Nexus Seed Grant Program
In 2019, Mines and NREL formally launched the Nexus partnership to strengthen and expand collaboration between the two institutions. The goal is to develop joint research initiatives and funding beyond the scope of either institution alone.
The Nexus Seed Funding Grant program, started in 2020, aims to stimulate new research initiatives and connections across the two institutions, featuring faculty and researchers from Mines and NREL. It has been successful in supporting Mines and NREL researchers to jump-start ideation on innovative, collaborative, interdisciplinary research proposals and prospective funding (e.g., from DOE, DOD, or other sources).
Nexus seed grants support innovative Mines and NREL researchers jump-start their collaborations into cutting edge interdisciplinary research proposals.
The seed funding helps new Mines and NREL teams build a cohesive proposal that can then be submitted to calls for a range of funded projects.
Since its launch in 2020, the Mines/NREL Nexus continues to expand on the program.
NREL campus looking west towards Mines campus
New! Summer 2023 Seed Grant Projects
Machine Learning-Informed Analysis of Remote Sensing Data to Identify Favorable Areas for Enhanced Geothermal Systems
Geothermal resources can deliver a steady, continuous flow of heat from the Earth’s core that can be converted into energy. Geothermal energy increases the viability of a clean grid by offering a reliable foundation for delivering renewable energy. Finding the appropriate locations and workable resources, including possible sites for enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), is the key to advancement of geothermal energy. The high level of uncertainty that accompanies the subsurface resource is one of the primary obstacles to EGS development.
The use of multimodal geological, geophysical, and geochemical data can be beneficial in identifying indicators of EGS. This proposal presents a novel method for determining optimal deployment sites for EGS. By combining machine learning, remote sensing, AI, and additional exploration data (e.g., geology, geophysics, geochemistry), we hope to generate comprehensive resource maps of potential geothermal resources.
Flash activation of conductive oxide materials for low-temperature oxygen evolving anodes
Megan Holtz (Colorado School of Mines), Assistant Professor of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, and Elliot Padgett (National Renewable Energy Lab), Researcher III-Chemistry, Hydrogen and Fuel Cells
Oxygen-evolving anodes are a critical component for several clean energy technologies including water electrolysis for hydrogen production and CO2 reduction for carbon-neutral fuel and chemical synthesis. Proton exchange membrane (PEM)-based devices present several important advantages, critical to achieving the Hydrogen Earthshot. However, very few materials are suitable for the acidic, oxidizing conditions present in their oxygen-evolving anodes. To enable clean hydrogen production at scale, we must lower the costs of PEME by lowering use of iridium and using thinner membranes to improve device conductivity. The recent demonstration of conductivity induced in otherwise insulating ceramics by flash processing may create a new route to prepare transformative anode materials for PEME. Flash activation uses high voltage pulsing to alter the properties of ceramic materials. This project would lay the groundwork to understand the prospects for flash-activated ceramics to revolutionize OER anodes.
Infrastructure Perception and Control (IPC): Creating Real-Time Digital Twin of Traffic to Create Safe and Reliable Intersections
Over the last decade, the advances in connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) have far surpassed the technological realm of transportation infrastructure. There is a growing need to have a technologically commensurate transportation infrastructure to enable safe and reliable movement of goods and people. This need is perhaps felt most at traffic intersections, as more than 50 percent of the combined total of fatal and injury crashes occur at or near intersections.
The proposed concept of this project is aimed at bridging this technological gap by building a real-time digital twin of traffic by fusing detections from sensors installed at the intersection. This digital twin can then empower a wide variety of applications such as smart traffic signals or infrastructure-to-everything (I2X) communications. The state-space techniques of Bayesian filtering provide a robust mathematical apparatus to facilitate the handling of multiple data points about the same object, while respecting associated uncertainties and heterogenous data structure. However, this technology has remained rather elusive in the field of static transportation infrastructure due to the over-reliance on OEMs.
