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Millions go to MIT, Rice, Texas for energy research

To get grants, be an energy researcher. Leading universities are increasingly partnering with private sector companies to fund research.

Rice University and the University of Texas, in conjunction with some of the world's largest energy companies, have banded together to form the Advanced Energy Consortium, which will try to exploit material science and natural gas to expand oil and gas production.

One of the decades-long problems in the oil industry has been getting the stuff out of the ground. The underground pressure is relieved relatively quickly; although oil drillers can artificially increase pressure by injecting gases underground and other techniques, it only improves yields incrementally. Typically, more than 60 percent of the oil in a given deposit stays in the ground. In many fields, the amount of recovered oil is even less.

Rice brings nanotechnology expertise while Texas has one of the leading geosciences departments. Participating companies include Baker Hughes, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, Marathon Oil, and Occidental. (BP and Synthetic Genomics, meanwhile, have a similar project. Those two will try to identify microbes inside wells that can help increase extraction.) These aren't exactly clean energy projects, but oil will likely remain a staple of the energy picture for some time.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Italian energy company Eni said they will collaborate on energy research, including improving solar cell efficiency. Eni, which will also join the MIT Energy Initiative, will give the school $50 million over five years.

Although the government has increased the amount of money it will put into energy research, leading universities are increasingly partnering with private sector companies to fund research. Some activists complain that these partnerships could compromise research, but there is little evidence to support this theory, at least according to several academics who have studied it.

Other partnerships include a $500 million collaboration between BP, the University of California, and the University of Illinois and Stanford's energy program, which is partly underwritten by ExxonMobil and Toyota.