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    Ocean scientists measure sediment plume stirred up by deep-sea-mining vehicle

    What will be the impact to the ocean if humans are to mine the deep sea? It’s a question that’s gaining urgency as interest in marine minerals has grown.

    The ocean’s deep-sea bed is scattered with ancient, potato-sized rocks called “polymetallic nodules” that contain nickel and cobalt — minerals that are in high demand for the manufacturing of batteries, such as for powering electric vehicles and storing renewable energy, and in response to factors such as increasing urbanization. The deep ocean contains vast quantities of mineral-laden nodules, but the impact of mining the ocean floor is both unknown and highly contested.

    Now MIT ocean scientists have shed some light on the topic, with a new study on the cloud of sediment that a collector vehicle would stir up as it picks up nodules from the seafloor.

    The study, appearing today in Science Advances, reports the results of a 2021 research cruise to a region of the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), where polymetallic nodules abound. There, researchers equipped a pre-prototype collector vehicle with instruments to monitor sediment plume disturbances as the vehicle maneuvered across the seafloor, 4,500 meters below the ocean’s surface. Through a sequence of carefully conceived maneuvers. the MIT scientists used the vehicle to monitor its own sediment cloud and measure its properties.

    Their measurements showed that the vehicle created a dense plume of sediment in its wake, which spread under its own weight, in a phenomenon known in fluid dynamics as a “turbidity current.” As it gradually dispersed, the plume remained relatively low, staying within 2 meters of the seafloor, as opposed to immediately lofting higher into the water column as had been postulated.

    “It’s quite a different picture of what these plumes look like, compared to some of the conjecture,” says study co-author Thomas Peacock, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Modeling efforts of deep-sea mining plumes will have to account for these processes that we identified, in order to assess their extent.”

    The study’s co-authors include lead author Carlos Muñoz-Royo, Raphael Ouillon, and Souha El Mousadik of MIT; and Matthew Alford of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

    Deep-sea maneuvers

    To collect polymetallic nodules, some mining companies are proposing to deploy tractor-sized vehicles to the bottom of the ocean. The vehicles would vacuum up the nodules along with some sediment along their path. The nodules and sediment would then be separated inside of the vehicle, with the nodules sent up through a riser pipe to a surface vessel, while most of the sediment would be discharged immediately behind the vehicle.

    Peacock and his group have previously studied the dynamics of the sediment plume that associated surface operation vessels may pump back into the ocean. In their current study, they focused on the opposite end of the operation, to measure the sediment cloud created by the collectors themselves.

    In April 2021, the team joined an expedition led by Global Sea Mineral Resources NV (GSR), a Belgian marine engineering contractor that is exploring the CCZ for ways to extract metal-rich nodules. A European-based science team, Mining Impacts 2, also conducted separate studies in parallel. The cruise was the first in over 40 years to test a “pre-prototype” collector vehicle in the CCZ. The machine, called Patania II, stands about 3 meters high, spans 4 meters wide, and is about one-third the size of what a commercial-scale vehicle is expected to be.

    While the contractor tested the vehicle’s nodule-collecting performance, the MIT scientists monitored the sediment cloud created in the vehicle’s wake. They did so using two maneuvers that the vehicle was programmed to take: a “selfie,” and a “drive-by.”

    Both maneuvers began in the same way, with the vehicle setting out in a straight line, all its suction systems turned on. The researchers let the vehicle drive along for 100 meters, collecting any nodules in its path. Then, in the “selfie” maneuver, they directed the vehicle to turn off its suction systems and double back around to drive through the cloud of sediment it had just created. The vehicle’s installed sensors measured the concentration of sediment during this “selfie” maneuver, allowing the scientists to monitor the cloud within minutes of the vehicle stirring it up.

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    A movie of the Patania II pre-prototype collector vehicle entering, driving through, and leaving the low-lying turbidity current plume as part of a selfie operation. For scale, the instrumentation post attached to the front of the vehicle reaches about 3m above the seabed. The movie is sped up by a factor of 20. Credit: Global Sea Mineral Resources

    For the “drive-by” maneuver, the researchers placed a sensor-laden mooring 50 to 100 meters from the vehicle’s planned tracks. As the vehicle drove along collecting nodules, it created a plume that eventually spread past the mooring after an hour or two. This “drive-by” maneuver enabled the team to monitor the sediment cloud over a longer timescale of several hours, capturing the plume evolution.

    Out of steam

    Over multiple vehicle runs, Peacock and his team were able to measure and track the evolution of the sediment plume created by the deep-sea-mining vehicle.

    “We saw that the vehicle would be driving in clear water, seeing the nodules on the seabed,” Peacock says. “And then suddenly there’s this very sharp sediment cloud coming through when the vehicle enters the plume.”

    From the selfie views, the team observed a behavior that was predicted by some of their previous modeling studies: The vehicle stirred up a heavy amount of sediment that was dense enough that, even after some mixing with the surrounding water, it generated a plume that behaved almost as a separate fluid, spreading under its own weight in what’s known as a turbidity current.

    “The turbidity current spreads under its own weight for some time, tens of minutes, but as it does so, it’s depositing sediment on the seabed and eventually running out of steam,” Peacock says. “After that, the ocean currents get stronger than the natural spreading, and the sediment transitions to being carried by the ocean currents.”

    By the time the sediment drifted past the mooring, the researchers estimate that 92 to 98 percent of the sediment either settled back down or remained within 2 meters of the seafloor as a low-lying cloud. There is, however, no guarantee that the sediment always stays there rather than drifting further up in the water column. Recent and future studies by the research team are looking into this question, with the goal of consolidating understanding for deep-sea mining sediment plumes.

    “Our study clarifies the reality of what the initial sediment disturbance looks like when you have a certain type of nodule mining operation,” Peacock says. “The big takeaway is that there are complex processes like turbidity currents that take place when you do this kind of collection. So, any effort to model a deep-sea-mining operation’s impact will have to capture these processes.”

