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    Energy storage from a chemistry perspective

    The transition toward a more sustainable, environmentally sound electrical grid has driven an upsurge in renewables like solar and wind. But something as simple as cloud cover can cause grid instability, and wind power is inherently unpredictable. This intermittent nature of renewables has invigorated the competitive landscape for energy storage companies looking to enhance power system flexibility while enabling the integration of renewables.

    “Impact is what drives PolyJoule more than anything else,” says CEO Eli Paster. “We see impact from a renewable integration standpoint, from a curtailment standpoint, and also from the standpoint of transitioning from a centralized to a decentralized model of energy-power delivery.”

    PolyJoule is a Billerica, Massachusetts-based startup that’s looking to reinvent energy storage from a chemistry perspective. Co-founders Ian Hunter of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Tim Swager of the Department of Chemistry are longstanding MIT professors considered luminaries in their respective fields. Meanwhile, the core team is a small but highly skilled collection of chemists, manufacturing specialists, supply chain optimizers, and entrepreneurs, many of whom have called MIT home at one point or another.

    “The ideas that we work on in the lab, you’ll see turned into products three to four years from now, and they will still be innovative and well ahead of the curve when they get to market,” Paster says. “But the concepts come from the foresight of thinking five to 10 years in advance. That’s what we have in our back pocket, thanks to great minds like Ian and Tim.”

    PolyJoule takes a systems-level approach married to high-throughput, analytical electrochemistry that has allowed the company to pinpoint a chemical cell design based on 10,000 trials. The result is a battery that is low-cost, safe, and has a long lifetime. It’s capable of responding to base loads and peak loads in microseconds, allowing the same battery to participate in multiple power markets and deployment use cases.

    In the energy storage sphere, interesting technologies abound, but workable solutions are few and far between. But Paster says PolyJoule has managed to bridge the gap between the lab and the real world by taking industry concerns into account from the beginning. “We’ve taken a slightly contrarian view to all of the other energy storage companies that have come before us that have said, ‘If we build it, they will come.’ Instead, we’ve gone directly to the customer and asked, ‘If you could have a better battery storage platform, what would it look like?’”

    With commercial input feeding into the thought processes behind their technological and commercial deployment, PolyJoule says they’ve designed a battery that is less expensive to make, less expensive to operate, safer, and easier to deploy.

    Traditionally, lithium-ion batteries have been the go-to energy storage solution. But lithium has its drawbacks, including cost, safety issues, and detrimental effects on the environment. But PolyJoule isn’t interested in lithium — or metals of any kind, in fact. “We start with the periodic table of organic elements,” says Paster, “and from there, we derive what works at economies of scale, what is easy to converge and convert chemically.”

    Having an inherently safer chemistry allows PolyJoule to save on system integration costs, among other things. PolyJoule batteries don’t contain flammable solvents, which means no added expenses related to fire mitigation. Safer chemistry also means ease of storage, and PolyJoule batteries are currently undergoing global safety certification (UL approval) to be allowed indoors and on airplanes. Finally, with high power built into the chemistry, PolyJoule’s cells can be charged and discharged to extremes, without the need for heating or cooling systems.

    “From raw material to product delivery, we examine each step in the value chain with an eye towards reducing costs,” says Paster. It all starts with designing the chemistry around earth-abundant elements, which allows the small startup to compete with larger suppliers, even at smaller scales. Consider the fact that PolyJoule’s differentiating material cost is less than $1 per kilogram, whereas lithium carbonate sells for $20 per kilogram.

    On the manufacturing side, Paster explains that PolyJoule cuts costs by making their cells in old paper mills and warehouses, employing off-the-shelf equipment previously used for tissue paper or newspaper printing. “We use equipment that has been around for decades because we don’t want to create a cutting-edge technology that requires cutting-edge manufacturing,” he says. “We want to create a cutting-edge technology that can be deployed in industrialized nations and in other nations that can benefit the most from energy storage.”

    PolyJoule’s first customer is an industrial distributed energy consumer with baseline energy consumption that increases by a factor of 10 when the heavy machinery kicks on twice a day. In the early morning and late afternoon, it consumes about 50 kilowatts for 20 minutes to an hour, compared to a baseline rate of 5  kilowatts. It’s an application model that is translatable to a variety of industries. Think wastewater treatment, food processing, and server farms — anything with a fluctuation in power consumption over a 24-hour period.

