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    MIT makes strides on climate action plan

    Two recent online events related to MIT’s ambitious new climate action plan highlighted several areas of progress, including uses of the campus as a real-life testbed for climate impact research, the creation of new planning bodies with opportunities for input from all parts of the MIT community, and a variety of moves toward reducing the Institute’s own carbon footprint in ways that may also provide a useful model for others.

    On Monday, MIT’s Office of Sustainability held its seventh annual “Sustainability Connect” event, bringing together students, faculty, staff, and alumni to learn about and share ideas for addressing climate change. This year’s virtual event emphasized the work toward carrying out the climate plan, titled “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which was announced in May. An earlier event, the “MIT Climate Tune-in” on Nov. 3, provided an overview of the many areas of MIT’s work to tackle climate change and featured a video message from Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who was attending the COP26 international climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, as part of an 18-member team from MIT.

    Zuber pointed out some significant progress that was made at the conference, including a broad agreement by over 100 nations to end deforestation by the end of the decade; she also noted that the U.S. and E.U. are leading a global coalition of countries committed to curbing methane emissions by 30 percent from 2020 levels by decade’s end. “It’s easy to be pessimistic,” she said, “but being here in Glasgow, I’m actually cautiously optimistic, seeing the thousands and thousands of people here who are working toward meaningful climate action. And I know that same spirit exists on our own campus also.”

    As for MIT’s own climate plan, Zuber emphasized three points: “We’re committed to action; second of all, we’re committed to moving fast; and third, we’ve organized ourselves better for success.” That organization includes the creation of the MIT Climate Steering Committee, to oversee and coordinate MIT’s strategies on climate change; the Climate Nucleus, to oversee the management and implementation of the new plan; and three working groups that are forming now, to involve all parts of the MIT community.

    The “Fast Forward” plan calls for reducing the campus’s net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2026 and eliminating all such emissions, including indirect ones, by 2050. At Monday’s event, Director of Sustainability Julie Newman pointed out that the climate plan includes no less than 14 specific commitments related to the campus itself. These can be grouped into five broad areas, she said: mitigation, resiliency, electric vehicle infrastructure, investment portfolio sustainability, and climate leadership. “Each of these commitments has due dates, and they range from the tactical to the strategic,” she said. “We’re in the midst of activating our internal teams” to address these commitments, she added, noting that there are 30 teams that involve 75 faculty and researcher members, plus up to eight student positions.

    One specific project that is well underway involves preparing a detailed map of the flood risks to the campus as sea levels rise and storm surges increase. While previous attempts to map out the campus flooding risks had treated buildings essentially as uniform blocks, the new project has already mapped out in detail the location, elevation, and condition of every access point — doors, windows, and drains — in every building in the main campus, and now plans to extend the work to the residence buildings and outlying parts of campus. The project’s methods for identifying and quantifying the risks to specific parts of the campus, Newman said, represents “part of our mission for leveraging the campus as a test bed” by creating a map that is “true to the nature of the topography and the infrastructure,” in order to be prepared for the effects of climate change.

    Also speaking at the Sustainability Connect event, Vice President for Campus Services and Stewardship Joe Higgins outlined a variety of measures that are underway to cut the carbon footprint of the campus as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Part of that, he explained, involves using the campus as a testbed for the development of the equivalent of a “smart thermostat” system for campus buildings. While such products exist commercially for homeowners, there is no such system yet for large institutional or commercial buildings.

    There is a team actively developing such a pilot program in some MIT buildings, he said, focusing on some large lab buildings that have especially high energy usage. They are examining the use of artificial intelligence to reduce energy consumption, he noted. By adding systems to monitor energy use, temperatures, occupancy, and so on, and to control heating, lighting and air conditioning systems, Higgins said at least a 3 to 5 percent reduction in energy use can be realized. “It may be well beyond that,” he added. “There’s a huge opportunity here.”

    Higgins also outlined the ongoing plan to convert the existing steam distribution system for campus heating into a hot water system. Though the massive undertaking may take decades to complete, he said that project alone may reduce campus carbon emissions by 10 percent. Other efforts include the installation of an additional 400 kilowatts of rooftop solar installations.

    Jeremy Gregory, executive director of MIT’s climate and sustainability consortium, described efforts to deal with the most far-reaching areas of greenhouse gas emission, the so-called Scope 3 emissions. He explained that Scope 1 is the direct emissions from the campus itself, from buildings and vehicles; Scope 2 includes indirect emissions from the generation of electricity; and Scope 3 is “everything else.” That includes employee travel, buildings that MIT leases from others and to others, and all goods and services, he added, “so it includes a lot of different categories of emissions.” Gregory said his team, including several student fellows, is actively investigating and quantifying these Scope 3 emissions at MIT, along with potential methods of reducing them.

