New Eni-MIT energy center focuses solely on the sun

By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / May 10, 2010

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MIT is stepping up its research into solar energy, hoping to finally make sunlight an affordable, efficient power source.

In a new research center officially opened last week, 21 Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty members and dozens of students are working together to make advances in solar technology. Called the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center, it is funded largely with a grant from Italian energy giant Eni, which recently provided $2 million in equipment for two new labs, in addition to a $5 million annual commitment for the next five years.

Moving away from fossil fuels is essential for global security, to meet growing demand for energy, and to protect against further climate change, MIT president Susan Hockfield said after a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The center, she said, aims to “fundamentally transform how the world produces and consumes energy.’’

She praised Eni for having the foresight to invest in energy research. “I can only wish all of the petroleum sector could take such a long-term view,’’ she said.

Eni chief executive Paolo Scaroni said he wants his company to be prepared for the day that oil “will be finished.’’

“Maybe in 100 years or so,’’ he said, “it will not play a role in our life.’’

Existing solar technology is not viable enough to justify his company’s investment, Scaroni said, complaining of the cost and inefficiency of today’s solar energy.

Instead, Eni wants to invest in research that will pay off in the years and decades to come, he said.

Scientists have long been tantalized by the power of the sun — Thomas Edison reportedly wanted to use it as an energy source. But they have been unable to make it as cost-effective or reliable as fossil fuels.

MIT scientists are working on projects aimed at solving these problems. They include:

■ Making solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity, on flexible, inexpensive materials such as paper.

■ Using water to store collected sunlight and convert it into energy, an idea inspired by the way plants use photosynthesis to convert sunlight to fuel.

■ Designing more efficient panels for use at solar energy plants.

Mechanical engineering professor Alexander H. Slocum has engineered a parabolic panel with a lip at the bottom to fortify it against the wind.

By vibrating gently, the lip will help keep the panel clear of the dust that reduces efficiency — a feature Slocum said was inspired by the Mars rovers. He is now testing a one-tenth-size scale model in a wind tunnel on campus.

As with most research, scientists hope there will be intermediate gains along the route to major breakthroughs.

Giving a tour of the two new labs last week, center codirector Vladimir Bulovic proudly displayed a light bulb that emerged out of his work with incredibly tiny, colorful crystals known as quantum dots.

Nanoscale dots of varied sizes reflect and absorb different colors of light, Bulovic said, and are extremely good at conducting energy.

His new bulb, which is intended for commercial and industrial settings, uses just 8 watts of energy to produce as much illumination as a typical 75-watt incandescent bulb.

The bulb, which produces a more natural-looking light than fluorescent ones and costs $75, was developed by a Watertown-based company Bulovic helped start called QD Vision Inc.

Bulovic also showed off the new lab’s high-powered laser, which is capable of producing any color of light at pulses so fast researchers can watch an excited electron move, allowing them to learn the most efficient ways to generate electrical power in solar cells.

In the second new lab next door, he highlighted a microscope that allows researchers to peer at chunks of materials so small they would fit by the thousands inside a strand of human hair.

“If only 10 percent of what I’ve seen [at MIT] will materialize,’’ Scaroni said, “this will change the world.’’