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    Nonabah Lane, Navajo educator and environmental sustainability specialist with numerous ties to MIT, dies at 46

    Nonabah Lane, a Navajo educator and environmental sustainability specialist with numerous MIT ties to MIT, passed away in October. She was 46.

    Lane had recently been an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow; MIT Solve 2019 Indigenous Communities Fellow; Department of Urban Studies and Planning guest lecturer and community partner; community partner with the PKG Public Service Center, Terrascope, and D-Lab; and a speaker at this year’s MIT Energy Week.

    Lane was a passionate sustainability specialist with experience spearheading successful environmental civic science projects focused in agriculture, water science, and energy. Committed to mitigating water pollutants and environmental hazards in tribal communities, she held extensive knowledge of environmental policy and Indigenous water rights. 

    Lane’s clans were Ta’neezahnii (Tangled People), born for Tł’izíłání (Manygoats People), and her maternal grandfathers are the Kiiyaa’aanii (Towering House People), and paternal grandfathers are Bįįh Bitoo’nii (Deer Spring People).

    Lane was a member of the Navajo Nation, Nenahnezad Chapter. At Navajo Power, she worked as the lead developer for solar and energy storage projects to benefit tribal communities on the Navajo Nation and other tribal nations in New Mexico. Prior to joining Navajo Power, Lane co-founded Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, a farm that teaches Navajo culture through traditional farming and bilingual education. Lane also launched a campaign to partner with local Navajo schools and tribal colleges to create their own water-testing capabilities and translate data into information to local farmers.

    “I had the opportunity to collaborate closely with Nonabah on a range of initiatives she was championing on energy, food, justice, water, Indigenous leadership, youth STEM, and more. She was innovative, entrepreneurial, inclusive, heartfelt, and positively impacted MIT on every visit to campus. She articulated important things that needed saying and expanded people’s thinking constantly. We will all miss her insights and teamwork,” says Megan Smith ’86, SM ’88, MIT Corporation life member; third U.S. chief technology officer and assistant to the president in the Office of Science and Technology Policy; and founder and CEO of shift7.

    In March 2019, Lane and her family — parents Gloria and Harry and brother Bruce — welcomed students and staff of the MIT Terrascope first-year learning community to their farm, where they taught unique, hands-on lessons about traditional Diné farming and spirituality. She then continued to collaborate with Terrascope, helping staff and students develop community-based work with partners in Navajo Nation. 

    Terrascope associate director and lecturer Ari Epstein says, “Nonabah was an inspiring person and a remarkable collaborator; she had a talent for connecting and communicating across disciplinary, organizational, and cultural differences, and she was generous with her expertise and knowledge. We will miss her very much.”

    Lane came to MIT in May 2019 for the MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellowship and Solve at MIT event, representing Navajo Ethno-Agriculture with her mother, Gloria Lane, and brother, Bruce Lane, and later serving as a Fellow Leadership Group member. 

    “Nonabah was an incredible individual who worked tirelessly to better all of her communities, whether it was back home on the Navajo Nation, here at MIT Solve, or supporting her family and friends,” says Alex Amouyel, executive director of MIT Solve. “More than that, Nonabah was a passionate mentor and caring friend of so many, carefully tending the next generation of Indigenous innovators, entrepreneurs, and change-makers. Her loss will be felt deeply by the MIT community, and her legacy of heartfelt service will not be forgotten.”

    She continued to be heavily involved across the MIT campus — named as a 2019 Media Lab Director’s Fellow, leading a workshop at the 2020 MIT Media Lab Festival of Learning on modernizing Navajo foods using traditional food science and cultural narrative, speaking at the 2022 MIT Energy Conference “Accelerating the Clean Energy Transition,” and taking part in the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) innovation weekly co-working groups for Covid-response related innovations. 

    “My CBA colleagues and I enjoyed working with Nonabah on rapid-prototyping for the Covid response, on expanding access to digital fabrication, and on ambitious proposals for connecting emerging technology with Indigenous knowledge,” says Professor Neil Gershenfeld, director, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.

    Nonabah also guest lectured for the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning’s Indigenous Environmental Planning class in Spring 2022. Professors Lawrence Susskind and Gabriella Carolini and teaching assistant Dení López led the class in cooperation with Elizabeth Rule, Chickasaw Nation member and professor at American University. 

    Carolini shares, on behalf of Susskind and the class, “During this time, our teaching team and students from a broad range of fields at MIT had the deep honor of learning from and with the inimitable Nonabah Lane. Nonabah was a dedicated and critical partner to our class, representing in this instance Navajo Power — but of course, also so much more. Her broad experiences and knowledge — working with fellow Navajo members on energy and agriculture sovereignty, as well as in advancing entrepreneurship and innovation — reflected the urgency Nonabah saw in meeting the challenges and opportunities for sustainable and equitable futures in Navajo nation and beyond. She was a pure life force, running on all fires, and brought to our class a dedicated drive to educate, learn, and extend our reference points beyond current knowledge frontiers.” 

    Three MIT students — junior Isabella Gandara, Alexander Gerszten ’22, and Paul Picciano MS ’22 — who worked closely with Lane on a project with Navajo Power, recalled how she shared herself with them in so many ways, through her truly exceptional work ethic, stories about herself and her family, and the care and thought that she put into her ventures. They noted there was always something new to feel inspired by when in her presence. 

    “The PKG Public Service Center mourns the passing of Nonabah Lane. Navajo Ethno-Agriculture is a valued PKG Center partner that offers MIT undergraduate students the opportunity to support community-led projects with the Diné Community on Navajo Nation. Nonabah inspired students to examine broad social and technical issues that impact Indigenous communities in Navajo Nation and beyond, in many cases leaving an indelible mark on their personal and professional paths,” says Jill S. Bassett, associate dean and director of the PKG Public Service Center.

    Lane was a Sequoyah Fellow of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and remained actively engaged in the AISES community by mentoring young people interested in the fields of science, engineering, agriculture, and energy. Over the years, Lane collaborated with leaders across tribal lands and beyond on projects related to agriculture, energy, sustainable chemicals, and finance. Lane had an enormous positive impact on many through her accomplishments and also the countless meaningful connections she helped to form among people in diverse fields.

