Energy Futures

Spring 2010

Image from New Eni-MIT center brings high-tech tools to solar research Credit: Justin Knight
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Letter from the director

Dear friends,

Three words capture the focus of MITEI’s work since our last update in fall 2009—innovation, education, and outreach. All three support our core mission: to help speed transformation of the global energy system to a low-carbon future and to help improve today’s energy systems as a bridge to that end.

The importance of innovation was underscored by December’s Copenhagen conference, where the world’s leaders met to address global climate change. The goal of achieving a binding international treaty for limiting greenhouse gas emissions was not realized. Indeed, some believe that—post-Copenhagen—this goal appears even further away. That outcome provides additional impetus for MITEI’s work on synergistic technology, business-model, and policy innovation that will lower the cost of clean, low-carbon energy options and accelerate their diffusion into the marketplace.

During the last semester, MITEI worked with its members and MIT faculty to “fill the innovation pipeline” in multiple ways. MIT faculty garnered more than 10% of the second round of US Department of Energy ARPA-E awards, which are intended to move clean technologies with high impact potential from the laboratory to private capital investment over a few years. The MITEI Founding and Sustaining Member programs are now beginning to generate results and make them public. For example, work supported by Founding Member Eni has led to new biologically constructed catalysts for water splitting, and research funded by Founding Member BP has yielded a patent for a gasification system that achieves high efficiency while separating carbon dioxide for easy capture. We continue to welcome new MITEI members such as Sustaining Member Weatherford and several affiliate members.

Farther “upstream” in the pipeline, MITEI awarded a new round of seed grants, bringing the total to 67 novel and early-stage innovation projects funded principally by our members, with additional support from donors. Once again, the seed grants ushered new faculty into MITEI participation, among them Assistant Professors Cynthia Rudin (Management), who will advance machine learning for electric system reliability, and Evelyn Wang (Mechanical Engineering), who will examine nanofilm-based thermal management for concentrated solar systems. We estimate that nearly 25% of MIT’s faculty are now engaged with MITEI in some capacity.

Research awards from a separate seed fund program have been made under the auspices of the Low Carbon Energy University Alliance, a research collaboration among MIT, Tsinghua University in China, and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. This issue of Energy Futures presents further description of these and other research activities, including detailed results from five earlier MITEI seed grant projects.

Energy education at MIT is being significantly enhanced by another source of support: philanthropy. Two substantial gifts, one from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the other from an anonymous alumnus, are advancing the development of MIT’s novel energy minor. Many incoming freshmen for next fall indicated an interest in the energy minor, and these gifts are enabling the creation of energy classes, projects, and teaching materials that will impact students and faculty both within and beyond MIT.

MITEI’s campus energy management program has benefited from both philanthropy and a first-of-its-kind utility partnership. The Silverman Evergreen Energy Fund, established by Jeffrey Silverman ‘68 in 2009, is being used to improve energy efficiency on campus and includes opportunities for capturing the savings from these measures and reinvesting them in technologies and activities that further reduce energy demand on campus. That effort was subsequently enhanced by a significant gift from David desJardins ‘83. In May, MIT and its electric utility, NSTAR, announced an ambitious three-year partnership to reduce MIT’s electricity use by 34 million kilowatt hours, or 15%, through innovative efficiency and conservation activities; substantial student, faculty, and staff engagement; and the piloting of new technologies and approaches.

MITEI’s outreach continues to provide industry leaders, government policymakers, and other interested parties with technically grounded analysis and information. Examples of outreach to advance critical understanding include An Action Plan for Cars, produced by a team led by Professor John Heywood (Mechanical Engineering), and a symposium on the electrification of the transportation system, sponsored by four MITEI associate members. In addition, later this year we expect to release the results of multi-year, multidisciplinary analyses of the future of natural gas, of nuclear fuel cycles, and of solar energy.

We also support “in-reach” to the campus. A recent featured visitor was His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco, who discussed his Antarctic trek and the importance of that continent as a “canary in the coal mine” for the global impacts of climate change. Campus forums facilitate community discussions of critical energy topics. Notable was the “The Road from Copenhagen” forum at which MIT Professors Henry Jacoby (Management), Edward Steinfeld (Political Science), and Michael Greenstone (Economics) were joined by Harvard Professors Robert Stavins (Government) and Stephen Ansolabehere (Political Science) to lead a discussion of the actions taken at Copenhagen and their implications for the energy future.

The support, hard work, and commitment of all of MITEI’s friends and participants are what makes this level of activity possible, and we are grateful for all that you do. We hope that you enjoy this fifth edition of Energy Futures as a snapshot of some of the outcomes that will help shape our energy future.


Professor Ernest J. Moniz
MITEI Director Professor

Robert C. Armstrong
MITEI Deputy Director

In This Issue

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Improving the transistor: Small device, big energy savings
Engineering fat-making bacteria
MIT’s Green Ambassadors spread the word on ways to “walk the talk”
New design-build class weaves nature into rural Cambodian school
Fund helps energy efficiency bloom across campus
ARPA-E clean-energy awards: MIT leads again
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