Northwestern team qualifies for Department of Energy competition

Joseph Diebold

NuMat Technologies, a Northwestern-based startup focusing on clean energy solutions, will travel to Washington, D.C., next month as a finalist in the first National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, the U.S. Energy Department announced Friday.

NuMat qualified for the national finals by winning a regional competition, the Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago, in March. It will represent the eastern Midwest at the White House from June 12-13, competing against teams from the University of Utah, the University of Central Florida, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Columbia University.

The competition is a new initiative from the Energy Department to encourage America’s young entrepreneurs to pursue innovative solutions to modern energy problems.

“By promoting entrepreneurship at America’s universities, the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition is engaging the country’s best and brightest students around the important energy challenges of the 21st century,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said in a news release Friday. “The winning teams have developed effective strategies for bringing innovative technologies into the market that will help keep America competitive in the global race for clean energy technologies.”

JD-MBA candidate Ben Hernandez, the CEO of NuMat, said the winner of the national competition will receive a to-be-announced cash prize as well as services from national laboratories to help the winning team commercialize their technology.

Hernandez said NuMat has synthesized more than a decade of work by NU research groups headed by chemistry Prof. Joseph Hupp and McCormick Prof. Randall Snurrinto a new class of nanomaterials called metal-organic frameworks. Because MOFs are good at separating and storing gases, Hernandez said, they may lead to a more efficient way to store natural gas in vehicles.

Ph.D. candidate in Chemical & Biological Engineering Christopher Wilmer, NuMat’s chief technology officer, said NuMat’s technology has the potential to be revolutionary, including storing between three and eight times as much gas as current technology allows, at a lower pressure.

“The impact should revolutionize the gas storage and chemical separations industries,” Wilmer said. “Right now, anybody who wants to buy any commodity gas buys it in portable tanks. The tanks would be safer, they’d be cheaper, they’d be lighter and you could store more of the gas inside them.”

Wilmer said NuMat is using the time until June to continue business development, including looking for the most valuable applications for the technology and preparing the presentation the four-man team will give at the White House.

In the meantime, NuMat has gone to other regional competitions. On Saturday, it won the grand prize at the 29th annual Global Venture Labs Investment Competition held at the University of Texas at Austin, a package of cash and business services worth $135,000.

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Correction: A previous version of this article stated Christopher Wilmer was a JD-MBA candidate. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Chemical & Biological Engineering. The Daily regrets the error.