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The Precourt Institute for Energy is now part of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

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Precourt Institute, TomKat Center and Bits & Watts award $1.3 million for new energy research

Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy, TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy and Bits & Watts Initiative funded 11 new, early-stage energy research projects on campus for a total of $1.3 million starting this fall.

The research will explore multiple technologies and policies that could advance sustainable, affordable and reliable energy services for all people.

The competitively awarded seed grants enable Stanford research teams to pursue concepts that have the potential to produce major benefits to our global systems. The Precourt Institute and the TomKat Center have made such awards annually since 2010. Bits & Watts has done so since 2017. While the principal investigators must be Stanford faculty members, several teams this year include collaborators from outside Stanford.

Precourt Institute for Energy

Photon down-converters for improving the efficiencies of solar cells in space

Principal Investigator (PI): Hemamala Karunadasa, Chemistry; Co-PI: Thomas Peng, Air Force Research Labs

Ultraviolet light is a large untapped source of energy, particularly for satellites, the solar cells of which absorb much more UV rays than their terrestrial counterparts. Because UV irradiation damages cell components, the glass cover of space solar cells are coated with a UV blocker. This project seeks to replace that blocker with a phosphor that downshifts the UV rays to non-damaging visible light for conversion to electricity. The lessons learned from this research could be extended to synthesizing photon downconverters for terrestrial applications.


Artistic rendering of a CarbonHouse
Artistic rendering of a CarbonHouse

PI: Michael Lepech, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Building materials are generally energy intensive to make, like concrete and steel, or limited natural resources, like wood. Meanwhile, the global construction industry could consume enormous amounts of fossil fuels without combusting them if carbon-based building materials become more prevalent. This project envisions buildings made completely from carbon produced by heating—not combusting—natural gas. The carbon materials will absorb solar power for heat and electricity, as well as conduct electricity to appliances and batteries. The researchers will target CarbonHouse for rapidly urbanizing, economically developing countries. This seed project will develop a set of life cycle inventories for the materials, a life cycle assessment of the buildings, and design support tools that also assess meeting sustainability targets.

Harmonizing electricity sector greenhouse gas accounting

PI: John Weyant, Management Science & Engineering; Co-PIs: Michael Mastrandrea and Danny Cullenward, Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science

Integrating technical, economic and policy expertise, the researchers will assess the accounting of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation in California and the western United States. They will characterize and evaluate the overlapping and often inconsistent regulations across state and federal agencies. The work will focus on trade-offs between physical GHG accounting, which is the basis for most technical analyses, and contractual accounting, on which most markets and electricity procurement processes rely. These inconsistencies provide divergent economic incentives for building and dispatching zero-GHG generation resources on a regional scale and pose a key barrier to continued progress toward deeper decarbonization.

Identifying regionally dependent barriers in the carbon capture and storage industry

PI: Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, Earth System Science

International progress towards the decarbonization goals presented at the Paris Agreement remains slow, despite continued cost declines in many solutions. This project aims to inform public policy regarding the realistic pace of deep decarbonization and the identification of potential bottlenecks to the penetration of carbon capture and sequestration. This work will be the first step toward developing regionally-specific Bayesian belief network models on CCS by focusing first on China and India. The research will emphasize factors underlying the inertia blocking decarbonization and what variables could mitigate that inertia.

TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy

Environmental justice consequences of transportation choices

PI: Ines Azevedo, Energy Resources Engineering. Co-PIs: Sally Benson and Adam Brandt, Energy Resources Engineering; Josh Apte, Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering, University of Texas at Austin

Transportation accounts for almost 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and nearly 15 percent globally, and it’s a leading contributor to soot. With a focus on the United States, China and India, the researchers will compute the life-cycle health, environmental and climate change damages associated with different transportation strategies. Types of vehicles assessed will include gasoline, diesel, ethanol, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery electric, fuel cell and natural gas-powered. The researchers will then develop an online tool for policymakers and consumers to incorporate the health, environmental and climate impacts of various technology options in their decisions.

