Since the creation of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) five years ago the world’s energy landscape has changed, from the lows of the Fukushima nuclear disaster to the highs of a game-changing source of natural gas. Over that period, MITEI has thrived. Ernest Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems and director of MITEI, says it has had an impact on research, education, and policy. “I’m encouraged by our approach,” says Moniz. “The energy world has changed dramatically in five years, but I think MITEI’s portfolio has proved to be quite up to the task.”
Chief among the world’s energy challenges, says Moniz, is climate change, triggered in large part by the carbon dioxide released during the use of traditional fuels. If we don’t dramatically cut those emissions, “Mother Nature will give us sterner and sterner warnings. I believe she already is,” says Moniz, who leads MITEI with Deputy Director Robert Armstrong, the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “We’ll probably need to reduce carbon emissions by at least half over the next 50 years, and that’s while serving many more people.”
The Institute-wide initiative aimed at tackling the world’s energy problems has more than 20 industry members sponsoring research and analysis and has helped launch nearly 700 research projects. Major concentrations range from solar energy to hydrocarbon production. Many projects have gone on to procure significant follow-on government and industry funding and to patent applications, in addition to publications and theses. More than 10 energy technology spinoff companies have emerged. “We are seeing the fruits of MITEI research projects along the whole innovation chain, from basic science to the marketplace,” says Moniz.
MITEI also last year released three multidisciplinary studies on the Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, of Natural Gas, and of the Electric Grid. The 287-page natural gas report by 30 MIT researchers was presented to the U.S. Senate in a hearing before its Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. MITEI has “helped influence the national — and to a certain extent international — debate” over the future of energy, says Moniz, who is one of 20 U.S. scientists and engineers on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and served as a past undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.
MITEI has also had an impact on education at MIT, most notably through the creation of an energy minor for undergraduates. The minor, like MITEI’s research portfolio, is multidisciplinary, cutting across all five MIT schools. “Disciplines from engineering to social science are essential to solving the energy problem,” says Moniz. He notes the importance of new teaching materials that are growing from MITEI’s support of educational initiatives, such as a 1,000-page textbook being written for Cambridge University Press by two faculty who developed a new course on the physics of energy. Another important MITEI initiative: catalyzing collaboration of faculty and students with MIT’s physical plant to reduce campus energy use.
What’s next for MITEI? For one, the initiative will have some new research emphases, says Moniz. These include studies around the intersection of energy and water — how much energy it takes to create clean water, and how water is used to produce energy. Another major thrust involves large-scale infrastructure systems like the electric grid. For example, says Moniz, “how can we integrate renewable energy sources at a very large scale into a reliable, efficient energy delivery system?”
Assoc. Prof. Meg Jacobs is a historian on energy issues. “One of the important lessons from the nation’s first energy crisis in the ’70’s is the need for ongoing, sustained research that’s independent of both politics and market positions,” says Jacobs, who teaches a new class, The Energy Crisis: Past and Present, and is writing a book about the ’70’s crisis called Panic at the Pump. She explains that when that crisis ended in the ’80’s because of changes in the market and politics, momentum for tackling energy challenges stalled.
MITEI matters, she says, because the initiative, and President Susan Hockfield’s commitment to it, “announces to the world that MIT is going to make a sustained effort and therefore a real contribution to solving today’s crisis.” Further, MIT not only conducts core research, “it has longstanding ties to government and industry that can translate technological breakthroughs into real-world applications.”
Moniz says: “Clean energy is obviously an area where a lot of MIT faculty and students want to make a difference. It’s that tremendous enthusiasm that makes us feel like going to work.”