    Donations may be made to a memorial fund organized by Navajo Power, PBC in honor of Nonabah Lane, in support of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, the Native American nonprofit she co-founded and cared deeply for. More

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    MIT PhD students shed light on important water and food research

    One glance at the news lately will reveal countless headlines on the dire state of global water and food security. Pollution, supply chain disruptions, and the war in Ukraine are all threatening water and food systems, compounding climate change impacts from heat waves, drought, floods, and wildfires.

    Every year, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) offers fellowships to outstanding MIT graduate students who are working on innovative ways to secure water and food supplies in light of these urgent worldwide threats. J-WAFS announced this year’s fellowship recipients last April. Aditya Ghodgaonkar and Devashish Gokhale were awarded Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowships for Water Solutions, which are made possible by a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family. James Zhang, Katharina Fransen, and Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang were awarded J-WAFS Fellowships for Water and Food Solutions. The J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions is funded in part by J-WAFS Research Affiliate companies: Xylem, Inc., a water technology company, and GoAigua, a company leading the digital transformation of the water industry.

    The five fellows were each awarded a stipend and full tuition for one semester. They also benefit from mentorship, networking connections, and opportunities to showcase their research.

    “This year’s cohort of J-WAFS fellows show an indefatigable drive to explore, create, and push back boundaries,” says John H. Lienhard, director of J-WAFS. “Their passion and determination to create positive change for humanity are evident in these unique video portraits, which describe their solutions-oriented research in water and food,” Lienhard adds.

    J-WAFS funder Community Jameel recently commissioned video portraitures of each student that highlight their work and their inspiration to solve challenges in water and food. More about each J-WAFS fellow and their research follows.

    Play video

    Katharina Fransen

    In Professor Bradley Olsen’s lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Katharina Fransen works to develop biologically-based, biodegradable plastics which can be used for food packing that won’t pollute the environment. Fransen, a third-year PhD student, is motivated by the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable global communities from waste generated by the materials that are essential to connecting them to the global food supply. “We can’t ensure that all of our plastic waste gets recycled or reused, and so we want to make sure that if it does escape into the environment it can degrade, and that’s kind of where a lot of my research really comes in,” says Fransen. Most of her work involves creating polymers, or “really long chains of chemicals,” kind of like the paper rings a lot of us looped into chains as kids, Fransen explains. The polymers are optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresher for longer, preventing food waste. Fransen says she finds the work “really interesting from the scientific perspective as well as from the idea that [she’s] going to make the world a little better with these new materials.” She adds, “I think it is both really fulfilling and really exciting and engaging.”

    Play video

    Aditya Ghodgaonkar

    “When I went to Kenya this past spring break, I had an opportunity to meet a lot of farmers and talk to them about what kind of maintenance issues they face,” says Aditya Ghodgaonkar, PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Ghodgaonkar works with Associate Professor Amos Winter in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, where he designs hydraulic components for drip irrigation systems to make them water-efficient, off-grid, inexpensive, and low-maintenance. On his trip to Kenya, Ghodgaonkar gained firsthand knowledge from farmers about a common problem they encounter: clogging of drip irrigation emitters. He learned that clogging can be an expensive technical challenge to diagnose, mitigate, and resolve. He decided to focus his attention on designing emitters that are resistant to clogging, testing with sand and passive hydrodynamic filtration back in the lab at MIT. “I got into this from an academic standpoint,” says Ghodgaonkar. “It is only once I started working on the emitters, spoke with industrial partners that make these emitters, spoke with farmers, that I really truly appreciated the impact of what we’re doing.”

    Play video

    Devashish Gokhale

    Devashish Gokhale is a PhD student advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stems from his childhood in Pune, India, where both flooding and drought can occur depending on the time of year. “I’ve had these experiences where there’s been too much water and also too little water” he recalls. At MIT, Gokhale is developing cost-effective, sustainable, and reusable materials for water treatment with a focus on the elimination of emerging contaminants and low-concentration pollutants like heavy metals. Specifically, he works on making and optimizing polymeric hydrogel microparticles that can absorb micropollutants. “I know how important it is to do something which is not just scientifically interesting, but something which is impactful in a real way,” says Gokhale. Before starting a research project he asks himself, “are people going to be able to afford this? Is it really going to reach the people who need it the most?” Adding these constraints in the beginning of the research process sometimes makes the problem more difficult to solve, but Gokhale notes that in the end, the solution is much more promising.

    Play video

    James Zhang

    “We don’t really think much about it, it’s transparent, odorless, we just turn on our sink in many parts of the world and it just flows through,” says James Zhang when talking about water. Yet he notes that “many other parts of the world face water scarcity and this will only get worse due to global climate change.” A PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Zhang works in the Nano Engineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen. Zhang is working on a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light at different wavelengths interacts with liquids at the surface, particularly with brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical and experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in desalinating water at high energy efficiencies. Zhang hopes that the technology can one day “produce lots of clean water for communities around the world that currently don’t have access to fresh water,” and create a new appreciation for this common liquid that many of us might not think about on a day-to-day basis.

    Play video

    Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang

    “Around the world there are about 2 billion people currently suffering from micronutrient deficiency because they do not have access to very healthy, very fresh food,” says chemical engineering PhD candidate Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang. This fact led Zhang to develop a micronutrient delivery platform that fortifies foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. With her advisors, Professor Robert Langer and Research Scientist Ana Jaklenec, Zhang brings biomedical engineering approaches to global health issues. Zhang says that “one of the most serious problems is vitamin A deficiency, because vitamin A is not very stable.” She goes on to explain that although vitamin A is present in different vegetables, when the vegetables are cooked, vitamin A can easily degrade. Zhang helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers that can stabilize micronutrients under cooking and storage conditions. With this technology, vitamin A, for example, could be encapsulated and effectively stabilized under boiling water. The platform has also shown efficient release in a simulation of the stomach environment. Zhang says it is the “little, tiny steps every day that are pushing us forward to the final impactful product.” More

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    Pesticide innovation takes top prize at Collegiate Inventors Competition

    On Oct. 12, MIT mechanical engineering alumnus Vishnu Jayaprakash SM ’19, PhD ’22 was named the first-place winner in the graduate category of the Collegiate Inventors Competition. The annual competition, which is organized by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, celebrates college and university student inventors. Jayaprakash won for his pesticide innovation AgZen-Cloak, which he developed while he was a student in the lab of Kripa Varanasi, a professor of mechanical engineering.

