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10/24/2010 7:42:19 PM
Eni and MIT detail success of energy research collaboration; identify new research directions

Susan Hockfield, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Paolo Scaroni, CEO of the Italian energy company Eni, met today at MIT to review the progress of the Eni-MIT Alliance, an ambitious five-year research program. They also discussed future research directions, including an expanded focus on technologies to prevent and clean up oil spills and strategic energy analysis to inform future directions in energy technology development.

Eni is a Founding Member of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), which was established in September 2006 to help transform the global energy system. The Eni-MIT Alliance, established in 2008, focuses on a suite of research projects designed to enhance critical components of Eni’s core business, including oil and gas production, as well as the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center, comprised of a portfolio of projects focused on advanced solar technologies.

Eni and MIT aim to expand the success of the Alliance to date — combining Eni’s operating experience and technical capability with MIT’s top scientific capacity, research and innovation focus, and unique multi-disciplinary approach — to develop novel renewable technologies as well as breakthrough materials and systems to guarantee operational safety, environmental protection and full technical control for oil production, particularly in sensitive and frontier areas.

President Hockfield commented, “The world needs short-, medium-, and long-term solutions to the global energy challenge. I am therefore very pleased that the Eni-MIT Alliance is already producing significant results while growing in new and critical directions. The research focused on Eni’s core business will help meet global energy needs in the near to mid-term in affordable, safe and environmentally responsible ways. And the research from the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center will speed our progress toward sustainable energy production for the future.”

At a press briefing following the meeting, MIT faculty members showed several new technologies that Eni and MIT are jointly developing. The recent oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico underscores the need for new safety and cleanup technologies. Current Eni-MIT research in this area focuses on the use of “nano-sorbents” for oil cleanup, designed for use in affected marshlands, for example, which are very difficult to clean up. This research, led by MIT Professor Philip Gschwend and Visiting Professor Francesco Stellacci, uses special nano-scale materials to identify, assess, attract and capture pollutants from oil spills. Building on this successful project, the Alliance is now in the development phase of a new focus area, targeting novel technologies to control blowouts in harsh environments such as ultra-deep water (5,000 feet or more).

In addition, paper-thin photovoltaics, developed in the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center, were demonstrated at the press conference. These flexible and foldable nano-scale devices are grown on paper, at low temperatures, and exemplify the technological push towards lightweight solar structures with high power-to-weight ratio. This work is a result of collaborative research of the MIT chemical engineering group of Professor Karen Gleason, Associate Dean of Engineering, and the electrical engineering group of the Solar Frontiers Center Director, Professor Vladimir Bulovic.

To date, the Eni-MIT Alliance has resulted in at least 18 published peer-reviewed papers and five patent filings, with additional papers and patent applications pending. This year, MIT Professor Angela Belcher was the recipient of the 2010 Eni Prize for Renewable and Non-conventional Energy for her work in using modern biology as a platform for discovery of novel solutions to energy challenges. In a work sponsored by Eni as part of the Eni-MIT Alliance, Belcher is demonstrating the power and versatility of her biological toolbox on challenges as diverse as CO2 biofixation for converting waste carbon dioxide (such as that generated by coal plants) to materials for green building supplies, generating fuels from sunlight (published this year in Nature Nanotechnology and Journal of the American Chemical Society), and creating novel photovoltaic materials. Belcher is in the department of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and is the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy.

MIT professor Karen K. Gleason explains how graduate student Miles Barr folds a solar cell into a paper airplane — research that is part of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center.

Video: Miles Barr/Jill Rowehl/Christopher Boyce/Dr. Sung Gap Im/Vladimir Bulovic/Karen Gleason

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