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    Engineers use artificial intelligence to capture the complexity of breaking waves

    Waves break once they swell to a critical height, before cresting and crashing into a spray of droplets and bubbles. These waves can be as large as a surfer’s point break and as small as a gentle ripple rolling to shore. For decades, the dynamics of how and when a wave breaks have been too complex to predict.

    Now, MIT engineers have found a new way to model how waves break. The team used machine learning along with data from wave-tank experiments to tweak equations that have traditionally been used to predict wave behavior. Engineers typically rely on such equations to help them design resilient offshore platforms and structures. But until now, the equations have not been able to capture the complexity of breaking waves.

    The updated model made more accurate predictions of how and when waves break, the researchers found. For instance, the model estimated a wave’s steepness just before breaking, and its energy and frequency after breaking, more accurately than the conventional wave equations.

    Their results, published today in the journal Nature Communications, will help scientists understand how a breaking wave affects the water around it. Knowing precisely how these waves interact can help hone the design of offshore structures. It can also improve predictions for how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere. Having better estimates of how waves break can help scientists predict, for instance, how much carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases the ocean can absorb.

    “Wave breaking is what puts air into the ocean,” says study author Themis Sapsis, an associate professor of mechanical and ocean engineering and an affiliate of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT. “It may sound like a detail, but if you multiply its effect over the area of the entire ocean, wave breaking starts becoming fundamentally important to climate prediction.”

    The study’s co-authors include lead author and MIT postdoc Debbie Eeltink, Hubert Branger and Christopher Luneau of Aix-Marseille University, Amin Chabchoub of Kyoto University, Jerome Kasparian of the University of Geneva, and T.S. van den Bremer of Delft University of Technology.

    Learning tank

    To predict the dynamics of a breaking wave, scientists typically take one of two approaches: They either attempt to precisely simulate the wave at the scale of individual molecules of water and air, or they run experiments to try and characterize waves with actual measurements. The first approach is computationally expensive and difficult to simulate even over a small area; the second requires a huge amount of time to run enough experiments to yield statistically significant results.

    The MIT team instead borrowed pieces from both approaches to develop a more efficient and accurate model using machine learning. The researchers started with a set of equations that is considered the standard description of wave behavior. They aimed to improve the model by “training” the model on data of breaking waves from actual experiments.

    “We had a simple model that doesn’t capture wave breaking, and then we had the truth, meaning experiments that involve wave breaking,” Eeltink explains. “Then we wanted to use machine learning to learn the difference between the two.”

    The researchers obtained wave breaking data by running experiments in a 40-meter-long tank. The tank was fitted at one end with a paddle which the team used to initiate each wave. The team set the paddle to produce a breaking wave in the middle of the tank. Gauges along the length of the tank measured the water’s height as waves propagated down the tank.

    “It takes a lot of time to run these experiments,” Eeltink says. “Between each experiment you have to wait for the water to completely calm down before you launch the next experiment, otherwise they influence each other.”

    Safe harbor

    In all, the team ran about 250 experiments, the data from which they used to train a type of machine-learning algorithm known as a neural network. Specifically, the algorithm is trained to compare the real waves in experiments with the predicted waves in the simple model, and based on any differences between the two, the algorithm tunes the model to fit reality.

    After training the algorithm on their experimental data, the team introduced the model to entirely new data — in this case, measurements from two independent experiments, each run at separate wave tanks with different dimensions. In these tests, they found the updated model made more accurate predictions than the simple, untrained model, for instance making better estimates of a breaking wave’s steepness.

    The new model also captured an essential property of breaking waves known as the “downshift,” in which the frequency of a wave is shifted to a lower value. The speed of a wave depends on its frequency. For ocean waves, lower frequencies move faster than higher frequencies. Therefore, after the downshift, the wave will move faster. The new model predicts the change in frequency, before and after each breaking wave, which could be especially relevant in preparing for coastal storms.

    “When you want to forecast when high waves of a swell would reach a harbor, and you want to leave the harbor before those waves arrive, then if you get the wave frequency wrong, then the speed at which the waves are approaching is wrong,” Eeltink says.

    The team’s updated wave model is in the form of an open-source code that others could potentially use, for instance in climate simulations of the ocean’s potential to absorb carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases. The code can also be worked into simulated tests of offshore platforms and coastal structures.

    “The number one purpose of this model is to predict what a wave will do,” Sapsis says. “If you don’t model wave breaking right, it would have tremendous implications for how structures behave. With this, you could simulate waves to help design structures better, more efficiently, and without huge safety factors.”

    This research is supported, in part, by the Swiss National Science Foundation, and by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. More

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    From seawater to drinking water, with the push of a button

    MIT researchers have developed a portable desalination unit, weighing less than 10 kilograms, that can remove particles and salts to generate drinking water.

    The suitcase-sized device, which requires less power to operate than a cell phone charger, can also be driven by a small, portable solar panel, which can be purchased online for around $50. It automatically generates drinking water that exceeds World Health Organization quality standards. The technology is packaged into a user-friendly device that runs with the push of one button.

