More stories

  • in

    On batteries, teaching, and world peace

    Over his long career as an electrochemist and professor, Donald Sadoway has earned an impressive variety of honors, from being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012 to appearing on “The Colbert Report,” where he talked about “renewable energy and world peace,” according to Comedy Central.

    What does he personally consider to be his top achievements?

    “That’s easy,” he says immediately. “For teaching, it’s 3.091,” the MIT course on solid-state chemistry he led for some 18 years. An MIT core requirement, 3.091 is also one of the largest classes at the Institute. In 2003 it was the largest, with 630 students. Sadoway, who retires this year after 45 years in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, estimates that over the years he’s taught the course to some 10,000 undergraduates.

    A passion for teaching

    Along the way he turned the class into an MIT favorite, complete with music, art, and literature. “I brought in all that enrichment because I knew that 95 percent of the students in that room weren’t going to major in anything chemical and this might be the last class they’d take in the subject. But it’s a requirement. So they’re 18 years old, they’re very smart, and many of them are very bored. You have to find a hook [to reach them]. And I did.”

    In 1995, Sadoway was named a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, an honor that recognizes outstanding classroom teaching at the Institute. Among the communications in support of his nomination:

    “His contributions are enormous and the class is in rapt attention from beginning to end. His lectures are highly articulate yet animated and he has uncommon grace and style. I was awed by his ability to introduce playful and creative elements into a core lecture…”

    Bill Gates would agree. In the early 2000s Sadoway’s lectures were shared with the world through OpenCourseWare, the web-based publication of MIT course materials. Gates was so inspired by the lectures that he asked to meet with Sadoway to learn more about his research. (Sadoway initially ignored Gates’ email because he thought his account had been hacked by MIT pranksters.)

    Research breakthroughs

    Teaching is not Sadoway’s only passion. He’s also proud of his accomplishments in electrochemistry. The discipline that involves electron transfer reactions is key to everything from batteries to the primary extraction of metals like aluminum and magnesium. “It’s quite wide-ranging,” says the John F. Elliott Professor Emeritus of Materials Chemistry.

    Sadoway’s contributions include two battery breakthroughs. First came the liquid metal battery, which could enable the large-scale storage of renewable energy. “That represents a huge step forward in the transition to green energy,” said António Campinos, president of the European Patent Office, earlier this year when Sadoway won the 2022 European Inventor Award for the invention in the category for Non-European Patent Office Countries.

    On “The Colbert Report,” Sadoway alluded to that work when he told Stephen Colbert that electrochemistry is the key to world peace. Why? Because it could lead to a battery capable of storing energy from the sun when the sun doesn’t shine and otherwise make renewables an important part of the clean energy mix. And that in turn could “plummet the price of petroleum and depose dictators all over the world without one shot being fired,” he recently recalled.

    The liquid metal battery is the focus of Ambri, one of six companies based on Sadoway’s inventions. Bill Gates was the first funder of the company, which formed in 2010 and aims to install its first battery soon. That battery will store energy from a reported 500 megawatts of on-site renewable generation, the same output as a natural gas power plant.

    Then, in August of this year, Sadoway and colleagues published a paper in Nature about “one of the first new battery chemistries in 30 years,” Sadoway says. “I wanted to invent something that was better, much better,” than the expensive lithium-ion batteries used in, for example, today’s electric cars.

    That battery is the focus of Avanti, one of three Sadoway companies formed just last year. The other two are Pure Lithium, to commercialize his inventions related to that element, and Sadoway Labs. The latter, a nonprofit, is essentially “a space to try radical innovations. We’re gonna start working on wild ideas.”

    Another focus of Sadoway’s research: green steel. Steelmaking produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Enter Boston Metal, another Sadoway company. This one is developing a new approach to producing steel based on research begun some 25 years ago. Unlike the current technology for producing steel, the Boston Metal approach — molten oxide electrolysis — does not use the element at the root of steel’s problems: carbon. The principal byproduct of the new system? Oxygen.

    In 2012, Sadoway gave a TED talk to 2,000 people on the liquid metal battery. He believes that that talk, which has now been seen by almost 2.5 million people, led to the wider publicity of his work — and science overall — on “The Colbert Report” and elsewhere. “The moral here is that if you step out of your comfort zone, you might be surprised at what can happen,” he concludes.

    Colleagues’ reflections

    “I met Don in 2006 when I was working for the iron and steel industry in Europe on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the production of those materials,” says Antoine Allanore, professor of metallurgy, Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “He was the same Don Sadoway that you see in recordings of his lectures: very elegant, very charismatic, and passionate about the technical solutions and underlying science of the process we were all investigating; electrolysis. A few years later, when I decided to pursue an academic career, I contacted Don and became a postdoctoral associate in his lab. That ultimately led to my becoming an MIT professor. People don’t believe me, but before I came to MIT the only thing I knew about the Institute was that Noam Chomsky was there … and Don Sadoway. And I felt, that’s a great place to be. And I stayed because I saw the exceptional things that can be accomplished at MIT and Don is the perfect example of that.”

    “I had the joy of meeting Don when I first arrived on the MIT campus in 1994,” recalls Felice Frankel, research scientist in the MIT departments of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. “I didn’t have to talk him into the idea that researchers needed to take their images and graphics more seriously.  He got it — that it wasn’t just about pretty pictures. He was an important part of our five-year National Science Foundation project — Picturing to Learn — to bring that concept into the classroom. How lucky that was for me!”

