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    Rover images confirm Jezero crater is an ancient Martian lake

    The first scientific analysis of images taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover has now confirmed that Mars’ Jezero crater — which today is a dry, wind-eroded depression — was once a quiet lake, fed steadily by a small river some 3.7 billion years ago.

    The images also reveal evidence that the crater endured flash floods. This flooding was energetic enough to sweep up large boulders from tens of miles upstream and deposit them into the lakebed, where the massive rocks lie today.

    The new analysis, published today in the journal Science, is based on images of the outcropping rocks inside the crater on its western side. Satellites had previously shown that this outcrop, seen from above, resembled river deltas on Earth, where layers of sediment are deposited in the shape of a fan as the river feeds into a lake.

    Perseverance’s new images, taken from inside the crater, confirm that this outcrop was indeed a river delta. Based on the sedimentary layers in the outcrop, it appears that the river delta fed into a lake that was calm for much of its existence, until a dramatic shift in climate triggered episodic flooding at or toward the end of the lake’s history.

    “If you look at these images, you’re basically staring at this epic desert landscape. It’s the most forlorn place you could ever visit,” says Benjamin Weiss, professor of planetary sciences in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and a member of the analysis team. “There’s not a drop of water anywhere, and yet, here we have evidence of a very different past. Something very profound happened in the planet’s history.”

    As the rover explores the crater, scientists hope to uncover more clues to its climatic evolution. Now that they have confirmed the crater was once a lake environment, they believe its sediments could hold traces of ancient aqueous life. In its mission going forward, Perseverance will look for locations to collect and preserve sediments. These samples will eventually be returned to Earth, where scientists can probe them for Martian biosignatures.

    “We now have the opportunity to look for fossils,” says team member Tanja Bosak, associate professor of geobiology at MIT. “It will take some time to get to the rocks that we really hope to sample for signs of life. So, it’s a marathon, with a lot of potential.”

    Tilted beds

    On Feb. 18, 2021, the Perseverance rover landed on the floor of Jezero crater, a little more than a mile away from its western fan-shaped outcrop. In the first three months, the vehicle remained stationary as NASA engineers performed remote checks of the rover’s many instruments.

    During this time, two of Perseverance’s cameras, Mastcam-Z and the SuperCam Remote Micro-Imager (RMI), captured images of their surroundings, including long-distance photos of the outcrop’s edge and a formation known as Kodiak butte, a smaller outcop that planetary geologists surmise may have once been connected to the main fan-shaped outcrop but has since partially eroded.

    Once the rover downlinked images to Earth, NASA’s Perseverance science team processed and combined the images, and were able to observe distinct beds of sediment along Kodiak butte in surprisingly high resolution. The researchers measured each layer’s thickness, slope, and lateral extent, finding that the sediment must have been deposited by flowing water into a lake, rather than by wind, sheet-like floods, or other geologic processes.

    The rover also captured similar tilted sediment beds along the main outcrop. These images, together with those of Kodiak, confirm that the fan-shaped formation was indeed an ancient delta and that this delta fed into an ancient Martian lake.

    “Without driving anywhere, the rover was able to solve one of the big unknowns, which was that this crater was once a lake,” Weiss says. “Until we actually landed there and confirmed it was a lake, it was always a question.”

    Boulder flow

    When the researchers took a closer look at images of the main outcrop, they noticed large boulders and cobbles embedded in the youngest, topmost layers of the delta. Some boulders measured as wide as 1 meter across, and were estimated to weigh up to several tons. These massive rocks, the team concluded, must have come from outside the crater, and was likely part of bedrock located on the crater rim or else 40 or more miles upstream.

    Judging from their current location and dimensions, the team says the boulders were carried downstream and into the lakebed by a flash-flood that flowed up to 9 meters per second and moved up to 3,000 cubic meters of water per second.

    “You need energetic flood conditions to carry rocks that big and heavy,” Weiss says. “It’s a special thing that may be indicative of a fundamental change in the local hydrology or perhaps the regional climate on Mars.”

    Because the huge rocks lie in the upper layers of the delta, they represent the most recently deposited material. The boulders sit atop layers of older, much finer sediment. This stratification, the researchers say, indicates that for much of its existence, the ancient lake was filled by a gently flowing river. Fine sediments — and possibly organic material — drifted down the river, and settled into a gradual, sloping delta.

    However, the crater later experienced sudden flash floods that deposited large boulders onto the delta. Once the lake dried up, and over billions of years wind eroded the landscape, leaving the crater we see today.

    The cause of this climate turnaround is unknown, although Weiss says the delta’s boulders may hold some answers.

    “The most surprising thing that’s come out of these images is the potential opportunity to catch the time when this crater transitioned from an Earth-like habitable environment, to this desolate landscape wasteland we see now,” he says. “These boulder beds may be records of this transition, and we haven’t seen this in other places on Mars.”

    This research was supported, in part, by NASA. More

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    Researchers design sensors to rapidly detect plant hormones

    Researchers from the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) interdisciplinary research group of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, and their local collaborators from Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), have developed the first-ever nanosensor to enable rapid testing of synthetic auxin plant hormones. The novel nanosensors are safer and less tedious than existing techniques for testing plants’ response to compounds such as herbicide, and can be transformative in improving agricultural production and our understanding of plant growth.

