Can Innovation Save the Fossil Fuel Industry?
85% of the electricity used in the world is generated by expensive, large, and inefficient steam turbines. Modern Electron plans to change that, producing efficient, cheap energy for all—using fossil fuels.
Max Mankin, PhD, is the co-founder and CTO of Modern Electron, a start-up company based in the Seattle area, whose mission is to generate cheap, modular, and reliable electricity for all. Recently, he was selected for the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30: Science class of 2016 for his leadership role in Modern Electron.
Max was lucky enough to have two parents who supported his early enthusiasm for science: with books, with old computers from the town dump, with model rocket engines, and with grocery store chemicals. They even managed to contain their anger when Max ruined their microwave by putting a CD in it and scarred the porch with his homemade Tesla coil.
In high school, chemistry appealed to Max because it explained natural phenomena like rusting fences, oil floating on water, and full water bottles exploding in the freezer. Similarly, during his undergraduate career at Brown University, the appeal of linking fundamentals to observable characteristics of the real world drew him to physical chemistry. Max’s research at Brown, where he graduated in 2011 with a BS in chemistry, with honors, focused on synthesizing nanoscale metal and metal alloy catalysts to enhance the efficiency and commercial viability of alternative energy fuel cells. He worked on projects involving platinum, palladium, gold, and iron nanoparticles. His interest in catalysis also led him to study the surface chemistry of titanium dioxide at Harvard for a summer.
As a Hertz Fellow, Max completed his PhD in Professor Charles Lieber's lab at Harvard with a focus on nanoscale crystal growth, integrating compound semiconductors with silicon nanowire photonic devices, and characterizing the properties of highly strained nanomaterials. This research will lead to new paradigms for nanomaterial synthesis and assembly, nanoscale optoelectronics, and the ability to interface photonic nanostructures with living tissue and other nanoscale electronics.
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.
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 hertzfoundation.org.
Want to be smarter than you were yesterday? Learn to have better conversations using these 3 design principles.
- What is a great conversation? They are the ones that leave us feeling smarter or more curious, with a sense that we have discovered something, understood something about another person, or have been challenged.
- There are 3 design principles that lead to great conversations: humility, critical thinking, and sympathetic listening.
- Critical thinking is the celebrated cornerstone of liberalism, but next time you're in a challenging and rewarding conversation, try to engage sympathetic listening too. Understanding why another intelligent person holds ideas that are at odds with your own is often more enlightening than merely hunting for logic errors.
A consortium of scientists and engineers have proposed that the U.S. and Mexico build a series of guarded solar, wind, natural gas and desalination facilities along the entirety of the border.
- The proposal was recently presented to several U.S. members of Congress.
- The plan still calls for border security, considering all of the facilities along the border would be guarded and connected by physical barriers.
- It's undoubtedly an expensive and complicated proposal, but the team argues that border regions are ideal spots for wind and solar energy, and that they could use the jobs and fresh water the energy park would create.
The reason one diet does not suit all may be found in our guts.