ReVolt Battery Technology Corp. is based out of the University of Houston Innovation Center. Photo via revoltbatterytechnology.com

A Houston company that's electrifying public transportation secured a SBIR Phase 1 award from the Department of Transportation.

ReVolt Battery Technology Corp., software-as-a-service company based out of the University of Houston Innovation Center, received the award. The company did not disclose the monetary value of the funding, but indicated that the grant will support ReVolt's "research on reducing auxiliary power consumption in battery electric buses," according to a statement from the company.

"ReVolt stands out as one of only 23 small businesses across the United States to be selected in this highly competitive process, which focuses on creating innovative infrastructure for safe and secure transportation," reads the statement.

The company's software technology platform consists of charging infrastructure, electric vehicle scheduling, fleet digital twin, and greenhouse gas reduction and estimation.

The company was founded in 2021 by Jan Naidu and, according to Crunchbase, has raised $200,000 in pre-seed funding.

A Rice University team researching carbon nanotube synthesis has received $4.1 million funding from both Rice’s Carbon Hub and The Kavli Foundation. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

Houston-led research team granted $4.1M for carbon synthesis project, calls for collaboration

fresh funding

A Rice University-led team of scientists has been awarded a $4.1 million grant to optimize a synthesis process that could make carbon materials sustainable and affordable on a large scale.

Known as carbon nanotube (CNT) synthesis, the process has the ability to create hollow cylindrical nanoscale structures made from carbon atoms that are strong, lightweight and carry heat and electricity well. CNT synthesis evolved across multiple countries around the same time, according to Rice. But to scale up the process in a way that could create alternatives to materials dependent on heavy industry, Matteo Pasquali, the team's leader and the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, says collaboration will be required.

“We have to apply a collaborative mindset to solve this problem,” Pasquali says in a statement. “We believe that by bringing together a dedicated interdisciplinary community, this project will lead to improvements in reactor efficiency and help identify further gaps in instrumentation and modeling.”

The grant seeks to achieve that. The funds come from both Rice’s Carbon Hub, which contributed $2.2 million to the team, and The Kavli Foundation, which granted $1.9 million in the form of a Kavli Exploration Award in Nanoscience for Sustainability.

The Kavli Foundation supports research in astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics. Winners of its Kavli Prize, which recognizes scientific breakthroughs, often go on to win the Nobel Prize.

“We are proud to partner with Rice University to support this important high-risk, high-reward research,” says Amy Bernard, director of life sciences at The Kavli Foundation, says in a statement.

Pasquali is the director and one of the creators of Rice's Carbon Hub, a collaborative group of corporations, researchers, universities and nonprofits focused on decarbonizing the economy. He says the grant will help the team develop tools to shed light on CNT formation and reaction zones.

“We are at a critical juncture in carbon research, and it is really important that we shed light on the physical and chemical processes that drive CNT synthesis,” Pasquali says. “Currently, reactors are black boxes, which prevents us from ramping up synthesis efficiency. We need to better understand the forces at play in CNT formation by developing new tools to shed light on the reaction zone and find ways to leverage it to our advantage.”

Boris Yakobson, the Karl F. Hasselmann Professor of Engineering and professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice, and Thomas Senftle, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice, are also involved in the project. Other collaborators hail from the UK, Italy, Korea, and Spain, as well as U.S. labs and universities, including Harvard, Stanford, MIT and others.

In October, a separate team of Rice researchers released a study on a new synthesis process with applications in developing commercially relevant solar cells.

Researchers at the University of Houston are proposing that supplying hydrogen for transportation in the greater Houston area could also be profitable. Photo via UH.edu

Houston research shows how much hydrogen-powered vehicles would cost at the pump

hi, hydrogen

It's generally understood that transitioning away from gas-powered vehicles will help reduce the 230 million metric tons of carbon dioxide gas released each year by the transportation sector in Texas.

Now, researchers at the University of Houston are proposing that supplying hydrogen for transportation in the greater Houston area could also be profitable.

The research team has done the math. In a white paper, "Competitive Pricing of Hydrogen as an Economic Alternative to Gasoline and Diesel for the Houston Transportation Sector," the team compared three hydrogen generation processes—steam methane reforming (SMR), SMR with carbon capture (SMRCC), and electrolysis using grid electricity and water—and provided cost estimates and delivery models for each.

The team found that SMRCC hydrogen can be supplied at about $6.10 per kilogram of hydrogen at the pump, which they say is competitive and shows promise for hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

FCEVs refuel with hydrogen in five minutes and produce zero emissions, according to UH.

