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Hoover Tower with SEQ PV panels

Major energy industry conference asks: What’s new at Stanford?

Mar 15, 2019
Precourt Institute

By Mark Golden

Manufacturing concrete on Mars. Using solar power to produce fertilizer from the air on farms. Getting the best ideas from students.

Moderator Susan Kish of IHS/Markit with Stanford's Thomas Jaramillo, Michael Lepech and Arun

These were some of the takeaways from the “What’s new at Stanford University?” panel at CERAWeek Thursday with the School of Engineering’s Thomas Jaramillo, Michael Lepech and Arun Majumdar. Each of the three also spoke earlier in the day at the international energy industry conference held annually in Houston.

“You have to keep your eyes and ears open to these brilliant 20-year-olds,” said Mechanical Engineering’s Majumdar, co-director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy. “They have enough fundamentals, but not the baggage of the past, to come up with inspiring ideas. The students are teaching me, and I’m learning with them.”

Energy industry executives were naturally interested to learn about specific technologies being developed. Chemical Engineering’s Jaramillo, director of Stanford and SLAC’s SUNCAT Center for Interface Science & Catalysis, described his team’s work to produce fuels and chemicals sustainably.

“Ammonia, or NH3, is a molecule that allows billions of people on Earth to eat,” Jaramillo explained. Current fertilizer production, though, “is not a long-term sustainable solution, because it relies on fossil fuel, consumes 1 percent of global energy and costs six times as much in places like Central Africa as it costs in the U.S.”

Instead, maybe solar-powered devices could extract nitrogen from the air to produce fertilizer directly in the field. “The plants need the fertilizer most in summer when solar is plentiful,” Jaramillo said.

Civil & Environmental Engineering’s Lepech is working with NASA to develop microorganisms that humans could take to the moon or Mars someday for use in making building materials from lunar and Martian soil.

IHS/Market's Atul Arya interviews Arun Majumdar.

Thomas Jaramillo gives a technical talk on his work and that of the center he

Michael Lepech makes a point during panel on making building materials
from CO2.

“These microorganisms are basically biological factories than can produce glue that binds together soil chemistries found on the moon and Mars,” Lepech said. Using chemical simulations of the soil and proteins from genetically engineered bacteria, “we can create materials in our lab with impressive strength along the lines of concrete.”

From the standpoint of someone who generally works on sustainability, “space is a great place to work because it’s a place where materials are so precious,” Lepech said. “If we can make something work on Mars, we can make it work on Earth.”

Separately, each of the faculty members discussed their work in solo sessions at CERAWeek. Jaramillo gave a technical overview of three main areas he and the SUNCAT Center are working on: producing hydrogen with non-precious metal catalysts; making carbon-neutral fuels and other chemicals from captured carbon dioxide; and the sustainable production of fertilizer. Lepech participated in a panel discussion on making building materials affordably from CO2—on Earth. Majumdar was interviewed by the conference’s Atul Arya on energy innovation broadly, including his time as founding director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. (Video of the "executive conversation" version of the interview is above.)

In a discussion on digitalization in energy, for example, Arya asked Majumdar if he agrees that “data is the new oil.”

"I wish data could drive my car, but it can’t," Majumdar said. "Data can help a lot, but we must use it the right way to provide performance. We have a huge need for the digital world to help with things like modernizing the electricity system."

Majumdar also described the two types of innovation. “One moves a technology further along the learning curve, which is very important,” he said. “The other creates new learning curves entirely,” he said.