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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

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    Push to make supply chains more sustainable continues to gain momentum

    Much of the effort to make businesses sustainable centers on their supply chains, which were severely disrupted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, according to new research from the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL), supply chain sustainability (SCS) investments hardly slowed, even as the pandemic raged.

    The finding, contained in the 2021 State of Supply Chain Sustainability report, puts companies on notice that they ignore the sustainability of their supply chains at their peril. This is particularly the case for enterprises with a low or moderate commitment to SCS, such as organizations classed as “Low Effort” and “Dreamer” in the new SCS Firm Typology that appears in the report for the first time. 

    The research also highlights the increasing pressure companies are under to devote resources to SCS. This pressure came from various stakeholders last year and suggests that sustainability in supply chains is a business trend, and not a fad.

    CTL publishes the 2021 State of Supply Chain Sustainability report in collaboration with the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP), a leading professional membership association. This year’s report is sponsored by BlueYonder, C.H. Robinson, KPMG, Intel, and Sam’s Club.

    Sustainability efforts undaunted by Covid-19

    “We believe cooperation between sectors is vital to thoroughly understand the complexity and evolution of sustainability efforts more broadly,” says David Correll, CTL research scientist. “Our work with CSCMP and our sponsors helps us to embed this essential research and its findings within the context of the real-life practice of supply chain management.”

    The research included a large-scale international survey of supply chain professionals with over 2,400 respondents — more than double the number received for the previous report. The survey was conducted in late 2020. In addition, 21 in-depth executive interviews were completed, and relevant news items, social media content, and reports were analyzed for the report.

    More than 80 percent of survey respondents claimed the pandemic had no impact or increased their firms’ commitments to SCS: Eighty-three percent of the executives interviewed said that Covid-19 had either accelerated SCS activity or, at the very least, increased awareness and brought urgency to this growing field.

    The pressure to support sustainability in supply chains came from multiple sources, both internal and external, but increased the most among investors and industry associations. Internally, company executives were standout champions of SCS.

    Although there are many approaches to investing in SCS, interest in human rights protection and worker welfare, along with energy savings and renewable energy, increased significantly last year. Supplier development was the most common mechanism used by firms to deliver on their SCS promises.

    Increasing investment, some speed bumps

    Given the momentum behind SCS, the future will likely bring more investment in this increasingly important area of supply chain management. And practitioners — who bring deep domain expertise and well-rounded views of enterprises to the table — will become more influential as sustainability advocates.

    But there are some formidable obstacles to overcome, too. For example, it is notable that most of the momentum behind SCS appeared to come from large (1,000-plus employees) and very large (10,000-plus employees) companies covered by the research. Small- to medium-sized enterprises were far less committed, and more work is needed to bring them into the fold through a better understanding of the barriers they face.

    A broader concern is that more attention from stakeholders — notably consumers, investors, and regulators — will bring more scrutiny of firms’ SCS track records, and less tolerance of token efforts to make supply chains sustainable. Improved supply chain transparency and disclosure are critical to firms’ responses, the report suggests.

    Some high-profile issues, such as combating social injustices and climate change mitigation, will continue to stoke the pressure on companies to invest in meaningful SCS initiatives. It follows that the connection between companies’ SCS performance and their profitability is likely to strengthen over the next few years.

    Will companies follow through?

    As companies grapple with these issues, they will face some difficult decisions. For example, the chief operating officer of a consumer goods company interviewed for the report described operating through pandemic constraints as a “moral calculus” where some sustainability commitments had to be temporarily sacrificed to achieve others. Such a calculus will likely challenge many companies as they juggle their responses to SCS demands. A key question is to ascertain the degree to which companies’ recent net-zero commitments will translate into effective SCS actions over the next few years.

    The CTL and CSCMP research teams are laying the groundwork for the 2022 State of Supply Chain Sustainability report. This annual status report aims to help practitioners and the industry to make more effective and informed sustainability decisions. The questionnaire for next year’s report will open in September. More

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    MIT.nano receives American Institute of Architects’s Top Ten Award for sustainable design

    MIT.nano, MIT’s open-access facility for nanoscale science and engineering, has been awarded the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2021 Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Award for excellence in sustainability and design.

    The annual award recognizes 10 projects, located anywhere in the world, that meet AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence — 10 principles aimed at creating a zero-carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy built environment. Projects are evaluated on how well they are designed for integration, equitable communities, ecosystems, water, economy, energy, well-being, resources, change, and discovery. In each criterion, MIT.nano excelled.