    The scientists designed sensors for two plant hormones — 1-naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) — which are used extensively in the farming industry for regulating plant growth and as herbicides, respectively. Current methods to detect NAA and 2,4-D cause damage to plants, and are unable to provide real-time in vivo monitoring and information.

    Based on the concept of corona phase molecular recognition (​​CoPhMoRe) pioneered by the Strano Lab at SMART DiSTAP and MIT, the new sensors are able to detect the presence of NAA and 2,4-D in living plants at a swift pace, providing plant information in real-time, without causing any harm. The team has successfully tested both sensors on a number of everyday crops including pak choi, spinach, and rice across various planting mediums such as soil, hydroponic, and plant tissue culture.

    Explained in a paper titled “Nanosensor Detection of Synthetic Auxins In Planta using Corona Phase Molecular Recognition” published in the journal ACS Sensors, the research can facilitate more efficient use of synthetic auxins in agriculture and hold tremendous potential to advance plant biology study.

    “Our CoPhMoRe technique has previously been used to detect compounds such as hydrogen peroxide and heavy-metal pollutants like arsenic — but this is the first successful case of CoPhMoRe sensors developed for detecting plant phytohormones that regulate plant growth and physiology, such as sprays to prevent premature flowering and dropping of fruits,” says DiSTAP co-lead principal investigator Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “This technology can replace current state-of-the-art sensing methods which are laborious, destructive, and unsafe.”

    Of the two sensors developed by the research team, the 2,4-D nanosensor also showed the ability to detect herbicide susceptibility, enabling farmers and agricultural scientists to quickly find out how vulnerable or resistant different plants are to herbicides without the need to monitor crop or weed growth over days. “This could be incredibly beneficial in revealing the mechanism behind how 2,4-D works within plants and why crops develop herbicide resistance,” says DiSTAP and TLL Principal Investigator Rajani Sarojam.

    “Our research can help the industry gain a better understanding of plant growth dynamics and has the potential to completely change how the industry screens for herbicide resistance, eliminating the need to monitor crop or weed growth over days,” says Mervin Chun-Yi Ang, a research scientist at DiSTAP. “It can be applied across a variety of plant species and planting mediums, and could easily be used in commercial setups for rapid herbicide susceptibility testing, such as urban farms.”

    NTU Professor Mary Chan-Park Bee Eng says, “Using nanosensors for in planta detection eliminates the need for extensive extraction and purification processes, which saves time and money. They also use very low-cost electronics, which makes them easily adaptable for commercial setups.”

    The team says their research can lead to future development of real-time nanosensors for other dynamic plant hormones and metabolites in living plants as well.

    The development of the nanosensor, optical detection system, and image processing algorithms for this study was done by SMART, NTU, and MIT, while TLL validated the nanosensors and provided knowledge of plant biology and plant signaling mechanisms. The research is carried out by SMART and supported by NRF under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.

    DiSTAP is one of the five interdisciplinary research roups in SMART. The DiSTAP program addresses deep problems in food production in Singapore and the world by developing a suite of impactful and novel analytical, genetic, and biosynthetic technologies. The goal is to fundamentally change how plant biosynthetic pathways are discovered, monitored, engineered, and ultimately translated to meet the global demand for food and nutrients.

    Scientists from MIT, TTL, NTU, and National University of Singapore (NUS) are collaboratively developing new tools for the continuous measurement of important plant metabolites and hormones for novel discovery, deeper understanding and control of plant biosynthetic pathways in ways not yet possible, especially in the context of green leafy vegetables; leveraging these new techniques to engineer plants with highly desirable properties for global food security, including high yield density production, drought, and pathogen resistance and biosynthesis of high-value commercial products; developing tools for producing hydrophobic food components in industry-relevant microbes; developing novel microbial and enzymatic technologies to produce volatile organic compounds that can protect and/or promote growth of leafy vegetables; and applying these technologies to improve urban farming.

    DiSTAP is led by Michael Strano and Singapore co-lead principal investigator Professor Chua Nam Hai.

    SMART was established by MIT, in partnership with the NRF, in 2007. SMART, the first entity in CREATE, serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for research interactions between MIT and Singapore, undertaking cutting-edge research projects in areas of interest to both. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Center and five interdisciplinary research groups: Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine (CAMP), DiSTAP, Future Urban Mobility (FM), and Low Energy Electronic Systems (LEES). SMART is funded by the NRF. More

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    A new way to detect the SARS-CoV-2 Alpha variant in wastewater

    Researchers from the Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) interdisciplinary research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, alongside collaborators from Biobot Analytics, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and MIT, have successfully developed an innovative, open-source molecular detection method that is able to detect and quantify the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant of SARS-CoV-2. The breakthrough paves the way for rapid, inexpensive surveillance of other SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater.

    As the world continues to battle and contain Covid-19, the recent identification of SARS-CoV-2 variants with higher transmissibility and increased severity has made developing convenient variant tracking methods essential. Currently, identified variants include the B.1.17 (Alpha) variant first identified in the United Kingdom and the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant first detected in India.

    Wastewater surveillance has emerged as a critical public health tool to safely and efficiently track the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in a non-intrusive manner, providing complementary information that enables health authorities to acquire actionable community-level information. Most recently, viral fragments of SARS-CoV-2 were detected in housing estates in Singapore through a proactive wastewater surveillance program. This information, alongside surveillance testing, allowed Singapore’s Ministry of Health to swiftly respond, isolate, and conduct swab tests as part of precautionary measures.

