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MIT strengthens ties with France for energy research

France-MIT Forum on Energy unveils new joint laboratory, explores other potential collaborations.
This week, MIT President Susan Hockfield and other Institute representatives traveled to Paris for the France-MIT Forum on Energy, an event to advance collaboration between Institute researchers and their French counterparts. The event also marks the 10th anniversary of the MIT-France program.

The forum, organized by the MIT-France Program, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research, took place Wednesday in Paris, serving to formalize new large-scale ventures between France and MIT as well as provide a platform to discuss other potential partnerships.

“French research on energy is first rate, and for MIT faculty and students to collaborate with labs in France is a great opportunity,” says Suzanne Berger, the Raphael Dorman-Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT-France Program. “In puzzling over how to solve big problems, having different approaches, different methodologies, and being able to work together can really lead to important breakthroughs.”

The major new initiative announced was a joint international laboratory to focus on multi-scale materials science for energy and the environment. According to a memorandum of understanding signed Wednesday, this unité mixte international, or UMI, will be located at MIT and co-sponsored by Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France’s national scientific research center. It will house four to six CNRS researchers, who will serve as co-principal investigators with MIT researchers. The UMI will be co-directed by Franz-Josef Ulm, the George Macomber Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) at MIT, and Roland Pellenq, a CNRS scientist who is also a senior research scientist in CEE.

In proposing the joint lab, organizers cited recent international energy and environmental disasters — such as Japan’s nuclear crisis and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — that highlighted the need for a return to “science-based engineering,” manufacturing materials with an eye toward sustainability, durability and waste management. In addition to its MIT and CNRS sponsorship, the UMI will seek funding for specific research projects from industrial and government sources. The initial agreement will last two to four years, after which it may be renewed.

MIT delegates also signed a memorandum of understanding with representatives from Electricité de France (EDF) to explore areas of collaboration in research and development for the energy sector. EDF is the world’s largest utility company, operating in Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The MIT steering committee for collaboration with EDF includes Ernest Moniz, MITEI director and the Cecil and Ida Green Distinguished Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems; Mujid Kazimi, TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Engineering; and Ulm.

MIT and French researchers also discussed the related areas of climate change and biofuels, and explored potential partnerships at the level of faculty, students and postdocs.

The forum, held at Paris’ Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie and open to the public, drew more than 300 attendees. French representatives included Ronan Stephan, general director for research and development at the French Ministry for Higher Education and Research; Christophe de Margerie, CEO of French energy company Total; and CNRS President Alain Fuchs.

During the past 10 years, the MIT-France program has provided seed grants for more than 80 joint research projects, and facilitated exchange experiences for hundreds of students through its network of corporations, universities and research centers; in fact, the new UMI grew out of a seed grant awarded in 2009.

“The new lab that’s being created at MIT — by Franz-Josef Ulm and Roland Pellenq — is really a full-scale collaboration building on the seed-fund grants,” Berger says. “We see that as a model for new kinds of collaboration between MIT and some of the best research being done in laboratories around the world.”

In her remarks, Hockfield stressed the importance of international joint ventures, large and small, to tackle complex problems. “As [a] faculty member explained, ‘Thanks to MIT-France, we became collaborators rather than competitors,’” Hockfield said.

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