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    Researchers release open-source space debris model

    MIT’s Astrodynamics, Space Robotics, and Controls Laboratory (ARCLab) announced the public beta release of the MIT Orbital Capacity Assessment Tool (MOCAT) during the 2023 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Space Forum Workshop on Dec. 14. MOCAT enables users to model the long-term future space environment to understand growth in space debris and assess the effectiveness of debris-prevention mechanisms.

    With the escalating congestion in low Earth orbit, driven by a surge in satellite deployments, the risk of collisions and space debris proliferation is a pressing concern. Conducting thorough space environment studies is critical for developing effective strategies for fostering responsible and sustainable use of space resources. 

    MOCAT stands out among orbital modeling tools for its capability to model individual objects, diverse parameters, orbital characteristics, fragmentation scenarios, and collision probabilities. With the ability to differentiate between object categories, generalize parameters, and offer multi-fidelity computations, MOCAT emerges as a versatile and powerful tool for comprehensive space environment analysis and management.

    MOCAT is intended to provide an open-source tool to empower stakeholders including satellite operators, regulators, and members of the public to make data-driven decisions. The ARCLab team has been developing these models for the last several years, recognizing that the lack of open-source implementation of evolutionary modeling tools limits stakeholders’ ability to develop consensus on actions to help improve space sustainability. This beta release is intended to allow users to experiment with the tool and provide feedback to help guide further development.

    Richard Linares, the principal investigator for MOCAT and an MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, expresses excitement about the tool’s potential impact: “MOCAT represents a significant leap forward in orbital capacity assessment. By making it open-source and publicly available, we hope to engage the global community in advancing our understanding of satellite orbits and contributing to the sustainable use of space.”

    MOCAT consists of two main components. MOCAT-MC evaluates space environment evolution with individual trajectory simulation and Monte Carlo parameter analysis, providing both a high-level overall view for the environment and a fidelity analysis into the individual space objects evolution. MOCAT Source Sink Evolutionary Model (MOCAT-SSEM), meanwhile, uses a lower-fidelity modeling approach that can run on personal computers within seconds to minutes. MOCAT-MC and MOCAT-SSEM can be accessed separately via GitHub.

    MOCAT’s initial development has been supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA’s Office of Technology and Strategy.

    “We are thrilled to support this groundbreaking orbital debris modeling work and the new knowledge it created,” says Charity Weeden, associate administrator for the Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy at NASA headquarters in Washington. “This open-source modeling tool is a public good that will advance space sustainability, improve evidence-based policy analysis, and help all users of space make better decisions.” More

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    Forging climate connections across the Institute

    Climate change is the ultimate cross-cutting issue: Not limited to any one discipline, it ranges across science, technology, policy, culture, human behavior, and well beyond. The response to it likewise requires an all-of-MIT effort.

    Now, to strengthen such an effort, a new grant program spearheaded by the Climate Nucleus, the faculty committee charged with the oversight and implementation of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, aims to build up MIT’s climate leadership capacity while also supporting innovative scholarship on diverse climate-related topics and forging new connections across the Institute.

    Called the Fast Forward Faculty Fund (F^4 for short), the program has named its first cohort of six faculty members after issuing its inaugural call for proposals in April 2023. The cohort will come together throughout the year for climate leadership development programming and networking. The program provides financial support for graduate students who will work with the faculty members on the projects — the students will also participate in leadership-building activities — as well as $50,000 in flexible, discretionary funding to be used to support related activities. 

    “Climate change is a crisis that truly touches every single person on the planet,” says Noelle Selin, co-chair of the nucleus and interim director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “It’s therefore essential that we build capacity for every member of the MIT community to make sense of the problem and help address it. Through the Fast Forward Faculty Fund, our aim is to have a cohort of climate ambassadors who can embed climate everywhere at the Institute.”

    F^4 supports both faculty who would like to begin doing climate-related work, as well as faculty members who are interested in deepening their work on climate. The program has the core goal of developing cohorts of F^4 faculty and graduate students who, in addition to conducting their own research, will become climate leaders at MIT, proactively looking for ways to forge new climate connections across schools, departments, and disciplines.

    One of the projects, “Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies,” led by Professor Siqi Zheng of the MIT Center for Real Estate in collaboration with colleagues from the MIT Sloan School of Management, focuses on the roughly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions that come from the buildings and real estate sector. Zheng notes that this sector has been slow to respond to climate change, but says that is starting to change, thanks in part to the rising awareness of climate risks and new local regulations aimed at reducing emissions from buildings.

    Using a data-driven approach, the project seeks to understand the efficient and equitable market incentives, technology solutions, and public policies that are most effective at transforming the real estate industry. Johnattan Ontiveros, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, is working with Zheng on the project.

    “We were thrilled at the incredible response we received from the MIT faculty to our call for proposals, which speaks volumes about the depth and breadth of interest in climate at MIT,” says Anne White, nucleus co-chair and vice provost and associate vice president for research. “This program makes good on key commitments of the Fast Forward plan, supporting cutting-edge new work by faculty and graduate students while helping to deepen the bench of climate leaders at MIT.”

    During the 2023-24 academic year, the F^4 faculty and graduate student cohorts will come together to discuss their projects, explore opportunities for collaboration, participate in climate leadership development, and think proactively about how to deepen interdisciplinary connections among MIT community members interested in climate change.

