The publication chose Straubel for his engineering work on the company's all-electric Roadster, citing his leadership of the development of the "groundbreaking car's" battery, motor and digital-control systems.
"People have looked at electric cars for a long time as a way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and other toxic emissions from cars, and generally speaking, they just haven't sold well and they have been viewed as underpowered, short-range vehicles," Erika Jonietz, senior editor for the MIT Technology Review, said Monday. "With the engineering JB has led at Tesla, the company has really changed the way people view electric cars."
The company has pioneered systems that use commonly available lithium-ion batteries and found a way to make them safe in a high-risk environment where cars crash and batteries explode, all while delivering higher torque, she said.
"The popularity in the press and initial sales of this incredibly expensive car has pushed a lot of people to reexamine the viability of electric cars, including major automakers," Jonietz said. "We think it has the potential to have a really big impact on transportation and on the environment."
The award is part of the Technology Review's annual TR35 list of 35 "outstanding" innovators under the age of 35, who were picked from a field of more than 300 submissions, according to the announcement.
It's the second year in a row that the publication has picked its top winner from the greentech arena.
Last year's top innovator was David Berry, a principal at venture-capital firm Flagship Ventures, who won for his work developing microbes that make renewable petroleum. His work was the basis for the microbes LS9 is developing (see his TR35 profile here).
Straubel is one of six greentech-related innovators included on the TR35 list this year. The publication also picked six clean-technology innovators last year.
Jonietz said the Technology Review didn't make a particular effort to pick clean-energy winners.
"We set out to pick the young innovators who we think are going to have the greatest impact on the way we live and work in the future," she said. "Increasingly, people who work on these problems are having that sort of impact. It's really just a reflection of our goal with the package."
Aside from Straubel, this year's greentech winners include:
- Ted Betley, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, for recreating photosynthesis in an artificial process that could potentially advance hydrogen fuel cells.
- Peter Corsell, CEO of GridPoint, for developing "smart grid" energy-management technologies. GridPoint has developed a platform to give utilities more information about the grid, increasing reliability. It also has products to reduce energy usage in buildings, and to convert renewable energy into usable electricity and automatically sell excess electricity to utilities at opportune times (see GridPoint Raises $32M, With More to Come and Red Herring stories here and here).
- Ric Fulop, co-founder and vice president for business development at A123Systems, for his contributions in developing the lithium-ion battery the company is commercializing. The technology was originally developed at the material sciences and engineering department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A123, which sells lithium-ion batteries for power tools, is developing them for hybrid-electric and all-electric vehicles. The company earlier this month filed for an initial public offering (see A123Systems Files for $175M IPO).
- Ronggui Yang, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, for developing nanocomposites that can more efficiently generate electricity from heat. These thermoelectric materials could help make solar-thermal systems more efficient or could end up in cars' exhaust systems, such as on the radiator or exhaust pipe, where they could potentially increase vehicles' fuel efficiency by up to 33 percent, Jonietz said. "The challenge has been in creating thermoelectrics that are efficient enough to be practical and that also are easily manufactured without specialty techniques," she said, adding that these materials fit both criteria.
- Michelle Chang, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, for her research into microbes for use in biofuels and in drugs. Using synthetic biology, she is working to draw enzymes from different environmental organisms and combine them into one to produce fuel from plant biomass.