    “Sediment plumes produced by deep-seabed mining are a major concern with regards to environmental impact, as they will spread over potentially large areas beyond the actual site of mining and affect deep-sea life,” says Henko de Stigter, a marine geologist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, who was not involved in the research. “The current paper provides essential insight in the initial development of these plumes.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, ARPA-E, the 11th Hour Project, the Benioff Ocean Initiative, and Global Sea Mineral Resources. The funders had no role in any aspects of the research analysis, the research team states. More

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    3 Questions: Janelle Knox-Hayes on producing renewable energy that communities want

    Wind power accounted for 8 percent of U.S. electricity consumption in 2020, and is growing rapidly in the country’s energy portfolio. But some projects, like the now-defunct Cape Wind proposal for offshore power in Massachusetts, have run aground due to local opposition. Are there ways to avoid this in the future?

    MIT professors Janelle Knox-Hayes and Donald Sadoway think so. In a perspective piece published today in the journal Joule, they and eight other professors call for a new approach to wind-power deployment, one that engages communities in a process of “co-design” and adapts solutions to local needs. That process, they say, could spur additional creativity in renewable energy engineering, while making communities more amenable to existing technologies. In addition to Knox-Hayes and Sadoway, the paper’s co-authors are Michael J. Aziz of Harvard University; Dennice F. Gayme of Johns Hopkins University; Kathryn Johnson of the Colorado School of Mines; Perry Li of the University of Minnesota; Eric Loth of the University of Virginia; Lucy Y. Pao of the University of Colorado; Jessica Smith of the Colorado School of Mines; and Sonya Smith of Howard University.

    Knox-Hayes is the Lister Brothers Associate Professor of Economic Geography and Planning in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and an expert on the social and political context of renewable energy adoption; Sadoway is the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and a leading global expert on developing new forms of energy storage. MIT News spoke with Knox-Hayes about the topic.

    Q: What is the core problem you are addressing in this article?

    A: It is problematic to act as if technology can only be engineered in a silo and then delivered to society. To solve problems like climate change, we need to see technology as a socio-technical system, which is integrated from its inception into society. From a design standpoint, that begins with conversations, values assessments, and understanding what communities need.  If we can do that, we will have a much easier time delivering the technology in the end.

    What we have seen in the Northeast, in trying to meet our climate objectives and energy efficiency targets, is that we need a lot of offshore wind, and a lot of projects have stalled because a community was saying “no.” And part of the reason communities refuse projects is because they that they’ve never been properly consulted. What form does the technology take, and how would it operate within a community? That conversation can push the boundaries of engineering.

    Q: The new paper makes the case for a new practice of “co-design” in the field of renewable energy. You call this the “STEP” process, standing for all the socio-technical-political-economic issues that an engineering project might encounter. How would you describe the STEP idea? And to what extent would industry be open to new attempts to design an established technology?

    A: The idea is to bring together all these elements in an interdisciplinary process, and engage stakeholders. The process could start with a series of community forums where we bring everyone together, and do a needs assessment, which is a common practice in planning. We might see that offshore wind energy needs to be considered in tandem with the local fishing industry, or servicing the installations, or providing local workforce training. The STEP process allows us to take a step back, and start with planners, policymakers, and community members on the ground.

    It is also about changing the nature of research and practice and teaching, so that students are not just in classrooms, they are also learning to work with communities. I think formalizing that piece is important. We are starting now to really feel the impacts of climate change, so we have to confront the reality of breaking through political boundaries, even in the United States. That is the only way to make this successful, and that comes back to how can technology be co-designed.

    At MIT, innovation is the spirit of the endeavor, and that is why MIT has so many industry partners engaged in initiatives like MITEI [the MIT Energy Initiative] and the Climate Consortium. The value of the partnership is that MIT pushes the boundaries of what is possible. It is the idea that we can advance and we can do something incredible, we can innovate the future. What we are suggesting with this work is that innovation isn’t something that happens exclusively in a laboratory, but something that is very much built in partnership with communities and other stakeholders.

    Q: How much does this approach also apply to solar power, as the other leading type of renewable energy? It seems like communities also wrestle with where to locate solar arrays, or how to compensate homeowners, communities, and other solar hosts for the power they generate.

    A: I would not say solar has the same set of challenges, but rather that renewable technologies face similar challenges. With solar, there are also questions of access and siting. Another big challenge is to create financing models that provide value and opportunity at different scales. For example, is solar viable for tenants in multi-family units who want to engage with clean energy? This is a similar question for micro-wind opportunities for buildings. With offshore wind, a restriction is that if it is within sightlines, it might be problematic. But there are exciting technologies that have enabled deep wind, or the establishment of floating turbines up to 50 kilometers offshore. Storage solutions such as hydro-pneumatic energy storage, gravity energy storage or buoyancy storage can help maintain the transmission rate while reducing the number of transmission lines needed.

    In a lot of communities, the reality of renewables is that if you can generate your own energy, you can establish a level of security and resilience that feeds other benefits. 

    Nevertheless, as demonstrated in the Cape Wind case, technology [may be rejected] unless a community is involved from the beginning. Community involvement also creates other opportunities. Suppose, for example, that high school students are working as interns on renewable energy projects with engineers at great universities from the region. This provides a point of access for families and allows them to take pride in the systems they create.  It gives a further sense of purpose to the technology system, and vests the community in the system’s success. It is the difference between, “It was delivered to me,” and “I built it.” For researchers the article is a reminder that engineering and design are more successful if they are inclusive. Engineering and design processes are also meant to be accessible and fun. More

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    Passive cooling system could benefit off-grid locations

    As the world gets warmer, the use of power-hungry air conditioning systems is projected to increase significantly, putting a strain on existing power grids and bypassing many locations with little or no reliable electric power. Now, an innovative system developed at MIT offers a way to use passive cooling to preserve food crops and supplement conventional air conditioners in buildings, with no need for power and only a small need for water.

