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    Ozone-depleting chemicals may spend less time in the atmosphere than previously thought

    MIT scientists have found that ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, stay in the atmosphere for a shorter amount of time than previously estimated. Their study suggests that CFCs, which were globally phased out in 2010, should be circulating at much lower concentrations than what has recently been measured.

    The new results, published today in Nature Communications, imply that new, illegal production of CFCs has likely occurred in recent years. Specifically, the analysis points to new emissions of CFC-11, CFC-12, and CFC-113. These emissions would be in violation of the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty designed to phase out the production and consumption of CFCs and other ozone-damaging chemicals.

    The current study’s estimates of new global CFC-11 emissions is higher than what previous studies report. This is also the first study to quantify new global emissions of CFC-12 and CFC-113.

    “We find total emissions coming from new production is on the order of 20 gigagrams a year for each of these molecules,” says lead author Megan Lickley, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. “This is higher than what previous scientists suggested for CFC-11, and also identifies likely new emissions of CFC-12 and 113, which previously had been overlooked. Because CFCs are such potent greenhouse gases and destroy the ozone layer, this work has important implications for the health of our planet.”

    The study’s co-authors include Sarah Fletcher at Stanford University, Matt Rigby at the University of Bristol, and Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

    Banking on lifetimes

    Prior to their global phaseout, CFCs were widely used in the manufacturing of refrigerants, aerosol sprays, chemical solvents, and building insulation. When they are emitted into the atmosphere, the chemicals can loft to the stratosphere, where they interact with ultraviolet light to release chlorine atoms, the potent agents that erode the Earth’s protective ozone.

    Today, CFCs are mostly emitted by “banks” — old refrigerators, air conditioners, and insulation that were manufactured before the chemical ban and have since been slowly leaking CFCs into the atmosphere. In a study published last year, Lickley and her colleagues calculated the amount of CFCs still remaining in banks today.

    They did so by developing a model that analyzes industry production of CFCs over time, and how quickly various equipment types release CFCs over time, to estimate the amount of CFCs stored in banks. They then incorporated current recommended values for the chemicals’ lifetimes to calculate the concentrations of bank-derived CFCs that should be in the atmosphere over time. Subtracting these bank emissions from total global emissions should yield any unexpected, illegal CFC production. In their new paper, the researchers looked to improve the estimates of CFC lifetimes.

    “Current best estimates of atmospheric lifetimes have large uncertainties,” Lickley says. “This implies that global emissions also have large uncertainties. To refine our estimates of global emissions, we need a better estimate of atmospheric lifetimes.”

    Updated spike

    Rather than consider the lifetimes and emissions of each gas separately, as most models do, the team looked at CFC-11, 12, and 113 together, in order to account for similar atmospheric processes that influence their lifetimes (such as winds). These processes have been modeled by seven different chemistry-climate models, each of which provides an estimate of the gas’ atmospheric lifetime over time.

    “We begin by assuming the models are all equally likely,” Lickley says. “Then we update how likely each of these models are, based on how well they match observations of CFC concentrations taken from 1979 to 2016.”

    After including these chemistry-climate modeled lifetimes into a Bayesian simulation model of production and emissions, the team was able to reduce the uncertainty in their lifetime estimates. They calculated the lifetimes for CFC-11, 12, and 113 to be 49 years, 85 years, and 80 years, respectively, compared with current best values of 52, 100, and 85 years.

    “Because our estimates are shorter than current best-recommended values, this implies emissions are likely higher than what best estimates have been,” Lickley says.

    To test this idea, the team looked at how the shorter CFC lifetimes would affect estimates of unexpected emissions, particularly between 2014 and 2016. During this period, researchers previously identified a spike in CFC-11 emissions and subsequently traced half of these emissions to eastern China. Scientists have since observed an emissions decrease from this region, indicating that any illegal production there has stopped, though the source of the remaining unexpected emissions is still unknown.

    When Lickley and her colleagues updated their estimates of CFC bank emissions and compared them with total global emissions for this three-year period, they found evidence for new, unexpected emissions on the order of 20 gigagrams, or 20 billion grams, for each chemical.

    The results suggest that during this period, there was new, illegal production of CFC-11 that was higher than previous estimates, in addition to new production of CFC-12 and 113, which had not been seen before. Together, Lickley estimates that these new CFC emissions are equivalent to the total yearly greenhouse gas emissions emitted by the United Kingdom.

    It’s not entirely surprising to find unexpected emissions of CFC-12, as the chemical is often co-produced in manufacturing processes that emit CFC-11. For CFC-113, the chemical’s use is permitted under the Montreal Protocol as a feedstock to make other chemicals. But the team calculates that unexpected emissions of CFC-113 are about 10 times higher than what the treaty currently allows.

    “With all three gases, emissions are much lower than what they were at their peak,” Lickley says. “But they’re very potent greenhouse gases. Pound for pound, they’re five to 10,000 times more of a global warming chemical than carbon dioxide. And we’re currently facing a climate crisis where every source of emission that we can reduce will have a lasting impact on the climate system. By targeting these CFCs, we would essentially be reducing some contribution to climate change.”

    This research was supported in part by VoLo Foundation. More

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    Ice melts on US-Sudan relations, providing new opportunities

    It was over 27 years in the making. When the White House removed Sudan from the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list in December 2020, ZAHARA for Education was ready.

    ZAHARA was founded by MIT technology and policy master’s student Ilham Ali and Harvard University alumna Sahar Omer to expand educational opportunities between Sudan and the United States. Earlier this year, the organization partnered with MIT-Africa, an MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program, to launch the first-ever Global Teaching Labs (GTL) workshop for young leaders in Sudan. GTL is a long-running MISTI program that places over 300 students per year as teachers in high schools around the world.

