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For the second time this year, the MIT Energy Initiative awarded over $1.7 million in seed grants to energy research. The grants fund 17 energy projects ranging from designing solar cookers for third world countries to synthesizing thin-films for thermoelectric power.

Reja Amatya G, who is seeking her doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is heading one of the funded projects. The goal of her project is to install solar-cookers to generate energy in third-world countries, particularly in Nepal.

By installing thermoelectric generators in solar cookers, Amatya said she hopes to expand the limited function of the solar cookers to store energy in batteries. That way, she explained, villagers who lack reliable sources of energy can adapt their solar cookers to power other necessities including lighting.

Currently, the project is in the testing and information-gathering phase. Many villagers in Nepal already own solar cookers, which means that Amatya must specially design her project so that it is compatible with multiple setups. With the seed grant funds, Amatya plans to purchase a solar simulator for her lab, allowing her to test her ideas here on campus.

“Instead of using the popular semiconductor of bismuth telluride,” she said, “we plan to use silicon germanium, which can stand up to temperatures of 500–600 degrees Celsius.” Within the next year, Amatya hopes to bring her project to Nepal.

Energy seed grants can amount to as much as $150,000 over a period of two years. The spending of these funds is unrestricted, giving freedom to project leaders to experiment and test new ideas that could perhaps reinvent current energy-saving strategies.

Another project, led by Cy Chan G of EECS, is developing complex algorithms to simulate and forecast wind intensities. Unlike wind forecasting models that meteorologists depend on today, Chan’s algorithms implement complex computational techniques (such as kernel regressions, Markov random fields, and fluid dynamics) in order to predict the wind.

Chan explained that by creating such models, power utilities can accurately determine when and where the strongest winds will blow. Due to the random and volatile nature of wind, wind-energy can only account for as much as 20 percent of power utility portfolios. By utilizing high-performance computing and large parallel chip-processing systems, Chan plans to base his complex algorithms on years of past meteorological wind-data as well as future national forecasts.

“Right now, we are in the pilot phase of the project,” Chan said. “We started this project three months ago, and we hope to have a functioning product by the end of the semester.”

If Chan’s new computational approach to predict wind intensity successfully models the forecast, power utilities may gain more confidence in wind and allocate a larger portion of its energy profile to this renewable source.

Other notable research projects receiving seed grant funding include high-performance batteries, self-powering electric systems, establishing hydroelectric power in Indonesia, reducing carbon-footprints in urban environments, and genetically engineering yeast strains for biofuel production.

The MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund Program works to finance MIT projects intended to improve energy and environmental issues. Areas of interest include research in clean energy, development of efficient energy systems, and technologies geared towards climate change. Funding for the program is provided by the MITEI Founding and Sustaining Members Program.

In January 2008, MITEI funded 17 energy research projects in its first round of energy seed grants. MITEI will continue to award these grants twice annually to energy research projects that show high potential for future application.

Only faculty and research staff with principal investigator privileges are eligible candidates for these grants. To apply for an energy seed grant, visit http://web.mit.edu/mitei/.