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

5/13/09Follow @wroush

In a ceremony attended by the state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, the director of energy initiatives at Google, and the CEO of NSTAR, the state’s largest utility, the $200,000 MIT Clean Energy Prize was awarded yesterday to a Michigan startup, Husk Insulation, whose innovations could help make refrigerators far more efficient—and roomier to boot.

Funded by NSTAR and the U.S. Department of Energy, the grand prize honors the student team with the most convincing and promising business plan for a successful energy or clean technology startup. It was part of over $500,000 in cash and in-kind prizes handed out to five student-led startups yesterday, including Husk and the winners in four subcategories of this year’s competition.

The Obama Administration has made the push for higher efficiency standards for household appliances, including refrigerators, a key part of its energy policy. In a three-minute “rocket pitch” for Husk before the prize announcement yesterday, Husk vice president of sales and marketing Erica Graham said the company’s patented technology—in which rice husk ash is converted into the core material for vacuum-sealed insulating panels—could increase refrigerator efficiency by up to 50 percent. Moreover, the superior thermal properties of this agricultural byproduct mean that a 1-inch-thick panel containing rice husk ash provides as much insulation as a 4-inch-thick panel filled with polystyrene. So refrigerators made with the new material could have 20 percent more interior space on the same footprint.

If every refrigerator in the United States were replaced with a model containing Husk Insulation’s material, the country could reduce its annual electricity consumption by 57 billion kilowatt hours—the equivalent of closing 31 coal-fired power plants, Graham said. Such a reduction would cut the nation’s overall carbon-dioxide emissions by 1.5 percent. And that’s not even counting the reductions in petroleum consumption that would come from avoiding polystyrene.

MIT Clean Energy Prize winners -- Husk InsulationWalking away from the competition with a $200,000 check was “exhilarating,” Graham told Xconomy after the announcement. “There were so many teams that were very qualified. We’re very excited.”

Graham said the money would be a key part of the seed round for Husk, which advanced to the finals of the clean energy competition by winning in the biomass category—an achievement that itself carried a $10,000 prize, sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s Renewable Energy Trust. The money “will help us get to a market-ready prototype,” Graham said.

Husk has been making the rounds of the cleantech business-plan competitions. In March, the startup won second prize in the Cleantech Venture Challenge hosted by the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. The same month, it won the $21,000 second-place award in a clean energy prize competition in Ann Arbor, MI, sponsored by Detroit-based utility DTE Energy.

The other finalists competing for the $200,000 grand prize included three startups led by MIT students and one led by students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY. Bob talked with students from several of the teams at last Friday’s reception for MIT-affiliated finalists in the Clean Energy Prize Competition and the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition.

Levant Power, as winner of the transportation category, collected a $10,000 prize sponsored by Sandia National Laboratory’s Combustion Research Facilities. The company is developing an energy-recovering shock absorber for military vehicles, large trucks, and hybrid gas-electric cars. Founder Shakeel Avadhany, an MIT undergraduate, says the device can increase vehicle fuel economy by 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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