Maryland Builds Leading Role in Energy Innovation

From the world’s highest density solid oxide fuel cell to anerobic digestors that produce biofuels to advances in wind turbine blades, air conditioning systems, catalyst materials, battery electrodes and super carbon sequestration technologies, Maryland is the site of numerous, varied and potentially game-changing innovations in energy systems.

A report this fall by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association ranking the University System of Maryland 20th in the world and 10th among U.S. public institutions for patents awarded in 2021. Of the 65 patents granted to researchers at University of Maryland College Park, the lion’s share, 34 percent, related to energy innovation while 23 percent of patents focused on health/biotechnology and 14 percent related to quantum innovation.

Widespread innovation is garnering not only patents but also public and private investment in Maryland’s clean energy sector, including from the federal Advanced Research Projects Institute – Energy (ARPA-E).

“The University of Maryland is now in the top three schools in the country, along with MIT and Georgia Tech, for ARPA-E awards and funding,” said Eric D. Wachsman, Ph.D., Director of the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute (MEII). “Since the agency’s inception in 2009, we have received about $80 million. We receive close to $10 million a year now.”

The combination of widespread innovation, financial investment and programs that support commercialization is fostering an ecosystem of leading edge energy companies in the state.

“University of Maryland College Park is number two in the country behind MIT in getting [clean energy] technology from the laboratory bench into the world and into the private sector where it can be utilized,” Wade Haerle, Director of the Maryland Energy Innovation Accelerator (MEIA).

Early stage companies that have participated in MEIA and MEII programs have produced innovations in energy storage systems, fuel cell technologies, advanced materials, hydrogen production, biofuels, energy efficient buildings, carbon sequestration, resiliency and more.

Ion Storage Systems – a firm founded by Wachsman that is pioneering solid-state batteries with bi-layer cell design – received $30 million in Series A venture capital this summer from Toyota Ventures, Tenaska and Bangchak Corp. At its research, development and manufacturing facility in Beltsville, Ion is running evaluation projects for several major automotive companies and developing products for other industries, including the aerospace and biomedical sectors. Ion plans to produce 10 MWh of battery capacity per year, beginning in 2023.

In October, Alchemity received Shell GameChanger funding to advance its technology that converts waste gas – such as methane or stranded natural gas that would otherwise be vented or flared off – into value-added chemical products.

“The biggest issue that came out of COP26 was the concern over methane emissions. They are leaking and flaring all over the place,” said Wachsman, founder of Alchemity. “Rather than wasting that methane and creating greenhouse gases, we can capture it, convert it into a liquid fuel which can then be used to produce plastics and other consumable products.”

Cellucell, a current member of MEIA, has developed a fast-charging battery technology that uses cellulose – wood fiber – as an ion conductor.

“When you think about all the issues with rare earth minerals and how much we need them for batteries currently, the ability to use wood fiber in batteries is a very exciting and sustainable technology,” Haerle said.

Other participants or graduates of the MEIA and MEII programs are advancing a variety of innovations. Carbon Lockdown Project is preparing to launch a large-scale demonstration of its carbon sequestration technology. By storing waste wood in anaerobic, subterranean conditions, the company believes it can deliver a low-cost and scalable opportunity to contain carbon emissions for 1,000 years. Liatris is developing advanced materials for thermal insulation which are easy to install, efficient, non-flammable and non-toxic. ACTIVEcharge developed an innovative approach to monitoring wind turbine blade health which simplifies and reduces the cost of wind farm operations and maintenance. And Living Canopies has developed an eco-technology, called the Cool Green Shelter for Bus Stops, which protects waiting riders, manages stormwater, captures carbon, reduces air temperatures, provides free solar power for charging personal devices and collects environmental data.

MEIA’s program helps innovators transition their research into commercial ventures through services such as the Energy Executives In Residence (EEIRs). Experienced energy entrepreneurs take on C-level positions within the startups and help create the business model, identify customer bases and align the technologies with those customers’ needs.

“Our clients at MEIA love the EEIR program,” Haerle said. “Our funders – the capital firms we approach – love the program too because it means that companies are already being de-risked as they get ready for investment.”

Increasingly, energy innovators have opportunities to attract that private investment.

“There is almost $40 billion of private equity funds that are targeting climate technologies,” Haerle said. “The funding is getting more organized every day as new funds are created. We are trying to stay on top of that growth, understand what each fund is looking to invest in and match them with our MEIA clients.”