Kwabena Bediako was first drawn to energy studies by the power of the African sun. Growing up in Ghana, he said he was struck by
“a simple thought: Why aren’t we doing more with solar energy?”

Today, in collaboration with the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Bediako is a Saudi Aramco-MIT Energy Fellow working on an “artificial leaf” — a device invented in the lab of Professor of Chemistry Daniel Nocera that uses energy from the sun to make chemical fuel.

“MIT has made energy a priority,” Bediako said. “MIT brings together many different fields of research — from architecture to chemistry,” he said, to consider the broader problem of energy and to work toward progress from a range of disciplinary angles.

Bediako helped Nocera improve the catalysts needed to channel the sun’s energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. “Hydrogen is the fuel,” Bediako explained. “When you burn hydrogen you get water, so you close the cycle. It’s a zero carbon process.”

A third-year doctoral candidate, Bediako is just one of nearly 200 graduate and postdoctoral fellows who has benefited since MITEI was founded five years ago. The Society of Energy Fellows currently includes researchers in 20 different departments — spanning all five
schools — supported by 22 companies.

“When MITEI started, one of the big problems we noticed was that there weren’t a lot of faculty members on campus whose research programs were focused specifically on energy,” said Robert C. Armstrong, MITEI deputy director who is also the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. Today, he said, nearly 30 percent of the faculty is involved in energy — more than 270 faculty members. “In the first five years, we’ve done, or are doing, some 700 projects with $360 million in funding.” As a result, he noted, “The graduate pipeline at MIT is pretty full.”

Undergraduates are also benefiting from the uptick in energy research on campus — gaining hands-on experience through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). “These kids are doing extraordinary things, from exploring the theory of light and luminescence to the microbial understanding of critters able to digest material and produce energy from it,” said Amy Glasmeier, co-chair of the MITEI Energy Education Task Force, professor of geography and regional planning, and head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

MITEI introduces incoming freshmen to campus energy activities through its Freshman Pre-Orientation Program and supports such student activities as the Energy Club, the Electric Vehicle Team, and Biodiesel@MIT, a group working to produce fuel from used vegetable oils.

A major minor

But a significant educational accomplishment of MITEI is the 2009 launch of the Energy Studies Minor, made possible by gifts from Derry and Charlene Kabcenell, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, and an anonymous donor. The minor offers undergraduates an integrated, multidisciplinary view of energy and its implications. “It’s an innovative program,” Armstrong said. “It’s the first really interdepartmental, interschool academic program we have on campus.”

The curriculum — including more than 40 classes across all five schools — last year enrolled nearly nine percent of undergraduates. Nearly 40 students have minored in energy to date. “The minor allows any student to put a coherent overlay of energy subjects on any major,” Armstrong said. “There’s not a better place in the world to be an undergraduate if you’re interested in energy.”

“As soon as I heard about the energy minor, I knew I wanted to do it,” said Lucy Fan ’12, a chemical engineering major. Initially focused on sustainability and renewable energy, Fan said that when she took a class called Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies — a requirement for the minor — it opened her eyes to the need to consider not just technical solutions but also the economic feasibility and policy implications of technology. Regarding complex energy challenges, she says, “there’s no one solution; you need to have a portfolio.”

Fan’s energy studies led her to intern last summer with Exelon Corporation, where she worked on load forecasting and gas-storage models for the quantitative and business analytics department. “Before the energy minor, I had been focused on technology,” Fan said. Now she plans to work as a consultant in the electric power industry, helping to guide the evolution of the electrical grid.

“Our education program gives [students] this breadth of understanding that makes them capable of leaving the Institute and conveying the value of perspective in assessing energy issues in the modern world,” Glasmeier said.