    The system, which combines radiative cooling, evaporative cooling, and thermal insulation in a slim package that could resemble existing solar panels, can provide up to about 19 degrees Fahrenheit (9.3 degrees Celsius) of cooling from the ambient temperature, enough to permit safe food storage for about 40 percent longer under very humid conditions. It could triple the safe storage time under dryer conditions.

    The findings are reported today in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science, in a paper by MIT postdoc Zhengmao Lu, Arny Leroy PhD ’21, professors Jeffrey Grossman and Evelyn Wang, and two others. While more research is needed in order to bring down the cost of one key component of the system, the researchers say that eventually such a system could play a significant role in meeting the cooling needs of many parts of the world where a lack of electricity or water limits the use of conventional cooling systems.

    The system cleverly combines previous standalone cooling designs that each provide limited amounts of cooling power, in order to produce significantly more cooling overall — enough to help reduce food losses from spoilage in parts of the world that are already suffering from limited food supplies. In recognition of that potential, the research team has been partly supported by MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab.

    “This technology combines some of the good features of previous technologies such as evaporative cooling and radiative cooling,” Lu says. By using this combination, he says, “we show that you can achieve significant food life extension, even in areas where you have high humidity,” which limits the capabilities of conventional evaporative or radiative cooling systems.

    In places that do have existing air conditioning systems in buildings, the new system could be used to significantly reduce the load on these systems by sending cool water to the hottest part of the system, the condenser. “By lowering the condenser temperature, you can effectively increase the air conditioner efficiency, so that way you can potentially save energy,” Lu says.

    Other groups have also been pursuing passive cooling technologies, he says, but “by combining those features in a synergistic way, we are now able to achieve high cooling performance, even in high-humidity areas where previous technology generally cannot perform well.”

    The system consists of three layers of material, which together provide cooling as water and heat pass through the device. In practice, the device could resemble a conventional solar panel, but instead of putting out electricity, it would directly provide cooling, for example by acting as the roof of a food storage container. Or, it could be used to send chilled water through pipes to cool parts of an existing air conditioning system and improve its efficiency. The only maintenance required is adding water for the evaporation, but the consumption is so low that this need only be done about once every four days in the hottest, driest areas, and only once a month in wetter areas.

    The top layer is an aerogel, a material consisting mostly of air enclosed in the cavities of a sponge-like structure made of polyethylene. The material is highly insulating but freely allows both water vapor and infrared radiation to pass through. The evaporation of water (rising up from the layer below) provides some of the cooling power, while the infrared radiation, taking advantage of the extreme transparency of Earth’s atmosphere at those wavelengths, radiates some of the heat straight up through the air and into space — unlike air conditioners, which spew hot air into the immediate surrounding environment.

    Below the aerogel is a layer of hydrogel — another sponge-like material, but one whose pore spaces filled with water rather than air. It’s similar to material currently used commercially for products such as cooling pads or wound dressings. This provides the water source for evaporative cooling, as water vapor forms at its surface and the vapor passes up right through the aerogel layer and out to the environment.

    Below that, a mirror-like layer reflects any incoming sunlight that has reached it, sending it back up through the device rather than letting it heat up the materials and thus reducing their thermal load. And the top layer of aerogel, being a good insulator, is also highly solar-reflecting, limiting the amount of solar heating of the device, even under strong direct sunlight.

    “The novelty here is really just bringing together the radiative cooling feature, the evaporative cooling feature, and also the thermal insulation feature all together in one architecture,” Lu explains. The system was tested, using a small version, just 4 inches across, on the rooftop of a building at MIT, proving its effectiveness even during suboptimal weather conditions, Lu says, and achieving 9.3 C of cooling (18.7 F).

    “The challenge previously was that evaporative materials often do not deal with solar absorption well,” Lu says. “With these other materials, usually when they’re under the sun, they get heated, so they are unable to get to high cooling power at the ambient temperature.”

    The aerogel material’s properties are a key to the system’s overall efficiency, but that material at present is expensive to produce, as it requires special equipment for critical point drying (CPD) to remove solvents slowly from the delicate porous structure without damaging it. The key characteristic that needs to be controlled to provide the desired characteristics is the size of the pores in the aerogel, which is made by mixing the polyethylene material with solvents, allowing it to set like a bowl of Jell-O, and then getting the solvents out of it. The research team is currently exploring ways of either making this drying process more inexpensive, such as by using freeze-drying, or finding alternative materials that can provide the same insulating function at lower cost, such as membranes separated by an air gap.

    While the other materials used in the system are readily available and relatively inexpensive, Lu says, “the aerogel is the only material that’s a product from the lab that requires further development in terms of mass production.” And it’s impossible to predict how long that development might take before this system can be made practical for widespread use, he says.

    The research team included Lenan Zhang of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Jatin Patil of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. More

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    Cracking the carbon removal challenge

    By most measures, MIT chemical engineering spinoff Verdox has been enjoying an exceptional year. The carbon capture and removal startup, launched in 2019, announced $80 million in funding in February from a group of investors that included Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Then, in April — after recognition as one of the year’s top energy pioneers by Bloomberg New Energy Finance — the company and partner Carbfix won a $1 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal milestone award. This was the first round in the Musk Foundation’s four-year, $100 million-competition, the largest prize offered in history.

    “While our core technology has been validated by the significant improvement of performance metrics, this external recognition further verifies our vision,” says Sahag Voskian SM ’15, PhD ’19, co-founder and chief technology officer at Verdox. “It shows that the path we’ve chosen is the right one.”

    The search for viable carbon capture technologies has intensified in recent years, as scientific models show with increasing certainty that any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change means limiting CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million by 2100. Alternative energies will only get humankind so far, and a vast removal of CO2 will be an important tool in the race to remove the gas from the atmosphere.

