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    Engineers enlist AI to help scale up advanced solar cell manufacturing

    Perovskites are a family of materials that are currently the leading contender to potentially replace today’s silicon-based solar photovoltaics. They hold the promise of panels that are far thinner and lighter, that could be made with ultra-high throughput at room temperature instead of at hundreds of degrees, and that are cheaper and easier to transport and install. But bringing these materials from controlled laboratory experiments into a product that can be manufactured competitively has been a long struggle.

    Manufacturing perovskite-based solar cells involves optimizing at least a dozen or so variables at once, even within one particular manufacturing approach among many possibilities. But a new system based on a novel approach to machine learning could speed up the development of optimized production methods and help make the next generation of solar power a reality.

    The system, developed by researchers at MIT and Stanford University over the last few years, makes it possible to integrate data from prior experiments, and information based on personal observations by experienced workers, into the machine learning process. This makes the outcomes more accurate and has already led to the manufacturing of perovskite cells with an energy conversion efficiency of 18.5 percent, a competitive level for today’s market.

    The research is reported today in the journal Joule, in a paper by MIT professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi, Stanford professor of materials science and engineering Reinhold Dauskardt, recent MIT research assistant Zhe Liu, Stanford doctoral graduate Nicholas Rolston, and three others.

    Perovskites are a group of layered crystalline compounds defined by the configuration of the atoms in their crystal lattice. There are thousands of such possible compounds and many different ways of making them. While most lab-scale development of perovskite materials uses a spin-coating technique, that’s not practical for larger-scale manufacturing, so companies and labs around the world have been searching for ways of translating these lab materials into a practical, manufacturable product.

    “There’s always a big challenge when you’re trying to take a lab-scale process and then transfer it to something like a startup or a manufacturing line,” says Rolston, who is now an assistant professor at Arizona State University. The team looked at a process that they felt had the greatest potential, a method called rapid spray plasma processing, or RSPP.

    The manufacturing process would involve a moving roll-to-roll surface, or series of sheets, on which the precursor solutions for the perovskite compound would be sprayed or ink-jetted as the sheet rolled by. The material would then move on to a curing stage, providing a rapid and continuous output “with throughputs that are higher than for any other photovoltaic technology,” Rolston says.

    “The real breakthrough with this platform is that it would allow us to scale in a way that no other material has allowed us to do,” he adds. “Even materials like silicon require a much longer timeframe because of the processing that’s done. Whereas you can think of [this approach as more] like spray painting.”

    Within that process, at least a dozen variables may affect the outcome, some of them more controllable than others. These include the composition of the starting materials, the temperature, the humidity, the speed of the processing path, the distance of the nozzle used to spray the material onto a substrate, and the methods of curing the material. Many of these factors can interact with each other, and if the process is in open air, then humidity, for example, may be uncontrolled. Evaluating all possible combinations of these variables through experimentation is impossible, so machine learning was needed to help guide the experimental process.

    But while most machine-learning systems use raw data such as measurements of the electrical and other properties of test samples, they don’t typically incorporate human experience such as qualitative observations made by the experimenters of the visual and other properties of the test samples, or information from other experiments reported by other researchers. So, the team found a way to incorporate such outside information into the machine learning model, using a probability factor based on a mathematical technique called Bayesian Optimization.

    Using the system, he says, “having a model that comes from experimental data, we can find out trends that we weren’t able to see before.” For example, they initially had trouble adjusting for uncontrolled variations in humidity in their ambient setting. But the model showed them “that we could overcome our humidity challenges by changing the temperature, for instance, and by changing some of the other knobs.”

    The system now allows experimenters to much more rapidly guide their process in order to optimize it for a given set of conditions or required outcomes. In their experiments, the team focused on optimizing the power output, but the system could also be used to simultaneously incorporate other criteria, such as cost and durability — something members of the team are continuing to work on, Buonassisi says.

    The researchers were encouraged by the Department of Energy, which sponsored the work, to commercialize the technology, and they’re currently focusing on tech transfer to existing perovskite manufacturers. “We are reaching out to companies now,” Buonassisi says, and the code they developed has been made freely available through an open-source server. “It’s now on GitHub, anyone can download it, anyone can run it,” he says. “We’re happy to help companies get started in using our code.”

    Already, several companies are gearing up to produce perovskite-based solar panels, even though they are still working out the details of how to produce them, says Liu, who is now at the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, China. He says companies there are not yet doing large-scale manufacturing, but instead starting with smaller, high-value applications such as building-integrated solar tiles where appearance is important. Three of these companies “are on track or are being pushed by investors to manufacture 1 meter by 2-meter rectangular modules [comparable to today’s most common solar panels], within two years,” he says.

    ‘The problem is, they don’t have a consensus on what manufacturing technology to use,” Liu says. The RSPP method, developed at Stanford, “still has a good chance” to be competitive, he says. And the machine learning system the team developed could prove to be important in guiding the optimization of whatever process ends up being used.

    “The primary goal was to accelerate the process, so it required less time, less experiments, and less human hours to develop something that is usable right away, for free, for industry,” he says.

    “Existing work on machine-learning-driven perovskite PV fabrication largely focuses on spin-coating, a lab-scale technique,” says Ted Sargent, University Professor at the University of Toronto, who was not associated with this work, which he says demonstrates “a workflow that is readily adapted to the deposition techniques that dominate the thin-film industry. Only a handful of groups have the simultaneous expertise in engineering and computation to drive such advances.” Sargent adds that this approach “could be an exciting advance for the manufacture of a broader family of materials” including LEDs, other PV technologies, and graphene, “in short, any industry that uses some form of vapor or vacuum deposition.” 

    The team also included Austin Flick and Thomas Colburn at Stanford and Zekun Ren at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Science and Technology (SMART). In addition to the Department of Energy, the work was supported by a fellowship from the MIT Energy Initiative, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program from the National Science Foundation, and the SMART program. More

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    A new heat engine with no moving parts is as efficient as a steam turbine

    Engineers at MIT and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have designed a heat engine with no moving parts. Their new demonstrations show that it converts heat to electricity with over 40 percent efficiency — a performance better than that of traditional steam turbines.

