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    Vapor-collection technology saves water while clearing the air

    About two-fifths of all the water that gets withdrawn from lakes, rivers, and wells in the U.S. is used not for agriculture, drinking, or sanitation, but to cool the power plants that provide electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear power. Over 65 percent of these plants use evaporative cooling, leading to huge white plumes that billow from their cooling towers, which can be a nuisance and, in some cases, even contribute to dangerous driving conditions.

    Now, a small company based on technology recently developed at MIT by the Varanasi Research Group is hoping to reduce both the water needs at these plants and the resultant plumes — and to potentially help alleviate water shortages in areas where power plants put pressure on local water systems.

    The technology is surprisingly simple in principle, but developing it to the point where it can now be tested at full scale on industrial plants was a more complex proposition. That required the real-world experience that the company’s founders gained from installing prototype systems, first on MIT’s natural-gas-powered cogeneration plant and then on MIT’s nuclear research reactor.

    In these demanding tests, which involved exposure to not only the heat and vibrations of a working industrial plant but also the rigors of New England winters, the system proved its effectiveness at both eliminating the vapor plume and recapturing water. And, it purified the water in the process, so that it was 100 times cleaner than the incoming cooling water. The system is now being prepared for full-scale tests in a commercial power plant and in a chemical processing plant.

    “Campus as a living laboratory”

    The technology was originally envisioned by professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi to develop efficient water-recovery systems by capturing water droplets from both natural fog and plumes from power plant cooling towers. The project began as part of doctoral thesis research of Maher Damak PhD ’18, with funding from the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, to improve the efficiency of fog-harvesting systems like the ones used in some arid coastal regions as a source of potable water. Those systems, which generally consist of plastic or metal mesh hung vertically in the path of fogbanks, are extremely inefficient, capturing only about 1 to 3 percent of the water droplets that pass through them.

    Varanasi and Damak found that vapor collection could be made much more efficient by first zapping the tiny droplets of water with a beam of electrically charged particles, or ions, to give each droplet a slight electric charge. Then, the stream of droplets passes through a wire mesh, like a window screen, that has an opposite electrical charge. This causes the droplets to be strongly attracted to the mesh, where they fall away due to gravity and can be collected in trays placed below the mesh.

    Lab tests showed the concept worked, and the researchers, joined by Karim Khalil PhD ’18, won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2018 for the basic concept. The nascent company, which they called Infinite Cooling, with Damak as CEO, Khalil as CTO, and Varanasi as chairperson, immediately went to work setting up a test installation on one of the cooling towers of MIT’s natural-gas-powered Central Utility Plant, with funding from the MIT Office of Sustainability. After experimenting with various configurations, they were able to show that the system could indeed eliminate the plume and produce water of high purity.

    Professor Jacopo Buongiorno in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering immediately spotted a good opportunity for collaboration, offering the use of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory research facility for further testing of the system with the help of NRL engineer Ed Block. With its 24/7 operation and its higher-temperature vapor emissions, the plant would provide a more stringent real-world test of the system, as well as proving its effectiveness in an actual operating reactor licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an important step in “de-risking” the technology so that electric utilities could feel confident in adopting the system.

    After the system was installed above one of the plant’s four cooling towers, testing showed that the water being collected was more than 100 times cleaner than the feedwater coming into the cooling system. It also proved that the installation — which, unlike the earlier version, had its mesh screens mounted vertically, parallel to the vapor stream — had no effect at all on the operation of the plant. Video of the tests dramatically illustrates how as soon as the power is switched on to the collecting mesh, the white plume of vapor immediately disappears completely.

    The high temperature and volume of the vapor plume from the reactor’s cooling towers represented “kind of a worst-case scenario in terms of plumes,” Damak says, “so if we can capture that, we can basically capture anything.”

    Working with MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, Varanasi says, “has been quite an important step because it helped us to test it at scale. … It really both validated the water quality and the performance of the system.” The process, he says, “shows the importance of using the campus as a living laboratory. It allows us to do these kinds of experiments at scale, and also showed the ability to sustainably reduce the water footprint of the campus.”

    Far-reaching benefits

    Power plant plumes are often considered an eyesore and can lead to local opposition to new power plants because of the potential for obscured views, and even potential traffic hazards when the obscuring plumes blow across roadways. “The ability to eliminate the plumes could be an important benefit, allowing plants to be sited in locations that might otherwise be restricted,” Buongiorno says. At the same time, the system could eliminate a significant amount of water used by the plants and then lost to the sky, potentially alleviating pressure on local water systems, which could be especially helpful in arid regions.

    The system is essentially a distillation process, and the pure water it produces could go into power plant boilers — which are separate from the cooling system — that require high-purity water. That might reduce the need for both fresh water and purification systems for the boilers.

    What’s more, in many arid coastal areas power plants are cooled directly with seawater. This system would essentially add a water desalination capability to the plant, at a fraction of the cost of building a new standalone desalination plant, and at an even smaller fraction of its operating costs since the heat would essentially be provided for free.