"This research underscores the transformative potential of hydrogen in the transportation sector,” Alexander Economides, a co-author on the study, UH alumnus and CEO Kiribex Inc., said in the statement. “Our findings indicate that hydrogen can be a cost-competitive and environmentally responsible choice for consumers, businesses, and policymakers in the greater Houston area."

Economides was joined on the paper by co-authors Christine Ehlig-Economides, professor and Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair at UH, and Paulo Liu, research associate in the Department of Petroleum Engineering at UH.

Additionally, the team says Houston is an ideal leader for this transition.

“(Houston) has more than sufficient water and commercial filtering systems to support hydrogen generation,” the study states. “Add to that the existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure, which makes hydrogen production and supply more cost effective and makes Houston ideal for transitioning from traditional vehicles to hydrogen-powered ones.”

The study also discusses tax incentives, consumer preferences, grid generation costs and many other details.

A University of Houston team looked into what areas in Houston had the highest impact on emissions and how certain meteorological factors play into ozone formation. Photo via UH.edu

UH team unlocks innovative approach to pinpoint pollution factors

zooming in on emissions

A team of researchers at the University of Houston are using machine learning to help guide pollution fighting strategies.

As reported in the journal Environmental Pollution last month, the team used the SHAP algorithm of machine learning (a game theory approach) and the Positive Matrix Factorization to pinpoint what areas in Houston had the highest impact on emissions and how certain meteorological factors play into ozone formation.

The paper was authored by Delaney Nelson, a doctoral student at the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences of UH, and Yunsoo Choi, corresponding author and professor of atmospheric chemistry, AI deep learning, air quality modeling and satellite remote sensing.

The team's research closely tracked nitrogen-based compound and volatile organic compound measurements from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's monitoring stations in the Houston area. After importing measurements from The Lynchburg Ferry station in Houston's ship channel and the urban Milby Park station, the machine learning and SHAP analysis showed a chemically definitive difference between the two areas.

For example, at the industrial station, the most impactful sources of pollution were from oil and gas flaring/production. At the urban site n_decane and industrial emissions/evaporation had the most impact on ozone.

According to Nelson and Choi, this shows that the machine learning and SHAP analysis approach can be used to tailor more precise air quality management strategies in different areas based on the site's unique characteristics.

“Once we know the specific emission sources and factors, we can develop targeted strategies to reduce emissions, which will in turn reduce ozone in the air and make it healthier for everyone," Choi said in a statement.

“Pollution is a critical issue in Houston, where you have extreme high heat and high concentration of ozone in the summers. The types of insights we got are very useful information for the local community to develop effective policies. That’s why we put our time, effort and technological expertise into this project," he continued.

Next the team envisions applying their approach in different cities and across the country.

“Austin, San Antonio and Dallas all have different characteristics, so I expect (volatile organic compound) sources will also be different,” Choi said. “Identifying VOC sources in different cities is very important because each city should have its own unique pollution fighting strategy.”

This summer, the City of Houston released an updated report on its major strategies to combat climate change and build a more resilient future for its residents.

Venkatesh Balan and his team at UH are researching ways fresh- and salt-water phototropic organisms, or microalge, can sequester carbon from industrial refineries and convert it into useful byproducts. Photo via UH.edu

Houston team researching how algae can combat climate change

seeing green

Researchers at the University of Houston are looking at an alternative way to capture carbon that uses a surprising conduit: algae.

In a newly published article in Green Chemistry, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Venkatesh Balan, associate professor of engineering technology at UH, details how he and his team are researching ways fresh- and salt-water phototropic organisms, or microalgae, can sequester carbon from industrial refineries and convert it into useful byproducts.

Balan is joined by UH researchers James Pierson and Hasan Husain, Sandeep Kimar from Old Dominion University, Christopher Saffron of Michigan State University, and Vinod Kumar from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom.

According to a release from UH, Balan and research assistant Masha Alian have uncovered how microalgae can produce fungus like lichen and create healthy food products. After microalge captures the carbon, it then converts that CO2 into mass-produced proteins, lipids and carbohydrates, according to the team's research.

“We are coming up with the alternate approach of using algae to fix the CO2 then using the carbon to make bioproducts that are useful to mankind,” Balan said in the release.

The method offers an alternative to other carbon capture options that aim to burry carbon, which is expensive and energy intensive, according to UH.