    Currently, only 2 percent of pesticide spray is retained by crops. Many crops are naturally water-repellent, causing pesticide-laden water to bounce off of them. Farmers are forced to over-spray significantly to ensure proper spray coverage on their crops. Not only does this waste expensive pesticides, but it also comes at an environmental cost.

    Runoff from pesticide treatment pollutes soil and nearby streams. Droplets can travel in the air, leading to illness and death in nearby populations. It is estimated that each year, pesticide pollution causes between 20,000 and 200,000 deaths, and up to 385 million acute illnesses like cancer, birth defects, and neurological conditions.   

    With his invention AgZen-Cloak, Jayaprakash has found a way to keep droplets of water containing pesticide from bouncing off crops by “cloaking” the droplets in a small amount of plant-derived oil. As a result, farmers could use just one-fifth the amount of spray, minimizing water waste and cost for farmers and eliminating airborne pollution and toxic runoff. It also improves pesticide retention, which can lead to higher crop yield.

    “By cloaking each droplet with a minute quantity of a plant-based oil, we promote water retention on even the most water-repellent plant surfaces,” says Jayaprakash. “AgZen-Cloak presents a universal, inexpensive, and environmentally sustainable way to prevent pesticide overuse and waste.”

    Farming is in Jayaprakash’s DNA. His family operates a 10-acre farm near Chennai, India, where they grow rice and mangoes. Upon joining the Varanasi Research Group as a graduate student, Jayaprakash was instantly drawn to Varanasi’s work on pesticides in agriculture.

    “Growing up, I would spray crops on my family farm wearing a backpack sprayer. So, I’ve always wanted to work on research that made farmer’s lives easier,” says Jayaprakash, who serves as CEO of the startup AgZen.

    Play video

    2022 World Food Day First Prize Winner – AgZen Cloak: Reducing Pesticide Pollution and Waste

    Helping droplets stick

    Varanasi and his lab at MIT work on what is known as interfacial phenomena — or the study of what happens when different phases come into contact and interact with one another. Understanding how a liquid interacts with a solid or how a liquid reacts to a certain gas has endless applications, which explains the diversity of the research Varanasi has conducted over the years. He and his team have developed solutions for everything from consumer product packaging to power plant emissions.

    In 2009, Varanasi gave a talk at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). There, he learned from the USDA just how big of a problem runoff from pesticide spray was for farmers around the world.
    A green cabbage leaf is treated with pesticide-laden water using conventional spraying. Image courtesy of AgZen.A green cabbage leaf is treated with pesticide-laden water using AgZen’s technology. By cloaking droplets in a tiny amount of plant-derived oil, the droplets stick to the leaf, minimizing over-spraying, waste, and pollution. Image courtesy of AgZen.He enlisted the help of then-graduate student Maher Damak SM ’15, PhD ’18 to apply their work in interfacial phenomena to pesticide sprays. Over the next several years, the Varanasi Research Group developed a technology that utilized electrically charged polymers to keep droplets from bouncing off hydrophobic surfaces. When droplets containing positively and negatively charged additives meet, their surface chemistry allows them to stick to a plant’s surface.

    Using polyelectrolytes, the researchers could reduce the amount of spray needed to cover a crop by tenfold in the lab. This motivated the Varanasi Research Group to pursue three years of field trials with various commercial growers around the world, where they were able to demonstrate significant savings for farmers.

    “We got fantastic feedback on our technology from farmers. We are really excited to change the paradigm for agriculture. Not only is it good for the environment, but we’ve heard from farmers that they love it. If we can put money back into farms, it helps society as a whole,” adds Varanasi.

    In response to the positive feedback, Varanasi and Jayaprakash co-founded startup AgZen in 2020. 

    When field testing their polyelectrolyte technology, Varanasi and Jayaprakash came up with the idea to explore the use of a fully plant-based material to help farmers achieve the same savings. 

    Cloaking droplets and engineering nozzles

    Jayaprakash found that by cloaking a small amount of plant-derived oil around a water droplet, droplets stick to plant surfaces that would typically repel water. After conducting many studies in the lab, he found that the oil only needs to make up 0.1 percent of a droplet’s total volume to stick to crops and provide total, uniform coverage.

    While his cloaking solution worked in the lab, Jayaprakash knew that to have a tangible impact in the real world he needed to find an easy, low-cost way for farmers to coat pesticide spray droplets in oil.

    Jayaprakash focused on spray nozzles. He developed a proprietary nozzle that coats each droplet with a small amount of oil as they are being formed. The nozzles can easily be added to any hose or farming equipment.

    “What we’ve done is figured out a smart way to cloak these droplets by using a very small quantity of oil on the outside of each drop. Because of that, we get this drastic improvement in performance that can really be a game-changer for farmers,” says Jayaprakash.

    In addition to improving pesticide retention in crops, the AgZen-Cloak solves a second problem. Since large droplets are prone to break apart and bounce off crops, historically, farmers have sprayed pesticide in tiny, mist-like droplets. These fine droplets are often carried by the wind, increasing pesticide pollution in nearby areas. 

    When AgZen-Cloak is used, the pesticide-laden droplets can be larger and still stick to crops. These larger droplets aren’t carried by the wind, decreasing the risk of pollution and minimizing the health impacts on local populations.  

    “We’re actually solving two problems with one solution. With the cloaking technology, we can spray much larger droplets that aren’t prone to wind drift and they can stick to the plant,” Jayaprakash adds.