    The heat engine is a thermophotovoltaic (TPV) cell, similar to a solar panel’s photovoltaic cells, that passively captures high-energy photons from a white-hot heat source and converts them into electricity. The team’s design can generate electricity from a heat source of between 1,900 to 2,400 degrees Celsius, or up to about 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The researchers plan to incorporate the TPV cell into a grid-scale thermal battery. The system would absorb excess energy from renewable sources such as the sun and store that energy in heavily insulated banks of hot graphite. When the energy is needed, such as on overcast days, TPV cells would convert the heat into electricity, and dispatch the energy to a power grid.

    With the new TPV cell, the team has now successfully demonstrated the main parts of the system in separate, small-scale experiments. They are working to integrate the parts to demonstrate a fully operational system. From there, they hope to scale up the system to replace fossil-fuel-driven power plants and enable a fully decarbonized power grid, supplied entirely by renewable energy.

    “Thermophotovoltaic cells were the last key step toward demonstrating that thermal batteries are a viable concept,” says Asegun Henry, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “This is an absolutely critical step on the path to proliferate renewable energy and get to a fully decarbonized grid.”

    Henry and his collaborators have published their results today in the journal Nature. Co-authors at MIT include Alina LaPotin, Kevin Schulte, Kyle Buznitsky, Colin Kelsall, Andrew Rohskopf, and Evelyn Wang, the Ford Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, along with collaborators at NREL in Golden, Colorado.

    Jumping the gap

    More than 90 percent of the world’s electricity comes from sources of heat such as coal, natural gas, nuclear energy, and concentrated solar energy. For a century, steam turbines have been the industrial standard for converting such heat sources into electricity.

    On average, steam turbines reliably convert about 35 percent of a heat source into electricity, with about 60 percent representing the highest efficiency of any heat engine to date. But the machinery depends on moving parts that are temperature- limited. Heat sources higher than 2,000 degrees Celsius, such as Henry’s proposed thermal battery system, would be too hot for turbines.

    In recent years, scientists have looked into solid-state alternatives — heat engines with no moving parts, that could potentially work efficiently at higher temperatures.

    “One of the advantages of solid-state energy converters are that they can operate at higher temperatures with lower maintenance costs because they have no moving parts,” Henry says. “They just sit there and reliably generate electricity.”

    Thermophotovoltaic cells offered one exploratory route toward solid-state heat engines. Much like solar cells, TPV cells could be made from semiconducting materials with a particular bandgap — the gap between a material’s valence band and its conduction band. If a photon with a high enough energy is absorbed by the material, it can kick an electron across the bandgap, where the electron can then conduct, and thereby generate electricity — doing so without moving rotors or blades.

    To date, most TPV cells have only reached efficiencies of around 20 percent, with the record at 32 percent, as they have been made of relatively low-bandgap materials that convert lower-temperature, low-energy photons, and therefore convert energy less efficiently.

    Catching light

    In their new TPV design, Henry and his colleagues looked to capture higher-energy photons from a higher-temperature heat source, thereby converting energy more efficiently. The team’s new cell does so with higher-bandgap materials and multiple junctions, or material layers, compared with existing TPV designs.

    The cell is fabricated from three main regions: a high-bandgap alloy, which sits over a slightly lower-bandgap alloy, underneath which is a mirror-like layer of gold. The first layer captures a heat source’s highest-energy photons and converts them into electricity, while lower-energy photons that pass through the first layer are captured by the second and converted to add to the generated voltage. Any photons that pass through this second layer are then reflected by the mirror, back to the heat source, rather than being absorbed as wasted heat.

    The team tested the cell’s efficiency by placing it over a heat flux sensor — a device that directly measures the heat absorbed from the cell. They exposed the cell to a high-temperature lamp and concentrated the light onto the cell. They then varied the bulb’s intensity, or temperature, and observed how the cell’s power efficiency — the amount of power it produced, compared with the heat it absorbed — changed with temperature. Over a range of 1,900 to 2,400 degrees Celsius, the new TPV cell maintained an efficiency of around 40 percent.

    “We can get a high efficiency over a broad range of temperatures relevant for thermal batteries,” Henry says.

    The cell in the experiments is about a square centimeter. For a grid-scale thermal battery system, Henry envisions the TPV cells would have to scale up to about 10,000 square feet (about a quarter of a football field), and would operate in climate-controlled warehouses to draw power from huge banks of stored solar energy. He points out that an infrastructure exists for making large-scale photovoltaic cells, which could also be adapted to manufacture TPVs.

    “There’s definitely a huge net positive here in terms of sustainability,” Henry says. “The technology is safe, environmentally benign in its life cycle, and can have a tremendous impact on abating carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the U.S. Department of Energy. More

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    Embracing ancient materials and 21st-century challenges

    When Sophia Mittman was 10 years old, she wanted to be an artist. But instead of using paint, she preferred the mud in her backyard. She sculpted it into pots and bowls like the ones she had seen at the archaeological museums, transforming the earthly material into something beautiful.

    Now an MIT senior studying materials science and engineering, Mittman seeks modern applications for sustainable materials in ways that benefit the community around her.

    Growing up in San Diego, California, Mittman was homeschooled, and enjoyed the process of teaching herself new things. After taking a pottery class in seventh grade, she became interested in sculpture, teaching herself how to make fused glass. From there, Mittman began making pottery and jewelry. This passion to create new things out of sustainable materials led her to pursue materials science, a subject she didn’t even know was originally offered at the Institute.

    “I didn’t know the science behind why those materials had the properties they did. And materials science explained it,” she says.

    During her first year at MIT, Mittman took 2.00b (Toy Product Design), which she considers one of her most memorable classes at the Institute. She remembers learning about the mechanical side of building, using drill presses and sanding machines to create things. However, her favorite part was the seminars on the weekends, where she learned how to make things such as stuffed animals or rolling wooden toys. She appreciated the opportunity to learn how to use everyday materials like wood to construct new and exciting gadgets.

