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    Two MIT teams selected for NSF sustainable materials grants

    Two teams led by MIT researchers were selected in December 2023 by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator, a part of the TIP Directorate, to receive awards of $5 million each over three years, to pursue research aimed at helping to bring cutting-edge new sustainable materials and processes from the lab into practical, full-scale industrial production. The selection was made after 16 teams from around the country were chosen last year for one-year grants to develop detailed plans for further research aimed at solving problems of sustainability and scalability for advanced electronic products.

    Of the two MIT-led teams chosen for this current round of funding, one team, Topological Electric, is led by Mingda Li, an associate professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. This team will be finding pathways to scale up sustainable topological materials, which have the potential to revolutionize next-generation microelectronics by showing superior electronic performance, such as dissipationless states or high-frequency response. The other team, led by Anuradha Agarwal, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Materials Research Laboratory, will be focusing on developing new materials, devices, and manufacturing processes for microchips that minimize energy consumption using electronic-photonic integration, and that detect and avoid the toxic or scarce materials used in today’s production methods.

    Scaling the use of topological materials

    Li explains that some materials based on quantum effects have achieved successful transitions from lab curiosities to successful mass production, such as blue-light LEDs, and giant magnetorestance (GMR) devices used for magnetic data storage. But he says there are a variety of equally promising materials that have shown promise but have yet to make it into real-world applications.

    “What we really wanted to achieve is to bring newer-generation quantum materials into technology and mass production, for the benefit of broader society,” he says. In particular, he says, “topological materials are really promising to do many different things.”

    Topological materials are ones whose electronic properties are fundamentally protected against disturbance. For example, Li points to the fact that just in the last two years, it has been shown that some topological materials are even better electrical conductors than copper, which are typically used for the wires interconnecting electronic components. But unlike the blue-light LEDs or the GMR devices, which have been widely produced and deployed, when it comes to topological materials, “there’s no company, no startup, there’s really no business out there,” adds Tomas Palacios, the Clarence J. Lebel Professor in Electrical Engineering at MIT and co-principal investigator on Li’s team. Part of the reason is that many versions of such materials are studied “with a focus on fundamental exotic physical properties with little or no consideration on the sustainability aspects,” says Liang Fu, an MIT professor of physics and also a co-PI. Their team will be looking for alternative formulations that are more amenable to mass production.

    One possible application of these topological materials is for detecting terahertz radiation, explains Keith Nelson, an MIT professor of chemistry and co-PI. This extremely high-frequency electronics can carry far more information than conventional radio or microwaves, but at present there are no mature electronic devices available that are scalable at this frequency range. “There’s a whole range of possibilities for topological materials” that could work at these frequencies, he says. In addition, he says, “we hope to demonstrate an entire prototype system like this in a single, very compact solid-state platform.”

    Li says that among the many possible applications of topological devices for microelectronics devices of various kinds, “we don’t know which, exactly, will end up as a product, or will reach real industrial scaleup. That’s why this opportunity from NSF is like a bridge, which is precious, to allow us to dig deeper to unleash the true potential.”

    In addition to Li, Palacios, Fu, and Nelson, the Topological Electric team includes Qiong Ma, assistant professor of physics in Boston College; Farnaz Niroui, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT; Susanne Stemmer, professor of materials at the University of California at Santa Barbara; Judy Cha, professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell University; industrial partners including IBM, Analog Devices, and Raytheon; and professional consultants. “We are taking this opportunity seriously,” Li says. “We really want to see if the topological materials are as good as we show in the lab when being scaled up, and how far we can push to broadly industrialize them.”

    Toward sustainable microchip production and use

    The microchips behind everything from smartphones to medical imaging are associated with a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions today, and every year the world produces more than 50 million metric tons of electronic waste, the equivalent of about 5,000 Eiffel Towers. Further, the data centers necessary for complex computations and huge amount of data transfer — think AI and on-demand video — are growing and will require 10 percent of the world’s electricity by 2030.

    “The current microchip manufacturing supply chain, which includes production, distribution, and use, is neither scalable nor sustainable, and cannot continue. We must innovate our way out of this crisis,” says Agarwal.

    The name of Agarwal’s team, FUTUR-IC, is a reference to the future of the integrated circuits, or chips, through a global alliance for sustainable microchip manufacturing. Says Agarwal, “We bring together stakeholders from industry, academia, and government to co-optimize across three dimensions: technology, ecology, and workforce. These were identified as key interrelated areas by some 140 stakeholders. With FUTUR-IC we aim to cut waste and CO2-equivalent emissions associated with electronics by 50 percent every 10 years.”

    The market for microelectronics in the next decade is predicted to be on the order of a trillion dollars, but most of the manufacturing for the industry occurs only in limited geographical pockets around the world. FUTUR-IC aims to diversify and strengthen the supply chain for manufacturing and packaging of electronics. The alliance has 26 collaborators and is growing. Current external collaborators include the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI), Tyndall National Institute, SEMI, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Intel, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

    Agarwal leads FUTUR-IC in close collaboration with others, including, from MIT, Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; Elsa Olivetti, the Jerry McAfee Professor in Engineering; Randolph Kirchain, principal research scientist in the Materials Research Laboratory; and Greg Norris, director of MIT’s Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE). All are affiliated with the Materials Research Laboratory. They are joined by Samuel Serna, an MIT visiting professor and assistant professor of physics at Bridgewater State University. Other key personnel include Sajan Saini, education director for the Initiative for Knowledge and Innovation in Manufacturing in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Peter O’Brien, a professor from Tyndall National Institute; and Shekhar Chandrashekhar, CEO of iNEMI.

    “We expect the integration of electronics and photonics to revolutionize microchip manufacturing, enhancing efficiency, reducing energy consumption, and paving the way for unprecedented advancements in computing speed and data-processing capabilities,” says Serna, who is the co-lead on the project’s technology “vector.”

    Common metrics for these efforts are needed, says Norris, co-lead for the ecology vector, adding, “The microchip industry must have transparent and open Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) models and data, which are being developed by FUTUR-IC.” This is especially important given that microelectronics production transcends industries. “Given the scale and scope of microelectronics, it is critical for the industry to lead in the transition to sustainable manufacture and use,” says Kirchain, another co-lead and the co-director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT. To bring about this cross-fertilization, co-lead Olivetti, also co-director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), will collaborate with FUTUR-IC to enhance the benefits from microchip recycling, leveraging the learning across industries.

    Saini, the co-lead for the workforce vector, stresses the need for agility. “With a workforce that adapts to a practice of continuous upskilling, we can help increase the robustness of the chip-manufacturing supply chain, and validate a new design for a sustainability curriculum,” he says.

    “We have become accustomed to the benefits forged by the exponential growth of microelectronic technology performance and market size,” says Kimerling, who is also director of MIT’s Materials Research Laboratory and co-director of the MIT Microphotonics Center. “The ecological impact of this growth in terms of materials use, energy consumption and end-of-life disposal has begun to push back against this progress. We believe that concurrently engineered solutions for these three dimensions will build a common learning curve to power the next 40 years of progress in the semiconductor industry.”

    The MIT teams are two of six that received awards addressing sustainable materials for global challenges through phase two of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program. Launched in 2019, the program targets solutions to especially compelling challenges at an accelerated pace by incorporating a multidisciplinary research approach. More

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    Q&A: Claire Walsh on how J-PAL’s King Climate Action Initiative tackles the twin climate and poverty crises

    The King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI) is the flagship climate change program of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which innovates, tests, and scales solutions at the nexus of climate change and poverty alleviation, together with policy partners worldwide.

