More stories

  • in

    Mining for the clean energy transition

    In a world powered increasingly by clean energy, drilling for oil and gas will gradually give way to digging for metals and minerals. Today, the “critical minerals” used to make electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, and grid-scale battery storage are facing soaring demand — and some acute bottlenecks as miners race to catch up.

    According to a report from the International Energy Agency, by 2040, the worldwide demand for copper is expected to roughly double; demand for nickel and cobalt will grow at least sixfold; and the world’s hunger for lithium could reach 40 times what we use today.

    “Society is looking to the clean energy transition as a way to solve the environmental and social harms of climate change,” says Scott Odell, a visiting scientist at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), where he helps run the ESI Mining, Environment, and Society Program, who is also a visiting assistant professor at George Washington University. “Yet mining the materials needed for that transition would also cause social and environmental impacts. So we need to look for ways to reduce our demand for minerals, while also improving current mining practices to minimize social and environmental impacts.”

    ESI recently hosted the inaugural MIT Conference on Mining, Environment, and Society to discuss how the clean energy transition may affect mining and the people and environments in mining areas. The conference convened representatives of mining companies, environmental and human rights groups, policymakers, and social and natural scientists to identify key concerns and possible collaborative solutions.

    “We can’t replace an abusive fossil fuel industry with an abusive mining industry that expands as we move through the energy transition,” said Jim Wormington, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a panel on the first day of the conference. “There’s a recognition from governments, civil society, and companies that this transition potentially has a really significant human rights and social cost, both in terms of emissions […] but also for communities and workers who are on the front lines of mining.”

    That focus on communities and workers was consistent throughout the three-day conference, as participants outlined the economic and social dimensions of standing up large numbers of new mines. Corporate mines can bring large influxes of government revenue and local investment, but the income is volatile and can leave policymakers and communities stranded when production declines or mineral prices fall. On the other hand, “artisanal” mining operations are an important source of critical minerals, but are hard to regulate and subject to abuses from brokers. And large reserves of minerals are found in conservation areas, regions with fragile ecosystems and experiencing water shortages that can be exacerbated by mining, in particular on Indigenous-controlled lands and other places where mine openings are deeply fraught.

    “One of the real triggers of conflict is a dissatisfaction with the current model of resource extraction,” said Jocelyn Fraser of the University of British Columbia in a panel discussion. “One that’s failed to support the long-term sustainable development of regions that host mining operations, and yet imposes significant local social and environmental impacts.”

    All these challenges point toward solutions in policy and in mining companies’ relationships with the communities where they work. Participants highlighted newer models of mining governance that can create better incentives for the ways mines operate — from full community ownership of mines to recognizing community rights to the benefits of mining to end-of-life planning for mines at the time they open.

    Many of the conference speakers also shared technological innovations that may help reduce mining challenges. Some operations are investing in desalination as alternative water sources in water-scarce regions; low-carbon alternatives are emerging to many of the fossil fuel-powered heavy machines that are mainstays of the industry; and work is being done to reclaim valuable minerals from mine tailings, helping to minimize both waste and the need to open new extraction sites.

    Increasingly, the mining industry itself is recognizing that reforms will allow it to thrive in a rapid clean-energy transition. “Decarbonization is really a profitability imperative,” said Kareemah Mohammed, managing director for sustainability services at the technology consultancy Accenture, on the conference’s second day. “It’s about securing a low-cost and steady supply of either minerals or metals, but it’s also doing so in an optimal way.”

    The three-day conference attracted over 350 attendees, from large mining companies, industry groups, consultancies, multilateral institutions, universities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government, and more. It was held entirely virtually, a choice that helped make the conference not only truly international — participants joined from over 27 countries on six continents — but also accessible to members of nonprofits and professionals in the developing world.

    “Many people are concerned about the environmental and social challenges of supplying the clean energy revolution, and we’d heard repeatedly that there wasn’t a forum for government, industry, academia, NGOs, and communities to all sit at the same table and explore collaborative solutions,” says Christopher Noble, ESI’s director of corporate engagement. “Convening, and researching best practices, are roles that universities can play. The conversations at this conference have generated valuable ideas and consensus to pursue three parallel programs: best-in-class models for community engagement, improving ESG metrics and their use, and civil-society contributions to government/industry relations. We are developing these programs to keep the momentum going.”

