Stanford, California - Stanford University's Precourt Institute for Energy, Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy have awarded eight seed grants totaling about $1.5 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," said Precourt Institute Director Sally Benson, a professor of energy resources engineering. "This year's grants support an exciting array of bold, new ideas for advancing energy technology and policy – from revolutionizing power electronics to the energy-neutral conversion of wastewater into drinking water and waste heat from computers into usable energy."

Energy grants

The Precourt Institute for Energy will fund the following three projects on photovoltaics, nanoscale heat transmission and power electronics:

A novel technique for producing high-efficiency photovoltaic devices: Solar cells made of gallium arsenide hold the record for photovoltaic efficiency but are extremely expensive to produce. This project proposes using a novel laser lift-off technique to produce low-cost, single-crystal gallium arsenide films for photovoltaic applications. Principal investigator: Bruce Clemens, materials science and engineering.

A new approach to understand and control energy conversion processes at the nanoscale: Phonons, quantized collective vibrations of atoms in solids, are the main carriers of heat in non-metallic materials. In this project, researchers will conduct experiments aimed at discovering the fundamental physics that govern phonon propagation and dissipation in nanostructures, and identify how to manipulate them for improved energy-conversion applications. Principal investigators: David Reis, applied physics and photon science, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Arun Majumdar, mechanical engineering.

Revolutionizing power electronics with 3D-printed, high-frequency power converters: Power electronics involves the transformation and control of electrical energy. The research team will focus on developing power supplies that can achieve substantial energy saving in the pasteurization of liquids like milk and fruit juice. The long-range goal is to lay the groundwork for a revolution in the design and manufacture of power electronics components. Principal investigator: Juan Rivas-Davila, electrical engineering.

Sustainable energy awards

The TomKat Center is supporting three projects on waste heat, wastewater and polygeneration energy systems.

"Stanford researchers continue to look for innovative ways to achieve energy sustainability," said TomKat Center Director Stacey Bent, a professor of chemical engineering. "These awards will enable proof-of-concept studies that take a new look at how to supply electricity, fuel and drinking water sustainably."

Low-cost polymer materials for efficient waste heat reclamation: Thermoelectricity, the direct conversion of heat into electrical power, can be used to reclaim otherwise wasted thermal energy from cars, factories and power plants. However, conventional thermoelectric devices are made of exotic and expensive materials. This project will test novel polymers that can be used to develop efficient, low-cost thermoelectric devices at scale. Principal investigators: Zhenan Bao, chemical engineering; Kenneth Goodson, mechanical engineering.

From 'waste' water to fresh water: Anaerobic treatment for energy-neutral potable water: Wastewater is typically treated with oxygen-consuming (aerobic) bacteria, an energy-intensive process that converts organic-rich wastewater constituents to carbon dioxide. This project will be conducted at a new experimental treatment plant at Stanford that uses oxygen-averse (anaerobic) bacteria to convert organic waste to methane. The research team will evaluate the viability of capturing and using methane gas for fuel to run treatment processes that convert wastewater to drinking water for human consumption. Principal investigators: William Mitch and Craig Criddle, civil and environmental engineering.

Economic assessment of polygeneration energy systems: Polygeneration energy systems use multiple feedstocks (such as coal, natural gas and biomass) to generate multiple products (electricity, hydrogen, ammonia, etc.). These systems offer more flexibility for managing volatile energy prices and changes in end-product demand. This study will examine the impact of using renewable feedstocks (such as solar and wind) in the energy mix, and assess the effect of market and policy uncertainties on the economic competitiveness of polygeneration. Principal investigators: Stefan Reichelstein, Graduate School of Business; Adam Brandt, energy resources engineering.

Precourt Energy Efficiency Center awards

The Precourt Energy Efficiency Center (PEEC) is providing seed funding for research at Stanford on waste heat.

"Both of the new projects we have chosen seek to improve energy efficiency through the use of heat that is currently wasted as a byproduct of electrical systems," said PEEC director James Sweeney, a professor of management science and engineering. "One looks at this problem on a large scale – neighborhoods, while the other would operate at the micro level – computers – which if successful could be used at server farms around the world."

Improving the efficiency of combined cooling, heating and power systems: Combined cooling, heating and power systems (CCHP) theoretically use 90 percent of the primary energy going into them, but in reality their efficiency is usually just a little better than large coal-fired power plants. In the spring, electricity demand hums along, but the waste heat from a CCHP generator is mostly not needed for air conditioning or heating. This project will find out how much the efficiency of large CCHP plants (greater than 10 megawatts) can be increased by planning new campuses, neighborhoods, industrial zones, etc., with CCHP in mind, rather than bolting on CCHP after the planning is done. Principal investigator: Martin Fischer, civil and environmental engineering.

Miniature thermoacoustic engines to capture waste heat from computers: This project will first assess the feasibility of miniature thermoacoustic engines to convert waste heat from computers and other electronic devices. The researchers will then design a preliminary version of the device, which they think could recoup at least 20 percent of the wasted heat. If fully commercialized, such technology could save $6 million dollars in electricity per day in the United States alone. Principal investigator: Lambertus Hesselink, electrical engineering; co-investigator: Carlo Scalo, mechanical engineering, Purdue University.