    “Don has been a friend and mentor since we met in 1995 when I was an MIT senior,” says Luis Ortiz, co-founder and chief executive officer, Avanti Battery Co. “One story that is emblematic of Don’s insistence on excellence is from when he and I met with Bill Gates about the challenges in addressing climate change and how batteries could be the linchpin in solving them. I suggested that we create our presentation in PowerPoint [Microsoft software]. Don balked. He insisted that we present using Keynote on his MacBook Air, because ‘it looks so much better.’ I was incredulous that he wanted to walk into that venue exclusively using Apple products. Of course, he won the argument, but not without my admonition that there had better not be even a blip of an issue. In the meeting room, Microsoft’s former chief technology officer asked Don if he needed anything to hook up to the screen, ‘we have all those dongles.’ Don declined, but gave me that knowing look and whispered, ‘You see, they know, too.’ I ate my crow and we had a great long conversation without any issues.”

    “I remember when I first started working with Don on the liquid metal battery project at MIT, after I had chosen it as the topic for my master’s of engineering thesis,” adds David Bradwell, co-founder and chief technology officer, Ambri. “I was a wide-eyed graduate student, sitting in his office, amongst his art deco decorations, unique furniture, and historical and stylistic infographics, and from our first meeting, I could see Don’s passion for coming up with new and creative, yet practical scientific ideas, and for working on hard problems, in service of society. Don’s approaches always appear to be unconventional — wanting to stand out in a crowd, take the path less trodden, both based on his ideas, and his sense of style. It’s been an amazing journey working with him over the past decade-and-a-half, and I remain excited to see what other new, unconventional ideas, he can bring to this world.” More

  • in

    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

  • in

    Advancing the energy transition amidst global crises

    “The past six years have been the warmest on the planet, and our track record on climate change mitigation is drastically short of what it needs to be,” said Robert C. Armstrong, MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) director and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering, introducing MITEI’s 15th Annual Research Conference.

    At the symposium, participants from academia, industry, and finance acknowledged the deepening difficulties of decarbonizing a world rocked by geopolitical conflicts and suffering from supply chain disruptions, energy insecurity, inflation, and a persistent pandemic. In spite of this grim backdrop, the conference offered evidence of significant progress in the energy transition. Researchers provided glimpses of a low-carbon future, presenting advances in such areas as long-duration energy storage, carbon capture, and renewable technologies.

    In his keynote remarks, Ernest J. Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus, founding director of MITEI, and former U.S. secretary of energy, highlighted “four areas that have materially changed in the last year” that could shake up, and possibly accelerate, efforts to address climate change.

    Extreme weather seems to be propelling the public and policy makers of both U.S. parties toward “convergence … at least in recognition of the challenge,” Moniz said. He perceives a growing consensus that climate goals will require — in diminishing order of certainty — firm (always-on) power to complement renewable energy sources, a fuel (such as hydrogen) flowing alongside electricity, and removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with its “weaponization of natural gas” and global energy impacts, underscores the idea that climate, energy security, and geopolitics “are now more or less recognized widely as one conversation.” Moniz pointed as well to new U.S. laws on climate change and infrastructure that will amplify the role of science and technology and “address the drive to technological dominance by China.”

    The rapid transformation of energy systems will require a comprehensive industrial policy, Moniz said. Government and industry must select and rapidly develop low-carbon fuels, firm power sources (possibly including nuclear power), CO2 removal systems, and long-duration energy storage technologies. “We will need to make progress on all fronts literally in this decade to come close to our goals for climate change mitigation,” he concluded.

    Global cooperation?

    Over two days, conference participants delved into many of the issues Moniz raised. In one of the first panels, scholars pondered whether the international community could forge a coordinated climate change response. The United States’ rift with China, especially over technology trade policies, loomed large.

    “Hatred of China is a bipartisan hobby and passion, but a blanket approach isn’t right, even for the sake of national security,” said Yasheng Huang, the Epoch Foundation Professor of Global Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Although the United States and China working together would have huge effects for both countries, it is politically unpalatable in the short term,” said F. Taylor Fravel, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program. John E. Parsons, deputy director for research at the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, suggested that the United States should use this moment “to get our own act together … and start doing things,” such as building nuclear power plants in a cost-effective way.

    Debating carbon removal

    Several panels took up the matter of carbon emissions and the most promising technologies for contending with them. Charles Harvey, MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at MITEI, set the stage early, debating whether capturing carbon was essential to reaching net-zero targets.

    “I have no trouble getting to net zero without carbon capture and storage,” said David Keith, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard University, in a subsequent roundtable. Carbon capture seems more risky to Keith than solar geoengineering, which involves injecting sulfur into the stratosphere to offset CO2 and its heat-trapping impacts.

    There are new ways of moving carbon from where it’s a problem to where it’s safer. Kripa K. Varanasi, MIT professor of mechanical engineering, described a process for modulating the pH of ocean water to remove CO2. Timothy Krysiek, managing director for Equinor Ventures, talked about construction of a 900-kilometer pipeline transporting CO2 from northern Germany to a large-scale storage site located in Norwegian waters 3,000 meters below the seabed. “We can use these offshore Norwegian assets as a giant carbon sink for Europe,” he said.

    A startup showcase featured additional approaches to the carbon challenge. Mantel, which received MITEI Seed Fund money, is developing molten salt material to capture carbon for long-term storage or for use in generating electricity. Verdox has come up with an electrochemical process for capturing dilute CO2 from the atmosphere.

