While no one welcomes the world’s current energy predicament, it is in many ways a problem made for MIT. Consider solar power, for example, and you see the remarkable fit between the demands of the problem and MIT’s signature strengths — an unparalleled depth and breadth of technical expertise, a command of real-world policy, a tradition of entrepreneurial creativity and a fearless disregard for conventional boundaries, whether between academic fields or between industry and the academy itself.
Solar power’s potential is colossal, but its current role in our energy mix is paltry: The sunlight that strikes the surface of the Earth in a day is enough to meet all of humanity’s energy needs for a year, yet only a fraction of one percent of U.S. electricity comes from the sun. So, in the quest for a low-carbon future, how do we transform this minor actor into a major force? It requires solving two problems at once: the cost of conversion of solar energy and storage. First, we have to achieve enough cost reductions and efficiency improvements to make solar competitive with fossil fuels. Second, we have to find affordable, reliable ways to store the sun’s energy, so power keeps flowing at night and on sunless days. (Storage turns out to be the rate-limiting technology for almost all alternative sources of power.)
If the problems are easy to define, however, the path to their solution is not. In such a comparatively young and dynamic field, no one can forecast the advances that will finally make solar economically viable at scale. The solution will surely require both transitional gains — to make today’s technologies more efficient and earth-friendly — and transformational innovations that will propel solar energy from a boutique option to a mainstream energy source. At least as serious as the technical challenges will be the task of delivering the new ideas successfully to the market.
In addressing the twin imperatives of energy and environment, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), launched just over two years ago, builds on a remarkable record. MIT created its first solar house 70 years ago, and many contributions have followed, some of which we highlight in this issue. Our efforts reflect the breadth of MIT’s expertise — from understanding matter and light at the most basic levels, to exploring matter at the nano-scale, to developing solar systems that may be market-ready in few years, to designing policies that enable new technologies to break into the energy marketplace. Our solar research also capitalizes on MIT’s distinctive emphasis on interdisciplinary collaborations.
At the same time, the impact of our faculty’s engineering and science achievements is hugely amplified by MIT’s entrepreneurial attitude. For instance, when MIT researchers hit on a more economical way to produce silicon for solar cells, they launched a start-up — one of several new MIT-born energy companies — that already has plants in the U.S. and overseas.
We also benefit from a willingness to partner with industry — a relatively rare asset in the academic world. MITEI is partnering with the Italian company Eni, for example, to develop new approaches to solar power. Thanks to the generosity of alumnus Arunas Chesonis and the Foundation he created, MITEI has also launched the Solar Revolution Project. What’s more, the strengths that equip us to tackle the problems of solar energy apply equally to other key areas of energy research, such as the development of next-generation batteries, an area in which an array of promising avenues are being pursued at MIT.
Yet on the question of energy, a single MIT strength makes me as hopeful as any other: the passion, drive and innovative thinking of our students, from their classes to their club work. (The 1,250-member MIT Energy Club is among the very largest student organizations on campus.) MIT has already made pioneering contributions to energy research, and through the inspired ideas of our faculty and students, we are helping to design and build a bright, clean energy future for the world.
One final note: These are difficult times for many of you, for MIT and for society at large. At the Institute, we have already begun to make tough choices about our priorities, and we will face more in the future. Yet we know we cannot waver from our mission — of in service to the nation and the world, — of creating the innovators and innovations that will not only redefine the energy future, but might just revive the economy as well. In these unusual times, MIT must work harder than ever to sustain its momentum in critical areas; we are enormously grateful to the alumni and friends whose generosity makes this work possible.