Newly expanded Energy Research Seed Fund awards 8 grants to Duke faculty members

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Thursday, Apr 26, 2018 - 11:13 am

Research projects that explore advances in energy materials, novel perspectives on resilience and sustainability, and energy storage solutions will receive funding in 2018 from the Duke University Energy Initiative’s Energy Research Seed Fund.

The program will award eight grants to projects involving 21 faculty members from four Duke schools, investing a total of $336,956 in promising new energy research.  

The Energy Initiative—Duke's interdisciplinary hub for energy education, research, and engagement—expanded its program this year in response to faculty feedback, offering three distinct grant categories of research funding: 

  • Seed grants of up to $45,000, intended to provide a financial head start for new multi-disciplinary, collaborative research teams, enabling them to produce preliminary results that may help them obtain future external funding.
  • Stage-two grants of up to $35,000 to carry projects currently supported by Energy Initiative seed funding into their next research phase.
  • Proposal development grants of up to $25,000 for past seed fund recipients to develop proposals for external funding

In this—the fifth annual round of funding—the Energy Initiative awarded six seed fund grants and one grant in each of the two new categories. The Initiative also increased the maximum requested amount for seed fund grants by $5,000.     

The first three rounds of funding from the Energy Research Seed Fund totaled $667,000. As of fall 2017, those rounds had generated more than five times their value in follow-on awards for Duke research.

“Five years in, this program continues to deliver a remarkable return on investment for Duke University,” notes Energy Initiative director Brian Murray. “And faculty tell us that it’s sparking them to tap into colleagues’ expertise across disciplines. This year we wanted to continue to catalyze these collaborations organically, but we also wanted to invest in next-stage efforts more specifically focused on enhancing external funding potential. This new approach seemed to strike a chord, as the number of proposals were roughly double last year’s number. Narrowing that pool was truly a challenge for our reviewers, but this is a good challenge to have.”

The 2018 round of awards is co-funded by the Energy Initiative, the Office of the Provost, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Pratt School of Engineering, and the Information Initiative at Duke (iiD).

Funded projects in 2018-2019

Seed Grants

So the Dam Doesn’t Break: Understanding Mini-Grid Infrastructure Sustainability in Nepal. Building on previous research on minigrids, energy transitions, and public infrastructure, this project by Robyn Meeks (Sanford School of Public Policy), Dalia Patiño-Echeverri (Nicholas School of the Environment), Subhrendu Pattanayak (Sanford School of Public Policy), and Erik Wibbels (Political Science, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) will examine how propositions from engineering, new institutional economics, and public finance could help explain variations in mini-grid success in Nepal. In the process, the team will produce new insights into solving the “infrastructure quality trap” in mini-grids, which experts see as essential to providing universal energy access by 2030.

Investigating the Stability of Promising Earth Abundant-Based Photoelectrochemical Energy Materials. Labs led by Jeffrey Glass (Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering), David Mitzi (Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering), and Edgard Ngaboyamahina (Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering) will explore how a new earth-abundant material developed at Duke can improve the efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and stability of cathodes used to turn water into hydrogen gas that can be stored and used as fuel.

Enabling Better Energy Decisions Through Better Interpretable Causal Inference Methods for Personalized Treatment Effects. Causal inference methodology has become an essential tool for determining energy policy and understanding energy usage dependencies. This project by Cynthia Rudin(Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering and Computer Science, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences), Sudeepa Roy (Computer Science, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences), and Alexander Volfovsky (Statistical Science, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) will improve our ability to make policy decisions and understand energy use by making casual inference methods inspired by machine learning more flexible, scalable, and accurate.

Determining the Second-Life Potential of Used Data-Center Batteries. Backup batteries used in U.S. data centers may be a massive untapped resource for energy storage. They are lightly used, well-maintained, and are generally recycled long before their service life has ended. This wide-ranging collaboration from Lincoln Pratson (Nicholas School of the Environment), Josiah Knight (Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering), Jim Gaston (Pratt School of Engineering), David Schaad (Civil & Environmental Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering), John Robinson (Nicholas School of the Environment), Dalia Patiño-Echeverri (Nicholas School of the Environment), Martin Brooke (Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering), and Casey Collins (Facilities), will test the storage capabilities of these used batteries to determine whether they may be suitable for applications such as storing intermittent renewable energy.

Increasing the Efficiency and Power Density of Redox Flow Batteries with Metal Nanowire Flow-Through Electrodes. Labs led by Benjamin Wiley (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) and Jeffrey Glass (Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering) will improve the power density and reduce the cost of redox flow batteries through a new flow-through electrode from copper nanowires. The electrode will have the same permeability as graphite felt, but will be 2,000 times more conductive and less expensive.

High-Temperature Photocatalytic Reactions on Plasmonic Materials. Teams led by Jie Liu (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) and Nico Hotz (Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering) will develop and study a simultaneously plasmonic and catalytic material that can be used for high-temperature photocatalysis, a critical process in chemical conversion, fuel and electrical energy production, and pollution mitigation.

Stage-Two Grants

Compositional Engineering for High-Performance Perovskite Photovoltaics with Simplified Device Structure. David Mitzi (Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering) and Jie Liu (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) will build on prior research on perovskite solar cells.

Proposal Development Grants

Proposal to develop a 2018 Energy Frontier Research Center at Duke University. Michael Therien (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) and David Beratan (Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) received funding to support the writing of three Energy Frontier Research Center (Department of Energy) grant proposals.

Have questions about the Energy Research Seed Fund? Contact Jonathon Free at the Energy Initiative. 

Want to give in support of innovative energy research at Duke? Give online or contact Sarah Weissberg at Duke Development (, (919) 684-3838).