    But while much of the global warming discussion focuses on CO2, other greenhouse gases are menacing. Another panel discussed measuring and mitigating these pollutants. “Methane has 82 times more warming power than CO2 from the point of emission,” said Desirée L. Plata, MIT associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change in the next 25 years — really the only lever.”

    Steven Hamburg, chief scientist and senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, cautioned that emission of hydrogen molecules into the atmosphere can cause increases in other greenhouse gases such as methane, ozone, and water vapor. As researchers and industry turn to hydrogen as a fuel or as a feedstock for commercial processes, “we will need to minimize leakage … or risk increasing warming,” he said.

    Supply chains, markets, and new energy ventures

    In panels on energy storage and the clean energy supply chain, there were interesting discussions of challenges ahead. High-density energy materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and vanadium for grid-scale energy storage, electric vehicles (EVs), and other clean energy technologies, can be difficult to source. “These often come from water-stressed regions, and we need to be super thoughtful about environmental stresses,” said Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. She also noted that in light of the explosive growth in demand for metals such as lithium, recycling EVs won’t be of much help. “The amount of material coming back from end-of-life batteries is minor,” she said, until EVs are much further along in their adoption cycle.

    Arvind Sanger, founder and managing partner of Geosphere Capital, said that the United States should be developing its own rare earths and minerals, although gaining the know-how will take time, and overcoming “NIMBYism” (not in my backyard-ism) is a challenge. Sanger emphasized that we must continue to use “denser sources of energy” to catalyze the energy transition over the next decade. In particular, Sanger noted that “for every transition technology, steel is needed,” and steel is made in furnaces that use coal and natural gas. “It’s completely woolly-headed to think we can just go to a zero-fossil fuel future in a hurry,” he said.

    The topic of power markets occupied another panel, which focused on ways to ensure the distribution of reliable and affordable zero-carbon energy. Integrating intermittent resources such as wind and solar into the grid requires a suite of retail markets and new digital tools, said Anuradha Annaswamy, director of MIT’s Active-Adaptive Control Laboratory. Tim Schittekatte, a postdoc at the MIT Sloan School of Management, proposed auctions as a way of insuring consumers against periods of high market costs.

    Another panel described the very different investment needs of new energy startups, such as longer research and development phases. Hooisweng Ow, technology principal at Eni Next LLC Ventures, which is developing drilling technology for geothermal energy, recommends joint development and partnerships to reduce risk. Michael Kearney SM ’11, PhD ’19, SM ’19 is a partner at The Engine, a venture firm built by MIT investing in path-breaking technology to solve the toughest challenges in climate and other problems. Kearney believes the emergence of new technologies and markets will bring on “a labor transition on an order of magnitude never seen before in this country,” he said. “Workforce development is not a natural zone for startups … and this will have to change.”

    Supporting the global South

    The opportunities and challenges of the energy transition look quite different in the developing world. In conversation with Robert Armstrong, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment of the Republic of Indonesia, reported that his “nation is rich with solar, wind, and energy transition minerals like nickel and copper,” but cannot on its own tackle developing renewable energy or reducing carbon emissions and improving grid infrastructure. “Education is a top priority, and we are very far behind in high technologies,” he said. “We need help and support from MIT to achieve our target,” he said.

    Technologies that could springboard Indonesia and other nations of the global South toward their climate goals are emerging in MITEI-supported projects and at young companies MITEI helped spawn. Among the promising innovations unveiled at the conference are new materials and designs for cooling buildings in hot climates and reducing the environmental costs of construction, and a sponge-like substance that passively sucks moisture out of the air to lower the energy required for running air conditioners in humid climates.

    Other ideas on the move from lab to market have great potential for industrialized nations as well, such as a computational framework for maximizing the energy output of ocean-based wind farms; a process for using ammonia as a renewable fuel with no CO2 emissions; long-duration energy storage derived from the oxidation of iron; and a laser-based method for unlocking geothermal steam to drive power plants. More

  • in

    New process could enable more efficient plastics recycling

    The accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans, soil, and even in our bodies is one of the major pollution issues of modern times, with over 5 billion tons disposed of so far. Despite major efforts to recycle plastic products, actually making use of that motley mix of materials has remained a challenging issue.

    A key problem is that plastics come in so many different varieties, and chemical processes for breaking them down into a form that can be reused in some way tend to be very specific to each type of plastic. Sorting the hodgepodge of waste material, from soda bottles to detergent jugs to plastic toys, is impractical at large scale. Today, much of the plastic material gathered through recycling programs ends up in landfills anyway. Surely there’s a better way.

    According to new research from MIT and elsewhere, it appears there may indeed be a much better way. A chemical process using a catalyst based on cobalt has been found to be very effective at breaking down a variety of plastics, such as polyethylene (PET) and polypropylene (PP), the two most widely produced forms of plastic, into a single product, propane. Propane can then be used as a fuel for stoves, heaters, and vehicles, or as a feedstock for the production of a wide variety of products — including new plastics, thus potentially providing at least a partial closed-loop recycling system.

    The finding is described today in the open access journal  JACS Au, in a paper by MIT professor of chemical engineering Yuriy Román-Leshkov, postdoc Guido Zichitella, and seven others at MIT, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

    Recycling plastics has been a thorny problem, Román-Leshkov explains, because the long-chain molecules in plastics are held together by carbon bonds, which are “very stable and difficult to break apart.” Existing techniques for breaking these bonds tend to produce a random mix of different molecules, which would then require complex refining methods to separate out into usable specific compounds. “The problem is,” he says, “there’s no way to control where in the carbon chain you break the molecule.”

