By Angeli Duffin:  Despite it being January, the Midwest is heating up – at least in cleantech circles. The Clean Energy Trust (CET) has selected the 10 finalists who will duke it out for a total of $250,000 in prizes in the 2012 Clean Energy Challenge. Independent evaluators picked through more than 100 applications before narrowing down the list to the final teams, and the competition is looking … well, let’s just say we can’t accuse any of these nascent companies of being slackers. And now they’ll spend the next month with successful entrepreneurs and experienced industry experts preparing for their moment of truth in front of the judges on March 1 in Chicago.

As CET’s executive director, Amy Francetic, put it, “These are highly competitive applications that really showcase the innovation coming out of the region’s universities, labs and incubators. The most notable difference this year is the diversity of the new technologies being developed and a big emphasis on biofuels. Many of these businesses are developing prototypes, which makes the Challenge’s ability to put them in front of venture capitalists and investors especially critical to their development.”

Clean Energy Challenge

image via Clean Energy Trust

We’re more than a little excited to see what kind of innovation will be sparked from these teams. And because we know you are too, here’s a little teaser.

Algeon (Indianapolis, Ind.): As you may have deduced from the name, Algeon has developed a unique “vertical vineyard” system to produce biofuel from micro-algae. The company’s approach aims to combat the food-impact issues that come with producing biomass from soy or corn, while doing so in large enough quantities to satisfy demand.

Algal Scientific (Plymouth, Mich.): This company brings recycling to our oh-so-valuable resource, water. Algal Scientific designed treatment plants that use algae (the new organism of choice) to remove nutrient pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater. In turn, producing both clean water and algae biomass that can be used for biofuels, bioplastics and fertilizer.

Dioxide Materials (Champaign, Ill.): Always seeking to lower our carbon footprint, Dioxide Materials developed CO2 sensors that monitor air quality so HVAC systems can keep ventilation running only when needed, saving energy. But the company doesn’t stop there. It also created a Dual Electrocat (DueElCat) process powered by solar energy that converts carbon dioxide and water into a synthesis gas which is then refined back into gasoline.

Freiezo (St. Louis, Mo.): We’ll call it urbanization of the wind farm. Freiezo designed its Wind Joule vertical axis wind turbine with a modular, silent design that makes it possible to build mini-farms on tall buildings, billboards or water towers.

HEVT (Chicago, Ill.): Leveling the playing field of hybrid electric vehicles, HEVT develops component technologies and integrated systems that allow companies to “hybridize” their existing vehicle fleets at a low-cost.

Hyrax Energy (Madison, Wisc.): Hyrax Energy is an Industrial Biotechnology company developing bio-refineries that can break down corn stalks and leaves and other waste plant materials into low-cost fermentable sugars to be sold to manufacturers of renewable plastics, chemicals and fuels.

Phenometrics Algae Research

image via Phenometrics

Phenometrics (Lansing, Mich.): To support the promising impact of algae, Phenometrics developed the Phenometrics Photo Bioreactor and Sensor Matrix System that help labs create the perfect conditions for successfully growing algae.

SheerWind (Chaska, Minn.): These are not your mother’s wind turbines – as we recently reported. With its Invelox technology, SheerWind designed a system that captures wind and funnels it down into a tunnel to increase velocity before channeling it into a ground-based turbine, producing three times more power than conventional wind turbines.

Thermal Conservation Technologies (Chicago, Ill.): Introducing Klimate Kontrol, a high-performance vacuum insulation panel that solves the problem of inefficient, harmful insulation in refrigerated vehicles.

WholeTrees (Stoddard, Wisc.): This is your chance to get the tree house you never had. Instead of milling a tree for boards, WholeTrees uses just that – whole trees to build houses and buildings, eliminating the waste created in lumber.

We confident this is not the last you’ll hear of these 10 – after all, last year’s finalists have raised a whopping $10-plus million in venture funding and are busy commercializing their technologies. Stay tuned.