News Article | September 8, 2016
Devices called ultracapacitors have recently become attractive forms of energy storage: They recharge in seconds, have very long lifespans, work with close to 100 percent efficiency, and are much lighter and less volatile than batteries. But they suffer from low energy-storage capacity and other drawbacks, meaning they mostly serve as backup power sources for things like electric cars, renewable energy technologies, and consumer devices. But MIT spinout FastCAP Systems is developing ultracapacitors, and ultracapacitor-based systems, that offer greater energy density and other advancements. This technology has opened up new uses for the devices across a wide range of industries, including some that operate in extreme environments. Based on MIT research, FastCAP's ultracapacitors store up to 10 times the energy and achieve 10 times the power density of commercial counterparts. They're also the only commercial ultracapacitors capable of withstanding temperatures reaching as high as 300 degrees Celsius and as low as minus 110 C, allowing them to endure conditions found in drilling wells and outer space. Most recently, the company developed a AA-battery-sized ultracapacitor with the perks of its bigger models, so clients can put the devices in places where ultracapacitors couldn't fit before. Founded in 2008, FastCAP has already taken its technology to the oil and gas industry, and now has its sights set on aerospace and defense and, ultimately, electric, hybrid, and even fuel-cell vehicles. "In our long-term product market, we hope that we can make an impact on transportation, for increased energy efficiency," says co-founder John Cooley PhD '11, who is now president and chief technology officer of FastCAP. FastCAP's co-founders and technology co-inventors are MIT alumnus Riccardo Signorelli PhD '09 and Joel Schindall, the Bernard Gordon Professor of the Practice in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Ultracapacitors use electric fields to move ions to and from the surfaces of positive and negative electrode plates, which are usually coated with a porous material called activated carbon. Ions cling to the electrodes and let go quickly, allowing for quick cycling, but the small surface area limits the number of ions that cling, restrictingenergy storage. Traditional ultracapacitors can, for instance, hold about 5 percent of the energy that lithium ion batteries of the same size can. In the late 2000s, the FastCAP founding team had a breakthrough: They discovered that a tightly packed array of carbon nanotubes vertically aligned on the electrode provided much more surface area. The array was also uniform, whereas the porous material was irregular and difficult for ions to move in and out of. "A way to look at it is the industry standard looks like nanoscopic sponge, and the vertically aligned nanotube arrays look like a nanoscopic hairbrush" that provides the ions more efficient access to the electrode surface, Cooley says. With funding from the Ford-MIT Alliance and MIT Energy Initiative, the researchers built a fingernail-sized prototype that stored twice the energy and delivered seven to 15 times more power than traditional ultracapacitors. In 2008, the three researchers launched FastCAP, and Cooley and Signorelli brought the business idea to Course 15.366 (Energy Ventures), where they designed a three-step approach to a market. The idea was to first focus on building a product for an early market: oil and gas. Once they gained momentum, they'd focus on two additional markets, which turned out to be aerospace and defense, and then automotive and stationary storage, such as server farms and grids. "One of the paradigms of Energy Ventures was that steppingstone approach that helped the company succeed," Cooley says. FastCAP then earned a finalist spot in the 2009 MIT Clean Energy Prize (CEP), which came with some additional perks. "The value there was in the diligence effort we did on the business plan, and in the marketing effect that it had on the company," Cooley says. Based on their CEP business plan, that year FastCAP won a $5 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy grant to design ultracapacitors for its target markets in automotive and stationary storage. FastCAP also earned a 2012 DOE Geothermal Technologies Program grant to develop very high-temperature energy storage for geothermal well drilling, where temperatures far exceed what available energy-storage devices can tolerate. Still under development, these ultracapacitors have proven to perform from minus 5 C to over 250 C. Over the years, FastCAP made several innovations that have helped the ultracapacitors survive in the harsh conditions. In 2012, FastCAP designed its first-generation product, for the oil and gas market: a high-temperature ultracapacitor that could withstand temperatures of 150 C and posed no risk of explosion when crushed or damaged. "That was an interesting market for us, because it's a very harsh environment with [tough] engineering challenges, but it was a high-margin, low-volume first-entry market," Cooley says. "We learned a lot there." In 2014, FastCAP deployed its first commercial product. The Ulysses Power System is an ultracapacitor-powered telemetry device, a long antenna-like system that communicates with drilling equipment. This replaces the battery-powered systems that are volatile and less efficient. It also amplifies the device's signal strength by 10 times, meaning it can be sent thousands of feet underground and through subsurface formations that were never thought penetrable in this way before. After a few more years of research and development, the company is now ready to break into aerospace and defense. In 2015, FastCAP completed two grant programs with NASA to design ultracapacitors for deep space missions (involving very low temperatures) and