    The MIT Conference on Mining, Environment, and Society was funded, in part, by Accenture, as part of the MIT/Accenture Convergence Initiative. Additional funding was provided by the Inter-American Development Bank. More

  • in

    Using game engines and “twins” to co-create stories of climate futures

    Imagine entering a 3D virtual story world that’s a digital twin of an existing physical space but also doubles as a vessel to dream up speculative climate stories and collective designs. Then, those imagined worlds are translated back into concrete plans for our physical spaces.

    Five multidisciplinary teams recently convened at MIT — virtually — for the inaugural WORLDING workshop. In a weeklong series of research and development gatherings, the teams met with MIT scientists, staff, fellows, students and graduates as well as other leading figures in the field. The theme of the gathering was “story, space, climate, and game engines.”

    “WORLDING illustrates the emergence of an entirely new field that fuses urban planning, climate science, real-time 3D engines, nonfiction storytelling, and speculative fiction,” says Katerina Cizek, lead designer of the workshop at Co-Creation Studio, MIT Open Documentary Lab. “And co-creation is at the core of this field that allows for collective, democratic, scientific and artistic processes.” The research workshop was organized by the studio in partnership with Unity Software.

    The WORLDING teams met with MIT scholars to discuss diverse domains, from the decolonization of board games, to urban planning as acts of democracy, to behind the scenes of a flagship MIT Climate Challenge project.

    “Climate is really a whole-world initiative,” said Noelle Selin, an MIT atmospheric chemistry professor, in a talk at WORLDING. Selin co-leads an MIT initiative that is digitally twinning the Earth to harness enormous volumes of data for improved climate projections and put these models into the hands of diverse communities and stakeholders.

    “Digital twinning” is a growth market for the game engine industry, in verticals such as manufacturing, architecture, finance, and medicine. “Digital twinning gives teams the power to ideate,” said Elizabeth Baron, a senior manager of enterprise solutions at Unity in her talk at WORLDING. “You can look at many things that maybe aren’t even possible to produce. But you’re the resource. Impact is very low, but the creativity aspect is very high.”

    That’s where the story and media experts come in. “Now, more than ever, we need to forge shared narratives about the world that we live in today and the world that we want to build for the future. Technology can help us visualize and communicate those worlds,” says Marina Psaros MCP ’06, head of sustainability at Unity, lead on WORLDING at Unity, and a graduate of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

    In his talk on the short history of WORLDING, media scholar William Uricchio, MIT professor of comparative media studies and founder of the Open Documentary Lab, suggested that story and space come together in these projects that create new ways of knowing. “Story is always a representation,” he says. “It’s got a fixity and coherence to it, and play is — and, I would argue, worlds are —  all about simulation. Simulation in the case of digital twinning is capable of generating countless stories. It’s play as a story-generator, but in the service of envisioning a pluralistic and malleable future.”

    Fixed dominant narratives and game mechanics that underpin board games have been historically violent and unjust, says MIT Game Lab scholar Mikael Jakkobson, who shared findings for his upcoming book on the subject with the cohort. He argues that board games are built on underlying ideas of  “exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. And, as it happens, those are also good ways of thinking about the mechanics of Western colonialism.”

    To counter these hegemonic mechanics and come up with new systems, community is vital, and urban planning is a discipline that plays a huge role in the translation of space, story, and democracy. Ceasar MacDowell, an MIT professor of the practice of civic design, told the WORLDING cohort that urban planning needs to expand its notion of authorship. He is working on systems (from his current position at the Media Lab) that not only engage the community in conversations but also prompt “the people who have been in conversations to actually make sense of them, do the meaning-making themselves, not to have external people interpret them.” These become dynamic layers of both representation and simulation that are not, as Uricchio suggests, fixed. 

    USAID Chief Climate Officer Gillian Calwell visited the group with both sharp warnings and warm enthusiasm: “When it comes to climate, this world isn’t working so well for us; we better start envisioning the new ones, and fast … We don’t have time to convince people that this is happening anymore. Nor do we need to. I think most of the world is having the hands-on, up-close-and-personal experience with the fact that these impacts are coming faster and more furiously than even the scientists had predicted. But one thing we do need help with on a more hopeful note is visualizing how the world could be different.”

