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    Coupling power and hydrogen sector pathways to benefit decarbonization

    Governments and companies worldwide are increasing their investments in hydrogen research and development, indicating a growing recognition that hydrogen could play a significant role in meeting global energy system decarbonization goals. Since hydrogen is light, energy-dense, storable, and produces no direct carbon dioxide emissions at the point of use, this versatile energy carrier has the potential to be harnessed in a variety of ways in a future clean energy system.

    Often considered in the context of grid-scale energy storage, hydrogen has garnered renewed interest, in part due to expectations that our future electric grid will be dominated by variable renewable energy (VRE) sources such as wind and solar, as well as decreasing costs for water electrolyzers — both of which could make clean, “green” hydrogen more cost-competitive with fossil-fuel-based production. But hydrogen’s versatility as a clean energy fuel also makes it an attractive option to meet energy demand and to open pathways for decarbonization in hard-to-abate sectors where direct electrification is difficult, such as transportation, buildings, and industry.

    “We’ve seen a lot of progress and analysis around pathways to decarbonize electricity, but we may not be able to electrify all end uses. This means that just decarbonizing electricity supply is not sufficient, and we must develop other decarbonization strategies as well,” says Dharik Mallapragada, a research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). “Hydrogen is an interesting energy carrier to explore, but understanding the role for hydrogen requires us to study the interactions between the electricity system and a future hydrogen supply chain.”

    In a recent paper, researchers from MIT and Shell present a framework to systematically study the role and impact of hydrogen-based technology pathways in a future low-carbon, integrated energy system, taking into account interactions with the electric grid and the spatio-temporal variations in energy demand and supply. The developed framework co-optimizes infrastructure investment and operation across the electricity and hydrogen supply chain under various emissions price scenarios. When applied to a Northeast U.S. case study, the researchers find this approach results in substantial benefits — in terms of costs and emissions reduction — as it takes advantage of hydrogen’s potential to provide the electricity system with a large flexible load when produced through electrolysis, while also enabling decarbonization of difficult-to-electrify, end-use sectors.

    The research team includes Mallapragada; Guannan He, a postdoc at MITEI; Abhishek Bose, a graduate research assistant at MITEI; Clara Heuberger-Austin, a researcher at Shell; and Emre Gençer, a research scientist at MITEI. Their findings are published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science.

    Cross-sector modeling

    “We need a cross-sector framework to analyze each energy carrier’s economics and role across multiple systems if we are to really understand the cost/benefits of direct electrification or other decarbonization strategies,” says He.

    To do that analysis, the team developed the Decision Optimization of Low-carbon Power-HYdrogen Network (DOLPHYN) model, which allows the user to study the role of hydrogen in low-carbon energy systems, the effects of coupling the power and hydrogen sectors, and the trade-offs between various technology options across both supply chains — spanning production, transport, storage, and end use, and their impact on decarbonization goals.

    “We are seeing great interest from industry and government, because they are all asking questions about where to invest their money and how to prioritize their decarbonization strategies,” says Gençer. Heuberger-Austin adds, “Being able to assess the system-level interactions between electricity and the emerging hydrogen economy is of paramount importance to drive technology development and support strategic value chain decisions. The DOLPHYN model can be instrumental in tackling those kinds of questions.”

    For a predefined set of electricity and hydrogen demand scenarios, the model determines the least-cost technology mix across the power and hydrogen sectors while adhering to a variety of operation and policy constraints. The model can incorporate a range of technology options — from VRE generation to carbon capture and storage (CCS) used with both power and hydrogen generation to trucks and pipelines used for hydrogen transport. With its flexible structure, the model can be readily adapted to represent emerging technology options and evaluate their long-term value to the energy system.

    As an important addition, the model takes into account process-level carbon emissions by allowing the user to add a cost penalty on emissions in both sectors. “If you have a limited emissions budget, we are able to explore the question of where to prioritize the limited emissions to get the best bang for your buck in terms of decarbonization,” says Mallapragada.

    Insights from a case study

    To test their model, the researchers investigated the Northeast U.S. energy system under a variety of demand, technology, and carbon price scenarios. While their major conclusions can be generalized for other regions, the Northeast proved to be a particularly interesting case study. This region has current legislation and regulatory support for renewable generation, as well as increasing emission-reduction targets, a number of which are quite stringent. It also has a high demand for energy for heating — a sector that is difficult to electrify and could particularly benefit from hydrogen and from coupling the power and hydrogen systems.

    The researchers find that when combining the power and hydrogen sectors through electrolysis or hydrogen-based power generation, there is more operational flexibility to support VRE integration in the power sector and a reduced need for alternative grid-balancing supply-side resources such as battery storage or dispatchable gas generation, which in turn reduces the overall system cost. This increased VRE penetration also leads to a reduction in emissions compared to scenarios without sector-coupling. “The flexibility that electricity-based hydrogen production provides in terms of balancing the grid is as important as the hydrogen it is going to produce for decarbonizing other end uses,” says Mallapragada. They found this type of grid interaction to be more favorable than conventional hydrogen-based electricity storage, which can incur additional capital costs and efficiency losses when converting hydrogen back to power. This suggests that the role of hydrogen in the grid could be more beneficial as a source of flexible demand than as storage.

    The researchers’ multi-sector modeling approach also highlighted that CCS is more cost-effective when utilized in the hydrogen supply chain, versus the power sector. They note that counter to this observation, by the end of the decade, six times more CCS projects will be deployed in the power sector than for use in hydrogen production — a fact that emphasizes the need for more cross-sectoral modeling when planning future energy systems.