    “ZAHARA approached the MIT-Africa Program as a passionate and well-organized group,” says MIT-Africa Program Managing Director Ari Jacobovits. “It was clear that now was the time to engage with Sudan in a new and exciting way.”

    Sudan-U.S. relations have recently entered a new chapter of cooperation. For decades, the two nations were frequently at odds over Middle East policy and Sudan’s civil unrest. A significant development occurred in July 2011, when South Sudan voted to break away from Sudan and establish a new country with a capital in Juba. During 2018 and 2019, Sudan’s youth-led peaceful revolution set an example for change in the country and has motivated its citizens to work toward a new era of peace and prosperity, long term.

    Guided by Sudan’s changing geopolitical landscape, ZAHARA focused the lab on “being agents of change in a changing world” and led sessions on topics ranging from change-making strategies to the climate crisis to democracy and governance. 

    “We chose to broadly focus on the idea of ‘making change as Sudanese youth’ to help empower our students and fellow generation to be thoughtful leaders in their communities,” Ali says. “Our main goal was to have a diverse class of students in terms of age, backgrounds, and disciplines, and to equip them with the tools to break down problems they see around them, as well as piece together innovative solutions. In picking our class topics, we relied on the strengths of the teaching team, who all have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the various subjects presented.”

    Joining Ali as lead instructors were Abdalla Osman, a senior studying mechanical engineering, and Shakes Dlamini, an SM candidate in the Technology and Policy program. The program received hundreds of applications from high school and college students eager to take part. Ali, Osman, Dlamini, and other members of the ZAHARA team then made the difficult decision of selecting their first cohort of 50 students.

    “We were incredibly surprised by the amount of traction the initiative gathered on social media,” Osman says. “The application was live for only a couple of weeks, and in that time, we received over 400 applicants. We realized students all over Sudan were sharing the application with each other and encouraging each other to apply, and we were inspired by the excitement that each applicant showed. It was definitely a challenge to trim down the list of applicants to 50 students.”

    Hailing from Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Dlamini saw an opportunity to be involved with GTL in Sudan as a chance to hone his educational efforts back home.

    “It was an honor to be part of the ZAHARA team. I care deeply about expanding opportunities to young people in Africa; hence joining the team was a no-brainer for me,” Dlamini says. “This is the kind of work I have been involved in with The Knowledge Institute since its founding in 2013. Working with the students and learning about their ideas and accomplishments was also inspiring for me, as it demonstrated to me the value of such programs to youth. I am looking forward to taking part in more MIT-Africa programs and working with groups like ZAHARA.”

    After two intensive weeks of lectures from the lead instructors and guests, the program culminated with a poster session where student teams tackled some of the country’s biggest issues. Student groups proposed innovative solutions such as bioswales to lower pollution in the Nile River, solar energy to ease transport woes in the capital, and interactive teaching methods to improve secondary school experiences around the country.

    Another group pitched a nationwide flood alert system in the wake of the devastating regional flooding throughout 2020, the team’s driving motivation for pursuing the project. “Flooding in Sudan is a huge concern that threatens our welfare. In knowing that every minute counts when lives are on the line, our flood warning system was the perfect choice,” shares the team of five. “Working virtually as a team was a challenge, but we felt rewarded by the value our project has in potentially saving many lives and possessions.” Though based in different states in Sudan, members of the organization collaborated effectively to produce a robust project vision.

    Awab Rhamtalla, a student at the University of Khartoum from Jabal Awlia, was excited to participate in the inaugural program. “The reason I joined the GTL program was because I knew some things can’t be found on Google. Rich experience, tailored advice, wonderful colleagues, and awesome instructors are the reasons people go to places like MIT, and the ZAHARA team brought these things to our doorstep,” shares Rhamtalla. “To say that I am grateful for every day of the program would be an understatement. I can only hope to pay tribute to these two weeks by passing their message forward.”

    Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a faculty member in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, had an opportunity to observe the poster session. “The ZAHARA team did an excellent job in planning and execution of their online course. I was impressed by the quality of the presentations by young Sudanese participants,” says Eltahir. “In particular, the presentation of the project reimagining how high school students can be taught differently in Sudan was very good, and offered a concrete example for the success and impact of this GTL-Sudan activity.”

    MIT-Africa Faculty Director Evan Lieberman also joined for one session of the class. “I was impressed by the level of engagement on the part of the Sudanese students. Despite the challenges of remote teaching and learning, it was clear that this was a productive educational opportunity.”

    Jacobovits and the ZAHARA team hope to build on the success of the remote GTL to launch an in-person program in the future post-Covid.

    “Our main mission is to expand educational opportunities between the United States and Sudan,” Ali says. “We hope to host GTL in Sudan annually and have students from MIT visit the country once travel resumes. ZAHARA is also continuing to work on several innovative ways to bring students from the U.S. and Sudan together and to provide educational opportunities for youth, in particular.” More

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    Crowdsourcing data on road quality and excess fuel consumption

    America has over 4 million miles of roads and, as one might expect, monitoring them can be a monumental task.  

    To collect high-quality data on the conditions of their roads, departments of transportation (DOTs) can expect to spend $200 per mile for state-of-the-art laser profilers. For cities and states, these costs are prohibitive and often force them to resort to rudimentary approaches, like visual inspection.

    Over the past three years, a collaboration between the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub), the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Birzeit University, and the American University of Beirut has sought to give DOTs a cheaper, but equally accurate, alternative.

    Their solution, “Carbin,” is an app that allows users to crowdsource road-quality data with their smartphones. An algorithm built into the software can then estimate how that road quality affects a user’s fuel consumption.

