Attacking the Energy-Environment Problem with Basic Research and Novel Technologies

Developing cost-effective storage solutions for intermittent renewable electricity

Finding the energy to power a civilization of about 10 billion people without destroying the environment is the greatest challenge facing humanity this century. Unlike many research opportunities, failure to solve this problem risks centuries of hardship for human civilization. Therefore, the work of Dr. Michael Aziz, of Harvard University, is of utmost importance.

The cost of solar and wind power has dropped so much that the greatest remaining obstacle to us getting the vast majority of our electricity from sunshine and wind is their intermittency. Dr. Aziz leads an interdisciplinary research team developing a promising battery storage technology for safely and cost-effectively storing enormous amounts of solar and wind-generated electricity. This will enable us to use them when we need them, rather than when Nature chooses to provide them. His team was recognized by Discover Magazine when their invention was listed among the top 100 stories of 2014. While massive worldwide deployment of clean energy technologies will take many decades, Dr. Aziz presses forward with the knowledge that, “if we wait to see how things go before really getting moving, we’re guaranteed to get there too late.”

    Dr. Aziz’s work aims for both near-term and long-term impact on the energy-environment problem. In addition to his work with battery storage science and technology, Dr. Aziz has begun to work on a variety of other projects that may reduce the burden being placed upon our planet while aiding humanity in meeting its needs. Through research on some of the greatest technical obstacles in renewable energy and sustainability today, Dr. Aziz aims to make important contributions to solving the energy-environment problem.

Current research includes:

  • Battery Storage Technology: Dr. Aziz’s team is developing a battery storage technology in which energy is stored in inexpensive, abundant, non-toxic organic molecules found in nature. These are dissolved in water -- so they can’t catch fire -- and can be energized and then stored outside the battery container itself in arbitrarily large holding tanks for greatly reduced cost.

  • Material Stability: Radiation tolerance is important for electrical power plants that produce power by nuclear fission, as well as for future plants envisaged to produce power by nuclear fusion -- which, unlike fission, creates no radioactive products. Currently the problem of stability of an irradiated solid is a very difficult one to solve. Dr. Aziz studies the way that energetic particle irradiation affects the surfaces of materials in order to develop a way to predict which materials will be stable under which irradiation conditions.

  • New Semiconductors: Dr. Aziz is studying new semiconductors that can be made with ion bombardment and pulsed laser irradiation. These fabrication methods permit him and his team to make materials with atomic compositions that have not been made by any other method. They are studying and modifying these materials as possible candidates for ultra-high efficiency solar cells.

  • Removing Carbon Dioxide: Dr. Aziz is investigating how carbon dioxide might be removed from the atmosphere through the development of industrial processes to accelerate the earth’s natural process -- called chemical weathering -- to industrial rates. Currently the technology cost is too high and the market price of carbon dioxide emissions is too low for this to be economically viable, but his research aims to reduce technology costs for earlier viability if market conditions change.

  • This profile is spotlighted in the Clean Energy Impact Fund.



 Dr. Michael Aziz of Harvard University inspects a prototype of his revolutionary energy storage device.

Michael J. Aziz has been a member of the faculty at what is now the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences since he joined in 1986 and is now Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies. Aziz has made significant contributions to a number of fields in applied physics and materials science. Among his recent research interests are novel materials and processes for energy technology and greenhouse gas mitigation. He is co-inventor of the organic aqueous flow battery and directs a multi-investigator research program on stationary electrical energy storage.  He is the Faculty Coordinator for Harvard's University-Wide Graduate Consortium on Energy and Environment, for which he developed a quantitative course on Energy Technology for a group of students in diverse disciplines. He is co-authoring a textbook, Introduction to Energy Technology: Depletable and Renewable to be published by Wiley-VCH.

For twenty years, Dr. Michael Aziz was motivated by basic research is materials science, content with the idea that -- eventually -- basic research pays off in benefits to society. When asked to teach thermodynamics -- the science of energy, energy conversion, and energy efficiency -- which is arguably the most difficult topic in the typical undergraduate engineering curriculum, he looked for a way to motivate his students to rise to the challenge presented by the intricacies of thermodynamics. In the process, he discovered the urgency of the energy-environment problem, which did more than motivate only his students. Rather than continuing only in the fundamental research he had been doing previously, he became motivated to take risks in initiating research that could help with the pressing problem our planet is facing.  

Mike Aziz is an avid windsurfer -- a sport in which he harnesses renewable energy in search of the perfect “planing jibe.”  In addition, he enjoys bicycling, as well as hiking in the mountains with his three children.




Alkaline Quinone Flow Battery

In this paper we describe the first high-performance, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-corrosive, and low-cost chemicals for flow batteries and report the performance of a flow battery employing them. This is particularly well suited for storage of rooftop PV-generated electricity in homes and businesses.


A Metal-Free Organic-Inorganic Aqueous Flow Battery

In this paper we introduce a new approach to inexpensive, large-scale electrical energy storage by exploiting the favorable properties of a family of organic molecules known as quinones. We demonstrate a quinone-based flow battery with high performance and plenty of headroom for further performance improvements.


Molecular Dynamics of Single-Particle Impacts Predicts Phase Diagrams for Large Scale Pattern Formation

In this paper we introduce a new paradigm for predicting the stability of materials surfaces under ion irradiation, and use it to produce the first ever quantitative agreement between theory and experiment with zero adjustable parameters.


Room-temperature sub-band gap optoelectronic response of hyperdoped silicon

In this paper we report the use of a silicon-based alloy to act as a photodetector at wavelengths too long for conventional silicon. This suggests that solar cells based on this material might be able to harness energy from the part of the solar spectrum not harnessed by other silicon solar cells.


Methodology for vetting heavily doped semiconductors for intermediate band photovoltaics: A case study in sulfur hyperdoped sili

In this paper we develop a methodology to evaluate the potential for materials to be used in ultra high efficiency solar cells. This allows for the more rapid screening of candidate materials.


Electrochemical Acceleration of Chemical Weathering as an Energetically Feasible Approach to Mitigating Anthropogenic Climate Ch

In this paper we introduce and analyze a new concept for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by accelerating the earth’s slow natural process to industrial rates using large-scale industrial processes.


Electricity storage for intermittent renewable sources

In this paper we present a framework to determine how much energy a battery must store, and how rapidly it must deliver that energy out of storage, in order to take the energy from a wind turbine or a photovoltaic array and make it available when we need it. We find that conventional batteries, when discharged at their rated power, are drained way too soon to be useful for this task.


A Neutral pH Aqueous Organic/Organometallic Redox Flow Battery with Extremely High Capacity Retention

In this paper we report a new aqueous flow battery chemistry operating in neutral pH conditions, thereby promising very inexpensive containment and reducing the need for highly corrosion-resistant battery components. This battery retains 99.9989% of its capacity per charge-discharge cycle! This appears to be the highest capacity retention rate for any flow battery work ever published, permitting cost-effective integration of photovoltaics and wind power into the grid.



Bruce Chalmers Award, Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society (TMS)

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Fellow, Materials Research Society

Fellow, American Physical Society

Sauveur Memorial Lectureship, ASM International, Boston

Woody Award, Materials Research Society

Creativity Award, National Science Foundation