CLEAN TECH:

Oil wealth fuels institute focused on green energy

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Josh Halperin, a chemical engineering major at Vanderbilt University, learned quickly after graduation that he lacked the hands-on experience to land a job in renewable energy.

So Halperin, 23, headed overseas in search of engineering-themed adventure, signing on to a corporate training program that sent him to Vietnam, Yemen, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.

His travel gambit paid off, leading Halperin to an advertisement for a new, energy-focused masters program in Abu Dhabi. A year later, one of 88 students picked from nearly 1,200 who applied, Halperin is the student-body president of the inaugural class at Masdar Institute for Science and Technology.

The school is the centerpiece of Masdar City, a $22 billion research park being built from scratch outside of Abu Dhabi. The government is funding both the city and the school, in hopes of incubating the kind of high-tech cluster that has turned Silicon Valley into a global household name (Greenwire, April 19).

The institute's provost, John Perkins, said the school's creation stems from Abu Dhabi's larger plan to transform itself from a resource-based economy -- the emirate has the lion's share of the nation's oil and gas reserves, which rank fourth in the world -- into one rooted in the knowledge and service sectors.

"They realized in establishing Masdar, if you really want a knowledge-based economy you need to be research-led," Perkins said during an interview in his temporary office overlooking the institute's construction site. The school's vision, he said, is to become a world-class center for energy and sustainability research.

To go from zero to world-leading in the shortest time possible, the Abu Dhabi government reached out to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. First, they asked MIT to set up a satellite location here.

Government officials "wanted to know if MIT could establish a branch in Abu Dhabi, similar to what Cornell, Georgia Tech and a number of other universities are doing in the Middle East," recounted Fred Moavenzadeh, the director of MIT's technology and development program and head of the school's work with Masdar.

"We told them we would not do that," he continued. "Our rationale was that if it was a university there, let it be an Abu Dhabian university," with local responsibility for its success.

Moavenzadeh acknowledged there was some concern for dilution of the MIT brand. "But more importantly, if they're not willing to take the responsibility of doing it, then why are we doing it?" he asked. "They eventually came to see that that perhaps is a better way."

MIT signed on to consult on the project and has a contract that runs through 2012, and its participation is integral to everything the institute does. The university has developed the Masdar school's academic and research programs; recruited, interviewed and recommended all faculty hires; drafted the terms and conditions of employment; and helped to select the first class of students.

The predominantly junior faculty members are trained through a yearlong stint on MIT's campus, after which they are mentored by MIT peers. When the Masdar Institute launches its doctoral program this fall, students will commit to spending at least a year in Cambridge, and half of their faculty supervisors will be tenured there.

For faculty, Moavenzadeh said, teaching and researching at Masdar should be much like at any other top-flight engineering school -- but with much better funding.

One draw is that they will be limited to teaching "no more than one class per semester," a light load that provides plenty of time to focus on research. Another is that the institute is setting up state-of-the-art laboratories for its staff.

"In microelectronics, where can you go where somebody is willing to put $100 million into establishing the most modern lab for you?" Moavenzadeh said. "Great candidates wanted to go there, because no university in the U.S. offers such a modern, fully equipped lab."

To top it off, the faculty members won't be required to raise their own research funding -- something that soaks up massive amounts of time for most university scientists, who apply to government and private grant programs to pay their students' salaries and run experiments. Freedom from fundraising means the new school's faculty will have more time for the work that drew them to their fields in the first place.

For students, the institute is similar to home -- but different. For starters, each gets a full ride including tuition, room and board, travel, a laptop and even pocket money.

Once their building is complete, slated for this summer, students will live in the same complex that houses their labs and classrooms. For now they live in nearby villas, with one group for men, another for women, and individual villas for those with families.

The inaugural class has 88 students from 22 countries, including a half dozen from North America and 10 from the United Arab Emirates, Moavenzadeh said. Interestingly, all of the Emirati students are female, he added, with parents reluctant to see their daughters go overseas.