    Unlike other portable desalination units that require water to pass through filters, this device utilizes electrical power to remove particles from drinking water. Eliminating the need for replacement filters greatly reduces the long-term maintenance requirements.

    This could enable the unit to be deployed in remote and severely resource-limited areas, such as communities on small islands or aboard seafaring cargo ships. It could also be used to aid refugees fleeing natural disasters or by soldiers carrying out long-term military operations.

    “This is really the culmination of a 10-year journey that I and my group have been on. We worked for years on the physics behind individual desalination processes, but pushing all those advances into a box, building a system, and demonstrating it in the ocean, that was a really meaningful and rewarding experience for me,” says senior author Jongyoon Han, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering, and a member of the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE).

    Joining Han on the paper are first author Junghyo Yoon, a research scientist in RLE; Hyukjin J. Kwon, a former postdoc; SungKu Kang, a postdoc at Northeastern University; and Eric Brack of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM). The research has been published online in Environmental Science and Technology.

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    Filter-free technology

    Commercially available portable desalination units typically require high-pressure pumps to push water through filters, which are very difficult to miniaturize without compromising the energy-efficiency of the device, explains Yoon.

    Instead, their unit relies on a technique called ion concentration polarization (ICP), which was pioneered by Han’s group more than 10 years ago. Rather than filtering water, the ICP process applies an electrical field to membranes placed above and below a channel of water. The membranes repel positively or negatively charged particles — including salt molecules, bacteria, and viruses — as they flow past. The charged particles are funneled into a second stream of water that is eventually discharged.

    The process removes both dissolved and suspended solids, allowing clean water to pass through the channel. Since it only requires a low-pressure pump, ICP uses less energy than other techniques.

    But ICP does not always remove all the salts floating in the middle of the channel. So the researchers incorporated a second process, known as electrodialysis, to remove remaining salt ions.

    Yoon and Kang used machine learning to find the ideal combination of ICP and electrodialysis modules. The optimal setup includes a two-stage ICP process, with water flowing through six modules in the first stage then through three in the second stage, followed by a single electrodialysis process. This minimized energy usage while ensuring the process remains self-cleaning.

    “While it is true that some charged particles could be captured on the ion exchange membrane, if they get trapped, we just reverse the polarity of the electric field and the charged particles can be easily removed,” Yoon explains.

    They shrunk and stacked the ICP and electrodialysis modules to improve their energy efficiency and enable them to fit inside a portable device. The researchers designed the device for nonexperts, with just one button to launch the automatic desalination and purification process. Once the salinity level and the number of particles decrease to specific thresholds, the device notifies the user that the water is drinkable.

    The researchers also created a smartphone app that can control the unit wirelessly and report real-time data on power consumption and water salinity.

    Beach tests

    After running lab experiments using water with different salinity and turbidity (cloudiness) levels, they field-tested the device at Boston’s Carson Beach.

    Yoon and Kwon set the box near the shore and tossed the feed tube into the water. In about half an hour, the device had filled a plastic drinking cup with clear, drinkable water.

    “It was successful even in its first run, which was quite exciting and surprising. But I think the main reason we were successful is the accumulation of all these little advances that we made along the way,” Han says.

    The resulting water exceeded World Health Organization quality guidelines, and the unit reduced the amount of suspended solids by at least a factor of 10. Their prototype generates drinking water at a rate of 0.3 liters per hour, and requires only 20 watts of power per liter.

    “Right now, we are pushing our research to scale up that production rate,” Yoon says.

    One of the biggest challenges of designing the portable system was engineering an intuitive device that could be used by anyone, Han says.

    Yoon hopes to make the device more user-friendly and improve its energy efficiency and production rate through a startup he plans to launch to commercialize the technology.

    In the lab, Han wants to apply the lessons he’s learned over the past decade to water-quality issues that go beyond desalination, such as rapidly detecting contaminants in drinking water.

    “This is definitely an exciting project, and I am proud of the progress we have made so far, but there is still a lot of work to do,” he says.

    For example, while “development of portable systems using electro-membrane processes is an original and exciting direction in off-grid, small-scale desalination,” the effects of fouling, especially if the water has high turbidity, could significantly increase maintenance requirements and energy costs, notes Nidal Hilal, professor of engineering and director of the New York University Abu Dhabi Water research center, who was not involved with this research.

    “Another limitation is the use of expensive materials,” he adds. “It would be interesting to see similar systems with low-cost materials in place.”

    The research was funded, in part, by the DEVCOM Soldier Center, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), the Experimental AI Postdoc Fellowship Program of Northeastern University, and the Roux AI Institute. More

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    MIT engineers introduce the Oreometer

    When you twist open an Oreo cookie to get to the creamy center, you’re mimicking a standard test in rheology — the study of how a non-Newtonian material flows when twisted, pressed, or otherwise stressed. MIT engineers have now subjected the sandwich cookie to rigorous materials tests to get to the center of a tantalizing question: Why does the cookie’s cream stick to just one wafer when twisted apart?

