MIT News | Climate Change & Sustainability

September 4, 2018

  • How can the world achieve the deep carbon emissions reductions that are necessary to slow or reverse the impacts of climate change? The authors of a new MIT study say that unless nuclear energy is meaningfully incorporated into the global mix of low-carbon energy technologies, the challenge of climate change will be much more difficult and costly to solve. For nuclear energy to take its place as a major low-carbon energy source, however, issues of cost and policy need to be addressed.

    In "The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World," released by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) on Sept. 3, the authors analyze the reasons for the current global stall of nuclear energy capacity — which currently accounts for only 5 percent of global primary energy production — and discuss measures that could be taken to arrest and reverse that trend.

    The study group, led by MIT researchers in collaboration with colleagues from Idaho National Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is presenting its findings and recommendations at events in London, Paris, and Brussels this week, followed by events on Sept. 25 in Washington, and on Oct. 9 in Tokyo. MIT graduate and undergraduate students and postdocs, as well as faculty from Harvard University and members of various think tanks, also contributed to the study as members of the research team.

    “Our analysis demonstrates that realizing nuclear energy’s potential is essential to achieving a deeply decarbonized energy future in many regions of the world,” says study co-chair Jacopo Buongiorno, the TEPCO Professor and associate department head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. He adds, “Incorporating new policy and business models, as well as innovations in construction that may make deployment of cost-effective nuclear power plants more affordable, could enable nuclear energy to help meet the growing global demand for energy generation while decreasing emissions to address climate change.”

    The study team notes that the electricity sector in particular is a prime candidate for deep decarbonization. Global electricity consumption is on track to grow 45 percent by 2040, and the team’s analysis shows that the exclusion of nuclear from low-carbon scenarios could cause the average cost of electricity to escalate dramatically.

    “Understanding the opportunities and challenges facing the nuclear energy industry requires a comprehensive analysis of technical, commercial, and policy dimensions,” says Robert Armstrong, director of MITEI and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “Over the past two years, this team has examined each issue, and the resulting report contains guidance policymakers and industry leaders may find valuable as they evaluate options for the future.”

    The report discusses recommendations for nuclear plant construction, current and future reactor technologies, business models and policies, and reactor safety regulation and licensing. The researchers find that changes in reactor construction are needed to usher in an era of safer, more cost-effective reactors, including proven construction management practices that can keep nuclear projects on time and on budget.

    “A shift towards serial manufacturing of standardized plants, including more aggressive use of fabrication in factories and shipyards, can be a viable cost-reduction strategy in countries where the productivity of the traditional construction sector is low,” says MIT visiting research scientist David Petti, study executive director and Laboratory Fellow at the Idaho National Laboratory. “Future projects should also incorporate reactor designs with inherent and passive safety features.”

    These safety features could include core materials with high chemical and physical stability and engineered safety systems that require limited or no emergency AC power and minimal external intervention. Features like these can reduce the probability of severe accidents occurring and mitigate offsite consequences in the event of an incident. Such designs can also ease the licensing of new plants and accelerate their global deployment.

    “The role of government will be critical if we are to take advantage of the economic opportunity and low-carbon potential that nuclear has to offer,” says John Parsons, study co-chair and senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “If this future is to be realized, government officials must create new decarbonization policies that put all low-carbon energy technologies (i.e. renewables, nuclear, fossil fuels with carbon capture) on an equal footing, while also exploring options that spur private investment in nuclear advancement.”

    The study lays out detailed options for government support of nuclear. For example, the authors recommend that policymakers should avoid premature closures of existing plants, which undermine efforts to reduce emissions and increase the cost of achieving emission reduction targets. One way to avoid these closures is the implementation of zero-emissions credits — payments made to electricity producers where electricity is generated without greenhouse gas emissions — which the researchers note are currently in place in New York, Illinois, and New Jersey.

    Another suggestion from the study is that the government support development and demonstration of new nuclear technologies through the use of four “levers”: funding to share regulatory licensing costs; funding to share research and development costs; funding for the achievement of specific technical milestones; and funding for production credits to reward successful demonstration of new designs.

    The study includes an examination of the current nuclear regulatory climate, both in the United States and internationally. While the authors note that significant social, political, and cultural differences may exist among many of the countries in the nuclear energy community, they say that the fundamental basis for assessing the safety of nuclear reactor programs is fairly uniform, and should be reflected in a series of basic aligned regulatory principles. They recommend regulatory requirements for advanced reactors be coordinated and aligned internationally to enable international deployment of commercial reactor designs, and to standardize and ensure a high level of safety worldwide.

    The study concludes with an emphasis on the urgent need for both cost-cutting advancements and forward-thinking policymaking to make the future of nuclear energy a reality.

    "The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World" is the eighth in the "Future of…" series of studies that are intended to serve as guides to researchers, policymakers, and industry. Each report explores the role of technologies that might contribute at scale in meeting rapidly growing global energy demand in a carbon-constrained world. Nuclear power was the subject of the first of these interdisciplinary studies, with the 2003 "Future of Nuclear Power" report (an update was published in 2009). The series has also included a study on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle. Other reports in the series have focused on carbon dioxide sequestration, natural gas, the electric grid, and solar power. These comprehensive reports are written by multidisciplinary teams of researchers. The research is informed by a distinguished external advisory committee.

June 5, 2018

  • Today, the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT announced the award of over $1.3 million in research funding through its seed grant program, now in its fourth year. These grants, which are available to the MIT community, are the cornerstone of MIT’s Institute-wide effort to catalyze solutions-oriented research in water and food systems that target the safety and resilience of the world’s vital resources. 

    This year, seven new projects led by eleven faculty PIs across six MIT departments will be funded with two-year grants of up to $200,000, overhead free. The winning projects include a silk-based food safety sensor; research into climate vulnerability and resilience in agriculture using biological engineering as well as crop modeling and sensors; an archeological and materials engineering approach to understanding fertile tropical soils; and three different strategies for water purification and management.

    The reach of the J-WAFS’s seed grants across the Institute is wide and reflects how faculty from all schools at MIT are invested in addressing the critical challenges that face our most essential global resources. This J-WAFS call for seed research proposals attracted 54 principal investigators, nearly twice the number that submitted proposals in 2017. What is more, 38 of these PIs were proposing to J-WAFS for the first time. “The J-WAFS seed grants continue to stimulate new thinking about how to address some of our most serious water and food problems, whether by new junior faculty at MIT or senior professors,” noted Renee Robins, executive director of J-WAFS.   

    Faculty from six departments were funded under this year's awards, including the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Materials Science and Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Mechanical Engineering. 

    New approaches to ensure safe drinking water

    The problem of arsenic contamination in water occurs throughout the globe, and is particularly extreme in South Asia, where over 100 million people in Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Cambodia, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Myanmar experience daily exposure to dangerous concentrations of arsenic that occurs naturally in groundwater. Yet the poorly understood behavior of arsenic in groundwater makes it challenging to identify safe sources of drinking water. Charlie Harvey, professor of civil and environmental engineering, has conducted extensive field research on  this issue. With J-WAFS funding, Harvey will consolidate data and develop models to identify and disseminate more effective groundwater management strategies that take into account how and where dangerous concentrations of arsenic exist.      

    Julia Ortony, the Finmeccanica Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, will be taking a different approach to arsenic contamination. Her lab develops molecular nanomaterials for environmental contaminant remediation. A J-WAFS seed grant will support her development of a robust, high surface-area material made of small molecules that can be designed to sequester arsenic from drinking water. 

    Boron is an essential micronutrient for both plants and animals, but becomes toxic at higher concentrations. However, due to its small molecular size and un-charged chemical structure, it is particularly difficult to remove with standard water purification technologies. Zachary P. Smith, the Joseph R. Mares Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, is taking advantage of advancements in molecular level synthesis of metal-organic framework (MOF) materials to open the door to a new generation of highly selective membranes for water purification and desalination that can remove boron. Leveraging techniques and expertise at the interface of inorganic chemistry, materials science, and chemical engineering, Smith aims to achieve technical breakthroughs in water purification with this J-WAFS funding.

    Improving understanding of soil and climate impacts on agriculture for improved crop production

    Climate change is bringing temperature and precipitation changes that will increasingly stress the crops our global food system depends on, and these changes will affect regions of the world differently. Breeding plants for increased resilience to stressors such as drought is one solution, but traditional breeding approaches can be extremely slow. In part, this slowness results from the complexity of plants’ response to environmental stress. David Des Marais, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, and Caroline Uhler, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science want to better understand this complexity in order to improve future practices to breed plants for stress tolerance. By combining Des Marais’ expertise in plant-environment interaction and sustainable agriculture with Uhler’s statistical approaches to studying networks, the team will develop new analytical tools to understand the structure and dynamics of the gene regulatory networks that plants use to perceive — and respond to — changes in the environment. 

    Dara Entekhabi, the Bacardi and Stockholm Water Foundations Professor in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, is taking another approach to understanding the impacts of climate on agricultural production. The project, in collaboration with research scientist Sarah Fletcher from MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, is focused on Sub-Saharan Africa. This region is experiencing very high population growth, and with its largely rain-fed agriculture is particularly vulnerable to anticipated temperature and precipitation changes brought about by climate change. The MIT research team is leading an academic-industry partnership that seeks to understand how crop production in the region responds to year-to-year variation in precipitation in order to assess the future of food security in Africa. They will collaborate with Radiant Earth, a startup that uses a geospatial imagery technology platform to capture and understand the impact of social challenges in the developing world, to develop a better understanding of the impact of climate on food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

    A very different approach to improving agricultural productivity involves better understanding and managing soil fertility. In another innovative multidisciplinary project, three PIs whose expertise spans geoscience, archaeology, and materials engineering will collaborate to improve our understanding of extensive deposits of rich soils known as terra preta (“dark earth” in Portuguese) in the Amazon Basin that pre-Columbian societies created and cultivated between 500 and about 8,700 years ago. Many tropical soils are nutrient-poor and contain little organic carbon, but terra preta is so carbon-rich and fertile that it is still farmed (and destructively mined) today. Researchers are now attempting to reproduce terra preta as part of a strategy for sustainable tropical agriculture and carbon sequestration. A team consisting of Taylor Perron, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and Dorothy Hosler and Heather Lechtman, both professors of archaeology and ancient technology in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, aims to inform agricultural practices in tropical developing nations by investigating how the rivers of the Amazon region influenced terra preta formation.  

    Using edible food safety sensors to reduce food waste and disease

    While strategies to improve agricultural productivity are critical to global food security, minimizing food loss from farm to table is also considered to be necessary if we are to meet our future food needs. Cost-effective and easy-to-use methods of detecting food spoilage along the food supply chain can help. A. John Hart, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Benedetto Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, have teamed up to find a solution. J-WAFS seed funding is supporting the development of a silk-based food safety sensor, visible to the naked eye, which can change color based on its interaction with common food pathogens. The sensor will take the form of printable inks that are stable under extreme temperatures and also edible. Their aim is to print on food packaging as well as directly on food in order to enable point-of-use detection of contamination and food spoilage for meat and dairy products.