    Contamination of water is typically measured by testing its electrical conductivity, which increases with the amount of salts and other contaminants it contains. Water used in power plant cooling systems typically measures 3,000 microsiemens per centimeter, Khalil explains, while the water supply in the City of Cambridge is typically around 500 or 600 microsiemens per centimeter. The water captured by this system, he says, typically measures below 50 microsiemens per centimeter.

    Thanks to the validation provided by the testing on MIT’s plants, the company has now been able to secure arrangements for its first two installations on operating commercial plants, which should begin later this year. One is a 900-megawatt power plant where the system’s clean water production will be a major advantage, and the other is at a chemical manufacturing plant in the Midwest.

    In many locations power plants have to pay for the water they use for cooling, Varanasi says, and the new system is expected to reduce the need for water by up to 20 percent. For a typical power plant, that alone could account for about a million dollars saved in water costs per year, he says.

    “Innovation has been a hallmark of the U.S. commercial industry for more than six decades,” says Maria G. Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, who was not involved in the research. “As the changing climate impacts every aspect of life, including global water supplies, companies across the supply chain are innovating for solutions. The testing of this innovative technology at MIT provides a valuable basis for its consideration in commercial applications.” More

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    Cleaning up industrial filtration

    If you wanted to get pasta out of a pot of water, would you boil off the water, or use a strainer? While home cooks would choose the strainer, many industries continue to use energy-intensive thermal methods of separating out liquids. In some cases, that’s because it’s difficult to make a filtration system for chemical separation, which requires pores small enough to separate atoms.

    In other cases, membranes exist to separate liquids, but they are made of fragile polymers, which can break down or gum up in industrial use.

    Via Separations, a startup that emerged from MIT in 2017, has set out to address these challenges with a membrane that is cost-effective and robust. Made of graphene oxide (a “cousin” of pencil lead), the membrane can reduce the amount of energy used in industrial separations by 90 percent, according to Shreya Dave PhD ’16, company co-founder and CEO.

    This is valuable because separation processes account for about 22 percent of all in-plant energy use in the United States, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. By making such processes significantly more efficient, Via Separations plans to both save energy and address the significant emissions produced by thermal processes. “Our goal is eliminating 500 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050,” Dave says.

    Play video

    What do our passions for pasta and decarbonizing the Earth have in common? MIT alumna Shreya Dave PhD ’16 explains how she and her team at Via Separations are building the equivalent of a pasta strainer to separate chemical compounds for industry.

    Via Separations began piloting its technology this year at a U.S. paper company and expects to deploy a full commercial system there in the spring of 2022. “Our vision is to help manufacturers slow carbon dioxide emissions next year,” Dave says.

    MITEI Seed Grant

    The story of Via Separations begins in 2012, when the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) awarded a Seed Fund grant to Professor Jeffrey Grossman, who is now the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems and head of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Grossman was pursuing research into nanoporous membranes for water desalination. “We thought we could bring down the cost of desalination and improve access to clean water,” says Dave, who worked on the project as a graduate student in Grossman’s lab.

    There, she teamed up with Brent Keller PhD ’16, another Grossman graduate student and a 2016-17 ExxonMobil-MIT Energy Fellow, who was developing lab experiments to fabricate and test new materials. “We were early comrades in figuring out how to debug experiments or fix equipment,” says Keller, Via Separations’ co-founder and chief technology officer. “We were fast friends who spent a lot of time talking about science over burritos.”

    Dave went on to write her doctoral thesis on using graphene oxide for water desalination, but that turned out to be the wrong application of the technology from a business perspective, she says. “The cost of desalination doesn’t lie in the membrane materials,” she explains.

    So, after Dave and Keller graduated from MIT in 2016, they spent a lot of time talking to customers to learn more about the needs and opportunities for their new separation technology. This research led them to target the paper industry, because the environmental benefits of improving paper processing are enormous, Dave says. “The paper industry is particularly exciting because separation processes just in that industry account for more than 2 percent of U.S. energy consumption,” she says. “It’s a very concentrated, high-energy-use industry.”

    Most paper today is made by breaking down the chemical bonds in wood to create wood pulp, the primary ingredient of paper. This process generates a byproduct called black liquor, a toxic solution that was once simply dumped into waterways. To clean up this process, paper mills turned to boiling off the water from black liquor and recovering both water and chemicals for reuse in the pulping process. (Today, the most valuable way to use the liquor is as biomass feedstock to generate energy.) Via Separations plans to accomplish this same separation work by filtering black liquor through its graphene oxide membrane.

    “The advantage of graphene oxide is that it’s very robust,” Dave says. “It’s got carbon double bonds that hold together in a lot of environments, including at different pH levels and temperatures that are typically unfriendly to materials.”

    Such properties should also make the company’s membranes attractive to other industries that use membrane separation, Keller says, because today’s polymer membranes have drawbacks. “For most of the things we make — from plastics to paper and gasoline — those polymers will swell or react or degrade,” he says.