    “There’s the fascinating problem of trying to get the cream to distribute evenly between the two wafers, which turns out to be really hard,” says Max Fan, an undergraduate in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

    In pursuit of an answer, the team subjected cookies to standard rheology tests in the lab and found that no matter the flavor or amount of stuffing, the cream at the center of an Oreo almost always sticks to one wafer when twisted open. Only for older boxes of cookies does the cream sometimes separate more evenly between both wafers.

    The researchers also measured the torque required to twist open an Oreo, and found it to be similar to the torque required to turn a doorknob and about 1/10th what’s needed to twist open a bottlecap. The cream’s failure stress — i.e. the force per area required to get the cream to flow, or deform — is twice that of cream cheese and peanut butter, and about the same magnitude as mozzarella cheese. Judging from the cream’s response to stress, the team classifies its texture as “mushy,” rather than brittle, tough, or rubbery.

    So, why does the cookie’s cream glom to one side rather than splitting evenly between both? The manufacturing process may be to blame.

    “Videos of the manufacturing process show that they put the first wafer down, then dispense a ball of cream onto that wafer before putting the second wafer on top,” says Crystal Owens, an MIT mechanical engineering PhD candidate who studies the properties of complex fluids. “Apparently that little time delay may make the cream stick better to the first wafer.”

    The team’s study isn’t simply a sweet diversion from bread-and-butter research; it’s also an opportunity to make the science of rheology accessible to others. To that end, the researchers have designed a 3D-printable “Oreometer” — a simple device that firmly grasps an Oreo cookie and uses pennies and rubber bands to control the twisting force that progressively twists the cookie open. Instructions for the tabletop device can be found here.

    The new study, “On Oreology, the fracture and flow of ‘milk’s favorite cookie,’” appears today in Kitchen Flows, a special issue of the journal Physics of Fluids. It was conceived of early in the Covid-19 pandemic, when many scientists’ labs were closed or difficult to access. In addition to Owens and Fan, co-authors are mechanical engineering professors Gareth McKinley and A. John Hart.

    Confection connection

    A standard test in rheology places a fluid, slurry, or other flowable material onto the base of an instrument known as a rheometer. A parallel plate above the base can be lowered onto the test material. The plate is then twisted as sensors track the applied rotation and torque.

    Owens, who regularly uses a laboratory rheometer to test fluid materials such as 3D-printable inks, couldn’t help noting a similarity with sandwich cookies. As she writes in the new study:

    “Scientifically, sandwich cookies present a paradigmatic model of parallel plate rheometry in which a fluid sample, the cream, is held between two parallel plates, the wafers. When the wafers are counter-rotated, the cream deforms, flows, and ultimately fractures, leading to separation of the cookie into two pieces.”

    While Oreo cream may not appear to possess fluid-like properties, it is considered a “yield stress fluid” — a soft solid when unperturbed that can start to flow under enough stress, the way toothpaste, frosting, certain cosmetics, and concrete do.

    Curious as to whether others had explored the connection between Oreos and rheology, Owens found mention of a 2016 Princeton University study in which physicists first reported that indeed, when twisting Oreos by hand, the cream almost always came off on one wafer.

    “We wanted to build on this to see what actually causes this effect and if we could control it if we mounted the Oreos carefully onto our rheometer,” she says.

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    Cookie twist

    In an experiment that they would repeat for multiple cookies of various fillings and flavors, the researchers glued an Oreo to both the top and bottom plates of a rheometer and applied varying degrees of torque and angular rotation, noting the values  that successfully twisted each cookie apart. They plugged the measurements into equations to calculate the cream’s viscoelasticity, or flowability. For each experiment, they also noted the cream’s “post-mortem distribution,” or where the cream ended up after twisting open.

    In all, the team went through about 20 boxes of Oreos, including regular, Double Stuf, and Mega Stuf levels of filling, and regular, dark chocolate, and “golden” wafer flavors. Surprisingly, they found that no matter the amount of cream filling or flavor, the cream almost always separated onto one wafer.

    “We had expected an effect based on size,” Owens says. “If there was more cream between layers, it should be easier to deform. But that’s not actually the case.”

    Curiously, when they mapped each cookie’s result to its original position in the box, they noticed the cream tended to stick to the inward-facing wafer: Cookies on the left side of the box twisted such that the cream ended up on the right wafer, whereas cookies on the right side separated with cream mostly on the left wafer. They suspect this box distribution may be a result of post-manufacturing environmental effects, such as heating or jostling that may cause cream to peel slightly away from the outer wafers, even before twisting.

    The understanding gained from the properties of Oreo cream could potentially be applied to the design of other complex fluid materials.

    “My 3D printing fluids are in the same class of materials as Oreo cream,” she says. “So, this new understanding can help me better design ink when I’m trying to print flexible electronics from a slurry of carbon nanotubes, because they deform in almost exactly the same way.”

    As for the cookie itself, she suggests that if the inside of Oreo wafers were more textured, the cream might grip better onto both sides and split more evenly when twisted.

    “As they are now, we found there’s no trick to twisting that would split the cream evenly,” Owens concludes.

