Technology

Inside Mitei future labs

 By Mattia Ferraresi

Mattia Ferraresi spent a day inside MITEI Labs, a research centre set up nine years ago in a collaboration between MIT and a number of companies from the energy sector. Eni is one of the founding members. MITEI has become an incubator for ideas and research projects that revolve around energy, an across-the-board enterprise involving around three hundred professors and thousands of students from all of the university’s five schools. Engineers work closely with physicists and geologists, but also with policy and urban planning experts because energy permeates all areas, and an interdisciplinary approach is essential. Goal is clear: how can we meet the growing demand for energy in an environmentally responsible way? Climate change is paramount here. Today, this is the most pressing question…

In the “infinite corridor” of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, everyone is in a hurry. A noisy stream of students moves from one class to another, from laboratory to seminar, from an interview to a study group, each one with a clear objective in mind and proceeding straight towards to the goal. It’s true also for the guys inexplicably dressed as frogs gathering for a team game in the field at the centre of the campus, and the uniformed brass band improvising a ska concert in the western atrium. “Work hard, play hard,” as they say. Some students even use a skateboard or unicycle to cover the 251-metre corridor more quickly.

All this running, rushing and chasing is a material representation of the soul of the university, one of the most important technological centres in the world, a giant incubator of talent and a refuge for brains that produce innovations in a continuous loop. Students who want to take it easy will be out of place here: every detail, from the buildings by leading architects to the flyers on bulletin boards, makes it clear that excellence is not just a nice word to be used at academic conferences. You can see why Robert Armstrong, Director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), talks about “human energy” as a fundamental asset of the marriage between academia and industry celebrated here in Cambridge.

MITEI is a research centre, set up nine years ago in a collaboration between MIT and a number of companies from the energy sector. Eni is one of the founding members. MITEI has become an incubator for ideas and research projects that revolve around energy, an across-the-board enterprise involving around three hundred professors (one-third of the faculty) and thousands of students from all of the university’s five schools. Engineers work closely with physicists and geologists, but also with policy and urban planning experts. It would be hard to put together a more academically prepared and cutting-edge team. It is no coincidence that the previous director of MITEI, Ernest Moniz, was chosen by Barack Obama as US Secretary of Energy. “Energy permeates all areas, and an interdisciplinary approach is essential,” says Armstrong. This interest extends to the student energy club on campus, which has about five thousand members.

Guys inexplicably dressed as frogs gathering for a team game in the field at the centre of the campus...
...and how it works MITEI, explained by director Robert Armstrong

Armstrong is an affable southern gentleman who can barely contain his passion for what he does, and the 42 years he has spent in Massachusetts have not affected his Louisiana accent. He is one of the cornerstones of MITEI. When the partnership was created, he tells me, the university sought collaboration with the private sector “because they have a longer-term vision than governments, and have direct knowledge of the problems and the avenues to explore.” Then, as now, the initiative was based on three fundamental pillars: “First, to address the problem of energy reserves. It seems incredible now, but when we started the world’s most widespread concern was peak oil. Now the problem is rather the growth in demand: in the first half of this century, we expect a doubling of energy demand, coming especially from developing countries.” The second aspect was security, and the third the environment: “How can we meet the growing demand for energy in an environmentally responsible way? Climate change is paramount here. Today, this is the most pressing question.” As an example, he says that just over a month ago MITEI organised Solar Day on campus, a day of seminars and interdisciplinary meetings to share and present ideas on solar, “an area where Eni has been working a lot with a forward-looking and diversified approach.” He smiles. “Eni even brought the orchestra of La Scala here to Cambridge!” — an added advantage of the alliance with the Italians. Then he immediately resumed his train of thought: “If we do not tackle the energy problem, we will face major global challenges, from food distribution to more extremes in weather patterns caused by climate change.”