    Graphene oxide is significantly more durable, and Via Separations can customize the pores in the material to suit each industry’s application. “That’s our secret sauce,” Dave says, “modulating pore size while retaining robustness to operate in challenging environments.”

    “We’re building a catalog of products to serve different applications,” Keller says, noting that the next target market could be the food and beverage industry. “In that industry, instead of separating different corrosive paper chemicals from water, we’re trying to separate particular sugars and food ingredients from other things.”

    Future target customers include pharmaceutical companies, oil refineries, and semiconductor manufacturers, or even carbon capture businesses.

    Scaling up

    Dave, Keller, and Grossman launched Via Separations in 2017 — with a lot of help from MIT. After the seed grant, in 2015, the founders received a year of funding and support from the J-WAFS Solutions program to explore markets and to develop their business plans. The company’s first capital investment came from The Engine, a venture firm founded by MIT to support “tough tech” companies (tech businesses with transformative potential but long and challenging paths to success). They also received advice and support from MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, Venture Mentoring Service, and Technology Licensing Office. In addition, Grossman continues to serve the company as chief scientist.

    “We were incredibly fortunate to be starting a company in the MIT entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Keller says, noting that The Engine support alone “probably shaved years off our progress.”

    Already, Via Separations has grown to employ 17 people, while significantly scaling up its product. “Our customers are producing thousands of gallons per minute,” Keller explains. “To process that much liquid, we need huge areas of membrane.”

    Via Separations’ manufacturing process, which is now capable of making more than 10,000 square feet of membrane in one production run, is a key competitive advantage, Dave says. The company rolls 300-400 square feet of membrane into a module, and modules can be combined as needed to increase filtration capacity.

    The goal, Dave says, is to contribute to a more sustainable world by making an environmentally beneficial product that makes good business sense. “What we do is make manufacturing things more energy-efficient,” she says. “We allow a paper mill or chemical facility to make more product using less energy and with lower costs. So, there is a bottom-line benefit that’s significant on an industrial scale.”

    Keller says he shares Dave’s goal of building a more sustainable future. “Climate change and energy are central challenges of our time,” he says. “Working on something that has a chance to make a meaningful impact on something so important to everyone is really fulfilling.”

    This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.  More

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    Amy Watterson: Model engineer

    “I love that we are doing something that no one else is doing.”

    Amy Watterson is excited when she talks about SPARC, the pilot fusion plant being developed by MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CSF). Since being hired as a mechanical engineer at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) two years ago, Watterson has found her skills stretching to accommodate the multiple needs of the project.

    Fusion, which fuels the sun and stars, has long been sought as a carbon-free energy source for the world. For decades researchers have pursued the “tokamak,” a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber where hot plasma can be contained by magnetic fields and heated to the point where fusion occurs. Sustaining the fusion reactions long enough to draw energy from them has been a challenge.

    Watterson is intimately aware of this difficulty. Much of her life she has heard the quip, “Fusion is 50 years away and always will be.” The daughter of PSFC research scientist Catherine Fiore, who headed the PSFC’s Office of Environment, Safety and Health, and Reich Watterson, an optical engineer working at the center, she had watched her parents devote years to making fusion a reality. She determined before entering Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that she could forgo any attempt to follow her parents into a field that might not produce results during her career.

    Working on SPARC has changed her mindset. Taking advantage of a novel high-temperature superconducting tape, SPARC’s magnets will be compact while generating magnetic fields stronger than would be possible from other mid-sized tokamaks, and producing more fusion power. It suggests a high-field device that produces net fusion gain is not 50 years away. SPARC is scheduled to be begin operation in 2025.

    An education in modeling

    Watterson’s current excitement, and focus, is due to an approaching milestone for SPARC: a test of the Toroidal Field Magnet Coil (TFMC), a scaled prototype for the HTS magnets that will surround SPARC’s toroidal vacuum chamber. Its design and manufacture have been shaped by computer models and simulations. As part of a large research team, Waterson has received an education in modeling over the past two years.

    Computer models move scientific experiments forward by allowing researchers to predict what will happen to an experiment — or its materials — if a parameter is changed. Modeling a component of the TFMC, for example, researchers can test how it is affected by varying amounts of current, different temperatures or different materials. With this information they can make choices that will improve the success of the experiment.

    In preparation for the magnet testing, Watterson has modeled aspects of the cryogenic system that will circulate helium gas around the TFMC to keep it cold enough to remain superconducting. Taking into consideration the amount of cooling entering the system, the flow rate of the helium, the resistance created by valves and transfer lines and other parameters, she can model how much helium flow will be necessary to guarantee the magnet stays cold enough. Adjusting a parameter can make the difference between a magnet remaining superconducting and becoming overheated or even damaged.

    Watterson and her teammates have also modeled pressures and stress on the inside of the TFMC. Pumping helium through the coil to cool it down will add 20 atmospheres of pressure, which could create a degree of flex in elements of the magnet that are welded down. Modeling can help determine how much pressure a weld can sustain.