    Located in the heart of MIT’s campus, MIT.nano is a 216,000-square-foot shared resource for MIT faculty, students, and researchers, as well as external academic and industry users. The facility offers state-of-the-art equipment and environmental controls that would be challenging for individual labs or departments to afford or maintain on their own. This shared access was a key component in the creation of MIT.nano, as well as in its selection for the COTE Award — opening the lab to all researchers reduces duplicated efforts across campus to invest in expensive tools and spaces, in addition to fostering collaborative, multidisciplinary research.

    Designed by Wilson HGA and completed in 2018, MIT.nano has 47,000 square feet of clean-room suites that make up two two-story spaces in the center of the building. The majority of the clean-room area is Class 100, meaning the air is continuously filtered and replaced every 15-30 seconds to maintain a standard that allows no more than 100 particles of 0.5 microns or larger within a cubic foot of air.

    Traditionally, clean-room facilities require a high amount of energy to maintain this low particle count environment. The MIT.nano project team, however, managed to identify primary drivers of energy consumption and tweak these components to optimize performance while minimizing energy use. The team incorporated over 60 energy conservation measures, including a heat recovery system and high-performance curtain wall, resulting in 51 percent energy cost savings and 50 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction over industry standards.

    “MIT.nano was engineered in an MIT way — not only following the standards, but studying the technology behind them to consider how it could be even better,” says MIT.nano Director Vladimir Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh Chair in Emerging Technology. “This award truly represents a team effort from all of our partners, including MIT Facilities and the Office of Sustainability, to make this building an exemplary structure for sustainability.”

    The building also represents MIT’s site-to-system approach for reaching the goal of a net-zero-carbon campus. At MIT.nano, a functional relationship with MIT’s Central Utilities Plant (CUP) supports this balance — the CUP can reuse MIT.nano’s reverse osmosis water in its cooling systems, while MIT.nano relies on the CUP’s distributed energy resource for both thermal and electric energy.

    In addition to energy, MIT.nano fits within MIT’s Stormwater and Landscape Ecology Masterplan, achieving stormwater management, resilience planning, and heat-island reduction goals through hardscape, landscape, and building materials. Built in the center of campus, MIT.nano also revitalized a main connection point, turning a former service yard into outdoor spaces for transit and gathering, including the North Corridor and Improbability Walk. Over 100 trees were planted, adding a projected 25,000 square feet of canopy.

    The welcoming nature of this outdoor space is continued inside MIT.nano with daylight filtering deep into the lab. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the perimeter hallways, allowing natural light to flow into the facility, and adjacent buildings provide the needed shade. Interior windows into the clean room are multifunctional — allowing light in, inviting passersby a glimpse of the research, and promoting the safety of the researchers through increased visibility.

    The building itself has a steel frame primary structure with composite concrete on metal floors and roof decks, a shift from the concrete structures traditionally built for nanoscale research. The change reduced the materials tonnage and reduced embodied carbon by 29 percent. Through a carefully designed construction waste management plan, over 90 percent of construction waste was diverted from landfills.

    MIT.nano was built with the future in mind. The building is designed to adapt as both scientific research and the environment around us changes. Generous floor-to-floor heights and additional mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) load capacity anticipate future tools and renovations; and design for high-hazard occupancy on the fifth floor will allow for future increase in chemical quantities. To account for flood mitigation, a slurry wall construction acts as cutoff walls from groundwater hydrostatic pressure, and the ground floor is elevated six inches above surrounding grade and adjacent connected buildings.

    The COTE Award is the latest honor for MIT.nano, following its recent 2020 AIA New England Honor Award and 2020 LEED Platinum certification, the highest designation from the U.S. Green Building Council. MIT.nano has also received the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) 2019 “Go Beyond” Award; the 53rd annual Lab of the Year Award from R&D Magazine; the 2019 Education Facility Design Award of Merit presented by the American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education; a Boston Society for Architecture 2020 Honor Award; and national and state 2019 Gold Awards for Engineering Excellence from the American Council of Engineering Companies. More

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    Waging a two-pronged campaign against climate change

    If nuclear energy is to play a pivotal role in securing a low-carbon future, researchers must not only develop a new generation of powerful and cost-efficient nuclear power plants, but provide stakeholders with the tools for making smart investment choices among these advanced reactors. W. Robb “Robbie” Stewart, a doctoral candidate in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), is working on both these problems.