    Unlike prior road-quality crowdsourcing tools, the Carbin framework is the most sophisticated of its kind. Using the accelerometers found in smartphones, Carbin converts vehicle acceleration signals into standard measurements of road roughness used by most DOTs. It then collates these measurements onto, a publicly available global map.

    Since its release in 2019, Carbin has gathered almost 600,000 miles of road-quality data in more than three dozen countries. During 2020, its developers continued to advance the app. Not only have they validated their approach in two papers — one in Data-Centric Engineering and another in The Proceedings of the Royal Society — they have also collected more than 300,000 miles of data with the help of Concrete Supply Co., a ready-mix concrete manufacturer in the Carolinas. In addition, they are initiating collaborations with automotive manufacturers and vehicle telematics companies to gather data on even greater scale.

    Play video

    Roughly speaking

    Carbin is not the first phone accelerometer-based approach for crowdsourcing road quality. Several other apps, including the City of Boston’s “Street Bump,” have sought to assess road quality based on one of the most recognizable signs of poor roads: potholes.

    Though potholes have been the focus of prior apps, they are, however, not the main metric used by DOTs for measuring road quality and planning maintenance. Instead, DOTs rely on what is called road roughness.

    “The shortcoming of previous crowdsourcing approaches is that they would record the acceleration signal and look for outliers, which would indicate potholes,” explains Botshekan. “However, they could not infer the road roughness, since that is defined over longer length scales — typically from tens of centimeters to tens of meters.”

    Though roughness can seem almost imperceptible, it can have outsized effects. Rough roads not only lead to higher maintenance costs but can also increase vehicle fuel consumption — by as much as 15 percent in cities. To measure roughness, DOTs use the International Roughness Index (IRI).

    “IRI is the accumulated motion of the suspension system over a specific distance,” says Arghavan Louhghalam, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. “Higher IRI indicates lower road quality and higher fuel consumption.”

    To derive IRI, DOTs don’t actually measure suspension travel explicitly. Instead, they first capture the profile of the road — essentially, the undulations of its surface — and then simulate how a car’s suspension system would respond to it using what’s called a “quarter car model.”

    From quarter car to complete picture

    A quarter car model is essentially what it sounds like: a model of a quarter of a car. Specifically, it refers to a model of the tires, vehicle mass, and suspension system based on one wheel of a vehicle. By developing their own car dynamics model in a probabilistic setting, Botshekan and his colleagues were able to map the acceleration signals collected by Carbin users onto the behavior of a virtual vehicle and its interaction with the road. From there, they could estimate suspension properties and road roughness in terms of IRI. Using an algorithm developed based on past CSHub research, Carbin then estimates how IRI values can impact vehicle fuel consumption.

    “At the end of the day, the vehicle is like a filter,” explains Mazdak Tootkaboni, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UMass Dartmouth. “The excitation of the road goes through the vehicle and is then sensed by the cellphone. So, what we do is understand this filter and take it out of the equation.”

    After developing their model, the Carbin team then sought to test it against more costly, conventional methods. They did this through two different validations. 

    In the first, they measured road quality on two test tracks in the Greater Boston area — a major thoroughfare and then a highway — using a conventional laser profiler and several phones equipped with Carbin. When they compared the data afterward, they found that Carbin could predict laser-based roughness measurements with 90 percent accuracy.

    The second validation probed Carbin’s crowdsourcing capabilities. In it, they analyzed over 22,000 kilometers of Federal Highway Administration road data from California beside 27,000 kilometers of data gathered by 84 Carbin users from the same state. The results of their analysis revealed a remarkable resemblance between the crowdsourced and official data — a sign that Carbin could augment or even entirely replace conventional methods.

    21st century infrastructure, 21st century tools

    Now that they’ve thoroughly validated their model, Carbin’s developers want to expand the app to provide users, governments, and companies with unparalleled insights into both vehicles and infrastructure.

    The most apparent use for Carbin, says Jake Roxon, a CSHub postdoc and Carbin’s creator, would be as a tool for DOTs to improve America’s roads — which recently received a grade of D from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

    “On average, America’s roads are terrible,” he explains. “But the problem isn’t always in the funding of DOTs themselves, but rather how they allocate that funding. By knowing the quality of an entire road network, which is impossible with current technologies, they could fix roads more efficiently.”

    The issue, then, is how Carbin can transition from gathering data to also recommending resource allocation. To make this possible, the Carbin team is beginning to incorporate prior CSHub research on network asset management — the process through which DOTs monitor pavement performance and plan maintenance to meet performance targets.

    Besides serving the needs of DOTs, Carbin could also help private companies. “There are private firms, fleet companies especially, that would benefit from this technology,” says Roxon. “Eventually, they could use Carbin for ‘eco-routing,’ which is when you identify the route that is most fuel-efficient.”

    Such a routing option could help companies both reduce their environmental impact and running costs — for those with thousands of vehicles, the aggregate savings could be substantial.

    While further development is needed to incorporate eco-routing and asset management into Carbin, its developers see it as a promising tool. Franz-Josef Ulm, professor at the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and faculty director of CSHub, believes that Carbin represents a necessary step forward.

    “To develop the infrastructure of the 21st century, we need 21st-century means of assessing the state of that infrastructure to ensure that any dollar spent today is well spent for the future,” he says. “That’s precisely where Carbin enters the picture.” More

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    3 Questions: Nadia Christidi on the arts and the future of water

    In this ongoing series, MIT faculty, students, and alumni in the humanistic fields share perspectives that are significant for solving climate change and mitigating its myriad social and ecological impacts. Nadia Christidi is a PhD student in MIT HASTS, a program that combines research in history, anthropology, science, technology, and society. Her dissertation examines how three cities that face water supply challenges are imagining, planning, and preparing for the future of water. Christidi has a particular interest in the roles that art, design, and architecture are playing in that future imagining and future planning process. MIT SHASS Communications spoke with her on the ways that her field and visual cultures contribute to solving issues of climate change.   