    “How thick does a weld need to be, and where should you put the weld so that it doesn’t break — that’s something you don’t want to leave until you’re finally assembling it,” says Watterson.

    Modeling the behavior of helium is particularly challenging because its properties change significantly as the pressure and temperature change.

    “A few degrees or a little pressure will affect the fluid’s viscosity, density, thermal conductivity, and heat capacity,” says Watterson. “The flow has different pressures and temperatures at different places in the cryogenic loop. You end up with a set of equations that are very dependent on each other, which makes it a challenge to solve.”

    Role model

    Watterson notes that her modeling depends on the contributions of colleagues at the PSFC, and praises the collaborative spirit among researchers and engineers, a community that now feels like family. Her teammates have been her mentors. “I’ve learned so much more on the job in two years than I did in four years at school,” she says.

    She realizes that having her mother as a role model in her own family has always made it easier for her to imagine becoming a scientist or engineer. Tracing her early passion for engineering to a middle school Lego robotics tournament, her eyes widen as she talks about the need for more female engineers, and the importance of encouraging girls to believe they are equal to the challenge.

    “I want to be a role model and tell them ‘I’m a successful engineer, you can be too.’ Something I run into a lot is that little girls will say, ‘I can’t be an engineer, I’m not cut out for that.’ And I say, ‘Well that’s not true. Let me show you. If you can make this Lego robot, then you can be an engineer.’ And it turns out they usually can.”

    Then, as if making an adjustment to one of her computer models, she continues.

    “Actually, they always can.” More

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    Inaugural fund supports early-stage collaborations between MIT and Jordan

    MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), together with the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation (AHSF), the cultural and social responsibility arm of the Arab Bank, recently created a new initiative to support collaboration with the Middle East. The MIT-Jordan Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation Seed Fund is providing awardees with financial grants up to $30,000 to cover travel, meeting, and workshop expenses, including in-person visits to build cultural and scientific connections between MIT and Jordan. MISTI and AHSF recently celebrated the first round of awardees in a virtual ceremony held in Amman and the United States.

    The new grant is part of the Global Seed Funds (GSF), MISTI’s annual grant program that enables participating teams to collaborate with international peers, either at MIT or abroad, to develop and launch joint research projects. Many of the projects funded lead to additional grant awards and the development of valuable long-term relationships between international researchers and MIT faculty and students.

    Since MIT’s first major collaboration in the Middle East in the 1970s, the Institute has deepened its connection and commitment to the region, expanding to create the MIT-Arab World program. The MIT-Jordan Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation Seed Fund enables the MIT-Arab World program to move forward on its key objectives: build critical cultural and scientific connections between MIT and the Arab world; develop a cadre of students who have a deep understanding of the Middle East; and bring tangible value to the partners in the region.

    Valentina Qussisiya, CEO of the foundation, shared the importance of collaboration between research institutes to improve and advance scientific research. She highlighted the role of AHSF in supporting science and researchers since 1982, emphasizing, “The partnership with MIT through the MISTI program is part of AHSF commitment toward this role in Jordan and hoped-for future collaborations and the impact of the fund on science in Jordan.”

    The new fund, open to both Jordanian and MIT faculty, is available to those pursuing research in the following fields: environmental engineering; water resource management; lean and modern technologies; automation; nanotechnology; entrepreneurship; nuclear engineering; materials engineering; energy and thermal engineering; biomedical engineering, prostheses, computational neuroscience, and technology; social and management sciences; urban studies and planning; science, technology, and society; innovation in education; Arabic language automation; and food security and sustainable agriculture.

    Philip S. Khoury, faculty director of MISTI’s MIT-Arab World program and Ford International Professor of History and associate provost at MIT, explained that the winning projects all deal with critical issues that will benefit both MIT and Jordan, both on- and off-campus. “Beyond the actual faculty collaboration, these projects will bring much value to the hands-on education of MIT and Jordanian students and their capacity to get to know one another as future leaders in science and technology,” he says.

    This year, the MIT-Jordan Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation Seed Fund received numerous high-quality proposals. Applications were reviewed by MIT and Jordanian faculty and selected by a committee of MIT faculty. There were six winning projects in the inaugural round:

    Low-Cost Renewable-Powered Electrodialysis Desalination and Drip Irrigation: Amos Winter (MIT principal investigator) and Samer Talozi (international collaborator)

    iPSC and CRISPR Gene Editing to Study Rare Diseases: Ernest Fraenkel (MIT principal investigator) and Nidaa Ababneh (international collaborator)

    Use of Distributed Low-Cost Sensor Networks for Air Quality Monitoring in Amann: Jesse Kroll (MIT principal investigator) and Tareq Hussein (international collaborator)

    Radiation Effects on Medical Devices Made by 3D Printing: Ju Li (MIT principal investigator) and Belal Gharaibeh (international collaborator)

    Superprotonic Conductivity in Metal-Organic Frameworks for Proton-Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells: Mircea Dinca (MIT principal investigator) and Kyle Cordova (international collaborator)

    Mapping Urban Air Quality Using Mobile Low-cost Sensors and Geospatial Techniques: Sarah Williams (MIT principal investigator) and Khaled Hazaymeh (international collaborator)

    The goal of these funded projects is for researchers and their students to form meaningful professional partnerships across cultures and leave a lasting impact upon the scientific communities in Jordan and at MIT.