    With these seven newly funded projects, J-WAFS will have funded 30 total seed research projects since its founding in 2014. J-WAFS’ director John Lienhard states that “investing in research results in creative innovations in food and water that will enable a sustainable future.  Further, these seed grants have repeatedly been leveraged by their recipients to develop significant follow-on programs, that further multiply the impact.” 

    2018 J-WAFS Seed Grant recipients and their projects:

    "Novel systems biology tools for improving crop tolerance to abiotic stressors." PIs: David Des Marais, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Caroline Uhler, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

    "Assessing Climate Vulnerability of West African Food Security using Remote Sensing." PIs: Dara Entekhabi, the Bacardi and Stockholm Water Foundations Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    "Printed Silk-Based Colorimetric Sensors for Food Spoilage Prevention and Supply Chain Authentication." PIs: A. John Hart, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Benedetto Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    "What controls Arsenic Contamination in South Asia? Making Sense of Two-Decades of Disjointed Data." PI: Charles Harvey, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    "Supermolecular nanostructure gels for chelation of arsenic from drinking water." PI: Julia Ortony, the Finmeccanica Career Development Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

    "Anthropogenic Soils of the Amazon: Origins, Extent, and Implications for Sustainable Tropical Agriculture." PIs: Dorothy Hosler, Professor of Archaeology and Ancient Technology, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Heather Lechtman, Professor of Archaeology and Ancient Technology, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and J. Taylor Perron, Associate Professor of Geology, Department of Earth, Planetary and Atmospheric Sciences.

    "Purifying Water from Boron Contamination with Highly Selective Metal-Organic Framework (MOF) Membranes." PI: Zachary Smith, the Joseph R. Mares Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

May 31, 2018

  • Tiziana Smith has had her mind on water for years. The San Antonio native learned about the importance of preserving the city’s water resources in grade school — and has used that knowledge as a springboard into her research at MIT.

    “I was always aware of the importance of water and the potential tension between urban uses and agriculture,” says Smith, a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “This idea of understanding how to allocate a limited resource and how to use it efficiently is really interesting to me — especially in the agricultural sector, which is the world’s the largest user of water.”  

    As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Smith studied environmental science and public policy, and researched wastewater reuse in urban areas. After graduating, she worked as a research assistant at the World Bank in Hanoi, Vietnam, where she was able to study firsthand how agriculture can affect ways of life. For Smith, resource availability and global agricultural research “have a lot to do with livelihoods and providing people with a safe environment to live in and trying to make our food system more equitable.”

    While in Vietnam, Smith realized she wanted to gain a stronger technical background to prepare her to study the resource availability problems of the future. After working with the World Bank for two years, Smith returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a graduate student in the MIT Technology and Policy Program.

    Smith worked with Dennis McLaughlin, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Water Resource Management, to study the implications of land and water restrictions on food production in China. After graduating with a dual master’s degree in environmental engineering and technology and policy, she decided to stay on for a PhD.

    Building a model

    Smith’s doctoral research builds off her master’s research and aims to answer the question: How many people can China feed? “This question is interesting because China has the world’s largest population right now, and people are getting richer and richer,” Smith says. “So [the Chinese population] is demanding better diets with more meat and vegetables, which requires more resources.”

    Smith says changes in those diets have coincided with changes in how China gets its food — moving from a self-sufficient agricultural economy to one in which more food is being imported — but the exact mechanisms for this change are unclear.

    “What are the reasons they’re [importing more]?” Smith asks. “Is it because they really don’t have enough resources to grow the food themselves, or is it for economic or political reasons? We’re trying to understand if their food production system is limited by their resources or not.”

    “Preliminary results indicate that food production could be increased in China by changing current cropping patterns and investing in irrigation infrastructure,” she adds.

    Smith has developed a hydrological model that simulates the relationship between water availability and crop yields in China. “Understanding how much water the crops are taking up and evaporating is pretty crucial to understanding if [China is] water-limited or not,” she says. Smith is not the first to work on this modeling project, but she’s made key contributions, including upping the temporal resolution of the model and taking advantage of new global and regional data, including information from satellites.

    To calibrate the computer model and perform simulations, Smith uses satellite data, climate data, and data from rain and stream gauges. Access to regular, reliable data is key to the model’s success. In April 2017, Smith traveled with 23 other MIT students to Washington, as part of the MIT Science Policy Initiative. There, she advocated for funding for NASA’s Earth-monitoring satellites, some of which provide the crucial data for her models.

    While the models Smith develops in her research may help answer questions about the true agricultural capacity of China, she believes her research impact extends globally.

    “[How much food can be grown] is an interesting question to ask in many other parts of the world, for example sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is expected to increase rapidly and the demand for food is expected to increase more quickly than in China,” Smith says. “Knowing if and where it would be best to grow crops is an interesting question. We’re hoping that the methodology that we are developing can be used anywhere.”

    Supporting others

    When Smith isn’t at her computer refining or running her models, she can be found organizing activities and initiatives to help her fellow graduate students find mentors and become leaders themselves.

    In 2016, Smith participated in the MIT Graduate Student Leadership Institute, which gathers a class of graduate students to participate in weekly discussions on personal reflections and leadership. In 2017, Smith participated in the initiative again — but this time as a leadership team member.

    “It’s been a great opportunity to meet people from across the campus and also have a space for reflection about what I want to do with my life,” Smith says. “It’s been really rewarding.”

    In addition, Smith is a member of the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers, a graduate student group that meets up weekly to discuss graduate life and the challenges faced by minority students. This year, Smith co-led a new initiative to invite faculty of color for lunch events with graduate students.

    Smith has similarly organized a lunch series for women graduate students and faculty in civil and environmental engineering. One of her motivations for putting together these events is that none of her PhD classes at MIT have been taught by women professors. “I feel like there’s not a lot of chances to get mentorship, and I hope that this is a way that [women faculty] can become more and more accessible,” Smith says.

    After Smith defends her dissertation, she hopes to find work in a field that uses both her technological and policy skillsets.

    “I did the Technology and Policy Program because I like bridging between major stakeholders and scientists. Hopefully, I won’t be the person who’s doing the coding forever,” Smith says cheerily. “I want to find a position where I can do analyses and interact with stakeholders — and it’s tricky to find the place where you can do both.”

May 23, 2018

  • Abigail Krich is the founder and president of Boreas Renewables, a consulting firm serving renewable energy developers, owners, operators, and advocates. She recently gave a talk at MIT, hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), to discuss New England’s looming transition from a natural-gas-dominated market to the renewables integration that will be necessary to meet policy deadlines for decarbonization. She argued for a rethinking of New England’s fundamental market design, pointing to the larger ongoing conversation of how to reconcile markets and public policy on regional, national, and global levels. MITEI Communications followed up with her to learn more.

    Q: The essence of your talk was that “something’s not matching up” between New England’s policy requirements for decarbonization and its wholesale electricity market design. Moving forward, are you optimistic about electricity markets adapting, or do you think state contracts and regulated rates will need to take on a larger role in implementing clean energy?

    A: I’m currently optimistic that the electricity markets will adapt incrementally to the short-term future, in which state contracts and regulated rates continue to take on a larger role but do not overtake the marketplace. Though I want to be, I’m not currently feeling optimistic that this process will be able to develop a long-term competitive market solution that will work for a nearly decarbonized electricity system. I do think it’s possible that an entirely different market structure could work, but this would likely be ordered by a regulator, either at the state or federal level, and seems unlikely to come from within the existing market improvement process. The biggest problem in my mind is: When the transition happens from the short term incremental changes that keep the system working to the long term, something fundamentally different is needed.

    Q: You noted that an increasing percentage of the energy supply (rooftop solar panels, for example) is operating outside the capacity market, reducing demand within the market itself. How will these external suppliers impact the clean energy transition?

    A: About two-thirds of the solar installed in New England is what’s called “behind the meter,” reducing the demand for electricity that is seen by the wholesale electricity markets. By reducing the demand for electricity from the wholesale markets, this solar also reduces the amount of capacity that must be purchased in the capacity market and helps the region’s clean energy transition. The other third of the solar installed here is what’s called “in front of the meter,” meaning it is treated like a typical generator in the wholesale electricity markets instead of reducing demand. Though the energy produced by this solar displaces the need for energy from fossil fired generators, hardly any of this solar is participating in the capacity market. By not participating in that piece of the wholesale markets, the capacity market completely ignores this solar, as though it weren’t even there. That’s a real shame because, even though it’s reducing the amount of energy each fossil plant produces, it isn’t helping the region to allow those fossil generators to retire (or to signal that we don’t need new fossil generators to be built). It would be great if either the market or policies changed to encourage this solar to participate in the capacity market or reduce demand so that it could be counted one way or another.

    Q: In order to meet emission reductions requirements, you argue that we must reduce electricity demand along with transitioning to low- and zero-carbon sources. New England’s energy efficiency measures have already brought down net demand drastically. How important is reducing demand in comparison to implementing renewables?

    A: I’m a huge proponent of clean energy, so I’m happy to see wind turbines popping up and solar panels installed wherever there is space. But I’m also an outdoor enthusiast who loves natural vistas unblemished by development. I think addressing the threat of climate change is far more important than preserving my views, but it would still be nice to keep some of them. Even if all of our electricity came from carbon-free sources, I still think reducing demand through energy efficiency and price-responsive demand is important so that we can limit the impact of these clean energy sources on the environment around us.

    This event was supported by IHS Markit.

  • Every year, Sustainability Connect, a forum organized by the MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS), provides an opportunity for MIT community members working on sustainability issues across campus to come together around a cross-cutting theme, celebrate accomplishments, and engage in collective brainstorming. The event furthers MITOS’ mission to transform MIT into a powerful model that generates new ways of responding to the challenges of a changing planet, starting by using our own campus as a testbed.

    On May 7, a group of 80 faculty, staff, and students convened for Sustainability Connect 2018 to discuss this year’s theme: “Imagine. Incubate. Impact.” The fourth annual event opened with a keynote from Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab. Ito’s work at the Media Lab — taking big problems in the real world, scaling them down, and then testing, proving, and deploying solutions – deeply aligns with the approach MIT is taking on campus sustainability and provided an inspirational framework for the day’s sessions. Ito stressed the necessity of shifting paradigms when trying to change complex environmental systems.

    He also shared a note of optimism about young leaders entering the workforce.

    “People’s values are changing,” he said. “When you look at millennials going into companies, they care about the social cause. I think it’s important to harness that.”

    The student leaders who participated in Sustainability Connect throughout the day — engaging with the audience to tackle issues such as carbon neutrality and water management on our campus — helped drive this message home.

    Deputy Executive Vice President Tony Sharon provided examples of how MIT is already changing the game on sustainability at MIT in his opening remarks, noting progress on the MIT solar farm in North Carolina, the utility of the MIT DataHub, and the recently released Pathways for Sustainability Leadership report.

    During the morning session, MITOS took the opportunity to officially launch the Sustainability DataPool, MIT's portal to campus sustainability data. MITOS worked closely with Information Systems and Technology to develop this website, which now enables and invites the community to explore campus datasets and visualizations powered by the MIT DataHub.

    “As research suggests, we think there’s a connection between an organization like MIT’s ability to innovate and the accessibility of shared data,” said Derek Wietsma, senior data analyst at MITOS. “As this resource matures, we hope the Sustainability DataPool will play an important role in MIT's ability to develop and implement sustainable solutions.”