    Q: There are many sensible approaches to addressing the climate crisis. Increasingly, it looks as if we’ll need all of them. What perspectives from the HASTS fields are significant for addressing climate change and its ecological and social impacts?

    A: My research focuses on how three cities that face water supply challenges are imagining, planning, and preparing for the future of water. The three cities I focus on are Los Angeles, Dubai, and Cape Town. Water is one of the key issues when it comes to adapting to climate change and my work tries to understand how climate change impacts are understood and adaptation policies developed.

    My approach to climate change and adaptation brings together various disciplines — history, anthropology, science and technology studies, and visual cultures; each of these helps me see and elucidates very particular aspects of climate change.

    I think history reminds us that our ways of being and systems are historically constructed rather than given, inevitable, or natural, and that there is an alternative. Anthropology elucidates that while we may all talk about “climate change,” what is meant by it, how it is understood and experienced, and how it is dealt with as a problem will differ from place to place; climate change is as much a social and cultural phenomenon and experience as it is a scientific or environmental one, as much a global issue as it is a local one. The social, cultural, and local, anthropology reminds us, have to be factored into meaningful policy.

    Science and technology studies sheds light on the various communities involved in developing climate change knowledge; the role that their investments, stakes, and interests play; and the translation between science and policy that needs to happen for scientifically-informed policy to emerge. The STS perspective also points out that science is one of many systems for understanding climate change and that there may be other valid, useful worldviews from which we can learn.

    And finally, visual cultures underscore how pop cultural and visual references, symbols, and imagery shape imaginaries and expectations of climate change, including scientific ones, and sometimes open up or foreclose pathways to action.

    Q: What pathways of thought and action do you personally think might be most fruitful for alleviating climate change and its impacts — and for forging a more sustainable future?

    A: I think we are going to need a lot of imagination going forward. As climate change gets underway, we’re seeing a lot more emphasis on adaptation, and imagination is key to adapting to a set of totally different circumstances.

    This belief has led me to explore the “imaginative capacities” of planning institutions, the impact of popular culture imaginaries, from the utopian to the dystopian, on our preparations for the future, and the role that creative practitioners — including artists, architects, and designers — can play in expanding our imaginative possibilities.

    One of my interlocutors aptly uses the phrase “crisis of imagination” to describe the present. In order for the necessary imagination work to take place, we must take seriously different actors as sources of knowledge, expertise, and perspectives, and make the process of imagining and planning more inclusive.

    Partly, my work considers how creative practitioners are imagining climate change and the future of water and the alternative knowledge or perspectives they can offer. Most of the works that I look at involve collaborations between artists/architects, scientists, engineers, and/or policymakers. They see artists contributing to science or transforming urban space or impacting policy.

    For instance, the UAE pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Wetland, will unveil a locally-produced salt-based building material as an alternative to cement. Developed by Dubai-based architects Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, the pavilion tackles the issues of brine — a salty byproduct of desalination, which is the country’s main source of potable water — and the carbon footprint of cement use in Dubai’s robust construction industry.

    Inspired by historical examples of salt architecture and by the natural architectures of local salt flat ecosystems, the architects worked with scientists from NYU Abu Dhabi to develop the material. Such work shows how interdisciplinary collaborations with creative practitioners can not only advance the sciences, but also reimagine established industries and practices, and develop innovative approaches to the carbon emissions problem.

    Peggy Weil, an artist based in Los Angeles, rethinks landscape as a genre in our climate-changed present. Holding that the traditional horizontal format of the landscape is no longer representative, she develops “underscapes,” where she films the length of ice cores or aquifers, and “overscapes,” which involve studies of the air, as portraits of the Earth. These ‘scapes’ argue for a need to re-perceive our surroundings in order to more fully understand how we have chemically, hydrogeologically, and climatically transformed them.

    Peggy and I have talked extensively about how important “re-perceiving” will be for encouraging behavior changes and generating economic and political support for the work of water managers and policymakers as well as the role of the arts in driving this “re-perception.”

    Q: What dimensions of the emerging climate crisis affect you most deeply — causing uncertainty, and/or altering the ways you think about the present and the future? When you confront an issue as formidable as climate change, what gives you hope?    

    A: I think one dimension of the climate crisis I find especially disturbing is its configuration at times and in certain places as an economic opportunity, where new devastating environmental conditions are taken to be opportunities for innovation and technological development that will enable economic growth.

    This becomes especially compelling in times of economic deceleration or as the specter of the end of oil grows stronger. But we need to ask: economic growth for whom, at what costs, and with what effects? And is growth what we really need?

    I don’t think that the economy should be pitted against the environment; I am a total believer in sustainability as an issue that must encompass the economic, social, and environmental. But the real problems are with economic distribution rather than growth, and the promise of unlimited growth — as further stoked by renewables — which is a fallacy or fantasy.

    I tend to agree with journalist Naomi Klein that the market, green or not, isn’t going to solve climate change challenges because we need more than just a technofix; we need policy and behavioral changes and new investment directions, many of which go against established economic arrangements and priorities. Locally produced salt-based building materials are a good start, but not enough.

    Some of the most challenging and consequential imaginative work we will have to do will be on the social front; this will entail reconsidering some things we take for granted. I love theorist Frederic Jameson’s suggestion that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” as well as Mike Fisher’s concept of “capitalist realism,” which captures the ideological underpinnings of that worldview.