    “[The fund will] enhance the future career prospects of emerging scholars from both countries,” said awardee Professor Kyle Cordova, executive director for scientific research at Royal Scientific Society and assistant to Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan for scientific affairs. “Our young scholars will gain a unique perspective of the influence of different cultures on scientific investigation that will help them to function effectively in a multidisciplinary and multicultural environment.” More

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    Investigating materials for safe, secure nuclear power

    Michael Short came to MIT in the fall of 2001 as an 18-year-old first-year who grew up in Boston’s North Shore. He immediately felt at home, so much so that he’s never really left. It’s not that Short has no interest in exploring the world beyond the confines of the Institute, as he is an energetic and venturesome fellow. It’s just that almost everything he hopes to achieve in his scientific career can, in his opinion, be best pursued at this university.

    Last year — after collecting four MIT degrees and joining the faculty of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) in 2013 — he was promoted to the status of tenured associate professor.

    Short’s enthusiasm for MIT began early in high school when he attended weekend programs that were mainly taught by undergraduates. “It was a program filled with my kind of people,” he recalls. “My high school was very good, but this was at a different level — at the level I was seeking and hoping to achieve. I felt more at home here than I did in my hometown, and the Saturdays at MIT were the highlight of my week.” He loved his four-year experience as an MIT undergraduate, including the research he carried out in the Uhlig Corrosion Laboratory, and he wasn’t ready for it to end.

    After graduating in 2005 with two BS degrees (one in NSE and another in materials science and engineering), he took on some computer programming jobs and worked half time in the Uhlig lab under the supervision of Ronald Ballinger, a professor in both NSE and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Short soon realized that computer programming was not for him, and he started graduate studies with Ballinger as his advisor, earning a master’s and a PhD in nuclear science and engineering in 2010.

    Even as an undergraduate, Short was convinced that nuclear power was essential to our nation’s (and the world’s) energy future, especially in light of the urgent need to move toward carbon-free sources of power. During his first year, he was told by Ballinger that the main challenge confronting nuclear power was to find materials, and metals in particular, that could last long enough in the face of radiation and the chemically destructive effects of corrosion.

    Those words, persuasively stated, led him to his double major.  “Materials and radiation damage have been at the core of my research ever since,” Short says. “Remarkably, the stuff I started studying in my first year of college is what I do today, though I’ve extended this work in many directions.”

    Corrosion has proven to be an unexpectedly rich subject. “The traditional view is to expose metals to various things and see what happens — ‘cook and look,’ as it’s called,” he says. “A lot of folks view it that way, but it’s actually much more complex. In fact, some members of our own faculty don’t want to touch corrosion because it’s too complicated, too dirty. But that’s what I like about it.”

    In a 2020 paper published in Nature Communications, Short, his student Weiyue Zhou, and other colleagues made a surprising discovery. “Most people think radiation is bad and makes everything worse, but that’s not always the case,” Short maintains. His team found a specific set of conditions under which a metal (a nickel-chromium alloy) performs better when it is irradiated while undergoing corrosion in a molten salt mixture. Their finding is relevant, he adds, “because these are the conditions under which people are hoping to run the next generation of nuclear reactors.” Leading candidates for alternatives to today’s water-cooled reactors are molten salt and liquid metal (specifically liquid lead and sodium) cooled reactors. To this end, Short and his colleagues are currently carrying out similar experiments involving the irradiation of metal alloys immersed in liquid lead.

    Meanwhile, Short has pursued another multiyear project, trying to devise a new standard to serve as “a measurable unit of radiation damage.” In fact, these were the very words he wrote on his research statement when applying for his first faculty position at MIT, although he admits that he didn’t know then how to realize that goal. But the effort is finally paying off, as Short and his collaborators are about to submit their first big paper on the topic. He’s found that you can’t reduce radiation damage to a single number, which is what people have tried to do in the past, because that’s too simple. Instead, their new standard relates to the density of defects — the number of radiation-induced defects (or unintentional changes to the lattice structure) per unit volume for a given material.

    “Our approach is based on a theory that everyone agrees on — that defects have energy,” Short explains. However, many people told him and his team that the amount of energy stored within those defects would be too small to measure. But that just spurred them to try harder, making measurements at the microjoule level, at the very limits of detection.

    Short is convinced that their new standard will become “universally useful, but it will take years of testing on many, many materials followed by more years of convincing people using the classic method: Repeat, repeat, repeat, making sure that each time you get the same result. It’s the unglamorous side of science, but that’s the side that really matters.”

