Science and Business Drive a Sustainable Future, Say Student Winners of Energy Prize

The US Department of Energy recently launched the EnergyTech University Prize, where multidisciplinary student teams identify high-potential energy technologies, assess their market potential, and propose strategies for commercialization.The competition allows students to learn leadership and entrepreneurial skills while competing for a share of $370,000. EnergyTech shaped the semester for students in last spring’s 2022 course, GCC 3011/5011 Grand Challenge Curriculum: Pathways to Renewable Energy. In that class, six student teams created proposals leveraging high-potential energy technologies. The UMN teams competed against 9 other teams at the regional competition in February. One hardworking team from the GCC course won first prize, with BaReTech, a business based on a new technology that lowers the cost of recycling lithium ion batteries.

Preparation Key to Success

A team of energy and business colleagues supported student teams. As they honed their ideas, students were guided by instructors Beth Mercer-Taylor, staff at the Institute on the Environment, and Uwe Kortshagen, Professor in Mechanical Engineering, and supported by TA Sarah Komoroski, a former engineer. Students were coached on innovation by Mark Sanders at The Technological Leadership. Carla Pavone at the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship showed students how to make and pitch business plans. Nina Axelson, founder of Minneapolis-based clean energy accelerator Grid Catalyst, helped students understand the competition’s rules. Grid Catalyst was the regional competition host. 

Energy and Equity Pathways

With her years of experience bringing clean energy projects from idea to deployment, Grid Catalyst’s Axelson believes it is “important that we create more access points for students in both STEM and other disciplines to develop solutions that are technical, financially viable, and solve problems for people and communities.” For Grid Catalyst, equity in energy is fundamental to the future we need. Axleson explains that the organization aims  “to create equitable pathways for innovators and entrepreneurs in energy.” 

The Words of the Winner - BaReTech

GCC Pathways to Renewable Energy student (and winning BaReTech team member) Miles Kohel says he ‘had the privilege to work with… undergraduate students of different majors and backgrounds” to “produce a business plan for a sustainable energy technology.” The team worked on “a prototype technology developed out of Ames, Iowa to more efficiently recycle lithium-ion batteries. Instead of physical and mechanical processing steps, followed by chemical conversion, this technology uses a single mechanochemical step. This higher energy efficiency results in a vast reduction in chemical waste.” The team members liked that the technology offered “potential for a lot of profit, especially given the increased demand for these critical batteries used in electric vehicles.”

Gavin Fuchs, student spokesperson for BaReTech, expressed how the project enabled the team to think differently than they normally would as STEM students. He said, “it [was] tempting to focus on the science… it was challenging to find the right balance between science and business.” Ultimately, Fuchs noted, “It gave me a better understanding on what it actually means to commercialize a project, and provided me with new perspectives.” Fuchs believes the competition opens opportunities, stating it is “important for students to get involved in work like this, because work like this is the future. Students like us have the opportunity to create a more sustainable and more equitable future.”

Lithium-ion Battery Recycling Is a No-Brainer

Before competing in the national EnergyTech University Prize competition, March 24, 2022, UMN’s BaReTech team did lots more research and honed their presentation. The team of largely second-year UMN students competed against students from dozens of universities, including many in graduate and PhD programs. A Stanford University including several PhDs, leveraged the same technology as BaReTech. Reflecting on the competition, Kohel noted that the Stanford team “even stated that one of the professors from Ames who our group had met in the leadup to the national competition was their “advisor”... which we all thought was peculiar. Anyways, the Stanford team ended up winning the national competition, which had us thinking that we did a solid job and may have been close to placing ourselves. Their presentation complemented ours very well and really drove home the point that a highly efficient recycling process for lithium-ion batteries is a No-brainer.”

Seeking UMN Students Interested in EnergyTech University Prize 2023

In 2023, the GCC Pathways to Renewable Energy class will again participate in the EnergyTech University Prize. Sarah Komorski, former TA, is now working at Grid Catalyst and actively recruiting more students and teams into the competition. Komoroski invites all instructors and students interested to register here for a webinar, taking place on Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. CT, covering funding available to students, energy technologies that teams can use to develop their plans and questions from potential participants. 


Reporting for this piece was done by UMN students Rupsa Raychaudhuri and Miles Kohel and was previouly published online by the Institute on the Environment.