With this proposal, NREL and Mines aim to deploy and advance the field of Bayesian filtering to design, test and validate a robust sensor fusion framework that is sensor-agnostic, OEM-agnostic, scalable, reliable, and provides a trustable digital twin of traffic at the given intersection.
Development of Biomass Waste Electrocatalysts for Localized Green H2 Generation and Sustainable Hydrocarbon Chemistry
Nicholas Bedford (Colorado School of Mines) Research Professor of Chemistry, Alan Sellinger (Colorado School of Mines) Professor of Chemistry, Jack Ferrell (National Renewable Energy Lab) Research Engineer, Carbon Utilization and Susan Habas (National Renewable Energy Lab) Bioenergy Science and Technology
The need for hydrolysis technology to operate on versatile aqueous water sources is becoming an ever-pressing societal demand given the need for localized production of clean-burning fuels coupled with a lack of pure water in many areas across the globe. While seawater is an obvious candidate of choice as an inherently available feedstock for electrolysis, the direct use of seawater often leads to issues with undesirable reaction chemistry. Wastewater from the food and beverage industry is one possible alternative to seawater, as it often consists of low concentration of potentially parasitic cations and anions yet is often of sufficient conductivity for possible direct implementation. If food/beverage wastewater could be successfully implemented into an electrolyzer, this technology could indirectly couple as a possible means to upcycle waste into local green H2 while providing a means for lower local waste footprints. This project will develop a range of proposals focused on designing catalyst and electrolyzers that operate on feedstocks from food and beverage waste. Our proposed efforts will focus on both the fundamental science of engineering hydrocarbon electrooxidation catalysis and their eventual scale up and deployment in a prototype electrolyzer.
Energy-neutral green infrastructure for treatment of pathogens in urban drool and dry weather flows
Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act authorizes the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) to assist states, territories, and authorized tribes in listing impaired surface waters. According to EPA estimates, pathogens are the leading cause of impairment for listed impaired waters. Pathogen impairments can impact people’s health, hurt the economy, and reduce opportunities for recreation. Health-care costs attributed to some of the leading causes of waterborne pathogens in the United States are estimated at more than $1 billion annually. Additionally, water impaired by pathogens is harder to treat for potable use. Recent surveys of impaired waters have identified over 10,500 named waterways as impaired by pathogens equating to about 42% of the assessed US rivers and streams. Together with land-based pollutant sources, urban drainage provides a major conduit transporting pollutants into receiving waterbodies. Stormwater management infrastructure is the primary tool used for urban runoff management and is considered by the US EPA as the “best available treatment technology” for managing pollutants. This proposal is to develop a competitively funded proposal submission that would incorporate a novel approach to apply green stormwater management infrastructure as pre-treatment prior to low power ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (LP-UVGI) resulting in stormwater pathogen reductions in urban dry-weather flows.
Novel methods for deconstructing plastics and sustainable plastic waste management
It is difficult to imagine a world without plastics; look around you, they’re everywhere. Plastic has made its way into surprising places. Plastic wastes, both on the macro and micro scale, are contaminating oceans at an alarming rate, affecting marine life and our food supply. Different types of plastic waste hotspots are present all over the world and micro plastics have been found nearly everywhere, in our food, in our bodies, in our water supply. The effects of these micro plastics on human health and on ecosystem health are not fully known. In addition to pollution, plastic waste also presents a vast amount of lost resources. As fossil fuels become increasingly expensive and in short supply, when plastic waste ends up in landfills or in the environment, we lose those valuable raw material resources. Recycling of plastics is not cost-effective; over 80% of the 7 billion tons of plastic produced have accumulated as waste in the environment and 98% of new plastics are made from virgin feedstock.
We must have a clearer understanding of the scale and scope of plastics in conjunction with their environmental impacts. Data on micro and nano plastics flows to the environment is sparse. And most approaches to macro-plastics in the environment focus on policy and social media efforts.
This project will develop proposal teams that will improve our understanding of the fate, transport, and environmental/human health impacts of nano, micro, and macro plastics in the environment. Ultimately, we aim to evaluate engineered solutions to both minimize plastic waste at the source and improve recovery of plastics.
