Jay Whitacre wins $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention of a revolutionary battery

Jay Whitacre, a materials scientist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering, is the recipient of the 2015 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Whitacre is the inventor of the Aqueous Hybrid Ion (AHI) battery, a reliable, environmentally-benign and cost-efficient energy storage system. This first-of-its-kind battery, often used in combination with solar and wind energy systems, stores significant amounts of energy at a low cost per joule and allows for around-the-clock consumption. Whitacre’s AHI battery, developed using abundant and inexpensive resources including water, sodium and carbon, can help reduce dependence on fossil fuels and make sustainable energy a viable alternative. The company that Whitacre founded, Aquion Energy, has fully scaled manufacturing and commercialized the battery with global distribution channels and installations in many locations including Australia, California, Germany, Hawaii, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The Lemelson-MIT Prize honors outstanding mid-career inventors improving the world through technological invention and demonstrating a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Whitacre plans to contribute a significant portion of the money from the Lemelson-MIT Prize to create a fellowship to support graduate students and nurture interest in innovative energy solutions.

“We are proud to recognize Jay Whitacre as this year’s Lemelson-MIT Prize winner,” said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “Jay is passionate about sharing his experiences with young people, and is intent on inspiring them to cultivate an interest in STEM and invention. He personifies the mission of Lemelson-MIT through his commitment to mentorship, his desire to solve some of our world’s greatest problems, and his ability to commercialize his technologies.” 

Low-cost stationary energy storage systems

The greatest technical challenge with harnessing electricity from renewable sources is its intermittency; storing energy for use when the sun isn’t shining or a breeze isn’t blowing has remained an expensive hurdle. Further, energy storage batteries for stationary applications have historically been based on lead-acid chemistry that pollutes and is largely unreliable, or lithium-ion chemistry that has proven unsafe at times.

Whitacre founded Aquion Energy (then known as “44 tech”) in 2008 with support from venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, with the goal of bringing to market a new class of aqueous sodium ion functional battery. The resulting Aquion battery systems help customers increase use of renewables, reduce reliance on diesel, control peak energy costs, provide power stability, bring access to electricity in under-electrified regions, and improve power reliability to areas with unstable grid infrastructure. It is the industry’s first-ever Cradle to Cradle Certified battery while offering superior value when compared with other energy storage products on the market.

A prolific inventor and mentor

Whitacre is a prolific inventor with a PhD in materials science and engineering from the University of Michigan and a BA in physics from Oberlin College; he currently holds 30 patents or pending patents, and has had more than 60 peer-reviewed papers published or in press. His additional areas of focus have concentrated on a broad range of subjects that include thin-film solid state batteries, ultra-low temperature carbon-fluorine electrode materials, and implantable neuroprosthetic devices. He is currently forming a cross-disciplinary center at Carnegie Mellon University that focuses on electrode materials and structures with a variety of applications including water purification and biomedical devices.

Whitacre is also a successful teacher and mentor, both within academia and in the energy startup field. As a professor he retains a “home base” at Carnegie Mellon that allows him to share ideas, results, and other learnings with a range of communities. Whitacre is an exemplary role model and a compelling communicator who has been active in the Pittsburgh area through Aquion’s involvement in several programs that introduce students to science and engineering, including the Summer Engineering Experience for Girls (SEE). Aquion has also partnered with the “Tour Your Future” program, which introduces young women to STEM fields, and the SUCCEED program in Pittsburgh, which engages STEM-inclined high school students in the Pittsburgh area.

Whitacre will speak at EmTech MIT, the annual conference on emerging technologies hosted by MIT Technology Review at the MIT Media Lab on Nov. 2.

“Dr. Whitacre is an excellent choice to receive this award as we celebrate the 20th Anniversary of The Lemelson Foundation,” said Lemelson Foundation Chair, Dorothy Lemelson. “Like Dr. Whitacre, my husband Jerry invented to advance technologies and improve lives. Jerry’s ultimate goal for the foundation was to inspire young people to enter STEM careers. Dr. Whitacre shares that vision through his programs aimed at girls and young women. We enthusiastically applaud his accomplishments and service.”

Seeking nominees for 2016 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize

The Lemelson-MIT Program is now seeking nominations for the 2016 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Please contact the Lemelson-MIT Program at awards-lemelson@mit.edu for more information or visit lemelson.mit.edu/prize.

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