    The morning sessions spotlighted many staff, students, and faculty at MIT working toward imagining, incubating, and making an impact on a range of campus sustainability topics.

    The panel, “The State of Sustainability at MIT,” featured Amanda Graham, executive director of the Environmental Solutions Intiative; Kate Trimble, associate dean of PKG Public Service Center; Christina Lo, the director of Strategic Sourcing and Contracts; and Abigail Francis, assistant dean of LBGTQ+ Services. They discussed sustainability efforts through a multitude of lenses and explored topics ranging from integrating sustainability into the MIT curriculum to activating public service around climate change to advancing equity on campus. Christina Lo spoke about changing the purchasing paradigm at MIT from: “Let’s get what we need” to “Is there another way to think about what our true goals are?”

    During a speed talk session, the recipients of the first Sustainability Incubator Awards updated the audience on their research, detailing how they have been using the campus as a test bed. The audience learned about disposable glove recycling, lifecycle analysis of buildings, and capturing and reusing water vapor plumes from the MIT Central Utilities Plant, which could result in significant water savings for the Institute and beyond.

    The final panel featured students from a new spring course 11.S938 / 2.S999 (Solving for Carbon Neutrality) designed and taught by Tim Gutowski, a professor of mechanical engineering and Director of Sustainability Julie Newman. The students unveiled their emerging ideas on how MIT might transition to a carbon neutral future free from fossil fuels. The panel featured mechanical engineering graduate students Julien Barber, Caleb Amy, and Colin Kelsall, and economics student Ignacio Ortega Castineiras. They shared a mix of technology and financial models they are currently grappling with as the semester comes to a close.

    After engaging in many conversations framed by science and engineering, Heather Paxson, a professor of anthropology gave a lunchtime keynote addressing the connection between culture and food. As MIT explores its own food system — from procurement to growing food on campus — Paxson’s comments reminded attendees that culture also plays an important role in solving for environmental problems.

    “Beyond its symbolic capacity, food is also a medium of communication and of social power,” she said. “Food isn’t just culturally relevant — food is culture.”

    To conclude the event, the group split up into three workshop tracks to provide input into campus-wide discussions of water management, food and sustainability, and the implementation of the Pathway to Sustainability Leadership report.

    “The momentum to shift paradigms, solve complex problems, and cross traditional lines in order to collaborate is building at MIT and can be seen across MIT’s operations already,” said Julie Newman. “This June, we hope to leverage this work and plan for the next decade, finding new ways for MIT to be a game changer in the space of campus sustainability as we seek to implement the new vision outlined the Pathway to Sustainability report.”

    For MIT community members who want to get involved in the campus sustainability design process, MITOS encourages participation in the June 1 Pathway to Sustainability implementation forum. Anyone interested is encouraged to RSVP by May 25.

May 21, 2018

  • On a recent April afternoon, MIT sophomore Francis Wang drove out of the Edgerton Center’s Area 51 garage, took a left on Massachusetts Avenue, a right onto Albany Street, and then a left through the wide doors into Johnson Rink.

    His ride: Flux, the 14th solar car built mostly by hand, thanks to CNC machines and countless hours in the student shop.

    The April 26 unveiling marked the official debut of Flux, an asymmetrical solar car that will race in the American Solar Challenge (ASC) in July.

    For the team of 25 students on the MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team (SEVT), the unveiling was as much a celebration of how far they’ve come and a send-off for how far they want to go. Seventeen hundred miles, to be exact, from Omaha, Nebraska to Bend, Oregon.

    Professor J. Kim Vandiver, the Forbes Director of the Edgerton Center and dean for undergraduate research, spoke at the event, and referred to one of the first solar cars, Solectria 4, built by James Worden ’89 in 1988. In fact, about five years before the Edgerton Center was founded, Harold “Doc” Edgerton gave the team space in Building 20.

    According to Worden, “unveilings” for solar cars were a little more off-the-cuff back then. Held at Worden’s house in Arlington, Massachusetts, the team performed midnight test runs on Massachusetts Avenue from one end of Arlington to the other on a stretch of flat and straight, car-free road.

    This unveiling was more sedate. Junior Veronica LaBelle, team captain, remarked on the power behind a large group of students engaged in intensive collaboration, and her gratitude for the team's commitment. Membership, she noted, has doubled in the past two years.

    She also mentioned a road block in the summer of 2017. The team’s $10,000 entry fee for the Australian World Solar Challenge (WSC) had been paid, and Flux was ready to be shipped to Darwin, Australia for the race. But more road testing was needed, and the timeline was too tight to ensure that Flux was in competition shape. After hours of agonizing discussion, the team decided to forfeit their entry fee and use their time to prepare Flux for the ASC.

    Flux stands apart from previous iterations of the solar car with its asymmetrical body. The driver sits on the same right-hand side as the wheel base, which means there’s less drag as it’s racing down the road. The car’s body is made from honeycomb wrapped in carbon fiber.

    The 5-kilowatt battery primarily stores energy converted from the solar array – 260 silicon solar cells on the canopy of the car. While cruising, the solar array powers the car without much help from the battery. Acceleration, however, requires more than solar power, and some battery power is required to meet the motor’s demand. During the ASC, the team will have a charging period and can start each day with a full battery.

    Talking about the team’s Independent Activities Period road trip to Georgia this January, sophomore Harith Morgan was visibly excited at the memory. “It’s an endurance race, so we’re not only racing, it’s how the car performs and how we perform as a team. If we get a flat, how quickly do we respond to that? Who takes off the wheel, who gets the next wheel, who is tightening the wheel, getting the new wheel secured properly? And we do it in two minutes or less.”

    Morgan joined the team in his first-year. “When I got to MIT I knew I was interested in mechanical engineering, and I was thinking of a way I could apply mechanical engineering to solving world problems, and I thought energy was a world problem and solar car was the perfect marriage of the two,” Morgan added.

    The unveiling event gave the MIT community a chance to get up close and personal with Flux, and to learn first-hand what goes into designing, building, and racing a solar car. Some even took their Flux selfies.

    After Flux had been sufficiently anointed with good solar car luck at the unveiling, Wang put his helmet on, got back in the car, and drove down Massachusetts Avenue to the Area 51 garage.

    The team has a little more work ahead, including crush zone changes (bodywork that allows the car to absorb the impact of a crash) and new turning fairing. Plus some more hours of road training for the driver. And then, full sun-powered speed ahead, the ASC from Nebraska to Oregon.   

May 18, 2018

  • Speaking today at Solve at MIT, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the best way to deal with the accelerating pace of profound changes in the world is to step up and help to influence how those changes unfold. Solve at MIT is the annual flagship meeting of Solve, which challenges teams around the world to come up with solutions to great challenges facing society.

    People can be afraid of the changes being wrought by new technologies and an increasingly global and diverse society, and try to cling to past ways, “or else we can decide to shape the change,” he said. “That’s what’s happening here at MIT, and it’s also very much the mindset we take in Canada, and it’s the mindset we need around the world.”

    He added that “there are going to be tremendous shifts, so let’s be part of it. It’s a deliberate choice — but not an easy choice.” One of the ways Canada is embracing future change, he said, is by “investing massively” in artificial intelligence research.

    Trudeau, who has assembled the most diverse cabinet in Canada’s history, half of whom are women, said that this inclusiveness makes for a better decision-making process. He explained that his cabinet also includes a people with a variety of personal, ethnic, and professional backgrounds, from those who have run multimillion-dollar companies to those who ran a shelter for battered women. “Diversity is a source of strength, not of weakness,” he said. “Having someone alongside you with different perspectives helps you solve a problem.”

    While some people equate leadership with being the strongest person around, Trudeau sees it differently: “I think leadership has been much more about gathering people around a common cause, and enabling them to contribute to it.” Leadership “used to be a very tribal thing,” he said. But in this era, with such diversity in our society, “leadership has to be about pulling people together, people who are different in many ways, around common ideals and a common purpose.”

    Solve, in its three-day conference, set out four new grand challenges for teams to take on, and offered $650,000 in prizes and funding for the winning teams. Speaking of the way Solve addresses global problems by setting out these specific challenges and inviting anyone to participate in solving them, Trudeau said, “I’m really a fan of the grand challenge approach.” He cited a similar contest-based approach they had used in Canada to address the issue of involving more women in entrepreneurship, as a way of “empowering individuals to help in shaping their world. It’s not just about solutions, but actually creating a better, more engaged society for everyone.”

    Trudeau spoke of the importance of allowing everyone to achieve their full potential. As a former high school teacher himself, he cited the example of an experiment in which a group of students was arbitrarily divided in two and assigned to different classes. The teacher of one group was told that those students were especially gifted, and the teacher of the other group was told that those students were the “slow” group, even though in fact both were the same. By the end of the school year, the supposedly “smart” class was in fact doing much better, and those in the supposedly less-smart group were in fact doing worse. Expectations had strongly influenced the outcomes. “People rise to the level you set for them,” he said.

    MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, introduced Trudeau, who spoke before a capacity crowd at MIT’s Kesge Auditorium. He described the prime minister as a “practical optimist” who has invested heavily in science and technology to promote an innovation-based economy, and who has been a “passionate advocate for fighting climate change.”

    Reif joked about the many similarities between MIT and Canada, including the fact that both have the beaver as their official mascot, both have bilingual leaders (“though I speak both languages with an accent,” he said), both have come up with popular sports to help get them through their long winters (“they have hockey, we have math”), and both are home to many brilliant Canadians.

    After his talk and question-and-answer period at Kresge, Trudeau was given a tour of the MIT Media Lab, including presentations about the lab’s work on personal robotics and artificial intelligence, work on innovations in neuroscience including possible treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and on noninvasive neural stimulation, and on the use of artificial intelligence in education. Additional presentations included a description of the innovation ecosystem at MIT and its neighboring innovation district around Kendall Square. Media Lab Director Joi Ito, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, Chancellor for Advancement Eric Grimson (who is a native of Saskatchewan), and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz were among those participating in the tour with Trudeau.

    “We are all interconnected,” Trudeau said in his Solve talk, “in a way that we haven’t been trained as a species to think about.” While our evolution has provided a sense of how to work together in small groups, it has left us ill-prepared to understand how our small, local actions can collectively alter the world, he said. “The idea that actions we can take could somehow affect the whole planet is completely beyond our instincts, our personal understanding of the world. We need to change our instinctive approach to solving problems.”

    “The choices we make have an impact,” he said. “We’re terrible at making choices. But we have to convince the citizens that we do have to do something about this [climate change] problem even if it doesn’t affect you now. We have to involve everyone in the solution we’re trying to create.”

  • The grand prize winner at this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition was an MIT spinout that’s developing a system that captures and recycles vaporized water from thermoelectric power plants. The recycled water can be constantly reused in the plant’s cooling system, saving millions of gallons and dollars annually, or be shipped as potable water to water-scarce areas.

    “Four thousand children die every day because they don’t have access to clean water, and the water crisis is only getting worse. … Our mission is to help solve the water crisis and save power plants $10 billion a year,” Maher Damak PhD ’17, a mechanical engineering graduate and co-founder of Infinite Cooling, said in the startup’s winning pitch. The technology was based, in part, on Damak’s graduate thesis.