    From there, Mittman got involved in the Glass Club, using blowtorches to melt rods of glass to make things like marbles and little fish decorations. She also took a few pottery and ceramics classes on campus, learning how to hone her skills to craft new things. Understanding MIT’s hands-on approach to learning, Mittman was excited to use her newly curated skills in the various workshops on campus to apply them to the real world.

    In the summer after her first year, Mittman became an undergraduate field and conservation science researcher for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She traveled to various cities across Italy to collaborate with international art restorers, conservation scientists, and museum curators to study archaeological materials and their applications to modern sustainability. One of her favorite parts was restoring the Roman baths, and studying the mosaics on the ground. She did a research project on Egyptian Blue, one of the first synthetic pigments, which has modern applications because of its infrared luminescence, which can be used for detecting fingerprints in crime scenes. The experience was eye-opening for Mittman; she got to directly experience what she had been learning in the classroom about sustainable materials and how she could preserve and use them for modern applications.

    The next year, upon returning to campus, Mittman joined Incredible Foods as a polymeric food science and technology intern. She learned how to create and apply a polymer coating to natural fruit snacks to replicate real berries. “It was fun to see the breadth of material science because I had learned about polymers in my material science classes, but then never thought that it could be applied to making something as fun as fruit snacks,” she says.

    Venturing into yet another new area of materials science, Mittman last year pursued an internship with Phoenix Tailings, which aims to be the world’s first “clean” mining company. In the lab, she helped develop and analyze chemical reactions to physically and chemically extract rare earth metals and oxides from mining waste. She also worked to engineer bright-colored, high-performance pigments using nontoxic chemicals. Mittman enjoyed the opportunity to explore a mineralogically sustainable method for mining, something she hadn’t previously explored as a branch of materials science research.

    “I’m still able to contribute to environmental sustainability and to try to make a greener world, but it doesn’t solely have to be through energy because I’m dealing with dirt and mud,” she says.

    Outside of her academic work, Mittman is involved with the Tech Catholic Community (TCC) on campus. She has held roles as the music director, prayer chair, and social committee chair, organizing and managing social events for over 150 club members. She says the TCC is the most supportive community in her campus life, as she can meet people who have similar interests as her, though are in different majors. “There are a lot of emotional aspects of being at MIT, and there’s a spiritual part that so many students wrestle with. The TCC is where I’ve been able to find so much comfort, support, and encouragement; the closest friends I have are in the Tech Catholic Community,” she says.

    Mittman is also passionate about teaching, which allows her to connect to students and teach them material in new and exciting ways. In the fall of her junior and senior years, she was a teaching assistant for 3.091 (Introduction to Solid State Chemistry), where she taught two recitations of 20 students and offered weekly private tutoring. She enjoyed helping students tackle difficult course material in ways that are enthusiastic and encouraging, as she appreciated receiving the same help in her introductory courses.

    Looking ahead, Mittman plans to work fulltime at Phoenix Tailings as a materials scientist following her graduation. In this way, she feels like she has come full circle: from playing in the mud as a kid to working with it as a materials scientist to extract materials to help build a sustainable future for nearby and international communities.

    “I want to be able to apply what I’m enthusiastic about, which is materials science, by way of mineralogical sustainability, so that it can help mines here in America but also mines in Brazil, Austria, Jamaica — all over the world, because ultimately, I think that will help more people live better lives,” she says. More

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    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

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    New England renewables + Canadian hydropower

    The urgent need to cut carbon emissions has prompted a growing number of U.S. states to commit to achieving 100 percent clean electricity by 2040 or 2050. But figuring out how to meet those commitments and still have a reliable and affordable power system is a challenge. Wind and solar installations will form the backbone of a carbon-free power system, but what technologies can meet electricity demand when those intermittent renewable sources are not adequate?

    In general, the options being discussed include nuclear power, natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS), and energy storage technologies such as new and improved batteries and chemical storage in the form of hydrogen. But in the northeastern United States, there is one more possibility being proposed: electricity imported from hydropower plants in the neighboring Canadian province of Quebec.

    The proposition makes sense. Those plants can produce as much electricity as about 40 large nuclear power plants, and some power generated in Quebec already comes to the Northeast. So, there could be abundant additional supply to fill any shortfall when New England’s intermittent renewables underproduce. However, U.S. wind and solar investors view Canadian hydropower as a competitor and argue that reliance on foreign supply discourages further U.S. investment.

    Two years ago, three researchers affiliated with the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR) — Emil Dimanchev SM ’18, now a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology; Joshua Hodge, CEEPR’s executive director; and John Parsons, a senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management — began wondering whether viewing Canadian hydro as another source of electricity might be too narrow. “Hydropower is a more-than-hundred-year-old technology, and plants are already built up north,” says Dimanchev. “We might not need to build something new. We might just need to use those plants differently or to a greater extent.”

    So the researchers decided to examine the potential role and economic value of Quebec’s hydropower resource in a future low-carbon system in New England. Their goal was to help inform policymakers, utility decision-makers, and others about how best to incorporate Canadian hydropower into their plans and to determine how much time and money New England should spend to integrate more hydropower into its system. What they found out was surprising, even to them.

    The analytical methods

    To explore possible roles for Canadian hydropower to play in New England’s power system, the MIT researchers first needed to predict how the regional power system might look in 2050 — both the resources in place and how they would be operated, given any policy constraints. To perform that analysis, they used GenX, a modeling tool originally developed by Jesse Jenkins SM ’14, PhD ’18 and Nestor Sepulveda SM ’16, PhD ’20 while they were researchers at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

    The GenX model is designed to support decision-making related to power system investment and real-time operation and to examine the impacts of possible policy initiatives on those decisions. Given information on current and future technologies — different kinds of power plants, energy storage technologies, and so on — GenX calculates the combination of equipment and operating conditions that can meet a defined future demand at the lowest cost. The GenX modeling tool can also incorporate specified policy constraints, such as limits on carbon emissions.