    But to the surprise of the researchers, a catalyst made of a microporous material called a zeolite that contains cobalt nanoparticles can selectively break down various plastic polymer molecules and turn more than 80 percent of them into propane.

    Although zeolites are riddled with tiny pores less than a nanometer wide (corresponding to the width of the polymer chains), a logical assumption had been that there would be little interaction at all between the zeolite and the polymers. Surprisingly, however, the opposite turned out to be the case: Not only do the polymer chains enter the pores, but the synergistic work between cobalt and the acid sites in the zeolite can break the chain at the same point. That cleavage site turned out to correspond to chopping off exactly one propane molecule without generating unwanted methane, leaving the rest of the longer hydrocarbons ready to undergo the process, again and again.

    “Once you have this one compound, propane, you lessen the burden on downstream separations,” Román-Leshkov says. “That’s the essence of why we think this is quite important. We’re not only breaking the bonds, but we’re generating mainly a single product” that can be used for many different products and processes.

    The materials needed for the process, zeolites and cobalt, “are both quite cheap” and widely available, he says, although today most cobalt comes from troubled areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some new production is being developed in Canada, Cuba, and other places. The other material needed for the process is hydrogen, which today is mostly produced from fossil fuels but can easily be made other ways, including electrolysis of water using carbon-free electricity such as solar or wind power.

    The researchers tested their system on a real example of mixed recycled plastic, producing promising results. But more testing will be needed on a greater variety of mixed waste streams to determine how much fouling takes place from various contaminants in the material — such as inks, glues, and labels attached to the plastic containers, or other nonplastic materials that get mixed in with the waste — and how that affects the long-term stability of the process.

    Together with collaborators at NREL, the MIT team is also continuing to study the economics of the system, and analyzing how it can fit into today’s systems for handling plastic and mixed waste streams. “We don’t have all the answers yet,” Román-Leshkov says, but preliminary analysis looks promising.

    The research team included Amani Ebrahim and Simone Bare at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Jie Zhu, Anna Brenner, Griffin Drake and Julie Rorrer at MIT; and Greg Beckham at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the DoE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), and Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), as part of the the Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment (BOTTLE) Consortium. More

  • in

    Cracking the carbon removal challenge

    By most measures, MIT chemical engineering spinoff Verdox has been enjoying an exceptional year. The carbon capture and removal startup, launched in 2019, announced $80 million in funding in February from a group of investors that included Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Then, in April — after recognition as one of the year’s top energy pioneers by Bloomberg New Energy Finance — the company and partner Carbfix won a $1 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal milestone award. This was the first round in the Musk Foundation’s four-year, $100 million-competition, the largest prize offered in history.

    “While our core technology has been validated by the significant improvement of performance metrics, this external recognition further verifies our vision,” says Sahag Voskian SM ’15, PhD ’19, co-founder and chief technology officer at Verdox. “It shows that the path we’ve chosen is the right one.”

    The search for viable carbon capture technologies has intensified in recent years, as scientific models show with increasing certainty that any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change means limiting CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million by 2100. Alternative energies will only get humankind so far, and a vast removal of CO2 will be an important tool in the race to remove the gas from the atmosphere.

    Voskian began developing the company’s cost-effective and scalable technology for carbon capture in the lab of T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “It feels exciting to see ideas move from the lab to potential commercial production,” says Hatton, a co-founder of the company and scientific advisor, adding that Verdox has speedily overcome the initial technical hiccups encountered by many early phase companies. “This recognition enhances the credibility of what we’re doing, and really validates our approach.”

    At the heart of this approach is technology Voskian describes as “elegant and efficient.” Most attempts to grab carbon from an exhaust flow or from air itself require a great deal of energy. Voskian and Hatton came up with a design whose electrochemistry makes carbon capture appear nearly effortless. Their invention is a kind of battery: conductive electrodes coated with a compound called polyanthraquinone, which has a natural chemical attraction to carbon dioxide under certain conditions, and no affinity for CO2 when these conditions are relaxed. When activated by a low-level electrical current, the battery charges, reacting with passing molecules of CO2 and pulling them onto its surface. Once the battery becomes saturated, the CO2 can be released with a flip of voltage as a pure gas stream.

    “We showed that our technology works in a wide range of CO2 concentrations, from the 20 percent or higher found in cement and steel industry exhaust streams, down to the very diffuse 0.04 percent in air itself,” says Hatton. Climate change science suggests that removing CO2 directly from air “is an important component of the whole mitigation strategy,” he adds.

    “This was an academic breakthrough,” says Brian Baynes PhD ’04, CEO and co-founder of Verdox. Baynes, a chemical engineering alumnus and a former associate of Hatton’s, has many startups to his name, and a history as a venture capitalist and mentor to young entrepreneurs. When he first encountered Hatton and Voskian’s research in 2018, he was “impressed that their technology showed it could reduce energy consumption for certain kinds of carbon capture by 70 percent compared to other technologies,” he says. “I was encouraged and impressed by this low-energy footprint, and recommended that they start a company.”

    Neither Hatton nor Voskian had commercialized a product before, so they asked Baynes to help them get going. “I normally decline these requests, because the costs are generally greater than the upside,” Baynes says. “But this innovation had the potential to move the needle on climate change, and I saw it as a rare opportunity.”

