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Energy research projects win media notice

Even as MIT ramps up its commitment to energy research, several projects have already made international headlines over the past year.

They range from genetically modified yeast that could boost the speed and efficiency of ethanol production to a major study touting geothermal energy's potential for supplying a substantial amount of electricity in the United States. Samples of media coverage for these and more follow.


Imagine putting a tiny gas-turbine engine inside a silicon chip about the size of a quarter. Then imagine that the resulting device could run 10 times longer than a battery of the same weight, powering laptops, cell phones, radios and other electronic devices. A team led by Professor Alan Epstein of aeronautics and astronautics is working to that end.

According to a September 2006 BBC News story, Epstein, "who has lived and breathed his project for the last 10 years" with a team of some 50 staff and students, expects that the device could be available commercially within three to five years.

"A laptop that will run for three hours on battery charge will run for 15 to 20 hours using the microengine and it should end up costing no more than current batteries," Epstein said.

Another MIT team is developing a half-sized gasoline engine that performs like its full-sized cousin but offers fuel efficiency approaching that of today's hybrid engine system--at a much lower cost. The key? Carefully controlled injection of ethanol, an increasingly common biofuel, directly into the engine's cylinders when there's a hill to be climbed or a car to be passed.

These small engines could be on the market within five years, according to Daniel R. Cohn, senior research scientist in the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) and the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, John B. Heywood, the Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory, and Leslie Bromberg, a principal researcher at the PSFC.

The work was featured in an April 2007 issue of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, among other publications. In the piece, David Cole, chair of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research, told the Globe: "This has really enormous potential. This is a big deal. It's not a sure thing; nothing ever is until it's executed. But when you've got guys of this capability, it's different than some guy coming in off the street and saying he had a dream during the night about some new technology."

Engineered biofuels

Ethanol is often touted as a potential solution to the growing oil-driven energy crisis. But there are significant obstacles to producing ethanol: One is that high ethanol levels are toxic to the yeast that ferments corn and other plant material into ethanol.

So MIT researchers made headlines when they engineered a new strain of yeast that can tolerate elevated levels of both ethanol and glucose, while producing ethanol faster than un-engineered yeast.

"The fact is that science had run out of methods to increase (the) alcohol tolerance" of yeast, Professor Gregory Stephanopoulos of chemical engineering told New Scientist magazine. His colleagues on the work included MIT professor of biology Gerald Fink of the Whitehead Institute.

Geothermal power

The first study in some 30 years to take a new look at geothermal power, which involves mining the huge amounts of heat inside the Earth's hard rock crust, generated scores of stories in the press.

MIT's Jefferson W. Tester, the H.P. Meissner Professor of Chemical Engineering, who led the study, told the New York Times that "there were many new justifications for aggressively pursuing this kind of energy option.

"Back then, we weren't worried about carbon dioxide and climate, we weren't running short of natural gas, and now energy is a national security issue in the long run. While there's no guarantee it's going to work, this is not an unreasonable investment and it's a good bet on the future."


MIT also released a major report on the future of coal as an energy source. That, too, made news around the world.

Led by co-chairs John Deutch, Institute Professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Ernest J. Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, the report states that carbon capture and sequestration is the critical enabling technology to help significantly reduce coal's carbon dioxide emissions while also allowing the fuel to meet the world's pressing energy needs.

"If we don't have carbon capture and sequestration, coal has a very bleak future," Deutch told Reuters news service.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Moniz said that the report found "a lack of urgency in many directions on U.S. policy related to coal, including implementing a program to capture emissions and store them underground."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 9, 2007 (download PDF).

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