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A President's Urgent Call–from MIT

After an unprecedented presidential lab tour, Barack Obama delivers an address asking America to lead in clean energy.
December 21, 2009

When President Barack Obama arrived on campus in October to deliver a speech on clean energy, his motorcade made a detour before arriving at Kresge Auditorium. Accompanied by Governor Deval Patrick and Senator John Kerry, the president dropped in at Building 13, where he visited two labs. In the first, he met four researchers who had set up displays and equipment to demonstrate their ongoing work on new energy technologies. Then he proceeded next door, to the lab of professor Vladimir Bulovic, who demonstrated high-efficiency, long-lasting light bulbs based on quantum-dot technology. The tour, led by President Susan Hockfield and MIT Energy Initiative director Ernest Moniz, was a first for a sitting president–and Obama was clearly fired up by what he saw.

NEAT STUFF Professor Vladimir Bulovic shows President Obama his high-efficiency, long-lasting light bulbs based on quantum-dot technology.

“You just get excited being here, seeing these extraordinary young people,” he told the crowd packed into Kresge afterward, citing work that could lead to windows that generate electricity, batteries that are grown by viruses, efficient new lighting systems that rely on nanotechnology, and ways of storing energy from offshore windmills so that it can be delivered even when the air is still.

“That was neat stuff,” he said.

The researchers who displayed their work to the president were impressed by his interest, understanding, and good humor. “He was very responsive, and an incredibly warm person,” says chemical-­engineering professor Paula Hammond ‘84, PhD ‘93, one of the lucky five. “He understood the potential of what we were doing and asked very specific questions,” she says.


  • Listen to an excerpt of the clean-energy speech President Obama delivered at MIT.

  • Listen to part of President Obama’s conversation with Professors Belcher and Hammond during his tour of MIT labs.

  • Hear Professor Alex Slocum ’82, SM ’83, PhD ’85 an tell President Obama about his device for storing energy generated by the wind.

“It seemed like he had a really good time, that he actually found the whole experience quite stimulating,” says Marc Baldo, an associate professor of electrical engineering, who demonstrated technology that uses coated glass to concentrate solar energy. “I was a little nervous,” Baldo says, “but I got the impression that he’s used to walking into rooms full of nervous people, and he just put everyone at ease.”

In addition to demonstrating his group’s work on the concentrating solar devices, Baldo took the opportunity to showcase projects that benefited from the stimulus bill Obama pushed through as one of his first priorities after assuming office. “I’m director of a center here–the Center for Excitonics–that’s funded with $20 million of stimulus money,” Baldo says, adding that the center currently includes 38 graduate students and postdocs. “I talked about the impact of funding this kind of fundamental research. He seemed very receptive to that.”

Hammond, along with research collaborator Angela Belcher, demonstrated work on using genetically engineered viruses to produce self-assembling solar cells and batteries. “When we described the self-assembly process, he asked several very intelligent questions, about the scalability of the process and so on,” says Hammond.

Joining Hammond and Belcher in their presentation were two of their graduate students, Rebecca Lynn Ladewski and Lieutenant Colonel John Burpo, who has completed two tours in Iraq and was an Eni-MIT Energy Fellow in 2008-‘09.”It was a true honor to meet the president, both as a scientifically interested politician and as my commander in chief,” says Burpo.

Hammond says, “As Angie and I explained different aspects of the science, he would stop us and ask specific questions about the technology. He wanted to know when these innovations would become companies, startups, and ultimately new jobs. It was clear that the president knew the importance of science and engineering for both its practical contributions and its downstream economic value.”

After the researchers began explaining the battery system, Hammond says, Obama turned to reporters who accompanied him on the tour and said, “Did you understand that?”–and then proceeded to explain the information in his own words.

“He was exactly correct,” Belcher says. “I asked him if he wanted to teach my class.” When Belcher, a professor of materials science and engineering and biological engineering, explained that her biologically based system made it possible to conduct a billion experiments at a time, he interrupted to say, “Really?” Belcher answered, “Yes, we can,” to which he quipped, “That was my slogan, you know.” Overall, he was “serious, but kind of joking at the same time,” Belcher says.

