MIT 150

MIT's contributions to energy

Globe Staff Writers Sam Allis, Hiawatha Bray, Scott Helman, And Carolyn Johnson, And Globe Contributors Scott Kirsner, Karen Weintraub, And Michael Blanding / May 15, 2011

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That’s cool

If your office temperature is always comfortable, you might thank Pietro Belluschi. The dean of MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning from 1951-65, he designed the Equitable Building (later named the Commonwealth Building), a sleek office space in Portland, Ore., that was completed in 1948. Wrapped in aluminum, it was the first large commercial building in the country to be fully air-conditioned. It also was the first to have double-glazed glass windows, which helped reduce glare from the sky and, therefore, controlled solar heat better.

Well Refined

Solar, windmills, and biofuels might be the future, but oil is still the present. It was MIT professors in the 1930s who led the way in figuring out how to efficiently separate, or “crack,” that soupy mess into molecules and essentially create the modern-day oil industry. The pioneers included H.C. Weber, Herman P. Meissner, and longtime MIT chemical engineering professor Hoyt C. Hottel.

Sun house

The first house to be completely powered by the sun was built on the MIT campus in 1939. Called Solar 1, it was built under the direction of chemical engineering professor Hoyt. C. Hottel, who employed a “sun trap,” a box with a copper sheet painted black under three panes of glass on the roof, to collect the sun’s rays. Some of the principles from Solar 1 are just now being incorporated by the Department of Energy in its own solar research.

Drill, baby, drill

Back in the day, the techniques for finding new oil deposits were simple: Drill hole. If you didn’t find anything, move over and repeat. In 1948, MIT researchers were among the first to apply modern scientific analysis to reports of seismic activity to create a chance above a “shot in the dark” in hitting pay dirt. Formalized as the Geophysical Analysis Group in 1952, the collaboration spurred the “digital revolution” in oil prospecting.


Just as sonar pings can help spot submarines beneath the surface, they can be used to find objects sitting on the ocean floor or buried beneath layers of sediment. MIT professor Harold “Doc” Edgerton and a student, Martin Klein, developed sophisticated side-scan sonar systems and used them to find 2,000 year-old Roman shipwrecks near Turkey, 16th-century British naval ships, and the Civil War-era USS Monitor. Sidescan sonar is still regularly used to map the ocean floor, find submerged objects, and discover gas and oil fields.

Sunny days ahead

The problem with solar power is not the technology, it’s producing that technology cheaply enough to make widespread adoption feasible. Mechanical engineering professor Emanuel Sachs made strides in solving that equation 25 years ago with the creation of a “string ribbon” process that used less energy and cut down on silicon waste over conventional solar panel construction. His latest company, 1366 Technologies, promises to reduce the energy required for solar cell production to 10 percent of traditional means.

One tiny nuclear reactor

One of the first nuclear reactors for civilian purposes began operating at MIT in 1958 and is still in use today. About 1/1000th the size of an industrial reactor, it still packs a powerful punch, making it ideal for research. It’s been used for developing new cancer therapies, and more recently it is playing a role in developing a new cladding for fuel rods to supplant the zirconium protection that failed during Japan’s reactor meltdown. “Even though this reactor is 52 years old, it is doing things right at the forefront of nuclear science engineering,” says director David Moncton.

As green as it gets

Isaac Berzin, an MIT chemical engineer and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2008, formed GreenFuel Technologies with the hope of growing algae and converting it into biofuel. His company closed in 2009, and Berzin returned to Israel, where he is trying to build an institute that will create sustainable alternative energy policies.

MIT's 'Solar 1' in 1940 MIT's "Solar 1" in 1940