MIT, Chesonis Foundation announce solar revolution

Goal: Bring the sun's power to the people


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Pamela Dumas Serfes
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Promising to transform solar power from a "boutique" option to an affordable, dependable, mainstream energy solution, MIT and the Chesonis Family Foundation today launched a "solar revolution" with the ultimate aim of making solar energy America's primary carbon-free fuel.

The Solar Revolution Project (SRP), funded by a $10 million gift from the Foundation, will explore new materials and systems that could dramatically accelerate the availability of solar energy. The SRP will complement and interact closely with other large solar projects at MIT, creating one of the largest solar energy clusters at any research university.

The Chesonis gift will allow MIT to explore bold approaches that are essential for transforming the solar industry. Specifically, it will focus on three elements --capture, conversion and storage -- that will ultimately make solar power a viable, near-term energy source.

"Solar is thought of as an ultimate energy technology off in the distant future. The goal of SRP is to move this timeframe nearer to the present. The SRP will make solar a practical alternative, by committing a 10-year timeframe for establishing the new base of scientific knowledge it will take to draw a market-competitive energy supply from the sun," said Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry at MIT, who will direct the SRP. "With SRP, think 'solar' and think 'now.' This is the revolution that is implied in the project name."

Professor Ernest Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), said, "Climate change makes the search for more environmentally benign sources of energy urgent and hugely important. Many experts have concluded that solar energy is a key, if not the key answer to our global energy challenges in the long term.

"The Chesonis investment -- large, flexible, empowering of highly creative MIT faculty and students -- embodies this conclusion," Moniz continued. "We applaud the vision, generosity and confidence in MIT that this extraordinary gift demonstrates."

Most solar research focuses on known materials and systems, but, thus far, these approaches cannot be implemented on a large scale. The SRP will allow researchers to explore entirely new materials and systems that could transform solar power into a viable, widely deployed and affordable source of energy.

A unique feature of the SRP is its flexibility: The gift's unrestricted funding is aimed at creating a "no holds barred" research environment that will inspire innovations in the field.

The SRP will initially support 30 energy fellowships for students on a range of solar-related studies, from the development of novel materials for energy conversion and storage to using solar energy to produce hydrogen fuel from water.

Each fellowship will span five years, which allows for significant continuity and greater impact. The gift from the Foundation will also help support an integrated study on the future of solar energy, building on the success of two earlier MIT interdisciplinary reports on the future of coal and of nuclear energy in a carbon-constrained world.

"We are at a breakpoint, both in energy supply and environmental consequences. Solar energy has enormous promise as the ultimate answer to our energy problems," said Arunas Chesonis, benefactor of the Foundation. "Solar energy is widely distributed and the fuel cost for solar power is zero. It is our hope that by investing in the people at MIT and giving them the freedom to take risks in the lab, we will enable them to be true game-changers -- advancing the state of the art to a point where solar power is cheaper and more reliable than electricity from coal."

The Foundation will also contribute to the MITEI Energy Seed Fund Program (ESFP), which solicits and funds innovative energy proposals from across the MIT campus. The first round of solicitations for the ESFP (and the related Ignition Grant program for junior faculty) provided close to $2 million to fund 20 outstanding proposals. The Chesonis gift will provide an additional $500,000 to supplement funds from MITEI industry partners.

Other large solar projects at MIT include the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center, the MIT-Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems, the Masdar Foundation solar project and a range of solar research grants to MIT from the U.S. Department of Energy and other federal agencies.

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MITEI is an Institute-wide initiative designed to help transform the global energy system to meet the challenges of the future. In its first full year of operation, MITEI has attracted more than $100 million from industry and public partners as well as private donors to fund critical energy research to enhance the environmental performance of conventional energy and enable a sustainable energy future through transformational technologies. The current MITEI program will also support more than 175 graduate energy fellows over the next five years to help develop the next generation of energy scientists, technologists and social scientists. For more information, please visit http://web.mit.edu/mitei/.

The Chesonis Family Foundation is a private philanthropic organization that targets environmental and energy research projects. The foundation is working to address global climate change by supporting high-risk, proof-of-concept technology research and providing funding that allows research to move from development to commercial deployment. The foundation's benefactor, Arunas Chesonis, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984 and is Chairman and CEO of PAETEC Holding Corp. (NASDAQ GS: PAET). The Chesonis Family Foundation is based in Cambridge, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 30, 2008 (download PDF).


Topics: Energy, Environment

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