    The approach has already led Short, in collaboration with NSE proliferation expert Scott Kemp, into the field of nuclear security. Equipped with new insights into the signatures left behind by radiation damage, students co-supervised by Kemp and Short have devised methods for determining how much fissionable material has passed through a uranium enrichment facility, for example, by scrutinizing the materials exposed to these radioactive substances. “I never thought my preliminary work on corrosion experiments as an undergraduate would lead to this,” Short says.

    He has also turned his attention to “microreactors” — nuclear reactors with power ratings as small as a single megawatt, as compared to the 1,000-megawatt behemoths of today. Flexibility in the size of future power plants is essential to the economic viability of nuclear power, he insists, “because nobody wants to pay $10 billion for a reactor now, and I don’t blame them.”

    But the proposed microreactors, he says, “pose new material challenges that I want to solve. It comes down to cramming more material into a smaller volume, and we don’t have a lot of knowledge about how materials perform at such high densities.” Short is currently conducting experiments with the Idaho National Laboratory, irradiating possible microreactor materials to see how they change using a laser technique, transient grating spectroscopy (TGS), which his MIT group has had a big hand in advancing.

    It’s been an exhilarating 20 years at MIT for Short, and he has even more ambitious goals for the next 20 years. “I’d like to be one of those who came up with a way to verify the Iran nuclear deal and thereby helped clamp down on nuclear proliferation worldwide,” he says. “I’d like to choose the materials for our first power-generating nuclear fusion reactors. And I’d like to have influenced perhaps 50 to 100 former students who chose to stay in science because they truly enjoy it.

    “I see my job as creating scientists, not science,” he says, “though science is, of course, a convenient byproduct.” More

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    A material difference

    Eesha Khare has always seen a world of matter. The daughter of a hardware engineer and a biologist, she has an insatiable interest in what substances — both synthetic and biological — have in common. Not surprisingly, that perspective led her to the study of materials.

    “I recognized early on that everything around me is a material,” she says. “How our phones respond to touches, how trees in nature to give us both structural wood and foldable paper, or how we are able to make high skyscrapers with steel and glass, it all comes down to the fundamentals: This is materials science and engineering.”

    As a rising fourth-year PhD student in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), Khare now studies the metal-coordination bonds that allow mussels to bind to rocks along turbulent coastlines. But Khare’s scientific enthusiasm has also led to expansive interests from science policy to climate advocacy and entrepreneurship.

    A material world

    A Silicon Valley native, Khare recalls vividly how excited she was about science as a young girl, both at school and at myriad science fairs and high school laboratory internships. One such internship at the University of California at Santa Cruz introduced her to the study of nanomaterials, or materials that are smaller than a single human cell. The project piqued her interest in how research could lead to energy-storage applications, and she began to ponder the connections between materials, science policy, and the environment.

    As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Khare pursued a degree in engineering sciences and chemistry while also working at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. There, she grew fascinated by environmental advocacy in the policy space, working for then-professor Gina McCarthy, who is currently serving in the Biden administration as the first-ever White House climate advisor.

    Following her academic explorations in college, Khare wanted to consider science in a new light before pursuing her doctorate in materials science and engineering. She deferred her program acceptance at MIT in order to attend Cambridge University in the U.K., where she earned a master’s degree in the history and philosophy of science. “Especially in a PhD program, it can often feel like your head is deep in the science as you push new research frontiers, but I wanted take a step back and be inspired by how scientists in the past made their discoveries,” she says.

    Her experience at Cambridge was both challenging and informative, but Khare quickly found that her mechanistic curiosity remained persistent — a realization that came in the form of a biological material.

    “My very first master’s research project was about environmental pollution indicators in the U.K., and I was looking specifically at lichen to understand the social and political reasons why they were adopted by the public as pollution indicators,” Khare explains. “But I found myself wondering more about how lichen can act as pollution indicators. And I found that to be quite similar for most of my research projects: I was more interested in how the technology or discovery actually worked.”

    Enthusiasm for innovation

    Fittingly, these bioindicators confirmed for her that studying materials at MIT was the right course. Now Khare works on a different organism altogether, conducting research on the metal-coordination chemical interactions of a biopolymer secreted by mussels.

    “Mussels secrete this thread and can adhere to ocean walls. So, when ocean waves come, mussels don’t get dislodged that easily,” Khare says. “This is partly because of how metal ions in this material bind to different amino acids in the protein. There’s no input from the mussel itself to control anything there; all the magic is in this biological material that is not only very sticky, but also doesn’t break very readily, and if you cut it, it can re-heal that interface as well! If we could better understand and replicate this biological material in our own world, we could have materials self-heal and never break and thus eliminate so much waste.”

    To study this natural material, Khare combines computational and experimental techniques, experimentally synthesizing her own biopolymers and studying their properties with in silico molecular dynamics. Her co-advisors — Markus Buehler, the Jerry McAfee Professor of Engineering in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Niels Holten-Andersen, professor of materials science and engineering — have embraced this dual-approach to her project, as well as her abundant enthusiasm for innovation.