    The WORLDING workshop is designed and inspired by the ideas and practices charted in the Co-Creation Studio’s new MIT Press book, “Collective Wisdom: Co-Creation Media for Equity and Justice,” which insists that “No one person, organization, or discipline can determine all the answers alone.”

    The five multidisciplinary teams in this first WORLDING cohort were diverse in approach, technology, and geography. For example, one is an Indigenous-led, land-based, site-specific digital installation that seeks to envision a future in which, once again, the great herds of buffalo walk freely. Another team is creating 3D-modeled biome kits of the water systems in the drought-stricken American West, animated by interviews and data from the communities living there. Yet another team is digitally twinning and then re-imagining a sustainable future in the year 2180 for a multi-player virtual reality game in a Yawanawà Shukuvena Village in the rainforests of Brazil.

    “While our workshop design was focused on developing and researching these incredible, interdisciplinary projects, we also hope that WORLDING can set an example for similar initiatives across global sectors where distances and varied expertise are not limitations but opportunities to learn from one another,” says Srushti Kamat, WORLDING producer and MIT creative media studies/writing grad.

    Most of the talks and presentations from the WORLDING workshop are available as archived videos at cocreationstudio.mit.edu/worlding-videos. More

  • in

    A breakthrough on “loss and damage,” but also disappointment, at UN climate conference

    As the 2022 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, stretched into its final hours on Saturday, Nov. 19, it was uncertain what kind of agreement might emerge from two weeks of intensive international negotiations.

    In the end, COP27 produced mixed results: on the one hand, a historic agreement for wealthy countries to compensate low-income countries for “loss and damage,” but on the other, limited progress on new plans for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

    “We need to drastically reduce emissions now — and this is an issue this COP did not address,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement at the conclusion of COP27. “A fund for loss and damage is essential — but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map — or turns an entire African country to desert.”

    Throughout the two weeks of the conference, a delegation of MIT students, faculty, and staff was at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Convention Center to observe the negotiations, conduct and share research, participate in panel discussions, and forge new connections with researchers, policymakers, and advocates from around the world.

    Loss and damage

    A key issue coming in to COP27 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 27th time) was loss and damage: a term used by the U.N. to refer to harms caused by climate change — either through acute catastrophes like extreme weather events or slower-moving impacts like sea level rise — to which communities and countries are unable to adapt. 

    Ultimately, a deal on loss and damage proved to be COP27’s most prominent accomplishment. Negotiators reached an eleventh-hour agreement to “establish new funding arrangements for assisting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” 

    “Providing financial assistance to developing countries so they can better respond to climate-related loss and damage is not only a moral issue, but also a pragmatic one,” said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, who attended COP27 and participated in side events. “Future emissions growth will be squarely centered in the developing world, and offering support through different channels is key to building the trust needed for more robust global cooperation on mitigation.”

    Youssef Shaker, a graduate student in the MIT Technology and Policy Program and a research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative, attended the second week of the conference, where he followed the negotiations over loss and damage closely. 

    “While the creation of a fund is certainly an achievement,” Shaker said, “significant questions remain to be answered, such as the size of the funding available as well as which countries receive access to it.” A loss-and-damage fund that is not adequately funded, Shaker noted, “would not be an impactful outcome.” 

    The agreement on loss and damage created a new committee, made up of 24 country representatives, to “operationalize” the new funding arrangements, including identifying funding sources. The committee is tasked with delivering a set of recommendations at COP28, which will take place next year in Dubai.

    Advising the U.N. on net zero

    Though the decisions reached at COP27 did not include major new commitments on reducing emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, the transition to a clean global energy system was nevertheless a key topic of conversation throughout the conference.

    The Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition (CEET), an independent, international body of engineers and energy systems experts formed to provide advice to the U.N. on achieving net-zero emissions globally by 2050, convened for the first time at COP27. Jessika Trancik, a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and a member of CEET, spoke on a U.N.-sponsored panel on solutions for the transition to clean energy.

    Trancik noted that the energy transition will look different in different regions of the world. “As engineers, we need to understand those local contexts and design solutions around those local contexts — that’s absolutely essential to support a rapid and equitable energy transition.”