“His demeanor was very inquisitive and playful,” says Vladimir Bulovic, an associate professor of communications and technology. Before the president left his lab, Bulovic–at the request of some of his students–asked if he would be willing to “memorialize the moment.” He was standing next to equipment that many of the students use almost daily. “He graciously did sign it,” he says, “and added ‘Great work!’ up at the top.” Since the president had already seen all the other presentations at that point, ­Bulovic says he and his students interpreted that as “a message to the entire MIT community.”

Mechanical-engineering professor Alex Slocum ‘82, SM ‘83, PhD ‘85, demonstrated his plan for offshore wind turbines that have a built-in energy storage system based on pumped water. Slocum says, “It’s clear that he really listens; his eyes are constantly in motion, taking in information. He asked some really good questions, and he was very warm and friendly, with a good sense of humor.”

It was evident that “he really wants to learn–he genuinely cares,” Slocum adds. “He wants to know what can be done, and what is being done. It was really refreshing.”

From Building 13, the presidential party and their hosts got back in the motorcade for the short drive to Kresge. Hundreds of students and onlookers thronged against the police barricades that lined Mass. Ave., the side streets, and the whole area around the auditorium, craning to catch a glimpse of the president.

In the auditorium, President Hockfield spoke briefly, saying that “President Obama has articulated a powerful vision for restoring economic growth, creating jobs, and counteracting climate change by investing aggressively in clean-energy research and development.” She hailed the historic significance of the visit, calling it “a tribute to the groundbreaking work of our faculty and students.”

Hockfield added, “We share President Obama’s view that clean energy is the defining challenge of this era. To meet the doubling of global energy demand by 2050, to drive new patents, new products, new industries and new jobs, and to mitigate climate change, clean energy is the only avenue.”

Obama, a graduate of Harvard Law School, began with a few quips about MIT. “It’s always been a dream of mine to visit the most prestigious school in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he said. “Hold on a sec–certainly the most prestigious school in this part of Cambridge.” He added, “I’ll probably be here for a while–I understand a bunch of engineering students put my motorcade on top of Building 10.”

Turning to the substance of his 20-minute talk, Obama said that the kind of innovative energy research he had just seen in the labs is “a reminder that all of you are heirs to a legacy of innovation, not just here but across America, that has improved our health and our well-being and helped us achieve unparalleled prosperity.”

“It taps into something essential about America,” he added, referring to “the legacy of daring men and women who put their talents and their efforts into the pursuit of discovery … a legacy of a nation that supported those intrepid few willing to take risks on an idea that might fail, but might also change the world.”

The president issued a strong call for the nation to lead the world in developing clean, efficient new energy technologies. “Nations everywhere are racing to develop new ways to produce and use energy,” he said. “The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I’m convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation.” Young people, he said, “understand that this is the challenge of their generation.”

Moniz commented afterward, “It was an honor to have the president here at MIT to advance his clean-energy vision. He was truly thrilled with the work he saw and the scale of the commitment he saw here.” The fact that he chose to come to the Institute is “a recognition of the place that MIT has taken in the energy and climate debate,” he said. “We’re having an impact.” Robert Armstrong, deputy director of the MIT Energy Initiative, said the visit illustrates that “MIT is becoming the go-to place for work on clean energy.”

Reflecting a few days later on the president’s tour, Bulovic said he was impressed with Obama’s “eagerness to absorb more information on what can science do for us.” The whole experience, he says, was “overwhelming and humbling.”

Chancellor Phillip Clay says the president’s choice of this campus for his speech “signals that the administration understands the very important leadership contribution that MIT is making on the energy problem” and shows his commitment to “applying science and technology to solving problems such as energy.”

Personally, he says, “I’m just so pleased and proud–there’s no place on my body left to pinch.”

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