    This research was supported, in part, by the MIT UROP program and by the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program. More

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    Q&A: Latifah Hamzah ’12 on creating sustainable solutions in Malaysia and beyond

    Latifah Hamzah ’12 graduated from MIT with a BS in mechanical engineering and minors in energy studies and music. During their time at MIT, Latifah participated in various student organizations, including the MIT Symphony Orchestra, Alpha Phi Omega, and the MIT Design/Build/Fly team. They also participated in the MIT Energy Initiative’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in the lab of former professor of mechanical engineering Alexander Mitsos, examining solar-powered thermal and electrical co-generation systems.

    After graduating from MIT, Latifah worked as a subsea engineer at Shell Global Solutions and co-founded Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding sustainable and empowering solutions that impact disadvantaged populations in Malaysia. More recently, Latifah received a master of science in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, where they are currently pursuing a PhD in environmental engineering with a focus on water and sanitation in developing contexts.

    Q: What inspired you to pursue energy studies as an undergraduate student at MIT?

    A: I grew up in Malaysia, where I was at once aware of both the extent to which the oil and gas industry is a cornerstone of the economy and the need to transition to a lower-carbon future. The Energy Studies minor was therefore enticing because it gave me a broader view of the energy space, including technical, policy, economic, and other viewpoints. This was my first exposure to how things worked in the real world — in that many different fields and perspectives had to be considered cohesively in order to have a successful, positive, and sustained impact. Although the minor was predominantly grounded in classroom learning, what I learned drove me to want to discover for myself how the forces of technology, society, and policy interacted in the field in my subsequent endeavors.

    In addition to the breadth that the minor added to my education, it also provided a structure and focus for me to build on my technical fundamentals. This included taking graduate-level classes and participating in UROPs that had specific energy foci. These were my first forays into questions that, while still predominantly technical, were more open-ended and with as-yet-unknown answers that would be substantially shaped by the framing of the question. This shift in mindset required from typical undergraduate classes and problem sets took a bit of adjusting to, but ultimately gave me the confidence and belief that I could succeed in a more challenging environment.

    Q: How did these experiences with energy help shape your path forward, particularly in regard to your work with Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia and now at Stanford?

    A: When I returned home after graduation, I was keen to harness my engineering education and explore in practice what the Energy Studies minor curriculum had taught by theory and case studies: to consider context, nuance, and interdisciplinary and myriad perspectives to craft successful, sustainable solutions. Recognizing that there were many underserved communities in Malaysia, I co-founded Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia with some friends with the aim of working with these communities to bring simple and sustainable engineering solutions. Many of these projects did have an energy focus. For example, we designed, sized, and installed micro-hydro or solar-power systems for various indigenous communities, allowing them to continue living on their ancestral lands while reducing energy poverty. Many other projects incorporated other aspects of engineering, such as hydrotherapy pools for folks with special needs, and water and sanitation systems for stateless maritime communities.

    Through my work with Engineers Without Borders – Malaysia, I found a passion for the broader aspects of sustainability, development, and equity. By spending time with communities in the field and sharing in their experiences, I recognized gaps in my skill set that I could work on to be more effective in advocating for social and environmental justice. In particular, I wanted to better understand communities and their perspectives while being mindful of my positionality. In addition, I wanted to address the more systemic aspects of the problems they faced, which I felt in many cases would only be possible through a combination of research, evidence, and policy. To this end, I embarked on a PhD in environmental engineering with a minor in anthropology and pursued a Community-Based Research Fellowship with Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service. I have also participated in the Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP), which helps graduate students “hone their leadership and communications skills to maximize the impact of their research.” RELP afforded me the opportunity to interact with representatives from government, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], think tanks, and industry, from which I gained a better understanding of the policy and adjacent ecosystems at both the federal and state levels.

    Q: What are you currently studying, and how does it relate to your past work and educational experiences?

    A: My dissertation investigates waste management and monitoring for improved planetary health in three distinct projects. Suboptimal waste management can lead to poor outcomes, including environmental contamination, overuse of resources, and lost economic and environmental opportunities in resource recovery. My first project showed that three combinations of factors resulted in ruminant feces contaminating the stored drinking water supplies of households in rural Kenya, and the results were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Consequently, water and sanitation interventions must also consider animal waste for communities to have safe drinking water.

    My second project seeks to establish a circular economy in the chocolate industry with indigenous Malaysian farmers and the Chocolate Concierge, a tree-to-bar social enterprise. Having designed and optimized apparatuses and processes to create biochar from cacao husk waste, we are now examining its impact on the growth of cacao saplings and their root systems. The hope is that biochar will increase the resilience of saplings for when they are transplanted from the nursery to the farm. As biochar can improve soil health and yield while reducing fertilizer inputs and sequestering carbon, farmers can accrue substantial economic and environmental benefits, especially if they produce, use, and sell it themselves.

    My third project investigates the gap in sanitation coverage worldwide and potential ways of reducing it. Globally, 46 percent of the population lacks access to safely managed sanitation, while the majority of the 54 percent who do have access use on-site sanitation facilities such as septic tanks and latrines. Given that on-site, decentralized systems typically have a lower space and resource footprint, are cheaper to build and maintain, and can be designed to suit various contexts, they could represent the best chance of reaching the sanitation Sustainable Development Goal. To this end, I am part of a team of researchers at the Criddle Group at Stanford working to develop a household-scale system as part of the Gates Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, an initiative aimed at developing new sanitation and toilet technologies for developing contexts.