    The Verdox team has no illusions about the challenge ahead. “The scale of the problem is enormous,” says Voskian. “Our technology must be in a position to capture mega- and gigatons of CO2 from air and emission sources.” Indeed, the International Panel on Climate Change estimates the world must remove 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050 in order to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius.

    To scale up successfully and at a pace that could meet the world’s climate challenge, Verdox must become “a business that works in a technoeconomic sense,” as Baynes puts it. This means, for instance, ensuring its carbon capture system offers clear and competitive cost benefits when deployed. Not a problem, says Voskian: “Our technology, because it uses electric energy, can be easily integrated into the grid, working with solar and wind on a plug-and-play basis.” The Verdox team believes their carbon footprint will beat that of competitors by orders of magnitude.

    The company is pushing past a series of technical obstacles as it ramps up: enabling the carbon capture battery to run hundreds of thousands of cycles before its performance wanes, and enhancing the polyanthraquinone chemistry so that the device is even more selective for CO2.

    After hurtling past critical milestones, Verdox is now working with its first announced commercial client: Norwegian aluminum company Hydro, which aims to eliminate CO2 from the exhaust of its smelters as it transitions to zero-carbon production.

    Verdox is also developing systems that can efficiently pull CO2 out of ambient air. “We’re designing units that would look like rows and rows of big fans that bring the air into boxes containing our batteries,” he says. Such approaches might prove especially useful in locations such as airfields, where there are higher-than-normal concentrations of CO2 emissions present.

    All this captured carbon needs to go somewhere. With XPRIZE partner Carbfix, which has a decade-old, proven method for mineralizing captured CO2 and depositing it in deep underground caverns, Verdox will have a final resting place for CO2 that cannot immediately be reused for industrial applications such as new fuels or construction materials.

    With its clients and partners, the team appears well-positioned for the next round of the carbon removal XPRIZE competition, which will award up to $50 million to the group that best demonstrates a working solution at a scale of at least 1,000 tons removed per year, and can present a viable blueprint for scaling to gigatons of removal per year.

    Can Verdox meaningfully reduce the planet’s growing CO2 burden? Voskian is sure of it. “Going at our current momentum, and seeing the world embrace carbon capture, this is the right path forward,” he says. “With our partners, deploying manufacturing facilities on a global scale, we will make a dent in the problem in our lifetime.” More

  • in

    J-WAFS awards $150K Solutions grant to Patrick Doyle and team for rapid removal of micropollutants from water

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has awarded a 2022 J-WAFS Solutions grant to Patrick S. Doyle, the Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, for his innovative system to tackle water pollution. Doyle will be working with co-Principal Investigator Rafael Gomez-Bombarelli, assistant professor in materials processing in the Department of Materials Science, as well as PhD students Devashish Gokhale and Tynan Perez. Building off of findings from a 2019 J-WAFS seed grant, Doyle and the research team will create cost-effective industry-scale processes to remove micropollutants from water. Project work will commence this month.

    The J-WAFS Solutions program provides one-year, renewable, commercialization grants to help move MIT technology from the laboratory to market. Grants of up to $150,000 are awarded to researchers with breakthrough technologies and inventions in water or food. Since its launch in 2015, J-WAFS Solutions grants have led to seven spinout companies and helped commercialize two products as open-source technologies. The grant program is supported by Community Jameel.

    A widespread problem 

    Micropollutants are contaminants that occur in low concentrations in the environment, yet continuous exposure and bioaccumulation of micropollutants make them a cause for concern. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the plastics derivative Bisphenol A (BPA), the “forever chemicals” per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and heavy metals like lead are common micropollutants known to be found in more than 85 percent of rivers, ponds, and lakes in the United States. Many of these bodies of water are sources of drinking water. Over long periods of time, exposure to micropollutants through drinking water can cause physiological damage in humans, increasing the risk of cancer, developmental disorders, and reproductive failure.

    Since micropollutants occur in low concentrations, it is difficult to detect and monitor their presence, and the chemical diversity of micropollutants makes it difficult to inexpensively remove them from water. Currently, activated carbon is the industry standard for micropollutant elimination, but this method cannot efficiently remove contaminants at parts-per-billion and parts-per-trillion concentrations. There are also strong sustainability concerns associated with activated carbon production, which is energy-intensive and releases large volumes of carbon dioxide.

    A solution with societal and economic benefits

    Doyle and his team are developing a technology that uses sustainable hydrogel microparticles to remove micropollutants from water. The polymeric hydrogel microparticles use chemically anchored structures including micelles and other chelating agents that act like a sponge by absorbing organic micropollutants and heavy metal ions. The microparticles are large enough to separate from water using simple gravitational settling. The system is sustainable because the microparticles can be recycled for continuous use. In testing, the long-lasting, reusable microparticles show quicker removal of contaminants than commercial activated carbon. The researchers plan to utilize machine learning to find optimal microparticle compositions that maximize performance on complex combinations of micropollutants in simulated and real wastewater samples.

    Economically, the technology is a new offering that has applications in numerous large markets where micropollutant elimination is vital, including municipal and industrial water treatment equipment, as well as household water purification systems. The J-WAFS Solutions grant will allow the team to build and test prototypes of the water treatment system, identify the best use cases and customers, and perform technoeconomic analyses and market research to formulate a preliminary business plan. With J-WAFS commercialization support, the project could eventually lead to a startup company.

