MIT-Supported Energy Institute at Center of Abu Dhabi’s Dream City

During the last academic year, the entire faculty of a brand new university has enrolled at MIT, immersing themselves in the institute’s culture, values, and way of doing research. They are the staff of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, which will admit its first post-graduate students in 2009. The institute is just one of the components in the Arab emirate’s huge Masdar initiative, set up by the crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, with $15 billion in seed money. (The word “masdar” is Arabic for “the source.”)

Mateo Chiesa, a Norwegian of Italian ancestry, who first came to MIT as a post-doc in nanotechnology 2006, is one of the new faculty members.

“I heard about Masdar from my professor and thought ‘Why don’t I give it a try?'” says Chiesa. “First of all, it is a possibility to really make a change. There is no other project of this size concentrating on alternative energy, at least not in Europe.”

At MIT, Chiesa has worked under professor Gang Chen on a new technology for converting solar energy to electricity, and the plan is to continue that research cooperation. While conventional solar cells work for just a narrow part of the visible spectrum, the MIT technology can capture radiation that would otherwise be wasted as heat.

The agreement between Masdar and MIT’s Technology and Development Program was announced in February, 2007. The soon-to-be institute will have programs in a range of engineering disciplines, with a focus on sustainable technologies.

The institute’s campus will be at the center of the new Masdar City, a town planned for 50,000 inhabitants that is being built from scratch and where emissions of carbon oxide and other pollutants are to be kept as close to zero as possible. That means streets shadowed from the burning sunlight by photovoltaic panels, recycling of waste water, and new personal transport systems instead of cars. All power is to be produced from solar and wind energy.

All together, it sounds like a tree-hugger’s utopian dream—not something you would expect from an extremely oil-rich country, the largest (in territory) of the United Arab Emirates.

“The Abu Dhabi government wants to make the transition from a natural resource based economy to a knowledge based economy—but not get out of the energy market,” says professor Fred Moavenzadeh, who heads the MIT Technology Development Program. “They see some major shift in their economy where oil may become a liability, not an asset, due to carbon dioxide emissions. They want to be in the market for clean, sustainable energy.”

Google Earth image of Abu Dhabi; Masdar Initiative site at rightThe Masdar Institute will be a private, not a state, university for graduate students only, according to Moavenzadeh. Students will spend more than half of their time doing research. MIT is supporting the institute because of its commitment to science and technology education worldwide, Moavenzadeh says. “We have supported universities in Latin America, The Middle East, Africa, Japan, South Korea and now again the Middle East,” he says. “We are enhancing the quality of academic institutions or establishing new institutions. We will work with Masdar as long as they respect our decisions.”

Plans call for Masdar City to be ready for its first inhabitants next year—at the same time as the Masdar Institute opens its doors, in other words—and fully constructed by 2016. It is located inside a newly established economic free zone east of downtown Abu Dhabi (see Google Earth image above; click for a larger version), with an area of close to 1,500 acres.

Another component of the initiative is the Masdar Clean Tech Fund, a $250 million venture capital fund for investments in cleantech, financed both by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, which is leading the Masdar City project, and foreign investors like Credit Suisse and Siemens.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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One response to “MIT-Supported Energy Institute at Center of Abu Dhabi’s Dream City”

  1. Rafig Alibeyli says:

    Dear Sirs!

    I, Prof. Dr. Rafig Alibeyli, originally a chemical engineer, was born in Azerbaijan. I had been carrying out researches on the development of new hydrogenation processes and heterogeneous catalysts in the area of petrochemistry at the State Scientific Research Institute of the old USSR (Baku, Azerbaijan) from 1970 until 2000 and the basic results of these scientific studies have been widely and successfully applied in the industry.
    I was invited to Turkey in 2000 and I have since then carried out researches in the area of heterogeneous catalysis and clean and renewable energies at the Ankara University and the Research and Development Department of Vestel Company. These studies basically focused on the production of hydrogen with various catalytic methods (from natural gas, LPG etc.), the storage of hydrogen (in chemicals etc.) and the application of hydrogen in different fuel cells (PEM and SOFC). Besides, a new method which is economically and technologically more effective was developed for the production of sodium borohydride which is one of the boron compounds having a wide application area (hydrogen storage, whitening etc.) and various heterogeneous and homogenous catalysts were developed for obtaining hydrogen from sodium borohydride. At the same time, studies concerning the development of more effective methods for electrolysis of water and obtaining pure hydrogen were also carried out. As a result of these studies, different prototypes were made. Especially, prototypes of domestic type electrical generators operating with sodium borohydride, battery chargers for mobile phones and walkie-talkies and cartridge type transportable power sources which can be used for both military and civil purposes were developed.
    In addition to these studies, I have for long years been carrying out studies also in the area of natural zeolites having large reserves all over the world. As it is known, the natural zeolites have a very wide application area (treatment of waste waters from heavy metals and various toxic compounds, cleaning of flue gases, prevention of soil erosion and ground adsorption in soil, increasing the efficiency of plants etc.). As a result of the studies performed, I synthesized new effective catalysts and adsorbents which can be applied in various areas and they were tested successfully in different areas.
    I would very much like to continue, develop and apply in the industry my studies shortly summarized above, especially those concerning the area of clean and renewable energies with you in Abu Dhabi Clean Energies Center or any other research center of the United Arab Emirates working on clean energies. For this purpose I am sending you my CV in the Annex and deeply thank you in advance.

    Prof. PhDr. DrSc.. Rafig Alibeyli