    However, detecting variants through wastewater surveillance is less commonplace due to challenges in existing technology. Next-generation sequencing for wastewater surveillance is time-consuming and expensive. Tests also lack the sensitivity required to detect low variant abundances in dilute and mixed wastewater samples due to inconsistent and/or low sequencing coverage.

    The method developed by the researchers is uniquely tailored to address these challenges and expands the utility of wastewater surveillance beyond testing for SARS-CoV-2, toward tracking the spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern.

    Wei Lin Lee, research scientist at SMART AMR and first author on the paper adds, “This is especially important in countries battling SARS-CoV-2 variants. Wastewater surveillance will help find out the true proportion and spread of the variants in the local communities. Our method is sensitive enough to detect variants in highly diluted SARS-CoV-2 concentrations typically seen in wastewater samples, and produces reliable results even for samples which contain multiple SARS-CoV-2 lineages.”

    Led by Janelle Thompson, NTU associate professor, and Eric Alm, MIT professor and SMART AMR principal investigator, the team’s study, “Quantitative SARS-CoV-2 Alpha variant B.1.1.7 Tracking in Wastewater by Allele-Specific RT-qPCR” has been published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The research explains the innovative, open-source molecular detection method based on allele-specific RT-qPCR that detects and quantifies the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant. The developed assay, tested and validated in wastewater samples across 19 communities in the United States, is able to reliably detect and quantify low levels of the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant with low cross-reactivity, and at variant proportions down to 1 percent in a background of mixed SARS-CoV-2 viruses.

    Targeting spike protein mutations that are highly predictive of the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant, the method can be implemented using commercially available RT-qPCR protocols. Unlike commercially available products that use proprietary primers and probes for wastewater surveillance, the paper details the open-source method and its development that can be freely used by other organizations and research institutes for their work on wastewater surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants.

    The breakthrough by the research team in Singapore is currently used by Biobot Analytics, an MIT startup and global leader in wastewater epidemiology headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, serving states and localities throughout the United States. Using the method, Biobot Analytics is able to accept and analyze wastewater samples for the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant and plans to add additional variants to its analysis as methods are developed. For example, the SMART AMR team is currently developing specific assays that will be able to detect and quantify the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant, which has recently been identified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.

    “Using the team’s innovative method, we have been able to monitor the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant in local populations in the U.S. — empowering leaders with information about Covid-19 trends in their communities and allowing them to make considered recommendations and changes to control measures,” says Mariana Matus PhD ’18, Biobot Analytics CEO and co-founder.

    “This method can be rapidly adapted to detect new variants of concern beyond B.1.1.7,” adds MIT’s Alm. “Our partnership with Biobot Analytics has translated our research into real-world impact beyond the shores of Singapore and aid in the detection of Covid-19 and its variants, serving as an early warning system and guidance for policymakers as they trace infection clusters and consider suitable public health measures.”

    The research is carried out by SMART and supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.

    SMART was established by MIT in partnership with the National Research Foundation of Singapore (NRF) in 2007. SMART is the first entity in CREATE developed by NRF. SMART serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for research interactions between MIT and Singapore, undertaking cutting-edge research projects in areas of interest to both Singapore and MIT. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Center and five IRGs: AMR, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, Future Urban Mobility, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.

    The AMR interdisciplinary research group is a translational research and entrepreneurship program that tackles the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance. By leveraging talent and convergent technologies across Singapore and MIT, AMR aims to develop multiple innovative and disruptive approaches to identify, respond to, and treat drug-resistant microbial infections. Through strong scientific and clinical collaborations, its goal is to provide transformative, holistic solutions for Singapore and the world. More

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    Engineering seeds to resist drought

    As the world continues to warm, many arid regions that already have marginal conditions for agriculture will be increasingly under stress, potentially leading to severe food shortages. Now, researchers at MIT have come up with a promising process for protecting seeds from the stress of water shortage during their crucial germination phase, and even providing the plants with extra nutrition at the same time.

    The process, undergoing continued tests in collaboration with researchers in Morocco, is simple and inexpensive, and could be widely deployed in arid regions, the researchers say. The findings are reported this week in the journal Nature Food, in a paper by MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Benedetto Marelli, MIT doctoral student Augustine Zvinavashe ’16, and eight others at MIT and at the King Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco.

    The two-layer coating the team developed is a direct outgrowth of years of research by Marelli and his collaborators in developing seed coatings to confer various benefits. A previous version enabled seeds to resist high salinity in the soil, but the new version is aimed at tackling water shortages.

    “We wanted to make a coating that is specific to tackling drought,” Marelli explains. “Because there is clear evidence that climate change is going to impact the basin of the Mediterranean area,” he says, “we need to develop new technologies that can help to mitigate these changes in the climate patterns that are going to make less water available to agriculture.”

    The new coating, taking inspiration from natural coatings that occur on some seeds such as chia and basil, is engineered to protect the seeds from drying out. It provides a gel-like coating that tenaciously holds onto any moisture that comes along, and envelops the seed with it.

    A second, inner layer of the coating contains preserved microorganisms called rhizobacteria, and some nutrients to help them grow. When exposed to soil and water, the microbes will fix nitrogen into the soil, providing the growing seedling with nutritious fertilizer to help it along.