    In this study, the researchers tested the robustness of their conclusions against a number of factors, such as how the inclusion of non-combustion greenhouse gas emissions (including methane emissions) from natural gas used in power and hydrogen production impacts the model outcomes. They find that including the upstream emissions footprint of natural gas within the model boundary does not impact the value of sector coupling in regards to VRE integration and cost savings for decarbonization; in fact, the value actually grows because of the increased emphasis on electricity-based hydrogen production over natural gas-based pathways.

    “You cannot achieve climate targets unless you take a holistic approach,” says Gençer. “This is a systems problem. There are sectors that you cannot decarbonize with electrification, and there are other sectors that you cannot decarbonize without carbon capture, and if you think about everything together, there is a synergistic solution that significantly minimizes the infrastructure costs.”

    This research was supported, in part, by Shell Global Solutions International B.V. in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and MITEI’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers for Electric Power Systems and Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage. More

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    Institute Professor Paula Hammond named to White House science council

    Paula Hammond, an MIT Institute Professor and head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, has been chosen to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the White House announced today.

    The council advises the president on matters involving science, technology, education, and innovation policy. It also provides the White House with scientific and technical information that is needed to inform public policy relating to the U.S. economy, U.S. workers, and national security.

    “For me, this is an exciting opportunity,” Hammond says. “I have always been interested in considering how science can solve important problems in our community, in our country, and globally. It’s very meaningful for me to have a chance to have an advisory role at that level.”

    Hammond is one of 30 members named to the council, which is co-chaired by Frances Arnold, a professor at Caltech, and Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research.

    “Paula is an extraordinary engineer, teacher, and colleague, and President Biden’s decision to appoint her to the council is an excellent one,” Zuber says. “I think about the work ahead of us — not just to restore science and technology to their proper place in policymaking, but also to make sure that they lead to real improvements in the lives of everyone in our country — and I can’t think of anyone better suited to the challenge than Paula.”

    Hammond, whose research as a chemical engineer touches on the fields of both medicine and energy, said she hopes to help address critical issues such as equal access to health care and efforts to mitigate climate change.

    “I’m very excited about the opportunities presented at the interface of engineering and health, and in particular, how we might be able to expand the benefits that we gain from our work to a broader set of communities, so that we’re able to address some of the disparities we see in health, which have been so obvious during the pandemic,” says Hammond, who is also a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “How we might be able to use everything from computational modeling and data science to technological innovation to equalize access to health is one area that I care a lot about.”

    Hammond’s research focuses on developing novel polymers and nanomaterials for a variety of applications in drug delivery, noninvasive imaging, solar cells, and battery technology. Using techniques for building polymers with highly controlled architectures, she has designed drug-delivering nanoparticles that can home in on tumors, as well as polymer films that dramatically improve the efficiency of methanol fuel cells.

    As an MIT faculty member and mentor to graduate students, Hammond has worked to increase opportunities for underrepresented minorities in science and engineering fields. That is a goal she also hopes to pursue in her new role.

    “There’s a lot of work to be done when we look at the low numbers of students of color who are actually going on to science and engineering fields,” she says. “When I think about my work related to increasing diversity in those areas, part of the reason I do it is because that’s where we gain excellence, and where we gain solutions and the foresight to work on the right problems. I also think that it’s important for there to be broad access to the power that science brings.”

    Hammond, who earned both her bachelor’s degree and PhD from MIT, has been a member of the faculty since 1995. She has been a full professor since 2006 and has chaired the Department of Chemical Engineering since 2015. Earlier this year, she was named an Institute Professor, MIT’s highest faculty honor. She is also one of only 25 people who have been elected to all three National Academies — Engineering, Science, and Medicine.

    She has previously served on the U.S. Secretary of Energy Scientific Advisory Board, the NIH Center for Scientific Review Advisory Council, and the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. She also chaired or co-chaired two committees that contributed landmark reports on gender and race at MIT: the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity, and the Academic and Organizational Relationships Working Group. More

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    A new method for removing lead from drinking water

    Engineers at MIT have developed a new approach to removing lead or other heavy-metal contaminants from water, in a process that they say is far more energy-efficient than any other currently used system, though there are others under development that come close. Ultimately, it might be used to treat lead-contaminated water supplies at the home level, or to treat contaminated water from some chemical or industrial processes.

    The new system is the latest in a series of applications based on initial findings six years ago by members of the same research team, initially developed for desalination of seawater or brackish water, and later adapted for removing radioactive compounds from the cooling water of nuclear power plants. The new version is the first such method that might be applicable for treating household water supplies, as well as industrial uses.

    The findings are published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology – Water, in a paper by MIT graduate students Huanhuan Tian, Mohammad Alkhadra, and Kameron Conforti, and professor of chemical engineering Martin Bazant.

    “It’s notoriously difficult to remove toxic heavy metal that’s persistent and present in a lot of different water sources,” Alkhadra says. “Obviously there are competing methods today that do this function, so it’s a matter of which method can do it at lower cost and more reliably.”

    The biggest challenge in trying to remove lead is that it is generally present in such tiny concentrations, vastly exceeded by other elements or compounds. For example, sodium is typically present in drinking water at a concentration of tens of parts per million, whereas lead can be highly toxic at just a few parts per billion. Most existing processes, such as reverse osmosis or distillation, remove everything at once, Alkhadra explains. This not only takes much more energy than would be needed for a selective removal, but it’s counterproductive since small amounts of elements such as sodium and magnesium are actually essential for healthy drinking water.

    The new approach is to use a process called shock electrodialysis, in which an electric field is used to produce a shockwave inside a pipe carrying the contaminated water. The shockwave separates the liquid into two streams, selectively pulling certain electrically charged atoms, or ions, toward one side of the flow by tuning the properties of the shockwave to match the target ions, while leaving a stream of relatively pure water on the other side. The stream containing the concentrated lead ions can then be easily separated out using a mechanical barrier in the pipe.

