Energy Futures

Spring 2012

Image from Tomorrow’s power grid Credit: Jacob Beal PhD ‘07, MIT
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Letter from the director

Dear friends,

In our last issue of Energy Futures, MIT President Susan Hockfield highlighted several significant events and trends that have dramatically altered the global energy marketplace since the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) was launched in late 2006—and the energy scene continues to bring surprises, most recently in the form of a dramatic drop in US natural gas prices.

Indeed, gas prices are now fully an order of magnitude less than oil prices on an energy equivalent basis. Some consequences of that shift are already being seen. For example, industries that rely on natural gas as a feedstock are gaining a competitive advantage against oil-based alternatives; and interest is being revived in natural gas as a transportation fuel that can substitute for oil, either directly or through conversion to liquid fuels. Also, as a result of low gas prices, electric power plants are switching from coal to natural gas. These trends have the potential to fairly dramatically reduce both emissions and oil dependence.

Some observers, however, perceive a negative side to these seemingly positive changes, namely, diminishing the drive toward new carbon-free energy sources. This concern was highlighted in MIT’s Future of Natural Gas study released last year, which noted that abundant natural gas supplies and reduced energy demand should be welcomed as essential bridges to a low-carbon future but not as the ultimate destination.

In short, we can’t become complacent. Innovation in transformative energy technologies—renewables, advanced nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, vehicle electrification using decarbonized electricity sources— must continue aggressively, with strong research investments in both public and private sectors to drive down costs. This combination—focusing on using current energy supply options effectively and efficiently while developing breakthrough clean energy technologies— continues to characterize the MITEI research portfolio. We believe that this is a resilient strategy for moving toward widely shared environmental, economic, and security goals.

In this issue of Energy Futures, we highlight selected outcomes and opportunities from MITEI-supported activities, with a special focus on two areas—innovation and education—that are central to our mission.

Since its founding, MITEI has been fostering innovation by providing funds to MIT faculty for early-stage or novel research. The MITEI Seed Fund Program has now supported more than a hundred projects, and many are showing significant results, demonstrating that relatively small levels of financial support can forge key links in the energy innovation value chain. Some seed grant recipients have gone on to attract additional public and private funding, while others have entered the marketplace aided by venture capital funding. For instance, seed funds for millimeter-wave drilling have helped MIT researchers secure a commercial partner for the project as well as three years of federal funding. Seed funds for developing techniques to balance electricity supply and demand on the power grid have led to a startup company. And MITEI support for the initial analysis of the effectiveness of urban energy initiatives has attracted additional foundation funding. MITEI just finalized its most recent round of seed fund awards. The Seed Fund Program is supported generously by MITEI’s Founding and Sustaining Members, and its reach across campus is extended further by philanthropic contributions from our alumni and friends.

The education section of this issue showcases MITEI’s support of international educational and networking opportunities for MIT students beyond the classroom and research laboratory. Articles describe the MITEI-supported experiences of MIT students at climate change and energy meetings in Durban and Abu Dhabi, an undergrad’s career-changing internship in Paris, and a graduate student’s on-the-ground data collection project in China. Of particular note is a story about a pilot program—designed by MITEI’s Energy Education Task Force—that is now providing funding for 19 students to perform field studies critical to their research or to share their research results at conferences around the world. Given the success of this pilot effort, MITEI is now establishing an ongoing program to support international opportunities for MIT graduate students in energy disciplines. This program—Energy Education Without Borders—underscores the truly global nature of our energy challenges and MITEI’s commitment to developing the next generation of world energy leaders.

Outreach activities have continued on several fronts. MITEI launched, through the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, a new collaboration with Tsinghua University in China, a five-year project to analyze the impacts of energy and climate  policies—both existing and proposed— on technologies, energy consumption, the environment, and the economy. This project was the first to be advanced by a “mini-consortium” of MITEI members: Eni S.p.A., Shell, and ICF International.

In late March, MITEI collaborated with MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program to sponsor a conference focused on energy challenges and policies and technologies to address them. The conference was held in Rome and hosted by Eni S.p.A., a Founding Member of MITEI (see the right-hand column for more details).

Work also continues on MITEI’s goal of providing policymakers with technically grounded and informed analysis. MITEI released a multidisciplinary study called The Future of the Electric Grid at the National Press Club late last year and a report titled Managing Large-Scale Penetration of Intermittent Renewables at an on-campus press briefing in March.

Finally, MIT took a major step forward in “walking the talk” on more efficient energy use on campus. The David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research building is the first laboratory research facility at MIT to receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification, as rated by the US Green Building Council.

Faculty, staff, and students continue to be engaged across a wide spectrum of research and educational activities, and we hope you find these stories interesting, informative, and inspiring.


Professor Ernest J. Moniz
MITEI Director

Professor Robert C. Armstrong
MITEI Deputy Director

In This Issue

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Programs for green cities
Reaching underground resources
A novel ultracapacitor
Converting plant waste into biofuels
Chinese train station and airport surveys assess commuter travel decisions
MITEI report: Integrating large-scale intermittent energy sources into the electric grid
MIT-NSTAR program proves model of efficiency
International internship opens doors for MIT engineering undergrad
MIT undergrad meets with other future energy leaders in Abu Dhabi
An inside look at international climate negotiations at COP17
MITEI awards research and education travel grants to 19 MIT graduate students
Paula T. Hammond: Making new materials, solving critical problems
MIT and Tsinghua University launch the China Energy and Climate Project
Tomorrow’s power grid
U.S. DOE and MITEI announce a Women in Clean Energy program
MIT Energy Initiative announces latest seed grant awards (2012)
Knight Fellows offer tips on tackling energy/climate science beat
Revealing how a battery material works
With changes, the grid can take it
Turning green to gold
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