    The six inaugural F^4 awardees are:

    Professor Tristan Brown, History Section: Humanistic Approaches to the Climate Crisis  

    With this project, Brown aims to create a new community of practice around narrative-centric approaches to environmental and climate issues. Part of a broader humanities initiative at MIT, it brings together a global working group of interdisciplinary scholars, including Serguei Saavedra (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Or Porath (Tel Aviv University; Religion), collectively focused on examining the historical and present links between sacred places and biodiversity for the purposes of helping governments and nongovernmental organizations formulate better sustainability goals. Boyd Ruamcharoen, a PhD student in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) program, will work with Brown on this project.

    Professor Kerri Cahoy, departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (AeroAstro): Onboard Autonomous AI-driven Satellite Sensor Fusion for Coastal Region Monitoring

    The motivation for this project is the need for much better data collection from satellites, where technology can be “20 years behind,” says Cahoy. As part of this project, Cahoy will pursue research in the area of autonomous artificial intelligence-enabled rapid sensor fusion (which combines data from different sensors, such as radar and cameras) onboard satellites to improve understanding of the impacts of climate change, specifically sea-level rise and hurricanes and flooding in coastal regions. Graduate students Madeline Anderson, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), and Mary Dahl, a PhD student in AeroAstro, will work with Cahoy on this project.

    Professor Priya Donti, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: Robust Reinforcement Learning for High-Renewables Power Grids 

    With renewables like wind and solar making up a growing share of electricity generation on power grids, Donti’s project focuses on improving control methods for these distributed sources of electricity. The research will aim to create a realistic representation of the characteristics of power grid operations, and eventually inform scalable operational improvements in power systems. It will “give power systems operators faith that, OK, this conceptually is good, but it also actually works on this grid,” says Donti. PhD candidate Ana Rivera from EECS is the F^4 graduate student on the project.

    Professor Jason Jackson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP): Political Economy of the Climate Crisis: Institutions, Power and Global Governance

    This project takes a political economy approach to the climate crisis, offering a distinct lens to examine, first, the political governance challenge of mobilizing climate action and designing new institutional mechanisms to address the global and intergenerational distributional aspects of climate change; second, the economic challenge of devising new institutional approaches to equitably finance climate action; and third, the cultural challenge — and opportunity — of empowering an adaptive socio-cultural ecology through traditional knowledge and local-level social networks to achieve environmental resilience. Graduate students Chen Chu and Mrinalini Penumaka, both PhD students in DUSP, are working with Jackson on the project.

    Professor Haruko Wainwright, departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) and Civil and Environmental Engineering: Low-cost Environmental Monitoring Network Technologies in Rural Communities for Addressing Climate Justice 

    This project will establish a community-based climate and environmental monitoring network in addition to a data visualization and analysis infrastructure in rural marginalized communities to better understand and address climate justice issues. The project team plans to work with rural communities in Alaska to install low-cost air and water quality, weather, and soil sensors. Graduate students Kay Whiteaker, an MS candidate in NSE, and Amandeep Singh, and MS candidate in System Design and Management at Sloan, are working with Wainwright on the project, as is David McGee, professor in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences.

    Professor Siqi Zheng, MIT Center for Real Estate and DUSP: Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies 

    See the text above for the details on this project. More

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    Transatlantic connections make the difference for MIT Portugal

    Successful relationships take time to develop, with both parties investing energy and resources and fostering mutual trust and understanding. The MIT Portugal Program (MPP), a strategic partnership between MIT, Portuguese universities and research institutions, and the Portuguese government, is a case in point.

    Portugal’s inaugural partnership with a U.S. university, MPP was established in 2006 as a collaboration between MIT and the Portuguese Science and Technology Foundation (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, or FCT). Since then, the program has developed research platforms in areas such as bioengineering, sustainable energy, transportation systems, engineering design, and advanced manufacturing. Now halfway through its third phase (MPP2030, begun in 2018), the program owes much of its success to the bonds connecting institutions and people across the Atlantic over the past 17 years.

    “When you look at the successes and the impact, these things don’t happen overnight,” says John Hansman, the T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and co-director of MPP, noting, in particular, MPP’s achievements in the areas of energy and ocean research, as well as bioengineering. “This has been a longstanding relationship that we have and want to continue. I think it’s been beneficial to Portugal and to MIT. I think you can argue it has made substantial contributions to the success that Portugal is currently experiencing both in its technical capabilities and also its energy policy.”

    With research often aimed at climate and sustainability solutions, one of MPP’s key strengths is its education of future leaders in science, technology, and entrepreneurship. And the program’s impacts carry forward, as several former MPP students are now on the faculty at participating Portuguese universities.

    “The original intent of working together with Portugal was to try to establish collaboration between universities and to instill some of the MIT culture with the culture in Portugal, and I think that’s been hugely successful,” says Douglas Hart, MPP co-director and professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “It has had a lot of impacts in terms of the research, but also the people.”

    One of those people is André Pina, associate director of H2 strategy and origination at the company EDP, who was in residence at MIT in 2014 as part of the MPP Sustainable Energy Systems Doctoral Program. He says the competencies and experiences he acquired have been critical to his professional development in energy system planning, have influenced his approach to problem solving, and have allowed him to bring “holistic thinking” to business endeavors.

    “The MIT Portugal Program has created a collaborative ecosystem between Portuguese universities, companies, and MIT that enabled the training of highly qualified professionals, while contributing to the positioning of Portuguese companies in new cutting-edge fields,” he says.

