The project was part of a year-long senior design capstone by six students, known as Team Bay-Max, in Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A team of Rice University engineering students has developed a new way for underwater robots to move around, save power and work more efficiently and quietly.

The robot uses reversible hydrogen fuel cell-based buoyancy control devices that convert water into hydrogen and oxygen (and the reverse) using electricity. Traditional underwater robots use thrusters or large pumps and propellers to change and hold depth, which can be heavy, have higher costs and use more energy. The use of reversible hydrogen fuel cells with balloons, allows the new robot to smoothly adjust its depth with less energy usage, according to a statement from Rice.

The project was part of a year-long senior design capstone by six students, known as Team Bay-Max, in Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.

The students—Andrew Bare, Spencer Darwall, Noah Elzner, Rafe Neathery, Ethan Peck and Dan Zislis— won second place in the Willy Revolution Award for Outstanding Innovation at the Huff OEDK Engineering Design Showcase held at the Ion last month.

“Having spent a year on it now and putting so much time into it, getting to see the result of all that work come together is really rewarding,” Peck said in the statement.

“With a project like this, integration was critical,” Zislis added. “Another takeaway for me is the importance of determining a clear scope for any given project. With this robot, we could have focused on a lot of different things. For instance, we could have worked on improving fuel cell efficiency or making a robotic arm. Instead, we chose to keep these other elements simple so as not to divert focus away from the main part, which is the buoyancy control device. This kind of decision-making process is not just part of good engineering, but it’s relevant with everything in life.”

Elzner, for instance, focused on the dashboard that the robot feeds information to as it collects data from different sensors. It displays core system information, real-time graphs of the robot’s location and a simulation of its relative orientation, according to the statement.

Darwall, took a " deep dive into control theory and learn(ed) new software" to incorporate the video game joystick that allows the robot to combine manual control with an automatic stabilizing algorithm.

The proof-of-concept robot has potential applications in environmental monitoring, oceanographic research, and military and industrial tasks, according to Rice.

The team based the project on an academic paper by Houston researchers that showed that fuel cell-enabled depth control could reduce autonomous underwater vehicles’ energy consumption by as much as 85 percent.

It was authored by Rice professor Fathi Ghorbel and members of the University of Houston's Zheng Chen lab.

“This collaborative research aims to develop tetherless continuum soft engines that utilize reversible proton exchange membrane fuel cells and water electrolyzers to drive volume-mass transformation," Ghorbel said in a statement. "Through this design project, the BayMax team proved the efficacy of this technology in AUV interaction with the physical world.”

Ghorbel, Rice mechanical engineering lecturer David Trevas, and Professor in the Practice, Electrical and Computer and Engineering Gary Woods mentored the team.

Last month Rice also held its 24th annual Rice Business Plan Competition, doling out more than $1.5 million in investment and cash prizes to the top teams. Click here to see what student-led startups took home awards.
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Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.