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The MIT Energy Club is buzzing
September 8, 2006

The MIT Energy Club has had a busy year. In May, it ran a daylong conference bringing together 400 leading scientists, businesspeople, and students working on the energy problem. It surveyed students about their attitudes toward energy, and club members served as de facto student representatives to President ­Hockfield’s Energy Research Council. And twice a month, members meet over beers at the R and D or Muddy Charles Pubs to discuss issues ranging from the promise of biodiesel to how to reduce energy use in buildings.

Peter Weigele of the Biological Energy Interest Group demonstrates a hydrogen-production apparatus at a poster session hosted by the MIT Energy Club. (Credit: Daniel Bersak)

“Our vision is to create a tight-knit community based around MIT that in five to ten years could include thousands,” says David Danielson, the club’s outgoing president and a PhD candidate in materials science and engineering. Danielson founded the club in 2004, inspired, he says, by a class on sustainable energy taught by professor of chemical engineering Jefferson Tester. The Energy Club has grown from Danielson and a few friends to about 300 members, most of whom are graduate students.

The club brings together students from different disciplines, including business, biological engineering, and nuclear science. “The energy problem is massively multidisciplinary,” Danielson says, so the club provides a forum where people with different specialties can put their heads together. He calls it “a community based around a fact-based analysis of energy issues.”

Each pub discussion has a leader–a member whose research focuses on the topic at hand–who compiles background documents such as government reports, conference presentation slides, and scientific papers and posts them online. After a short introduction by the leader, members might discuss hurdles to getting more ultralightweight materials into cars, or the science of climate change.

The idea is to start a discussion, not an argument. “Energy can be polarizing,” says Danielson. By focusing on a common goal–maintaining a strong U.S. economy while minimizing the environmental impact of energy production and consumption–the club’s members create an environment where a visiting scientist from Shell and a student environmental activist can have a conversation.

The Energy Club hopes to extend its reach to alumni and to students and faculty at other universities, creating a large network that includes undergrads finding their research interests, young alumni working on startups, and scientists and businesspeople with decades of experience. In the coming year, the club will expand its online resources for alumni, introducing, among other things, a directory, sorted by work area, of alumni looking for collaborators.

“The student energy club is hungry for action,” says Vladimir Bulovic, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. As MIT’s energy initiative gears up (see “Energetic Research”), implementing energy-saving projects on campus, “we have many foot soldiers” in these passionate students, Bulovic says.

Danielson says the club hopes MIT will help fund projects such as an on-campus biodiesel-production facility that would convert waste vegetable oil into fuel for Institute vehicles. “We need to be an example of what a large institute can do,” he says.

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