    Bringing AgZen-Cloaks to farmers around the world

    This spring, Varanasi encouraged Jayaprakash to submit AgZen-Cloak to the Collegiate Inventors Competition. Out of hundreds of applications, Jayaprakash was one of 25 student inventors to be chosen as a finalist.

    On Oct. 12, Jayaprakash presented his technology to a panel of judges composed of National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officials. Meeting with such an illustrious group of inventors and officials left an impression on Jayaprakash.

    “These are people who have invented things that have changed the world. So, to get their feedback on what we’re doing was incredibly valuable,” he says. Jayaprakash received a $10,000 prize for being named the first-place graduate winner.

    As full-time CEO of AgZen, Jayaprakash is shifting focus to field testing and commercialization. He and the AgZen team have already conducted field testing across the world at locations including a Prosecco vineyard outside of Venice, a ranch in California, and Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, Massachusetts. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s vegetable extension program, led by their program director Susan Scheufele, recently concluded a field test that validated AgZen’s on-field performance.

    Two days after his win at the Collegiate Inventors Competition, Jayaprakash was named the first prize winner of the MIT Abdul Latif Jamel Water and Food Systems Lab World Food Day student video competition. Hours later, he flew across the country to attend an agricultural tech conference in California, eager to meet with farmers and discuss plans for rolling out AgZen’s innovations to farms everywhere. More

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    “Drawing Together” is awarded Norman B. Leventhal City Prize

    “Drawing Together,” a social and ecological resilience project in New York City, has been awarded the 2022 Norman B. Leventhal City Prize. 

    The project is a collaboration between MIT faculty, researchers, and students, and Green City Force (GCF), a nonprofit organization in New York City that trains young people for careers with a sustainability focus while they serve local public housing communities.

    The winning proposal was submitted by a team led by MIT’s Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor and director of the Urban Risk Lab; Nicholas de Monchaux, professor and head of the Department of Architecture; Carlos Sandoval Olascoaga PhD ’21, a postdoc in the Department of Architecture and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing; and Tonya Gayle, executive director of Green City Force.

    Through their Service Corps (affiliated with the national AmeriCorps service and training program), GCF trains young residents of New York City Housing Authority public housing to participate in large-scale environmental and health initiatives in public housing and other local communities.

    The Drawing Together team will collaborate with GCF on its “Eco-Hubs,” an urban farms initiative. In a co-design effort, Drawing Together will create a new digital platform to support community-led planning and design processes for the siting, design, and operation of these spaces. This platform will also facilitate the scaling-up of community engagement with Eco-Hubs.

    The $100,000 triennial prize was established in 2019 by MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU) to catalyze innovative interdisciplinary urban design and planning approaches worldwide to improve the environment as well as the quality of life for residents. The first awardee was “Malden River Works for Waterfront Equity and Resilience,” a project for a civic waterfront space in Malden, Massachusetts.

    The 2022 Leventhal City Prize call for submissions sought proposals that focused on digital urbanism — investigating how life in cities can be improved using digital tools that are equitable and responsive to social and environmental conditions. The jury reviewed proposals for projects that offered new urban design and planning solutions using evolving data sources and computational techniques that transform the quality of life in metropolitan environments.

    “Digital urbanism is the intersection between cities, design, and technology and how we can identify new ways to include technology and design in our cities,” says LCAU Director Sarah Williams. “Drawing Together perfectly exemplifies how digital urbanism can assist in the co-development of design solution and improve the quality of life for the public.”

    The team will expand the workforce training currently offered by GCF to incorporate digital skills, with the goal of developing and integrating a sustainability-focused data science curriculum that supports sustainable urban farming within the Eco-Hubs.

    “What is most inspiring about this project is that young people are the writers, rather than passive subjects of urban transformation,” says juror Garrett Dash Nelson, president and head curator of the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library. “By taking the information and design architectures and making them central to youth-driven decisions about environmental planning, this project has the potential to activate a new participatory paradigm that will resonate far beyond New York City.”

    “In addition to community-based digital methods for urban environmental design, this project has the potential to strengthen computational skills in green job opportunities for youth that the Green City Force Eco-Hubs serve,” says juror James Wescoat, MIT Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture and Geography. 

    In addition to Nelson and Wescoat, the jury for this year’s competition included Lilian Coral, director of National Strategy and Technology Innovation at the Knight Foundation; Jose Castillo, principal at a|911 and professor of urbanism at CENTRO University; and Nigel Jacob, senior fellow at the Burnes Center for Global Impact at Northeastern University.

    The prize jury identified two finalists. Co-HATY Accelerator Team is a multidisciplinary project that helps provide housing and social support to Ukraine’s displaced residents. The team of urban planners, information technologists, architects, and sociologists are using digital technology to better connect residents across the country with housing opportunities. Team members include Brent D. Ryan, associate professor of urban design and public policy at MIT, and Anastasiya Ponomaryova, urban designer and co-founder of co-HATY.

    “The Ukraine’s team proposal makes a point of the relevance of architecture and planning in the context of humanitarian crises,” says Castillo. “It forces us to deploy techniques, methods, and knowledge to resolve issues ‘on demand.’ Different from a view of architecture and planning as ’slow practices,’ where design processes, research, pedagogies, and buildings take a long time to be deployed and finalized, this research shows an agile but thorough approach to the immediate and the contingent.”

    The second finalist is “Ozymandias: Using Artificial Intelligence to Map Urban Power Structures and Produce Fairer Results for All,” a project led by the Portland, Maine, Society for Architecture. The team behind this project seeks to encourage broader civic participation and positive change in municipal governments. By using emerging AI computation tools to illuminate patterns in power structures and decision-making, the team hopes to highlight correctable yet previously unrecognizable inequities. Principal investigator for the project is Jeff Levine, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and a past director of planning and urban development for Portland.

