From lab to everyday life: Princeton accelerator fund supports promising innovations

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
March 12, 2021

Three technologies emerging from CBE that address some of society’s biggest challenges — from transparent solar cells to low-cost water purification — will receive support for research and development through Princeton’s Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund.

The program gives discoveries an extra push through the development pipeline to bring technologies to the stage where they are ready for further investment, from either a startup or a larger company.

“Princeton researchers work at the leading edge of discovery, forging new directions by pursuing original ideas,” said John Ritter, director of the Office of Technology Licensing, a division of Princeton University’s Office of the Dean for Research. “When our researchers make a discovery with the potential to benefit society, they don’t always have the funding or research staff to show that the discovery can become a viable product or service – that is where this fund can help.”

Faculty researchers may use the funding to fuel the construction of a prototype, the collection of extra performance data, or the exploration of materials, durability, scalability or other aspects of the technology. The competitive application process involves review by members of the Princeton faculty and experienced venture capital investors. The winning projects are ones with a combination of scientific or technical merit, feasibility, and the potential to benefit the public.

The three selected projects from CBE are:

Highly transparent perovskite solar cells for energy savings in buildings

Lynn Loo, Theodora D. ’78 and William H. Walton III ’74 Professor in Engineering, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Director, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

Smart windows that darken or lighten to adjust to heating and lighting conditions are a promising energy-saving technology. Now Lynn Loo and her group are working to improve smart window technology by incorporating new materials called perovskites into solar cells that harvest energy from sunlight to drive the windows’ color change.

Researchers in the Loo group recently developed durable perovskite solar cells that can provide the needed power output while also being highly transparent – the most transparent of any published solar cell to date. The manufacture of the materials allows low cost and high reproducibility. With IP Accelerator funding, the team plans to fabricate the cells, assess the device lifetime in a controlled laboratory environment, and optimize device structures to improve stability to roughly eight years of operational life outdoors.

This effort complements ongoing work at startup Andluca Technologies of organic solar cells for similar applications.

A better way to recycle lithium-ion batteries

Bruce Koel, professor of chemical and biological engineering, and Chao Yan, postdoctoral research associate in mechanical and aerospace engineering

A new method for recycling lithium-ion batteries could help solve the looming shortage of critical metals, including lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, while reducing waste. The demand for lithium-ion batteries is likely to increase as auto manufacturers boost production of electric and hybrid vehicles. Yet recycling of lithium-ion batteries requires high amounts of energy and produces significant chemical waste. The team invented an acid-free process consisting of steps for recovering the lithium-bearing oxide materials from the batteries, starting by detaching these with water-based solutions, physically separating the positive and negative electrode materials, and further separation of intact and damaged particles. The next step is exposure to low-temperature plasmas, which are charged clouds of gas, to purify the materials, followed by recovery of the particle shape and crystalline structure.

This approach for regenerating electrode materials without completely breaking down the chemical compounds offers advantages in cost-savings, energy efficiency and environmental protection.

Cleaner water through a new filtration technology

Rodney Priestley, Vice Dean for Innovation, Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

A new water filter powered by sunlight could bring low-cost water purification to millions lacking clean drinking water. At the heart of the technology is gel-like substance, developed in the laboratory of Rodney Priestley, that absorbs and releases water in response to temperature. At cooler temperatures, when placed in contaminated water, the gel soaks up only the water, leaving the contaminants behind. Upon warming by sunlight, the gel releases the clean water. The process requires no electricity or added energy, and provides the fastest water purification rate compared to other passive solar technologies. Priestley and his team have built a prototype water filter and shown that it can eliminate small toxic molecules, lead, oil and biological pathogens, and bring polluted lake water to drinking level standards. The materials needed to make the gel are low-cost and environmentally friendly. Funding from the IP Accelerator program will enable characterization of the gel’s lifecycle and reusability.

To read about the other four projects funded by the IP Accelerator program, view the full story.