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Energy Forum fires up MIT

Daylong event launches major initiative

MIT took an expansive look at the energy landscape -- from generation and storage to climate change and public policy -- at the daylong "MIT Energy Forum: Taking on the Challenge" held Wednesday, May 3.

"It is time to consider measures that will improve the world's energy infrastructure," MIT President Susan Hockfield said in opening the event to a packed Kresge Auditorium audience, made up of representatives from corporations, government and the MIT community.

The public debate on energy has been focused on "patchwork solutions" targeting isolated problems, Hockfield said. "At MIT, starting today, we intend to redirect this debate toward the entire energy system."

Nineteen MIT faculty members spoke at the forum, which was held in conjunction with the release of a report by MIT's Energy Research Council (ERC). The ERC was charged by Hockfield in June 2005 with exploring how MIT can help meet the global energy challenge.

Speakers included members of the council and others whose research spans MIT's many energy-related contributions in science, technology and policy.

The day's panel sessions focused on three aspects of the energy crisis.

The first, "Science and Technology for a Clean Energy Future," laid out a vision for what the long-term solutions to the world's energy woes might be. Faculty members described their latest research on solar and other renewables, nanotechnology, catalysts, batteries and biofuels.

Jeffrey P. Freidberg, professor of nuclear science and engineering, described futuristic fusion energy that may one day turn a pickup-truck-full of seawater into electricity that could power Boston for a year. He said that exploiting fusion's enormous potential is still more than 30 years off.

The second panel, "Improving Today's Energy Systems," centered on improving existing technologies -- nuclear energy; subsurface science and engineering for enhanced oil recovery; modeling, simulation and energy conversion; electricity systems and policy; public attitudes toward energy sources and paying for cleaner alternatives.

In the panel "Energy for a Rapidly Evolving World," faculty members talked about the science and policy of climate change; designing more efficient buildings; the future of transportation technologies, fuels and systems; and technology's effect on energy intensity in China.

Amy B. Smith, an instructor in the Edgerton Center, described how a hand-operated press that transforms agricultural waste into cooking briquettes could save lives and trees in developing countries. Smith also described ways of getting energy-related benefits to the billions in developing countries who are without electricity.

Henry D. Jacoby, professor of management and co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, brought up one key challenge in searching for solutions to a growing problem. The populations of India and China, already nine times that of the United States, are seeking to achieve the high level of energy consumption now seen in the United States.

"What are the implications of millions of windmills, not just a few in Nantucket Sound?" Jacoby said. "What are the implications of converting millions of acres to growing crops for biofuels? What are the environmental implications of piping around billions of gallons of liquid carbon dioxide and storing it in the ground? We have to think not only of the scale of the problem, but the scale of the solutions and the implications of that."

Hockfield said Wednesday that after a one- to two-month comment period, MIT's new energy initiative will enter the next phase by the fall semester. Fund-raising through government, industry and private sources will be undertaken to fund the report's recommendations, which include the creation of an MIT Energy Council representing all five schools to function as an independent steering organization to carry out MIT's new energy focus.

Future plans aside, ERC co-chair Robert C. Armstrong, Chevron Professor and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, said Hockfield's initiative had already "added value on campus by bringing together different partners in different schools who had not previously worked together."

To download the ERC report or to see videos of the day's events, visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 10, 2006 (download PDF).

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