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Taken for Granted: A Shot at Transforming America's Energy Future

When scientists talk about federal stimulus money for research, many focus on the approaching "cliff," when funding will run out after 2 years. But for postdoc-turned-entrepreneur Riccardo Signorelli and his mentor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) electrical engineering professor Joel Schindall, the stimulus money looks more like a launching pad -- one that they hope will blast a technology they have developed toward the goal of making a "transformative" difference in America's energy future.

In October FastCAP Systems, a company Signorelli founded last year while completing his Ph.D. in MIT's electrical engineering department, received one of 37 highly coveted grants awarded in the first round of the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Chosen from 3700 applicants, FastCAP will receive $5 million over 2.5 years to work with MIT to develop and commercialize an energy storage system based on "ultracapacitors" of enhanced capacity. In the future, this technology may play an important role in powering electric cars and helping the nation take much greater advantage of intermittent energy sources like solar and wind. But already, Signorelli's story offers an illuminating example to scientists in many fields who want their work to make a difference.

A willingness to gamble on a major payoff is one of the key themes to Signorelli's story thus far.

Signorelli's opportunity results from a fortunate combination of a professor and student who share important goals -- plus a very good idea, years of hard work, and extremely lucky timing. Signorelli had a long-standing interest in practical applications, and private-sector experience at both Siemens and General Electric, before he began his Ph.D. in MIT's Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems (LEES), which Schindall co-directs. Schindall, who became Bernard Gordon Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science after spending decades in industry, was a good choice to serve as Signorelli's mentor; Gordon, the chair's donor and one of the most productive inventors in American history, designed the term appointment to attract people with extensive practical experience to the MIT faculty. "It was helpful to Riccardo," Schindall tells Science Careers in an interview, "that the faculty member that he worked for" -- Schindall himself -- "was driven to focus on things with real commercial potential. Many university professors sort of do research for research's sake. I'm not a typical university professor. I'm very application-oriented."

The work leading to the ARPA-E grant began as Signorelli's Ph.D. research and extended into the half-time postdoc appointment he accepted at LEES after finishing his doctorate in May 20009. He chose that arrangement so that he could devote part of his time to FastCAP and assembling the technical and business team needed to run it. He went full-time with the company on 1 January.

Seeking transformation

Throughout Signorelli's years at LEES, he took excellent advantage, Schindall says, of informal learning resources available within the university, including "entrepreneurial clubs and advisers," to expand his knowledge of business. "He participated extensively in that network," Schindall says.

So by the time the opportunity to write the ARPA-E grant unexpectedly arose, Signorelli had made himself ready. Modeled on the legendary Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which spearheaded many important technological advances, ARPA-E was established under the America COMPETES Act and given $400 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus package, to, in DOE's words, "pursue breakthroughs that could fundamentally change the way we use and produce energy."

The ideas ARPA-E supports "are potentially revolutionary," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in announcing the first-round winners in October. "Yes, they are risky, and many of these technologies will not pan out. But this is high-risk, high-reward research: If even one or two of these ideas become transformative technologies -- the next transistor or another Green Revolution -- this will be among the best investments [the nation] ever made."

A willingness to gamble on a major payoff is one of the key themes to Signorelli's story thus far. Schindall says that for Signorelli, a native of Italy who came to the United States 10 years ago to pursue a master's degree at the University of Texas, Austin, "it's kind of like a dream come true, ... that he could come to this new country and invent something that will really make a difference."

The invention in question is an improvement of an energy-storage device called the ultracapacitor. Its developers see great potential in applications such as electric cars and storing energy from intermittent sources such as solar and wind. Unlike batteries, capacitors store energy "in an electrical field," Schindall explains. "Since there's no chemical reaction, they can be charged and discharged in fractions of a second, and they don't wear out like batteries do." Traditionally, capacitors also have a serious disadvantage: very limited storage capacity, which makes them impractical for many uses.

Ultracapacitors, which have energy-storage capacity much larger than standard capacitors, were previously made using "activated carbon to coat the plates of the capacitor," Schindall says. "Activated carbon, because it's so porous, has a very high surface area, and that increases the amount of energy that it can store." Still, capacity falls far short of that possible with batteries -- and of what's needed for most applications.

Seven years ago, Schindall and his colleague John Kassakian were, as Signorelli says, "starting to think ... about an ultracapacitor and how to improve it." Then, one day on an airplane, Schindall read an article "about a technique ... being used in a different field to grow vertically aligned nanotubes on a flat substrate," he recalls. "It occurred to me that if we replaced the activated carbon with these vertical nanotubes, we might get even more surface area and therefore even more energy storage because [this] synthetic material ... has incredibly high surface area, like fractals." Signorelli's application to the Ph.D. program arrived at about this time. "We said, maybe this would be a good project for him," Schindall says.

On the path

Six years of hard work has proven that surmise correct: The project matched up well with Signorelli's scientific and professional background, interests, and ambitions. His industrial experience in areas such as budgeting, personnel, project management, and the like "is coming in handy in the things I am doing," as a CEO, he says. And he believes Schindall's other surmise -- that the FastCAP's ultracapacitors have potential to address important technical needs -- will soon be realized. "They give you lots of cycles and they cut the cost and ... extend the market. Most importantly, we will also make impact on society." An application for a patent, which will belong to MIT, is under way. FastCAP is working with MIT on an exclusive agreement to exploit it.

Against long odds, the ARPA-E funding arrived at a crucial time for FastCAP. Signorelli had founded the company with his own funds and "really was heading for the cliff," Schindall says. "I put my own money into the company for commercializing the technology," says Signorelli, who had not succeeded in attracting investors and has no family wealth to bankroll the company. His postdoc, meanwhile, was nearing expiration. Still, "regardless of how the proposal came out, I was [determined about] going forward," he insists. If ARPA-E had not come through, he intended to continue seeking private investors.

With money now available for the next 2 years, Signorelli's new challenge is to achieve the technology's practical and commercial promise. "We are on the path. There are things that we are already achieving, like the power of the device; there are things that we are working on. ... Now we are getting closer and closer to our target."

"ARPA-E is extremely rigorous on having milestones that we need to meet in order to continue the funding of the project," Signorelli goes on. "We feel like their goal is our goal, especially transformative energy that can create jobs, that can reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. And to us, ARPA-E is the best partner we could have hoped for."

Signorelli is also well along another path: the path to U.S. citizenship. "America is home," he says, a "wonderful society where entrepreneurship is valued and there is opportunity for entrepreneurship. ... That's what made America great." He feels tremendous gratitude to the "American people who have allowed the creation of this wonderful agency."

Meeting FastCAP's goals, Signorelli says, will open opportunities for other able scientists and engineers. We are "looking for great talent," he says, asking Science Careers to spread the word that he hopes to hear from gifted "people in battery engineering and "in fabrication of nanocarbon materials."

"With ARPA-E grants come a lot of opportunity but a lot of responsibility," he says. Yet, he utterly rejects Chu's skepticism and feels prepared to make his company and technology succeed. "Our responsibility [is] to develop a transformative technology that can have an impact in the American economic system in terms job creation. ... It is not an easy commitment for us, but it's a strong commitment, and we need to do whatever it takes to deliver."

Photo (top): C.P. Storm

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