    For their study, Dimanchev, Hodge, and Parsons set parameters in the GenX model using data and assumptions derived from a variety of sources to build a representation of the interconnected power systems in New England, New York, and Quebec. (They included New York to account for that state’s existing demand on the Canadian hydro resources.) For data on the available hydropower, they turned to Hydro-Québec, the public utility that owns and operates most of the hydropower plants in Quebec.

    It’s standard in such analyses to include real-world engineering constraints on equipment, such as how quickly certain power plants can be ramped up and down. With help from Hydro-Québec, the researchers also put hour-to-hour operating constraints on the hydropower resource.

    Most of Hydro-Québec’s plants are “reservoir hydropower” systems. In them, when power isn’t needed, the flow on a river is restrained by a dam downstream of a reservoir, and the reservoir fills up. When power is needed, the dam is opened, and the water in the reservoir runs through downstream pipes, turning turbines and generating electricity. Proper management of such a system requires adhering to certain operating constraints. For example, to prevent flooding, reservoirs must not be allowed to overfill — especially prior to spring snowmelt. And generation can’t be increased too quickly because a sudden flood of water could erode the river edges or disrupt fishing or water quality.

    Based on projections from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and elsewhere, the researchers specified electricity demand for every hour of the year 2050, and the model calculated the cost-optimal mix of technologies and system operating regime that would satisfy that hourly demand, including the dispatch of the Hydro-Québec hydropower system. In addition, the model determined how electricity would be traded among New England, New York, and Quebec.

    Effects of decarbonization limits on technology mix and electricity trading

    To examine the impact of the emissions-reduction mandates in the New England states, the researchers ran the model assuming reductions in carbon emissions between 80 percent and 100 percent relative to 1990 levels. The results of those runs show that, as emissions limits get more stringent, New England uses more wind and solar and extends the lifetime of its existing nuclear plants. To balance the intermittency of the renewables, the region uses natural gas plants, demand-side management, battery storage (modeled as lithium-ion batteries), and trading with Quebec’s hydropower-based system. Meanwhile, the optimal mix in Quebec is mostly composed of existing hydro generation. Some solar is added, but new reservoirs are built only if renewable costs are assumed to be very high.

    The most significant — and perhaps surprising — outcome is that in all the scenarios, the hydropower-based system of Quebec is not only an exporter but also an importer of electricity, with the direction of flow on the Quebec-New England transmission lines changing over time.

    Historically, energy has always flowed from Quebec to New England. The model results for 2018 show electricity flowing from north to south, with the quantity capped by the current transmission capacity limit of 2,225 megawatts (MW).

    An analysis for 2050, assuming that New England decarbonizes 90 percent and the capacity of the transmission lines remains the same, finds electricity flows going both ways. Flows from north to south still dominate. But for nearly 3,500 of the 8,760 hours of the year, electricity flows in the opposite direction — from New England to Quebec. And for more than 2,200 of those hours, the flow going north is at the maximum the transmission lines can carry.

    The direction of flow is motivated by economics. When renewable generation is abundant in New England, prices are low, and it’s cheaper for Quebec to import electricity from New England and conserve water in its reservoirs. Conversely, when New England’s renewables are scarce and prices are high, New England imports hydro-generated electricity from Quebec.

    So rather than delivering electricity, Canadian hydro provides a means of storing the electricity generated by the intermittent renewables in New England.

    “We see this in our modeling because when we tell the model to meet electricity demand using these resources, the model decides that it is cost-optimal to use the reservoirs to store energy rather than anything else,” says Dimanchev. “We should be sending the energy back and forth, so the reservoirs in Quebec are in essence a battery that we use to store some of the electricity produced by our intermittent renewables and discharge it when we need it.”

    Given that outcome, the researchers decided to explore the impact of expanding the transmission capacity between New England and Quebec. Building transmission lines is always contentious, but what would be the impact if it could be done?

    Their model results shows that when transmission capacity is increased from 2,225 MW to 6,225 MW, flows in both directions are greater, and in both cases the flow is at the new maximum for more than 1,000 hours.

    Results of the analysis thus confirm that the economic response to expanded transmission capacity is more two-way trading. To continue the battery analogy, more transmission capacity to and from Quebec effectively increases the rate at which the battery can be charged and discharged.

    Effects of two-way trading on the energy mix

    What impact would the advent of two-way trading have on the mix of energy-generating sources in New England and Quebec in 2050?

    Assuming current transmission capacity, in New England, the change from one-way to two-way trading increases both wind and solar power generation and to a lesser extent nuclear; it also decreases the use of natural gas with CCS. The hydro reservoirs in Canada can provide long-duration storage — over weeks, months, and even seasons — so there is less need for natural gas with CCS to cover any gaps in supply. The level of imports is slightly lower, but now there are also exports. Meanwhile, in Quebec, two-way trading reduces solar power generation, and the use of wind disappears. Exports are roughly the same, but now there are imports as well. Thus, two-way trading reallocates renewables from Quebec to New England, where it’s more economical to install and operate solar and wind systems.

    Another analysis examined the impact on the energy mix of assuming two-way trading plus expanded transmission capacity. For New England, greater transmission capacity allows wind, solar, and nuclear to expand further; natural gas with CCS all but disappears; and both imports and exports increase significantly. In Quebec, solar decreases still further, and both exports and imports of electricity increase.

    Those results assume that the New England power system decarbonizes by 99 percent in 2050 relative to 1990 levels. But at 90 percent and even 80 percent decarbonization levels, the model concludes that natural gas capacity decreases with the addition of new transmission relative to the current transmission scenario. Existing plants are retired, and new plants are not built as they are no longer economically justified. Since natural gas plants are the only source of carbon emissions in the 2050 energy system, the researchers conclude that the greater access to hydro reservoirs made possible by expanded transmission would accelerate the decarbonization of the electricity system.

