Sandia National Lab

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A couple of stories related to energy innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have crossed my desk today, highlighting very different aspects of the school's role in trying to solve energy problems.  The first relates to a what many of us normally associate with MIT:  interesting, sometimes high risk, technology innovation.  This specific story involves a potential breakthrough in an area I've long thought of as a game changer for distributed power generation:  see-through solar.  Salvatore Salamone describes the technology in an article for RenewablesBiz:  thin film technology that can be added to existing glass surfaces at the time of window fabrication, but that allows much more of the visible light to pass through the pane than previous designs.  The approach is expected to dramatically reduce the manufacturing costs of the panels, as some of the highest cost elements are piggy-backed onto the manufacturing process already in place for conventional windows.  The main remaining problem is efficiency:  1.7% versus 12% for standard panels, though the researchers are confident that they can reach the 12%. 

The other story falls onto the darker side of innovation:  unauthorized use of intellectual property in a the prestigious MIT clean-energy prize contest, a violation that was a significant contributor in enabling the entrant to win a large cash prize.  Some weeks back, I wrote a blog post on the exciting invention by my cousin Jeff Koplow at Sandia National Laboratories.  The innovation, which he refers to as the "Sandia Cooler," allows for much more efficient cooling of industrial and commercial equipment than current cooling fan designs.  The winning team in MIT's clean energy prize contest this past May, CoolChip Technologies, is based on commercializing the new technology.  The only problem?  They didn't have a license for the technology -- though didn't make this clear in their presentation to contest judges and even included images of the Sandia innovation in their presentation without attribution.  They were awarded $200,000 in prize money, a victory that enabled them to enter into another contest to win an additional $100,000. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a more in-depth write-up of the issue.  What is surprising to me is that MIT officials have been downplaying the violations as a misunderstanding of the rules, and pretty much ignoring the ethical problems with the way the winning team presented the innovation.  From a straight commercial standpoint, this position is curious since MIT holds many, many patents and will lose out if they are not properly licensed. 

The commercial patent enforcement issue seems secondary to the ethical issues though.  Whether or not there has been a technical violation of the law or of the contest rules will be something battled out by MIT's lawyers and those at Sandia National Labs.  But starting new businesses, and particularly the way our premiere universities teach entrepreneurship, should always have ethical behavior at the core.  In that regard, MIT seems to be falling woefully short.

Update, September 19, 2011.  The controversy over the MIT clean energy contest finally reached the MIT school newspaper, The Tech, on September 16th.  In addition to providing a general overview of the issues, the article includes some rather pointed commentary from students, and in the comments section.  This framing seemed on-target:

Members of the community who have read the Chronicle article have drawn analogies between the Sandia-CoolChip situation and regular term papers at MIT. Term papers are also considered “academic exercises,” and any plagiarism in that context would, according to the MIT academic integrity website, lead to “failing the assignment, failing the course, and/or being suspended from the Institute or expelled.”

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Each time the DOE plops down another loan guarantee in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars for this type of generation or that, it is easy to forget that power is actually fungible.  Small improvements in how we use power can be equally or more important to addressing energy security and climate change concerns as how we make power.  Further, these improvements are multiplied across millions of devices and millions of users into material reductions in demand.  The aggregate impact can often be well in excess of the new supply being created with more expensive and often politically-directed subsidies to generation.

In this regard, I was quite happy to see the work my cousin Jeff has been doing at Sandia National Lab on trying to radically improve the cooling efficiency of fans finally get some mainstream attention last week.  "FanfaNew cooling fan designre for a New Way to Fan Computer Chips," by Don Clark of the Wall Street Journal, provides a good overview.  Computer chips are an initial obvious use for the device, but lots of larger equipment also requires cooling.  Upgrading all cooling fans in the US has the potential to reduce total US power demand by 7%.  A technical paper describing the approach can be accessed here

While there are undoubtedly roadblocks to work through towards commercialization, the attributes of innovations such as this seem far more likely to achieve market success than some of the very large scale generating technologies (think nuclear reactors) that have been the focus of so much subsidy and effusive industry promises over the years.  Unlike new reactor designs, the lot size for a new cooling fan measures not in the tens or scores, but in the millions.  This opens up real economies of scale.  In addition, the devices using the new fans turn over frequently, allowing consistent and repeat demand over which to deploy new ideas and incremental improvements.  The variety of devices also enables early-stage designs to enter less cost-sensitive market niches first and to expand over time as designs and production efficiencies improve.