In Depth: The Future of Energy

MIT's Efforts: Collaborations are delivering an energy revolution

MIT President Susan Hockfield, who initiated the MIT Energy Research Council in 2005 Photo: MIT President Susan Hockfield, who after being inaugurated last year established the MIT Energy Research Council, initiating an Institute-wide effort to solve the global energy crisis.

At the MIT Energy Forum on May 3, 2006, the Institute's most provocative developments in energy were front and center for the world to see.

The occasion for this high-powered show-and-tell is the MIT Energy Research Council's presentation to MIT President Susan Hockfield of a comprehensive report detailing the Institute's collective work on the search for solutions to the global energy crisis.

When Hockfield assumed the Institute presidency last year, she immediately raised the bar on energy research. With the establishment of the MIT Energy Research Council, she launched her mandate for producing energy solutions on a fast track. Now, less than a year later, the Council is preparing to present its findings at this daylong forum that will explore the most audacious and productive developments at MIT.

Before the initiative, all of MIT's five schools were already deeply invested in finding solutions to the global energy crisis. Hockfield wanted to intensify efforts and accelerate progress.

“Over the last 30 years, these two words, energy and the environment, have gotten a little tired, not from overuse but from lack of progress,” she has said. “I believe that the country and the world may finally be ready to focus on these matters seriously ... and it is [MIT's] responsibility to lead in this mission.”

What the Energy Research Council has done is to give researchers across MIT — scientists, engineers, and social scientists — a framework for collaboration and the support to turn ideas into solutions.

Among the energy innovations now under development across MIT:

Windpower finds new fans

A new study conducted by the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment reveals that windpower is actually more productive in the winter than in summer when the electricity drain is greatest.

The benefits of winter wind are not insignificant. Windpower generated during the winter months can replace electricity generated by dirty, inefficient coal and oil power plants.

The findings are creating a buzz in many realms, especially among state regulators and power system operators who are charged with reducing emissions to meet federal clean air laws. The research also gives advocates of windpower a significant benefit to strengthen their case for wind farms.

Building a better battery

Manipulating the construction skills of microscopic viruses, an interdepartmental team of MIT researchers from materials science and chemical engineering are working on “nanowire” structures for use in ultra thin lithium-ion batteries.

The goal is to create a battery that crams as much electrical energy as possible into a package as small and lightweight as a grain of rice. This new technology could increase the energy density of batteries (the amount of charge a battery can hold) to the point that they can compete with gasoline as an energy source for automobiles.

Another MIT-led advance in lithium battery technology could revolutionize the hybrid car industry, according to MIT Materials Science Professor Gerbrand Cedar, who heads the project.

The new lithium nickel manganese oxide material developed by Cedar's team can charge or discharge approximately ten times faster than existing lithium battery technologies, bringing it much closer to the timeframe required for hybrid car batteries.

With a few modifications, researchers hope batteries made from the new material will provide a cheaper and more efficient alternative to the batteries that now power hybrid cars.

Revisiting nuclear energy

A cadre of MIT faculty and their colleagues — all former senior energy or security advisors in presidential administrations from Carter to Clinton — are proposing a plan that would allow the world to develop nuclear power without increased risk of weapons proliferation.

Countries that have the technology to prepare and dispose of nuclear fuel would provide those services to countries that do not. The client countries would have the benefits of nuclear power with no need to acquire technology that can also be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

MIT faculty involved in the plan, the Assured Nuclear Fuel Services Initiative (ANSFI), include MIT Energy Research Council Co-Chair Ernest Moniz and MIT Institute Professor John Deutch, director of the CIA in the Clinton administration and Undersecretary of Energy in the Carter administration.

Their plan is intended as a pragmatic economic alternative to solutions like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the group believes is politically difficult and impractical to implement.

Versatile vehicles reshape transportation

Engineers in the Department of Materials Science and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics are collaborating on a discovery that would allow vehicles to morph. This innovation, straight out of the realm of sci fi, would make it possible for structures and materials to move like birds' wings, instantaneously adjusting during flight to every current of air.

The discovery, they say, could lead to a shape-shifting boat hull that enables the most efficient movement through choppy, calm, or shallow waters or an airplane that transforms on demand from a shape designed for agility into one designed for energy efficiency.

Batteries expand and contract as they are charged and recharged, says Yet-Ming Chiang, Kyocera Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“This has generally been thought to be something detrimental to batteries. But I thought we could use this behavior to another end: the actuation or movement of large-scale structures.”

Cars using the technology would work more like organic beings and less like living rooms on wheels and would help mitigate problems of fuel consumption and traffic congestion.

Fly or drive — and never leave the car

The 2006 MIT $100K Competition semifinalist Terrafugia hopes to fuel a revolution in commuting with the Transition Personal Air Vehicle (PAV). The proposed multi-functional PAV would drive on any surface, take to the air from most airports, and park in the family garage.

“In addition to increasing personal freedom and mobility,” the team's business plan states, “the Transition will be the most economical form of transportation for trips between 100 and 500 miles.”

Cool design turns down the heat

Studies show that people generally feel more comfortable in a naturally ventilated building rather than one that is air conditioned. Yet architects are reluctant to rely on natural ventilation in commercial projects, because they aren't sure whether it will work with their designs.

Architecture and Mechanical Engineering Professor Leon R. Glicksman, director of MIT's Building Technology Program, and his collaborators across MIT and Cambridge University in England hope to dispel those fears using computer-based modeling tools.

The new software will demonstrate how design choices such as building orientation and window technology affect energy use and occupant comfort and will enable architects to design commercial buildings that cool with natural breezes.

At MIT's Center for 21st Century Energy in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, researchers are producing small cryogenic systems designed to provide precision cooling that significantly reduces the amount of energy necessary to run air conditioners. Rather than blanket cooling, the technology will provide environmental conditioning only to the portions of a space that need it.

Thinking small for big impact

New discoveries in energy will come from thinking outside the dimensions of current energy sources, says Institute Professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus. Just as Edison's light bulb was not an outgrowth of improving the candle, tomorrow's energy alternatives must come from innovations not tethered to old systems.

In “Addressing Grand Energy Challenges through Nanoscience,” simulcast at both MIT and Technion Israel Institute of Technology on April 5, Dresselhaus told audiences that most of the advances in our future will be small ones — in size, not impact.

“By using new advanced materials now becoming available through nanoscience, scientists can take advantage of quantum phenomena that occur at this scale,” she said.

Many MIT scientists agree that nanoscience may well be the largest arena of discovery in the 21st century.

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