    Effects of transmission changes on costs

    The researchers also explored how two-way trading with expanded transmission capacity would affect costs in New England and Quebec, assuming 99 percent decarbonization in New England. New England’s savings on fixed costs (investments in new equipment) are largely due to a decreased need to invest in more natural gas with CCS, and its savings on variable costs (operating costs) are due to a reduced need to run those plants. Quebec’s savings on fixed costs come from a reduced need to invest in solar generation. The increase in cost — borne by New England — reflects the construction and operation of the increased transmission capacity. The net benefit for the region is substantial.

    Thus, the analysis shows that everyone wins as transmission capacity increases — and the benefit grows as the decarbonization target tightens. At 99 percent decarbonization, the overall New England-Quebec region pays about $21 per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity with today’s transmission capacity but only $18/MWh with expanded transmission. Assuming 100 percent reduction in carbon emissions, the region pays $29/MWh with current transmission capacity and only $22/MWh with expanded transmission.

    Addressing misconceptions

    These results shed light on several misconceptions that policymakers, supporters of renewable energy, and others tend to have.

    The first misconception is that the New England renewables and Canadian hydropower are competitors. The modeling results instead show that they’re complementary. When the power systems in New England and Quebec work together as an integrated system, the Canadian reservoirs are used part of the time to store the renewable electricity. And with more access to hydropower storage in Quebec, there’s generally more renewable investment in New England.

    The second misconception arises when policymakers refer to Canadian hydro as a “baseload resource,” which implies a dependable source of electricity — particularly one that supplies power all the time. “Our study shows that by viewing Canadian hydropower as a baseload source of electricity — or indeed a source of electricity at all — you’re not taking full advantage of what that resource can provide,” says Dimanchev. “What we show is that Quebec’s reservoir hydro can provide storage, specifically for wind and solar. It’s a solution to the intermittency problem that we foresee in carbon-free power systems for 2050.”

    While the MIT analysis focuses on New England and Quebec, the researchers believe that their results may have wider implications. As power systems in many regions expand production of renewables, the value of storage grows. Some hydropower systems have storage capacity that has not yet been fully utilized and could be a good complement to renewable generation. Taking advantage of that capacity can lower the cost of deep decarbonization and help move some regions toward a decarbonized supply of electricity.

    This research was funded by the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, which is supported in part by a consortium of industry and government associates.

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

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    Finding the questions that guide MIT fusion research

    “One of the things I learned was, doing good science isn’t so much about finding the answers as figuring out what the important questions are.”

    As Martin Greenwald retires from the responsibilities of senior scientist and deputy director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), he reflects on his almost 50 years of science study, 43 of them as a researcher at MIT, pursuing the question of how to make the carbon-free energy of fusion a reality.

    Most of Greenwald’s important questions about fusion began after graduating from MIT with a BS in both physics and chemistry. Beginning graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, he felt compelled to learn more about fusion as an energy source that could have “a real societal impact.” At the time, researchers were exploring new ideas for devices that could create and confine fusion plasmas. Greenwald worked on Berkeley’s “alternate concept” TORMAC, a Toroidal Magnetic Cusp. “It didn’t work out very well,” he laughs. “The first thing I was known for was making the measurements that shut down the program.”

    Believing the temperature of the plasma generated by the device would not be as high as his group leader expected, Greenwald developed hardware that could measure the low temperatures predicted by his own “back of the envelope calculations.” As he anticipated, his measurements showed that “this was not a fusion plasma; this was hardly a confined plasma at all.”

    With a PhD from Berkeley, Greenwald returned to MIT for a research position at the PSFC, attracted by the center’s “esprit de corps.”

    He arrived in time to participate in the final experiments on Alcator A, the first in a series of tokamaks built at MIT, all characterized by compact size and featuring high-field magnets. The tokamak design was then becoming favored as the most effective route to fusion: its doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, surrounded by electromagnets, could confine the turbulent plasma long enough, while increasing its heat and density, to make fusion occur.

    Alcator A showed that the energy confinement time improves in relation to increasing plasma density. MIT’s succeeding device, Alcator C, was designed to use higher magnetic fields, boosting expectations that it would reach higher densities and better confinement. To attain these goals, however, Greenwald had to pursue a new technique that increased density by injecting pellets of frozen fuel into the plasma, a method he likens to throwing “snowballs in hell.” This work was notable for the creation of a new regime of enhanced plasma confinement on Alcator C. In those experiments, a confined plasma surpassed for the first time one of the two Lawson criteria — the minimum required value for the product of the plasma density and confinement time — for making net power from fusion. This had been a milestone for fusion research since their publication by John Lawson in 1957.

    Greenwald continued to make a name for himself as part of a larger study into the physics of the Compact Ignition Tokamak — a high-field burning plasma experiment that the U.S. program was proposing to build in the late 1980s. The result, unexpectedly, was a new scaling law, later known as the “Greenwald Density Limit,” and a new theory for the mechanism of the limit. It has been used to accurately predict performance on much larger machines built since.

    The center’s next tokamak, Alcator C-Mod, started operation in 1993 and ran for more than 20 years, with Greenwald as the chair of its Experimental Program Committee. Larger than Alcator C, the new device supported a highly shaped plasma, strong radiofrequency heating, and an all-metal plasma-facing first wall. All of these would eventually be required in a fusion power system.

    C-Mod proved to be MIT’s most enduring fusion experiment to date, producing important results for 20 years. During that time Greenwald contributed not only to the experiments, but to mentoring the next generation. Research scientist Ryan Sweeney notes that “Martin quickly gained my trust as a mentor, in part due to his often casual dress and slightly untamed hair, which are embodiments of his transparency and his focus on what matters. He can quiet a room of PhDs and demand attention not by intimidation, but rather by his calmness and his ability to bring clarity to complicated problems, be they scientific or human in nature.”

