Yet-Ming Chiang, Kyocera Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, visited the University of Nevada, Reno campus to speak at the last Energy Solutions Forum of the semester. The series is designed to bring speakers who are working on actionable solutions to the problem of climate change. The first semester of the series saw experts share their knowledge on energy solutions overall, carbon capture, solar panel technology, geothermal innovation, and to close the semester, grid-scale storage.
Grid-scale storage is a fitting end to the conversations held over the course of the semester, because of how the energy created by renewable sources needs to be stored. Solar farms can be incredibly effective at producing power when the sun is shining, even creating more than can be used by the region it is producing for. But when the sun isn’t shining, there isn’t any source of renewable power. Storing excess power for use later is a challenging problem that scientists have been working on for decades.
Chiang’s talk, “Scalable Solutions to Large-Scale Electrical Storage and Industrial Decarbonization” centered on solving the problem of scaling energy storage solutions for renewable energy. There are many different battery types and chemistries he and his colleagues have tried, and some have even been spun out into companies to pursue the commercialization of the technology. Being a fulltime professor at MIT and co-founding several companies leaves little time for anything else, though.
“So in order to spin out companies, I have to have partners,” Chiang said. “I have to do it with other people. I don't do it alone. It's postdocs, it's students, and it's the other people in this ecosystem.”
Chiang also points out that there is a lot of iteration when it comes to finding commercially viable products.
“Our main mission is still to do the research,” he said. “But the reason we do the research is so that we can explore whether or not there is a broader impact there.”
Chiang estimates that one in ten of his research projects has led to the formation of a company, and said he’s gotten better at knowing when research will be meaningful in solving the broader problems of climate change.
One of the funding sources for Chiang’s research is the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) within the Department of Energy. ARPA-E encourages commercialization of research projects and products, and one of the guiding questions they use when considering whether to fund projects is, “If it works, will it matter?”
Chiang breaks that question down a bit more.
“If you’re asking the question, ‘If it works,’ that means you’re doing something new enough that it hasn’t worked yet. And secondly, ‘Will it matter?’ I think it comes down to two additional things in the area of energy and climate, which are cost and scalability.”
For Chiang, it’s important to make renewable energy the most cost-effective source of power, and to scale it to solve the global problem of climate change. Chiang has found that commercializing technologies has been effective in guiding his research to make the most useful product to combat climate change.
Chiang’s talk at the Energy Solutions Forum was the last for the semester. The lineup of next semester’s Energy Solutions Forum speakers hasn’t been released yet, but the dates for talks in the next academic year are listed below.
- September 27
- November 1
- December 6
- February 7
- March 6
- April 3