Lots of Energy on Tap at MIT Energy Night

You know how Hollywood always goes overboard with gizmos and hijinks when it’s trying to represent young people doing science? (I’m thinking especially of 1980s movies like WarGames, Real Genius, and Weird Science.) Well, the MIT Museum in Cambridge, MA, looked exactly like that last Friday as the annual “MIT Energy Night” event showcased dozens of energy-related research projects and entrepreneurial ventures, from photon-trapping dyes for solar concentrators to a Matrix-like project for extracting electrical energy from human body heat.

Organized by the MIT Energy Club and sponsored in part by local venture firms General Catalyst Partners, Polaris Venture Partners, and RockPort Capital Partners, the packed-to-capacity event was a celebration of the amazing variety of energy-related labs, projects, initiatives, clubs, and prizes at MIT. I wandered in around 6:00 p.m., got my green drink-ticket wristband, and spent the next couple of hours checking out the demos on solar, wind, and geothermal energy; building technology; electric vehicles; nuclear power; and even the out-of-favor but far-from-outmoded coal, oil, and gas industries.

Student-led poster presentations were the main dish at the event, but I was even more interested in the local energy companies who sent employee-ambassadors to the event. A quick rundown:

A123Systems—This Watertown MIT spinoff (NASDAQ: AONE), which makes advanced lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles, power tools, and the like, has garnered plenty of news lately for its wildly successful IPO. Like most of the other companies present, it seemed to have recruited its youngest employees to run its table—most of them looked like undergrads.

DyPol—I first ran into this membrane technology startup, a spinoff of Paula Hammond’s chemical engineering lab at MIT, at a venture-sponsored university research symposium last April. They’re working on a green, layer-by-layer method for building polymer membranes that, the company hopes, will be used in the next generation of methanol fuel cells to make the devices more efficient. But Juliet Duffy, an MIT Sloan MBA student who’s working for the company, told me that in order to generate revenue while methanol fuel cell technology matures, DyPol is also investigating nearer-term applications for its membranes, such as water filtration. Duffy says the company is seeking a seed investment so that it can rent and equip local lab space.

EnerNOC–This Boston-based public company (NASDAQ: ENOC) has pioneered the area of “demand response”—Internet-mediated management of electrical demand, which helps utilities forestall construction of new energy generation plants to meet peak demand. It isn’t an MIT spinoff, and oddly enough, there isn’t a single MIT degree among its senior management team. But it’s involved in MIT’s energy entrepreneurship culture as a sponsor of the 2009 MIT Clean Energy Prize competition.

FloDesign Wind Turbine—Based in Wilbraham, MA, FloDesign won the $200,000 MIT Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize in 2008 and continues to test prototypes of its new jet-engine-like designs for wind turbines that sidestep the “Betz Limit.” (That’s the physical law that prevents open-fan wind turbines from extracting more than about 59 percent of the available energy from wind.) A staffer told me the turbine designs portrayed on the company’s posters, videos, and web materials are actually quite outdated, and that it isn’t showing off its latest designs in deference to venture backer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, of Menlo Park, CA, which is concerned about intellectual-property issues. (By the way, keep an eye out for another funding round for FloDesign soon.)

Levant Power—This Cambridge-based MIT spinoff, which won $10,000 in the transportation category of the MIT Clean Energy Prize competition in February, has built an advanced vehicle suspension system that captures the energy that traditional shock absorbers dissipate as heat and turns it into electricity, which can then be used to improve fuel economy. The technology recently won an Invention Award from Popular Science magazine, and the guys from the company were proudly displaying a copy of the June 2009 issue at their booth. Levant says existing vehicles can easily be retrofitted with its “GenShock” units; it’s targeting the defense and trucking industries first.

NRG Systems—Like Somerville, MA-based Second Wind, this startup in Hinesburg, VT, makes equipment that planners can use to measure wind conditions at a prospective wind-farm site. But whereas Second Wind’s devices use sound-based technology called “sodar” to detect air movement, NRG uses a light-based LIDAR system. The company brought one of its units to the Energy Night event: it’s basically a big white box with a LIDAR eye that stares upward, complete with a little windshield wiper to keep the lens clear during rainstorms. The advantage of LIDAR for wind measurement, according to an NRG staffer I spoke with, is that it can accurately profile wind speeds up to 120 meters above ground, or about twice the height of a standard wind turbine tower. With other technologies, such as traditional anemometers, technicians have to make an educated guess at windspeeds above 60 meters (which is the FAA limit for a test tower).

Trophos Energy—This Somerville startup, led by MIT mechanical engineering graduate and Sloan MBA student Michael Chiu, is developing microbial fuel cells that harvest energy from the metabolic processes of anaerobic bacteria that occur naturally in soil or seafloor sediment. A staffer told me the prototype unit can generate up to a milliwatt of electricity, enough to power periodic data transmissions by a wireless temperature and humidity sensor. (That’s comparable to the amount of power generated by Voltree’s tree-power system.) Trophos had a laptop at its display table showing live data feeds from a small network of such sensors placed around Boston; environmental monitoring could be one of the initial applications for the technology.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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