    Greenwald worked closely with the group of students who, in PSFC Director Dennis Whyte’s class, came up with the tokamak concept that evolved into SPARC. MIT is now pursuing this compact, high-field tokamak with Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup that grew out of the collective enthusiasm for this concept, and the growing realization it could work. Greenwald now heads the Physics Group for the SPARC project at MIT. He has helped confirm the device’s physics basis in order to predict performance and guide engineering decisions.

    “Martin’s multifaceted talents are thoroughly embodied by, and imprinted on, SPARC” says Whyte. “First, his leadership in its plasma confinement physics validation and publication place SPARC on a firm scientific footing. Secondly, the impact of the density limit he discovered, which shows that fuel density increases with magnetic field and decreasing the size of the tokamak, is critical in obtaining high fusion power density not just in SPARC, but in future power plants. Third, and perhaps most impressive, is Martin’s mentorship of the SPARC generation of leadership.”

    Greenwald’s expertise and easygoing personality have made him an asset as head of the PSFC Office for Computer Services and group leader for data acquisition and computing, and sought for many professional committees. He has been an APS Fellow since 2000, and was an APS Distinguished Lecturer in Plasma Physics (2001-02). He was also presented in 2014 with a Leadership Award from Fusion Power Associates. He is currently an associate editor for Physics of Plasmas and a member of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Physical Sciences Directorate External Review Committee.

    Although leaving his full-time responsibilities, Greenwald will remain at MIT as a visiting scientist, a role he says will allow him to “stick my nose into everything without being responsible for anything.”

    “At some point in the race you have to hand off the baton,“ he says. “And it doesn’t mean you’re not interested in the outcome; and it doesn’t mean you’re just going to walk away into the stands. I want to be there at the end when we succeed.” More

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    Leveraging science and technology against the world’s top problems

    Looking back on nearly a half-century at MIT, Richard K. Lester, associate provost and Japan Steel Industry Professor, sees a “somewhat eccentric professional trajectory.”

    But while his path has been irregular, there has been a clearly defined through line, Lester says: the emergence of new science and new technologies, the potential of these developments to shake up the status quo and address some of society’s most consequential problems, and what the outcomes might mean for America’s place in the world.

    Perhaps no assignment in Lester’s portfolio better captures this theme than the new MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition. Spearheaded by Lester and Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research, and launched at the height of the pandemic in summer 2020, this initiative is designed to mobilize the entire MIT research community around tackling “the really hard, challenging problems currently standing in the way of an effective global response to the climate emergency,” says Lester. “The focus is on those problems where progress requires developing and applying frontier knowledge in the natural and social sciences and cutting-edge technologies. This is the MIT community swinging for the fences in areas where we have a comparative advantage.”This is a passion project for him, not least because it has engaged colleagues from nearly all of MIT’s departments. After nearly 100 initial ideas were submitted by more than 300 faculty, 27 teams were named finalists and received funding to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans in such areas as decarbonizing complex industries; risk forecasting and adaptation; advancing climate equity; and carbon removal, management, and storage. In April, a small subset of this group will become multiyear flagship projects, augmenting the work of existing MIT units that are pursuing climate research. Lester is sunny in the face of these extraordinarily complex problems. “This is a bottom-up effort with exciting proposals, and where the Institute is collectively committed — it’s MIT at its best.”

    Nuclear to the core

    This initiative carries a particular resonance for Lester, who remains deeply engaged in nuclear engineering. “The role of nuclear energy is central and will need to become even more central if we’re to succeed in addressing the climate challenge,” he says. He also acknowledges that for nuclear energy technologies — both fission and fusion — to play a vital role in decarbonizing the economy, they must not just win “in the court of public opinion, but in the marketplace,” he says. “Over the years, my research has sought to elucidate what needs to be done to overcome these obstacles.”

    In fact, Lester has been campaigning for much of his career for a U.S. nuclear innovation agenda, a commitment that takes on increased urgency as the contours of the climate crisis sharpen. He argues for the rapid development and testing of nuclear technologies that can complement the renewable but intermittent energy sources of sun and wind. Whether powerful, large-scale, molten-salt-cooled reactors or small, modular, light water reactors, nuclear batteries or promising new fusion projects, U.S. energy policy must embrace nuclear innovation, says Lester, or risk losing the high-stakes race for a sustainable future.

    Chancing into a discipline

    Lester’s introduction to nuclear science was pure happenstance.

    Born in the English industrial city of Leeds, he grew up in a musical family and played piano, violin, and then viola. “It was a big part of my life,” he says, and for a time, music beckoned as a career. He tumbled into a chemical engineering concentration at Imperial College, London, after taking a job in a chemical factory following high school. “There’s a certain randomness to life, and in my case, it’s reflected in my choice of major, which had a very large impact on my ultimate career.”

    In his second year, Lester talked his way into running a small experiment in the university’s research reactor, on radiation effects in materials. “I got hooked, and began thinking of studying nuclear engineering.” But there were few graduate programs in British universities at the time. Then serendipity struck again. The instructor of Lester’s single humanities course at Imperial had previously taught at MIT, and suggested Lester take a look at the nuclear program there. “I will always be grateful to him (and, indirectly, to MIT’s Humanities program) for opening my eyes to the existence of this institution where I’ve spent my whole adult life,” says Lester.

    He arrived at MIT with the notion of mitigating the harms of nuclear weapons. It was a time when the nuclear arms race “was an existential threat in everyone’s life,” he recalls. He targeted his graduate studies on nuclear proliferation. But he also encountered an electrifying study by MIT meteorologist Jule Charney. “Professor Charney produced one of the first scientific assessments of the effects on climate of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, with quantitative estimates that have not fundamentally changed in 40 years.”

    Lester shifted directions. “I came to MIT to work on nuclear security, but stayed in the nuclear field because of the contributions that it can and must make in addressing climate change,” he says.

