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    More than a meal

    According to the 2019 NOAA Report on the U.S. Ocean and Great Lakes Economy, Massachusetts is the largest single contributor to the Northeast Blue Economy, accounting for over one-third of the region’s ocean employment and gross domestic product. Challenges caused by Covid-19 have had damaging effects on the seafood industry and far-reaching impacts on the coastal communities that Sea Grant serves. In April, the National Sea Grant Office mobilized funding to support program responses to these challenges.
    With closed restaurants and collapsed traditional markets, MIT Sea Grant applied Covid-19 Rapid Response funds to help bridge the divide and develop alternative markets and revenue streams for sustainable aquaculture and fisheries in Massachusetts, including a new project with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance (CCCFA): Saving a Community Fishery, Feeding a Population.
    Seth Rolbein, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust with the CCCFA, works directly with the small-boat independent fleet in the region. The program has worked with the Cape Cod fishing community for nearly 30 years, engaging with NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, fishing regulators, scientists, stock assessors, and policymakers to ensure that the independent fishers don’t get shut out of the fishery.
    But with Covid-19 came immediate concerns for the fleet of about 50 small boats. “The bottom fell out of the market,” Rolbein says. “Meanwhile, the whole overseas supply chain broke down.” Some found creative solutions like selling directly off boats with special permission from the state. The fishers he works with are used to uncertainty — whether it’s the weather, the price, the crew, or the equipment. “These are very resilient, smart, entrepreneurial, small business people,” says Rolbein. Still, the global pandemic added a challenging layer of uncertainty.
    Seeking solutions, MIT Sea Grant first connected with the New England Fisheries Management Council, the Greater Boston Food Bank, and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. “A unique strength in the MIT Sea Grant Program is our Advisory Group that has established and maintains a network of stakeholders — industry, state and federal agencies, academia, and the public — that drive and provide ideas for our [work],” says Michael Triantafyllou, MIT Sea Grant director and the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor of Ocean Science and Engineering.
    Rob Vincent, assistant director for advisory services, found that there was interest in bringing local seafood into the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, the MassGrown Initiative, and the private nonprofit food bank network. “We identified potential local fishing groups and the concept of a fisheries-to-food banks program to support the fishing community and families that depend on the state food bank system,” he says, “a need that expanded during the crisis as more people found themselves out of work.”
    Next, Vincent reached out to the CCCFA. Five years ago, they created a program called Fish for Families, distributing over 50,000 pounds of fish through local food pantries. During Covid-19, they had the idea to scale up with a concept for haddock chowder that could be frozen and packaged in individual portions, branded “Small Boats, Big Taste”.
    “MIT Sea Grant has played a really instrumental role in helping to get us going and really allow us to build the first key phase of this whole project,” Rolbein says. MIT Sea Grant was able to connect the CCCFA with the greater food bank network and Department of Agriculture in Massachusetts, and provide initial funding to create a new market for small haddock, a challenging segment of the fishery. These haddock, although abundant, don’t fillet well, and fishers don’t get a great price for them. “The beauty of the chowder is you don’t put a single big fillet in,” says Rolbein. Historically, chowder and haddock were staples of the New England fishing industry. “It’s kind of a return to an old tradition.”
    The aim is to create a good market for smaller haddock as a sustainable long-term model to support the fishing community and contribute to the food pantry system. John Pappalardo, CEO of the CCCFA, explains, “Fishermen will be paid a reliable fair market value for their landed haddock, allowing them to continue to work despite the pandemic’s many challenges.”
    With the pandemic, Triantafyllou adds, “We felt an obligation to give back and help our stakeholders — especially our industry and fellow citizens in a time of crisis. We are very proud of this program.” In addition to compensating fishers for their harvest, the project now supports a whole chain of fish-related businesses and jobs. The haddock are filleted at the Boston processing facility Great Eastern Seafood, and the chowder is prepared in Lowell by local soup company, the Plenus Group. Rolbein explains, “Both uses [of the funding] have direct impact and make it possible for Massachusetts-based fishermen to remain viable and working, despite serious market repercussions caused by the pandemic.”​
    To launch a program like this, Rolbein says, “Particularly if the goal is to support food banks, you need places like MIT Sea Grant that see the benefits of it and can support it.” Additional funding for the project comes from Catch Together, a nonprofit that works with small-boat fishing fleets around the country connecting locally-caught seafood with communities.
    The haddock chowder program is already taking shape across the state, with aims to expand on a national level. The first donated batches, totaling around 36,000 pounds of haddock chowder, translate to 96,000 individual meals. “We just finished our second run of chowder, and we’ll probably be doing these once every three or four weeks,” Rolbein says. Oysters or quahogs could become the basis for the next round of chowder or stew. “We can slowly begin to diversify based on what fishermen need and what they have.”
    As the CCCFA and innovative local fishing fleets navigate new challenges, programs like the MIT Sea Grant COVID Rapid Response Funding provide important opportunities to help keep them on the water and in business. The haddock chowder is more than a meal; it’s a recipe for resilience, livelihoods, sustainable ocean resources, and strengthened connections in our local communities and economies. More

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    Designing off-grid refrigeration technologies for crop storage in Kenya

    For smallholder farmers living in hot and arid regions, getting fresh crops to market and selling them at the best price is a balancing act. If crops aren’t sold early enough, they wilt or ripen too quickly in the heat, and farmers have to sell them at reduced prices. Selling produce in the morning is a strategy many farmers use to beat the heat and ensure freshness, but that results in oversupply and competition at markets and further reduces the value of the produce sold. If farmers could chill their harvests — maintaining cool temperatures to keep them fresh for longer — then they could bring high-quality, fresh produce to afternoon markets and sell at better prices. Access to cold storage could also allow growers to harvest more produce before heading to markets, making these trips more efficient and profitable while also expanding consumers’ access to fresh produce.
    Unfortunately, many smallholder farming communities lack access to the energy resources needed to support food preservation technologies like refrigeration. To address this challenge, an MIT research team funded by a 2019 seed grant from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) is combining expertise in mechanical engineering, architecture, and energy systems to design affordable off-grid cold storage units for perishable crops. Three MIT principal investigators are leading this effort: Leon Glicksman, professor of building technology and mechanical engineering in the Department of Architecture; Daniel Frey, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the faculty director for research at MIT D-Lab; and Eric Verploegen, a research engineer at MIT D-Lab. They are also collaborating with researchers at the University of Nairobi to study the impact of several different chamber designs on performance and usability in Kenya. Together, they are looking to develop a cost-effective large-scale cooperative storage facility that uses the evaporative cooling properties of water to keep harvests fresher, longer.
    Evaporative cooling
    Evaporative cooling involves the energy dynamics of the phase change of water from its liquid state into its gas state. Simply put, when dry air moves across a saturated surface such as a container full of water, the water molecules absorb a large amount of heat as they change from liquid to gas, cooling the surrounding air. Evaporative cooling isn’t a new concept. People have been leveraging this property of water to cool buildings and keep harvests fresh for thousands of years. Today, in many arid regions, people use a double clay pot system to harness the evaporative cooling process to prolong the freshness of fruit and vegetables. Known as a pot-in-pot cooler or Zeer pot, the space between a larger and smaller ceramic pot is filled with sand and kept wet. As water evaporates through the vessel walls, it lowers the temperature of the inner chamber. 
    However, while clay pot coolers can be effective for individual household use, they are limited by their storage capacity. Some larger-scale produce storage strategies that use evaporative cooling exist and are in use in Kenya and other countries and arid regions. In fact, Verploegen has focused his research at MIT D-Lab on evaporative cooling technologies since 2016, resulting in the production of several designs currently at the pilot stage.
    Yet size still remains a challenge. Few designs exist today that are large enough to effectively store several metric tons of produce and that satisfy important criteria like ease of construction, quality of performance, and affordability, which would meet the storage needs for larger harvests or groups of farmers. Designs exist for solar-powered mechanical refrigeration; however, the costs associated with the energy, implementation, and maintenance of these units is prohibitive to many smallholder farmers around the world. Teaming up with Frey and Gliskman for this J-WAFS-funded effort, the group is aiming to address this lack of access. “For us, the questions became, ‘How can we scale evaporative cooling techniques and improve upon the existing ways that people have been using it for centuries?’” Glicksman reflects. With this in mind, the team set out to find a solution.
    Sustainability as a design throughline
    Initially the team’s focus was on improving the performance of existing cooling chamber technologies. “We worked with local folks [in Kenya] and built some of the more traditional designs that use charcoal,” says Verploegen. “However, what we found was that these efforts were very labor-intensive, time-consuming, and overall not very replicable.” Building on the ongoing user research performed by teams at the University of Nairobi and MIT D-Lab, the researchers have been exploring different kinds of materials for the structure, and settled on shipping containers as the basis for the chamber. 
    As it turns out, the height and width of a shipping container meets the dimension specifications of users’ requirements. Plus, using shipping containers provides the opportunity to up-cycle existing, used materials. “I’m always checking out where used shipping containers are available and checking prices in various countries for our cost model,” Verploegen admits. So, in their current design, they retrofitted a shipping container with a double-layered insulating wall, a solar-powered fan to force air through a central matrix of wet pads, and interior storage crates arranged to maximize convection and cooling rates and ease of use. 
    This design is informed by several analytical models that the research team continues to develop. The models evaluate the effect that different evaporative cooling materials, arrangements of produce storage crates, and exterior insulating materials have on the efficiency and functionality of the cooling chamber. These models help maximize cooling capabilities while minimizing water and energy usage, and also inform decisions on material choices.
    One such decision was the transition away from wetted charcoal as an evaporative cooling medium. Charcoal is commonly used as a cooling membrane material, but the release of CO2 during the burn-treatment process and subsequent negative environmental effects made it less attractive to the team. Currently, they are experimenting with plant-based aspen fiber and corrugated cellulose pads, which are both a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable solution. Lastly, the team has installed a solar-powered electronic control system that allows farmers to automate the chamber’s fan and water pumps, increasing efficiency and minimizing maintenance requirements. 
    Collaborating overseas
    Critical to the research project’s development is collaboration with researchers at the University of Nairobi (UON) in Kenya. Professor Jane Ambuko, a leading horticulturist at UON in the Department of Plant Science and Crop Protection, is well-versed in post-harvest technologies. In addition to her expert knowledge on crop physiology and the effects of cooling on produce, Ambuko is well-connected within the local Kenyan farming community and has provided the team with critical introductions to local farmers willing to test out the team’s chamber prototypes. Another collaborator, Duncan Mbuge, an agricultural engineer in the UON Department of Environmental and Biosystems Engineering, has been able to provide insight into the design, construction, and materials selection for the cooling chambers.
    The project has also involved exchange between MIT D-Lab and UON students, and this collaboration has opened up additional avenues for both institutions to work together. “The exchange of ideas [with MIT] has been mutually beneficial,” says Mbuge, “the net result has been an overall improvement in the technology.” The two professors, along with their research students, have continued monitoring and managing the pilot structure built in Kenya. “Together, with expertise from the MIT team, we complete each other­,” adds Ambuko.
    “The researchers at UON have a whole history and institutional knowledge of challenges that previously tried designs have come up against in real-world contexts,” Verploegen says, adding this has been essential to moving the MIT designs from concept to practice. Farmers have also played a major role in shaping the design and implementation of this technology. Following the D-Lab model, the MIT and UON research teams worked together to run a number of interviews and focus groups in farming communities in order to learn directly from users about their needs. The farmers in these communities have important insights into how to design a practical and effective cooling chamber that is suitable for use by farming cooperatives. Given that it will have more than one user, farmers have asked for a crate-stacking arrangement that will allow for easy inventory management. Farmers have pointed out additional benefits of the evaporative cooling chambers. “We have been told that these containers can also provide special protection from rodents,” Frey explains, “that turns out to be a very important for the farmers that we’re working with.”
    Potential impacts
    Overall, the team’s models indicate that a standard 40-foot-long shipping container outfitted as an evaporative cooler will be able to store between 6,500-8,000 kilograms of produce. The cost of constructing the chamber will likely be $7,000-$8,000, which, compared to mechanically refrigerated options of a similar size, offers over a 50 percent reduction in cost, making this new design very lucrative for farming cooperatives. One of the ways the team is keeping the production costs down is by using local materials and a centralized manufacturing strategy. “We are of the mindset that building a technology of this size and complexity centrally and then distributing it locally is the best way to make it accessible and affordable for these communities,” Verploegen says. 
    There are many benefits to making technologies accessible to and replicable by members of specific communities. Collaborative development is a cornerstone of D-Lab’s work, the academics and research program that Verploegen and Frey are a part of. “At D-Lab, we’re interested in planting the idea that community involvement is critical in order to adapt technological solutions to people’s needs and to maximize their use of the resulting solution,” says Frey. While an emphasis on co-creation is expected to result in community buy-in for their cooling solution, centralized manufacturing and construction of the containers is an additional strategy aimed at ensuring the accessibility and affordability of the technology for the communities they aim to serve. 
    While the current design has been developed for farmers near Nairobi in Kenya, these evaporative cooling devices could be deployed in a host of other regions in Kenya, as well as parts of West Africa and regions of western India such as Rajasthan and Gujarat. Verploegen, who is also leading a related J-WAFS-funded effort on evaporative cooling through the J-WAFS Grant for Water and Food Projects in India, is developing designs for crop storage for farms in western India. He says that “the scale of need is what determines what kind of evaporative cooling technology a community might need.” His work in India is focused on helping to disseminate technologies that are smaller and constructed at the location where they will be used, using brick and sand. He is also “helping to make them more efficient and improving the design to best fit local needs.”
    Ultimately, the research team’s goal is to make their evaporative cooling chamber something that local farming communities will consistently use and benefit from. To do this, they have to “come up with not only the MIT solution, but a solution that the people on the ground find is the best for them,” says Glicksman. They hope that this technology will not only help producers economically, but that it will also enable widespread food storage and preservation capabilities, allowing better access for populations to fresh produce.
    To read more about this work, visit the project site via J-WAFS. More

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    Solar-powered system extracts drinkable water from “dry” air

    Researchers at MIT and elsewhere have significantly boosted the output from a system that can extract drinkable water directly from the air even in dry regions, using heat from the sun or another source.
    The system, which builds on a design initially developed three years ago at MIT by members of the same team, brings the process closer to something that could become a practical water source for remote regions with limited access to water and electricity. The findings are described today in the journal Joule, in a paper by Professor Evelyn Wang, who is head of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering; graduate student Alina LaPotin; and six others at MIT and in Korea and Utah.
    The earlier device demonstrated by Wang and her co-workers provided a proof of concept for the system, which harnesses a temperature difference within the device to allow an adsorbent material — which collects liquid on its surface — to draw in moisture from the air at night and release it the next day. When the material is heated by sunlight, the difference in temperature between the heated top and the shaded underside makes the water release back out of the adsorbent material. The water then gets condensed on a collection plate.
    But that device required the use of specialized materials called metal organic frameworks, or MOFs, which are expensive and limited in supply, and the system’s water output was not sufficient for a practical system. Now, by incorporating a second stage of desorption and condensation, and by using a readily available adsorbent material, the device’s output has been significantly increased, and its scalability as a potentially widespread product is greatly improved, the researchers say.

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    Wang says the team felt that “It’s great to have a small prototype, but how can we get it into a more scalable form?” The new advances in design and materials have now led to progress in that direction.
    Instead of the MOFs, the new design uses an adsorbent material called a zeolite, which in this case is composed of a microporous iron aluminophosphate. The material is widely available, stable, and has the right adsorbent properties to provide an efficient water production system based just on typical day-night temperature fluctuations and heating with sunlight.
    The two-stage design developed by LaPotin makes clever use of the heat that is generated whenever water changes phase. The sun’s heat is collected by a solar absorber plate at the top of the box-like system and warms the zeolite, releasing the moisture the material has captured overnight. That vapor condenses on a collector plate — a process that releases heat as well. The collector plate is a copper sheet directly above and in contact with the second zeolite layer, where the heat of condensation is used to release the vapor from that subsequent layer. Droplets of water collected from each of the two layers can be funneled together into a collecting tank.
    In the process, the overall productivity of the system, in terms of its potential liters per day per square meter of solar collecting area (LMD), is approximately doubled compared to the earlier version, though exact rates depend on local temperature variations, solar flux, and humidity levels. In the initial prototype of the new system, tested on a rooftop at MIT before the pandemic restrictions, the device produced water at a rate “orders of magnitude” greater that the earlier version, Wang says.
    While similar two-stage systems have been used for other applications such as desalination, Wang says, “I think no one has really pursued this avenue” of using such a system for atmospheric water harvesting (AWH), as such technologies are known.
    Existing AWH approaches include fog harvesting and dew harvesting, but both have significant limitations. Fog harvesting only works with 100 percent relative humidity, and is currently used only in a few coastal deserts, while dew harvesting requires energy-intensive refrigeration to provide cold surfaces for moisture to condense on — and still requires humidity of at least 50 percent, depending on the ambient temperature.
    By contrast, the new system can work at humidity levels as low as 20 percent and requires no energy input other than sunlight or any other available source of low-grade heat.
    LaPotin says that the key is this two-stage architecture; now that its effectiveness has been shown, people can search for even better adsorbent materials that could further drive up the production rates. The present production rate of about 0.8 liters of water per square meter per day may be adequate for some applications, but if this rate can be improved with some further fine-tuning and materials choices, this could become practical on a large scale, she says. Already, materials are in development that have an adsorption about five times greater than this particular zeolite and could lead to a corresponding increase in water output, according to Wang.
    The team continues work on refining the materials and design of the device and adapting it to specific applications, such as a portable version for military field operations. The two-stage system could also be adapted to other kinds of water harvesting approaches that use multiple thermal cycles per day, fed by a different heat source rather than sunlight, and thus could produce higher daily outputs.
    “This is an interesting and technologically significant work indeed,” says Guihua Yu, a professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, who was not associated with this work. “It represents a powerful engineering approach for designing a dual-stage AWH device to achieve higher water production yield, marking a step closer toward practical solar-driven water production,” he says.
    Yu adds that “Technically, it is beautiful that one could reuse the heat released simply by this dual-stage design, to better confine the solar energy in the water harvesting system to improve energy efficiency and daily water productivity. Future research lies in improving this prototype system with low cost components and simple configuration with minimized heat loss.”
    The research team includes Yang Zhong, Lenan Zhang, Lin Zhao, and Arny Leroy at MIT; Hyunho Kim at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology; and Sameer Rao at the University of Utah. The work was supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT. More

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    Velcro-like food sensor detects spoilage and contamination

    MIT engineers have designed a Velcro-like food sensor, made from an array of silk microneedles, that pierces through plastic packaging to sample food for signs of spoilage and bacterial contamination.
    The sensor’s microneedles are molded from a solution of edible proteins found in silk cocoons, and are designed to draw fluid into the back of the sensor, which is printed with two types of specialized ink. One of these “bioinks” changes color when in contact with fluid of a certain pH range, indicating that the food has spoiled; the other turns color when it senses contaminating bacteria such as pathogenic E. coli.
    The researchers attached the sensor to a fillet of raw fish that they had injected with a solution contaminated with E. coli. After less than a day, they found that the part of the sensor that was printed with bacteria-sensing bioink turned from blue to red — a clear sign that the fish was contaminated. After a few more hours, the pH-sensitive bioink also changed color, signaling that the fish had also spoiled.
    The results, published today in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, are a first step toward developing a new colorimetric sensor that can detect signs of food spoilage and contamination.
    Such smart food sensors might help head off outbreaks such as the recent salmonella contamination in onions and peaches. They could also prevent consumers from throwing out food that may be past a printed expiration date, but is in fact still consumable.
    “There is a lot of food that’s wasted due to lack of proper labeling, and we’re throwing food away without even knowing if it’s spoiled or not,” says Benedetto Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “People also waste a lot of food after outbreaks, because they’re not sure if the food is actually contaminated or not. A technology like this would give confidence to the end user to not waste food.”
    Marelli’s co-authors on the paper are Doyoon Kim, Yunteng Cao, Dhanushkodi Mariappan, Michael S. Bono Jr., and A. John Hart.
    Silk and printing
    The new food sensor is the product of a collaboration between Marelli, whose lab harnesses the properties of silk to develop new technologies, and Hart, whose group develops new manufacturing processes.
    Hart recently developed a high-resolution floxography technique, realizing microscopic patterns that can enable low-cost printed electronics and sensors. Meanwhile, Marelli had developed a silk-based microneedle stamp that penetrates and delivers nutrients to plants. In conversation, the researchers wondered whether their technologies could be paired to produce a printed food sensor that monitors food safety.
    “Assessing the health of food by just measuring its surface is often not good enough. At some point, Benedetto mentioned his group’s microneedle work with plants, and we realized that we could combine our expertise to make a more effective sensor,” Hart recalls.
    The team looked to create a sensor that could pierce through the surface of many types of food. The design they came up with consisted of an array of microneedles made from silk.
    “Silk is completely edible, nontoxic, and can be used as a food ingredient, and it’s mechanically robust enough to penetrate through a large spectrum of tissue types, like meat, peaches, and lettuce,” Marelli says.
    A deeper detection
    To make the new sensor, Kim first made a solution of silk fibroin, a protein extracted from moth cocoons, and poured the solution into a silicone microneedle mold. After drying, he peeled away the resulting array of microneedles, each measuring about 1.6 millimeters long and 600 microns wide — about one-third the diameter of a spaghetti strand.
    The team then developed solutions for two kinds of bioink — color-changing printable polymers that can be mixed with other sensing ingredients. In this case, the researchers mixed into one bioink an antibody that is sensitive to a molecule in E. coli. When the antibody comes in contact with that molecule, it changes shape and physically pushes on the surrounding polymer, which in turn changes the way the bioink absorbs light. In this way, the bioink can change color when it senses contaminating bacteria.
    The researchers made a bioink containing antibodies sensitive to E. coli, and a second bioink sensitive to pH levels that are associated with spoilage. They printed the bacteria-sensing bioink on the surface of the microneedle array, in the pattern of the letter “E,” next to which they printed the pH-sensitive bioink, as a “C.” Both letters initially appeared blue in color.
    Kim then embedded pores within each microneedle to increase the array’s ability to draw up fluid via capillary action. To test the new sensor, he bought several fillets of raw fish from a local grocery store and injected each fillet with a fluid containing either E. coli, Salmonella, or the fluid without any contaminants. He stuck a sensor into each fillet. Then, he waited.
    After about 16 hours, the team observed that the “E” turned from blue to red, only in the fillet contaminated with E. coli, indicating that the sensor accurately detected the bacterial antigens. After several more hours, both the “C” and “E” in all samples turned red, indicating that every fillet had spoiled.
    The researchers also found their new sensor indicates contamination and spoilage faster than existing sensors that only detect pathogens on the surface of foods.
    “There are many cavities and holes in food where pathogens are embedded, and surface sensors cannot detect these,” Kim says. “So we have to plug in a bit deeper to improve the reliability of the detection. Using this piercing technique, we also don’t have to open a package to inspect food quality.”
    The team is looking for ways to speed up the microneedles’ absorption of fluid, as well as the bioinks’ sensing of contaminants. Once the design is optimized, they envision the sensor could be used at various stages along the supply chain, from operators in processing plants, who can use the sensors to monitor products before they are shipped out, to consumers who may choose to apply the sensors on certain foods to make sure they are safe to eat.
    This research was supported, in part, by the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Office of Naval Research. More