    In principle, “this makes the process much cheaper,” Bazant says, “because the electrical energy that you’re putting in to do the separation is really going after the high-value target, which is the lead. You’re not wasting a lot of energy removing the sodium.” Because the lead is present at such low concentration, “there’s not a lot of current involved in removing those ions, so this can be a very cost-effective way.”

    The process still has its limitations, as it has only been demonstrated at small laboratory scale and at quite slow flow rates. Scaling up the process to make it practical for in-home use will require further research, and larger-scale industrial uses will take even longer. But it could be practical within a few years for some home-based systems, Bazant says.

    For example, a home whose water supply is heavily contaminated with lead might have a system in the cellar that slowly processes a stream of water, filling a tank with lead-free water to be used for drinking and cooking, while leaving most of the water untreated for uses like toilet flushing or watering the lawn. Such uses might be appropriate as an interim measure for places like Flint, Michigan, where the water, mostly contaminated by the distribution pipes, will take many years to remediate through pipe replacements.

    The process could also be adapted for some industrial uses such as cleaning water produced in mining or drilling operations, so that the treated water can be safely disposed of or reused. And in some cases, this could also provide a way of recovering metals that contaminate water but could actually be a valuable product if they were separated out; for example, some such minerals could be used to process semiconductors or pharmaceuticals or other high-tech products, the researchers say.

    Direct comparisons of the economics of such a system versus existing methods is difficult, Bazant says, because in filtration systems, for example, the costs are mainly for replacing the filter materials, which quickly clog up and become unusable, whereas in this system the costs are mostly for the ongoing energy input, which is very small. At this point, the shock electrodialysis system has been operated for several weeks, but it’s too soon to estimate the real-world longevity of such a system, he says.

    Developing the process into a scalable commercial product will take some time, but “we have shown how this could be done, from a technical standpoint,” Bazant says. “The main issue would be on the economic side,” he adds. That includes figuring out the most appropriate applications and developing specific configurations that would meet those uses. “We do have a reasonable idea of how to scale this up. So it’s a question of having the resources,” which might be a role for a startup company rather than an academic research lab, he adds.

    “I think this is an exciting result,” he says, “because it shows that we really can address this important application” of cleaning the lead from drinking water. For example, he says, there are places now that perform desalination of seawater using reverse osmosis, but they have to run this expensive process twice in a row, first to get the salt out, and then again to remove the low-level but highly toxic contaminants like lead. This new process might be used instead of the second round of reverse osmosis, at a far lower expenditure of energy.

    The research received support from a MathWorks Engineering Fellowship and a fellowship awarded by MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, funded by Xylem, Inc. More

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    Predicting building emissions across the US

    The United States is entering a building boom. Between 2017 and 2050, it will build the equivalent of New York City 20 times over. Yet, to meet climate targets, the nation must also significantly reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of its buildings, which comprise 27 percent of the nation’s total emissions.

    A team of current and former MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub) researchers is addressing these conflicting demands with the aim of giving policymakers the tools and information to act. They have detailed the results of their collaboration in a recent paper in the journal Applied Energy that projects emissions for all buildings across the United States under two GHG reduction scenarios.

    Their paper found that “embodied” emissions — those from materials production and construction — would represent around a quarter of emissions between 2016 and 2050 despite extensive construction.

    Further, many regions would have varying priorities for GHG reductions; some, like the West, would benefit most from reductions to embodied emissions, while others, like parts of the Midwest, would see the greatest payoff from interventions to emissions from energy consumption. If these regional priorities were addressed aggressively, building sector emissions could be reduced by around 30 percent between 2016 and 2050.

    Quantifying contradictions

    Modern buildings are far more complex — and efficient — than their predecessors. Due to new technologies and more stringent building codes, they can offer lower energy consumption and operational emissions. And yet, more-efficient materials and improved construction standards can also generate greater embodied emissions.

    Concrete, in many ways, epitomizes this tradeoff. Though its durability can minimize energy-intensive repairs over a building’s operational life, the scale of its production means that it contributes to a large proportion of the embodied impacts in the building sector.

    As such, the team centered GHG reductions for concrete in its analysis.

    “We took a bottom-up approach, developing reference designs based on a set of residential and commercial building models,” explains Ehsan Vahidi, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada at Reno and a former CSHub postdoc. “These designs were differentiated by roof and slab insulation, HVAC efficiency, and construction materials — chiefly concrete and wood.”

    After measuring the operational and embodied GHG emissions for each reference design, the team scaled up their results to the county level and then national level based on building stock forecasts. This allowed them to estimate the emissions of the entire building sector between 2016 and 2050.

    To understand how various interventions could cut GHG emissions, researchers ran two different scenarios — a “projected” and an “ambitious” scenario — through their framework.

    The projected scenario corresponded to current trends. It assumed grid decarbonization would follow Energy Information Administration predictions; the widespread adoption of new energy codes; efficiency improvement of lighting and appliances; and, for concrete, the implementation of 50 percent low-carbon cements and binders in all new concrete construction and the adoption of full carbon capture, storage, and utilization (CCUS) of all cement and concrete emissions.

    “Our ambitious scenario was intended to reflect a future where more aggressive actions are taken to reduce GHG emissions and achieve the targets,” says Vahidi. “Therefore, the ambitious scenario took these same strategies [of the projected scenario] but featured more aggressive targets for their implementation.”

    For instance, it assumed a 33 percent reduction in grid emissions by 2050 and moved the projected deadlines for lighting and appliances and thermal insulation forward by five and 10 years, respectively. Concrete decarbonization occurred far more quickly as well.

