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Sustainable Energy

MIT's Energy Agenda

The institute’s energy council co-chair Ernest J. Moniz describes a sweeping agenda to meet a “remarkable challenge.”

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.

Ernest J. Moniz, an MIT physicist and former Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, is co-chairman of MIT’s Energy Research Council. The council today released a report calling for a sweeping array of multidisciplinary research programs at MIT to address the global energy challenge. (Image courtesy of Donna Coveney.)

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.

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.

TR: In the next few years, the United States, China, and India, in particular, will turn increasingly to coal. How do we address the massive new carbon-dioxide emissions?

EM: Coal is very important to address because it is a resource located in countries with large and growing energy demand. We envision a “coal refinery” of the future. We talk about advanced fuel conversion technologies to use coal in an environmentally responsible way for multiple products: electricity, liquid fuels, chemicals, and potentially hydrogen. The first task is developing sophisticated modeling and simulation; the second is the laboratory work, such as development of catalysts; and the third would be a set of policy studies, such as how you would transition to a new fueling infrastructure. And sequestration is a critical enabling technology for using fossil fuels in a climate-constrained world. There’s lots of basic science that has to be understood to sequester at a very large scale.

TR: President Bush has been talking a lot about hydrogen. Is the hydrogen economy the answer?

EM: There are many here on campus who have written about it – John Deutch had a Science paper about it and John Heywood has testified to the Congress about it and has written several reports with colleagues. The hydrogen transportation economy looks to us to be very, very challenging, very far off. And “very far off” could mean: forever far off. Given the cost barriers that must be overcome with fuel cells, the challenges for storing hydrogen onboard, and the infrastructure problems for delivering hydrogen – it makes one wonder whether alternative technologies, which require far less disruption to the infrastructure and are far less of a cost challenge, but are highly efficient, don’t essentially accomplish the same goal. But we’re all for research on hydrogen technologies, but not just for the transportation applications.

TR: What research agenda do you propose for nuclear power?

EM: There is no practical alternative to the evolutionary light-water reactor for major deployment within the next 15 to 20 years, because there are no other reactors that are licensed for construction. That alone would take quite a long time. Going down the road, we believe there is certainly a lot of promise in high-temperature gas reactors; and, indeed, an interesting concept is the work at MIT to make the pebble-bed reactor a modular Lego-construction project.

And for the much longer term, there is the vision of fuel recycling. We discuss this kind of research and argue strongly we should start and pursue the research seriously – advanced simulation, new fuels and materials, new separations processes, and the like. But we also note it is certainly a 50-year horizon before advanced fuel cycles that recycle all transuranics [elements with an atomic number greater than that of uranium, such as plutonium-239] might be deployed at significant scale. And these activities also involve significant research into the policy questions. Policy has an enormous influence on whether technologies do or do not get deployed.

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