    The thread connecting these projects is a commitment to investigating both the technical and socio-anthropological dimensions of an issue to develop sustainable, reliable, and environmentally sensitive solutions, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). I believe that an interdisciplinary approach can provide a better understanding of the problem space, which will hopefully lead to effective potential solutions that can have a greater community impact.

    Q: What do you plan to do once you obtain your PhD?

    A: I hope to continue working in the spheres of water and sanitation and/or sustainability post-PhD. It is a fascinating moment to be in this space as a person of color from an LMIC, especially as ideas such as community-based research and decolonizing fields and institutions are becoming more widespread and acknowledged. Even during my time at Stanford, I have noticed some shifts in the discourse, although we still have a long way to go to achieve substantive and lasting change. Folks like me are underrepresented in forums where the priorities, policies, and financing of aid and development are discussed at the international or global scale. I hope I’ll be able to use my qualifications, experience, and background to advocate for more just outcomes.

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

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    Using soap to remove micropollutants from water

    Imagine millions of soapy sponges the size of human cells that can clean water by soaking up contaminants. This simplistic model is used to describe technology that MIT chemical engineers have recently developed to remove micropollutants from water — a concerning, worldwide problem.

    Patrick S. Doyle, the Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering, PhD student Devashish Pratap Gokhale, and undergraduate Ian Chen recently published their research on micropollutant removal in the journal ACS Applied Polymer Materials. The work is funded by MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS).

    In spite of their low concentrations (about 0.01–100 micrograms per liter), micropollutants can be hazardous to the ecosystem and to human health. They come from a variety of sources and have been detected in almost all bodies of water, says Gokhale. Pharmaceuticals passing through people and animals, for example, can end up as micropollutants in the water supply. Others, like endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA), can leach from plastics during industrial manufacturing. Pesticides, dyes, petrochemicals, and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS, are also examples of micropollutants, as are some heavy metals like lead and arsenic. These are just some of the kinds of micropollutants, all of which can be toxic to humans and animals over time, potentially causing cancer, organ damage, developmental defects, or other adverse effects.

    Micropollutants are numerous but since their collective mass is small, they are difficult to remove from water. Currently, the most common practice for removing micropollutants from water is activated carbon adsorption. In this process, water passes through a carbon filter, removing only 30 percent of micropollutants. Activated carbon requires high temperatures to produce and regenerate, requiring specialized equipment and consuming large amounts of energy. Reverse osmosis can also be used to remove micropollutants from water; however, “it doesn’t lead to good elimination of this class of molecules, because of both their concentration and their molecular structure,” explains Doyle.

    Inspired by soap

    When devising their solution for how to remove micropollutants from water, the MIT researchers were inspired by a common household cleaning supply — soap. Soap cleans everything from our hands and bodies to dirty dishes to clothes, so perhaps the chemistry of soap could also be applied to sanitizing water. Soap has molecules called surfactants which have both hydrophobic (water-hating) and hydrophilic (water-loving) components. When water comes in contact with soap, the hydrophobic parts of the surfactant stick together, assembling into spherical structures called micelles with the hydrophobic portions of the molecules in the interior. The hydrophobic micelle cores trap and help carry away oily substances like dirt. 

    Doyle’s lab synthesized micelle-laden hydrogel particles to essentially cleanse water. Gokhale explains that they used microfluidics which “involve processing fluids on very small, micron-like scales” to generate uniform polymeric hydrogel particles continuously and reproducibly. These hydrogels, which are porous and absorbent, incorporate a surfactant, a photoinitiator (a molecule that creates reactive species), and a cross-linking agent known as PEGDA. The surfactant assembles into micelles that are chemically bonded to the hydrogel using ultraviolet light. When water flows through this micro-particle system, micropollutants latch onto the micelles and separate from the water. The physical interaction used in the system is strong enough to pull micropollutants from water, but weak enough that the hydrogel particles can be separated from the micropollutants, restabilized, and reused. Lab testing shows that both the speed and extent of pollutant removal increase when the amount of surfactant incorporated into the hydrogels is increased.

    “We’ve shown that in terms of rate of pullout, which is what really matters when you scale this up for industrial use, that with our initial format, we can already outperform the activated carbon,” says Doyle. “We can actually regenerate these particles very easily at room temperature. Nearly 10 regeneration cycles with minimal change in performance,” he adds.

    Regeneration of the particles occurs by soaking the micelles in 90 percent ethanol, whereby “all the pollutants just come out of the particles and back into the ethanol” says Gokhale. Ethanol is biosafe at low concentrations, inexpensive, and combustible, allowing for safe and economically feasible disposal. The recycling of the hydrogel particles makes this technology sustainable, which is a large advantage over activated carbon. The hydrogels can also be tuned to any hydrophobic micropollutant, making this system a novel, flexible approach to water purification.

