When President Susan Hockfield began her tenure last year, she asked faculty and students what the Institute’s top research priorities should be. The overwhelming response: energy.
Ernest Moniz, physics professor and codirector of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, explains that the energy problem has three parts. First, he says, with the economic emergence of developing countries, a simple supply and demand equation will keep prices high. Meanwhile, dependence on oil under the ground of other countries creates security risks for Western nations. And third, people are finally beginning to recognize the realities of climate change. “This may be one of those rare moments when our society suddenly looks at itself in the mirror and admits the truth,” says Hockfield. We have cheap and abundant fossil fuels to thank for our comfortable lives, she says, but if we don’t change our consumption habits, the price will be steep.
Soon after her inauguration, Hockfield established the Energy Research Council (ERC), which has proposed a three-part interdisciplinary research plan: basic science that will provide a foundation for future technologies, work aimed at improving today’s energy systems, and technology and systems that address the needs of a rapidly developing world. The council, cochaired by Moniz and Robert Armstrong, professor and head of chemical engineering, also proposed changes to the curriculum to encourage students to work on energy-related problems and recommended a major drive to improve energy efficiency on campus. At press time, the proposals were awaiting approval from the president’s and provost’s offices.
In May, when the ERC reported its findings to a packed Kresge Auditorium, President Hockfield said that energy research at MIT is “lots of flowers and no garden.” MIT researchers are making headway, she said, but “these discrete breakthroughs will have far more impact as parts of a coherent answer to the world’s energy problems.” That answer will be informed by political science, economics, and other disciplines, Hockfield observed, because “as a problem, energy is hydra-headed. Concentrating on one set of fangs while ignoring the others is hardly a strategy for self-preservation.” Here’s a look at three MIT researchers working on the problem.