    Two other winners took home cash prizes from last night’s competition, held in the Johnson Ice Rink. The $10,000 Audience Choice award winner was Zilper Trenchless, a team consisting of MIT Sloan School of Management student Daniel Zillante and his brother, Roberto, who are redesigning trenchless pipe installations to cut back on time, costs, and environmental impact.

    A $10,000 Booz Allen Hamilton Data Analytics Prize went to Iterative Scopes, which was one of 34 teams that made it into the competition’s semifinal round, but did not pitch last night. The MIT team has developed technology that uses computer vision and machine learning for real-time detection of lesions in the gastrointestinal tract that may indicate colon cancer.

    MIT’s largest annual entrepreneurship competition, now in its 29th year, is run by MIT students and supported by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the MIT Sloan School of Management. The competition consists of three separate contests: Pitch, Accelerate, and Launch.

    In all, eight finalist teams, including the three prize winners, pitched business ideas to a crowd from MIT and the general public, and to a panel of judges including entrepreneurs and industry experts.

    In the United States, about 39 percent (about 160 billion gallons daily) of all freshwater withdrawals — total volume removed from sources such as lakes and rivers — goes to thermoelectric power plants. Typically, water is constantly dumped into evaporative cooling towers, where some water evaporates to cool the remaining water. Vapor is then released out of the top in a plume, sometimes causing regulatory issues. A 250-megawatt power plant, for instance, consumes the same amount of water as 100,000 residential users, and spends $5 million on water, annually.

    Infinite Cooling — backed by funding from the Tata Center for Technology and Design and other startup competitions, including last year’s Clean Energy Prize — has developed a system that can be retrofitted on top of cooling towers, where it captures escaping water vapor. The system also eliminates the need for treating the water with thousands of gallons of chemicals before it’s recycled.

    “Because our device is able to collect this pure, recondensed water, not only do we reduce the evaporated losses, but also [reduce] costly water-treatment requirements,” said co-founder and co-inventor Karim Khalil PhD ’17, a mechanical engineering graduate.

    During the pitch, the presenters demonstrated a video of a tabletop-sized tower fitted with the device. When it was turned off, a plume of steam rose through the tower unaffected. “However, when we switch our device on, the plume vanishes almost instantaneously and the water begins to collect,” Khalil said, as the rising steam in the video disappeared. 

    The startup has optimized the geometry and surface chemistry of its collector to capture 80 percent of the liquid water droplets in the air. According to the startup, the device could cut a power plant’s water consumption by 20 to 30 percent.

    But the startup has other plans for its technology, beyond saving costs at power plants. “We believe we can have a profound impact on the global water crisis,” Damak said.

    As an example, Damak pointed to the city of Cape Town, South Africa, which is currently in the midst of a water shortage caused by drought. The city is currently trying to install desalination plants to provide drinkable water. However, just 15 miles from the city, Damak said, stands a 2-gigawatt nuclear power plant. If the plant equipped Infinite Cooling technology to its towers, he said, it could provide three times more water at a tenth of the cost, compared to water desalination plants.

    “More broadly, we believe we can turn every coastal power plant [worldwide] into a low-cost desalination unit, saving $15 billion a year in electricity costs and saving lives,” Damak said.

    Commercialization of the technology looks promising, Kripa Varanasi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and serial entrepreneur, told MIT News after the competition. Many innovations that tackle only water-scarcity issues, he said, can be difficult to market. “But being at energy-water nexus, you know [you have] a customer, a power plant, that uses a lot of water” and welcomes cost savings, he said. “Instead of building new desalination plants, we can use water power plants along the coast to solve the water problem … while being profitable.”

    Infinite Cooling will put the prize money toward starting a pilot at MIT, hiring talent, and generally building the business, Varanasi said. “The MIT $100K is sort of the king of startup competitions, so it’s really exciting to win this,” he said.

    Since its 1990 debut, the MIT $100K has facilitated the birth of more than 160 companies, which have gone on to raise $1.3 billion in venture capital and build $16 billion in market capitalization. More than 30 of the startups have been acquired by major companies, such as Oracle and Merck, and more 4,600 people are currently employed by former competing companies.

    This year, 150 teams applied to the entrepreneurship competition from every department at MIT, according to organizers. That number was winnowed to 34 semifinalist teams for the Launch contest. Judges then chose eight finalists to pitch at Monday’s grand finale event. Each of the eight finalists received $10,000. Semifinalist teams all received mentoring, prototyping funds, media exposure, and discounted services.

    Keynote speaker was Steven Conine, co-founder and co-chairman of Wayfair, one of the world’s largest e-commerce companies selling home goods. The night’s host was Marc Chalifoux MBA ’16 and managing director of the MIT $100K from 2014 to 2015. 

April 18, 2018

  • Despite conservation efforts and a resurgence in local farming, New England is still losing about 100 agricultural acres to development every day. For many small farms, family estates, orchards, and other largely undeveloped properties, the cost of taxes and maintenance alone can make keeping their land too expensive. Sam McElhinney MBA '17, born and raised in Massachusetts and an avid lover of the outdoors, always wanted to find a way to conserve the open lands he so loved. It wasn’t until McElhinney, who was on the lumberjack team and president of the fishing club at Dartmouth College, reached his late 20s and he and many of his friends began planning their own weddings that the idea hit him.

    “Traditional, professional event venues are built to more or less mass produce events,” says McElhinney. “I was away one weekend with friends at a farm and they were all talking about how generic weddings felt at these commercial event venues and I said why not just get married somewhere like this and create the entire thing to be the way you want?”

    Some couples do get married on a farm owned by a family member or friend — but unless you know someone willing to do this as a one-time favor, getting a stranger to transform an old estate into a wedding venue poses many problems. McElhinney saw the opportunity in solving those problems: If he figured out the logistics, he could give small farms a low-time impact but high-value solution to getting the money they need all while giving couples a unique, customizable space for their wedding. McElhinney started Mayflower Venues, which touts an automated, intelligent technology system that enables these non-traditional spaces to use modern systems and tools to host a small number of weddings a year.

    “A number of the venues on our website had couples pulling up their driveway knocking on their barn door asking if they could have a wedding in their yard,” says McElhinney. “They always turned them away because they had no idea how to figure out insurance, what price to charge, how to tell them what caterers would need. With a full-time job as a farmer, they couldn’t handle it.” So, Mayflower Venues is doing all that work for them. 

    Since officially launching the company last fall, McElhinney and his team — and the platform — have hosted one event, gotten more than 40 venues on board, and booked dozens of events for 2018 and 2019. Mayflower’s role, says McElhinney, really becomes that of the venue coordinator. “We identify these spaces and digitize them. We built this entire proprietary onboarding app by working with a variety of expert wedding planners, caterers, and vendors to figure out what are the inputs couples will need and we collect all that info and create a comprehensive set of wedding planning tools specific to each venue’s eccentricities. We know how many feet of hose a caterer would need to reach the potable water spout at a historic family estate, for example, and the platform presents that information to the couple and their vendor at the right time.”

    McElhinney is focused on the unique, sustainable nature of the properties. “We only allow one wedding a weekend at each venue. We don’t want a wedding factory, we don’t want three weddings going into a small town in the Berkshires in 72 hours; but we do want one wedding going into a small town in the Berkshires because that’s great revenue, for catering and accommodations. We’re really excited about bringing this millennial revenue into rural America and that is a very sustainable action.”

    This article originally appeard on the Slice of MIT blog.

April 17, 2018

  • As renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar power, become increasingly attractive power sources for the grid, industry is looking for better energy-storage systems that can make these sources more cost effective.

    On April 13, Lithio Storage, a team from Tufts University and Northwestern University, took home the $100,000 grand prize at the MIT Clean Energy Prize (CEP) for tackling one major challenge for grid-scale energy storage: extreme temperatures. The startup is developing an electrolyte that helps batteries withstand much broader temperature ranges, making them safer, more energy efficient, and cheaper to operate.

    Using the electrolyte at wind and solar power farms, for instance, could save millions of dollars annually in operation costs, according to the startup. The electrolyte can also be used to improve battery performance in electrical vehicles.

    “When you open a battery now, it’s essentially using the same materials it used 20 years ago,” said team member Anthony D’Angelo, a PhD chemical engineering student at Tufts, in his winning pitch. “There’s really a need for a more robust and energy-efficient battery.”

    Lithio was one of four teams, including one from MIT, to win prize money at the nation’s largest energy-innovation competition for students from universities around the nation. Now in its 11th year, the student-run CEP has dished out more than $2.6 million to help launch clean-energy startups. Past teams have collectively raised more than $430 million in additional funding after the competition and have employed more than 700 people around the globe.

    Winning a second-place prize for $20,000 was PolarPanel, a team modifying a NASA-developed solar refrigeration system to power refrigerated railcars along the supply chain. Excess energy from the system is stored as ice inside the railcar to maintain temperatures, even without sunlight. This retrofit system replaces the diesel generators that currently keep the nation’s 14,000 refrigerated railcars cold, burning an estimated $20,000 to $25,000 in diesel fuel per railcar annually.

    Two additional prizes for $10,000 went to Fiat Flux, an MIT team, and Safi Analytics.

    Fiat is developing a light-based technology that continuously cleans organic contaminants off seawater reverse-osmosis filters. Accumulated contaminant fouling blocks the membrane pores, which requires increasing pumping energy to blow past the blockage and maintain flow. Fiat is developing a coating to place over an existing commercial membrane. Upon exposure to ultraviolet light, any particles that have built up on the coating disintegrate, cleaning the membrane. This can drastically reduce operation costs and increase efficiency and water output, according to the team.

    “At Fiat Flux, we have developed a special membrane system that uses the power of light to clean itself,” said team member Alvin Tan, an MIT PhD student in materials science and engineering, in his pitch.

    Safi is developing smart technologies for factory managers in emerging markets to better manage and observe operations. The startup places sensors on equipment and has developed a platform that collects the sensor data to provide real-time information and alerts on machine breakdowns, energy usage, machine idling, unexpected power shifts, and other parameters. The team is based in Nairobi, where it currently has two live factory deployments.

    This year, 17 semifinalist teams were selected to showcase their innovations to judges and attendees in four categories: generating energy, improving energy usage, delivering energy, energy for developing economies. Showcases took place during an all-day event at the Samberg Conference Center that included keynotes from “cleantech” industry executives. After the showcase, judges selected four finalist teams — one from each category — for a final pitch competition.

    The judges were ultimately swayed by Lithio’s promise to improve battery performance for the electrical grid and, potentially, electric cars.

    In Lithio’s pitch, D’Angelo explained that the traditional lithium-ion batteries used for grid-scale energy storage, which are about the size of refrigerators, get very hot, very quickly. If batteries hit around 50 degrees Celsius, which they can within just an hour or two, the electrolyte starts to degrade, which corrodes the battery and shortens its lifespan. After a dozen or so cycles, capacity drops about 80 percent, D’Angelo said, “making the battery essentially unusable, and then you have to purchase another one.”

    Industry currently uses HVAC systems, powered by the battery, to control temperatures. This contributes to energy-efficiency losses and amounts to about 8 percent of all operating costs, D’Angelo said. For instance, he said, not using HVAC for one of Tesla’s 20-megawatt Powerpack systems — which can be used to store energy for wind and solar farms to power about 2,500 homes — could save about $5 million in operating costs annually.

