TR: What are the Energy Research Council’s recommendations for how MIT conducts research and educates students?
EM: Hopefully we can contribute much more strongly to solving these energy challenges. We suggest that we think about the problem along three lines. One is a set of basic science and engineering activities that will hopefully lead to transformational energy technologies down the road. It may be decades until these are fully realized in the energy marketplace. This consists of areas such as solar power, potentially an enormous resource, but faced with many technical and economic challenges. And it would include biofuels, batteries, fuel cells, and so on. These are all areas where we have significant research today at MIT, a good foundation for building up research programs.
The second area is improving today’s energy systems. It’s very appropriate for a university to be involved in basic research that may take a long time to influence the marketplace. But it is also important to get from here to there. We need to better deploy and use today’s energy systems, mainly fossil fuels. We simply must use these resources more efficiently. We also need to advance nuclear power technology so as to address public concerns.
The third area emphasizes the global nature of energy challenges, including those in developing countries. Research includes topics from the science and policy of climate change to building efficiency, transportation systems, and urban design. For example, we would bring together our experience with passenger vehicle systems, with our supply-chain expertise to design the world’s freight systems of the future.
TR: How do these proposed research efforts differ from what is happening now at MIT?
EM: This adds to and supplements what is going on today with multi-disciplinary programs, as opposed to individual investigator programs. Energy, inherently, is not just one discipline. We believe MIT has been especially strong in being able to mount these kinds of research efforts and focus on solving hard problems across disciplines. Clearly, there are many energy initiatives at many universities, but we believe this is one of the distinguishing features that MIT can bring to the table. We also have an especially strong history of working with industry; many of these initiatives will, by definition, require a close collaboration with industry. And we have a strong history of technology innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. We want to capture that in our energy initiative.
TR: How much funding will these efforts need, and where will the funds come from?
EM: Obviously, we will need to gather the resources from some combination of donors, industry, and government. The costs are notional at the moment, but clearly if you are supporting a multifaculty program, we are talking one to several million dollars per year, for a number of years, for each research focus area. And clearly different parts of the agenda will be more attractive to different kinds of funders. This will take time to build up, so we suggest a phased-in approach, over a five-year period.