    “The Ozymandias project recognizes an important truth about urban decision-making — that it is neither a bottom-up nor a top-down structure, but a tangled and often obscure network of formal and informal power systems,” says Nelson. “By bringing analytical methods to bear on a perennial question for civic action — who really governs in a democratic system? — the project offers a provocative methodology for examining why nominally participatory urban processes so often fail at producing inclusive and equitable outcomes.” More

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    Processing waste biomass to reduce airborne emissions

    To prepare fields for planting, farmers the world over often burn corn stalks, rice husks, hay, straw, and other waste left behind from the previous harvest. In many places, the practice creates huge seasonal clouds of smog, contributing to air pollution that kills 7 million people globally a year, according to the World Health Organization.

    Annually, $120 billion worth of crop and forest residues are burned in the open worldwide — a major waste of resources in an energy-starved world, says Kevin Kung SM ’13, PhD ’17. Kung is working to transform this waste biomass into marketable products — and capitalize on a billion-dollar global market — through his MIT spinoff company, Takachar.

    Founded in 2015, Takachar develops small-scale, low-cost, portable equipment to convert waste biomass into solid fuel using a variety of thermochemical treatments, including one known as oxygen-lean torrefaction. The technology emerged from Kung’s PhD project in the lab of Ahmed Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane (1972) Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT.

    Biomass fuels, including wood, peat, and animal dung, are a major source of carbon emissions — but billions of people rely on such fuels for cooking, heating, and other household needs. “Currently, burning biomass generates 10 percent of the primary energy used worldwide, and the process is used largely in rural, energy-poor communities. We’re not going to change that overnight. There are places with no other sources of energy,” Ghoniem says.

    What Takachar’s technology provides is a way to use biomass more cleanly and efficiently by concentrating the fuel and eliminating contaminants such as moisture and dirt, thus creating a “clean-burning” fuel — one that generates less smoke. “In rural communities where biomass is used extensively as a primary energy source, torrefaction will address air pollution head-on,” Ghoniem says.

    Thermochemical treatment densifies biomass at elevated temperatures, converting plant materials that are typically loose, wet, and bulky into compact charcoal. Centralized processing plants exist, but collection and transportation present major barriers to utilization, Kung says. Takachar’s solution moves processing into the field: To date, Takachar has worked with about 5,500 farmers to process 9,000 metric tons of crops.

    Takachar estimates its technology has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by gigatons per year at scale. (“Carbon dioxide equivalent” is a measure used to gauge global warming potential.) In recognition, in 2021 Takachar won the first-ever Earthshot Prize in the clean air category, a £1 million prize funded by Prince William and Princess Kate’s Royal Foundation.

    Roots in Kenya

    As Kung tells the story, Takachar emerged from a class project that took him to Kenya — which explains the company’s name, a combination of takataka, which mean “trash” in Swahili, and char, for the charcoal end product.

    It was 2011, and Kung was at MIT as a biological engineering grad student focused on cancer research. But “MIT gives students big latitude for exploration, and I took courses outside my department,” he says. In spring 2011, he signed up for a class known as 15.966 (Global Health Delivery Lab) in the MIT Sloan School of Management. The class brought Kung to Kenya to work with a nongovernmental organization in Nairobi’s Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa.

    “We interviewed slum households for their views on health, and that’s when I noticed the charcoal problem,” Kung says. The problem, as Kung describes it, was that charcoal was everywhere in Kibera — piled up outside, traded by the road, and used as the primary fuel, even indoors. Its creation contributed to deforestation, and its smoke presented a serious health hazard.

    Eager to address this challenge, Kung secured fellowship support from the MIT International Development Initiative and the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center to conduct more research in Kenya. In 2012, he formed Takachar as a team and received seed money from the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, and D-Lab to produce charcoal from household organic waste. (This work also led to a fertilizer company, Safi Organics, that Kung founded in 2016 with the help of MIT IDEAS. But that is another story.)

    Meanwhile, Kung had another top priority: finding a topic for his PhD dissertation. Back at MIT, he met Alexander Slocum, the Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who on a long walk-and-talk along the Charles River suggested he turn his Kenya work into a thesis. Slocum connected him with Robert Stoner, deputy director for science and technology at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and founding director of MITEI’s Tata Center for Technology and Design. Stoner in turn introduced Kung to Ghoniem, who became his PhD advisor, while Slocum and Stoner joined his doctoral committee.

    Roots in MIT lab

    Ghoniem’s telling of the Takachar story begins, not surprisingly, in the lab. Back in 2010, he had a master’s student interested in renewable energy, and he suggested the student investigate biomass. That student, Richard Bates ’10, SM ’12, PhD ’16, began exploring the science of converting biomass to more clean-burning charcoal through torrefaction.

    Most torrefaction (also known as low-temperature pyrolysis) systems use external heating sources, but the lab’s goal, Ghoniem explains, was to develop an efficient, self-sustained reactor that would generate fewer emissions. “We needed to understand the chemistry and physics of the process, and develop fundamental scaling models, before going to the lab to build the device,” he says.

    By the time Kung joined the lab in 2013, Ghoniem was working with the Tata Center to identify technology suitable for developing countries and largely based on renewable energy. Kung was able to secure a Tata Fellowship and — building on Bates’ research — develop the small-scale, practical device for biomass thermochemical conversion in the field that launched Takachar.

    This device, which was patented by MIT with inventors Kung, Ghoniem, Stoner, MIT research scientist Santosh Shanbhogue, and Slocum, is self-contained and scalable. It burns a little of the biomass to generate heat; this heat bakes the rest of the biomass, releasing gases; the system then introduces air to enable these gases to combust, which burns off the volatiles and generates more heat, keeping the thermochemical reaction going.

    “The trick is how to introduce the right amount of air at the right location to sustain the process,” Ghoniem explains. “If you put in more air, that will burn the biomass. If you put in less, there won’t be enough heat to produce the charcoal. That will stop the reaction.”

    About 10 percent of the biomass is used as fuel to support the reaction, Kung says, adding that “90 percent is densified into a form that’s easier to handle and utilize.” He notes that the research received financial support from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab and the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, both at MIT. Sonal Thengane, another postdoc in Ghoniem’s lab, participated in the effort to scale up the technology at the MIT Bates Lab (no relation to Richard Bates).

