Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
"Nations everywhere are racing to develop new ways to produce and use energy," he said in remarks delivered to a packed Kresge Auditorium. "The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I'm convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation."
Before delivering his speech on "American leadership in clean energy," the President was escorted by MIT President Susan Hockfield and MIT Energy Initiative Director Ernest Moniz on a tour of MIT laboratories conducting energy research.
"Extraordinary research [is] being conducted at this Institute," Obama said, citing work that could lead to windows that generate electricity, batteries that are grown by viruses rather than being built, highly efficient new lighting systems and ways of storing energy from offshore windmills so that it can be delivered when needed.
"You just get excited being here, and seeing these extraordinary young people," he said. "It taps into something essential about America," he said, asserting that the nation has "always been about discovery. It's in our DNA."
'Heirs to a legacy of innovation'
Obama's talk came as Congress gears up for hearings on clean energy legislation and as negotiators from around the world prepare for December's U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen.
The President said that the clean-energy research he saw in the labs is "a reminder that all of you are heirs to a legacy of innovation, not just here but across America, that has improved our health and our well being and helped us achieve unparalleled prosperity." But Obama indicated that this prosperity was in jeopardy, threatened in part by the very force that drives it.
"The system of energy that powers our economy also undermines our security and endangers our planet," he said.
Discussing energy legislation that is presently working its way through the U.S. Congress with some bipartisan support, including a bill jointly sponsored by Republican Senator Lindsay Graham and Democratic Senator John Kerry, the President said he believed a consensus was growing.
"We are seeing a convergence," he said. The naysayers, the folks who would pretend that this is not an issue, they are being marginalized." But, he added, "the closer we get, the harder the opposition will fight."
Young people, he said, "understand that this is the challenge of their generation."
Indeed, Forgan McIntosh, co-president of the MIT Energy Club and an MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said before the event that he hoped the President would use his occasion to jump-start progress on redefining Washington's role in the energy sector and its leadership position in the global race for clean energy competitiveness. Reached after the speech, McIntosh said he was not disappointed.
"The President used his speech to express a solid commitment to leading the global clean energy race for both economic and climate concerns," he said.
'The go-to place'
President Obama's visit to MIT was only the second in the Institute's history by a sitting president, following President Bill Clinton's appearance for a Commencement address in 1998. This was the first such visit to include a tour of laboratories and meetings with MIT faculty members.
After taking the stage in Kresge, Obama began his talk with a few quips about MIT, initially describing it as "the most prestigious school in Cambridge Massachusetts." The graduate of Harvard Law School quickly backtracked, adding, "well, in this part of Cambridge." Then, referring to MIT's tradition of hacks, he said "I might be here for a while — a bunch of engineering students put my motorcade on top of Building 10."
Following the speech, Moniz said Obama was "truly thrilled with the work he saw and the scale of the commitment he saw here." Robert Armstrong, deputy director of the MIT Energy Initiative, said the fact that the President chose to come here for this talk illustrates the fact that "MIT is becoming the go-to place for work on clean energy."
Hockfield, in her remarks before the President's talk, said that "President Obama has articulated a powerful vision for restoring economic growth, creating jobs and counteracting climate change by investing aggressively in clean energy research and development."
Hockfield hailed the historic significance of the visit, saying the fact "that President Obama has come to MIT to talk about America's potential to lead in clean energy is a tribute to the groundbreaking work of our faculty and students, including many in this room."
She added that "we share President Obama's view that clean energy is the defining challenge of this era. To meet the doubling of global energy demand by 2050; to drive new patents, new products, new industries and new jobs, and to mitigate climate change, clean energy is the only avenue."
Chancellor Phillip L. Clay said that the President's visit "signals that the administration understands the very important leadership contribution that MIT is making on the energy problem," and shows the President's commitment to "applying science and technology to solving problems such as energy." Personally, he said, "I'm just so pleased and proud — there's no place on my body left to pinch."