    The privatization of water is one of the scariest intensifying developments in my mind, especially given anticipated climate change effects, but I take some reassurance from projects that aim to counter such trends. One of the promising architectural proposals I’ve studied in Los Angeles is by Stephanie Newcomb. Stephanie’s work, Coopelluvia, aims to complement stormwater capture projects developed by governmental entities in LA county on public land and that form a major prong of the City of LA’s water planning strategy; it explores the possibility of turning stormwater captured in side setback spaces between private properties into a communal water resource in the low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Pacoima and Arletta in the San Fernando Valley.

    Stephanie’s proposed intervention blurs the boundary between public and private and empowers marginalized communities through developing communal resource management systems with multiple environmental and social benefits. Her work is guided by theories of the commons, rather than privatization and market-oriented solutions — and I think such projects and theories hold a lot of promise for facilitating the kinds of radical change we need.

    Series prepared by SHASS CommunicationsEditorial and Design Director: Emily HiestandCo-Editor: Kathryn O’Neill More

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    Analytics platform for coastal desalination plants wins 2021 Water Innovation Prize

    Coastal desalination plants are a source of drinking water for an increasing number of people around the world. But their proximity to the ocean can cause disruptions from events like riptides and oil spills. Such disruptions reduce the productivity, lifespan, and sustainability of desalination plants.

    The winner of this year’s MIT Water Innovation Prize, Bloom Alert, is seeking to improve desalination plant operations with a new kind of data monitoring platform. The platform tracks ocean and desalination plant activity and provides early warnings about events that could interrupt clean water production or lead to coastal pollution.

    At the heart of Bloom Alert’s solution are models that crunch satellite data in real time to understand what’s going on in the ocean near the plants.

    “Coastal events can reduce a plant’s water production capacity by up to 30 percent — that means 30 percent less water for coastal communities,” Bloom Alert team member Enzo Garcia said in the winning pitch. “Our models allow plant operators to apply mitigation measures during emergencies, which improve not only plant efficiency, but also overall water security for potentially millions of people.”

    Bloom Alert’s models, which were trained on 20 years of satellite data, are capable of predicting disruption events up to 14 days in advance. That can lead to major savings: Garcia estimates severe riptide events can cost plants up to $200,000 a day.

    Team members said their subscription-based platform, developed in their home country of Chile, can be used around the globe at a fraction of the cost of existing solutions.

    The company recently completed its first pilot project with the biggest desalination plant in South America. Through the project, Garcia says Bloom is already helping to secure 20 percent of Chile’s desalinated water production.

    Now, with $18,000 in new funding earned from the competition’s grand prize, the company is targeting plants in the Middle East, where about half of the world’s desalination plants are located.

    “We seek to position ourselves as the worldwide leader in satellite intelligence for the desalination industry,” Garcia says.

    The Water Innovation Prize, which helps translate water-related research and ideas into businesses and impact, has been hosted by the MIT Water Club since its first year in 2015. Each year, student-led finalist teams from around the world pitch their innovations to students, faculty, investors, and people working in various water-related industries.

    This year’s event, held virtually on Thursday, included six finalist teams. The second place, $10,000 award was given to Nymphea Labs.

    Mosquitos are the deadliest animal on the planet. Every 30 seconds, a child dies of malaria. At a park one day, Nymphea team member Pranav Agarwal noticed a pond that had no mosquito larvae on its surface because wind was causing ripples. A nearby pond, with no wind ripples, was filled with larvae. The observation led to an idea.

    Nymphea Labs is marketing a device called Ripple that creates tiny waves on the surface of still water by leveraging solar power. The device, which costs about $10 dollars, requires no maintenance to run. It can also be deployed in fleets to cause ripples across larger bodies of water.

    “Today the most widespread solutions are insecticides and insecticide treated bed nets, but more and more we’re seeing that mosquitos are developing a resistance to these chemicals, making these efforts less effective,” Agarwal says.

    Nymphia says the device has already led to decreased mosquito populations in small tests. Now the company will be producing 100 units for further testing. The team is hoping Ripple will be helping to protect more than 10 million people by 2025.

    The third-place prize was awarded to NERAMCO, which has invented a more sustainable, high-performance polyethylene fabric called SVETEX. SVETEX is a breathable, quick drying, and stain resistant textile, and NERAMCO CEO Maren Cattonar says its production uses 100 times less water than cotton.

    “Fiber production is extremely water intensive, consuming 86 trillion meters of water per year, enough to supply the global population with drinking water for 14 years,” says Cattonar, who works as a mentor for MIT’s Sandbox Innovation Fund Program and MIT’s iTeams initiative.

    In addition to using less water, SVETEX production also eliminates aquatic dye pollution using a dry spin coloring process.

    “A staggering amount of pollution comes from textile dyeing,” Cattonar says. “Twenty percent of industrial water pollution originates from the textile industry. Each year 6.3 trillion liters of water are used to dye textiles.”

    The other finalist teams were:

    AgroBeads, which has developed biodegradable water beads designed to reduce the amount of water used in irrigation while providing plants with nutrients;

    Brineys, which seeks to to fund new water desalination plants in water insecure countries by selling artisanal salt created as a byproduct of the desalination process; and

    FinsTrust, a blockchain-based e-commerce platform designed to improve transparency and traceability in fishery products while empowering Indonesian fishermen and fish farmers.

    Many of the finalist teams seek to address problems expected to worsen over time due to climate change. A sense of urgency has come over efforts to address water shortages in particular as communities increasingly face water distress around the world.

    “Demand is outpacing supply, and it’s not happening in five years or 10 years — it’s happening now,” Tom Ferguson, a managing partner as Burnt Island Ventures, said in the keynote to the event. More

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    Using mechanics for cleaner membranes

    Filtration membranes are critical to a wide variety of industries around the world. Made of materials as varied as cellulose, graphene, and nylon, they serve as the barriers that turn seawater into drinking water, separate and process milk and dairy products, and pull contaminants from wastewater. They serve as an essential technology to these and other industries but are plagued with an Achilles heel: fouling.

