Jessika Trancik wants to speed up the clean energy development process. A PopTech fellow and an assistant professor in the Engineering Systems Division of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Trancik seeks out the best technologies for mitigating climate change and finds ways to help them evolve even faster. Below are excerpts from our recent interview.
You use models to determine which energy technologies will best mitigate climate change. Which technologies are our best hope?
The big picture goal of my research is to find ways to accelerate the development of clean energy technology. We’re thinking about ways we can get a better understanding of the basic science. Also, when we’re trying to improve one component, [we consider] how it affects the whole device. How can we give ourselves the most options for improvement in the future? We don’t have all the answers today to make the ideal solar cell. How can we improve it today and allow it to improve more quickly in the future? Although we’re making incremental steps toward improvement, we’re keeping the big picture in our minds.
I also work on technology evaluation. What are the technologies that look most promising for climate change? What do we want these technologies to do? How do we want them to perform? For solar cells and batteries, what do we want them to do in the context in which they’re being used? How can we bring that knowledge back to the lab?
To get back to your question about which technologies look most promising, there’s no one single technology. A lot of it depends on the engineering and technology design, but also on the policies adopted. We’d like to decrease the cost of solar cells, so they can be competitive in lots of contexts. To address climate change, you have to phase out high carbon intensity technologies. There’s a time for every technology. You have to plan for different periods in terms of designing the technologies and determining what the policy context would be.
Other than cost, what difficulties do you face in the evolution of these technologies?
Cost is the biggest issue. If you look at energy, the technologies are competing based on cost unless they have some additional functionality. But if it’s just replacing an energy conversion technology used in a power plant with a new one, the user won’t notice a difference in terms of the functionality. Therefore, cost is important.
There are other issues, which we’re learning about by studying technologies and history and bringing that insight to the lab. Those are issues like how quickly you can scale something up. Replacing one technology with another can take a few decades. Imagine electricity generation. If you replace your conversion technologies, you might have to adapt the grid. Everything is connected. If you want to scale up a big manufacturing plant, you may need technologies to build the equipment. Then people need to learn to build those pieces of equipment better. It can take a long time.
We’re thinking of simple ways to manufacture technologies and bring that insight to the early stages of materials research. Scalability is a big issue. How much of the energy consumption can you supply with that technology? It’s also the rate at which these technologies could grow and the rate at which you could phase out old infrastructure. The part we work on most is thinking about how we can design new technologies, so they can scale up quickly.
You also mentioned policy. How involved are you in the policy side?
I’m not looking directly at that as a main focus of my work. But I do think about how different policies would interact with the engineering design challenge. If you want a low carbon energy technology to meet certain energy demands under a set of policies, we’re thinking about the performance targets for that technology. Can we quantify targets that are meaningful to engineers in the lab, and design technologies to meet those targets? Those targets are sensitive to policy. If you have a price on carbon or a carbon regulation, that will affect the performance targets for your intended emissions trajectory. We’re trying to translate big picture considerations into these quantitative performance targets in terms of carbon intensity and cost.
Why is this work important to you? What keeps you motivated?
On the intellectual side, I’m motivated by solving puzzles. Designing a solar cell involves understanding the fundamental properties of materials. You think about how these materials work together in the system and about the bigger picture questions. If this technology made it to market, what impact would it have? I enjoy the basic science part of it and also solving these puzzles, working with models and understanding how components of the complex system interact.
On the applied side, I think the climate change challenge is one of our biggest problems. We don’t have a lot of time. We need to speed up the rate of discovery and development of these technologies.
What’s next for your work?
I have ideas about how to make the technology problem easier by understanding the context in which these energy technologies are going to be used. I’m starting to work on batteries and understanding how these might be used in different contexts. By better understanding the contexts in which they’ll be used, we can make the design problem easier. It’s hard to get certain combinations of properties in the same device. I have ideas for how to understand ways these technologies would be used, so we don’t have to do everything at once in the same device.
Photo: Jessika Trancik / By Bruce Gilbert