Understanding the Sociotechnical Ecosystems of Energy Technology Research, Development, Demonstration, and Deployment
We will develop a framework to measure how sociotechnical factors inform and are impacted by energy technology research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D) to enhance the impact of our institutions in creating a more just, resilient, and sustainable future and increase institutional competitiveness in funding opportunities, which place increasing value on the sociotechnical ecosystem in which technical RDD&D takes place. Our team is uniquely positioned to conduct research to understand and improve how sociotechnical ecosystem elements intertwine with emerging renewable energy technologies and related aspects (e.g., critical materials in these systems).
Building the necessary frameworks and tools requires both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies and expertise across a range of disciplines and research areas, as captured in our team: sociotechnical engineering, macro-ethics, responsible research and innovation, social justice, wind energy technologies, materials development and characterization, stakeholder engagement, engineering design, and more.
We will characterize the need to incorporate sociotechnical factors early in research, starting at the problem definition stage; build methodologies and guidance for integrating such considerations; and propose plans to assess the impacts and effectiveness of these methods. We consider three interconnected areas: sociotechnical integration, impact assessment, and extrapolation of measurements to predict longer-term success.
Summer 2022 Seed Projects
Discovery and Development of Oxides as Contact Materials in SOECs through an Integrated Experimental and Computational Approach
High Temperature Solid Oxide Electrochemical Cells (SOECs) for generating hydrogen from water offer a breakthrough potential for green hydrogen production with higher efficiency than any other currently scalable approach.
Much of the science behind materials selection for SOECs is empirical and based upon tradition ratherthan structure-property relationships. This is especially true for current collectors placed between the electrode and interconnect on the oxygen side where the default has been the use of precious metals especially Ag, Pt and Au. Over the long operation times of ~1000 hours (goal is >60000 hours) and harsh operating environment, these contacts significantly contribute to performance loss and early cell failure. This is due to a combination of elemental migration to interfaces and densification of the porous layer. We therefore propose integrating computational materials discovery and experimental verification approach to utilize oxides as a replacement for precious metal current collectors.
Reservoir dead pool in the western United States: probability and consequences of a novel extreme event
In 2021, 645 MW of power from Oroville Dam were unavailable to the electric grid for 5 months due to drought conditions that resulted in “dead pool” – the condition at which reservoir elevations are too low to produce power. In a warming climate, what is the probability in a given year that large
quantities of power production capacity in the western U.S. go offline due to dead pool?
The answer to this question could have significant consequences for a decarbonizing grid, as hydropower is a low emissions firm energy source that provides ancillary load-balancing services, allowing for increased penetration of variable generation renewables. These impacts could be particularly consequential if other climatic impacts, such as heatwaves, increase electricity demand. The proposed study will evaluate the probability and consequences of widespread dead pool conditions in the western U.S. and disseminate novel, policy-relevant research results through peer-reviewed journal publications and to water resources and energy policy practitioners.
Electrochemical Direct Air Capture (DAC) utilizing earth abundant metal oxides
Time is of the essence when it comes to CO2 capture, sequestration and/or conversion. As such, the pursuit of fundamental adsorption processes and surface interactions that enable CO2 capture must be done in parallel with material integration and device development at scale. However, rarely does one have the opportunity to pursue parallel pathways to examine and define fundamental adsorption processes whilst improving TRL and affecting environmental change.
The Mines team has an extensive background in small-scale materials development, spectroscopy and characterization that will lead to methods to increase adsorption capacity and material robustness, while the NREL team are experts in catalyst layer design, electrode integration and device engineering that will help bring this technology to scale. Together this team proposes to develop a DAC strategy utilizing earth abundant metal oxides and electrochemistry.
A Carbon-Negative Structural Material Platform – Demonstrating Mechanical and Thermal Properties
Our goal is to develop a chemistry platform for lignin bio-epoxies to replace cement (a material with high carbon emissions and embedded energy) with a low cost, sustainable, recyclable, and resilient material that also sequester carbon (lignin).