    The charcoal produced is more valuable per ton and easier to transport and sell than biomass, reducing transportation costs by two-thirds and giving farmers an additional income opportunity — and an incentive not to burn agricultural waste, Kung says. “There’s more income for farmers, and you get better air quality.”

    Roots in India

    When Kung became a Tata Fellow, he joined a program founded to take on the biggest challenges of the developing world, with a focus on India. According to Stoner, Tata Fellows, including Kung, typically visit India twice a year and spend six to eight weeks meeting stakeholders in industry, the government, and in communities to gain perspective on their areas of study.

    “A unique part of Tata is that you’re considering the ecosystem as a whole,” says Kung, who interviewed hundreds of smallholder farmers, met with truck drivers, and visited existing biomass processing plants during his Tata trips to India. (Along the way, he also connected with Indian engineer Vidyut Mohan, who became Takachar’s co-founder.)

    “It was very important for Kevin to be there walking about, experimenting, and interviewing farmers,” Stoner says. “He learned about the lives of farmers.”

    These experiences helped instill in Kung an appreciation for small farmers that still drives him today as Takachar rolls out its first pilot programs, tinkers with the technology, grows its team (now up to 10), and endeavors to build a revenue stream. So, while Takachar has gotten a lot of attention and accolades — from the IDEAS award to the Earthshot Prize — Kung says what motivates him is the prospect of improving people’s lives.

    The dream, he says, is to empower communities to help both the planet and themselves. “We’re excited about the environmental justice perspective,” he says. “Our work brings production and carbon removal or avoidance to rural communities — providing them with a way to convert waste, make money, and reduce air pollution.”

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

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    New J-WAFS-led project combats food insecurity

    Today the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT announced a new research project, supported by Community Jameel, to tackle one of the most urgent crises facing the planet: food insecurity. Approximately 276 million people worldwide are severely food insecure, and more than half a million face famine conditions.     To better understand and analyze food security, this three-year research project will develop a comprehensive index assessing countries’ food security vulnerability, called the Jameel Index for Food Trade and Vulnerability. Global changes spurred by social and economic transitions, energy and environmental policy, regional geopolitics, conflict, and of course climate change, can impact food demand and supply. The Jameel Index will measure countries’ dependence on global food trade and imports and how these regional-scale threats might affect the ability to trade food goods across diverse geographic regions. A main outcome of the research will be a model to project global food demand, supply balance, and bilateral trade under different likely future scenarios, with a focus on climate change. The work will help guide policymakers over the next 25 years while the global population is expected to grow, and the climate crisis is predicted to worsen.    

    The work will be the foundational project for the J-WAFS-led Food and Climate Systems Transformation Alliance, or FACT Alliance. Formally launched at the COP26 climate conference last November, the FACT Alliance is a global network of 20 leading research institutions and stakeholder organizations that are driving research and innovation and informing better decision-making for healthy, resilient, equitable, and sustainable food systems in a rapidly changing climate. The initiative is co-directed by Greg Sixt, research manager for climate and food systems at J-WAFS, and Professor Kenneth Strzepek, climate, water, and food specialist at J-WAFS.

    The dire state of our food systems

    The need for this project is evidenced by the hundreds of millions of people around the globe currently experiencing food shortages. While several factors contribute to food insecurity, climate change is one of the most notable. Devastating extreme weather events are increasingly crippling crop and livestock production around the globe. From Southwest Asia to the Arabian Peninsula to the Horn of Africa, communities are migrating in search of food. In the United States, extreme heat and lack of rainfall in the Southwest have drastically lowered Lake Mead’s water levels, restricting water access and drying out farmlands. 

    Social, political, and economic issues also disrupt food systems. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and inflation continue to exacerbate food insecurity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is dramatically worsening the situation, disrupting agricultural exports from both Russia and Ukraine — two of the world’s largest producers of wheat, sunflower seed oil, and corn. Other countries like Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Cuba are confronting food insecurity due to domestic financial crises.

    Few countries are immune to threats to food security from sudden disruptions in food production or trade. When an enormous container ship became lodged in the Suez Canal in March 2021, the vital international trade route was blocked for three months. The resulting delays in international shipping affected food supplies around the world. These situations demonstrate the importance of food trade in achieving food security: a disaster in one part of the world can drastically affect the availability of food in another. This puts into perspective just how interconnected the earth’s food systems are and how vulnerable they remain to external shocks. 

    An index to prepare for the future of food

    Despite the need for more secure food systems, significant knowledge gaps exist when it comes to understanding how different climate scenarios may affect both agricultural productivity and global food supply chains and security. The Global Trade Analysis Project database from Purdue University, and the current IMPACT modeling system from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), enable assessments of existing conditions but cannot project or model changes in the future.

    In 2021, Strzepek and Sixt developed an initial Food Import Vulnerability Index (FIVI) as part of a regional assessment of the threat of climate change to food security in the Gulf Cooperation Council states and West Asia. FIVI is also limited in that it can only assess current trade conditions and climate change threats to food production. Additionally, FIVI is a national aggregate index and does not address issues of hunger, poverty, or equity that stem from regional variations within a country.

    “Current models are really good at showing global food trade flows, but we don’t have systems for looking at food trade between individual countries and how different food systems stressors such as climate change and conflict disrupt that trade,” says Greg Sixt of J-WAFS and the FACT Alliance. “This timely index will be a valuable tool for policymakers to understand the vulnerabilities to their food security from different shocks in the countries they import their food from. The project will also illustrate the stakeholder-guided, transdisciplinary approach that is central to the FACT Alliance,” Sixt adds.

    Phase 1 of the project will support a collaboration between four FACT Alliance members: MIT J-WAFS, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, IFPRI (which is also part of the CGIAR network), and the Martin School at the University of Oxford. An external partner, United Arab Emirates University, will also assist with the project work. This first phase will build on Strzepek and Sixt’s previous work on FIVI by developing a comprehensive Global Food System Modeling Framework that takes into consideration climate and global changes projected out to 2050, and assesses their impacts on domestic production, world market prices, and national balance of payments and bilateral trade. The framework will also utilize a mixed-modeling approach that includes the assessment of bilateral trade and macroeconomic data associated with varying agricultural productivity under the different climate and economic policy scenarios. In this way, consistent and harmonized projections of global food demand and supply balance, and bilateral trade under climate and global change can be achieved. 

