Innovation is central to solving today’s complex energy challenges, and there is no better place to find cutting-edge innovations than in the labs and classrooms of MIT.
In March, a group of outstanding MIT faculty and I carried this message with us to Houston, Texas, for the annual CERAWeek, one of the world’s preeminent energy conferences. In a room filled largely by energy industry executives, it was innovation that excited the crowd. The faculty demonstrated game-changing technologies coming out of MIT—from transparent solar cells to offshore wind turbines that double as large-scale energy-storage devices. I’ve never been prouder to represent MIT than I was after hearing the applause from this group of leaders.
MIT’s presence at CERAWeek emphasized the vital role that universities play in the innovation pipeline, serving as incubators of talent and technology. Each year, we admit a brand new set of students who come into the Institute asking tough questions that cause us—experienced researchers—to examine conventional reasoning and to think outside the box to find creative solutions to various energy problems.
To help support such creativity, we at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) award seed funds to promising early-stage research projects that can inject new ideas into the pipeline. Since its beginning, the MITEI Seed Fund Program has supported 129 such projects, with total funding of about $15.8 million. Once again, this year’s call for proposals elicited submissions from faculty across the Institute.
Of the 11 funded projects, more than half are led by faculty new to MITEI who proposed exciting ideas ranging from novel materials for carbon capture, wastewater filtration, and natural gas storage, to a fresh approach for harvesting ambient vibrations to power portable electronics and other devices.
We also support new ideas by using our own backyard—the MIT campus—as a model to put research into action and to demonstrate best practices. One example is “MIT.nano,” a building now being planned that will house state-of-the-art cleanroom, imaging, and prototyping facilities supporting research with nanoscale materials and processes across the campus. Cleanroom facilities are by nature energy-intensive, so MIT.nano is being designed with dozens of special energy-saving features to make the building as efficient and sustainable as possible. Starting in 2018, MIT’s energy researchers will be able to take advantage of the new facilities as they use nanotechnology to achieve printable photovoltaic solar cells, high-performing lithium-air batteries, faster and more energy-efficient chips, and more.
Saving energy in all types of commercial buildings is of paramount importance. Such buildings account for nearly 20% of all US energy consumption, and energy is often the leading operating expense in these buildings. Many promising approaches are being explored to reduce energy use and operating costs in commercial buildings. But there is an added complication: We must make those changes in an age of intermittent renewable energy technologies, evolving smart grids, and distributed generation and storage. To discuss the challenges—and opportunities—involved, MITEI hosted a symposium for its member organizations and stakeholders in early May 2014. We had a stimulating discussion about emerging building efficiency and smart grid technologies, and the financial and regulatory factors surrounding their adoption. We will be synthesizing the findings and analysis from those conversations in the coming months.
We would not be successful in all these efforts without our dedicated faculty, staff, and students, and without the support and engagement of our members, collaborators, and friends. We are grateful for your continued interest in MITEI and hope that you enjoy this issue of Energy Futures.
Professor Robert C. Armstrong