    “Our idea was to provide multiple functions to the seed coating,” Marelli says, “not only targeting this water jacket, but also targeting the rhizobacteria. This is the real added value to our seed coating, because these are self-replicating microorganisms that can fix nitrogen for the plants, so they can decrease the amount of nitrogen-based fertilizers that are provided, and enrich the soil.”

    Early tests using soil from Moroccan test farms have shown encouraging results, the researchers say, and now field tests of the seeds are underway.

    Ultimately, if the coatings prove their value through further tests, the coatings are simple enough that they could be applied at a local level, even in remote locations in the developing world. “It can be done locally,” Zvinavashe says. “That’s one of the things we were thinking about while we were designing this. The first layer you could dip coat, and then the second layer, you can spray it on. These are very simple processes that farmers could do on their own.” In general, though, Zvinavashe says it would be more economical to do the coatings centrally, in facilities that can more easily preserve and stabilize the nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

    The materials needed for the coatings are readily available and often used in the food industry already, Marelli says. The materials are also fully biodegradable, and some of the compounds themselves can actually be derived from food waste, enabling the eventual possibility of closed-loop systems that continuously recycle their own waste.

    Although the process would add a small amount to the cost of the seeds themselves, Marelli says, it may also produce savings by reducing the need for water and fertilizer. The net balance of costs and benefits remains to be determined through further research.

    Although initial tests using common beans have shown promising results by a variety of measures, including root mass, stem height, chlorophyll content, and other metrics, the team has not yet cultivated a full crop from seeds with the new coating all the way through to harvest, which will be the ultimate test of its value. Assuming that it does improve harvest yields under arid conditions, the next step will be to extend the research to a variety of other important crop seeds, the researchers say.

    “The system is so simple that it can be applied to any seed,” Marelli says. “And we can design the seed coating to respond to different climate patterns.” It might even be possible to tailor coatings to the predicted rainfall of a particular growing season, he says.

    “This is very important work,” says Jason C. White, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and a professor of epidemiology at Yale University, who was not associated with this study. “Maintaining global food security in the coming decades will be among the most significant challenges we face as a species. … This approach fits the description of an important tool in that effort; sustainable, responsive and effective.”

    White says, “Seed coating technologies are not new, but nearly all existing approaches lack versatility or responsiveness.” The new work, he says, is “both novel and innovative,” and “really opens a new avenue of work for responsive seed coatings to mediate tolerance to a range of biotic and abiotic stressors.”

    The team included Julie Laurent, Salma Mouhib, Hui Sun, Henri Manu Effa Fouda, Doyoon Kim, Manal Mhada, and Lamfeddal Kouisni at MIT and at King Mohammad VI Polytechnic University in Ben-Guerir, Morocco. The work was partly supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the MIT Paul M. Cook Career Development Professorship. More

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    Unleashing capacity at Heineken México with systems thinking from MIT

    It’s no secret that a manufacturer’s ability to maintain and ideally increase production capability is the basis for long-run competitive success. But discovering a way to significantly increase production without buying a single piece of new equipment — that may strike you as a bit more surprising. 

    Global beer manufacturer Heineken is the second-largest brewer in the world. Founded in 1864, the company owns over 160 breweries in more than 70 countries and sells more than 8.5 million barrels of its beer brands in the United States alone. In addition to its sustained earnings, the company has demonstrated significant social and environmental responsibility, making it a globally admired brand. Now, thanks to a pair of MIT Sloan Executive Education alumni, the the firm has applied data-driven developments and AI augmentation to its operations, helping it solve a considerable production bottleneck that unleashed hidden capacity in the form of millions of cases of beer at its plant in México.

    Little’s Law, big payoffs

    Federico Crespo, CEO of fast-growing industrial tech company Valiot.io, and Miguel Aguilera, supply chain digital transformation and innovation manager at Heineken México, first met at the MIT Sloan Executive Education program Implementing Industry 4.0: Leading Change in Manufacturing and Operations. During this short course led by John Carrier, senior lecturer in the System Dynamics Group at MIT Sloan, Crespo and Aguilera acquired the tools they needed to spark a significant improvement process at Mexico’s largest brewery.

    Ultimately, they would use Valiot’s AI-powered technology to optimize the scheduling process in the presence of unpredictable events, drastically increasing the brewery throughput and improving worker experience. But it all started with a proper diagnosis of the problem using Little’s Law.

    Often referred to as the First Law of Operations, Little’s Law is named for John D.C. Little, a professor post tenure at MIT Sloan and an MIT Institute Professor Emeritus. Little proved that the three most important properties of any system — throughput, lead time, and work-in-process — must obey the following simple relationship:

    Little’s law formula says work-in-progress is equal to throughput multiplied by lead time.

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    Little’s Law is particularly useful for detecting and quantifying the presence of bottlenecks and lost throughput in any system. And it is one of the key frameworks taught in Carrier’s Implementing Industry 4.0 course.

    Crespo and Aguilera applied Little’s Law and worked backward through the entire production process, examining cycle times to assess wait times and identify the biggest bottlenecks in the brewery.

    Specifically, they discovered a significant bottleneck at the filtration stage. As beer moved from maturation and filtration to bright beer tanks (BBT), it was often held up waiting to be routed to the bottling and canning lines, due to various upsets and interruptions throughout the facility as well as real-time demand-based production updates.

