The First Look West (FLoW) winners for 2014

First Place ($100,000): REEcycle

Turning waste from hard drives into critical resources used in the most efficient wind turbines and electric motors is REEcycle’s passion, the University of Houston team that won the $100,000 First Place prize.

REEcycle’s process extracts Neodymium and Dysprosium, two precious rare earth elements, essential in manufacturing clean energy technologies, from discarded hard drive magnets. Rare Earth elements are critical to the most efficient wind turbines and electric motors – two technologies that drive the energy efficient future. Retrieving these elements makes the US less dependent on unpredictable foreign sources such as China, the world’s largest exporter of rare earth elements. The combined Neodymium and Dysprosium market alone, in 2012, was worth over $4 billion, and is expected to grow to $8 billion by 2018. Check out their video:

Second Place ($40,000): GrollTex

GrollTex, under a team from the University of California San Diego, is developing a novel process for manufacturing graphene that may be orders of magnitude more cost effective and less wasteful than current methods of production.

Labelled the “wonder material” Graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, very flexible and 97.7 % transparent, and is the most conductive material known by weight. Potential applications include flexible transparent conductive electrodes, which could find ready markets , ranging from solar panels to large TV displays to thin-film solar panels.

Third Place ($20,000): CinderBio

CinderBio, a spinout from Berkeley Lab led by a team of UC Berkeley students, uses microbes that thrive in the near-boiling acidic waters of volcanic springs to produce industrial enzymes with unmatched thermal and acid operational ranges.

Industrial enzymes are a growing, multi-billion dollar green industry that reduces energy, water, and harsh chemical use while improving process efficiency in many sectors. Potential markets for these enzymes range from cleaning dairy processing facilities ($1B/yr.) to cellulosic biofuels (est. $75B/yr.).

Transformational Idea Award ($5,000): MuTherm

MuTherm, emerging from Oregon State University, is developing a micro channel flameless device for powering the wireless sensors that monitor thousands of miles of gas pipelines.

The technology reduces the operating and maintenance costs of wireless sensors on natural gas pipelines up to 75% by using the pipeline natural gas to power the sensors instead of the conventional batteries. The market for a device, operating in real time, is substantial: it is estimated that there will be over 200,000 wireless sensors on natural gas pipelines in 2014 with an annual growth rate of 30%.