    Building on MPP’s previous successes, MPP2030 focuses on advancing research in four strategic areas: climate science and climate change; earth systems from oceans to near space; digital transformation in manufacturing; and sustainable cities — all involving data science-intensive approaches and methodologies. Within these broad scientific areas, FCT funding has enabled seven collaborative large-scale “flagship” projects between Portuguese and MIT researchers during the current phase, as well as dozens of smaller projects.

    Flagship projects currently underway include:

    ·   AEROS Constellation

    ·   C-Tech: Climate Driven Technologies for Low Carbon Cities

    ·   K2D: Knowledge and Data from the Deep to Space

    ·   NEWSAT

    ·   Operator: Digital Transformation in Industry with a Focus on the Operator 4.0

    ·   SNOB-5G: Scalable Network Backhauling for 5G

    ·   Transformer 4.0: Digital Revolution of Power Transformers

    Sustainability plays a significant role in MPP — reflective of the value both Portugal and MIT place on environmental, energy, and climate solutions. Projects under the Sustainable Cities strategic area, for example, are “helping cities in Portugal to become more efficient and more sustainable,” Hansman says, noting that MPP’s influence is being felt in cities across the country and it is “having a big impact in terms of local city planning activities.”

    Regarding energy, Hansman points to a previous MPP phase that focused on the Azores as an isolated energy ecosystem and investigated its ability to minimize energy use and become energy independent.

    “That view of system-level energy use helped to stimulate activity on the mainland in Portugal, which has helped Portugal become a leader in various energy sources and made them less vulnerable in the last year or two,” Hansman says.

    In the Oceans to Near Space strategic area, the K2D flagship project also emphasizes research into sustainability solutions, as well as resilience to environmental change. Over the past few years, K2D researchers in Portugal and MIT have worked together to develop components that permit cost-effective gathering of chemical, physical, biological, and environmental data from the ocean depths. One current project investigates the integration of autonomous underwater vehicles with subsea cables to enhance both environmental monitoring and hazard warning systems.

    “The program has been very successful,” Hart says. “They are now deploying a 2-kilometer cable just south of Lisbon, which will be in place in another month or so. Portugal has been hit with tsunamis that caused tremendous devastation, and one of the objectives of these cables is to sense tsunamis. So, it’s an early warning system.”

    As a leader in ocean technology with a long history of maritime discovery, Portugal provides many opportunities for MIT’s ocean researchers. Hart notes that the Portuguese military invites international researchers on board its ships, providing MIT with research opportunities that would be financially difficult otherwise.

    Hansman adds that partnering with researchers in the Azores provides MIT with unique access to facilities and labs in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. For example, Hart will be teaching at a marine robotics summer school in the Azores this July.

    Cadence Payne, an MIT PhD candidate, is among those planning to attend. Through MPP’s AEROS project, Payne has helped develop a modular “cubesat” that will orbit over Portugal’s Exclusive Economic Zone collecting images and radio data to help define the ecological health of the country’s coastal waters. The nanosatellite is expected to launch in late 2023 or early 2024, says Payne, adding that it will be Portugal’s first cubesat mission.

    “In monitoring the ocean, you’re monitoring the climate,” Payne says. “If you want to do work on detecting climate change and developing methods of mitigating climate change … it helps to integrate international collaboration,” she says, adding that, for students, “it’s been a really beautiful opportunity for us to see the benefits of collaboration.”

    “I would say one of the main benefits of working with Portugal is that we share many interests in research in the sense that they’re very interested in climate change, sustainability, environmental impacts and those kinds of things,” says Hart. “They have turned out to be a very good strategic partner for MIT, and, hopefully, MIT for them.” More

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    Megawatt electrical motor designed by MIT engineers could help electrify aviation

    Aviation’s huge carbon footprint could shrink significantly with electrification. To date, however, only small all-electric planes have gotten off the ground. Their electric motors generate hundreds of kilowatts of power. To electrify larger, heavier jets, such as commercial airliners, megawatt-scale motors are required. These would be propelled by hybrid or turbo-electric propulsion systems where an electrical machine is coupled with a gas turbine aero-engine.

    To meet this need, a team of MIT engineers is now creating a 1-megawatt motor that could be a key stepping stone toward electrifying larger aircraft. The team has designed and tested the major components of the motor, and shown through detailed computations that the coupled components can work as a whole to generate one megawatt of power, at a weight and size competitive with current small aero-engines.

    For all-electric applications, the team envisions the motor could be paired with a source of electricity such as a battery or a fuel cell. The motor could then turn the electrical energy into mechanical work to power a plane’s propellers. The electrical machine could also be paired with a traditional turbofan jet engine to run as a hybrid propulsion system, providing electric propulsion during certain phases of a flight.

    “No matter what we use as an energy carrier — batteries, hydrogen, ammonia, or sustainable aviation fuel — independent of all that, megawatt-class motors will be a key enabler for greening aviation,” says Zoltan Spakovszky, the T. Wilson Professor in Aeronautics and the Director of the Gas Turbine Laboratory (GTL) at MIT, who leads the project.

    Spakovszky and members of his team, along with industry collaborators, will present their work at a special session of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics – Electric Aircraft Technologies Symposium (EATS) at the Aviation conference in June.