    Claire Walsh is the associate director of policy at J-PAL Global at MIT. She is also the project director of K-CAI. Here, Walsh talks about the work of K-CAI since its launch in 2020, and describes the ways its projects are making a difference. This is part of an ongoing series exploring how the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is addressing the climate crisis.

    Q: According to the King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI), any attempt to address poverty effectively must also simultaneously address climate change. Why is that?

    A: Climate change will disproportionately harm people in poverty, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, because they tend to live in places that are more exposed to climate risk. These are nations in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia where low-income communities rely heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods, so extreme weather — heat, droughts, and flooding — can be devastating for people’s jobs and food security. In fact, the World Bank estimates that up to 130 million more people may be pushed into poverty by climate change by 2030.

    This is unjust because these countries have historically emitted the least; their people didn’t cause the climate crisis. At the same time, they are trying to improve their economies and improve people’s welfare, so their energy demands are increasing, and they are emitting more. But they don’t have the same resources as wealthy nations for mitigation or adaptation, and many developing countries understandably don’t feel eager to put solving a problem they didn’t create at the top of their priority list. This makes finding paths forward to cutting emissions on a global scale politically challenging.

    For these reasons, the problems of enhancing the well-being of people experiencing poverty, addressing inequality, and reducing pollution and greenhouse gases are inextricably linked.

    Q: So how does K-CAI tackle this hybrid challenge?

    A: Our initiative is pretty unique. We are a competitive, policy-based research and development fund that focuses on innovating, testing, and scaling solutions. We support researchers from MIT and other universities, and their collaborators, who are actually implementing programs, whether NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], government, or the private sector. We fund pilots of small-scale ideas in a real-world setting to determine if they hold promise, followed by larger randomized, controlled trials of promising solutions in climate change mitigation, adaptation, pollution reduction, and energy access. Our goal is to determine, through rigorous research, if these solutions are actually working — for example, in cutting emissions or protecting forests or helping vulnerable communities adapt to climate change. And finally, we offer path-to-scale grants which enable governments and NGOs to expand access to programs that have been tested and have strong evidence of impact.

    We think this model is really powerful. Since we launched in 2020, we have built a portfolio of over 30 randomized evaluations and 13 scaling projects in more than 35 countries. And to date, these projects have informed the scale ups of evidence-based climate policies that have reached over 15 million people.

    Q: It seems like K-CAI is advancing a kind of policy science, demanding proof of a program’s capacity to deliver results at each stage. 

    A: This is one of the factors that drew me to J-PAL back in 2012. I majored in anthropology and studied abroad in Uganda. From those experiences I became very passionate about pursuing a career focused on poverty reduction. To me, it is unfair that in a world full of so much wealth and so much opportunity there exists so much extreme poverty. I wanted to dedicate my career to that, but I’m also a very detail-oriented nerd who really cares about whether a program that claims to be doing something for people is accomplishing what it claims.

    It’s been really rewarding to see demand from governments and NGOs for evidence-informed policymaking grow over my 12 years at J-PAL. This policy science approach holds exciting promise to help transform public policy and climate policy in the coming decades.  

    Q: Can you point to K-CAI-funded projects that meet this high bar and are now making a significant impact?

    A: Several examples jump to mind. In the state of Gujarat, India, pollution regulators are trying to cut particulate matter air pollution, which is devastating to human health. The region is home to many major industries whose emissions negatively affect most of the state’s 70 million residents.

    We partnered with state pollution regulators — kind of a regional EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] — to test an emissions trading scheme that is used widely in the U.S. and Europe but not in low- and middle-income countries. The government monitors pollution levels using technology installed at factories that sends data in real time, so the regulator knows exactly what their emissions look like. The regulator sets a cap on the overall level of pollution, allocates permits to pollute, and industries can trade emissions permits.

    In 2019, researchers in the J-PAL network conducted the world’s first randomized, controlled trial of this emissions trading scheme and found that it cut pollution by 20 to 30 percent — a surprising reduction. It also reduced firms’ costs, on average, because the costs of compliance went down. The state government was eager to scale up the pilot, and in the past two years, two other cities, including Ahmedabad, the biggest city in the state, have adopted the concept.

    We are also supporting a project in Niger, whose economy is hugely dependent on rain-fed agriculture but with climate change is experiencing rapid desertification. Researchers in the J-PAL network have been testing training farmers in a simple, inexpensive rainwater harvesting technique, where farmers dig a half-moon-shaped hole called a demi-lune right before the rainy season. This demi-lune feeds crops that are grown directly on top of it, and helps return land that resembled flat desert to arable production.

    Researchers found that training farmers in this simple technology increased adoption from 4 percent to 94 percent and that demi-lunes increased agricultural output and revenue for farmers from the first year. K-CAI is funding a path-to-scale grant so local implementers can teach this technique to over 8,000 farmers and build a more cost-effective program model. If this takes hold, the team will work with local partners to scale the training to other relevant regions of the country and potentially other countries in the Sahel.

    One final example that we are really proud of, because we first funded it as a pilot and now it’s in the path to scale phase: We supported a team of researchers working with partners in Bangladesh trying to reduce carbon emissions and other pollution from brick manufacturing, an industry that generates 17 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. The scale of manufacturing is so great that at some times of year, Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) looks like Mordor.

    Workers form these bricks and stack hundreds of thousands of them, which they then fire by burning coal. A team of local researchers and collaborators from our J-PAL network found that you can reduce the amount of coal needed for the kilns by making some low-cost changes to the manufacturing process, including stacking the bricks in a way that increases airflow in the kiln and feeding the coal fires more frequently in smaller rather than larger batches.

    In the randomized, controlled trial K-CAI supported, researchers found that this cut carbon and pollution emissions significantly, and now the government has invited the team to train 1,000 brick manufacturers in Dhaka in these techniques.

    Q: These are all fascinating and powerful instances of implementing ideas that address a range of problems in different parts of the world. But can K-CAI go big enough and fast enough to take a real bite out of the twin poverty and climate crisis?

    A: We’re not trying to find silver bullets. We are trying to build a large playbook of real solutions that work to solve specific problems in specific contexts. As you build those up in the hundreds, you have a deep bench of effective approaches to solve problems that can add up in a meaningful way. And because J-PAL works with governments and NGOs that have the capacity to take the research into action, since 2003, over 600 million people around the world have been reached by policies and programs that are informed by evidence that J-PAL-affiliated researchers produced. While global challenges seem daunting, J-PAL has shown that in 20 years we can achieve a great deal, and there is huge potential for future impact.

    But unfortunately, globally, there is an underinvestment in policy innovation to combat climate change that may generate quicker, lower-cost returns at a large scale — especially in policies that determine which technologies get adopted or commercialized. For example, a lot of the huge fall in prices of renewable energy was enabled by early European government investments in solar and wind, and then continuing support for innovation in renewable energy.

    That’s why I think social sciences have so much to offer in the fight against climate change and poverty; we are working where technology meets policy and where technology meets real people, which often determines their success or failure. The world should be investing in policy, economic, and social innovation just as much as it is investing in technological innovation.

    Q: Do you need to be an optimist in your job?