    Professor Noelle Selin, who was recently named as co-chair of the new Climate Nucleus along with Professor Anne White, outlined their plans for the coming year, including the setting up of the three working groups.

    Selin said the nucleus consists of representatives of departments, labs, centers, and institutes that have significant responsibilities under the climate plan. That body will make recommendations to the steering committee, which includes the deans of all five of MIT’s schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, “about how to amplify MIT’s impact in the climate sphere. We have an implementation role, but we also have an accelerator pedal that can really make MIT’s climate impact more ambitious, and really push the buttons and make sure that the Institute’s commitments are actually borne out in reality.”

    The MIT Climate Tune-In also featured Selin and White, as well as a presentation on MIT’s expanded educational offerings on climate and sustainability, from Sarah Meyers, ESI’s education program manager; students Derek Allmond and Natalie Northrup; and postdoc Peter Godart. Professor Dennis Whyte also spoke about MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ recent historical advance toward commercial fusion energy. Organizers said that the Climate Tune-In event is the first of what they hope will be many opportunities to hear updates on the wide range of work happening across campus to implement the Fast Forward plan, and to spark conversations within the MIT community. More

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    For campus “porosity hunters,” climate resilience is the goal

    At MIT, it’s not uncommon to see groups navigating campus with smartphones and measuring devices in hand, using the Institute as a test bed for research. During one week this summer more than a dozen students, researchers, and faculty, plus an altimeter, could be seen doing just that as they traveled across MIT to measure the points of entry into campus buildings — including windows, doors, and vents — known as a building’s porosity.

    Why measure campus building porosity?

    The group was part of the MIT Porosity Hunt, a citizen-science effort that is using the MIT campus as a place to test emerging methodologies, instruments, and data collection processes to better understand the potential impact of a changing climate — and specifically storm scenarios resulting from it — on infrastructure. The hunt is a collaborative effort between the Urban Risk Lab, led by director and associate professor of architecture and urbanism Miho Mazereeuw, and the Office of Sustainability (MITOS), aimed at supporting an MIT that is resilient to the impacts of climate change, including flooding and extreme heat events. Working over three days, members of the hunt catalogued openings in dozens of buildings across campus to better support flood mapping and resiliency planning at MIT.

    For Mazereeuw, the data collection project lies at the nexus of her work with the Urban Risk Lab and as a member of MIT’s Climate Resiliency Committee. While the lab’s mission is to “develop methods, prototypes, and technologies to embed risk reduction and preparedness into the design of cities and regions to increase resilience,” the Climate Resiliency Committee — made up of faculty, staff, and researchers — is focused on assessing, planning, and operationalizing a climate-resilient MIT. The work of both the lab and the committee is embedded in the recently released MIT Climate Resiliency Dashboard, a visualization tool that allows users to understand potential flooding impacts of a number of storm scenarios and drive decision-making.

    While the debut of the tool signaled a big advancement in resiliency planning at MIT, some, including Mazereeuw, saw an opportunity for enhancement. In working with Ken Strzepek, a MITOS Faculty Fellow and research scientist at the MIT Center for Global Change Science who was also an integral part of this work, Mazereeuw says she was surprised to learn that even the most sophisticated flood modeling treats buildings as solid blocks. With all buildings being treated the same, despite varying porosity, the dashboard is limited in some flood scenario analysis. To address this, Mazereeuw and others got to work to fill in that additional layer of data, with the citizen science efforts a key factor of that work. “Understanding the porosity of the building is important to understanding how much water actually goes in the building in these scenarios,” she explains.

    Though surveyors are often used to collect and map this type of information, Mazereeuw wanted to leverage the MIT community in order to collect data quickly while engaging students, faculty, and researchers as resiliency stewards for the campus. “It’s important for projects like this to encourage awareness,” she explains. “Generally, when something fails, we notice it, but otherwise we don’t. With climate change bringing on more uncertainty in the scale and intensity of events, we need everyone to be more aware and help us understand things like vulnerabilities.”

    To do this, MITOS and the Urban Risk Lab reached out to more than a dozen students, who were joined by faculty, staff, and researchers, to map porosity of 31 campus buildings connected by basements. The buildings were chosen based on this connectivity, understanding that water that reaches one basement could potentially flow to another.

