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 @

Trending on Xconomy