The work described in this issue represents a quick look at some current solar efforts. But Robert Armstrong, MITEI’s deputy director, says that MIT’s solar work is broad-ranging and fast-moving enough to defy easy encapsulation.
He notes, for example, that the Institute has an ambitious program in batteries and related technologies that’s directly relevant to solar. Targets range from a room-sized “battery” for use with large generating facilities to smaller-scale technologies adaptable for use with, say, household solar systems.
As pertinent as the specifics of MIT’s solar-linked research is the entrepreneurial tradition that’s so much a part of MIT’s approach to tough interdisciplinary challenges, notes Armstrong.
Example No. 1: a group headed by a colleague of his in chemical engineering — Armstrong’s the former head of the department by that name — is working on ultra-thin-film photovoltaic technologies. The approach, which if successful would bring us PV systems that are both reasonably efficient and far less costly than today’s solar panels, reflects past experience in deploying the technology for other applications. “The impressive thing about this project,” says Armstrong, “is the idea of applying the creation of ultra-thin films through chemical vapor deposition to an entirely new area.”
Example No. 2: a civil and environmental engineering professor has teamed up with a mechanical engineering colleague to create a concept for a 5-20 kWh solar PV-thermal hybrid electrical power plant for developing countries. “What excites me about this one,” says Armstrong, “is bringing to bear traditional engineering ideas like systems integration and adaptive control to improve the economics and efficiency of renewable energy systems.”
There are many other examples of MIT’s entrepreneurial spirit at work in the solar realm, not least the several companies that have been launched to commercialize MIT-originated technologies in recent years.
But can the Institute continue to build on its solar successes to become the leader among universities in the field? “I believe we should be able to do that,” says Armstrong — but he adds that if MIT does so, it won’t be about the competition per se: “We’re committed to making a big difference in the world of renewable energy,” he notes.