    By the end of the year, PolyJoule will have delivered its first 10 kilowatt-hour system, exiting stealth mode and adding commercial viability to demonstrated technological superiority. “What we’re seeing, now is massive amounts of energy storage being added to renewables and grid-edge applications,” says Paster. “We anticipated that by 12-18 months, and now we’re ramping up to catch up with some of the bigger players.” More

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    Vapor-collection technology saves water while clearing the air

    About two-fifths of all the water that gets withdrawn from lakes, rivers, and wells in the U.S. is used not for agriculture, drinking, or sanitation, but to cool the power plants that provide electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear power. Over 65 percent of these plants use evaporative cooling, leading to huge white plumes that billow from their cooling towers, which can be a nuisance and, in some cases, even contribute to dangerous driving conditions.

    Now, a small company based on technology recently developed at MIT by the Varanasi Research Group is hoping to reduce both the water needs at these plants and the resultant plumes — and to potentially help alleviate water shortages in areas where power plants put pressure on local water systems.

    The technology is surprisingly simple in principle, but developing it to the point where it can now be tested at full scale on industrial plants was a more complex proposition. That required the real-world experience that the company’s founders gained from installing prototype systems, first on MIT’s natural-gas-powered cogeneration plant and then on MIT’s nuclear research reactor.

    In these demanding tests, which involved exposure to not only the heat and vibrations of a working industrial plant but also the rigors of New England winters, the system proved its effectiveness at both eliminating the vapor plume and recapturing water. And, it purified the water in the process, so that it was 100 times cleaner than the incoming cooling water. The system is now being prepared for full-scale tests in a commercial power plant and in a chemical processing plant.

    “Campus as a living laboratory”

    The technology was originally envisioned by professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi to develop efficient water-recovery systems by capturing water droplets from both natural fog and plumes from power plant cooling towers. The project began as part of doctoral thesis research of Maher Damak PhD ’18, with funding from the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, to improve the efficiency of fog-harvesting systems like the ones used in some arid coastal regions as a source of potable water. Those systems, which generally consist of plastic or metal mesh hung vertically in the path of fogbanks, are extremely inefficient, capturing only about 1 to 3 percent of the water droplets that pass through them.

    Varanasi and Damak found that vapor collection could be made much more efficient by first zapping the tiny droplets of water with a beam of electrically charged particles, or ions, to give each droplet a slight electric charge. Then, the stream of droplets passes through a wire mesh, like a window screen, that has an opposite electrical charge. This causes the droplets to be strongly attracted to the mesh, where they fall away due to gravity and can be collected in trays placed below the mesh.

    Lab tests showed the concept worked, and the researchers, joined by Karim Khalil PhD ’18, won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2018 for the basic concept. The nascent company, which they called Infinite Cooling, with Damak as CEO, Khalil as CTO, and Varanasi as chairperson, immediately went to work setting up a test installation on one of the cooling towers of MIT’s natural-gas-powered Central Utility Plant, with funding from the MIT Office of Sustainability. After experimenting with various configurations, they were able to show that the system could indeed eliminate the plume and produce water of high purity.

    Professor Jacopo Buongiorno in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering immediately spotted a good opportunity for collaboration, offering the use of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory research facility for further testing of the system with the help of NRL engineer Ed Block. With its 24/7 operation and its higher-temperature vapor emissions, the plant would provide a more stringent real-world test of the system, as well as proving its effectiveness in an actual operating reactor licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an important step in “de-risking” the technology so that electric utilities could feel confident in adopting the system.

    After the system was installed above one of the plant’s four cooling towers, testing showed that the water being collected was more than 100 times cleaner than the feedwater coming into the cooling system. It also proved that the installation — which, unlike the earlier version, had its mesh screens mounted vertically, parallel to the vapor stream — had no effect at all on the operation of the plant. Video of the tests dramatically illustrates how as soon as the power is switched on to the collecting mesh, the white plume of vapor immediately disappears completely.

    The high temperature and volume of the vapor plume from the reactor’s cooling towers represented “kind of a worst-case scenario in terms of plumes,” Damak says, “so if we can capture that, we can basically capture anything.”

    Working with MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, Varanasi says, “has been quite an important step because it helped us to test it at scale. … It really both validated the water quality and the performance of the system.” The process, he says, “shows the importance of using the campus as a living laboratory. It allows us to do these kinds of experiments at scale, and also showed the ability to sustainably reduce the water footprint of the campus.”