    The MIT team is composed of faculty, students, and research staff from GTL and the MIT Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems: Henry Andersen Yuankang Chen, Zachary Cordero, David Cuadrado,  Edward Greitzer, Charlotte Gump, James Kirtley, Jr., Jeffrey Lang, David Otten, David Perreault, and Mohammad Qasim,  along with Marc Amato of Innova-Logic LLC. The project is sponsored by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI).

    Heavy stuff

    To prevent the worst impacts from human-induced climate change, scientists have determined that global emissions of carbon dioxide must reach net zero by 2050. Meeting this target for aviation, Spakovszky says, will require “step-change achievements” in the design of unconventional aircraft, smart and flexible fuel systems, advanced materials, and safe and efficient electrified propulsion. Multiple aerospace companies are focused on electrified propulsion and the design of megawatt-scale electric machines that are powerful and light enough to propel passenger aircraft.

    “There is no silver bullet to make this happen, and the devil is in the details,” Spakovszky says. “This is hard engineering, in terms of co-optimizing individual components and making them compatible with each other while maximizing overall performance. To do this means we have to push the boundaries in materials, manufacturing, thermal management, structures and rotordynamics, and power electronics”

    Broadly speaking, an electric motor uses electromagnetic force to generate motion. Electric motors, such as those that power the fan in your laptop, use electrical energy — from a battery or power supply — to generate a magnetic field, typically through copper coils. In response, a magnet, set near the coils, then spins in the direction of the generated field and can then drive a fan or propeller.

    Electric machines have been around for over 150 years, with the understanding that, the bigger the appliance or vehicle, the larger the copper coils  and the magnetic rotor, making the machine heavier. The more power the electrical machine generates, the more heat it produces, which requires additional elements to keep the components cool — all of which can take up space and add significant weight to the system, making it challenging for airplane applications.

    “Heavy stuff doesn’t go on airplanes,” Spakovszky says. “So we had to come up with a compact, lightweight, and powerful architecture.”

    Good trajectory

    As designed, the MIT electric motor and power electronics are each about the size of a checked suitcase weighing less than an adult passenger.

    The motor’s main components are: a high-speed rotor, lined with an array of magnets with varying orientation of polarity; a compact low-loss stator that fits inside the rotor and contains an intricate array of copper windings; an advanced heat exchanger that keeps the components cool while transmitting the torque of the machine; and a distributed power electronics system, made from 30 custom-built circuit boards, that precisely change the currents running through each of the stator’s copper windings, at high frequency.

    “I believe this is the first truly co-optimized integrated design,” Spakovszky says. “Which means we did a very extensive design space exploration where all considerations from thermal management, to rotor dynamics, to power electronics and electrical machine architecture were assessed in an integrated way to find out what is the best possible combination to get the required specific power at one megawatt.”

    As a whole system, the motor is designed such that the distributed circuit boards are close coupled with the electrical machine to minimize transmission loss and to allow effective air cooling through the integrated heat exchanger.

    “This is a high-speed machine, and to keep it rotating while creating torque, the magnetic fields have to be traveling very quickly, which we can do through our circuit boards switching at high frequency,” Spakovszky says.

    To mitigate risk, the team has built and tested each of the major components individually, and shown that they can operate as designed and at conditions exceeding normal operational demands. The researchers plan to assemble the first fully working electric motor, and start testing it in the fall.

    “The electrification of aircraft has been on a steady rise,” says Phillip Ansell, director of the Center for Sustainable Aviation at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the project. “This group’s design uses a wonderful combination of conventional and cutting-edge methods for electric machine development, allowing it to offer both robustness and efficiency to meet the practical needs of aircraft of the future.”

    Once the MIT team can demonstrate the electric motor as a whole, they say the design could power regional aircraft and could also be a companion to conventional jet engines, to enable hybrid-electric propulsion systems. The team also envision that multiple one-megawatt motors could power multiple fans distributed along the wing on future aircraft configurations. Looking ahead, the foundations of the one-megawatt electrical machine design could potentially be scaled up to multi-megawatt motors, to power larger passenger planes.

    “I think we’re on a good trajectory,” says Spakovszky, whose group and research have focused on more than just gas turbines. “We are not electrical engineers by training, but addressing the 2050 climate grand challenge is of utmost importance; working with electrical engineering faculty, staff and students for this goal can draw on MIT’s breadth of technologies so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So we are reinventing ourselves in new areas. And MIT gives you the opportunity to do that.” More

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    Computers that power self-driving cars could be a huge driver of global carbon emissions

    In the future, the energy needed to run the powerful computers on board a global fleet of autonomous vehicles could generate as many greenhouse gas emissions as all the data centers in the world today.

    That is one key finding of a new study from MIT researchers that explored the potential energy consumption and related carbon emissions if autonomous vehicles are widely adopted.

    The data centers that house the physical computing infrastructure used for running applications are widely known for their large carbon footprint: They currently account for about 0.3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, or about as much carbon as the country of Argentina produces annually, according to the International Energy Agency. Realizing that less attention has been paid to the potential footprint of autonomous vehicles, the MIT researchers built a statistical model to study the problem. They determined that 1 billion autonomous vehicles, each driving for one hour per day with a computer consuming 840 watts, would consume enough energy to generate about the same amount of emissions as data centers currently do.

