Dr. Harry Atwater of Caltech is one of the world’s leading researchers of Applied Physics and Materials Science, specializing in technology related to photovoltaics and solar energy (1). As director of Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute, he is also the visionary and catalyst behind a new set of awards (the Resonate Awards) to recognize unsung heroes in scientific advances related to sustainability. Thomson Reuters Sustainability sat down with him to find out about this exciting initiative to bring daylight to breakthrough achievements in energy science and sustainability. Below are the Resonate Award winners for 2014:
2014 Resonate Award: A renewable power grid, when it’s not sunny or windy.
Dr. Atwater: Let’s start with Javad Lavaei who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Columbia University. He is receiving the 2014 Resonate Award for his work on incorporating solar, storage and other energy resources into the electricity grid in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Essentially, he has developed a robust system or model which would allow a diverse set of power generation and distribution without creating instability for the end user of electricity, even if the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. His grid model opens the door for a fundamental shift towards renewable power integration into our electricity grid. It also potentially moots the need for much of the energy storage and infrastructure planning which now exists.
Sustainability: How about Dr. Jaramillo?
2014 Resonate Award: Solar power for your gas tank.
Dr. Atwater: Tom Jaramillo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University. Tom’s award winning work focuses on taking carbon dioxide emission out of the process to produce liquid fuels for the trains, planes and automobiles we all use. His endeavors have led to the discovery of a catalyst for the production of hydrogen using solar power and very commonly occurring natural materials. Hydrogen can then be easily combined with other compounds to create liquid fuels and chemicals in a sustainable manner, improving the economics of renewable energy sources with the potential to replace petroleum-based liquid energy.
Sustainability: Please tell us about Shinichi Komaba’s achievement.
2014 Resonate Award: A super-battery for cars.
Dr. Atwater: Dr. Komaba is a Professor of Applied Chemistry at Tokyo University and a Project Professor at Kyoto University. He is receiving the 2014 Resonate Award for his research in the field of electrochemical energy storage and conversion, developing materials for sodium-ion batteries and safer lithium-ion systems. His breakthroughs in these systems show huge promise toward realizing zero-emission vehicles by developing new advances which allow for significantly smaller, safer and more energetic battery systems.
Sustainability: Please tell us about Jay Whitacre’s work.
2014 Resonate Award:A super-battery for houses.
Dr. Atwater: Jay Whitacre is an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Founder and CTO of Aquion Energy. He is a really interesting character, as he works in both the policy and technology arenas. Professor Whitacre’s receipt of the 2014 Resonate Award honors his contribution to the grand challenge of finding safe, reliable, cost-effective, sustainable energy storage solutions. He developed a novel electrolyte battery technology based on low cost functional materials, which have the potential to be used for storage of massive amounts of energy at the electrical grid level. This breakthrough work helps to facilitate the introduction of renewable energy sources into the grid such as solar and wind, which require energy storage for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Sustainability: These kinds of advances have clear relevance for some types of investors, and their ability to drive change. Is that part of the idea behind recognizing the work of Ms. Kearney?
2014 Resonate Award: New funding for transforming the world.
Dr. Atwater: Yes. Ms. Sarah Kearney is the Founder and Executive Director of PRIME Coalition, a membership-based nonprofit that connects philanthropists and private investors to high-risk, high-reward startups that address climate change and other global social problems. Progress will be way too slow if funding for this kind of long-duration work continues to come from traditional sources like government and universities. Her work develops a philanthropic-venture marketplace which allows investors to identify and measure investment opportunities. It’s about connecting new pools of capital with high rates of return in an “energy breakthrough fund”, particularly focused on foundations and philanthropic organizations. It’s similar to the private equity and venture capital world, but with metrics around the effect desired on the world, and a financial return.
Sustainability: This is really exciting stuff!
Dr. Atwater: Now you know how I felt when reading the applications! These are significant scientific applications which the world needs to know about.
#1: According to Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators, a subset of the Web of Science, Dr. Atwater ranks among the top 1% most-cited authors in both Physics and Materials Science, based on citations tracked over the last decade.
This interview was conducted by Tim Nixon, managing editor at Thomson Reuters Sustainability. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please link here for the press release from Caltech.