MIT addresses global warming

A university-wide, coordinated push to research new alternative fuels and energy production.

Scientists at MIT are addressing the "urgent challenge of our time" - coming up with alternatives to greenhouse gases, says MIT President Susan Hockfield. The school's Energy Research Council is leading a university-wide push to develop sustainable fuels, Wired News reports

Some examples:

  • Spinach solar power: Tapping the secrets of photosynthesis -- engineering proteins from spinach -- to make organic solar cells whose efficiency could outstrip the best silicon photovoltaic arrays today.
  • Silicon superstrings: A novel approach to manufacturing conventional silicon photovoltaic arrays by pulling the chips in stringy ribbons out of a molten stew like taffy rather than slicing them from silicon ingots.
  • Laptop-powered hybrids: Using a new generation of lithium-based batteries (which power most portable electronics today) to cut the price and charge-time of hybrid and electric car batteries.
  • Tubular battery tech: Using "supercapacitors" made from carbon nanotubes to store charge -- rather than the chemical reactions that power most batteries -- resulting in a lightweight, high-capacity battery that could someday give even the laptop battery a run for its money.
  • Hold the A/C: Optimizing air and heat flow on a new computer-aided design system, before a building's construction begins, allowing for the building's air conditioning costs to be cut by as much as 50 percent.
  • Hybrid without the hybrid: Turbocharging an automobile engine with plasma from a small ethanol tank (which would need to be refilled about as often as the oil needs changing), reportedly increasing fuel efficiency almost to the level of a hybrid -- but only adding $500-$1,000 to the car's sticker price.
  • More light than heat: Generating a car's electricity photoelectrically (using a gas-powered light and a small, specially designed solar panel) rather than mechanically (using an alternator), substantially increasing fuel efficiency.
  • Coal-powered biofuels: Bubbling exhaust from a coal-fired power plant through a tank of algae that's been bred to siphon off much of the exhaust's carbon dioxide -- in the process, fattening the algae that can then be harvested as biodiesel.
The council now has funding for five new researchers, said co-chair Ernest Moniz, and will be fund raising to create more positions. The search committees, he said, will be looking at technologies and new ideas for both the short term (such as energy efficiency) and the long term (such as nuclear fusion and hydrogen fuel cells). "We're at the starting line now," said Moniz. "The idea of a portfolio of different energy research areas -- but also a portfolio in terms of time to yield -- is certainly in our minds."

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