The next issue of the MIT Energy Initiative’s Energy Futures magazine is releasing this month. In this episode of the Energy Reads podcast, we are sharing a sneak peek of some of the engaging energy stories in our upcoming issue.
Hello and welcome to Energy Reads! Your source for hand-picked audio articles on the latest energy news from MIT. My name is Kelley Travers and I’ve been the one reading to you.
Today we’re doing something a little different. Instead of reading one of our recently released articles, we will be teasing several that are upcoming and have yet to be published.
If you’re familiar with the MIT Energy Initiative—or MITEI as we call ourselves—you may know that we publish a magazine called Energy Futures twice a year. In addition to reading you the news, I’m also our magazine’s managing editor. Sorry for the low-key flex there, but it puts me in a position to say that I am very excited—with absolutely no bias—to share with you some of the cool stories we have coming out soon in our next issue.
Let me set the stage by sharing that in May 2022, MITEI completed a three-year study that explored how energy storage technology can be harnessed to decarbonize our global energy systems. What is so cool about storage is that it allows us to really take advantage of renewable energy sources that we refer to as “variable”, meaning they aren’t always available. When the sun is up and doing its thing or the wind is blowing, storage makes it possible to, you guessed it, store the energy collected at those times so it can be used once the sun has set and the wind has died down. Then you can do things like charge whatever it is you are using to listen to this podcast, for instance.
Building on the completion of our energy storage study, the research articles in this issue of Energy Futures focus a lot on different storage and battery technologies.
In one article, we introduce a new modeling framework that can help guide the development of flow batteries. These are electrochemical devices that can store hundreds of megawatt-hours of energy, which would be really beneficial for large-scale, long-duration electricity storage—especially on a future grid dominated by intermittent solar and wind power generators. Current flow batteries rely on vanadium, which is an energy storage material that’s expensive and not always readily available. Investigators worldwide are exploring a variety of other less expensive, more abundant options to replace vanadium. Using their modeling framework, the MIT researchers calculated the total cost of some of those options, considering operating expenses as well as initial capital costs. The results show that in many cases the low capital costs may be more than offset by high operating costs over the lifetime of the battery. Such results can help focus today’s disparate efforts on designs with the most promise, which will help speed development.
In another article, we share the work of an MIT team seeking to lower the high cost of making lithium-ion batteries. They do this by using combustion—but not for burning coal or oil. They realized that much of the cost of making a lithium-ion battery can be traced to the manufacture of materials used to make the cathode, which is one of its two electrodes. The team developed a system that, under carefully controlled conditions, uses combusting flames to produce not polluting soot but rather valuable materials, including some that are critical in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries. Their system promises to be simpler, much quicker, less expensive, and far less energy-intensive than the conventional method now used—and most importantly, it does this without sacrificing battery performance.
This issue of Energy Futures also highlights some of the cool stuff going on in our education department. I am particularly excited about an interview we did with MITEI’s director of education, Antje Danielson. She and her team lead energy education at MIT. They have been developing a robust educational toolkit not just for undergraduate and graduate students at MIT, but also for online learners around the world and high school students who want to contribute to a world powered by clean energy. A big piece of MITEI’s educational programming is preparing learners to take an active role in climate action. It does this in part by really emphasizing practice and experience, in addition to giving the students the knowledge, skills, and courage to be ready to jump into action. One thing Antje said that really stood out to me, was that “if done right, education is an energy transition accelerator.”
We profile one student who really seems to embody this idea. Sylas Horowitz is currently a senior at MIT, majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in energy studies and environment and sustainability. The article dives straight into one of Sylas’s projects, taking us right to the edge of a marsh, where they are tinkering with a blue and black robot about the size and shape of a shoe box and studded with lights and mini propellers. This remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, is an underwater drone destined to collect water samples from beneath a sheet of Arctic ice. It will be employed to measure carbon dioxide and methane in the water. In the summer of 2022, their ROV was successfully deployed on a field run in the Canadian high Arctic.
In another profile, we meet Michael Howland. He is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT. He is working to get more electricity out of renewable energy systems, and to prepare young scientists and engineers with the training and tools they need to tackle climate change mitigation. He also does a lot of work with wind energy. Recently, he and his team developed a model that predicts the power produced by each individual turbine on a wind farm based on the physics of the wind farm as a whole. He used his model to improve wind farm efficiency. By misaligning some of the upwind turbines in certain conditions, the downwind units experience less wake turbulence. This increased the overall energy output of the wind farm by as much as 1 to 3 percent, without requiring any additional costs. Crazy fact: If a 1.2% energy increase was applied to the world’s existing wind farms, it would be the equivalent of adding more than 3,600 new wind turbines—enough to power about 3 million homes.
This issue of Energy Futures also digs into two programs geared towards high school students.
The first is Climate Action Through Education, also known as CATE. This program is developing climate change curriculum for use in high schools. What’s particularly cool about CATE is that it is creating climate-based lessons for a range of disciplines beyond just science, from math to history to language arts. Christopher Knittel, who is leading this project and, among his many titles, is MITEI’s deputy director for policy, told us, “We will be honest about the threats posed by climate change but also give students a sense of agency that they can do something about this. And for the many teachers—especially non-science teachers—starved for knowledge and background material, CATE offers resources to give them confidence to implement our curriculum.” The curriculum is rolling out in pilot form soon in more than a dozen Massachusetts high schools, and eventually in high schools across the United States.
In another article, we learn about a group of Massachusetts high school students who joined MIT professor Ariel Furst in her lab over the summer to build low-cost fuel cells. With a seemingly bizarre collection of materials—Shrinky Dinks (a children’s toy popular in the 1980s), carbon-based materials, nail polish, and some smelly bacteria—the students received, quite literally, a trial-by-fire introduction to the scientific method. At one point, one of their experimental electrodes actually burst into flames. Other results, though, proved more promising.
On that explosive note, I think that might be enough spoilers for now.
I hope you will keep listening to Energy Reads. I look forward to reading these stories to you in full when we release this next issue of Energy Futures. Thank you for listening!
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