August 12, 2006
|MIT To Go Full Bore On Energy Research||Energy Science/Technology|
Solar cells made from spinach. Algae-based biofuel fattened on greenhouse gas. Plasma-powered turbo engines. These are just some of the technologies being developed by a Manhattan Project-style research effort for new energy technologies at MIT.
Scientists at MIT are undertaking a big, ambitious, university-wide program to develop innovative energy tech under the auspices of the school's Energy Research Council.
"The urgent challenge of our time (is) clean, affordable energy to power the world," said MIT President Susan Hockfield.
Inaugurated last year, the project is likened by Hockfield to MIT's contribution to radar — a key technology that helped win World War II.
"As the example of radar suggests, when MIT arrays its capabilities against an important problem ... we can make an important contribution," said Hockfield in an e-mail.
David Jhirad, a former deputy assistant secretary of energy and current VP for science and research at the World Resources Institute, said no other institution or government anywhere has taken on such an intensive, creative, broad-based, and wide-ranging energy research initiative.
"MIT is stepping into a vacuum, because there is no policy, vision or leadership at the top of our nation," he said. "It's uniquely matched. MIT has tremendous strengths across the board — from science and engineering to management to architecture to the humanities. From that point of view, it's hugely significant."
Below are some examples of the MIT research projects the Energy Research Council will be sponsoring and developing:
Spinach solar power: Tapping the secrets of photosynthesis — engineering proteins from spinach — to make organic solar cells whose efficiency could outstrip the best silicon photovoltaic arrays today. Silicon superstrings: A novel approach to manufacturing conventional silicon photovoltaic arrays by pulling the chips in stringy ribbons out of a molten stew like taffy rather than slicing them from silicon ingots. Laptop-powered hybrids: Using a new generation of lithium-based batteries (which power most portable electronics today) to cut the price and charge-time of hybrid and electric car batteries. Tubular battery tech: Using "supercapacitors" made from carbon nanotubes to store charge — rather than the chemical reactions that power most batteries — resulting in a lightweight, high-capacity battery that could someday give even the laptop battery a run for its money. Hold the A/C: Optimizing air and heat flow on a new computer-aided design system, before a building's construction begins, allowing for the building's air conditioning costs to be cut by as much as 50 percent. Hybrid without the hybrid: Turbocharging an automobile engine with plasma from a small ethanol tank (which would need to be refilled about as often as the oil needs changing), reportedly increasing fuel efficiency almost to the level of a hybrid — but only adding $500-$1,000 to the car's sticker price. More light than heat: Generating a car's electricity photoelectrically (using a gas-powered light and a small, specially designed solar panel) rather than mechanically (using an alternator), substantially increasing fuel efficiency. Coal-powered biofuels: Bubbling exhaust from a coal-fired power plant through a tank of algae that's been bred to siphon off much of the exhaust's carbon dioxide — in the process, fattening the algae that can then be harvested as biodiesel.
Many of these projects are ongoing and will continue under the Energy Research Council banner. Others, such as a new effort to make cheap ethanol using a biochemical technique called metabolic engineering, apply the expertise of faculty and staff who had never worked on energy problems before. [Emphasis added]
The multidisciplinary aspect of this is very cool. Everything from nanotechnologists to architects, bioengineers to city planners.
Besides being good for us all, this has to be good for MIT as well. It should, for one thing, help them attract the very best and brightest. If you were a young science or engineering student, what could be better than getting an opportunity to help save the world?