March MIT Europe energy conference in Rome explores promising sustainable energy sources
Reprinted with permission
Perhaps it is only fitting that the upcoming 2012 MIT Europe Energy Conference takes place in Rome, the Eternal City, because it focuses on what seems to be the Eternal Question:
Whither sustainable energy?
That query will be addressed in a one-and-a-half day review of some of the most promising energy-related research and technologies that may provide important answers to energy needs in Europe and beyond. Hosted by Eni, the Italian multinational oil and gas company, the conference will feature a host of top MIT researchers, industry veterans from Eni and elsewhere, and policy experts from academia and government.
“We want to acknowledge the role of conference sponsor Eni, who will supply speakers with industry expertise,” says MIT Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) officer and conference organizer Ken Goldman. “The company is also a founding member and generous supporter of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) program, thanks to its five-year commitment of $10 million annually.
“In addition, Eni CEO Carlo Scaroni has a deep interest in solar energy and is the sponsor of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center. That broad involvement in energy-related issues is helping to advance work in solar and other energy fields. It will clearly help inform the proceedings at an event we expect will attract three to four hundred attendees, including government officials as well as our European MITEI and ILP members.”
The European Union has established the Energy 2020 Strategy, an ambitious program to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, increase the share of renewable energy to 20%, and make a 20% improvement in energy efficiency, by 2020. That will, of course, entail significant technology shifts to “decarbonize” the electricity and transport sectors. To that end, MIT researchers will be at the conference in force to share their expertise in the search for greener energy solutions, better ways to use conventional fuels -- and the range of related policy issues for both.
On the path to greener sources of energy, many believe that natural gas, as the cleanest burning fossil fuel, is a transitional fuel that will help bridge the gap between conventional energy and sustainable alternative energy sources. Among those believers is Ernie Moniz, whose presentation, The Future of Natural Gas Study, will examine the role of natural gas in a carbon constrained environment. Moniz is the Director of MITEI, and is the former Under Secretary of the U. S. Department of Energy. He currently serves on President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST).
Hydrocarbons combustion raises its own set of…well, burning issues, including how to reduce combustion by-products that create various forms of pollution. Former Exxon Principal Investigator and now MIT chemical engineer William Green will share his expertise in this and other areas in his presentation entitled Fuels and Engines, Professor Green draws, in part on his research in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) formation in combustion, smog chemistry, and liquid phase oxidations of amines.
The EU has clearly seen the light, so to speak, in alternative energy with the dramatic increase in its use of solar energy in recent years. It is now generating approximately 15 times the amount of energy from the sun in 2010 than it did in 2005. And it is reportedly second only to China in the installation of solar panels for heating and cooling applications.
Contributing to this continued expansion of solar energy applications are the insights of conference speakers Vladimir Bulovic and Robert Armstrong.
Vladimir Bulovic, Co-Director of the Solar Frontiers Center and the Solar Revolutions Project, is also Co-Head of the MITEI Energy Studies Program. His talk on Thin Film Structures and Devices, will be informed by his work in thin film photovoltaics for solar cells that has made him one of the thought-leaders in that field, with many papers and patents to his credit.
Concentrated Solar Power, the subject of Robert Armstrong’s presentation, will tap into his research in polymer molecular theory, polymer fluid mechanics, and rheology, among other research interests that helps make solar energy collection and distribution more cost-efficient.
“Concentrated solar power (CSP) provides a utility-scale, proven technology for incorporating solar energy into the electricity sector,” says Armstrong. “It has the advantages of easily integrating very efficient storage for dispatch-ability and for coupling with fossil energy sources, particularly natural gas, for backup.
“CSP is technically feasible on a large scale now, but it is not yet cost competitive with competing fossil energy sources. Continually improving technology, however, continues to lower costs for CSP produced electricity.”
Another form of solar energy, captured in biomass, also gets its due at the conference with the contribution of Gregory Stephanopoulos, Director of MIT Metabolic Engineering and Bioinformatics Laboratory. His Biomass to Fuels presentation will explore that topic and the implications and economics of biomass-based fuel production. Ethanol, he points out, has been a success in getting a biofuels industry on the map. It may have been unfairly criticized, however, for failing to more quickly ramp up production from cellulosic feedstocks. But, he points out, there are more promising biomass technologies on the horizon.
“I may be biased here but the most promising technology is our oil-producing microbe that can convert sugars and biomass hydrolysates to lipids at very high yields and rates,” Stephanopoulos reports. “A start-up company is commercializing this technology with the help of a strategic partner.
“As far as the progress of biomass in general, the US will be the country to develop these technologies first because it is the one with the largest biomass supply and incentive to develop biomass to biofuel technologies. Scandinavian countries are also very active in this area along with Germany and Italy.”
As important as technology and production are in the sustainable energy equation, so, too, is the issue of policy when it comes to energy supply and security. Looking into those challenges is conference keynote speaker, John Deutch, a former CIA director, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Under Secretary of Energy. Currently an Institute Professor and Professor of Chemistry at MIT, Deutch will speak on Geopolitics and Energy Security.
“Energy security -- especially the availability of secure, low-cost, oil and gas supply -- remains a priority concern for all countries,” notes Deutch, pointing out the challenges of world dependence on oil from an unstable Iran, and the growing competition with China for energy access.
“The security of the energy infrastructure that remains is also vulnerable to pirates, terrorists, and especially information system attacks. But the single most promising development, which will be extensively discussed at this meeting, is the welcome, unexpected, discovery of huge reserves of unconventional natural gas around the world.”