    Voskian began developing the company’s cost-effective and scalable technology for carbon capture in the lab of T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “It feels exciting to see ideas move from the lab to potential commercial production,” says Hatton, a co-founder of the company and scientific advisor, adding that Verdox has speedily overcome the initial technical hiccups encountered by many early phase companies. “This recognition enhances the credibility of what we’re doing, and really validates our approach.”

    At the heart of this approach is technology Voskian describes as “elegant and efficient.” Most attempts to grab carbon from an exhaust flow or from air itself require a great deal of energy. Voskian and Hatton came up with a design whose electrochemistry makes carbon capture appear nearly effortless. Their invention is a kind of battery: conductive electrodes coated with a compound called polyanthraquinone, which has a natural chemical attraction to carbon dioxide under certain conditions, and no affinity for CO2 when these conditions are relaxed. When activated by a low-level electrical current, the battery charges, reacting with passing molecules of CO2 and pulling them onto its surface. Once the battery becomes saturated, the CO2 can be released with a flip of voltage as a pure gas stream.

    “We showed that our technology works in a wide range of CO2 concentrations, from the 20 percent or higher found in cement and steel industry exhaust streams, down to the very diffuse 0.04 percent in air itself,” says Hatton. Climate change science suggests that removing CO2 directly from air “is an important component of the whole mitigation strategy,” he adds.

    “This was an academic breakthrough,” says Brian Baynes PhD ’04, CEO and co-founder of Verdox. Baynes, a chemical engineering alumnus and a former associate of Hatton’s, has many startups to his name, and a history as a venture capitalist and mentor to young entrepreneurs. When he first encountered Hatton and Voskian’s research in 2018, he was “impressed that their technology showed it could reduce energy consumption for certain kinds of carbon capture by 70 percent compared to other technologies,” he says. “I was encouraged and impressed by this low-energy footprint, and recommended that they start a company.”

    Neither Hatton nor Voskian had commercialized a product before, so they asked Baynes to help them get going. “I normally decline these requests, because the costs are generally greater than the upside,” Baynes says. “But this innovation had the potential to move the needle on climate change, and I saw it as a rare opportunity.”

    The Verdox team has no illusions about the challenge ahead. “The scale of the problem is enormous,” says Voskian. “Our technology must be in a position to capture mega- and gigatons of CO2 from air and emission sources.” Indeed, the International Panel on Climate Change estimates the world must remove 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050 in order to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius.

    To scale up successfully and at a pace that could meet the world’s climate challenge, Verdox must become “a business that works in a technoeconomic sense,” as Baynes puts it. This means, for instance, ensuring its carbon capture system offers clear and competitive cost benefits when deployed. Not a problem, says Voskian: “Our technology, because it uses electric energy, can be easily integrated into the grid, working with solar and wind on a plug-and-play basis.” The Verdox team believes their carbon footprint will beat that of competitors by orders of magnitude.

    The company is pushing past a series of technical obstacles as it ramps up: enabling the carbon capture battery to run hundreds of thousands of cycles before its performance wanes, and enhancing the polyanthraquinone chemistry so that the device is even more selective for CO2.

    After hurtling past critical milestones, Verdox is now working with its first announced commercial client: Norwegian aluminum company Hydro, which aims to eliminate CO2 from the exhaust of its smelters as it transitions to zero-carbon production.

    Verdox is also developing systems that can efficiently pull CO2 out of ambient air. “We’re designing units that would look like rows and rows of big fans that bring the air into boxes containing our batteries,” he says. Such approaches might prove especially useful in locations such as airfields, where there are higher-than-normal concentrations of CO2 emissions present.

    All this captured carbon needs to go somewhere. With XPRIZE partner Carbfix, which has a decade-old, proven method for mineralizing captured CO2 and depositing it in deep underground caverns, Verdox will have a final resting place for CO2 that cannot immediately be reused for industrial applications such as new fuels or construction materials.

    With its clients and partners, the team appears well-positioned for the next round of the carbon removal XPRIZE competition, which will award up to $50 million to the group that best demonstrates a working solution at a scale of at least 1,000 tons removed per year, and can present a viable blueprint for scaling to gigatons of removal per year.

    Can Verdox meaningfully reduce the planet’s growing CO2 burden? Voskian is sure of it. “Going at our current momentum, and seeing the world embrace carbon capture, this is the right path forward,” he says. “With our partners, deploying manufacturing facilities on a global scale, we will make a dent in the problem in our lifetime.” More

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    A lasting — and valuable — legacy

    Betar Gallant, MIT associate professor and Class of 1922 Career Development Chair in Mechanical Engineering, grew up in a curious, independently minded family. Her mother had multiple jobs over the years, including in urban planning and in the geospatial field. Her father, although formally trained in English, read textbooks of all kinds from cover to cover, taught himself numerous technical fields including engineering, and worked successfully in them. When Gallant was very young, she and her father did science experiments in the basement.

    It wasn’t until she was in her teenage years, though, that she says she got drawn into science. Her father, who had fallen ill five years before, died when Gallant was 16, and while grieving, “when I was missing him the most,” she started to look at what had captivated her father.

    “I started to take a deeper interest in the things he had spent his life working on as a way to feel closer to him in his absence,” Gallant says. “I spent a few long months one summer looking through some of the things he had worked on, and found myself reading physics textbooks. That was enough, and I was hooked.”

    The love for independently finding and understanding solutions, that she had apparently inherited from her parents, eventually took her to the professional love of her life: electrochemistry.

    As an undergraduate at MIT, Gallant did an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project with Professor Yang Shao-Horn’s research group that went from her sophomore year through her senior thesis. This was Gallant’s first official exposure to electrochemistry.

