Patient Investors, Impatient Researchers Essential for Clean Energy Future

Opinion

Maybe it’s something in the Seattle air that we share, but over the last few weeks, I’ve learned that Bill Gates and I worry about similar things. In interviews with The Atlantic and The Washington Post Gates said:

“Historically, it takes more than 50 years before you have a substantial shift in energy generation, but we need to do it more quickly. We need to move faster than the energy sector ever has.”

And,

“I want to tilt the odds in our favor by driving innovation at an unnaturally high pace.”

I applaud and appreciate Gates’ effort to accelerate our clean energy future. Building a pool of patient risk capital and getting global leaders to commit to a doubling of government clean energy research funding over the next five years are both critical steps.

The other part of driving innovation at an unnaturally high pace in 2016 and beyond is connecting patient funds with impatient researchers who understand the urgency of climate change with the same visceral immediacy that I imagine cancer researchers feel about saving lives.

Researchers from the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington are deeply committed to (and practicing) this form of impatient scholarship. Our researchers aren’t just thinking or dreaming about a clean energy future that is decades away. Instead, they’re working hard to make important new discoveries and turn them into impactful technologies much sooner than that. In addition, partners like the Washington Research Foundation are providing investment for critical faculty and post-doc hires to help accelerate the pace of innovation.

A good example of this impatient research ethos is our significant effort and results in hybrid perovskite materials, which have the potential to convert sunlight into electricity more efficiently and less expensively than today’s silicon-based semiconductors.

A recent study published in the journal Science by University of Washington (UW) and University of Oxford scholars demonstrates that perovskite materials, generally believed to be uniform in composition, actually contain flaws that can be engineered to improve solar devices even further.

“Perovskites are the fastest-growing class of photovoltaic material over the past four years,” says lead author Dane deQuilettes, a UW doctoral student working with David Ginger, Associate Director of the UW’s Clean Energy Institute and Washington Research Foundation Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. “In that short amount of time, the ability of these materials to convert sunlight directly into electricity is approaching that of today’s silicon-based solar cells, rivaling technology that took 50 years to develop. But we also suspect there is room for improvement.”

This unprecedented innovation acceleration will likely continue in 2016.

Hugh Hillhouse, Rehnberg Chair Professor in the UW’s Department of Chemical Engineering, and Ian Braly, a UW graduate student in Chemical Engineering, are looking at solar cell architectures that combine perovskites with another material. The result could be truly transformational solar cell performance. As part of the discovery process, Hillhouse also leads a team that is exploring this next-generation concept further with Department of Energy SunShot Initiative funding.

In addition, Alex Jen, the Chief Scientist at the Clean Energy Institute and the Boeing-Johnson Chair Professor of Materials Science & Engineering at the UW, has a joint grant with the Oxford team for engineering hybrid perovskite-electrode interfaces to enhance efficiency.

Scholars like deQuilettes, Ginger, Hillhouse, Braly, and Jen know that time is not our friend in terms of climate change. Indeed, the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that $48 trillion will be invested to meet the world’s growing energy needs through 2035, with $23 trillion of the total invested in fossil energy resources. Business-as-usual fossil energy investments create infrastructure that spews carbon pollution for decades, so every year that slips by without cost competitive, scalable clean energy solutions means that goals laid out in Paris last week become ever more challenging to achieve.

Other impatient and incisive clean energy innovators to watch in 2016 include:

  • Gerald Seidler, professor of physics at the UW—X-ray methods available in a synchrotron enable researchers to gain critical insights into how actual working batteries perform and degrade. Unfortunately, access to a synchrotron is limited, and, as a result, the opportunity for fast learning is diminished. Seidler has collapsed the cost and size of synchrotron x-ray experiments by more than 1,000X, making a tabletop version that will bring synchrotron science to everyone. The UW has his first- and second-generation instruments, and he is now commercializing these instruments through a new company, easyXAFS. Seidler’s first commercial orders are from a national laboratory and a company. This is a transformational instrument that will accelerate global learning about batteries, bringing a “fail fast / succeed fast” ethos to an area of science that has been woefully resource-limited until now.
  • Devin MacKenzie, Washington Research Foundation Innovation Professor of Clean Energy at the UW—The investment needed for conventional manufacturing factories is holding back our industrial capacity to produce solar cells. Mackenzie—recently recruited from the Bay Area, where he was CEO of a start-up called Imprint Energy—is now establishing a state-of-the-art manufacturing testbed at the UW that will help companies and researchers develop flexible and easily scalable advanced manufacturing processes to affordably print large-format energy devices from their materials innovations.
  • Venkat Subramanian, Washington Research Foundation Innovation Associate Professor of Clean Energy at the UW—The fastest way to improve battery performance and economics is through optimal planning and control algorithms. Subramanian is developing model predictive control algorithms for aggressively managing high-energy density batteries—achieving faster charging and deeper discharging—without causing degradation or elevating safety risks. Battery chemistry and design never stand still, so the control algorithms are all physics-based; as a result, new developments in battery chemistry can be easily incorporated into the control strategy with only small amounts of new data and testing. This accelerates the pace at which batteries, which can store intermittent renewable energy like solar and wind, become affordable elements for the energy economy.

It’s clear that clean energy companies—as well as scholars and researchers—can move rapidly to attack climate change. A case in point is First Solar, a global leader in thin film solar photovoltaic (PV) technology that, in just a few years, has become the company that underpins nearly every new record low price for utility scale solar installations. Closer to home, UniEnergy Technology has brought its flow batteries from lab to market in very few years, thanks to an impatient research team backed by patient capital.

This is also a special moment because we are on the brink of accelerating the development of clean energy innovations that can change the world (developed and developing) based on breakthrough discoveries and competitive pricing, not subsidies. Achieving this is particularly important for the more than 1 billion people in the world who don’t have energy access today. We must provide affordable clean energy so less developed areas leapfrog over fossil fuels.

In 2016, though, we need more companies, more entrepreneurs, more scholars and researchers, and more investors to feel this same burning sense of mission in order to intensify our fight against an environmental challenge that just gets stronger and more entrenched with each passing day.

Daniel Schwartz is the Director of the Clean Energy Institute and is currently Boeing-Sutter Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington. Follow @

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