    Membrane fouling occurs when particles get deposited on the filter over time, clogging the system and limiting its effectiveness and efficiency. Efforts to clean, or de-foul, these membranes have typically relied on chemical processes, in which synthetic solvents are pumped through the membrane to flush the system. However, this results in losses in productivity and profit, all while raising environmental and workplace safety concerns associated with waste disposal.

    A solution to this challenge may soon be in sight. A team of researchers from the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, supported by a seed grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), has found an alternative. Their solution was developed via a unique collaboration between researchers with expertise in fluid as well as structure dynamics.

    The team has developed a novel system that can mechanically clean membranes using controlled deformation. Their new approach, one of the first ever to combine membranes and mechanics, has the potential to be cheaper, faster, and more environmentally friendly than traditional membrane cleaning techniques, and is poised to revolutionize the way we think about filtration.

    “Fouling is the biggest problem that’s facing membranes. Being able to solve it would be a game-changer for everyone,” says Omar Labban PhD ’20 of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, a joint lead author of a new paper published in the Journal of Membrane Science.

    Controlling the pressure on either side of this membrane allows the layer of contaminants to peel off and wash away.

    Image courtesy of the researchers

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    The work got its start when two mechanical engineering professors saw the potential of uniting their areas of expertise. John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering and the director of J-WAFS, joined forces with Xuanhe Zhao, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and George N. Hatsopoulos Faculty Fellow. Lienhard is an international expert on water purification and desalination, while Zhao specializes in the field of soft materials.

    “Real-world problems, such as membrane fouling, inherently cut across disciplinary lines,” says Lienhard. “In this case, we faced both a problem of soft matter mechanics and of membrane desalination. Our team combined this disparate knowledge through a solid experimental program to achieve a more environmentally benign cleaning process.”

    The paper that details the team’s new approach was selected as an Editor’s Choice Article by the journal for February 2021. Paper co-authors Lienhard, Zhao, and Labban were also joined by co-lead author and member of the core research team driving this work, Grace Goon PhD ’20 of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Zi Hao Foo, a former visiting student and current graduate student in mechanical engineering.

    The “Achilles heel” of filtration

    Fouling is the process through which particles are deposited on a membrane’s surface. While it occurs in any membrane filtration system, fouling is especially troublesome for desalination. As a process input, seawater has much more than salt that needs to be removed. Foulants, ranging from bacteria to organic material and minerals, can collect on reverse osmosis membranes very quickly. Once membranes become clogged, they are less effective, limiting the amount of clean water that can be produced as well as the purity of the end product.

    Unfortunately, the current cleaning solution is not ideal. Membranes used for desalination are cleaned with chemicals, which takes time, money, and resources away from filtration plant operation. Water desalination plant operators often have to stop production to flush their systems for several hours per cleaning cycle. For the dairy industry, operators need to clean the membranes multiples times a day. The chemical cocktails used to flush the systems are often proprietary, making desalination prohibitively expensive for some countries and municipalities. The environmental impact is also hefty because the plants then must figure out how to dispose of the large quantities of chemical waste without causing ecological and toxicological problems.

    Working together for a cleaner solution

    Motivated by efficiency, affordability, and environmental sustainability, the research team sought to develop a chemical-free solution enabled by the principles of mechanics. Goon, a member of the core research team, recounts the early days, when the team explored various vibration methods, including a stereo system, to shake the foulant layer off the membrane. From there, they moved on to experimenting with varying the pressure on either side of the membrane to weaken the bonded debris. Eventually, they were able to cause the layer to peel off.

    Their solution relies on a phenomenon known as membrane-foulant interfacial fatigue. Through subtle pressure changes, the team was able to gradually weaken and deform the bonded layer of foulants little by little until it could be washed away. Previous research strayed away from this method because of the fragility of the membranes, “but we’ve shown that if you’re able to actually control it properly, you can avoid damaging your membrane,” says Goon. Best of all, the method can be used on the industry-standard spiral wound membrane module, where the tightly spaced layers of membranes posed a challenge for other mechanical cleaning methods.

    While traditional chemical cleaning processes might be necessary to supplement this mechanical solution, this new method can reduce users’ reliance on chemical flushing, which benefits plant operators in multiple ways. The team’s calculations indicate that the shutdown time for cleaning would go down by a factor of six. With plants down less often, the total amount of clean water produced by the system can increase. “You’ll be saving on cost, you’ll be running the plant more, you’ll be getting more output. When cleaning no longer becomes a burden for the operator, the system is going to operate in a much better state in the long run,” explains Labban.

    These improvements provide tangible benefits to producers and consumers alike. During field research the team explored the market potential for this technology and spoke with plant operators across a number of industries who all expressed frustration with the cumbersome nature of the cleaning process. For the dairy industry alone, one that has already faced shrinking profits from the pandemic, the team estimates that a switch to mechanical cleaning could cut cleaning costs by half.

    The unique intersection of membrane technology and mechanical processes that this technology models provides a solution that many in the desalination field did not think was possible. “Suddenly you’re able to achieve a lot a lot more than before — your impact and change that you can accomplish becomes bigger,” says Labban of the chance to work on a multidisciplinary collaboration.

    The project not only brought together two specialties in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The team was also joined by Gabrielle Enns, Annetoinette Figueroa, Lara Ketonen, Hannah Mahaffey, Bryan T. Padilla, and Maisha Prome through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. The unique perspective that each team member brought helped foster creativity and camaraderie around the lab.