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    MIT News – Food | Water

    MIT News – Food | Water | Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS)$25 million gift launches ambitious new effort tackling poverty and climate changeEngineering superpowered organisms for a more sustainable worldMIT research on seawater surface tension becomes international guidelineD-Lab moves online, without compromising on impactNear real-time, peer-reviewed hypothesis verification informs FEMA on Covid-19 supply chain risksWhy the Mediterranean is a climate change hotspotMIT startup wraps food in silk for better shelf lifeTowable sensor free-falls to measure vertical slices of ocean conditionsMIT student leaders go virtual with global startup competitionsMIT student leaders go virtual with global startup competitionsEngineers develop precision injection system for plantsStaring into the vortexNew sensor could help prevent food wasteScientists quantify how wave power drives coastal erosionHow plants protect themselves from sun damageMIT-powered climate resilience solution among top 100 proposals for MacArthur $100 million grantInstrument may enable mail-in testing to detect heavy metals in waterSimple, solar-powered water desalinationMIT helps first-time entrepreneur build food hospitality companyReducing risk, empowering resilience to disruptive global changeMaking real a biotechnology dream: nitrogen-fixing cereal cropsJulia Ortony: Concocting nanomaterials for energy and environmental applicationsA new way to remove contaminants from nuclear wastewaterMIT Dining wins the New England Food Vision PrizeCoated seeds may enable agriculture on marginal landsMicroparticles could help fight malnutritionJ-WAFS zeroes in on food security as agricultural impacts of the climate crisis become more apparentJ-WAFS zeroes in on food security as agricultural impacts of the climate crisis become more apparentNew process could make hydrogen peroxide available in remote placesScaling up a cleaner-burning alternative for cookstovesNew vending machines expand fresh food options on campusFirst-year students encouraged to “reuse, refill, replenish”Cody Friesen PhD ’04 awarded $500,000 Lemelson-MIT PrizeJ-WAFS announces 2019 Solutions Grants supporting agriculture and clean waterJ-WAFS announces 2019 Solutions Grants supporting agriculture and clean waterStudy links certain metabolites to stem cell function in the intestineA battery-free sensor for underwater explorationFollowing the current: MIT examines water consumption sustainabilityMarcus Karel, food science pioneer and professor emeritus of chemical engineering, dies at 91PhD students awarded J-WAFS fellowships for water solutionsPhD students awarded J-WAFS fellowships for water solutionsA droplet walks into an electric field …Untangling the social dynamics of waterUntangling the social dynamics of waterEmpowering African farmers with dataJ-WAFS announces seven new seed grantsJ-WAFS announces seven new seed grantsMIT team places second in 2019 NASA BIG Idea ChallengeNew seed fund to address food, water, and agriculture in IndiaNew seed fund to address food, water, and agriculture in Indiahttps://news.mit.edu/rss/topic/food-and-water-security MIT news feed about: Food | Water | Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) en Wed, 29 Jul 2020 09:12:48 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/gift-tackling-poverty-climate-change-0729 The King Climate Action Initiative at J-PAL will develop large-scale climate-response programs for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Wed, 29 Jul 2020 09:12:48 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/gift-tackling-poverty-climate-change-0729 Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office With a founding $25 million gift from King Philanthropies, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is launching a new initiative to solve problems at the nexus of climate change and global poverty.The new program, the King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI), was announced today by King Philanthropies and J-PAL, and will start immediately. K-CAI plans to rigorously study programs reducing the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations, and then work with policymakers to scale up the most successful interventions.“To protect our well-being and improve the lives of people living in poverty, we must be better stewards of our climate and our planet,” says Esther Duflo, director of J-PAL and the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT. “Through K-CAI, we will work to build a movement for evidence-informed policy at the nexus of climate change and poverty alleviation similar to the movement J-PAL helped build in global development. The moment is perhaps unique: The only silver lining of this global pandemic is that it reminds us that nature is sometimes stronger than us. It is a moment to act decisively to change behavior to stave off a much larger catastrophe in the future.”K-CAI constitutes an ambitious effort: The initiative intends to help improve the lives of at least 25 million people over the next decade. K-CAI will announce a call for proposals this summer and select its first funded projects by the end of 2020.“We are short on time to take action on climate change,” says Robert King, co-founder of King Philanthropies. “K-CAI reflects our commitment to confront this global crisis by focusing on solutions that benefit people in extreme poverty. They are already the hardest hit by climate change, and if we fail to act, their circumstances will become even more dire.”There are currently an estimated 736 million people globally living in extreme poverty, on as little as $1.90 per day or less. The World Bank estimates that climate change could push roughly another 100 million into extreme poverty by 2030.As vast as its effects may be, climate change also presents a diverse set of problems to tackle. Among other things, climate change, as well as fossil-fuel pollution, is expected to reduce crop yields, raise food prices, and generate more malnutrition; increase the prevalence of respiratory illness, heat stress, and numerous other diseases; and increase extreme weather events, wiping out homes, livelihoods, and communities.With this in mind, the initiative will focus on specific projects within four areas: climate change mitigation, to reduce carbon emissions; pollution reduction; adaptation to ongoing climate change; and shifting toward cleaner, reliable, and more affordable souces of energy. In each area, K-CAI will study smaller-scale programs, evaluate their impact, and work with partners to scale up the projects with the most effective solutions.Projects backed by J-PAL have already had an impact in these areas. In one recent study, J-PAL-affiliated researchers found that changing the emissions audit system in Gujarat, India, reduced industrial-plant pollution by 28 percent; the state then implemented the reforms. In another study in India, J-PAL affiliated researchers found that farmers using a flood-resistant rice variety called Swarna-Sub1 increased their crop yields by 41 percent.In Zambia, a study by researchers in the J-PAL network showed that lean-season loans for farmers increased agricultural output by 8 percent; in Uganda, J-PAL affiliated researchers found that a payment system to landowners cut deforestation nearly in half and is a cost-effective way to lower carbon emissions.Other J-PAL field experiments in progress include one providing cash payments that stop farmers in Punjab, India, from burning crops, which generates half the air pollution in Delhi; another implementing an emissions-trading plan in India; and a new program to harvest rainwater more effectively in Niger. All told, J-PAL researchers have evaluated over 40 programs focused on climate, energy, and the environment.By conducting these kinds of field experiments, and implementing some widely, K-CAI aims to apply the same approach J-PAL has directed toward multiple aspects of poverty alleviation, including food production, health care, education, and transparent governance.A unique academic enterprise, J-PAL emphasizes randomized controlled trials to identify useful poverty-reduction programs, then works with governments and nongovernmental organizations to implement them. All told, programs evaluated by J-PAL affiliated researchers and found to be effective have been scaled up to reach 400 million people worldwide since the lab’s founding in 2003.“J-PAL has distinctive core competencies that equip it to achieve outsized impact over the long run,” says Kim Starkey, president and CEO of King Philanthropies. “Its researchers excel at conducting randomized evaluations to figure out what works, its leadership is tremendous, and J-PAL as an organization has a rare, demonstrated ability to partner with governments and other organizations to scale up proven interventions and programs.”K-CAI aims to conduct an increasing number of field experiments over the initial five-year period and focus on implementing the highest-quality programs at scale over the subsequent five years. As Starkey observes, this approach may generate increasing interest from additional partners.“There is an immense need for a larger body of evidence about what interventions work at this nexus of climate change and extreme poverty,” Starkey says. “The findings of the King Climate Action Initiative will inform policymakers and funders as they seek to prioritize opportunities with the highest impact.”King Philanthropies was founded by Robert E. (Bob) King and Dorothy J. (Dottie) King in 2016. The organization has a goal of making “a meaningful difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people” by developing and supporting a variety of antipoverty initiatives.J-PAL was co-founded by Duflo; Abhijit Banerjee, the Ford International Professor of Economics at MIT; and Sendhil Mullainathan, now a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. It has over 200 affiliated researchers at more than 60 universities across the globe. J-PAL is housed in the Department of Economics in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.Last fall, Duflo and Banerjee, along with long-time collaborator Michael Kremer of Harvard University, were awarded the Nobel Prize in economic sciences. The Nobel citation observed that their work has “dramatically improved our ability to fight poverty in practice” and provided a “new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty.”K-CAI will be co-chaired by two professors, Michael Greenstone and Kelsey Jack, who have extensive research experience in environmental economics. Both are already affiliated researchers with J-PAL.Greenstone is the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago. He is also director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. Greenstone, who was a tenured faculty member in MIT’s Department of Economics from 2003 to 2014, has published high-profile work on energy access, the consequences of air pollution, and the effectiveness of policy measures, among other topics.Jack is an associate professor in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is an expert on environment-related programs in developing countries, with a focus on incentives that encourage the private-sector development of environmental goods. Jack was previously a faculty member at Tufts University, and a postdoc at MIT in 2010-11, working on J-PAL’s Agricultural Technology Adoption Initiative. Over the next decade, the King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI) intends to help improve the lives of at least 25 million people hard hit by poverty and climate change. Image: MIT News https://news.mit.edu/2020/engineering-superpowered-organisms-more-sustainable-world-0722 MIT students explore algal water purifiers, programmable soil bacteria, and other biological engineering approaches to food and water security. Wed, 22 Jul 2020 15:30:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/engineering-superpowered-organisms-more-sustainable-world-0722 Vivian Zhong | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab Making corn salt-tolerant by engineering its microbiome. Increasing nut productivity with fungal symbiosis. Cleaning up toxic metals in the water supply with algae. Capturing soil nutrient runoff with bacterial biofilms. These were the bio-sustainability innovations designed and presented by students in the Department of Biological Engineering (BE) last May. With the sun shining brightly on an empty Killian Court, the students gathered for the final class presentations over Zoom, physically distanced due to the Covid-19-related closing of MIT’s campus this spring. For decades, the sustainable technologies dominating public discourse have tended toward the mechanical: wind power, solar power, saltwater distillation, etc. But in recent years, biological solutions have increasingly taken the forefront. For recent BE graduate Adrianna Amaro ’20, being able to make use of “existing organisms in the natural world and improve their capabilities, instead of building whole new machines, is the most exciting aspect of biological engineering approaches to sustainability problems.” Each semester, the BE capstone class (20.380: Biological Engineering Design) challenges students to design, in teams, biological engineering solutions to problems focused on a theme selected by the instructors. Teams are tasked with presenting their solutions in two distinct ways: as a written academic grant proposal and as a startup pitch. For Professor Christopher Voigt, one of the lead instructors, the goal of the class is to “create the climate where a half-baked concept emerges and gets transformed into a project that is both achievable and could have a real-world impact.” A glance at the research portfolio on the MIT biological engineering homepage reveals a particular focus on human biology. But over the years, students and faculty alike have started pushing for a greater diversity in challenges to which the cutting-edge technology they were developing could be applied. Indeed, “sustainability has been one of the top areas that students raise when asked what they want to address with biological engineering,” says Sean Clarke PhD ’13, another instructor for the class. In response to student input, the instructors chose food and water security as the theme for the spring 2020 semester. (Sustainability, broadly, was the theme the previous semester.) The topic was well-received by the 20.380 students. Recent BE graduate Cecilia Padilla ’20 appreciated how wide-reaching and impactful the issues were, while teammate Abby McGee ’20 was thrilled because she had always been interested in environmental issues — and is “not into pharma.” Since this is the biological engineering capstone, students had to incorporate engineering principles in their biology-based solutions. This meant developing computational models of their proposed biological systems to predict the output of a system from a defined set of inputs. Team SuperSoil, for example, designed a genetic circuit that, when inserted into B. subtilis, a common soil bacteria, would allow it to change behavior based on water and nutrient levels. During heavy rain, for example, the bacteria would respond by producing a phosphate-binding protein biofilm. This would theoretically reduce phosphate runoff, thus preserving soil nutrients and reducing the pollution of waterways. By modeling natural processes such as protein production, bacterial activation, and phosphate diffusion in the soil using differential equations, they were able to predict the degree of phosphate capture and show that significant impact could be achieved with a realistic amount of engineered bacterial input. Biological engineering Professor Forest White co-leads the class every spring with Voigt. White also teaches the prerequisite, where students learn how to construct computational models of biological systems. He points out how the models helped students develop their capstone projects: “In a couple of cases the model revealed true design challenges, where the feasibility of the project requires optimal engineering of particular aspects of the design.” Models aside, simply thinking about the mathematical reality of proposed solutions helped teams early on in the idea selection process. Team Nutlettes initially considered using methane-consuming bacteria to capture methane gas from landfills, but back-of-the-envelope calculations revealed unfavorable kinetics. Additionally, further reading brought to light a possible toxic byproduct of bacterial methane metabolism: formaldehyde. Instead, they chose to develop an intervention for water-intensive nut producers: engineer the tree’s fungal symbionts to provide a boost of hormones that would promote flower production, which in turn increases nut yields. Team Halo saw water filtration as the starting point for ideation, deeming it the most impactful issue to tackle. For inspiration, they looked to mangrove trees, which naturally take up salt from the water that they grow in. They applied this concept to their design of corn-associated, salt-tolerant bacteria that could enhance their plant host’s ability to grow in high salinity conditions — an increasingly common consequence of drought and industrial agricultural irrigation. Additional inspiration came from research in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: In their design, the team incorporated a silk-based seed coating developed by Professor Benedetto Marelli’s group. Many of the capstone students found themselves exploring unfamiliar fields of research. During their foray into plant-fungal symbiosis, Team Nutlettes was often frustrated by the prevalence of outdated and contradictory findings, and by the lack of quantitative results that they could use in their models. Still, Vaibhavi Shah, one of the few juniors in the class, says she found a lot of value in “diving into something you’ve no experience in.” In addition to biological design, teams were encouraged to think about the financial feasibility of their proposed solutions. This posed a challenge for Team H2Woah and their algal-based solution for sequestering heavy metals from wastewater. Unlike traditional remediation methods, which produce toxic sludge, their system allows for the recycling of metals from the wastewater for manufacturing, and the opportunity to harvest the algae for biofuels. However, as they developed their concept, they realized that breaking into the existing market would be difficult due to the cost of all the new infrastructure that would be required. Students read broadly over the course of the semester, which helped them enhance their understanding of food and water insecurity beyond their specific projects. Before the class, Kayla Vodehnal ’20 of Team Nutlettes had only been exposed to policy-driven solutions. Amaro, meanwhile, came to realize how close to home the issues they were researching are: all Americans may soon have to confront inadequate access to clean water due to, among other factors, pollution, climate change, and overuse. In any other semester, the capstone students would have done their final presentations in a seminar room before peers, instructors, a panel of judges, and the indispensable pastry-laden brunch table. This semester, however, the presentations took place, like everything else this spring, on Zoom. Instructors beamed in front of digital congratulatory messages, while some students coordinated background images to present as a single cohesive team. Despite the loss of in-person engagement, the Zoom presentations did come with benefits. This year’s class had a larger group of audience members compared to past years, including at least two dozen faculty, younger students, and alumni who joined virtually to show their support. Coordinating a group project remotely was challenging for all the teams, but Team Nutlettes found a silver lining: Because having spontaneous conversations over Zoom is harder than in person, they found that their meetings became a lot more productive. One attendee was Renee Robins ’83, executive director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, who had previously interacted with the class as a guest speaker. “Many of the students’ innovative concepts for research and commercialization,” she says, “were of the caliber we see from MIT faculty submitting proposals to J-WAFS’ various grant programs.” Now that they have graduated, the seniors in the class are all going their separate ways, and some have sustainability careers in mind. Joseph S. Faraguna ’20 of Team Halo will be joining Ginkgo Bioworks in the fall, where he hopes to work on a bioremediation or agricultural project. His teammate, McGee, will be doing therapeutic CRISPR research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, but says that environment-focused research is definitely her end goal. Between Covid-19 and post-graduation plans, the capstone projects will likely end with the class. Still, this experience will continue to have an influence on the student participants. Team H2Woah is open to continuing their project in the future in some way, Amaro says, since it was their “first real bioengineering experience, and will always have a special place in our hearts.” Their instructors certainly hope that the class will prove a lasting inspiration. “Even in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic,” White says, “the problems with global warming and food and water security are still the most pressing problems we face as a species. These problems need lots of smart, motivated people thinking of different solutions. If our class ends up motivating even a couple of these students to engage on these problems in the future, then we will have been very successful.” Students in the biological engineering capstone design class showcase their proposed solutions to food and water security challenges over Zoom. Image: Sean Clarke https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-seawater-surface-tension-research-becomes-international-guideline-0709 Work by Professor John Lienhard and Kishor Nayar SM ’14, PhD ’19 was recently recognized by the International Association for the Properties of Water and Steam. Thu, 09 Jul 2020 16:10:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-seawater-surface-tension-research-becomes-international-guideline-0709 Mary Beth Gallagher | Department of Mechanical Engineering The property of water that enables a bug to skim the surface of a pond or keeps a carefully placed paperclip floating on the top of a cup of water is known as surface tension. Understanding the surface tension of water is important in a wide range of applications including heat transfer, desalination, and oceanography. Although much is known about the surface tension of fresh water, very little has been known about the surface tension of seawater — until recently. In 2012, John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering, and then-graduate student Kishor Nayar SM ’14, PhD ’19 embarked on a research project to understand how the surface tension of seawater changes with temperature and salinity. Two years later, they published their findings in the Journal of Physical and Chemical Reference Data. This spring, the International Association for the Properties of Water and Steam (IAPWS) announced that they had deemed Lienhard and Nayar’s work an international guideline. According to the IAPWS, Lienhard and Nayar’s research “presents a correlation for the surface tension of seawater as a function of temperature and salinity.” The announcement of the guideline marked the completion of eight years of work with dozens of collaborators from MIT and across the globe. “This project grew out of my work in desalination. In desalination, you need to know about the surface tension of water because that affects how water travels through pores in a membrane,” explains Lienhard, a world leading expert in desalination — the process by which salt water is treated to become potable freshwater. Lienhard suggested Nayar take measurements of seawater’s surface tension and compare the results to the surface tension of pure water. As they would soon find out, getting reliable data from salt water would prove to be incredibly difficult.  “We had thought originally that these experiments would be pretty simple to do, that we’d be done in a month or two. But as we started looking into it, we realized it was a much harder problem to tackle,” says Lienhard. From the outset, Nayar hoped to get enough accurate data to inform a property standard. Doing so would require the uncertainty in the measurements to be less than 1 percent. “When you talk about property measurements, you need to be as accurate as possible,” explains Nayar. The first hurdle he had to surmount to achieve this level of accuracy was finding the appropriate instrumentation to make reliable measurements — something that turned out to be no easy feat. Measuring surface tension To measure the surface tension of water, Lienhard and Nayar teamed up with Gareth McKinley, professor of mechanical engineering, and then-graduate student Divya Panchanathan SM ’15, PhD ’18. They began with a device known as a Wilhelmy plate, which finds the surface tension by lowering a small platinum plate into a beaker of water then measuring the force the water exerts as the plate is raised. Nayar and Panchanathan struggled to measure the surface tension of salt water at higher temperatures. “The issue we kept finding was once the temperature was above 50 degrees Celsius, the water on the beaker evaporated faster than we could take the measurements,” Nayar says.  No instrument would allow them to get the data they needed — so Nayar turned to the MIT Hobby Shop. Using a lathe, he built a special lid for the beaker to keep vapor in. “The little lid Kishor built had accurately cut doors that allowed him to put a surface tension probe through the lid without letting water vapor get out,” explains Lienhard. After making progress on obtaining data, the team suffered a massive setback. They found that barely visible salt scales, which formed on their test beaker over time, had introduced errors to their measurements. To get the most accurate values, they decided to use fresh new beakers for every single test. As a result, Nayar had to repeat nine months of work just prior to his master’s thesis being due. Fortunately, since the main problem was identified and solved, experiments could be repeated much faster. Nayar was able to redo the experiments on time. The team measured surface tension in seawater ranging from room temperature to 90 degrees Celsius and salinity levels ranging from pure water to four times the salinity of ocean water. They found that surface tension decreases by roughly 20 percent as water goes from room temperature toward boiling. Meanwhile, as salinity increases, surface tension increases as well. The team had unlocked the mystery of seawater surface tension. “It was literally the most technically challenging thing I had ever done,” Nayar recalls. Their data had an average deviation of 0.19 percent, with a maximum deviation of just 0.6 percent — well within the 1 percent bound needed for a guideline. From master’s thesis to international guideline Three years after completing his master’s thesis, Nayar, by then a PhD student, attended an IAPWS meeting in Kyoto, Japan. The IAPWS is a nonprofit international organization responsible for releasing standards on the properties of water and steam. There, Nayar met with leaders in the field of water surface tension who had been struggling with the same issues Nayar had faced. These contacts introduced him to the long, rigorous process of declaring something an international guideline. The IAPWS had previously published standards on the properties of steam developed by the late Joseph Henry Keenan, professor and one-time department head of mechanical engineering at MIT. To join Keenan as authors of an IAPWS standard, the team’s data needed to be verified by measurements conducted by other researchers. After three years of working with the IAPWS, the team’s work was finally adopted as an international guideline. For Nayar, who graduated with his PhD last year and is now a senior industrial water/wastewater engineer at engineering consulting firm GHD, the guideline announcement made the long months collecting data well worth it. “It felt like something getting completed,” he recalls.  The findings that Nayar, Panchanathan, McKinley, and Lienhard reported back in 2014 are broadly applicable to a number of industries, according to Lienhard. “It’s certainly relevant for desalination work, but also for oceanographic problems such as capillary wave dynamics,” he explains. It also helps explain how small things — like a bug or a paperclip — can float on seawater. Research by John Lienhard and Kishor Nayar to understand how the surface tension of seawater changes with temperature and salinity has now become an international standard. Photo courtesy of the Department of Mechanical Engineering https://news.mit.edu/2020/d-lab-moves-online-without-compromising-impact-0701 With the campus shut down by Covid-19, the spring D-Lab class Water, Climate Change, and Health had to adapt. Wed, 01 Jul 2020 12:05:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/d-lab-moves-online-without-compromising-impact-0701 Jessie Hendricks | Environmental Solutions Initiative It’s not a typical sentence you’d find on a class schedule, but on April 2, the first action item for one MIT course read: “Check in on each other’s health and well-being.” The revised schedule was for Susan Murcott and Julie Simpson’s spring D-Lab class EC.719 / EC.789 (Water, Climate Change, and Health), just one of hundreds of classes at MIT that had to change course after the novel coronavirus sparked a campus-wide shutdown. D-Lab at home The dust had only begun to settle two weeks later, after a week of canceled classes followed by the established spring break, when students and professors reconvened in their new virtual classrooms. In Murcott and Simpson’s three-hour, once-a-week D-Lab class, the 20 students had completed only half of the subject’s 12 classes before the campus shut down. Those who could attend the six remaining classes would do so remotely for the first time in the five-year history of the class. Typically, students would have gathered at D-Lab, an international design and development center next to the MIT Museum on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within the center, D-Lab provides project-based and hands-on learning for undergraduate and graduate students in collaboration with international non-governmental organizations, governments, and industry. Many of the projects involve design solutions in low-income countries around the world. Murcott, an MIT lecturer who has worked with low-income populations for over 30 years in 25 countries, including Nepal and Ghana, was a natural fit to teach the class. Murcott’s background is in civil and environmental engineering, wastewater management, and climate. Her co-teacher, Research Engineer Julie Simpson of the Sea Grant College Program, has a PhD in coastal and marine ecology and a strong climate background. “It’s typical to find courses in climate change and energy, climate change and policy, or maybe climate change and human behavior,” Murcott says. But when she first began planning her D-Lab subject, there were no classes one could find anywhere in the world that married climate change and water.  Murcott and Simpson refer to the class as transdisciplinary. “[Transdisciplinary] is about having as broad a sample of humanity as you can teaching and learning together on the topics that you care about,” Murcott says. But transdisciplinary also means attracting a wide range of students from various walks of life, studying a variety of subjects. This spring, Murcott and Simpson’s class had undergraduates, graduate students, and young professionals from MIT, Wellesley College, and Harvard University, studying architecture, chemistry, mechanical engineering, biochemistry, microbiology, computer science, math, food and agriculture, law, and public health, plus a Knight Science Journalism at MIT Fellow. After campus closed, these students scattered to locations across the country and the world, including France, Hong Kong, Rwanda, and South Korea. Student Sun Kim sent a five-page document with pictures to the class after returning to her home in South Korea, detailing her arrival in a Covid-19 world. Kim was tested in the airport after landing, given free room and board in a nearby hotel until she received her result (a “negative” result came back within eight hours), and quarantined in her parents’ house for two weeks, just in case she had picked up the virus during her travels. “I have been enjoying my Zoom classes during the wee hours of the night and sleeping during the day — ignoring the sunlight and pretending I am still in the U.S.,” Kim wrote. Future generation climate action plans Usually, the class has three or four field trips over the course of the semester, to places like the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, home of the longest climate record in the United States, and the Charles River Dam Infrastructure, which helps control flooding along Memorial Drive. With these physical trips closed off during the pandemic, Murcott and Simpson had to find new virtual spaces in which to convene. Four student teams took part in a climate change simulation using a program developed by Climate Interactive called En-ROADS, in which they were challenged to create scenarios that aimed for a limit of 1.5 degree Celsius global average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Each team developed unique scenarios and managed to reach that target by adjusting energy options, agricultural and land-use practices, economic levers, and policy options. The teams then used their En-ROADS scenario planning findings to evaluate the climate action plans of Cambridge, Boston, and Massachusetts, with virtual visits from experts on the plans. They also evaluated MIT’s climate plan, which was written in 2015 and which will be updated by the end of this year. Students found that MIT has one of the least-ambitious targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions compared to other institutions that the D-Lab class reviewed. Teams of students were then challenged to improve upon what MIT had done to date by coming up with their own future generation climate action plans. “I wanted them to find their voice,” says Murcott. As the co-chair of MIT’s Water Sustainability Working Group, an official committee designated to come up with a water plan for MIT, Murcott and Simpson are now working with a subset of eight students from the class over the summer, together with the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, the MIT Office of Sustainability, and the Office of the Vice President for Research, to collaborate on a new water and climate action plan. Final projects The spring 2020 D-Lab final presentations were as diverse as the students’ fields of study. Over two Zoom sessions, teams and individual students presented a total of eight final projects. The first project aimed to lower the number of Covid-19 transmissions among Cambridge residents and update access to food programs in light of the pandemic. At the time of the presentation, Massachusetts had the third-highest reported number of cases of the new coronavirus. Students reviewed what was already being done in Cambridge and expanded on that with recommendations such as an assistive phone line for sick residents, an N95 mask exchange program, increased transportation for medical care, and lodging options for positive cases to prevent household transmission. Another team working on the Covid-19 project presented their recommendations to update the city’s food policy. They suggested programs to increase awareness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) through municipal mailings, help vendors at farmers markets enroll in SNAP/EBT so that users could purchase local produce and goods, and promote local community gardens to help with future food security. Another project proposed an extensive rainwater harvesting project for the Memorial Drive dormitories, which also have a high photovoltaic potential, in which the nearby MIT recreational fields would benefit from self-sufficient rainwater irrigation driven by a solar-powered pump. Another student developed a machine learning method to count and detect river herrings that migrate into Boston each year by training a computer program to identify the fish using existing cameras installed by fish ladders.  Student Lowry Yankwich wrote a long-form science journalism piece about the effect of climate change on local fisheries, and a team of three students created a six-unit climate change course called “Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century” for upper-high-school to first-year college students Two global water projects were presented. In the first, student Ade Dapo-Famodu’s study compared a newly manufactured water test, the ECC Vial, to other leading global products that measure two major indicators of contaminated water: E. coli and coliforms. The second global water project was the Butaro Water Project team with Carene Umubyeyi and Naomi Lutz. Their project is a collaboration between faculty and students at MIT, Tufts University, University of Rwanda and University of Global Health Equity in Butaro, a small district in the northern part of Rwanda, where a number of villages lack access to safe drinking water. The end is just the beginning For many, the D-Lab projects aren’t just a semester-long endeavor. It’s typical for some D-Lab term projects to turn into either a January Independent Activities Period or a summer research or field project. Of the 20 students in the class, 10 are continuing to work on their term projects over the summer. Umubyeyi is Rwandan. Having returned home after the MIT shutdown, she will be coordinating the team’s design and construction of the village water system over the summer, with technical support from her teammate, Lutz, remotely from Illinois. The Future Generations Climate Action Planning process resulted in five students eager to take the D-Lab class work forward. They will be working with Jim Gomes, senior advisor in the Office of the Vice President, who is responsible for coordination MIT’s 2020 Climate Action Plan, together with one other student intern, Grace Moore. The six-unit online course for teens, Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, is being taught by Clara Gervaise-Volaire and Gabby Cazares and will be live through July 3. Continued policy work on Covid-19 will continue with contacts in the Cambridge City Council. Finally, Lowry will be sending out his full-length article for publication and starting his next piece.   “Students have done so well in the face of the MIT shutdown and coronavirus pandemic challenge,” says Murcott. “Scattered around the country and around the world, they have come together through this online D-Lab class to embrace MIT’s mission of ‘creating a better world.’ In the process, they have deepened themselves and are actively serving others in the process. What could be better in these hard times?” Lecturer Susan Murcott met many members of her EC.719 / EC.789 (Water, Climate Change, and Health) D-Lab class for the first time at the Boston climate strike on Sept. 20, 2019. Photo: Susan Murcott https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-humanitiarian-supply-chain-lab-informs-fema-covid-19-supply-chain-risks-0618 The MIT Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab implements a rapid assessment process to inform policy. Thu, 18 Jun 2020 14:10:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-humanitiarian-supply-chain-lab-informs-fema-covid-19-supply-chain-risks-0618 Arthur Grau | Center for Transportation and Logistics Every corner of the globe has suffered from supply chain disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic. Beginning in January with a focus on China manufacturing, the MIT Humanitarian Supply Chain Lab (HSCL) began providing evidenced-based analysis to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to inform strategic planning around the supply chain risks. By March, the focus turned to domestic food supply chains and freight markets in the United States so that FEMA could anticipate potential response scenarios. Through this engagement, HSCL developed a rapid vetting and publishing approach that aligned with the pace and volatility of the situation. HSCL is part of the Supply Chain Analysis Network (SCAN) — along with Dewberry, the Center for Naval Analyses, and American Logistics Aid Network — that supports FEMA Logistics Management Directorate during crisis activations. HSCL hosts three of the five team members that delivered 20 grocery sector and freight assessments over 10 weeks. Each assessment followed a week-long research and industry peer review process before delivery to FEMA. As an example, the Friday freight assessment begins on Monday as HSCL researchers develop hypotheses based on the data from several proprietary channels, publicly available media, and primary interviews with practitioners from the field. On Tuesday, the hypotheses are formalized into a written digest and subsequently shared on Wednesday with a group of private sector leaders. These professional volunteers, who are involved in food supply chains and freight movement, review and respond to the hypotheses. On Thursday, the HSCL team compiles further relevant data and industry feedback into a draft assessment. This assessment is circulated for final industry review on Friday, before sharing with FEMA.”Our process is as rigorous as possible given our near real-time engagement,” remarks Jarrod Goentzel, director of the HSCL. “Our aim is to synthesize evidence and organize ongoing peer review with our industry partners to provide strategic orientation for government decision-making.” Senior leaders use the ecosystem assessments to anticipate shortages and prepare emergency support. “We’re talking to retailers, shippers, and carriers to find out how the market is responding,” according to lab researcher Chelsey Graham. “We look at data such as loads tendered or rejected, wait times, freight volume, and ocean sailings that are triangulated with other economic data to develop evidence and ensure it aligns with the truth on the ground from factory floors to store shelves.” The complexity of ecosystem assessments may increase with the onset of the Atlantic summer hurricane season. Further natural disaster impacts would uniquely stress supply chains already fatigued and constrained by a relentless pandemic. The HSCL has a long history of working with government and industry during hurricane season, starting with volunteer efforts in 2017 and activations with SCAN in recent years. HSCL has also led efforts to reflect and improve public-private sector coordination during crises. In December 2017, MIT hosted a roundtable on “Supply Chain Resilience: Restoring Business Operations Following Hurricanes,” producing the earliest report on a very active hurricane season. In 2018, Goentzel and MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL) Director Yossi Sheffi were both invited by FEMA to deliver PrepTalks, broadcasts given by subject-matter experts to promote innovation in emergency management. The lab was contracted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to support a recently released study “Strengthening Post-Hurricane Supply Chain Resilience,” based on findings from the 2017 hurricane season. The challenges of responding to disruptions have been a cause for the development of novel approaches to research and assessment. Capabilities developed may prove invaluable as new crises may arrive during this Covid-19 pandemic, including the possible resurgence of the virus itself. Through these uniquely positioned engagements, HSCL is able to support decisions quickly during urgent and dynamic crises. The lab is still actively recruiting volunteer industry leaders for this ongoing effort. A suburban warehouse hub common to food supply chains in the United States https://news.mit.edu/2020/why-mediterranean-climate-change-hotspot-0617 MIT analysis uncovers the basis of the severe rainfall declines predicted by many models. Wed, 17 Jun 2020 09:55:48 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/why-mediterranean-climate-change-hotspot-0617 David L. Chandler | MIT News Office Although global climate models vary in many ways, they agree on this: The Mediterranean region will be significantly drier in coming decades, potentially seeing 40 percent less precipitation during the winter rainy season.An analysis by researchers at MIT has now found the underlying mechanisms that explain the anomalous effects in this region, especially in the Middle East and in northwest Africa. The analysis could help refine the models and add certainty to their projections, which have significant implications for the management of water resources and agriculture in the region.The study, published last week in the Journal of Climate, was carried out by MIT graduate student Alexandre Tuel and professor of civil and environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir.The different global circulation models of the Earth’s changing climate agree that temperatures virtually everywhere will increase, and in most places so will rainfall, in part because warmer air can carry more water vapor. However, “There is one major exception, and that is the Mediterranean area,” Eltahir says, which shows the greatest decline of projected rainfall of any landmass on Earth.“With all their differences, the models all seem to agree that this is going to happen,” he says, although they differ on the amount of the decline, ranging from 10 percent to 60 percent. But nobody had previously been able to explain why.Tuel and Eltahir found that this projected drying of the Mediterranean region is a result of the confluence of two different effects of a warming climate: a change in the dynamics of upper atmosphere circulation and a reduction in the temperature difference between land and sea. Neither factor by itself would be sufficient to account for the anomalous reduction in rainfall, but in combination the two phenomena can fully account for the unique drying trend seen in the models.The first effect is a large-scale phenomenon, related to powerful high-altitude winds called the midlatitude jet stream, which drive a strong, steady west-to-east weather pattern across Europe, Asia, and North America. Tuel says the models show that “one of the robust things that happens with climate change is that as you increase the global temperature, you’re going to increase the strength of these midlatitude jets.”But in the Northern Hemisphere, those winds run into obstacles, with mountain ranges including the Rockies, Alps, and Himalayas, and these collectively impart a kind of wave pattern onto this steady circulation, resulting in alternating zones of higher and lower air pressure. High pressure is associated with clear, dry air, and low pressure with wetter air and storm systems. But as the air gets warmer, this wave pattern gets altered.“It just happened that the geography of where the Mediterranean is, and where the mountains are, impacts the pattern of air flow high in the atmosphere in a way that creates a high pressure area over the Mediterranean,” Tuel explains. That high-pressure area creates a dry zone with little precipitation.However, that effect alone can’t account for the projected Mediterranean drying. That requires the addition of a second mechanism, the reduction of the temperature difference between land and sea. That difference, which helps to drive winds, will also be greatly reduced by climate change, because the land is warming up much faster than the seas.“What’s really different about the Mediterranean compared to other regions is the geography,” Tuel says. “Basically, you have a big sea enclosed by continents, which doesn’t really occur anywhere else in the world.” While models show the surrounding landmasses warming by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius over the coming century, the sea itself will only warm by about 2 degrees or so. “Basically, the difference between the water and the land becomes a smaller with time,” he says.That, in turn, amplifies the pressure differential, adding to the high-pressure area that drives a clockwise circulation pattern of winds surrounding the Mediterranean basin. And because of the specifics of local topography, projections show the two areas hardest hit by the drying trend will be the northwest Africa, including Morocco, and the eastern Mediterranean region, including Turkey and the Levant.That trend is not just a projection, but has already become apparent in recent climate trends across the Middle East and western North Africa, the researchers say. “These are areas where we already detect declines in precipitation,” Eltahir says. It’s possible that these rainfall declines in an already parched region may even have contributed to the political unrest in the region, he says.“We document from the observed record of precipitation that this eastern part has already experienced a significant decline of precipitation,” Eltahir says. The fact that the underlying physical processes are now understood will help to ensure that these projections should be taken seriously by planners in the region, he says. It will provide much greater confidence, he says, by enabling them “to understand the exact mechanisms by which that change is going to happen.”Eltahir has been working with government agencies in Morocco to help them translate this information into concrete planning. “We are trying to take these projections and see what would be the impacts on availability of water,” he says. “That potentially will have a lot of impact on how Morocco plans its water resources, and also how they could develop technologies that could help them alleviate those impacts through better management of water at the field scale, or maybe through precision agriculture using higher technology.”The work was supported by the collaborative research program between Université Mohamed VI Polytechnique in Morocco and MIT. Global climate models agree that the Mediterranean area will be significantly drier, potentially seeing 40 percent less precipitation during the winter rainy season in the already parched regions of the Middle East and North Africa. https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-based-startup-cambridge-crops-wraps-food-in-silk-0605 Cambridge Crops develops an edible, imperceptible coating that might replace plastic packaging to preserve meats and produce. Fri, 05 Jun 2020 14:35:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-based-startup-cambridge-crops-wraps-food-in-silk-0605 Archana Apte | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab Benedetto Marelli, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, was a postdoc at Tufts University’s Omenetto Lab when he stumbled upon a novel use for silk. Preparing for a lab-wide cooking competition whose one requirement was to incorporate silk into each dish, Marelli accidentally left a silk-dipped strawberry on his bench: “I came back almost one week later, and the strawberries that were coated were still edible. The ones that were not coated with silk were completely spoiled.” Marelli, whose previous research focused on the biomedical applications of silk, was stunned. “That opened up a new world for me,” he adds. Marelli viewed his inadvertent discovery as an opportunity to explore silk’s ability to address the issue of food waste. Marelli partnered with several Boston-based scientists, including Adam Behrens, then a postdoc in the lab of Institute Professor Robert Langer, to form Cambridge Crops. The company aims to iterate and expand on the initial discovery, using silk as its core ingredient to develop products that extend the shelf life of all sorts of perishable foods. The company’s technology sees broad impact on extending the shelf life of whole and cut produce, meats, fish, and other foods. With support from a startup competition and subsequent venture capital, Cambridge Crops is equipped to increase global access to fresh foods, improve supply chain efficiencies, and even enable new products altogether. A simple solution for a complex issue One-third of the global food supply is wasted annually, yet over 10 percent of the population faces hunger. Food waste has massive social, economic, and health implications that affect developed and developing countries alike. While many technologies have emerged aimed at extending the longevity of fresh foods, they often employ genetic modifications, environmentally harmful packaging materials, or are costly to implement. “So far, the majority of innovation in food- and ag-tech is based on genetic engineering, plant engineering, mechanical engineering, AI, and computer science. There’s a lot of room to innovate using material, like nanomaterials and biomaterials,” explains Marelli. The professor views technology like silk as an opportunity to mitigate many of the issues facing the food industry without changing the innate properties of the foods themselves. Silk’s strengths stem from the material’s natural simplicity, honed by millennia of evolutionary biology. Cambridge Crops utilizes a proprietary and efficient process using only water and salt to isolate and reform the silk’s natural protein. This makes Cambridge Crops’ silk coatings easy to integrate into existing food-processing lines without the need for costly new equipment or modifications. Once deposited on the surface of food, the silk coating forms a tasteless, odorless, and otherwise imperceptible barrier that slows down the food’s natural degradation mechanisms. Depending on the food item, the result can show up to a 200 percent increase in shelf life. Not only does that enable less food waste, but that also reduces the pressure on cold chains, allowing shippers to reduce greenhouse gases in transportation. Ties to MIT Cambridge Crops gained early industry traction after winning first place in the 2017 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize, a competition for early-stage startups sponsored by Rabobank and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) and supported by the student-run MIT Food and Agriculture club. The technical feedback and industry connections Cambridge Crops leveraged through its participation in the competition proved invaluable in identifying key pain points and market opportunities in the food industry that could be addressed through its core technology. “It was great for us,” explains CEO Adam Behrens. “[The prize] was important for doing technical validation in addition to forming early value propositions.” Cambridge Crops has since raised two rounds of financing, both led or co-led by The Engine, which helps incubate startups working on “tough tech.” These have been combined with awards from AgFunder and multiple Massachusetts Clean Energy Center grants. The initial successes even merited a mention in Bill Gates’ “Gates Notes,” and by a company tackling food waste naturally. Behrens maintains that investors’ contributions go beyond strictly their monetary value. “Our investors have been an integral part of our early stage success … adding value in all kinds of ways — from brand positioning to overall strategy.” Next steps Behrens and Marelli view Cambridge Crops’ technology as a true platform, reaching far beyond just that initial strawberry. Not only can the technology extend the shelf life of whole produce, but it also sees a dramatic effect on cut produce, meats, fish, and processed foods. Cambridge Crops is leveraging its breadth of application to address the broader needs of the food industry through strategic partnerships. Cambridge Crops is optimistic about silk’s potential to mitigate many of the challenges facing complex food networks. “We think that our technology is one that can actually enable [the elimination of plastic food packaging],” adds Behrens. In the classroom, Marelli tries to instill a sense of excitement about technology’s role in the future of food and agriculture, such as in his Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering class, Materials in Agriculture, Food Security, and Food Safety. “They see an angle on agriculture and food science that they never thought about,” he explains, “and they see how much it can be a technology-driven sector.” As Cambridge Crops prepares for the commercial launch of its own patented technology, it is poised to tackle some of the most intractable obstacles facing global food networks to reduce waste and make nutritious foods more accessible to all. An edible silk-based coating developed by MIT Assistant Professor Benedetto Marelli can preserve food longer and prevent food waste. Marelli has teamed up with other Boston-based scientists to form Cambridge Crops, a spinout company using silk technologies to extend the shelf life of all sorts of perishable foods. Photos courtesy of Cambridge Crops. https://news.mit.edu/2020/towable-sensor-vertical-ocean-conditions-0520 Instrument may help scientists assess the ocean’s response to climate change. Wed, 20 May 2020 11:26:59 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/towable-sensor-vertical-ocean-conditions-0520 Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office The motion of the ocean is often thought of in horizontal terms, for instance in the powerful currents that sweep around the planet, or the waves that ride in and out along a coastline. But there is also plenty of vertical motion, particularly in the open seas, where water from the deep can rise up, bringing nutrients to the upper ocean, while surface waters sink, sending dead organisms, along with oxygen and carbon, to the deep interior.Oceanographers use instruments to characterize the vertical mixing of the ocean’s waters and the biological communities that live there. But these tools are limited in their ability to capture small-scale features, such as the up- and down-welling of water and organisms over a small, kilometer-wide ocean region. Such features are essential for understanding the makeup of marine life that exists in a given volume of the ocean (such as in a fishery), as well as the amount of carbon that the ocean can absorb and sequester away.Now researchers at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have engineered a lightweight instrument that measures both physical and biological features of the vertical ocean over small, kilometer-wide patches. The “ocean profiler,” named EcoCTD, is about the size of a waist-high model rocket and can be dropped off the back of a moving ship. As it free-falls through the water, its sensors measure physical features, such as temperature and salinity, as well as biological properties, such as the optical scattering of chlorophyll, the green pigment of phytoplankton.“With EcoCTD, we can see small-scale areas of fast vertical motion, where nutrients could be supplied to the surface, and where chlorophyll is carried downward, which tells you this could also be a carbon pathway. That’s something you would otherwise miss with existing technology,” says Mara Freilich, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Sciences and Engineering.Freilich and her colleagues have published their results today in the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology. The paper’s co-authors are J. Thomas Farrar, Benjamin Hodges, Tom Lanagan, and Amala Mahadevan of WHOI, and Andrew Baron of Dynamic System Analysis, in Nova Scotia. The lead author is Mathieu Dever of WHOI and RBR, a developer of ocean sensors based in Ottawa.Ocean synergyOceanographers use a number of methods to measure the physical properties of the ocean. Some of the more powerful, high-resolution instruments used are known as CTDs, for their ability to measure the ocean’s conductivity, temperature, and depth. CTDs are typically bulky, as they contain multiple sensors as well as components that collect water and biological samples. Conventional CTDs require a ship to stop as scientists lower the instrument into the water, sometimes via a crane system. The ship has to stay put as the instrument collects measurements and water samples, and can only get back underway after the instrument is hauled back onboard.Physical oceanographers who do not study ocean biology, and therefore do not need to collect water samples, can sometimes use “UCTDs” — underway versions of CTDs, without the bulky water sampling components, that can be towed as a ship is underway. These instruments can sample quickly since they do not require a crane or a ship to stop as they are dropped.Freilich and her team looked to design a version of a UCTD that could also incorporate biological sensors, all in a small, lightweight, towable package, that would also keep the ship moving on course as it gathered its vertical measurements.“It seemed there could be straightforward synergy between these existing instruments, to design an instrument that captures physical and biological information, and could do this underway as well,” Freilich says.“Reaching the dark ocean”The core of the EcoCTD is the RBR Concerto Logger, a sensor that measures the temperature of the water, as well as the conductivity, which is a proxy for the ocean’s salinity. The profiler also includes a lead collar that provides enough weight to enable the instrument to free-fall through the water at about 3 meters per second — a rate that takes the instrument down to about 500 meters below the surface in about two minutes.“At 500 meters, we’re reaching the upper twilight zone,” Freilich says. “The euphotic zone is where there’s enough light in the ocean for photosynthesis, and that’s at about 100 to 200 meters in most places. So we’re reaching the dark ocean.”Another sensor, the EcoPuck, is unique to other UCTDs in that it measures the ocean’s biological properties. Specifically, it is a small, puck-shaped bio-optical sensor that emits two wavelengths of light — red and blue. The sensor captures any change in these lights as they scatter back and as chlorophyll-containing phytoplankton fluoresce in response to the light. If the red light received resembles a certain wavelength characteristic of chlorophyll, scientists can deduce the presence of phytoplankton at a given depth. Variations in red and blue light scattered back to the sensor can indicate other matter in the water, such as sediments or dead cells — a measure of the amount of carbon at various depths.The EcoCTD includes another sensor unique to UCTDs — the Rinko III Do, which measures the oxygen concentration in water, which can give scientists an estimate of how much oxygen is being taken up by any microbial communities living at a given depth and parcel of water.Finally, the entire instrument is encased in a tube of aluminum and designed to attach via a long line to a winch at the back of a ship. As the ship is moving, a team can drop the instrument overboard and use the winch to pay the line out at a rate that the instrument drops straight down, even as the ship moves away. After about two minutes, once it has reached a depth of about 500 meters, the team cranks the winch to pull the instrument back up, at a rate that the  instrument catches up to the ship within 12 minutes. The crew can then drop the instrument again, this time at some distance from their last dropoff point.“The nice thing is, by the time we go to the next cast, we’re 500 meters away from where we were the first time, so we’re exactly where we want to sample next,” Freilich says.They tested the EcoCTD on two cruises in 2018 and 2019, one to the Mediterranean and the other in the Atlantic, and in both cases were able to collect both physical and biological data at a higher resolution than existing CTDs.“The ecoCTD is capturing these ocean characteristics at a gold-standard quality with much more convenience and versatility,” Freilich says.The team will further refine their design, and hopes that their high-resolution, easily-deployable, and more efficient alternative may be adapted by both scientists to monitor the ocean’s small-scale responses to climate change, as well as fisheries that want to keep track of a certain region’s biological productivity.  This research was funded in part by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Scientists prepare to deploy an underway CTD from the back deck of a research vessel. Image: Amala Mahadevan https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-student-leaders-persevere-going-virtual-global-student-startup-competitions-0515 In the face of Covid-19, the MIT Water Club and the MIT Food and Agriculture Club take their signature innovation prizes online. Fri, 15 May 2020 10:00:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-student-leaders-persevere-going-virtual-global-student-startup-competitions-0515 Oona Gaffney | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab On April 22, the MIT Water Club hosted its annual Water Innovation Prize Pitch Night, the culminating event of a year-long international competition for student innovators seeking to launch water sector companies. This event, now in its sixth year, normally gathers over 250 people to MIT’s campus to cheer on finalist teams from around the world as they compete for cash awards. Yet, six weeks before the event, when the Water Club would usually be finalizing logistics and collecting RSVPs, Covid-19 upended our world. At the same time that the Water Club’s student leaders were gearing up for their event, the MIT Food and Agriculture Club was in its own final stages of planning its annual pitch competition, the Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize. Now in its fifth year, this event is a national innovation competition for student startups spanning all aspects of the food system. For both clubs, these events are the largest and highest-profile of the year and provide important networking and professional development opportunities for finalist teams and attendees. Bringing signature MIT resilience and ingenuity, student leaders from both clubs persevered through physical distancing measures, successfully pivoting both events to virtual space. From shared disappointment to supportive action At the outset, both clubs’ leaders were very disappointed. Zhenya Karelina, a second-year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management who is also the Food and Agriculture Club’s co-president and director of the Rabobank-MIT Prize, had been so excited to lead the Rabobank-MIT Prize. She “had this vision of what it would look like at the end,” but under the circumstances she “felt like [she] had to let it all go.” But cancelation simply wasn’t an option. As Erika Desmond, a first-year MBA student at MIT Sloan and vice president of growth for the MIT Water Club, puts it, “the first priority is making sure that the finalists still get the opportunity of getting their innovations out there and to compete for the prizes.” Zhenya’s initial disappointment quickly led to her realization that other MIT startup competition leaders must be feeling the same way. So, she started a Slack channel to connect with other student leadership teams who were dealing with similar losses and to collectively brainstorm what it could look like to take things virtual. “A lot of these MIT prizes are very similar, but we tend to run them in silos. This seemed, to me, to be a cool opportunity to learn from each other,” Zhenya reflects. The Slack group included leaders from the Clean Energy Prize, the 100K Prize, the Water Innovation Prize, and the Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize. “We were all in the same boat,” recalls Javier Renna, a sophomore MBA student at MIT Sloan who is one of the co-directors for the Water Innovation Prize. “I was amazed by the sense of community in saying, ‘We’re all trying to do the same thing’ and ‘What can we do to help each other out?’” New challenges and silver linings For any organization to pivot one of its biggest in-person events of the year online is no easy task. Inevitably, both the Food and Agriculture Club and the Water Club faced technical, strategic, and personal hurdles while organizing their online events. Both clubs loosely maintained the traditional format of each pitch event: keynotes, pitches by student teams, and Q&A with judges, immediately followed by deliberation and award announcements. One aspect that they struggled to replace, however, was in-person networking. When students and entrepreneurs from around the country gather for these events, networking is “one of the main value propositions,” says Desmond. As a replacement, the Water Club tried smaller virtual breakout sessions through Zoom, to mixed effect. Another huge challenge was to hurdle the technology gaps. “I was the host of the webinar and I remember that it was very scary at first,” recalls Renna. “I had no idea how to run a webinar and I thought ‘how am I going to manage all the different stakeholders with people watching?’ It felt like a recipe for a disaster.” But after tapping a friend experienced in webinars, he managed to learn the ropes. “Once she started to explain it, I started to feel more comfortable.” Renna says. Ultimately, he was able to share his newfound knowledge with leaders of the Food and Agriculture Club, helping them to open up their webinar to the public. Overcoming initial roadblocks led to a shift in thinking for both teams. “The biggest thing for us was pivoting from looking at [going virtual] as a disadvantage … to how we could use it to our advantage,” Desmond recalls. For Karelina, shifting her mindset was key. “By the end … I could see how the virtual environment actually enables all these really cool opportunities that I hadn’t even thought about.” In fact, going online ended up revealing some key advantages. Among them was how the virtual events enabled the participation of a more diverse audience base, one that wouldn’t have been possible under normal circumstances. “Someone from Japan contacted me asking how they could watch the event,” Renna says. “We had people logging onto the Water Innovation Prize from Africa, the UK, the East Coast, the West Coast, Mexico, and more!” Significant startup support for five winning teams continues Despite all the changes, the energy and creativity of the diverse group of participating student entrepreneurs was palpable as they competed for cash awards. The two clubs together awarded $75,000 across five winning teams. In fact, the Water Club was able to increase the total prize amounts for its competitors by diverting money saved from other event cancelations. So, the increased award of $25,000 came as a pleasant surprise for Blue Tap, the team winning first place in the Water Innovation Prize. This team, based out of the University of Cambridge, uses 3D printing technologies to bring affordable clean water to the developing world. They have focused development efforts of their main product, a simple and cost-effective chlorine injector, in Uganda. Their work there has also involved community development as they have partnered with over 30 plumbers to train them in water treatment practices and entrepreneurship. Runners up in the Water Innovation Prize included second-place winner Floe. The team, from Yale University, was awarded $12,500 to further the development of their system that prevents ice buildup on roofs. Ice buildup affects nearly 62 million buildings across the United States every year and can lead to serious structural damage. An MIT team, Harmony Water, took home a third-place prize of $7,500, to support their continued research and development of a low-cost water desalination system that can produce more water and less brine using 30 percent less energy than present methods. Eight teams competed for the MIT-Rabobank Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize, which awarded two top prizes totaling $30,000. MotorCortex, a student team out of Carnegie Mellon, won the first-place prize of $20,000 with advanced robotics technology that could change the future of the fruit packing industry. The group has developed an algorithm to guide robotic arms in food packing plants that optimizes “pick-up-points” on delicate fruits like avocados and apples. Varying shapes and sizes of individual fruits have historically made automation of the industry a particularly difficult challenge — until now. Their invention could potentially cut fruit packing costs in half as their robotic arms would replace human laborers — in low-wage, high-turnover positions — and increase packing efficiency. In second place, winning $10,000, was Antithesis Foods, a team from Cornell University using high-protein chickpeas and a novel processing technology to produce healthier chocolate snacks. Their garbanzo bean-based product, Grabanzos, was all set for rollout previous to Covid-19. However, the sudden shuttering of production facilities, storefronts, and campuses, has greatly hindered their progress. The startup will now use their prize to pivot their original business plan to an online sales platform. Innovation prize sponsors inspired by student resilience The main sponsor of the food prize is Rabobank, a global financial services leader in the food, agribusiness, and beverage industries. Rabobank executives working with members of the Food and Agriculture Club were impressed by the students’ resilience and drive. Throughout the past months Jennifer Jiang worked closely with the club. As vice president of strategy and business development at Rabobank, she reflects that she has been “inspired by the creativity and novel thinking of the team to run an event that gave viewers and participants alike an energy that so closely resembled that of an in-person event.”  MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) serves as a mentor to both teams in the production of these innovation prizes, and is also a co-sponsor. Working day-to-day with the students, J-WAFS saw this resilience firsthand. Each year the prizes grow in participation and success, and despite the unprecedented challenges of physical distancing and other measures over the last few months, the students produced thoughtful, engaging events. “We were again delighted by the dedication, creativity, and achievements that students from MIT and across the country bring to challenges in the food and agriculture sectors,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard V. The students’ perseverance in the face of adversity demonstrated their commitment to see these impactful competitions through to their end, as well as to advancing solutions to global water and food challenges. As we move forward through these challenging times, we can look to the collaborative spirit, commitment, and drive of these young water and food leaders as inspiration. Francesca O’Hanlon of Blue Tap delivered a pitch at the Water Innovation Prize on April 22. Her team won first place with a novel water chlorinating system that makes clean water affordable and accessible for users without existing access to healthy water supplies. Photo: Andi Sutton/J-WAFS https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-student-leaders-persevere-going-virtual-global-student-startup-competitions-0515 In the face of Covid-19, the MIT Water Club and the MIT Food and Agriculture Club take their signature innovation prizes online. Fri, 15 May 2020 10:00:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-student-leaders-persevere-going-virtual-global-student-startup-competitions-0515 Oona Gaffney | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab On April 22, the MIT Water Club hosted its annual Water Innovation Prize Pitch Night, the culminating event of a year-long international competition for student innovators seeking to launch water sector companies. This event, now in its sixth year, normally gathers over 250 people to MIT’s campus to cheer on finalist teams from around the world as they compete for cash awards. Yet, six weeks before the event, when the Water Club would usually be finalizing logistics and collecting RSVPs, Covid-19 upended our world. At the same time that the Water Club’s student leaders were gearing up for their event, the MIT Food and Agriculture Club was in its own final stages of planning its annual pitch competition, the Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize. Now in its fifth year, this event is a national innovation competition for student startups spanning all aspects of the food system. For both clubs, these events are the largest and highest-profile of the year and provide important networking and professional development opportunities for finalist teams and attendees. Bringing signature MIT resilience and ingenuity, student leaders from both clubs persevered through physical distancing measures, successfully pivoting both events to virtual space. From shared disappointment to supportive action At the outset, both clubs’ leaders were very disappointed. Zhenya Karelina, a second-year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management who is also the Food and Agriculture Club’s co-president and director of the Rabobank-MIT Prize, had been so excited to lead the Rabobank-MIT Prize. She “had this vision of what it would look like at the end,” but under the circumstances she “felt like [she] had to let it all go.” But cancelation simply wasn’t an option. As Erika Desmond, a first-year MBA student at MIT Sloan and vice president of growth for the MIT Water Club, puts it, “the first priority is making sure that the finalists still get the opportunity of getting their innovations out there and to compete for the prizes.” Zhenya’s initial disappointment quickly led to her realization that other MIT startup competition leaders must be feeling the same way. So, she started a Slack channel to connect with other student leadership teams who were dealing with similar losses and to collectively brainstorm what it could look like to take things virtual. “A lot of these MIT prizes are very similar, but we tend to run them in silos. This seemed, to me, to be a cool opportunity to learn from each other,” Zhenya reflects. The Slack group included leaders from the Clean Energy Prize, the 100K Prize, the Water Innovation Prize, and the Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize. “We were all in the same boat,” recalls Javier Renna, a sophomore MBA student at MIT Sloan who is one of the co-directors for the Water Innovation Prize. “I was amazed by the sense of community in saying, ‘We’re all trying to do the same thing’ and ‘What can we do to help each other out?’” New challenges and silver linings For any organization to pivot one of its biggest in-person events of the year online is no easy task. Inevitably, both the Food and Agriculture Club and the Water Club faced technical, strategic, and personal hurdles while organizing their online events. Both clubs loosely maintained the traditional format of each pitch event: keynotes, pitches by student teams, and Q&A with judges, immediately followed by deliberation and award announcements. One aspect that they struggled to replace, however, was in-person networking. When students and entrepreneurs from around the country gather for these events, networking is “one of the main value propositions,” says Desmond. As a replacement, the Water Club tried smaller virtual breakout sessions through Zoom, to mixed effect. Another huge challenge was to hurdle the technology gaps. “I was the host of the webinar and I remember that it was very scary at first,” recalls Renna. “I had no idea how to run a webinar and I thought ‘how am I going to manage all the different stakeholders with people watching?’ It felt like a recipe for a disaster.” But after tapping a friend experienced in webinars, he managed to learn the ropes. “Once she started to explain it, I started to feel more comfortable.” Renna says. Ultimately, he was able to share his newfound knowledge with leaders of the Food and Agriculture Club, helping them to open up their webinar to the public. Overcoming initial roadblocks led to a shift in thinking for both teams. “The biggest thing for us was pivoting from looking at [going virtual] as a disadvantage … to how we could use it to our advantage,” Desmond recalls. For Karelina, shifting her mindset was key. “By the end … I could see how the virtual environment actually enables all these really cool opportunities that I hadn’t even thought about.” In fact, going online ended up revealing some key advantages. Among them was how the virtual events enabled the participation of a more diverse audience base, one that wouldn’t have been possible under normal circumstances. “Someone from Japan contacted me asking how they could watch the event,” Renna says. “We had people logging onto the Water Innovation Prize from Africa, the UK, the East Coast, the West Coast, Mexico, and more!” Significant startup support for five winning teams continues Despite all the changes, the energy and creativity of the diverse group of participating student entrepreneurs was palpable as they competed for cash awards. The two clubs together awarded $75,000 across five winning teams. In fact, the Water Club was able to increase the total prize amounts for its competitors by diverting money saved from other event cancelations. So, the increased award of $25,000 came as a pleasant surprise for Blue Tap, the team winning first place in the Water Innovation Prize. This team, based out of the University of Cambridge, uses 3D printing technologies to bring affordable clean water to the developing world. They have focused development efforts of their main product, a simple and cost-effective chlorine injector, in Uganda. Their work there has also involved community development as they have partnered with over 30 plumbers to train them in water treatment practices and entrepreneurship. Runners up in the Water Innovation Prize included second-place winner Floe. The team, from Yale University, was awarded $12,500 to further the development of their system that prevents ice buildup on roofs. Ice buildup affects nearly 62 million buildings across the United States every year and can lead to serious structural damage. An MIT team, Harmony Water, took home a third-place prize of $7,500, to support their continued research and development of a low-cost water desalination system that can produce more water and less brine using 30 percent less energy than present methods. Eight teams competed for the MIT-Rabobank Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize, which awarded two top prizes totaling $30,000. MotorCortex, a student team out of Carnegie Mellon, won the first-place prize of $20,000 with advanced robotics technology that could change the future of the fruit packing industry. The group has developed an algorithm to guide robotic arms in food packing plants that optimizes “pick-up-points” on delicate fruits like avocados and apples. Varying shapes and sizes of individual fruits have historically made automation of the industry a particularly difficult challenge — until now. Their invention could potentially cut fruit packing costs in half as their robotic arms would replace human laborers — in low-wage, high-turnover positions — and increase packing efficiency. In second place, winning $10,000, was Antithesis Foods, a team from Cornell University using high-protein chickpeas and a novel processing technology to produce healthier chocolate snacks. Their garbanzo bean-based product, Grabanzos, was all set for rollout previous to Covid-19. However, the sudden shuttering of production facilities, storefronts, and campuses, has greatly hindered their progress. The startup will now use their prize to pivot their original business plan to an online sales platform. Innovation prize sponsors inspired by student resilience The main sponsor of the food prize is Rabobank, a global financial services leader in the food, agribusiness, and beverage industries. Rabobank executives working with members of the Food and Agriculture Club were impressed by the students’ resilience and drive. Throughout the past months Jennifer Jiang worked closely with the club. As vice president of strategy and business development at Rabobank, she reflects that she has been “inspired by the creativity and novel thinking of the team to run an event that gave viewers and participants alike an energy that so closely resembled that of an in-person event.”  MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) serves as a mentor to both teams in the production of these innovation prizes, and is also a co-sponsor. Working day-to-day with the students, J-WAFS saw this resilience firsthand. Each year the prizes grow in participation and success, and despite the unprecedented challenges of physical distancing and other measures over the last few months, the students produced thoughtful, engaging events. “We were again delighted by the dedication, creativity, and achievements that students from MIT and across the country bring to challenges in the food and agriculture sectors,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard V. The students’ perseverance in the face of adversity demonstrated their commitment to see these impactful competitions through to their end, as well as to advancing solutions to global water and food challenges. As we move forward through these challenging times, we can look to the collaborative spirit, commitment, and drive of these young water and food leaders as inspiration. Francesca O’Hanlon of Blue Tap delivered a pitch at the Water Innovation Prize on April 22. Her team won first place with a novel water chlorinating system that makes clean water affordable and accessible for users without existing access to healthy water supplies. Photo: Andi Sutton/J-WAFS https://news.mit.edu/2020/plant-precision-injection-orange-olive-banana-0427 Microneedles made of silk-based material can target plant tissues for delivery of micronutrients, hormones, or genes. Sun, 26 Apr 2020 23:59:59 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/plant-precision-injection-orange-olive-banana-0427 David L. Chandler | MIT News Office While the human world is reeling from one pandemic, there are several ongoing epidemics that affect crops and put global food production at risk. Oranges, olives, and bananas are already under threat in many areas due to diseases that affect plants’ circulatory systems and that cannot be treated by applying pesticides.A new method developed by engineers at MIT may offer a starting point for delivering life-saving treatments to plants ravaged by such diseases.These diseases are difficult to detect early and to treat, given the lack of precision tools to access plant vasculature to treat pathogens and to sample biomarkers. The MIT team decided to take some of the principles involved in precision medicine for humans and adapt them to develop plant-specific biomaterials and drug-delivery devices.The method uses an array of microneedles made of a silk-based biomaterial to deliver nutrients, drugs, or other molecules to specific parts of the plant. The findings are described in the journal Advanced Science, in a paper by MIT professors Benedetto Marelli and Jing-Ke-Weng, graduate student Yunteng Cao, postdoc Eugene Lim at MIT, and postdoc Menglong Xu at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.The microneedles, which the researchers call phytoinjectors, can be made in a variety of sizes and shapes, and can deliver material specifically to a plant’s roots, stems, or leaves, or into its xylem (the vascular tissue involved in water transportation from roots to canopy) or phloem (the vascular tissue that circulates metabolites throughout the plant). In lab tests, the team used tomato and tobacco plants, but the system could be adapted to almost any crop, they say. The microneedles can not only deliver targeted payloads of molecules into the plant, but they can also be used to take samples from the plants for lab analysis.The work started in response to a request from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for ideas on how to address the citrus greening crisis, which is threatening the collapse of a $9 billion industry, Marelli says. The disease is spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid that carries a bacterium into the plant. There is as yet no cure for it, and millions of acres of U.S. orchards have already been devastated. In response, Marelli’s lab swung into gear to develop the novel microneedle technology, led by Cao as his thesis project.The disease infects the phloem of the whole plant, including roots, which are very difficult to reach with any conventional treatment, Marelli explains. Most pesticides are simply sprayed or painted onto a plant’s leaves or stems, and little if any penetrates to the root system. Such treatments may appear to work for a short while, but then the bacteria bounce back and do their damage. What is needed is something that can target the phloem circulating through a plant’s tissues, which could carry an antibacterial compound down into the roots. That’s just what some version of the new microneedles could potentially accomplish, he says.“We wanted to solve the technical problem of how you can have a precise access to the plant vasculature,” Cao adds. This would allow researchers to inject pesticides, for example, that would be transported between the root system and the leaves. Present approaches use “needles that are very large and very invasive, and that results in damaging the plant,” he says. To find a substitute, they built on previous work that had produced microneedles using silk-based material for injecting human vaccines.“We found that adaptations of a material designed for drug delivery in humans to plants was not straightforward, due to differences not only in tissue vasculature, but also in fluid composition,” Lim says. The microneedles designed for human use were intended to biodegrade naturally in the body’s moisture, but plants have far less available water, so the material didn’t dissolve and was not useful for delivering the pesticide or other macromolecules into the phloem. The researchers had to design a new material, but they decided to stick with silk as its basis. That’s because of silk’s strength, its inertness in plants (preventing undesirable side effects), and the fact that it degrades into tiny particles that don’t risk clogging the plant’s internal vasculature systems.They used biotechnology tools to increase silk’s hydrophilicity (making it attract water), while keeping the material strong enough to penetrate the plant’s epidermis and degradable enough to then get out of the way.Sure enough, they tested the material on their lab tomato and tobacco plants, and were able to observe injected materials, in this case fluorescent molecules, moving all they way through the plant, from roots to leaves.“We think this is a new tool that can be used by plant biologists and bioengineers to better understand transport phenomena in plants,” Cao says. In addition, it can be used “to deliver payloads into plants, and this can solve several problems. For example, you can think about delivering micronutrients, or you can think about delivering genes, to change the gene expression of the plant or to basically engineer a plant.”“Now, the interests of the lab for the phytoinjectors have expanded beyond antibiotic delivery to genetic engineering and point-of-care diagnostics,” Lim adds.For example, in their experiments with tobacco plants, they were able to inject an organism called Agrobacterium to alter the plant’s DNA – a typical bioengineering tool, but delivered in a new and precise way.So far, this is a lab technique using precision equipment, so in its present form it would not be useful for agricultural-scale applications, but the hope is that it can be used, for example, to bioengineer disease-resistant varieties of important crop plants. The team has also done tests using a modified toy dart gun mounted to a small drone, which was able to fire microneedles into plants in the field. Ultimately, such a process might be automated using autonomous vehicles, Marelli says, for agricultural-scale use.Meanwhile, the team continues to work on adapting the system to the varied needs and conditions of different kinds of plants and their tissues. “There’s a lot of variation among them, really,” Marelli says, so you need to think about having devices that are plant-specific. For the future, our research interests will go beyond antibiotic delivery to genetic engineering and point-of-care diagnostics based on metabolite sampling.”The work was supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the Keck Foundation. A microinjection device (red) is attached to a citrus tree, providing a way of injecting pesticide or other materials directly into the plant’s circulatory system. Images: Courtesy of the researchers https://news.mit.edu/2020/staring-into-ocean-atmospheric-vortex-0319 MIT researchers describe factors governing how oceans and atmospheres move heat around on Earth and other planetary bodies. Thu, 19 Mar 2020 14:00:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/staring-into-ocean-atmospheric-vortex-0319 EAPS Imagine a massive mug of cold, dense cream with hot coffee poured on top. Now place it on a rotating table. Over time, the fluids will slowly mix into each other, and heat from the coffee will eventually reach the bottom of the mug. But as most of us impatient coffee drinkers know, stirring the layers together is a more efficient way to distribute the heat and enjoy a beverage that’s not scalding hot or ice cold. The key is the swirls, or vortices, that formed in the turbulent liquid. “If you just waited to see whether molecular diffusion did it, it would take forever and you’ll never get your coffee and milk together,” says Raffaele Ferrari, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). This analogy helps explain a new theory on the intricacies the climate system on Earth — and other rotating planets with atmospheres and/or oceans — outlined in a recent PNAS paper by Ferrari and Basile Gallet, an EAPS visiting researcher from Service de Physique de l’Etat Condensé, CEA Saclay, France. It may seem intuitive that Earth’s sun-baked equator is hot while the relatively sun-deprived poles are cold, with a gradient of temperatures in between. However, the actual span of that temperature gradient is relatively small compared to what it might otherwise be because of the way the Earth system physically transports heat around the globe to cooler regions, moderating the extremes. Otherwise, “you would have unbearably hot temperatures at the equator and [the temperate latitudes] would be frozen,” says Ferrari. “So, the fact that the planet is habitable, as we know it, has to do with heat transport from the equator to the poles.” Yet, despite the importance of global heat flux for maintaining the contemporary climate of Earth, the mechanisms that drive the process are not completely understood. That’s where Ferrari and Gallet’s recent work comes in: their research lays out a mathematical description of the physics underpinning the role that marine and atmospheric vortices play in redistributing that heat in the global system. Ferrari and Gallet’s work builds on that of another MIT professor, the late meteorologist Norman Phillips, who, in 1956, proposed a set of equations, the “Phillips model,” to describe global heat transport. Phillips’ model represents the atmopshere and ocean as two layers of different density on top of each other. While these equations capture the development of turbulence and predict the distribution of temperature on Earth with relative accuracy, they are still very complex and need to be solved with computers. The new theory from Ferrari and Gallet provides analytical solutions to the equations and quantitatively predicts local heat flux, energy powering the eddies, and large-scale flow characteristics. And their theoretical framework is scalable, meaning it works for eddies, which are smaller and denser in the ocean, as well as cyclones in the atmosphere that are larger. Setting the process in motion The physics behind vortices in your coffee cup differ from those in nature. Fluid media like the atmosphere and ocean are characterized by variations in temperature and density. On a rotating planet, these variations accelerate strong currents, while friction — on the bottom of the ocean and atmosphere — slows them down. This tug of war results in instabilities of the flow of large-scale currents and produces irregular turbulent flows that we experience as ever-changing weather in the atmosphere. Vortices — closed circular flows of air or water — are born of this instability. In the atmosphere, they’re called cyclones and anticyclones (the weather patterns); in the ocean they’re called eddies. In both cases, they are transient, ordered formations, emerging somewhat erratically and dissipating over time. As they spin out of the underlying turbulence, they, too, are hindered by friction, causing their eventual dissipation, which completes the transfer of heat from the equator (the top of the hot coffee) to the poles (the bottom of the cream). Zooming out to the bigger picture While the Earth system is much more complex than two layers, analyzing heat transport in Phillips’ simplified model helps scientists resolve the fundamental physics at play. Ferrari and Gallet found that the heat transport due to vortices, though directionally chaotic, ends up moving heat to the poles faster than a more smooth-flowing system would. According to Ferrari, “vortices do the dog work of moving heat, not disorganized motion (turbulence).” It would be impossible to mathematically account for every single eddy feature that forms and disappears, so the researchers developed simplified calculations to determine the overall effects of vortex behavior, based on latitude (temperature gradient) and friction parameters. Additionally, they considered each vortex as a single particle in a gas fluid. When they incorporated their calculations into the existing models, the resulting simulations predicted Earth’s actual temperature regimes fairly accurately, and revealed that both the formation and function of vortices in the climate system are much more sensitive to frictional drag than anticipated. Ferrari emphasizes that all modeling endeavors require simplifications and aren’t perfect representations of natural systems — as in this instance, with the atmosphere and oceans represented as simple two-layer systems, and the sphericity of the Earth is not accounted for. Even with these drawbacks, Gallet and Ferrari’s theory has gotten the attention of other oceanographers. “Since 1956, meteorologists and oceanographers have tried, and failed, to understand this Phillips model,” says Bill Young, professor of physical oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, “The paper by Gallet and Ferrari is the first successful deductive prediction of how the heat flux in the Phillips model varies with temperature gradient.” Ferrari says that answering fundamental questions of how heat transport functions will allow scientists to more generally understand the Earth’s climate system. For instance, in Earth’s deep past, there were times when our planet was much warmer, when crocodiles swam in the arctic and palm trees stretched up into Canada, and also times when it was much colder and the mid-latitudes were covered in ice. “Clearly heat transfer can change across different climates, so you’d like to be able to predict it,” he says. “It’s been a theoretical question on the minds of people for a long time.” As the average global temperature has increased more than 1 degree Celsius in the past 100 years, and is on pace to far exceed that in the next century, the need to understand — and predict — Earth’s climate system has become crucial as communities, governments, and industry adapt to the current changing environment. “I find it extremely rewarding to apply the fundamentals of turbulent flows to such a timely issue,” says Gallet, “In the long run, this physics-based approach will be key to reducing the uncertainty in climate modelling.” Following in the footsteps of meteorology giants like Norman Phillips, Jule Charney, and Peter Stone, who developed seminal climate theories at MIT, this work too adheres to an admonition from Albert Einstein: “Out of clutter, find simplicity.” This visualization shows the Gulf Stream’s sea surface currents and and temperatures. Image: MIT/JPL project entitled Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean, Phase II (ECCO2) https://news.mit.edu/2020/ethylene-sensor-food-waste-0318 Monitoring the plant hormone ethylene could reveal when fruits and vegetables are about to spoil. Wed, 18 Mar 2020 08:00:00 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/ethylene-sensor-food-waste-0318 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office As flowers bloom and fruits ripen, they emit a colorless, sweet-smelling gas called ethylene. MIT chemists have now created a tiny sensor that can detect this gas in concentrations as low as 15 parts per billion, which they believe could be useful in preventing food spoilage.The sensor, which is made from semiconducting cylinders called carbon nanotubes, could be used to monitor fruit and vegetables as they are shipped and stored, helping to reduce food waste, says Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT.“There is a persistent need for better food management and reduction of food waste,” says Swager. “People who transport fruit around would like to know how it’s doing during transit, and whether they need to take measures to keep ethylene down while they’re transporting it.”In addition to its natural role as a plant hormone, ethylene is also the world’s most widely manufactured organic compound and is used to manufacture products such as plastics and clothing. A detector for ethylene could also be useful for monitoring this kind of industrial ethylene manufacturing, the researchers say.Swager is the senior author of the study, which appears today in the journal ACS Central. MIT postdoc Darryl Fong is the lead author of the paper, and MIT graduate student Shao-Xiong (Lennon) Luo and visiting scholar Rafaela Da Silveira Andre are also authors.Ripe or notEthylene is produced by most plants, which use it as a hormone to stimulate growth, ripening, and other key stages of their life cycle. Bananas, for instance, produce increasing amounts of ethylene as they ripen and turn brown, and flowers produce it as they get ready to bloom. Produce and flowers under stress can overproduce ethylene, leading them to ripen or wilt prematurely. It is estimated that every year U.S. supermarkets lose about 12 percent of their fruits and vegetables to spoilage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2012, Swager’s lab developed an ethylene sensor containing arrays of tens of thousands of carbon nanotubes. These carbon cylinders allow electrons to flow along them, but the researchers added copper atoms that slow down the electron flow. When ethylene is present, it binds to the copper atoms and slows down electrons even more. Measuring this slowdown can reveal how much ethylene is present. However, this sensor can only detect ethylene levels down to 500 parts per billion, and because the sensors contain copper, they are likely to eventually become corroded by oxygen and stop working.“There still is not a good commercial sensor for ethylene,” Swager says. “To manage any kind of produce that’s stored long-term, like apples or potatoes, people would like to be able to measure its ethylene to determine if it’s in a stasis mode or if it’s ripening.”Swager and Fong created a new kind of ethylene sensor that is also based on carbon nanotubes but works by an entirely different mechanism, known as Wacker oxidation. Instead of incorporating a metal such as copper that binds directly to ethylene, they used a metal catalyst called palladium that adds oxygen to ethylene during a process called oxidation.As the palladium catalyst performs this oxidation, the catalyst temporarily gains electrons. Palladium then passes these extra electrons to carbon nanotubes, making them more conductive. By measuring the resulting change in current flow, the researchers can detect the presence of ethylene.The sensor responds to ethylene within a few seconds of exposure, and once the gas is gone, the sensor returns to its baseline conductivity within a few minutes.“You’re toggling between two different states of the metal, and once ethylene is no longer there, it goes from that transient, electron-rich state back to its original state,” Fong says.“The repurposing of the Wacker oxidation catalytic system for ethylene detection was an exceptionally clever and fundamentally interdisciplinary idea,” says Zachary Wickens, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, who was not involved in the study. “The research team drew upon recent modifications to the Wacker oxidation to provide a robust catalytic system and incorporated it into a carbon nanotube-based device to provide a remarkably selective and simple ethylene sensor.”In bloomTo test the sensor’s capabilities, the researchers deposited the carbon nanotubes and other sensor components onto a glass slide. They then used it to monitor ethylene production in two types of flowers — carnations and purple lisianthus. They measured ethylene production over five days, allowing them to track the relationship between ethylene levels and the plants’ flowering.In their studies of carnations, the researchers found that there was a rapid spike in ethylene concentration on the first day of the experiment, and the flowers bloomed shortly after that, all within a day or two.Purple lisianthus flowers showed a more gradual increase in ethylene that started during the first day and lasted until the fourth day, when it started to decline. Correspondingly, the flowers’ blooming was spread out over several days, and some still hadn’t bloomed by the end of the experiment.The researchers also studied whether the plant food packets that came with the flowers had any effect on ethylene production. They found that plants given the food showed slight delays in ethylene production and blooming, but the effect was not significant (only a few hours).The MIT team has filed for a patent on the new sensor. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center Environmental Quality Technology Program, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Sao Paulo Research Foundation. To test the new sensor’s capabilities, the researchers deposited the carbon nanotubes and other sensor components onto a glass slide. They then used it to monitor ethylene production in two types of flowers — red carnations and purple lisianthus. Image: Stock imagery edited by MIT News https://news.mit.edu/2020/wave-power-coastal-erosion-0316 The average power of waves hitting a coastline can predict how fast that coast will erode. Mon, 16 Mar 2020 00:00:00 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/wave-power-coastal-erosion-0316 Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office Over millions of years, Hawaiian volcanoes have formed a chain of volcanic islands stretching across the Northern Pacific, where ocean waves from every direction, stirred up by distant storms or carried in on tradewinds, have battered and shaped the islands’ coastlines to varying degrees.Now researchers at MIT and elsewhere have found that, in Hawaii, the amount of energy delivered by waves averaged over each year is a good predictor of how fast or slow a rocky coastline will erode. If waves are large and frequent, the coastline will erode faster, whereas smaller, less frequent waves will result in a slower-eroding coast.Their study helps to explain the Hawaiian Islands’ meandering shorelines, where north-facing sea cliffs, experiencing larger waves produced by distant storms and persistent tradewinds, have eroded farther inland. In contrast, south-facing coasts typically enjoy calmer waters, smaller waves, and therefore less eroded coasts.The results, published this month in the journal Geology, can also help scientists forecast how fast other rocky coasts around the world might erode, based on the power of the waves that a coast typically experiences.“Over half of the world’s oceanic coastlines are rocky sea cliffs, so sea-cliff erosion affects a lot of coastal inhabitants and infrastructure,” says Kim Huppert ’11, PhD ’17, lead author of the study and a former graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “If storminess increases with climate change, and waves get bigger, we need to understand specifically how waves affect erosion.”Huppert, who is now a senior research scientist at the German Research Center for Geosciences, has co-authored the paper with Taylor Perron, professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and associate department head at MIT, and Andrew Ashton of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.Sink and carveScientists have had some idea that the rate of coastal erosion depends on the power of the waves that act on that coast. But until now, there’s been no systematic study to confirm this relationship, mainly because there can be so many other factors contributing to coastal erosion that can get in the way.The team found the Hawaiian Islands provide an ideal environment in which to study this relationship: The islands are all made from the same type of bedrock, meaning they wouldn’t have to account for multiple types of rock and sediment and their differences in erosion; and the islands inhabit a large oceanic basin that produces a wide range of wave “climates,” or waves of varying sizes and frequencies.“As you go around the shoreline of different islands, you see very different wave climates, simply by turning a corner of the island,” Huppert notes. “And the rock type is all the same. So Hawaii is a nice natural laboratory.” The researchers focused their study on 11 coastal locations around the islands of Hawaii, Maui, and Kaho‘olawe, each facing different regions of the Pacific that produce varying sizes and frequencies of waves. Before considering the wave power at these various locations, they first worked to estimate the average rate at which the sea cliffs at each coastal location eroded over the last million years. The team sought to identify the erosion rates that produced the coastal profiles of Hawaiian Islands today, given the islands’ original profiles, which can be estimated from each island’s topography. To do this, they first had to account for changes in each island’s vertical motion and sea level change over time. After a volcanic island forms, it inevitably starts to subside, or sink under its own weight. As an island sinks, the level at which the sea interacts with the island changes, just as if you were to lower yourself into a pool: The water’s surface may start at your ankles, and progressively lap at your knees, your waist, and eventually your shoulders and chin. For an island, the more slowly it sinks, the more time the sea has to carve out the coastline at a particular elevation. In contrast, if an island sinks quickly, the sea has only fleeting time to cut into the coast before the island subsides further, exposing a new coastline for the sea to wear away. As a result, the rate at which an island sinks strongly affects how far the coast has retreated inland at any given elevation, over millions of years. To calculate the speed of island sinking, the team used a model to estimate how much the lithosphere, the outermost layer of the Earth on which volcanic islands sit, sagged under the weight of each Hawaiian volcano formed in the past million years. Because the Hawaiian Islands are close together, the sinking of one island can also affect the sinking or rising of neighboring islands, similar to the way one child may bounce up as another child sinks into a trampoline. The team used the model to simulate various possible histories of island sinking over the last million years, and the subsequent erosion of sea cliffs and coastlines. They looked for the scenario that best linked the islands’ original coastlines with today’s modern coastlines, and matched the various resulting erosion rates to the 11 locations that they focused on in their study. “We found erosion rates that vary from 17 millimeters per year to 118 millimeters per year at the different sites,” Huppert says. “The upper end of that range is nearly half a foot per year, so some of those rates are pretty fast for rock.”Waves of a size They chose the 11 coastal locations in the study for their variability: Some sea cliffs face north, where they are battered by stronger waves produced by distant storms. Other north-facing coasts experience tradewinds that come from the northeast and produce waves that are smaller but more frequent. The coastal locations that face southward experience smaller, less-frequent waves in contrast. The team compared erosion rates at each site with the typical wave power experienced at each site, which they calculated from wave height and frequency measurements derived from buoy data. They then compared the 11 locations’ wave power to their long-term rates of erosion. What they found was a rather simple, linear relationship between wave power and the rate of coastal erosion. The stronger the waves that a coast experiences, the faster that coast erodes. Specifically, they found that waves of a size that occur every few days might be a better indicator of how fast a coast is eroding than larger but less frequent storm waves. That is, if  waves on normal, nonstormy days are large, a coast is likely eroding quickly; if the typical waves are smaller, a coast is retreating more slowly. The researchers say carrying out this study in Hawaii allowed them to confirm this simple relationship, without confounding natural factors. As a result, scientists can use this relationship to help predict how rocky coasts in other parts of the world may change, with variations in sea level and wave activity as a result of climate change. “Sea level is rising along much of the world’s coasts, and changes in winds and storminess with ongoing climate change could alter wave regimes, too,” Perron points out. “To be able to isolate the influence of wave climate on the rate of coastal erosion gets you one step closer to going to a particular place and calculating the change in erosion rate there.”This research was supported, in part, by the NEC Corporation, and by NASA. On Maui (shown here) and Hawaii’s other islands, MIT researchers find that the rate of coastal erosion depends on the size of the average wave. https://news.mit.edu/2020/how-plants-protect-sun-damage-0310 Study reveals a mechanism that plants can use to dissipate excess sunlight as heat. Tue, 10 Mar 2020 05:59:59 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2020/how-plants-protect-sun-damage-0310 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office For plants, sunlight can be a double-edged sword. They need it to drive photosynthesis, the process that allows them to store solar energy as sugar molecules, but too much sun can dehydrate and damage their leaves.A primary strategy that plants use to protect themselves from this kind of photodamage is to dissipate the extra light as heat. However, there has been much debate over the past several decades over how plants actually achieve this.“During photosynthesis, light-harvesting complexes play two seemingly contradictory roles. They absorb energy to drive water-splitting and photosynthesis, but at the same time, when there’s too much energy, they have to also be able to get rid of it,” says Gabriela Schlau-Cohen, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemistry at MIT.In a new study, Schlau-Cohen and colleagues at MIT, the University of Pavia, and the University of Verona directly observed, for the first time, one of the possible mechanisms that have been proposed for how plants dissipate energy. The researchers used a highly sensitive type of spectroscopy to determine that excess energy is transferred from chlorophyll, the pigment that gives leaves their green color, to other pigments called carotenoids, which can then release the energy as heat.“This is the first direct observation of chlorophyll-to-carotenoid energy transfer in the light-harvesting complex of green plants,” says Schlau-Cohen, who is the senior author of the study. “That’s the simplest proposal, but no one’s been able to find this photophysical pathway until now.”MIT graduate student Minjung Son is the lead author of the study, which appears today in Nature Communications. Other authors are Samuel Gordon ’18, Alberta Pinnola of the University of Pavia, in Italy, and Roberto Bassi of the University of Verona.Excess energyWhen sunlight strikes a plant, specialized proteins known as light-harvesting complexes absorb light energy in the form of photons, with the help of pigments such as chlorophyll. These photons drive the production of sugar molecules, which store the energy for later use.Much previous research has shown that plants are able to quickly adapt to changes in sunlight intensity. In very sunny conditions, they convert only about 30 percent of the available sunlight into sugar, while the rest is released as heat. If this excess energy is allowed to remain in the plant cells, it creates harmful molecules called free radicals that can damage proteins and other important cellular molecules.“Plants can respond to fast changes in solar intensity by getting rid of extra energy, but what that photophysical pathway is has been debated for decades,” Schlau-Cohen says.The simplest hypothesis for how plants get rid of these extra photons is that once the light-harvesting complex absorbs them, chlorophylls pass them to nearby molecules called carotenoids. Carotenoids, which include lycopene and beta-carotene, are very good at getting rid of excess energy through rapid vibration. They are also skillful scavengers of free radicals, which helps to prevent damage to cells.A similar type of energy transfer has been observed in bacterial proteins that are related to chlorophyll, but until now, it had not been seen in plants. One reason why it has been hard to observe this phenomenon is that it occurs on a very fast time scale (femtoseconds, or quadrillionths of a second). Another obstacle is that the energy transfer spans a broad range of energy levels. Until recently, existing methods for observing this process could only measure a small swath of the spectrum of visible light.In 2017, Schlau-Cohen’s lab developed a modification to a femtosecond spectroscopic technique that allows them to look at a broader range of energy levels, spanning red to blue light. This meant that they could monitor energy transfer between chlorophylls, which absorb red light, and carotenoids, which absorb blue and green light.In this study, the researchers used this technique to show that photons move from an excited state, which is spread over multiple chlorophyll molecules within a light-harvesting complex, to nearby carotenoid molecules within the complex.“By broadening the spectral bandwidth, we could look at the connection between the blue and the red ranges, allowing us to map out the changes in energy level. You can see energy moving from one excited state to another,” Schlau-Cohen says.Once the carotenoids accept the excess energy, they release most of it as heat, preventing light-induced damage to the cells.Boosting crop yieldsThe researchers performed their experiments in two different environments — one in which the proteins were in a detergent solution, and one in which they were embedded in a special type of self-assembling membrane called a nanodisc. They found that the energy transfer occurred more rapidly in the nanodisc, suggesting that environmental conditions affect the rate of energy dissipation.It remains a mystery exactly how excess sunlight triggers this mechanism within plant cells. Schlau-Cohen’s lab is now exploring whether the organization of chlorophylls and carotenoids within the chloroplast membrane play a role in activating the photoprotection system.A better understanding of plants’ natural photoprotection system could help scientists develop new ways to improve crop yields, Schlau-Cohen says. A 2016 paper from University of Illinois researchers showed that by overproducing all of the proteins involved in photoprotection, crop yields could be boosted by 15 to 20 percent. That paper also suggested that production could be further increased to a theoretical maximum of about 30 percent.“If we understand the mechanism, instead of just upregulating everything and getting 15 to  20 percent, we could really optimize the system and get to that theoretical maximum of 30 percent,” Schlau-Cohen says.The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Assistant Professor Gabriela Schlau-Cohen has observed, for the first time, a mechanism that plants use to protect themselves from sun damage. Image: Jose-Luis Olivares https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-powered-climate-resilience-solution-among-top-proposals-macarthur-100-and-change-0225 High-scoring 100&Change applications featured in Bold Solutions Network. Tue, 25 Feb 2020 11:30:01 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2020/mit-powered-climate-resilience-solution-among-top-proposals-macarthur-100-and-change-0225 Mark Dwortzan | Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation unveiled that a proactive climate resilience system co-developed by MIT and BRAC, a leading development organization, was one of the highest-scoring proposals, designated as the Top 100, in its 100&Change competition in 2020 for a single $100 million grant to help solve one of the world’s most critical social challenges. The MIT/BRAC system, known as the Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network (CREWSNET), aims to empower climate‑threatened populations to make timely, science-driven decisions about their future. Starting with western Bangladesh but scalable to other frontline nations across the globe, CREWSNET will combine leading-edge climate forecasting and socioeconomic analysis with innovative resilience services to enable people to make and implement informed decisions about adaptation and relocation — and thereby minimize loss of life, livelihoods, and property. “Climate change is one of the most urgent threats facing human civilization today, and while the world’s most vulnerable did not create this challenge, they are the first to inherit it,” said John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory who serves as a CREWSNET project leader along with principal investigator Elfatih Eltahir, the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Hydrology and Climate at MIT. “We at MIT are excited and proud to have partnered with BRAC, a proven, global leader in humanitarian assistance and development programming, to create a new, proactive model for climate adaptation and individual empowerment.” “In its earliest days, BRAC worked tirelessly to rebuild communities devastated by climate disasters. Almost 50 years later, we continue to innovate our poverty alleviation and climate change adaptation programming, which reaches tens of millions of people each year. We are thrilled to partner with MIT now to incorporate their advanced technology, research, and scientific capabilities to tackle the myriad of challenges created by climate change, first in Bangladesh and then globally,” says Ashley Toombs, director of External Affairs at BRAC USA, the U.S.-based affiliate, whose portfolio includes climate change adaptation. 100&Change is a distinctive competition that is open to organizations and collaborations working in any field, anywhere in the world. Proposals must identify a problem and offer a solution that promises significant and durable change. The second round of the competition had a promising start: 3,690 competition registrants submitted 755 proposals. Of those, 475 passed an initial administrative review. The Top 100 represent the top 21 percent of competition submissions. The proposals were rigorously vetted, undergoing MacArthur’s initial administrative review, a Peer-to-Peer review, an evaluation by an external panel of judges, and a technical review by specialists whose expertise was matched to the project. Each proposal was evaluated using four criteria: impactful, evidence-based, feasible, and durable. MacArthur’s board of directors will select up to 10 finalists from among these high-scoring proposals this spring. “MacArthur seeks to generate increased recognition, exposure, and support for the high-impact ideas designated as the Top 100,” says Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change and MacArthur managing director at 100&Change. “Based on our experience in the first round of 100&Change, we know the competition will produce multiple compelling and fundable ideas. We are committed to matching philanthropists with powerful solutions and problem solvers to accelerate social change.” Since the inaugural competition, other funders and philanthropists have committed an additional $419 million to date to support bold solutions by 100&Change applicants. Building on the success of 100&Change, MacArthur created Lever for Change to unlock significant philanthropic capital by helping donors find and fund vetted, high-impact opportunities through the design and management of customized competitions. In addition to 100&Change, Lever for Change is managing the Chicago Prize, the Economic Opportunity Challenge, and the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award. The Bold Solutions Network launched on Feb. 19, featuring CREWSNET as one of the Top 100 from 100&Change. The searchable online collection of submissions contains a project overview, 90-second video, and two-page factsheet for each proposal. Visitors can sort by subject, location, sustainable development goal, or beneficiary population to view proposals based on area of interest. The Bold Solutions Network will showcase the highest-rated proposals that emerge from the competitions Lever for Change manages. Proposals in the Bold Solutions Network undergo extensive evaluation and due diligence to ensure each solution promises real and measurable progress to accelerate social change. The Bold Solutions Network was designed to provide an innovative approach to identifying the most effective, enduring solutions aligned with donors’ philanthropic goals and to help top applicants gain visibility and funding from a wide array of funders. Organizations that are part of the network will have continued access to a variety of technical support and learning opportunities focused on strengthening their proposals and increasing the impact of their work. A proactive climate resilience system co-developed by MIT and BRAC was included among the top 100 entries in the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition. Image courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. https://news.mit.edu/2020/instrument-may-enable-mail-testing-detect-heavy-metals-water-0225 Whisk-shaped device absorbs trace contaminants, preserves them in dry state that can be shipped to labs for analysis. Tue, 25 Feb 2020 11:05:07 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2020/instrument-may-enable-mail-testing-detect-heavy-metals-water-0225 Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office Lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals are increasingly present in water systems around the world due to human activities, such as pesticide use and, more recently, the inadequate disposal of electronic waste. Chronic exposure to even trace levels of these contaminants, at concentrations of parts per billion, can cause debilitating health conditions in pregnant women, children, and other vulnerable populations.Monitoring water for heavy metals is a formidable task, however, particularly for resource-constrained regions where workers must collect many liters of water and chemically preserve samples before transporting them to distant laboratories for analysis.To simplify the monitoring process, MIT researchers have developed an approach called SEPSTAT, for solid-phase extraction, preservation, storage, transportation, and analysis of trace contaminants. The method is based on a small, user-friendly device the team developed, which absorbs trace contaminants in water and preserves them in a dry state so the samples can be easily dropped in the mail and shipped to a laboratory for further analysis. A whisk-like device lined with small pockets filled with gold polymer beads, fits inside a typical sampling bottle, and can be twirled to pick up any metal contaminants in water.The device resembles a small, flexible propeller, or whisk, which fits inside a typical sampling bottle. When twirled inside the bottle for several minutes, the instrument can absorb most of the trace contaminants in the water sample. A user can either air-dry the device or blot it with a piece of paper, then flatten it and mail it in an envelope to a laboratory, where scientists can dip it in a solution of acid to remove the contaminants and collect them for further analysis in the lab.“We initially designed this for use in India, but it’s taught me a lot about our own water issues and trace contaminants in the United States,” says device designer Emily Hanhauser, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “For instance, someone who has heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, who now wants to know what’s in their water, might one day order something like this online, do the test themselves, and send it to a lab.”Hanhauser and her colleagues recently published their results in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. Her MIT co-authors are Chintan Vaishnav of the Tata Center for Technology and Design and the MIT Sloan School of Management; John Hart, associate professor of mechanical engineering; and Rohit Karnik, professor of mechanical engineering and associate department head for education, along with Michael Bono of Boston University.From teabags to whisksThe team originally set out to understand the water monitoring infrastructure in India. Millions of water samples are collected by workers at local laboratories all around the country, which are equipped to perform basic water quality analysis. However, to analyze trace contaminants, workers at these local labs need to chemically preserve large numbers of water samples and transport the vessels, often over hundreds of kilometers, to state capitals, where centralized labs have facilities to properly analyze trace contaminants.“If you’re collecting a lot of these samples and trying to bring them to a lab, it’s pretty onerous work, and there is a significant transportation barrier,” Hanhauser says. After the device is pulled out and dried, it can preserve any metal contaminants that it has picked up, for long periods of time. The device can be flattened and mailed to a lab, where the contaminants can be further analyzed. In looking to streamline the logistics of water monitoring, she and her colleagues wondered whether they could bypass the need to transport the water, and instead transport the contaminants by themselves, in a dry state. They eventually found inspiration in dry blood spotting, a simple technique that involves pricking a person’s finger and collecting a drop of blood on a card of cellulose. When dried, the chemicals in the blood are stable and preserved, and the cards can be mailed off for further analysis, avoiding the need to preserve and ship large volumes of blood.The team started thinking of a similar collection system for heavy metals, and looked through the literature for materials that could both absorb trace contaminants from water and keep them stable when dry.They eventually settled on ion-exchange resins, a class of material that comes in the form of small polymer beads, several hundreds of microns wide. These beads contain groups of molecules bound to a hydrogen ion. When dipped in water, the hydrogen comes off and can be exchanged with another ion, such as a heavy metal cation, that takes hydrogen’s place on the bead. In this way, the beads can absorb heavy metals and other trace contaminants from water.The researchers then looked for ways to immerse the beads in water, and first considered a teabag-like design. They filled a mesh-like pocket with beads and dunked it in water they spiked with heavy metals. They found, though, that it took days for the beads to adequately absorb the contaminants if they simply left the teabag in the water. When they stirred the teabag around, turbulence sped the process somewhat, but it still took far too long for the beads, packed into one large teabag, to absorb the contaminants.Ultimately, Hanhauser found that a handheld stirring design worked best to take up metal contaminants in water within a reasonable amount of time. The device is made from a polymer mesh cut into several propeller-like panels. Within each panel, Hanhauser hand-stitched small pockets, which she filled with polymer beads. She then stitched each panel around a polymer stick to resemble a sort of egg beater or whisk.Testing the watersThe researchers fabricated several of the devices, then tested them on samples of natural water collected around Boston, including the Charles and Mystic rivers. They spiked the samples with various heavy metal contaminants, such as lead, copper, nickel, and cadmium, then stuck a device in the bottle of each sample, and twirled it around by hand to catch and absorb the contaminants. They then placed the devices on a counter to dry overnight.To recover the contaminants from the device, they dipped the device in hydrochloric acid. The hydrogen in the solution effectively knocks away any ions attached to the polymer beads, including heavy metals, which can then be collected and analyzed with instruments such as mass spectrometers.The researchers found that by stirring the device in the water sample, the device was able to absorb and preserve about 94 percent of the metal contaminants in each sample. In their recent trials, they found they could still detect the contaminants and predict their concentrations in the original water samples, with an accuracy range of 10 to 20 percent, even after storing the device in a dry state for up to two years.With a cost of less than $2, the researchers believe that the device could facilitate transport of samples to centralized laboratories, collection and preservation of samples for future analysis, and acquisition of water quality data in a centralized manner, which, in turn, could help to identify sources of contamination, guide policies, and enable improved water quality management.The researchers have now partnered with a company in India, in hopes of commercializing the device. Together, their project was recently chosen as one of 26 proposals out of more than 950 to be funded by the Indian government under its Atal New India Challenge program.This research was funded, in part, by the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, the MIT Tata Center, and the National Science Foundation.   MIT graduate student Emily Hanhauser demonstrates a new device that may simplify the logistics of water monitoring for trace metal contaminants, particularly in resource-constrained regions. Image: Melanie Gonick/MIT https://news.mit.edu/2020/passive-solar-powered-water-desalination-0207 System achieves new level of efficiency in harnessing sunlight to make fresh potable water from seawater. Thu, 06 Feb 2020 23:59:59 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2020/passive-solar-powered-water-desalination-0207 David L. Chandler | MIT News Office A completely passive solar-powered desalination system developed by researchers at MIT and in China could provide more than 1.5 gallons of fresh drinking water per hour for every square meter of solar collecting area. Such systems could potentially serve off-grid arid coastal areas to provide an efficient, low-cost water source.The system uses multiple layers of flat solar evaporators and condensers, lined up in a vertical array and topped with transparent aerogel insulation. It is described in a paper appearing today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, authored by MIT doctoral students Lenan Zhang and Lin Zhao, postdoc Zhenyuan Xu, professor of mechanical engineering and department head Evelyn Wang, and eight others at MIT and at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.The key to the system’s efficiency lies in the way it uses each of the multiple stages to desalinate the water. At each stage, heat released by the previous stage is harnessed instead of wasted. In this way, the team’s demonstration device can achieve an overall efficiency of 385 percent in converting the energy of sunlight into the energy of water evaporation.The device is essentially a multilayer solar still, with a set of evaporating and condensing components like those used to distill liquor. It uses flat panels to absorb heat and then transfer that heat to a layer of water so that it begins to evaporate. The vapor then condenses on the next panel. That water gets collected, while the heat from the vapor condensation gets passed to the next layer.Whenever vapor condenses on a surface, it releases heat; in typical condenser systems, that heat is simply lost to the environment. But in this multilayer evaporator the released heat flows to the next evaporating layer, recycling the solar heat and boosting the overall efficiency.“When you condense water, you release energy as heat,” Wang says. “If you have more than one stage, you can take advantage of that heat.”Adding more layers increases the conversion efficiency for producing potable water, but each layer also adds cost and bulk to the system. The team settled on a 10-stage system for their proof-of-concept device, which was tested on an MIT building rooftop. The system delivered pure water that exceeded city drinking water standards, at a rate of 5.78 liters per square meter (about 1.52 gallons per 11 square feet) of solar collecting area. This is more than two times as much as the record amount previously produced by any such passive solar-powered desalination system, Wang says.Theoretically, with more desalination stages and further optimization, such systems could reach overall efficiency levels as high as 700 or 800 percent, Zhang says.Unlike some desalination systems, there is no accumulation of salt or concentrated brines to be disposed of. In a free-floating configuration, any salt that accumulates during the day would simply be carried back out at night through the wicking material and back into the seawater, according to the researchers.Their demonstration unit was built mostly from inexpensive, readily available materials such as a commercial black solar absorber and paper towels for a capillary wick to carry the water into contact with the solar absorber. In most other attempts to make passive solar desalination systems, the solar absorber material and the wicking material have been a single component, which requires specialized and expensive materials, Wang says. “We’ve been able to decouple these two.”The most expensive component of the prototype is a layer of transparent aerogel used as an insulator at the top of the stack, but the team suggests other less expensive insulators could be used as an alternative. (The aerogel itself is made from dirt-cheap silica but requires specialized drying equipment for its manufacture.)Wang emphasizes that the team’s key contribution is a framework for understanding how to optimize such multistage passive systems, which they call thermally localized multistage desalination. The formulas they developed could likely be applied to a variety of materials and device architectures, allowing for further optimization of systems based on different scales of operation or local conditions and materials.One possible configuration would be floating panels on a body of saltwater such as an impoundment pond. These could constantly and passively deliver fresh water through pipes to the shore, as long as the sun shines each day. Other systems could be designed to serve a single household, perhaps using a flat panel on a large shallow tank of seawater that is pumped or carried in. The team estimates that a system with a roughly 1-square-meter solar collecting area could meet the daily drinking water needs of one person. In production, they think a system built to serve the needs of a family might be built for around $100. The researchers plan further experiments to continue to optimize the choice of materials and configurations, and to test the durability of the system under realistic conditions. They also will work on translating the design of their lab-scale device into a something that would be suitable for use by consumers. The hope is that it could ultimately play a role in alleviating water scarcity in parts of the developing world where reliable electricity is scarce but seawater and sunlight are abundant.“This new approach is very significant,” says Ravi Prasher, an associate lab director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, who was not involved in this work. “One of the challenges in solar still-based desalination has been low efficiency due to the loss of significant energy in condensation. By efficiently harvesting the condensation energy, the overall solar to vapor efficiency is dramatically improved. … This increased efficiency will have an overall impact on reducing the cost of produced water.”The research team included Bangjun Li, Chenxi Wang and Ruzhu Wang at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Bikram Bhatia, Kyle Wilke, Youngsup Song, Omar Labban, and John Lienhard, who is the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water at MIT. The research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, and the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design. Tests on an MIT building rooftop showed that a simple proof-of-concept desalination device could produce clean, drinkable water at a rate equivalent to more than 1.5 gallons per hour for each square meter of solar collecting area. Images courtesy of the researchers https://news.mit.edu/2020/alchemista-food-hospitality-christine-marcus-0131 Led by Christine Marcus MBA ’12, Alchemista is finding success with a human-centered approach to food service. Thu, 30 Jan 2020 23:59:59 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2020/alchemista-food-hospitality-christine-marcus-0131 Zach Winn | MIT News Office Christine Marcus MBA ’12 was an unlikely entrepreneur in 2011. That year, after spending her entire, 17-year career in government, most recently as the deputy chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Energy, she entered the MIT Sloan School of Management Fellows MBA Program.Moreover, Marcus didn’t think of herself as an entrepreneur.“That was the furthest thing from my mind,” she says. “I knew it was time to think about the private sector, but my plan was to leave Sloan and get a job in finance. The thought of entrepreneurship was nowhere in my mind. I wasn’t one of those people who came with a business idea.”By the end of Sloan’s intensive, 12-month program, however, Marcus was running a startup helping local organizations and companies serve food from some of Boston’s best restaurants to hundreds of people. Upon graduation, in addition to her degree, Marcus had 40 recurring customers and had sold about $50,000 worth of food from her classmates’ Italian restaurant.What happened to spark such a dramatic change?“MIT happened,” Marcus says. “Being in that ecosystem and listening to all the people share their stories of starting companies, listening to CEOs talk about their successes and failures, the mistakes they’ve made along the way, that was super-inspiring. What I realized at MIT was that I’ve always been an entrepreneur.”In the years since graduation, Marcus has used her new perspective to build Alchemista, a “high-touch” hospitality company that helps businesses, commercial real estate developers, and property owners provide meals to employees and tenants. Today, Alchemista has clients in Boston, New York City, and Washington, and serves more than 60,000 meals each month.The company’s services go beyond simply curating restaraunts on a website: Each one of Alchemista’s clients has its own representative that customizes menus each month, and Alchemista employees are on the scene setting up every meal to ensure everything goes smoothly.“We work with companies that focus on employee culture and invest in their employees, and we incorporate ourselves into that culture,” Marcus says.Finding inspiration, then confidenceAt first, all Marcus wanted from MIT were some bright new employees for the Department of Energy. During a recruiting trip for that agency in 2011, she met Bill Aulet, the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and professor of the practice at Sloan.“I mentioned to Bill that I was thinking of doing an MBA,” Marcus remembers. “He said, ‘You need to come to MIT. It will transform your life.’ Those were his exact words. Then basically, ‘And you need to do it now.’”Soon after that conversation, Marcus applied for the Sloan Fellows Program, which crams an MBA into one year of full-time, hands on work. A few weeks after being accepted, she left her lifelong career in government for good.But Marcus still had no plans to become an entrepreneur. That came more gradually at Sloan, as she listened to experts describe entrepreneurship as a learnable craft, received encouragement and advice from professors, and heard from dozens of successful first-time entrepreneurs about their own early doubts and failures.“A lot of these founders had backgrounds in things that had nothing to do with their industry,” Marcus says. “My question was always, ‘How do you become successful in an industry you don’t know anything about?’ Their answer was always the same: ‘It’s all about learning and being curious.’”During one typically long day in the MBA program, a classmate brought in food from his Italian restaurant. Marcus was blown away and wondered why MIT didn’t cater from nice restaurants like that all the time.The thought set in motion a process that has never really stopped for Marcus. She began speaking with office secretaries, club presidents, and other event organizers at MIT. She learned it was a nightmare ordering food for hundreds of people, and that many of Boston’s best restaurants had no means of connecting with such organizers.“I made myself known on campus just hustling,” Marcus remembers. “First I had to spend time figuring out who orders food. … I made it my mission to talk to all of them, understand their pain points, and understand what would get them to change their processes at that point. It was a lot of legwork.”Marcus moved into the entrepreneurial track at Sloan, and says one of her most helpful classes was tech sales, taught by Lou Shipley, who’s now an advisor for Alchemista. She also says it was helpful that professors focused on real-world problems, at some points even using Alchemista as a case study, allowing Marcus’s entire class to weigh in on problems she was grappling with.“That was super-helpful, to have all these smart MIT students working on my company,” she says.As she neared gradation, Marcus spent a lot of time in the Trust Center, and leaned heavily on MIT’s support system.“That’s the best thing about MIT: the ecosystem,” Marcus says. “Everybody genuinely wants to help however they can.”Leaving that ecosystem, which Marcus described as a “challenging yet safe environment,” presented Marcus with her biggest test yet.Taking the plungeAt some point, every entrepreneur must decide if they’re passionate and confident enough in their business to fully commit to it. Over the course of a whirlwind year, MIT gave Marcus a crash course in entrepreneurship, but it couldn’t make that decision for her.Marcus responded unequivocally. She started by selling her house in Washington and renting a one-bedroom apartment in Boston. She also says she used up her retirement savings as she worked to expand Alchemista’s customer base in the early days.“I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone without a strong stomach, but I jumped in with both feet,” Marcus says.And MIT never stopped lending support. At the time, Sloan was planning to renovate a building on campus, so in the interim, Aulet started a coworking space called the MIT Beehive. Marcus worked out of there for more than a year, collaborating with other MIT startup founders and establishing a supportive network of peers.Her commitment paid off. By 2014, Marcus had a growing customer base and a strong business model based on recurring revenue from large customer accounts. Alchemista soon expanded to Washington and New York City.Last year, the company brought on a culinary team and opened its own kitchens. It also expanded its services to commercial property owners and managers who don’t want to give up leasing space for a traditional cafeteria or don’t have restaurants nearby.Marcus has also incorporated her passion for sustainability into Alchemista’s operations. After using palm leaf plates for years, the company recently switched over to reusable plates and utensils, saving over 100,000 tons of waste annually, she says.Ultimately, Marcus thinks Alchemista’s success is a result of its human-centered approach to helping customers.“It’s not this massive website where you place an order and have no contact,” Marcus says. “We’re the opposite of that. We’re high-touch because everyone else is a website or app. Simply put, we take all the headaches away from ordering for hundreds of people. Food is very personal; breaking bread is one of the most fundamental ways to connect with others. We provide that experience in a premium, elevated way.” Alchemista co-founder and CEO Christine Marcus MBA ’12 says she sold her house and dipped into her retirement savings to get the company off the ground. Image courtesy of Alchemista https://news.mit.edu/2020/reducing-risk-empowering-resilience-disruptive-global-change-0123 Workshop highlights how MIT research can guide adaptation at local, regional, and national scales. Thu, 23 Jan 2020 15:15:01 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2020/reducing-risk-empowering-resilience-disruptive-global-change-0123 Mark Dwortzan | Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change Five-hundred-year floods. Persistent droughts and heat waves. More devastating wildfires. As these and other planetary perils become more commonplace, they pose serious risks to natural, managed, and built environments around the world. Assessing the magnitude of these risks over multiple decades and identifying strategies to prepare for them at local, regional, and national scales will be essential to making societies and economies more resilient and sustainable. With that goal in mind, the MIT Joint Program on the Science of Global Change launched in 2019 its Adaptation-at-Scale initiative (AS-MIT), which seeks evidence-based solutions to global change-driven risks. Using its Integrated Global System Modeling (IGSM) framework, as well as a suite of resource and infrastructure assessment models, AS-MIT targets, diagnoses, and projects changing risks to life-sustaining resources under impending societal and environmental stressors, and evaluates the effectiveness of potential risk-reduction measures.   