MITEI holds inaugural MIT Energy Fellows Symposium

From "black swan" startups to "next next-generation" biofuels, energy symposium tackles it all

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Deborah Halber, MIT Energy Initiative Correspondent

MIT President Susan Hockfield welcomes the first group of MIT Energy Fellows and representatives of their sponsoring companies — members of the MIT Energy Initiative — to the inaugural fall Energy Fellows Symposium. Also in attendance were a dozen MIT faculty members from eight departments who described highlights of their research during the day-long event. Photo: Justin Knight

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla's "black swan" energy startup philosophy, the future of energy alternatives, and the risks of uncurbed global climate change were among the topics of the September 22 inaugural fall Energy Fellows Symposium sponsored by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

The symposium, held at Le Meridien hotel in Cambridge, was aimed at the inaugural group of 39 MIT Energy Fellows — MITEI member company-sponsored graduate students representing an array of disciplines and nationalities. Also attending were representatives from the 11 sponsoring member companies, who met the Energy Fellows they are now supporting in projects focusing on the science, technology, and policy needed to meet the global energy challenge and associated environmental issues.

During the symposium, a dozen faculty members from eight MIT departments presented highlights of their work on the science and policy of global climate change, on energy-efficient building technology, and on the development of technologically advanced materials, to name a few of the topics covered at the day-long event.

In a welcoming address, MIT President Susan Hockfield lauded the sponsoring companies for their commitment to the future. "This kind of support has made it possible to build the momentum around energy research," she said. "Working closely with industry partners escalates the transition from the mind to marketplace."

MITEI director Ernest J. Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, added his welcoming comments and introduced MITEI deputy director Robert C. Armstrong, Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering, who presented an overview of the goals and activities of MITEI.

Keynote speakers at the symposium were Khosla, Steven E. Koonin, chief scientist of BP, and Leonardo Maugeri, senior vice president of the international energy company Eni.

Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems and — most recently — venture capital firm Khosla Ventures of Menlo Park, California, said his investment philosophy revolves around "black swans" — out-of-the-ordinary, potentially large-impact technologies. Some of the startups in his portfolio promise to turn algae directly into ethanol, sequester carbon dioxide in cement, and introduce fuel injectors that pre-ignite gasoline and cut cars' fossil fuel consumption in half.

Khosla said, "You can't change people's lifestyles," so he prefers to concentrate on companies that "attack manageable but material problems. Adoption risk has to be low for any new technology to become a solution," he said. A fuel or vehicle efficiency technology "that doesn't penetrate most of the cars sold in India and China is not a scaleable solution," he said.

During his talk, BP's Koonin described the challenges of accessing oil and natural gas reserves that are still abundant but "locked up geographically" and controlled by national oil companies in the Middle East. In contrast to national oil companies, "international oil companies [such as BP] have access to only around 10 percent" of the world's oil and gas, he said.

Koonin cited ideas for addressing the global energy crisis that included planting ebony and other rapidly growing, dense hardwoods to absorb gigatons of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; enlisting microbes to consume hard-to-reach oil and turn it into methane; investigating enzymes in cows' stomachs that allow them to break down non-edible parts of plants; and injecting reflective aerosols or particles into the stratosphere to simulate the cooling effect of major volcanic eruptions.

"It's politically incorrect to talk about it," Koonin said of the last suggestion. "On the other hand, I think you have to think about [all proposals that are] not completely crazy."

In his reflections on the role of major oil companies in the future of energy, Eni's Maugeri observed that the past 40 years have seen a steady decline in the percentage of oil and gas reserves controlled by international companies (to 5 percent and 12 percent, respectively). In this situation, major oil companies must intensify the development of new technologies, both those that increase the effectiveness and efficiency of oil and gas extraction and those that expand the portfolio of energy solutions available to power the world.

Among the examples of MIT energy-related research presented at the symposium were:

  • an integrated global system model for climate change that projects the effects of human activities with the intent to guide policy. "We have to have a public that understands this issue and what kinds of sacrifice have to be made," said Henry D. Jacoby, professor at the Sloan School of Management. "We can't have intelligent policy without public understanding, and we can't have technology without intelligent policy and public understanding."
  • better tools for architects seeking to design energy-efficient — even zero net carbon — buildings. These tools include methods of designing and situating buildings to take maximum advantage of natural light and air flow as well as passive solar heat, and incorporating new, ultra-efficient insulation technologies. "Aerogel insulation and transparent aerogels [that regulate light and heat through windows] based on nanotechnology seem to be promising," said Marilyne Andersen, assistant professor of architecture. She said the government should require builders and architects to use models that predict future energy for every new structure. "We should consider energy efficiency at the same level of importance as fire protection," she said.

Other researchers cited plans to trap light inside glass to concentrate solar energy, to make "next next-generation" biofuels out of paper industry and agricultural waste materials, and to develop a "materials genome" that would allow researchers to quickly identify not-yet-invented, potentially significant materials for energy applications.

"I thought the symposium was really dynamic and interesting," said Andrew D. Horning, a BP-sponsored MIT Energy Fellow from Washington State. "People [were] asking questions from all different perspectives — economic and policy-related as well as scientific."