Exploring for geothermal systems using low temperature thermochronometry

A geothermal power station in a snowy landscape
Krafla geothermal power station in Iceland (Image credit: Ásgeir Eggertsson)

PI: Elizabeth Miller, Geological Sciences. Co-PI: Martin J. Grove, Geological Sciences

Geothermal energy is a vastly underutilized source of carbon-free power hindered by significant uncertainty before drilling. Mineral thermochronometry, which can deduce the temperature history of rocks, when paired with thermo-kinematic modeling offers a promising means to constrain the extent and duration of even blind and/or transient hydrothermal events within a fault zone. This study will apply these methods to a regional fault system in western Alaska. If successful, it could refine and demonstrate this potentially cost-effective exploration tool for geothermal exploration around the world. This work will be completed in tandem with an exploration and drilling campaign planned by Zanskar Geothermal & Minerals, Inc.

Variable capacitance generator to enable the next generation of offshore wind turbines

PI: Juan Rivas-Davila, Electrical Engineering. Co-PI: Claudio Rivetta, SLAC 

The researchers plan to develop an electrical generator design that could enable the next generation of low-cost offshore wind farms. Wind turbine drivetrains account for about half the cost of wind turbines. This electrostatic generator design is lighter and more efficient than state-of-the-art geared systems. It should have all the maintenance and lifespan benefits of direct-drive systems, while utilizing low-cost, readily available materials. Furthermore, the direct high-voltage generator should eliminate power conversion steps to the transmission system, which will boost power output. Researchers plan to build a one-kilowatt prototype to demonstrate the feasibility of high-voltage variable capacitance generators.

Analysis tools for modular, energy-efficient agricultural water treatment systems

PIs: William Tarpeh, Chemical Engineering; Juan Santiago and Xiaolin Zheng, Mechanical Engineering

The transport and treatment of water in agricultural operations uses much energy. To identify the most energy-efficient water treatment methods for a specific location, the researchers aim to develop open-source analytical tools to compare the economics and efficiencies of existing and future water treatment technologies. Their model will analyze agricultural water treatment as flows of cost, mass and energy. The team will then validate these tools with three novel electrochemical treatment technologies for fertilizer production, desalination and disinfectant production. If successful, these tools will inform best approaches for optimizing water and energy use in the treatment of agricultural water systems and stimulate interest in other optimization opportunities at the nexus of food, energy and water. 

Bits & Watts Initiative

Ultrafast circuit breakers with wide bandgap technology

PI: Srabanti Chowdhury, Electrical Engineering. Co-PI: Juan Rivas-Davila, Electrical Engineering

This project addresses a critical challenge of circuit protection in renewable power systems. Researchers look to develop ultrafast, autonomously operated, self-powered, bidirectional solid-state circuit breakers using wide bandgap semiconductors. Such circuit breakers could respond at least ten times faster than conventional circuit protection in renewable power systems and, eventually, at a tenth of the cost.

Establishing diamond-based device platform for high power electronics

PI: Srabanti Chowdhury, Electrical Engineering

Diamond devices could out-perform all other semiconducting materials for grid-level power electronics, i.e. more than 100 kilowatts. The high thermal conductivity and size advantage of diamond devices could potentially lead to their performance advantage overcoming higher cost compared to other wide bandgap semiconductors, like silicon-carbide and gallium nitride. The research team will explore the optical excitation and reaction in diamond as a function of phosphorous and/or nitrogen doping. This will help identify the potential and the challenges of building a photoconductive switch in the diamond platform. If successful, this project will create a building block for enabling a grid-level power electronics platform in diamond with photoconductive switches.

Grid energy storage: tools for characterization, optimization, and technology evaluation

PI: Simona Onori, Energy Resources Engineering. Co-PI: Adam Brandt, Energy Resources Engineering

The ability to store large amounts of electricity from intermittent wind and solar generators is considered critical to decarbonizing our energy systems. While pumped hydro dominates bulk energy storage, lithium-ion batteries are the main source of regional grid support. Unfortunately, how grid-specific duty degrades lithium-ion batteries is not well understood, which makes business models for energy storage ventures unreliable. This project will seek to understand these degradation mechanisms and develop predictive tools that can be used for cost/benefit analysis to maximize revenue and minimize lost capacity.

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