Industry Drawn to ENG’s Clean Energy Research

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More than 100 visitors from industry, venture capital, law and academia– twice the expected turnout — came to campus on March 19 to learn about recent advances in clean energy technologies in College of Engineering labs.

College of Engineering faculty presented their work on fuel cell technologies, solid state lighting and the need for smart grids to manage wind-generated power. A School of Management professor discussed the economics and incentives involved with adopting clean energy technology.

College of Engineering Dean Kenneth Lutchen introduced the presentations, inviting guests to “gain a sense of what work we’re doing here at BU, not just from a technology and science standpoint, but also in building bridges to the corporate world.”  Researchers also emphasized this collaboration of academia and industry as an important facet to advancing their work in the clean energy field.

“This is a very vibrant research area,” said Professor Srikanth Gopalan (MFG) of his work in fuel cells and hydrogen generation. “We are interested in the research and in creating intellectual property that’s of value to industry.”

Gopalan’s laboratory focuses on developing solid oxide fuel cells and methods of hydrogen generation. With fuel cells, he aims to “simplify the manufacturing while retaining the power density levels.”

Gopalan’s research team has created new manufacturing methods and modified the materials that comprise these fuel cells to make them smaller and cheaper, but still generate the energy needed to power a home or vehicle.

Professor Theodore Moustakas (ECE) spoke about solid state lighting and his research on light emitting diodes (LEDs). These highly efficient lights based on semiconductor technology have the potential to replace conventional light sources – both older incandescent lighting and the current state-of-the-art fluorescent bulbs, said Moustakas. He discussed several methods to overcome the challenge of producing white light from LEDs, which put out a single color such as green, red or blue. The approach with the most promise, he said, may be combining three colors of LEDs to yield a light that appears white.

Moving from the supply side to a consumer perspective, Professor Nalin Kulatilaka (SMG) discussed his research on why adoption of clean energy moves so slowly. Often, he said, the right incentives are not in place and information gaps exist so that people do not know the monetary value of clean energy technologies. For example, he said, builders may not incorporate such innovations into a house if they think they cannot recoup the costs. To accelerate the adoption of clean energy, Kulatilaka said that having standard methods for taking baseline measurements of energy use would help quantify any improvements resulting from adoption of clean technologies. This information could also be used to help put incentives in contracts to motivate the use of clean energy.

Professor Michael Caramanis (MFG) spoke about the need for smart grids to manage the electricity produced by wind turbines. Wind power presents two big challenges: wind is intermittent and, often, needs to be moved from where it is generated to where the electricity is needed.

With the advent of battery technology for plug-in cars, Caramanis said, systems can be created to manage energy loads and regulate the distribution of energy, “for the mutual benefit of wind generation and battery charging.”

The evening concluded with tours of the BU engineers’ laboratories, providing visitors an insider’s view of the research as well as time for informal discussions and conversations between industry representatives and researchers to further their common clean energy goals.

 The Massachusetts Hydrogen Coalition, a non-profit corporation made up of more than 60 member organizations, and the Department of Manufacturing Engineering co-sponsored the event.

A solid oxide fuel cell, from the laboratory of Professors Uday Pal and Srikanth Gopalan
A solid oxide fuel cell, from the laboratory of Professors Uday Pal and Srikanth Gopalan