New partnership fuels efforts in renewable energy

With increased attention to overreliance on fossil fuels, a new partnership between Northeastern University and a fuel-cell development company promises to further the university’s translational research efforts in developing novel renewable-energy products.

The campus-based Northeastern Center for Renewable Energy Technology (NUCRET), headed by fuel-cell expert and professor Sanjeev Mukerjee,is partneringwith Indiana-based fuel-cell development company NuVant Systems, Inc., chaired by Northeastern chemistry professor and renewable-energy entrepreneur Eugene Smotkin, announced Graham Jones, chair of chemistry and chemistry biology.

“This is an ideal partnership, and very exciting for Northeastern University,” Jones said. “This venture will help further our efforts to move basic research ideas out to the marketplace.”

NUCRET researches ways to develop renewable energy. NuVant, with patented products designed to enhance and customize the performance of fuel cells, is the perfecttraining ground forNortheastern students and incubator for researchers todevelop ideas,said Jones.

“It’s an ideal environment for training our students,” Jones added. “It’s practical. This company develops products and does research that our students can learn from. This is work that combines both chemistry and engineering.”

Smotkin joined Northeastern in 2006 as a chemistry and chemical biology professor. Committed to the eventual widespread use of fuel cells — devices that produce energy through chemical reactions — he believes supplies of fossil fuels could run out within a few hundred years.

“If you graph fossil fuel consumption over a 5,000-year timeline across a dollar bill, and place the start of fossil fuel consumption in the middle of the bill,” explains Smotkin, “the period where fossil fuels were discovered and depleted would be a mere blip—just ¼ inch wide.”

Smotkin is certain that hundreds of years from now, historians will look back on a span of 200 years, and puzzle over why mankind flashed away precious resources it had taken nature millions of years to deliver.

“The urgency to create renewable energy is so great that we need a Manhattan Project-level of effort today,” Smotkin says, referring to the effort that led to the first atomic bomb. “We need to convince people that we can solve the problem, and we need to break down barriers, across departments and disciplines, to work collaboratively on renewable energy.”

To build new avenues for Northeastern students interested in fuel-cell research, Smotkin has created six-month co-op positions (paid experiential learning opportunities in the workplace) at NuVant. Additional research opportunities may be possible in the future at another of his ventures, the Puerto Rico-based Technology and Education Center for Renewable Energy.

In creating new opportunities for students, Jones and Smotkin hope to create an interdisciplinary research effort, which includes mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as chemistry. Jones is hopeful that two-way traffic between Northeastern and Puerto Rico will help both groups of students gain additional laboratory experience,

Said Jones, “I think this is great news for Northeastern. Here we have an entrepreneur in renewable energy who can help us move our ideas from the research laboratories into the marketplace.”