    “Just like in the global response to Covid-19, using data and modeling are critical to understanding and tackling vulnerabilities in the global supply of food,” says George Richards, director of Community Jameel. “The Jameel Index for Food Trade and Vulnerability will help inform decision-making to manage shocks and long-term disruptions to food systems, with the aim of ensuring food security for all.”

    On a national level, the researchers will enrich the Jameel Index through country-level food security analyses of regions within countries and across various socioeconomic groups, allowing for a better understanding of specific impacts on key populations. The research will present vulnerability scores for a variety of food security metrics for 126 countries. Case studies of food security and food import vulnerability in Ethiopia and Sudan will help to refine the applicability of the Jameel Index with on-the-ground information. The case studies will use an IFPRI-developed tool called the Rural Investment and Policy Analysis model, which allows for analysis of urban and rural populations and different income groups. Local capacity building and stakeholder engagement will be critical to enable the use of the tools developed by this research for national-level planning in priority countries, and ultimately to inform policy.  Phase 2 of the project will build on phase 1 and the lessons learned from the Ethiopian and Sudanese case studies. It will entail a number of deeper, country-level analyses to assess the role of food imports on future hunger, poverty, and equity across various regional and socioeconomic groups within the modeled countries. This work will link the geospatial national models with the global analysis. A scholarly paper is expected to be submitted to show findings from this work, and a website will be launched so that interested stakeholders and organizations can learn more information. More

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    Helping cassava farmers by extending crop life

    The root vegetable cassava is a major food staple in dozens of countries across the world. Drought-resistant, nutritious, and tasty, it has also become a major source of income for small-scale, rural farmers in places like West Africa and Southeast Asia.

    But the utility of cassava has always been limited by its short postharvest shelf life of two to three days. That puts millions of farmers who rely on the crop in a difficult position. The farmers can’t plant more than they can sell quickly in local markets, and they’re often forced to sell below market prices because buyers know the harvest will spoil rapidly. As a result, cassava farmers are among the world’s poorest people.

    Now the startup CassVita is buying cassava directly from farmers and applying a patent-pending biotechnology to extend its shelf life to 18 months. The approach has the potential to transform economies in rural, impoverished regions where millions of families rely on the crop for income.

    CassVita tells farmers how much cassava the company will buy each month, and processes the cassava at a manufacturing facility in Cameroon. It currently sells the first version of its product as a powdered food to people in Cameroon and to West African immigrants in the U.S.

    But CassVita founder and CEO Pelkins Ajanoh ’18 says the future of the company will revolve around its next product: a cassava-based flour that can act as a direct substitute for wheat. The wheat substitute would dramatically broaden CassVita’s target market to include the fast-growing, trillion-dollar healthy food market.

    Ajanoh says CassVita is currently able to increase farmers’ incomes by about 400 percent through its purchases.

    “Our objective is to leverage proprietary technology to offer a healthier and better-tasting alternative to wheat while creating prosperity for local farmers,” Ajanoh says. “We’re hoping to tap into this huge market while empowering farmers, all by minimizing spoilage and incentivizing farmers to plant more.”

    Gaining confidence to help a community

    While growing up in Cameroon, Ajanoh’s parents always emphasized the importance of education for him and his three siblings. But Ajanoh lost his father when he was 13, and his mother moved to the U.S. a year later to help provide for the family. During that time, Ajanoh lived with his grandmother, a cassava farmer. For many years, Ajanoh watched his grandmother harvest cassava without making any lasting financial gains. He remembers feeling powerless as his grandmother struggled to pay for things like diabetes medication.

    Then Ajanoh earned the top marks on the national exams that Cameroonian students take before college. After high school, he joined his mother in the U.S. and came to MIT to study mechanical engineering. Once on campus, Ajanoh says he had lunch with new people all the time to learn from them.

    “I’d never had this community of intellectuals — and they were from all over the world — so I soaked up as much as I could,” Ajanoh says. “That sparked an interest in entrepreneurship, because MIT is super entrepreneurial. Everyone’s thinking of starting something cool.”

    Ajanoh also got a confidence boost during an internship in the summer after his junior year, when he created self-driving technology for General Motors that was eventually patented.

    “It made me realize I could do something really valuable for the world, and by the end of that internship I was thinking, ‘Now I want to solve a problem in my community,’” he says.

    Returning to the crop he knew well, Ajanoh received a series of grants from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund to experiment with ways to extend the shelf life of cassava. In the summer of 2018, the MIT-Africa program sponsored three MIT students to fly to Cameroon with him to participate in internships with the company.

    Today CassVita partners with development banks to help farmers get loans to buy the cassava sticks used for planting. Ajanoh says CassVita decided on a powdered food for its first product because it requires less marketing to sell to West Africans, who are familiar with the dish. Now the company is working on a cassava flour that it will market to all consumers looking for healthy alternatives to wheat that can be used in pastries and other baked goods.

    “Cassava makes sense as a global substitute to wheat because it’s gluten free, grain free, nut free, and it also helps with glucose regulation, to normalize blood sugar levels, to lower triglycerides, so the health benefits are exciting,” Ajanoh says. “But the farmers were still living in poverty, so if we could solve the shelf-life problem then we could empower these farmers to offer healthier wheat alternatives to the global market.”

    The project has taken on additional urgency now that the war in Ukraine is limiting that country’s wheat and grain exports, raising prices, and heightening food insecurity in regions around the globe.

    Showing the value of helping farmers

    Ajanoh says the majority of people farming cassava are women, and he says the challenges related to cassava’s shelf life have contributed to gender inequities in many communities. In fact, of the roughly 500 farmers CassVita works with in Cameroon, 95 percent are women.

    “That has always excited me because I was raised by women, so working on something that could empower women in their communities and give them authority is fulfilling,” Ajanoh says.

    Ajanoh has already heard from farmers who have been able to send their children to school for the first time because of improved financial situations. Now, as CassVita continues to scale, Ajanoh wants to stay focused on the technology that enables these new business models.

