Wanted: A new generation of clean energy wildcatters

 If we have wildcatters in the oil and gas industry, why not in the renewable industry? It’s the point of Chris Tomlinson’s opinion piece this week in the Houston Chronicle.
OPINION // CHRIS TOMLINSON

Texas universities are doing amazing research into clean energy generation, and it’s beginning to change the world. What’s needed now are more Texas investors and entrepreneurs.

A Silicon Valley start-up called EnergyX entered a partnership last week with Nobel laureate John Goodenough at the University of Texas at Austin. They hope to develop a component for solid-state batteries from nanoparticles that would make batteries much more powerful.

EnergyX’s high-performance membrane could serve as an integral part in the next generation of lithium-ion batteries. The membrane is made from a material derived by Benny Freeman, a professor at the Center for Materials in Water and Energy Systems, who also teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

EnergyX’s membrane could solve two of the biggest challenges facing electric vehicles and utility-scale energy storage. The company is already using the membrane to expand lithium mining, another industry challenge.

“A lot of people are working on little pieces of this, and we are developing our technology to contribute,” Teague Egan, CEO of EnergyX, told me. “We have made amazing progress on lithium extraction and recovery from brine, and we are thrilled by the idea that it may have other applications.”

Egan is a serial entrepreneur and investor who knows that replacing fossil fuels is not only necessary to preserve life on the planet but an immense financial opportunity. He first invested in Tesla in 2013 and came to understand the major friction points slowing clean energy technology.

Obtaining enough raw lithium is one of the battery industry’s major challenges. Currently, most lithium is extracted from saltwater lakes in Latin America and Asia through evaporation, like making sea salt.

The process takes months and miners can only isolate 30 percent of the available lithium from the other salts. Egan found a better way at UT Austin.

Freeman was working with nanoparticles to construct metal organic frameworks that can act as tiny sieves. Egan licensed Freeman’s framework and worked with him to develop a membrane that can quickly isolate 90 percent of the lithium from a salt lake’s brine.

Egan reports excellent results in the lab and plans to have a commercial-scale demonstration project operating by 2021. But while visiting Freeman, Egan said he wondered if the membrane might also work as a separator between the anode and cathode in a lithium-ion battery.

Batteries produce electricity when ions pass from the anode to the cathode. Traditionally, a separator soaked in a liquid electrolyte allows the ions to pass without shorting out the cathode and anode. The separator and electrolyte is what limits how fast a battery can charge and how much energy it can hold.

Goodenough and his team have developed a ceramic electrolyte that could allow batteries to hold ten-times more energy and charge six-times faster. But Egan wondered if the membrane EnergyX might also make a good anode-cathode separator. Goodenough agreed to pursue the idea.

“We’re hoping our separator will work with many different solid-state batteries.” Egan said.

Researchers across Texas are making similarly important breakthroughs. I’ve also written about Jim Tour at Rice University using graphene, another nanotechnology, to extract climate-friendly hydrogen.

At the University of Texas at San Antonio, researchers at the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute are working on building a greener electricity grid and protecting it from cyberattack. They are also looking at how energy and water use are intertwined and studying how to conserve both.

Scientists at the University of Houston’s Texas Center for Superconductivity are working on magnets for nuclear fusion reactors, which if perfected would produce limitless energy without any radiation or pollution.

With this kind of brainpower, and enormous wind and solar energy resources, Texas should lead the nation not only in clean energy production, but also in clean technology entrepreneurship. Turning this research into profitable businesses is where we need Texas businesspeople to step it up.

Egan explained that the biggest challenges to commercializing his lithium extraction system is a reluctance to experiment with new technologies, lack of support for pilot projects and standard contracts that will not support his business plan. Doing those things requires adventurous investors.

For example, Egan needs real world experience to prove the membranes will last as long as EnergyX engineers expect, but companies are reluctant to give him a chance. He also wants a licensing contract for the membranes, not to simply sell them.

These are problems businesspeople can solve, not the scientists and researchers whose time is better spent in the lab. We need a new generation of clean energy wildcatters to provide the business innovations necessary to change the world.

Tomlinson writes commentary about business, economics and policy.

Source: Houston Chronicle

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