Husk Insulation Wins $200,000 MIT Clean Energy Prize: Building Better Refrigerators from Rice Husks

5/13/09Follow @wroush

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2 to 10 percent. Levant was named the top MIT team in the clean energy competition, which means it advances to the final round of the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. (The winners of that contest will announced in a ceremony tonight at MIT.)

Produced Water Absorbers, another MIT team based in Worcester, OH, won in the clean hydrocarbons category, which carried a $25,000 prize sponsored by BP. The company has developed two forms of glass that can be used to filter contaminants out of the “produced water” routinely pumped out of the ground as a byproduct of oil drilling. For every barrel of oil extracted from the ground, founder Reuben Domike said during his rocket pitch, oil companies pump 11.8 barrels of produced water—enough to fill Lake Erie every year. The company’s material can extract organic compounds such as toluene, benzene, and xylene from this water, as well as organic acids. The company’s first customer is ConocoPhillips, which will test the filter materials at a Gulf Coast facility that processes 180,000 barrels of produced water a day.

Sun Point, a company founded by students from both MIT and Yale, won the $40,000 prize in the renewables category, sponsored by wind turbine manufacturer Vestas and Portuguese energy giant EDP. The company’s “heliotropic” solar tracking technology was inspired by the behavior of sunflowers, which tilt their blooms over the course of a day to follow the sun through the sky. Co-founder George Whitfield said the company’s “thermomechanical balance” technology can keep solar panels pointed at the sun without any of the high installation and maintenance costs associated with motor-based systems. The company plans to partner with solar-panel integrators, and sees the industry as a $2-billion-per-year opportunity.

Finally there was Troy Research Corporation, the winner of the $20,000 energy efficiency and infrastructure category, sponsored by EnerNOC and the Chesonis Family Foundation. The team of RPI students has developed a deep-ultraviolet LED light that can be used to disinfect contaminated drinking water. “These LEDs have all the fantastic properties anyone could want in a light source—they’re efficient, compact, and rugged,” said CEO Sameer Chhajed. Moreover, they use a tenth as much energy as existing UV disinfection systems, and the process introduces no mercury, chlorine, or other toxic chemicals into drinking water. The company is seeking $7.5 million in venture financing and expects to reach $60 million in sales by its fifth year, Chaajed said.

In addition to the cash prizes, all of the clean energy prize winners will receive in-kind prizes, including access to technology intelligence from Lux Research, office space at the Cambridge Innovation Center’s new Cambridge Coworking Center, public relations representation from Providence RI-based SVM, and tax, audit, and advisory services from KPMG.

Bill Aulet, a senior lecturer at MIT and the co-founder, with Todd Hynes, of the clean energy competition (and an Xconomist), emphasized at the awards ceremony that while all of the business plans submitted by the competing teams were outstanding, “this was all a head-fake—the carrot to get you guys to do the work to be good entrepreneurs.” Paraphrasing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Aulet said the energy technologies of the future will come from “ten thousand people doing ten thousand things in ten thousand garages…There are tremendous opportunities all around us, and what we don’t have right now is enough entrepreneurial spirit to take advantage of all of them.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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