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MIT joins global hunt for ways to cut carbon

Professor Yet-Ming Chiang posed for a portrait with an H-cell battery in a research laboratory at MIT.

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Professor Yet-Ming Chiang posed for a portrait with an H-cell battery in a research laboratory at MIT.

Some MIT professors are researching nuclear power plants that can float in the ocean. Others are testing atom-sized solar cells that can coat skyscraper windows or smartphone screens. And still others are looking at how to mix algae with sunlight to make a reliable, clean fuel.

Policy makers, scientists, and many others are banking on technological breakthroughs in the wake of an agreement last month by 195 nations to cut carbon emissions — a landmark effort to slow the rise of global temperatures.

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But the Paris climate agreement has no enforcement method.

So researchers at colleges and universities across the country — including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — are looking at a range of ways to combat climate change and to reduce the costs of current energy sources.

“History says we can invent our way out of this, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Robert Armstrong, a professor of chemical engineering who is the director of the MIT Energy Initiative.

For example, Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering who serves as director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems at MIT, envisions a future for nuclear power — at sea.

The regulatory challenges may be too great in the United States, where the number of nuclear plants has declined in recent years, but he has been working on building a plant that could be moved around the world, depending on where market conditions were favorable.

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His design for a nuclear plant that could be moored at sea, like an oil rig, would cost about one-third less than a conventional plant and take about half the time to build, he said.

Other advantages include that it wouldn’t be in anyone’s backyard, minimizing siting issues, and its reactor would be submerged, reducing the risks of a meltdown.

“We need nuclear — big time,” Buongiorno said. “Renewables are not as easily scalable as nuclear, and they’re intermittent. With nuclear, you get the energy when you need it. This is very doable.”

Professor Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor of materials science and engineering who cofounded the companies A123 Systems and 24M, has spent years studying how to make batteries cheaper and last longer. He’s now seeking to cut in half the costs of the kind of lithium-ion batteries that power cutting-edge electric cars made by Tesla. He’s also looking at building batteries for electrical grids that can store energy from wind turbines or solar farms, so it can be distributed when needed.

“The right storage can solve many of the problems we have now with creating a low-carbon future,” he said.

Jeffrey Grossman, another professor of materials science and engineering, is working on making solar panels as much as 100 times thinner than those today, allowing them to be used in glass or paint, so they can charge electronic devices, buildings, and much more.

He’s also researching how to store energy in the form of heat.

‘History says we can in-vent our way out of this. That’s what we’re trying to do.’

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“We’ve demonstrated these technologies are possible, but we don’t know yet how to manufacture them at a large scale,” he said. “We need to be trying a lot of things, in parallel with one another. We have many more ideas than we have the funds.”

Meanwhile, MIT is embarking on an unprecedented program to accelerate progress on low-carbon energy technologies. In the coming months, MIT plans to launch eight “energy centers” on campus that will seek more than $300 million in research funding over the next five years from companies, foundations, and other sources.

The centers, announced last fall as part of a “plan for action” to curb carbon emissions, aim to further research and ultimately commercialize new technologies in the areas of solar energy, nuclear energy, energy storage, energy bioscience, electrical grids, nuclear fusion, materials science, and the capture and use of carbon.

Spurred by criticism from student groups about its investments and relationships with fossil fuel companies, MIT’s plan cites the “overwhelming” scientific evidence of climate change and the “risk of catastrophic outcomes” if emissions aren’t reduced.

“Given the scale of the risks, the world needs an aggressive but pragmatic transition plan to achieve a zero-carbon global energy system,” the authors of the report wrote.

In addition to the centers, MIT promised to devote $5 million to its Environmental Solutions Initiative, hold a competition among alumni for new ideas, and deepen research on new technologies for utilities, cities, and ground and air transportation.

University officials also pledged to eliminate the use of oil as a fuel by 2019, reduce its emissions by 32 percent by 2030, and expand its educational offerings on climate issues, including the creation of an environment and sustainability degree.

But some students argue that the university should be doing more, including divesting from some 200 fossil fuel companies.

MIT continues to invest its $13.5 billion endowment in companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell.

“The plan is insufficient — incommensurate with limiting warming,” said Geoffrey Supran, a PhD candidate and leader of Fossil Free MIT, which has held a sit-in outside the president’s office since October. “But it’s a start, and we’re doing everything we can to work with our administration to make it stronger. Nothing less than science and our futures are at stake.”

MIT’s plans are part of a broader international effort to increase research and development on energy.

As part of the Paris climate accord, the United States and 19 other countries vowed to double their budgets on clean energy.

The United States pledged to increase its investments to $10 billion over the next five years.

In a statement accompanying the agreement, Obama administration officials said investments and other policies over the past seven years have helped reduce the price of wind projects by more than 40 percent, solar photovoltaic modules by 80 percent, and LED lighting by nearly 90 percent.

The United States now generates three times as much wind energy and 20 times more solar power than it did in 2008, they said.

Another global effort called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition involves recent pledges by 20 billionaires, including American tech magnates Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg, to invest in new clean energy projects and help commercialize them.

“Our primary goal with the coalition is as much to accelerate progress on clean energy as it is to make a profit,” Gates wrote on his website, noting that global energy use is expected to increase some 50 percent by the middle of the century.

David Abel can be reached at dabel-@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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