    At the same time, Trancik noted that there is now a set of “low-cost, ready-to-scale tools” available to every region — tools that resulted from a globally competitive process of innovation, stimulated by public policies in different countries, that dramatically drove down the costs of technologies like solar energy and lithium-ion batteries. The key, Trancik said, is for regional transition strategies to “tap into global processes of innovation.”

    Reinventing climate adaptation

    Elfatih Eltahir, the H. M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate, traveled to COP27 to present plans for the Jameel Observatory Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet), one of the five projects selected in April 2022 as a flagship in MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges initiative. CREWSnet focuses on climate adaptation, the term for adapting to climate impacts that are unavoidable.

    The aim of CREWSnet, Eltahir told the audience during a panel discussion, is “nothing short of reinventing the process of climate change adaptation,” so that it is proactive rather than reactive; community-led; data-driven and evidence-based; and so that it integrates different climate risks, from heat waves to sea level rise, rather than treating them individually.

    “However, it’s easy to talk about these changes,” said Eltahir. “The real challenge, which we are now just launching and engaging in, is to demonstrate that on the ground.” Eltahir said that early demonstrations will happen in a couple of key locations, including southwest Bangladesh, where multiple climate risks — rising sea levels, increasing soil salinity, and intensifying heat waves and cyclones — are combining to threaten the area’s agricultural production.

    Building on COP26

    Some members of MIT’s delegation attended COP27 to advance efforts that had been formally announced at last year’s U.N. climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

    At an official U.N. side event co-organized by MIT on Nov. 11, Greg Sixt, the director of the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance led by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, provided an update on the alliance’s work since its launch at COP26.

    Food systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — and are increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts. The FACT Alliance works to better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders to make food systems (which include food production, consumption, and waste) more sustainable and resilient. 

    Sixt told the audience that the FACT Alliance now counts over 20 research and stakeholder institutions around the world among its members, but also collaborates with other institutions in an “open network model” to advance work in key areas — such as a new research project exploring how climate scenarios could affect global food supply chains.

    Marcela Angel, research program director for the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), helped convene a meeting at COP27 of the Afro-InterAmerican Forum on Climate Change, which also launched at COP26. The forum works with Afro-descendant leaders across the Americas to address significant environmental issues, including climate risks and biodiversity loss. 

    At the event — convened with the Colombian government and the nonprofit Conservation International — ESI brought together leaders from six countries in the Americas and presented recent work that estimates that there are over 178 million individuals who identify as Afro-descendant living in the Americas, in lands of global environmental importance. 

    “There is a significant overlap between biodiversity hot spots, protected areas, and areas of high Afro-descendant presence,” said Angel. “But the role and climate contributions of these communities is understudied, and often made invisible.”    

    Limiting methane emissions

    Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas: When released into the atmosphere, it immediately traps about 120 times more heat than carbon dioxide does. More than 150 countries have now signed the Global Methane Pledge, launched at COP26, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels.

    Sergey Paltsev, the deputy director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, gave the keynote address at a Nov. 17 event on methane, where he noted the importance of methane reductions from the oil and gas sector to meeting the 2030 goal.

    “The oil and gas sector is where methane emissions reductions could be achieved the fastest,” said Paltsev. “We also need to employ an integrated approach to address methane emissions in all sectors and all regions of the world because methane emissions reductions provide a near-term pathway to avoiding dangerous tipping points in the global climate system.”

    “Keep fighting relentlessly”

    Arina Khotimsky, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering and a co-president of the MIT Energy and Climate Club, attended the first week of COP27. She reflected on the experience in a social media post after returning home. 

    “COP will always have its haters. Is there greenwashing? Of course! Is everyone who should have a say in this process in the room? Not even close,” wrote Khotimsky. “So what does it take for COP to matter? It takes everyone who attended to not only put ‘climate’ on front-page news for two weeks, but to return home and keep fighting relentlessly against climate change. I know that I will.” More

  • in

    Machinery of the state

    In Mai Hassan’s studies of Kenya, she documented the emergence of a sprawling administrative network officially billed as encouraging economic development, overseeing the population, and bolstering democracy. But Hassan’s field interviews and archival research revealed a more sinister purpose for the hundreds of administrative and security offices dotting the nation: “They were there to do the presidents’ bidding, which often involved coercing their own countrymen.”