    Research and policy

    His path forward, Lester believed, would involve applying his science and technology expertise to critical policy problems, grounded in immediate, real-world concerns, and aiming for broad policy impacts. Even as a member of NSE, he joined with colleagues from many MIT departments to study American industrial practices and what was required to make them globally competitive, and then founded MIT’s Industrial Performance Center (IPC). Working at the IPC with interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students on the sources of productivity and innovation, his research took him to many countries at different stages of industrialization, including China, Taiwan, Japan, and Brazil.

    Lester’s wide-ranging work yielded books (including the MIT Press bestseller “Made in America”), advisory positions with governments, corporations, and foundations, and unexpected collaborations. “My interests were always fairly broad, and being at MIT made it possible to team up with world-leading scholars and extraordinary students not just in nuclear engineering, but in many other fields such as political science, economics, and management,” he says.

    Forging cross-disciplinary ties and bringing creative people together around a common goal proved a valuable skill as Lester stepped into positions of ever-greater responsibility at the Institute. He didn’t exactly relish the prospect of a desk job, though. “I religiously avoided administrative roles until I felt I couldn’t keep avoiding them,” he says.

    Today, as associate provost, he tends to MIT’s international activities — a daunting task given increasing scrutiny of research universities’ globe-spanning research partnerships and education of foreign students. But even in the midst of these consuming chores, Lester remains devoted to his home department. “Being a nuclear engineer is a central part of my identity,” he says.

    To students entering the nuclear field nearly 50 years after he did, who are understandably “eager to fix everything that seems wrong immediately,” he has a message: “Be patient. The hard things, the ones that are really worth doing, will take a long time to do.” Putting the climate crisis behind us will take two generations, Lester believes. Current students will start the job, but it will also take the efforts of their children’s generation before it is done.  “So we need you to be energetic and creative, of course, but whatever you do we also need you to be patient and to have ‘stick-to-itiveness’ — and maybe also a moral compass that our generation has lacked.” More

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    MIT Energy Conference focuses on climate’s toughest challenges

    This year’s MIT Energy Conference, the largest student-led event of its kind, included keynote talks and panels that tackled some of the thorniest remaining challenges in the global effort to cut back on climate-altering emissions. These include the production of construction materials such as steel and cement, and the role of transportation including aviation and shipping. While the challenges are formidable, approaches incorporating methods such as fusion, heat pumps, energy efficiency, and the use of hydrogen hold promise, participants said.

    The two-day conference, held on March 31 and April 1 for more than 900 participants, included keynote lectures, 14 panel discussions, a fireside chat, networking events, and more. The event this year included the final round of the annual MIT Climate and Energy Prize, whose winning team receives $100,000 and other support. The prize, awarded since 2007, has led to the creation of more than 220 companies and $1.1 billion in investments.

    This year’s winner is a project that hopes to provide an innovative, efficient waterless washing machine aimed at the vast majority of the world’s people, who still do laundry by hand.

    “A truly consequential moment in history”

    In his opening keynote address Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, noted that this year’s conference was taking place during the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a leading gas and oil exporter. As a result, “global oil markets are going through a major turmoil,” he said.

    He said that Russian oil exports are expected to drop by 3 million barrels a day, and that international efforts to release reserves and promote increased production elsewhere will help, but will not suffice. “We have to look to other measures” to make up the shortfall, he said, noting that his agency has produced a 10-point plan of measures to help reduce global demand for oil.

    Europe gets 45 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and the agency also has developed a 10-point plan to help alleviate expected shortages there, including measures to improve energy efficiency in homes and industries, promote renewable heating sources, and postpone retirement of some nuclear plants. But he emphasized that “our goals to reach our climate targets should not be yet another victim of Mr. Putin and his allies.”  Unfortunately, Birol said, “I see that addressing climate change is sliding down in the policy agenda of many governments.”

    But he sees reasons for optimism as well, in terms of the feasibility of achieving the global emissions reduction target, agreed to by countries representing 80 percent of the global economy, of reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. The IEA has developed a roadmap for the entire energy sector to get there, which is now used by many governments as a benchmark, according to Birol.

    In addition, the trend is already clear, he said. “More than 90 percent of all power plants installed in the world [last year] were renewable energy,” mainly solar and wind. And 10 percent of cars sold worldwide last year, and 20 percent in Europe, were electric cars. “Please remember that in 2019 it was only 2 percent!” he said. He also predicted that “nuclear is going to make a comeback in many countries,” both in terms of large plants and newer small modular reactors.

    Birol said that “I hope that the current crisis gives governments the impetus to address the energy security concerns, to reach our climate goals, and … [to] choose the right direction at this very important turning point.”

    The conference’s second day began with keynote talks by Gina McCarthy, national climate advisor at the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, and Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. In her address, Zuber said, “This conference comes at a truly consequential moment in history — a moment that puts into stark relief the enormous risks created by our current fossil-fuel based energy system — risks we cannot continue to accept.”

    She added that “time is not on our side.” To meet global commitments for limiting climate impacts, the world needs to reduce emissions by about half by 2030, and get to net zero by 2050. “In other words, we need to transform our entire global energy system in a few decades,” she said. She cited MIT’s “Fast Forward” climate action plan, issued last year, as presenting the two tracks that the world needs to pursue simultaneously: going as far as possible, as fast as possible, with the tools that exist now, while also innovating and investing in new ideas, technologies, practices, and institutions that may be needed to reach the net-zero goal.

    On the first track, she said, citing an IEA report, “from here until 2040, we can get most of the emissions reductions we need with technologies that are currently available or on the verge of becoming commercially available.” These include electrifying and boosting efficiency in buildings, industry, and transportation; increasing the portion of electricity coming from emissions-free sources; and investing in new infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging stations.

    But more than that is needed, she pointed out. For example, the amount of methane that leaks away into the atmosphere from fossil fuel operations is equivalent to all the natural gas used in Europe’s power sector, Zuber said. Recovering and selling that methane can dramatically reduce global methane emissions, often at little or no cost.

    For the longer run, “we need track-two solutions to decarbonize tough industries like aviation, shipping, chemicals, concrete, and steel,” and to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. She described some of the promising technologies that are in the pipeline. Fusion, for example, has moved from being a scientific challenge to an engineering problem whose solution seems well underway, she said.

