Energy Futures

Autumn 2009

Image from Carbon-capturing enzyme: MIT chemists learn from nature Credit: Yan Kung, MIT
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Letter from the director

Dear friends,

We live in interesting times! Energy issues and associated environmental challenges continue to hold center stage as the world community transitions from preparing for the UN climate change talks in Copenhagen (“COP-15”) to mapping the road from Copenhagen.

Nowhere was the centrality of these issues more in evidence than at MIT in October, when the Institute had the distinct honor of hosting President Barack Obama for a tour of campus energy research laboratories, briefings from MIT energy faculty, and an address on energy at Kresge Auditorium. In his talk, the President countered the “pessimism” of those who believe there is little we can do to address climate change risks by expressing strong support for the role of technology and innovation in meeting the challenge. You can read more about the President’s visit in this issue of Energy Futures and access a video of the entire event at the MITEI website.

The administration backed up the President’s faith in the “American spirit of innovation” with its announcement of the winners for the first round of awards from the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). MIT and recent MIT spinoffs in the Boston area were recipients of 5 of the 37 awards for potentially transformative energy technologies. Massachusetts received the largest combined dollar amount of any state in the nation, demonstrating again MIT’s continuing tradition of driving economic growth.

Achieving an actionable global consensus on a path forward for mitigating climate change risks will be arduous. Closer to home, Washington is engaged in complex legislative trade-offs to balance regional energy interests, economic impacts, and environmental imperatives. These global and national efforts are occurring against a backdrop of significant economic uncertainty and anxiety, lower energy prices, and flat consumption. Such near-term trends diminish the political will to transform the global energy marketplace, even as greenhouse gas emissions continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, making it essential that we accelerate that transformation. There is an increasingly urgent need for low-carbon energy technologies that meet economic tests in both developed and developing countries and for policies aligned with their introduction at scale.

This imperative is clearly recognized by the many companies, foundations, government programs, and MIT alumni and friends who continue to support MITEI’s research, education, campus energy, and outreach programs in these economically challenging times. This steady support is essential for pursuing our research and educational missions.

This year, we were pleased to welcome 22 new MITEI members, provide 47 new graduate fellowships to 20 departments, and support 24 early-stage seed fund projects. Results from five of our earlier seed fund projects—one from each of MIT’s schools—are chronicled in the research section of this issue. These projects highlight both the diversity of energy challenges we face and the need for high-impact solutions from a variety of disciplines.

The sponsored research projects supported by MITEI members reside in 13 departments and four laboratories. Taken together, these projects make up an extraordinary set of investments in the energy future and are just what is needed for the long road from Copenhagen.

Dramatic increases in government support for significant and sustained energy-related research programs at universities also have created new opportunities for MIT faculty and students. These have come about through a convergence of new administration priorities, congressional focus, and the economic stimulus package. MIT is now home to two new Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. MIT is also a collaborator on four others. Selected after a highly competitive solicitation, the EFRCs are designed to provide science-based solutions to some of the most difficult and intractable energy challenges. MITEI coordinated the campus-wide response to this opportunity and looks forward as novel DOE programs—additional rounds of ARPA-E awards funded through the stimulus package and the Energy Innovation Hubs proposed by the Obama administration—are advanced. Other agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, are also increasing energy-related project support.

On the outreach front, we continue to help bring technically grounded analysis to bear on national and international discussions about energy and R&D policies. MITEI members have joined with us to support a new symposium series on timely energy topics, with a goal of informing policy circles about technical realities. The first symposium was on the retrofit of coal plants for CO2 emissions reduction, and the next will be on the electrification of the transportation system. Also, four major interdisciplinary integrative studies—the Future of Solar Energy, the Future of Natural Gas, the Future of Nuclear Fuel Cycles, and the Future of the Electric Grid—are at various stages of their two-year journeys.

MITEI’s Energy Education Task Force reached a significant milestone by establishing the Institute-wide Energy Studies Minor for undergraduates. The design of this program drew on the expertise of 16 faculty members from 14 departments to develop a curriculum that includes 10 new and redesigned courses. MITEI’s commitment to undergraduate research was also expanded to include support for 16 Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) students during the past summer. Another great sign for the future of energy education at MIT: almost a third of the 50 new faculty members hired in fall 2009 have research interests directly related to energy.

Finally, in recognition of the global nature of energy and climate challenges, we are moving toward enhanced cooperation with corresponding institutions in the major emerging economies and in developing countries. Together with Cambridge University, we recently entered into a Low Carbon Energy University Alliance agreement with Tsinghua University. Planning is in the early stages for several other international initiatives.

MITEI has been built on the continued hard work of its staff, MIT faculty and students, and the engagement of its members, the broader energy technology and policy community, and alumni and friends. We are grateful for your support and value your continued interest and input. We hope you enjoy this fourth edition of Energy Futures.


Professor Ernest J. Moniz
MITEI Director Professor

Robert C. Armstrong
MITEI Deputy Director

In This Issue

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Gaining visibility into buildings’ real-time energy performance
Carbon-capturing enzyme: MIT chemists learn from nature
Energy Fellows, 2009-2010
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