Harnessing the Power of Sustainable Energy

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Energy production can be expensive, or inefficient, or toxic to the environment — or some unfortunate combination of the three. But Jesse Hinricher thinks it doesn’t have to be.

Image Caption: Jesse Hinricher, an MIT senior majoring in chemical engineering, has been conducting research focused on specialized batteries that could be plugged into the grid to provide renewable energy on demand. Credit: Jake Belcher

Hinricher, an MIT senior majoring in chemical engineering, has been conducting research focused on specialized batteries that could be plugged into the grid to provide renewable energy on demand. Specifically, he works on swapping out some of the pricier electrolytes in so-called redox flow batteries for more abundant ones, which could help make clean energy more affordable.

He cites his rural childhood as the initial source of his passion for environmental conservation. Hinricher grew up on a Minnesota farm, planting and harvesting soybeans, gardening, and tending cattle on his mother’s farm. His mom, who singlehandedly tends the 700-acre family farm, instilled in him the importance of hard work and independence, which remain some of his core values.

“She taught me to value education, and knowledge, and her work ethic has been a source of inspiration to me,” he says.

On a farm, he says, everything is mechanical; he enjoyed working with his hands. That affinity, blended with his drive to develop solutions for climate change, led Hinricher to study chemical engineering. He had seen firsthand how dramatically the seasons changed over years. For him, climate change wasn’t a distant concept; it was an increasingly alarming reality, and one that he felt he couldn’t ignore.

“I enjoy the environment, and I think it needs to be protected,” he says. “And if not me, then who?” 

Battery Power

Since January 2017, Hinricher has worked in the lab of Fikile Brushett, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, on developing redox flow batteries. In some ways, these are similar to batteries you might put in your TV remote: Electrolytes ferry electrons between a cathode and an anode, producing energy. However, the energy density of redox flow batteries is too small to be used for something like a remote, or even a cell phone. They’d likely be incorporated into large-scale energy grids, and would theoretically be more energy efficient and less geographically dependent than other renewable energy storage devices.

For example, in the middle of the day, solar panels are producing lots of energy, but after the sun sets, they are not. Redox flow batteries can store renewable energy for people to use all day rather than relying on coal or natural gas plants. The pitfall of these batteries currently is that they require rare and expensive materials. That’s where Hinricher’s work comes in; his research focuses on identifying less expensive electrolytes and troubleshooting any flaws in their implementation.

“If we can discover less expensive materials, it makes redox flow batteries more commercially attractive, which would be the coolest thing to ever have contributed to,” he says.



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