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GCEP Research Symposium 2016
Revolutionizing energy research: GCEP scientists look back at program's accomplishments

By Mark Golden

Stanford University's Global Climate and Energy Project sparked a new era in energy research at Stanford and other universities since its founding 14 years ago, scientists said at GCEP's annual symposium in November. Over that period the over $200-million program has funded 100 research programs and developed around 60 technologies, GCEP's managing director, Richard Sassoon, said in an overview. It has also trained more than 800 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers, and published 855 studies in peer-reviewed journals. To launch a program of that size when clean-energy research was a fraction of what it is today required GCEP leaders to look beyond their own research and together deeply consider the bigger picture, Sassoon said. "It was a stretch for the faculty," he recalled. "We asked them to take a multi-disciplinary systems view of energy."

Richard Sassoon
GCEP Managing Director Richard Sassoon shares how the program has revolutionized energy research since its launch 14 years ago.

The program resulted in hiring new faculty in energy, much greater student interest and many more energy-focused courses at Stanford, said Sassoon. GCEP had similar impacts at many universities. About one-third of the research funded by GCEP has taken place at other research institutions. Both at Stanford and elsewhere, he added, the program’s promising early-stage research led to many follow-on projects funded by other entities.

The 2016 symposium allowed GCEP to step back and look at the bigger picture of achieving climate goals, and GCEP’s contributions since its launch in December 2002. The symposium has always provided an opportunity for hundreds of researchers to gather to consider this bigger picture, said Sally Benson, GCEP’s director and a professor of energy resource engineering at Stanford, but she and the program’s other leaders decided a more comprehensive review was due.

GCEP’s contributions
Michael McGehee, a professor of materials science at Stanford, has been involved in GCEP from some of the earliest days of the program. Funding for energy research was scarce then. McGehee recounted meeting with his graduate students one afternoon. Grimly, he had to tell them that some of them would need to find new faculty members to work with because his early-career federal grant was ending and he had not been able to find more funding.

“I was basically going to have to lay off students. I just couldn't pay them, and five of seven were working on solar cells,” he told symposium participants.

“After I gave that speech, I go back to my office and see the congratulatory email that I had received a $900,000 grant from GCEP,” McGehee recalled. “I ran back and the graduate students were still in the meeting room. There was a great celebration.”

McGehee Group
Materials scientist and GCEP investigator Michael McGehee (top row, fourth from the left) and his graduate students conduct solar cell research at Stanford University.

That group’s work on organic solar cells led to a $25-million program sponsored by Saudi Arabia on solar cells using plastic semiconductors instead of silicon. Since then, McGehee was able to accept many more graduate students, who learned to design, make and test promising new materials for photovoltaic cells. They also grew to understand the solar business and the requirements for commercialization. Almost all McGehee’s former students continue to work on solar technology and they have founded 11 businesses.

More recently, McGehee’s group has focused on tandem solar cells. Using perovskite and silicon, the group set a new world record for conversion efficiency for two-terminal tandem cells.

“I absolutely think we can get can get 33 percent efficiency at something like $105 per meter squared,” he said, “and that would be an extremely powerful technology, the culmination of what we’ve been doing for 17 years.”

GCEP has had a similar impact on the search for clean alternatives to oil-based fuels, especially in the finding catalysts for producing hydrogen from water and other renewable fuels from carbon dioxide. “Make no mistake, GCEP is a world leader in this field,” said Thomas Jaramillo, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford. “People look to Stanford and to GCEP for advances in this area.”

Clint Chapple
GCEP investigator Clint Chapple from Purdue University is developing plants that could lead to more efficient production of biofuels.

Purdue University professor of biochemistry, Clint Chapple, provided an overview of research on biomass conversion over the past decade and GCEP’s contributions in developing plants that could produce much greater yields of biofuels. Similarly, Stanford’s Yi Cui shared his group’s efforts through GCEP to tackle the “three grand challenges of batteries”: high energy density, low cost and safety. If these could all be achieved at certain levels, he said a revolution in transportation, grid and renewables would happen. Cui, a professor of materials science, has become a global leader in advancing battery technologies thanks in part to multiple projects funded by GCEP.

When Cui joined Stanford’s faculty in fall 2005, “basically nobody was funding battery research, because they didn’t think it was important,” he said. “But GCEP recognized its importance very early.”

Cui received a $1.6-million GCEP grant that kept his battery research going. His success in this project led to an explosion of follow-on research funded by the U.S. government and others, and to the battery startup company Amprius.

Yi Cui
A global leader in advancing battery technologies, Stanford's Yi Cui talks about the impact of GCEP in the area of energy storage.

“This is roughly a 100-fold return on GCEP’s initial investment,” Cui said. Plus, that research led to applying the catalysts he developed to other, non-battery applications. Today, more than 50 researchers—primarily graduate students and post-doctoral fellows—work in Cui’s lab.

Presentations and videos of the “GCEP Innovations” talks are available online

Mark Golden writes about energy policy and economics at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.

December 19, 2016


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