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Abu Dhabi to build an experimental green city

The crown prince of Abu Dhabi wants to build a desert city that houses 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses yet emits no carbon dioxide and produces no waste. And he’s turned to MIT for help. At the heart of Masdar City will be a new research institute devoted to alternative energy and created in collaboration with MIT. The technology it helps produce, including new solar cells and novel ways to convert trash into electricity, is meant to help the prince meet his zero-emissions goal. At the same time, if all goes according to plan, it will help drive the city’s economy, much as technology out of MIT has helped fuel businesses around Boston.

An artist’s rendering of a street view in Masdar.

Ultimately, the city will serve as a test bed for green technology developed at the institute and elsewhere. “We’re following the whole technology curve, right from the beginning in the lab to manufacturing and producing the product and deploying it at large scale,” says Sultan al Jaber, the CEO of the government-owned Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, which is responsible for the city’s development. The new institute, called the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), is the “intellectual centerpiece” of the city, he says. “It is the nucleus that will feed into all the other components of the Masdar initiative.”

MIT professors helped develop MIST’s curriculum and research projects and weighed in on prospective faculty. Last year, MIST’s first 14 faculty members, many of whom graduated from MIT, spent a year at MIT taking courses they’ll be teaching in the desert city next September, when the first buildings–the labs, residences, offices, and classrooms–will be complete. They also worked on research projects that they’ll take with them to Abu Dhabi. Ten more future MIST professors will spend the current school year at MIT, with a new “class” arriving every year until the total reaches 60.

One of the first research projects, conceived in collaboration with MIT ­mechanical-­engineering professor Gang Chen, will use solar panels and thermoelectrics–semiconducting materials that convert heat into electricity–in an effort to generate power from solar radiation. Other projects will consider how best to combine advanced technologies to produce energy-efficient systems, including buildings. MIST will emphasize public and industrial policy, to ensure that the technology it develops will be implemented in Abu Dhabi and the rest of the world.

President Susan Hockfield calls the partnership between MIT and MIST an “excellent fit,” both because MIST will promote “first-class science and technology” and because MIT and MIST “share a commitment to pushing the frontiers of clean energy technologies like solar power, as well as sustainable urban planning.” Speaking at a recent symposium, she said, “We’re not talking about simply laboratory explorations. We’re very interested in conducting experiments at scale, like Masdar’s zero-­carbon, zero-waste city.”

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