Op Ed / Essays

MIT's Burgeoning Role in the Green Movement

Monday, April 7, 2008
The Boston Globe

Boston Magazine has ranked MIT’s work on energy and the environment as #2 on its list of “61 Best New Things About Boston.” It’s unusual praise for MIT; our research is more often noticed in academic journals. But Boston Magazine’s listing says something important: people beyond the university research community and the green movement are eager for answers to our energy and environmental challenges.

The challenges are many. How do we meet the aspirations of people around the world for a healthy, comfortable, productive life, without irreparably damaging the planet? How will we in the developed world preserve our quality of life, while shifting to renewable technologies? At the same time, how do we enable the developing world to reach a standard of living that grants access to modern comforts? How, for example, will we get electricity to the one billion people who don’t yet have it?

At MIT we are inventing real energy and climate solutions – from large-scale technologies that capture carbon emissions and dramatic new ways to tap deep geothermal energy, to smaller-scale ideas such as lithium-ion batteries to revolutionize the electric car and new materials that could make solar energy as cheap and dependable as coal.

As we pioneer these and dozens of other approaches, we know that a future of truly renewable energy is still a long way off. Charting a course to that future requires work along two parallel tracks: we must rapidly improve the energy systems we depend on today, while simultaneously developing a portfolio of entirely new technologies that will redefine how we produce energy tomorrow. In both cases, scale may be the most daunting challenge. To generate electricity, the U.S burns 20 pounds of coal per American per day – in total, a staggering 1 billion tons of coal a year. China already burns more than twice as much, and will likely burn more as it becomes richer. The test for every new technology is delivering energy at that scale.

Solar power, for example, has huge potential: An hour of sunlight on the surface of the earth contains enough energy to meet the world’s current energy needs for a year. But solar will only work at scale if we achieve breakthrough performance in both the materials that capture the sun’s energy and the batteries needed to store it. Until those technologies are ready, solar will remain a promising but limited contributor to our energy supply.

Yet no matter how clever our strategies for capturing carbon or capitalizing on the sun, no matter how potent our batteries or how efficient our engines, scientists and engineers will never be able to solve our society’s energy and climate problems on their own; as our political scientists, urban planners and economists tell us, just as hard as the technical challenges will be developing sound policies that work politically and in the marketplace.

The intertwined crises of energy and environment form the defining challenge of this generation. As a nation, we need to see this challenge not through the dreary, gray lens of impending diminishment and compromise, but, rather, illuminated by the powerful beacon of American ingenuity. If we unleash the same engine of innovation that powered the computer and biotech revolutions, energy and its environmental consequences could become a driving force for economic growth and a unifying national inspiration – an Apollo project for our time.

Already the intriguing problems of energy and the environment are setting the hearts and minds of young people ablaze. At MIT, our student-led Vehicle Design Summit has galvanized teams of young people around the world in the collaborative development of a four-passenger car that could achieve 200 miles per gallon. The 700 members of our student-led Energy Club launched what is now one of the country’s premier conferences on energy issues, to be held in Cambridge this week.

We need to help more young people see these problems as theirs, and to feel in these great challenges the kind of inspiration my generation experienced in the race to the moon – the kind of inspiration that made science and engineering feel exciting and important, that made us believe that the sky was no longer the limit; the kind of inspiration that will spur young people today to reach for the sun.