    A: I am half-optimist, half-pragmatist. I have no control over the climate change outcome for the world. And regardless of whether we can successfully avoid most of the potential damages of climate change, when I look back, I’m going to ask myself, “Did I fight or not?” The only choice I have is whether or not I fought, and I want to be a fighter. More

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    Shining a light on oil fields to make them more sustainable

    Operating an oil field is complex and there is a staggeringly long list of things that can go wrong.

    One of the most common problems is spills of the salty brine that’s a toxic byproduct of pumping oil. Another is over- or under-pumping that can lead to machine failure and methane leaks. (The oil and gas industry is the largest industrial emitter of methane in the U.S.) Then there are extreme weather events, which range from winter frosts to blazing heat, that can put equipment out of commission for months. One of the wildest problems Sebastien Mannai SM ’14, PhD ’18 has encountered are hogs that pop open oil tanks with their snouts to enjoy on-demand oil baths.

    Mannai helps oil field owners detect and respond to these problems while optimizing the operation of their machinery to prevent the issues from occurring in the first place. He is the founder and CEO of Amplified Industries, a company selling oil field monitoring and control tools that help make the industry more efficient and sustainable.

    Amplified Industries’ sensors and analytics give oil well operators real-time alerts when things go wrong, allowing them to respond to issues before they become disasters.

    “We’re able to find 99 percent of the issues affecting these machines, from mechanical failures to human errors, including issues happening thousands of feet underground,” Mannai explains. “With our AI solution, operators can put the wells on autopilot, and the system automatically adjusts or shuts the well down as soon as there’s an issue.”

    Amplified currently works with private companies in states spanning from Texas to Wyoming, that own and operate as many as 3,000 wells. Such companies make up the majority of oil well operators in the U.S. and operate both new and older, more failure-prone equipment that has been in the field for decades.

    Such operators also have a harder time responding to environmental regulations like the Environmental Protection Agency’s new methane guidelines, which seek to dramatically reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas in the industry over the next few years.

    “These operators don’t want to be releasing methane,” Mannai explains. “Additionally, when gas gets into the pumping equipment, it leads to premature failures. We can detect gas and slow the pump down to prevent it. It’s the best of both worlds: The operators benefit because their machines are working better, saving them money while also giving them a smaller environmental footprint with fewer spills and methane leaks.”

    Leveraging “every MIT resource I possibly could”

    Mannai learned about the cutting-edge technology used in the space and aviation industries as he pursued his master’s degree at the Gas Turbine Laboratory in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Then, during his PhD at MIT, he worked with an oil services company and discovered the oil and gas industry was still relying on decades-old technologies and equipment.

    “When I first traveled to the field, I could not believe how old-school the actual operations were,” says Mannai, who has previously worked in rocket engine and turbine factories. “A lot of oil wells have to be adjusted by feel and rules of thumb. The operators have been let down by industrial automation and data companies.”

    Monitoring oil wells for problems typically requires someone in a pickup truck to drive hundreds of miles between wells looking for obvious issues, Mannai says. The sensors that are deployed are expensive and difficult to replace. Over time, they’re also often damaged in the field to the point of being unusable, forcing technicians to make educated guesses about the status of each well.

    “We often see that equipment unplugged or programmed incorrectly because it is incredibly over-complicated and ill-designed for the reality of the field,” Mannai says. “Workers on the ground often have to rip it out and bypass the control system to pump by hand. That’s how you end up with so many spills and wells pumping at suboptimal levels.”

    To build a better oil field monitoring system, Mannai received support from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund and the Venture Mentoring Service (VMS). He also participated in the delta V summer accelerator at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, the fuse program during IAP, and the MIT I-Corps program, and took a number of classes at the MIT Sloan School of Management. In 2019, Amplified Industries — which operated under the name Acoustic Wells until recently — won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship competition.

    “My approach was to sign up to every possible entrepreneurship related program and to leverage every MIT resource I possibly could,” Mannai says. “MIT was amazing for us.”

    Mannai officially launched the company after his postdoc at MIT, and Amplified raised its first round of funding in early 2020. That year, Amplified’s small team moved into the Greentown Labs startup incubator in Somerville.

    Mannai says building the company’s battery-powered, low-cost sensors was a huge challenge. The sensors run machine-learning inference models and their batteries last for 10 years. They also had to be able to handle extreme conditions, from the scorching hot New Mexico desert to the swamps of Louisiana and the freezing cold winters in North Dakota.

    “We build very rugged, resilient hardware; it’s a must in those environments” Mannai says. “But it’s also very simple to deploy, so if a device does break, it’s like changing a lightbulb: We ship them a new one and it takes them a couple of minutes to swap it out.”

    Customers equip each well with four or five of Amplified’s sensors, which attach to the well’s cables and pipes to measure variables like tension, pressure, and amps. Vast amounts of data are then sent to Amplified’s cloud and processed by their analytics engine. Signal processing methods and AI models are used to diagnose problems and control the equipment in real-time, while generating notifications for the operators when something goes wrong. Operators can then remotely adjust the well or shut it down.

    “That’s where AI is important, because if you just record everything and put it in a giant dashboard, you create way more work for people,” Mannai says. “The critical part is the ability to process and understand this newly recorded data and make it readily usable in the real world.”

    Amplified’s dashboard is customized for different people in the company, so field technicians can quickly respond to problems and managers or owners can get a high-level view of how everything is running.

    Mannai says often when Amplified’s sensors are installed, they’ll immediately start detecting problems that were unknown to engineers and technicians in the field. To date, Amplified has prevented hundreds of thousands of gallons worth of brine water spills, which are particularly damaging to surrounding vegetation because of their high salt and sulfur content.

    Preventing those spills is only part of Amplified’s positive environmental impact; the company is now turning its attention toward the detection of methane leaks.

    Helping a changing industry

    The EPA’s proposed new Waste Emissions Charge for oil and gas companies would start at $900 per metric ton of reported methane emissions in 2024 and increase to $1,500 per metric ton in 2026 and beyond.

    Mannai says Amplified is well-positioned to help companies comply with the new rules. Its equipment has already showed it can detect various kinds of leaks across the field, purely based on analytics of existing data.

    “Detecting methane leaks typically requires someone to walk around every valve and piece of piping with a thermal camera or sniffer, but these operators often have thousands of valves and hundreds of miles of pipes,” Mannai says. “What we see in the field is that a lot of times people don’t know where the pipes are because oil wells change owners so frequently, or they will miss an intermittent leak.”

    Ultimately Mannai believes a strong data backend and modernized sensing equipment will become the backbone of the industry, and is a necessary prerequisite to both improving efficiency and cleaning up the industry.

    “We’re selling a service that ensures your equipment is working optimally all the time,” Mannai says. “That means a lot fewer fines from the EPA, but it also means better-performing equipment. There’s a mindset change happening across the industry, and we’re helping make that transition as easy and affordable as possible.” More

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    Think globally, rebuild locally

    Building construction accounts for a huge chunk of greenhouse gas emissions: About 36 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 40 percent of energy consumption in Europe, for instance. That’s why the European Union has developed regulations about the reuse of building materials.

    Some cities are adding more material reuse into construction already. Amsterdam, for example, is attempting to slash its raw material use by half by 2030. The Netherlands as a whole aims for a “circular economy” of completely reused materials by 2050.