for Venus missions (involving very high temperatures). In May 2016, FastCAP continued its relationship with NASA to design an ultracapacitor-powered module for components on planetary balloons, which float to the edge of Earth's atmosphere to observe comets. The company is also developing an ultracapacitor-based energy-storage system to increase the performance of the miniature satellites known as CubeSats. There are other aerospace applications too, Cooley says: "There are actuators systems for stage separation devices in launch vehicles, and other things in satellites and spacecraft systems, where onboard systems require high power and the usual power source can't handle that." A longtime goal has been to bring ultracapacitors to electric and hybrid vehicles, providing high-power capabilities for stop-start and engine starting, torque assist, and longer battery life. In March, FastCAP penned a deal with electric-vehicle manufacturer Mullen Technologies. The idea is to use the ultracapacitors to augment the batteries in the drivetrain, drastically improving the range and performance of the vehicles. Based on their wide temperature capabilities, FastCAP's ultracapacitors could be placed under the hood, or in various places in the vehicle's frame, where they were never located before and could last longer than traditional ultracapacitors. The devices could also be an enabling component in fuel-cell vehicles, which convert chemical energy from hydrogen gas into electricity that is then stored in a battery. These zero-emissions vehicles have difficulty handling surges of power—and that's where FastCAP's ultracapacitors can come in, Cooley says. "The ultracapacitors can sort of take ownership of the power and variations of power demanded by the load that the fuel cell is not good at handling," Cooley says. "People can get the range they want for a fuel-cell vehicle that they're anxious about with battery-powered electric vehicles. So there are a lot of good things we are enabling by providing the right ultracapacitor technology to the right application."
News Article | April 18, 2016
On Thursday, March 17, members of the MIT community and researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) convened for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Day, an event dedicated to the future of low-carbon energy. DOE leaders and MIT faculty discussed current research to accelerate scientific breakthroughs in clean energy fields. The event, hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), also featured an MIT student-hosted panel with Institute alumni who currently work at the DOE to spark current students’ interest in careers in energy policy and research. MITEI Director Robert Armstrong opened the conference with a call “to come together to accelerate progress in transforming the world’s energy systems.” He noted the catalytic effect of last December’s United Nations climate negotiations and the resulting Paris Climate Agreement, saying we must “figure out ways to enhance the excellent cooperation already under way” on climate and energy. David Danielson PhD ’07, DOE assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy (EERE), co-founded the MIT Energy Club while at MIT. His keynote talk centered on advancements in energy research at DOE and the creation of what he called a “clean energy innovation ecosystem” in the U.S. He touched on new research in solar, geothermal, and hydropower technology, as well as the future of 3-D printed cars, all areas in which DOE is involved. Danielson also spoke about MIT projects in which DOE has invested, including semisolid lithium-ion battery company 24M, founded by MIT chemical engineering professor Yet-Ming Chiang; the laser drilling company Foro Energy, founded by MIT alum Joel Moxley PhD ’07, with geothermal and other applications; and MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering Professor Alex Slocum’s company Keystone Tower Systems, which fabricates wind turbine towers at project sites. The theme of innovation tied together all of these areas of discovery. “We want people to do things they think are impossible,” he said. This idea is integral to the Mission Innovation initiative, which was announced by President Barack Obama and other world leaders ahead of the Paris climate talks as a multinational effort to dramatically accelerate global clean energy innovation to address climate change. DOE leads the U.S. Mission Innovation effort to double the nation’s clean energy research and development investment over five years. At a lunchtime panel led by current MIT students, MIT alumni including Danielson shared EERE career opportunities with current students. Moderators Linda Cheung, a Sloan MBA candidate, and Michael Birk, a graduate student in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and Statoil-MIT Energy Fellow, asked the panelists to share their stories of how they came to be interested in energy research and policy, and how they turned their passion into exciting careers. Johanna Wolfson PhD ’13, EERE Tech to Market director, encouraged students: “Run towards what’s exciting to you. Don’t just do the things you think you’re supposed to do.” Panelists discussed summer internships with EERE and invited students to reach out to them to discuss their interest in federal energy jobs. Much of the day was devoted to research panels with DOE staff and MIT energy researchers. At a panel on sustainable transportation, Reuben Sarkar, deputy assistant secretary for sustainable transportation, addressed the challenge of making electric vehicles affordable by 2022, an initiative in which the DOE is currently investing. One approach to this goal is the “lightweighting” of cars — making them weigh less so they can be more fuel efficient. DOE researchers were able to reduce the weight of a Ford Focus by 23 percent (800 