Balan says this research also has applications in wastewater treatment and the production of food, fertilizers, fuels and chemicals, all of which could lessen the dependency on fossil fuels in the future.

"On your table or in your pantry, you see food products. What’s harder to visualize are the greenhouse gasses emitted by the orchard that grows the fruit, the factory that makes the breakfast cereal, the transportation that brings the cookies to your neighborhood, even your own commute to buy the food," Balan said. "It adds up, but the problem is easy to ignore because we can’t see it. Yet all consumers contribute, in our own way, to the greenhouse effect.”

The UH team is just one of many Houston groups looking at unconventional, although natural ways to combat climate change.

In September, Rice University announced that two researchers were awarded a three-year grant from the Department of Energy for their research into the processes that allow soil to store roughly three times as much carbon as organic matter compared to Earth's atmosphere.

Rice University engineers and collaborators developed a technology that converts light into electricity. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Houston research team develops breakthrough process for light-harvesting crystals in DOE-backed project

solar success

A team of Rice researchers have developed a breakthrough synthesis process for developing light-harvesting materials that can be used in solar cells to convert light into electricity.

Detailed in an October study in Nature Synthesis, the new process is able to more closely control the temperature and time of the crystallization process to create 2D halide perovskites with semiconductor layers of “ideal thickness and purity,” according to a release from Rice.

The process, known as kinetically controlled space confinement, was developed by Rice University chemical and biomolecular engineer Aditya Mohite, along with others at Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Rennes. The research was backed by the Department of Energy, the Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation and a number of other organizations.

“This research breakthrough is critical for the synthesis of 2D perovskites, which hold the key to achieving commercially relevant stability for solar cells and for many other optoelectronic device applications and fundamental light matter interactions,” Mohite said in a statement.

Traditional synthesis methods for creating 2D halide perovskites, which have been shown to offer a high-performance low-cost way to produce solar cells, have generated uneven crystal growth when attempting to reach a higher n value. And uneven crystal growth can result in a less reliable material, while a high n value can result in higher electrical conductivity, among other benefits.

The study shows how the kinetically controlled space confinement method can gradually increase n values in 2D halide perovskites, which will assist in the production of crystals with a certain thickness.

“We designed a way to slow down the crystallization and tune each kinetics parameter gradually to hit the sweet spot for phase-pure synthesis,” Jin Hou, a Ph.D. student at Rice and a lead author on a study, said in a statement.

The process is expected to improve the stability and lower the costs of emerging technologies in optoelectronics, or the study and application of light-emitting or light-detecting devices, and photovoltaics, the conversion of thermal energy into electricity.

"This work pushes the boundaries of higher quantum well 2D perovskites synthesis, making them a viable and stable option for a variety of applications,” Hou added.

Houston universities have been making major strides relating to crystallization processes in recent months.

In September, the University of Houston announced The Welch Foundation awarded its inaugural $5 million Catalyst for Discovery Program Grant to establish the Welch Center for Advanced Bioactive Materials Crystallization. The center will build upon UH professor Jeffrey Rimer's work relating to the use of crystals to help treat malaria and kidney stones.

Over the summer, a team of researchers at UH also published a paper detailing their discovery of how to use molecular crystals to capture large quantities of iodine, one of the most common products of radioactive fission, which is used to create nuclear energy.
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Packaging producer procures power purchase plan with Texas solar projects

powering on

A leading provider of sustainable fiber-based paper and packaging solutions is supporting the first of two Texas-based solar projects.

WestRock set the stage by entering into virtual power purchase agreements with Houston-based ENGIE North America. The two projects are in Wharton County and Bell County and will add renewable energy to the Texas energy grid.

Bernard Creek Solar is the first of two solar projects that are part of the VPPAs between WestRock and ENGIE, and is currently operating southwest of Houston in Wharton County. WestRock contracted 207 megawatts from the project Under the VPPA. The 230 megawatts Bernard Creek solar project is projected to produce approximately 500,000 megawatts an hour annually, which will generate over $45 million in revenue for the county and create more than 250 jobs during construction.

The WestRock VPPA for the Bernard Creek project, and the similar project located in Bell County, will add a total of 282 megawatts of renewable energy to the Texas energy grid.

"We are delighted that Bernard Creek Solar is supporting WestRock’s ambitions to meet its 2030 science-based targets,” Dave Carroll, chief renewables officer at ENGIE, says in a news release. “North AmericaENGIE’s projects are focused on meeting the specific needs of our clients as we work together to accelerate the energy transition in North America, and this agreement reflects that."

