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MIT Brainstorms Alternative Energies

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A campuswide effort targets generating energy, research, education and outreach activities.

There is no shortage of great minds at work on the energy crisis. In Cambridge, the MIT Energy Initiative was launched in the fall of 2006 after an announcement during President Susan Hockfield’s inaugural address. Just two years later, alternative energies are in use on campus and energy research has crossed many academic disciplines.

Global corporations have signed on as partners, contributing much-needed funds to the efforts and receiving the collaboration of some of the best forward-thinking minds. One early collaborator, Fraunhofer Institute of Munich, Germany, is working with the initiative to build the MIT-Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems in downtown Cambridge. They will study solar technology and design as well as building efficiency.

Another global corporation joining the initiative is Robert Bosch GmbH of Gerlingen, Germany, which will contribute $5 million over a five-year period to fund a research portfolio focused on energy-efficiency and renewable-energy research. The Bosch collaboration will aid in the search for new materials for electrochemical energy storage and electromechanical actuation, for nanostructured thermoelectric materials for residential heat and electricity co-generation, and for ultraefficient thin-film solar cells. As a sustaining member of the initiative, the company will have a seat on the governing board and will support 10 Bosch-MIT energy fellows – graduate students doing research in various energy disciplines.

Splitting water

Working in conjunction with the initiative is MIT’s Solar Revolution Project, whose objective is to develop solar power into an affordable, mainstream energy solution. With a grant of $10 million from the Chesonis Family Foundation, one of the first projects is to develop an artificial photosynthesis device. The theory is that, when sunlight strikes the device, high-energy photons will split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The challenge is to keep costs down, so the group plans to use inexpensive metals as catalysts to split the water, focusing on the abundant iron, cobalt, nickel and manganese.

Once the water is split into hydrogen and oxygen, the hydrogen could be used for fuels, which Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus professor of energy in MIT’s department of chemistry, hopes one day will power a home or recharge an electric car. To power a car, the hydrogen could be processed into a hydrocarbon, such as methanol, according to Jonas Peters, MIT’s Keck professor of energy and chemistry. To remain carbon-neutral, carbon dioxide could be added to hydrogen to generate hydrocarbon fuels and then released as it is burned, Peters said (Figure 1).


Figure 1. During the day, the MIT-developed method of artificial photosynthesis would allow homeowners to use their solar panels to power their homes, while using the energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen for storage.

As MIT researchers meet success, spin-off companies likely will result. In one example, a team led by MIT students recently demonstrated a cost-efficient solar power system. Spencer Ahrens, who received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT earlier this year, displayed power generation with a 12-ft-wide mirrored dish made of thin aluminum tubing and strips of mirrors. Attached to the end of a tube rising from the center of the dish is a black-painted coil of tubing with water running through it (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Spencer Ahrens, an MIT grad and co-founder of RawSolar, demonstrates that the power generated by the company’s 12-ft-wide mirrored dish can ignite a piece of wood.

The initial design came from inventor Doug Wood of Fox Island, Wash., who credits the students with improvements and who signed over key patents to the team. Ahrens and members of his group founded RawSolar, now based in Berkeley, Calif., to mass-produce the dishes for industrial processing or for heating or cooling buildings.

Another start-up company, Covalent Solar of Boston, also resulted from research conducted at MIT, with support from the National Science Foundation. The research team, led by Mark Baldo, an electrical engineering professor, developed a solar concentrator that does not use optical tracking, but instead uses a mixture of two or more dyes that can be applied to glass or plastic.

The dyes absorb light across a range of wavelengths, which is then transported across the pane to solar cells placed along the edges (Figure 3). Covalent was launched by three of the researchers: Michael Currie, Jon Mapel and Timothy Heidel, all graduate students in the department of electrical engineering and computer science.

Figure 3. An MIT research team led by professor Marc Baldo applied dyes to glass or plastic plates, which absorb light across a range of wavelengths. With solar cells attached to the edges of the plates, light is collected and sent to those cells.

Undoubtedly, great minds are at work today at universities around the world, creating innovative designs for cost-effective alternative energy solutions. Stay tuned as we continue to bring you reports on the cutting-edge research and the resulting commercial endeavors that will bring us low-cost, nonfossil fuel energy for tomorrow.

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2008
Basic ScienceenergyGreenLightindustrial

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