In pursuit of these objectives, MIT Joint Program researchers are collaborating with other adaptation-at-scale thought leaders across MIT. And at a conference on Jan. 10 on the MIT campus, they showcased some of their most promising efforts in this space. Part of a series of MIT Joint Program workshops aimed at providing decision-makers with actionable information on key global change concerns, the conference covered risks and resilience strategies for food, energy, and water systems; urban-scale solutions; predicting the evolving risk of extreme events; and decision-making and early warning capabilities — and featured a lunch seminar on renewable energy for resilience and adaptation by an expert from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Food, energy, and water systems Greg Sixt, research manager in the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), described the work of J-WAFS’ Alliance for Climate Change and Food Systems Research, an emerging alliance of premier research institutions and key stakeholders to collaboratively frame challenges, identify research paths, and fund and pursue convergence research on building more resilience across the food system, from production to supply chains to consumption. MIT Joint Program Deputy Director Sergey Paltsev, also a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), explored climate-related risks to energy systems. He highlighted physical risks, such as potential impacts of permafrost degradation on roads, airports, natural gas pipelines, and other infrastructure in the Arctic, and of an increase in extreme temperature, wind, and icing events on power distribution infrastructure in the U.S. Northeast. “No matter what we do in terms of climate mitigation, the physical risks will remain the same for decades because of inertia in the climate system,” says Paltsev. “Even with very aggressive emissions-reduction policies, decision-makers must take physical risks into consideration.” They must also account for transition risks — long-term financial and investment risks to fossil fuel infrastructure posed by climate policies. Paltsev showed how energy scenarios developed at MIT and elsewhere can enable decision-makers to assess the physical and financial risks of climate change and of efforts to transition to a low-carbon economy. MIT Joint Program Deputy Director Adam Schlosser discussed MIT Joint Program (JP) efforts to assess risks to, and optimal adaptation strategies for, water systems subject to drought, flooding, and other challenges impacting water availability and quality posed by a changing environment. Schlosser noted that in some cases, efficiency improvements can go a long way in meeting these challenges, as shown in one JP study that found improving municipal and industrial efficiencies was just as effective as climate mitigation in confronting projected water shortages in Asia. Finally, he introduced a new JP project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy that will explore how in U.S. floodplains, foresight could increase resilience to future forces, stressors, and disturbances imposed by nature and human activity. “In assessing how we avoid and adapt to risk, we need to think about all plausible futures,” says Schlosser. “Our approach is to take all [of those] futures, put them into our [integrated global] system of human and natural systems, and think about how we use water optimally.” Urban-scale solutions Brian Goldberg, assistant director of the MIT Office of Sustainability, detailed MIT’s plans to sustain MIT campus infrastructure amid intensifying climate disruptions and impacts over the next 100 years. Toward that end, the MIT Climate Resiliency Committee is working to shore up multiple, interdependent layers of resiliency that include the campus site, infrastructure and utilities, buildings, and community, and creating modeling tools to evaluate flood risk. “We’re using the campus as a testbed to develop solutions, advance research, and ultimately grow a more climate-resilient campus,” says Goldberg. “Perhaps the models we develop and engage with at the campus scale can then influence the city or region scale and then be shared globally.” MIT Joint Program/MITEI Research Scientist Mei Yuan described an upcoming study to assess the potential of the building sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through more energy-efficient design and intelligent telecommunications — and thereby lower climate-related risk to urban infrastructure. Yuan aims to achieve this objective by linking the program’ s U.S. Regional Energy Policy (USREP) model with a detailed building sector model that explicitly represents energy-consuming technologies (e.g., for heating, cooling, lighting, and household appliances).  “Incorporating this building sector model within an integrated framework that combines USREP with an hourly electricity dispatch model (EleMod) could enable us to simulate the supply and demand of electricity at finer spatial and temporal resolution,” says Yuan, “and thereby better understand how the power sector will need to adapt to future energy needs.” Renewable energy for resilience and adaptation Jill Engel-Cox, director of NREL’s Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, presented several promising adaptation measures for energy resilience that incorporate renewables. These include placing critical power lines underground; increasing demand-side energy efficiency to decrease energy consumption and power system instability; diversifying generation so electric power distribution can be sustained when one power source is down; deploying distributed generation (e.g., photovoltaics, small wind turbines, energy storage systems) so that if one part of the grid is disconnected, other parts continue to function; and implementing smart grids and micro-grids. “Adaptation and resilience measures tend to be very localized,” says Engel-Cox. “So we need to come up with strategies that will work for particular locations and risks.” These include storm-proofing photovoltaics and wind turbine systems, deploying hydropower with greater flexibility to account for variability in water flow, incorporating renewables in planning for natural gas system outages, and co-locating wind and PV systems on agricultural land. Extreme events MIT Joint Program Principal Research Scientist Xiang Gao showed how a statistical method that she developed has produced predictions of the risk of heavy precipitation, heat waves, and other extreme weather events that are more consistent with observations than conventional climate models do. Known as the “analog method,” the technique detects extreme events based on large-scale atmospheric patterns associated with such events. “Improved prediction of extreme weather events enabled by the analog method offers a promising pathway to provide meaningful climate mitigation and adaptation actions,” says Gao. Sai Ravela, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, showed how artificial intelligence could be exploited to predict extreme events. Key methods that Ravela and his research group are developing combine climate statistics, atmospheric modeling, and physics to assess the risk of future extreme events. The group’s long-range predictions draw upon deep learning and small-sample statistics using local sensor data and global oscillations. Applying these methods, Ravela and his co-investigators are developing a model to assess the risk of extreme weather events to infrastructure, such as that of wind and flooding damage to a nuclear plant or city.  Decision-making and early warning capabilities MIT Joint Program/MITEI Research Scientist Jennifer Morris explored uncertainty and decision-making for adaptation to global change-driven challenges ranging from coastal adaptation to grid resilience. Morris described the MIT Joint Program approach as a four-step process: quantify stressors and influences, evaluate vulnerabilities, identify response options and transition pathways, and develop decision-making frameworks. She then used the following Q&A to show how this four-pronged approach can be applied to the case of grid resilience. Q: Do human-induced changes in damaging weather events present a rising, widespread risk of premature failure in the nation’s power grid — and, if so, what are the cost-effective near-term actions to hedge against that risk? A: First, identify critical junctures within power grid, starting with large power transformers (LPTs). Next, use an analogue approach (described above) to construct distribution of expected changes in extreme heat wave events which would be damaging to LPTs under different climate scenarios. Next, use energy-economic and electric power models to assess electricity demand and economic costs related to LPT failure. And finally, make decisions under uncertainty to identify near-term actions to mitigate risks of LPT failure (e.g., upgrading or replacing LPTs). John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, highlighted the group’s efforts to combine advanced remote sensing and decision support systems to assess the impacts of natural disasters, support hurricane evacuation decision-making, and guide proactive climate adaptation and resilience. Lincoln Laboratory is collaborating with MIT campus partners to develop the Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network (CREWSNET), which draws on MIT strengths in cutting-edge climate forecasting, impact models, and applied decision support tools to empower climate resilience and adaptation on a global scale. “From extreme event prediction to scenario-based risk analysis, this workshop showcased the core capabilities of the joint program and its partners across MIT that can advance scalable solutions to adaptation challenges across the globe,” says Adam Schlosser, who coordinated the day’s presentations. “Applying leading-edge modeling tools, our research is well-positioned to provide decision-makers with guidance and strategies to build a more resilient future.” An Army Corps of Engineers flood model depicting the Ala Wai watershed after a 100-year rain event. The owner of a local design firm described the Ala Wai Flood Control Project as the largest climate impact project in Hawai’s modern history. Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Honolulu District https://news.mit.edu/2020/making-real-biotechnology-dream-nitrogen-fixing-cereal-crops-0110 Voigt Lab's work could eventually replace cereal crops’ need for nitrogen from chemical fertilizers. Fri, 10 Jan 2020 12:00:01 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2020/making-real-biotechnology-dream-nitrogen-fixing-cereal-crops-0110 Lisa Miller | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab As food demand rises due to growing and changing populations around the world, increasing crop production has been a vital target for agriculture and food systems researchers who are working to ensure there is enough food to meet global need in the coming years. One MIT research group mobilizing around this challenge is the Voigt lab in the Department of Biological Engineering, led by Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor of Advanced Biotechnology at MIT. For the past four years, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has funded Voigt with two J-WAFS Seed Grants. With this support, Voigt and his team are working on a significant and longstanding research challenge: transform cereal crops so they are able to fix their own nitrogen. Chemical fertilizer: how it helps and hurts Nitrogen is a key nutrient that enables plants to grow. Plants like legumes are able to provide their own through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that are capable of fixing nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil, which is then drawn up by the plants through their roots. Other types of crops — including major food crops such as corn, wheat, and rice — typically rely on added fertilizers for nitrogen, including manure, compost, and chemical fertilizers. Without these, the plants that grow are smaller and produce less grain.  Over 3.5 billion people today depend on chemical fertilizers for their food. Eighty percent of chemical nitrogen fertilizers today are made using the Haber-Borsch process, which involves transforming nitrile gas into ammonia. While nitrogen fertilizer has boosted agriculture production in the last century, this has come with some significant costs. First, the Haber-Borsch process itself is very energy- and fossil fuel-intensive, making it unsustainable in the face of a rapidly changing climate. Second, using too much chemical fertilizer results in nitrogen pollution. Fertilizer runoff pollutes rivers and oceans, resulting in algae blooms that suffocate marine life. Cleaning up this pollution and paying for the public health and environmental damage costs the United States $157 billion annually. Third, when it comes to chemical fertilizers, there are problems with equity and access. These fertilizers are made in the northern hemisphere by major industrialized nations, where postash, a main ingredient, is abundant. However, transportation costs are high, especially to countries in the southern hemisphere. So, for farmers in poorer regions, this barrier results in lower crop yield. These environmental and societal challenges pose large problems, yet farmers still need to apply nitrogen to maintain the necessary agriculture productivity to meet the world’s food needs, especially as population and climate change stress the world’s food supplies. So, fertilizers are and will continue to be a critical tool.  But, might there be another way? The bacterial compatability of chloroplasts and mitochondria This is the question that drives researchers in the Voigt lab, as they work to develop nitrogen-fixing cereal grains. The strategy they have developed is to target the specific genes in the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that operate symbiotically with legumes, called the nif genes. These genes cause the expression of the protein structures (nitrogenase clusters) that fix nitrogen from the air. If these genes were able to be successfully transferred and expressed in cereal crops, chemical fertilizers would no longer be needed to add needed nitrogen, as these crops would be able to obtain nitrogen themselves. This genetic engineering work has long been regarded as a major technical challenge, however. The nif pathway is very large and involves many different genes. Transferring any large gene cluster is itself a difficult task, but there is added complexity in this particular pathway. The nif genes in microbes are controlled by a precise system of interconnected genetic parts. In order to successfully transfer the pathway’s nitrogen-fixing capabilities, researchers not only have to transfer the genes themselves, but also replicate the cellular components responsible for controlling the pathway. This leads into another challenge. The microbes responsible for nitrogen fixation in legumes are bacteria (prokaryotes), and, as explained by Eszter Majer, a postdoc in the Voigt lab who has been working on the project for the past two years, “the gene expression is completely different in plants, which are eukaryotes.” For example, prokaryotes organize their genes into operons, a genetic organization system that does not exist in eukaryotes such as the tobacco leaves the Voigt is using in its experiments. Reengineering the nif pathway in a eukaryote is tantamount to a complete system overhaul. The Voigt lab has found a workaround: Rather than target the entire plant cell, they are targetting organelles within the cell — specifically, the chloroplasts and the mitochondria. Mitochondria and chloroplasts both have ancient bacterial origins and once lived independently outside of eukaryotic cells as prokaryotes. Millions of years ago, they were incorporated into the eukaryotic system as organelles. They are unique in that they have their own genetic data and have also maintained many similarities to modern-day prokaryotes. As a result, they are excellent candidates for nitrogenase transfer. Majer explains, “It’s much easier to transfer from a prokaryote to a prokaryote-like system than reengineer the whole pathway and try to transfer to a eukaryote.” Beyond gene structure, these organelles have additional attributes that make them suitable environments for nitrogenase clusters to function. Nitrogenase requires a lot of energy to function and both chloroplasts and mitochondria already produce high amounts energy — in the form of ATP — for the cell. Nitrogenase is also very sensitive to oxygen and will not function if there is too much of it in its environment. However, chloroplasts at night and mitochondria in plants have low-oxygen levels, making them an ideal location for the nitrogenase protein to operate. An international team of experts While the team found devised an approach for transforming eukaryotic cells, their project still involved highly technical biological engineering challenges. Thanks to the J-WAFS grants, the Voigt lab has been able to collaborate with two specialists at overseas universities to obtain critical expertise.. One was Luis Rubio, an associate professor focusing on the biochemistry of nitrogen fixation at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Spain. Rubio is an expert in nitrogenase and nitrogen-inspired chemistry. Transforming mitochondrial DNA is a challenging process, so the team designed a nitrogenase gene delivery system using yeast. Yeast are easy eukaryotic organisms to engineer and can be used to target the mitochondria. The team inserted the nitrogenase genes into the yeast nuclei, which are then targeted to mitochondria using peptide fusions. This research resulted in the first eukaryotic organism to demonstrate the formation of nitrogenase structural proteins. The Voigt lab also collaborated with Ralph Bock, a chloroplast expert from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany. He and the Voigt team have made great strides toward the goal of nitrogen-fixing cereal crops; the details of their recent accomplishments advancing the field crop engineering and furthering the nitrogen-fixing work will be published in the coming months. Continuing in pursuit of the dream The Voigt lab, with the support of J-WAFS and the invaluable international collaboration that has resulted, was able to obtain groundbreaking results, moving us closer to fertilizer independence through nitrogen-fixing cereals. They made headway in targeting nitrogenase to mitochondria and were able to express a complete NifDK tetramer — a key protein in the nitrogenase cluster — in yeast mitochondria. Despite these milestones, more work is yet to be done. “The Voigt lab is invested in moving this research forward in order to get ever closer to the dream of creating nitrogen-fixing cereal crops,“ says Chris Voigt. With these milestones under their belt, these researchers have made great advances, and will continue to push torward the realization of this transformative vision, one that could revolutionize cereal production globally. Christopher Voigt and Eszter Majer (pictured) collaborated with chloroplast and mitochondria experts from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany and the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Spain, during their seed grant period, collaborations that were made possible by J-WAFS seed grants. Photo: Lisa Miller/J-WAFS https://news.mit.edu/2019/julia-ortony-concocting-nanomaterials-energy-and-environmental-applications-0109 The MIT assistant professor is entranced by the beauty she finds pursuing chemistry. Thu, 09 Jan 2020 14:00:01 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2019/julia-ortony-concocting-nanomaterials-energy-and-environmental-applications-0109 Leda Zimmerman | MIT Energy Initiative A molecular engineer, Julia Ortony performs a contemporary version of alchemy. “I take powder made up of disorganized, tiny molecules, and after mixing it up with water, the material in the solution zips itself up into threads 5 nanometers thick — about 100 times smaller than the wavelength of visible light,” says Ortony, the Finmeccanica Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “Every time we make one of these nanofibers, I am amazed to see it.” But for Ortony, the fascination doesn’t simply concern the way these novel structures self-assemble, a product of the interaction between a powder’s molecular geometry and water. She is plumbing the potential of these nanomaterials for use in renewable energy and environmental remediation technologies, including promising new approaches to water purification and the photocatalytic production of fuel. Tuning molecular properties Ortony’s current research agenda emerged from a decade of work into the behavior of a class of carbon-based molecular materials that can range from liquid to solid. During doctoral work at the University of California at Santa Barbara, she used magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopy to make spatially precise measurements of atomic movement within molecules, and of the interactions between molecules. At Northwestern University, where she was a postdoc, Ortony focused this tool on self-assembling nanomaterials that were biologically based, in research aimed at potential biomedical applications such as cell scaffolding and regenerative medicine. “With MR spectroscopy, I investigated how atoms move and jiggle within an assembled nanostructure,” she says. Her research revealed that the surface of the nanofiber acted like a viscous liquid, but as one probed further inward, it behaved like a solid. Through molecular design, it became possible to tune the speed at which molecules that make up a nanofiber move. A door had opened for Ortony. “We can now use state-of-matter as a knob to tune nanofiber properties,” she says. “For the first time, we can design self-assembling nanostructures, using slow or fast internal molecular dynamics to determine their key behaviors.” Slowing down the dance When she arrived at MIT in 2015, Ortony was determined to tame and train molecules for nonbiological applications of self-assembling “soft” materials. “Self-assembling molecules tend to be very dynamic, where they dance around each other, jiggling all the time and coming and going from their assembly,” she explains. “But we noticed that when molecules stick strongly to each other, their dynamics get slow, and their behavior is quite tunable.” The challenge, though, was to synthesize nanostructures in nonbiological molecules that could achieve these strong interactions. “My hypothesis coming to MIT was that if we could tune the dynamics of small molecules in water and really slow them down, we should be able to make self-assembled nanofibers that behave like a solid and are viable outside of water,” says Ortony. Her efforts to understand and control such materials are now starting to pay off. “We’ve developed unique, molecular nanostructures that self-assemble, are stable in both water and air, and — since they’re so tiny — have extremely high surface areas,” she says. Since the nanostructure surface is where chemical interactions with other substances take place, Ortony has leapt to exploit this feature of her creations — focusing in particular on their potential in environmental and energy applications. Clean water and fuel from sunlight One key venture, supported by Ortony’s Professor Amar G. Bose Fellowship, involves water purification. The problem of toxin-laden drinking water affects tens of millions of people in underdeveloped nations. Ortony’s research group is developing nanofibers that can grab deadly metals such as arsenic out of such water. The chemical groups she attaches to nanofibers are strong, stable in air, and in recent tests “remove all arsenic down to low, nearly undetectable levels,” says Ortony. She believes an inexpensive textile made from nanofibers would be a welcome alternative to the large, expensive filtration systems currently deployed in places like Bangladesh, where arsenic-tainted water poses dire threats to large populations. “Moving forward, we would like to chelate arsenic, lead, or any environmental contaminant from water using a solid textile fabric made from these fibers,” she says. In another research thrust, Ortony says, “My dream is to make chemical fuels from solar energy.” Her lab is designing nanostructures with molecules that act as antennas for sunlight. These structures, exposed to and energized by light, interact with a catalyst in water to reduce carbon dioxide to different gases that could be captured for use as fuel. In recent studies, the Ortony lab found that it is possible to design these catalytic nanostructure systems to be stable in water under ultraviolet irradiation for long periods of time. “We tuned our nanomaterial so that it did not break down, which is essential for a photocatalytic system,” says Ortony. Students dive in While Ortony’s technologies are still in the earliest stages, her approach to problems of energy and the environment are already drawing student enthusiasts. Dae-Yoon Kim, a postdoc in the Ortony lab, won the 2018 Glenn H. Brown Prize from the International Liquid Crystal Society for his work on synthesized photo-responsive materials and started a tenure track position at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology this fall. Ortony also mentors Ty Christoff-Tempesta, a DMSE doctoral candidate, who was recently awarded a Martin Fellowship for Sustainability. Christoff-Tempesta hopes to design nanoscale fibers that assemble and disassemble in water to create environmentally sustainable materials. And Cynthia Lo ’18 won a best-senior-thesis award for work with Ortony on nanostructures that interact with light and self-assemble in water, work that will soon be published. She is “my superstar MIT Energy Initiative UROP [undergraduate researcher],” says Ortony. Ortony hopes to share her sense of wonder about materials science not just with students in her group, but also with those in her classes. “When I was an undergraduate, I was blown away at the sheer ability to make a molecule and confirm its structure,” she says. With her new lab-based course for grad students — 3.65 (Soft Matter Characterization) — Ortony says she can teach about “all the interests that drive my research.” While she is passionate about using her discoveries to solve critical problems, she remains entranced by the beauty she finds pursuing chemistry. Fascinated by science starting in childhood, Ortony says she sought out every available class in chemistry, “learning everything from beginning to end, and discovering that I loved organic and physical chemistry, and molecules in general.” Today, she says, she finds joy working with her “creative, resourceful, and motivated” students. She celebrates with them “when experiments confirm hypotheses, and it’s a breakthrough and it’s thrilling,” and reassures them “when they come with a problem, and I can let them know it will be thrilling soon.” This article appears in the Autumn 2019 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. Julia Ortony is the Finmeccanica Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Photo: Lillie Paquette/School of Engineering https://news.mit.edu/2019/remove-contaminants-nuclear-plant-wastewater-1219 Method concentrates radionuclides in a small portion of a nuclear plant’s wastewater, allowing the rest to be recycled. Thu, 19 Dec 2019 09:23:05 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2019/remove-contaminants-nuclear-plant-wastewater-1219 David L. Chandler | MIT News Office Nuclear power continues to expand globally, propelled, in part, by the fact that it produces few greenhouse gas emissions while providing steady power output. But along with that expansion comes an increased need for dealing with the large volumes of water used for cooling these plants, which becomes contaminated with radioactive isotopes that require special long-term disposal.Now, a method developed at MIT provides a way of substantially reducing the volume of contaminated water that needs to be disposed of, instead concentrating the contaminants and allowing the rest of the water to be recycled through the plant’s cooling system. The proposed system is described in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, in a paper by graduate student Mohammad Alkhadra, professor of chemical engineering Martin Bazant, and three others.The method makes use of a process called shock electrodialysis, which uses an electric field to generate a deionization shockwave in the water. The shockwave pushes the electrically charged particles, or ions, to one side of a tube filled with charged porous material, so that concentrated stream of contaminants can be separated out from the rest of the water. The group discovered that two radionuclide contaminants — isotopes of cobalt and cesium — can be selectively removed from water that also contains boric acid and lithium. After the water stream is cleansed of its cobalt and cesium contaminants, it can be reused in the reactor.The shock electrodialysis process was initially developed by Bazant and his co-workers as a general method of removing salt from water, as demonstrated in their first scalable prototype four years ago. Now, the team has focused on this more specific application, which could help improve the economics and environmental impact of working nuclear power plants. In ongoing research, they are also continuing to develop a system for removing other contaminants, including lead, from drinking water.Not only is the new system inexpensive and scalable to large sizes, but in principle it also can deal with a wide range of contaminants, Bazant says. “It’s a single device that can perform a whole range of separations for any specific application,” he says.In their earlier desalination work, the researchers used measurements of the water’s electrical conductivity to determine how much salt was removed. In the years since then, the team has developed other methods for detecting and quantifying the details of what’s in the concentrated radioactive waste and the cleaned water.“We carefully measure the composition of all the stuff going in and out,” says Bazant, who is the E.G. Roos Professor of Chemical Engineering as well as a professor of mathematics. “This really opened up a new direction for our research.” They began to focus on separation processes that would be useful for health reasons or that would result in concentrating material that has high value, either for reuse or to offset disposal costs.The method they developed works for sea water desalination, but it is a relatively energy-intensive process for that application. The energy cost is dramatically lower when the method is used for ion-selective separations from dilute streams such as nuclear plant cooling water. For this application, which also requires expensive disposal, the method makes economic sense, he says. It also hits both of the team’s targets: dealing with high-value materials and helping to safeguard health. The scale of the application is also significant — a single large nuclear plant can circulate about 10 million cubic meters of water per year through its cooling system, Alkhadra says.For their tests of the system, the researchers used simulated nuclear wastewater based on a recipe provided by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which sponsored the research and is a major builder of nuclear plants. In the team’s tests, after a three-stage separation process, they were able to remove 99.5 percent of the cobalt radionuclides in the water while retaining about 43 percent of the water in cleaned-up form so that it could be reused. As much as two-thirds of the water can be reused if the cleanup level is cut back to 98.3 percent of the contaminants removed, the team found.While the overall method has many potential applications, the nuclear wastewater separation, is “one of the first problems we think we can solve [with this method] that no other solution exists for,” Bazant says. No other practical, continuous, economic method has been found for separating out the radioactive isotopes of cobalt and cesium, the two major contaminants of nuclear wastewater, he adds.While the method could be used for routine cleanup, it could also make a big difference in dealing with more extreme cases, such as the millions of gallons of contaminated water at the damaged Fukushima Daichi power plant in Japan, where the accumulation of that contaminated water has threatened to overpower the containment systems designed to prevent it from leaking out into the adjacent Pacific. While the new system has so far only been tested at much smaller scales, Bazant says that such large-scale decontamination systems based on this method might be possible “within a few years.”The research team also included MIT postdocs Kameron Conforti and Tao Gao and graduate student Huanhuan Tian. A small-scale device, seen here, was used in the lab to demonstrate the effectiveness of the new shockwave-based system for removing radioactive contaminants from the cooling water in nuclear powerplants. Image courtesy of the researchers https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-dining-wins-new-england-food-vision-prize-1206 The $250,000 prize is awarded to six teams of college and university dining programs to bring more local food to campus menus. Fri, 06 Dec 2019 11:00:01 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-dining-wins-new-england-food-vision-prize-1206 Division of Student Life MIT Dining, in collaboration with the MIT Office of Sustainability, has been selected as one of six recipients of the 2019 Henry P. Kendall Foundation New England Food Vision Prize. Launched by the Henry P. Kendall Foundation in 2018, the New England Food Vision Prize Program gives out as many as six awards of up to $250,000 each to help New England college and university food-service directors explore bold and innovative ideas that strengthen the region’s food system. MIT’s concept — entitled “Food from Here” — combines resources from area universities, local food-processing collaboratives, and regional farms to sustainably increase the amount of local food served on campus. The proposed program meets the measurable, sustainable, and replicable goals of the Food Vision Prize while addressing recent recommendations from the MIT Food and Sustainability Working Group. Those recommendations call on MIT to ensure that students have access to “affordable, sustainable, and culturally meaningful food” and to “empower consumers to make informed choices,” all inspired by the Institute’s innovative spirit. “I am proud and excited about this award,” says Suzy Nelson, vice president and dean for student life. “We want to make sure that students have access to delicious and nutritious food — and having it come from regional growers and co-ops is a great way to contribute to the Massachusetts economy, to support farms and farmers, and to strengthen our food chain.”         “MIT Dining’s proposal aims to sustainably increase the amount of local and regional food served and sold on campuses,” says Mark Hayes, director of MIT Dining. In this proposal, MIT partnered with Lesley University and Emmanuel College to share food sources and solutions. “Lesley and Emmanuel are both close to MIT geographically, and we share the same food-service contractor — Bon Appetit Management Company (BAMCo) — making them a natural choice for partnership,” Hayes says. “Developing a visionary approach for new campus food systems is a huge task, so the idea is that if one university can figure out how to do that, that can be done elsewhere,” says Susy Jones, sustainability project manager at MIT. “By working with these partners from the outset, we can identify how to make something like this work in a way that is replicable.”  Working together, MIT, Lesley, Emmanuel, and their food-processing and gleaning partners will identify a core set of locally grown surplus crops — like apples, eggplant, and squash — that can be used across campuses, allowing the schools’ chefs to forecast demand and commit to regular purchases. Boston Area Gleaners will help source the surplus produce from area farms. Commonwealth Kitchen and Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center will process the produce into products such as diced onions or crushed tomatoes that can be used year-round in recipes, sold in campus cafés, and made available in grocery and convenience stores. The Food Vision Prize supports this effort by allowing organizations to dedicate staff to managing the effort and rolling it out in a way that engages campus communities. “This award recognizes the innovative ways MIT is working to solve for sustainability across food systems,” says Director of Sustainability Julie Newman. “Building creative partnerships across campus and communities helps us tackle these big challenges, and this award supports our work in doing that.” MIT Dining is continually working to add value and choice to eating options at MIT. Send suggestions, comments, or other any food for thought to foodstuff@mit.edu. MIT Dining recently won the New England Food Vision Prize. “Food from Here” combines resources from area universities, local food-processing collaboratives, and regional farms to sustainably increase the amount of local food served on campus. Photo: MIT Dining https://news.mit.edu/2019/coated-seeds-agriculture-marginal-lands-1125 A specialized silk covering could protect seeds from salinity while also providing fertilizer-generating microbes. Mon, 25 Nov 2019 14:59:59 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2019/coated-seeds-agriculture-marginal-lands-1125 David L. Chandler | MIT News Office Providing seeds with a protective coating that also supplies essential nutrients to the germinating plant could make it possible to grow crops in otherwise unproductive soils, according to new research at MIT.A team of engineers has coated seeds with silk that has been treated with a kind of bacteria that naturally produce a nitrogen fertilizer, to help the germinating plants develop. Tests have shown that these seeds can grow successfully in soils that are too salty to allow untreated seeds to develop normally. The researchers hope this process, which can be applied inexpensively and without the need for specialized equipment, could open up areas of land to farming that are now considered unsuitable for agriculture.The findings are being published this week in the journal PNAS, in a paper by graduate students Augustine Zvinavashe ’16 and Hui Sun, postdoc Eugen Lim, and professor of civil and environmental engineering Benedetto Marelli.The work grew out of Marelli’s previous research on using silk coatings as a way to extend the shelf life of seeds used as food crops. “When I was doing some research on that, I stumbled on biofertilizers that can be used to increase the amount of nutrients in the soil,” he says. These fertilizers use microbes that live symbiotically with certain plants and convert nitrogen from the air into a form that can be readily taken up by the plants.Not only does this provide a natural fertilizer to the plant crops, but it avoids problems associated with other fertilizing approaches, he says: “One of the big problems with nitrogen fertilizers is they have a big environmental impact, because they are very energetically demanding to produce.” These artificial fertilizers may also have a negative impact on soil quality, according to Marelli.Although these nitrogen-fixing bacteria occur naturally in soils around the world, with different local varieties found in different regions, they are very hard to preserve outside of their natural soil environment. But silk can preserve biological material, so Marelli and his team decided to try it out on these nitrogen-fixing bacteria, known as rhizobacteria.“We came up with the idea to use them in our seed coating, and once the seed was in the soil, they would resuscitate,” he says. Preliminary tests did not turn out well, however; the bacteria weren’t preserved as well as expected.That’s when Zvinavashe came up with the idea of adding a particular nutrient to the mix, a kind of sugar known as trehalose, which some organisms use to survive under low-water conditions. The silk, bacteria, and trehalose were all suspended in water, and the researchers simply soaked the seeds in the solution for a few seconds to produce an even coating. Then the seeds were tested at both MIT and a research facility operated by the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Ben Guerir, Morocco. “It showed the technique works very well,” Zvinavashe says.The resulting plants, helped by ongoing fertilizer production by the bacteria, developed in better health than those from untreated seeds and grew successfully in soil from fields that are presently not productive for agriculture, Marelli says.In practice, such coatings could be applied to the seeds by either dipping or spray coating, the researchers say. Either process can be done at ordinary ambient temperature and pressure. “The process is fast, easy, and it might be scalable” to allow for larger farms and unskilled growers to make use of it, Zvinavashe says. “The seeds can be simply dip-coated for a few seconds,” producing a coating that is just a few micrometers thick.The ordinary silk they use “is water soluble, so as soon as it’s exposed to the soil, the bacteria are released,” Marelli says. But the coating nevertheless provides enough protection and nutrients to allow the seeds to germinate in soil with a salinity level that would ordinarily prevent their normal growth. “We do see plants that grow in soil where otherwise nothing grows,” he says.These rhizobacteria normally provide fertilizer to legume crops such as common beans and chickpeas, and those have been the focus of the research so far, but it may be possible to adapt them to work with other kinds of crops as well, and that is part of the team’s ongoing research. “There is a big push to extend the use of rhizobacteria to nonlegume crops,” he says. One way to accomplish that might be to modify the DNA of the bacteria, plants, or both, he says, but that may not be necessary.“Our approach is almost agnostic to the kind of plant and bacteria,” he says, and it may be feasible “to stabilize, encapsulate and deliver [the bacteria] to the soil, so it becomes more benign for germination” of other kinds of plants as well.Even if limited to legume crops, the method could still make a significant difference to regions with large areas of saline soil. “Based on the excitement we saw with our collaboration in Morocco,” Marelli says, “this could be very impactful.”As a next step, the researchers are working on developing new coatings that could not only protect seeds from saline soil, but also make them more resistant to drought, using coatings that absorb water from the soil. Meanwhile, next year they will begin test plantings out in open experimental fields in Morocco; their previous plantings have been done indoors under more controlled conditions.The research was partly supported by the Université Mohammed VI Polytechnique-MIT Research Program, the Office of Naval Research, and the Office of the Dean for Graduate Fellowship and Research. Researchers have used silk derived from ordinary silkworm cocoons, like those seen here, mixed with bacteria and nutrients, to make a coating for seeds that can help them germinate and grow even in salty soil. Image courtesy of the researchers https://news.mit.edu/2019/microparticles-fight-malnutrition-1113 New strategy for encapsulating nutrients makes it easier to fortify foods with iron and vitamin A. Wed, 13 Nov 2019 13:59:59 -0500 https://news.mit.edu/2019/microparticles-fight-malnutrition-1113 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office About 2 billion people around the world suffer from deficiencies of key micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A. Two million children die from these deficiencies every year, and people who don’t get enough of these nutrients can develop blindness, anemia, and cognitive impairments.MIT researchers have now developed a new way to fortify staple foods with these micronutrients by encapsulating them in a biocompatible polymer that prevents the nutrients from being degraded during storage or cooking. In a small clinical trial, they showed that women who ate bread fortified with encapsulated iron were able to absorb iron from the food.“We are really excited that our team has been able to develop this unique nutrient-delivery system that has the potential to help billions of people in the developing world, and taken it all the way from inception to human clinical trials,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.The researchers now hope to run clinical trials in developing nations where micronutrient deficiencies are common.Langer and Ana Jaklenec, a research scientist at the Koch Institute, are the senior authors of the study, which appears today in Science Translational Medicine. The paper’s lead authors are former MIT postdocs Aaron Anselmo and Xian Xu, and ETH Zurich graduate student Simone Buerkli.Protecting nutrientsLack of vitamin A is the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness, and it can also impair immunity, making children more susceptible to diseases such as measles. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia and also impairs cognitive development in children, contributing to a “cycle of poverty,” Jaklenec says.“These children don’t do well in school because of their poor health, and when they grow up, they may have difficulties finding a job, so their kids are also living in poverty and often without access to education,” she says.The MIT team, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set out to develop new technology that could help with efforts to fortify foods with essential micronutrients. Fortification has proven successful in the past with iodized salt, for example, and offers a way to incorporate nutrients in a way that doesn’t require people to change their eating habits.“What’s been shown to be effective for food fortification is staple foods, something that’s in the household and people use every day,” Jaklenec says. “Everyone eats salt or flour, so you don’t need to change anything in their everyday practices.”However, simply adding vitamin A or iron to foods doesn’t work well. Vitamin A is very sensitive to heat and can be degraded during cooking, and iron can bind to other molecules in food, giving the food a metallic taste. To overcome that, the MIT team set out to find a way to encapsulate micronutrients in a material that would protect them from being broken down or interacting with other molecules, and then release them after being consumed.The researchers tested about 50 different polymers and settled on one known as BMC. This polymer is currently used in dietary supplements, and in the United States it is classified as “generally regarded as safe.”Using this polymer, the researchers showed that they could encapsulate 11 different micronutrients, including zinc, vitamin B2, niacin, biotin, and vitamin C, as well as iron and vitamin A. They also demonstrated that they could encapsulate combinations of up to four of the micronutrients together.Tests in the lab showed that the encapsulated micronutrients were unharmed after being boiled for two hours. The encapsulation also protected nutrients from ultraviolet light and from oxidizing chemicals, such as polyphenols, found in fruits and vegetables. When the particles were exposed to very acidic conditions (pH 1.5, typical of the pH in the stomach), the polymer become soluble and the micronutrients were released.In tests in mice, the researchers showed that particles broke down in the stomach, as expected, and the cargo traveled to the small intestine, where it can be absorbed.Iron boostAfter the successful animal tests, the researchers decided to test the encapsulated micronutrients in human subjects. The trial was led by Michael Zimmerman, a professor of health sciences and technology at ETH Zurich who studies nutrition and food fortification.In their first trial, the researchers incorporated encapsulated iron sulfate into maize porridge, a corn-derived product common in developing world, and mixed the maize with a vegetable sauce. In that initial study, they found that people who ate the fortified maize — female university students in Switzerland, most of whom were anemic — did not absorb as much iron as the researchers hoped they would. The amount of iron absorbed was a little less than half of what was absorbed by subjects who consumed iron sulfate that was not encapsulated.After that, the researchers decided to reformulate the particles and found that if they boosted the percentage of iron sulfate in the particles from 3 percent to about 18 percent, they could achieve iron absorption rates very similar to the percentage for unencapsulated iron sulfate. In that second trial, also conducted at ETH, they mixed the encapsulated iron into flour and then used it to bake bread.“Reformulation of the microparticles was possible because our platform was tunable and amenable to large-scale manufacturing approaches,” Anselmo says. “This allowed us to improve our formulation based on the feedback from the first trial.”The next step, Jaklenec says, is to try a similar study in a country where many people experience micronutrient deficiencies. The researchers are now working on gaining regulatory approval from the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives. They are also working on identifying other foods that would be useful to fortify, and on scaling up their manufacturing process so they can produce large quantities of the powdered micronutrients.Other authors of the paper are Yingying Zeng, Wen Tang, Kevin McHugh, Adam Behrens, Evan Rosenberg, Aranda Duan, James Sugarman, Jia Zhuang, Joe Collins, Xueguang Lu, Tyler Graf, Stephany Tzeng, Sviatlana Rose, Sarah Acolatse, Thanh Nguyen, Xiao Le, Ana Sofia Guerra, Lisa Freed, Shelley Weinstock, Christopher Sears, Boris Nikolic, Lowell Wood, Philip Welkhoff, James Oxley, and Diego Moretti. MIT engineers have developed a way to encapsulate nutrients in a biocompatible polymer, making it easier to use them to fortify foods. Image: Second Bay Studios https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-global-food-security-challenges-agricultural-impacts-climate-crisis-1030 The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab presents a new report on climate, agriculture, water, and food security — with plans for more research. Wed, 30 Oct 2019 15:50:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-global-food-security-challenges-agricultural-impacts-climate-crisis-1030 Andi Sutton | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab Early this August, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued yet another in a series of grave and disquieting reports outlining the extreme challenges placed on the Earth’s systems by the climate crisis. Most IPCC reports and accompanying media coverage tend to emphasize greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from energy and transportation sectors, along with the weather and sea-level impacts of climate change and their direct impact on vulnerable human populations. However, this particular report, the “Special Report on Climate Change and Land,” presents a sobering set of data and analyses addressing the substantial contributions of agriculture to climate change and the ways the climate crisis is projected to jeopardize global food security if urgent action is not taken at the individual, institutional, industry, and governmental levels. There is an ever-increasing public awareness about climate’s effects on the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, threats to coastal cities, and the rapid decline in the biodiversity of the Earth’s ecosystems. However, the impact of climate change on land and food production — and the impact of our food systems on climate change — is just beginning to enter the wider public discourse. Food systems are responsible for up to 30 percent of global GHG emissions, with agricultural activities accounting for up to 86 percent of total food-system emissions. And agriculture is a sector that is put at significant risk by the direct and indirect effects of the Earth’s rising temperatures. In order to adapt to future climate uncertainty and to minimize agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, strategies addressing the sustainability and adaptive capacity of food systems must be developed and rapidly implemented. With so much at stake, targeted research that reaches beyond disciplinary and institutional boundaries is needed. Since its 2014 launch at MIT, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has promoted research and innovation across diverse disciplines that will help ensure the resilience of the world’s water and food systems even as they are increasingly pressured by the effects of climate change. Its newly released report, “Climate Change, Agriculture, Water, and Food Security: What We Know and Don’t Know,” is part of this effort. The report collects the central findings of an expert workshop conducted by J-WAFS in May 2018. The workshop gathered 46 experts in agriculture, climate, engineering, and the physical and natural sciences from around the world — several of whom were also involved in writing the August 2019 IPCC report — to discuss current understanding of the complex relationship between climate change and agriculture. This report, based on the workshop deliberations, initiates a longer study that will directly engage stakeholders to address how research can be best targeted to the needs of policymakers, funders, and other decision-makers and stakeholders. Central to the conclusions of the 2018 workshop was widespread agreement among participants of the need for convergence research that addresses the climate crisis in food systems. Convergence research is built around deep integration across disciplines in order to address complex problems focusing on societal need. By deploying transdisciplinary teams with expertise in plant, soil, and climate science, agricultural technologies, agribusiness, economics, behavior change and communication, marketing, nutrition, and public policy, convergence research promotes innovative approaches to formulating and evaluating adaptation and mitigation strategies for future food security. A study that J-WAFS is now launching will take this approach. As part of the new study, J-WAFS is partnering with three internationally renowned institutions with complementary expertise in agriculture and food systems. Titled “Climate Change and Global Food Systems: Supporting Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies with Research,” the collaborative project will leverage the myriad disciplines and specialties of a cross-institutional group of researchers, along with stakeholders and decision-makers, in order to develop a prioritized, actionable, solutions-oriented research agenda. The project’s goal is to determine which research questions must be answered, and which innovations must be prioritized, in order to ensure that global food security can be met even while the climate crisis wreaks havoc on global food systems. The project will help develop stronger connections and collaborative partnerships across diverse research communities (in particular, MIT and the partner universities) and with the stakeholders and decision-makers who fund research, develop policy, and implement programs to support agriculture and food security. The three collaborating universities who are joining MIT in this effort are: Wageningen University in the Netherlands — an institution which is at forefront of agriculture and food systems research; Tufts University — an international leader in interdisciplinary food and nutrition research, especially through its Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy; and the University of California at Davis, whose College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences ranks No. 1 in the United States for agriculture, plant sciences, animal science, forestry, and agricultural economics. Says Ermias Kebreab, associate dean for global engagement in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, “the project will address several grand challenges that align very well with the mission and goals of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.  Collaborating with MIT and other project partners presents exciting opportunities to extend the reach and impact of the UC Davis research.” With potential dire impacts of the climate crisis on our global food systems, opportunities for transformative change must be found. But there currently exist significant knowledge gaps on the best practices, technologies, policies, and development approaches for achieving food security with win-win solutions at the nexus of climate change and food systems. J-WAFS’ workshop report emphasized that more research is required to better characterize specific challenges and to develop, evaluate, and implement effective strategies. Specific areas where research presents significant opportunities include understanding and improving soil quality and fertility; the development of technologies such as advanced biotechnology, carbon sequestration, and geospatial tools; fundamental research questions about crop response to environmental stresses, such as high temperatures and drought; improvements to crop and climate models; approaches to manage risk in the face of uncertain risk; and the development of strategies to effect behavioral change, particularly around food choices. It may yet be possible to sustainably produce enough nutritious food to feed the world while at the same time reversing the current trends in its production that damage the environment. As stated by John H. Lienhard V, J-WAFS director and MIT professor, “the next green revolution will be delivered using new farming practices, emerging scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and insights from the social sciences, all combined to provide effective policies, equitable social programs, and much-needed changes in consumer behavior.”   If the world is to be free of hunger and malnutrition in accordance with the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems must be rapidly implemented in order to adapt to climate change. Research launched by J-WAFS seeks to map out the most strategic ways that research can be used to ensure a global transition toward food-system sustainability. https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-global-food-security-challenges-agricultural-impacts-climate-crisis-1030 The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab presents a new report on climate, agriculture, water, and food security — with plans for more research. Wed, 30 Oct 2019 15:50:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-global-food-security-challenges-agricultural-impacts-climate-crisis-1030 Andi Sutton | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab Early this August, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued yet another in a series of grave and disquieting reports outlining the extreme challenges placed on the Earth’s systems by the climate crisis. Most IPCC reports and accompanying media coverage tend to emphasize greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from energy and transportation sectors, along with the weather and sea-level impacts of climate change and their direct impact on vulnerable human populations. However, this particular report, the “Special Report on Climate Change and Land,” presents a sobering set of data and analyses addressing the substantial contributions of agriculture to climate change and the ways the climate crisis is projected to jeopardize global food security if urgent action is not taken at the individual, institutional, industry, and governmental levels. There is an ever-increasing public awareness about climate’s effects on the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, threats to coastal cities, and the rapid decline in the biodiversity of the Earth’s ecosystems. However, the impact of climate change on land and food production — and the impact of our food systems on climate change — is just beginning to enter the wider public discourse. Food systems are responsible for up to 30 percent of global GHG emissions, with agricultural activities accounting for up to 86 percent of total food-system emissions. And agriculture is a sector that is put at significant risk by the direct and indirect effects of the Earth’s rising temperatures. In order to adapt to future climate uncertainty and to minimize agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, strategies addressing the sustainability and adaptive capacity of food systems must be developed and rapidly implemented. With so much at stake, targeted research that reaches beyond disciplinary and institutional boundaries is needed. Since its 2014 launch at MIT, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has promoted research and innovation across diverse disciplines that will help ensure the resilience of the world’s water and food systems even as they are increasingly pressured by the effects of climate change. Its newly released report, “Climate Change, Agriculture, Water, and Food Security: What We Know and Don’t Know,” is part of this effort. The report collects the central findings of an expert workshop conducted by J-WAFS in May 2018. The workshop gathered 46 experts in agriculture, climate, engineering, and the physical and natural sciences from around the world — several of whom were also involved in writing the August 2019 IPCC report — to discuss current understanding of the complex relationship between climate change and agriculture. This report, based on the workshop deliberations, initiates a longer study that will directly engage stakeholders to address how research can be best targeted to the needs of policymakers, funders, and other decision-makers and stakeholders. Central to the conclusions of the 2018 workshop was widespread agreement among participants of the need for convergence research that addresses the climate crisis in food systems. Convergence research is built around deep integration across disciplines in order to address complex problems focusing on societal need. By deploying transdisciplinary teams with expertise in plant, soil, and climate science, agricultural technologies, agribusiness, economics, behavior change and communication, marketing, nutrition, and public policy, convergence research promotes innovative approaches to formulating and evaluating adaptation and mitigation strategies for future food security. A study that J-WAFS is now launching will take this approach. As part of the new study, J-WAFS is partnering with three internationally renowned institutions with complementary expertise in agriculture and food systems. Titled “Climate Change and Global Food Systems: Supporting Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies with Research,” the collaborative project will leverage the myriad disciplines and specialties of a cross-institutional group of researchers, along with stakeholders and decision-makers, in order to develop a prioritized, actionable, solutions-oriented research agenda. The project’s goal is to determine which research questions must be answered, and which innovations must be prioritized, in order to ensure that global food security can be met even while the climate crisis wreaks havoc on global food systems. The project will help develop stronger connections and collaborative partnerships across diverse research communities (in particular, MIT and the partner universities) and with the stakeholders and decision-makers who fund research, develop policy, and implement programs to support agriculture and food security. The three collaborating universities who are joining MIT in this effort are: Wageningen University in the Netherlands — an institution which is at forefront of agriculture and food systems research; Tufts University — an international leader in interdisciplinary food and nutrition research, especially through its Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy; and the University of California at Davis, whose College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences ranks No. 1 in the United States for agriculture, plant sciences, animal science, forestry, and agricultural economics. Says Ermias Kebreab, associate dean for global engagement in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, “the project will address several grand challenges that align very well with the mission and goals of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.  Collaborating with MIT and other project partners presents exciting opportunities to extend the reach and impact of the UC Davis research.” With potential dire impacts of the climate crisis on our global food systems, opportunities for transformative change must be found. But there currently exist significant knowledge gaps on the best practices, technologies, policies, and development approaches for achieving food security with win-win solutions at the nexus of climate change and food systems. J-WAFS’ workshop report emphasized that more research is required to better characterize specific challenges and to develop, evaluate, and implement effective strategies. Specific areas where research presents significant opportunities include understanding and improving soil quality and fertility; the development of technologies such as advanced biotechnology, carbon sequestration, and geospatial tools; fundamental research questions about crop response to environmental stresses, such as high temperatures and drought; improvements to crop and climate models; approaches to manage risk in the face of uncertain risk; and the development of strategies to effect behavioral change, particularly around food choices. It may yet be possible to sustainably produce enough nutritious food to feed the world while at the same time reversing the current trends in its production that damage the environment. As stated by John H. Lienhard V, J-WAFS director and MIT professor, “the next green revolution will be delivered using new farming practices, emerging scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and insights from the social sciences, all combined to provide effective policies, equitable social programs, and much-needed changes in consumer behavior.”   If the world is to be free of hunger and malnutrition in accordance with the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems must be rapidly implemented in order to adapt to climate change. Research launched by J-WAFS seeks to map out the most strategic ways that research can be used to ensure a global transition toward food-system sustainability. https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-process-could-make-hydrogen-peroxide-available-remote-places-1023 MIT-developed method may lead to portable devices for making the disinfectant on-site where it’s needed. Wed, 23 Oct 2019 16:00:00 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-process-could-make-hydrogen-peroxide-available-remote-places-1023 David L. Chandler | MIT News Office Hydrogen peroxide, a useful all-purpose disinfectant, is found in most medicine cabinets in the developed world. But in remote villages in developing countries, where it could play an important role in health and sanitation, it can be hard to come by. Now, a process developed at MIT could lead to a simple, inexpensive, portable device that could produce hydrogen peroxide continuously from just air, water, and electricity, providing a way to sterilize wounds, food-preparation surfaces, and even water supplies. The new method is described this week in the journal Joule in a paper by MIT students Alexander Murray, Sahag Voskian, and Marcel Schreier and MIT professors T. Alan Hatton and Yogesh Surendranath. Even at low concentrations, hydrogen peroxide is an effective antibacterial agent, and after carrying out its sterilizing function it breaks down into plain water, in contrast to other agents such as chlorine that can leave unwanted byproducts from its production and use. Hydrogen peroxide is just water with an extra oxygen atom tacked on — it’s H2O2, instead of H2O. That extra oxygen is relatively loosely bound, making it a highly reactive chemical eager to oxidize any other molecules around it. It’s so reactive that in high concentrations it can be used as rocket fuel, and even concentrations of 35 percent require very special handling and shipping procedures. The kind used as a household disinfectant is typically only 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and 97 percent water. Because high concentrations are hard to transport, and low concentrations, being mostly water, are uneconomical to ship, the material is often hard to get in places where it could be especially useful, such as remote communities with untreated water. (Bacteria in water supplies can be effectively controlled by adding hydrogen peroxide.) As a result, many research groups around the world have been pursuing approaches to developing some form of portable hydrogen peroxide production equipment. Most of the hydrogen peroxide produced in the industrialized world is made in large chemical plants, where methane, or natural gas, is used to provide a source of hydrogen, which is then reacted with oxygen in a catalytic process under high heat. This process is energy-intensive and not easily scalable, requiring large equipment and a steady supply of methane, so it does not lend itself to smaller units or remote locations. “There’s a growing community interested in portable hydrogen peroxide,” Surendranath says, “because of the appreciation that it would really meet a lot of needs, both on the industrial side as well as in terms of human health and sanitation.” Other processes developed so far for potentially portable systems have key limitations. For example, most catalysts that promote the formation of hydrogen peroxide from hydrogen and oxygen also make a lot of water, leading to low concentrations of the desired product. Also, processes that involve electrolysis, as this new process does, often have a hard time separating the produced hydrogen peroxide from the electrolyte material used in the process, again leading to low efficiency. Surendranath and the rest of the team solved the problem by breaking the process down into two separate steps. First, electricity (ideally from solar cells or windmills) is used to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen then reacts with a “carrier” molecule. This molecule — a compound called anthroquinone, in these initial experiments — is then introduced into a separate reaction chamber where it meets with oxygen taken from the outside air, and a pair of hydrogen atoms binds to an oxygen molecule (O2) to form the hydrogen peroxide. In the process, the carrier molecule is restored to its original state and returns to carry out the cycle all over again, so none of this material is consumed. The process could address numerous challenges, Surendranath says, by making clean water, first-aid care for wounds, and sterile food preparation surfaces more available in places where they are presently scarce or unavailable. “Even at fairly low concentrations, you can use it to disinfect water of microbial contaminants and other pathogens,” Surendranath says. And, he adds, “at higher concentrations, it can be used even to do what’s called advanced oxidation,” where in combination with UV light it can be used to decontaminate water of even strong industrial wastes, for example from mining operations or hydraulic fracking. So, for example, a portable hydrogen peroxide plant might be set up adjacent to a fracking or mining site and used to clean up its effluent, then moved to another location once operations cease at the original site. In this initial proof-of-concept unit, the concentration of hydrogen peroxide produced is still low, but further engineering of the system should lead to being able to produce more concentrated output, Surendranath says. “One of the ways to do that is to just increase the concentration of the mediator, and fortunately, our mediator has already been used in flow batteries at really high concentrations, so we think there’s a route toward being able to increase those concentrations,” he says. “It’s kind of an amazing process,” he says, “because you take abundant things, water, air and electricity, that you can source locally, and you use it to make this important chemical that you can use to actually clean up the environment and for sanitation and water quality.” “The ability to create a hydrogen peroxide solution in water without electrolytes, salt, base, etc., all of which are intrinsic to other electrochemical processes, is noteworthy,” says Shannon Stahl, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, who was not involved in this work. Stahl adds that “Access to salt-free aqueous solutions of H2O2 has broad implications for practical applications.” Stahl says that “This work represents an innovative application of ‘mediated electrolysis.’ Mediated electrochemistry provides a means to merge conventional chemical processes with electrochemistry, and this is a particularly compelling demonstration of this concept. … There are many potential applications of this concept.” In a new method to produce hydrogen peroxide portably, an electrolyzer (left) splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen atoms initially form in an electrolyte material (green), which transfers them to a mediator material (red), which then carries them to a separate unit where the mediator comes in contact with oxygen-rich water (blue), where the hydrogen combines with it to form hydrogen peroxide. The mediator then returns to begin the cycle again. Image courtesy of the researchers. https://news.mit.edu/2019/scaling-cleaner-burning-alternative-cookstoves-1023 Mechanical engineering students in MIT D-Lab are working with collaborators in Uganda on a solution for the health hazards associated with wood-burning stoves. Tue, 22 Oct 2019 23:59:59 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/scaling-cleaner-burning-alternative-cookstoves-1023 Mary Beth Gallagher | Department of Mechanical Engineering For millions of people globally, cooking in their own homes can be detrimental to their health, and sometimes deadly. The World Health Organization estimates that 3.8 million people a year die as a result of the soot and smoke generated in traditional wood-burning cookstoves. Women and children in particular are at risk of pneumonia, stroke, lung cancer, or low birth weight.  “All their life they’re exposed to this smoke,” says Betty Ikalany, founder and chief executive director of Appropriate Energy Saving Technologies (AEST). “Ten thousand women die annually in Uganda because of inhaling smoke from cookstoves.” Ikalany is working to eliminate the health risks associated with cookstoves in Uganda. In 2012 she met Amy Smith, founding director of MIT D-Lab, who introduced her to D-Lab’s method of manufacturing briquettes that produce no soot and very little smoke. Ikalany saw an opportunity to use this technology in Uganda, and founded AEST that same year. She started assembling a team to produce and distribute the briquettes.Made of charcoal dust, carbonized agricultural waste such as peanut shells and corn husks, and a cassava-water porridge, which acts as a binding agent, the briquettes are wet initially. To be usable in a cookstove, they must be completely dried. Ikalany’s team dries the briquettes on open-air racks. In ideal sunny conditions, it takes three days for the briquettes to dry. Inclement weather or humidity can substantially slow down the evaporation needed to dry the briquettes. When it rains, the briquettes are covered with tarps, completely halting the drying process. “The drying of the briquettes is the bottleneck of the whole process,” says Danielle Gleason, a senior studying mechanical engineering. “In order to scale up production and keep growing as a business, Betty and her team realized that they needed to improve the drying process.” Gleason was one of several students who were connected to Ikalany through MIT D-Lab courses. While taking the cross-listed MIT D-Lab class 2.651/EC.711 (Introduction to Energy in Global Development) as a sophomore, she worked on a project that sought to optimize the drying process in charcoal briquettes. That summer, she traveled to Uganda to meet with Ikalany’s team along with Daniel Sweeney, a research scientist at MIT D-Lab. “Drawing upon their strong theoretical foundation and experiences in the lab and the classroom, we want our students to go out into the field and make real things that have a lasting impact,” explains Maria Yang, professor of mechanical engineering and faculty academic director at MIT D-Lab. During her first trip to Uganda, Gleason focused on information gathering and identifying where there were pain points in the production process of the briquettes. “I went to Uganda not to present an incredibly complex solution, but simply to learn from our community partners, to share some ideas our team has been working on, and to work directly with those who will be impacted by our designs,” adds Gleason. Armed with a better understanding of AEST’s production process, Gleason continued to develop ideas for improving the drying process when she returned to MIT last fall. In MIT D-Lab 2.652/EC.712 (Applications of Energy in Global Development), she worked with a team of students on various designs for a new drying system. “We spent a whole semester figuring out how to improve this airflow and naturally convect the air,” Gleason explains. With sponges acting as stand-ins for the charcoal briquettes, Gleason and her team used heat lamps to replicate the heat and humidity in Uganda. They developed three different designs for tent-like structures that could facilitate drying at all times — even when raining. At the end of the semester, it was time to put these designs to the test. “You can prototype and test all you want, but until you visit the field and experience the real-world conditions and work with the people who will be using your designs, you never fully understand the problem,” adds Gleason. Last January, during MIT’s Independent Activity Period, Gleason returned to Uganda to test designs. She and her team found out that their original idea of having a slanted dryer didn’t work in real-world conditions. Outside of the controlled conditions in the lab, their dryers didn’t have enough air flow to speed up the drying process. They spent several weeks troubleshooting dryer designs with Ikalany and her team. The team ended up designing covered dryers that allowed the briquettes to dry in both sun and rain, increasing the overall throughput. “We believe that once we are able to scale up what we have learned from Danielle and her team we should be able to produce five times more a day,” says Ikalany. “Our production capacity will increase and the demand for customers will be met.” In addition to helping Ikalany scale up the production of the potentially life-saving briquettes, Gleason and her fellow students left Uganda with a broadened world view. “For most students, this is the first time they will visit these countries,” adds Yang. “Not only do we want to benefit our collaborators, we want our students to gain formative and enriching experiences.” Gleason left Uganda with a deeper appreciation of community. “Seeing how close the community Betty and her team are a part of really made me value the idea of community more,” she recalls. While other students will pick up where Gleason and her team left off in their work with Ikalany in the coming months, Gleason hopes to continue working on solutions in the developing world as she explores future career paths. “I really love looking at how people interact with the things they use, and I think there’s so much room for growth in user-interfacing in the developing world,” she says. Senior Danielle Gleason (right) speaks with Goretti Ariago (center) and Salume Awiyo (left), employees of Appropriate Energy Saving Technologies, in Soroti, Uganda. Gleason has made two trips to Uganda to help streamline the production of charcoal briquettes which offer a low-smoke alternative for home cooking fuel. Photo: John Freidah https://news.mit.edu/2019/new-vending-machines-expand-fresh-food-options-campus-1018 Now at the Student Center and Building 16, Fresh Fridge by 6am Health offers healthy options for eating on the go. Fri, 18 Oct 2019 14:30:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/new-vending-machines-expand-fresh-food-options-campus-1018 Julia Newman | Division of Student Life To expand the fresh, healthy meal choices on campus, MIT Dining recently rolled out a pilot of 6am Health’s Fresh Fridge vending machines in the 5th floor lounge of the Stratton Student Center (Building W20) and in the vending-machine area at the first-floor intersection of Buildings 16 and 26. “Fresh Fridge’s delicious meals are packed in reusable jars, which is great for students on the go who want something they can throw in their backpacks but is more healthful than a granola bar or instant ramen,” says Mark Hayes, MIT Dining director. Options include quinoa bowls, salads, overnight oats, sandwiches, and fresh juices.  The machines accept credit cards and phone-based contactless payment methods, but other ways to pay are in the works. Fresh Fridges are another way MIT Dining is working to add value and choice to eating options at MIT. Try out a Fresh Fridge machine and send suggestions, comments, or other any food for thought to foodstuff@mit.edu. 6am Health’s Fresh Fridge vending machines are located in the Stratton Student Center’s 5th floor lounge and in the vending-machine area at the first-floor intersection of Buildings 16 and 26. Photo: Julia Newman/DSL Communications https://news.mit.edu/2019/first-year-water-bottles-reuse-refill-replenish-0925 MIT welcomed the Class of 2023 with an initiative to reduce the impact of water consumption through reusable water bottles and other sustainable habits. Wed, 25 Sep 2019 15:25:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/first-year-water-bottles-reuse-refill-replenish-0925 Lisa Miller | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab During the week of Aug. 26, MIT welcomed its Class of 2023. Participating in the usual orientation activities, they learned about research opportunities, course options, and important resources to help them navigate the Institute. Breaking for lunch each day, new MIT students poured into Kresge Oval where they could picnic under a large tent propped over the grass, providing much-needed shade on these hot August days. New to Kresge Oval this year was a mobile filling station full of cool, fresh, locally sourced water provided by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. Next to the filling station, free reusable water bottles were being given out to all MIT students. These bottles were more than just swag. They were part of a collaborative effort of MIT’s Office of Sustainability (MITOS), the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), MIT Dining, the Office of the First Year, and the MIT Water Club to encourage sustainable water use practices across MIT’s campus and reduce waste by advocating for the regular use of reusable bottles and other serviceware throughout campus. Only students who took a pledge to use their bottle at least 10 times were allowed to take one away. The idea for the bottle giveaway was first raised by the Sustainability Leadership Steering Committee, co-chaired by Julie Newman, the Institute’s director of sustainability, and David McGee, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. When welcoming new students, they wanted to introduce them to MIT’s commitment to building a sustainable future and educate them about the benefits of choosing tap water over single-use plastic bottles. J-WAFS, ESI, MIT Dining, and the MIT Water Club joined the effort to help spread this message and expose incoming students to their sustainability work at MIT. Students who wanted a bottle were asked to take a pledge to use it at least 10 times. Why 10? MITOS, along with Greg Norris, director of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise at MIT, helped articulate that using the stainless steel bottle just 10 times would provide a better environmental performance than a typical single-use water bottle, and the positive impact would continue to grow with future use. When one first-year was asked if he could commit to using the bottle 10 times, he replied, “Oh, heck yeah!” With the water trailer right there, students could fill their bottles right away, bringing them one-tenth of the way to fulfilling their pledge. The bottles were branded with the reminder: “Reuse, refill, replenish.” They were designed by MIT architecture senior and MITOS student fellow Effie Jia to encourage students to incorporate reusable bottles use as well as other sustainable practices into their lives, such as using their own reusable serviceware for takeout and using reusable bags instead of disposable plastic or paper. The bottles are insulated for hot and cold beverages to make them even more flexible. “The perfect size for tea and coffee,” remarked one student. Staff members from MITOS, ESI, and J-WAFS also distributed bookmarks with information about drinking fountains on campus, advice to ask if local cafés offer discounts for bringing refillable bottles, and a reminder to always wash out their reusables to keep them clean and safe. To analyze the potential impact of the water bottle giveaway, event organizers will be conducting a pair of followup surveys with the over 600 bottle recipients to test the persistence of the bottle use and potential changes in awareness. “We are experimenting to determine if we can statistically articulate some impacts associated with the giveaway,” said MITOS director Julie Newman. “It is important with all our initiatives to try to measure success (or failure) so we can test our effectiveness.” While the event was about arming MIT students with sustainable tools, it was also focused on educating them about local water. Andrew Bouma and Patricia Stathatou, this year’s co-presidents of the MIT Water Club, shared information about the quality of Cambridge, Massachusetts, water, giving even more reason to choose tap water over bottled. The Water Club has run similar education events in the past, and has demonstrated that the taste of tap water, recycled water, and bottled water is virtually indistinguishable in a blind taste test. Educating incoming students about the high quality of Cambridge tap water, and the energy, cost, and waste that is saved by choosing to reuse, they hoped to further support sustainable behavior change among the incoming class members. Over the two days in which the water bottles were distributed, the turnout was remarkable. “We were thrilled with the outcome of the event,” said MITOS Sustainability Project Manager Steven Lanou. “Not only did we get to engage directly with over 600 first-year students to share information, we were also so encouraged by their enthusiasm and commitment to help MIT take this small step towards advancing sustainability on campus. ESI, J-WAFS, MIT Dining, MIT Water Club and Office of the First Year couldn’t have been better partners in this activity, and we look forward to many more collaborations in the future.” Water bottles designed by architecture student Effie Jia encourage students to take up environmentally friendly habits. Photo: Lisa Miller/J-WAFS https://news.mit.edu/2019/cody-friesen-awarded-lemelson-mit-prize-invention-0918 Materials scientist recognized for social, economic, and environmentally-sustaining inventions that impact millions of people around the world. Wed, 18 Sep 2019 10:10:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/cody-friesen-awarded-lemelson-mit-prize-invention-0918 Stephanie Martinovich | Lemelson-MIT Program Cody Friesen PhD ’04, an associate professor of materials science at Arizona State University and founder of both Fluidic Energy and Zero Mass Water, was awarded the 2019 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention. Friesen has dedicated his career to inventing solutions that address two of the biggest challenges to social and economic advancement in the developing world: access to fresh water and reliable energy. His renewable water and energy technologies help fight climate change while providing valuable resources to underserved communities. Friesen’s first company, Fluidic Energy, was formed to commercialize and deploy the world’s first, and only, rechargeable metal-air battery, which can withstand many thousands of discharges. The technology has provided backup power during approximately 1 million long-duration outages, while simultaneously offsetting thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The batteries are currently being used as a secondary energy source on four continents at thousands of critical load sites and in dozens of microgrids. Several million people have benefited from access to reliable energy as a result of the technology. Fluidic Energy has been renamed NantEnergy, with Patrick Soon-Shiong investing significantly in the continued global expansion of the technology. Currently, Friesen’s efforts are focused on addressing the global water crisis through his company, Zero Mass Water. Friesen invented SOURCE Hydropanels, which are solar panels that make drinking water from sunlight and air. The invention is a true leapfrog technology and can make drinking water in dry conditions with as low as 5 percent relative humidity. SOURCE has been deployed in 33 countries spanning six continents. The hydropanels are providing clean drinking water in communities, refugee camps, government offices, hotels, hospitals, schools, restaurants, and homes around the world. “As inventors, we have a responsibility to ensure our technology serves all of humanity, not simply the elite,” says Friesen. “At the end of the day, our work is about impact, and this recognition propels us forward as we deploy SOURCE Hydropanels to change the human relationship to water across the globe.” Friesen joins a long lineage of inventors to receive the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the largest cash prize for invention in the United States for 25 years. He will be donating his prize to a project with Conservation International to provide clean drinking water via SOURCE Hydropanels to the Bahia Hondita community in Colombia. “Cody’s inventive spirit, fueled by his strong desire to help improve the lives of people everywhere, is an inspiring role model for future generations,” says Michael Cima, faculty director for the Lemelson-MIT Program and associate dean of innovation for the MIT School of Engineering. “Water scarcity is a prominent global issue, which Cody is combating through technology and innovation. We are excited that the use of this award will further elevate his work.” “Cody Friesen embodies what it means to be an impact inventor,” notes Carol Dahl, executive director at the Lemelson Foundation. “His inventions are truly improving lives, take into account environmental considerations, and have become the basis for companies that impact millions of people around the world each year. We are honored to recognize Dr. Friesen as this year’s LMIT Prize winner.”  Friesen will speak at EmTech MIT, the annual conference on emerging technologies hosted by MIT Technology Review at the MIT Media Lab on Sept. 18 at 5 p.m. Cody Friesen is the winner of the 2019 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention. Photo: Zero Mass Water https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-solutions-grants-hlb-greening-citrus-disease-clean-water-nepal-0917 Projects address access to clean water in Nepal via wearable E. coli test kits, improving the resilience of commercial citrus groves, and more. Tue, 17 Sep 2019 12:00:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-solutions-grants-hlb-greening-citrus-disease-clean-water-nepal-0917 Andi Sutton | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab The development of new technologies often starts with funded university research. Venture capital firms are eager to back well-tested products or services that are ready to enter the startup phase. However, funding that bridges the gap between these two stages can be hard to come by. The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food System Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT aims to fill this gap with their J-WAFS Solutions grant program. This program provides critical funding to students and faculty at MIT who have promising bench-scale technologies that can be applied to water and food systems challenges, but are not yet market-ready. By supporting the essential steps in any startup journey — customer discovery, market testing, prototyping, design, and more — as well as mentorship from industry experts throughout the life of the grant, this grant program helps to speed the development of new products and services that have the potential to increase the safety, resilience, and accessibility of the world’s water and food supplies. J-WAFS Solutions grants provide one year of financial support to MIT principal investigators with promising early-stage technologies, as well as mentorship from industry experts and experienced entrepreneurs throughout the grant. With additional networking and guidance provided by MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, project teams are supported as they advance their technologies toward commercialization. Since the start of the program in 2015, J-WAFS Solutions grants have already been instrumental in the launch of two MIT startups — Via Separations and Xibus Systems — as well as an open-source technology to support clean water access for the rural and urban poor in India. John H. Lienhard V, director of J-WAFS and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering at MIT, describes the role of the J-WAFS Solutions program this way: “The combined effects of unsustainable human consumption patterns and the climate crisis threaten the world’s water and food supplies. These challenges are already present, and the risks were made plain in several recent, high-profile international news reports. Innovation in the water and food sectors can certainly help, and it is urgently needed. Through the J-WAFS Solutions program, we seek to identify nascent technologies with the greatest potential to transform local or even global food and water systems, and then to speed their transfer to market. We aim to leverage MIT’s entrepreneurial spirit to ensure that the water and food needs of our global human community can be met sustainably, now and far into the future.” Two projects funded by the J-WAFS Solutions program in 2019 are applying this entrepreneurial approach to sensors that support clean water and resilience in the agriculture industry. Three projects, all in the agriculture sector and funded by previous grants, are continuing this year, which together comprise a portfolio of exciting MIT technologies that are helping to resolve water and food challenges across the world.  Simplifying water quality testing in Nepal and beyond In 2018, the J-WAFS Solutions program supported a collaboration between the MIT-Nepal Initiative, led by professor of history Jeffrey Ravel, MIT D-Lab lecturer Susan Murcott, and the Nepalese non-governmental organization Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO). The project sought to refine the design of a wearable water test kit developed by Susan Murcott that provided simple, accessible ways to test the presence of E. coli in drinking water, even in the most remote settings. In that first year of J-WAFS funding, the research team worked with their Nepali partners, ENPHO, and their social business partner in Nepal, EcoConcern, to finalize the design of their product, called the ECC Vial, which, with the materials that they’ve now sourced, can be sold for less than $1 in Nepal — a significantly lower price than any other water-testing product on the market.   This technology is urgently needed by communities in Nepal, where many drinking water supplies are contaminated by E. coli. Standard testing practices are expensive, require significant laboratory infrastructure, or are just plain inaccessible to the many people exposed to unsafe drinking water. In fact, children under the age of 5 are the most vulnerable, and more than 40,000 children in Nepal alone die every year as a result of drinking contaminated water. The ECC Vial is intended to be the next-generation easy-to-use, portable, low-cost method for E. coli detection in water samples. It is particularly designed for simplicity and is appropriate for use in remote and low-resource settings. The 2019 renewal grant for the project “Manufacturing and Marketing EC-Kits in Nepal” will support the team in working with the same Nepali partners to optimize the manufacturing process for the ECC Vials and refine the marketing strategy in order to ensure that the technology that is sold to customers is reliable and that the business model for local purveyors is viable now and into the future. Once the product enters the market this year, the team plans to begin distribution in Bangladesh, and will assess market opportunities in India, Pakistan, Peru, and Ghana, where there is a comparable need for a simple and affordable and E.coli indicator testing product for use by government agencies, private water vendors, bottled water firms, international nonprofit organizations and low-income populations without access to safe water. Based on consumer demand in Nepal and beyond, this solution has the potential to reach more than 3 million people during just its first two years on the market. Supporting the resilience of the citrus industry Citrus plants are very high-value crops and nutrient-dense foods. They are an important part of diets for people in developing countries with micronutrient deficiencies, as well as for people in developed economies who suffer from obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. Citrus fruits have become staples across seasons, cultures, and geographies, yet the large-scale citrus farms in the United States that support much of our domestic citrus consumption are challenged by citrus greening disease. Also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), it is an uncurable disease caused by bacteria transmitted by a small insect, the Asian citrus psyllid. The bacterial infection causes trees to wither and fruit to develop an unpleasantly bitter taste, rendering the tree’s fruit inedible. If left undetected, HLB can very quickly spread throughout large citrus groves. Since there is no treatment, infected trees must be removed to prevent further spreading. The disease poses an immediate threat to the $3.3 billion-per-year worldwide citrus industry. One of the reasons HLB is so troubling is that there doesn’t yet exist an accessible and affordable early-detection strategy. Once the observable symptoms of the disease have shown up in one part of a citrus grove, it is likely many more trees are already infected. Taking on this challenge is a research team at MIT led by Karen Gleason, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. A 2019 J-WAFS Solutions grant for the project “Early detection of Huanglongbing (HLB) Citrus Greening Disease” is supporting the development of a new technology for early detection of HLB infection in citrus trees. The team’s strategy is to deploy a series of low-cost, high-sensitivity sensors that can be used on-site, and which are attuned to volatile organic compounds emitted by citrus trees that change in concentration during early-stage HLB infection when trees do not yet exhibit visible symptoms. Using the data gathered via these sensors, an algorithm developed by the team provides a high-accuracy prediction system for the presence of the disease so that farmers and farm managers can make informed decisions about tree removal in order to protect the remaining trees in their citrus groves. Their aim is to detect HLB disease in months, rather than the years it now takes for the infection to be found.  Currently funded J-WAFS Solutions technologies seeking to revolutionize agriculture practices Three other J-WAFS Solutions projects are continuing through the 2019-20 academic year. From a tractor-pulled reactor unit that can turn agricultural wastes on rural farms into nutrient-rich fertilizer, to a polymer-based additive for agriculture sprays that dramatically reduces runoff recently featured by the BBC, to an affordable soil sensor that aims to make precision farming strategies available to smallholder farmers in India, these J-WAFS-funded projects are each aiming to transform the sustainability of small- and large-scale farming practices.   The J-WAFS Solutions program is implemented in collaboration with Community Jameel — the global philanthropic organization founded by MIT alumnus Mohammed Jameel — and is administered by J-WAFS in partnership with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. Fady Jameel, president, international of Community Jameel, says: “Access to clean water, and better management of water resources, can boost countries’ economic growth and can contribute greatly to poverty reduction. We always aim through J-WAFS to support the development and deployment of technologies, policies, and programs which will contribute to help humankind adapt to a rapidly changing planet and combat worldwide water scarcity and food supply.” Left: A water sample undergoing testing using the J-WAFS-funded water quality test kit soon to be deployed throughout Nepal. Right: Citrus trees infected with citrus greening disease are highly contagious and can wipe out whole orange groves. A J-WAFS-funded sensor could help farmers detect the disease much earlier. Image: Murcott/Ravel research team https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-solutions-grants-hlb-greening-citrus-disease-clean-water-nepal-0917 Projects address access to clean water in Nepal via wearable E. coli test kits, improving the resilience of commercial citrus groves, and more. Tue, 17 Sep 2019 12:00:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-solutions-grants-hlb-greening-citrus-disease-clean-water-nepal-0917 Andi Sutton | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab The development of new technologies often starts with funded university research. Venture capital firms are eager to back well-tested products or services that are ready to enter the startup phase. However, funding that bridges the gap between these two stages can be hard to come by. The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food System Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT aims to fill this gap with their J-WAFS Solutions grant program. This program provides critical funding to students and faculty at MIT who have promising bench-scale technologies that can be applied to water and food systems challenges, but are not yet market-ready. By supporting the essential steps in any startup journey — customer discovery, market testing, prototyping, design, and more — as well as mentorship from industry experts throughout the life of the grant, this grant program helps to speed the development of new products and services that have the potential to increase the safety, resilience, and accessibility of the world’s water and food supplies. J-WAFS Solutions grants provide one year of financial support to MIT principal investigators with promising early-stage technologies, as well as mentorship from industry experts and experienced entrepreneurs throughout the grant. With additional networking and guidance provided by MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, project teams are supported as they advance their technologies toward commercialization. Since the start of the program in 2015, J-WAFS Solutions grants have already been instrumental in the launch of two MIT startups — Via Separations and Xibus Systems — as well as an open-source technology to support clean water access for the rural and urban poor in India. John H. Lienhard V, director of J-WAFS and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering at MIT, describes the role of the J-WAFS Solutions program this way: “The combined effects of unsustainable human consumption patterns and the climate crisis threaten the world’s water and food supplies. These challenges are already present, and the risks were made plain in several recent, high-profile international news reports. Innovation in the water and food sectors can certainly help, and it is urgently needed. Through the J-WAFS Solutions program, we seek to identify nascent technologies with the greatest potential to transform local or even global food and water systems, and then to speed their transfer to market. We aim to leverage MIT’s entrepreneurial spirit to ensure that the water and food needs of our global human community can be met sustainably, now and far into the future.” Two projects funded by the J-WAFS Solutions program in 2019 are applying this entrepreneurial approach to sensors that support clean water and resilience in the agriculture industry. Three projects, all in the agriculture sector and funded by previous grants, are continuing this year, which together comprise a portfolio of exciting MIT technologies that are helping to resolve water and food challenges across the world.  Simplifying water quality testing in Nepal and beyond In 2018, the J-WAFS Solutions program supported a collaboration between the MIT-Nepal Initiative, led by professor of history Jeffrey Ravel, MIT D-Lab lecturer Susan Murcott, and the Nepalese non-governmental organization Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO). The project sought to refine the design of a wearable water test kit developed by Susan Murcott that provided simple, accessible ways to test the presence of E. coli in drinking water, even in the most remote settings. In that first year of J-WAFS funding, the research team worked with their Nepali partners, ENPHO, and their social business partner in Nepal, EcoConcern, to finalize the design of their product, called the ECC Vial, which, with the materials that they’ve now sourced, can be sold for less than $1 in Nepal — a significantly lower price than any other water-testing product on the market.   This technology is urgently needed by communities in Nepal, where many drinking water supplies are contaminated by E. coli. Standard testing practices are expensive, require significant laboratory infrastructure, or are just plain inaccessible to the many people exposed to unsafe drinking water. In fact, children under the age of 5 are the most vulnerable, and more than 40,000 children in Nepal alone die every year as a result of drinking contaminated water. The ECC Vial is intended to be the next-generation easy-to-use, portable, low-cost method for E. coli detection in water samples. It is particularly designed for simplicity and is appropriate for use in remote and low-resource settings. The 2019 renewal grant for the project “Manufacturing and Marketing EC-Kits in Nepal” will support the team in working with the same Nepali partners to optimize the manufacturing process for the ECC Vials and refine the marketing strategy in order to ensure that the technology that is sold to customers is reliable and that the business model for local purveyors is viable now and into the future. Once the product enters the market this year, the team plans to begin distribution in Bangladesh, and will assess market opportunities in India, Pakistan, Peru, and Ghana, where there is a comparable need for a simple and affordable and E.coli indicator testing product for use by government agencies, private water vendors, bottled water firms, international nonprofit organizations and low-income populations without access to safe water. Based on consumer demand in Nepal and beyond, this solution has the potential to reach more than 3 million people during just its first two years on the market. Supporting the resilience of the citrus industry Citrus plants are very high-value crops and nutrient-dense foods. They are an important part of diets for people in developing countries with micronutrient deficiencies, as well as for people in developed economies who suffer from obesity and diet-related chronic diseases. Citrus fruits have become staples across seasons, cultures, and geographies, yet the large-scale citrus farms in the United States that support much of our domestic citrus consumption are challenged by citrus greening disease. Also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), it is an uncurable disease caused by bacteria transmitted by a small insect, the Asian citrus psyllid. The bacterial infection causes trees to wither and fruit to develop an unpleasantly bitter taste, rendering the tree’s fruit inedible. If left undetected, HLB can very quickly spread throughout large citrus groves. Since there is no treatment, infected trees must be removed to prevent further spreading. The disease poses an immediate threat to the $3.3 billion-per-year worldwide citrus industry. One of the reasons HLB is so troubling is that there doesn’t yet exist an accessible and affordable early-detection strategy. Once the observable symptoms of the disease have shown up in one part of a citrus grove, it is likely many more trees are already infected. Taking on this challenge is a research team at MIT led by Karen Gleason, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. A 2019 J-WAFS Solutions grant for the project “Early detection of Huanglongbing (HLB) Citrus Greening Disease” is supporting the development of a new technology for early detection of HLB infection in citrus trees. The team’s strategy is to deploy a series of low-cost, high-sensitivity sensors that can be used on-site, and which are attuned to volatile organic compounds emitted by citrus trees that change in concentration during early-stage HLB infection when trees do not yet exhibit visible symptoms. Using the data gathered via these sensors, an algorithm developed by the team provides a high-accuracy prediction system for the presence of the disease so that farmers and farm managers can make informed decisions about tree removal in order to protect the remaining trees in their citrus groves. Their aim is to detect HLB disease in months, rather than the years it now takes for the infection to be found.  Currently funded J-WAFS Solutions technologies seeking to revolutionize agriculture practices Three other J-WAFS Solutions projects are continuing through the 2019-20 academic year. From a tractor-pulled reactor unit that can turn agricultural wastes on rural farms into nutrient-rich fertilizer, to a polymer-based additive for agriculture sprays that dramatically reduces runoff recently featured by the BBC, to an affordable soil sensor that aims to make precision farming strategies available to smallholder farmers in India, these J-WAFS-funded projects are each aiming to transform the sustainability of small- and large-scale farming practices.   The J-WAFS Solutions program is implemented in collaboration with Community Jameel — the global philanthropic organization founded by MIT alumnus Mohammed Jameel — and is administered by J-WAFS in partnership with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. Fady Jameel, president, international of Community Jameel, says: “Access to clean water, and better management of water resources, can boost countries’ economic growth and can contribute greatly to poverty reduction. We always aim through J-WAFS to support the development and deployment of technologies, policies, and programs which will contribute to help humankind adapt to a rapidly changing planet and combat worldwide water scarcity and food supply.” Left: A water sample undergoing testing using the J-WAFS-funded water quality test kit soon to be deployed throughout Nepal. Right: Citrus trees infected with citrus greening disease are highly contagious and can wipe out whole orange groves. A J-WAFS-funded sensor could help farmers detect the disease much earlier. Image: Murcott/Ravel research team https://news.mit.edu/2019/ketones-stem-cell-intestine-0822 Molecules called ketone bodies may improve stem cells’ ability to regenerate new intestinal tissue. Thu, 22 Aug 2019 11:02:02 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/ketones-stem-cell-intestine-0822 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office MIT biologists have discovered an unexpected effect of a ketogenic, or fat-rich, diet: They showed that high levels of ketone bodies, molecules produced by the breakdown of fat, help the intestine to maintain a large pool of adult stem cells, which are crucial for keeping the intestinal lining healthy.The researchers also found that intestinal stem cells produce unusually high levels of ketone bodies even in the absence of a high-fat diet. These ketone bodies activate a well-known signaling pathway called Notch, which has previously been shown to help regulate stem cell differentiation.“Ketone bodies are one of the first examples of how a metabolite instructs stem cell fate in the intestine,” says Omer Yilmaz, the Eisen and Chang Career Development Associate Professor of Biology and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “These ketone bodies, which are normally thought to play a critical role in energy maintenance during times of nutritional stress, engage the Notch pathway to enhance stem cell function. Changes in ketone body levels in different nutritional states or diets enable stem cells to adapt to different physiologies.”In a study of mice, the researchers found that a ketogenic diet gave intestinal stem cells a regenerative boost that made them better able to recover from damage to the intestinal lining, compared to the stem cells of mice on a regular diet.Yilmaz is the senior author of the study, which appears in the Aug. 22 issue of Cell. MIT postdoc Chia-Wei Cheng is the paper’s lead author.An unexpected roleAdult stem cells, which can differentiate into many different cell types, are found in tissues throughout the body. These stem cells are particularly important in the intestine because the intestinal lining is replaced every few days. Yilmaz’ lab has previously shown that fasting enhances stem cell function in aged mice, and that a high-fat diet can stimulate rapid growth of stem cell populations in the intestine.In this study, the research team wanted to study the possible role of metabolism in the function of intestinal stem cells. By analyzing gene expression data, Cheng discovered that several enzymes involved in the production of ketone bodies are more abundant in intestinal stem cells than in other types of cells.When a very high-fat diet is consumed, cells use these enzymes to break down fat into ketone bodies, which the body can use for fuel in the absence of carbohydrates. However, because these enzymes are so active in intestinal stem cells, these cells have unusually high ketone body levels even when a normal diet is consumed.To their surprise, the researchers found that the ketones stimulate the Notch signaling pathway, which is known to be critical for regulating stem cell functions such as regenerating damaged tissue.“Intestinal stem cells can generate ketone bodies by themselves, and use them to sustain their own stemness through fine-tuning a hardwired developmental pathway that controls cell lineage and fate,” Cheng says.In mice, the researchers showed that a ketogenic diet enhanced this effect, and mice on such a diet were better able to regenerate new intestinal tissue. When the researchers fed the mice a high-sugar diet, they saw the opposite effect: Ketone production and stem cell function both declined.Stem cell functionThe study helps to answer some questions raised by Yilmaz’ previous work showing that both fasting and high-fat diets enhance intestinal stem cell function. The new findings suggest that stimulating ketogenesis through any kind of diet that limits carbohydrate intake helps promote stem cell proliferation.“Ketone bodies become highly induced in the intestine during periods of food deprivation and play an important role in the process of preserving and enhancing stem cell activity,” Yilmaz says. “When food isn’t readily available, it might be that the intestine needs to preserve stem cell function so that when nutrients become replete, you have a pool of very active stem cells that can go on to repopulate the cells of the intestine.”The findings suggest that a ketogenic diet, which would drive ketone body production in the intestine, might be helpful for repairing damage to the intestinal lining, which can occur in cancer patients receiving radiation or chemotherapy treatments, Yilmaz says.The researchers now plan to study whether adult stem cells in other types of tissue use ketone bodies to regulate their function. Another key question is whether ketone-induced stem cell activity could be linked to cancer development, because there is evidence that some tumors in the intestines and other tissues arise from stem cells.“If an intervention drives stem cell proliferation, a population of cells that serve as the origin of some tumors, could such an intervention possibly elevate cancer risk? That’s something we want to understand,” Yilmaz says. “What role do these ketone bodies play in the early steps of tumor formation, and can driving this pathway too much, either through diet or small molecule mimetics, impact cancer formation? We just don’t know the answer to those questions.”The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, a V Foundation V Scholar Award, a Sidney Kimmel Scholar Award, a Pew-Stewart Trust Scholar Award, the MIT Stem Cell Initiative, the Koch Institute Frontier Research Program through the Kathy and Curt Marble Cancer Research Fund, the Koch Institute Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center Bridge Project, and the American Federation of Aging Research. MIT biologists found that intestinal stem cells express high levels of a ketogenic enzyme called HMGCS2, shown in brown. Image courtesy of the researcher https://news.mit.edu/2019/battery-free-sensor-underwater-exploration-0820 Submerged system uses the vibration of “piezoelectric” materials to generate power and send and receive data. Tue, 20 Aug 2019 08:59:59 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/battery-free-sensor-underwater-exploration-0820 Rob Matheson | MIT News Office To investigate the vastly unexplored oceans covering most our planet, researchers aim to build a submerged network of interconnected sensors that send data to the surface — an underwater “internet of things.” But how to supply constant power to scores of sensors designed to stay for long durations in the ocean’s deep?MIT researchers have an answer: a battery-free underwater communication system that uses near-zero power to transmit sensor data. The system could be used to monitor sea temperatures to study climate change and track marine life over long periods — and even sample waters on distant planets. They are presenting the system at the SIGCOMM conference this week, in a paper that has won the conference’s “best paper” award.The system makes use of two key phenomena. One, called the “piezoelectric effect,” occurs when vibrations in certain materials generate an electrical charge. The other is “backscatter,” a communication technique commonly used for RFID tags, that transmits data by reflecting modulated wireless signals off a tag and back to a reader.In the researchers’ system, a transmitter sends acoustic waves through water toward a piezoelectric sensor that has stored data. When the wave hits the sensor, the material vibrates and stores the resulting electrical charge. Then the sensor uses the stored energy to reflect a wave back to a receiver — or it doesn’t reflect one at all. Alternating between reflection in that way corresponds to the bits in the transmitted data: For a reflected wave, the receiver decodes a 1; for no reflected wave, the receiver decodes a 0.“Once you have a way to transmit 1s and 0s, you can send any information,” says co-author Fadel Adib, an assistant professor in the MIT Media Lab and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and founding director of the Signal Kinetics Research Group. “Basically, we can communicate with underwater sensors based solely on the incoming sound signals whose energy we are harvesting.”The researchers demonstrated their Piezo-Acoustic Backscatter System in an MIT pool, using it to collect water temperature and pressure measurements. The system was able to transmit 3 kilobits per second of accurate data from two sensors simultaneously at a distance of 10 meters between sensor and receiver.Applications go beyond our own planet. The system, Adib says, could be used to collect data in the recently discovered subsurface ocean on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. In June, NASA announced the Dragonfly mission to send a rover in 2026 to explore the moon, sampling water reservoirs and other sites.“How can you put a sensor under the water on Titan that lasts for long periods of time in a place that’s difficult to get energy?” says Adib, who co-wrote the paper with Media Lab researcher JunSu Jang. “Sensors that communicate without a battery open up possibilities for sensing in extreme environments.” Preventing deformationInspiration for the system hit while Adib was watching “Blue Planet,” a nature documentary series exploring various aspects of sea life. Oceans cover about 72 percent of Earth’s surface. “It occurred to me how little we know of the ocean and how marine animals evolve and procreate,” he says. Internet-of-things (IoT) devices could aid that research, “but underwater you can’t use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals … and you don’t want to put batteries all over the ocean, because that raises issues with pollution.”That led Adib to piezoelectric materials, which have been around and used in microphones and other devices for about 150 years. They produce a small voltage in response to vibrations. But that effect is also reversible: Applying voltage causes the material to deform. If placed underwater, that effect produces a pressure wave that travels through the water. They’re often used to detect sunken vessels, fish, and other underwater objects.“That reversibility is what allows us to develop a very powerful underwater backscatter communication technology,” Adib says.Communicating relies on preventing the piezoelectric resonator from naturally deforming in response to strain. At the heart of the system is a submerged node, a circuit board that houses a piezoelectric resonator, an energy-harvesting unit, and a microcontroller. Any type of sensor can be integrated into the node by programming the microcontroller. An acoustic projector (transmitter) and underwater listening device, called a hydrophone (receiver), are placed some distance away.Say the sensor wants to send a 0 bit. When the transmitter sends its acoustic wave at the node, the piezoelectric resonator absorbs the wave and naturally deforms, and the energy harvester stores a little charge from the resulting vibrations. The receiver then sees no reflected signal and decodes a 0.However, when the sensor wants to send a 1 bit, the nature changes. When the transmitter sends a wave, the microcontroller uses the stored charge to send a little voltage to the piezoelectric resonator. That voltage reorients the material’s structure in a way that stops it from deforming, and instead reflects the wave. Sensing a reflected wave, the receiver decodes a 1.Long-term deep-sea sensingThe transmitter and receiver must have power but can be planted on ships or buoys, where batteries are easier to replace, or connected to outlets on land. One transmitter and one receiver can gather information from many sensors covering one area or many areas.“When you’re tracking a marine animal, for instance, you want to track it over a long range and want to keep the sensor on them for a long period of time. You don’t want to worry about the battery running out,” Adib says. “Or, if you want to track temperature gradients in the ocean, you can get information from sensors covering a number of different places.”Another interesting application is monitoring brine pools, large areas of brine that sit in pools in ocean basins, and are difficult to monitor long-term. They exist, for instance, on the Antarctic Shelf, where salt settles during the formation of sea ice, and could aid in studying melting ice and marine life interaction with the pools. “We could sense what’s happening down there, without needing to keep hauling sensors up when their batteries die,” Adib says. Polly Huang, a professor of electrical engineering at Taiwan National University, praised the work for its technical novelty and potential impact on environmental science. “This is a cool idea,” Huang says. “It’s not news one uses piezoelectric crystals to harvest energy … [but is the] first time to see it being used as a radio at the same time [which] is unheard of to the sensor network/system research community. Also interesting and unique is the hardware design and fabrication. The circuit and the design of the encapsulation are both sound and interesting.” While noting that the system still needs more experimentation, especially in sea water, Huang adds that “this might be the ultimate solution for researchers in marine biography, oceanography, or even meteorology — those in need of long-term, low-human-effort underwater sensing.”Next, the researchers aim to demonstrate that the system can work at farther distances and communicate with more sensors simultaneously. They’re also hoping to test if the system can transmit sound and low-resolution images.The work is sponsored, in part, by the U.S Office of Naval Research. A battery-free underwater “piezoelectric” sensor invented by MIT researchers transmits data by absorbing or reflecting sound waves back to a receiver, where a reflected wave decodes a 1 bit and an absorbed wave decodes a 0 bit — and simultaneously stores energy. Image courtesy of the researchers https://news.mit.edu/2019/following-current-mit-examines-water-consumption-amidst-climate-crisis-0805 The Institute aims to update its water management practices to prepare for droughts, sea level rise, and other risks posed by the climate crisis. Mon, 05 Aug 2019 16:00:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/following-current-mit-examines-water-consumption-amidst-climate-crisis-0805 Archana Apte | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab At the 2019 MIT Commencement address, Michael Bloomberg highlighted the climate crisis as “the challenge of our time.” Climate change is expected to worsen drought and cause Boston, Massachusetts, sea level to rise by 1.5 feet by 2050. While numerous MIT students and researchers are working to ensure access to clean and sustainable sources of drinking water well into the future, MIT is also responding to the urgency of the climate crisis with a close examination of campus sustainability practices, including a recent focus on its own water consumption. A working group on campus water use, led by the MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS) and Department of Facilities, is supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) and includes representatives of numerous other groups, offices, students, and campus leaders. While the MITOS initiative is focusing on campus water management, MIT student clubs are raising local consciousness around drinking-water issues via research and outreach activities. Through all of these efforts, members of the community aim to help MIT change its water usage practices and become a model for sustainable water use at the university level. The water subcommittee: providing water leadership to promote institutional change Gathering campus stakeholders to develop sustainability recommendations is a practiced strategy for the Office of Sustainability. MITOS working groups have previously analyzed environmental issues such as energy use, storm water management, and the sustainability of MIT’s food system, another initiative in which J-WAFS has played a role. The current working group addressing campus water use practices is managed by Steven Lanou, sustainability project manager at MITOS. “Work done in the late 1990s reduced campus water use by an estimated 60 percent,” he explains. “And now, we need to look strategically again at all of our systems” to improve water management in the face of future climate uncertainty. Beginning in fall 2018, MITOS met with local stakeholders, including the Cambridge Water Department, the MIT Department of Facilities, and the MIT Water Club, to explore how water is used and managed on campus. The water subcommittee falls underneath the Sustainability Leadership Steering Committee, which was created by, and reports to, the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Treasurer, upon which Professor John H. Lienhard, director of J-WAFS and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering, also sits. The steering committee is charged by the provost and the executive vice president and treasurer of MIT to recommend strategies for campus leadership on sustainability issues. The water subcommittee will bring concrete suggestions for water usage changes to the MIT administration and work to implement them across campus. Professor Lienhard has “been key in helping us shape what a water stewardship program might look like,” according to Lanou. Other J-WAFS staff are also involved in the subcommittee, as well as leaders from the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), Department of Facilities, MIT Dining, the MIT Investment Management Company, and the Water Club. Based on a thorough review of data related to MIT’s water use, the subcommittee has started to identify the most strategic areas for intervention, and is gearing up now to get additional input this fall and begin to develop recommendations for how MIT can reduce water consumption, mitigate its overall climate impact, and adapt to an uncertain future. Water has been a focus of discussion and planning for sustainable campus practices for several years already. A MITOS stormwater and land management working group devoted to priority-setting for campus sustainability, which convened in the 2014 academic year, identified MIT’s water footprint as one of several key areas for discussion and intervention. Following the release of the stormwater and land management working group recommendations in 2016, MITOS teamed up with the Office of Campus Planning, the Department of Facilities, and the Office of Environment, Health and Safety to explore stormwater management solutions that improve the health of Cambridge, Massachusetts waterways and ecosystems. Among the outcomes was a draft stormwater management and landscape ecology plan that is focused on enhancing the productivity of the campus’ built and ecological systems in order to capture, absorb, reuse, and treat stormwater. This effort has informed the implementation of advanced stormwater management infrastructure on campus, including the recently completed North Corridor improvements in conjunction with the construction of the MIT.nano building. In addition, MITOS is leading a research effort with the MIT Center for Global Change Science and Department of Facilities to understand campus risks to flooding during current and future climate conditions. The team is evaluating probabilities and flood depths to a range of scenarios, including intense, short-duration rainfall over campus; 24-hour rainfall over campus/Cambridge from tropical storms or nor’easters; sea-level rise and coastal storm surge of the Charles River; and up-river rainfall that raises the level of the Charles River. To understand MIT’s water consumption and key areas for intervention, this year’s water subcommittee is informed by data gathered by Lanou on the water consumption across campus — in buildings, labs, and landscaping processes — as well as the consumption of water by the MIT community. An additional dimension of water stewardship to be considered by the subcommittee is the role and impact of bottled-water purchases on campus. The subcommittee has begun to look at data on annual bottled-water consumption to help understand the current trends. Understanding the impacts of single-use disposable bottles on campus is important. “I see so much bottled water consumption on campus,” notes John Lienhard. “It’s costly, energy-intensive, and adds plastic to the environment.” Only 9 percent of all plastics manufactured since 2015 has been recycled, and 12 billion metric tons of plastic will end up in landfills by 2050. Mark Hayes, director of MIT Dining and another subcommittee member, has participated in student-led bottled-water reduction efforts on two college campuses, and he hopes to help MIT better understand and address the issue here. Hayes would like to see MIT consider “expanding water refilling stations, exploring the impact and reduction [of] plastic recycling, and increasing campus education on these efforts.” Taking on the challenge of changing campus water consumption habits, and decreasing the associated waste, will hopefully position MIT as a leader in these kinds of sustainability efforts and encourage other campuses to adopt similar policies. Students taking action Student groups are also using education around bottled water alternatives to encourage behavior change. Andrew Bouma, a PhD student in John Lienhard’s lab, is investigating local attitudes toward bottled water. His interest in this issue began upon meeting several students who drank mostly bottled water. “It frustrated me that people had this perception that the tap water wasn’t safe,” Bouma explains, “even though Cambridge and Boston have really great water.” He became involved with the MIT Water Club and ran a blind taste test at the 2019 MIT Water Night to evaluate perceptions of tap water, bottled water, and recycled wastewater. Bouma explained that bottled-water drinkers often cite superior flavor as a motivating factor; however, only four or five of the 70-80 participants correctly identified the different sources, suggesting that the flavor argument holds little water. Many participants also held reservations about water safety. Bouma hopes that the taste test can address these barriers more effectively than sharing statistics. “When people can hold a cup of water in their hands and see it and taste it, it makes people confront their presumptions in a different way,” he explains. A broader impact The MIT Water Club, including Bouma, repeated the taste test at the Cambridge River Arts Festival in June to examine public perceptions of public and bottled water. Fewer than 5 percent of the 242 respondents identified all four water sources, approximately the same outcome as would be expected from random guessing. Many participants held concerns about the safety of public water, which the Water Club tried to combat with information about water treatment and testing procedures. Bouma hopes to continue addressing water consumption issues as co-president of the Water Club. Other student groups are encouraging behavior change around water consumption as well. The MIT Graduate Student Council (GSC) and the GSC Sustainability Subcommittee, with support from the Department of Facilities, funded five water-bottle refilling stations across campus in 2015. These efforts underscore the commitment of MIT students to promoting sustainable water consumption on campus. A unique “MIT spin” on campus water sustainability Lanou hopes that MIT will bring its technical strength to bear on water issues by using campus as a living laboratory to test water technologies. For example, Kripa Varanasi, professor of mechanical engineering and a J-WAFS-funded principal investigator, is piloting a water capture project at MIT’s Central Utility Plant that uses electricity to condense fog into liquid water for collection. Varanasi’s lab is able to test the technology in real-world conditions and improve the plant’s water efficiency at the same time. “It’s a great example of MIT being willing to use its facilities to test campus research,” explains Lanou. These technological advancements — many of which are supported by J-WAFS — could support water resilience at MIT and elsewhere. As the climate crisis brings water scarcity issues to the forefront, understanding and modeling water-use practices will become increasingly critical. With the water subcommittee working to bring recommendations for campus water use to the administration, and MIT students engaging with the broader Cambridge community on bottled water issues, the MIT community is poised to rise to the challenge. The MIT Water Club conducted a water taste test and outreach event at the Cambridge Arts River Festival. Photo: Patricia Stathatou https://news.mit.edu/2019/marcus-karel-food-science-pioneer-professor-emeritus-chemical-engineering-dies-0802 A giant in the field of food science and engineering, Karel developed important innovations in food packaging as well as food systems for long-term space travel. Fri, 02 Aug 2019 16:10:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/marcus-karel-food-science-pioneer-professor-emeritus-chemical-engineering-dies-0802 Melanie Miller Kaufman | Department of Chemical Engineering Marcus “Marc” G. Karel PhD ’60, professor emeritus of chemical engineering, died on July 25 at age 91. A member of the MIT community since 1951, Karel inspired a generation of food scientists and engineers through his work in food technology and controlled release of active ingredients in food and pharmaceuticals. Karel was born in Lvov, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) to Cila and David Karel, who ran a small chain of women’s clothing stores in the town. After war arrived in Poland in 1939, the family business was lost, relatives were scattered and disappeared, and the Karels spent the last 22 months of the war in hiding. After the war, Karel and his family eventually emigrated to the United States, where they settled in Newton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Karel completed his bachelor’s degree at Boston University in 1955 and earned his doctorate in 1960 at MIT. Before Karel started his graduate studies at MIT, he was invited by the head of the former Department of Food Technology to manage the Packaging Laboratory. Here he began his interest in the external and internal factors that influence food stability. In 1961, he was appointed professor of food engineering at MIT in the former Department of Nutrition and Food Science (Course 20), eventually becoming deputy head of the department. When Course 20 (then called Applied Biological Sciences) was disbanded in 1988, Karel was invited to join the Department of Chemical Engineering. After retiring from MIT in 1989, he became the State of New Jersey Professor at Rutgers University from 1989 to 1996, and from 1996 to 2007 he consulted for various government and industrial organizations. During his academic career at MIT and Rutgers, Karel supervised over 120 graduate students and postdocs. Most of them are now leaders in food engineering. Several of his trainees from industry are now vice presidents of research and development at several companies. Along with his engineering accomplishments, Karel was known for his ability to build and manage successful teams, nurture talent, and create a family environment among researchers. Karel was a pioneer in several areas, including oxidative reactions in food, drying of biological materials, and the preservation and packaging and stabilization of low-moisture foods. His fundamental work on oxidation of lipids and stabilization led to important improvements in food packaging. Also, when NASA needed expertise to design food and food systems for long-term space travel, it was Karel’s work that formed the platform for many of the enabling developments of the U.S. space program. MIT Professor Emeritus Charles Cooney relates, “When the solution to an important problem required improved analytical techniques, he pioneered the development of the techniques. When the solution required deeper insight into the physical chemistry of foods, he formulated the theoretical framework for the solution. When the solution required identification of new materials and new processes, he was on the front line with innovative technologies. No one has had the impact on the field of food science and engineering as Marc.” Karel earned many recognitions for his work, including a Life Achievement Award from the International Association for Engineering and Food, election to the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)’s Nicholas Appert Medal (the highest honor in food technology), election to the Food Engineering Hall of Fame, several honorary doctorates, and the one of which he was most proud: the first William V. Cruess Award for Excellence in Teaching from the IFT. The first edition of his co-authored book, “The Physical Principles of Food Preservation,” is considered by many to be the “bible” of the field of food stability. Karel is survived by his wife of almost 61 years, Carolyn Frances (Weeks) Karel; son Steven Karel and daughters Karen Karel and Debra Karel Nardone; grandchildren Amanda Nardone, Kristen Nardone, Emma Griffith, and Bennet Karel; sister Rena Carmel, niece Julia Carmel, and great-nephew David Carmel; Leslie Griffith (mother of Emma and Ben); nephew James Weeks Jr., and niece Sharon Weeks Mancini. Funeral arrangements were private. A celebration of Karel’s life will take place later this year. Memorial contributions may be made to the American Red Cross. MIT Professor Emeritus Marcus Karel https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-phd-students-awarded-j-wafs-fellowships-water-solutions-0617 J-WAFS announces graduate fellowships for Sahil Shah and Peter Godart, both of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Mon, 17 Jun 2019 13:40:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-phd-students-awarded-j-wafs-fellowships-water-solutions-0617 Andi Sutton | Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Systems Lab The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has announced the selection of their third cohort of graduate fellows. Two students will each receive one-semester graduate fellowships as part of J-WAFS’ Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions and J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellowship Programs. An additional student was awarded “honorable mention.” J-WAFS will also support the three students by providing networking, mentorship, and opportunities to showcase their research.  The awarded students, Sahil Shah and Peter Godart of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mark Brennan of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, were selected for the quality of their research as well as its relevance to current global water challenges. Each of them demonstrates a long commitment to water issues, both in and outside of an academic setting. Their research projects focus on transforming water access opportunities for people in vulnerable communities where access to fresh water for human consumption or for agriculture can improve human health and livelihoods. From developing a way to use aluminum waste to produce electricity for clean water to making significant improvements to the energy efficiency of desalination systems, these students demonstrate how creativity and ingenuity can push forward transformational water access solutions. 2019-20 Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellow for Water Solutions Sahil Shah is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He spent his childhood in Tanzania, received his undergraduate education in Canada, and worked in Houston as an engineering consultant before being drawn to MIT to pursue his interest in mechanical design and hardware. As a PhD student in Professor Amos Winter’s lab, he is now working to decrease the cost of desalination and improve access to drinking water in developing countries. His PhD research focuses on new methods to decrease the cost and energy use of groundwater treatment for drinking water. Currently, he is exploring the use of electrodialysis, which is a membrane-based desalination process. By improving the design of the control mechanisms for this process, as well as by redesigning the devices to achieve higher desalination efficiency, he seeks to decrease the cost of these systems and their energy use. His solutions will be piloted in both on-grid and off-grid applications in India, supported through a collaboration with consumer goods maker Eureka Forbes and infrastructure company Tata Projects. The 2019-20 J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellow Peter Godart is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and also holds BS and MS degrees in mechanical engineering and a BS in electrical engineering from MIT. From 2015 to 17, Godart also held a research scientist position at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he managed the development of water-reactive metal power systems, developed software for JPL’s Mars rovers, and supported rover operations. Godart’s current research at MIT focuses on improving global sustainability by using aluminum waste to power desalination and produce energy. Through this work, he aims to provide communities around the world with a means of improving both their waste management practices and their climate change resiliency. He is creating a complete system that can take in scrap aluminum and output potable water, electricity, and high-grade mineral boehmite. This suite of technologies leverages the energy available in aluminum, which is one of the most energy-dense materials to which we have ready access. The process enables recycled aluminum to react with water in order to produce hydrogen gas, which could be used in fuel cells or internal combustion engines to generate electricity, heat, and power for desalination systems. Honorable mention Mark Brennan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). He studies the supply chains behind public programs that provide goods to vulnerable communities, especially in water- and food-insecure areas. His ongoing projects include studying which firms shoulder risk in irrigation supply chains in the Sahel, and how American federal assistance programs are structured to provide relief after disasters. Brennan is currently collaborating with a team of researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management, MIT D-Lab, and DUSP on a J-WAFS-funded project that is investigating ways to increase the accessibility of irrigation systems to small rural sub-Saharan African farmers, with a specific focus on Senegal. PhD candidates Sahil Shah (left) and Peter Godart, both of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, have each received fellowships from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab for 2019-20. Their research explores possible solutions to global and local water supply challenges through new approaches to desalination. https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-phd-students-awarded-j-wafs-fellowships-water-solutions-0617 J-WAFS announces graduate fellowships for Sahil Shah and Peter Godart, both of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Mon, 17 Jun 2019 13:40:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-phd-students-awarded-j-wafs-fellowships-water-solutions-0617 Andi Sutton | Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Systems Lab The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has announced the selection of their third cohort of graduate fellows. Two students will each receive one-semester graduate fellowships as part of J-WAFS’ Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions and J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellowship Programs. An additional student was awarded “honorable mention.” J-WAFS will also support the three students by providing networking, mentorship, and opportunities to showcase their research.  The awarded students, Sahil Shah and Peter Godart of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mark Brennan of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, were selected for the quality of their research as well as its relevance to current global water challenges. Each of them demonstrates a long commitment to water issues, both in and outside of an academic setting. Their research projects focus on transforming water access opportunities for people in vulnerable communities where access to fresh water for human consumption or for agriculture can improve human health and livelihoods. From developing a way to use aluminum waste to produce electricity for clean water to making significant improvements to the energy efficiency of desalination systems, these students demonstrate how creativity and ingenuity can push forward transformational water access solutions. 