Stanford names cleantech pioneer Yi Cui new director of its Precourt Institute for Energy
Yi Cui, a preeminent researcher of nanotechnologies for better batteries and other sustainability technologies, as well as an educator and entrepreneur, will become the next director of Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy.
Cui, professor in Stanford’s Department of Materials Science & Engineering and professor of photon science at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, takes over the helm from co-directors Sally Benson and Arun Majumdar. Cui, one of the world’s most cited scientists, will begin his new appointment on January 1. In 2008 he showed that silicon nanowires can significantly boost the performance of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. This triggered global interest in nanotechnology for energy storage and resulted in his founding of the start-up Amprius Inc. Cui and the large group of student scientists in his lab also research other means of storing electricity, solar power technologies, energy-efficient clothing that both warms a body amid cold and cools amid heat, among other nanoengineered applications.
“I am so pleased that Yi has agreed to become the next director of the Precourt Institute,” said Kathryn “Kam” Moler, Stanford vice provost and dean of research. “Also, I want to express my appreciation to Sally, Arun, and founding director Lynn Orr for building the Precourt Institute into the research powerhouse that it is now.”
The world is transitioning its energy system to one that provides accessible and affordable energy to all, while also urgently mitigating the risks of climate change, said Majumdar. To address this dual challenge requires ingenuity writ large, he added.
“I am so delighted and excited to know that my good friend and colleague, Yi Cui, will be the next director of the Precourt Institute,” said Majumdar. “Yi is a unique leader who can create purposeful innovation at scale around the world.”
As an example of that pragmatic bent, Cui and Stanford professor Steven Chu in March investigated how healthcare workers could disinfect coronavirus from face masks for safe reuse at a time when face masks were in extremely short supply. An air filter start-up founded by the two had special equipment that could answer the difficult question of whether a mask was still effective in removing particles after going through various disinfection treatments. They proved that heat treatment, (185˚ Fahrenheit for 20 minutes, for example), could decontaminate SARS-CoV-2 and other RNA viruses from the mask fabric without compromising its filtration efficiency. Healthcare workers around the world put that research into effect immediately after Cui, Chu and their co-investigators reported it on March 25. Subsequently, the research was published in a peer-reviewed study.
Among other responsibilities, Cui is co-director with Prof. William Chueh of the Precourt Institute’s StorageX Initiative, senior fellow at the Precourt Institute, a director of the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Battery500 Consortium, an editor of the American Chemical Society’s peer-reviewed journal Nano Letters, and the founder of four companies to commercialize the energy and environment technologies from his lab.
“I’m fortunate to inherit this institute – one of the world’s top academic energy institutes – from the three previous directors and take it to the next place,” Cui said. “The incoming U.S. presidential administration is so committed to dealing with climate change. The university is building a new school focused on climate and sustainability. So, Stanford energy researchers are in a really strong position to benefit the world, and we are excited about this opportunity.”
The Precourt Institute for Energy is one of Stanford’s five cross-campus research institutes. It funds about $20 million annually in energy-related research from science and technology to policy and economics. It also supports energy education on campus, and contributes substantially to building the energy innovation ecosystem at Stanford and globally. Since the founding of Stanford’s Global Climate & Energy Project (GCEP) in 2002, the number of Stanford faculty members researching energy topics has grown to more than 200. Energy research and education funds have supported the education of many hundreds of Stanford students since then.
“The support from individual donors and companies has been incredible. I got my first energy research funding from GCEP,” said Cui. “With continuous strong collaboration with the existing partners, I hope the Precourt Institute can explore new opportunities with technology companies. They know how to handle information such as big data and have made strong commitments to becoming carbon-free, which Stanford could help them figure out how to do in an optimal way.”
The road to energy research
Cui was born in Guangxi, an autonomous region of China, in 1976, and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Science & Technology of China. He completed his doctorate in physical chemistry at Harvard in 2002 and then became a Miller postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. All the while, Cui worked on nanotechnology, but not with any energy applications in mind.
“In 2004, Steve Chu became director of Berkeley Lab, where I worked for Paul Alivisatos, who was an associate director and later director,” recalled Cui. “Steve, a physics Nobel Prize winner, came in with such a strong commitment to clean energy. He and I overlapped for only about one year before I was hired as an assistant professor at Stanford, but I started my focus on energy research based on what I had first learned from Steve.”
In 2009, Chu became President Barack Obama’s secretary of energy, and then returned to Stanford’s faculty both in physics and at the medical school in 2013. He applauded Cui’s future tenure as Precourt Institute’s director.
“Since 2013, I have witnessed up close Yi’s creativity, wide-ranging curiosity, collaborative spirit and enormous energy,” said Chu. “I’m confident his leadership of Precourt will enhance the impact of the institute’s missions. Those range from supporting the most exciting, game-changing research to accelerating the transition from discovery to deployment.”
Cui, in addition to his busy work life, is committed to his family and soccer. His wife and he, who started dating in college, have two sons, one in high school and one in middle school. Also while in college, Cui played on his university’s soccer team and was the coach of his department’s team. He has played soccer from his early school years until now, at 44 years old.
“I’m very passionate about soccer,” he said. “Lately, I’m finding out that my legs and my knees aren’t as strong as they used to be, but I still love it. It’s great exercise and a lot of fun.”
The energetic Cui has a plan to create the time in his work life necessary to run an institute with almost 60 closely-engaged faculty and staff members, 10 research centers, and a new educational program. The plan involves saying “no” to some other commitments and invitations. In addition, Cui plans to find a faculty member as the associate director to help lead the institute and university’s work toward sustainable, affordable and reliable energy.
Franklin “Lynn” Orr, Jr. led the search committee for a new Precourt Institute director. Professors Ines Azevedo, Will Chueh, Chris Edwards, Jen Dionne, Chris Field and Larry Goulder were committee members. “Stanford has a very talented and wide-ranging group of faculty interested in all aspects of the clean energy transition,” said Orr. “Much remains to be done, and Stanford’s new school will provide a remarkable opportunity to leverage what has already been accomplished.”
In addition to the positions mentioned, Cui’s other university appointments include principal investigator at the Stanford Institute for Materials & Energy Sciences, and a member of Bio-X and of Wu Tsai Neuroscience Institute.
Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy was founded in 2009 with a gift from alumnus Jay Precourt and his family. In addition to the StorageX Initiative, the institute’s programs include the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, the Bits & Watts Initiative, the Sustainable Finance Initiative, the Stanford Environmental & Energy Policy Analysis Center, the Energy Modeling Forum, Stanford Energy Corporate Affiliates, and the Strategic Energy Alliance.