Can Innovation Save the Fossil Fuel Industry?

Nanotechnology and Energy

If Modern Electron, an energy innovation startup co-founded by Max Mankin, could make fossil fuels just 1% more efficient it would equal the entire contribution from all the solar panels across the world. The team’s mission is to generate cheap, modular, and reliable electricity for all. Max Mankin is a Hertz Foundation fellow and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, he pursued a PhD in chemistry at Harvard University. The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit

  • Transcript


Max Mankin: Think about how you got to work this morning or the last time you flew on an airplane.  In both of these cases you used a combustion engine or a mechanical engine that provided thrust. It turns out about 85 percent of the electricity that people use in the world is generated on the same principle using devices called steam turbines. The general idea is that you burn some fuel and you boil water.  You use the resulting steam to turn a giant fan blade.  The problem is these fan blades are incredibly large and incredibly expensive.  They’re usually about the size of a building and they cost a couple billion dollars to put in. They don’t scale down well to say an application where you want power in your backpack or when you want to be off the grid such as in a data center for when the grid goes out or you lose power from the central power plant.

Our vision is to make power generation using fossil fuels a lot more efficient.  And even a one percent increase in the efficiency of power generation using fossil fuels will equal the entire contribution from all of the solar panels deployed across the world. 

So Modern Electron is taking another look at power generation on a mobile and distributed scale.  We’re leveraging technology that has been developed in the semiconductor industry by companies like Intel in the last 30 years to build compact, scalable, efficient and high power density generators that can be used at almost any scale for almost any application. So you can deploy them at small scales for backpacks, households.  Medium scales for backup power for buildings or data centers or at large scale for grid scale distributed generation to someday replace central power plants.