    But the best way to organize the reuse of construction waste is still being determined. For one thing: Where should reusable building materials be stored before they are reused? A newly published study focusing on Amsterdam finds the optimal material reuse system for construction has many local storage “hubs” that keep materials within a few miles of where they will be needed.

    “Our findings provide a starting point for policymakers in Amsterdam to strategize land use effectively,” says Tanya Tsui, a postdoc at MIT and a co-author of the new paper. “By identifying key locations repeatedly favored across various hub scenarios, we underscore the importance of prioritizing these areas for future circular economy endeavors in Amsterdam.”

    The study adds to an emerging research area that connects climate change and urban planning.

    “The issue is where you put material in between demolition and new construction,” says Fábio Duarte, a principal researcher at MIT’s Senseable City Lab and a co-author of the new paper. “It will have huge impacts in terms of transportation. So you have to define the best sites. Should there be only one? Should we hold materials across a wide number of sites? Or is there an optimal number, even if it changes over time? This is what we examined in the paper.”

    The paper, “Spatial optimization of circular timber hubs,” is published in NPJ Nature Urban Sustainability. The authors are Tsui, who is a postdoc at the MIT Senseable Amsterdam Lab in the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS); Titus Venverloo, a research fellow at MIT Senseable Amsterdam Lab and AMS; Tom Benson, a researcher at the Senseable City Lab; and Duarte, who is also a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the MIT Center for Real Estate.

    Numerous experts have previously studied at what scale the “circular economy” of reused materials might best operate. Some have suggested that very local circuits of materials recycling make the most sense; others have proposed that building-materials recycling will work best at a regional scale, with a radius of distribution covering 30 or more miles. Some analyses contend that global-scale reuse will be necessary to an extent.

    The current study adds to this examination of the best geographic scale for using construction materials again. Currently the storage hubs that do exist for such reused materials are chosen by individual companies, but those locations might not be optimal either economically or environmentally. 

    To conduct the study, the researchers essentially conducted a series of simulations of the Amsterdam metropolitan area, focused exclusively on timber reuse. The simulations examined how the system would work if anywhere from one to 135 timber storage hubs existed in greater Amsterdam. The modeling accounted for numerous variables, such as emissions reductions, logistical factors, and even how changing supply-and-demand scenarios would affect the viability of the reusehubs.

    Ultimately, the research found that Amsterdam’s optimal system would have 29 timber hubs, each serving a radius of about 2 miles. That setup generated 95 percent of the maximum reduction in CO2 emissions, while retaining logistical and economic benefits.

    That results also lands firmly on the side of having more localized networks for keeping construction materials in use.

    “If we have demolition happening in certain sites, then we can project where the best spots around the city are to have these circular economy hubs, as we call them,” Duarte says. “It’s not only one big hub — or one hub per construction site.”

    The study seeks to identify not only the optimal number of storage sites, but to identify where those sites might be.

    “[We hope] our research sparks discussions regarding the location and scale of circular hubs,” Tsui says. “While much attention has been given to governance aspects of the circular economy in cities, our study demonstrates the potential of utilizing location data on materials to inform decisions in urban planning.”

    The simulations also illuminated the dynamics of materials reuse. In scenarios where Amsterdam had from two to 20 timber recycling hubs, the costs involved lowered as the number of hubs increased — because having more hubs reduces transportation costs. But when the number of hubs went about 40, the system as a whole became more expensive — because each timber depot was not storing enough material to justify the land use.

    As such, the results may be of interest to climate policymakers, urban planners, and business interests getting involved in implementing the circular economy in the construction industry.

    “Ultimately,” Tsui says, “we envision our research catalyzing meaningful discussions and guiding policymakers toward more informed decisions in advancing the circular economy agenda in urban contexts.”

    The research was supported, in part, by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. More

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    Understanding the impacts of mining on local environments and communities

    Hydrosocial displacement refers to the idea that resolving water conflict in one area can shift the conflict to a different area. The concept was coined by Scott Odell, a visiting researcher in MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). As part of ESI’s Program on Mining and the Circular Economy, Odell researches the impacts of extractive industries on local environments and communities, especially in Latin America. He discovered that hydrosocial displacements are often in regions where the mining industry is vying for use of precious water sources that are already stressed due to climate change.

    Odell is working with John Fernández, ESI director and professor in the Department of Architecture, on a project that is examining the converging impacts of climate change, mining, and agriculture in Chile. The work is funded by a seed grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS). Specifically, the project seeks to answer how the expansion of seawater desalination by the mining industry is affecting local populations, and how climate change and mining affect Andean glaciers and the agricultural communities dependent upon them.By working with communities in mining areas, Odell and Fernández are gaining a sense of the burden that mining minerals needed for the clean energy transition is placing on local populations, and the types of conflicts that arise when water sources become polluted or scarce. This work is of particular importance considering over 100 countries pledged a commitment to the clean energy transition at the recent United Nations climate change conference, known as COP28.

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    J-WAFS Community Spotlight on Scott Odell

    Water, humanity’s lifebloodAt the March 2023 United Nations (U.N.) Water Conference in New York, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned “water is in deep trouble. We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use and evaporating it through global heating.” A quarter of the world’s population already faces “extremely high water stress,” according to the World Resources Institute. In an effort to raise awareness of major water-related issues and inspire action for innovative solutions, the U.N. created World Water Day, observed every year on March 22. This year’s theme is “Water for Peace,” underscoring the fact that even though water is a basic human right and intrinsic to every aspect of life, it is increasingly fought over as supplies dwindle due to problems including drought, overuse, or mismanagement.  

    The “Water for Peace” theme is exemplified in Fernández and Odell’s J-WAFS project, where findings are intended to inform policies to reduce social and environmental harms inflicted on mining communities and their limited water sources.“Despite broad academic engagement with mining and climate change separately, there has been a lack of analysis of the societal implications of the interactions between mining and climate change,” says Odell. “This project is helping to fill the knowledge gap. Results will be summarized in Spanish and English and distributed to interested and relevant parties in Chile, ensuring that the results can be of benefit to those most impacted by these challenges,” he adds.

    The effects of mining for the clean energy transition

    Global climate change is understood to be the most pressing environmental issue facing humanity today. Mitigating climate change requires reducing carbon emissions by transitioning away from conventional energy derived from burning fossil fuels, to more sustainable energy sources like solar and wind power. Because copper is an excellent conductor of electricity, it will be a crucial element in the clean energy transition, in which more solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles will be manufactured. “We are going to see a major increase in demand for copper due to the clean energy transition,” says Odell.

    In 2021, Chile produced 26 percent of the world’s copper, more than twice as much as any other country, Odell explains. Much of Chile’s mining is concentrated in and around the Atacama Desert — the world’s driest desert. Unfortunately, mining requires large amounts of water for a variety of processes, including controlling dust at the extraction site, cooling machinery, and processing and transporting ore.

    Chile is also one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural products. Farmland is typically situated in the valleys downstream of several mines in the high Andes region, meaning mines get first access to water. This can lead to water conflict between mining operations and agricultural communities. Compounding the problem of mining for greener energy materials to combat climate change, are the very effects of climate change. According to the Chilean government, the country has suffered 13 years of the worst drought in history. While this is detrimental to the mining industry, it is also concerning for those working in agriculture, including the Indigenous Atacameño communities that live closest to the Escondida mine, the largest copper mine in the world. “There was never a lot of water to go around, even before the mine,” Odell says. The addition of Escondida stresses an already strained water system, leaving Atacameño farmers and individuals vulnerable to severe water insecurity.