    This research served as a catalyst for Hassan, who joined MIT as an associate professor of political science in July, to investigate what she calls the “politicized management of bureaucracy and the state.” She set out to “understand the motivations, capacities, and roles of people administering state programs and social functions,” she says. “I realized the state is not a faceless being, but instead comprised of bureaucrats carrying out functions on behalf of the state and the regime that runs it.”

    Today, Hassan’s portfolio encompasses not just the bureaucratic state but democratization efforts in Kenya and elsewhere in the East Africa region, including her native Sudan. Her research highlights the difficulties of democratization. “I’m finding that the conditions under which people come together for overthrowing an autocratic regime really matter, because those conditions may actually impede a nation from achieving democracy,” she says.

    A coordinated bureaucracy

    Hassan’s academic engagement with the state’s administrative machinery began during graduate school at Harvard University, where she earned her master’s and doctorate in government. While working with a community trash and sanitation program in some Kenyan Maasai communities, Hassan recalls “shepherding myself from office to office, meeting different bureaucrats to obtain the same approvals but for different jurisdictions.” The Kenyan state had recently set up hundreds of new local administrative units, motivated by what it claimed was the need for greater efficiency. But to Hassan’s eyes, “the administrative network was not well organized, seemed costly to maintain, and seemed to hinder — not bolster — development,” she says. What then, she wondered, was “the political logic behind such state restructuring?”

    Hassan began researching this bureaucratic transformation of Kenya, speaking with administrators in communities large and small who were charged with handling the business of the state. These studies yielded a wealth of findings for her dissertation, and for multiple journals.

    But upon finishing this tranche of research, Hassan realized that it was insufficient simply to study the structure of the state. “Understanding the role of new administrative structures for politics, development, and governance fundamentally requires that we understand who the government has put in charge of them,” she says. Among her insights:

    “The president’s office knows a lot of these administrators, and thinks about their strengths, limitations, and fit within a community,” says Hassan. Some administrators served the purposes of the central government by setting up water irrigation projects or building a new school. But in other villages, the state chose administrators who could act “much more coercively, ignoring development needs, throwing youth who supported the opposition into jail, and spending resources exclusively on policing.”

    Hassan’s work showed that in communities characterized by strong political opposition, “the local administration was always more coercive, regardless of an elected or autocratic president,” she says. Notably, the tenures of such officials proved shorter than those of their peers. “Once administrators get to know a community — going to church and the market with residents — it’s hard to coerce them,” explains Hassan.

    These short tenures come with costs, she notes: “Spending significant time in a station is useful for development, because you know exactly whom to hire if you want to build a school or get something done efficiently.” Politicizing these assignments undermines efforts at delivery of services and, more broadly, economic improvement nationwide. “Regimes that are more invested in retaining power must devote resources to establishing and maintaining control, resources that could otherwise be used for development and the welfare of citizens,” she says.

    Hassan wove together her research covering three presidents over a 50-year period, in the book, “Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya” (2020, Cambridge University Press), named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2020.

    Sudanese roots

    The role of the state in fulfilling the needs of its citizens has long fascinated Hassan. Her grandfather, who had served as Sudan’s ambassador to the USSR, talked to her about the advantages of a centralized government “that allocated resources to reduce inequality,” she says.

    Politics often dominated the conversation in gatherings of Hassan’s family and friends. Her parents immigrated to northern Virginia when she was very young, and many relatives joined them, part of a steady flow of Sudanese fleeing political turmoil and oppression.

    “A lot of people had expected more from the Sudanese state after independence and didn’t get it,” she says. “People had hopes for what the government could and should do.”

    Hassan’s Sudanese roots and ongoing connection to the Sudanese community have shaped her academic interests and goals. At the University of Virginia, she gravitated toward history and economics classes. But it was her time at the Ralph Bunche Summer institute that perhaps proved most pivotal in her journey. This five-week intensive program is offered by the American Political Science Association to introduce underrepresented undergraduate students to doctoral studies. “It was really compelling in this program to think rigorously about all the political ideas I’d heard as I was growing up, and find ways to challenge some assertions empirically,” she says.