    Far-reaching benefits

    Power plant plumes are often considered an eyesore and can lead to local opposition to new power plants because of the potential for obscured views, and even potential traffic hazards when the obscuring plumes blow across roadways. “The ability to eliminate the plumes could be an important benefit, allowing plants to be sited in locations that might otherwise be restricted,” Buongiorno says. At the same time, the system could eliminate a significant amount of water used by the plants and then lost to the sky, potentially alleviating pressure on local water systems, which could be especially helpful in arid regions.

    The system is essentially a distillation process, and the pure water it produces could go into power plant boilers — which are separate from the cooling system — that require high-purity water. That might reduce the need for both fresh water and purification systems for the boilers.

    What’s more, in many arid coastal areas power plants are cooled directly with seawater. This system would essentially add a water desalination capability to the plant, at a fraction of the cost of building a new standalone desalination plant, and at an even smaller fraction of its operating costs since the heat would essentially be provided for free.

    Contamination of water is typically measured by testing its electrical conductivity, which increases with the amount of salts and other contaminants it contains. Water used in power plant cooling systems typically measures 3,000 microsiemens per centimeter, Khalil explains, while the water supply in the City of Cambridge is typically around 500 or 600 microsiemens per centimeter. The water captured by this system, he says, typically measures below 50 microsiemens per centimeter.

    Thanks to the validation provided by the testing on MIT’s plants, the company has now been able to secure arrangements for its first two installations on operating commercial plants, which should begin later this year. One is a 900-megawatt power plant where the system’s clean water production will be a major advantage, and the other is at a chemical manufacturing plant in the Midwest.

    In many locations power plants have to pay for the water they use for cooling, Varanasi says, and the new system is expected to reduce the need for water by up to 20 percent. For a typical power plant, that alone could account for about a million dollars saved in water costs per year, he says.

    “Innovation has been a hallmark of the U.S. commercial industry for more than six decades,” says Maria G. Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, who was not involved in the research. “As the changing climate impacts every aspect of life, including global water supplies, companies across the supply chain are innovating for solutions. The testing of this innovative technology at MIT provides a valuable basis for its consideration in commercial applications.” More

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    Cleaning up industrial filtration

    If you wanted to get pasta out of a pot of water, would you boil off the water, or use a strainer? While home cooks would choose the strainer, many industries continue to use energy-intensive thermal methods of separating out liquids. In some cases, that’s because it’s difficult to make a filtration system for chemical separation, which requires pores small enough to separate atoms.

    In other cases, membranes exist to separate liquids, but they are made of fragile polymers, which can break down or gum up in industrial use.

    Via Separations, a startup that emerged from MIT in 2017, has set out to address these challenges with a membrane that is cost-effective and robust. Made of graphene oxide (a “cousin” of pencil lead), the membrane can reduce the amount of energy used in industrial separations by 90 percent, according to Shreya Dave PhD ’16, company co-founder and CEO.

    This is valuable because separation processes account for about 22 percent of all in-plant energy use in the United States, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. By making such processes significantly more efficient, Via Separations plans to both save energy and address the significant emissions produced by thermal processes. “Our goal is eliminating 500 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050,” Dave says.

    Play video

    What do our passions for pasta and decarbonizing the Earth have in common? MIT alumna Shreya Dave PhD ’16 explains how she and her team at Via Separations are building the equivalent of a pasta strainer to separate chemical compounds for industry.

    Via Separations began piloting its technology this year at a U.S. paper company and expects to deploy a full commercial system there in the spring of 2022. “Our vision is to help manufacturers slow carbon dioxide emissions next year,” Dave says.

    MITEI Seed Grant

    The story of Via Separations begins in 2012, when the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) awarded a Seed Fund grant to Professor Jeffrey Grossman, who is now the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems and head of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Grossman was pursuing research into nanoporous membranes for water desalination. “We thought we could bring down the cost of desalination and improve access to clean water,” says Dave, who worked on the project as a graduate student in Grossman’s lab.

    There, she teamed up with Brent Keller PhD ’16, another Grossman graduate student and a 2016-17 ExxonMobil-MIT Energy Fellow, who was developing lab experiments to fabricate and test new materials. “We were early comrades in figuring out how to debug experiments or fix equipment,” says Keller, Via Separations’ co-founder and chief technology officer. “We were fast friends who spent a lot of time talking about science over burritos.”