    Lithio’s electrolyte is a custom solution made of commercially available chemicals that binds to a battery’s lithium, making it far more stable. It can be implemented into existing commercial battery manufacturing processes to provide a wider “thermostability window,” D’Angelo said. Batteries with the electrolyte can reach temperatures ranging from -40 degrees C to 80 C without degrading. This means that while commercial batteries may last roughly 10 to 20 cycles before needing replacement, Lithio-enhanced batteries can last up to 100 cycles, even in harsh environments. In electric cars, the electrolyte could help batteries operate better in extremely hot and cold regions of the world.

    With the prize money, Lithio will purchase equipment to conduct high-throughput, large-scale testing on its batteries. “We’re trying to get some field testing we need to do to get in the door with major partnerships,” D’Angelo told MIT News.

    Keynote presentations were delivered by Alicia Barton, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and Tibor Toth, director of investments at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

March 28, 2018

  • Our understanding of atmospheric and climate dynamics, as well as weather prediction and its limits, would not be what it is today without advances in the fundamental science of modern meteorology that took place at MIT in the post WWII era. Much of this is thanks to two prominent MIT meteorologists born a hundred years ago, but whose work is very much relevant today.

    Earlier this month, the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) celebrated the lives and scientific legacies of these two former MIT professors, Edward Norton Lorenz and Jule Gregory Charney, during a two-day symposium: MIT on Chaos and Climate. The event was organized by EAPS faculty from the Lorenz Center and the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans and Climate (PAOC), marking the centennial of the scientists’ birth.

    The department brought together the MIT community and friends and welcomed back alumni, and former faculty and scientists from EAPS and the former Department of Meteorology (Course XIX). Also invited were respected colleagues from many scientific fields affected by the work of Charney and Lorenz, including oceanography, meteorology, physics, applied mathematics, and climate science. Together, the group composed of biological and professional families shared vignettes and personal testimonials of the scientists on the first day, and discussed the broader impacts that Charney and Lorenz’s research had on the department and the broader community on the second.

    Meteorology’s origins at MIT

    Charney and Lorenz were members and chairs of the former Department of Meteorology, which emerged from the country’s first meteorology program founded at MIT by Carl-Gustaf Rossby, considered one of the founders of modern meteorology. In 1983, the department merged with Course XII to become the current EAPS, and was the forefather of PAOC.

    The pioneering work of Charney and Lorenz heralded the field of modern meteorology. “It’s fair to say that Jule Charney turned the mystery of the erratic behavior of the atmosphere into a recognizable, although a very, very difficult problem in fluid physics,” said Joe Pedlosky, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Emeritus Senior Scientist, on the symposium’s second day.

    Charney’s quasi-geostrophic vorticity equations allowed for concise mathematical description of large-scale atmospheric and oceanic circulations, enabling the numerical weather prediction. Among this and his many fundamental contributions to the field, Charney identified “baroclinic instability,” the mechanism that explains the size, structure, and growth rate of mid-latitude weather systems, and is a ubiquitous phenomenon in rotating, stratified fluids like our oceans and atmosphere. His innovative research provided insights to the theories of weather systems, hydro-dynamical instability, atmospheric wave propagation, hurricanes, drought, desertification, atmospheric blocking, and ocean currents. Many felt the pull of his charisma and academic integrity, falling into “orbit around the Charney sun.” This, along with his idealism and quest for fascinating research results, was the driving force behind many national and international weather initiatives and programs.

    “Being in the room with Charney was like being in the room with a tiger, a very friendly tiger,” said David Randall, University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University.

    Lorenz could be considered Charney’s department foil. Many described him as a quiet, humble soul, and in Charney’s words as remembered by Pedlosky, “Lorenz is a genius with a soul of an artist.”

    He revolutionized our understanding of atmospheric dynamics and circulation through research into the energetics of stratified, rotating fluids. In “one of the greatest intellectual advances of our time,” Lorenz set out to show that statistical long-range weather forecasting did not perform as well as numerical forecasting, and in the process observed “deterministic chaos,” facts that were highlighted by talks from Kerry Emanuel, the MIT Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science and co-director of the Lorenz Center, and Tim Palmer, the Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford.

    Lorenz’s meticulous research found that infinitesimal differences in initial conditions produced dramatically different forecasts. Chaos theory, popularized as the butterfly effect, shifted our thinking away from deterministic numerical weather prediction to more probabilistic forecasts. “History may well record that Ed Lorenz had hammered the last nail into the coffin of the Cartesian universe,” Emanuel said. Despite the fact that the results of Charney and Lorenz’s research were largely opposing, Palmer noted that their work is now seamlessly intertwined for the benefit of science and society.

    Ripples in weather, climate, and beyond earth science

    The symposium, through formal and informal presentations, painted a picture of what meteorology was like under the leadership of Lorenz and Charney, and their influence on other fields of study.

    On the symposium’s first day, alumni, colleagues, friends, and family shared personal stories of encounters with Charney and Lorenz, including anecdotes about lesser known research and affiliations like Charney’s work with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the discovery of chaos and the jetstream, the study of storm surge in Venice, and MIT’s connection with meteorology in Italy. Mankin Mak, alum of Lorenz’s group and Professor Emeritus at the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois, even named the “Charney number” after the scientist. All the while, the camaraderie between the Course XIX alumni and excitement to be back in EAPS was palpable, spilling over into the evening’s dinner and the following day.

    The second part of the symposium opened to the public and focused on the influence of Lorenz and Charney’s research. This included talks on cloud aggregation, hydrology and atmospheric coupling leading to desertification, oceanography and a realistic model of the Gulf Stream, observation of the turbulent cascade in nonlinear systems, CO2-related climate change, chaos in our solar system, fluid dynamics of pathogen transmission, tipping points in population dynamics, and more.

    First-day attendees experienced the extent of the researchers’ work through multimedia. While a slideshow of Lorenz and Charney played, EAPS graduate students Brian Green, Mukund Gupta, Megan Lickley and Santiago Benavides, as well as postdocs Ed Doddridge, Jon Lauderdale, Chris Follett, and Daniel Koll shared posters of their own research during the morning of the symposium’s first day. Two displays were unveiled, which would be hung outside the EAPS Charney Library, across from Charney’s old office on the 14th floor where this groundbreaking work took place, and on the 18th floor. Lab assistant Bill McKenna set up a replica of the LGP-30 computer and printer that Lorenz used for his renowned calculations and showed how it would have been used. Short films from Meg Rosenberg, a producer and editor at MIT Video Productions, and Josh Kastorf, from the Earth Resources Laboratory in EAPS, established timelines of Lorenz and Charney’s life and work at MIT, and explained the origins and implications of chaos theory, respectively.

    Charney had once remarked that a “scientist’s interest in the history of his own field was the first sign of senility,” but Raffaele Ferrari, the EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography and chair of PAOC, believes that revisiting the past can provide valuable lessons for future thinking and research. “For the students, it must have been inspirational and helpful to see where this department comes from,” Ferrari says. “You realize [that] the history of this department is quite impressive … and the people were here that created this field. … There is no other department like that, definitely [not] in meteorology, that has ever achieved that kind of leadership intellectually on every level.”

    By revisiting the group’s history, students could see the evolution of scientific ideas and the values that made the department what it was and that became part of its legacy. In a sentiment echoed by keynote speaker Ernest Moniz, the MIT Cecil and Ida Green Professor Emeritus of Physics and Engineering Systems and special advisor to the MIT President, basic research is the lifeblood of a successful society in the long-term. “[Lorenz and Charney were] thinking about the fundamentals of the problem with students here at MIT,” he said. This practice of fostering curiosity-driven research now underpins the mission of the Lorenz Center: to understand and predict global climate change. “And [that’s] always that you want — to fundamentally understand the problem and then as a result you can make an impact on the real world, on practical applications.”

    EAPS professors Ferrari, Emanuel, John Marshall (event MC), Paola Rizzoli, and Dan Rothman organized the symposium. The event was sponsored by the Henry Houghton Fund and the Lorenz Center within EAPS.

    Those interested in making a contribution to the Lorenz Center Fund, or to support the renovation of the Charney Library, can contact Angela Ellis at 617-253-5796 or via email:

  • Daniel Kammen is a professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley, with parallel appointments in the Energy and Resources Group (which he chairs), the Goldman School of Public Policy, and the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Recently, he gave a talk at MIT examining the current state of clean energy innovation and implementation, both in the U.S. and internationally. Using a combination of analytical and empirical approaches, he discussed the strengths and weaknesses of clean energy efforts on the household, city, and regional levels. The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) followed up with him on these topics.

    Q: Your team has built energy transition models for several countries, including Chile, Nicaragua, China, and India. Can you describe how these models work and how they can inform global climate negotiations like the Paris Accords?

    A: My laboratory has worked with three governments to build open-source models of the current state of their energy systems and possible opportunities for improvement. This model, SWITCH , is an exceptionally high-resolution platform for examining the costs, reliability, and carbon emissions of energy systems as small as Nicaragua’s and as large as China’s. The exciting recent developments in the cost and performance improvements of solar, wind, energy storage, and electric vehicles permit the planning of dramatically decarbonized systems that have a wide range of ancillary benefits: increased reliability, improved air quality, and monetizing energy efficiency, to name just a few. With the Paris Climate Accords placing 80 percent or greater decarbonization targets on all nations’ agendas (sadly, except for the U.S. federal government), the need for an "honest broker" for the costs and operational issues around power systems is key.

    Q: At the end of your talk, you mentioned a carbon footprint calculator that you helped create. How much do individual behaviors matter in addressing climate change?

    A: The carbon footprint, or CoolClimate project, is a visualization and behavioral economics tool that can be used to highlight the impacts of individual decisions at the household, school, and city level. We have used it to support city-city competitions for “California’s coolest city,” to explore the relative impacts of lifetime choices (buying an electric vehicle versus or along with changes of diet), and more.

    Q: You touched on the topic of the “high ambition coalition,” a 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference goal of keeping warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Can you expand on this movement and the carbon negative strategies it would require?

    A: As we look at paths to a sustainable global energy system, efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require not only zeroing out industrial and agricultural emissions, but also removing carbon from the atmosphere. This demands increasing natural carbon sinks by preserving or expanding forests, sustaining ocean systems, and making agriculture climate- and water-smart. One pathway, biomass energy with carbon capture and sequestration, has both supporters and detractors. It involves growing biomass, using it for energy, and then sequestering the emissions.

    This talk was one in a series of MITEI seminars supported by IHS Markit.

September 16, 2017

  • For a few weeks over the summer in 2011, teams of scientists from around the world converged on a small patch of ponderosa pine forest in Colorado to carry out one of the most detailed, extended survey of atmospheric chemistry ever attempted in one place, in many cases using new measurement devices created especially for this project. Now, after years of analysis, their comprehensive synthesis of the findings have been released this week.

