fresh funding

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago.

The 2021 winners, according to Rice's news release, were:

  • Kevin McHugh, an assistant professor of bioengineering, is working on a method to automate an encapsulation process that uses biodegradable microparticles in the timed release of drugs to treat cancer and prevent infectious disease. He suggested the process could help ramp up the manufacture of accessible multidose vaccines.
  • Daniel Preston, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is developing a novel filtration system that will recover water typically released by cooling towers at natural gas power plants. The inexpensive filters will result in a significant savings in water costs during power generation.
  • Geoff Wehmeyer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Matteo Pasquali, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a professor of chemistry and materials science and nanoengineering; Junichiro Kono, the Karl F. Hasselmann Chair in Engineering, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, physics and astronomy and materials science and nanoengineering and chair of the applied physics program, and Glen Irvin Jr., a research professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, are creating a solid-state, active heat-switching device to enable the rapid charging of batteries for electric vehicles. The lightweight device will use carbon nanotube fibers to optimize battery thermal management systems not only for cars but also, eventually, for electronic devices like laptops.
  • Xia Ben Hu, an associate professor of computer science, is developing his open-source machine learning system to democratize and accelerate small businesses’ digital transformation in e-commerce.
  • Bruce Weisman, a professor of chemistry and of materials science and nanoengineering, and Satish Nagarajaiah, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering, are working to advance their strain measurement system based on the spectral properties of carbon nanotubes. The system will allow for quick measurement of strain to prevent catastrophic failures and ensure the safety of aircraft, bridges, buildings, pipelines, ships, chemical storage vessels and other infrastructure.
  • Aditya Mohite, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and associate professor of materials science and nanoengineering, and Michael Wong, the Tina and Sunit Patel Professor in Molecular Nanotechnology, a professor and chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a professor of chemistry, materials science and nanoengineering and of civil and environmental engineering, are scaling up novel photoreactors for the environmentally friendly generation of hydrogen. Their process combines of perovskite-based solar cells and state-of-the-art catalysts.
  • Rebekah Drezek, a professor of bioengineering, and Richard Baraniuk, the C. Sidney Burrus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of statistics and computer science, are developing a system to rapidly diagnose sepsis using microfluidics and compressed sensing to speed the capture and analysis of microbial biomarkers.
  • Fathi Ghorbel, a professor of mechanical engineering and of bioengineering, is working on robotic localization technology in GPS-denied environments such as aboveground storage tanks, pressure vessels and floating production storage and offloading tanks. The system would enable robots to precisely associate inspection data to specific locations leading to efficiency and high quality of inspection and maintenance operations where regular inspections are required. This will dramatically improve the environmental impact and safety of these assets.
  • Kai Fu, a research scientist, and Yuji Zhao, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are working to commercialize novel power diodes and transistors for electric vehicles. They expect their devices to reduce the volume of power systems while improving integration, power density, heat dissipation, storage, and energy efficiency.

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Building Houston

 
 

Just after announcing an investment from United, NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc. scored a SPAC-based IPO. Photo via nextrenewables.com

It’s been a momentous month for Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc.

On November 15, United Airlines Ventures announced an investment of up to $37.5 million in the next-generation, low-carbon fuel producing company.

Just a week later, the company revealed it’s going public through a SPAC merger with Industrial Tech Acquisitions II Inc. The deal, expected to close in the second quarter of 2023, assigns a $666 million equity value to NEXT. The publicly traded company will be named NXTCLEAN Fuels Inc.

NEXT, founded in 2016, produces low-carbon fuels from organic feedstock. The company plans to open a biofuel refinery in Port Westward, Oregon, that’s set to start production in 2026. The refinery could produce up to 50,000 barrels per day of sustainable aviation fuel, renewable diesel, and other renewable fuels.

“West Coast states are demanding a clean fuels conversion of the transportation and aviation industries with aggressive targets necessitating rapid increases in clean fuel supplies,” Christopher Efird, executive chairman and CEO of NEXT, says in a news release. “[The company] is advancing toward becoming one of the largest U.S.-based suppliers of clean fuels for these markets, and is investigating and pursuing potential vertical expansion into other clean fuels.”

The proposed public listing of NEXT’s stock on the Nasdaq market and United’s investment are poised to help NEXT reach its goal of becoming a leader in the clean fuel sector. United’s investment appears to be the first equity funding for NEXT.

“Right now, one of the biggest barriers to increasing supply and lowering costs of sustainable fuel is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to transport it efficiently, but NEXT’s strategic location and assets solve that problem and provide a blueprint for future facilities that need to be built,” Michael Leskinen, president of United Airline Ventures, says in a news release.

United’s investment arm, launched in 2021, targets ventures that will complement the airline’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

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