Far-reaching research wins Israel’s ’16 fuels prize

Mind-boggling breakthroughs may significantly decrease world reliance on fossil sources.

Prof. Mercouri Kanatzidi, third from the right. (photo credit: COURTESY OF PROF. MERCOURI KANATZIDI)
Prof. Mercouri Kanatzidi, third from the right.
Particles just one-millionth the size of a human hair may soon play a pivotal role in saving energy by harvesting waste heat from vehicles to help them operate more efficiently and economically.
Prof. Mercouri Kanatzidis, who has conducted breakthrough research in the design of nanostructured thermoelectric materials, is one of two winners who will equally share the $1 million Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels this year.
Joining in the prize with Kanatzidis – who is a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University and a senior scientist at the Argonne National Laboratories – is Prof. Gregory Stephanopoulos, a professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alongside of Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, announced the 2016 award recipients’ names on Monday night.
“I congratulate Prof. Kanatzidis and Prof. Stephanopoulos for their marvelous scientific achievements,” Netanyahu said. “I am proud that Israel is taking an active part in supporting innovative science to promote alternative fuels for transportation. This will make our world cleaner, safer and sustainable.”
Kanatzidis is receiving the award for his pioneering work in the development of nanostructured thermoelectric materials, which are able to convert waste heat into electricity, according to a statement from the prize committee. By harvesting the waste heat, these thermoelectric materials are able to save energy in many processes, including in automobiles, and thereby significantly reduce vehicle mileage.
“The direct conversion of heat (a low quality form of energy) to electrical power (a high quality form of energy) with good efficiency is difficult,” Kanatzidis told The Jerusalem Post, following the announcement of the winners. “We have made discoveries in new materials and from these discoveries we created advanced design concepts on how to create very efficient thermoelectric materials for the conversion of heat to electricity.”
Nanostructured thermoelectric materials are solid materials containing an embedded second material in nanoscale dimensions, Kanatzidis explained.
“These nanoparticles are placed in the solid material so that the whole thing resembles ‘raisin bread,’” he said, noting that the nanoscale nanoparticles – approximately one-millionth the size of a human hair – are the raisins.
The “raisins” then play a role in preventing heat from flowing freely through the material, forcing the heat to take another route that enables its conversion to electricity, Kanatzidis explained.
The prize committee praised Kanatzidis for the “revolutionary impact” of his nanostructured thermoelectrics, stressing that the emergence of the field is opening the door for the potential commercialization of thermoelectric generators for vehicle use.
Asked by the Post how soon the world might see such commercialization, Kanatzidis responded that the prospects are good, but that “they depend strongly on the price of oil.”
The commercialization could be particularly useful once oil prices rise above approximately $80 per barrel, he explained.
The greatest benefits and energy savings could come from employing nanostructured thermoelectric generators in large vehicles, such as trucks and buses, although the technology could be applicable to both traditional fuel and hybrid vehicles, Kanatzidis said. Up to 10% improvements in vehicle mileage can be expected, he added.
As far as electric cars are concerned, these vehicles use energy that has been generated elsewhere, generally in natural gas or coal-fired power plants, Kanatzidis explained. Nonetheless, these power plants also produce significant amounts of heat, much of which is lost, he continued.
“Thermoelectrics can play a role in such plants by reducing such heat losses and making them more efficient,” he said.
Asked what he intends to do with his half of the prize, Kanatzidis said he was still uncertain, but expressed confidence he would find an important purpose.
“The news of this superb award has come so suddenly that I have not had the time yet to think about how to use the funds,” he said.
“The funds would be great and I am sure in due time I will find good way to invest them, but it is the actual recognition of our work on this energy technology, which began over 20 years ago, that is the most humbling and wonderful thing for me.”
Stephanopoulos, the second recipient, earned his share of the prize for work in the field of metabolic engineering, in which he has “made seminal contributions to the engineering of microbes for biofuels production,” according to the prize committee statement.
He authored the first report to focus on the targeting and engineering of mitochondria as a favorable component for the generation of biofuels.
In addition to his work on mitochondria, Stephanopoulos also introduced the concept of global Transcriptional Machinery Engineering (gTME) for improving multigene microbial phenotypes, the statement explained. He also has engineered a pathway that employs a species of yeast for the rapid use of the sugar xylose and the production of ethanol, and has developed strategies for converting natural gas to liquid fuel with much higher energy density.
The prize will be formally awarded to Kanatzidis and Stephanopoulos on November 2 at the Fourth Annual Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv.
The award is jointly administered by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Science, Technology and Space Ministry, in conjunction with Keren Hayesod.
“The prize symbolizes the commitment of the State of Israel to promoting alternative fuels. Israel will continue to invest in the science, pioneering research and innovation initiatives upon which all of humanity relies,” Akunis said.
The prime minister established the contest in 2013 in conjunction with the government’s approval of a NIS 1.5 billion Fuel Choices Initiative program, which aims to revolutionize the alternative transportation field in Israel and abroad.
Former Technion president, Prof. Yitzhak Apeloig, the prize’s board of trustees chairman, praised this year’s laureates for their work to “advance all humanity one step further.”
The prize winners, Apeloig said, are bringing the world closer to the day in which alternative energy use will be commonplace and people will be able “to disconnect from the need to use fossil fuels, the quantity of which is limited and quickly running out.”
Last year’s award winners were Prof. Jay Keasling, of the University of California – Berkeley’s College of Chemistry, and Prof. John Goodenough, of the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Keasling and Goodenough were honored for their respective work on biofuels and rechargeable lithium- ion batteries.
In 2014, the prize went to Prof. Michael Grätzel of the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne in Switzerland and Prof. Thomas Meyer of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill for their breakthrough research in converting solar energy into electricity capable of powering transportation.
During the inaugural 2013 year, the winners were University of Southern California Profs. George A. Olah and G.K.
Surya Prakash, for their work on developing a methanol-based economy.