Tom McKinnon, Professor Emeritus at the Colorado School of Mines and Director of InventWorks

In our second installment of Focus on the Fellows, we highlight Tom McKinnon, managing director of InventWorks Inc. and Professor Emeritus at Colorado School of Mines. Tom has followed a fascinating career path that has included work at NREL (when it was the Solar Energy Research Institute); TDA Research, a small contract research company; University of Colorado; Colorado School of Mines, researching combustion biofuels, “green” fire suppression, and new materials for lithium batteries; Fullerene Sciences Inc., a nanomaterials company; Novare Biofuels; and Boulder ElectroRide, which made high-performance electric motorcycles. Tom even has experience on the legislative side from when he cofounded a bill for the Colorado ballot to place a small carbon tax on natural gas.

So how did Tom find his way to the field of cleantech? Energy had been on Tom’s mind for quite some time, and the field of alternative energy was of particular interest to him but he wasn’t sure where to start. Fate seemed to intervene when he went to a job interview in Boston during his senior year at Cornell University and shared a cab with a man who would eventually become his boss at SERI. After a few years at SERI, he went east to get his PhD in Chemical Engineering at MIT, researching combustion, and then continued to follow a path in research and energy.

So, entrepreneur or academic? “I would have to say both,” he says, “In our seminars, the stuff that lights me up the most is the stuff that has an academic nature to it. I like to see things applied. I am a widget-oriented person. I make stuff.”

In addition to his academic interest in the cleantech and energy industry, Tom is also driven by the importance he places on reducing our carbon footprint. “For me, the most important challenge that humankind faces is climate change. Within cleantech is where I tend to focus my efforts, and in the past where I have entirely focused my efforts.” His passion for applying technology and addressing climate change is a powerful combination and a great motivator.

Like many others, Tom would like to see the playing field in which the cleantech industry competes changed for the better. He takes issue with people criticizing cleantech for being on the public dole while the incumbent energy industry has enjoyed a plethora of subsidies, direct and indirect, and the subsidies that cleantech does receive are a fraction of the size and are much less permanent. For example, Tom points to the wind production tax credit (PTC) that may be allowed to sunset in the end of this December. “If I could change anything, it would be to make a truly level playing field in energy and then let the best portfolio of technologies win.”

The other change that Tom would like to see is in the policies that encourage, or discourage, the growth of the cleantech market. “We have the technology, we’ve had the technology for over a decade, and we have the money, we just don’t have the political will to do it.”

For his latest challenge, the Fellows Institute Capstone Project, Tom has set his sights on a technology that would increase accessibility to water for remote villages like those in Morocco. The origin of this project comes from a dinner Tom had with a friend who works for an NGO in Morocco. This friend described how women from many Moroccan villages spend a large portion of their day walking to and from a distant water source. In some areas, villages can leverage a process called fog harvesting to obtain water but where it is more arid, that method is no longer an option. Following an Institute HVAC webinar, Tom realized he might have found a solution using one of NREL’s desiccant-enhanced evaporative air conditioner (DEVAP) technologies. A follow-up tour of NREL’s HVAC lab increased his confidence.

The basic idea that Tom has in mind takes a very concentrated salt solution, 30%-40% salt, and then exposes it to air so the water in the air will go into the salt solution. Using solar thermal, you can then effectively boil the water out of the salt, concentrating the salt back to its original form and producing very pure water. Of course there is still plenty of tweaking of the process left to do, but this is where the relationship between the Cleantech Fellows Institute and NREL comes into play. As part of NREL’s partnership in the Fellows Institute, they have offered in-kind support that includes the ability for the Fellows to work with the NREL scientists. Tom greatly appreciates the help he has received from NREL. “The in-kind support will be extremely important so that I can access help from these experts. The other great resource is simply the credibility attached to the NREL name. When I make a pitch to a foundation to build one of these systems in the field, I can acknowledge that it is from NREL – and that carries a lot of weight.”

To say the least, the CFI capstone project is a challenge, especially in only 17 weeks. But Tom is geared up to tackle the opportunity and in terms of what he values most out of the program, he places the Capstone Project at number one. “People always perform best when there’s a little bit of pressure. And we’ve got Capstone Department Head Steve Berens breathing down our necks!”