U.S. Department of Energy leaders highlight clean energy research, career opportunities

Sustainable transportation, grid modernization, building efficiency among topics at MIT Energy Initiative event with Department of Energy's David Danielson

Francesca McCaffrey MITEI

On Thursday, March 17, members of the MIT community and researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) convened for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Day, an event dedicated to the future of low-carbon energy. DOE leaders and MIT faculty discussed current research to accelerate scientific breakthroughs in clean energy fields. The event, hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), also featured an MIT student-hosted panel with Institute alumni who currently work at the DOE to spark current students’ interest in careers in energy policy and research.

MITEI Director Robert Armstrong opened the conference with a call “to come together to accelerate progress in transforming the world’s energy systems.” He noted the catalytic effect of last December’s United Nations climate negotiations and the resulting Paris Climate Agreement, saying we must “figure out ways to enhance the excellent cooperation already under way” on climate and energy.

David Danielson PhD ’07, DOE assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy (EERE), co-founded the MIT Energy Club while at MIT. His keynote talk centered on advancements in energy research at DOE and the creation of what he called a “clean energy innovation ecosystem” in the U.S. He touched on new research in solar, geothermal, and hydropower technology, as well as the future of 3-D printed cars, all areas in which DOE is involved.

Danielson also spoke about MIT projects in which DOE has invested, including semisolid lithium-ion battery company 24M, founded by MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) Professor Yet-Ming Chiang; the laser drilling company Foro Energy, founded by MIT alum Joel Moxley PhD ’07, with geothermal and other applications; and MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering Professor Slocum’s company Keystone Tower Systems, which fabricates wind turbine towers at project sites. The theme of innovation tied together all of these areas of discovery. “We want people to do things they think are impossible,” he said. This idea is integral to the Mission Innovation initiative, which was announced by President Barack Obama and other world leaders ahead of the Paris climate talks as a multinational effort to dramatically accelerate global clean energy innovation to address climate change. DOE leads the U.S. Mission Innovation effort to double the nation’s clean energy research and development investment over five years.

At a lunchtime panel led by current MIT students, MIT alumni including Danielson shared EERE career opportunities with current students. Moderators Linda Cheung, a Sloan MBA candidate, and Michael Birk, a graduate student in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and Statoil-MIT Energy Fellow, asked the panelists to share their stories of how they came to be interested in energy research and policy, and how they turned their passion into exciting careers. Johanna Wolfson PhD ’13, EERE Tech to Market director, encouraged students: “Run towards what’s exciting to you. Don’t just do the things you think you’re supposed to do.” Panelists discussed summer internships with EERE and invited students to reach out to them to discuss their interest in federal energy jobs.

Much of the day was devoted to research panels with DOE staff and MIT energy researchers. At a panel on sustainable transportation, Reuben Sarkar, deputy assistant secretary for sustainable transportation, addressed the challenge of making electric vehicles affordable by 2022, an initiative in which the DOE is currently investing. One approach to this goal is the “lightweighting” of cars — making them weigh less so they can be more fuel efficient. DOE researchers were able to reduce the weight of a Ford Focus by 23 percent (800 lbs) while maintaining its ability to withstand crashes by using different materials in the manufacturing process. Sarkar also spoke of the potential for hydrogen fuel cells, which have immense decarbonizing potential and also use domestic resources in production.

David Keith, assistant professor of system dynamics at MIT, added a sociological dimension to this discussion. He described how he examines the factors that affect market trends for low-emissions vehicles, from consumer demographics, income, and education, to oil prices. “We need to pinpoint the right incentives to get consumers to consider adopting hybrid and electric vehicles,” he said.