    What’s more, waste from mining, known as tailings, includes minerals and chemicals that can contaminate water in nearby communities if not properly handled and stored. Odell says the secure storage of tailings is a high priority in earthquake-prone Chile. “If an earthquake were to hit and damage a tailings dam, it could mean toxic materials flowing downstream and destroying farms and communities,” he says.

    Chile’s treasured glaciers are another piece of the mining, climate change, and agricultural puzzle. Caroline White-Nockleby, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, is working with Odell and Fernández on the J-WAFS project and leading the research specifically on glaciers. “These may not be the picturesque bright blue glaciers that you might think of, but they are, nonetheless, an important source of water downstream,” says White-Nockleby. She goes on to explain that there are a few different ways that mines can impact glaciers.

    In some cases, mining companies have proposed to move or even destroy glaciers to get at the ore beneath. Other impacts include dust from mining that falls on glaciers. White-Nockleby says, “this makes the glaciers a darker color, so, instead of reflecting the sun’s rays away, [the glacier] may absorb the heat and melt faster.” This shows that even when not directly intervening with glaciers, mining activities can cause glacial decline, adding to the threat glaciers already face due to climate change. She also notes that “glaciers are an important water storage facility,” describing how, on an annual cycle, glaciers freeze and melt, allowing runoff that downstream agricultural communities can utilize. If glaciers suddenly melt too quickly, flooding of downstream communities can occur.

    Desalination offers a possible, but imperfect, solution

    Chile’s extensive coastline makes it uniquely positioned to utilize desalination — the removal of salts from seawater — to address water insecurity. Odell says that “over the last decade or so, there’s been billions of dollars of investments in desalination in Chile.”

    As part of his dissertation work at Clark University, Odell found broad optimism in Chile for solving water issues in the mining industry through desalination. Not only was the mining industry committed to building desalination plants, there was also political support, and support from some community members in highland communities near the mines. Yet, despite the optimism and investment, desalinated water was not replacing the use of continental water. He concluded that “desalination can’t solve water conflict if it doesn’t reduce demand for continental water supplies.”

    However, after publishing those results, Odell learned that new estimates at the national level showed that desalination operations had begun to replace the use of continental water after 2018. In two case studies that he currently focuses on — the Escondida and Los Pelambres copper mines — the mining companies have expanded their desalination objectives in order to reduce extraction from key continental sources. This seems to be due to a variety of factors. For one thing, in 2022, Chile’s water code was reformed to prioritize human water consumption and environmental protection of water during scarcity and in the allocation of future rights. It also shortened the granting of water rights from “in perpetuity” to 30 years. Under this new code, it is possible that the mining industry may have expanded its desalination efforts because it viewed continental water resources as less secure, Odell surmises.

    As part of the J-WAFS project, Odell has found that recent reactions have been mixed when it comes to the rapid increase in the use of desalination. He spent over two months doing fieldwork in Chile by conducting interviews with members of government, industry, and civil society at the Escondida, Los Pelambres, and Andina mining sites, as well as in Chile’s capital city, Santiago. He has spoken to local and national government officials, leaders of fishing unions, representatives of mining and desalination companies, and farmers. He observed that in the communities where the new desalination plants are being built, there have been concerns from community members as to whether they will get access to the desalinated water, or if it will belong solely to the mines.

    Interviews at the Escondida and Los Pelambres sites, in which desalination operations are already in place or under construction, indicate acceptance of the presence of desalination plants combined with apprehension about unknown long-term environmental impacts. At a third mining site, Andina, there have been active protests against a desalination project that would supply water to a neighboring mine, Los Bronces. In that community, there has been a blockade of the desalination operation by the fishing federation. “They were blockading that operation for three months because of concerns over what the desalination plant would do to their fishing grounds,” Odell says. And this is where the idea of hydrosocial displacement comes into the picture, he explains. Even though desalination operations are easing tensions with highland agricultural communities, new issues are arising for the communities on the coast. “We can’t just look to desalination to solve our problems if it’s going to create problems somewhere else” Odell advises.

    Within the process of hydrosocial displacement, interacting geographical, technical, economic, and political factors constrain the range of responses to address the water conflict. For example, communities that have more political and financial power tend to be better equipped to solve water conflict than less powerful communities. In addition, hydrosocial concerns usually follow the flow of water downstream, from the highlands to coastal regions. Odell says that this raises the need to look at water from a broader perspective.

    “We tend to address water concerns one by one and that can, in practice, end up being kind of like whack-a-mole,” says Odell. “When we think of the broader hydrological system, water is very much linked, and we need to look across the watershed. We can’t just be looking at the specific community affected now, but who else is affected downstream, and will be affected in the long term. If we do solve a water issue by moving it somewhere else, like moving a tailings dam somewhere else, or building a desalination plant, resources are needed in the receiving community to respond to that,” suggests Odell.

    The company building the desalination plant and the fishing federation ultimately reached an agreement and the desalination operation will be moving forward. But Odell notes, “the protest highlights concern about the impacts of the operation on local livelihoods and environments within the much larger context of industrial pollution in the area.”

    The power of communities

    The protest by the fishing federation is one example of communities coming together to have their voices heard. Recent proposals by mining companies that would affect glaciers and other water sources used by agriculture communities have led to other protests that resulted in new agreements to protect local water supplies and the withdrawal of some of the mining proposals.Odell observes that communities have also gone to the courts to raise their concerns. The Atacameño communities, for example, have drawn attention to over-extraction of water resources by the Escondida mine. “Community members are also pursuing education in these topics so that there’s not such a power imbalance between mining companies and local communities,” Odell remarks. This demonstrates the power local communities can have to protect continental water resources.The political and social landscape of Chile may also be changing in favor of local communities. Beginning with what is now referred to as the Estallido Social (social outburst) over inequality in 2019, Chile has undergone social upheaval that resulted in voters calling for a new constitution. Gabriel Boric, a progressive candidate, whose top priorities include social and environmental issues, was elected president during this period. These trends have brought major attention to issues of economic inequality, environmental harms of mining, and environmental justice, which is putting pressure on the mining industry to make a case for its operations in the country, and to justify the environmental costs of mining.

    What happens after the mine dries up?

    From his fieldwork interviews, Odell has learned that the development of mines within communities can offer benefits. Mining companies typically invest directly in communities through employment, road construction, and sometimes even by building or investing in schools, stadiums, or health clinics. Indirectly, mines can have spillover effects in the economy since miners might support local restaurants, hotels, or stores. But what happens when the mine closes? As one community member Odell interviewed stated: “When the mine is gone, what are we going to have left besides a big hole in the ground?”

