4 Winning Cleantech Innovations Outta UC Berkeley

High atop Barrows Hall on UC Berkeley’s campus, the 16 semi-finalists in the Venture Lab Clean Technology Innovation Contest this week made their final pitches. Each of the competitors had a brutally enforced 3-minute window for the “American Idol”-style session.

Finally the judges — which included reps from SunPower and Solazyme, as well as several cleantech VCs — narrowed it down to four. The first-prize winner took home $10,000, second prize was $5,000, and $2,500 each was awarded to two additional teams, who tied for the third-place prize. The winners were a bit different than our faves, but oh well. Here’s the skinny:

1st Place — Low-Cost Fuel Cells: This team of four working out of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wants to take fuel cells to the developing world. While much of their research has been funded by high-tech companies like Siemens, Canon and Mitsubishi Chemical Corp., the group’s goal is fairly modest: Make a cheap fuel cell that can efficiently convert hydrocarbon fuel into electricity.

What the team has come up with is a small, pencil-sized steel fuel cell that can convert kerosene, a common fuel in developing nations, into electricity for indoor lighting. The team estimates that each cell would cost about $10 and last between six months and a year. Team leader Craig Jacobson says the next step is to take the $10,000 and build the prototype. After that they aim to raise $250,000 more so they can turn their fuel cell into a business (attn: VCs!).

2nd Place — Lagrangian Sensors: A sensor is only as good as where it’s installed. But mobile sensing has a variety of potential applications, including riparian monitoring and traffic-flow modeling, both of which the Lagrangian team’s sensors have already been proven capable of doing.

The team’s mobile sensors can float through river systems, collecting data on pollution levels, salinity and temperature. They can then relay that data back through existing cellular and GPS networks, providing a dynamic, multipoint data set. In February, the team took Nokia cell phones into cars and reconstructed traffic flows on Highway 80 using their own analytics.

The $5,000 prize will help the team add a small propulsion system to their floating sensors, which they’re hoping will help make their sensors easier to deploy and collect while ensuring even coverage of river systems. And since the first-place winners declined part of their prize — presenting their technology at the Copenmind conference — the Lagrangian team will be taking their technology to Copenhagen in September.

3rd place — A Tie.

Better Battery Capacity: Battery technology is a complicated thing, and this group has broken the problem down to tackle just one facet – the cathode. But as James Wilcox, a PhD student in material science and engineering, explains, it’s an extremely important part — the cathode often accounts for 60 percent of the cost of a battery. That high cost is due to the use of expensive cobalt in the cathode. Wilcox’s team is working on replacing that cobalt with much cheaper aluminum, which they claim could greatly reduce the cost of batteries as well as make batteries safer without impacting energy density.

And since aluminum is not an electro-chemically active metal, it protects against overcharge, a concern for large battery systems. The team says they will be talking with Sanyo in the coming weeks. They also hope to partner with other battery researchers to do a full-scale test, something that could take as long as two years. Their cathode could greatly improve the performance of batteries in applications like Tesla’s Roadster, Wilcox’s team noted.

Banyan Energy: (One of our faves) The Banyan Team claims their solar-concentrating optics can concentrate sunlight “hundred of times.” It must have been compelling to Jack Peurach, director of product development at SunPower, who gave them his card and chatted them up about their plans for the future. The three will be finishing grad school in the coming months and hope to make Banyan into a full-fledged venture.

The $2,500 will help them move towards building more prototypes which, as they note, is what potential investors and partners really want to see.


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