Jay Whitacre, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering and of Engineering and Public Policy, received the 2015 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Lemelson-MIT Prize honors outstanding mid-career inventors who are improving the world through technological invention and demonstrating a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The greatest technical challenge with harnessing electricity from renewable sources is its intermittency; storing energy for use when the sun isn’t shining or a breeze isn’t blowing remains an expensive hurdle. Further, energy storage batteries for stationary applications have historically been based on lead-acid chemistry that pollutes and is largely unreliable, or lithium-ion chemistry that has proven unsafe at times.

To address this problem, Whitacre invented the Aqueous Hybrid Ion (AHI™) battery, an environmentally benign and cost-efficient energy storage system. This first-of-its-kind battery, often used in combination with solar and wind energy systems, stores energy at a low cost and allows for around-the-clock consumption. Whitacre’s AHI™ battery, developed using inexpensive resources including water, sodium, and carbon, can help reduce dependence on fossil fuels and make sustainable energy a viable alternative.

Whitacre founded Aquion Energy in 2008, with the goal of bringing to market a new class of aqueous sodium ion functional battery. The Aquion battery systems help customers increase use of renewables, reduce reliance on diesel, control peak energy costs, provide power stability, bring access to electricity in under-electrified regions, and improve power reliability to areas with unstable grid infrastructure. Aquion Energy has fully scaled manufacturing and commercialized the battery with global distribution channels and installations in many locations including Australia, California, Germany, Hawaii, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Whitacre plans to contribute a significant portion of the Lemelson-MIT Prize money to create a fellowship to support graduate students and nurture interest in innovative energy solutions.

*Header image courtesy of Lemelson-MIT Program