Early in my tenure as president, I asked faculty, staff, and students what they saw as MIT’s most important opportunities and responsibilities. Many responded that while numerous energy projects were already under way at MIT, we could be doing much more to address the serious challenges of sustainable energy.
Thanks to last spring’s superb report from the MIT-wide Energy Research Council, we have a framework for acting on our community’s aspirations. We also have a new umbrella organization, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), to coordinate our efforts. Ernest Moniz, professor of physics and engineering systems, and Robert Armstrong, professor and head of chemical engineering, expertly co-chaired the council, and have agreed to serve as director and associate director, respectively, of the MITEI.
The Energy Research Council laid out plans for a greatly expanded program, and a new faculty council will ensure that MIT makes the strongest possible contributions. This council will promote a portfolio of substantive innovations with longterm staying power. Importantly, the MITEI and the council will also emphasize collaboration across MIT’s five schools.
In pursuing answers to today’s energy challenges, we are building on a solid foundation of work that is already moving energy innovation forward. Several faculty, for example, want to help diversify the world’s energy supplies by adapting nature’s methods. One of our materials scientists has found a way to select engineered variants of viruses that can “build” new materials which could — for one example — yield high-efficiency solar panels. A chemistry group, meanwhile, has made progress on replicating key steps in photosynthesis. That line of research may ultimately let us harness sunlight to obtain the hydrogen in water at minimal cost.
Our energy efforts offer other examples of potentially game-changing innovations. A Plasma Science and Fusion Center group, for one, has developed an experimental fusion-reactor design, the Levitated Dipole Experiment, which will help solve the vexing problem of confining the white-hot plasmas in which nuclear fusion occurs. The researchers, with colleagues from Columbia University, have created a massive device in which the plasmas form around a tire-shaped super magnet suspended in mid-air, thanks to its own forces and those of an external magnet.
Energy storage constraints are limiting a range of otherwise promising energy technologies. MIT’s contributions to progress on storage include batteries that are not only safe but also powerful and relatively quick to charge. One of these designs is already in use in power tools, and the adaptation of some of these systems to use in hybrid vehicles is on its way.
MIT is also taking a lead role in carbon sequestration. Society could lower the barriers to future reliance on fossil fuels, including coal, if we could rid power plant and industrial emissions of much of their carbon dioxide before the gases enter the atmosphere. An MIT group is exploring both the technically complex option of storing large amounts of CO2 geologically, and the equally daunting challenge of devising good policies and regulations for such storage.
This last point reminds us that MIT’s strengths go beyond the technical and scientific. The rising energy needs of developing economies accentuates the importance of clean and sustainable energy solutions. Several MIT faculty, for example, are experts on China’s rapidly growing energy consumption. Researchers in fields from political science to urban studies are expanding our understanding of how China approaches energy use today, and how that use could improve in the future.
MIT students have shown great enthusiasm for energy issues. The Energy Club, with more than 300 members, sponsors popular lecture programs and other events focused on energy topics. Next spring, a group of students will stage their second major energy conference, expected to draw 500 or more participants.
A project this past summer, meanwhile, also showcased our students’ energy commitment and leadership. Two undergraduates organized the Vehicle Design Summit, which brought more than 50 students from all over the world together to design and build alternative vehicles that would get at least 300 miles per gallon of gas or its equivalent. The group built four vehicles, at least two of which will be entered in the first U.S.-based Shell Eco-Marathon early next year.
To me, the summit captures in a nutshell key aspects of the MIT ethic: aim high, call on the best minds you can, make an all-out commitment to follow through on your ideas, and always keep in mind the critical importance of solving real-world problems.