    Khare likes to take one exploratory course per semester, and a recent offering in the MIT Sloan School of Management inspired her to pursue entrepreneurship. These days she is spending much of her free time on a startup called Taxie, formed with fellow MIT students after taking the course 15.390 (New Enterprises). Taxie attempts to electrify the rideshare business by making electric rental cars available to rideshare drivers. Khare hopes this project will initiate some small first steps in making the ridesharing industry environmentally cleaner — and in democratizing access to electric vehicles for rideshare drivers, who often hail from lower-income or immigrant backgrounds.

    “There are a lot of goals thrown around for reducing emissions or helping our environment. But we are slowly getting physical things on the road, physical things to real people, and I like to think that we are helping to accelerate the electric transition,” Khare says. “These small steps are helpful for learning, at the very least, how we can make a transition to electric or to a cleaner industry.”

    Alongside her startup work, Khare has pursued a number of other extracurricular activities at MIT, including co-organizing her department’s Student Application Assistance Program and serving on DMSE’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. Her varied interests also have led to a diverse group of friends, which suits her well, because she is a self-described “people-person.”

    In a year where maintaining connections has been more challenging than usual, Khare has focused on the positive, spending her spring semester with family in California and practicing Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance, over Zoom. As she looks to the future, Khare hopes to bring even more of her interests together, like materials science and climate.

    “I want to understand the energy and environmental sector at large to identify the most pressing technology gaps and how can I use my knowledge to contribute. My goal is to figure out where can I personally make a difference and where it can have a bigger impact to help our climate,” she says. “I like being outside of my comfort zone.” More

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    Reducing emissions by decarbonizing industry

    A critical challenge in meeting the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius is to vastly reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions generated by the most energy-intensive industries. According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency, these industries — cement, iron and steel, chemicals — account for about 20 percent of global CO2 emissions. Emissions from these industries are notoriously difficult to abate because, in addition to emissions associated with energy use, a significant portion of industrial emissions come from the process itself.

    For example, in the cement industry, about half the emissions come from the decomposition of limestone into lime and CO2. While a shift to zero-carbon energy sources such as solar or wind-powered electricity could lower CO2 emissions in the power sector, there are no easy substitutes for emissions-intensive industrial processes.

    Enter industrial carbon capture and storage (CCS). This technology, which extracts point-source carbon emissions and sequesters them underground, has the potential to remove up to 90-99 percent of CO2 emissions from an industrial facility, including both energy-related and process emissions. And that begs the question: Might CCS alone enable hard-to-abate industries to continue to grow while eliminating nearly all of the CO2 emissions they generate from the atmosphere?

    The answer is an unequivocal yes in a new study in the journal Applied Energy co-authored by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, MIT Energy Initiative, and ExxonMobil.

    Using an enhanced version of the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis (EPPA) model that represents different industrial CCS technology choices — and assuming that CCS is the only greenhouse gas emissions mitigation option available to hard-to-abate industries — the study assesses the long-term economic and environmental impacts of CCS deployment under a climate policy aimed at capping the rise in average global surface temperature at 2 C above preindustrial levels.

    The researchers find that absent industrial CCS deployment, the global costs of implementing the 2 C policy are higher by 12 percent in 2075 and 71 percent in 2100, relative to policy costs with CCS. They conclude that industrial CCS enables continued growth in the production and consumption of energy-intensive goods from hard-to-abate industries, along with dramatic reductions in the CO2 emissions they generate. Their projections show that as industrial CCS gains traction mid-century, this growth occurs globally as well as within geographical regions (primarily in China, Europe, and the United States) and the cement, iron and steel, and chemical sectors.

    “Because it can enable deep reductions in industrial emissions, industrial CCS is an essential mitigation option in the successful implementation of policies aligned with the Paris Agreement’s long-term climate targets,” says Sergey Paltsev, the study’s lead author and a deputy director of the MIT Joint Program and senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative. “As the technology advances, our modeling approach offers decision-makers a pathway for projecting the deployment of industrial CCS across industries and regions.”

    But such advances will not take place without substantial, ongoing funding.

    “Sustained government policy support across decades will be needed if CCS is to realize its potential to promote the growth of energy-intensive industries and a stable climate,” says Howard Herzog, a co-author of the study and senior research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative.

    The researchers also find that advanced CCS options such as cryogenic carbon capture (CCC), in which extracted CO2 is cooled to solid form using far less power than conventional coal- and gas-fired CCS technologies, could help expand the use of CCS in industrial settings through further production cost and emissions reductions.

    The study was supported by sponsors of the MIT Joint Program and by ExxonMobil through its membership in the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Manipulating magnets in the quest for fusion

    “You get the high field, you get the performance.”

