Some of the advanced research equipment at Argonne National Laboratory will be available to young entrepreneurs under a new Energy Department program. Credit: Argonne National Laboratory / Creative Commons

A new initiative at Argonne National Laboratory seeks to accelerate energy innovation by embedding promising young entrepreneurs in one of the nation’s foremost national laboratories.

Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI) targets technology’s so-called “Valley of Death,” where smart scientific ideas in energy or other fields fail to translate to real-world results. Many times, the inability to go from lab bench to factory floor is the result of a lack of money, materials, time, business acumen or experience.

With CRI, Argonne will give five early-stage energy innovators access to all of those coveted assets.

Instead of chipping away at their ideas on nights and weekends, the five CRI recipients representing four different projects will have up to two years and $550,000 in financial support to advance and refine their ideas using Argonne’s advanced hardware and alongside the lab’s world-class scientists. In addition, the five awardees will receive entrepreneurial mentorship from two regional business incubators: University of Chicago’s Polsky Center and The Purdue Foundry at Purdue University.

While the projects range in scope and subject matter, they all share the same goal: to develop sustainable and energy-efficient technologies while fleshing out the business plans and funding mechanisms needed to those take nascent technologies to the next level.

“This commitment to innovation is the secret sauce,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said at a press conference unveiling the CRI recipients at the Polsky Center Tuesday. DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office is funding the initiative, which is based on a similar program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “It’s going to help us and everyone resolve the challenge of climate [change] and energy security. It’s also going to contribute to our economy as well.”

Four projects selected

Of the more than 100 applications from 22 states, DOE selected four projects to participate in the first CRI cohort. They are:

  • Felipe Gomez del Campo, founder and CEO of FGC Plasma Solutions based in Cleveland, will work on better fuel injectors for jet engines and gas turbines, aiming to reduce fuel consumption by between 1 and 5 percent.
  • Ian Hamilton, who is pursuing a master’s degree in nuclear engineering at Purdue University, aims to develop technologies that turns nuclear waste into a usable energy source.
  • Chad Mason most recently worked on the cell durability team at General Motors. At CRI, he will work on “membrane-free electrochemical devices,” which could lower costs and increase the efficiency of batteries, fuel cells and other products that rely on electrolytes.
  • Tyler Huggins and Justin Whiteley, both graduates of the University of Colorado, Boulder, co-founded Emergy, LLC, which uses industrial wastewater and other unlikely feedstocks (brewery wastewater is one notable example) to create carbon materials that are used in energy storage and filtration applications.

The participants will move to Argonne, just southwest of Chicago, in January 2017 to work full-time on their projects. When Midwest Energy News asked the cohort why they applied for the program, Chad Mason responded succinctly, “Why wouldn’t you want to work at Argonne?”

Argonne – the origins of which lie in the creation of the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction – is now home to 1,600 scientists and engineers, and an array of advanced scientific equipment including Mira, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, and the Advanced Photon Source, a highly powerful x-ray used across many scientific fields. In 2012, DOE awarded Argonne with $120 million to host the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, which aims to develop battery prototypes five times as energy-dense as today’s commercial batteries at one-fifth the cost.

Ian Hamilton, who developed his idea for turning nuclear waste into electricity as an undergrad and master’s student, explained that eventually he “got to the point where I essentially needed to build my own particle accelerator to safely test it.” Upon learning about Argonne’s equipment and facilities, the young engineer realized “it was an obvious step to take my technology from a university setting to a national lab setting.”

The future under Trump?

Looming over Tuesday’s announcement were questions about what the incoming Trump administration would mean for future of CRI and other DOE programs like it. President-elect Trump has called human-caused climate change “a hoax” and has vowed to eliminate the Clean Power Plan and other regulations aimed at curtailing carbon emissions and promoting cleaner sources of energy.

Earlier this month, the president-elect said he would name former Texas Governor Rick Perry as his Secretary of Energy, replacing Moniz. Perry has been a strong supporter of fossil-based energy, and he once said he would like to eliminate the Department of Energy, which has a broad portfolio of responsibilities including nuclear security and basic energy research.

“We are all hoping that many of these people who are being named [for cabinet positions] – once they get inside – will have a different view and see the magnitude of the challenge, and the magnitude of their responsibility,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said at Tuesday’s press conference, noting that he was expressing only his opinions and not those of DOE, Argonne or the other parties represented.

Moniz, who earned praise for his role in helping to hammer out much of the scientific and technical details of the Iran Nuclear Deal last year, was reluctant to make any predictions about what might or might not happen under President Trump or a Secretary. He said only that the department “is showing its value in addressing fundamental issues.”

“Budgets may be robust, they may be strained,” he added, “but I don’t think this country is going to turn away from innovation, from research, from science.”

This specific CRI cohort is being supported by dollars already appropriated by Congress for fiscal year 2016, DOE confirmed.

David started writing for Midwest Energy News in 2016. His work has also appeared in InsideClimate News, The Atlantic, McClatchy DC and other outlets. Previously, he was the energy editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, where he wrote and edited stories about the global energy transition toward cleaner fuels.

One reply on “New initiative connects entrepreneurs with leading Illinois energy lab”