Plasmonic catalysis on metal oxides: toward ambient conversion of CO2 to liquids
The ability to readily convert CO2 to valuable feedstocks is critical to incentivize carbon capture and utilization and to offset the costs associated with the capture step. Such offsetting is especially needed in the costliest, yet most potentially impactful carbon capture scenario: direct air capture (DAC).
We envision that to realize DAC, relevant units could be distributed across “solar friendly” regions in the U.S. Solar power could then be exploited to achieve in-situ conversion of CO2 to liquids at ambient conditions, hence helping offset capture costs and maintain the “negative emissions” character of DAC. In this collaboration, we focus on generating the necessary mechanistic understanding to be able to exploit solar power to convert CO2 to liquid C1-C4 species, including methanol, using plasmonic catalysts.
AttackGen: Generative Synthesis of IoT Attacks in Cyber-Physical Systems
Cyberspace is expanding fast with the introduction of new Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) and Internet of Things
(IoT) devices. With IoT, wearables, smart watches, smart glasses, fitness trackers, medical devices, smart appliances and connected building equipment, distributed renewables, and electric vehicles have increasingly connected more end-users to the Internet and critical infrastructures. One effective way to defend against these IoT-based security challenges is to design and build proactive security measures by learning from the adversarial activity.
Therefore a simulated/emulated system representation can be used to generate synthetic representative datasets on which machine learning algorithms can be based. We plan to build on NREL’s preliminary work in this area.
Fundamental understanding of oxygen evolution through atomic control of thin film catalysts
This proposed project will create foundational knowledge of the relations between surface atomic structure and reactions of water-splitting electrocatalyst s motivated by enabling low-cost hydrogen production with polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) electrolysis.
The Mines/ NREL team combines fundamental material scientists with applied researchers and is uniquely positioned to overcome current barriers in understanding the complexities of catalyst surface structure and reaction pathways by using atomically controlled synthesis of thin films with molecular beam epitaxy (MBE), in conjunction with density functional theory, for mechanistic understanding.
Our vision is to create idealized crystal facets and chemistries spanning the relevant parameter space of these complex catalysts, understand how they behave with electrochemical characterization and reveal their reaction mechanisms with in-situ surface spectroscopy and density functional theory.
This fundamental understanding will enable the design of ideal electrocatalyst materials, which optimize cost and efficiency while minimizing consumption of precious metals.
An Occupancy Sensing Selection Platform for Occupancy-Driven Smart Building Applications
PIs: Gabe Fierro (Computer Science, Mines) and Avijit Saha (Control Engineering, NREL)
We aim to design, implement and deploy a platform for collecting, analyzing occupancy data from arbitrary sensing technologies deployed across a variety of building environments. The proposed platform serves to systematically study the accuracy and efficacy of different sensing technologies and deployment strategies as they relate to occupant-driven control. This will permit robust cost-benefit analyses of the type and density of occupancy sensing technologies necessary to enact occupant-driven control strategies, allowing energy-saving strategies to be deployed more widely and more cost-effectively. Occupancy is a key prerequisite for implementing modern control strategies for intelligent buildings.
One of the most straightforward ways to reduce wasted energy and improve energy efficiency is to automatically regulate a building’s electricity usage in real-time based on its occupancy status. It can also drive a variety of novel building management optimizations.
In addition, the collection, analysis, and use of occupancy data and building contextual information from multiple heterogeneous sources will provide fundamental understanding and studies to support existing space, buildings, and communities in identifying economically viable and sustainable options to improve quality of occupant life.
