POETS ecosystem awarded more than $10M to develop clean energy technologies


Nenad Miljkovic (left) and Kiruba Haran.
Nenad Miljkovic (left) and Kiruba Haran.

Three out of the 68 research and development projects nationwide aimed at developing disruptive technologies to strengthen the U.S. advanced energy enterprise were awarded to POETS faculty, including MechSE Associate Professor Nenad Miljkovic.  

Led by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the OPEN 2021 program prioritizes funding high-impact, high-risk technologies that support novel approaches to clean energy challenges.

The selected projects—spanning 22 states and coordinated at universities, national laboratories, and private companies—will advance technologies for a wide range of areas, including electric vehicles, offshore wind, storage and nuclear recycling – and will focus on technologies such as revolutionizing fuel cells for light- and heavy-duty vehicles, and technologies to generate less nuclear waste and reduce the cost of fuel.  More than $5 million will go to Miljkovic for two novel clean energy technology projects.

Miljkovic is the lead PI on a $3M project, “Ultra-Efficient and Ultra-Rapid Electro-Thermal Pulse Deicing, Defrosting, and Desnowing for Renewable Energy and Electrified Aircraft Systems.” His team, which includes Assistant Professor Andrew Stillwell (Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering) and the hybrid-electric aircraft company Ampaire, seeks to remove ice, snow, and frost accretion on mobile and stationary electrified systems in ultra-fast time and with lower energy consumption when compared with current methods. His process will involve pulsed interfacial heating through thin film heating, integrated with controlled surface wettability to achieve interfacial defrosting without bulk melting. They aim to melt only an ultra-thin layer of ice/snow/frost while the remaining ice/snow/frost is removed with the aid of gravity or shear forces (e.g., wind). The goal is to apply their technology to photovoltaics, heat pump heat exchangers, wind turbines, and electrified aircraft that are particularly affected by the ice/show/frost aggregation phenomena.

Miljkovic said the project concept actually began with seed funding from the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Center (ACRC), in which researchers there were studying the defrosting that occurs in heat exchangers. “We used the results to seed the idea for aircraft systems and adapt it to an aircraft application. We were able to identify relevant partners for the project through POETS. Ampaire is working with us on an existing ARPA-E CIRCUITS project, which is affiliated with POETS. Andrew Stillwell in ECE is part of POETS, and the electrification aspect is also relevant to the center,” said Miljkovic, who also holds a Kritzer Faculty Scholar appointment.

He is also on the team working on the $2.1 million project, “Delivering Energy & Exergy Efficiency in the Converged 5G RAN/EDGE Compute Network.” Led by Nokia of America Corporation, this team will develop a highly efficient, resource-conserving thermal energy architecture that will simultaneously improve server cooling energy efficiency and deliver high-quality thermal energy that can be used directly for heating and cooling buildings. Nokia will pursue a low-cost, passive two-phase cooling philosophy from chip-to-room scale and re-architect the compute infrastructure as a valuable, practical, and cost-effective heat source. This design would contribute to the U.S.’s technological lead in developing and deploying advanced energy and information and communication technologies.

Miljkovic said the Nokia-led project is based on the cooling research he and colleagues worked on as part of POETS and extended through the ARPA-E CIRCUITS program. “The UIUC aspects of the work stem from preliminary work done in the lab that was POETS-funded – for example, thermal interface materials, immersion cooling, surface structuring, and others. The lead PI at Nokia is a colleague from my graduate student days. I have sent a top graduate student from my lab to Nokia every summer to learn from him and collaborate, so this project is a natural evolution of maintaining our connection and working together over the past seven years,” Miljkovic said.

New POETS Director and ECE Professor Kiruba Haran also celebrated a win under the program. His startup company, Hinetics, will lead another OPEN 2021 project, “Cryogen-fRee Ultra-high fIeld Superconducting Electric (CRUISE) Motor,” which was awarded $5.7 million. The company, alongside UIUC and POETS researchers, will develop and demonstrate a high-power density electric machine to enable electrified aircraft propulsion systems up to 10 MW and beyond. Hinetics’ technology uses a superconducting machine design that eliminates the need for cryogenic auxiliary systems yet maintains low total mass. The concept features a sub-20 K Stirling-cycle cooler integrated with a low-loss rotor, magnetic fields on an order of magnitude higher than conventional machines, and a novel coil suspension and torque transfer system with tensioned fibers that cut the cryogenic heat-load by a factor of 10 to eliminate the need for external coolers. This design could enable a 10 MW, 3000 RPM aircraft propulsion motor weighing less than 250 kilograms that rejects up to 10 times less total heat to the ambient environment—achieving more than 99% efficiency.

“Universities, companies, and our national labs are doubling down on advancing clean energy technology innovation and manufacturing in America to deliver critical energy solutions from renewables from electric vehicles to fusion energy to tackle the climate crisis,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “DOE’s investments show our commitment to empowering innovators to develop bold plans to help America achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, create clean energy good-paying jobs and strengthen our energy independence.” 

Among the first of billions of dollars for research and development opportunities that DOE announced last year to address the climate crisis, OPEN 2021 is ARPA-E’s latest installment of the OPEN program. The first four iterations—2009, 2012, 2015, and 2018—awarded over $600 million in funding to 225 projects working to achieve breakthroughs in commercializing a variety of energy solutions, including in the development of transformative solar, geothermal, batteries, biofuels and advanced surface coating technologies. Two examples of earlier awardees are Soraa, a world leader in more efficient lighting technology, and Sunfolding, a company facilitating cost and performance breakthroughs for stakeholders across the solar energy industry. 

Since its founding in 2009, ARPA-E has provided $2.93 billion in R&D funding, and ARPA-E projects have attracted more than $7.6 billion in private sector follow-on funding to commercialize clean energy technologies and create sustainable clean energy jobs. Previous ARPA-E awardees have also gone on to achieve breakthroughs in commercializing a variety of energy solutions, including in the development of transformative solar, geothermal, batteries, biofuels and advanced surface coating technologies.