    Urban Risk Lab research scientists Aditya Barve and Mayank Ojha aided the group’s efforts by creating a mapping app and chatbot to support consistency in reporting and ease of use. Each team member used the app to find buildings where porosity points needed to be mapped. As teams arrived at the building exteriors, they entered their location in the app, which then triggered the Facebook and LINE-powered chatbot on their phone. There, students were guided through measuring the opening, adjusting for elevation to correlate to the City of Cambridge base datum, and, based on observable features, noting the materials and quality of the opening on a one-through-three scale. Over just three days, the team, which included Mazereeuw herself, mapped 1,030 porosity points that will aid in resiliency planning and preparation on campus in a number of ways.

    “The goal is to understand various heights for flood waters around porous spots on campus,” says Mazereeuw. “But the impact can be different depending on the space. We hope this data can inform safety as well as understanding potential damage to research or disruption to campus operations from future storms.”

    The porosity data collection is complete for this round — future hunts will likely be conducted to confirm and converge data — but one team member’s work continues at the basement level of MIT. Katarina Boukin, a PhD student in civil and environmental engineering and PhD student fellow with MITOS, has been focused on methods of collecting data beneath buildings at MIT to understand how they would be impacted if flood water were to enter. “We have a number of connected basements on campus, and if one of them floods, potentially all of them do,” explains Boukin. “By looking at absolute elevation and porosity, we’re connecting the outside to the inside and tracking how much and where water may flow.” With the added data from the Porosity Hunt, a complete picture of vulnerabilities and resiliency opportunities can be shared.

    Synthesizing much of this data is where Eva Then ’21 comes in. Then was among the students who worked to capture data points over the three days and is now working in ArcGIS — an online mapping software that also powers the Climate Resiliency Dashboard — to process and visualize the data collected. Once completed, the data will be incorporated into the campus flood model to increase the accuracy of projections on the Climate Resiliency Dashboard. “Over the next decades, the model will serve as an adaptive planning tool to make campus safe and resilient amid growing climate risks,” Then says.

    For Mazereeuw, the Porosity Hunt and data collected additionally serve as a study in scalability, providing valuable insight on how similar research efforts inspired by the MIT test bed approach could be undertaken and inform policy beyond MIT. She also hopes it will inspire students to launch their own hunts in the future, becoming resiliency stewards for their campus and dorms. “Going through measuring and documenting turns on and shows a new set of goggles — you see campus and buildings in a slightly different way,” she says, “Having people look carefully and document change is a powerful tool in climate and resiliency planning.” 

    Mazereeuw also notes that recent devastating flooding events across the country, including those resulting from Hurricane Ida, have put a special focus on this work. “The loss of life that occurred in that storm, including those who died as waters flooded their basement homes  underscores the urgency of this type of research, planning, and readiness.” More

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    Vapor-collection technology saves water while clearing the air

    About two-fifths of all the water that gets withdrawn from lakes, rivers, and wells in the U.S. is used not for agriculture, drinking, or sanitation, but to cool the power plants that provide electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear power. Over 65 percent of these plants use evaporative cooling, leading to huge white plumes that billow from their cooling towers, which can be a nuisance and, in some cases, even contribute to dangerous driving conditions.

    Now, a small company based on technology recently developed at MIT by the Varanasi Research Group is hoping to reduce both the water needs at these plants and the resultant plumes — and to potentially help alleviate water shortages in areas where power plants put pressure on local water systems.

    The technology is surprisingly simple in principle, but developing it to the point where it can now be tested at full scale on industrial plants was a more complex proposition. That required the real-world experience that the company’s founders gained from installing prototype systems, first on MIT’s natural-gas-powered cogeneration plant and then on MIT’s nuclear research reactor.

    In these demanding tests, which involved exposure to not only the heat and vibrations of a working industrial plant but also the rigors of New England winters, the system proved its effectiveness at both eliminating the vapor plume and recapturing water. And, it purified the water in the process, so that it was 100 times cleaner than the incoming cooling water. The system is now being prepared for full-scale tests in a commercial power plant and in a chemical processing plant.

    “Campus as a living laboratory”

    The technology was originally envisioned by professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi to develop efficient water-recovery systems by capturing water droplets from both natural fog and plumes from power plant cooling towers. The project began as part of doctoral thesis research of Maher Damak PhD ’18, with funding from the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, to improve the efficiency of fog-harvesting systems like the ones used in some arid coastal regions as a source of potable water. Those systems, which generally consist of plastic or metal mesh hung vertically in the path of fogbanks, are extremely inefficient, capturing only about 1 to 3 percent of the water droplets that pass through them.

