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Satisfying a possible doubling of global energy demand while supplanting fossil fuels is “perhaps the greatest single challenge facing our nation and world in the 21st century,” a Massachusetts Institute of Technology panel wrote today in a draft research strategy report for the institute.

The MIT Energy Research Council, appointed by MIT President Susan Hockfield last year, is calling for a sweeping array of multidisciplinary research programs. Its report covers everything from oil extraction to carbon dioxide sequestration, from nuclear fusion to efficient freight management systems.

Its co-chair, Ernest J. Moniz, an MIT physicist and a former Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, explains the council’s thinking and recommendations.

Technology Review: Headlines these days are full of talk about $3-a-gallon gas. What are the fundamental energy issues facing the world today?

Ernest Moniz: As we cast it in our report, there are three major drivers. The first is simply the supply and demand equation, particularly driven by developing and emerging economies. One sees in most projections a doubling of energy use and a tripling of electricity use by mid-century. This is a staggering problem, or challenge, particularly when you realize that today 86 percent of primary energy comes from fossil fuels and conventional oil production may be peaking.

The second driver is security – the security of oil supply and also nuclear proliferation.

And third is environmental, especially climate change. If society gets serious about controlling greenhouse-gas emissions, this would be the most profound challenge to the structure of our energy supply, because that supply is based on fossil fuel. Controlling carbon dioxide, while also doubling energy use, is a rather remarkable challenge to contemplate.

TR: What is the timetable for R&D and deployment to get the job done?

EM: It’s useful to think in terms of a 50-year timetable. For doing something about climate change, these next 50 years are critical. Fifty years is also the characteristic time for major changes of the energy supply system, if you look at the transition from wood to coal – then oil coming in, then gas coming in. Well, if we have a challenge we need to meet in 50 years, and it takes 50 years to turn over the energy system, that defines a challenge that you must begin to meet today. The energy challenge is – if not the primary area – certainly one of the primary areas for the application of science, engineering, and policy to meet real human needs.

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