    The researchers also found that in over 90 percent of modeled scenarios, to keep autonomous vehicle emissions from zooming past current data center emissions, each vehicle must use less than 1.2 kilowatts of power for computing, which would require more efficient hardware. In one scenario — where 95 percent of the global fleet of vehicles is autonomous in 2050, computational workloads double every three years, and the world continues to decarbonize at the current rate — they found that hardware efficiency would need to double faster than every 1.1 years to keep emissions under those levels.

    “If we just keep the business-as-usual trends in decarbonization and the current rate of hardware efficiency improvements, it doesn’t seem like it is going to be enough to constrain the emissions from computing onboard autonomous vehicles. This has the potential to become an enormous problem. But if we get ahead of it, we could design more efficient autonomous vehicles that have a smaller carbon footprint from the start,” says first author Soumya Sudhakar, a graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics.

    Sudhakar wrote the paper with her co-advisors Vivienne Sze, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a member of the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE); and Sertac Karaman, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and director of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS). The research appears today in the January-February issue of IEEE Micro.

    Modeling emissions

    The researchers built a framework to explore the operational emissions from computers on board a global fleet of electric vehicles that are fully autonomous, meaning they don’t require a back-up human driver.

    The model is a function of the number of vehicles in the global fleet, the power of each computer on each vehicle, the hours driven by each vehicle, and the carbon intensity of the electricity powering each computer.

    “On its own, that looks like a deceptively simple equation. But each of those variables contains a lot of uncertainty because we are considering an emerging application that is not here yet,” Sudhakar says.

    For instance, some research suggests that the amount of time driven in autonomous vehicles might increase because people can multitask while driving and the young and the elderly could drive more. But other research suggests that time spent driving might decrease because algorithms could find optimal routes that get people to their destinations faster.

    In addition to considering these uncertainties, the researchers also needed to model advanced computing hardware and software that doesn’t exist yet.

    To accomplish that, they modeled the workload of a popular algorithm for autonomous vehicles, known as a multitask deep neural network because it can perform many tasks at once. They explored how much energy this deep neural network would consume if it were processing many high-resolution inputs from many cameras with high frame rates, simultaneously.

    When they used the probabilistic model to explore different scenarios, Sudhakar was surprised by how quickly the algorithms’ workload added up.

    For example, if an autonomous vehicle has 10 deep neural networks processing images from 10 cameras, and that vehicle drives for one hour a day, it will make 21.6 million inferences each day. One billion vehicles would make 21.6 quadrillion inferences. To put that into perspective, all of Facebook’s data centers worldwide make a few trillion inferences each day (1 quadrillion is 1,000 trillion).

    “After seeing the results, this makes a lot of sense, but it is not something that is on a lot of people’s radar. These vehicles could actually be using a ton of computer power. They have a 360-degree view of the world, so while we have two eyes, they may have 20 eyes, looking all over the place and trying to understand all the things that are happening at the same time,” Karaman says.

    Autonomous vehicles would be used for moving goods, as well as people, so there could be a massive amount of computing power distributed along global supply chains, he says. And their model only considers computing — it doesn’t take into account the energy consumed by vehicle sensors or the emissions generated during manufacturing.

    Keeping emissions in check

    To keep emissions from spiraling out of control, the researchers found that each autonomous vehicle needs to consume less than 1.2 kilowatts of energy for computing. For that to be possible, computing hardware must become more efficient at a significantly faster pace, doubling in efficiency about every 1.1 years.

    One way to boost that efficiency could be to use more specialized hardware, which is designed to run specific driving algorithms. Because researchers know the navigation and perception tasks required for autonomous driving, it could be easier to design specialized hardware for those tasks, Sudhakar says. But vehicles tend to have 10- or 20-year lifespans, so one challenge in developing specialized hardware would be to “future-proof” it so it can run new algorithms.

    In the future, researchers could also make the algorithms more efficient, so they would need less computing power. However, this is also challenging because trading off some accuracy for more efficiency could hamper vehicle safety.

    Now that they have demonstrated this framework, the researchers want to continue exploring hardware efficiency and algorithm improvements. In addition, they say their model can be enhanced by characterizing embodied carbon from autonomous vehicles — the carbon emissions generated when a car is manufactured — and emissions from a vehicle’s sensors.

    While there are still many scenarios to explore, the researchers hope that this work sheds light on a potential problem people may not have considered.

    “We are hoping that people will think of emissions and carbon efficiency as important metrics to consider in their designs. The energy consumption of an autonomous vehicle is really critical, not just for extending the battery life, but also for sustainability,” says Sze.

    This research was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation and the MIT-Accenture Fellowship. More

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    With new heat treatment, 3D-printed metals can withstand extreme conditions

    A new MIT-developed heat treatment transforms the microscopic structure of 3D-printed metals, making the materials stronger and more resilient in extreme thermal environments. The technique could make it possible to 3D print high-performance blades and vanes for power-generating gas turbines and jet engines, which would enable new designs with improved fuel consumption and energy efficiency.

    Today’s gas turbine blades are manufactured through conventional casting processes in which molten metal is poured into complex molds and directionally solidified. These components are made from some of the most heat-resistant metal alloys on Earth, as they are designed to rotate at high speeds in extremely hot gas, extracting work to generate electricity in power plants and thrust in jet engines.

    There is growing interest in manufacturing turbine blades through 3D-printing, which, in addition to its environmental and cost benefits, could allow manufacturers to quickly produce more intricate, energy-efficient blade geometries. But efforts to 3D-print turbine blades have yet to clear a big hurdle: creep.

