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MIT says it wants a solar 'revolution'

A $10 million grant from Chesonis Foundation will go toward innovations in solar power conversion, storage, and using solar power to make hydrogen.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Tuesday announced a $10 million grant to develop technology to make solar power mainstream.

The Chesonis Foundation donated the money for research in three areas: materials to improve conversion of light to electricity; storage; and hydrogen production from solar energy and water.

Called the Solar Revolution Project, it will provide funding for 30 five-year fellowships in solar energy.

The idea is to pursue "blue sky" research, in an effort to fill the void between corporate-funded applied research and the limited amount of federal money dedicated to basic science research in solar, said Ernest Moniz, the director of the MIT Energy Initiative.

"There are some really hard problems that need to be solved for the really big breakthroughs to come," Moniz said. "The underlying science of photosythesis is extremely complicated and not well understood at the electronic level."

As part of the campus-wide MIT Energy Initiative, the university already has other ongoing solar-related research initiatives, including the recently announced MIT-Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems.

The Solar Revolution Project funding is meant to be flexible to allow researchers to pursue breakthrough technologies. A solar leadership council will be formed to coordinate activities among different research efforts at MIT, Moniz said.

The Chesonis grant will also help fund a solar energy research report, modeled on the university's influential reports on nuclear and coal.

Although the power is free, solar electric panels are relatively expensive because of the large up-front cost. Solar power is small fraction of the overall electricity production in the U.S.--just half of one percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Researchers and solar companies are trying to develop large-scale manufacturing technologies and higher solar cell efficiency to bring costs down.

"Personally, I believe that terrawatts of solar power by mid century is a very real possibility, even likely," Moniz said.

The Chesonis Family Foundation was founded by Arunas Chesonis, an MIT graduate who is CEO of telecom company Paetec Holding.

Updated at 9:30 a.m. Pacific with comments from Ernest Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative.