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A surge for energy research at MIT

Italian company commits $50m

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Howe
Globe Staff / January 16, 2008

A 17-month-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology project to fundamentally change how the world gets and uses energy secured its biggest financial boost yesterday, a $50 million, five-year research program sponsored by Italian oil conglomerate Eni.

Half the funds will go toward sponsoring as many as two-dozen new MIT researchers specializing in solar energy, particularly solar electric-generating panels that are more efficient and less expensive. "It will certainly double, probably more than double the work in solar energy at MIT," said Ernest J. Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative.

The energy initiative is one of the biggest priorities pushed by MIT president Susan Hockfield since she took over as the institute's leader in 2004. The initiative supports and centralizes research in nuclear and geothermal energy, fuels such as ethanol produced from crops, and more energy-efficient designs for buildings, machines, automobiles, and cities.

The $50 million Eni commitment follows a $25 million pledge by British Petroleum to a project developing ways of improving coal-fueled electric generation to reduce air pollution and capture and store carbon dioxide emissions. Ford Motor Co. has committed $5 million to the MIT Energy Initiative for research into designing cars that cause less pollution and other environmental damage. Chevron Corp. is providing $5 million for research into undersea robots that can explore for and produce oil and gas in ultradeep ocean waters.

Leonardo Maugeri, group senior vice president for strategies and development at Eni, said that like many oil companies around the world concerned about dwindling petroleum supplies and global climate change, Eni is looking to support other kinds of energy, particularly green energy technologies. Its funding will pay for the work of 10 research fellows each year and support programs employing another dozen or more researchers, MIT officials said.

"We have agreements with many other universities, but by far the most important one is with MIT," Maugeri said. "MIT is unique. We are all very happy about this. There will be other collaborations with other universities, but not of this scope."

Moniz said the Eni program will investigate several promising new technologies for manufacturing solar electric-generating panels that are lightweight, less expensive, and have higher output. While their business now involves distributing the same industrial-era fuels they have been selling for a century, Moniz said, the backing of established oil giants like Eni for new energy technologies such as advanced solar energy could prove crucial in getting them more widely adopted internationally.

"To meet the world's energy needs, we will likely need partnerships between entrepreneurial energy technology innovation companies and companies with global distribution networks, such as Eni," Moniz said.

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