From early in its history MIT has been an energy innovator. Efforts to find new ways to generate and use electricity helped propel the growth of our electrical engineering program. In the 1930s, MIT faculty developed processes for making products like gasoline from crude oil that paved the way for mass use of the internal combustion engine. The Institute was also early to identify the peaceful use of nuclear energy as an important priority: our nuclear engineering program was one of the first of its kind in the world when launched in 1951, and it has since grown to involve research both on the fission-based technologies used in current power plants and on fusion-based systems.
Though much of our impact on the world’s energy future is the result of technological and scientific innovation, MIT has also had major impacts in other areas, including energy markets. Energy economics, for example, owes much of its existence to MIT economists, and most especially to Morris Adelman, now an emeritus professor. Similarly, Sloan School Dean Richard Schmalensee, Paul Joskow, who heads our Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, and others have helped shape national policies on issues such as market-based approaches to energy-linked pollution.
Energy activities at MIT have a strongly interdisciplinary flavor. The Energy Laboratory has long served as a coordinating body for research that crosses disciplinary lines. That lab’s recent merger with an umbrella environmental organization, the Center for Environmental Initiatives, to form the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment has opened the way for still broader interdisciplinary efforts. MIT people also work on energy matters with colleagues in business, academia, and government both here and abroad. For example, the projects of the Alliance for Global Sustainability – a partnership among MIT and universities in Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland – include studies of how to deliver cheap, clean energy in developing nations. Nuclear energy, too, is an Alliance focus area, and MIT is the headquarters for its newly created Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems.
Cleaner energy has been a longstanding interest of many faculty. Janos Beer, now an emeritus professor, developed a combustion system that has permitted major cutbacks in the output of nitrogen oxides. John Heywood’s sophisticated studies of the internal combustion engine have likewise yielded critical steps for reducing the pollution burden of cars and trucks.
Another theme of our energy enterprise is the use of new tools and techniques. An interdisciplinary engineering group is employing sophisticated chip-etching techniques to create miniature silicon turbines the size of shirt buttons. These energy-efficient devices could be used in products from laptops to small-scale space launch vehicles. Our engineers and computer scientists, along with others such as architects, are creating “smart” systems for using – or, as opportunity permits, not using – energy resources. The development of advanced, computer-based systems for monitoring and controlling energy use in buildings, for example, is pointing the way toward striking improvements in the energy performance of both residential and commercial structures.
Finally, I am proud to note that in its own operations MIT has a strong commitment to energy innovation. Eight years ago, we installed a cogeneration plant, which supplies roughly three-quarters of our electricity. This facility, which has won a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conservation award, not only provides electricity at a higher level of efficiency than the power we obtain from the grid, it also meets the heating and cooling needs of the main part of our campus.
We at the Institute have also made a commitment to meet exacting energy-conservation standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. Thus, the air circulation, heating, and cooling systems under each floor in the new Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences, permit a far more efficient use of energy than would be possible with conventional systems.
Charles M. Vest
President Vest chairs the Task Force on the Future of Science Programs for the U.S. Department of Energy.