    “Capital construction and operational costs are limiting the nuclear industry’s ability to expand at this critical moment, and if we can’t reduce these costs then nuclear doesn’t have a chance of being a big player in decarbonizing the economy,” Stewart says. “So I decided to focus my thesis research on an estimating tool that quantifies the costs of building a nuclear power plant, and which could be useful for assessing different reactor designs,” he says.

    This precision cost-modeling method helps inform an ambitious project that Stewart has been pursuing alongside his dissertation work: designing and building a modular, integrated, gas high-temperature nuclear reactor, called MIGHTR, along with Enrique Velez-Lopez SM ’20. “Our entire thesis … is that we have to simplify the civil construction elements of the project,” says Stewart

    Costly infrastructure

    Both Stewart’s doctoral research and his own reactor development are motivated to a large degree by a central concern: “Managing the construction of massive nuclear plants is extremely difficult, and too likely to result in cost overruns,” he says. “That’s because we don’t do enough of this kind of construction to be good at it.” In the United States, the key challenge to launching new commercial plants is not regulatory delay or public resistance, but inefficient construction practices, he believes.

    Stewart views overcoming nuclear’s daunting building costs as paramount in the drive to bring more plants online in the near future. His modeling tool will make this more likely through precise estimations of construction risks and associated expenses — all based on actual U.S. Department of Energy data on the costs of thousands of items required in commercial reactors, from pressure vessels and fuel to containment buildings and instrumentation.

    This rigorous method of quantifying costs is aimed at smoothing the way to the next generation of nuclear reactors, such as small, modular nuclear reactor (SMRs). This type of advanced nuclear reactor can be fabricated in an economically desirable assembly-line fashion, and fit into sites where larger facilities would not. Some SMRs like MIGHTR will also be able to operate at higher temperatures. This attribute makes them uniquely suited for powering industrial processes that are currently served by greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuel plants.

    Commercial (typically light water) nuclear reactors supply nearly one-third of the world’s carbon-free electricity. But they must operate at temperatures that do not generally exceed 300 degrees Celsius, which means they cannot generate the heat required for petrochemical manufacturing and other power-hungry industrial needs. In contrast, next-generation reactors such as MIGHTR could turn the temperature dial up to 700 C and beyond. “Industrial process heat accounts for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, so an important criterion for selecting an advanced reactor would be whether it can meet the need of decarbonizing industries,” says Stewart.

    His modeling tool could help determine which advanced nuclear designs offers the best investment bet. For instance, some SMRs might require 30 million work-hours to build, and others 8 million. Some facilities might involve technological uncertainties that make them too much of a gamble, no matter how much electricity or heat they purport to deliver. Investors, utilities, and policymakers must feel confident that their decision strikes the optimal balance of desired reactor attributes and applications with the reactor’s risk and price tag. “Not all SMRs are equally cost-competitive, and assessment can help distribute resources much more effectively,” he says.

    Modeling new technologies

    Stewart, who grew up in Dallas, Texas, gravitated early toward cutting-edge technologies with the capacity to serve society. “I knew I wanted to be an engineer from a young age, and loved reading pop culture science trying to understand what the next generation of cars or jet engines might be,” he recalls.

    Although tempted by aerospace studies, he found his groove in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate and then master’s student at the University of Texas at Austin. His master’s thesis on heat transfer in gas turbines led directly to work with GE Global Research. After four years spent on ventures to improve cooling efficiencies inside gas turbines, and then to model and predict the life of commercial jet engines, he grew restless.

    Over the years he’d felt a mounting concern about the dangers of climate change, and a growing desire to train his engineering expertise on the challenge. “I wanted to be at the forefront of a new technology, and I wanted to be able to look back at the point of retirement and say I dedicated my engineering time and knowledge to this big problem,” says Stewart. So he decided to leave his mechanical engineering career and learn a new discipline at MIT. He quickly found a mentor in Koroush Shirvan, the John Clark Hardwick (1986) Career Development Professor in NSE. “He seemed to be solving problems the nuclear industry was facing, from operational and capital costs, to new fuel and enhanced safety designs,” says Stewart. “That resonated with me.”

    MIGHTR drew from the kind of multidisciplinary perspective championed by Shirvan and other members of the department. Other designs for high-temperature gas reactors envision housing components in a structure 60 meters tall. Stewart and his partner thought it might be simpler to lay the entire structure flat, including the reactor core and steam generator. Building height leads to great complexity and higher construction costs. The flat design leverages cost-efficient building techniques new to nuclear, such as precast concrete panels

    “We took our idea to a faculty meeting, where they threw stones at it because they wanted proof we could reduce the building size five times less than other HTRs without affecting safety,” Stewart recalls. “That was the birth of MIGHTR.”

