MIT receives $30 million to help address energy challenges in Egypt

MIT is the recipient of a $30 million award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), announced this week at a two-day ceremony in Cairo.

The award will support MIT over the next five years in developing a Center of Excellence in Energy at Ain Shams University, Mansoura University, and Aswan University, in Egypt. The center will serve to connect researchers at the Egyptian universities with experts at MIT, to seek innovative solutions to the country’s energy challenges.  

The Center of Excellence in Energy is one of three centers to be established in Egypt and funded by USAID through a total investment of $90 million. The centers are formal partnerships between Egyptian and American universities and the private sector to foster research, scholarships, and innovation in agriculture, energy, and water. In addition to the MIT-led center, Cornell University will partner with Cairo University, and the American University in Cairo will partner with Alexandria University, to form comparable centers to address challenges in the areas of agriculture and water, respectively.  

“The Centers will facilitate meaningful collaboration between American and Egyptian universities,” said USAID Mission Director Sherry F. Carlin, in a statement. “They will bring together some of the best minds to collectively address shared goals and challenges, spur innovative thinking, encourage private sector engagement, and strengthen government policy in the agricultural, water, and energy sectors.”

Carlin was present at the ceremony, along with USAID Administrator Mark Green and Sahar Nasr, Egypt’s minister of investment and international cooperation, as well as Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, Egypt’s minister of higher education and scientific research.

The Center of Excellence in Energy will be led by Ahmed Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Daniel Frey, a professor of mechanical engineering and the faculty research director for MIT D-Lab. Over the next five years, the team will work to build the research, education, and entrepreneurial capacity of Ain Shams, Mansoura, and Aswan universities  to address the country’s most pressing energy-related problems.

“Egypt is one of those places that is likely to suffer significantly from climate change,” Ghoniem says. “If we learn how to solve these problems there, we can learn to scale the solutions and use them in many other places that need them as well.”

The USAID award will enable the MIT team to bring faculty and graduate students from Egypt to the Institute, to learn how to approach large, energy-related challenges from an MIT perspective.

“The MIT modus operandi is that we integrate research and education, and translate that into entrepreneurship,” Ghoniem says. “We very much want to make that model available for Egyptian universities to emulate.”

“We’ll bring faculty and graduate students from Egypt to spend time with us, and we’ll solve problems shoulder to shoulder with them. That ‘mens-et-manus’ mentality is transmitted more effectively by immersing themselves here,” Frey adds, referring to MIT’s motto of “mind and hand.”

Ghoniem and Frey will team Egyptian faculty and students with interdisciplinary researchers across MIT, to develop renewable energy solutions to problems such as Egypt’s practice of open-field burning. The country is primarily an agricultural economy, and as such it produces a significant amount of biomass, which is often disposed of by burning the waste in open fields — a practice that generates enormous amounts of pollution and greenhouse gases.

“They call it the “black cloud,” Ghoniem says. “One of our priorities is to work with them in converting this problem into a solution, using biomass as a clean energy source in the country.”

The new center will also work toward advancing and scaling up sustainable projects that are already underway in Egypt. For instance, the country is the fourth largest user of wind energy and is currently building the largest solar parks in the world, with the goal of generating 42 percent of its electricity using renewable energy by 2025. The MIT team plans to facilitate connections between university researchers and key industrial players in the region, to expand the country’s solar, wind, and other forms of clean energy usage.

“It’s a country where so many things are going on in the energy area that match MIT’s interest in promoting and developing renewable energy technologies as well as addressing global climate change problems,” Ghoniem says.

Throughout the five-year collaboration, there will also be a special emphasis on involving Egyptian women and people with disabilities in coming up with energy-related solutions.

“We’ll be working with organizations in the country that [support] these groups, to try to pull them into the activities, and hopefully they can participate equally in education, research, and entrepreneurship,” Ghoniem says.