    “Emerging micropollutants are a growing threat to drinking water supplies worldwide,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water at MIT. “Cost-effective and scalable technologies for micropollutant removal are urgently needed. This project will develop and commercialize a promising new tool for water treatment, with the goal of improving water quality for millions of people.” More

  • in

    Turning carbon dioxide into valuable products

    Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a major contributor to climate change and a significant product of many human activities, notably industrial manufacturing. A major goal in the energy field has been to chemically convert emitted CO2 into valuable chemicals or fuels. But while CO2 is available in abundance, it has not yet been widely used to generate value-added products. Why not?

    The reason is that CO2 molecules are highly stable and therefore not prone to being chemically converted to a different form. Researchers have sought materials and device designs that could help spur that conversion, but nothing has worked well enough to yield an efficient, cost-effective system.

    Two years ago, Ariel Furst, the Raymond (1921) and Helen St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, decided to try using something different — a material that gets more attention in discussions of biology than of chemical engineering. Already, results from work in her lab suggest that her unusual approach is paying off.

    The stumbling block

    The challenge begins with the first step in the CO2 conversion process. Before being transformed into a useful product, CO2 must be chemically converted into carbon monoxide (CO). That conversion can be encouraged using electrochemistry, a process in which input voltage provides the extra energy needed to make the stable CO2 molecules react. The problem is that achieving the CO2-to-CO conversion requires large energy inputs — and even then, CO makes up only a small fraction of the products that are formed.

    To explore opportunities for improving this process, Furst and her research group focused on the electrocatalyst, a material that enhances the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed in the process. The catalyst is key to successful operation. Inside an electrochemical device, the catalyst is often suspended in an aqueous (water-based) solution. When an electric potential (essentially a voltage) is applied to a submerged electrode, dissolved CO2 will — helped by the catalyst — be converted to CO.

    But there’s one stumbling block: The catalyst and the CO2 must meet on the surface of the electrode for the reaction to occur. In some studies, the catalyst is dispersed in the solution, but that approach requires more catalyst and isn’t very efficient, according to Furst. “You have to both wait for the diffusion of CO2 to the catalyst and for the catalyst to reach the electrode before the reaction can occur,” she explains. As a result, researchers worldwide have been exploring different methods of “immobilizing” the catalyst on the electrode.

    Connecting the catalyst and the electrode

    Before Furst could delve into that challenge, she needed to decide which of the two types of CO2 conversion catalysts to work with: the traditional solid-state catalyst or a catalyst made up of small molecules. In examining the literature, she concluded that small-molecule catalysts held the most promise. While their conversion efficiency tends to be lower than that of solid-state versions, molecular catalysts offer one important advantage: They can be tuned to emphasize reactions and products of interest.

    Two approaches are commonly used to immobilize small-molecule catalysts on an electrode. One involves linking the catalyst to the electrode by strong covalent bonds — a type of bond in which atoms share electrons; the result is a strong, essentially permanent connection. The other sets up a non-covalent attachment between the catalyst and the electrode; unlike a covalent bond, this connection can easily be broken.

    Neither approach is ideal. In the former case, the catalyst and electrode are firmly attached, ensuring efficient reactions; but when the activity of the catalyst degrades over time (which it will), the electrode can no longer be accessed. In the latter case, a degraded catalyst can be removed; but the exact placement of the small molecules of the catalyst on the electrode can’t be controlled, leading to an inconsistent, often decreasing, catalytic efficiency — and simply increasing the amount of catalyst on the electrode surface without concern for where the molecules are placed doesn’t solve the problem.

    What was needed was a way to position the small-molecule catalyst firmly and accurately on the electrode and then release it when it degrades. For that task, Furst turned to what she and her team regard as a kind of “programmable molecular Velcro”: deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.

    Adding DNA to the mix

    Mention DNA to most people, and they think of biological functions in living things. But the members of Furst’s lab view DNA as more than just genetic code. “DNA has these really cool physical properties as a biomaterial that people don’t often think about,” she says. “DNA can be used as a molecular Velcro that can stick things together with very high precision.”

    Furst knew that DNA sequences had previously been used to immobilize molecules on surfaces for other purposes. So she devised a plan to use DNA to direct the immobilization of catalysts for CO2 conversion.

    Her approach depends on a well-understood behavior of DNA called hybridization. The familiar DNA structure is a double helix that forms when two complementary strands connect. When the sequence of bases (the four building blocks of DNA) in the individual strands match up, hydrogen bonds form between complementary bases, firmly linking the strands together.

    Using that behavior for catalyst immobilization involves two steps. First, the researchers attach a single strand of DNA to the electrode. Then they attach a complementary strand to the catalyst that is floating in the aqueous solution. When the latter strand gets near the former, the two strands hybridize; they become linked by multiple hydrogen bonds between properly paired bases. As a result, the catalyst is firmly affixed to the electrode by means of two interlocked, self-assembled DNA strands, one connected to the electrode and the other to the catalyst.

    Better still, the two strands can be detached from one another. “The connection is stable, but if we heat it up, we can remove the secondary strand that has the catalyst on it,” says Furst. “So we can de-hybridize it. That allows us to recycle our electrode surfaces — without having to disassemble the device or do any harsh chemical steps.”