    “We’re evolving into a food technology company,” Ajanoh says. “We prefer to focus on leveraging technology to impact lives and improve outcomes in these communities. Right now, we’re going all the way to consumers because this is an opportunity the Nestles and the Unilevers of the world won’t pick up because the market doesn’t make sense to them yet. So, we have to build this company and show them the value.” More

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    Silk offers an alternative to some microplastics

    Microplastics, tiny particles of plastic that are now found worldwide in the air, water, and soil, are increasingly recognized as a serious pollution threat, and have been found in the bloodstream of animals and people around the world.

    Some of these microplastics are intentionally added to a variety of products, including agricultural chemicals, paints, cosmetics, and detergents — amounting to an estimated 50,000 tons a year in the European Union alone, according to the European Chemicals Agency. The EU has already declared that these added, nonbiodegradable microplastics must be eliminated by 2025, so the search is on for suitable replacements, which do not currently exist.

    Now, a team of scientists at MIT and elsewhere has developed a system based on silk that could provide an inexpensive and easily manufactured substitute. The new process is described in a paper in the journal Small, written by MIT postdoc Muchun Liu, MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Benedetto Marelli, and five others at the chemical company BASF in Germany and the U.S.

    The microplastics widely used in industrial products generally protect some specific active ingredient (or ingredients) from being degraded by exposure to air or moisture, until the time they are needed. They provide a slow release of the active ingredient for a targeted period of time and minimize adverse effects to its surroundings. For example, vitamins are often delivered in the form of microcapsules packed into a pill or capsule, and pesticides and herbicides are similarly enveloped. But the materials used today for such microencapsulation are plastics that persist in the environment for a long time. Until now, there has been no practical, economical substitute available that would biodegrade naturally.

    Much of the burden of environmental microplastics comes from other sources, such as the degradation over time of larger plastic objects such as bottles and packaging, and from the wear of car tires. Each of these sources may require its own kind of solutions for reducing its spread, Marelli says. The European Chemical Agency has estimated that the intentionally added microplastics represent approximately 10-15 percent of the total amount in the environment, but this source may be relatively easy to address using this nature-based biodegradable replacement, he says.

    “We cannot solve the whole microplastics problem with one solution that fits them all,” he says. “Ten percent of a big number is still a big number. … We’ll solve climate change and pollution of the world one percent at a time.”

    Unlike the high-quality silk threads used for fine fabrics, the silk protein used in the new alternative material is widely available and less expensive, Liu says. While silkworm cocoons must be painstakingly unwound to produce the fine threads needed for fabric, for this use, non-textile-quality cocoons can be used, and the silk fibers can simply be dissolved using a scalable water-based process. The processing is so simple and tunable that the resulting material can be adapted to work on existing manufacturing equipment, potentially providing a simple “drop in” solution using existing factories.

    Silk is recognized as safe for food or medical use, as it is nontoxic and degrades naturally in the body. In lab tests, the researchers demonstrated that the silk-based coating material could be used in existing, standard spray-based manufacturing equipment to make a standard water-soluble microencapsulated herbicide product, which was then tested in a greenhouse on a corn crop. The test showed it worked even better than an existing commercial product, inflicting less damage to the plants, Liu says.

    While other groups have proposed degradable encapsulation materials that may work at a small laboratory scale, Marelli says, “there is a strong need to achieve encapsulation of high-content actives to open the door to commercial use. The only way to have an impact is where we can not only replace a synthetic polymer with a biodegradable counterpart, but also achieve performance that is the same, if not better.”

    The secret to making the material compatible with existing equipment, Liu explains, is in the tunability of the silk material. By precisely adjusting the polymer chain arrangements of silk materials and addition of a surfactant, it is possible to fine-tune the properties of the resulting coatings once they dry out and harden. The material can be hydrophobic (water-repelling) even though it is made and processed in a water solution, or it can be hydrophilic (water-attracting), or anywhere in between, and for a given application it can be made to match the characteristics of the material it is being used to replace.

    In order to arrive at a practical solution, Liu had to develop a way of freezing the forming droplets of encapsulated materials as they were forming, to study the formation process in detail. She did this using a special spray-freezing system, and was able to observe exactly how the encapsulation works in order to control it better. Some of the encapsulated “payload” materials, whether they be pesticides or nutrients or enzymes, are water-soluble and some are not, and they interact in different ways with the coating material.

    “To encapsulate different materials, we have to study how the polymer chains interact and whether they are compatible with different active materials in suspension,” she says. The payload material and the coating material are mixed together in a solution and then sprayed. As droplets form, the payload tends to be embedded in a shell of the coating material, whether that’s the original synthetic plastic or the new silk material.

    The new method can make use of low-grade silk that is unusable for fabrics, and large quantities of which are currently discarded because they have no significant uses, Liu says. It can also use used, discarded silk fabric, diverting that material from being disposed of in landfills.

    Currently, 90 percent of the world’s silk production takes place in China, Marelli says, but that’s largely because China has perfected the production of the high-quality silk threads needed for fabrics. But because this process uses bulk silk and has no need for that level of quality, production could easily be ramped up in other parts of the world to meet local demand if this process becomes widely used, he says.

    “This elegant and clever study describes a sustainable and biodegradable silk-based replacement for microplastic encapsulants, which are a pressing environmental challenge,” says Alon Gorodetsky, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California at Irvine, who was not associated with this research. “The modularity of the described materials and the scalability of the manufacturing processes are key advantages that portend well for translation to real-world applications.”

    This process “represents a potentially highly significant advance in active ingredient delivery for a range of industries, particularly agriculture,” says Jason White, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, who also was not associated with this work. “Given the current and future challenges related to food insecurity, agricultural production, and a changing climate, novel strategies such as this are greatly needed.”

    The research team also included Pierre-Eric Millard, Ophelie Zeyons, Henning Urch, Douglas Findley and Rupert Konradi from the BASF corporation, in Germany and in the U.S. The work was supported by BASF through the Northeast Research Alliance (NORA). More