    Varanasi and Damak found that vapor collection could be made much more efficient by first zapping the tiny droplets of water with a beam of electrically charged particles, or ions, to give each droplet a slight electric charge. Then, the stream of droplets passes through a wire mesh, like a window screen, that has an opposite electrical charge. This causes the droplets to be strongly attracted to the mesh, where they fall away due to gravity and can be collected in trays placed below the mesh.

    Lab tests showed the concept worked, and the researchers, joined by Karim Khalil PhD ’18, won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2018 for the basic concept. The nascent company, which they called Infinite Cooling, with Damak as CEO, Khalil as CTO, and Varanasi as chairperson, immediately went to work setting up a test installation on one of the cooling towers of MIT’s natural-gas-powered Central Utility Plant, with funding from the MIT Office of Sustainability. After experimenting with various configurations, they were able to show that the system could indeed eliminate the plume and produce water of high purity.

    Professor Jacopo Buongiorno in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering immediately spotted a good opportunity for collaboration, offering the use of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory research facility for further testing of the system with the help of NRL engineer Ed Block. With its 24/7 operation and its higher-temperature vapor emissions, the plant would provide a more stringent real-world test of the system, as well as proving its effectiveness in an actual operating reactor licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an important step in “de-risking” the technology so that electric utilities could feel confident in adopting the system.

    After the system was installed above one of the plant’s four cooling towers, testing showed that the water being collected was more than 100 times cleaner than the feedwater coming into the cooling system. It also proved that the installation — which, unlike the earlier version, had its mesh screens mounted vertically, parallel to the vapor stream — had no effect at all on the operation of the plant. Video of the tests dramatically illustrates how as soon as the power is switched on to the collecting mesh, the white plume of vapor immediately disappears completely.

    The high temperature and volume of the vapor plume from the reactor’s cooling towers represented “kind of a worst-case scenario in terms of plumes,” Damak says, “so if we can capture that, we can basically capture anything.”

    Working with MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, Varanasi says, “has been quite an important step because it helped us to test it at scale. … It really both validated the water quality and the performance of the system.” The process, he says, “shows the importance of using the campus as a living laboratory. It allows us to do these kinds of experiments at scale, and also showed the ability to sustainably reduce the water footprint of the campus.”

    Far-reaching benefits

    Power plant plumes are often considered an eyesore and can lead to local opposition to new power plants because of the potential for obscured views, and even potential traffic hazards when the obscuring plumes blow across roadways. “The ability to eliminate the plumes could be an important benefit, allowing plants to be sited in locations that might otherwise be restricted,” Buongiorno says. At the same time, the system could eliminate a significant amount of water used by the plants and then lost to the sky, potentially alleviating pressure on local water systems, which could be especially helpful in arid regions.

    The system is essentially a distillation process, and the pure water it produces could go into power plant boilers — which are separate from the cooling system — that require high-purity water. That might reduce the need for both fresh water and purification systems for the boilers.

    What’s more, in many arid coastal areas power plants are cooled directly with seawater. This system would essentially add a water desalination capability to the plant, at a fraction of the cost of building a new standalone desalination plant, and at an even smaller fraction of its operating costs since the heat would essentially be provided for free.

    Contamination of water is typically measured by testing its electrical conductivity, which increases with the amount of salts and other contaminants it contains. Water used in power plant cooling systems typically measures 3,000 microsiemens per centimeter, Khalil explains, while the water supply in the City of Cambridge is typically around 500 or 600 microsiemens per centimeter. The water captured by this system, he says, typically measures below 50 microsiemens per centimeter.

    Thanks to the validation provided by the testing on MIT’s plants, the company has now been able to secure arrangements for its first two installations on operating commercial plants, which should begin later this year. One is a 900-megawatt power plant where the system’s clean water production will be a major advantage, and the other is at a chemical manufacturing plant in the Midwest.

    In many locations power plants have to pay for the water they use for cooling, Varanasi says, and the new system is expected to reduce the need for water by up to 20 percent. For a typical power plant, that alone could account for about a million dollars saved in water costs per year, he says.

    “Innovation has been a hallmark of the U.S. commercial industry for more than six decades,” says Maria G. Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, who was not involved in the research. “As the changing climate impacts every aspect of life, including global water supplies, companies across the supply chain are innovating for solutions. The testing of this innovative technology at MIT provides a valuable basis for its consideration in commercial applications.” More