    Stewart and Velez-Lopez have since launched a startup, Boston Atomics, to bring MIGHTR to life. The team’s design filed a patent last October and received a $5 million grant in December from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Advanced Reactor Design Program. MIT is helping drive this venture forward, with Shirvan overseeing the project, which includes partners from other universities.

    Stewart’s creation of the nuclear plant cost modeling tool, sponsored by the Finnish energy company Fortum, and co-invention of the MIGHTR design have already won recognition: His research is headed for publication in several journals, and last year he received NSE’s 2020 Manson Benedict Award for Academic Excellence and Professional Promise.

    Today, even as he presses forward on both MIGHTR and his cost-modeling research, Stewart has broadened his portfolio. He is assisting associate provost and Japan Steel Industry Professor Richard Lester with the MIT Climate Grand Challenges Program. “The goal is to identify a handful of powerful research ideas that can be big movers in solving the climate change problem, not just through carbon mitigation but by promoting the adaptation and resilience of cities and reducing impacts on people in zones experiencing extreme weather-related conditions, such as fires and hurricanes,” says Stewart.

    After picking up his doctorate next year, Stewart plans on dedicating himself to Boston Atomics and MIGHTR. He also hopes that his modeling tool, free to the public, will help direct research and development dollars into nuclear technologies with a high potential for reducing cost, and “get people excited by new reactor designs,” he says. More

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    3 Questions: Secretary Kathleen Theoharides on climate and energy in Massachusetts

    Massachusetts is poised to be a national and global leader in the fight against climate change. This spring, Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, spoke with MIT Energy Initiative Director Robert Armstrong at a seminar focused on Massachusetts’ emissions-reduction plans. Here, Theoharides discusses the state’s initiatives to address the decarbonization of key sectors to help the state achieve these goals.

    Q: In March, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed new legislation addressing climate change. What is the scope and mission of this bill? And how does it work with preexisting programs to address key climate concerns for the state?

    A: Governor Baker has offered long-term support to make Massachusetts a model of climate action. He further strengthened this commitment to achieving net-zero by 2050 when he signed this climate change legislation, which now gives Massachusetts the most ambitious emissions-reduction goals in the country. So, what does this legislation do? There are a number of really critical pieces in it, some of which we have been working very hard on at the executive branch level already. First and foremost, it codifies into law the state’s net-zero target. This will help to accomplish things such as provisions to make our appliances more energy efficient and allow municipalities to opt into highly efficient codes for new construction; it includes important nation-leading provisions that will help us protect our environmental justice communities, significantly push development in offshore wind, and much, much more.

    We recently released a 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap, which has set the table for much of the work that we will be doing in the next 10 years to get us on track to hit our 30-year target. This report is a combination of two years of science-based analysis using models and analytical tools to explore in great detail what steps the Commonwealth and the region need to take to achieve this goal while maintaining a healthy, thriving, and equitable economy.

    The long-range analysis of the 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap has helped inform our Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030, which aims to achieve a 50 percent emissions limit by the end of the decade. Based off the report, we determined a number of really ambitious goals that we need to meet by 2030. For the heating sector, this includes retrofitting about 1 million homes, making sure that all new construction is highly efficient, and helping people adopt clean heating solutions. In the transportation sector, we need around 750,000 electric vehicles on the road, and also to achieve a reduction in vehicle miles traveled by 15 percent. We also need to build and interconnect 6,000 megawatts (MW) of clean energy and modernize our electric grid to support the development of these clean energy resources. This plan is really our map of how to make these changes over the next decade, and a lot hinges on the work we do with our federal partners and with other states.

    Here are some specific programs we’re working on to help us achieve our 2030 plan.