    The teams, which included a group from MIT using a newly-developed device to identify and quantify compounds of carbon, reported their combined results in a paper in the journal Nature Geoscience. Jesse Kroll, MIT associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and of chemical engineering, and James Hunter, an MIT technical instructor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering who was a doctoral student in Kroll’s group at the time of the research, were senior author and lead author, respectively, of the 24 contributors to the report. Associate Professor Colette Heald of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences was also a co-author.

    The organic (carbon-containing) compounds they studied in that patch of Colorado forest play a key role in atmospheric chemical processes that can affect air quality, the health of the ecosystem, and the climate itself. Yet many of these processes remain poorly understood in their real-world complexity, and they had never been so rigorously sampled, studied, and quantified in one place before.

    “The goal was trying to understand the chemistry associated with organic particulate matter in a forested environment,” Kroll explains. “The various groups took a lot of different measurements using state-of-the-art instruments we each had developed.” In doing so, they were able to fill in significant gaps in the inventory of organic compounds in the atmosphere, finding that about a third of them were in the form of previously unmeasured semi-volatile and intermediate-volatility organic compounds (SVOCs and IVOCs).

    “We’ve long suspected there were gaps in our measurements of carbon in the atmosphere,” Kroll says. “There seemed to be more aerosols than we can explain by measuring their precursors.”

    The MIT team, as well as some of the other research groups, developed instruments that specifically targeted these hard-to-measure compounds, which Kroll describes as “still in the gas phase, but sticky.” Their stickiness makes it hard to get them through an inlet into a measuring device, but these compounds may play a significant role in the formation and alteration of aerosols, tiny airborne particles that can contribute to smog or to the nucleation of raindrops or ice crystals, affecting the Earth’s climate.

    “Some of these instruments were used for the first time in this campaign,” Kroll says. When analyzing the results, which provided unprecedented measurements of the SVOCs and IVOCs, “we realized we had this data set that provided much more information on organic compounds than we ever had before. By bringing the data from all these instruments together into one combined dataset, we were able to describe the organic compounds in the atmosphere in a more comprehensive way than had ever been possible, to figure out what’s really going on.”

    It’s a more complicated challenge than it might seem, the researchers point out. A very large number of different organic compounds are constantly being emitted by trees and other vegetation, which vary in their chemical composition, their physical properties, and their ability to react chemically with other compounds. As soon as they enter the air many of the compounds begin to oxidize, which exponentially increases their number and diversity.

    The collaborative campaign to characterize the quantities and reactions of these different compounds took place in a section of the Manitou Experimental Forest Observatory in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Five different instruments were used to collect the data on organic compounds, and three of those had never been used before.

    Despite the progress, much remains to be done, the researchers say. While the field measurements provided a detailed profile of the amounts of different compounds over time, it could not identify the specific reactions and pathways that were transforming one set of compounds to another. That kind of analysis requires the direct study of the reactions in a controlled laboratory setting, and that kind of work is ongoing, in Kroll’s MIT lab and elsewhere.

    Filling in all these details will make it possible to refine the accuracy of atmospheric models and help to assess such things as strategies to mitigate specific air pollution issues, from ozone to particulate matter, or to assess the sources and removal mechanisms of atmospheric components that affect Earth’s climate.

    The measurement team included researchers from the University of Colorado, the California Air Resources Board, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Toronto, the University of Innsbruck in Austria, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Edmund Mach Foundation in Italy, Harvard University, the University of Montreal, Aerodyne Research, Carnegie-Mellon University, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of Washington. The work was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

September 13, 2017

  • When the Mactaquac Dam opened in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1968, it was expected to have a service life of 100 years, but a chemical reaction occurring within the concrete used to build the dam has drastically shortened that timeline.

    “Concrete is a mix of cement, crushed rock, sand, and water. Alkali-silica reaction, the cause of the major issues in New Brunswick, occurs when alkalis in the cement pore solution encounter reactive forms of silica in the rock used to make the concrete,” explains Jeremy Gregory, executive director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub). “The reaction produces a gel which expands as it absorbs water and exerts pressure that can cause cracking and result in structural problems in concrete infrastructure.”

    Researchers from the CSHub, the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Oregon State University (OSU) have teamed up on a project to address several concrete durability issues, including alkali-silica reaction (ASR). Researchers at UNB are conducting ASR experiments, while OSU researchers are leading work on another durability issue known as freeze-thaw. Most of the project’s computational work is done at MIT, along with some experimental measurements.

    “Our research collaboration looks at understanding ASR from fundamental building blocks,” explains Thomas Petersen, a grad student in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and research assistant with the CSHub. “Starting from an atomistic description, we wish to understand the mechanisms leading to the expansion of the bulk concrete composite. Is the gel expanding? Is the CSH [calcium-silicate-hydrate] expanding? We are looking to answer these questions by understanding the molecular configurations of the materials.”

    The team visited Mactaquac during a meeting in August. Petersen says the visit offered a great opportunity to learn about the potential impact of the team's research on infrastructure systems. CSHub postdoc Laurent Béland agrees, noting that observing the “crazy expansion” at Mactaquac in person rather than in pictures, made the sometimes-abstract ideas he explores, more, well … concrete.

    “Seeing the impacts of ASR on a structure that large, in person, makes you realize how big this problem is; not only is this major dam supplying electricity, it’s making sure a pretty big city won’t be flooded,” says Béland. “As an atomistic simulation expert, I’m coming at this from one perspective. Working with people to be able to absorb what this is all about, you see the research impact scaled up.”

    The Mactaquac Dam has swelled some 9 to 12 inches in height since it was constructed 50 years ago. Cracking is visible throughout the structure, but the issues extend well beyond the concrete.

    “There are gates that no longer close — there’s a seven- or eight-inch gap,” says Béland. “There are also places where engineers have had to cut through the dam to relieve pressure and, for obvious reasons, you’d prefer that dams not have to be cut into.”

    Additionally, the dam’s turbines, which are used to generate hydroelectric power, need to periodic adjustments to prevent contact with the blades, and the steel beams and columns that help house the turbines and shafts must also be occasionally readjusted to maintain stability. Engineers are working to keep the dam in operation through the end of its intended service life, roughly the year 2068. These efforts are costly. Petersen notes, “A full-time engineering unit and $8 million per year are needed to maintain the dam and ensure its health into the future.”

    The civil engineers and cities planners who built the Mactaquac Dam did test the aggregate for susceptibility to the alkali-silica reaction, however they did not test under conditions that well represented the conditions of the dam. The industry is still seeking fast, reliable testing methods for ASR that take such factors into account, something the CSHub-UNB-OSU durability project hopes to achieve.

    “The benefit of working on applied topics is that the consequences of diligent and informed engineering practices is vividly portrayed in our everyday life," says Petersen. “By advancing our modeling techniques and testing procedures, mistakes in the design of the Mactaquac dam can be avoided in the future.”

    CSHub researchers Alice Dufresne, Thibaut Divoux, and Michael Heist recently published research briefs relating to the team’s ASR work. The publications, entitled "Atomistic Modeling of ASR Gel" and "Mechanical Properties of Alkali Silica gels, "are available on the CSHub website.

September 9, 2017

  • Dispersal of mercury into the air has risen substantially since the industrial revolution, leading to increased mercury deposits in water and soil. Once there, it gets transformed by bacteria into methylmercury, a highly toxic form of the naturally-occurring heavy metal that can affect neurological and immune systems. Stored in the tissues of wildlife and humans, methylmercury concentrations are magnified with each step up the food chain. The mercury levels of a large predator fish such as trout, for example, may be more than one million times that of ambient water, potentially causing serious health consequences for human and wildlife consumers.

    Much of the mercury pollution attributable to human activity is produced by coal-fired power plants and small-scale gold mining, with communities dependent on fishing and mining being among the hardest hit. In recent years, rising concerns about adverse consequences of mercury emissions have led to a number of new emissions-reduction policies. But just how effective are these policies?

    For the past six years, MIT Joint Program research assistant Amanda Giang has been working to assess the environmental, public health, and economic impacts of mercury pollution and the efficacy of policies designed to reduce them. Toward that end, she has taken both a qualitative and quantitative approach. Drawing on input from stakeholders ranging from citizens in affected communities to domestic regulators and international negotiators, Giang has developed integrated assessment models that trace the path of mercury from emissions sources to polluted watersheds to impacted consumers. Using those models, she has estimated the amounts of future mercury emissions that various policies would likely avoid, and the environmental, health, and economic gains that would result.

    Her ultimate goal is to use the models’ projections — and efforts to account for uncertainty in the data upon which they’re based — to empower local, regional, and global decision makers to design and monitor better policies to minimize impacts of mercury and other long-range, persistent pollutants.

    Assessing effectiveness of mercury mitigation policies

    With her goal in mind, Giang — who completed all requirements for a PhD in the Technology and Policy Program of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) in May — has combined tools from atmospheric sciences, environmental and health economics, and other disciplines to advance a case study of global and regional mercury policy.

    Her most salient findings appear in a paper co-authored by her advisor, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences Associate Professor Noelle E. Selin in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper evaluates benefits to the U.S. of the United Nations Minimata Convention on Mercury, a global environmental treaty initiated in 2013 to significantly reduce mercury emissions. In collaboration with Selin, Giang developed an integrated framework that models chemical transport in the atmosphere; mercury exposure and health impacts; and economic impacts of the global Minimata Convention as well as of the domestic Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS), which targets emissions from U.S. coal-fired power plants. The framework projected that by 2050, the U.S. is likely to benefit more than twice as much from the global policy than it will from the domestic policy, with one exception: MATS produces larger benefits for subsistence populations that depend on locally caught freshwater fish for much of their diet.

    Giang cautions that the paper’s results, while providing a good handle on the impact of mercury emissions reduction policy, come with a fair degree of uncertainty. Sources of that uncertainty include how mercury-emissions policy will be implemented, the priorities of local stakeholders, how quickly emissions control technology will advance and clean energy technologies will be adopted, and where the global and regional climate are heading. These sources of uncertainty pose significant challenges for policy design, monitoring, and evaluation.

    For her PhD dissertation, Giang worked to characterize and quantify different aspects of the uncertainty involved in mercury policymaking, with a focus on the Great Lakes region. Consulting with local stakeholders, she developed models to evaluate the environmental, public health, and economic impact of anthropogenic mercury emissions in the region, and the efficacy of regional and global policies designed to curb those emissions.

    “This work comes at a critical time for mercury policy development, where decision makers need to figure out how to determine if policies are working,” Giang says. “The struggle isn’t just to get policy made but to make sure it’s effective at achieving its intended environmental and health goals. The Joint Program has been a great place to meet the latter challenge.”

    A passion for environmental health and justice

    Giang was exposed to environmental issues early in life (her elementary school song focused on sustainability), but by the time she became a freshman at the University of Toronto, her primary focus was on human health and ways to treat disease. It was as a biomedical engineering major that she found a way to combine these interests. Her first research experience, which involved the study of environmental contaminants, led her to shift her focus from disease treatment to prevention, and pay more attention to the environmental and social determinants of health. Meanwhile, courses in engineering and society impelled her to consider how environmental science could be used to empower communities to make better decisions about public health.

    As she reached her senior year, Giang saw the MIT Technology and Policy Program as an ideal venue to explore how science-based policy can be designed to systematically protect environmental health and ensure environmental justice. Collaborating with Selin on mercury pollution policy studies provided the opportunity to address both concerns.