2019-20 Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellow for Water Solutions Sahil Shah is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He spent his childhood in Tanzania, received his undergraduate education in Canada, and worked in Houston as an engineering consultant before being drawn to MIT to pursue his interest in mechanical design and hardware. As a PhD student in Professor Amos Winter’s lab, he is now working to decrease the cost of desalination and improve access to drinking water in developing countries. His PhD research focuses on new methods to decrease the cost and energy use of groundwater treatment for drinking water. Currently, he is exploring the use of electrodialysis, which is a membrane-based desalination process. By improving the design of the control mechanisms for this process, as well as by redesigning the devices to achieve higher desalination efficiency, he seeks to decrease the cost of these systems and their energy use. His solutions will be piloted in both on-grid and off-grid applications in India, supported through a collaboration with consumer goods maker Eureka Forbes and infrastructure company Tata Projects. The 2019-20 J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellow Peter Godart is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and also holds BS and MS degrees in mechanical engineering and a BS in electrical engineering from MIT. From 2015 to 17, Godart also held a research scientist position at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he managed the development of water-reactive metal power systems, developed software for JPL’s Mars rovers, and supported rover operations. Godart’s current research at MIT focuses on improving global sustainability by using aluminum waste to power desalination and produce energy. Through this work, he aims to provide communities around the world with a means of improving both their waste management practices and their climate change resiliency. He is creating a complete system that can take in scrap aluminum and output potable water, electricity, and high-grade mineral boehmite. This suite of technologies leverages the energy available in aluminum, which is one of the most energy-dense materials to which we have ready access. The process enables recycled aluminum to react with water in order to produce hydrogen gas, which could be used in fuel cells or internal combustion engines to generate electricity, heat, and power for desalination systems. Honorable mention Mark Brennan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). He studies the supply chains behind public programs that provide goods to vulnerable communities, especially in water- and food-insecure areas. His ongoing projects include studying which firms shoulder risk in irrigation supply chains in the Sahel, and how American federal assistance programs are structured to provide relief after disasters. Brennan is currently collaborating with a team of researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management, MIT D-Lab, and DUSP on a J-WAFS-funded project that is investigating ways to increase the accessibility of irrigation systems to small rural sub-Saharan African farmers, with a specific focus on Senegal. PhD candidates Sahil Shah (left) and Peter Godart, both of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, have each received fellowships from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab for 2019-20. Their research explores possible solutions to global and local water supply challenges through new approaches to desalination. https://news.mit.edu/2019/electrified-droplet-air-purification-0617 Researchers have found a simple formula that could be useful for air purification, space propulsion, and molecular analyses. Mon, 17 Jun 2019 00:00:00 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/electrified-droplet-air-purification-0617 Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office When a raindrop falls through a thundercloud, it is subject to strong electric fields that pull and tug on the droplet, like a soap bubble in the wind. If the electric field is strong enough, it can cause the droplet to burst apart, creating a fine, electrified mist.Scientists began taking notice of how droplets behave in electric fields in the early 1900s, amid concerns over lightning strikes that were damaging newly erected power lines. They soon realized that the power lines’ own electric fields were causing raindrops to burst around them, providing a conductive path for lightning to strike. This revelation led engineers to design thicker coverings around power lines to limit lightning strikes.Today, scientists understand that the stronger the electric field, the more likely it is that a droplet within it will burst. But, calculating the exact field strength that will burst a particular droplet has always been an involved mathematical task.Now, MIT researchers have found that the conditions for which a droplet bursts in an electric field all boil down to one simple formula, which the team has derived for the first time.With this simple new equation, the researchers can predict the exact strength an electric field should be to burst a droplet or keep it stable. The formula applies to three cases previously analyzed separately: a droplet pinned on a surface, sliding on a surface, or free-floating in the air.Their results, published today in the journal Physical Review Letters, may help engineers tune the electric field or the size of droplets for a range of applications that depend on electrifying droplets. These include  technologies for air or water purification, space propulsion, and molecular analysis.“Before our result, engineers and scientists had to perform computationally intensive simulations to assess the stability of an electrified droplet,” says lead author Justin Beroz, a graduate student in MIT’s departments of Mechanical Engineering and Physics. “With our equation, one can predict this behavior immediately, with a simple paper-and-pencil calculation. This is of great practical benefit to engineers working with, or trying to design, any system that involves liquids and electricity.”Beroz’ co-authors are A. John Hart, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and John Bush, professor of mathematics.“Something unexpectedly simple”Droplets tend to form as perfect little spheres due to surface tension, the cohesive force that binds water molecules at a droplet’s surface and pulls the molecules inward. The droplet may distort from its spherical shape in the presence of other forces, such as the force from an electric field. While surface tension acts to hold a droplet together, the electric field acts as an opposing force, pulling outward on the droplet as charge builds on its surface.“At some point, if the electric field is strong enough, the droplet can’t find a shape that balances the electrical force, and at that point, it becomes unstable and bursts,” Beroz explains.He and his team were interested in the moment just before bursting, when the droplet has been distorted to its critically stable shape. The team set up an experiment in which they slowly dispensed water droplets onto a metal plate that was electrified to produce an electric field, and used a high-speed camera to record the distorted shapes of each droplet.“The experiment is really boring at first — you’re watching the droplet slowly change shape, and then all of a sudden it just bursts,” Beroz says.After experimenting on droplets of different sizes and under various electric field strengths, Beroz isolated the video frame just before each droplet burst, then outlined its critically stable shape and calculated several parameters such as the droplet’s volume, height, and radius. He plotted the data from each droplet and found, to his surprise, that they all fell along an unmistakably straight line.“From a theoretical point of view, it was an unexpectedly simple result given the mathematical complexity of the problem,” Beroz says. “It suggested that there might be an overlooked, yet simple, way to calculate the burst criterion for the droplets.” A water droplet, subject to an electric field of slowly increasing strength, suddenly bursts by emitting a fine, electrified mist from its apex.Volume above heightPhysicists have long known that a liquid droplet in an electric field can be represented by a set of coupled nonlinear differential equations. These equations, however, are incredibly difficult to solve. To find a solution requires determining the configuration of the electric field, the shape of the droplet, and the pressure inside the droplet, simultaneously.“This is commonly the case in physics: It’s easy to write down the governing equations but very hard to actually solve them,” Beroz says. “But for the droplets, it turns out that if you choose a particular combination of physical parameters to define the problem from the start, a solution can be derived in a few lines. Otherwise, it’s impossible.”Physicists who attempted to solve these equations in the past did so by factoring in, among other parameters, a droplet’s height — an easy and natural choice for characterizing a droplet’s shape. But Beroz made a different choice, reframing the equations in terms of a droplet’s volume rather than its height. This was the key insight for reformulating the problem into an easy-to-solve formula.“For the last 100 years, the convention was to choose height,” Beroz says. “But as a droplet deforms, its height changes, and therefore the mathematical complexity of the problem is inherent in the height. On the other hand, a droplet’s volume remains fixed regardless of how it deforms in the electric field.”By formulating the equations using only parameters that are “fixed” in the same sense as a droplet’s volume, “the complicated, unsolvable parts of the equation cancel out, leaving a simple equation that matches the experimental results,” Beroz says.Specifically, the new formula the team derived relates five parameters: a droplet’s surface tension, radius, volume, electric field strength, and the electric permittivity of the air surrounding the droplet. Plugging any four of these parameters into the formula will calculate the fifth.Beroz says engineers can use the formula to develop techniques such as electrospraying, which involves the bursting of a droplet maintained at the orifice of an electrified nozzle to produce a fine spray. Electrospraying is commonly used to aerosolize biomolecules from a solution, so that they can pass through a spectrometer for detailed analysis. The technique is also used to produce thrust and propel satellites in space.“If you’re designing a system that involves liquids and electricity, it’s very practical to have an equation like this, that you can use every day,” Beroz says.This research was funded in part by the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, BAE Systems, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering via MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, and a Department of Defense National Defence Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. Electrified water droplets take on a variety of distorted shapes just before bursting, based on the strength of the electric field. The profiles of different distorted droplet shapes are shown, overlaid on an image of one particular distorted droplet for comparison. Courtesy of the researchers https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-graduate-fellow-phd-student-andrea-beck-untangles-social-dynamics-water-0610 J-WAFS Fellow and DUSP PhD student Andrea Beck examines the success factors behind water utility partnerships in Africa. Mon, 10 Jun 2019 10:30:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-graduate-fellow-phd-student-andrea-beck-untangles-social-dynamics-water-0610 Archana Apte | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab Water operator partnerships, or WOPs, bring together water utility employees from different countries to improve public water delivery and sanitation services. “In these partnerships, interpersonal dynamics are so important,” explains Andrea Beck, “and I’m really passionate about hearing people’s stories.” Beck, a PhD candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and a 2018-19 J-WAFS Fellow for Water Solutions, is studying the dynamics of water operator partnerships to understand how they create mutual benefit for water utilities worldwide. WOPs bring together utilities from different countries as peer-to-peer partnerships to encourage mutual learning. Topics covered by these partnerships range from operational issues to finance and human resources.  WOPs were conceived by a United Nations advisory board in 2006 as an alternative to public-private partnerships and have since gained traction across Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with over 200 partnerships formed to date. Beck’s research focuses on the development of WOPs in global policy circles, differences between WOPs and public-private partnerships, and conditions for successful partnerships.A journey of interest Beck’s interest in water issues and African culture began long before she came to MIT. After finishing high school, Beck volunteered at a cultural center in rural Malawi, where she developed an appreciation for cultural immersion. Her undergraduate and master’s work focused on water resources and trans-boundary water cooperation; during her PhD studies at MIT, Beck shifted her focus to urban water issues, seeking a topic that more personally affected people at smaller scale. Water issues “have always been close to my heart,” she explains. When Beck returned to Malawi for her doctoral fieldwork in 2018, she found her urban water perspective “eye-opening.”  “I was suddenly seeing all of the valves in the ground. I was looking for pipes,” she explained. “If I hadn’t studied that here [at DUSP], I would have been blind” to those elements. Inspired by Associate Professor Gabriella Carolini in the International Development Group at DUSP, Beck focused her doctoral research on water and sanitation services and the water operators that serve urban populations. In addition to Carolini, she is working with Professor Lawrence Susskind in the DUSP Environmental Policy and Planning Group and Professor James Wescoat in the Department of Architecture. Beck used the United Nations Habitat database of WOPs to gain an overview of all partnerships worldwide. From this background research, she decided to focus on partnerships in Africa due to their prevalence and her previous experience in the region. In 2018, MIT’s MISTI-Netherlands program sponsored Beck’s participation in a short course on partnerships for water supply and sanitation in the Netherlands. The course’s lecturers were part of a Dutch water company conducting international water partnerships with a range of African countries, including Malawi. Beck then used the connections from the short course and the support from her 2018-19 fellowship from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) to research partnerships underway in the Lilongwe, Malawi water utility, which has worked with partners from the Netherlands, Rwanda, Uganda, and South Africa. She observed meetings between representatives, shadowed workers in the field, and conducted interviews. Beck found that many utilities faced similar challenges, such as non-revenue water, or water lost after pumping. She also found that utilities had much to gain from exchanges with colleagues and peers. For instance, the utility representatives in Lilongwe, Malawi were excited about their partnership with Rwanda because they saw an opportunity to share their experiences as peers. Beck found ample support at MIT for her dissertation project. “I’m drawing on development studies, urban planning, geography, and ethnographic approaches, and MIT has allowed me to bring all of this together,” she explains. Beck has received funding from J-WAFS, DUSP, MISTI-Netherlands, the Center for International Studies, and MISTI-Africa. “They’ve been great resources,” she says, “and I’ve felt that there is an understanding and an appreciation for qualitative research and the contributions it can make.” Beck also highlighted that the short course sponsored by MISTI-Netherlands, and the water utility connections she forged there, were “absolutely instrumental in [her] research.” Beck has great appreciation for the J-WAFS Fellowship as well. The open-ended nature of the funding gave her the academic freedom to pursue the research questions she was interested in, while the additional time allowed Beck to digest her fieldwork and think about how to drive her research forward in new ways. Taking a deeper dive In the future, Beck would like to study high-performing utilities across Africa, in places such as Morocco, Burkina Faso, and Swaziland. “I want to do more research into these utilities,” she explains, “and understand what other utilities could learn from them.” She will begin this work soon, having recently received an award from the Water Resource Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers that will support a research trip to Rabat, Morocco, to study WOPs there. She would also like to conduct additional interviews in the Netherlands, since Dutch representatives are involved in many utility partnerships in Africa. Beck’s qualitative research into partnership dynamics provides a necessary perspective on the effectiveness of WOPs. Being able to “follow along [with utility partners], hang out with them, chat with them while they’re doing their work, is something that has really enriched my research,” she explains. Beck’s analysis is one of the first to compare learning dynamics between north-south and south-south WOPs; most studies examine one partnership in detail. Her work could pinpoint ways to improve current water utility partnerships. As the world grows increasingly interconnected and water grows scarcer, integrating multiple perspectives into these issues will provide a more stable grounding to create robust solutions for issues of water access and social equity. 2018-19 J-WAFS Fellow Andrea Beck sits by the Charles River. Photo: Andi Sutton/J-WAFS https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-graduate-fellow-phd-student-andrea-beck-untangles-social-dynamics-water-0610 J-WAFS Fellow and DUSP PhD student Andrea Beck examines the success factors behind water utility partnerships in Africa. Mon, 10 Jun 2019 10:30:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-graduate-fellow-phd-student-andrea-beck-untangles-social-dynamics-water-0610 Archana Apte | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab Water operator partnerships, or WOPs, bring together water utility employees from different countries to improve public water delivery and sanitation services. “In these partnerships, interpersonal dynamics are so important,” explains Andrea Beck, “and I’m really passionate about hearing people’s stories.” Beck, a PhD candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and a 2018-19 J-WAFS Fellow for Water Solutions, is studying the dynamics of water operator partnerships to understand how they create mutual benefit for water utilities worldwide. WOPs bring together utilities from different countries as peer-to-peer partnerships to encourage mutual learning. Topics covered by these partnerships range from operational issues to finance and human resources.  WOPs were conceived by a United Nations advisory board in 2006 as an alternative to public-private partnerships and have since gained traction across Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with over 200 partnerships formed to date. Beck’s research focuses on the development of WOPs in global policy circles, differences between WOPs and public-private partnerships, and conditions for successful partnerships.A journey of interest Beck’s interest in water issues and African culture began long before she came to MIT. After finishing high school, Beck volunteered at a cultural center in rural Malawi, where she developed an appreciation for cultural immersion. Her undergraduate and master’s work focused on water resources and trans-boundary water cooperation; during her PhD studies at MIT, Beck shifted her focus to urban water issues, seeking a topic that more personally affected people at smaller scale. Water issues “have always been close to my heart,” she explains. When Beck returned to Malawi for her doctoral fieldwork in 2018, she found her urban water perspective “eye-opening.”  “I was suddenly seeing all of the valves in the ground. I was looking for pipes,” she explained. “If I hadn’t studied that here [at DUSP], I would have been blind” to those elements. Inspired by Associate Professor Gabriella Carolini in the International Development Group at DUSP, Beck focused her doctoral research on water and sanitation services and the water operators that serve urban populations. In addition to Carolini, she is working with Professor Lawrence Susskind in the DUSP Environmental Policy and Planning Group and Professor James Wescoat in the Department of Architecture. Beck used the United Nations Habitat database of WOPs to gain an overview of all partnerships worldwide. From this background research, she decided to focus on partnerships in Africa due to their prevalence and her previous experience in the region. In 2018, MIT’s MISTI-Netherlands program sponsored Beck’s participation in a short course on partnerships for water supply and sanitation in the Netherlands. The course’s lecturers were part of a Dutch water company conducting international water partnerships with a range of African countries, including Malawi. Beck then used the connections from the short course and the support from her 2018-19 fellowship from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) to research partnerships underway in the Lilongwe, Malawi water utility, which has worked with partners from the Netherlands, Rwanda, Uganda, and South Africa. She observed meetings between representatives, shadowed workers in the field, and conducted interviews. Beck found that many utilities faced similar challenges, such as non-revenue water, or water lost after pumping. She also found that utilities had much to gain from exchanges with colleagues and peers. For instance, the utility representatives in Lilongwe, Malawi were excited about their partnership with Rwanda because they saw an opportunity to share their experiences as peers. Beck found ample support at MIT for her dissertation project. “I’m drawing on development studies, urban planning, geography, and ethnographic approaches, and MIT has allowed me to bring all of this together,” she explains. Beck has received funding from J-WAFS, DUSP, MISTI-Netherlands, the Center for International Studies, and MISTI-Africa. “They’ve been great resources,” she says, “and I’ve felt that there is an understanding and an appreciation for qualitative research and the contributions it can make.” Beck also highlighted that the short course sponsored by MISTI-Netherlands, and the water utility connections she forged there, were “absolutely instrumental in [her] research.” Beck has great appreciation for the J-WAFS Fellowship as well. The open-ended nature of the funding gave her the academic freedom to pursue the research questions she was interested in, while the additional time allowed Beck to digest her fieldwork and think about how to drive her research forward in new ways. Taking a deeper dive In the future, Beck would like to study high-performing utilities across Africa, in places such as Morocco, Burkina Faso, and Swaziland. “I want to do more research into these utilities,” she explains, “and understand what other utilities could learn from them.” She will begin this work soon, having recently received an award from the Water Resource Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers that will support a research trip to Rabat, Morocco, to study WOPs there. She would also like to conduct additional interviews in the Netherlands, since Dutch representatives are involved in many utility partnerships in Africa. Beck’s qualitative research into partnership dynamics provides a necessary perspective on the effectiveness of WOPs. Being able to “follow along [with utility partners], hang out with them, chat with them while they’re doing their work, is something that has really enriched my research,” she explains. Beck’s analysis is one of the first to compare learning dynamics between north-south and south-south WOPs; most studies examine one partnership in detail. Her work could pinpoint ways to improve current water utility partnerships. As the world grows increasingly interconnected and water grows scarcer, integrating multiple perspectives into these issues will provide a more stable grounding to create robust solutions for issues of water access and social equity. 2018-19 J-WAFS Fellow Andrea Beck sits by the Charles River. Photo: Andi Sutton/J-WAFS https://news.mit.edu/2019/empowering-african-farmers-with-data-0530 Research from the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society aims to help African farmers increase their production and profits with better prediction. Thu, 30 May 2019 15:55:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/empowering-african-farmers-with-data-0530 Scott Murray | Institute for Data, Systems, and Society With a couple billion more people estimated to join the global population in the next few decades, world food production could use an upgrade. Africa has a key role to play: Agriculture is Africa’s biggest industry, but much of Africa’s agricultural land is currently underutilized. Crop yields could be increased with more efficient farming techniques and new equipment — but that would require investment capital, which is often an obstacle for farmers. A new research collaboration at the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) aims to address this challenge with data. The group plans to use data from technologically advanced farms to better predict the value of intervention in underperforming farms. Ultimately, the goal is to create a platform for sharing data and risk among invested parties, from farmers and lenders to insurers and equipment manufacturers. Sharing data, sharing risk Many African farmers lack the capital to invest in yield-increasing upgrades like new irrigation systems, new machinery, new fertilizers, and technology for sensing and tracking crop growth. The most common path to capital is bank loans, with land as collateral. This is an unattractive proposition for farmers, who already bear the many risks of production, including bad weather, changing market prices, or even the shocks of geopolitical events. Lenders, on the other hand, have an incomplete assessment of their risk, especially with potential borrowers who have no credit history. Lenders also lack data and tools to predict their return on investment. “Building a platform for risk-sharing is key to upgrading farming practices,” says Munther Dahleh, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and director of IDSS. In order to create such a platform, Dahleh and the IDSS team aim to better predict the value of employing advanced farming practices on the production of individual farms. This prediction needs to be accurate enough to incentivize investment from economic stakeholders and the farmers themselves, who are in competition with each other and may be reluctant to share information. The IDSS approach proposes a data-sharing platform that incentivizes all parties to participate: Technologically advanced farms are rewarded for their valuable data, bankers benefit from data that support their credit risk models, farmers get better loan terms and recommendations that increase their profits and production, and technology companies get recommendations on how to best support the needs of their farmer customers. “Such a platform has to have the correct incentives to engage everyone to participate, have sufficient protection from players with market power, and ultimately provide valuable data for farmers and creditors alike,” says Dahleh. The absence of data from underperforming farms presents a challenge to extrapolating the value of intervention and assessing the uncertainty in such predictions. With sparse available data, researchers are looking to conduct experiments in strategically selected farms to provide valuable new data for the rest. Researchers will use advanced machine learning, including active learning methodology, to try to achieve both a quantification of the predicted value of intervention and a quantification of the uncertainty of that prediction to a degree of confidence. Once more data is available, IDSS researchers intend to refine their calculations and develop new techniques for extrapolating the value of intervention in less-advanced farms. Engaging stakeholders One likely intervention for many African farmers involves using different fertilizers. Many farmers aren’t currently using fertilizers targeted to specific soil or various stages of farming — so fertilizer producers are another vested interest in this agriculture economy. To help these farmers get access to better loan terms, Moroccan phosphate company OCP is funding a collaboration between IDSS researchers and Mohammed VI Polytechnic University (UM6P) in Morocco. This research collaboration with OCP, a leading global company in the phosphate fertilizer industry, includes building the data- and risk-sharing platform as well as other foundational research in agriculture. The collaboration has the potential to engage other stakeholders working or investing in African agriculture. “This collaboration will help accelerate our efforts to develop pertinent solutions for African agriculture using high-level agri-tech tools,” says Fassil Kebede, professor of soil science and head of the Center for Soil and Fertilizer Research in Africa. “This will offer farmers possibilities for better production and growth, which is part of our mission to contribute to Africa’s food-security objectives.” “African farmers are at the heart of the OCP Group’s mission and strategy, while data analytics and predictive tools are today essential for agriculture development in Africa,” adds Mostafa Terrab, OCP Group chair and CEO. “This collaboration with IDSS will help us bring together new technology and analytical methods from one side, and our expertise with African farmers and their challenges from the other side. It will reinforce our capabilities to offer adapted solutions to African farmers, especially small holders, to enable them to make more precise and timely decisions.” Ultimately, IDSS aims to bring wins across an entire economic ecosystem, from insurers to lenders to equipment and fertilizer companies. But most importantly, boosting this ecosystem could help lift many farmers out of poverty — and bring about a much-needed increase in the world’s aggregate food production. Says Dahleh: “To accomplish this mission, this project will demonstrate the power of data coupled with advanced tools from predictive analytics, machine learning, reinforcement learning, and data sharing markets.” New IDSS research “will demonstrate the power of data coupled with advanced tools from predictive analytics, machine learning, reinforcement learning, and data sharing markets,” says IDSS Director Munther Dahleh. https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-announces-seven-new-seed-grants-0529 Nine principal investigators from MIT will receive grants totaling over $1 million for solutions-oriented research into global food and water challenges. Wed, 29 May 2019 14:20:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-announces-seven-new-seed-grants-0529 Andi Sutton | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab Agricultural productivity technologies for small-holder farmers; food safety solutions for everyday consumers; sustainable supply chain interventions in the palm oil industry; water purification methods filtering dangerous micropollutants from industrial and wastewater streams — these are just a few of the research-based solutions being supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT. J-WAFS is funding these and other projects through its fifth round of seed grants, providing over $1 million in funding to the MIT research community. These grants, which are funded competitively to MIT principal investigators (PIs) across all five schools at the Institute, exemplify the ambitious goals of MIT’s Institute-wide effort to address global water and food systems challenges through research and innovation.  This year, seven new projects led by nine faculty PIs across all five schools will be funded with two-year grants of up to $150,000, overhead-free. Interest in water and food systems research at MIT is substantial, and growing. By the close of this grant cycle, over 12 percent of MIT faculty will have submitted J-WAFS grant proposals. Thirty-four principal investigators submitted proposals to this latest call, nearly one third of whom were proposing to J-WAFS for the first time. “The broad range of disciplines that this applicant pool represents demonstrates how meeting today’s water and food challenges is motivating many diverse researchers in our community,” comments Renee Robins, executive director of J-WAFS. “Our reach across all of MIT’s schools further attests to the strength of the Institute’s capabilities that can be applied to the search for solutions to pressing water and food sector challenges.” The nine faculty who were funded represent eight departments and labs, including the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, and Economics, as well as the Media Lab (School of Architecture and Planning), MIT D-Lab (Office of the Vice Chancellor), and the Sloan School of Management. New approaches to ensure safe drinking water Nearly 1 billion people worldwide receive their drinking water through underground pipes that only operate intermittently. In contrast to continuous water supplies, pipes like these that are only filled with water during limited supply periods are vulnerable to contamination. However, it is challenging to quantify the quality of water that comes out of these pipes because of the vast differences in how the pipe networks are arranged and where they are located, especially in dense urban settings. Andrew J. Whittle, the Edmund K. Turner Professor in Civil Engineering, seeks to address this problem by gathering and making available more precise data on how water quality is affected by how the pipe is used — i.e., during periods of filling, flushing, or stagnation. Supported by the seed grant, he and his research team will perform tests in a section of abandoned pipe in Singapore, one that is still connected to the urban water pipe network there. By controlling flushing rates, monitoring stagnation, and measuring contamination, the study will analyze how variances in flow affect water quality, and evaluate how these data might be able to inform future water quality studies in cities with similar piped water challenges. Patrick Doyle, the Robert T. Haslam (1911) Professor of Chemical Engineering, is taking a different approach to water quality: creating a filter to remove micropollutants. Wastewater from industrial and agricultural processes often contains solvents, petrochemicals, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, hormones, and pesticides, which can enter natural water systems. While these micropollutants may be present at low concentrations, they can still have a significant negative impact on aquatic ecosystems, as well as human health. The challenge is in detecting and removing these micropollutants, because of the low concentrations in which they occur. For this project, Doyle and his team will develop a system to remove a variety of micropollutants, at even the smallest concentrations, using a special hydrogel particle that can be “tuned” to fit the size and shape of particular particles. Leveraging the flexibility of these hydrogels, this technology can improve the speed, precision, efficiency, and environmental sustainability of industrial water purification systems, and improve the health of the natural water systems upon which humans and our surrounding ecosystems rely. Developing support tools for small-holder farmers More than half of food calories consumed globally — and 70 percent of food calories consumed in developing countries — are supplied by approximately 475 million small-holder households in developing and emerging economies. These farmers typically operate through informal contracts and processes, which can lead to large economic inefficiencies and lack of traceability in the supply chains that they are a part of. Joann de Zegher, the Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor in the operations management program at the MIT Sloan School of Management, seeks to address these challenges by developing a mobile-based trading platform that links small-holder farmers, middlemen, and mills in the palm oil supply chain in Indonesia. Rapid growth in demand in this industry has led to high environmental costs, and recently pressure from consumers and nongovernmental organizations is motivating producers to employ more sustainable practices. However, these pressures deepen market access challenges for small-holder palm oil farmers. Her project seeks to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the current supply chain, and create transparency as a byproduct. Another small-holder farmer intervention is being developed by Robert M. Townsend, the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics. He is leading a research effort to improve access to crop insurance for small-holder farmers, who are particularly vulnerable to weather-related crop failures. Crop cultivation worldwide is highly vulnerable to unfavorable weather. In developing countries, farmers bear the financial burden of their crops’ exposure to weather ravages, the extent of which will only increase due to the effects of climate change. As a result, they rely on low-risk, low-yield cultivation practices that do not allow for the food and financial gains that can be possible when favorable weather supports higher yields. While crop insurance can help, it is often prohibitively expensive for these small-scale producers. Townsend and his research team seek to make crop insurance more accessible and affordable for farmers in developing regions by developing a new system of insurance pricing and payoff schedules that takes into account the widely varying ways through which weather affects crop’s development and yield throughout the growth cycle. Their goal is to provide a new, personalized insurance tool that improves farmers’ ability to protect their yields, invest in their crops, and adapt to climate change in order to stabilize food supply and farmer livelihoods worldwide.  Access to affordable fertilizer is another challenge that small holders face. Ammonia is the key ingredient in fertilizers; however, most of the world’s supply is produced by the Haber-Bosch process, which directly converts nitrogen and hydrogen gas to ammonia in a highly capital-intensive process that is difficult to downscale. Finding an alternative way to synthesize ammonia could transform access to fertilizer and improve food security, particularly in the developing world where current fertilizers are prohibitively expensive. For this seed grant project, Yogesh Surendranath, Paul M Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry, will develop an electrochemical process to synthesize ammonia, one that can be powered using renewable energy sources such as solar or wind. Designed to be implemented in a decentralized way, this technology could enable fertilizer production directly in the fields where it is needed, and would be especially beneficial in developing regions without access to existing ammonia production infrastructure. Even when crops produce high yields, post-harvest preservation is a challenge, especially to fruit and vegetable farmers on small plots of land in developing regions. The lack of affordable and effective post-harvest vegetable cooling and storage poses a significant challenge for them, and can lead to vegetable spoilage, reduced income, and lost time. Most techniques for cooling and storing vegetables rely on electricity, which is either unaffordable or unavailable for many small-holder farmers, especially those living on less than $3 per day in remote areas. The solution posed by an interdisciplinary team led by Daniel Frey, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and D-Lab faculty director, along with Leon Glicksman, professor of architecture and mechanical engineering, is a storage technology that uses the natural evaporation of water to create a cool and humid environment that prevents rot and dehydration, all without the need for electricity. This system is particularly suited for hot, dry regions such as Kenya, where the research team will be focusing their efforts. The research will be conducted in partnership with researchers from University of Nairobi’s Department of Plant Science and Crop Protection, who have extensive experience working with low-income rural communities on issues related to horticulture and improving livelihoods. The team will build and test evaporative cooling chambers in rural Kenya to optimize the design for performance, practical construction, and user preferences, and will build evidence for funders and implementing organizations to support the dissemination of these systems to improve post-harvest storage challenges. Combatting food safety challenges through wireless sensors Food safety is a matter of global concern, and a subject that several J-WAFS-funded researchers seek to tackle with innovative technologies. And for good reason: Food contamination and foodborne pathogens cause sickness and even death, as well as significant economic costs including the wasted labor and resources that occur when a contaminated product is disposed of, the lost profit to affected companies, and the lost food products that could have nourished a number of people. Fadel Adib, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, will receive a seed grant to develop a new tool that quickly and accurately assesses whether a given food product is contaminated. This food safety sensor uses wireless signals to determine the quality and safety of packaged food using a radio-frequency identification sticker placed on the product’s container. The system turns off-the-shelf RFID tags into spectroscopes which, when read, can measure the material contents of a product without the need to open its package. The sensor can also identify the presence of contaminants — pathogens as well as adulterants that affect the nutritional quality of the food product. If successful, this research, and the technology that results, will pave the way for wireless sensing technologies that can inform their users about the health and safety of their food and drink. With these seven newly funded projects, J-WAFS will have funded 37 total seed research projects since its founding in 2014. These grants serve as important catalysts of new water and food sector research at MIT, resulting in publications, patents, and other significant research support. To date, J-WAFS’ seed grant PIs have been awarded over $11M in follow-on funding. J-WAFS’ director, Professor John Lienhard, commented on the influence of this grant program: “The betterment of society drives our research community at MIT. Water and food, our world’s most vital resources, are currently put at great risk by a variety of global-scale challenges, and MIT researchers are responding forcefully. Through this, and J-WAFS’ other grant programs, we see MIT’s creative innovations and actionable solutions that will help to ensure a sustainable future.”J-WAFS Seed Grants, 2019 Learning Food and Water Contaminants using Wireless Signals PI: Fadel Adib, assistant professor, MIT Media Lab Designing Supply Chain Platforms for Smallholders in Indonesia PI: Joann de Zegher, Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor, Sloan School of Management Microparticle Systems for the Removal of Organic Micropollutants PI: Patrick Doyle, Robert T. Haslam (1911) Professor of Chemical Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering Evaporative Cooling Technologies for Vegetable Preservation in Kenya PIs: Daniel Frey, professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, and faculty research director, MIT D-Lab; Leon Glicksman, professor of building technology and mechanical engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Eric Verploegen, research engineer, MIT D-Lab Electrocatalytic Ammonia Synthesis for Distributed Agriculture PI: Yogesh Surendranath, Paul M Cook Career Development Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry Designing Purely Weather-Contingent Crop Insurance with Personalized Coverage to Improve Farmers’ Investments in their Crops for Higher Yields PI:  Robert M. Townsend, Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics, Department of Economics Understanding Effects of Intermittent Flow on Drinking Water Quality PI: Andrew J. Whittle, Edmund K. Turner Professor in Civil Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Agricultural productivity technologies for small-holder farmers; sustainable supply chain interventions in the palm oil industry; interventions that can provide clean water for cities and surrounding ecosystems — these are just a few of the research topics that grantees are pursuing, supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT. https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-announces-seven-new-seed-grants-0529 Nine principal investigators from MIT will receive grants totaling over $1 million for solutions-oriented research into global food and water challenges. Wed, 29 May 2019 14:20:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/j-wafs-announces-seven-new-seed-grants-0529 Andi Sutton | Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab Agricultural productivity technologies for small-holder farmers; food safety solutions for everyday consumers; sustainable supply chain interventions in the palm oil industry; water purification methods filtering dangerous micropollutants from industrial and wastewater streams — these are just a few of the research-based solutions being supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT. J-WAFS is funding these and other projects through its fifth round of seed grants, providing over $1 million in funding to the MIT research community. These grants, which are funded competitively to MIT principal investigators (PIs) across all five schools at the Institute, exemplify the ambitious goals of MIT’s Institute-wide effort to address global water and food systems challenges through research and innovation.  This year, seven new projects led by nine faculty PIs across all five schools will be funded with two-year grants of up to $150,000, overhead-free. Interest in water and food systems research at MIT is substantial, and growing. By the close of this grant cycle, over 12 percent of MIT faculty will have submitted J-WAFS grant proposals. Thirty-four principal investigators submitted proposals to this latest call, nearly one third of whom were proposing to J-WAFS for the first time. “The broad range of disciplines that this applicant pool represents demonstrates how meeting today’s water and food challenges is motivating many diverse researchers in our community,” comments Renee Robins, executive director of J-WAFS. “Our reach across all of MIT’s schools further attests to the strength of the Institute’s capabilities that can be applied to the search for solutions to pressing water and food sector challenges.” The nine faculty who were funded represent eight departments and labs, including the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, and Economics, as well as the Media Lab (School of Architecture and Planning), MIT D-Lab (Office of the Vice Chancellor), and the Sloan School of Management. New approaches to ensure safe drinking water Nearly 1 billion people worldwide receive their drinking water through underground pipes that only operate intermittently. In contrast to continuous water supplies, pipes like these that are only filled with water during limited supply periods are vulnerable to contamination. However, it is challenging to quantify the quality of water that comes out of these pipes because of the vast differences in how the pipe networks are arranged and where they are located, especially in dense urban settings. Andrew J. Whittle, the Edmund K. Turner Professor in Civil Engineering, seeks to address this problem by gathering and making available more precise data on how water quality is affected by how the pipe is used — i.e., during periods of filling, flushing, or stagnation. Supported by the seed grant, he and his research team will perform tests in a section of abandoned pipe in Singapore, one that is still connected to the urban water pipe network there. By controlling flushing rates, monitoring stagnation, and measuring contamination, the study will analyze how variances in flow affect water quality, and evaluate how these data might be able to inform future water quality studies in cities with similar piped water challenges. Patrick Doyle, the Robert T. Haslam (1911) Professor of Chemical Engineering, is taking a different approach to water quality: creating a filter to remove micropollutants. Wastewater from industrial and agricultural processes often contains solvents, petrochemicals, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, hormones, and pesticides, which can enter natural water systems. While these micropollutants may be present at low concentrations, they can still have a significant negative impact on aquatic ecosystems, as well as human health. The challenge is in detecting and removing these micropollutants, because of the low concentrations in which they occur. For this project, Doyle and his team will develop a system to remove a variety of micropollutants, at even the smallest concentrations, using a special hydrogel particle that can be “tuned” to fit the size and shape of particular particles. Leveraging the flexibility of these hydrogels, this technology can improve the speed, precision, efficiency, and environmental sustainability of industrial water purification systems, and improve the health of the natural water systems upon which humans and our surrounding ecosystems rely. Developing support tools for small-holder farmers More than half of food calories consumed globally — and 70 percent of food calories consumed in developing countries — are supplied by approximately 475 million small-holder households in developing and emerging economies. These farmers typically operate through informal contracts and processes, which can lead to large economic inefficiencies and lack of traceability in the supply chains that they are a part of. Joann de Zegher, the Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor in the operations management program at the MIT Sloan School of Management, seeks to address these challenges by developing a mobile-based trading platform that links small-holder farmers, middlemen, and mills in the palm oil supply chain in Indonesia. Rapid growth in demand in this industry has led to high environmental costs, and recently pressure from consumers and nongovernmental organizations is motivating producers to employ more sustainable practices. However, these pressures deepen market access challenges for small-holder palm oil farmers. Her project seeks to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the current supply chain, and create transparency as a byproduct. Another small-holder farmer intervention is being developed by Robert M. Townsend, the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics. He is leading a research effort to improve access to crop insurance for small-holder farmers, who are particularly vulnerable to weather-related crop failures. Crop cultivation worldwide is highly vulnerable to unfavorable weather. In developing countries, farmers bear the financial burden of their crops’ exposure to weather ravages, the extent of which will only increase due to the effects of climate change. As a result, they rely on low-risk, low-yield cultivation practices that do not allow for the food and financial gains that can be possible when favorable weather supports higher yields. While crop insurance can help, it is often prohibitively expensive for these small-scale producers. Townsend and his research team seek to make crop insurance more accessible and affordable for farmers in developing regions by developing a new system of insurance pricing and payoff schedules that takes into account the widely varying ways through which weather affects crop’s development and yield throughout the growth cycle. Their goal is to provide a new, personalized insurance tool that improves farmers’ ability to protect their yields, invest in their crops, and adapt to climate change in order to stabilize food supply and farmer livelihoods worldwide.  Access to affordable fertilizer is another challenge that small holders face. Ammonia is the key ingredient in fertilizers; however, most of the world’s supply is produced by the Haber-Bosch process, which directly converts nitrogen and hydrogen gas to ammonia in a highly capital-intensive process that is difficult to downscale. Finding an alternative way to synthesize ammonia could transform access to fertilizer and improve food security, particularly in the developing world where current fertilizers are prohibitively expensive. For this seed grant project, Yogesh Surendranath, Paul M Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry, will develop an electrochemical process to synthesize ammonia, one that can be powered using renewable energy sources such as solar or wind. Designed to be implemented in a decentralized way, this technology could enable fertilizer production directly in the fields where it is needed, and would be especially beneficial in developing regions without access to existing ammonia production infrastructure. Even when crops produce high yields, post-harvest preservation is a challenge, especially to fruit and vegetable farmers on small plots of land in developing regions. The lack of affordable and effective post-harvest vegetable cooling and storage poses a significant challenge for them, and can lead to vegetable spoilage, reduced income, and lost time. Most techniques for cooling and storing vegetables rely on electricity, which is either unaffordable or unavailable for many small-holder farmers, especially those living on less than $3 per day in remote areas. The solution posed by an interdisciplinary team led by Daniel Frey, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and D-Lab faculty director, along with Leon Glicksman, professor of architecture and mechanical engineering, is a storage technology that uses the natural evaporation of water to create a cool and humid environment that prevents rot and dehydration, all without the need for electricity. This system is particularly suited for hot, dry regions such as Kenya, where the research team will be focusing their efforts. The research will be conducted in partnership with researchers from University of Nairobi’s Department of Plant Science and Crop Protection, who have extensive experience working with low-income rural communities on issues related to horticulture and improving livelihoods. The team will build and test evaporative cooling chambers in rural Kenya to optimize the design for performance, practical construction, and user preferences, and will build evidence for funders and implementing organizations to support the dissemination of these systems to improve post-harvest storage challenges. Combatting food safety challenges through wireless sensors Food safety is a matter of global concern, and a subject that several J-WAFS-funded researchers seek to tackle with innovative technologies. And for good reason: Food contamination and foodborne pathogens cause sickness and even death, as well as significant economic costs including the wasted labor and resources that occur when a contaminated product is disposed of, the lost profit to affected companies, and the lost food products that could have nourished a number of people. Fadel Adib, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, will receive a seed grant to develop a new tool that quickly and accurately assesses whether a given food product is contaminated. This food safety sensor uses wireless signals to determine the quality and safety of packaged food using a radio-frequency identification sticker placed on the product’s container. The system turns off-the-shelf RFID tags into spectroscopes which, when read, can measure the material contents of a product without the need to open its package. The sensor can also identify the presence of contaminants — pathogens as well as adulterants that affect the nutritional quality of the food product. If successful, this research, and the technology that results, will pave the way for wireless sensing technologies that can inform their users about the health and safety of their food and drink. With these seven newly funded projects, J-WAFS will have funded 37 total seed research projects since its founding in 2014. These grants serve as important catalysts of new water and food sector research at MIT, resulting in publications, patents, and other significant research support. To date, J-WAFS’ seed grant PIs have been awarded over $11M in follow-on funding. J-WAFS’ director, Professor John Lienhard, commented on the influence of this grant program: “The betterment of society drives our research community at MIT. Water and food, our world’s most vital resources, are currently put at great risk by a variety of global-scale challenges, and MIT researchers are responding forcefully. Through this, and J-WAFS’ other grant programs, we see MIT’s creative innovations and actionable solutions that will help to ensure a sustainable future.”J-WAFS Seed Grants, 2019 Learning Food and Water Contaminants using Wireless Signals PI: Fadel Adib, assistant professor, MIT Media Lab Designing Supply Chain Platforms for Smallholders in Indonesia PI: Joann de Zegher, Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor, Sloan School of Management Microparticle Systems for the Removal of Organic Micropollutants PI: Patrick Doyle, Robert T. Haslam (1911) Professor of Chemical Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering Evaporative Cooling Technologies for Vegetable Preservation in Kenya PIs: Daniel Frey, professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, and faculty research director, MIT D-Lab; Leon Glicksman, professor of building technology and mechanical engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Eric Verploegen, research engineer, MIT D-Lab Electrocatalytic Ammonia Synthesis for Distributed Agriculture PI: Yogesh Surendranath, Paul M Cook Career Development Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry Designing Purely Weather-Contingent Crop Insurance with Personalized Coverage to Improve Farmers’ Investments in their Crops for Higher Yields PI:  Robert M. Townsend, Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics, Department of Economics Understanding Effects of Intermittent Flow on Drinking Water Quality PI: Andrew J. Whittle, Edmund K. Turner Professor in Civil Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Agricultural productivity technologies for small-holder farmers; sustainable supply chain interventions in the palm oil industry; interventions that can provide clean water for cities and surrounding ecosystems — these are just a few of the research topics that grantees are pursuing, supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT. https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-team-nasa-big-idea-challenge-martian-greenhouse-0520 Multilevel Mars greenhouse could provide food to sustain astronauts for several years. Mon, 20 May 2019 13:00:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/mit-team-nasa-big-idea-challenge-martian-greenhouse-0520 Sarah Jensen | Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics An MIT student team took second place for its design of a multilevel greenhouse to be used on Mars in NASA’s 2019 Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge last month.  Each year, NASA holds the BIG Idea competition in its search for innovative and futuristic ideas. This year’s challenge invited universities across the United States to submit designs for a sustainable, cost-effective, and efficient method of supplying food to astronauts during future crewed explorations of Mars. Dartmouth College was awarded first place in this year’s closely contested challenge. “This was definitely a full-team success,” says team leader Eric Hinterman, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro). The team had contributions from 10 undergraduates and graduate students from across MIT departments. Support and assistance were provided by four architects and designers in Italy. This project was completely voluntary; all 14 contributors share a similar passion for space exploration and enjoyed working on the challenge in their spare time. The MIT team dubbed its design “BEAVER” (Biosphere Engineered Architecture for Viable Extraterrestrial Residence). “We designed our greenhouse to provide 100 percent of the food requirements for four active astronauts every day for two years,” explains Hinterman. The ecologists and agriculture specialists on the MIT team identified eight types of crops to provide the calories, protein, carbohydrates, and oils and fats that astronauts would need; these included potatoes, rice, wheat, oats, and peanuts. The flexible menu suggested substitutes, depending on astronauts’ specific dietary requirements. “Most space systems are metallic and very robotic,” Hinterman says. “It was fun working on something involving plants.” Parameters provided by NASA — a power budget, dimensions necessary for transporting by rocket, the capacity to provide adequate sustenance — drove the shape and the overall design of the greenhouse. Last October, the team held an initial brainstorming session and pitched project ideas. The iterative process continued until they reached their final design: a cylindrical growing space 11.2 meters in diameter and 13.4 meters tall after deployment. An innovative design The greenhouse would be packaged inside a rocket bound for Mars and, after landing, a waiting robot would move it to its site. Programmed with folding mechanisms, it would then expand horizontally and vertically and begin forming an ice shield around its exterior to protect plants and humans from the intense radiation on the Martian surface. Two years later, when Earth and Mars orbits were again in optimal alignment for launching and landing, a crew would arrive on Mars, where they would complete the greenhouse setup and begin growing crops. “About every two years, the crew would leave and a new crew of four would arrive and continue to use the greenhouse,” explains Hinterman. To maximize space, BEAVER employs a large spiral that moves around a central core within the cylinder. Seedlings are planted at the top and flow down the spiral as they grow. By the time they reach the bottom, the plants are ready for harvesting, and the crew enters at the ground floor to reap the potatoes and peanuts and grains. The planting trays are then moved to the top of the spiral, and the process begins again. “A lot of engineering went into the spiral,” says Hinterman. “Most of it is done without any moving parts or mechanical systems, which makes it ideal for space applications. You don’t want a lot of moving parts or things that can break.” The human factor “One of the big issues with sending humans into space is that they will be confined to seeing the same people every day for a couple of years,” Hinterman explains. “They’ll be living in an enclosed environment with very little personal space.” The greenhouse provides a pleasant area to ensure astronauts’ psychological well-being. On the top floor, just above the spiral, a windowed “mental relaxation area” overlooks the greenery. The ice shield admits natural light, and the crew can lounge on couches and enjoy the view of the Mars landscape. And rather than running pipes from the water tank at the top level down to the crops, Hinterman and his team designed a cascading waterfall at the area’s periphery, further adding to the ambiance. Sophomore Sheila Baber, an Earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences (EAPS) major and the team’s ecology lead, was eager to take part in the project. “My grandmother used to farm in the mountains in Korea, and I remember going there and picking the crops,” she says. “Coming to MIT, I felt like I was distanced from my roots. I am interested in life sciences and physics and all things space, and this gave me the opportunity to combine all those.” Her work on BEAVER led to Baber’s award of one of five NASA internships at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia this summer. She expects to continue exploration of the greenhouse project and its applications on Earth, such as in urban settings where space for growing food is constrained. “Some of the agricultural decisions that we made about hydroponics and aquaponics could potentially be used in environments on Earth to raise food,” she says. “The MIT team was great to work with,” says Hinterman. “They were very enthusiastic and hardworking, and we came up with a great design as a result.” In addition to Baber and Hinterman, team members included Siranush Babakhanova (Physics), Joe Kusters (AeroAstro), Hans Nowak (Leaders for Global Operations), Tajana Schneiderman (EAPS), Sam Seaman (Architecture), Tommy Smith (System Design and Management), Natasha Stamler (Mechanical Engineering and Urban Studies and Planning), and Zhuchang Zhan (EAPS). Assistance was provided by Italian designers and architects Jana Lukic, Fabio Maffia, Aldo Moccia, and Samuele Sciarretta. The team’s advisors were Jeff Hoffman, Sara Seager, Matt Silver, Vladimir Aerapetian, Valentina Sumini, and George Lordos. The BIG Idea Challenge is sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development program and managed by the National Institute of Aerospace. MIT team that designed BEAVER (Biosphere Engineered Architecture for Viable Extraterrestrial Residence), a proposed Martian greenhouse that could provide 100 percent of the food required by four astronauts for up to two years Photo: William Litant https://news.mit.edu/2019/seed-fund-addresses-indian-food-water-agriculture-0509 MIT-India, J-WAFS, and the Indian Institute of Technology Ropar launch fund to facilitate collaborations between faculty and scientists from MIT and ITT Ropar. Thu, 09 May 2019 12:00:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/seed-fund-addresses-indian-food-water-agriculture-0509 Madeline Smith | MISTI Representatives of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), MIT-India, and the Indian Institute of Technology Ropar (IIT Ropar) gathered recently for a signing ceremony to formally launch a new faculty seed fund. The seed fund will help initiate new water- and food systems-related research collaborations between faculty and research scientists from MIT and IIT Ropar. Through it, MIT will provide grants for early-stage research projects on topics primarily related to water, food, and agriculture. “Our goal is to establish a pathway for research collaboration with IIT Ropar’s faculty and students on the world’s pressing challenges around water supply and food security. The interchange will provide MIT researchers with a direct window into the agricultural and water resources environment of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in India,” says John Lienhard, J-WAFS director and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water at MIT. J-WAFS promotes and supports research at MIT, with a mission to make meaningful contributions to solving the diverse challenges surrounding the world’s food and water needs. Through research funding and other activities, they support the development and deployment of effective technologies, programs and policies to address concerns stemming from population growth, climate change, urbanization, and development. “IIT Ropar is a fast-rising research institution, already highly-ranked for research citations in India,” says Lienhard. “IIT Ropar lies in one of India’s most important agricultural regions and will be an excellent partner for research around water and food.” IIT Ropar is one of eight new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) set up by the government of India to expand the reach and enhance the quality of technical education in India. The IITs emphasize research as a primary focus of the institution. Director of IIT Ropar Professor Sarit K. Das, who has also served as a visiting professor at MIT in 2007 and 2011, spoke at the ceremony about the need for research to address these critical issues. “We are one of the new generation IITs, and we want a very large focus on research,” he says. “There are large problems with agriculture, with water resources, and we want this as one of our focus areas. This is where J-WAFS comes in; we decided that we must join hands together to do something.” To provide these opportunities for joint research, J-WAFS and IIT Ropar will work with MIT-India, part of MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), to expand the outreach to MIT’s research community.  “This is a natural partnership for us,” says Renee Robins, executive director of J-WAFS. “Most faculty members are aware of MISTI Global Seed Funds, and the MIT-India program has a long track record of successful international collaborations, with established infrastructure for program management and proposal review.” “We are committed to working with our MIT colleagues through these interdisciplinary initiatives to address the research interests of our MIT community and our Indian colleagues,” says Mala Ghosh, managing director of MIT-India. “This new seed fund will create a cross-fertilization of ideas in critical areas, generate student involvement, and link the overlapping networks of J-WAFS, MIT-India, and IIT, thereby launching an even more robust and effective research environment.” The MIT-IIT Ropar Seed Fund will become a part of the MISTI Global Seed Funds. Open to faculty and researchers from MIT and IIT Ropar who are pursuing water- and food-related research, MISTI Global Seed Funds create opportunities for international cooperation by funding early-stage collaboration between MIT researchers and their counterparts around the world. The call for proposals will open in May with a deadline in September. A new agreement will help initiate research collaborations between scholars at MIT and IIT-Ropar that respond to water- and food-sector challenges in India. IIT Ropar is located in Punjab, a primarily agriculture-based region of India, and has interdisciplinary centers focusing on water and agriculture. Photo courtesy of MISTI https://news.mit.edu/2019/seed-fund-addresses-indian-food-water-agriculture-0509 MIT-India, J-WAFS, and the Indian Institute of Technology Ropar launch fund to facilitate collaborations between faculty and scientists from MIT and ITT Ropar. Thu, 09 May 2019 12:00:01 -0400 https://news.mit.edu/2019/seed-fund-addresses-indian-food-water-agriculture-0509 Madeline Smith | MISTI Representatives of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), MIT-India, and the Indian Institute of Technology Ropar (IIT Ropar) gathered recently for a signing ceremony to formally launch a new faculty seed fund. The seed fund will help initiate new water- and food systems-related research collaborations between faculty and research scientists from MIT and IIT Ropar. Through it, MIT will provide grants for early-stage research projects on topics primarily related to water, food, and agriculture. “Our goal is to establish a pathway for research collaboration with IIT Ropar’s faculty and students on the world’s pressing challenges around water supply and food security. The interchange will provide MIT researchers with a direct window into the agricultural and water resources environment of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in India,” says John Lienhard, J-WAFS director and Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water at MIT. J-WAFS promotes and supports research at MIT, with a mission to make meaningful contributions to solving the diverse challenges surrounding the world’s food and water needs. Through research funding and other activities, they support the development and deployment of effective technologies, programs and policies to address concerns stemming from population growth, climate change, urbanization, and development. “IIT Ropar is a fast-rising research institution, already highly-ranked for research citations in India,” says Lienhard. “IIT Ropar lies in one of India’s most important agricultural regions and will be an excellent partner for research around water and food.” IIT Ropar is one of eight new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) set up by the government of India to expand the reach and enhance the quality of technical education in India. The IITs emphasize research as a primary focus of the institution. Director of IIT Ropar Professor Sarit K. Das, who has also served as a visiting professor at MIT in 2007 and 2011, spoke at the ceremony about the need for research to address these critical issues. “We are one of the new generation IITs, and we want a very large focus on research,” he says. “There are large problems with agriculture, with water resources, and we want this as one of our focus areas. This is where J-WAFS comes in; we decided that we must join hands together to do something.” To provide these opportunities for joint research, J-WAFS and IIT Ropar will work with MIT-India, part of MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), to expand the outreach to MIT’s research community.  “This is a natural partnership for us,” says Renee Robins, executive director of J-WAFS. “Most faculty members are aware of MISTI Global Seed Funds, and the MIT-India program has a long track record of successful international collaborations, with established infrastructure for program management and proposal review.” “We are committed to working with our MIT colleagues through these interdisciplinary initiatives to address the research interests of our MIT community and our Indian colleagues,” says Mala Ghosh, managing director of MIT-India. “This new seed fund will create a cross-fertilization of ideas in critical areas, generate student involvement, and link the overlapping networks of J-WAFS, MIT-India, and IIT, thereby launching an even more robust and effective research environment.” The MIT-IIT Ropar Seed Fund will become a part of the MISTI Global Seed Funds. Open to faculty and researchers from MIT and IIT Ropar who are pursuing water- and food-related research, MISTI Global Seed Funds create opportunities for international cooperation by funding early-stage collaboration between MIT researchers and their counterparts around the world. The call for proposals will open in May with a deadline in September. A new agreement will help initiate research collaborations between scholars at MIT and IIT-Ropar that respond to water- and food-sector challenges in India. IIT Ropar is located in Punjab, a primarily agriculture-based region of India, and has interdisciplinary centers focusing on water and agriculture. Photo courtesy of MISTI More

