A student team from the University of Houston won the three top awards at the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition in Washington, D.C. for their plan to recycle rare earth elements critical for powering cell phones, wind turbines and other clean energy technologies.
The students, all from the nationally ranked Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship at the C.T. Bauer College of Business, won the grand prize, as well as the audience investor choice award and the people’s choice award, which was decided by online votes. Houston Mayor Annise Parker tweeted her support for the team.
The National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE), featured teams from each of six regional DOE competitions. The UH team, REEcycle, won $100,000 in the regional Energy Department business plan competition at the California Institute of Technology.
The other teams that competed in the national competitions were the Georgia Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, the University of Colorado and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
REEcycle’s business plan is based on a technology developed by Allan Jacobson, Robert A. Welch Chair of Science and director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH. They have launched a startup business in the University’s Energy Research Park.
“They’re a terrific group,” Jacobson said. “They’ve done a terrific job of putting this business plan together. Now they have some funding.”
Jacobson said he became interested in the idea of developing a way to recycle rare earth elements after reading two DOE reports on critical materials for future energy use; rare earth elements were among the critical materials mentioned, and recycling was one of the methods suggested to deal with the shortage. China controls about 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth elements.
Jacobson and a Ph.D. student working with him, Pradeep Samarasekere, discovered a chemical reaction that can extract rare earth elements from discarded electronic waste. The technology is used to extract the elements neodymium and dysprosium.
REEcycle team members – Casey McNeil, Cassandra Hoang, Susan Tran and Bobby Jacobs – won more than $50,000 in services from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, legal services from the Mintz Levin law firm and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as part of the grand prize award.
Bauer Dean Latha Ramchand said the win capped a record-setting semester for the college’s entrepreneurship students, validating the program’s pairing of students with faculty inventors.
“It validates the work that we do in training our students to understand the business of energy and shows how prepared they are, not just within the classroom, but in venues that have real-world implications and impact," she said. "Partnering with researchers from across the university has given our students the opportunity to apply what they've learned in the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship about commercializing technology to intellectual property that has been created right here on campus."
Second-place winners from each regional competition were invited to showcase their technologies. UH’s WAVVE team demonstrated a nanocoated water filter developed by Debora Rodrigues, assistant professor of environmental engineering.