Energy UROP: the intersection of research experience and real-world solutions

Students gain hands-on experience over the summer with MITEI's Energy Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program

Divesh Rupani November 24, 2015 MITEI

Today, more than 780 million people worldwide are living without access to fresh water. Drinking the contaminated water they can access often leads to health concerns like diarrhea, diseases, or even blindness.

Alexander Mok, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, has been investigating a solution to this problem under the guidance of Rohit Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Today we have reverse osmosis — pure water treatment plants — but the problem is that they are energy intensive and, as a result, very costly,” Mok says.

With this in mind, Mok spent this past summer researching a way to reduce the cost of these treatment plants by using graphene as a filter. “Graphene is just one carbon atom thick … and would bring the energy cost to its theoretical minimum,” he says. The results show that with a few minor adjustments, graphene proves to be a plausible solution for making reverse osmosis more energy efficient.

Earlier this fall, Mok was one of 42 students presenting their summer research on campus as part of the Energy Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), supported by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

UROP is a unique, full-time research opportunity for undergraduates that lasts an intensive 10 to 12 weeks. During that time, students work closely with a faculty advisor and a graduate supervisor to gain research experience that will prepare them for the workforce or graduate school.

Since its creation in 2008, the Energy UROP has seen more than 200 student participants — and it continues to grow each year. These UROPs, which are conducted over the summer, address any aspect of energy systems and related environmental challenges, such as energy sources (including solar and wind power, and fossil fuels), energy distribution, energy technologies and policies, and efficiency, among other things.

Presentations are conducted in MITEI offices, in front of an audience of students, advisors, sponsors, and industry leaders. The primary focus of the program, organizers say, is student development.

Julia Belk, a junior studying electrical engineering and computer science, says, “I really like that I got to see the research process from start to finish.” Belk used her Energy UROP to investigate magnetic materials for high-frequency power conversion with advising professor David Perreault, a professor and associate head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

With the guidance of their graduate supervisors, UROP students also gain insight into the world of research. Belk adds, “It was terrific to have a graduate student mentor; he kept me up to speed with what we were doing on the project and why we were doing everything, so I really felt like an active participant.”

Belk has a final message for those considering an Energy UROP: “There are a lot of projects you can meld into an Energy UROP. I’d encourage people to be creative in figuring out how their work is energy-related because the Energy UROP is very broad.”

Applications for next year’s Energy UROP are due March 17. Around 50 students will be accepted to the program.

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