Summer 2021 Seed Projects
Automated Mobility Platforms (AMPs) For Versatile, Energy Efficient Facility And District Scale Transport
The Automated Mobility Platform (AMP) concept targets the ¼ mile to 2 miles trip length in large facilities or dense urban environments that are currently poorly served by existing modes. Moving people in an around large-scale facilities and developments, whether indoor or outdoor, is an important yet unaddressed area in mobility. The proposed AMPs concept brings together expertise that does not fully exist at Mines or NREL independently. Mines brings to the project strong expertise in autonomous and automated vehicle systems concepts through PI Moore and with the faculty and students in the new Mines Robotics Program. NREL brings expertise in energy efficient transportation and mobility concepts through PI Young with significant experience with respect to Smart Cities, human mobility behavior, ride-hailing, micromobility, and curb efficiency, as well as experience with traditional modes such as moving walkways and automated people movers within large facilities.
High-Performance Multi-functional Mass Timber Floor System with Reuse Demonstration
Paulo Cesar Tabares-Velasco, Mines and Chioke Harris, NREL
This project will target two critical research opportunities related to mass timber construction—incorporation of multifunctionality into timber panels and reuse of mass timber materials at end of life.
This project will enable a new paradigm of multifunctional building systems combined with mass timber reuse. It has the potential to change the way in which we construct buildings using prefabricated techniques that integrate thermal storage and HVAC systems. This proposal complements efforts by NREL and industry to develop new mass timber assemblies and to consider end-of-life opportunities for mass timber to maximize CO2 sequestration. Our end-of-life approach could also create new job markets and economic opportunity for materials reuse. Insights from our study will help inform and define acceptable design rules for future work on dynamic materials integrated in mass timber construction. Mines and NREL are thus uniquely positioned for the success of the proposed project.
Electrocatalytic production of value-added products to increase efficiency of industrial processes and emissions abatement technologies
Stephanie Kwon, Mines and Kerry Rippy, NREL
Recent advances in harvesting clean electrons from renewable sources (e.g., wind and solar) have opened the possibility to use such electrons to convert thermodynamically stable molecules, such as CO2, N2, and CH4, to form add-valued products. Such strategies, combined with the thoughtful design and selection of catalysts and reactor systems, can bring renewable pathways to produce hydrocarbons, fuels, and NH3, from cheap and abundant molecules that are yet too stable to be easily converted. Here, we propose to use our combined expertise in catalysis (Kwon), electrochemistry (Rippy, Kwon), and industrial processes (Rippy, Vidal) to analyze and optimize electrocatalytic pathways toward production of valuable and clean products in industrial processes.
Kwon and Rippy are early career researchers and do not have a history of prior collaboration; Kwon only recently joined Mines in January 2020. This funding opportunity from NEXUS will act as a fuel to establish their strong collaboration by allowing them to focus on proposal writing together this summer. This funding thus could mark the start of collaborative work between CSM and NREL for years to come.
Towards a Polyolefin Plastic Circular Economy: Selective and Low Temperature Depolymerization of Polyolefins to Olefin Monomers Through Nanopore Confinement of Precious Metal-Free Catalysts
Mike McGuirk, Mines and Dan Ruddy, NREL
A promising solution to the global plastic waste crisis is closed-loop chemical recycling, in which monomers are recovered from end-of-life plastics via an efficient chemical process. The recovered olefin monomers can then be repolymerized into virgin polymers using existing infrastructure or used as a feedstock in an array of chemical industries.
Our team proposes fundamental investigations, seeking to develop a precious metal and H2-free, low-temperature (i.e., <300 °C) catalytic process to selectively depolymerize polyolefin plastic waste to olefin monomers, enabled by nanopore-confined heterogenous catalysts, namely established super acidic sulfated zirconia or alumina/zirconia-supported first-row transition metals.
The goal of establishing this funded collaboration is to intuitively develop the basis for chemical technologies that can provide sustainable chemical recycling solutions to the plastic waste crisis our world faces. The proposed team is uniquely positioned to advance this goal given the highly complementary capabilities and infrastructure in materials science (McGuirk), sustainable catalysis (McGuirk and Ruddy), and analytical chemistry (Ruddy), which allows for comprehensive expertise across the scientific spectrum necessary to develop the proposed systems and optimize their performance to tackle this real-world problem from the bottom up.