lbs) while maintaining its ability to withstand crashes by using different materials in the manufacturing process. Sarkar also spoke of the potential for hydrogen fuel cells, which have immense decarbonizing potential and also use domestic resources in production. David Keith, assistant professor of system dynamics at MIT, added a sociological dimension to this discussion. He described how he examines the factors that affect market trends for low-emissions vehicles, from consumer demographics, income, and education, to oil prices. “We need to pinpoint the right incentives to get consumers to consider adopting hybrid and electric vehicles,” he said. Another session on renewable power and grid modernization featured Doug Hollett, deputy assistant secretary for renewable power at DOE, and José Zayas, DOE’s wind and water power technologies director, who gave an overview of the department’s research in alternative energy, including wind, water, and geothermal. Also on the panel was Francis O’Sullivan, director of research and analysis for MITEI, who discussed the growth of the solar market and need for continued research to bring down costs and enable large-scale growth. Another panelist, MITEI’s Raanan Miller, executive director of the MIT Utility of the Future Study, talked about the study — a consortium of MIT researchers and international companies working to address emerging economic, regulatory, and technical issues in the electric power sector. In a panel on buildings, energy efficiency, and advanced manufacturing, Mark Johnson, DOE’s director of advanced manufacturing, spoke about the importance of having an innovation ecosystem where research and development and manufacturing are connected. We need to stop the cycle, he said, of “clean energy products [being] invented here, but made elsewhere.” Patrick Phelan, emerging technologies program manager at the Building Technologies Office, talked about applications for decision science — specifically, understanding why people buy energy efficient technology for buildings — and studies how to stimulate certain behaviors. Richard Braatz, the Edwin R. Gilliland Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, discussed automated chemical synthesizers and how they could accelerate chemical discovery and production. He also touched on plug-and-play manufacturing software. Harvey Michaels, a research scientist and energy efficiency lecturer at MIT, talked about intelligent buildings. On a panel with DOE’s Johnson and Wolfson about re-inventing the American clean energy ecosystem and supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs, participants discussed strategies for shepherding great ideas through the innovation pipeline, from idea to full realization. Christopher Noble, technology licensing officer at MIT, had the following advice for anyone creating a tech incubator: “Keep the operation as small and geographically dense as possible, because incubators are all about [researchers] running into each other.” Emily Reichert MBA ’12, CEO of Greentown Labs, gave her perspectives from running the region’s most impactful clean energy startup incubator, and encouraged other would-be entrepreneurs. “In Boston and in the clean tech community at MIT, new faces are always welcome in the innovation ecosystem,” she said, adding, “About 70 percent of startups at Greentown Labs are MIT spin-outs.” The final panel of the day focused on MITEI’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers (LCECs), collaborative research hubs built on cross-sector partnerships with industry, government, and the philanthropic community. Armstrong discussed the goal of the centers, first announced in the MIT Plan for Action on Climate Change in fall 2015, to develop deployable solutions that can move the needle on meeting future energy needs while simultaneously addressing climate change. “As we go past COP21,” Armstrong said, “it’s clear that we need to focus our work on low-carbon technologies, not just in the U.S. and Europe, but in developing countries.” The centers, he said, are a way to “engage all of MIT’s disciplines, along with industry expertise, and harness these different perspectives to address energy and climate challenges.” Joining Armstrong on the panel were MIT researchers involved with the Low-Carbon Energy Centers (LCECs). Vladimir Bulović, associate dean for innovation and Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology, discussed how his research focuses on re-imagining solar cells to improve quality while cutting costs. He described his team’s specific emphasis on thin-film solar cells that could be used for a variety of applications. Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and co-founder of the lithium-ion battery company 24M, discussed his research to combine a thin, flexible battery his team has created with Bulović’s thin-film solar cells to increase the potential for seasonal storage of the sun’s energy. Krystyn Van Vliet, the SMART Research Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, works to improve designs of materials for energy production in extreme environments. Van Vliet stressed how important it is to learn how to measure and model these environments and “how to overcome them to achieve higher durability and predictable lifetimes for clean energy technology.” DOE project manager Elaine Ulrich drew parallels between the LCECs and the cross-collaboration they try to foster in their own projects. “The idea is that for the problem at hand, the DOE, industry, and MIT can draw on this variety of experts so we have people focused on all areas of energy,” she said. In conclusion, Danielson expressed his desire to continue exploring areas for collaboration with MIT students and faculty. “We hope we sparked some new ideas and created new relationships that can grow into exciting energy innovations,” he said.