    First, we’re working on whole-scale market reform by modernizing our electric grid to support the development of clean energy in the Commonwealth and across New England.
    Second, we’re convening a first-in-the-nation Commission on Clean Heat, which will bring together many different stakeholders to provide the governor recommendations on the heating sector.
    Further, we are updating our Energy Efficiency Plan. Massachusetts is a national leader in energy efficiency, and we hope to further align energy efficiency with the state’s climate goals and to improve program equity by increasing participation from groups which have traditionally been excluded from this process.
    Energy storage has been a large component of our work in this space, especially since the governor took office and we launched the Energy Storage Initiative in 2015. One notable success is that by including energy storage incentives directly into our solar program, we have approved nearly 1,600 MW hours of energy storage, exceeding our initial 2025 target of 1,000 MW hours.
    Finally, we have been working hard on our Transportation and Climate Initiative program, which is a cap-and-invest program that’s been in the works for the past five years. We anticipate that this will drive pollution in the sector down 26 percent by 2030. We’ve been working with nine other states and expect many more to come into the program — this has been a critical opportunity to reduce emissions in the sector, deliver cleaner energy, and reinvest the proceeds in paving the way for a new future of transportation.

    Q: What are some of the most exciting and recent developments for the state in terms of climate and energy?

    A: On May 10, the federal-level Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved the development of Vineyard Wind — an 800 MW offshore wind project located off the southern Massachusetts coast — making it the largest approved offshore wind project in the United States to date. This key, long-awaited milestone was supposed to happen in my first couple of months on the job as secretary in June 2019. It was close to being final, and then it got pulled back in the federal permitting process as more projects came on. This recent approval has given us a lot of momentum, and a lot of hope for the future as these projects move forward and start delivering the clean energy, jobs, and environmental benefits that are so needed.

    On March 11, we extended that momentum. Our Department of Energy Resources filed a request for proposals (RFP) for the third round of our 83C Offshore Wind Energy Solicitation. That RFP is now open for bids, and there are several key changes we’ve made in the solicitation that are worth highlighting. First, we’ve baked in a little bit more time for the federal permitting and review process. Second, we’re proposing to allow bids from 200 MW all the way up to 1,600 MW, which would be a doubling of any of the approved projects we’ve had to date. The allowance for larger-sized bids is intended to capture potential efficiencies related to transmission cabling, as well as the use of onshore transmission interconnection points. Additionally, this RFP is really a result of extensive stakeholder engagement, which has led to some important changes that will allow us to build on the Commonwealth’s commitment to environmental justice and to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workforce. For the first time, the RFP will require bidders to submit DEI plans that include a workforce diversity plan, a supplier diversity program plan, and more. Finally, the RFP includes both an environmental and socioeconomic impact evaluation. This will ask bidders to detail any potential impacts — both positive and negative — including assessments of cumulative environmental impacts on environmental justice populations and host communities. Overall, we are really excited about these developments in the offshore wind space and think it helps to move the entire industry in the right direction.

    Q: In what way do you see Massachusetts being able to work with federal, private, and public partners moving forward? Are there any areas where you see room for growth and collaboration?

    A: Our administration and the legislature have had a long-standing, bipartisan record of partnership, particularly around energy and climate issues, which has helped us to make Massachusetts a leader in the field. I think the state’s bipartisanship really could serve as a model for how those at the federal level could go about passing important climate change and environmental laws. One of the things I’ve spent a lot of time on in this role and in my prior role as the state’s undersecretary of climate change was trying to highlight bipartisanship and consensus around the need for climate change solutions. We as a nation have the opportunity to build strong economies, to create a clean energy workforce, and to really be leaders among other nations on these issues. Thanks to the new legislation and other activities being undertaken within the Commonwealth, we once again added to our record of national leadership on climate change and have taken a significant step to reduce emissions and to really turn up the action on climate change in this next critical decade, while also protecting vulnerable communities in the pursuit of achieving this goal.

    It is critical that we continue to work with other states and regions in addition to fostering federal partnerships. Working to upgrade transmission capacity with our neighbors both in New England and Canada in order to ensure the connection and distribution of new renewable sources, from hydropower in Québec to onshore wind in places like Maine, is one critical component. Additionally, our six-state regional transmission organization, ISO New England, doesn’t currently reflect the policy goals around climate change that most of the states have. Moving forward, there needs to be more input from participating state leadership towards ISO’s governance and we all need to engage in scenario-based, forward-looking, long-term transition planning to understand how to meet the energy needs of the future. Finally, we all need to accommodate greater proactive participation from environmental justice communities so that we’re building this new, regional energy system in a way that is inclusive and avoids conflict.

    We are looking forward to finding new ways to partner with educational institutions and initiatives such as the MIT Energy Initiative and others at MIT. We have a great richness of resources here in the Commonwealth, especially in terms of our educational opportunities. There are tremendous areas of overlap, and I am excited to see how we can all work together toward this major decarbonization goal we have as a state, and now as a nation. More