Energy Futures

Spring 2011

Image from Making electricity with photovoltaics Credit: Justin Knight
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Letter from the director

Dear friends,

MIT is celebrating its sesquicentennial—honoring the innovators, leaders, educators, alumni, and students who have shaped the Institute, consistently contributed to solutions of major national and global challenges, and often invented unexpected technology-driven futures. This history has in turn shaped the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), as our faculty, staff, students, and partners work to help transform how we produce, distribute, and consume energy.

The April 1861 Commonwealth of Massachusetts “Act to Incorporate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to Grant Aid to Said Institute” deserves some reflection. William Barton Rogers and 20 other citizens were “hereby made a body corporate… for aiding generally, by suitable means, the advancement, development, and practical application of science in connection with arts, agriculture, manufactures, and commerce.” This represented a significant departure from the historic focus of higher education on classical studies, taken in response to the Industrial Revolution. The emphasis on collaboration with industry has been a distinguishing feature of MIT among institutions of higher education and is central to MITEI’s construct. Our Founding and Sustaining members support a broad spectrum of innovative and transformative energy research.

The 1861 Act has a second part that is less often referenced—“…to Grant Aid to Said Institute.” This was an early recognition of the importance of public support for higher education as an enabler of economic growth. In 1861, it took the form of a land grant. Eighty-four years later, Vannevar Bush—another prominent MIT contributor to the development of the US research and educational enterprise— extended the rationale for public support to encompass national security and public health as well with his seminal report Science: The Endless Frontier. Today, MITEI has built upon the foundation of industry collaboration by facilitating a strong engagement with government, and specifically with the Department of Energy (DOE). As detailed in previous issues of Energy Futures, the DOE has established important peer-reviewed programs that span basic energy research to energy technology commercialization and that have engaged the innovation capacity at MIT and other research universities for multiyear research efforts.

The energy system is facing tremendous uncertainty in light of recent events. Coal use faces the uncertainty both of carbon dioxide emission mitigation policies and, in the United States, of Environmental Protection Agency regulation to limit emissions of criteria pollutants, mercury, and perhaps carbon dioxide.

Oil supply has the challenge of the Deepwater Horizon spill and the geopolitical uncertainty of the “Arab Spring” in the world’s leading oil-producing region. Exploration in the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico has been slowed, and oil prices have again reached levels that pose challenges to economic recovery in the major oil-consuming economies.

Shale natural gas supply, which has greatly increased domestic supply, is experiencing significant opposition because of concerns about environmental impacts, both in producing regions and in exploration regions, such as France. The nuclear power “renaissance” has been cast into confusion by the events at Fukushima. While the cause and final impact of the Japanese nuclear crisis are unknown at present, reexaminations of both life extension of current plants and the pace of new plant construction are on the table.

Renewables are also raising complex issues. For example, the intermittency of wind, and to a lesser extent solar, has created electricity system challenges as these sources have increased market share, elevating concerns about the unintended consequences of deployment mandates in the absence of cost-effective storage or other system approaches to matching supply and demand.

Sorting out all of this will take some time, reinforcing the importance and timeliness of the MITEI mission. Yet, it is clear that some combination of these and other energy supplies must be employed to meet growing energy demand, especially in the developing world. This brings us back to the efforts of the faculty, staff, and students engaged with MITEI.

This edition of Energy Futures highlights some of the multitude of research and education programs that aim to innovate energy technologies, policies, and business models and to train a new generation with the knowledge and skills to make a difference in the MIT tradition. MITEI was fortunate to host Todd Stern, the chief US climate change negotiator, for our Earth Week colloquium. Mr. Stern noted that the lack of commitment to the Kyoto Protocol in Cancun—including that of the United States and China—should not be “cause for despair” and suggested that we could still make substantial progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions through investments in emissions-reducing technologies and support for a range of policies and standards that have multiple benefits—climate, security, economy. Increasingly, it appears that lower-cost low-carbon technology will be the “pull” on carbon policy, rather than the other way around.

The MITEI seed fund program is one of our key initiatives for facilitating such research and, as described in this edition, generous support from our alumni is allowing us to materially increase the scale and scope of the program. This amplifies the core support of our MITEI Founding and Sustaining members. We are very grateful for this targeted support and for the enthusiasm of the alumni to help seed new research directions. This round of seed funds had a particular emphasis on efficiency, a prime example of technology and policy advances with multiple benefits.

MITEI continues to drive a number of studies and symposia that aim to bring analysis that is firmly grounded in technology reality to the policy debate. A number of reports have been issued since the last edition of Energy Futures. Options for large-scale reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are examined in detail in two major MITEI-led energy studies—The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle and The Future of Natural Gas— completed this year. These studies are designed to provide policymakers and industry leaders with unbiased, in-depth research and analysis to inform their decision-making on critical no- and low-carbon fuel options.

The results of two symposia held last year have also been published: Electrification of the Transportation System and The Role of Enhanced Oil Recovery in Accelerating the Deployment of Carbon Capture and Sequestration. This symposium series is proving to be an effective form of outreach to the policy community on timely issues, and we are evaluating options to expand the activity and its impact. All of these reports can be accessed through the MITEI website (

This edition also chronicles the considerable progress that is being made on campus energy management. We have an unusually productive alliance between our faculty, students, and MITEI staff, and those responsible for managing the campus, resulting in both novel educational activities and real results in energy efficiency and operational cost savings. Alumni support was crucial for launching these important programs.

We are gratified by your enthusiasm and support, and aspire to take an appropriate place in the next chapter of MIT’s history as an initiative that made a difference!


Professor Ernest J. Moniz
MITEI Director Professor

Robert C. Armstrong
MITEI Deputy Director

In This Issue

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Making Electricity with Photovoltaics
Student project identifies improvements for campus PVs
Deepsea oil and gas recovery: Designing robots that can help
AUVs: from idea to implementation
Navigating blindfolded: Where am I – and where have I been?
Making underwater repairs
A shared success story points to a hopeful energy future for Massachusetts
How to tame hammering droplets
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