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SRI’s Dubois Says Interest in Cleantech “Off-the-Charts”

Larry Dubois, vice president of SRI International’s Physical Sciences Division, says interest – and opportunities – in cleantech are “off the charts.”

At SRI, a leading research and development institute based in Menlo Park, California, Dubois has a unique vantage point of that tricky road that runs from experimental R&D to commercialization.

SRI’s clients and partners include many of this country’s largest governmental research programs at the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF. But, unlike others working on government-funded research, SRI’s focus, in addition to long-term research, is on developing, uncovering or fine-tuning technology that can quickly go to work to solve big, important problems.

“We look for itches to scratch, and that means bringing the best technologies in the world to bear on problems from all over the world,” Dubois said. One of the biggest itches out there is renewable energy and clean technologies, he said. At SRI, many technologies are being mobilized for this opportunity – including advanced materials, microfabrication, nanotechnology, power sources, catalysts and environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.

SRI’s Dubois Defines Cleantech’s Opportunities

While Dubois has lots of statistics and client data that identify cleantech as an area ripe for business and technology opportunities, he summarizes his conclusion in terms that anyone could understand. “Anytime you see a process that emits lots of pollutants or uses lots of resources like water or energy, there’s probably a lot of waste. And, where there is waste, there is opportunity for money to be saved – and money to be made,” Dubois said.

With that theme, Dubois will present a Keynote Address during Cleantech 2007, to be held in Santa Clara (CA) Convention Center May 23. In it, Dubois will take the mystique off of cleantech – and describe which cleantech technologies and partnership models will prove most promising for harnessing the power of the sun, wind, biomass and other renewable-energy sources. He’ll also identify which technologies grabbing headlines today may simply turn out to be “laboratory curiosities,” with little promise of commercialization.

Dubois knows of what he speaks, as he is directing two of SRI’s major cleantech-related projects.

Here’s a brief overview:

  • SRI cutting costs of solar cells. “Manufacturing costs for all aspects of solar photovoltaic modules have come down -- except for one important item: raw silicon,” Dubois said. Demand for solar cells has increased to such a degree over the past few years that the cost for silicon has more than doubled. “It’s great that solar cell manufacturing is at higher volumes, higher efficiency, lower breakage and even more automated, but the downside is that the raw silicon feedstock is just getting harder to get. The shortage of silicon is in fact a barrier to broader use of solar.”

    SRI is working cooperatively on ways to cut the cost and energy needed to produce silicon. “Most silicon today is made from chlorosilanes, which are expensive, explosive and toxic,” Dubois said. “Our technology starts with something totally different – a byproduct from the fertilizer industry – an inexpensive, rock-solid stable and clean material.” The process is so clean and efficient, Dubois said, that tests show it could cut the cost for making silicon by over 50% -- from today’s $40+/kg to under $14/kg.
  • SRI boosting cleaner coal power. SRI is also working on a direct carbon fuel cell (DCFC) technology, which extracts energy from coal using chemical processes – not burning. DCFC offers twice the efficiency of traditional coal-fired power plants, which means more energy and fewer pollutants from the same amount of coal, Dubois said. SRI researchers have shown they can take pulverized coal (or any source of carbon including waste paper and plastic and biomass) and by electrochemically oxidizing the carbon directly they can transform carbon’s chemical energy into electricity. The waste from this process is simple carbon dioxide, which is captured.

    Unlike hydrogen and methanol fuel cells, SRI’s carbon fuel cells use no catalyst or costly noble metals like platinum. And that approach cuts costs dramatically. “SRI’s DCFC technology converts the chemical energy in coal directly into electricity cleanly and efficiently without the need for gasification. This has the potential to eliminate toxic emissions and to reduce greenhouse gases and heavy metal pollutants,” Dubois said. “In addition, the process may be twice as efficient as today's coal-fired power plants and could produce the power at competitive cost.” SRI is working with several partners to scale up the technology and hopes to have kilowatt-scale units operating in the next couple of years.

SRI Says Collaboration is Key to ‘Cleantech Success’

Dubois will also address the importance of having partnerships and collaboration to be successful in developing and commercializing clean technologies. “In cleantech today there is intense focus on collaboration between multiple organizations,” he noted.

“Many researchers know the problems cleantech is trying to take on will be tough to solve, and not something just a single investigator can do with his laptop. A clever idea or patents alone are not enough. It generally takes 10x to 100x the amount of money it took to make the initial discovery or invention before a product can be brought to market,” Dubois added.


Cleantech 2007 is a multi-disciplinary and multi-sector conference on global sustainability addressing advancements in traditional technologies, emerging technologies and clean business practices. The mission of Cleantech 2007 is to bring together the entire cleantech ecosystem with the goal of accelerating the flow of technologies from the research phase to the viable market phase. For more information about and to register for CleanTech 2007, please visit www.techconnect.org/Cleantech2007/.

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