Another session on renewable power and grid modernization featured Doug Hollett, deputy assistant secretary for renewable power at DOE, and José Zayas, DOE’s wind and water power technologies director, who gave an overview of the department’s research in alternative energy, including wind, water, and geothermal. Also on the panel was Francis O’Sullivan, director of research and analysis for MITEI, who discussed the growth of the solar market and need for continued research to bring down costs and enable large-scale growth. Another panelist, MITEI’s Raanan Miller, executive director of the MIT Utility of the Future Study, talked about the study — a consortium of MIT researchers and international companies working to address emerging economic, regulatory, and technical issues in the electric power sector.

In a panel on buildings, energy efficiency, and advanced manufacturing, Mark Johnson, DOE’s director of advanced manufacturing, spoke about the importance of having an innovation ecosystem where research and development and manufacturing are connected. We need to stop the cycle, he said, of “clean energy products [being] invented here, but made elsewhere.” Patrick Phelan, emerging technologies program manager at the Building Technologies Office, talked about applications for decision science — specifically, understanding why people buy energy efficient technology for buildings — and studies how to stimulate certain behaviors. Richard Braatz, the Edwin R. Gilliland Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, discussed automated chemical synthesizers and how they could accelerate chemical discovery and production. He also touched on plug-and-play manufacturing software. Harvey Michaels, a research scientist and energy efficiency lecturer at MIT, talked about intelligent buildings.

On a panel with DOE’s Johnson and Wolfson about re-inventing the American clean energy ecosystem and supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs, participants discussed strategies for shepherding great ideas through the innovation pipeline, from idea to full realization. Christopher Noble, technology licensing officer at MIT, had the following advice for anyone creating a tech incubator: “Keep the operation as small and geographically dense as possible, because incubators are all about [researchers] running into each other.” Emily Reichert MBA ’12, CEO of Greentown Labs, gave her perspectives from running the region’s most impactful clean energy startup incubator, and encouraged other would-be entrepreneurs. “In Boston and in the clean tech community at MIT, new faces are always welcome in the innovation ecosystem,” she said, adding, “About 70 percent of startups at Greentown Labs are MIT spin-outs.”

The final panel of the day focused on MITEI’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers (LCECs), collaborative research hubs built on cross-sector partnerships with industry, government, and the philanthropic community. Armstrong discussed the goal of the centers, first announced in the MIT Plan for Action on Climate Change in fall 2015, to develop deployable solutions that can move the needle on meeting future energy needs while simultaneously addressing climate change. “As we go past COP21,” Armstrong said, “it’s clear that we need to focus our work on low-carbon technologies, not just in the U.S. and Europe, but in developing countries.” The centers, he said, are a way to “engage all of MIT’s disciplines, along with industry expertise, and harness these different perspectives to address energy and climate challenges.”

Joining Armstrong on the panel were MIT researchers involved with the Low-Carbon Energy Centers (LCECs). Vladimir Bulović, associate dean for innovation and Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology, discussed how his research focuses on re-imagining solar cells to improve quality while cutting costs. He described his team’s specific emphasis on thin-film solar cells that could be used for a variety of applications.

Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and co-founder of the lithium-ion battery company 24M, discussed his research to combine a thin, flexible battery his team has created with Bulović’s thin-film solar cells to increase the potential for seasonal storage of the sun’s energy.

Krystyn Van Vliet, the SMART Research Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, works to improve designs of materials for energy production in extreme environments. Van Vliet stressed how important it is to learn how to measure and model these environments and “how to overcome them to achieve higher durability and predictable lifetimes for clean energy technology.”

DOE project manager Elaine Ulrich drew parallels between the LCECs and the cross-collaboration they try to foster in their own projects. “The idea is that for the problem at hand, the DOE, industry, and MIT can draw on this variety of experts so we have people focused on all areas of energy,” she said.

In conclusion, Danielson expressed his desire to continue exploring areas for collaboration with MIT students and faculty. “We hope we sparked some new ideas and created new relationships that can grow into exciting energy innovations,” he said.

Elizabeth Boxer and Sofia Cardamone of MITEI contributed to this article.

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures.

Basic energy scienceBuilt environment and infrastructureElectric powerPower distribution and energy storageRenewable energyTransportation

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