    Scaling up

    The team experimented in the lab using 2-naphthol, a micropollutant that is an organic pollutant of concern and known to be difficult to remove by using conventional water filtration methods. They hope to continue testing with real water samples. 

    “Right now, we spike one micropollutant into pure lab water. We’d like to get water samples from the natural environment, that we can study and look at experimentally,” says Doyle. 

    By using microfluidics to increase particle production, Doyle and his lab hope to make household-scale filters to be tested with real wastewater. They then anticipate scaling up to municipal water treatment or even industrial wastewater treatment. 

    The lab recently filed an international patent application for their hydrogel technology that uses immobilized micelles. They plan to continue this work by experimenting with different kinds of hydrogels for the removal of heavy metal contaminants like lead from water. 

    Societal impacts

    Funded by a 2019 J-WAFS seed grant that is currently ongoing, this research has the potential to improve the speed, precision, efficiency, and environmental sustainability of water purification systems across the world. 

    “I always wanted to do work which had a social impact, and I was also always interested in water, because I think it’s really cool,” says Gokhale. He notes, “it’s really interesting how water sort of fits into different kinds of fields … we have to consider the cultures of peoples, how we’re going to use this, and then just the equity of these water processes.” Originally from India, Gokhale says he’s seen places that have barely any water at all and others that have floods year after year. “There’s a lot of interesting work to be done, and I think it’s work in this area that’s really going to impact a lot of people’s lives in years to come,” Gokhale says.

    Doyle adds, “water is the most important thing, perhaps for the next decades to come, so it’s very fulfilling to work on something that is so important to the whole world.” More

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    Solar-powered system offers a route to inexpensive desalination

    An estimated two-thirds of humanity is affected by shortages of water, and many such areas in the developing world also face a lack of dependable electricity. Widespread research efforts have thus focused on ways to desalinate seawater or brackish water using just solar heat. Many such efforts have run into problems with fouling of equipment caused by salt buildup, however, which often adds complexity and expense.

    Now, a team of researchers at MIT and in China has come up with a solution to the problem of salt accumulation — and in the process developed a desalination system that is both more efficient and less expensive than previous solar desalination methods. The process could also be used to treat contaminated wastewater or to generate steam for sterilizing medical instruments, all without requiring any power source other than sunlight itself.

    The findings are described today in the journal Nature Communications, in a paper by MIT graduate student Lenan Zhang, postdoc Xiangyu Li, professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang, and four others.

    “There have been a lot of demonstrations of really high-performing, salt-rejecting, solar-based evaporation designs of various devices,” Wang says. “The challenge has been the salt fouling issue, that people haven’t really addressed. So, we see these very attractive performance numbers, but they’re often limited because of longevity. Over time, things will foul.”

    Many attempts at solar desalination systems rely on some kind of wick to draw the saline water through the device, but these wicks are vulnerable to salt accumulation and relatively difficult to clean. The team focused on developing a wick-free system instead. The result is a layered system, with dark material at the top to absorb the sun’s heat, then a thin layer of water above a perforated layer of material, sitting atop a deep reservoir of the salty water such as a tank or a pond. After careful calculations and experiments, the researchers determined the optimal size for the holes drilled through the perforated material, which in their tests was made of polyurethane. At 2.5 millimeters across, these holes can be easily made using commonly available waterjets.

    The holes are large enough to allow for a natural convective circulation between the warmer upper layer of water and the colder reservoir below. That circulation naturally draws the salt from the thin layer above down into the much larger body of water below, where it becomes well-diluted and no longer a problem. “It allows us to achieve high performance and yet also prevent this salt accumulation,” says Wang, who is the Ford Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

    Li says that the advantages of this system are “both the high performance and the reliable operation, especially under extreme conditions, where we can actually work with near-saturation saline water. And that means it’s also very useful for wastewater treatment.”

    He adds that much work on such solar-powered desalination has focused on novel materials. “But in our case, we use really low-cost, almost household materials.” The key was analyzing and understanding the convective flow that drives this entirely passive system, he says. “People say you always need new materials, expensive ones, or complicated structures or wicking structures to do that. And this is, I believe, the first one that does this without wicking structures.”

    This new approach “provides a promising and efficient path for desalination of high salinity solutions, and could be a game changer in solar water desalination,” says Hadi Ghasemi, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston, who was not associated with this work. “Further work is required for assessment of this concept in large settings and in long runs,” he adds.

    Just as hot air rises and cold air falls, Zhang explains, natural convection drives the desalination process in this device. In the confined water layer near the top, “the evaporation happens at the very top interface. Because of the salt, the density of water at the very top interface is higher, and the bottom water has lower density. So, this is an original driving force for this natural convection because the higher density at the top drives the salty liquid to go down.” The water evaporated from the top of the system can then be collected on a condensing surface, providing pure fresh water.

    The rejection of salt to the water below could also cause heat to be lost in the process, so preventing that required careful engineering, including making the perforated layer out of highly insulating material to keep the heat concentrated above. The solar heating at the top is accomplished through a simple layer of black paint.