    This would typically initiate a manual, time-intensive rescheduling process. Operators had to track down handwritten production logs to figure out the current state of the bottling lines and inventory the supply by manually entering the information into a set of spreadsheets stored on a local computer. Each time a line was down, a couple hours were lost.

    With the deficiency identified, the facility quickly took action to solve it.

    Bottlenecks introduce habits, which evolve into culture

    Once bottlenecks have been identified, the next logical step is to remove them. However, this can be particularly challenging, as persistent bottlenecks change the way the people work within the system, becoming part of worker identity and the reward system.

    “Culture can act to reject any technological advance, no matter how beneficial this technology may be to the overall system,” says Carrier. “But culture can also provide a powerful mechanism for change and serve as a problem-solving device.”

    The best approach to introducing a new technology, advises Carrier, is to find early projects that reduce human struggle, which inevitably leads to overall improvements in productivity, reliability, and safety.

    Heineken México’s digital transformation

    Working with Federico and his team at Valiot.io, and with full support of Sergio Rodriguez, vice president of manufacturing at Heineken México, Aguilera and the Monterrey brewery team began connecting the enterprise resource plan and in-floor sensors to digitize the brewing process. Valiot’s data monitors assured a complete data quality interaction with the application. Fed by real-time data, machine learning was applied for filtering and the BBT process to optimize the daily-optimized production schedule. As a result, BBT and filtration time were reduced in each cycle. Brewing capacity also increased significantly per month. The return on the investment was clear within the first month of implementation.

    The migration to digital has enabled Heineken México to have a real-time visualization of the bottling lines and filtering conditions in each batch. With AI constantly monitoring and learning from ongoing production, the technology automatically optimizes efficiency every step of the way. And, using the real-time visualization tools, human operators in the factory can now make adjustments on the fly without slowing down or stopping production. On top of that, the operators can do their jobs from home effectively, which has had significant benefits given the Covid-19 pandemic.

    The key practical aspects

    The Valoit team was required to be present on the floor with the operators to decode what they were doing, and the algorithm had to be constantly tested against performance. According to Sergio Rodriguez Garza, vice president supply chain for Heineken México, success was ultimately based on the fact that Valiot’s approach was impacting the profit and loss, not simply counting the number of use cases implemented.

    “The people who make the algorithms do not always know where the value in the facility is,” says Garza. “For this reason, it is important to create a bridge between the areas in charge of digitization and the areas in charge of the process. This process is not yet systematic; each plant has a different bottleneck, and each needs its own diagnosis. However, the process of diagnosis is systematic, and each plant manager is responsible for his/her own plant’s diagnosis of the bottleneck.”

    “A unique diagnosis is the key,” adds Carrier, “and a quality diagnosis is based on a fundamental understanding of systems thinking.” More

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    Using mechanics for cleaner membranes

    Filtration membranes are critical to a wide variety of industries around the world. Made of materials as varied as cellulose, graphene, and nylon, they serve as the barriers that turn seawater into drinking water, separate and process milk and dairy products, and pull contaminants from wastewater. They serve as an essential technology to these and other industries but are plagued with an Achilles heel: fouling.

    Membrane fouling occurs when particles get deposited on the filter over time, clogging the system and limiting its effectiveness and efficiency. Efforts to clean, or de-foul, these membranes have typically relied on chemical processes, in which synthetic solvents are pumped through the membrane to flush the system. However, this results in losses in productivity and profit, all while raising environmental and workplace safety concerns associated with waste disposal.

    A solution to this challenge may soon be in sight. A team of researchers from the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, supported by a seed grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), has found an alternative. Their solution was developed via a unique collaboration between researchers with expertise in fluid as well as structure dynamics.

    The team has developed a novel system that can mechanically clean membranes using controlled deformation. Their new approach, one of the first ever to combine membranes and mechanics, has the potential to be cheaper, faster, and more environmentally friendly than traditional membrane cleaning techniques, and is poised to revolutionize the way we think about filtration.

    “Fouling is the biggest problem that’s facing membranes. Being able to solve it would be a game-changer for everyone,” says Omar Labban PhD ’20 of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, a joint lead author of a new paper published in the Journal of Membrane Science.

    Controlling the pressure on either side of this membrane allows the layer of contaminants to peel off and wash away.

    Image courtesy of the researchers

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    The work got its start when two mechanical engineering professors saw the potential of uniting their areas of expertise. John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering and the director of J-WAFS, joined forces with Xuanhe Zhao, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and George N. Hatsopoulos Faculty Fellow. Lienhard is an international expert on water purification and desalination, while Zhao specializes in the field of soft materials.

    “Real-world problems, such as membrane fouling, inherently cut across disciplinary lines,” says Lienhard. “In this case, we faced both a problem of soft matter mechanics and of membrane desalination. Our team combined this disparate knowledge through a solid experimental program to achieve a more environmentally benign cleaning process.”

    The paper that details the team’s new approach was selected as an Editor’s Choice Article by the journal for February 2021. Paper co-authors Lienhard, Zhao, and Labban were also joined by co-lead author and member of the core research team driving this work, Grace Goon PhD ’20 of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Zi Hao Foo, a former visiting student and current graduate student in mechanical engineering.

