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Hockfield, Obama urge major push in clean energy research funding

President Susan Hockfield speaks at White House briefing on energy and new technology spending.
President Susan Hockfield speaks at White House briefing on energy and new technology spending.
Photo / Brendan Smialowski / UPI

At a press briefing at the White House on Monday, MIT President Susan Hockfield joined U.S. President Barack Obama in calling for a "truly historic" new level of federal funding for clean energy research.

The event came as Congress prepares to take up the president's budget, which calls for dedicating $150 billion over 10 years for a new clean energy R&D and technology fund. This initiative represents "the largest and most important investment in science and technology" by the U.S. government since the Apollo moon-landing program in the 1960s, Hockfield said.

The federal investments made during the Apollo era "spawned a set of technologies that have transformed our lives and workplaces," she said. "The R&D and technology investments that President Obama proposes have equally profound potential as an economic catalyst. That would be good news in any economy. But of course today, it provides a lifeline."

The value of such investments was underscored by a 1997 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which was chaired by the new White House science advisor John Holdren, Hockfield said. That report showed that "every government dollar invested in energy R&D returns 40-fold to the economy — in energy efficiency, energy savings and in new technologies — a 40-to-1 return on investment," she said.

The new clean energy technologies to be developed through this research and development funding "will power our long term prosperity," Obama said at the briefing. With this new funding proposal, along with $39 billion in clean energy research funding and $20 billion in tax incentives that were included in the economic stimulus package, Obama said, "we have achieved more in two months in support of a new clean-energy economy than we've achieved in perhaps 30 years." In addition, he said, the initiative will help the nation "end, once and for all, our dependence on foreign oil."

Also speaking at the White House briefing was Paul Holland, who is on the board of a new company called Serious Materials that has re-opened manufacturing plants shuttered by the housing downturn and is using them to produce what Obama described as "probably some of the most energy-efficient windows in the world."

Hockfield said that the kinds of new breakthroughs likely to be spawned by this federal investment in R&D are exemplified by a variety of projects already under way at MIT. These include innovations that could turn windows into efficient, cost-effective solar cells, new materials that make batteries long-lasting, safe and rapidly charging, "quantum dot" light bulbs that are 500 percent more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and methods for using benign viruses to make clear, non-toxic, lightweight batteries.

Hockfield said that in addition to the economic impact of these research funds, "these same investments also offer the only route to the breakthrough technologies required to address the daunting challenges of energy security, rapidly accelerating energy demand and climate change. And, as an added bonus, solving these challenges has captured the imaginations and ambitions of young people -- students at MIT and across the country, young scientists and engineers passionately committed to inventing a bright, clean energy future."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 1, 2009 (download PDF).

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