Q&A: Yi Cui discusses climate change, ‘Flagship Destinations’ and his new position as Director of the Sustainability Accelerator

May 16, 2023, 1:40 a.m.

In April, Yi Cui was named the Director of the Doerr School’s Sustainability Accelerator.  He currently serves as the Director of the Precourt Institute for Energy and is a professor of materials science & engineering and energy science & engineering whose work primarily concerns batteries.

The Accelerator provides grants ranging between $50,000 and $900,000 to projects intended to scale laboratory findings to large-scale solutions for sustainability challenges. It’s expected to play an important role in implementing greenhouse gas emissions removal as the first “Flagship Destination,” one of multiple focus areas for the school.

The decision to make emissions removal the first priority received some criticism from members of the Stanford community who are concerned that the focus area is too closely aligned to the interests of the fossil fuel industry, after a report by The Chronicle of Higher Education claimed that the decision was linked to two workshops that were organized in collaboration with executives from Shell, Total and ExxonMobil. Cui disputes this claim.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Congratulations on your appointment as the Faculty Director of the new Sustainability Accelerator. What exactly is your role in serving as the Faculty Director?

Yi Cui [YC]: As the Director, or Faculty Director, I have the full responsibility to build up the Accelerator and to get it to reach the goal of “how do we translate technology and policy solutions to the real world fast and generate a large and scalable impact?” 

TSD: Will you have direct say over which projects get funded or which don’t? How does the organizational structure work for the Accelerator?

YC: So we are still starting this up. Surely, once we identify important areas, we want to ask for faculty and student ideas, and they will be writing a proposal to the Accelerator to present their ideas. I should have a team of experts to help make the selection and give advice to me, as the Accelerator Director. It will be a combination of the review committee and my own input to collectively make the decision.

TSD: In June 2021, six months into your tenure as the Director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Precourt Institute held a workshop that was instrumental in the designation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Removal as a Flagship Destination. We understand that you were not on the organizing committee, but as Director, you must have had some understanding of this event. Did you know that this would lead to the first focus of the new Sustainability Accelerator?

YC: No, I don’t think so. I mean, people like to make the connection saying, you know, that the workshop led to the Accelerator’s decision. No, no. There’s very little connection right there. It’s actually because greenhouse gas removal is so important, independent of this Precourt workshop. And Precourt certainly recognized the importance of that, and our faculty and industry members recognized that, holding that workshop. But it’s not because this workshop led to that connection.

Recognizing the importance of greenhouse gas removal goes all the way back to early on before I even got involved. The American Physical Society recognized this importance, holding a workshop and publishing a report. IPCC also has that. The US Department of Energy recognizes it, and there’s an Earthshot already on negative carbon technology.

I saw the report from The Chronicle of Higher Education. It seems to make the connection that it’s because of this workshop with oil and gas companies [that greenhouse gas emissions removal was designated as the new Flagship Destination]. No, no. There’s no such connection. Anybody can make any connection because there’s this workshop while they’re having this new school. No, I don’t think there’s a connection right there. I’ve been observing this. I say, well, I’m a little bit surprised. How come the connection was made this way?

TSD: As in the Chronicle, there’s been a lot of news lately about the connections you mention. Could you elaborate on how exactly did the Sustainability Accelerator come to greenhouse gas emissions removal as the first flagship destination? Was there any influence from the workshops?

YC: Greenhouse gas removal has always been incredibly important to everybody. It’s not because of the workshop. I have my top 10 technologies I want to see. I often give talks, I say, “greenhouse gas removal, capture and utilization, long duration energy storage, renewable fuels, low carbon cement.” If you look at every time I talk to folks fighting against climate change, greenhouse gas removal always overlaps people’s thoughts [because] it’s such an important topic. So it wasn’t hard at all to get to the point and say this should be the first Flagship Destination.

Now, as the Director of the Accelerator, I need to [remain] neutral and unbiased. With my own research, I always think long duration energy storage is so important. But, I cannot push that and say that is the Flagship. Long duration energy storage is so important to get solar and wind electricity into the electrical grid, but greenhouse gas removal has consensus among so many faculty and faculty councils. This always comes up to be such an important topic.

After I became Precourt Director, I expanded my study of the whole energy and climate space. I used to be so focused on batteries. Certainly now, fighting against climate change, it all comes down to the net effects. You want the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentration to be reduced. No matter what approach you take, that’s the outcome needed in order to fight against climate change. Then it’s necessary to reduce emissions first, burn less coal, oil and gas. Eventually, better yet is just not to burn anything, it’s to reduce so that we don’t put more [greenhouse gasses] into the atmosphere. But if you could find a way to take out the existing greenhouse gas, why not do that? I mean, that’s just from any reasonable scientific analysis, you see the outcome is taking greenhouse gas out.

That’s my major thinking of endorsing greenhouse gas removal from the air. But I do not want that to be the reason to give oil and gas companies the permission to emit more. I do not want that, and I can completely understand the other thinking: “if you do this, oil and gas companies say they can just keep emitting without caring about the consequences.” No, I do not want that. The outcome that I care about the most is reducing the greenhouse gasses in the air, so we don’t have the greenhouse gas effect, and we don’t have the significant extreme weather events [and other threats associated with climate change].

I see now this collision of thoughts of whether [to endorse] greenhouse gas removal from the air or not. So I understand and completely respect the thinking from our students and faculty saying, well, “if you endorse greenhouse gas removal from the air, it sounds like you’re endorsing the oil and gas companies.” We’re not endorsing that at all, but I completely understand this concern.

TSD: You mentioned that you have a list of 10, or even more, technologies that you believe will be important for the fight against climate change. So do you see each of these 10 eventually becoming flagship destinations?