    The “Achilles heel” of filtration

    Fouling is the process through which particles are deposited on a membrane’s surface. While it occurs in any membrane filtration system, fouling is especially troublesome for desalination. As a process input, seawater has much more than salt that needs to be removed. Foulants, ranging from bacteria to organic material and minerals, can collect on reverse osmosis membranes very quickly. Once membranes become clogged, they are less effective, limiting the amount of clean water that can be produced as well as the purity of the end product.

    Unfortunately, the current cleaning solution is not ideal. Membranes used for desalination are cleaned with chemicals, which takes time, money, and resources away from filtration plant operation. Water desalination plant operators often have to stop production to flush their systems for several hours per cleaning cycle. For the dairy industry, operators need to clean the membranes multiples times a day. The chemical cocktails used to flush the systems are often proprietary, making desalination prohibitively expensive for some countries and municipalities. The environmental impact is also hefty because the plants then must figure out how to dispose of the large quantities of chemical waste without causing ecological and toxicological problems.

    Working together for a cleaner solution

    Motivated by efficiency, affordability, and environmental sustainability, the research team sought to develop a chemical-free solution enabled by the principles of mechanics. Goon, a member of the core research team, recounts the early days, when the team explored various vibration methods, including a stereo system, to shake the foulant layer off the membrane. From there, they moved on to experimenting with varying the pressure on either side of the membrane to weaken the bonded debris. Eventually, they were able to cause the layer to peel off.

    Their solution relies on a phenomenon known as membrane-foulant interfacial fatigue. Through subtle pressure changes, the team was able to gradually weaken and deform the bonded layer of foulants little by little until it could be washed away. Previous research strayed away from this method because of the fragility of the membranes, “but we’ve shown that if you’re able to actually control it properly, you can avoid damaging your membrane,” says Goon. Best of all, the method can be used on the industry-standard spiral wound membrane module, where the tightly spaced layers of membranes posed a challenge for other mechanical cleaning methods.

    While traditional chemical cleaning processes might be necessary to supplement this mechanical solution, this new method can reduce users’ reliance on chemical flushing, which benefits plant operators in multiple ways. The team’s calculations indicate that the shutdown time for cleaning would go down by a factor of six. With plants down less often, the total amount of clean water produced by the system can increase. “You’ll be saving on cost, you’ll be running the plant more, you’ll be getting more output. When cleaning no longer becomes a burden for the operator, the system is going to operate in a much better state in the long run,” explains Labban.

    These improvements provide tangible benefits to producers and consumers alike. During field research the team explored the market potential for this technology and spoke with plant operators across a number of industries who all expressed frustration with the cumbersome nature of the cleaning process. For the dairy industry alone, one that has already faced shrinking profits from the pandemic, the team estimates that a switch to mechanical cleaning could cut cleaning costs by half.

    The unique intersection of membrane technology and mechanical processes that this technology models provides a solution that many in the desalination field did not think was possible. “Suddenly you’re able to achieve a lot a lot more than before — your impact and change that you can accomplish becomes bigger,” says Labban of the chance to work on a multidisciplinary collaboration.

    The project not only brought together two specialties in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The team was also joined by Gabrielle Enns, Annetoinette Figueroa, Lara Ketonen, Hannah Mahaffey, Bryan T. Padilla, and Maisha Prome through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. The unique perspective that each team member brought helped foster creativity and camaraderie around the lab.

    Because of the out-of-the-box approach that the interdisciplinary research team was taking, traditional funding mechanisms were not as readily available for this work. This is why the J-WAFS seed grant was so impactful. “Without J-WAFS, this work would not have happened,” says Labban. The grant allowed the research team to focus on the challenge as a primary research catalyst, as opposed to being limited to a particular technical process or structured outcome. This provided the team the freedom to take advantage of the cross-departmental collaboration that enabled the convergence of mechanics and membrane research in the name of better filtration strategies.

    The current paper primarily looks at organic foulants and the technique has only been evaluated for a limited number of industries. Looking forward, however, the team is excited to expand upon its research by applying the method across a variety of areas, including the energy and agriculture sectors. As long as membranes are being used, there is going to be a need to clean them. “We are excited to be solving the major bottleneck with membranes and desalination,” says Labban. “Nothing else compares to this challenge.” More

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    Innovations in water accessibility

    Growing up in coastal Connecticut, Flora Klise’s childhood was shaped by water. She spent summers taking sailing lessons and working at a local marina. But it wasn’t until she stood next to a well in rural Tanzania that she realized she wanted to pursue a career in water innovation.

    The summer before her junior year, Klise traveled to Tanzania alongside a team of MIT D-Lab students to work on the Okoa Project, an ambulance trailer that can be attached to motorcycles. While visiting one particular rural village, she noticed dozens of young children carrying large buckets and taking turns jumping up and down on a pump to get water from the well. At the kids’ urging, Klise started pumping water herself.

    After five exhausting minutes pumping water, Klise rethought her career aspirations.

    “It got me really thinking about water accessibility from an engineer’s perspective, and how the way people get water is so different in every part of the world,” says Klise, currently a senior studying mechanical engineering. “There’s a whole area of innovation in water accessibility — from filtering bacteria and viruses to figuring out how to get water to a house or rigging a device that makes pumping easier.”

    Up until that point, Klise had focused on medical devices throughout her undergraduate experience at MIT. Concerned that it was too late to pivot from a career path in medical devices to one in water research, she sought the advice of her advisor, Warren Seering, the Weber-Shaughness Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

    Seering encouraged Klise to follow her passion and not feel boxed in by her previous academic focus.