    “When I met Yang, she showed me very quickly how challenging and enriching electrochemistry can be, and there was real conviction and excitement in how she and her group members talked about research,” Gallant says. “It was totally eye-opening, and I’m fortunate that she was a (relatively rare) electrochemist in a mechanical engineering department, or else I likely would not have been able to go down that road.”

    Play video

    Gallant earned three degrees at MIT (’08, SM ’10, and PhD ’13). Before joining the MIT faculty in 2016, she was a Kavli Nanoscience Institute Prize Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

    Her passion for electrochemistry is enormous. “Electrons are just dazzling — they power so much of our everyday world, and are the key to a renewable future,” she says, explaining that despite electrons’ amazing potential, isolated electrons cannot be stored and produced on demand, because “nature doesn’t allow excessive amounts of charge imbalances to accumulate.”

    Electrons can, however, be stored on molecules, in bonds and in metal ions or nonmetal centers that are able to lose and gain electrons — as long as positive charge transfers occur to accommodate the electrons.

    “Here’s where chemistry rears its head,” Gallant says. “What types of molecules or materials can behave in this way? How do we store as much charge as possible while making the weight and volume as low as possible?”

    Gallant points out that early battery developers using lithium and ions built a technology that “has arguably shaped our modern world more than any other.

    “If you look at some early papers, the concepts of how a lithium-ion battery or a lithium metal anode worked were sketched out by hand — they had been deduced to be true, before the field even had the tools to prove all the mechanisms were actually occurring — yet even now, those ideas are still turning out to be right!”

    Gallant says, “that’s because if you truly understand the basic principles of electrochemistry, you can start to intuit how systems will behave. Once you can do that, you can really begin to engineer better materials and devices.”

    Truly her father’s daughter, Gallant’s emphasis is on independently finding solutions.

    “Ultimately, it’s a race to have the best mental models,” she says. “A great lab and lots of funding and personnel to run it are very nice, but the most valuable tools in the toolbox are solid mental models and a way of thinking about electrochemistry, which is actually very personalized depending on the researcher.”

    She says one project with immediate impact that’s coming out of her Gallant Energy and Carbon Conversion Lab relates to primary (non-rechargeable) battery work that she and her team are working to commercialize. It involves injecting new electrochemically active electrolytes into leading high-energy batteries as they’re being assembled. Replacing a conventional electrolyte with the new chemistry decreases the normally inactive weight of the battery and boosts the energy substantially, Gallant says. One important application of such batteries would be for medical devices such as pacemakers.

    “If you can extend lifetime, you’re talking about longer times between invasive replacement surgeries, which really affects patient quality of life,” she says.

    Gallant’s team is also leading efforts to enable higher-energy rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. Key to a step-change in energy, and therefore driving range, is to use a lithium metal anode in place of graphite. Lithium metal is highly reactive, however, with all battery electrolytes, and its interface needs to be stabilized in ways that still elude researchers. Gallant’s team is developing design guidelines for such interfaces, and for next-generation electrolytes to form and sustain these interfaces. Gallant says that applying the technology to that purpose and commercializing it would be “a bit longer-term, but I believe this change to lithium anodes will happen, and it’s just a matter of when.”

    About six years ago, when Gallant founded her lab, she and her team started introducing carbon dioxide into batteries as a way to experiment with electrochemical conversion of the greenhouse gas. She says they realized that batteries do not present the best practical technology to mitigate CO2, but their experimentation did open up new paths to carbon capture and conversion. “That work allowed us to think creatively, and we started to realize that there is tremendous potential to manipulate CO2 reactions by carefully designing the electrochemical environment.” That led her team to the idea of conducting electrochemical transformations on CO2 from a captured state bound to a capture sorbent, replacing the energy-intense regeneration step of today’s capture processes and streamlining the process.  

    “Now we’re seeing other researchers working on that, too, and taking this idea in exciting directions — it’s a very challenging and very rich topic,” she says.

    Gallant has won awards including an MIT Bose Fellowship, the Army Research Office Young Investigator Award, the Scialog Fellowship in Energy Storage and in Negative Emissions Science, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Distinguished Teaching at MIT, the Electrochemical Society (ECS) Battery Division Early Career award, and an ECS-Toyota Young Investigator Award.

    These days, Gallant does some of her best thinking while brainstorming with her research group members and with her husband, who is also an academic. She says being a professor at MIT means she has “a queue of things to think about,” but she sometimes gets awarded with a revelation.

    “My brain gets overloaded because I can’t think through everything instantaneously; ideas have to get in line! So there’s a lot going on in the background at all times,” she say. “I don’t know how it works, but sometimes I’ll be going for a walk or doing something else, and an idea breaks through. Those are the fun ones.” More

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    Computing for the health of the planet

    The health of the planet is one of the most important challenges facing humankind today. From climate change to unsafe levels of air and water pollution to coastal and agricultural land erosion, a number of serious challenges threaten human and ecosystem health.

    Ensuring the health and safety of our planet necessitates approaches that connect scientific, engineering, social, economic, and political aspects. New computational methods can play a critical role by providing data-driven models and solutions for cleaner air, usable water, resilient food, efficient transportation systems, better-preserved biodiversity, and sustainable sources of energy.

    The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is committed to hiring multiple new faculty in computing for climate and the environment, as part of MIT’s plan to recruit 20 climate-focused faculty under its climate action plan. This year the college undertook searches with several departments in the schools of Engineering and Science for shared faculty in computing for health of the planet, one of the six strategic areas of inquiry identified in an MIT-wide planning process to help focus shared hiring efforts. The college also undertook searches for core computing faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

    The searches are part of an ongoing effort by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing to hire 50 new faculty — 25 shared with other academic departments and 25 in computer science and artificial intelligence and decision-making. The goal is to build capacity at MIT to help more deeply infuse computing and other disciplines in departments.

