Innovation Fellows thinking green during Energy Vault Sprint

Innovation Fellows: Get Ready, Set, Sprint

Iowa State University students innovate environmentally sustainable solutions during Energy Vault Sprint

By Mallory Tope, Student Innovation Center Content Writer | Published August 5, 2021

Where can students, from first years to graduates, partner with senior faculty and industry executives in a design sprint that influences a trillion-dollar company and expects them to contribute at a level of expertise and excellence as an industry professional? 

This is how Innovation Fellows learn at Iowa State University.

Ten Iowa State University students took part in an collaboration with the Student Innovation Center and innovation design sprint corporate sponsor Energy Vault.

Ten Iowa State University students are thinking green and digging into environmentally sustainable solutions in energy as part of a collaboration with the Student Innovation Center and innovation design sprint corporate sponsor, Energy Vault.

The eight-week project, offered as part of the Innovation Fellows Program, connects students with the senior executive team for Energy Vault, a Swiss-based long-duration energy storage solutions firm. Their goal? To advise Energy Vault as an innovation consulting team exploring recyclable solutions for coal ash and fiber polymers.

Innovation Sprints are team-based solution-finding projects based on problems that are inspired by real world problems, introduced by industry partners or experienced by the university. To participate, students enroll in the Innovation Fellows Program to receive professional practices and technical readiness training necessary to conduct and deliver excellently and exceed expectations, which brands Iowa State’s promise that students “Innovate at Iowa State.” As part of Innovation Sprints, students team up to think critically, find answers and propose ideas.

The idea of the project originated when Innovation Programs Director Karen Piconi Kerns was brainstorming ideas with Energy Vault CEO and co-founder Robert Piconi. The two wanted to find a way that they could collaborate to advance student research, provide professional practices experiences and accelerate technical readiness.

The innovation sprint provided a fast-track primer to research innovation, resourcing specialists, industry data and technical advances. Students addressed some of the industry’s most challenging engineering problems, evaluated and benchmarked existing practices and research, and documented business case studies in support of Energy Vault’s specific recommendations. One of the most valuable and valued components of the work focused on understanding environmental impacts, gathering data to advocate for human and animal health and safety.

Energy Vault, the 2019 World Economic Innovation Prize winner, proposed the focus of the project: to create a pipeline for students to research, analyze and present data to help find innovative solutions to decrease the carbon footprint. Students were brought on-board in the last week of May 2021.

“The student’s job is to do preliminary research that will help drive the company’s decisions about where to make the biggest impact for their carbon footprint,” Piconi Kerns said.

Beginning with a week-long technical and project management on-boarding immersion core, nine students split into four teams and collaborated in an 8-week summer-long sprint. Each of the teams, coal ash, fiber polymer, proposal and grants, environmental impact/regulation and policy, were assigned to research different aspects of recycling.

 Samuel Galuk, a senior in aerospace engineering, said his team was looking at glass fiber reinforced polymers and “all these different ways to recycle and all these different ways of being able to reuse this waste.”

“What’s cool about this project is we’re all doing technical research,” Galuk said. “We are combining the climate change problem with an economic and material science problem.”

Sarah Ng, a sophomore in industrial engineering said she enjoyed being able to use things she learned in her classes last semester in action and real-world situations.

Students also learn skills not found in a classroom. Reed Duncan, a junior in pre-business, said he gained real-world connections and experience throughout this sprint that he might not have received inside a classroom as an underclassman.

Students involved in the sprint gained technical readiness in areas such as material science, chemistry, transportation logistics, business case analysis, civil and chemical engineering, Piconi Kerns said.

Stay tuned for more as the Innovation Programs plans to launch several industry Sprints, Circuits, Dash and more in the Fall