Brian Trewyn, Mines and Frederick Baddour, NREL
The impressive and unique capabilities of multifunctional catalysts have been demonstrated in the literature for decades. Some examples of these catalysts include MoC on ZSM-5 (MoC/ZSM-5) for the dehydroaromatization of methane, polyoxometalate-functionalized MgAl-layered double hydroxides for biomass upgrading reactions, and Fe functionalized zeolites for conversion of CO2 to aromatic hydrocarbons.1-3 Typically, these catalysts have a functionality introduced as part of the support framework (i.e., Lewis and BrØnsted acid sites in aluminosilicate zeolites) along with additional functionality incorporated on the surface post-synthetically. Additionally, high-performance materials synthesized via the tethering of organometallic catalysts with unique capabilities have emerged as a promising class of materials that combines a number of the operational benefits of homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis (Fig. 1). These materials possess the faster kinetics, higher yields and enhanced selectivity afforded by molecular catalysis, and the improved stability and recyclability imbued by tethering to a solid framework.
This project is optimally suited as a collaboration between Mines and NREL because it marries expertise in synthesis, characterization, and functionalization of porous organic and inorganic materials with the necessary expertise and manufacturing equipment necessary to translate research catalysts into technical catalysts. Outcomes of this seed funding are to develop large research, multi-PI proposals demonstrating capabilities to synthesize multifunctional porous catalysts at > 100 g quantities.
Qubits by design: Novel transition-metal-impurity / semiconductor-host qubits via synergy between computations and experiments
Vladan Stevanovic, Mines and Brooks Tellekamp, NREL
Our vision is to accelerate the development of novel (and improved) optically addressable semiconductor qubits, which are the basic units for quantum computing, through synergistic efforts within our Mines/NREL team. Our Mines/NREL team is uniquely positioned for the success of the proposed work because of the expertise in first-principles methods, in particular modern defect theory and calculations as well as approaches to material discovery and design (Mines), which will provide promising
candidates for experimental investigations. the NREL team has the expertise in functional materials synthesis, characterization, and device fabrication, which are essential for verification and realization of the computationally identified candidates. Additionally, the expertise of the NREL team will also be beneficial in establishing realistic experimental constraints and helping the Mines team further refine the computational discovery process for new semiconductor qubits.
The anticipated impact for the proposed research is to significantly progress toward the “quantum advantage”, promised by quantum computing, for material and chemical science research.
Jason Porter, Mines and Andrew Colclasure, NREL
The global transition to electrified transportation and renewable energy has dramatically increased the need for battery energy storage. While commercial lithium-ion batteries currently dominate energy and transportation markets, there are emerging needs for “beyond lithium ion” batteries. Dr. Andrew Colclasure is leading NREL’s efforts to expand NREL’s battery modeling capabilities beyond lithium-ion batteries, but they need better in situ measurement tools to capture complex battery behaviors and validate models. Mines Associate Professor, Jason Porter, has developed optical tools for in-situ battery measurements in a number of emerging battery chemistries, including lithium-sulfur batteries, sodium-ion batteries, and lithium-ion batteries under fast change and in extreme environments. In particular, Dr. Porter has developed a number of novel diagnostics ideally suited for use by NREL researchers to build next-generation battery models.
The combination of state-of-the-art battery modeling and operando experiments will facilitate interpretation of experimental findings and lead to new insights into complex chemistry occurring in next-generation batteries. This proposal will be highly competitive as it addresses a major challenge in battery development, understanding complex multiphysics and building accurate battery models, and proposes a novel approach bringing together a uniquely qualified team. The proposal is further strengthened by significant prior results from both NREL and Mines.
Smart and Efficient technology Adoption using Machine Learning to achieve Equitable household Energy Savings (SEAMLES)
Greer Gosnell, Mines and Paty Romero Lankao, NREL
Our interdisciplinary approach will allow us to measure the energy efficiency gap (EEG) in marginalized communities, resolve critical uncertainty to improve investment decisions, and rigorously explore the potential of d “smart” and energy efficient (SEE) technologies to improve energy security and provide grid services to these communities.