    Because of the out-of-the-box approach that the interdisciplinary research team was taking, traditional funding mechanisms were not as readily available for this work. This is why the J-WAFS seed grant was so impactful. “Without J-WAFS, this work would not have happened,” says Labban. The grant allowed the research team to focus on the challenge as a primary research catalyst, as opposed to being limited to a particular technical process or structured outcome. This provided the team the freedom to take advantage of the cross-departmental collaboration that enabled the convergence of mechanics and membrane research in the name of better filtration strategies.

    The current paper primarily looks at organic foulants and the technique has only been evaluated for a limited number of industries. Looking forward, however, the team is excited to expand upon its research by applying the method across a variety of areas, including the energy and agriculture sectors. As long as membranes are being used, there is going to be a need to clean them. “We are excited to be solving the major bottleneck with membranes and desalination,” says Labban. “Nothing else compares to this challenge.” More

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    Innovations in water accessibility

    Growing up in coastal Connecticut, Flora Klise’s childhood was shaped by water. She spent summers taking sailing lessons and working at a local marina. But it wasn’t until she stood next to a well in rural Tanzania that she realized she wanted to pursue a career in water innovation.

    The summer before her junior year, Klise traveled to Tanzania alongside a team of MIT D-Lab students to work on the Okoa Project, an ambulance trailer that can be attached to motorcycles. While visiting one particular rural village, she noticed dozens of young children carrying large buckets and taking turns jumping up and down on a pump to get water from the well. At the kids’ urging, Klise started pumping water herself.

    After five exhausting minutes pumping water, Klise rethought her career aspirations.

    “It got me really thinking about water accessibility from an engineer’s perspective, and how the way people get water is so different in every part of the world,” says Klise, currently a senior studying mechanical engineering. “There’s a whole area of innovation in water accessibility — from filtering bacteria and viruses to figuring out how to get water to a house or rigging a device that makes pumping easier.”

    Up until that point, Klise had focused on medical devices throughout her undergraduate experience at MIT. Concerned that it was too late to pivot from a career path in medical devices to one in water research, she sought the advice of her advisor, Warren Seering, the Weber-Shaughness Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

    Seering encouraged Klise to follow her passion and not feel boxed in by her previous academic focus.

    “Professor Seering asked, ‘Are you having fun exploring water research?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ To which he then said ‘See, you’re doing it right. You’re doing a great job,’” adds Klise. “Everyone needs an advisor who encourages them like that.”

    In addition to a supportive advisor, Klise found freedom in the flexibility a mechanical engineering degree provides.

    “Mechanical engineering is an area where you can get the technical skills you need to be able to do pretty much whatever you want,” she says. “You’re not limited by anything because it’s so broad, so it gives you the freedom to choose what you are actually passionate about, even later on in your undergraduate experience.”

    With a renewed focus on water accessibility, Klise sought a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) project on water research. She quickly found an opportunity in the lab of John Lienhard, professor of mechanical engineering. Her project was to focus on desalinating brackish groundwater for agricultural use.

    As a relative novice to water research, Klise had some catching up to do. Yvana Ahdab SM ’17, PhD ’21, a research assistant in the Lienhard lab, provided Klise with relevant literature to help her fill in the gaps.

    “Working with Flora was seamless. She possesses the intellectual curiosity and drive central to the scientific research process, which often involves a series of setbacks before any success is realized,” says Ahdab.

    Together, they worked on testing monovalent selective electrodialysis for the treatment of brackish groundwater. This process only filters harmful ions, keeping the ions that promote plant growth in the water. As a result, farmers save money by not needing to add as much fertilizer to their water, offering them a cost-effective, sustainable desalination alternative.

    “The target application is to use this in agricultural irrigation systems. We’ve developed a cost model demonstrating the amount of money saved by not using as much fertilizer,” says Klise.

    Last spring, before campus shut down due to the pandemic, Klise spent most of her time in the wet lab testing the flow rate of their system. After leaving campus due to lockdown, her focus shifted to a new project developing a techno-economic model for the pretreatment of groundwater. This project turned into Klise’s senior thesis.

    Using a database of 28,000 brackish groundwater samples from the U.S. Geological Survey, Klise has been writing a MATLAB script to demonstrate how much money could be saved by pretreating groundwater with lime.

    Klise has also pursued her passion for water research outside the lab. In the mechanical engineering and D-Lab class 2.729/EC.729 (Design for Scale), she worked on the FairCap project to develop a device that could filter a bucket of water, rather than individual glasses. Last fall, she worked as a student researcher for MIT Sea Grant, helping develop an autonomous aquaculture robot for oyster farming. As a member of MIT Water, Klise was active in planning Water Night 2021, held on April 22.

    “Water Club is an amazing community at MIT of people passionate about water issues. Water Night is a real celebration of water that’s engaging for all ages,” she says.

    After graduating in June, Klise will be joining one of the largest water innovation companies in the world, Xylem. Through Xylem’s two-year Engineering Leadership Development Program, Klise will rotate between three different positions across the company to get a sampling of different areas of water innovation she can pursue throughout her career.

    “My main career motivation is the impact of water research and technology. Every year, the need for fresh accessible water is increasing, so there is really a need for innovation in that area,” says Klise.

    While only a fraction of MIT students may end up pursuing careers in water innovation, according to Klise water is something that affects everyone on campus, whether they realize it or not.

    “I think every student at MIT is connected to water and the ocean just from living in Cambridge or Boston. It’s inevitable that you are going to see things, smell things, and notice things related to water. I think that helps people rethink their relationship with water and how it impacts their own lives,” she adds. More

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    Climate solutions depend on technology, policy, and businesses working together

    “The challenge for humanity now is how to decarbonize the global economy by 2050. To do that, we need a supercharged decade of energy innovation,” said Ernest J. Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus, founding director of the MIT Energy Initiative, and a former U.S. secretary of energy, as he opened the MIT Forefront virtual event on April 21. “But we also need practical visionaries, in every economic sector, to develop new business models that allow them to remain profitable while achieving the zero-carbon emissions.”