    Odell suggests that a multi-pronged approach should be taken to address the future state of water and mining. First, he says we need to have broader conversations about the nature of our consumption and production at domestic and global scales. “Mining is driven indirectly by our consumption of energy and directly by our consumption of everything from our buildings to devices to cars,” Odell states. “We should be looking for ways to moderate our consumption and consume smarter through both policy and practice so that we don’t solve climate change while creating new environmental harms through mining.”One of the main ways we can do this is by advancing the circular economy by recycling metals already in the system, or even in landfills, to help build our new clean energy infrastructure. Even so, the clean energy transition will still require mining, but according to Odell, that mining can be done better. “Mining companies and government need to do a better job of consulting with communities. We need solid plans and financing for mine closures in place from the beginning of mining operations, so that when the mine dries up, there’s the money needed to secure tailings dams and protect the communities who will be there forever,” Odell concludes.Overall, it will take an engaged society — from the mining industry to government officials to individuals — to think critically about the role we each play in our quest for a more sustainable planet, and what that might mean for the most vulnerable populations among us. More

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    Reducing pesticide use while increasing effectiveness

    Farming can be a low-margin, high-risk business, subject to weather and climate patterns, insect population cycles, and other unpredictable factors. Farmers need to be savvy managers of the many resources they deal, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides are among their major recurring expenses.

    Despite the importance of these chemicals, a lack of technology that monitors and optimizes sprays has forced farmers to rely on personal experience and rules of thumb to decide how to apply these chemicals. As a result, these chemicals tend to be over-sprayed, leading to their runoff into waterways and buildup up in the soil.

    That could change, thanks to a new approach of feedback-optimized spraying, invented by AgZen, an MIT spinout founded in 2020 by Professor Kripa Varanasi and Vishnu Jayaprakash SM ’19, PhD ’22.

    Play video

    AgZen has developed a system for farming that can monitor exactly how much of the sprayed chemicals adheres to plants, in real time, as the sprayer drives through a field. Built-in software running on a tablet shows the operator exactly how much of each leaf has been covered by the spray.

    Over the past decade, AgZen’s founders have developed products and technologies to control the interactions of droplets and sprays with plant surfaces. The Boston-based venture-backed company launched a new commercial product in 2024 and is currently piloting another related product. Field tests of both have shown the products can help farmers spray more efficiently and effectively, using fewer chemicals overall.

    “Worldwide, farms spend approximately $60 billion a year on pesticides. Our objective is to reduce the number of pesticides sprayed and lighten the financial burden on farms without sacrificing effective pest management,” Varanasi says.

    Getting droplets to stick

    While the world pesticide market is growing rapidly, a lot of the pesticides sprayed don’t reach their target. A significant portion bounces off the plant surfaces, lands on the ground, and becomes part of the runoff that flows to streams and rivers, often causing serious pollution. Some of these pesticides can be carried away by wind over very long distances.

    “Drift, runoff, and poor application efficiency are well-known, longstanding problems in agriculture, but we can fix this by controlling and monitoring how sprayed droplets interact with leaves,” Varanasi says.

    With support from MIT Tata Center and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, Varanasi and his team analyzed how droplets strike plant surfaces, and explored ways to increase application efficiency. This research led them to develop a novel system of nozzles that cloak droplets with compounds that enhance the retention of droplets on the leaves, a product they call EnhanceCoverage.

    Field studies across regions — from Massachusetts to California to Italy and France —showed that this droplet-optimization system could allow farmers to cut the amount of chemicals needed by more than half because more of the sprayed substances would stick to the leaves.

    Measuring coverage

    However, in trying to bring this technology to market, the researchers faced a sticky problem: Nobody knew how well pesticide sprays were adhering to the plants in the first place, so how could AgZen say that the coverage was better with its new EnhanceCoverage system?

    “I had grown up spraying with a backpack on a small farm in India, so I knew this was an issue,” Jayaprakash says. “When we spoke to growers, they told me how complicated spraying is when you’re on a large machine. Whenever you spray, there are so many things that can influence how effective your spray is. How fast do you drive the sprayer? What flow rate are you using for the chemicals? What chemical are you using? What’s the age of the plants, what’s the nozzle you’re using, what is the weather at the time? All these things influence agrochemical efficiency.”

    Agricultural spraying essentially comes down to dissolving a chemical in water and then spraying droplets onto the plants. “But the interaction between a droplet and the leaf is complex,” Varanasi says. “We were coming in with ways to optimize that, but what the growers told us is, hey, we’ve never even really looked at that in the first place.”

    Although farmers have been spraying agricultural chemicals on a large scale for about 80 years, they’ve “been forced to rely on general rules of thumb and pick all these interlinked parameters, based on what’s worked for them in the past. You pick a set of these parameters, you go spray, and you’re basically praying for outcomes in terms of how effective your pest control is,” Varanasi says.

    Before AgZen could sell farmers on the new system to improve droplet coverage, the company had to invent a way to measure precisely how much spray was adhering to plants in real-time.

    Comparing before and after

    The system they came up with, which they tested extensively on farms across the country last year, involves a unit that can be bolted onto the spraying arm of virtually any sprayer. It carries two sensor stacks, one just ahead of the sprayer nozzles and one behind. Then, built-in software running on a tablet shows the operator exactly how much of each leaf has been covered by the spray. It also computes how much those droplets will spread out or evaporate, leading to a precise estimate of the final coverage.

    “There’s a lot of physics that governs how droplets spread and evaporate, and this has been incorporated into software that a farmer can use,” Varanasi says. “We bring a lot of our expertise into understanding droplets on leaves. All these factors, like how temperature and humidity influence coverage, have always been nebulous in the spraying world. But now you have something that can be exact in determining how well your sprays are doing.”

    “We’re not only measuring coverage, but then we recommend how to act,” says Jayaprakash, who is AgZen’s CEO. “With the information we collect in real-time and by using AI, RealCoverage tells operators how to optimize everything on their sprayer, from which nozzle to use, to how fast to drive, to how many gallons of spray is best for a particular chemical mix on a particular acre of a crop.”

    The tool was developed to prove how much AgZen’s EnhanceCoverage nozzle system (which will be launched in 2025) improves coverage. But it turns out that monitoring and optimizing droplet coverage on leaves in real-time with this system can itself yield major improvements.

    “We worked with large commercial farms last year in specialty and row crops,” Jayaprakash says. “When we saved our pilot customers up to 50 percent of their chemical cost at a large scale, they were very surprised.” He says the tool has reduced chemical costs and volume in fallow field burndowns, weed control in soybeans, defoliation in cotton, and fungicide and insecticide sprays in vegetables and fruits. Along with data from commercial farms, field trials conducted by three leading agricultural universities have also validated these results.

    “Across the board, we were able to save between 30 and 50 percent on chemical costs and increase crop yields by enabling better pest control,” Jayaprakash says. “By focusing on the droplet-leaf interface, our product can help any foliage spray throughout the year, whereas most technological advancements in this space recently have been focused on reducing herbicide use alone.” The company now intends to lease the system across thousands of acres this year.

    And these efficiency gains can lead to significant returns at scale, he emphasizes: In the U.S., farmers currently spend $16 billion a year on chemicals, to protect about $200 billion of crop yields.

    The company launched its first product, the coverage optimization system called RealCoverage, this year, reaching a wide variety of farms with different crops and in different climates. “We’re going from proof-of-concept with pilots in large farms to a truly massive scale on a commercial basis with our lease-to-own program,” Jayaprakash says.

    “We’ve also been tapped by the USDA to help them evaluate practices to minimize pesticides in watersheds,” Varanasi says, noting that RealCoverage can also be useful for regulators, chemical companies, and agricultural equipment manufacturers.

    Once AgZen has proven the effectiveness of using coverage as a decision metric, and after the RealCoverage optimization system is widely in practice, the company will next roll out its second product, EnhanceCoverage, designed to maximize droplet adhesion. Because that system will require replacing all the nozzles on a sprayer, the researchers are doing pilots this year but will wait for a full rollout in 2025, after farmers have gained experience and confidence with their initial product.

