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Industry joins MIT in hunt for energy solutions

The automotive, fuel and other energy-related industries weighed in on how MIT can best contribute to solving the world's energy crisis in a two-day workshop sponsored by MIT's Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) on Dec. 6-7.

More than 130 participants from industry and academia came together at the workshop, "2005 MIT Energy Challenges Workshop: Igniting New Ideas for Sustainable Energy," to identify priorities and exchange ideas on how to work together to meet fast-rising energy demands while reducing greenhouse gases.

The group heard an overview of the future of coal-based power in increasingly efficient U.S. plants and in a complex and confusing regulatory environment in China. China is expected to account for half the increase in world coal consumption and carbon emissions over the next 25 years. Workshop participants also heard six MIT researchers describe work on topics ranging from photovoltaics to the use of nanotechnology in energy systems.

Technologist, academic, entrepreneur and long-time MIT supporter Kenan Sahin, founder and CEO of Tiax in Cambridge, Mass., spoke about the critical role of industry in MIT's Energy Research Council (ERC), an Institute-wide initiative to explore how MIT can use its strength in multidisciplinary research to address the nation's and the world's energy issues.

"Energy now has become all-consuming -- the key topic in the environment, security and the economy is energy," Sahin said. "If we can achieve a tight coupling between industry and energy, we have a chance at taming the energy challenge."

ERC co-chair Ernest Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and co-director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, said that technology will continue to create new ways to use energy more cleanly and efficiently, but that "how technology is deployed for the public good is very much influenced by policy."

Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, said that in 2030, oil, gas and coal will still be the largest sources of energy, with renewable sources such as wind and solar making up only 1 percent of the world's energy supply. The largest increases in population and economic growth, with corresponding increases in energy needs and production, will happen in developing countries such as China. "We'll need 60 percent more energy in 2030 than in 2000," Jacobs said.

Bernhard Escherman, senior vice president and head of the Corporate Research Center of ABB Switzerland, questioned how the industrialized world will maintain the reliability of electrical supply in spite of aging power plants, people's reluctance to have transmission lines in their back yards and the risks of depending on a central infrastructure that might become a terrorist target.

Workshops led by industry representatives came up with the following ways MIT can contribute:

  • MIT can help develop advanced turbines, fuel cells, catalytic reactors and ways to burn coal better and more efficiently. Researchers can design smart energy systems that tell you, for instance, when your driving style is burning more gas or when your tire pressure is low; and home meters that show the dollar amount of energy used.
  • MIT can improve existing technologies to up the efficiency of hybrid vehicles, electric motors, friction materials and engines.
  • MIT could provide a "holistic energy plan" that looks not only at supply and demand but also at environment and efficiency through a complex systems approach. MIT can look at the issues in terms of longer time frames than industry.
  • MIT can be an "honest broker" to identify key pathways toward new energy policy and technology across a broad range of stakeholders in industry, politics and academia.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 14, 2005 (download PDF).

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