    The event, “Addressing Climate and Sustainability through Technology, Policy, and Business Models,” was the third in the MIT Forefront series, which invites top minds from the worlds of science, industry, and policy to propose bold new answers to urgent global problems. Moniz moderated the event, and more than 12,000 people tuned in online.

    MIT and other universities play an important role in preparing the world’s best minds to take on big climate challenges and develop the technology needed to advance sustainability efforts, a point illustrated in the main session with a video about Via Separations, a company supported by MIT’s The Engine. Co-founded by Shreya Dave ’09, SM ’12, PhD ’16, Via Separations customizes filtration technology to reduce waste and save money across multiple industries. “By next year, we are going to be eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from our customers’ facilities,” Dave said.

    Via Separations is one of many innovative companies born of MIT’s energy and climate initiatives — the work of which, as the panel went on to discuss, is critical to achieving net-zero emissions and deploying successful environmental sustainability efforts. As Moniz put it, the company embodies “the spirit of science and technology in action for the good of humankind” and exemplifies how universities and businesses, as well as technology and policy, must work together to make the best environmental choices.

    How businesses confront climate change

    Innovation in sustainable practices can be met with substantial challenges when proposed or applied to business models, particularly on the policy side, the panelists noted. But they shared some key ways that their respective organizations have employed current technologies and the challenges they face in reaching their sustainability goals. Despite each business’s different products and services, a common thread of needing new technologies to achieve their sustainability goals emerged. 

    Although 2050 is the long-term goal for net-zero emissions put forth by the Paris Agreement, the businesses represented by the panelists are thinking about the shorter term. “IBM has committed to net-zero emissions by 2030 ― without carbon offsets,” said Arvind Krishna, chairman and chief executive officer of IBM. “We believe that some carbon taxes would be a good policy tool. But policy alone is insufficient. We need advanced technological tools to reach our goal.” 

    Jeff Wilke SM ’93, who retired as Amazon’s chief executive officer of Worldwide Consumer in February 2021, outlined a number of initiatives that the online retail giant is undertaking to curb emissions. Transportation is one of their biggest hurdles to reaching zero emissions, leading to a significant investment in Class 8 electric trucks. “Another objective is to remove the need for plane shipments by getting inventory closer to urban areas, and that has been happening steadily over the years,” he said.

    Jim Fitterling, chair and chief executive officer of Dow, explained that Dow has reduced its carbon emissions by 15 percent in the past decade and is poised to reduce it further in the next. Future goals include working toward electrifying ethylene production. “If we can electrify that, it will allow us to make major strides toward carbon-dioxide reduction,” he said. “But we need more reliable and stable power to get to that point.” 

    Collaboration is key to advancing climate solutions

    Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who was recently appointed by U.S. President Joe Biden as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, stressed that MIT innovators and industry leaders must work together to implement climate solutions. 

    “Innovation is a team sport,” said Zuber, who is also the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. “Even if MIT researchers make a huge discovery, deploying it requires cooperation on a policy level and often industry support. Policymakers need to solve problems and seize opportunities in ways that are popular. It’s not just solving technical problems ― there is a human behavior component.”

    But businesses, Zuber said, can play a huge role in advancing innovation. “If a company becomes convinced of the potential of a new technology, they can be the best advocates with policymakers,” she said.

    The question of “sustainability vs. shareholders” 

    During the Q&A session, an audience member pointed out that environmentalists are often distrustful of companies’ sustainability policies when their focus is on shareholders and profit.

    “Companies have to show that they’re part of the solution,” Fitterling said. “Investors will be afraid of high costs up front, so, say, completely electrifying a plant overnight is off the table. You have to make a plan to get there, and then incentivize that plan through policy. Carbon taxes are one way, but miss the market leverage.”

    Krishna also pushed back on the idea that companies have to choose between sustainability and profit. “It’s a false dichotomy,” he said. “If companies were only interested in short-term profits, they wouldn’t last for long.”

    “A belief I’ve heard from some environmental groups is that ‘anything a company does is greenwashing,’ and that they’ll abandon those efforts if the economy tanks,” Zuber said, referring to a practice wherein organizations spend more time marketing themselves as environmentally sustainable than on maximizing their sustainability efforts. “The economy tanked in 2020, though, and we saw companies double down on their sustainability plans. They see that it’s good for business.”

    The role of universities and businesses in sustainability innovation

    “Amazon and all corporations are adapting to the effects of climate change, like extreme weather patterns, and will need to adapt more — but I’m not ready to throw in the towel for decarbonization,” Wilke said. “Either way, companies will have to invest in decarbonization. There is no way we are going to make the progress we have to make without it.” 

    Another component is the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing. Krishna noted multiple ways that AI and quantum computing will play a role at IBM, including finding the most environmentally sustainable and cost-efficient ways to advance carbon separation in exhaust gases and lithium battery life in electric cars. 

    AI, quantum computing, and alternate energy sources such as fusion energy that have the potential to achieve net-zero energy, are key areas that students, researchers, and faculty members are pursuing at MIT.

    “Universities like MIT need to go as fast as we can as far as we can with the science and technology we have now,” Zuber said. “In parallel, we need to invest in and deploy a suite of new tools in science and technology breakthroughs that we need to reach the 2050 goal of decarbonizing. Finally, we need to continue to train the next generation of students and researchers who are solving these issues and deploy them to these companies to figure it out.” More