    Reductions and variations

    The extensive growth forecast for the U.S. building sector will inevitably generate a sizable number of emissions. But how much can this figure be minimized?

    Without the implementation of any GHG reduction strategies, the team found that the building sector would emit 62 gigatons CO2 equivalent between 2016 and 2050. That’s comparable to the emissions generated from 156 trillion passenger vehicle miles traveled.

    But both GHG reduction scenarios could cut the emissions from this unmitigated, business-as-usual scenario significantly.

    Under the projected scenario, emissions would fall to 45 gigatons CO2 equivalent — a 27 percent decrease over the analysis period. The ambitious scenario would offer a further 6 percent reduction over the projected scenario, reaching 40 gigatons CO2 equivalent — like removing around 55 trillion passenger vehicle miles from the road over the period.

    “In both scenarios, the largest contributor to reductions was the greening of the energy grid,” notes Vahidi. “Other notable opportunities for reductions were from increasing the efficiency of lighting, HVAC, and appliances. Combined, these four attributes contributed to 85 percent of the emissions over the analysis period. Improvements to them offered the greatest potential emissions reductions.”

    The remaining attributes, such as thermal insulation and low-carbon concrete, had a smaller impact on emissions and, consequently, offered smaller reduction opportunities. That’s because these two attributes were only applied to new construction in the analysis, which was outnumbered by existing structures throughout the period.

    The disparities in impact between strategies aimed at new and existing structures underscore a broader finding: Despite extensive construction over the period, embodied emissions would comprise just 23 percent of cumulative emissions between 2016 and 2050, with the remainder coming primarily from operation.  

    “This is a consequence of existing structures far outnumbering new structures,” explains Jasmina Burek, a CSHub postdoc and an incoming assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “The operational emissions generated by all new and existing structures between 2016 and 2050 will always greatly exceed the embodied emissions of new structures at any given time, even as buildings become more efficient and the grid gets greener.”

    Yet the emissions reductions from both scenarios were not distributed evenly across the entire country. The team identified several regional variations that could have implications for how policymakers must act to reduce building sector emissions.

    “We found that western regions in the United States would see the greatest reduction opportunities from interventions to residential emissions, which would constitute 90 percent of the region’s total emissions over the analysis period,” says Vahidi.

    The predominance of residential emissions stems from the region’s ongoing population surge and its subsequent growth in housing stock. Proposed solutions would include CCUS and low-carbon binders for concrete production, and improvements to energy codes aimed at residential buildings.

    As with the West, ideal solutions for the Southeast would include CCUS, low-carbon binders, and improved energy codes.

    “In the case of Southeastern regions, interventions should equally target commercial and residential buildings, which we found were split more evenly among the building stock,” explains Burek. “Due to the stringent energy codes in both regions, interventions to operational emissions were less impactful than those to embodied emissions.”

    Much of the Midwest saw the inverse outcome. Its energy mix remains one of the most carbon-intensive in the nation and improvements to energy efficiency and the grid would have a large payoff — particularly in Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado.

    New England and California would see the smallest reductions. As their already-strict energy codes would limit further operational reductions, opportunities to reduce embodied emissions would be the most impactful.

    This tremendous regional variation uncovered by the MIT team is in many ways a reflection of the great demographic and geographic diversity of the nation as a whole. And there are still further variables to consider.

    In addition to GHG emissions, future research could consider other environmental impacts, like water consumption and air quality. Other mitigation strategies to consider include longer building lifespans, retrofitting, rooftop solar, and recycling and reuse.

    In this sense, their findings represent the lower bounds of what is possible in the building sector. And even if further improvements are ultimately possible, they’ve shown that regional variation will invariably inform those environmental impact reductions.

    The MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub is a team of researchers from several departments across MIT working on concrete and infrastructure science, engineering, and economics. Its research is supported by the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research and Education Foundation. More

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    Crossing disciplines, adding fresh eyes to nuclear engineering

    Sometimes patterns repeat in nature. Spirals appear in sunflowers and hurricanes. Branches occur in veins and lightning. Limiao Zhang, a doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, has found another similarity: between street traffic and boiling water, with implications for preventing nuclear meltdowns.

    Growing up in China, Zhang enjoyed watching her father repair things around the house. He couldn’t fulfill his dream of becoming an engineer, instead joining the police force, but Zhang did have that opportunity and studied mechanical engineering at Three Gorges University. Being one of four girls among about 50 boys in the major didn’t discourage her. “My father always told me girls can do anything,” she says. She graduated at the top of her class.

    In college, she and a team of classmates won a national engineering competition. They designed and built a model of a carousel powered by solar, hydroelectric, and pedal power. One judge asked how long the system could operate safely. “I didn’t have a perfect answer,” she recalls. She realized that engineering means designing products that not only function, but are resilient. So for her master’s degree, at Beihang University, she turned to industrial engineering and analyzed the reliability of critical infrastructure, in particular traffic networks.

    “Among all the critical infrastructures, nuclear power plants are quite special,” Zhang says. “Although one can provide very enormous carbon-free energy, once it fails, it can cause catastrophic results.” So she decided to switch fields again and study nuclear engineering. At the time she had no nuclear background, and hadn’t studied in the United States, but “I tried to step out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I just applied and MIT welcomed me.” Her supervisor, Matteo Bucci, and her classmates explained the basics of fission reactions as she adjusted to the new material, language, and environment. She doubted herself — “my friend told me, ‘I saw clouds above your head’” — but she passed her first-year courses and published her first paper soon afterward.

    Much of the work in Bucci’s lab deals with what’s called the boiling crisis. In many applications, such as nuclear plants and powerful computers, water cools things. When a hot surface boils water, bubbles cling to the surface before rising, but if too many form, they merge into a layer of vapor that insulates the surface. The heat has nowhere to go — a boiling crisis.