    Regime change and civil society

    At Harvard, Hassan first set out to focus on Sudan for her doctoral program. “There wasn’t much scholarship on the country, and what there was lacked rigor,” she says. “That was something that needed to change.” But she decided to postpone this goal after realizing that she might be vulnerable as a student conducting field research there. She landed instead in Kenya, where she honed her interviewing and data collection skills.

    Today, empowered by her prior work, she has returned to Sudan. “I felt that the popular uprising in Sudan and ousting of the Islamist regime in 2019 should be documented and analyzed,” she says. “It was incredible that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, acted collectively to uproot a dictator, in the face of brutal violence from the state.”But “democracy is still uncertain there,” says Hassan. The broad coalition behind regime change “doesn’t know how to govern because different people and different sectors of society have different ideas about what democratic Sudan should look like,” she says. “Overthrowing an autocratic regime and having civil society come together to figure out what’s going to replace it require different things, and it’s unclear if a movement that accomplishes the first is well-suited to do the second.”

    Hassan believes that in order to create lasting democratization, “you need the hard work of building organizations, developing ways in which members learn to compromise among themselves, and make decisions and rules for how to move forward.”

    Hassan is enjoying the fall semester and teaching courses on autocracy and authoritarian regimes. She is excited as well about developing her work on African efforts at democratic mobilization in a political science department she describes as “policy-forward.”

    Over time, she hopes to connect with Institute scholars in the hard sciences to think about other challenges these nations are facing, such as climate change. “It’s really hot in Sudan, and it may be one of the first countries to become completely uninhabitable,” she says. “I’d like to explore strategies for growing crops differently or managing the exceedingly scarce resource of water, and figure out what kind of political discussions will be necessary to implement any changes. It is really critical to think about these problems in an interdisciplinary way.” More

  • 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

    Earth can regulate its own temperature over millennia, new study finds

    The Earth’s climate has undergone some big changes, from global volcanism to planet-cooling ice ages and dramatic shifts in solar radiation. And yet life, for the last 3.7 billion years, has kept on beating.

    Now, a study by MIT researchers in Science Advances confirms that the planet harbors a “stabilizing feedback” mechanism that acts over hundreds of thousands of years to pull the climate back from the brink, keeping global temperatures within a steady, habitable range.

    Just how does it accomplish this? A likely mechanism is “silicate weathering” — a geological process by which the slow and steady weathering of silicate rocks involves chemical reactions that ultimately draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into ocean sediments, trapping the gas in rocks.

    Scientists have long suspected that silicate weathering plays a major role in regulating the Earth’s carbon cycle. The mechanism of silicate weathering could provide a geologically constant force in keeping carbon dioxide — and global temperatures — in check. But there’s never been direct evidence for the continual operation of such a feedback, until now.

    The new findings are based on a study of paleoclimate data that record changes in average global temperatures over the last 66 million years. The MIT team applied a mathematical analysis to see whether the data revealed any patterns characteristic of stabilizing phenomena that reined in global temperatures on a  geologic timescale.

    They found that indeed there appears to be a consistent pattern in which the Earth’s temperature swings are dampened over timescales of hundreds of thousands of years. The duration of this effect is similar to the timescales over which silicate weathering is predicted to act.

    The results are the first to use actual data to confirm the existence of a stabilizing feedback, the mechanism of which is likely silicate weathering. This stabilizing feedback would explain how the Earth has remained habitable through dramatic climate events in the geologic past.

    “On the one hand, it’s good because we know that today’s global warming will eventually be canceled out through this stabilizing feedback,” says Constantin Arnscheidt, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “But on the other hand, it will take hundreds of thousands of years to happen, so not fast enough to solve our present-day issues.”

    The study is co-authored by Arnscheidt and Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics at MIT.

    Stability in data

    Scientists have previously seen hints of a climate-stabilizing effect in the Earth’s carbon cycle: Chemical analyses of ancient rocks have shown that the flux of carbon in and out of Earth’s surface environment has remained relatively balanced, even through dramatic swings in global temperature. Furthermore, models of silicate weathering predict that the process should have some stabilizing effect on the global climate. And finally, the fact of the Earth’s enduring habitability points to some inherent, geologic check on extreme temperature swings.

    “You have a planet whose climate was subjected to so many dramatic external changes. Why did life survive all this time? One argument is that we need some sort of stabilizing mechanism to keep temperatures suitable for life,” Arnscheidt says. “But it’s never been demonstrated from data that such a mechanism has consistently controlled Earth’s climate.”