    Dave went on to write her doctoral thesis on using graphene oxide for water desalination, but that turned out to be the wrong application of the technology from a business perspective, she says. “The cost of desalination doesn’t lie in the membrane materials,” she explains.

    So, after Dave and Keller graduated from MIT in 2016, they spent a lot of time talking to customers to learn more about the needs and opportunities for their new separation technology. This research led them to target the paper industry, because the environmental benefits of improving paper processing are enormous, Dave says. “The paper industry is particularly exciting because separation processes just in that industry account for more than 2 percent of U.S. energy consumption,” she says. “It’s a very concentrated, high-energy-use industry.”

    Most paper today is made by breaking down the chemical bonds in wood to create wood pulp, the primary ingredient of paper. This process generates a byproduct called black liquor, a toxic solution that was once simply dumped into waterways. To clean up this process, paper mills turned to boiling off the water from black liquor and recovering both water and chemicals for reuse in the pulping process. (Today, the most valuable way to use the liquor is as biomass feedstock to generate energy.) Via Separations plans to accomplish this same separation work by filtering black liquor through its graphene oxide membrane.

    “The advantage of graphene oxide is that it’s very robust,” Dave says. “It’s got carbon double bonds that hold together in a lot of environments, including at different pH levels and temperatures that are typically unfriendly to materials.”

    Such properties should also make the company’s membranes attractive to other industries that use membrane separation, Keller says, because today’s polymer membranes have drawbacks. “For most of the things we make — from plastics to paper and gasoline — those polymers will swell or react or degrade,” he says.

    Graphene oxide is significantly more durable, and Via Separations can customize the pores in the material to suit each industry’s application. “That’s our secret sauce,” Dave says, “modulating pore size while retaining robustness to operate in challenging environments.”

    “We’re building a catalog of products to serve different applications,” Keller says, noting that the next target market could be the food and beverage industry. “In that industry, instead of separating different corrosive paper chemicals from water, we’re trying to separate particular sugars and food ingredients from other things.”

    Future target customers include pharmaceutical companies, oil refineries, and semiconductor manufacturers, or even carbon capture businesses.

    Scaling up

    Dave, Keller, and Grossman launched Via Separations in 2017 — with a lot of help from MIT. After the seed grant, in 2015, the founders received a year of funding and support from the J-WAFS Solutions program to explore markets and to develop their business plans. The company’s first capital investment came from The Engine, a venture firm founded by MIT to support “tough tech” companies (tech businesses with transformative potential but long and challenging paths to success). They also received advice and support from MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, Venture Mentoring Service, and Technology Licensing Office. In addition, Grossman continues to serve the company as chief scientist.

    “We were incredibly fortunate to be starting a company in the MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Keller says, noting that The Engine support alone “probably shaved years off our progress.”

    Already, Via Separations has grown to employ 17 people, while significantly scaling up its product. “Our customers are producing thousands of gallons per minute,” Keller explains. “To process that much liquid, we need huge areas of membrane.”

    Via Separations’ manufacturing process, which is now capable of making more than 10,000 square feet of membrane in one production run, is a key competitive advantage, Dave says. The company rolls 300-400 square feet of membrane into a module, and modules can be combined as needed to increase filtration capacity.

    The goal, Dave says, is to contribute to a more sustainable world by making an environmentally beneficial product that makes good business sense. “What we do is make manufacturing things more energy-efficient,” she says. “We allow a paper mill or chemical facility to make more product using less energy and with lower costs. So, there is a bottom-line benefit that’s significant on an industrial scale.”

    Keller says he shares Dave’s goal of building a more sustainable future. “Climate change and energy are central challenges of our time,” he says. “Working on something that has a chance to make a meaningful impact on something so important to everyone is really fulfilling.”

    This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.  More

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    A material difference

    Eesha Khare has always seen a world of matter. The daughter of a hardware engineer and a biologist, she has an insatiable interest in what substances — both synthetic and biological — have in common. Not surprisingly, that perspective led her to the study of materials.

    “I recognized early on that everything around me is a material,” she says. “How our phones respond to touches, how trees in nature to give us both structural wood and foldable paper, or how we are able to make high skyscrapers with steel and glass, it all comes down to the fundamentals: This is materials science and engineering.”