    Experimental investigation

    To explore that idea, Furst and her team — postdocs Gang Fan and Thomas Gill, former graduate student Nathan Corbin PhD ’21, and former postdoc Amruta Karbelkar — performed a series of experiments using three small-molecule catalysts based on porphyrins, a group of compounds that are biologically important for processes ranging from enzyme activity to oxygen transport. Two of the catalysts involve a synthetic porphyrin plus a metal center of either cobalt or iron. The third catalyst is hemin, a natural porphyrin compound used to treat porphyria, a set of disorders that can affect the nervous system. “So even the small-molecule catalysts we chose are kind of inspired by nature,” comments Furst.

    In their experiments, the researchers first needed to modify single strands of DNA and deposit them on one of the electrodes submerged in the solution inside their electrochemical cell. Though this sounds straightforward, it did require some new chemistry. Led by Karbelkar and third-year undergraduate researcher Rachel Ahlmark, the team developed a fast, easy way to attach DNA to electrodes. For this work, the researchers’ focus was on attaching DNA, but the “tethering” chemistry they developed can also be used to attach enzymes (protein catalysts), and Furst believes it will be highly useful as a general strategy for modifying carbon electrodes.

    Once the single strands of DNA were deposited on the electrode, the researchers synthesized complementary strands and attached to them one of the three catalysts. When the DNA strands with the catalyst were added to the solution in the electrochemical cell, they readily hybridized with the DNA strands on the electrode. After half-an-hour, the researchers applied a voltage to the electrode to chemically convert CO2 dissolved in the solution and used a gas chromatograph to analyze the makeup of the gases produced by the conversion.

    The team found that when the DNA-linked catalysts were freely dispersed in the solution, they were highly soluble — even when they included small-molecule catalysts that don’t dissolve in water on their own. Indeed, while porphyrin-based catalysts in solution often stick together, once the DNA strands were attached, that counterproductive behavior was no longer evident.

    The DNA-linked catalysts in solution were also more stable than their unmodified counterparts. They didn’t degrade at voltages that caused the unmodified catalysts to degrade. “So just attaching that single strand of DNA to the catalyst in solution makes those catalysts more stable,” says Furst. “We don’t even have to put them on the electrode surface to see improved stability.” When converting CO2 in this way, a stable catalyst will give a steady current over time. Experimental results showed that adding the DNA prevented the catalyst from degrading at voltages of interest for practical devices. Moreover, with all three catalysts in solution, the DNA modification significantly increased the production of CO per minute.

    Allowing the DNA-linked catalyst to hybridize with the DNA connected to the electrode brought further improvements, even compared to the same DNA-linked catalyst in solution. For example, as a result of the DNA-directed assembly, the catalyst ended up firmly attached to the electrode, and the catalyst stability was further enhanced. Despite being highly soluble in aqueous solutions, the DNA-linked catalyst molecules remained hybridized at the surface of the electrode, even under harsh experimental conditions.

    Immobilizing the DNA-linked catalyst on the electrode also significantly increased the rate of CO production. In a series of experiments, the researchers monitored the CO production rate with each of their catalysts in solution without attached DNA strands — the conventional setup — and then with them immobilized by DNA on the electrode. With all three catalysts, the amount of CO generated per minute was far higher when the DNA-linked catalyst was immobilized on the electrode.

    In addition, immobilizing the DNA-linked catalyst on the electrode greatly increased the “selectivity” in terms of the products. One persistent challenge in using CO2 to generate CO in aqueous solutions is that there is an inevitable competition between the formation of CO and the formation of hydrogen. That tendency was eased by adding DNA to the catalyst in solution — and even more so when the catalyst was immobilized on the electrode using DNA. For both the cobalt-porphyrin catalyst and the hemin-based catalyst, the formation of CO relative to hydrogen was significantly higher with the DNA-linked catalyst on the electrode than in solution. With the iron-porphyrin catalyst they were about the same. “With the iron, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in solution or on the electrode,” Furst explains. “Both of them have selectivity for CO, so that’s good, too.”

    Progress and plans

    Furst and her team have now demonstrated that their DNA-based approach combines the advantages of the traditional solid-state catalysts and the newer small-molecule ones. In their experiments, they achieved the highly efficient chemical conversion of CO2 to CO and also were able to control the mix of products formed. And they believe that their technique should prove scalable: DNA is inexpensive and widely available, and the amount of catalyst required is several orders of magnitude lower when it’s immobilized using DNA.

    Based on her work thus far, Furst hypothesizes that the structure and spacing of the small molecules on the electrode may directly impact both catalytic efficiency and product selectivity. Using DNA to control the precise positioning of her small-molecule catalysts, she plans to evaluate those impacts and then extrapolate design parameters that can be applied to other classes of energy-conversion catalysts. Ultimately, she hopes to develop a predictive algorithm that researchers can use as they design electrocatalytic systems for a wide variety of applications.

    This research was supported by a grant from the MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund.

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

  • in

    Making hydropower plants more sustainable

    Growing up on a farm in Texas, there was always something for siblings Gia Schneider ’99 and Abe Schneider ’02, SM ’03 to do. But every Saturday at 2 p.m., no matter what, the family would go down to a local creek to fish, build rock dams and rope swings, and enjoy nature.

    Eventually the family began going to a remote river in Colorado each summer. The river forked in two; one side was managed by ranchers who destroyed natural features like beaver dams, while the other side remained untouched. The family noticed the fishing was better on the preserved side, which led Abe to try measuring the health of the two river ecosystems. In high school, he co-authored a study showing there were more beneficial insects in the bed of the river with the beaver dams.