The VPPAs with WestRock have contributed to ENGIE to surpass more than 1 gigawatt of signed power purchases. ENGIE is recognized as the top developer to sell corporate energy PPAs and has ranked in the top three since 2019 with a total corporate PPA portfolio in the USA of 7.3 according to BloombergNEF's latest Market Outlook report. Schneider Electric’s Sustainability Business provided the advisory services and strategy management for these pivotal VPPAs with WestRock.

"We are pleased to play a role in the production of clean energy from large-scale solar projects and to join forces with ENGIE and Schneider Electric to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by adding more renewable energy to the grid,” David B. Sewell, president and CEO at WestRock, adds.

Greentown Labs names 3 new board members

onboarding

With dual locations in the Houston and Boston areas, Greentown Labs has added three new members of its board of directors.

The climatetech incubator has added the following individuals to its board:

All three of the new board members are based in the Boston area, joining 10 existing members, which includes Houstonians Barbara Burger, Dawn James, and Nisha Desai.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, we enthusiastically welcome Kevin, Elizabeth, and John to Greentown Labs’ Board,” James, who serves as the board chair, says in a news release. “They each bring impressive experience and deep expertise across the climate and energy transition ecosystem that will play an important role as we chart Greentown’s next chapter of impact.”

The nonprofit has seen some big changes this year, announcing that its CEO and President Kevin Knobloch will be stepping down at the end of July. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

The news of Knobloch's departure came several weeks after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

How Elon Musk's $44.9B Tesla pay package compares with the most generous plans for other U.S. CEOs

stacking up

Even though the median U.S. CEO pay package last year was nearly 200 times more than a worker in the middle of their company pay scales, Elon Musk's record-setting Tesla compensation dwarfs them by comparison.

Tesla shareholders on Thursday voted overwhelmingly in favor of restoring Musk's 10-year pay plan, valued by the company in April at $44.9 billion. It was worth more early in the year, but Tesla's stock value has fallen about 25% since then.

The all-stock package, approved by the board and shareholders in 2018, rewards Musk for hitting milestones that include raising Tesla's market value, pretax income and revenue.

It had been tossed out by a Delaware judge in January who said the process for approving it was “deeply flawed.” The court ruled that Musk controlled the company's board, and shareholders weren't fully informed.

But the company said Musk deserves the pay because he turned Tesla into the top-selling electric vehicle maker in the world, increasing its market value by billions.

Even with the reapproval vote, Musk won't get access to the stock options just yet. Tesla is expected to ask the judge to revisit her decision in light of the vote, and if she doesn't, the company probably will appeal the ruling to Delaware's Supreme Court. The whole process could take months.

No matter the outcome, Musk's package — the largest award to a CEO of a U.S. public company — is far above what's been granted to other chief executives. Here's how the package compares:

WITH THE MEDIAN CEO PAY

The median pay package for an S&P 500 U.S. CEO last year was $16.3 million, according to data analyzed for The Associated Press by Equilar. If you multiply that by 10 to get $163 million for a decade of work, Musk's earnings still would be 275 times greater.

In her January ruling that struck down the package, Delaware Chancellor Kathaleen St. Jude McCormick wrote that Musk's package, then worth about $56 billion, was 250 times larger than the median peer CEO's pay plan.

WITH INDIVIDUAL CEOS

The top earner in the AP's survey was Hock Tan, CEO of artificial intelligence company Broadcom Inc. His package, mostly consisting of stock awards, was valued at about $162 million, when given to Tan at the start of fiscal 2023. Thanks to a surging stock price, Broadcom in March valued Tan’s pay package, plus older options he hadn’t yet cashed in, at $767.7 million. That's an amount easily eclipsed by Musk’s potential haul of 304 million shares worth almost $45 billion.

Other CEOs at the top of AP's survey are William Lansing of Fair Isaac Corp, ($66.3 million); Tim Cook of Apple Inc. ($63.2 million); Hamid Moghadam of Prologis Inc. ($50.9 million); and Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix ($49.8 million).

Technically, Musk got no compensation last year because he didn't get any stock options. But he stands to get even richer if his pay package goes through.

WITH TESLA WORKERS

It's difficult to calculate what Musk's annual pay would have been last year. The company says he got nothing. But if his compensation package makes it through the courts, his pay will be in the billions. According to the company's proxy filing this year, the median annual pay of a non-CEO Tesla employee last year was $45,811.