewable energy on demand. Mainly, he works on substituting some of the costlier electrolytes in so-called redox flow batteries for more easily available ones, thereby helping to make clean energy more affordable.
He cites his rural childhood in a Minnesota farm as the preliminary source of his drive for environmental conservation. Hinricher grew up planting and harvesting soybeans, gardening, and minding cattle on his mother’s farm. His mom, who independently looks after the 700-acre family farm, instilled in him the significance of hard work and independence, which remain some of his fundamental values.
“She taught me to value education, and knowledge, and her work ethic has been a source of inspiration to me,” he says.
Everything is mechanical on the farm, he says; and he enjoyed working with his hands. That affinity, mixed with his ambition to develop solutions for climate change, led Hinricher to pursue chemical engineering. He had witnessed firsthand how radically the seasons changed through the years. Climate change to him wasn’t a vague concept; it was a progressively alarming reality, and one that he felt he couldn’t brush aside.
“I enjoy the environment, and I think it needs to be protected,” he says. “And if not me, then who?”
From January 2017, Hinricher has worked in the lab of Fikile Brushett, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, on creating redox flow batteries. In some ways, these are like batteries one might use in a TV remote: Electrolytes carry electrons between a cathode and an anode, generating energy. However, the energy density of redox flow batteries is very small to be used for items such as a remote, or even a cell phone. They would probably be combined into large-scale energy grids, and theoretically be more energy efficient and less geographically reliant than other renewable energy storage devices.
For instance, in the middle of the day, solar panels are generating plenty of energy, but once the sun sets, they are not. Redox flow batteries can store renewable energy for people to use through the day instead of banking on coal or natural gas plants. The drawback of these batteries at present is that they require exotic and expensive materials. That’s where Hinricher’s work enters; his research concentrates on finding less costly electrolytes and troubleshooting any defects in their implementation.
“If we can discover less expensive materials, it makes redox flow batteries more commercially attractive, which would be the coolest thing to ever have contributed to,” he says.
Although Hinricher likes his work at MIT, it isn’t where he started his collegiate career. After graduating high school in 2012, he joined the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. He says that the School of Mines is well-linked, and does an outstanding job of preparing its students to join the industry. However, as much as he enjoyed the applied side of chemical engineering, he was extremely fascinated by the theoretical aspects as well. He ultimately transferred to MIT in fall 2016, excited to probe deeper into the conceptual side.
Prior to that, though, he undertook research in Professor David Boyles’ group at the School of Mines, working for two years carrying out organic synthesis of monomer units. This, he says, was where he learned “how rigorous and ultimately gratifying research can be when you care about it and are as passionate as Dr. Boyles was. He imparted that same passion to me.”
Hinricher also took a semester off his studies at Mines to help as a Lunar Advanced Volatile Analysis subsystem integration and testing intern at NASA. There, he was involved in the Resource Prospector Mission, designing analytical instruments for a robot meant to one day go to the moon and look for water.
Then, through a student research program held at Princeton University, he investigated polymers that could stitch themselves back together when broken. When he received his acceptance to MIT in 2015, he had ventured out to Berkeley, California, for an internship at the solar technology startup PLANT PV. Hinricher acknowledges the startup’s co-founders, Brian Hardin and Craig Peters, as huge influences on his career and mentorship.
“They made me an offer to stay out in California for a year and defer admission here, and I accepted, and had one of the best experiences that I could have asked for,” he says, describing how he directly witnessed managing a startup and conducting pioneering research on renewable energy sources. His experiences also motivated him to dream of launching his own company in the future.
Take a hike
After classes, Hinricher likes to stay in touch with the nature that stimulated his conservationist outlook in the first place. When he served at PLANT PV in California, that meant winding through the tall trees of Muir Woods. Currently, it’s anything from the White Mountains in New Hampshire to the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.
He’s also a member of Trash2Treasure, an MIT recycling program that sets up donation sites for used items in campus dormitories every spring. Then, at the commencement of the next academic year, T2T sells it back to the student body at a good discount. One year, the organization accomplished saving around 250 boxes of items, which is about 33 tons of material.
“It saves material that would have gone to landfill, and allows students to buy last-minute items very inexpensively,” he says. Whatever is not sold is donated to a charitable organization.
Going forward, Hinricher says he’d like to keep studying energy storage and would like to start his own company. But at present though, he plans to pursue his PhD and see where his research—and the picturesque hiking trails along the way—will lead him.