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Innovating with Energy Technologies: We Must 'Think Big' From the Start

The 2015 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, which honors outstanding midcareer inventors, discusses the urgent need for new R&D approaches that offer both scalable results and genuine impact.

A typical innovation cycle goes something like this: an idea begets an invention that is developed, reworked, and engineered into a prototype, which is then scaled into a revenue-bearing product. This journey often includes a “valley of death” late in the process, where a classic chicken/egg quandary persists: funding is needed to overcome barriers blocking product launch, but, without sales, there is no funding. And so, as the story goes, a significant infusion of capital is needed to make it through this valley via the implementation and improvement of scaled manufacturing until a product is born and revenue is generated.

Energy innovations, however, face another earlier and higher hurdle, especially those relying on materials-intensive approaches. Growing support for that flavor of technology over the past decade has revealed just how unexpectedly difficult it can be—even for seasoned investors and world-class inventors—to produce truly representative prototypes that can be scaled. Enormous sums of funding and commensurate effort are needed to reach the point where the traditional valley of death starts for technologies that are less materials-intensive.

Why is that the case? Quite simply, technologies for energy production, conversion, and storage typically rely on novel materials with new functionalities. These materials are typically based on undeveloped manufacturing techniques, which in turn often require extremely high capital investments. Other technology classes don’t face this problem: in information technology, the product is software and apps that are written and distributed electronically, while in medical devices, profit can be achieved by producing a relatively small number of units at a very high unit price.

In many instances, then, an inventor who demonstrates novel results in a university lab or a garage faces not only the ubiquitous challenges of product development, but an even more daunting reality: before truly representative prototypes can be produced, some form of scaled production and a path to favorable economics must be demonstrated. That process alone can take five to 10 years and cost hundreds of millions in pre-revenue dollars. In other words, a promising energy-technology result without a clear strategy for economically scaled production is a false panacea that can mislead the public, investors, funding office program managers, and even inventors themselves.

Jay F. Whitacre is the 2015 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, which honors outstanding midcareer inventors.

Budding inventors working in this space face a stark choice. They can develop technology that is highly manufacturable using existing equipment from the start. Or they can figure out how to develop both a product and a new manufacturing approach in parallel. This choice isn’t well understood by most fledgling innovators, who simply have not experienced the world of “energy-scale” manufacturing. The old adage “the rest is engineering”—often implied during presentations of high-profile benchtop results—is a vast understatement.

Established large companies typically have the resources to develop new manufacturing processes. However, they are also usually heavily incentivized to minimize expenses on production equipment, and may be reluctant to leave a known and understood approach in favor of a new and riskier option.

This leaves us at a crossroads: How will the next generation of independent energy-materials innovators produce technology that lives up to the promise of their early results, if most of these early results inherently require new manufacturing technology? Where will the necessary funding come from, and how will inventers obtain it? 

As winner of the 2015 Lemelson-MIT Prize, I will dedicate some of my winnings to exploring the following question: “Can we effectively encourage a fundamental research and development process that results in more scalable results that can have real impact in the near term?” Specifically, I will donate funds (through a gift to Carnegie Mellon) to explore the process of “fast-tracking” materials-based experimentation for rapidly scaled manufacturing even when novel production techniques may also be needed.

The “design for manufacturing” (DFM) concept—combining product design and process planning in one integrated activity—is widely embraced in the commercial community, but is rarely recognized in the academic research world. I believe that projecting the DFM paradigm more broadly into the fundamental research community is critical for materials-intensive energy technologies. As such, “experimentation for manufacturing, where scalability and economics are key considerations even when performing fundamental experimentation, should be more widely recognized as critical in situations where new materials functions are explored, especially for use in energy technologies. Any new and interesting fundamental result should be critically assessed from the start in terms of its actual potential to scale economically.

We are on the precipice of a new era. Worldwide energy consumption continues to climb, while emissions must be reduced and efficiencies increased over a time frame far too short for a “business-as-usual” approach from the research community. Those working on early-stage and fundamental levels of next-generation solutions should keep the problem’s magnitude in mind and rule out impractical aspects of the work before claiming success. While continuing to educate the next generation of inventors and innovators, I will work hard to spread this message and practice this style of research in my academic and professional endeavors.

Jay F. Whitacre, PhD, is the 2015 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, which honors midcareer inventors dedicated to improving the world through outstanding technological invention. Whitacre is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, with joint appointments in the Materials Science & Engineering and the Engineering & Public Policy departments. He is also founder and CTO of Aquion Energy, a manufacturer of clean and sustainable energy storage units. 

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