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McCormick Students Compete for $100,000 in Clean Energy Challenge

When Alejandro Herrera enrolled in McCormick’s NUVention: Energy course, he knew he would learn how to develop products and business plans for the sustainable energy industry.

He didn’t know his team would compete for $100,000 to make their business plan a reality. 

Herrera (’13, industrial engineering and economics) is one of about 20 Northwestern students competing in the Clean Energy Challenge 2012, an annual business competition that awards cash prizes to top Midwest clean-technology entrepreneurs in two categories: the Student Challenge and Early Stage Business. Of the three Northwestern teams, two are from NUVention: Energy, an interdisciplinary course offering from the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern.

When it comes to clean energy solutions, developing promising new technology is difficult enough. But there’s another challenge: getting solutions into the marketplace in an efficient, cost-effective manner. That’s the challenge now facing the Clean Energy Challenge competitors, who have been working with researchers to find ways to mass-produce and commercialize technology developed in Northwestern labs.

The three Northwestern teams are:

Mimas Nanomaterials, a student team from NUVention: Energy, is working to commercialize a no-waste process developed at Argonne National Laboratory for converting waste plastic bags into a variety of useful nanoparticles.

Materials produced in this process could be used to develop inexpensive and longer lasting batteries, team members say. But first, the student entrepreneurs must identify the most promising nanoparticle and match it with the correct industry. “There are so many options that the challenge is figuring out what the best one will be,” said team member David Snydacker, a graduate student in materials science.

Mimas Nanomaterials members include Adam Atkinson-Lewis, Chris Bentley, Thomas Broeker, Alejandro Herrera, Sammy Lee, David Snydacker, Sebastine Ujereh, and Wouter Vanderheere.

NuMat Technologies, a materials-based start-up comprised of three Northwestern graduate students and a research professor, has developed a proprietary computational screening tool for rapidly identifying and testing metal-organic frameworks. The process was developed in the lab of Randall Q. Snurr, McCormick professor of chemical and biological engineering.

“A major energy challenge today is figuring out a way to store fuels that are clean and eco-friendly,” said Chris Wilmer, a graduate student in chemical and biological engineering. “We’ve developed a plan to identify the right material to store clean fuel, synthesize them, test them, and produce them on a large scale for industry.”

NuMat Technologies’ members include Tabrez Ebrahim, Omar Farha, Ben Hernandez, and Chris Wilmer. (Watch a video about NuMat Technologies’ screening tool.)

SiNode, a student team from NUVention: Energy, is commercializing an anode for lithium-ion batteries that allows the battery to charge more quickly and hold a charge 10 times longer than current technology. The anode was developed in the laboratory of Harold Kung, professor of chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering.

While the anode technology works seamlessly in a laboratory, SiNode’s challenge is learning how to integrate the technology into battery-making facilities that may not have the same capabilities as a lab. “We also have had to consider what kind of product this technology could best be utilized right now and how to keep costs competitive,” said team member Zhenyu Hou, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science.

SiNode members include Peter Hamann, Zhenyu Hou, Joshua Lau, Nishit Mehta, Samir Mayekar, Guy Peterson, and Thomas Yue Yang Yu.

The teams will be among 16 to compete in the Clean Energy Challenge Student Challenge Semifinals on February 29. Eight teams will be chosen to compete in the Finals the following day. One winner will be awarded a grand prize of $100,000, and five runners-up will win $10,000 each.