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Stanford’s Strategic Energy Alliance funds six new energy research projects for a total of $5.1 million

Jun 23, 2022
Precourt Institute

By Mark Golden

Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy selected an inaugural set of six new research projects to support for a total of $5.1 million through its Strategic Energy Research Consortium. The consortium pools money from the corporate members of the Precourt Institute’s Strategic Energy Alliance, which primarily facilitates sponsored research between its members and Stanford faculty.

The Strategic Energy Alliance leadership team of the Precourt Institute, which will become part of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability in September, chose the projects to fund from 25 proposals submitted by the Stanford research community. Four of the selected proposals seek to advance energy science and technologies. They cover passive cooling of buildings, semiconductors as electrocatalysts, low-carbon concrete and algae-based biofuels. Two policy and finance research projects were also selected for funding. One will explore global portfolios for negative emissions; the other will examine how natural gas utilities could become climate-neutral.

In total, the six projects will support 17 students and postdoctoral scholars for three years.

Science and technologies

illustration of rooftop radiating heat
The coating that the new project seeks to
control reflects incoming sunlight, and it
sends heat from inside the building into space
as infrared radiation (Image credit: Fan lab)

Mark Brongersma, professor in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, and Shanhui Fan, professor in Electrical Engineering, will work to develop technology to control the cooling of buildings through passive radiation of heat. Fan’s lab has developed an inexpensive coating that gets buildings to radiate some heat during the day, which can lower air conditioning and refrigeration use. This could slow climate change, because electricity generation usually emits greenhouse gases, and because air conditioners and refrigerators leak hydrofluorocarbons, which is the main cooling chemical and an extremely potent GHG. The new research combines high-level experimental and theoretical studies in pursuit of a radiative cooling system that automatically turns off when the temperature inside the building falls to a specified level.

Alberto Salleo and William Chueh, both faculty members in Materials Science & Engineering, will pursue an electrocatalyst for producing hydrogen from water. Specifically, they want to invent an electrocatalyst free from platinum and iridium, rare and expensive elements used in much water-splitting research. They hope to build on recent breakthroughs using long-chain carbon semiconductors for hydrogen evolution by improving their catalytic efficiency through doping. If successful, the work could result in a completely new way to create electrocatalysts.

illustration of rooftop radiating heat

Salleo is also a principle investigator on another project with Tiziana Vanorio, in Geophysics, and Matteo Cargnello, in Materials Science & Engineering. This works seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cement production, which accounts for about 8 percent of worldwide emissions., emits 8 percent of all GHG resulting from human activity globally. To make cement, which is the binding element for concrete, limestone is mined, crushed, and baked by burning fossil fuels. In addition, almost two-thirds of cement’s emissions are due to the release of carbon dioxide otherwise locked in the limestone. The team is prototyping cement that instead uses volcanic rock that contains all the necessary building blocks, but none of the carbon.

Ellen Yeh, an associate professor in the departments of Pathology, and of Microbiology & Immunology at Stanford’s School of Medicine, and Arthur Grossman, a staff scientist in Plant Biology in the Carnegie Institution for Science, have teamed up to research making biofuels from algae. Specifically, they aim to identify the genes that allow some algae species to excrete hydrocarbons from their cells, which would make it easier to remove the fuel without killing the organisms. Then they hope to genetically engineer one or two types of algae to boost hydrocarbon production. Algae use water, sunlight, and CO2 to produce biofuel, so the process is considered carbon-neutral, as the CO2 emitted during combustion of the biofuel was first removed from the atmosphere by the algae.

Policy and finance

illustration of rooftop radiating heat
An illustration of one negative-emission strategy: bioenergy with carbon
capture and storage. (Image credit: BBC)

To avoid the worst effects of climate change, most experts think that humans will need to not only stop emitting GHG but remove them from the atmosphere. The most developed negative-emission technologies capture and store CO2, methane and other GHG, sometimes in tandem with bioenergy production. Other means of GHG removal include restoration of forests and wetlands, and geoengineering ideas in very early stages of development. Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and professor in Biology and in Earth System Science, will explore the potential benefits and costs of deploying negative-emission technologies in the near- and medium-term at local, regional, and global scales. He will examine the physical, economic and social consequences, including for social equity.

Adam Brandt, director of Stanford’s Natural Gas Initiative and associate professor in Energy Resources & Engineering, and Michael Wara, senior research scholar at the Woods Institute, will research how U.S. natural gas utilities might evolve to become climate-neutral. They will focus on the connections between two U.S. networks: natural gas pipelines, and the network of power plants and transmission lines. They will then develop a method for making decisions that optimize intermittent renewables and energy storage supported by electricity generated with natural gas. The product of this research will take into consideration the complex web of regulations that governs the U.S. power and gas systems.

These Strategic Energy Research Consortium projects are funded by the members of the Strategic Energy Alliance: ExxonMobil, Bank of America, TotalEnergies, and Shell. The alliance seeks to accelerate the pace of the global energy transformation involving clean energy development, deployment, scale-up, and finance. Through research and educational relationships with Stanford, alliance members can gain strategic direction and input toward a low-carbon energy future.