    “There is so much wastage,” Varanasi says. “Yet farmers must spray to protect crops, and there is a lot of environmental impact from this. So, after all this work over the years, learning about how droplets stick to surfaces and so on, now the culmination of it in all these products for me is amazing, to see all this come alive, to see that we’ll finally be able to solve the problem we set out to solve and help farmers.” More

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    Power when the sun doesn’t shine

    In 2016, at the huge Houston energy conference CERAWeek, MIT materials scientist Yet-Ming Chiang found himself talking to a Tesla executive about a thorny problem: how to store the output of solar panels and wind turbines for long durations.        

    Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Mateo Jaramillo, a vice president at Tesla, knew that utilities lacked a cost-effective way to store renewable energy to cover peak levels of demand and to bridge the gaps during windless and cloudy days. They also knew that the scarcity of raw materials used in conventional energy storage devices needed to be addressed if renewables were ever going to displace fossil fuels on the grid at scale.

    Energy storage technologies can facilitate access to renewable energy sources, boost the stability and reliability of power grids, and ultimately accelerate grid decarbonization. The global market for these systems — essentially large batteries — is expected to grow tremendously in the coming years. A study by the nonprofit LDES (Long Duration Energy Storage) Council pegs the long-duration energy storage market at between 80 and 140 terawatt-hours by 2040. “That’s a really big number,” Chiang notes. “Every 10 people on the planet will need access to the equivalent of one EV [electric vehicle] battery to support their energy needs.”

    In 2017, one year after they met in Houston, Chiang and Jaramillo joined forces to co-found Form Energy in Somerville, Massachusetts, with MIT graduates Marco Ferrara SM ’06, PhD ’08 and William Woodford PhD ’13, and energy storage veteran Ted Wiley.

    “There is a burgeoning market for electrical energy storage because we want to achieve decarbonization as fast and as cost-effectively as possible,” says Ferrara, Form’s senior vice president in charge of software and analytics.

    Investors agreed. Over the next six years, Form Energy would raise more than $800 million in venture capital.

    Bridging gaps

    The simplest battery consists of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte. During discharge, with the help of the electrolyte, electrons flow from the negative anode to the positive cathode. During charge, external voltage reverses the process. The anode becomes the positive terminal, the cathode becomes the negative terminal, and electrons move back to where they started. Materials used for the anode, cathode, and electrolyte determine the battery’s weight, power, and cost “entitlement,” which is the total cost at the component level.

    During the 1980s and 1990s, the use of lithium revolutionized batteries, making them smaller, lighter, and able to hold a charge for longer. The storage devices Form Energy has devised are rechargeable batteries based on iron, which has several advantages over lithium. A big one is cost.

    Chiang once declared to the MIT Club of Northern California, “I love lithium-ion.” Two of the four MIT spinoffs Chiang founded center on innovative lithium-ion batteries. But at hundreds of dollars a kilowatt-hour (kWh) and with a storage capacity typically measured in hours, lithium-ion was ill-suited for the use he now had in mind.

    The approach Chiang envisioned had to be cost-effective enough to boost the attractiveness of renewables. Making solar and wind energy reliable enough for millions of customers meant storing it long enough to fill the gaps created by extreme weather conditions, grid outages, and when there is a lull in the wind or a few days of clouds.

    To be competitive with legacy power plants, Chiang’s method had to come in at around $20 per kilowatt-hour of stored energy — one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion battery storage.

    But how to transition from expensive batteries that store and discharge over a couple of hours to some as-yet-undefined, cheap, longer-duration technology?

    “One big ball of iron”

    That’s where Ferrara comes in. Ferrara has a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of L’Aquila in his native Italy. In 2017, as a research affiliate at the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, he worked with Chiang to model the grid’s need to manage renewables’ intermittency.

    How intermittent depends on where you are. In the United States, for instance, there’s the windy Great Plains; the sun-drenched, relatively low-wind deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada; and the often-cloudy Pacific Northwest.

    Ferrara, in collaboration with Professor Jessika Trancik of MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and her MIT team, modeled four representative locations in the United States and concluded that energy storage with capacity costs below roughly $20/kWh and discharge durations of multiple days would allow a wind-solar mix to provide cost-competitive, firm electricity in resource-abundant locations.

    Now that they had a time frame, they turned their attention to materials. At the price point Form Energy was aiming for, lithium was out of the question. Chiang looked at plentiful and cheap sulfur. But a sulfur, sodium, water, and air battery had technical challenges.

    Thomas Edison once used iron as an electrode, and iron-air batteries were first studied in the 1960s. They were too heavy to make good transportation batteries. But this time, Chiang and team were looking at a battery that sat on the ground, so weight didn’t matter. Their priorities were cost and availability.

    “Iron is produced, mined, and processed on every continent,” Chiang says. “The Earth is one big ball of iron. We wouldn’t ever have to worry about even the most ambitious projections of how much storage that the world might use by mid-century.” If Form ever moves into the residential market, “it’ll be the safest battery you’ve ever parked at your house,” Chiang laughs. “Just iron, air, and water.”

    Scientists call it reversible rusting. While discharging, the battery takes in oxygen and converts iron to rust. Applying an electrical current converts the rusty pellets back to iron, and the battery “breathes out” oxygen as it charges. “In chemical terms, you have iron, and it becomes iron hydroxide,” Chiang says. “That means electrons were extracted. You get those electrons to go through the external circuit, and now you have a battery.”

    Form Energy’s battery modules are approximately the size of a washer-and-dryer unit. They are stacked in 40-foot containers, and several containers are electrically connected with power conversion systems to build storage plants that can cover several acres.

    The right place at the right time

    The modules don’t look or act like anything utilities have contracted for before.

    That’s one of Form’s key challenges. “There is not widespread knowledge of needing these new tools for decarbonized grids,” Ferrara says. “That’s not the way utilities have typically planned. They’re looking at all the tools in the toolkit that exist today, which may not contemplate a multi-day energy storage asset.”

    Form Energy’s customers are largely traditional power companies seeking to expand their portfolios of renewable electricity. Some are in the process of decommissioning coal plants and shifting to renewables.

    Ferrara’s research pinpointing the need for very low-cost multi-day storage provides key data for power suppliers seeking to determine the most cost-effective way to integrate more renewable energy.

    Using the same modeling techniques, Ferrara and team show potential customers how the technology fits in with their existing system, how it competes with other technologies, and how, in some cases, it can operate synergistically with other storage technologies.

    “They may need a portfolio of storage technologies to fully balance renewables on different timescales of intermittency,” he says. But other than the technology developed at Form, “there isn’t much out there, certainly not within the cost entitlement of what we’re bringing to market.”  Thanks to Chiang and Jaramillo’s chance encounter in Houston, Form has a several-year lead on other companies working to address this challenge. 

    In June 2023, Form Energy closed its biggest deal to date for a single project: Georgia Power’s order for a 15-megawatt/1,500-megawatt-hour system. That order brings Form’s total amount of energy storage under contracts with utility customers to 40 megawatts/4 gigawatt-hours. To meet the demand, Form is building a new commercial-scale battery manufacturing facility in West Virginia.

    The fact that Form Energy is creating jobs in an area that lost more than 10,000 steel jobs over the past decade is not lost on Chiang. “And these new jobs are in clean tech. It’s super exciting to me personally to be doing something that benefits communities outside of our traditional technology centers.