    Another important area is food-related systems, which currently account for a third of all global emissions. For example, fertilizer production uses a very energy-intensive process, but work on plants engineered to fix nitrogen directly could make a significant dent.

    These and several other advanced research areas may not all pan out, but some undoubtedly will, and will help curb climate change as well as create new jobs and reduce pollution.

    Though the problems we face are complex, they are not insurmountable, Zuber said. “We don’t need a miracle. What we need is to move along the two tracks I’ve outlined with determination, ingenuity, and fierce urgency.”

    The promise and challenges of hydrogen

    Other conference speakers took on some of the less-discussed but crucial areas that also need to be addressed in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Heavy transportation, and aviation in particular, have been considered especially challenging. In his keynote address, Glenn Llewellyn, vice president for zero-emission aircraft at Airbus, outlined several approaches his company is working on to develop competitive midrange alternative airliners by 2035 that use either batteries or fuel cells powered by hydrogen. The early-stage designs demonstrate that, contrary to some projections, there is a realistic pathway to weaning that industry from its present reliance on fossil fuel, chiefly kerosene.

    Hydrogen has real potential as an aviation fuel, he said, either directly for use in fuel cells for power or burned directly for propulsion, or indirectly as a feedstock for synthetic fuels. Both are being studied by the company, he said, including a hybrid model that uses both hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen-fueled jet engines. The company projects a range of 2,000 nautical miles for a jet carrying 200 to 300 passengers, he said — all with no direct emissions and no contrails.

    But this vision will not be practical, Llewellyn said, unless economies of scale help to significantly lower the cost of hydrogen production. “Hydrogen is at the hub of aviation decarbonization,” he said. But that kind of price reduction seems quite feasible, he said, given that other major industries are also seriously looking at the use of hydrogen for their own decarbonization plans, including the production of steel and cement.

    Such uses were the subject of a panel discussion entitled “Deploying the Hydrogen Economy.” Hydrogen production technology exists, but not nearly at the scale that’s needed, which is about 500 million tons a year, pointed out moderator Dharik Mallapragada of the MIT Energy Initiative.

    Yet in some applications, the use of hydrogen both reduces emissions and is economically competitive. Preeti Pande of Plug Power said that her company, which produces hydrogen fuel cells, has found a significant market in an unexpected place: fork lifts, used in warehouses and factories worldwide. It turns out that replacing current battery-operated versions with fuel cell versions is a win-win for the companies that use them, saving money while helping to meet decarbonization goals.

    Lindsay Ashby of Avangrid Renewables said that the company has installed fuel-cell buses in Barcelona that run entirely on hydrogen generated by solar panels. The company is also building a 100-megawatt solar facility to produce hydrogen for the production of fertilizer, another major industry in need of decarbonization because of its large emissions footprint. And Brett Perleman of the Center for Houston’s Future said of his city that “we’re already a hydrogen hub today, just not green hydrogen” since the gas is currently mostly produced as a byproduct of fossil fuels. But that is changing rapidly, he said, and Houston, along with several other cities, aims to be a center of activity for hydrogen produced from renewable, non-carbon-emitting sources. They aim to be producing 1,000 tons a day by 2028, “and I think we’ll end up exceeding that,” he said.

    For industries that can switch to renewably generated electricity, that is typically the best choice, Perleman said. “But for those that can’t, hydrogen is a great option,” and that includes aviation, shipping, and rail. “The big oil companies all have plans in place” to develop clean hydrogen production, he said. “It’s not just a dream, but a reality.”

    For shipping, which tends to rely on bunker fuel, a particularly high-emissions fossil fuel, another potential option could be a new generation of small nuclear plants, said Jeff Navin of Terrapower, a company currently developing such units. “Finding replacements for coal, oil, or natural gas for industrial purposes is very hard,” he said, but often what these processes require is consistent high heat, which nuclear can deliver, as long as costs and regulatory issues can be resolved.  

    MIT professor of nuclear engineering Jacopo Buongiorno pointed out that the primary reasons for delays and cost overruns in nuclear plants have had to do with issues at the construction site, many of which could be alleviated by having smaller, factory-built modular plants, or by building multiple units at a time of a standardized design. If the government would take on the nuclear waste disposal, as some other countries have done, then nuclear power could play an important part in the decarbonization of many industries, he said.

    Student-led startups

    The two-day conference concluded with the final round of the annual MIT Climate and Energy Prize, consisting of the five finalist teams presenting brief pitches for their startup company ideas, followed by questions from the panel of judges. This year’s finalists included a team called Muket, dedicated to finding ways of reducing methane emissions from cattle and dairy farms. Feed additives or other measures could cut the emissions by 50 percent, the team estimates.

    A team called Ivu Biologics described a system for incorporating nitrogen-fixing microbes into the coatings of seeds, thereby reducing the need for added fertilizers, whose production is a major greenhouse gas source. The company is making use of seed-coating technology developed at MIT over the last few years. Another team, called Mesophase, also based on MIT-developed technology, aims to replace the condensers used in power plants and other industrial systems with much more efficient versions, thus increasing the energy output from a given amount of fuel or other heat source.

    A team called TerraTrade aims to facilitate the adoption of power purchase agreements by companies, institutions and governments, by acting as a kind of broker to create and administer such agreements, making it easier for even smaller entities to take part in these plans, which help to enable rapid development of renewable fossil-fuel-free energy production.

    The grand prize of $100,000 was awarded to a team called Ultropia, which is developing a combined clothes washer and drier that uses ultrasound instead of water for its cleaning. The system does use a small amount of water, but this can be recycled, making these usable even in areas where water availability is limited. The devices could have a great impact on the estimated 6 billion people in the world today who are still limited to washing clothes by hand, the team says, and because the machines would be so efficient, they would require very little energy to run — a significant improvement over the wider adoption of conventional washers and driers. More