The innovation economy takes shape in Houston

Over the past several months, newspapers have been making headlines on the clean energy and clean technology innovations being developed in and around Houston.

At Rice University, which may seem like a source of projects, several innovations that have emerged there have received considerable grants.

Work to convert methane to carbon nanotubes earned the university a $ 3.3 million grant from the US Department of Energy. Although difficult to manufacture in large quantities, carbon nanotubes have been shown to be stronger than Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests, and more conductive than copper. They have the ability to turn heat into electricity. Researchers say the technology has the potential to help decarbonize notoriously charged emissions mining and heavy metal industry.

More recently, the work of Rice scientists in converting electronic waste and even food waste into rare earth elements such as cobalt and lithium, could soon win a grant of $ 5.2 million through the US. Army Corps of Engineers.

But advances do not come only from universities.

Houston-based Renewable Storage Co. hopes to convert cavernous salt domes into giant mechanical batteries, drawing electricity from the grid when demand is not high to inject massive volumes of compressed air into tight geographic formations. . When grid conditions are strained, salt dome batteries release this compressed air to power a turbine to generate electricity. Art Gelber, one of the company’s partners, said he hopes to sell the services to renewable energy providers such as wind turbine operators so that they can continue feeding the grid even when the wind does not. not breathe.

Researcher Steven Williams, PhD student, demonstrates the flexibility of carbon fibers, which have been sewn into an elastic fabric, inside the Carbon Hub lab at Rice University on Thursday, August 12, 2021 in Houston. The researchers hope that carbon nanotubes could eventually replace materials like copper and steel, the extraction of which generates a massive carbon footprint.

Godofredo A. Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Personal Photographer

Silicon bayou?

Two Houston tech start-ups were selected by Google at the end of September to be part of their Black Founders Fund. These are Doss, which will provide a virtual one-stop-shop for home buying and home services such as plumbing and insurance, and SOTAOG, which provides real-time analytics to oil and gas companies and heavy industries, such as those manufacturing oil and gas equipment. Both companies will receive $ 100.00, but the founders of the companies, Bobby Bryant of Doss and Robert Estill of SOTAOG, say that more importantly, they will have access to Google engineers and the tech giant’s professional network.

A month earlier, Apple had brought in another local company for its First Class Impact Accelerator – a program that provides resources and mentorship to minority-owned businesses that can benefit Apple’s supply chain and help communities that are disproportionately affected by environmental risks. The company, GreenTek Solutions, refurbishes, sells and recycles old electronics. Since its founding in 2012, it has kept more than 3,450 tonnes of used electronic devices out of landfills.

While Houston still lags (at least in terms of perception) behind Austin and tech darlings San Francisco and Boston, the latest developments show that the dynamics could change.

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