    “Amanda’s research has given us a better, more detailed understanding of the links between policy decision making and mercury pollution,” Selin says. “In her work, she has been able to connect complex regulatory proposals to mercury emissions and transport, projecting impacts to communities. A unique aspect of her research has been her ability to mobilize methods from social science and engineering research to answer these questions. This research has been influential in helping policymakers to better understand the impacts and economic benefits of mercury regulations; for example, it has been cited by the EPA and in testimony before Congress.”

    Giang’s research has also garnered numerous accolades, including the 2015 and 2016 Best Environmental Policy Paper awards for the journal Environmental Science and Technology, and best paper awards last year at both the Technology Management Policy Graduate Consortium in Cambridge, England, and the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

    Buoyed by her success at MIT, Giang plans to continue tackling environmental policy challenges for the foreseeable future. Her next step is to serve as a postdoc in Selin’s group and as a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Program on Science, Technology and Society. In January she will begin work as an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

    “My hope is to continue exploring questions of policymaking under uncertainty, and how communities can be more involved in policy design and evaluation,” she says. “Thinking about how we proceed in the face of uncertainty involves not only a deep understanding of natural and social systems, but also value judgments, and so it’s important to include both expert analysis and public deliberation.”

    Giang’s research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the MIT Martin Family Society of Fellows for Sustainability program.

    This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Global Changes, a biannual publication of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. 

  • Two months ago, with great anticipation, Dora Aldama ’11 boarded for her first time a 787 Dreamliner plane, headed from Los Angeles to Shanghai. To a typical passenger, the twin-engine jet airliner might have looked like a standard hefty commercial airplane, but to Aldama, it represented a feat of engineering and an exciting glimpse into her immediate future. The 787 was the same model she would be working on for the next six months as part of her research internship to improve Boeing’s production line.

    “I was just so excited to be in this plane,” says Aldama, a graduate student in MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program. “I was checking it out — what’s great, not so great. It was a very different experience.”

    At Boeing, Aldama will be incorporating her lessons from her first year as an LGO student to optimize the final assembly line while researching how best to increase the speed of each 787’s assembly. She’ll also be recording the tail number of every Dreamliner that she’ll help produce; if she ever finds herself boarding another one, she plans to look for its ID to see if she is flying in a plane she helped develop.

    Aldama was an aeronautical and astronautical engineering major as an undergraduate at MIT before working for five years on oil systems of jet engines as an aerospace engineer for Pratt and Whitney, an American aerospace manufacturer. Now, she seeks to understand the big-picture logistics behind the production of aerospace technology including rockets and airplanes.

    Aldama decided to return to MIT and join the LGO program for a dual masters in mechanical engineering and business administration because she felt that she could handle technical engineering problems but was less adept at addressing the time-consuming challenges of an operational problem.

    For example, as an engineer, when she wanted to replace a part in a jet engine, she could determine the dimensions, pressure characteristics, and physical model, but the part would need manufacturing, transporting, and quality-checking by many other people before final installment within the engine. Aldama says that can take a lot of time and money, and can zap an engineer’s satisfaction in seeing their design come to fruition.

    “It’s frustrating when you try to build really cool planes and rockets, but it can be painfully slow,” she says. “I’m drawn to those multidimensional problems — to look at it from a technical standpoint, a business standpoint, and human standpoint. All of those dimensions have to work together.”

    Factoring in sustainability

    In her first year as a graduate student, Aldama has also tapped into connections between technology, and business, and the environment by working as a student fellow with MIT’s Office of Sustainability. Acting as a liaison between MIT’s Office of Sustainability and its Office of Procurement, Aldama is researching sustainable procurement practices across academia and industry, and working on ways to incorporate new sustainable practices within MIT’s procurement process. Her interest in sustainability grew out of observations she made while working as an aerospace engineer.

    “Right now, we judge [business success] on financial metrics and growth,” Aldama says. “When we’re trying to get something to fly, we’re not worried about how much we’re wasting beyond the direct use of the product. When we’re all very narrowly focused on a problem, we’re not seeing how our actions are impacting someone else — generating waste, carbon emissions, using up energy — this has rebound effects in other places.”

    Aldama believes thoughts about sustainability should be part of everyday decision making, and says that such a framework has broadened her perspective during each of her projects. In a first semester engineering course, for example, she addressed the logistics of developing a device to help Malaysian workers collect palm oil. Aldama’s team came up with a device that works somewhat like a rolling tennis ball hopper. It was a simple and efficient tool for workers whose livelihood depends on palm oil, to help them avoid compromising their physical health when they constantly hunch over to gather palm oil fruits.

    Although the project’s goal was to design and deploy a device for palm oil harvesting, it wasn’t lost on Aldama that the palm oil industry is notoriously controversial for its role in deforestation and habitat degradation.

    “So you start to get into grey areas,” Aldama said. “I’m making a product that needs to be low-tech, easily maintainable, light, and safe for the people that are using it. It will reduce waste, and improve worker safety and welfare, but, on the other hand, the palm oil industry has a reputation as a pretty destructive environmental force that clears land.”

    Aldama sees an underlying need in many sectors to change how business is conducted. Any decision, whether made from an engineering or financial perspective, should include environmental and social impacts, she says.

    “[Sustainability] can’t be an afterthought. It has to be integrated early on in decisions,” Aldama says. “Because once things are in place, it’s hard to make changes.”

    Attracted to complex problems

    Aldama’s drive to address multidimensional problems may have started at a young age. Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Aldama remembers cornering herself off at home and working to expand small Lego and K’nex sets so that she could comfortably fit her Barbie dolls into bigger and better toy houses, rollercoasters, and Ferris wheels.

    Her father, a chemical engineer from Mexico City, would always tell her “education is freedom.” In high school, she enjoyed literature, math, and science, and was active on the yearbook committee. At an engineering camp between her junior and senior year of high school, she immediately fell in love with aerospace engineering after attending a lecture on satellites.

    With encouragement from her parents, Aldama left what she describes as a Friday-Night-Lights-esque community in Texas to study at MIT. Today, she sees herself at the threshold of solving operational and systemic problems in aerospace, including making the industry more sustainable. She understands the difficulty of the task but says it only makes the challenge more appealing.

    “Having a good, complex problem to work on,” Aldama says, “is the best thing that could happen to me.”

  • Metals and minerals form the base of our society, with diverse applications infiltrating all corners of our lives, including agriculture, infrastructure, transportation and information technology. As populations grow, and demand for metals and minerals rises, enhancing the sustainability of the sector is a goal for many companies, communities and policymakers.

    To contribute to this, on May 11-12, MIT launched the Metals and Minerals for the Environment (MME) initiative with its first public symposium. MIT has long been home to research on myriad aspects of metals and minerals, and the MME Symposium serves to crystallize these efforts around the unique environmental and social challenges the sector faces.

    Funded by the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, with additional support from the Industrial Liaison Program, the MME Symposium hosted industry professionals involved in sustainability, engineering, R&D, and other related topics. The event featured presentations from MIT faculty and industry experts, as well a glimpse into current research with a tour of MIT laboratories and a student-led poster session.

    MME’s principal investigator, MIT assistant professor of metallurgy Antoine Allanore, introduced his research around metal extraction by electrolysis, which shows great promise for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing productivity. Co-principal investigator T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering, explained his innovations in carbon capture and waste separations, providing another angle for decreasing the industry’s environmental impacts.

    Other speakers suggested additional angles for achieving sustainability goals, such as Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor Matthew Amengual’s work on the impact of mining on local communities, and professor of biological engineering Bevin P. Engelward’s research on the health impacts of metals. Assistant professor of materials science and engineering Elsa A. Olivetti discussed the potential for higher use of recycled materials and waste byproducts, while John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry Donald R. Sadoway showed the future of renewable energy battery storage, highly relevant for the remote locations of many mines. Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma closed out the symposium, providing a vision of how the internet of things can be applied within the metals and minerals sector to monitor safety and increase efficiency.

    “This Symposium provided a unique opportunity for MIT researchers to hear directly from the industry what their concerns are, where technologies might be deployed, and what is preventing industry from adopting some sustainability upgrades,” MME program manager Suzanne Greene says.

    Allanore hopes that the event will culminate in a raised awareness of work at MIT that could be of immediate use to the industry, and of larger innovations under development that could serve as disruptive technologies to modernize the industry.

  • The big winner at this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition aims to drastically accelerate artificial-intelligence computations — to light speed.

    Devices such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, as well as self-driving cars, all rely on artificial intelligence algorithms. But the chips powering these innovations, which use electrical signals to do computations, could be much faster and more efficient.

    That’s according to MIT team Lightmatter, which took home the $100,000 Robert P. Goldberg grand prize from last night’s competition for developing fully optical chips that compute using light, meaning they work many times faster — using much less energy — than traditional electronics-based chips. These new chips could be used to power faster, more efficient, and more advanced artificial-intelligence devices.

    “Artificial intelligence has affected or will affect all industries,” said Nick Harris, an MIT PhD student, during the team’s winning pitch to a capacity crowd in the Kresge Auditorium. “We’re bringing the next step of artificial intelligence to light.”

    Two other winners took home cash prizes from the annual competition, now in its 28th year. Winning a $5,000 Audience Choice award was change:WATER Labs, a team of MIT researchers and others making toilets that can condense waste into smaller bulk for easier transport in areas where people live without indoor plumbing. PipeGuard, an MIT team developing a sensor that can be sent through water pipes to detect leaks, won a $10,000 Booz Allen Hamilton data prize.

    The competition is run by MIT students and supported by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

    Computing at light speed

    Founded out of MIT, Lightmatter has developed a new optical chip architecture that could in principle speed up artificial-intelligence computations by orders of magnitude.

    In artificial intelligence, traditional chips rely on electrical signals that conduct millions of calculations using transistors (switches) to simulate a neural network that can produce an output. Lightmatter’s chip uses a completely different architecture that is more similar to the architecture of a real biological neural network. In addition, it uses light, instead of electrons, as a medium to carry the information during computing.

    The team has already built a prototype to carry out some simple speech recognition tasks.

    The chips could be used by companies to develop faster and more sophisticated artificial-intelligence models. Consumers could see, for instance, smarter models of Alexa or Siri, or autonomous cars that compute faster, using less energy.

    With the prize money, the team will travel to meet with potential customers, rent its first office space, and visit manufacturers. The competition also helped the team develop a detailed business plan, Harris told MIT News. “Our business plan was passed around to quite a number of judges before we were even vetted to get in here,” he said. “We were able to iterate on our understanding of how this thing is going to work, who we’re going to sell it to, how much money we’re going to make, and all the details of a business. Before this, we weren’t really there.”

    Detecting leaks, shrinking waste

    In PipeGuard’s pitch, Jonathan Miller, an integrated design and management student, and You Wu, a mechanical engineering PhD student, showcased Robot Daisy, a palm-sized bot wearing a sensor “skirt.” A worker puts the device into one end of a water pipe and collects it at another end. If Daisy passes a leak while flowing through the pipe, the small amount of pressure pulls on robot’s “skirt,” collecting data on the size of the leak. Data from Daisy is used to pinpoint leaks within a couple of feet. Traditional methods give only a general area of a potential leak.

