Student clean-tech innovations impress

An engineer, an entrepreneur and an environmentalist walk into a vacated airplane hangar ... or, in the case of the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge, held on April 1, hundreds of them ventured into Hangar 30 in Seattle's Magnuson Park.

That's where 19 interdisciplinary student teams demonstrated their clean-tech innovations before a who's-who list of industry experts serving as judges for the competition. Challengers vied for prizes totaling $22,500.

Representing eight colleges from Washington state, the students' innovations addressed a wide variety of environmental problems. One team tackled the amount of electricity consumed by the indoor plant growing industry, another focused on the inefficiency of solar photovoltaic cells and a third team addressed idle power consumption.

"I was looking for novel ideas, for solutions that can make a lasting impact and for teams that can make it happen," said Loretta Little, managing director and business development manager at WRF Capital. She didn't have to look far.

EnVitrum, the duo of Grant Marchelli and Renuka Prabhakar, both graduate students at the UW College of Engineering, won the challenge and $10,000 for their novel manufacturing process that uses crushed, 100 percent post-consumer glass, regardless of color and contaminants. The EnVitrum process is one positive step toward addressing the problem of glass that continues to reach U.S. landfills, an estimated 11.6 billion tons in 2009.

And when that process is combined with techniques such as casting, extrusion and molding, a variety of objects can be produced. Take EnVitrum's "VitroBrick," a building material that requires 60 percent less production energy than masonry and could have a major impact on the green building industry.

"Living systems already exist on a small scale, but there really aren't materials that can meet that need on a large scale," said Prabhakar. "Our product is stronger and cheaper than regular brick, it's 100 percent recycled material, it's water-permeable so we can use it to cool buildings or use it to grow plants, and it's structural so it can be used to build higher."

The Grand Prize was sponsored by the UW Center for Commercialization.

Taking the second prize of $5,000 was the Triangle Energy team, which formed to address the lack of profitable, large-scale production of environmentally sustainable energy produced from waste biomass. Their solution? Triangle Energy engineered, designed and built the first mobile bioreactor that uses super critical water gasification to convert solid biomass into synthesis gas.

A great example of interdisciplinary collaboration, Triangle Energy is a five-member team from UW led by Ken Faires, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering. Colin Corrent (doctoral candidate in biochemistry), Elaine Chow (undergraduate in chemical engineering), Shahab Matin and Zach Okun (both MBA students), round out the team.

Three honorable mention prizes of $2,500 were also awarded. The recipients were Idyll Energy Solutions, iDriveSmart, and Nano-Wave Lighting.

•Idyll Energy, a team from Seattle Pacific University, presented an intelligent power strip that can disconnect and restore power to appliances based on movement in the room, to combat idle energy consumption.

•From the UW, the iDriveSmart team demonstrated an integrated system that will provide real-time fuel economy information through a driver's Smartphone to encourage fuel-efficient driving practices.

•Nano-Wave Lighting, a team of three from North Seattle Community College, impressed judges with a patentable, highly efficient LED lighting solution for nurseries, greenhouses and indoor growers.

Speaking to the crowd as they gathered for the announcement of the prizes, Jim Jiambalvo, dean of the UW Foster School of Business, thanked the teams and judges. He also praised the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge for two reasons. First, he spoke to the cross-campus collaboration that took place to orchestrate the event, applauding Foster's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the College of Engineering, College of the Environment and Center for Commercialization.

Then, Jiambalvo turned his attention to the big picture. "This event deals with an issue of absolute, fundamental importance, and that's ensuring the long-term viability of planet Earth -- and if you can think of something more important than that, let me know."

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