    “This is the right time for so many reasons,” Chiang says. He says he and his Form Energy co-founders feel “tremendous urgency to get these batteries out into the world.”

    This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Moving past the Iron Age

    MIT graduate student Sydney Rose Johnson has never seen the steel mills in central India. She’s never toured the American Midwest’s hulking steel plants or the mini mills dotting the Mississippi River. But in the past year, she’s become more familiar with steel production than she ever imagined.

    A fourth-year dual degree MBA and PhD candidate in chemical engineering and a graduate research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) as well as a 2022-23 Shell Energy Fellow, Johnson looks at ways to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated by industrial processes in hard-to-abate industries. Those include steel.

    Almost every aspect of infrastructure and transportation — buildings, bridges, cars, trains, mass transit — contains steel. The manufacture of steel hasn’t changed much since the Iron Age, with some steel plants in the United States and India operating almost continually for more than a century, their massive blast furnaces re-lined periodically with carbon and graphite to keep them going.

    According to the World Economic Forum, steel demand is projected to increase 30 percent by 2050, spurred in part by population growth and economic development in China, India, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

    The steel industry is among the three biggest producers of CO2 worldwide. Every ton of steel produced in 2020 emitted, on average, 1.89 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — around 8 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to the World Steel Association.

    A combination of technical strategies and financial investments, Johnson notes, will be needed to wrestle that 8 percent figure down to something more planet-friendly.

    Johnson’s thesis focuses on modeling and analyzing ways to decarbonize steel. Using data mined from academic and industry sources, she builds models to calculate emissions, costs, and energy consumption for plant-level production.

    “I optimize steel production pathways using emission goals, industry commitments, and cost,” she says. Based on the projected growth of India’s steel industry, she applies this approach to case studies that predict outcomes for some of the country’s thousand-plus factories, which together have a production capacity of 154 million metric tons of steel. For the United States, she looks at the effect of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) credits. The 2022 IRA provides incentives that could accelerate the steel industry’s efforts to minimize its carbon emissions.

    Johnson compares emissions and costs across different production pathways, asking questions such as: “If we start today, what would a cost-optimal production scenario look like years from now? How would it change if we added in credits? What would have to happen to cut 2005 levels of emissions in half by 2030?”

    “My goal is to gain an understanding of how current and emerging decarbonization strategies will be integrated into the industry,” Johnson says.

    Grappling with industrial problems

    Growing up in Marietta, Georgia, outside Atlanta, the closest she ever came to a plant of any kind was through her father, a chemical engineer working in logistics and procuring steel for an aerospace company, and during high school, when she spent a semester working alongside chemical engineers tweaking the pH of an anti-foaming agent.

    At Kennesaw Mountain High School, a STEM magnet program in Cobb County, students devote an entire semester of their senior year to an internship and research project.

    Johnson chose to work at Kemira Chemicals, which develops chemical solutions for water-intensive industries with a focus on pulp and paper, water treatment, and energy systems.

    “My goal was to understand why a polymer product was falling out of suspension — essentially, why it was less stable,” she recalls. She learned how to formulate a lab-scale version of the product and conduct tests to measure its viscosity and acidity. Comparing the lab-scale and regular product results revealed that acidity was an important factor. “Through conversations with my mentor, I learned this was connected with the holding conditions, which led to the product being oxidized,” she says. With the anti-foaming agent’s problem identified, steps could be taken to fix it.

    “I learned how to apply problem-solving. I got to learn more about working in an industrial environment by connecting with the team in quality control as well as with R&D and chemical engineers at the plant site,” Johnson says. “This experience confirmed I wanted to pursue engineering in college.”

    As an undergraduate at Stanford University, she learned about the different fields — biotechnology, environmental science, electrochemistry, and energy, among others — open to chemical engineers. “It seemed like a very diverse field and application range,” she says. “I was just so intrigued by the different things I saw people doing and all these different sets of issues.”

    Turning up the heat

    At MIT, she turned her attention to how certain industries can offset their detrimental effects on climate.

    “I’m interested in the impact of technology on global communities, the environment, and policy. Energy applications affect every field. My goal as a chemical engineer is to have a broad perspective on problem-solving and to find solutions that benefit as many people, especially those under-resourced, as possible,” says Johnson, who has served on the MIT Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Advisory Board, the MIT Energy and Climate Club, and is involved with diversity and inclusion initiatives.

    The steel industry, Johnson acknowledges, is not what she first imagined when she saw herself working toward mitigating climate change.

    “But now, understanding the role the material has in infrastructure development, combined with its heavy use of coal, has illuminated how the sector, along with other hard-to-abate industries, is important in the climate change conversation,” Johnson says.

    Despite the advanced age of many steel mills, some are quite energy-efficient, she notes. Yet these operations, which produce heat upwards of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, are still emission-intensive.

    Steel is made from iron ore, a mixture of iron, oxygen, and other minerals found on virtually every continent, with Brazil and Australia alone exporting millions of metric tons per year. Commonly based on a process dating back to the 19th century, iron is extracted from the ore through smelting — heating the ore with blast furnaces until the metal becomes spongy and its chemical components begin to break down.

    A reducing agent is needed to release the oxygen trapped in the ore, transforming it from its raw form to pure iron. That’s where most emissions come from, Johnson notes.

    “We want to reduce emissions, and we want to make a cleaner and safer environment for everyone,” she says. “It’s not just the CO2 emissions. It’s also sometimes NOx and SOx [nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides] and air pollution particulate matter at some of these production facilities that can affect people as well.”

    In 2020, the International Energy Agency released a roadmap exploring potential technologies and strategies that would make the iron and steel sector more compatible with the agency’s vision of increased sustainability. Emission reductions can be accomplished with more modern technology, the agency suggests, or by substituting the fuels producing the immense heat needed to process ore. Traditionally, the fuels used for iron reduction have been coal and natural gas. Alternative fuels include clean hydrogen, electricity, and biomass.

    Using the MITEI Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME), Johnson analyzes various decarbonization strategies. She considers options such as switching fuel for furnaces to hydrogen with a little bit of natural gas or adding carbon-capture devices. The models demonstrate how effective these tactics are likely to be. The answers aren’t always encouraging.

    “Upstream emissions can determine how effective the strategies are,” Johnson says. Charcoal derived from forestry biomass seemed to be a promising alternative fuel, but her models showed that processing the charcoal for use in the blast furnace limited its effectiveness in negating emissions.

    Despite the challenges, “there are definitely ways of moving forward,” Johnson says. “It’s been an intriguing journey in terms of understanding where the industry is at. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s doable.”

    Johnson is heartened by the steel industry’s efforts to recycle scrap into new steel products and incorporate more emission-friendly technologies and practices, some of which result in significantly lower CO2 emissions than conventional production.

    A major issue is that low-carbon steel can be more than 50 percent more costly than conventionally produced steel. “There are costs associated with making the transition, but in the context of the environmental implications, I think it’s well worth it to adopt these technologies,” she says.

    After graduation, Johnson plans to continue to work in the energy field. “I definitely want to use a combination of engineering knowledge and business knowledge to work toward mitigating climate change, potentially in the startup space with clean technology or even in a policy context,” she says. “I’m interested in connecting the private and public sectors to implement measures for improving our environment and benefiting as many people as possible.” More