    Bucci invited Zhang into his lab in part because she saw a connection between traffic and heat transfer. The data plots of both phenomena look surprisingly similar. “The mathematical tools she had developed for the study of traffic jams were a completely different way of looking into our problem” Bucci says, “by using something which is intuitively not connected.”

    One can view bubbles as cars. The more there are, the more they interfere with each other. People studying boiling had focused on the physics of individual bubbles. Zhang instead uses statistical physics to analyze collective patterns of behavior. “She brings a different set of skills, a different set of knowledge, to our research,” says Guanyu Su, a postdoc in the lab. “That’s very refreshing.”

    In her first paper on the boiling crisis, published in Physical Review Letters, Zhang used theory and simulations to identify scale-free behavior in boiling: just as in traffic, the same patterns appear whether zoomed in or out, in terms of space or time. Both small and large bubbles matter. Using this insight, the team found certain physical parameters that could predict a boiling crisis. Zhang’s mathematical tools both explain experimental data and suggest new experiments to try. For a second paper, the team collected more data and found ways to predict the boiling crisis in a wider variety of conditions.

    Zhang’s thesis and third paper, both in progress, propose a universal law for explaining the crisis. “She translated the mechanism into a physical law, like F=ma or E=mc2,” Bucci says. “She came up with an equally simple equation.” Zhang says she’s learned a lot from colleagues in the department who are pioneering new nuclear reactors or other technologies, “but for my own work, I try to get down to the very basics of a phenomenon.”

    Bucci describes Zhang as determined, open-minded, and commendably self-critical. Su says she’s careful, optimistic, and courageous. “If I imagine going from heat transfer to city planning, that would be almost impossible for me,” he says. “She has a strong mind.” Last year, Zhang gave birth to a boy, whom she’s raising on her own as she does her research. (Her husband is stuck in China during the pandemic.) “This, to me,” Bucci says, “is almost superhuman.”

    Zhang will graduate at the end of the year, and has started looking for jobs back in China. She wants to continue in the energy field, though maybe not nuclear. “I will use my interdisciplinary knowledge,” she says. “I hope I can design safer and more efficient and more reliable systems to provide energy for our society.” More

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    3 Questions: Daniel Cohn on the benefits of high-efficiency, flexible-fuel engines for heavy-duty trucking

    The California Air Resources Board has adopted a regulation that requires truck and engine manufacturers to reduce the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from new heavy-duty trucks by 90 percent starting in 2027. NOx from heavy-duty trucks is one of the main sources of air pollution, creating smog and threatening respiratory health. This regulation requires the largest air pollution cuts in California in more than a decade. How can manufacturers achieve this aggressive goal efficiently and affordably?

    Daniel Cohn, a research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, and Leslie Bromberg, a principal research scientist at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, have been working on a high-efficiency, gasoline-ethanol engine that is cleaner and more cost-effective than existing diesel engine technologies. Here, Cohn explains the flexible-fuel engine approach and why it may be the most realistic solution — in the near term — to help California meet its stringent vehicle emission reduction goals. The research was sponsored by the Arthur Samberg MIT Energy Innovation fund.

    Q. How does your high-efficiency, flexible-fuel gasoline engine technology work?

    A. Our goal is to provide an affordable solution for heavy-duty vehicle (HDV) engines to emit low levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions that would meet California’s NOx regulations, while also quick-starting gasoline-consumption reductions in a substantial fraction of the HDV fleet.

    Presently, large trucks and other HDVs generally use diesel engines. The main reason for this is because of their high efficiency, which reduces fuel cost — a key factor for commercial trucks (especially long-haul trucks) because of the large number of miles that are driven. However, the NOx emissions from these diesel-powered vehicles are around 10 times greater than those from spark-ignition engines powered by gasoline or ethanol.

    Spark-ignition gasoline engines are primarily used in cars and light trucks (light-duty vehicles), which employ a three-way catalyst exhaust treatment system (generally referred to as a catalytic converter) that reduces vehicle NOx emissions by at least 98 percent and at a modest cost. The use of this highly effective exhaust treatment system is enabled by the capability of spark-ignition engines to be operated at a stoichiometric air/fuel ratio (where the amount of air matches what is needed for complete combustion of the fuel).

    Diesel engines do not operate with stoichiometric air/fuel ratios, making it much more difficult to reduce NOx emissions. Their state-of-the-art exhaust treatment system is much more complex and expensive than catalytic converters, and even with it, vehicles produce NOx emissions around 10 times higher than spark-ignition engine vehicles. Consequently, it is very challenging for diesel engines to further reduce their NOx emissions to meet the new California regulations.

    Our approach uses spark-ignition engines that can be powered by gasoline, ethanol, or mixtures of gasoline and ethanol as a substitute for diesel engines in HDVs. Gasoline has the attractive feature of being widely available and having a comparable or lower cost than diesel fuel. In addition, presently available ethanol in the U.S. produces up to 40 percent less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than diesel fuel or gasoline and has a widely available distribution system.

    To make gasoline- and/or ethanol-powered spark-ignition engine HDVs attractive for widespread HDV applications, we developed ways to make spark-ignition engines more efficient, so their fuel costs are more palatable to owners of heavy-duty trucks. Our approach provides diesel-like high efficiency and high power in gasoline-powered engines by using various methods to prevent engine knock (unwanted self-ignition that can damage the engine) in spark-ignition gasoline engines. This enables greater levels of turbocharging and use of higher engine compression ratios. These features provide high efficiency, comparable to that provided by diesel engines. Plus, when the engine is powered by ethanol, the required knock resistance is provided by the intrinsic high knock resistance of the fuel itself. 