    This gif shows fluid flow visualized by food dye. The left-side shows the slow transport of colored de-ionized water from the top to the bottom bulk water. The right-side shows the fast transport of colored saline water from the top to the bottom bulk water driven by the natural convection effect.

    So far, the team has proven the concept using small benchtop devices, so the next step will be starting to scale up to devices that could have practical applications. Based on their calculations, a system with just 1 square meter (about a square yard) of collecting area should be sufficient to provide a family’s daily needs for drinking water, they say. Zhang says they calculated that the necessary materials for a 1-square-meter device would cost only about $4.

    Their test apparatus operated for a week with no signs of any salt accumulation, Li says. And the device is remarkably stable. “Even if we apply some extreme perturbation, like waves on the seawater or the lake,” where such a device could be installed as a floating platform, “it can return to its original equilibrium position very fast,” he says.

    The necessary work to translate this lab-scale proof of concept into workable commercial devices, and to improve the overall water production rate, should be possible within a few years, Zhang says. The first applications are likely to be providing safe water in remote off-grid locations, or for disaster relief after hurricanes, earthquakes, or other disruptions of normal water supplies.

    Zhang adds that “if we can concentrate the sunlight a little bit, we could use this passive device to generate high-temperature steam to do medical sterilization” for off-grid rural areas.

    “I think a real opportunity is the developing world,” Wang says. “I think that is where there’s most probable impact near-term, because of the simplicity of the design.” But, she adds, “if we really want to get it out there, we also need to work with the end users, to really be able to adopt the way we design it so that they’re willing to use it.”

    “This is a new strategy toward solving the salt accumulation problem in solar evaporation,” says Peng Wang, a professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, who was not associated with this research. “This elegant design will inspire new innovations in the design of advanced solar evaporators. The strategy is very promising due to its high energy efficiency, operation durability, and low cost, which contributes to low-cost and passive water desalination to produce fresh water from various source water with high salinity, e.g., seawater, brine, or brackish groundwater.”

    The team also included Yang Zhong, Arny Leroy, and Lin Zhao at MIT, and Zhenyuan Xu at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. The work was supported by the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, the U.S.-Egypt Science and Technology Joint Fund, and used facilities supported by the National Science Foundation. More

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    MIT students explore food sustainability

    As students approached the homestretch of the fall semester, many were focused on completing final projects and preparing for exams. During this time of year, some students may neglect their well-being to the point of skipping meals. To help alleviate end-of-term stress and to give students a delicious study break, the Food Security Action Team recently offered a group of first-year students the opportunity to join a food tour of Daily Table, a new grocer located in Cambridge’s Central Square.

    Seventeen students along with staff from Student Financial Services, Office of the First Year, and the Office of Sustainability led the group from the steps of 77 Massachusetts Avenue a few blocks down the street to Daily Table in Central Square. As part of participating in the program, students were given a $25 TechCash gift card to shop for grocery items during the trip. To make things even more fun, MIT staff created a recipe challenge to encourage students to work together on making their own variation of quesadillas.

    Healthy, affordable, sustainable

    At Daily Table, students were greeted by Celia Grant, director of community engagement and programs from Daily Table, who led them through a tour of the space and highlighted the history and model of the grocery store, as well as some of its unique features. Founded by former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch in 2015, Daily Table operates three retail stores in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Central Square, and a commissary kitchen in the Boston metro area. Two more stores are in the works: one in Mattapan and another in Salem. For added convenience, Daily Table also offers free grocery delivery within a two-mile radius of its three locations.

    The Daily Table’s ethos is that delicious and wholesome food should be available, accessible, and affordable for everyone. To achieve these goals, Daily Table provides a wide selection of fresh produce, nutritious grocery staples, and made-from-scratch prepared grab-n-go foods at affordable prices. “All of our products meet strict nutritional guidelines for sodium and sugar so that customers can make food choices based on their diets, not based on price,” says Grant.

    In addition to a large network of farmers, manufacturers, and distributors who supply food to their stores, Daily Table often recovers and rescues perfectly good food that would have otherwise been sent to landfills. Surplus food, packaging and/or label changes, and items with close expiration dates are often discarded by larger grocery stores in the supply chain. But Daily Table steps in to break this cycle of waste and sell these products to customers at a much lower cost. 

    The pandemic has uncovered how difficult it can be for individuals and families to budget for necessities like utilities, rent, and even food. Daily Table seeks to create a more sustainable future by providing access to more well-balanced, nutritious food. “Even before the pandemic, it was challenging for families on limited incomes to meet the nutrition needs of their families. Post-pandemic, this challenge has now encompassed even more households, even those that have never before been challenged in this way,” says Grant. “As winter moves through, and inflation increases, the need for more affordable food and nutrition will rise. Daily Table is prepared to help meet those needs, and more.” 

    Food resources at MIT

    Downstairs at the Daily Table Central Square store, MIT staff members led a discussion about the components of a sustainable food system at MIT and beyond, shared advice on how to budget for food, and offered tips on how to make grocery shopping or cooking fun with fellow classmates and peers. “Shopping at Daily Table provides an experiential case study in solving for multiple goals at once — from the environmental impacts of food waste to healthy eating to affordability — an important framework to consider when tackling climate challenges.” says Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager in the MIT Office of Sustainability.

