Clean Innovation conference mixes small tech, business, policy

By Tom Cheyney, Small Times Senior Contributing Editor

May 18, 2007 — The inaugural California Clean Innovation (CACI) conference
focused on what Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau called “two vital segments of the clean technology value chain — energy and transportation.” Some 300 people from the academic, industrial, government, and financial communities attended the event on May 11 at the California Institute of Technology, where discussion included micro- and nanotechnology solutions.

“We are in the midst of the biggest experiment of all time, and the world won’t be the same in 20 years. We have one time to get it right,” warned Nate Lewis, one of the principal faculty at the Caltech Center for Sustainable Energy Research (CCSER), during his morning keynote, “Powering the Planet: A Global Energy Perspective.”
Lewis outlined the environmental and economic pressures created by dependence on carbon/fossil-based energy, the constraints imposed by attempts to achieve sustainability, and the energy potential of renewable carbon-free sources as well as the challenges inherent in exploiting those resources economically on a scale to satisfy the world’s multi-terawatt appetite.

“We need as much carbon-free energy online in the next 30 years as all the carbon and nuclear power combined,” Lewis explained. He then presented data on alternatives to fossil fuels: nuclear, carbon sequestration, and renewables such as solar, biomass, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal.

He pointed to solar as “the big card…the only source that can supply what we need.” In addition to noting the difficult cost-versus-efficiency tradeoffs faced by current silicon and thin-film photovoltatic (PV) technologies, he cited energy conversion/storage as the biggest problem, quipping “he that cannot store will not have energy after four.”

Lewis and fellow CCSER professors Harry Atwater and Sossina Haile in later presentations discussed several Caltech projects using micro/nano-type approaches in the solar-cell and energy-storage arenas, such as photoelectrolysis cells (sun-powered catalysts for fuel formation) and disruptive thin-film, multijunction, and nanostructured photovoltaics, including paintable PV materials.

Atwater believes that there needs to be “as much innovation put into the [solar] module as into the cell itself” in order to improve production output and push down costs. He sees PV efficiencies in the “range of 50-70%” as “quite reasonable,” providing an “opportunity for terawatt energy supply,” as long as the price of solar energy “scales down dramatically within the next 10 years or so.”

CACI’s FastPitch Business Case Competition brought together 10 early-stage clean-tech companies (selected from 25 submissions) to make their cases to — and hear feedback from — a panel of VC judges. After hearing the pitches, the judges narrowed the field to three finalists, two of which gave extended presentations in the afternoon.

San Diego-based Riverside Technologies, which has developed a pyrolysis-based, carbon-neutral technique for green reprocessing of used tires into oil, gas, steel, and synthetic carbon-black products, won the grand prize of $5000 cash, free management consulting and VC sessions, and various promotional considerations. The FastPitch contest’s runner-up was Assure Controls, which has a rapid onsite water and soil contamination analysis tool based on bioluminescence research originally conducted by the U.S. Navy. The third finalist, PowerMEMS, was a no-show for the final round.


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