YC: No. Well some of them maybe. But sustainability is so much broader than the technologies in my top 10 list. Like, you know, we need to deal with the water issue, we need to deal with the adaptation issue, we need to deal with the food issue — actually, food is also in my top 10. So there’s so many issues right there. We’re collecting ideas broadly from our faculty in the Doerr School and outside of the Doerr School. I already reached out to a number of folks and [started] having individual meetings. In addition, we have the online form to collect ideas from people who are willing to fill in the form and tell us what’s important. So we need to go through that process. I understand not everybody wants to fill out the online form, and that takes time. That’s why it’s a combination of the online form and [outreach from myself and] the leadership team to individual faculty.

I do want to run a workshop down the road to give faculty broadly the opportunity to speak about the ideas. And we do [already] have a committee to look at this to help screen the best big ideas coming in for the next, for example, three Flagships. So the first Flagship is only the first one, but we’ll have another three, maybe another few coming soon. So I don’t know how many Flagships we are going to have — it depends on the ideas and the financial resources we have. So don’t think greenhouse gas removal is the only one. No, no, that’s just a starting one.

TSD: Do you know when the next three Flagship Destinations will be released?

YC: [The Doerr School is] collecting ideas now, so I’m hoping in the next few months we can run a workshop. I’m not facing the timeline yet. So by more or less around the end of this summer, we might have another three Flagships identified. Once identified, each Flagship will need to go through their own workshop to identify the whitespaces, get our faculty and external partners involved to fully explore these Flagships and what should be done, followed by a proposal call to our faculty calling for ideas. This will go into next year.

TSD: Our understanding is that most of the projects related to the Flagship Destinations will come from the Sustainability Accelerator. To what extent will the Accelerator prioritize funding projects related to the Flagship Destinations compared to projects outside of the Flagship Destinations?

YC: The Accelerator is trying to accelerate projects that can go to scale. We might find that some of the ideas from our faculty are fantastic, but need initial concept demonstration. Then this feedback can go to Precourt Institute or Woods Institute to provide seed funding first. Potentially that’s the case, you know, Precourt has Precourt Pioneering Project and Precourt Seed Fund, Woods has an Environmental Venture Program and the REIP program. And that’s one type of outcome. Since I’ve only been in this just for two weeks at the Accelerator, I’m still formulating the ideas for action if it’s not Flagship. There could be some ideas that are so important, but if they don’t bubble up to be a Flagship, what do we do about those ideas? I’m cooking up ideas on how to do that. I’m also very excited about those ideas, [and am] now talking to some faculty about potential directions. I can see, in addition to Flagship, there will be quite a long list of exciting ideas. How do we help to explore and grow those ideas? I’m still in the process of coming up with a plan.

TSD: You mention that some of the ideas might go to Woods Institute or Precourt, where they might receive seed round funding. And we also see TomKat and Bio-X and these different types of accelerators growing in number at Stanford, as well as other universities. How do you see the landscape of funding mechanisms for research changing as the Accelerator is implemented? 

YC: These different units on campus have different focuses. For example, the TomKat Center is more focused on students by providing resources for students. And the Accelerator is focusing on doing research projects that can be scalable. But the translation of this project, going into the real world, could work together with the TomKat Center and other units. For example, the solution coming out might lead to a startup company, the startup company formation might involve the TomKat program and the business school’s Startup Garage. Or it could be a policy solution that can lead to a nonprofit organization. It can also lead to just simply the translation of the solution to external partners. And this translation might also be able to work with a campus program to do that. There are multiple touching points right now where we could work together. I think at Stanford we’re so fortunate to have huge resources and multiple units to coordinate and realize a big vision. I can see a lot of synergy coming among all these units.

TSD: In the Doerr School and the Sustainability Accelerator, a common phrase that we often hear is “Speed and Scale” and the impact of these projects. Do you think that accelerators are shifting the perspective of academia or Ph.D. programs away from foundational science and towards entrepreneurship and product development? And is that something that you’re worried about? 

YC: I’m not worried about it at all. I think it’s very healthy to have two ways to look at the research. One is the discovery type of research, [which] Stanford is already great at doing. Many top universities are actually taking this approach of the discovery type of research. The Accelerator represents another angle — start from an outcome, take in feedback, put a scale in mind, and [go back and] do the fundamental science discovery research and engineering development. It’s really good to look at a problem [both ways]. I will predict that this is the modern university, and future leading universities need to have both working well. This will be a huge opportunity for Stanford to lead. Silicon Valley has unintentionally or intentionally already done part of that now. Put the scale in mind, and this will enhance the impact even more. 

I see [that] both types of research can coexist. My lab is an example: in the past 18 years since I’ve become a faculty member, both research types have coexisted in my research lab. I could do discovery type. I can also do this outcome-driven, impact-driven [research] and come back to invent the science, invent the materials and develop the technology. Both actually can exist in my lab. In my brain, I can appreciate both. I think this is going to be fantastic for our students to learn both.

TSD: What are your priorities for the Sustainability Accelerator? Do you have a set of goals that you hope to achieve in the next few years?

YC:  First is that I hope we can really identify very important exciting Flagships — big problems can motivate our faculty and students to join to solve those big problems. Second is really building the Accelerator so that the best people join. In addition to our faculty members, the staff joining will really help run the organization, and to engage the proper Doerr School faculty as well as the whole campus faculty. And to really try to reach this, I think this is related to the previous problem I mentioned of having impact-driven and discovery type of research coming together to become the future [of] academia. This becomes a place [where we] can embrace both cultures of doing cutting-edge research.

Steven is a writer for The Daily. Contact them at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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