    Four interdisciplinary scholars were hired in these searches. They will join the MIT faculty in the coming year to engage in research and teaching that will advance physical understanding of low-carbon energy solutions, Earth-climate modeling, biodiversity monitoring and conservation, and agricultural management through high-performance computing, transformational numerical methods, and machine-learning techniques.

    “By coordinating hiring efforts with multiple departments and schools, we were able to attract a cohort of exceptional scholars in this area to MIT. Each of them is developing and using advanced computational methods and tools to help find solutions for a range of climate and environmental issues,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Henry Warren Ellis Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They will also help strengthen cross-departmental ties in computing across an important, critical area for MIT and the world.”

    “These strategic hires in the area of computing for climate and the environment are an incredible opportunity for the college to deepen its academic offerings and create new opportunity for collaboration across MIT,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The college plays a pivotal role in MIT’s overarching effort to hire climate-focused faculty — introducing the critical role of computing to address the health of the planet through innovative research and curriculum.”

    The four new faculty members are:

    Sara Beery will join MIT as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in September 2023. Beery received her PhD in computing and mathematical sciences at Caltech in 2022, where she was advised by Pietro Perona. Her research focuses on building computer vision methods that enable global-scale environmental and biodiversity monitoring across data modalities, tackling real-world challenges including strong spatiotemporal correlations, imperfect data quality, fine-grained categories, and long-tailed distributions. She partners with nongovernmental organizations and government agencies to deploy her methods in the wild worldwide and works toward increasing the diversity and accessibility of academic research in artificial intelligence through interdisciplinary capacity building and education.

    Priya Donti will join MIT as an assistant professor in the faculties of Electrical Engineering and Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in academic year 2023-24. Donti recently finished her PhD in the Computer Science Department and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, co-advised by Zico Kolter and Inês Azevedo. Her work focuses on machine learning for forecasting, optimization, and control in high-renewables power grids. Specifically, her research explores methods to incorporate the physics and hard constraints associated with electric power systems into deep learning models. Donti is also co-founder and chair of Climate Change AI, a nonprofit initiative to catalyze impactful work at the intersection of climate change and machine learning that is currently running through the Cornell Tech Runway Startup Postdoc Program.

    Ericmoore Jossou will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the faculty of electrical engineering in EECS in July 2023. He is currently an assistant scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy-affiliated lab that conducts research in nuclear and high energy physics, energy science and technology, environmental and bioscience, nanoscience, and national security. His research at MIT will focus on understanding the processing-structure-properties correlation of materials for nuclear energy applications through advanced experiments, multiscale simulations, and data science. Jossou obtained his PhD in mechanical engineering in 2019 from the University of Saskatchewan.

    Sherrie Wang will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society in academic year 2023-24. Wang is currently a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, hosted by Solomon Hsiang and the Global Policy Lab. She develops machine learning for Earth observation data. Her primary application areas are improving agricultural management and forecasting climate phenomena. She obtained her PhD in computational and mathematical engineering from Stanford University in 2021, where she was advised by David Lobell. More

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    SMART Innovation Center awarded five-year NRF grant for new deep tech ventures

    The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore has announced a five-year grant awarded to the SMART Innovation Center (SMART IC) by the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF) as part of its Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 Plan. The SMART IC plays a key role in accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship in Singapore and will channel the grant toward refining and commercializing developments in the field of deep technologies through financial support and training.

    Singapore has recently expanded its innovation ecosystem to hone deep technologies to solve complex problems in areas of pivotal importance. While there has been increased support for deep tech here, with investments in deep tech startups surging from $324 million in 2020 to $861 million in 2021, startups of this nature tend to take a longer time to scale, get acquired, or get publicly listed due to increased time, labor, and capital needed. By providing researchers with financial and strategic support from the early stages of their research and development, the SMART IC hopes to accelerate this process and help bring new and disruptive technologies to the market.

    “SMART’s Innovation Center prides itself as being one of the key drivers of research and innovation, by identifying and nurturing emerging technologies and accelerating them towards commercialization,” says Howard Califano, director of SMART IC. “With the support of the NRF, we look forward to another five years of further growing the ecosystem by ensuring an environment where research — and research funds — are properly directed to what the market and society need. This is how we will be able to solve problems faster and more efficiently, and ensure that value is generated from scientific research.”

    Set up in 2009 by MIT and funded by the NRF, the SMART IC furthers SMART’s goals by nurturing promising and innovative technologies that faculty and research teams in Singapore are working on. Some emerging technologies include, but are not limited to, biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations.

    Having trained over 300 postdocs since its inception, the SMART IC has supported the launch of 55 companies that have created over 3,300 jobs. Some of these companies were spearheaded by SMART’s interdisciplinary research groups, including biotech companies Theonys and Thrixen, autonomous vehicle software company nuTonomy, and integrated circuit company New Silicon. During the RIE 2020 period, 66 Ignition Grants and 69 Innovation Grants were awarded to SMART’s researchers, as well as faculty at other Singapore universities and research institutes.

    The following four programs are open to researchers from education and research facilities, as well as institutes of higher learning, in Singapore:

    Innovation Grant 2.0: The enhanced SMART Innovation Center’s flagship program, the Innovation Grant 2.0, is a gated three-phase program focused on enabling scientist-entrepreneurs to launch a successful venture, with training and intense monitoring across all phases. This grant program can provide up to $800,000 Singaporean dollars and is open to all areas of deep technology (engineering, artificial intelligence, biomedical, new materials, etc). The first grant call for the Innovation Grant 2.0 is open through Oct. 15. Researchers, scientists, and engineers at Singapore’s public institutions of higher learning, research centers, public hospitals, and medical research centers — especially those working on disruptive technologies with commercial potential — are invited to apply for the Innovation Grant 2.0.