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    Engineering superpowered organisms for a more sustainable world

    Making corn salt-tolerant by engineering its microbiome. Increasing nut productivity with fungal symbiosis. Cleaning up toxic metals in the water supply with algae. Capturing soil nutrient runoff with bacterial biofilms. These were the bio-sustainability innovations designed and presented by students in the Department of Biological Engineering (BE) last May. With the sun shining brightly on an empty Killian Court, the students gathered for the final class presentations over Zoom, physically distanced due to the Covid-19-related closing of MIT’s campus this spring.
    For decades, the sustainable technologies dominating public discourse have tended toward the mechanical: wind power, solar power, saltwater distillation, etc. But in recent years, biological solutions have increasingly taken the forefront. For recent BE graduate Adrianna Amaro ’20, being able to make use of “existing organisms in the natural world and improve their capabilities, instead of building whole new machines, is the most exciting aspect of biological engineering approaches to sustainability problems.”
    Each semester, the BE capstone class (20.380: Biological Engineering Design) challenges students to design, in teams, biological engineering solutions to problems focused on a theme selected by the instructors. Teams are tasked with presenting their solutions in two distinct ways: as a written academic grant proposal and as a startup pitch. For Professor Christopher Voigt, one of the lead instructors, the goal of the class is to “create the climate where a half-baked concept emerges and gets transformed into a project that is both achievable and could have a real-world impact.”
    A glance at the research portfolio on the MIT biological engineering homepage reveals a particular focus on human biology. But over the years, students and faculty alike have started pushing for a greater diversity in challenges to which the cutting-edge technology they were developing could be applied. Indeed, “sustainability has been one of the top areas that students raise when asked what they want to address with biological engineering,” says Sean Clarke PhD ’13, another instructor for the class.
    In response to student input, the instructors chose food and water security as the theme for the spring 2020 semester. (Sustainability, broadly, was the theme the previous semester.) The topic was well-received by the 20.380 students. Recent BE graduate Cecilia Padilla ’20 appreciated how wide-reaching and impactful the issues were, while teammate Abby McGee ’20 was thrilled because she had always been interested in environmental issues — and is “not into pharma.”
    Since this is the biological engineering capstone, students had to incorporate engineering principles in their biology-based solutions. This meant developing computational models of their proposed biological systems to predict the output of a system from a defined set of inputs. Team SuperSoil, for example, designed a genetic circuit that, when inserted into B. subtilis, a common soil bacteria, would allow it to change behavior based on water and nutrient levels. During heavy rain, for example, the bacteria would respond by producing a phosphate-binding protein biofilm. This would theoretically reduce phosphate runoff, thus preserving soil nutrients and reducing the pollution of waterways. By modeling natural processes such as protein production, bacterial activation, and phosphate diffusion in the soil using differential equations, they were able to predict the degree of phosphate capture and show that significant impact could be achieved with a realistic amount of engineered bacterial input.
    Biological engineering Professor Forest White co-leads the class every spring with Voigt. White also teaches the prerequisite, where students learn how to construct computational models of biological systems. He points out how the models helped students develop their capstone projects: “In a couple of cases the model revealed true design challenges, where the feasibility of the project requires optimal engineering of particular aspects of the design.”
    Models aside, simply thinking about the mathematical reality of proposed solutions helped teams early on in the idea selection process. Team Nutlettes initially considered using methane-consuming bacteria to capture methane gas from landfills, but back-of-the-envelope calculations revealed unfavorable kinetics. Additionally, further reading brought to light a possible toxic byproduct of bacterial methane metabolism: formaldehyde. Instead, they chose to develop an intervention for water-intensive nut producers: engineer the tree’s fungal symbionts to provide a boost of hormones that would promote flower production, which in turn increases nut yields.
    Team Halo saw water filtration as the starting point for ideation, deeming it the most impactful issue to tackle. For inspiration, they looked to mangrove trees, which naturally take up salt from the water that they grow in. They applied this concept to their design of corn-associated, salt-tolerant bacteria that could enhance their plant host’s ability to grow in high salinity conditions — an increasingly common consequence of drought and industrial agricultural irrigation. Additional inspiration came from research in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: In their design, the team incorporated a silk-based seed coating developed by Professor Benedetto Marelli’s group.
    Many of the capstone students found themselves exploring unfamiliar fields of research. During their foray into plant-fungal symbiosis, Team Nutlettes was often frustrated by the prevalence of outdated and contradictory findings, and by the lack of quantitative results that they could use in their models. Still, Vaibhavi Shah, one of the few juniors in the class, says she found a lot of value in “diving into something you’ve no experience in.”
    In addition to biological design, teams were encouraged to think about the financial feasibility of their proposed solutions. This posed a challenge for Team H2Woah and their algal-based solution for sequestering heavy metals from wastewater. Unlike traditional remediation methods, which produce toxic sludge, their system allows for the recycling of metals from the wastewater for manufacturing, and the opportunity to harvest the algae for biofuels. However, as they developed their concept, they realized that breaking into the existing market would be difficult due to the cost of all the new infrastructure that would be required.
    Students read broadly over the course of the semester, which helped them enhance their understanding of food and water insecurity beyond their specific projects. Before the class, Kayla Vodehnal ’20 of Team Nutlettes had only been exposed to policy-driven solutions. Amaro, meanwhile, came to realize how close to home the issues they were researching are: all Americans may soon have to confront inadequate access to clean water due to, among other factors, pollution, climate change, and overuse.
    In any other semester, the capstone students would have done their final presentations in a seminar room before peers, instructors, a panel of judges, and the indispensable pastry-laden brunch table. This semester, however, the presentations took place, like everything else this spring, on Zoom. Instructors beamed in front of digital congratulatory messages, while some students coordinated background images to present as a single cohesive team. Despite the loss of in-person engagement, the Zoom presentations did come with benefits. This year’s class had a larger group of audience members compared to past years, including at least two dozen faculty, younger students, and alumni who joined virtually to show their support.
    Coordinating a group project remotely was challenging for all the teams, but Team Nutlettes found a silver lining: Because having spontaneous conversations over Zoom is harder than in person, they found that their meetings became a lot more productive.
    One attendee was Renee Robins ’83, executive director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, who had previously interacted with the class as a guest speaker. “Many of the students’ innovative concepts for research and commercialization,” she says, “were of the caliber we see from MIT faculty submitting proposals to J-WAFS’ various grant programs.”
    Now that they have graduated, the seniors in the class are all going their separate ways, and some have sustainability careers in mind. Joseph S. Faraguna ’20 of Team Halo will be joining Ginkgo Bioworks in the fall, where he hopes to work on a bioremediation or agricultural project. His teammate, McGee, will be doing therapeutic CRISPR research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, but says that environment-focused research is definitely her end goal.
    Between Covid-19 and post-graduation plans, the capstone projects will likely end with the class. Still, this experience will continue to have an influence on the student participants. Team H2Woah is open to continuing their project in the future in some way, Amaro says, since it was their “first real bioengineering experience, and will always have a special place in our hearts.”
    Their instructors certainly hope that the class will prove a lasting inspiration. “Even in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic,” White says, “the problems with global warming and food and water security are still the most pressing problems we face as a species. These problems need lots of smart, motivated people thinking of different solutions. If our class ends up motivating even a couple of these students to engage on these problems in the future, then we will have been very successful.”