    Senior Research Scientist Brian LaBombard is summarizing what might be considered a guiding philosophy behind designing and engineering fusion devices at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). Beginning in 1972 with the Alcator A tokamak, through Alcator C (1978) and Alcator C-Mod (1991), the PSFC has used magnets with high fields to confine the hot plasma in compact, high-performance tokamaks. Joining what was then the Plasma Fusion Center as a graduate student in 1978, just as Alcator A was finishing its run, LaBombard is one of the few who has worked with each iteration of the high-field concept. Now he has turned his attention to the PSFC’s latest fusion venture, a fusion energy project called SPARC.

    Designed in collaboration with MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), SPARC employs novel high temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets at high-field to achieve fusion that will produce net energy gain. Some of these magnets will wrap toroidally around the tokamak’s doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, confining fusion reactions and preventing damage to the walls of the device.

    The PSFC has spent three years researching, developing, and manufacturing a scaled version of these toroidal field (TF) coils — the toroidal field model coil, or TFMC. Before the TF coils can be built for SPARC, LaBombard and his team need to test the model coil under the conditions that it will experience in this tokamak.

    HTS magnets need to be cooled in order to remain superconducting, and to be protected from the heat generated by current. For testing, the TFMC will be enclosed in a cryostat, cooled to the low temperatures needed for eventual tokamak operation, and charged with current to produce magnetic field. How the magnet responds as the current is provided to the coil will determine if the technology is in hand to construct the 18 TF coils for SPARC.

    A history of achievement

    That LaBombard is part of the PSFC’s next fusion project is not unusual; that he is involved in designing, engineering, and testing the magnets is. Until 2018, when he led the R&D research team for one of the magnet designs being considered for SPARC, LaBombard’s 30-plus years of celebrated research had focused on other areas of the fusion question.

    As a graduate student, he gained early acclaim for the research he reported in his PhD thesis. Working on Alcator C, he made groundbreaking discoveries about the plasma physics in the “boundary” region of the tokamak, between the edge of the fusing core and the wall of the machine. With typical modesty, LaBombard credits some of his success to the fact that the topic was not well-studied, and that Alcator C provided measurements not possible on other machines.

    “People knew about the boundary, but nobody was really studying it in detail. On Alcator C, there were interesting phenomena, such as marfes [multifaceted asymmetric radiation from the edge], being detected for the first time. This pushed me to make boundary layer measurements in great detail that no one had ever seen before. It was all new territory, so I made a big splash.”

    That splash established him as a leading researcher in the field of boundary plasmas. After a two-year turn at the University of California at Los Angeles working on a plasma-wall test facility called PISCES, LaBombard, who grew up in New England, was happy to return to MIT to join the PSFC’s new Alcator C-Mod project.

    Over the next 28 years of C-Mod’s construction phase and operation, LaBombard continued to make groundbreaking contributions to understanding tokamak edge and divertor plasmas, and to design internal components that can survive the harsh conditions and provide plasma control — including C-Mod’s vertical target plate divertor and a unique divertor cryopump system. That experience led him to conceive of the “X-point target divertor” for handling extreme fusion power exhaust and to propose a national Advanced Divertor tokamak eXperiment (ADX) to test such ideas.

    All along, LaBombard’s true passion was in creating revolutionary diagnostics to unfold boundary layer physics and in guiding graduate students to do the same: an Omegatron, to measure impurity concentrations directly in the boundary plasma, resolved by charge-to-mass ratio; fast-scanning Langmuir-Mach probes to measure plasma flows; a Shoelace Antenna to provide insight into plasma fluctuations at the edge; the invention of a Mirror Langmuir Probe for the real-time measurements of plasma turbulence at high bandwidth.

    Switching sides

    His expertise established, he could have continued this focus on the edge of the plasma through collaborations with other laboratories and at the PSFC. Instead, he finds himself on the other side of the vacuum chamber, immersed in magnet design and technology. Challenged with finding an effective HTS magnet design for SPARC, he and his team were able to propose a winning strategy, one that seemed most likely to achieve the compact high field and high performance that PSFC tokamaks have been known for.

    LaBombard is stimulated by his new direction and excited about the upcoming test of the TFMC. His new role takes advantage of his physics background in electricity and magnetism. It also supports his passion for designing and building things, which he honed as high school apprentice to his machinist father and explored professionally building systems for Alcator C-Mod.

    “I view my principal role is to make sure the TF coil works electrically, the way it’s supposed to,” he says. “So it produces the magnetic field without damaging the coil.”

    A successful test would validate the understanding of how the new magnet technology works, and will prepare the team to build magnets for SPARC.

    Among those overseeing the hours of TFMC testing will be graduate students, current and former, reminding LaBombard of his own student days working on Alcator C, and of his years supervising students on Alcator C-Mod.

    “Those students were directly involved with Alcator C-Mod. They would jump in, make things happen — and as a team. This team spirit really enabled everyone to excel.

    “And looking to when SPARC was taking shape, you could see that across the board, from the new folks to the younger folks, they really got engaged by the spirit of Alcator — by recognition of the plasma performance that can be made possible by high magnetic fields.”

    He laughs as he looks to the past and to the future.

    “And they are taking it to SPARC.” More