    Q. What are the major challenges to implementing your technology in California?

    A. California has always been the pioneer in air pollutant control, with states such as Washington, Oregon, and New York often following suit. As the most populous state, California has a lot of sway — it’s a trendsetter. What happens in California has an impact on the rest of the United States.

    The main challenge to implementation of our technology is the argument that a better internal combustion engine technology is not needed because battery-powered HDVs — particularly long-haul trucks — can play the required role in reducing NOx and GHG emissions by 2035. We think that substantial market penetration of battery electric vehicles (BEV) in this vehicle sector will take a considerably longer time. In contrast to light-duty vehicles, there has been very little penetration of battery power into the HDV fleet, especially in long-haul trucks, which are the largest users of diesel fuel. One reason for this is that long-haul trucks using battery power face the challenge of reduced cargo capability due to substantial battery weight. Another challenge is the substantially longer charging time for BEVs compared to that of most present HDVs.

    Hydrogen-powered trucks using fuel cells have also been proposed as an alternative to BEV trucks, which might limit interest in adopting improved internal combustion engines. However, hydrogen-powered trucks face the formidable challenges of producing zero GHG hydrogen at affordable cost, as well as the cost of storage and transportation of hydrogen. At present the high purity hydrogen needed for fuel cells is generally very expensive.

    Q. How does your idea compare overall to battery-powered and hydrogen-powered HDVs? And how will you persuade people that it is an attractive pathway to follow?

    A. Our design uses existing propulsion systems and can operate on existing liquid fuels, and for these reasons, in the near term, it will be economically attractive to the operators of long-haul trucks. In fact, it can even be a lower-cost option than diesel power because of the significantly less-expensive exhaust treatment and smaller-size engines for the same power and torque. This economic attractiveness could enable the large-scale market penetration that is needed to have a substantial impact on reducing air pollution. Alternatively, we think it could take at least 20 years longer for BEVs or hydrogen-powered vehicles to obtain the same level of market penetration.

    Our approach also uses existing corn-based ethanol, which can provide a greater near-term GHG reduction benefit than battery- or hydrogen-powered long-haul trucks. While the GHG reduction from using existing ethanol would initially be in the 20 percent to 40 percent range, the scale at which the market is penetrated in the near-term could be much greater than for BEV or hydrogen-powered vehicle technology. The overall impact in reducing GHGs could be considerably greater.

    Moreover, we see a migration path beyond 2030 where further reductions in GHG emissions from corn ethanol can be possible through carbon capture and sequestration of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is produced during ethanol production. In this case, overall CO2 reductions could potentially be 80 percent or more. Technologies for producing ethanol (and methanol, another alcohol fuel) from waste at attractive costs are emerging, and can provide fuel with zero or negative GHG emissions. One pathway for providing a negative GHG impact is through finding alternatives to landfilling for waste disposal, as this method leads to potent methane GHG emissions. A negative GHG impact could also be obtained by converting biomass waste into clean fuel, since the biomass waste can be carbon neutral and CO2 from the production of the clean fuel can be captured and sequestered.

    In addition, our flex-fuel engine technology may be synergistically used as range extenders in plug-in hybrid HDVs, which use limited battery capacity and obviates the cargo capability reduction and fueling disadvantages of long-haul trucks powered by battery alone.

    With the growing threats from air pollution and global warming, our HDV solution is an increasingly important option for near-term reduction of air pollution and offers a faster start in reducing heavy-duty fleet GHG emissions. It also provides an attractive migration path for longer-term, larger GHG reductions from the HDV sector. More

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    MIT-designed project achieves major advance toward fusion energy

    It was a moment three years in the making, based on intensive research and design work: On Sept. 5, for the first time, a large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet was ramped up to a field strength of 20 tesla, the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth. That successful demonstration helps resolve the greatest uncertainty in the quest to build the world’s first fusion power plant that can produce more power than it consumes, according to the project’s leaders at MIT and startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).

    That advance paves the way, they say, for the long-sought creation of practical, inexpensive, carbon-free power plants that could make a major contribution to limiting the effects of global climate change.

    “Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.” The fuel used to create fusion energy comes from water, and “the Earth is full of water — it’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it.”

    Developing the new magnet is seen as the greatest technological hurdle to making that happen; its successful operation now opens the door to demonstrating fusion in a lab on Earth, which has been pursued for decades with limited progress. With the magnet technology now successfully demonstrated, the MIT-CFS collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion device that can create and confine a plasma that produces more energy than it consumes. That demonstration device, called SPARC, is targeted for completion in 2025.

    “The challenges of making fusion happen are both technical and scientific,” says Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which is working with CFS to develop SPARC. But once the technology is proven, he says, “it’s an inexhaustible, carbon-free source of energy that you can deploy anywhere and at any time. It’s really a fundamentally new energy source.”

    Whyte, who is the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, says this week’s demonstration represents a major milestone, addressing the biggest questions remaining about the feasibility of the SPARC design. “It’s really a watershed moment, I believe, in fusion science and technology,” he says.

    The sun in a bottle

    Fusion is the process that powers the sun: the merger of two small atoms to make a larger one, releasing prodigious amounts of energy. But the process requires temperatures far beyond what any solid material could withstand. To capture the sun’s power source here on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and containing something that hot — 100,000,000 degrees or more — by suspending it in a way that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid.

    That’s done through intense magnetic fields, which form a kind of invisible bottle to contain the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons, called a plasma. Because the particles have an electric charge, they are strongly controlled by the magnetic fields, and the most widely used configuration for containing them is a donut-shaped device called a tokamak. Most of these devices have produced their magnetic fields using conventional electromagnets made of copper, but the latest and largest version under construction in France, called ITER, uses what are known as low-temperature superconductors.