Robert Stoner, now the Deputy Director for Science and Technology and Director of the Tata Center for Technology and Design, clarified his ideas on how best to respond to global challenges while working for the Clinton Foundation on development projects in Malawi, Tanzania and Rwanda. In Africa, Stoner saw first-hand that energy is at the heart of development, but that the people in charge often face challenges of capacity: “Multilateral organizations like the World Bank and the UN, but also small NGOs working bilaterally, have a very limited engineering capacity, and can’t really operate as developers and promoters of new technologies,” Stoner explains. Convinced that more could and should be done, he wrote a letter to then-Director of MITEI Ernest Moniz, offering his observations on the limits of what he had seen and possible opportunities for improvement. As it turns out, Moniz had recently attended a meeting with the MITEI advisory board, chaired by former Secretary of State George Shultz. One of the topics highlighted at that meeting was the need to focus more resources on developing countries.

“My letter found very fertile ground,” smiled Stoner, “and when I came back from Africa, I started working here. We have formed partnerships with African and Chinese institutions and universities to advance low-carbon technology and expand energy access.  Outside of China we had little contact with Asia until Ratan Tata joined our advisory board, and he has given us an extraordinary opportunity to connect with India, and by extension, the entire developing world. We have created an new kind of research and education program that enables professors and students from MIT, not only to study and develop energy solutions, but also to implement them in the form of new products, and tools for policy makers.”Stoner, a physicist and inventor with an inclination for business, focuses on the ability to produce breakthrough, disruptive innovations, rather than making do with incremental improvements to existing technologies: “I’m not saying that it is exclusive to MIT, but certainly we have a disproportionate number of professors and students engaged in this type of high-risk, solution-oriented research, and they benefit enormously from MIT’s history of collaboration with government and the private sector.”

Through a collaboration with government and the private sector Mitei is focused on the ability to produce breakthrough, disruptive innovations, rather than making do with incremental improvements to existing technologies

“How many watts I am carrying on my back? This is the fundamental question that people in remote villages in the poorest countries in the world ask when talking about solar panels,” says Vladimir Bulović co-director of the Solar Frontier Center, the research center that explores the boundless spaces of solar energy. Bulović and his team are working to produce lighter and more efficient solar cells that can be transported more easily to the four corners of the world, even where there is little or no infrastructure: “People underestimate the weight factor of solar technology, but it is critical, especially in developing countries where it is probable that a solar panel will be transported and carried by a person.”

In collaboration with Eni, MIT laboratories have produced solar cells printed on thin sheets of plastic. Professor Bulović shows me a form with cells about two microns thick, one-fiftieth the width of a human hair. “This can be a solution to applying solar cells to all sorts of things, curtains, clothes, glasses.” He pulls out a pair of sunglasses that power a table clock with the little light that filters into the office on a typical day in Boston. The eyewear design needs to be reconsidered, but the idea is revolutionary: “We are trying to change the concept of solar energy,” a resource for which installation costs are particularly high with traditional systems. Bulović also shows me sheets of paper with integrated cells, perfectly transparent panels that could be applied to the screen of any smartphone to produce energy, and other wonders of nanotechnology. Of course, the intermittency of solar energy remains a challenge, but then lithium batteries were practically invented in these hallways.

"Great work" by US President Barack Obama

Some people go hunting for a revolutionary eureka moment, while others find their revolution by advancing traditional techniques. Ruben Juanes, a professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering with a Spanish accent and All Stars on his feet, studies the flow of fluids in porous media, such as rock or sand layers—the natural environment for the extraction of hydrocarbons. In his laboratory, researchers are looking for more effective ways of getting the oil to flow in traditional extraction processes and hydraulic fracturing techniques. It might sound like a field of research that does not catch the imagination of the man in the street, until Juanes drops a percentage into the conversation: 30 percent. “On average, at a global level, that is the amount of oil that can be extracted from oil fields. Thanks to three-dimensional models, we know there is a lot more underground, but 70 percent is trapped there. It is clear, therefore, that even a marginal increase in our ability to recover oil from wells would have a huge impact on extraction,” says Professor Juanes.

Below us there are treasures of immense proportions that, thanks to technology, can be identified and accurately mapped, but remain inaccessible. Juanes and his team are working to bring this immense booty to the surface, and each extra barrel that is recovered reduces the need to go looking for new wells, perhaps in environmentally-sensitive areas. “What we do can have an important economic impact for the oil companies, who can optimise their investments, and at the same time it is advantageous in terms of the environment,” concluded Juanes, another of the brilliant minds that inhabit the place where the future of energy is imagined.

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about the author
Mattia Ferraresi
New York correspondent @IlFoglio_it