Halperin, the student-body president, said life is "normal" in the villas, including movie nights, camping trips and dinners out. He plans to run in an upcoming half marathon in Ras Al Khaimah, an emirate near Abu Dhabi; his last half marathon was in Nashville, Tenn.

A really big sand box

Though their backgrounds vary, the students share a desire to get their hands dirty. The biggest attraction of the institute, even beyond its funding, is its integration into the real-world laboratory of Masdar City.

As the city is designed and built from the ground up -- the academic building is the only one in place at Masdar -- the institute's researchers have fingerprints on many of the development's projects.

Two faculty members who work on the energy efficiency of building systems are deep in the details of how the new city's buildings should be shaped, oriented and outfitted, said MIT's Moavenzadeh. Others work with the city's "smart grid," which will be larger than the pilot projects being implemented by electric utilities in the United States and elsewhere. Still others work on the city's solar photovoltaic plant and the rooftop units that will grace most of the buildings.

"Of course, some do largely theoretical work. But the majority of them are having very, very, exciting, immediate application in the field," Moavenzadeh said, noting that about three in four faculty members are doing some work in the city. "The faculty's research immediately has value."

For students, that involvement translates to hands-on experience they can point to with potential employers, filling the gap that Halperin faced upon graduating from college.

"There's a synergy between the research and the exploitation," Provost Perkins said. "The faculty may ask, 'Should I spend more time on my research or should I spend more time on seeing the results of my research exploited?' Well the answer to that question, I'm afraid, is 'yes.'"

He added, "Building Masdar City is actually a challenging project, it's a challenging goal to build a city with zero carbon footprint and zero waste. So we're learning as we go."

Like everyone else involved in the initiative, Perkins underscored the likelihood of failure. "We will," he said, "get things wrong."

But since so many of the city's first inhabitants are engineers, he said, there is a high tolerance for "evolutionary learning." Engineers talk about designing "the plant after next," Perkins said, meaning they focus on how things could be done better if freed from the legacies of how things have been done before. Working at Masdar City, where nothing is conceived as "business as usual," provides an opportunity to do just that.

"Masdar Institute is not just interested in knowledge for its own sake," Perkins said. "We're here to make a difference."

Technology launch pad

Part of the provost's job is to see that the stage is set for technologies to move from the lab to the marketplace.

MIT is known as a leader in technology transfer, as evidenced by the large number of startup companies nearby that were spun off from innovations born at the school. Perkins aims to follow that example, and the Masdar Institute's system for handling intellectual property rights basically mimics MIT's.

Perkins will also designate a vice president for research and industry relations whose job is to support ideas that are ready to fledge the nest.

One major route to commercialization, he said, is to launch a new technology by starting a company around it. That requires identifying potential customers and writing a business plan, steps with which most researchers are not familiar.

The vice president's team will help with that. "You should always employ people to do what they're good at," Perkins said. "What faculty are good at, typically, is researching and teaching," while the technology transfer group will have the expertise and contacts to help faculty and students bridge what is referred to as "the valley of death" between the laboratory bench and factory floor.

The institute will also support researchers who want to license their ideas to a third party for commercialization. A "proof of concept" fund is being set up, Perkins said, to which researchers can apply for financing when a prototype is needed to show the business community that an idea can work.

The government hopes that the institute's close involvement with Masdar City, along with abundant professional opportunities and a high standard of living, will persuade faculty members to stay a long time and students to remain in Abu Dhabi beyond their schooling, plugging their knowledge and contacts back into the local economy.

The national government is well aware that it cannot rely solely on citizens to supply all the manpower needed to run its economy, Moavenzadeh said. Officials know that they need to attract manpower from abroad and that people are more likely to stay if they are educated locally.

It is a story that he can relate to -- Moavenzadeh was born and raised in Iran, he said, but pursued his studies in the United States and never moved back.

For the institute, Halperin looks like a test case. He said he misses working and when his master's program is done, he does not expect to pursue the doctoral program. But would he stay in Abu Dhabi?

"If I can find my niche in the renewable market," he said. "The government of the UAE is so committed to making this really a knowledge economy. ... With that kind of backing, with the kind of money that they have, they have the ability to make what they say come true."