    In metallurgy, creep refers to a metal’s tendency to permanently deform in the face of persistent mechanical stress and high temperatures. While researchers have explored printing turbine blades, they have found that the printing process produces fine grains on the order of tens to hundreds of microns in size — a microstructure that is especially vulnerable to creep.

    “In practice, this would mean a gas turbine would have a shorter life or less fuel efficiency,” says Zachary Cordero, the Boeing Career Development Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. “These are costly, undesirable outcomes.”

    Cordero and his colleagues found a way to improve the structure of 3D-printed alloys by adding an additional heat-treating step, which transforms the as-printed material’s fine grains into much larger “columnar” grains — a sturdier microstructure that should minimize the material’s creep potential, since the “columns” are aligned with the axis of greatest stress. The researchers say the method, outlined today in Additive Manufacturing, clears the way for industrial 3D-printing of gas turbine blades.

    “In the near future, we envision gas turbine manufacturers will print their blades and vanes at large-scale additive manufacturing plants, then post-process them using our heat treatment,” Cordero says. “3D-printing will enable new cooling architectures that can improve the thermal efficiency of a turbine, so that it produces the same amount of power while burning less fuel and ultimately emits less carbon dioxide.”

    Cordero’s co-authors on the study are lead author Dominic Peachey, Christopher Carter, and Andres Garcia-Jimenez at MIT, Anugrahaprada Mukundan and Marie-Agathe Charpagne of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Donovan Leonard of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    Triggering a transformation

    The team’s new method is a form of directional recrystallization — a heat treatment that passes a material through a hot zone at a precisely controlled speed to meld a material’s many microscopic grains into larger, sturdier, and more uniform crystals.

    Directional recrystallization was invented more than 80 years ago and has been applied to wrought materials. In their new study, the MIT team adapted directional recrystallization for 3D-printed superalloys.

    The team tested the method on 3D-printed nickel-based superalloys — metals that are typically cast and used in gas turbines. In a series of experiments, the researchers placed 3D-printed samples of rod-shaped superalloys in a room-temperature water bath placed just below an induction coil. They slowly drew each rod out of the water and through the coil at various speeds, dramatically heating the rods to temperatures varying between 1,200 and 1,245 degrees Celsius.

    They found that drawing the rods at a particular speed (2.5 millimeters per hour) and through a specific temperature (1,235 degrees Celsius) created a steep thermal gradient that triggered a transformation in the material’s printed, fine-grained microstructure.

    “The material starts as small grains with defects called dislocations, that are like a mangled spaghetti,” Cordero explains. “When you heat this material up, those defects can annihilate and reconfigure, and the grains are able to grow. We’re continuously elongating the grains by consuming the defective material and smaller grains — a process termed recrystallization.”

    Creep away

    After cooling the heat-treated rods, the researchers examined their microstructure using optical and electron microscopy, and found that the material’s printed microscopic grains were replaced with “columnar” grains, or long crystal-like regions that were significantly larger than the original grains.

    “We’ve completely transformed the structure,” says lead author Dominic Peachey. “We show we can increase the grain size by orders of magnitude, to massive columnar grains, which theoretically should lead to dramatic improvements in creep properties.”

    The team also showed they could manipulate the draw speed and temperature of the rod samples to tailor the material’s growing grains, creating regions of specific grain size and orientation. This level of control, Cordero says, can enable manufacturers to print turbine blades with site-specific microstructures that are resilient to specific operating conditions.

    Cordero plans to test the heat treatment on 3D-printed geometries that more closely resemble turbine blades. The team is also exploring ways to speed up the draw rate, as well as test a heat-treated structure’s resistance to creep. Then, they envision that the heat treatment could enable the practical application of 3D-printing to produce industrial-grade turbine blades, with more complex shapes and patterns.

    “New blade and vane geometries will enable more energy-efficient land-based gas turbines, as well as, eventually, aeroengines,” Cordero notes. “This could from a baseline perspective lead to lower carbon dioxide emissions, just through improved efficiency of these devices.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. More

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    In nanotube science, is boron nitride the new carbon?

    Engineers at MIT and the University of Tokyo have produced centimeter-scale structures, large enough for the eye to see, that are packed with hundreds of billions of hollow aligned fibers, or nanotubes, made from hexagonal boron nitride.

    Hexagonal boron nitride, or hBN, is a single-atom-thin material that has been coined “white graphene” for its transparent appearance and its similarity to carbon-based graphene in molecular structure and strength. It can also withstand higher temperatures than graphene, and is electrically insulating, rather than conductive. When hBN is rolled into nanometer-scale tubes, or nanotubes, its exceptional properties are significantly enhanced.

    The team’s results, published today in the journal ACS Nano, provide a route toward fabricating aligned boron nitride nanotubes (A-BNNTs) in bulk. The researchers plan to harness the technique to fabricate bulk-scale arrays of these nanotubes, which can then be combined with other materials to make stronger, more heat-resistant composites, for instance to shield space structures and hypersonic aircraft.

    As hBN is transparent and electrically insulating, the team also envisions incorporating the BNNTs into transparent windows and using them to electrically insulate sensors within electronic devices. The team is also investigating ways to weave the nanofibers into membranes for water filtration and for “blue energy” — a concept for renewable energy in which electricity is produced from the ionic filtering of salt water into fresh water.

    Brian Wardle, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, likens the team’s results to scientists’ decades-long, ongoing pursuit of manufacturing bulk-scale carbon nanotubes.