One of the most promising ways to combat carbon emissions is to transform those emissions into something useful. Recently, Gregory Stephanopoulos, the Willard Henry Dow Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT; postdoc Amit Kumar PhD ’10, also of the Department of Chemical Engineering; and their team released a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their study focuses on utilizing bacteria to turn waste gases into biofuels. The MIT Energy Initiative talked with Kumar, who is also the energy and environment chair of the MIT Energy Club, and Stephanopoulos to learn more about the research behind the paper, the team’s near-term plans to scale up from a pilot plant to a demonstration plant, and their thoughts on future areas of research. Q: Tell us a little bit about your research and why it’s significant. A: We developed a novel bioprocess for converting waste gases containing carbon dioxide and a reducing gas such as hydrogen or carbon monoxide into biofuels. Our process uses bacteria to convert waste gases into acetic acid — vinegar — which is subsequently converted to oil by an engineered yeast. It is a very interesting story of pairing distinct microbes to take advantage of their unique metabolisms in creating a gas-to-liquids process. In the United Sates, biodiesel — a primary alternative to petroleum-diesel — is the second-most abundant biologically derived transportation fuel. This bio-based diesel is currently produced from vegetable or seed oil (lipids) obtained from crops including canola, palm, or soybean, which are costly and limited in available supply. Similarly sugar-based biofuels are not favored due to high feedstock costs. Our bioprocess paves the way for use of potentially cheaper gaseous feedstocks, which can be obtained from gasification of methane or municipal solid waste, but can also be derived from the exhaust gases of steel manufacturing. As anyone can imagine, availability of these sources is huge. An important feature of our method is that it utilizes waste as a “resource” allowing a very low or even negative cost for the feedstock. In a broader sense, implementation of these concepts for fuel production may extend to a number of commercially important biological platforms depending on the potential sources of synthesis gas or its conversion products, namely, volatile fatty acids. Q: What changes did you need to make in your process to scale up from your pilot plant outside Shanghai to the much larger “semi-commercial” demonstration plant that’s set to begin construction? Scaling up involves many challenges. In a small bioreactor, microorganisms and media are easy to control and well distributed in the system. However, spatial variations arise in a larger system requiring sophisticated models and lots of calculations to generate a design that works well. Another challenge is the logistics and parameters involved in running a bioreactor of several thousand liters, or even bigger, without mixing issues. An additional issue is the robustness of operation. In the lab, graduate students can adjust the operational parameters at will, as frequently as needed, to provide optimal fermentation conditions for days. In a pilot plant, there is limited capacity to make these adjustments and the continuous system must be kept stable for months. This imposes higher requirement for the robustness of the microbes and the overall process. Successful operation of a pilot plant for months indicates that the whole gas-to-liquid fuel process is technologically feasible under semi-industrial conditions. But that is only the first step in the developmental process. Cost-effectiveness is another important requirement. Assessment of the economic feasibility of the process is the major goal of operating a pilot plant, and/or semi-commercial demonstration plant. The fixed assets required for pilot construction determine capital costs of a future commercial plant. Additionally, runs at pilot scale better define energy requirements, product quality, and other factors like substrate pre-treatment, heating, and cooling, and product recovery required by a production plant. Q: What will be some areas of future research for your group? A: We want to enhance our understanding of the basic physiology of the organisms involved in the process and develop better biological toolkits for their genetic modulation to allow production of various products by metabolic engineering. Additionally, we would like to better understand gasification and other potential supply routes of the gaseous feedstocks in order to maximize the cost effectiveness of the process.
The MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design today announced the projects to be supported through its annual seed fund. The 12 projects were selected from a highly competitive field of proposals on the basis of their potential to make a significant impact in the developing world. With this latest round, the Tata Center has now supported more than 100 projects since its inception in 2012. This year’s portfolio includes innovations to make health services more accessible; tools facilitating disaster preparedness, water management, and a low-carbon future; recycling and reuse technologies, and more. “The Tata Center provides researchers not just with funding, but with mentorship, educational support, and connections to emerging communities,” said Tata Center director Robert Stoner. “The projects we’ve chosen this year represent opportunities to apply MIT’s world-class research in real-world scenarios where there is a pressing need.” The newly-funded projects will join roughly 30 continuing projects across six domains: agriculture, energy, environment, health, housing, and water. Tata Center researchers spend extended time in the field, primarily in India, working with local collaborators, gathering data, and testing their solutions. The new Tata Center projects for 2016-2017 are: Founded at MIT in 2012 with support from the Tata Trusts, one of India’s oldest philanthropic organizations, the Tata Center gives holistic support to MIT faculty and graduate student researchers working on projects aimed at improving quality of life in the developing world. A part of the MIT Energy Initiative, the Tata Center is on the web at tatacenter.mit.edu.