    I2START Grant: In collaboration with SMART, the National Health Innovation Center Singapore, and Enterprise Singapore, this novel integrated program will develop master classes on venture building, with a focus on medical devices, diagnostics, and medical technologies. The grant amount is up to S$1,350,000. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

    STDR Stream 2: The Singapore Therapeutics Development Review (STDR) program is jointly operated by SMART, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and the Experimental Drug Development Center. The grant is available in two phases, a pre-pilot phase of S$100,000 and a Pilot phase of S$830,000, with a potential combined total of up to S$930,000. The next STDR Pre-Pilot grant call will open on Sept. 15.

    Central Gap Fund: The SMART IC is an Innovation and Enterprise Office under the NRF’s Central Gap Fund. This program helps projects that have already received an Innovation 2.0, STDR Stream 2, or I2START Grant but require additional funding to bridge to seed or Series A funding, with possible funding of up to S$5 million. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

    The SMART IC will also continue developing robust entrepreneurship mentorship programs and regular industry events to encourage closer collaboration among faculty innovators and the business community.

    “SMART, through the Innovation Center, is honored to be able to help researchers take these revolutionary technologies to the marketplace, where they can contribute to the economy and society. The projects we fund are commercialized in Singapore, ensuring that the local economy is the first to benefit,” says Eugene Fitzgerald, chief executive officer and director of SMART, and professor of materials science and engineering at MIT.

    SMART was established by MIT and the NRF in 2007 and serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for cutting-edge research of interest to both parties. SMART is the first entity in the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Center and five Interdisciplinary Research Groups: Antimicrobial Resistance, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, Future Urban Mobility, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.

    The SMART IC was set up by MIT and the NRF in 2009. It identifies and nurtures a broad range of emerging technologies including but not limited to biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations, and accelerates them toward commercialization. The SMART IC runs a rigorous grant system that identifies and funds promising projects to help them de-risk their technologies, conduct proof-of-concept experiments, and determine go-to-market strategies. It also prides itself on robust entrepreneurship boot camps and mentorship, and frequent industry events to encourage closer collaboration among faculty innovators and the business community. SMART’s Innovation grant program is the only scheme that is open to all institutes of higher learning and research institutes across Singapore. More

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    MIT accelerates efforts on path to carbon reduction goals

    Under its “Fast Forward” climate action plan, which was announced in May 2021, MIT has set a goal of eliminating direct emissions from its campus by 2050. An important near-term milestone will be achieving net-zero emissions by 2026. Many other colleges and universities have set similar targets. What does it take to achieve such a dramatic reduction?

    Since 2014, when MIT launched a five-year plan for action on climate change, net campus emissions have been cut by 20 percent. To meet the 2026 target, and ultimately achieve zero direct emissions by 2050, the Institute is making its campus buildings dramatically more energy efficient, transitioning to electric vehicles (EVs), and enabling large-scale renewable energy projects, among other strategies.

    “This is an ‘all-in’ moment for MIT, and we’re taking comprehensive steps to address our carbon footprint,” says Glen Shor, executive vice president and treasurer. “Reducing our emissions to zero will be challenging, but it’s the right aspiration.”

    “As an energy-intensive campus in an urban setting, our ability to achieve this goal will, in part, depend on the capacity of the local power grid to support the electrification of buildings and transportation, and how ‘green’ that grid electricity will become over time,” says Joe Higgins, MIT’s vice president for campus services and stewardship. “It will also require breakthrough technology improvements and new public policies to drive their adoption. Many of those tech breakthroughs are being developed by our own faculty, and our teams are planning scenarios in anticipation of their arrival.”

    Working toward an energy-efficient campus

    The on-campus reductions have come primarily from a major upgrade to MIT’s Central Utilities Plant, which provides electricity, heating, and cooling for about 80 percent of all Institute buildings. The upgraded plant, which uses advanced cogeneration technology, became fully operational at the end of 2021 and is meeting campus energy needs at greater efficiency and lower carbon intensity (on average 15 to 25 percent cleaner) compared to the regional electricity grid. Carbon reductions from the increased efficiency provided by the enhanced plant are projected to counter the added greenhouse gas emissions caused by recently completed and planned construction and operation of new buildings on campus, especially energy-intensive laboratory buildings.

    Energy from the plant is delivered to campus buildings through MIT’s district energy system, a network of underground pipes and power lines providing electricity, heating, and air conditioning. With this adaptable system, MIT can introduce new technologies as they become available to increase the system’s energy efficiency. The system enables MIT to export power when the regional grid is under stress and to import electricity from the power grid as it becomes cleaner, likely over the next decade as the availability of offshore wind and renewable resources increases. “At the same time, we are reviewing additional technology options such as industrial-scale heat pumps, thermal batteries, geothermal exchange, microreactors, bio-based fuels, and green hydrogen produced from renewable energy,” Higgins says.

    Along with upgrades to the plant, MIT is gradually converting existing steam-based heating systems into more efficient hot-water systems. This long-term project to lower campus emissions requires replacing the vast network of existing steam pipes and infrastructure, and will be phased in as systems need to be replaced. Currently MIT has four buildings that are on a hot-water system, with five more buildings transitioning to hot water by the fall of 2022.  

    Minimizing emissions by implementing meaningful building efficiency standards has been an ongoing strategy in MIT’s climate mitigation efforts. In 2016, MIT made a commitment that all new campus construction and major renovation projects must earn at least Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. To date, 24 spaces and buildings at MIT have earned a LEED designation, a performance-based rating system of a building’s environmental attributes associated with its design, construction, operations, and management.

    Current efficiency efforts focus on reducing energy in the 20 buildings that account for more than 50 percent of MIT’s energy usage. One such project under construction aims to improve energy efficiency in Building 46, which houses the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and is the biggest energy user on the campus because of its large size and high concentration of lab spaces. Interventions include optimizing ventilation systems that will significantly reduce energy use while improving occupant comfort, and working with labs to implement programs such as fume hood hibernation and equipment adjustments. For example, raising ultralow freezer set points by 10 degrees can reduce their energy consumption by as much as 40 percent. Together, these measures are projected to yield a 35 percent reduction in emissions for Building 46, which would contribute to reducing campus-level emissions by 2 percent.