    The group also discussed budgeting expenses, including food. “By taking students to the grocery store and providing some small but meaningful tips, we provided them the opportunity to put their learning into practice!” says Erica Aguiar, associate director for financial education in Student Financial Services. “We saw students taking a closer look at prices and even coming together to share groceries.”

    MIT senior and DormCon Dining Chair Ashley Holton shared her grocery shopping strategies with the group, and how she utilizes resources available at MIT. “Having a plan before you enter the grocery store is really important,” says Holton. “Not only does it save time, but it helps you avoid potentially getting more than what your budget allows for, while also making sure you get all the food you’ll need.”

    This program, along with many others, is part of MIT’s larger effort on fostering a more food-secure and sustainable campus for all students. Food Security Action Team members, including students, staff, and campus partners, are striving to achieve this goal by ensuring that there continues to be a well-organized and coordinated action around food security that can be implemented effectively each year. For example, to make shopping at Daily Table even easier, MIT has made it a priority to ensure the store accepts TechCash.

    No MIT student should go hungry due to lack of money or resources, and no student should feel like they need to be “really hungry” to ask for help. MIT offers several other resources to help students find the nutrition and other support they need. In addition, the Office of Student Wellbeing launched their DoingWell website, which offers programs and resources to help students prioritize their well-being by practicing healthy habits and getting support when they need it.

    “In my own cost-analysis comparison of staple grocery items of all the local grocery stores, no other store comes close to being able to offer what Daily Table does for the prices it does. It’s really remarkable to learn and experience just how Daily Table is changing the food system,” says Holton. “Its model is one of the many ways that will continue to foster a more food-secure community where everyone — including MIT students — can access affordable, nutritious food.” More

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    Meet the 2021-22 Accenture Fellows

    Launched in October of 2020, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology underscores the ways in which industry and technology come together to spur innovation. The five-year initiative aims to achieve its mission through research, education, and fellowships. To that end, Accenture has once again awarded five annual fellowships to MIT graduate students working on research in industry and technology convergence who are underrepresented, including by race, ethnicity, and gender.

    This year’s Accenture Fellows work across disciplines including robotics, manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and biomedicine. Their research covers a wide array of subjects, including: advancing manufacturing through computational design, with the potential to benefit global vaccine production; designing low-energy robotics for both consumer electronics and the aerospace industry; developing robotics and machine learning systems that may aid the elderly in their homes; and creating ingestible biomedical devices that can help gather medical data from inside a patient’s body.

    Student nominations from each unit within the School of Engineering, as well as from the four other MIT schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, were invited as part of the application process. Five exceptional students were selected as fellows in the initiative’s second year.

    Xinming (Lily) Liu is a PhD student in operations research at MIT Sloan School of Management. Her work is focused on behavioral and data-driven operations for social good, incorporating human behaviors into traditional optimization models, designing incentives, and analyzing real-world data. Her current research looks at the convergence of social media, digital platforms, and agriculture, with particular attention to expanding technological equity and economic opportunity in developing countries. Liu earned her BS from Cornell University, with a double major in operations research and computer science.

    Caris Moses is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science specializing inartificial intelligence. Moses’ research focuses on using machine learning, optimization, and electromechanical engineering to build robotics systems that are robust, flexible, intelligent, and can learn on the job. The technology she is developing holds promise for industries including flexible, small-batch manufacturing; robots to assist the elderly in their households; and warehouse management and fulfillment. Moses earned her BS in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and her MS in computer science from Northeastern University.

    Sergio Rodriguez Aponte is a PhD student in biological engineering. He is working on the convergence of computational design and manufacturing practices, which have the potential to impact industries such as biopharmaceuticals, food, and wellness/nutrition. His current research aims to develop strategies for applying computational tools, such as multiscale modeling and machine learning, to the design and production of manufacturable and accessible vaccine candidates that could eventually be available globally. Rodriguez Aponte earned his BS in industrial biotechnology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

    Soumya Sudhakar SM ’20 is a PhD student in aeronautics and astronautics. Her work is focused on theco-design of new algorithms and integrated circuits for autonomous low-energy robotics that could have novel applications in aerospace and consumer electronics. Her contributions bring together the emerging robotics industry, integrated circuits industry, aerospace industry, and consumer electronics industry. Sudhakar earned her BSE in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University and her MS in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

    So-Yoon Yang is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science. Her work on the development of low-power, wireless, ingestible biomedical devices for health care is at the intersection of the medical device, integrated circuit, artificial intelligence, and pharmaceutical fields. Currently, the majority of wireless biomedical devices can only provide a limited range of medical data measured from outside the body. Ingestible devices hold promise for the next generation of personal health care because they do not require surgical implantation, can be useful for detecting physiological and pathophysiological signals, and can also function as therapeutic alternatives when treatment cannot be done externally. Yang earned her BS in electrical and computer engineering from Seoul National University in South Korea and her MS in electrical engineering from Caltech. More