    “In 1991, a single carbon nanotube was identified as an interesting thing, but it’s been 30 years getting to bulk aligned carbon nanotubes, and the world’s not even fully there yet,” Wardle says. “With the work we’re doing, we’ve just short-circuited about 20 years in getting to bulk-scale versions of aligned boron nitride nanotubes.”

    Wardle is the senior author of the new study, which includes lead author and MIT research scientist Luiz Acauan, former MIT postdoc Haozhe Wang, and collaborators at the University of Tokyo.

    A vision, aligned

    Like graphene, hexagonal boron nitride has a molecular structure resembling chicken wire. In graphene, this chicken wire configuration is made entirely of carbon atoms, arranged in a repeating pattern of hexagons. For hBN, the hexagons are composed of alternating atoms of boron and nitrogen. In recent years, researchers have found that two-dimensional sheets of hBN exhibit exceptional properties of strength, stiffness, and resilience at high temperatures. When sheets of hBN are rolled into nanotube form, these properties are further enhanced, particularly when the nanotubes are aligned, like tiny trees in a densely packed forest.

    But finding ways to synthesize stable, high quality BNNTs has proven challenging. A handful of efforts to do so have produced low-quality, nonaligned fibers.

    “If you can align them, you have much better chance of harnessing BNNTs properties at the bulk scale to make actual physical devices, composites, and membranes,” Wardle says.

    In 2020, Rong Xiang and colleagues at the University of Tokyo found they could produce high-quality boron nitride nanotubes by first using a conventional approach of chemical vapor deposition to grow a forest of short, few micron-long carbon nanotubes. They then coated the carbon-based forest with “precursors” of boron and nitrogen gas, which when baked in an oven at high temperatures crystallized onto the carbon nanotubes to form high-quality nanotubes of hexagonal boron nitride with carbon nanotubes inside.

    Burning scaffolds

    In the new study, Wardle and Acauan have extend and scale Xiang’s approach, essentially removing the underlying carbon nanotubes and leaving the long boron nitride nanotubes to stand on their own. The team drew on the expertise of Wardle’s group, which has focused for years on fabricating high-quality aligned arrays of carbon nanotubes. With their current work, the researchers looked for ways to tweak the temperatures and pressures of the chemical vapor deposition process in order to remove the carbon nanotubes while leaving the boron nitride nanotubes intact.

    “The first few times we did it, it was completely ugly garbage,” Wardle recalls. “The tubes curled up into a ball, and they didn’t work.”

    Eventually, the team hit on a combination of temperatures, pressures, and precursors that did the trick. With this combination of processes, the researchers first reproduced the steps that Xiang took to synthesize the boron-nitride-coated carbon nanotubes. As hBN is resistant to higher temperatures than graphene, the team then cranked up the heat to burn away the underlying black carbon nanotube scaffold, while leaving the transparent, freestanding boron nitride nanotubes intact.
    By using carbon nanotubes as a scaffold, MIT engineers grow forests of “white graphene” that emerge (in MIT pattern) after burning away the black carbon scaffold. Courtesy of the researchersIn microscopic images, the team observed clear crystalline structures — evidence that the boron nitride nanotubes have a high quality. The structures were also dense: Within a square centimeter, the researchers were able to synthesize a forest of more than 100 billion aligned boron nitride nanotubes, that measured about a millimeter in height — large enough to be visible by eye. By nanotube engineering standards, these dimensions are considered to be “bulk” in scale.

    “We are now able to make these nanoscale fibers at bulk scale, which has never been shown before,” Acauan says.

    To demonstrate the flexibility of their technique, the team synthesized larger carbon-based structures, including a weave of carbon fibers, a mat of “fuzzy” carbon nanotubes, and sheets of randomly oriented carbon nanotubes known as “buckypaper.” They coated each carbon-based sample with boron and nitrogen precursors, then went through their process to burn away the underlying carbon. In each demonstration, they were left with a boron-nitride replica of the original black carbon scaffold.

    They also were able to “knock down” the forests of BNNTs, producing horizontally aligned fiber films that are a preferred configuration for incorporating into composite materials.

    “We are now working toward fibers to reinforce ceramic matrix composites, for hypersonic and space applications where there are very high temperatures, and for windows for devices that need to be optically transparent,” Wardle says. “You could make transparent materials that are reinforced with these very strong nanotubes.”

    This research was supported, in part, by Airbus, ANSYS, Boeing, Embraer, Lockheed Martin, Saab AB, and Teijin Carbon America through MIT’s Nano-Engineered Composite aerospace STructures (NECST) Consortium. More

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    Bridging careers in aerospace manufacturing and fusion energy, with a focus on intentional inclusion

    “A big theme of my life has been focusing on intentional inclusion and how I can create environments where people can really bring their whole authentic selves to work,” says Joy Dunn ’08. As the vice president of operations at Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinout working to achieve commercial fusion energy, Dunn looks for solutions to the world’s greatest climate challenges — while creating an open and equitable work environment where everyone can succeed.

    This theme has been cultivated throughout her professional and personal life, including as a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum and as a board member at Out for Undergrad, an organization that works with LGBTQ+ college students to help them achieve their personal and professional goals. Through her careers both in aerospace and energy, Dunn has striven to instill a sense of equity and inclusion from the inside out.

