UH's winning team, ECHO, or Electrochemical CO2 Harvester from the Ocean, was awarded a $25,000 award from Chevron. Photo courtesy of UH

UH Energy named its second Innovation Commercialization Competition winners earlier this month with the goal of identifying promising ideas within the university that could have an impact in the energy transition.

The winning team, ECHO, or Electrochemical CO2 Harvester from the Ocean, was awarded a $25,000 award from Chevron, the event's sponsor, after presenting their pitch in front of a live Houston audience earlier this month.

“You don’t see the full impact of a good idea until someone figures out a way to convert it to a usable product or service that has value, brings it to market and makes money off of it—this is what makes it a sustainable business,” S. Radhakrishnan, the competition's coordinator and a retired University of Houston business professor, says in a statement. “To have a successful energy transition, we need many innovative ideas to be commercialized.”

Eighteen teams of University of Houston graduate students competed in the months-long competition and focused on projects related to carbon capture, carbon sequestration and lithium extraction from geothermal operations. Each team received a $2,000 stipend and mentoring throughout the competition.

The ECHO team was named the UH-Chevron Energy Transition Energy Innovation Challenge Winner. Comprised of four UH environmental engineering doctoral students (Prince Aleta, Ahmad Hassan, Mohsen Afshari and Abdelrahman Refale) and advised by Mim Rahimi, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, the team pitched a membrane-less electrochemical process to capture carbon dioxide efficiently and sustainably. According to a statement from UH, the technology "seamlessly integrates with existing seawater intake infrastructure."

“As we’re from the STEM field, we normally work in lab environments, and I hear people say that what we’re working on has less commercial value and that it would take ages for them to commercialize,” Hassan adds in the statement. “This (competition) gave us the confidence and motivation to move forward.”

UH-based startup GeOME Analytics, led by UH's Moores Professor of Biology and Biochemistry and GeOME's president Preethi Gunaratne, was named the UH Energy Innovation Challenge Winner. The team pitched a new method for reservoir drainage diagnostics that uses the company's personalized DNA biomarkers. Other team members include Marcus Phillips, GeOME's vice president; postdoctoral researchers Partha Bhagavanthula and Nuwan Acharige; and UH graduate students, Micah Castillo, Dishan Adhikari and Shiyanth Thevasagayampillai.

Additional finalists included:

  • Team LiQuidium – Pitched lithium extraction from geothermal brines
  • Aldrogen – Pitched an A.I.-powered solution to improving grid resiliency while reducing emissions
  • MacAlgae – Pitched an environmentally conscious method of mycelium production

“The technology that was on display was fascinating,” Liz Schwarze, vice president of global exploration for Chevron, said in a statement. “I’m optimistic we can continue to grow this program, because it’s all about creating a culture where we can pursue our scientific and engineering dreams while partnering with business and entrepreneurship along the way to spinoff value to our community faster.”

Last month, UH and Chevron also partnered up to name its first-ever cohort of UH-Chevron Energy Graduate Fellows. The PhD and doctoral students will each receive a one-year $12,000 fellowship, along with mentoring from experts at UH and Chevron.
UH assistant professor Mim Rahimi published a paper on the development of his lab's emerging negative emissions technology known as electrochemical direct ocean capture. Photo via UH.edu

UH team develops method to use electricity to remove harmful carbon from ocean waters

ripple effect

Researchers at the University of Houston are developing a new, cost-effective way to help rid oceans of harmful carbon dioxide and fight the effects of climate change.

UH assistant professor Mim Rahimi published a paper on the development of his lab's emerging negative emissions technology known as electrochemical direct ocean capture (eDOC) in the journal Energy & Environmental Science this month.

The paper details how Rahimi's team is working to create electrochemical tubes to remove dissolved inorganic carbon from synthetic seawater, according to a release from UH. The process aims to amplify the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon and can easily be integrated into existing on-shore and off-shore infrastructure, including desalination plants and oil rigs.

Unlike other methods that involve complex processes, expensive materials and specialized membranes, the eDOC method focuses on adjusting the ocean water's acidity using affordable electrodes.

“While eDOC won’t single-handedly turn the tide on climate change, it enriches our mitigation toolkit,” Rahimi said in a statement. “In this global challenge, every innovative approach becomes invaluable.”

Rahimi's research is funded by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and preliminary research was sponsored by UH Energy’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy.

“The promise of eDOC is undeniable, but scaling it, optimizing costs and achieving peak efficiency remain challenges we’re actively addressing,” he added in a statement.

Late last month, UH shared details on another carbon removal project it is involved with–this time focused on direct air capture (DAC). Known as the Pelican Gulf Coast Carbon Removal study–led by Louisiana State University and including UH and Shell—the project looks at the feasibility of a DAC hub that would pull carbon dioxide from the air and either store it in deep geological formations or use it to manufacture various products, such as concrete.

In August, UH announced that the project received nearly $4.9 million in grants, including almost $3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. Click here to read more.

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3 Houston sustainability startups score prizes at Rice University pitch competition

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A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition — and three of those winning companies are focused on sustainable solutions.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

A few other sustainability-focused startups won prizes, too. CoFlux Purification, a company that has a technology that breaks down PFAS using a novel absorbent for chemical-free water, won second place and $25,000, as well as the Audience Choice Award, which came with an additional $2,000.

Solidec, a company that's working on a platform to produce chemicals from captured carbon, and HEXASpec won Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes, which came with $1,000.

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”


This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

ExxonMobil's $60B acquisition gets FTC clearance — with one condition

M&A moves

ExxonMobil's $60 billion deal to buy Pioneer Natural Resources on Thursday received clearance from the Federal Trade Commission, but the former CEO of Pioneer was barred from joining the new company's board of directors.

The FTC said Thursday that Scott Sheffield, who founded Pioneer in 1997, colluded with OPEC and OPEC+ to potentially raise crude oil prices. Sheffield retired from the company in 2016, but he returned as president and CEO in 2019, served as CEO from 2021 to 2023, and continues to serve on the board. Since Jan. 1, he has served as special adviser to the company’s chief executive.

“Through public statements, text messages, in-person meetings, WhatsApp conversations and other communications while at Pioneer, Sheffield sought to align oil production across the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico with OPEC+,” according to the FTC. It proposed a consent order that Exxon won't appoint any Pioneer employee, with a few exceptions, to its board.

Dallas-based Pioneer said in a statement it disagreed with the allegations but would not impede closing of the merger, which was announced in October 2023.

“Sheffield and Pioneer believe that the FTC’s complaint reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. and global oil markets and misreads the nature and intent of Mr. Sheffield’s actions,” the company said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was “disappointing that FTC is making the same mistake they made 25 years ago when I warned about the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1999.”

Schumer and 22 other Democratic senators had urged the FTC to investigate the deal and a separate merger between Chevron and Hess, saying they could lead to higher prices, hurt competition and force families to pay more at the pump.

The deal with Pioneer vastly expands Exxon’s presence in the Permian Basin, a huge oilfield that straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. Pioneer’s more than 850,000 net acres in the Midland Basin will be combined with Exxon’s 570,000 net acres in the Delaware and Midland Basin, nearly contiguous fields that will allow the combined company to trim costs.