Energy Futures

Autumn 2021

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Letter from the director

Dear friends,

UN Secretary-General António Guterres struck us all when he called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “a code red for humanity.” Yet at the MIT Energy Initiative we also see reason for hope. On our campus, there is great progress being made toward the energy transition. In Washington, Congress passed an infrastructure bill addressing climate change. And in Scotland this fall, thousands of world leaders—with some 20 MIT representatives among them—gathered to address climate change at COP26.

Earlier this year, the Institute published “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” addressing climate change on campus and around the globe. An element of the plan is MITEI’s Future Energy Systems Center, a research consortium with industry launched this fall to explore how best to navigate the energy transition based on multi-sectorial analyses of emerging technologies, changing policies, and evolving economics.

We recently completed our three-day annual research conference with the theme “Getting to net-zero by 2050.” We explored a number of opportunities and challenges in reaching net-zero—potential technology solutions; hydrogen in the energy transition; the power grid of the future; and thermal energy storage and conversion. Also this fall, with partners at Stanford, Texas A&M, and the U.S. Department of Energy, we sponsored our tenth annual U.S. C3E Women in Clean Energy Symposium, focusing on equity and justice in the clean energy transition.

As always, Energy Futures offers a rich taste of research at MITEI and MIT. In September, MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and MIT spinoff and MITEI member Commonwealth Fusion Systems demonstrated a high-temperature superconducting electromagnet, breaking magnetic field strength records for a fusion magnet. You’ll read about the potential role and economic value of hydropower in Quebec in a future low-carbon power system in New England; how architects are using discarded tree forks as load-bearing joints in their structures; and how a new fundamental understanding developed by MIT chemists can help speed the conversion of biomass into useful fuels and chemicals. You can also read about two hydrogen projects. One shows that hydrogen-fired power generation can be a more economical option than lithium-ion batteries as a source of clean electricity; the other shows hydrogen as a pathway for decarbonization in hard-to-abate sectors such as transportation, buildings, and industry. And MITEI awarded seven Seed Fund grants to early-stage energy research by faculty and researchers. Since it began in 2008, the MITEI Seed Fund Program has supported 193 energy-focused seed projects through grants totaling more than $26 million.

As always, education is central to our mission. In this edition, we feature Marija Ilic, a senior research scientist in MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decisions Systems, who has designed a new edX course: Principles of Modeling, Simulation, and Control for Electric Energy Systems. It’s one of an expanding set of online courses MITEI has funded to provide global learners with a view of the shifting energy landscape. Read about two undergraduates funded by MITEI through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program who contributed to a timely MIT study showing how classroom configurations may affect air quality and contribute to the spread of Covid-19.

We also share the stories of remarkable MIT graduates. Latifah Hamzah ’12 has co-founded a nonprofit to find sustainable and empowering solutions to help disadvantaged populations in Malaysia. Former MIT visiting student and postdoc Francesco Benedetti led a team that won the 2021 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition for the startup Osmoses, which has developed a novel way to separate molecules.

We welcome some new leadership to MITEI. Christopher Knittel, the George P. Shultz Professor of Energy Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has become MITEI’s deputy director for policy. Also at Sloan, in January, we’ll welcome Andy Sun of Georgia Tech as the inaugural Iberdrola-Avangrid Professor of Electric Power Systems. At MITEI, Andy will serve as a faculty lead for the electric power system focus area at our new Future Energy Systems Center.

Hoping you enjoy Energy Futures,

Professor Robert C. Armstrong
MITEI Director

In This Issue

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MIT Energy Initiative launches the Future Energy Systems Center

New MITEI consortium focuses on speeding the energy transition, engaging with industrial leaders, to deploy clean energy advances at scale

Using nature’s structures in wooden buildings

Tools for designing with forked tree branches

New England renewables + Canadian hydropower

A pathway to clean electricity in 2050

Chemical reactions for the energy transition

New insights reveal pathways to improvement

MIT-designed project achieves major advance toward fusion energy
MIT study provides suggestions for keeping classroom air fresh during Covid-19 pandemic
MITEI appoints Professor Christopher Knittel as deputy director for policy
Francesco Benedetti: Building communities, founding a startup with people in mind
Latifah Hamzah ’12: Creating sustainable solutions in Malaysia and beyond
Preparing global online learners for the clean energy transition
“Starting from space”: MITEI podcast interviews MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber
MIT Energy Initiative awards seven Seed Fund grants for early-stage energy research

Awards support research to improve the efficiency, scalability, and adoption of clean energy technologies

Coupling power and hydrogen sector pathways to benefit decarbonization goals

MIT-led team finds that holistic optimization of electric power and hydrogen supply chain infrastructure is favorable for emission reductions and decreased infrastructure costs.

Andy Sun announced as new Associate Professor of Operations Research and Statistics and the Iberdrola-Avangrid Professor of Electric Power Systems at MIT Sloan

Sun will serve as faculty lead of the MIT Energy Initiative's new Future Energy Systems Center

3 Questions: Daniel Cohn on the benefits of high-efficiency, flexible fuel engines for heavy-duty trucking
Making the case for hydrogen in a zero-carbon economy
3 Questions: Secretary Kathleen Theoharides on climate and energy in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs discusses the state’s plans to achieve net-zero by 2050 and how to get there.

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