Energy Futures

Autumn 2012

Image from Stress corrosion cracking Credit: Justin Knight
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Letter from the director

Dear friends,

Uncertainty continues to be the watchword for global and national energy challenges. There are alarming indicators that the impacts of climate change are accelerating faster than expected, including the record disappearance of Arctic sea ice, the acidification of the oceans, regional stresses on water supply, and extreme weather events. Yet there has been very little collective action to alter the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions and few indicators of major actions to come in the near future. Economic pressures both in the United States and in other key economies around the world threaten to diminish support for incentives for a range of renewable energy options. Unrest in the Middle East continues to unnerve the oil markets, and post-Fukushima concerns are clearly affecting the nuclear power industry in some countries.

In the US, the appropriate role of government in shaping the energy marketplace remains contentious, and federal support for energy research is threatened by substantial cuts in funding and changing priorities. In this environment, even the evident benefits of plentiful, low-carbon natural gas create unease that the drive for zero-carbon options may stall.

Despite all of this, one certainty is that the world will continue to seek energy supply ample for growing economies. Core MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) organizing principles—the focus on industry partnerships, and a research portfolio balanced between technology and policy innovation for today’s energy demand, delivery, and supply systems and transformational technology development for a low-carbon future—remain resilient. At the same time, we continue to advance our technically grounded, policy-relevant analyses of key energy issues in the interest of providing some degree of rationality in the ongoing political discussion. We are also partnering with Stanford University, through the good offices of Secretary George Shultz (chairman of the MITEI External Advisory Board), to carry to Washington, early in the next administration, a message about the importance of robust and sustained support for energy research.

Our public outreach efforts also led to two very special events this autumn, both of which are described in this issue. The first was the Women in Clean Energy Symposium, a component of the Clean Energy, Education, and Empowerment (C3E) program of the US Department of Energy (DOE). C3E is a nine-country initiative of the international Clean Energy Ministerial group focused on supporting women in clean energy disciplines. The symposium included awards for mid-career women and engaged C3E ambassadors committed to encouraging young women to join clean energy fields. The “energy level” was extraordinary and inspirational. The second event was an energy debate by senior surrogates for the presidential candidates. It was held at Kresge Auditorium with almost 800 students, faculty, and other guests in attendance and a national audience reached through E&E TV. The discussions were spirited and laid out priorities for the new administration. With both events, MIT’s convening power on energy issues was brought to bear on issues of both near- and long-term significance.

Turning to the coming year for MITEI, we will continue to rely principally on our industry partnerships. Our program was designed with these partnerships as the core element of MITEI, and we remain convinced that this is the pathway to maximum impact for advancing MIT’s research and educational mission, for meeting the companies’ science, technology, and human-capacity strategic objectives, and for influencing the energy future. The Founding and Sustaining Members listed with their logos on the last page of this magazine made initial five-year commitments between 2007 and 2012. More than half of them became MITEI members during a one-year period between autumn 2007 and autumn 2008, providing tremendous early impetus. Given this timing, MITEI is now at an important time for renewal.

We are very pleased that our inaugural Founding and Sustaining Members, BP and Chevron, respectively, have both recommitted and that discussions are well along with several other members. The best part of these discussions is the opportunity to work with each company on new directions in their research portfolios, with a growing circle of faculty investigators, and on new avenues for engaging our graduate and undergraduate students. The result is both a shared sense of accomplishment over the last five years and an excitement about new directions in the coming years.

Of course, our industry-supported research programs are complemented by government, foundation, and philanthropic programs. Starting in 2009, DOE launched energy research programs with longer time horizons and more university participation than had been the case. The Energy Frontier Research Centers aim at sustained efforts addressing key basic science enablers for clean energy technologies, and two were awarded to MIT in 2009. The Solid-State Solar-Thermal Energy Conversion Center and the Center for Excitonics are highlighted in this issue. In addition, the first DOE Innovation Hub, the Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors awarded in 2010, has strong MIT involvement and is also highlighted.

Philanthropic support continues to play a crucial role in seeding early-stage projects and supporting new junior faculty members, laying the foundation for continuing high-impact research and education into the future. A number of seed and ignition grant projects, supported both by our industry partners and by our generous alumni and friends, are also featured in this issue.

The Society of Energy Fellows—graduate students in energy supported by MITEI Founding, Sustaining, and Associate Members—has surpassed the 250 mark. Many of these students have now graduated. In this issue, we introduce a new feature—“Energy alumni: Where are they now?”—with profiles and updates on a few. We hold great hope for the contributions that our energy graduates will make to society. Undergraduates continue to be engaged as well. Our members, alumni, and friends have supported more than 100 MITEI Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) projects, and by the end of this academic year, MIT will have graduated more than 50 students with the Energy Studies Minor. After only three years, the minor is the fifth largest at the Institute, with all five schools and 14 departments represented among graduates and currently enrolled students.

In the last six months, MITEI held four community town hall meetings with faculty and senior researchers to solicit input on some important research directions that are positioned for greater emphasis and impact. The research domains of these forums included: the energy-water nexus; the built environment; smart infrastructure and grids; and energy and life sciences. Initial steps have been taken based on the forum discussions, and we hope to have a lot to report on these initiatives in future issues.

The energy world, and energy research and education, show no signs of becoming boring! At MITEI, we expect another eventful and productive year in 2013, and we hope you enjoy this tenth edition of Energy Futures.


Professor Ernest J. Moniz
MITEI Director Professor

Robert C. Armstrong
MITEI Deputy Director

In This Issue

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Robert L. Jaffe: Bringing scientific truths into public discourse
Energy alumni: Where are they now?
Undergraduates learn the art of posters and pitches
Reducing wasted energy in commercial buildings
Renovation plans offer MIT opportunities to save energy, improve design
Capturing energy from the sun
Michael Liebreich: Shift to cleaner energy inevitable
Discovering solutions: Undergrads take the lead in 10.27
Undergrad project offers glimpse of what MIT is plugging in
Innovation prizes
Stress corrosion cracking
Harnessing solar energy
Center focuses on converting heat to electricity
Institutions collaborate on critical tools for nuclear industry
Center strives to capture sunlight as plants do
Energy Fellows, 2012–2013
Presidential campaigns offer energetic energy debate at MIT
Women’s impact in clean energy is growing worldwide
A new approach to water desalination
MIT and Saudi Aramco augment existing collaboration
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