During a tour of MIT labs prior to his talk at Kresge Auditorium last Friday, President Barack Obama saw demonstrations of several clean-energy technologies being developed at MIT: batteries that can be self-assembled by genetically engineered viruses; long-lasting high-efficiency light bulbs; windows that can double as solar energy collectors; and structures that could provide offshore windmills with built-in power storage.
The tour marked the first time a sitting president has visited MIT's laboratories to see demonstrations of ongoing research work and meet with faculty members who are conducting that research. He was escorted through the labs by MIT President Susan Hockfield and MIT Energy Initiative Director Ernest J. Moniz, and joined by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Sen. John Kerry. The five faculty members who made the presentations to the President, along with some of their students, gathered in two labs in Building 13, with posters describing their work and demonstrations to show the technology in action.
Philip Guidice, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, was on campus Friday for the Presidential visit and said Obama was looking for examples of leading energy technologies of the future.
"Massachusetts is at the forefront, and MIT is very much a part of that," he said.
'A little nervous'
Marc Baldo, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, demonstrated technology for concentrating solar energy systems using coated glass. Baldo said Obama was curious and asked a few questions about the research.
"It seemed like he had a really good time, that he actually found the whole experience quite stimulating," Baldo said "I was a little nervous, but I got the impression that he's used to walking into rooms full of nervous people, and he just put everyone at ease."
Paula Hammond, along with research collaborator Angela Belcher, demonstrated work on using genetically engineered viruses to produce self-assembling solar cells and batteries.
"He was very responsive, and an incredibly warm person," Hammond SB '84, PhD '93, the Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering, said of Obama. "When we described the self-assembly process, he asked several very intelligent questions, about the scalability of the process and so on."
In fact, after he heard part of the description of plans to develop the system so that batteries or solar cells could be made by spraying alternating layers of different organisms onto a glass surface, Hammond said, Obama turned to reporters who accompanied him on the tour and said "did you understand that?" - and then proceeded to explain the information in his own words.
"He was exactly correct," Belcher said. "I asked him if he wanted to teach my class." When Belcher, the Germehausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering, explained that her biologically based system made it possible to conduct a billion experiments at a time, he interrupted to say, "Really?" Belcher said "Yes we can," to which he quipped, "That was my slogan, you know." Overall, he was "serious, but kind of joking at the same time," Belcher said.
"His demeanor was very inquisitive and playful," said Vladimir Bulovic, the KDD Associate Professor of Communications and Technology, who demonstrated high-efficiency, long-lasting light bulbs based on quantum dot technology. When Bulovic showed him some of the equipment used to manufacture the lights, including a vacuum chamber that produces a harder vacuum than would be found in space between the Earth and the moon, Obama asked him, "When one of these pieces of equipment breaks, who do you call?" Bulovic explained that the equipment is all custom built at MIT, and he and his colleagues and students are the "glorified car mechanics" who have to fix anything that breaks.
"I believe that president knew what my answer would be and that he wanted to give me a chance to vocalize the resourcefulness of MIT engineers in front of the national press," Bulovic added.
A presidential seal of approval
Before the president left the lab, Bulovic, at the request of some of his students, asked if the President would be willing to "memorialize the moment." He was standing next to a control panel for some equipment that many of the students use almost daily. "He graciously did sign it," he said, "and added 'Great work!' up at the top." Since he had already seen all of the other presentations at that point, Bulovic said he and his students interpreted that "as a message to all of us, that he was impressed by all the work he saw. It was a message to the entire MIT community."
As the President mentioned in his speech at Kresge, during his lab visit Belcher handed him a wallet-size card displaying the periodic table of the elements - something she routinely gives to students and visitors. As soon as he was given the card, he placed it in his pocket and deadpanned: "I'll glance at it periodically."
Alex Slocum, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering, demonstrated his plan for offshore wind turbines with a built-in energy storage system using pumped water. Slocum said that "it's clear that he really listens; his eyes are constantly in motion taking in information. He asked some really good questions, and he was very warm and friendly, with a good sense of humor."
Slocum added that it was clear from the interaction that "he really wants to learn; he genuinely cares. He wants to know what can be done, and what is being done. It was really refreshing."
Bulovic was impressed with Obama's "eagerness to absorb more information on what science can do for us." The whole experience, he said, was "overwhelming and humbling."