    As a rising fourth-year PhD student in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), Khare now studies the metal-coordination bonds that allow mussels to bind to rocks along turbulent coastlines. But Khare’s scientific enthusiasm has also led to expansive interests from science policy to climate advocacy and entrepreneurship.

    A material world

    A Silicon Valley native, Khare recalls vividly how excited she was about science as a young girl, both at school and at myriad science fairs and high school laboratory internships. One such internship at the University of California at Santa Cruz introduced her to the study of nanomaterials, or materials that are smaller than a single human cell. The project piqued her interest in how research could lead to energy-storage applications, and she began to ponder the connections between materials, science policy, and the environment.

    As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Khare pursued a degree in engineering sciences and chemistry while also working at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. There, she grew fascinated by environmental advocacy in the policy space, working for then-professor Gina McCarthy, who is currently serving in the Biden administration as the first-ever White House climate advisor.

    Following her academic explorations in college, Khare wanted to consider science in a new light before pursuing her doctorate in materials science and engineering. She deferred her program acceptance at MIT in order to attend Cambridge University in the U.K., where she earned a master’s degree in the history and philosophy of science. “Especially in a PhD program, it can often feel like your head is deep in the science as you push new research frontiers, but I wanted take a step back and be inspired by how scientists in the past made their discoveries,” she says.

    Her experience at Cambridge was both challenging and informative, but Khare quickly found that her mechanistic curiosity remained persistent — a realization that came in the form of a biological material.

    “My very first master’s research project was about environmental pollution indicators in the U.K., and I was looking specifically at lichen to understand the social and political reasons why they were adopted by the public as pollution indicators,” Khare explains. “But I found myself wondering more about how lichen can act as pollution indicators. And I found that to be quite similar for most of my research projects: I was more interested in how the technology or discovery actually worked.”

    Enthusiasm for innovation

    Fittingly, these bioindicators confirmed for her that studying materials at MIT was the right course. Now Khare works on a different organism altogether, conducting research on the metal-coordination chemical interactions of a biopolymer secreted by mussels.

    “Mussels secrete this thread and can adhere to ocean walls. So, when ocean waves come, mussels don’t get dislodged that easily,” Khare says. “This is partly because of how metal ions in this material bind to different amino acids in the protein. There’s no input from the mussel itself to control anything there; all the magic is in this biological material that is not only very sticky, but also doesn’t break very readily, and if you cut it, it can re-heal that interface as well! If we could better understand and replicate this biological material in our own world, we could have materials self-heal and never break and thus eliminate so much waste.”

    To study this natural material, Khare combines computational and experimental techniques, experimentally synthesizing her own biopolymers and studying their properties with in silico molecular dynamics. Her co-advisors — Markus Buehler, the Jerry McAfee Professor of Engineering in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Niels Holten-Andersen, professor of materials science and engineering — have embraced this dual-approach to her project, as well as her abundant enthusiasm for innovation.

    Khare likes to take one exploratory course per semester, and a recent offering in the MIT Sloan School of Management inspired her to pursue entrepreneurship. These days she is spending much of her free time on a startup called Taxie, formed with fellow MIT students after taking the course 15.390 (New Enterprises). Taxie attempts to electrify the rideshare business by making electric rental cars available to rideshare drivers. Khare hopes this project will initiate some small first steps in making the ridesharing industry environmentally cleaner — and in democratizing access to electric vehicles for rideshare drivers, who often hail from lower-income or immigrant backgrounds.

    “There are a lot of goals thrown around for reducing emissions or helping our environment. But we are slowly getting physical things on the road, physical things to real people, and I like to think that we are helping to accelerate the electric transition,” Khare says. “These small steps are helpful for learning, at the very least, how we can make a transition to electric or to a cleaner industry.”

    Alongside her startup work, Khare has pursued a number of other extracurricular activities at MIT, including co-organizing her department’s Student Application Assistance Program and serving on DMSE’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. Her varied interests also have led to a diverse group of friends, which suits her well, because she is a self-described “people-person.”

    In a year where maintaining connections has been more challenging than usual, Khare has focused on the positive, spending her spring semester with family in California and practicing Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance, over Zoom. As she looks to the future, Khare hopes to bring even more of her interests together, like materials science and climate.

    “I want to understand the energy and environmental sector at large to identify the most pressing technology gaps and how can I use my knowledge to contribute. My goal is to figure out where can I personally make a difference and where it can have a bigger impact to help our climate,” she says. “I like being outside of my comfort zone.” More