    “Professor Seering asked, ‘Are you having fun exploring water research?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ To which he then said ‘See, you’re doing it right. You’re doing a great job,’” adds Klise. “Everyone needs an advisor who encourages them like that.”

    In addition to a supportive advisor, Klise found freedom in the flexibility a mechanical engineering degree provides.

    “Mechanical engineering is an area where you can get the technical skills you need to be able to do pretty much whatever you want,” she says. “You’re not limited by anything because it’s so broad, so it gives you the freedom to choose what you are actually passionate about, even later on in your undergraduate experience.”

    With a renewed focus on water accessibility, Klise sought a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) project on water research. She quickly found an opportunity in the lab of John Lienhard, professor of mechanical engineering. Her project was to focus on desalinating brackish groundwater for agricultural use.

    As a relative novice to water research, Klise had some catching up to do. Yvana Ahdab SM ’17, PhD ’21, a research assistant in the Lienhard lab, provided Klise with relevant literature to help her fill in the gaps.

    “Working with Flora was seamless. She possesses the intellectual curiosity and drive central to the scientific research process, which often involves a series of setbacks before any success is realized,” says Ahdab.

    Together, they worked on testing monovalent selective electrodialysis for the treatment of brackish groundwater. This process only filters harmful ions, keeping the ions that promote plant growth in the water. As a result, farmers save money by not needing to add as much fertilizer to their water, offering them a cost-effective, sustainable desalination alternative.

    “The target application is to use this in agricultural irrigation systems. We’ve developed a cost model demonstrating the amount of money saved by not using as much fertilizer,” says Klise.

    Last spring, before campus shut down due to the pandemic, Klise spent most of her time in the wet lab testing the flow rate of their system. After leaving campus due to lockdown, her focus shifted to a new project developing a techno-economic model for the pretreatment of groundwater. This project turned into Klise’s senior thesis.

    Using a database of 28,000 brackish groundwater samples from the U.S. Geological Survey, Klise has been writing a MATLAB script to demonstrate how much money could be saved by pretreating groundwater with lime.

    Klise has also pursued her passion for water research outside the lab. In the mechanical engineering and D-Lab class 2.729/EC.729 (Design for Scale), she worked on the FairCap project to develop a device that could filter a bucket of water, rather than individual glasses. Last fall, she worked as a student researcher for MIT Sea Grant, helping develop an autonomous aquaculture robot for oyster farming. As a member of MIT Water, Klise was active in planning Water Night 2021, held on April 22.

    “Water Club is an amazing community at MIT of people passionate about water issues. Water Night is a real celebration of water that’s engaging for all ages,” she says.

    After graduating in June, Klise will be joining one of the largest water innovation companies in the world, Xylem. Through Xylem’s two-year Engineering Leadership Development Program, Klise will rotate between three different positions across the company to get a sampling of different areas of water innovation she can pursue throughout her career.

    “My main career motivation is the impact of water research and technology. Every year, the need for fresh accessible water is increasing, so there is really a need for innovation in that area,” says Klise.

    While only a fraction of MIT students may end up pursuing careers in water innovation, according to Klise water is something that affects everyone on campus, whether they realize it or not.

    “I think every student at MIT is connected to water and the ocean just from living in Cambridge or Boston. It’s inevitable that you are going to see things, smell things, and notice things related to water. I think that helps people rethink their relationship with water and how it impacts their own lives,” she adds. More

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    Top collegiate inventors awarded 2021 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize

    Following a year that demonstrated the importance and practical applications of scientific advancement and invention, the Lemelson-MIT Program announced seven winners of its annual 2021 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize on April 26, World Intellectual Property Day. The program awarded a total of $90,000 to four graduate students and three undergraduate teams from across the country. The majority of winners have filed for patents, while others have been awarded full or provisional patents. Their inventions range from an innovative approach to plastic pollution in Uganda to self-driving wheelchair technology.

    “We are thrilled with and inspired by the quality of inventions this year,” says Michael J. Cima, faculty director of the Lemelson-MIT Program and associate dean of innovation at the MIT School of Engineering. “This group of students has performed tremendous work amidst difficult circumstances, often working remotely, knowing their research is too important to slow down. Science and technology have been at the forefront of conversation over the past year, and this diverse group of students is well-positioned to lead us toward great advances for years to come,” Cima says.

    Supported by The Lemelson Foundation and administered by the School of Engineering, the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize recognizes and provides catalyst funding to young inventors who have dedicated themselves to providing scalable solutions to real-world problems around the globe. This year’s winners have invented solutions that address pregnancy-related complications, market losses in the agricultural industry, obstacles impeding smooth patient recoveries, and other pressing problems in society. Recipients were selected from a diverse and highly competitive pool of hundreds of applicants from colleges and universities across the United States. 

    “Congratulations to this year’s winners for their remarkable achievements and dedication to solving some of the biggest challenges facing society today,” says Carol Dahl, executive director of the Lemelson Foundation. “It’s particularly exciting to see this year’s cohort of graduate winners is all women, given the fact that a large gender disparity exists in patenting. More inventors are needed from communities historically underrepresented in invention, including women, if we are going to effectively solve the challenges of today and tomorrow.”

    2021 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winners were selected based on the overall inventiveness of their work, the invention’s potential for scalable commercialization or adoption, and youth mentorship experience. They are:

    The “Cure it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize: Rewarding technology-based inventions that involve health care.

