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GCEP's final annual symposium looks back on success and forward to new program

By Mark Golden

Persis Drell speaking behind podium at the 2017 GCEP Symposium
GCEP had a profound impact on Stanford, said the university's provost and former dean of the School of Engineering, Persis Drell

As the $200-million, 15-year Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University transitions to a new organizational structure, its 2017 symposium briefly recounted its accomplishments, then focused on current and future energy research at the university and beyond.

In round numbers, GCEP has funded 100 research projects since 2002, developed 60 new technologies, published 900 peer-reviewed studies, and trained 1,000 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. Perhaps more important, GCEP revitalized clean energy research at Stanford, as well as at other universities that received about a third of the program’s research dollars.

“This pioneering program has really had a profound impact on this institution,” said Stanford Provost Persis Drell. “What I've observed,” explained the former director of SLAC and dean of the School of Engineering, “is that GCEP was a great attractor allowing us to bring incredible talent to the university in the energy space, and then it helped connect that talent across what is a dispersed and decentralized institution.”

The project has helped shape companies, as well, from startups based on its technologies to its big corporate sponsors.

Sally Benson speaking behind podium at the 2017 GCEP Symposium
GCEP will transition to a new organization, said its director Sally Benson

“From our CEO to our senior management team, we have had the opportunity to interact with experts at Stanford and that educational process literally transformed the orientation of Bank of America,” said James Mahoney, strategy and public policy executive for the bank, which sponsors GCEP.

“People who were previously focused on just the bottom line really began to think of Bank of America’s ability to deploy capital across the economy both on our own and with partners to have an impact on these issues,” Mahoney as part of a panel of GCEP sponsor representatives past and present.

GCEP Director Sally Benson cited some example breakthroughs in carbon dioxide sequestration, more efficient car engines, electric vehicle batteries, thin-film solar cells and technologies for producing renewable fuels from a variety of non-food plants and other sources. GCEP also produced big-picture analyses that helped researchers focus on technologies with high potential benefits.

 

Looking ahead to the next 15 years, Benson said GCEP’s program will continue under a somewhat different structure, collaborating with current and new corporate sponsors. The energy research community it started at Stanford is not stepping back in any way, said GCEP’s founding director, Franklyn Orr.

 

Added Benson, a professor of energy resources engineering: “There is 36 billion tons of CO2 per year worth of work to be done between now and when our job is finished.”

Recent breakthroughs and the future of energy research

Sponsor representatives sit on stage in a semi circle
Sponsor representatives discussed the project's 15-year history. From left to right: James Mahoney, Bank of America; Steven Freilich, formerly of DuPont; Iain Cooper, Schlumberger; Nazeer Bhore, ExxonMobil; Robert Wimmer, Toyota Motor North America; Gary Leonard, formerly of GE.

As always, GCEP-funded researchers from Stanford and elsewhere plunged into technical updates of their latest findings and the road ahead. Stanford’s Will Chueh, for example, explained his novel approach for testing new battery designs with 30 times more throughput than traditional texting methods. North Carolina State University’s Xu Li described his group’s advances in engineering lignin for cellulosic biofuel feedstocks. Stanford’s Shanhui Fan explained how controlling electromagnetic waves underlies his inventions for passive radiative cooling of buildings and wirelessly charging electric vehicles on the road. Stockholm University’s Anders Nilsson, working with Stanford’s Jens Norskov and Tom Jaramillo, is advancing the understanding at the molecular level of how CO2 could be converted into liquid fuels.

In a new twist—“Innovators to Watch”—eight Stanford scientists gave lightening-round presentations on their recent experiments and what they expect to accomplish in the near future. Topics ranged from technical, like nanocrystal catalysts and high frequency power electronics, to big picture, like the future of transportation.

In GCEP tradition, Stanford students and young alumni played a prominent role. Several graduate students were chosen via a competitive process to present their work on stage. And, following a successful debut last year, the symposium’s Startup Showcase returned. Entrepreneurs from 11 startups, each of which are based on a technology developed at Stanford, gave two-minute elevator pitches in a plenary session. The companies’ exhibits allowed attendees—and potential investors—to engage more deeply during an extended break.

The two-day meeting took place October 17 and 18. Videos and slides from many of the presentations are available through the links above. In one address, the managing partner of the Emerson Collective, Andy Karsner, delivered a unique take on current U.S. attitudes regarding energy and the environment. Other notable speakers included Eric Toone, executive managing director of technology at Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and Joan Wills, power systems technical executive director at Cummins.