    “Moreover, Daisy can detect leaks too small for current technology,” Wu said. “We can find leaks when they’re really small, in their early stages, way before a pipe bursts.” Using that information, the team can predict which pipes will burst, and when.

    Diana Yousef, a research associate at D-Lab, and Huda Elasaad, a technical research assistant in D-Lab and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, pitched for change:Water Labs, which is developing a portable toilet that shrinks waste for easier removal.

    Water makes up the bulk of human waste. The team’s toilet collects solid and liquid waste in a small pouch made of a novel membrane. The membrane passively, rapidly vaporizes 95 percent of the waste’s liquid, releasing pure water vapor. This can be used in the many parts of the world that have off-line sewerage, meaning people lack access to indoor plumbing and rely on expensive sewerage removal.

    “While all off-line sewerage requires collection and removal, this is usually frequent and costly. But by so drastically shrinking on-site sewerage volumes on a day-to-day basis, our toilets cut those costs in half and allow for unprecedented scalability,” Yousef said. About 40 cents worth of the material can cut waste of 20 people, according to the team.

    The $100K Entrepreneurship Competition consists of three independent contests: Pitch, held in February; Accelerate, held in March; and the Launch grand finale, held last night. Winner of the Pitch competition was High Q Imaging, which reduces the cost of MRI machines by 10 times with advanced algorithms and innovative hardware. The Accelerate contest winner was NeuroSleeve, a team developing an arm brace that detects carpal tunnel syndrome in its early stages, which also competed last night.

    Last night’s other competing teams were: Rendever, NeuroMesh, Legionarius, and CareMobile Transportation.

    The $100K impact

    Since its 1990 debut, the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition has facilitated the birth of more than 160 companies, which have gone on to raise $1.3 billion in venture capital and build $16 billion in market capitalization. More than 30 of the startups have been acquired by major companies, such as Oracle and Merck, and more 4,600 people are currently employed by former competing companies.

    This year, 200 teams applied to the entrepreneurship competition. That number was winnowed to 50 semifinalist teams for the Launch contest. Judges then chose eight finalists to compete in Wednesday’s grand finale event. Semifinalist teams receive mentoring, prototyping funds, media exposure, and discounted services.

    In his welcoming remarks, Bar Kafri, an MBA student and managing director of the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, who has been involved with the competition for many years, told the teams to embrace the process of competing because it walks them through all the intricacies of starting a company.

    Noting that people often ask why he always gets involved with the competition, Kafri said, “It’s the same [reason] that brought me all the way from Israel to MIT. This Institution is a shining light of innovation, a light that guides science and humanity in a sea of uncertainty. The $100K competition is the lighthouse that helps carry this light high above and enables it to be seen from afar. I have the privilege of being the lighthouse keeper, fostering this light.” He added: “Keep shining this light.”

    Keynote speaker was Jason Jacobs, founder and CEO of Runkeeper, a popular fitness app that sold to Japanese sportswear giant Asics in 2016.

  • The first annual Statistics and Data Science Center Day (SDSCon) at MIT highlighted a variety of research projects, including efforts to better understand gene editing, climate change, microcredit programs, international trade, and recommendation systems. The common thread of all of these diverse research areas is that researchers can use statistics and data science to learn about and accurately model different systems — leading to insights into how the systems work, as well as the ability to make better-informed decisions and policies.

    SDSCon 2017 was hosted by the Statistics and Data Science Center (SDSC), which is part of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. The April 21 conference was the first of what will be an annual celebration of statistics and data science, bringing together a growing community at MIT and beyond.

    The day featured several short talks by SDSC faculty, three longer presentations by experts from outside of MIT, a brief industry session, and a graduate student poster session. Videos of all talks are available online.

    SDSC brings together Institute-wide efforts and expertise in the areas of statistics and data science, facilitating both academics and research. New academic programs include an undergraduate minor in statistics and data science launched last fall and a PhD program that is still in the planning stages.

    Devavrat Shah, SDSC director and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, noted the interdependence of the academic and research components of SDSC. “As we know, a good education cannot happen without good research activities,” he said.

    Shah described SDSC as providing “a wide and common umbrella for people across the campus to come together and … make progress and learn from each other.” The major challenges addressed by SDSC researchers often involve both people and data, and their research often looks at questions of how to analyze data and how to use it to inform decisions. Shah also addressed some different perceptions of statistics, as well as how the field is shifting and evolving.

    “It’s important to understand and remember and celebrate classical statistics,” he said. “But it’s also important to expand our horizons by bringing things like computation as a foundational topic.”

    Michael Steele, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed the effectiveness of decision-making algorithms in relation to the St. Petersburg paradox, a concept that explores the challenge of determining and making decisions based on expected reward. He highlighted some new theoretical work that is attempting to explain some of the strategies that might allow decision-making algorithms to work well despite this challenge.

    Jennifer Listgarten, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research New England spoke about data science challenges in the area of genetics, which she described as “a truly data-driven science.” Listgarten focused primarily on the gene-editing system CRISPR.

    Harvard Kennedy School Professor James Stock talked about statistical analysis of climate change, especially in the context of clearly communicating climate change research and models to policymakers. He noted that although climate change might seem to be a “data-rich challenge,” the reality is still that the data are from only one “experiment” — the increasing temperatures of the Earth. He also presented some of the different types of climate change data available and some insights they might provide.

  • A coating that increases the shelf life of produce, a spray that reduces pesticide pollution, and software that optimizes farming operations were the big winners at the second annual Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize competition.

    At last night’s event, seven finalist startups and teams from MIT and other universities pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges, for a chance to win prizes totaling $25,000. The pitches addressed some of today’s most pressing issues in the food and agriculture industries.

    A first-place prize of $12,000 went to Cambridge Crops, which is developing a silk-based coating that extends the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by up to 50 percent. Winning second place for $8,000 was Ecospray, which is developing a spray that helps farmers drastically cut pesticide usage, lowering costs and reducing pollution. The third-place $5,000 prize was awarded to WISRAN, which improves profits for farmers with software that analyzes, in real-time, the time, cost, and effectiveness of farming activities.

    The competition was sponsored by Rabobank — one of the largest banks in the world that caters specifically to food and agribusiness clients — and supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) and the MIT Food and Agriculture Club.

    In his welcoming remarks, J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard V, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food at MIT, said the competition represents a major goal of J-WAFS: nurturing food and agribusiness startups. This is especially important, he said, with the global population projected to reach 10 billion people by 2050, a scenario in which many people will lack regular access to water and food.

    “We firmly believe the solution to many of these problems really is to create entities that will go out on their own, as businesses, and propagate new and good ideas,” he told a capacity crowd of attendees in the Samberg Conference Center.

    Top prizes

    MIT-Tufts University team Cambridge Crops developed a coating that’s 99 percent water and 1 percent silk fibroin — a protein similar to that found in the gland of a caterpillar. Soon after the coating is applied to crops, the water evaporates, leaving a flavorless, edible silk film. That film reduces cell respiration and water evaporation, which can drastically slow ripening and spoiling of produce.

    The technology is based on research at Tufts University by Benedetto Marelli, now the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Marelli and other Tufts researchers published a paper in Nature last year showing that the coating can extend by 50 percent the shelf-life of strawberries, which generally have a shelf-life of less than 10 days.

    “We have technology that can dramatically reduce waste at every step of the value chain, for producers, distributors, and consumers,” said team member Jacques-Henry Grislain MBA ’16, during the team’s winning pitch.

    After receiving a big check by competition organizers, Grislain told MIT News that the prize money will help fund the team’s ongoing experiments that aim to ensure the coating is commercially viable. Other commercial technologies, such as controlled atmosphere storage, are now being used to slow food spoilage, he said: “But we want to make sure we have the best and most efficient solution on the market.”

    In delivering MIT team Ecospray’s pitch, Maher Damak, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, said only about 2 percent of pesticides sprayed on plants stick, while the rest bounces off and flows into streams and rivers, causing pollution. About 200,000 people worldwide die from pesticide poisoning annually, according to recent reports from the United Nations. Farmers spend roughly $100 billion on pesticides annually.

    “Our mission is to eliminate all pesticide waste, while saving growers tens of billions of dollars per year,” Damak said.

    Because plants are hydrophobic (water-repelling), liquid pesticide droplets tend to bounce off the surface. For four years, Damak, associate professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi, and other MIT researchers developed a spray that applies two different additives to a pesticide — one produces a negatively charged droplet; the other, a positively charge droplet. When the two oppositely charged droplets meet on a plant, they form hydrophilic (water-attracting) bumps that catch the droplets. This retains 10 times more liquid, meaning only one-tenth the amount of pesticide needs to be used to have the same effect. The spray’s efficacy was detailed in a 2016 paper co-authored by Damak, Varanasi, and other MIT researchers and published in Nature Communications.

    Third-place winner WISRAN uses a system of cloud-connected sensors to monitor, in real-time, the efficiency of various types of farming equipment. Data collected from the sensors are uploaded to a cloud platform, where machine-learning algorithms analyze the data to provide financial metrics of labor and equipment. A farmer could, say, tag a tractor to determine the wasted, idle, and productive time of the vehicle, or monitor leakage of watering equipment. The system also analyzes the total costs of managing machinery, paying labor, and loading up on gas. With those insights, according to the team, farmers can boost profits by 10 to 30 percent.

    “We are a company that identifies hidden inefficiencies in agriculture, so growers can increase their profits,” said team member Arsalan Lodhi, a graduate of New York University who has worked in the tech industry for more than a decade.

    The other finalist teams were: Preserve-air, which designed an inflatable temporary storage room that reduces the effects of the sun on crops at select times; Rooted, which makes snack bars made of algae, a sustainable and nutritious alternative to animal protein; AquaOne Technologies, which develops novel water desalination technology that stops salty water from damaging the nutrient content of crops; and Foodfully, an app that links with grocery store loyalty cards and scans receipts to notify users before food goes bad, and to provide recipes and waste-reduction tips.

    Getting ideas off the ground

    This year, there were 28 submissions for the competition, which started last November. In January, judges selected the seven finalist teams, which were paired with mentors that helped develop business plans and pitches. Teams are not limited to MIT affiliates.

    The competition is unique on campus and at MIT’s peer institutions, as it focuses specifically on supporting food and agribusiness startups, said Samantha Fahrbach, an MIT Sloan School of Management student and president of the Food and Agriculture Club. “It’s about bringing ideas to a place where they can get off the ground, and also solidifying MIT as a place where food and agriculture innovation happens,” she said.

    While not every team can take home prize money, Fahrbach added, teams earn an important networking opportunity and “take away experience and insight into what it takes to pitch for funding, and really develop the idea from the initial stage into a fully fledged business plan that you can explain and convince people will be successful.”

    Keynote speaker was Sam Schatz, managing director of corporate development at AeroFarms, a startup building vertical farms — stacked shelves of crops that can rise 40 feet — in warehouses in urban areas. Prompted by Fahrbach to offer advice to the competing teams, Schatz told the teams that the hard work has just begun.

    “As much work as you’ve put in, the work starts once you get funding,” he said. “All those issues you had in raising the funding are going to be amplified once you have it. You’re always in fundraising mode, so keep that [fundraising] hat on.”