    Topics: Biological engineering, School of Engineering, Civil and environmental engineering, Broad Institute, J-WAFS, Classes and programs, Sustainability, Water, Undergraduates, Students, Alumni/ae More

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    MIT research on seawater surface tension becomes international guideline

    The property of water that enables a bug to skim the surface of a pond or keeps a carefully placed paperclip floating on the top of a cup of water is known as surface tension. Understanding the surface tension of water is important in a wide range of applications including heat transfer, desalination, and oceanography. Although much is known about the surface tension of fresh water, very little has been known about the surface tension of seawater — until recently.
    In 2012, John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering, and then-graduate student Kishor Nayar SM ’14, PhD ’19 embarked on a research project to understand how the surface tension of seawater changes with temperature and salinity. Two years later, they published their findings in the Journal of Physical and Chemical Reference Data. This spring, the International Association for the Properties of Water and Steam (IAPWS) announced that they had deemed Lienhard and Nayar’s work an international guideline.
    According to the IAPWS, Lienhard and Nayar’s research “presents a correlation for the surface tension of seawater as a function of temperature and salinity.” The announcement of the guideline marked the completion of eight years of work with dozens of collaborators from MIT and across the globe.
    “This project grew out of my work in desalination. In desalination, you need to know about the surface tension of water because that affects how water travels through pores in a membrane,” explains Lienhard, a world leading expert in desalination — the process by which salt water is treated to become potable freshwater.
    Lienhard suggested Nayar take measurements of seawater’s surface tension and compare the results to the surface tension of pure water. As they would soon find out, getting reliable data from salt water would prove to be incredibly difficult. 
    “We had thought originally that these experiments would be pretty simple to do, that we’d be done in a month or two. But as we started looking into it, we realized it was a much harder problem to tackle,” says Lienhard.
    From the outset, Nayar hoped to get enough accurate data to inform a property standard. Doing so would require the uncertainty in the measurements to be less than 1 percent.
    “When you talk about property measurements, you need to be as accurate as possible,” explains Nayar. The first hurdle he had to surmount to achieve this level of accuracy was finding the appropriate instrumentation to make reliable measurements — something that turned out to be no easy feat.
    Measuring surface tension
    To measure the surface tension of water, Lienhard and Nayar teamed up with Gareth McKinley, professor of mechanical engineering, and then-graduate student Divya Panchanathan SM ’15, PhD ’18. They began with a device known as a Wilhelmy plate, which finds the surface tension by lowering a small platinum plate into a beaker of water then measuring the force the water exerts as the plate is raised.
    Nayar and Panchanathan struggled to measure the surface tension of salt water at higher temperatures. “The issue we kept finding was once the temperature was above 50 degrees Celsius, the water on the beaker evaporated faster than we could take the measurements,” Nayar says. 
    No instrument would allow them to get the data they needed — so Nayar turned to the MIT Hobby Shop. Using a lathe, he built a special lid for the beaker to keep vapor in.
    “The little lid Kishor built had accurately cut doors that allowed him to put a surface tension probe through the lid without letting water vapor get out,” explains Lienhard.
    After making progress on obtaining data, the team suffered a massive setback. They found that barely visible salt scales, which formed on their test beaker over time, had introduced errors to their measurements. To get the most accurate values, they decided to use fresh new beakers for every single test. As a result, Nayar had to repeat nine months of work just prior to his master’s thesis being due. Fortunately, since the main problem was identified and solved, experiments could be repeated much faster.
    Nayar was able to redo the experiments on time. The team measured surface tension in seawater ranging from room temperature to 90 degrees Celsius and salinity levels ranging from pure water to four times the salinity of ocean water. They found that surface tension decreases by roughly 20 percent as water goes from room temperature toward boiling. Meanwhile, as salinity increases, surface tension increases as well. The team had unlocked the mystery of seawater surface tension.
    “It was literally the most technically challenging thing I had ever done,” Nayar recalls.
    Their data had an average deviation of 0.19 percent, with a maximum deviation of just 0.6 percent — well within the 1 percent bound needed for a guideline.
    From master’s thesis to international guideline
    Three years after completing his master’s thesis, Nayar, by then a PhD student, attended an IAPWS meeting in Kyoto, Japan. The IAPWS is a nonprofit international organization responsible for releasing standards on the properties of water and steam. There, Nayar met with leaders in the field of water surface tension who had been struggling with the same issues Nayar had faced. These contacts introduced him to the long, rigorous process of declaring something an international guideline.
    The IAPWS had previously published standards on the properties of steam developed by the late Joseph Henry Keenan, professor and one-time department head of mechanical engineering at MIT. To join Keenan as authors of an IAPWS standard, the team’s data needed to be verified by measurements conducted by other researchers. After three years of working with the IAPWS, the team’s work was finally adopted as an international guideline.
    For Nayar, who graduated with his PhD last year and is now a senior industrial water/wastewater engineer at engineering consulting firm GHD, the guideline announcement made the long months collecting data well worth it. “It felt like something getting completed,” he recalls. 
    The findings that Nayar, Panchanathan, McKinley, and Lienhard reported back in 2014 are broadly applicable to a number of industries, according to Lienhard. “It’s certainly relevant for desalination work, but also for oceanographic problems such as capillary wave dynamics,” he explains.

    It also helps explain how small things — like a bug or a paperclip — can float on seawater. More