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Shell gives MIT $25m for gas, oil research

Funds to help pursue advanced technologies

By Erin Ailworth Globe Staff / October 13, 2010

Royal Dutch Shell PLC will give the Massachusetts Institute of Technology $25 million to research new, efficient technologies to help find and deliver oil and natural gas, officials are expected to announce today.

The money, to be delivered in five annual payments of $5 million, will go to the MIT Energy Initiative, a program that conducts research aimed at transforming the way the world gets and uses energy. With the Shell donation, the four-year-old program has helped to attract more than $300 million for energy research and education at MIT, and has produced several breakthroughs, including the development of a solar cell that can be printed on paper.

The Shell funds will be used to pursue a number of advanced technologies, including the use of seismic data to explore underground oil and natural gas reservoirs, and the study of powerful ocean waves to measure their effect on high-strength steel — an effort to build stronger, but lighter offshore installations. Shell will have the option to license technologies developed by MIT, and some of the university’s research will be made available to other energy companies.

“The energy future is an uncertain one, where we need completely new solutions,’’ Gerald Schotman, the energy company’s chief technology officer, said. “It’s a very deliberate decision to step up.’’

The MIT Energy Initiative was established in 2006, and is a priority of university president Susan Hockfield. Energy demand is expected to double as the world’s population grows by an estimated 3 billion people by 2050. The MIT research is aimed at helping the world deal with the use of scarce energy supplies and seeking alternatives to conventional power sources like oil and natural gas.

Shell is one of the largest backers of the MIT initiative. The biggest donation to the program came in 2008 from Italian oil conglomerate Eni, which pledged $50 million over five years to explore more efficient and less expensive solar power technologies. Under that partnership, several breakthroughs have been made, including the construction of an ultra-flexible solar cell.

In the previous year, British Petroleum gave the university $25 million, later raised to $31 million, to improve coal-fueled electric generation to reduce air pollution and capture carbon dioxide emissions, which are thought to contribute to climate change. Lockheed Martin Corp., Siemens, and Hess Corp. have also sponsored Energy Initiative research.

MIT’s relationship with Shell and its competitors helps the university address energy and climate issues, said Ernest J. Moniz, director of the Energy Initiative, which he called one of the broadest programs of its kind.

“The solutions, in the end, have to come from these energy companies,’’ he said.

Phil Flynn, a Chicago-based oil analyst with PFGBest, said Shell’s investment in MIT research will drive the innovation the industry needs to safely get at hard-to-reach oil in deep water or remote locations.

“I think Shell is saying, ‘Hey, we can do even better, we can be even more efficient, and we can do it in a way that’s safe. . . . We’ve got enough data here that we’ve spent billions on, let’s get some smart kids to take a look at this and see what they can come up with,’ ’’ Flynn said.

Local academics, however, expressed some reservations.

Robert K. Kaufmann, director of graduate studies at Boston University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, questioned whether the research MIT does for Shell will get to the crux of the energy issue — namely, that demand for energy is growing even as oil and natural gas supplies dwindle. The focus needs also to be on “consuming energy more efficiently and smarter,’’ he said.

Still, “this is great for MIT,’’ Kaufmann said. “It’s always good to have smart people working on important problems.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at [email protected].

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

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