    Developing a love for space

    Dunn’s childhood was shaped by space. “I was really inspired as a kid to be an astronaut,” she says, “and for me that never stopped.” Dunn’s parents — both of whom had careers in the aerospace industry — encouraged her from an early age to pursue her interests, from building model rockets to visiting the National Air and Space Museum to attending space camp. A large inspiration for this passion arose when she received a signed photo from Sally Ride — the first American woman in space — that read, “To Joy, reach for the stars.”

    As her interests continued to grow in middle school, she and her mom looked to see what it would take to become an astronaut, asking questions such as “what are the common career paths?” and “what schools did astronauts typically go to?” They quickly found that MIT was at the top of that list, and by seventh grade, Dunn had set her sights on the Institute. 

    After years of hard work, Dunn entered MIT in fall 2004 with a major in aeronautical and astronautical engineering (AeroAstro). At MIT, she remained fully committed to her passion while also expanding into other activities such as varsity softball, the MIT Undergraduate Association, and the Alpha Chi Omega sorority.

    One of the highlights of Dunn’s college career was Unified Engineering, a year-long course required for all AeroAstro majors that provides a foundational knowledge of aerospace engineering — culminating in a team competition where students design and build remote-controlled planes to be pitted against each other. “My team actually got first place, which was very exciting,” she recalls. “And I honestly give a lot of that credit to our pilot. He did a very good job of not crashing!” In fact, that pilot was Warren Hoburg ’08, a former assistant professor in AeroAstro and current NASA astronaut training for a mission on the International Space Station.

    Pursuing her passion at SpaceX

    Dunn’s undergraduate experience culminated with an internship at the aerospace manufacturing company SpaceX in summer 2008. “It was by far my favorite internship of the ones that I had in college. I got to work on really hands-on projects and had the same amount of responsibility as a full-time employee,” she says.

    By the end of the internship, she was hired as a propulsion development engineer for the Dragon spacecraft, where she helped to build the thrusters for the first Dragon mission. Eventually, she transferred to the role of manufacturing engineer. “A lot of what I’ve done in my life is building things and looking for process improvements,” so it was a natural fit. From there, she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the senior manager of spacecraft manufacturing engineering, where she oversaw all the manufacturing, test, and integration engineers working on Dragon. “It was pretty incredible to go from building thrusters to building the whole vehicle,” she says.

    During her tenure, Dunn also co-founded SpaceX’s Women’s Network and its LGBT affinity group, Out and Allied. “It was about providing spaces for employees to get together and provide a sense of community,” she says. Through these groups, she helped start mentorship and community outreach programs, as well as helped grow the pipeline of women in leadership roles for the company.

    In spite of all her successes at SpaceX, she couldn’t help but think about what came next. “I had been at SpaceX for almost a decade and had these thoughts of, ‘do I want to do another tour of duty or look at doing something else?’ The main criteria I set for myself was to do something that is equally or more world-changing than SpaceX.”

    A pivot to fusion

    It was at this time in 2018 that Dunn received an email from a former mentor asking if she had heard about a fusion energy startup called Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) that worked with the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “I didn’t know much about fusion at all,” she says. “I had heard about it as a science project that was still many, many years away as a viable energy source.”

    After learning more about the technology and company, “I was just like, ‘holy cow, this has the potential to be even more world-changing than what SpaceX is doing.’” She adds, “I decided that I wanted to spend my time and brainpower focusing on cleaning up the planet instead of getting off it.”

    After connecting with CFS CEO Bob Mumgaard SM ’15, PhD ’15, Dunn joined the company and returned to Cambridge as the head of manufacturing. While moving from the aerospace industry to fusion energy was a large shift, she said her first project — building a fusion-relevant, high-temperature superconducting magnet capable of achieving 20 tesla — tied back into her life of being a builder who likes to get her hands on things.

    Over the course of two years, she oversaw the production and scaling of the magnet manufacturing process. When she first came in, the magnets were being constructed in a time-consuming and manual way. “One of the things I’m most proud of from this project is teaching MIT research scientists how to think like manufacturing engineers,” she says. “It was a great symbiotic relationship. The MIT folks taught us the physics and science behind the magnets, and we came in to figure out how to make them into a more manufacturable product.”

    In September 2021, CFS tested this high-temperature superconducting magnet and achieved its goal of 20 tesla. This was a pivotal moment for the company that brought it one step closer to achieving its goal of producing net-positive fusion power. Now, CFS has begun work on a new campus in Devens, Massachusetts, to house their manufacturing operations and SPARC fusion device. Dunn plays a pivotal role in this expansion as well. In March 2021, she was promoted to the head of operations, which expanded her responsibilities beyond managing manufacturing to include facilities, construction, safety, and quality. “It’s been incredible to watch the campus grow from a pile of dirt … into full buildings.”

    In addition to the groundbreaking work, Dunn highlights the culture of inclusiveness as something that makes CFS stand apart to her. “One of the main reasons that drew me to CFS was hearing from the company founders about their thoughts on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how they wanted to make that a key focus for their company. That’s been so important in my career, and I’m really excited to see how much that’s valued at CFS.” The company has carried this out through programs such as Fusion Inclusion, an initiative that aims to build a strong and inclusive community from the inside out.

    Dunn stresses “the impact that fusion can have on our world and for addressing issues of environmental injustice through an equitable distribution of power and electricity.” Adding, “That’s a huge lever that we have. I’m excited to watch CFS grow and for us to make a really positive impact on the world in that way.”

    This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More