    The major innovation in the MIT-CFS fusion design is the use of high-temperature superconductors, which enable a much stronger magnetic field in a smaller space. This design was made possible by a new kind of superconducting material that became commercially available a few years ago. The idea initially arose as a class project in a nuclear engineering class taught by Whyte. The idea seemed so promising that it continued to be developed over the next few iterations of that class, leading to the ARC power plant design concept in early 2015. SPARC, designed to be about half the size of ARC, is a testbed to prove the concept before construction of the full-size, power-producing plant.

    Until now, the only way to achieve the colossally powerful magnetic fields needed to create a magnetic “bottle” capable of containing plasma heated up to hundreds of millions of degrees was to make them larger and larger. But the new high-temperature superconductor material, made in the form of a flat, ribbon-like tape, makes it possible to achieve a higher magnetic field in a smaller device, equaling the performance that would be achieved in an apparatus 40 times larger in volume using conventional low-temperature superconducting magnets. That leap in power versus size is the key element in ARC’s revolutionary design.

    The use of the new high-temperature superconducting magnets makes it possible to apply decades of experimental knowledge gained from the operation of tokamak experiments, including MIT’s own Alcator series. The new approach, led by Zach Hartwig, the MIT principal investigator and the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, uses a well-known design but scales everything down to about half the linear size and still achieves the same operational conditions because of the higher magnetic field.

    A series of scientific papers published last year outlined the physical basis and, by simulation, confirmed the viability of the new fusion device. The papers showed that, if the magnets worked as expected, the whole fusion system should indeed produce net power output, for the first time in decades of fusion research.

    Martin Greenwald, deputy director and senior research scientist at the PSFC, says unlike some other designs for fusion experiments, “the niche that we were filling was to use conventional plasma physics, and conventional tokamak designs and engineering, but bring to it this new magnet technology. So, we weren’t requiring innovation in a half-dozen different areas. We would just innovate on the magnet, and then apply the knowledge base of what’s been learned over the last decades.”

    That combination of scientifically established design principles and game-changing magnetic field strength is what makes it possible to achieve a plant that could be economically viable and developed on a fast track. “It’s a big moment,” says Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS. “We now have a platform that is both scientifically very well-advanced, because of the decades of research on these machines, and also commercially very interesting. What it does is allow us to build devices faster, smaller, and at less cost,” he says of the successful magnet demonstration. 

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    Proof of the concept

    Bringing that new magnet concept to reality required three years of intensive work on design, establishing supply chains, and working out manufacturing methods for magnets that may eventually need to be produced by the thousands.

    “We built a first-of-a-kind, superconducting magnet. It required a lot of work to create unique manufacturing processes and equipment. As a result, we are now well-prepared to ramp-up for SPARC production,” says Joy Dunn, head of operations at CFS. “We started with a physics model and a CAD design, and worked through lots of development and prototypes to turn a design on paper into this actual physical magnet.” That entailed building manufacturing capabilities and testing facilities, including an iterative process with multiple suppliers of the superconducting tape, to help them reach the ability to produce material that met the needed specifications — and for which CFS is now overwhelmingly the world’s biggest user.

    They worked with two possible magnet designs in parallel, both of which ended up meeting the design requirements, she says. “It really came down to which one would revolutionize the way that we make superconducting magnets, and which one was easier to build.” The design they adopted clearly stood out in that regard, she says.

    In this test, the new magnet was gradually powered up in a series of steps until reaching the goal of a 20 tesla magnetic field — the highest field strength ever for a high-temperature superconducting fusion magnet. The magnet is composed of 16 plates stacked together, each one of which by itself would be the most powerful high-temperature superconducting magnet in the world.

    “Three years ago we announced a plan,” says Mumgaard, “to build a 20-tesla magnet, which is what we will need for future fusion machines.” That goal has now been achieved, right on schedule, even with the pandemic, he says.

    Citing the series of physics papers published last year, Brandon Sorbom, the chief science officer at CFS, says “basically the papers conclude that if we build the magnet, all of the physics will work in SPARC. So, this demonstration answers the question: Can they build the magnet? It’s a very exciting time! It’s a huge milestone.”

    The next step will be building SPARC, a smaller-scale version of the planned ARC power plant. The successful operation of SPARC will demonstrate that a full-scale commercial fusion power plant is practical, clearing the way for rapid design and construction of that pioneering device can then proceed full speed.

    Zuber says that “I now am genuinely optimistic that SPARC can achieve net positive energy, based on the demonstrated performance of the magnets. The next step is to scale up, to build an actual power plant. There are still many challenges ahead, not the least of which is developing a design that allows for reliable, sustained operation. And realizing that the goal here is commercialization, another major challenge will be economic. How do you design these power plants so it will be cost effective to build and deploy them?”

    Someday in a hoped-for future, when there may be thousands of fusion plants powering clean electric grids around the world, Zuber says, “I think we’re going to look back and think about how we got there, and I think the demonstration of the magnet technology, for me, is the time when I believed that, wow, we can really do this.”

    The successful creation of a power-producing fusion device would be a tremendous scientific achievement, Zuber notes. But that’s not the main point. “None of us are trying to win trophies at this point. We’re trying to keep the planet livable.” More

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    Making the case for hydrogen in a zero-carbon economy

    As the United States races to achieve its goal of zero-carbon electricity generation by 2035, energy providers are swiftly ramping up renewable resources such as solar and wind. But because these technologies churn out electrons only when the sun shines and the wind blows, they need backup from other energy sources, especially during seasons of high electric demand. Currently, plants burning fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, fill in the gaps.

