Energy Science & Engineering: Power Surge
The subject of energy - where it comes from, what it costs, its environmental footprint, how we use it, and how long current sources will last - is of primary importance today and will be one of the most critical areas of investment and research for decades to come. Energy Science & Engineering (ESE) focuses on discovering and refining technologies for clean, efficient, and safe energy conversion and utilization.
At this critical juncture in history, it is imperative that an energy solution emerges enabling a sustainable source of energy that does not harm the environment. To do this requires creating and sustaining a set of balances: between fossil fuels and alternate sources; between political, economic, environmental, and cultural constraints and considerations; and between near, intermediate, and long-term needs.
ESE faculty are working on these challenges independently and as part of a bold new energy initiative announced by MIT President Susan Hockfield in her inaugural address on May 5, 2005. "This initiative will foster new research in science and technology aimed at increasing the energy supply and bringing scientists, engineers, and social scientists together to envision the best energy policies for the future," she said. "We will seed this initiative with resources for new interdisciplinary faculty positions. Together, I believe we will make an enormous difference."
Soon after, the Energy Research Council (ERC) was formed, with members representing all five of MIT's schools. The ERC was asked to outline a strategy for MIT's response to the energy challenge. Its report was a centerpiece of the MIT Energy Forum on May 3, 2006. Nineteen MIT faculty spoke at the event, including several representing ESE. According to the report, energy research and education at MIT needs to focus on a broad initiative that:
- Provides the enabling basic science and technology that may underpin major transformation of the global energy system in several decades - including renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and waves.
- Develops the technology and policy needed to make today's energy systems more effective, secure, and environmentally responsible - including addressing the relationship between energy and climate change.
- Creates the energy technology and systems design needed for a rapidly developing world - including energy-efficient building systems and advanced transportation systems.
According to Professor Ahmed F. Ghoneim, who heads the ESE area, "The nation and the world look to MIT for solutions to the energy crisis that grips us now and that will continue for the foreseeable future. Our group's research covers a broad range of subjects, including automotive power plants and ocean propulsion systems, fossil fuel combustion, wind power and solar energy, electrochemical energy storage, thermoelectric technologies, fuel cells, hydrogen production and storage, refrigeration, energy efficiency, and certain aspects of nuclear energy.
"We will need multiple solutions using a variety of technologies," says Ghoneim. "Some can be available in the near term, others will emerge in the long term. But the work must be novel and innovative, and it must take place now."
Efforts in the different laboratories span a range of innovations and fundamental developments in new and vastly improved existing systems, and include the following:
- The Electrochemical Energy Laboratory is investigating alternative energy conversion based on the principles of electrochemistry to provide higher efficiency and reduce the environmental impact energy sources. One area of research applies the ancient art of origami (paper folding) to create nanostructured 3D supercapacitors capable of serving as power sources for standalone microsystems. The Nanostructured Origami™ process is simpler, more flexible, and more effective than current fabrication methods.
- The Reacting Gas Dynamics Laboratory's effort to design smart systems capable of efficient and clean burning of a range of fuels for electricity generation and high-speed transportation, where minimizing pollutant formation while ensuring stable operation is achieved by applying modern control technology including micro sensing and actuations. A recent effort has been introduced to optimize technology for CO2 capture from power and synfuel production plants to combat greenhouse emissions.
- Novel designs of wind turbines that float far off-shore, on deep waters, eliminate the near-shore citing problems while taking advantage of high-wind conditions.
- Novel manufacturing of - and materials for - photovoltaic cells that may result in continued cost reduction are part of our effort to expand the use of renewable energy. Efforts in nanotechnology for energy applications include design of thermoelectric devices that recover energy from exhaust streams, nanostructured solar cells and hydrogen storage solutions.
- Novel internal combustion engine designs that adopt their mode of operation automatically according to the needs, while striking a balance between power density, conversion efficiency and low emission. The engines are designed to take advantage of biomass-blended fuels, or fuels generated from other unconventional hydrocarbon sources. Evaluation of hybrid engine technology is underway to determine their potential impact on the efficiency of the transportation fleet.
- Work at the fundamental level includes analysis of transport-chemistry interactions in combustion and fuel cells, material characterization for application to energy systems, simulation of energy conversion processes using advanced computing, multiscale analysis of advanced systems, and transport phenomena from the nano to the macroscale.