Though the price of solar energy has been going down, its future is dependent on good energy storage. But energy storage technologies, and the approaches used to bring them to market, should be different for emerging economies than they are for the developed world, said Dan Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University. Nocera presented his latest energy storage technologies and market approaches at a May 18th talk hosted by EPIC as part of the University of Chicago’s Innovation Fest.
Nocera said that unfortunately, a significant part of science and technology innovations ignore the developing world. Or, in many other cases, researchers are guilty of designing projects in the developed world, and then transferring them over to poverty-stricken areas. This, Nocera argues, cannot be done well. Instead, he asks, “Can I give the poor something where they can just take advantage of the sun and dirty water?”
That’s what Nocera has done with his “artificial leaf” technology. The artificial leaf is a strip of silicon. When dropped in water and exposed to sunlight a reaction occurs that mimics photosynthesis, splitting hydrogen and oxygen and creating hydrogen gas that can be used for fuel and eventually packaged as part of a hydrogen fuel cell. In their latest discovery, soon to be released in Science, the solar-to-fuels process is ten-times more efficient than natural photosynthesis. The technology is ideal for emerging economies because it employs materials they have readily available—solar and dirty water—and doesn’t need to rely on a grid.
To bring the technology to market, Nocera’s team is passing the intellectual property through to research and engineering labs in India where scientists and engineers will develop the reactors, scale-up the technology and construct prototypes. Revenue generated from carbon pricing/trading schemes will be used to drive this India-based R&D of the artificial leaf. In parallel, investors will be sought from India, who will fund Indian researchers and any accompanying spin-outs. This strategy is diametrically opposed to the founder/investor ownership business model for new discovery in developed economies.
Nocera initially used this founder/investor model when founding his own start-up Sun Catalytix, which commercializes large-scale flow batteries that can be used in the developed world for grid storage. Flow batteries, he explained, differ from regular batteries through the electrolyte charge that is put into compounds and collected after “flowing” through electrochemical cells. However, Nocera and his colleagues soon discovered another model that would be more efficient—changing the paradigm for technology transfer from early stage companies.
The typical mantra for technology transfer is 20-30 years to market, in large part due to a business model that emphasizes return on investment. Most early stage companies seek initial investment from venture capital followed by subsequent investor rounds. This investment model leads to an extremely long and arduous journey to market, but is preferred by the original investors as they try to increase the value of the company. But unlike, for instance, IT technology, the energy market is a capital intensive endeavor. During the extended development times as dictated by the investment and attendant size and capabilities of a small company, the technology under development is unable to respond to the commercial pressures and penetrate a market.
Understanding this, Sun Catalytix pursued early stage investors only to build a prototype. Forgoing “Series C” funding, Sun Catalytix rather emphasized transfer of the prototype and other assets to a major partner with the resources, engineering capacity and market reach to translate the technology in short order. The assets of Sun Catalytix were acquired by Lockheed Martin in August 2104. Now the flow battery is in rapid commercialization under their new venture, Lockheed Martin Advanced Energy Storage, LLC. Nocera believes this strategy will be generally successful in the capital intensive market of energy in the developed world.