    The experience taught both siblings a lesson that has stuck. Today they are the co-founders of Natel Energy, a company attempting to mimic natural river ecosystems with hydropower systems that are more sustainable than conventional hydro plants.

    “The big takeaway for us, and what we’ve been doing all this time, is thinking of ways that infrastructure can help increase the health of our environment — and beaver dams are a good example of infrastructure that wouldn’t otherwise be there that supports other populations of animals,” Abe says. “It’s a motivator for the idea that hydropower can help improve the environment rather than destroy the environment.”

    Through new, fish-safe turbines and other features designed to mimic natural river conditions, the founders say their plants can bridge the gap between power-plant efficiency and environmental sustainability. By retrofitting existing hydropower plants and developing new projects, the founders believe they can supercharge a hydropower industry that is by far the largest source of renewable electricity in the world but has not grown in energy generation as much as wind and solar in recent years.

    “Hydropower plants are built today with only power output in mind, as opposed to the idea that if we want to unlock growth, we have to solve for both efficiency and river sustainability,” Gia says.

    A life’s mission

    The origins of Natel came not from a single event but from a lifetime of events. Abe and Gia’s father was an inventor and renewable energy enthusiast who designed and built the log cabin they grew up in. With no television, the kids’ preferred entertainment was reading books or being outside. The water in their house was pumped by power generated using a mechanical windmill on the north side of the house.

    “We grew up hanging clothes on a line, and it wasn’t because we were too poor to own a dryer, but because everything about our existence and our use of energy was driven by the idea that we needed to make conscious decisions about sustainability,” Abe says.

    One of the things that fascinated both siblings was hydropower. In high school, Abe recalls bugging his friend who was good at math to help him with designs for new hydro turbines.

    Both siblings admit coming to MIT was a major culture shock, but they loved the atmosphere of problem solving and entrepreneurship that permeated the campus. Gia came to MIT in 1995 and majored in chemical engineering while Abe followed three years later and majored in mechanical engineering for both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

    All the while, they never lost sight of hydropower. In the 1998 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competitions (which was the $50K at the time), they pitched an idea for hydropower plants based on a linear turbine design. They were named finalists in the competition, but still wanted more industry experience before starting a company. After graduation, Abe worked as a mechanical engineer and did some consulting work with the operators of small hydropower plants while Gia worked at the energy desks of a few large finance companies.

    In 2009, the siblings, along with their late father, Daniel, received a small business grant of $200,000 and formally launched Natel Energy.

    Between 2009 and 2019, the founders worked on a linear turbine design that Abe describes as turbines on a conveyor belt. They patented and deployed the system on a few sites, but the problem of ensuring safe fish passage remained.

    Then the founders were doing some modeling that suggested they could achieve high power plant efficiency using an extremely rounded edge on a turbine blade — as opposed to the sharp blades typically used for hydropower turbines. The insight made them realize if they didn’t need sharp blades, perhaps they didn’t need a complex new turbine.

    “It’s so counterintuitive, but we said maybe we can achieve the same results with a propeller turbine, which is the most common kind,” Abe says. “It started out as a joke — or a challenge — and I did some modeling and rapidly realized, ‘Holy cow, this actually could work!’ Instead of having a powertrain with a decade’s worth of complexity, you have a powertrain that has one moving part, and almost no change in loading, in a form factor that the whole industry is used to.”

    The turbine Natel developed features thick blades that allow more than 99 percent of fish to pass through safely, according to third-party tests. Natel’s turbines also allow for the passage of important river sediment and can be coupled with structures that mimic natural features of rivers like log jams, beaver dams, and rock arches.

    “We want the most efficient machine possible, but we also want the most fish-safe machine possible, and that intersection has led to our unique intellectual property,” Gia says.

    Supercharging hydropower

    Natel has already installed two versions of its latest turbine, what it calls the Restoration Hydro Turbine, at existing plants in Maine and Oregon. The company hopes that by the end of this year, two more will be deployed, including one in Europe, a key market for Natel because of its stronger environmental regulations for hydropower plants.

    Since their installation, the founders say the first two turbines have converted more than 90 percent of the energy available in the water into energy at the turbine, a comparable efficiency to conventional turbines.

    Looking forward, Natel believes its systems have a significant role to play in boosting the hydropower industry, which is facing increasing scrutiny and environmental regulation that could otherwise close down many existing plants. For example, the founders say that hydropower plants the company could potentially retrofit across the U.S. and Europe have a total capacity of about 30 gigawatts, enough to power millions of homes.

    Natel also has ambitions to build entirely new plants on the many nonpowered dams around the U.S. and Europe. (Currently only 3 percent of the United States’ 80,000 dams are powered.) The founders estimate their systems could generate about 48 gigawatts of new electricity across the U.S. and Europe — the equivalent of more than 100 million solar panels.

    “We’re looking at numbers that are pretty meaningful,” Gia says. “We could substantially add to the existing installed base while also modernizing the existing base to continue to be productive while meeting modern environmental requirements.”

    Overall, the founders see hydropower as a key technology in our transition to sustainable energy, a sentiment echoed by recent MIT research.

    “Hydro today supplies the bulk of electricity reliability services in a lot of these areas — things like voltage regulation, frequency regulation, storage,” Gia says. “That’s key to understand: As we transition to a zero-carbon grid, we need a reliable grid, and hydro has a very important role in supporting that. Particularly as we think about making this transition as quickly as we can, we’re going to need every bit of zero-emission resources we can get.” More