    “As we move to more and more renewable penetration, this intermittency will make a greater impact on the electric power system,” says Emre Gençer, a research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). That’s because grid operators will increasingly resort to fossil-fuel-based “peaker” plants that compensate for the intermittency of the variable renewable energy (VRE) sources of sun and wind. “If we’re to achieve zero-carbon electricity, we must replace all greenhouse gas-emitting sources,” Gençer says.

    Low- and zero-carbon alternatives to greenhouse-gas emitting peaker plants are in development, such as arrays of lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen power generation. But each of these evolving technologies comes with its own set of advantages and constraints, and it has proven difficult to frame the debate about these options in a way that’s useful for policymakers, investors, and utilities engaged in the clean energy transition.

    Now, Gençer and Drake D. Hernandez SM ’21 have come up with a model that makes it possible to pin down the pros and cons of these peaker-plant alternatives with greater precision. Their hybrid technological and economic analysis, based on a detailed inventory of California’s power system, was published online last month in Applied Energy. While their work focuses on the most cost-effective solutions for replacing peaker power plants, it also contains insights intended to contribute to the larger conversation about transforming energy systems.

    “Our study’s essential takeaway is that hydrogen-fired power generation can be the more economical option when compared to lithium-ion batteries — even today, when the costs of hydrogen production, transmission, and storage are very high,” says Hernandez, who worked on the study while a graduate research assistant for MITEI. Adds Gençer, “If there is a place for hydrogen in the cases we analyzed, that suggests there is a promising role for hydrogen to play in the energy transition.”

    Adding up the costs

    California serves as a stellar paradigm for a swiftly shifting power system. The state draws more than 20 percent of its electricity from solar and approximately 7 percent from wind, with more VRE coming online rapidly. This means its peaker plants already play a pivotal role, coming online each evening when the sun goes down or when events such as heat waves drive up electricity use for days at a time.

    “We looked at all the peaker plants in California,” recounts Gençer. “We wanted to know the cost of electricity if we replaced them with hydrogen-fired turbines or with lithium-ion batteries.” The researchers used a core metric called the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) as a way of comparing the costs of different technologies to each other. LCOE measures the average total cost of building and operating a particular energy-generating asset per unit of total electricity generated over the hypothetical lifetime of that asset.

    Selecting 2019 as their base study year, the team looked at the costs of running natural gas-fired peaker plants, which they defined as plants operating 15 percent of the year in response to gaps in intermittent renewable electricity. In addition, they determined the amount of carbon dioxide released by these plants and the expense of abating these emissions. Much of this information was publicly available.

    Coming up with prices for replacing peaker plants with massive arrays of lithium-ion batteries was also relatively straightforward: “There are no technical limitations to lithium-ion, so you can build as many as you want; but they are super expensive in terms of their footprint for energy storage and the mining required to manufacture them,” says Gençer.

    But then came the hard part: nailing down the costs of hydrogen-fired electricity generation. “The most difficult thing is finding cost assumptions for new technologies,” says Hernandez. “You can’t do this through a literature review, so we had many conversations with equipment manufacturers and plant operators.”

    The team considered two different forms of hydrogen fuel to replace natural gas, one produced through electrolyzer facilities that convert water and electricity into hydrogen, and another that reforms natural gas, yielding hydrogen and carbon waste that can be captured to reduce emissions. They also ran the numbers on retrofitting natural gas plants to burn hydrogen as opposed to building entirely new facilities. Their model includes identification of likely locations throughout the state and expenses involved in constructing these facilities.

    The researchers spent months compiling a giant dataset before setting out on the task of analysis. The results from their modeling were clear: “Hydrogen can be a more cost-effective alternative to lithium-ion batteries for peaking operations on a power grid,” says Hernandez. In addition, notes Gençer, “While certain technologies worked better in particular locations, we found that on average, reforming hydrogen rather than electrolytic hydrogen turned out to be the cheapest option for replacing peaker plants.”

    A tool for energy investors

    When he began this project, Gençer admits he “wasn’t hopeful” about hydrogen replacing natural gas in peaker plants. “It was kind of shocking to see in our different scenarios that there was a place for hydrogen.” That’s because the overall price tag for converting a fossil-fuel based plant to one based on hydrogen is very high, and such conversions likely won’t take place until more sectors of the economy embrace hydrogen, whether as a fuel for transportation or for varied manufacturing and industrial purposes.

    A nascent hydrogen production infrastructure does exist, mainly in the production of ammonia for fertilizer. But enormous investments will be necessary to expand this framework to meet grid-scale needs, driven by purposeful incentives. “With any of the climate solutions proposed today, we will need a carbon tax or carbon pricing; otherwise nobody will switch to new technologies,” says Gençer.

    The researchers believe studies like theirs could help key energy stakeholders make better-informed decisions. To that end, they have integrated their analysis into SESAME, a life cycle and techno-economic assessment tool for a range of energy systems that was developed by MIT researchers. Users can leverage this sophisticated modeling environment to compare costs of energy storage and emissions from different technologies, for instance, or to determine whether it is cost-efficient to replace a natural gas-powered plant with one powered by hydrogen.

    “As utilities, industry, and investors look to decarbonize and achieve zero-emissions targets, they have to weigh the costs of investing in low-carbon technologies today against the potential impacts of climate change moving forward,” says Hernandez, who is currently a senior associate in the energy practice at Charles River Associates. Hydrogen, he believes, will become increasingly cost-competitive as its production costs decline and markets expand.

    A study group member of MITEI’s soon-to-be published Future of Storage study, Gençer knows that hydrogen alone will not usher in a zero-carbon future. But, he says, “Our research shows we need to seriously consider hydrogen in the energy transition, start thinking about key areas where hydrogen should be used, and start making the massive investments necessary.”

    Funding for this research was provided by MITEI’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers and Future of Storage study. More