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5 Ideas for Greener Transit Gunning for MIT Prize

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Early stage startups competing for the MIT Clean Energy Prize have a lot more than the $200,000 grand prize winnings on the line. Winning the annual contest also means a team, with students making up at least half of its members, will get a spotlight in front of big players who can help take a neat experiment to the next level — at last year’s award ceremony, winner Husk Insulation out of the University of Michigan had the attention of Google’s director of energy initiatives, Dan Reicher, the state energy and environmental affairs chiefs for Massachusetts, the CEO of utility NSTAR, and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

Today the MIT Clean Energy Prize has named the 24 semifinalists (hat tip Mass High Tech) who have a shot at winning the grand prize and basking in that spotlight in May. These teams — selected by a panel of judges from academia, industry and government — represent what the contest organizers see as “some of the most promising clean energy technologies and business ideas coming out of universities this year.”  What are the ideas for cleaning up the transportation sector? They range from renewable fuels to bike sharing tech. Here’s a look at the five teams that made the cut in the MIT Clean Energy Prize transportation category.

Agavenol: This team out of Arizona State University envisions using drought-resistant agave plants as a feedstock for ethanol in Southwestern states, “avoiding transportation of feedstock from the Corn Belt states.” The group aims to combine “current agricultural strategies with novel biotechnological research,” in order to improve agave plants and “related processing” as a feedstock. As part of the business model described on its web site, Agavenol offers training in agave planting, growth and harvesting.

Bio-re: Coming out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Bio-re describes itself as, “Thinking for the future…A future where renewables are the norm.” We’ve reached out to the team for more details on the project.

IRIS Engines: This group, representing Johns Hopkins University, aims to develop a more efficient internal combustion engine that mimics the iris of an eye. By switching up the internal structure in such a way — allowing its diameter to expand and contract – the company says it can build a powerful two-stroke gasoline engine at costs comparable to today’s typical four-stroke engines, with up to twice the efficiency.

ViaCycle: In bicycle-loving Copenhagen, a contest for bike-sharing concepts late last year drew a whopping 127 concepts from five continents. In the MIT Clean Energy Prize, just one group working on tech for this type of mobility-on-demand system (explained in depth on GigaOM Pro, subscription required) made the cut: ViaCycle, out of the Georgia Institute of Technology, which says it has created an “advanced bicycle sharing technology that allows easy deployment of affordable sustainable transportation.”

The ViaCycle team’s system uses GPS to track the bikes and allow administrators to set boundaries on the usage area, and enables users to unlock a bike via text message (rather than having to manually check out a key). According to an article this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the team already won a $50,000 grant from Ford (s F) and the system is set for deployment at Emory University this year.

Vecarius: This team out of MIT describes itself as “a seed-stage company that seeks to leverage advanced materials, power electronics, energy harvesting, and energy storage technologies to increase the energy efficiency of vehicles.” Cool stuff.