Reflections from the Department of Energy Office of Energy Transitions EnergyTech University Prize competition
By Gavin Fuchs
I will admit that when I first learned that as part of GCC 3011 we would be expected to enter the Department of Energy Office of Energy Transitions EnergyTech University prize competition, I thought it would just be another project I would do to get a grade. Don’t get me wrong, I am passionate about the transition to clean energy, but as a sophomore undergraduate student who knew very little about business, I did not think I stood a chance at winning the competition. However, I now consider this experience one of my most valuable yet, as I will explain below.
Briefly, my team’s submission to the competition was a business plan for a new way to recover the critical components of spent lithium-ion batteries. Research on this new method was done at the Department of Energy’s National Laboratory in Ames, Iowa in conjunction with Iowa State University, although I learned about it through the instructors of my class, GCC 3011. This research stuck out to me because of my interest in chemistry and my knowledge of the current uncertainties regarding lithium-ion battery supply. My team’s goal was to offer an economically feasible business plan to commercialize this novel lithium-ion battery recycling method. I will avoid getting too deep into specifics, although I would like to note that we aimed to achieve our goal by providing enhanced recycling infrastructure that would lead to the establishment of a circular economy, in which we could reclaim and resell the critical components of spent lithium-ion batteries with this novel method. Thus, Ba-Tech Recycling Solutions was born.
The hardest part of this competition was thinking about business, rather than the science behind this new technology. As a student majoring in neuroscience and Spanish, I considered creating a business plan to be out of my comfort zone. The hardest part for my team was developing and understanding the economics behind our business plan. Again, it was a challenge to consider this research in the realm of business rather than science because that came with a plethora of new considerations. Luckily, with lots of teamwork, brainstorming, and the support of our instructors and their colleagues, we were able to develop a business plan that we were confident about.
In a short few weeks, my team and I became increasingly passionate about our commercialization plan. I felt that I had a new understanding of the lithium-ion battery industry and a whole new perspective on the potential supply chain issues that had originally drew me in. By the time the regional competition rolled around, we were excited to share our passion with others. We knew that, win or lose, we had a good idea with the potential to enhance sustainability in the lithium-ion battery and lithium-ion battery recycling industries, as well as improve the domestic supply chain for the critical components of spent lithium-ion batteries. Not only were we excited about our business’s potential role in the transition to clean energy, but that we could make money while doing so. We were ecstatic that the judges saw this as well and that we were able to take first place in our region.
As I mentioned, I consider this experience to be very valuable because it opened my eyes to another side of research that I had not previously considered. Specifically, I now understand that although there are many innovations coming out of labs all around the world, it is a long way to the market. The struggles of commercialization are not taught nor well understood amongst undergraduates like myself, despite being nearly as important as research itself. In fact, I work in a lab myself, and now understand that discovery is only the first step in producing real change. Further, my experience with this project reaffirmed the notion that the transition to clean energy, amongst all our other modern problems, will require a cross-disciplinary approach to solve. Through interactions with many different perspectives, I discovered that everyone has something to offer and success is only possible when everyone is allowed a seat at the table. I believe that projects like ours are the key to solving the climate crisis, and regardless of experience of ability, everyone has the ability to encourage change.
I am confident about the future of Ba-Tech Recycling Solutions and the potential of our new process to recover the critical components of spent lithium-ion batteries. My participation in this competition has instilled in me a new sense of optimism about the future of the climate crisis and the ability of my generation to tackle today’s biggest problems, one business at a time.