mit tackles the energy problem >> research initiatives >> research programs :: home

School of Science Research Inititatives

The Great Dome lights up the Cambridge skyline. It was illuminated by 12 new energy-efficient LED fixtures. Photo / Chris BrownMIT Tackles The Energy Problem


Doubling energy use, tripling electricity demand, political instability surrounding oil sources in the Middle East, and detrimental effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment—for MIT, these are the next problems to solve.

The world’s energy challenge has galvanized the Institute to bring together research being done on energy across MIT and, using the Institute’s strength—its interdisciplinary approach—create an entirely new energy system.

“We believe we can be a catalyst for a technological phase shift,” said MIT President Susan Hockeld. “We have the expertise in science, technology, public policy, economics, urban design, and management to produce transformational advances. We also have a history of solving problems across disciplines.”

A portfolio approach

The scope of the world’s energy problems calls for a comprehensive portfolio of responses to environmental, economic, scientific, security, and political issues. To address problems of this scale, the work must be done on all fronts. Institute researchers are fast at work on that portfolio, with a plan to address energy needs in the short-term—alleviating immediate shortage, security, and environmental concerns. They are also working to address long-term needs —finding secure, economically viable, and environmentally sustainable energy sources. Among the many technological, entrepreneurial, and policy approaches the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) is currently pursuing are:

  • Climate change—Innovative technologies created and studied by MIT may enable greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to be reduced dramatically or sequestered harmlessly. MIT has more than 15 years’ experience in modeling the global economy, atmospheric chemistry, climate dynamics, and terrestrial and marine ecosystems through the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Climate Change.
  • Buildings and transportation— Reducing energy needs for the built environment is essential. MIT is pursuing solutions ranging from improving design tools and materials to the cost savings of natural ventilation. Among MIT’s expertise are developing alternatives to petroleum-based liquid fuels, increasing vehicle efficiency, and creating vehicles such as hybrid electric vehicles and novel gasoline/directinjection ethanol engines that achieve hybrid-like efficiency.
  • Today’s energy technology systems— Faculty from all five MIT Schools are working toward improving the theory and practice of infrastructure network analysis and design, as well as real-time monitoring and management of power plants and upgrading our energy delivery systems. MIT is also pioneering new approaches to enhanced petroleum recovery from existing reservoirs and to oil and natural gas production in ultra-deep water and other unconventional reservoirs. Emerging technologies are being explored to enable coal to produce a wide spectrum of products, including liquid fuels.
  • Biomass/biofuel—MIT has played a key role in advancing the new field of metabolic engineering, which can engineer microorganisms for optimal biomass-to-biofuels conversion and related bioprocessing issues.
  • Hydrogen fuel—MIT is exploiting nanotechnology to make hydrogen a practical automotive “fuel” powering fuel cells.
  • Energy storage—MIT’s innovative battery efforts revolve around new materials to boost storage capacity and nanotechnology to create a novel, powerful battery component and to boost the performance of a storage device called an ultracapacitor. Other work may lead to cheaper batteries for cellular phones and laptop computers and help build lightweight batteries for power-hungry hybrid electric vehicles and power tools.
  • Renewable power—To make solar energy more efficient, MIT is improving manufacturing processes, developing nascent materials technologies based on organic, inorganic, and photobiological photovoltaics and solar photochemical methods for fuel storage. MIT is pursuing ways to engineer systems that can greatly extend the reach of geothermal energy. The Institute is also investigating innovative floating wind turbine platforms for capturing wind power over deep water. For wave power, MIT will analyze a grid system that collects and distributes power from sea waves.
  • Nuclear power—MIT has long been prominent in nuclear science and engineering, from advanced reactor design to development of risk assessment methodology. Modeling advanced nuclear fuel materials and modular reactors is one aspect of MIT’s extensive range of expertise in nuclear power. The Institute’s long-standing fusion program explores an alternative pathway to harnessing nuclear energy with potentially transforming long-term impact.
  • Developing nations—The developing world is growing at an unprecedented rate, and the demand for electricity and fuel in developing world “gigacities” is skyrocketing. The environmental impact of this increased demand and production define a need for new energy technology and policy on a global scale.

Legacy of innovation

An integral part of MIT’s history of problem solving is the convergence of science, technology, and policy. It is fitting that, once again, MIT bring its strengths in science, technology, architecture and planning, management, political science, and economics together in an interdisciplinary approach to tackle a crisis that today threatens our security, our environment, and our economic future.

Giving opportunities

  • Named professorship for a new senior faculty member: $5 million
  • Named career development professorship: $2 million
  • Named graduate fellowship: $1 million

For more information, please contact:
O’Neil Outar
Director, Institutional Initiatives
ooutar@mit.edu
617.253.6906

Last updated: April 6, 2007