    Over the past decade, in addition to whole building intervention programs, the campus has taken targeted measures in over 100 campus buildings to add building insulation, replace old, inefficient windows, transition to energy-efficient lighting and mechanical systems, optimize lab ventilation systems, and install solar panels on solar-ready rooftops on campus — and will increase the capacity of renewable energy installations on campus by a minimum of 400 percent by 2026. These smaller scale contributions to overall emissions reductions are essential steps in a comprehensive campus effort.

    Electrification of buildings and vehicles

    With an eye to designing for “the next energy era,” says Higgins, MIT is looking to large-scale electrification of its buildings and district energy systems to reduce building use-associated emissions. Currently under renovation, the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse — which will house the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) and the newly established MIT Morningside Academy for Design — will be the first building on campus to undergo this transformation by using electric heat pumps as its main heating and supplemental cooling source. The project team, consisting of campus engineering and construction teams as well as the designers, is working with SA+P faculty to design this innovative electrification project. The solution will move excess heat from the district energy infrastructure and nearby facilities to supply the heat pump system, creating a solution that uses less energy — resulting in fewer carbon emissions. 

    Next to building energy use, emissions from on-campus vehicles are a key target for reduction; one of the goals in the “Fast Forward” plan is the electrification of on-campus vehicles. This includes the expansion of electric vehicle charging stations, and work has begun on the promised 200 percent expansion of the number of stations on campus, from 120 to 360. Sites are being evaluated to make sure that all members of the MIT community have easy access to these facilities.

    The electrification also includes working toward replacing existing MIT-owned vehicles, from shuttle buses and vans to pickup trucks and passenger cars, as well as grounds maintenance equipment. Shu Yang Zhang, a junior in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is part of an Office of Sustainability student research team that carried out an evaluation of the options available for each type of vehicle and compared both their lifecycle costs and emissions.

    Zhang says the team examined “the specifics of the vehicles that we own, looking at key measures such as fuel economy and cargo capacity,” and determined what alternatives exist in each category. The team carried out a study of the costs for replacing existing vehicles with EVs on the market now, versus buying new gas vehicles or leaving the existing ones in place. They produced a set of specific recommendations about fleet vehicle replacement and charging infrastructure installation on campus that supports both commuters and an MIT EV fleet in the future. According to their estimates, Zhang says, “the costs should be not drastically different” in the long run for the new electric vehicles.

    Strength in numbers

    While a panoply of measures has contributed to the successful offsetting of emissions so far, the biggest single contributor was MIT’s creation of an innovative, collaborative power purchase agreement (PPA) that enabled the construction of a large solar farm in North Carolina, which in turn contributed to the early retirement of a large coal-fired power plant in that region. MIT is committed to buying 73 percent of the power generated by the new facility, which is equivalent to approximately 40 percent of the Institute’s electricity use.

    That PPA, which was a collaboration between three institutions, provided a template that has already been emulated by other institutions, in many cases enabling smaller organizations to take part in such a plan and achieve greater offsets of their carbon emissions than might have been possible acting on their own. Now, MIT is actively pursuing new, larger variations on that plan, which may include a wider variety of organizational participants, perhaps including local governments as well as institutions and nonprofits. The hope is that, as was the case with the original PPA, such collaborations could provide a model that other institutions and organizations may adopt as well.

    Strategic portfolio agreements like the PPA will help achieve net zero emissions on campus while accelerating the decarbonization of regional electricity grids — a transformation critical to achieving net zero emissions, alongside all the work that continues to reduce the direct emissions from the campus itself.

    “PPAs play an important role in MIT’s net zero strategy and have an immediate and significant impact in decarbonization of regional power grids by enabling renewable energy projects,” says Paul L. Joskow, the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics. “Many well-known U.S. companies and organizations that are seeking to enable and purchase CO2-free electricity have turned to long-term PPAs selected through a competitive procurement process to help to meet their voluntary internal decarbonization commitments. While there are still challenges regarding organizational procurements — including proper carbon emissions mitigation accounting, optimal contract design, and efficient integration into wholesale electricity markets — we are optimistic that MIT’s efforts and partnerships will contribute to resolving some of these issues.”

    Addressing indirect sources of emissions

    MIT’s examination of emissions is not limited to the campus itself but also the indirect sources associated with the Institute’s operations, research, and education. Of these indirect emissions, the three major ones are business travel, purchased goods and services, and construction of buildings, which are collectively larger than the total direct emissions from campus.

    The strategic sourcing team in the Office of the Vice President for Finance has been working to develop opportunities and guidelines for making it easier to purchase sustainable products, for everything from office paper to electronics to lab equipment. Jeremy Gregory, executive director of MIT’s Climate and Sustainability Consortium, notes that MIT’s characteristic independent spirit resists placing limits on what products researchers can buy, but, he says, “we have opportunities to centralize some of our efforts and empower our community to choose low-impact alternatives when making procurement decisions.”

    The path forward

    The process of identifying and implementing MIT’s carbon reductions will be supported, in part, by the Carbon Footprint Working Group, which was launched by the Climate Nucleus, a new body MIT created to manage the implementation of the “Fast Forward” climate plan. The nucleus includes a broad representation from MIT’s departments, labs, and centers that are working on climate change issues. “We’ve created this internal structure in an effort to integrate operational expertise with faculty and student research innovations,” says Director of Sustainability Julie Newman.

    Whatever measures end up being adopted to reduce energy and associated emissions, their results will be made available continuously to members of the MIT community in real-time, through a campus data gateway, Newman says — a degree of transparency that is exceptional in higher education. “If you’re interested in supporting all these efforts and following this,” she says, “you can track the progress via Energize MIT,” a set of online visualizations that display various measures of MIT’s energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions over time. More