« Nifco develops thermoplastic oil pan for Jaguar Land Rover ALIVE6 project | Main | Audi to increase participation in Formula E; full factory-backed motorsport program for 2017/2018 » Researchers at MIT have carried out the most detailed analysis yet of lithium dendrite formation from lithium anodes in batteries and have found that there are two entirely different mechanisms at work. While both forms of deposits are composed of lithium filaments, the way they grow depends on the applied current. Clustered, “mossy” deposits, which form at low rates, turn out to grow from their roots and can be relatively easy to control. More sparse and rapidly advancing “dendritic” projections grow only at their tips. The dendritic type, the researchers say, are harder to deal with and are responsible for most of the problems dendrites cause: degraded performance and short-circuits that damage or disable the battery. Their findings are reported in an open-access paper in the RSC journal Energy and Environmental Science. To develop batteries with higher energy density, such as Li–O , Li–S, and other Li metal batteries using intercalation cathodes, lithium is believed to be the ideal anode material for its extremely high theoretical specific capacity (3860 mA h g-1), low density (0.59 g cm-3) and the lowest negative electrochemical potential ( 3.04 V vs. the standard hydrogen electrode). Unfortunately, lithium growth is unstable during battery recharging and leads to rough, mossy deposits, whose fresh surfaces consume the electrolyte to form solid–electrolyte interphase layers, resulting in high internal resistance, low Coulombic efficiency and short cycle life. Finger-like lithium dendrites can also short-circuit the cell by penetrating the porous separator, leading to catastrophic accidents. Controlling such hazardous instabilities requires accurately determining their mechanisms, which are more complex than the well-studied diffusion-limited growth of copper or zinc from aqueous solutions. Such fundamental understanding is critical for the success of the lithium metal anode and could provide guidance for the optimal design and operation of rechargeable lithium metal batteries. The new study is the first to show the two different types of dendritic growth: mossy, which grows slowly from the base, and dendritic, which extends rapidly from the growing tips. While previous research has always lumped the two types of growth together under the blanket term “dendrites”, the new work demonstrates the precise conditions for each distinct growth mode to occur, and how the mossy type can be relatively easily controlled. The root-growing mossy growth, the team found, can be blocked by adding a separator layer made of a nanoporous ceramic material (a sponge-like material with tiny pores at the nanometer scale, or billionths of a meter across). The tip-growing dendritic growth, by contrast, cannot be easily blocked, but fortunately should not occur in practical batteries. The normal working currents of these batteries are much lower than the characteristic current associated with the tip-growing deposits, so these deposits will not form unless significant degradation of the electrolyte has occurred. The research shows that dendritic growths can be effectively controlled at lower current levels, for a given cell capacity, and demonstrates what the upper limits on battery performance would need to be in order to prevent the truly damaging dendritic filaments. Ceramic separators with pores smaller than mossy lithium whiskers could replace conventional polyolefin separators with flexible large pores to enhance safety and cycle life, and the effect could be further reinforced with lithium salts and solvents that favor thicker columnar deposits. To the broader field of electrodeposition, our results clarify the physical connections between lithium and copper/zinc dendrites formed in liquid electrolytes. Mechanisms and mathematical models of copper/zinc dendrite growths cannot be and should not be applied to explain either the development or the suppression of lithium whiskers.Future theoretical investigations should take into account the dynamics of SEI formation during both the root-growth and tip-growth processes of lithium electrodeposition. The separators that could block the mossy growth are made of anodic aluminum oxide, or AAO, which is 60 micrometers thick and has well-aligned, straight nanopores across its thickness. The research suggests that flexible composite ceramic separators, such as those made by coating ceramic particles onto conventional polyolefin separators, should be used in lithium metal batteries to help block the root-growing mossy lithium. Martin Z. Bazant, the E. G. Roos (1944) Professor of Chemical Engineering and a professor of mathematics explained that most previous research on the use of lithium metal anodes has been carried out at low current levels or low battery capacities, and because of that the second type of growth mechanism had not been reliably observed. The MIT team carried out tests at higher current levels that clearly revealed the two distinct types of growth. He said that the findings were made possible by his team’s development of an innovative laboratory setup, a glass capillary cell. Previous research had mostly relied on electrical measurements to infer what was taking place physically inside the battery, but seeing it in action made the differences very clear. The new findings will now provide battery researchers with a better understanding of the underlying scientific principles, and show the limitations on rates and capacity that are achievable. The work was supported by Robert Bosch LLC through the MIT Energy Initiative.