    •    Nicole Black of Harvard University, $15,000 Graduate Winner The eardrum often becomes damaged through traumatic head injuries, blast injuries, chronic ear infections, and other incidents, affecting millions of people worldwide every year. Current eardrum graft materials are tissues taken from other parts of the body. These current grafts intend to repair damage, yet do not integrate well with the eardrum and surrounding tissue, resulting in poor healing and hearing outcomes that often require further surgery. Using novel biodegradable materials and 3D printing techniques, Black invented a tunable, biomimetic eardrum graft called PhonoGraft. Because PhonoGraft is able to retain the circular and radial structure of the eardrum, its sound-induced motion is similar to that of original eardrum tissue. Additionally, PhonoGraft acts as a kind of scaffolding that bridges the hole and becomes part of the native tissue, allowing the eardrum to essentially heal itself and restore hearing more effectively.

    •    Mira Moufarrej of Stanford University, $15,000 Graduate WinnerPregnancy-related complications like preeclampsia and preterm delivery pose significant risks to both fetal and maternal health and are often difficult to detect in time for effective medical intervention. Moufarrej developed three novel liquid biopsy tests that monitor prenatal health and identify high-risk pregnancies by more accurately predicting due date, risk of preeclampsia, and likelihood of preterm delivery, making assessments possible well in advance of the mother becoming symptomatic. Following preclinical validation, these affordable, simple, and reliable maternal blood tests may change the standard of care for preeclampsia and preterm delivery — risks that no other test can currently predict early enough to allow for meaningful clinical intervention.

    •    Innerva: Bruce Enzmann, Michael Lan, and Anson Zhou of Johns Hopkins University, $10,000 Undergraduate Team WinnerTargeted muscle reinnervation (TMR), a procedure to connect severed nerves to smaller motor nerves, is an increasingly popular method for treating peripheral nerve injuries, as it partially guides nerve regeneration and makes it possible for amputees to more effectively operate prosthetic devices. About 30 percent of TMR patients, however, experience pain due to nerve tumors, or neuromas, that result from the inherent differences in size between the newly connected nerves. Innerva’s invention is a nerve conduit that creates an interface between the different sized nerves connected during TMR, modulating nerve regeneration and preventing the formation of neuromas.

    The “Eat it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize: Rewarding technology-based inventions that involve food/water and agriculture.

    •    Hilary Johnson of MIT, $15,000 Graduate WinnerCentrifugal pumps are integral drivers in many fluid systems, such as clean water distribution, wastewater treatment, crop irrigation, oil and gas production, and pumped hydro energy storage. Requiring significant energy to operate, collectively these pumps consume 6 percent of annual U.S. electricity. Hilary’s invention is a variable volute pump, a new category of centrifugal pumps that mechanically adapts the hydraulic chamber to adjust to fluctuating system demand. Variable volute pumps show the potential to significantly improve efficiency and operating range across applications by adjusting the spiral fluid passages to match the flow rate.

    •    Grain Weevil: Benjamin Johnson and Zane Zents of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, $10,000 Undergraduate Team WinnerLarge grain bins are used to store surplus grain supplies and allow farmers to hold their yield for higher prices. Managing grain condition and extraction require farmers to physically enter the grain bin, which is difficult and dangerous, often trapping and even killing farmers. A lack of proper management and extraction systems cause a 30 percent loss in cereal grain value worldwide. The Grain Weevil is a grain extraction and bin management robot that scurries across the top of the grain within a bin, smoothing out clumps so that the grain can be properly aerated and easily extracted from the bin. This device helps farmers safely and efficiently manage the extraction of grain from the bin, as well as maintain grain quality while in storage.

    The “Move it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize: Rewarding technology-based inventions that involve transportation and mobility.

    •    Adventus Robotics: Maya Burhanpurkar and Seung Hwan An of Harvard University, $10,000 Undergraduate Team WinnerPower wheelchairs present formidable barriers to mobility for users unable to operate a joystick, and manual wheelchairs operated by porters within hospitals can increase the potential for disease transmission between patients and staff. To solve these issues, the Adventus team developed a hardware and software kit that can be retrofitted to power wheelchairs already on the market to convert them into Level 5 (fully autonomous) self-driving wheelchairs. Adventus’ system transcends existing assistive technologies by using artificial intelligence and fail-safe sensors for edge detection and collision prevention. In light of Covid-19, the team’s technology has the potential to be used in a variety of other applications like autonomous floor cleaning and disinfecting.

    The “Use it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize: Rewarding technology-based inventions that involve consumer devices and products.

    •    Paige Balcom of the University of California at Berkeley, $15,000 Graduate WinnerTakataka Plastics is a technology and systems-level solution for plastic waste in Uganda that locally recycles plastic waste and creates jobs for vulnerable youth. Paige developed small-scale, locally built, low-cost machines to transform plastic waste into saleable products such as wall tiles for buildings, personal protective equipment, and consumer goods. This technology is especially innovative for PET waste because PET plastic (water and soda bottles) currently cannot be recycled anywhere in Uganda, and exporting the waste is difficult and inaccessible to most local recyclers.

    Collegiate inventors interested in applying for the 2022 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize can find more information via the Lemelson-MIT Program. The 2022 Student Prize application will open in late spring 2021. More