    Arnscheidt and Rothman sought to confirm whether a stabilizing feedback has indeed been at work, by looking at data of global temperature fluctuations through geologic history. They worked with a range of global temperature records compiled by other scientists, from the chemical composition of ancient marine fossils and shells, as well as preserved Antarctic ice cores.

    “This whole study is only possible because there have been great advances in improving the resolution of these deep-sea temperature records,” Arnscheidt notes. “Now we have data going back 66 million years, with data points at most thousands of years apart.”

    Speeding to a stop

    To the data, the team applied the mathematical theory of stochastic differential equations, which is commonly used to reveal patterns in widely fluctuating datasets.

    “We realized this theory makes predictions for what you would expect Earth’s temperature history to look like if there had been feedbacks acting on certain timescales,” Arnscheidt explains.

    Using this approach, the team analyzed the history of average global temperatures over the last 66 million years, considering the entire period over different timescales, such as tens of thousands of years versus hundreds of thousands, to see whether any patterns of stabilizing feedback emerged within each timescale.

    “To some extent, it’s like your car is speeding down the street, and when you put on the brakes, you slide for a long time before you stop,” Rothman says. “There’s a timescale over which frictional resistance, or a stabilizing feedback, kicks in, when the system returns to a steady state.”

    Without stabilizing feedbacks, fluctuations of global temperature should grow with timescale. But the team’s analysis revealed a regime in which fluctuations did not grow, implying that a stabilizing mechanism reigned in the climate before fluctuations grew too extreme. The timescale for this stabilizing effect — hundreds of thousands of years — coincides with what scientists predict for silicate weathering.

    Interestingly, Arnscheidt and Rothman found that on longer timescales, the data did not reveal any stabilizing feedbacks. That is, there doesn’t appear to be any recurring pull-back of global temperatures on timescales longer than a million years. Over these longer timescales, then, what has kept global temperatures in check?

    “There’s an idea that chance may have played a major role in determining why, after more than 3 billion years, life still exists,” Rothman offers.

    In other words, as the Earth’s temperatures fluctuate over longer stretches, these fluctuations may just happen to be small enough in the geologic sense, to be within a range that a stabilizing feedback, such as silicate weathering, could periodically keep the climate in check, and more to the point, within a habitable zone.

    “There are two camps: Some say random chance is a good enough explanation, and others say there must be a stabilizing feedback,” Arnscheidt says. “We’re able to show, directly from data, that the answer is probably somewhere in between. In other words, there was some stabilization, but pure luck likely also played a role in keeping Earth continuously habitable.”

    This research was supported, in part, by a MathWorks fellowship and the National Science Foundation. More

  • in

    3 Questions: Robert Stoner unpacks US climate and infrastructure laws

    This month, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) takes place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, bringing together governments, experts, journalists, industry, and civil society to discuss climate action to enable countries to collectively sharply limit anthropogenic climate change. As MIT Energy Initiative Deputy Director for Science and Technology Robert Stoner attends the conference, he takes a moment to speak about the climate and infrastructure laws enacted in the last year in the United States, and about the impact these laws can have in the global energy transition.

    Q: COP27 is now underway. Can you set the scene?

    A: There’s a lot of interest among vulnerable countries about compensation for the impacts climate change has had on them, or “loss and damage,” a topic that the United States refused to address last year at COP26, for fear of opening up a floodgate and leaving U.S. taxpayers exposed to unlimited liability for our past (and future) emissions. This is a crucial issue of fairness for developed countries — and, well, of acknowledging our common humanity. But in a sense, it’s also a sideshow, and addressing it won’t prevent a climate catastrophe — we really need to focus on mitigation. With the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the United States is now in a strong position to twist some arms. These laws are largely about subsidizing the deployment of low-carbon technologies — pretty much all of them. We’re going to do a lot in the United States in the next decade that will lead to dramatic cost reductions for these technologies and enable other countries with fewer resources to adopt them as well. It’s exactly the leadership role the United States has needed to assume. Now we have the opportunity to rally the rest of the world and get other countries to commit to more ambitious decarbonization goals, and to build practical programs that take advantage of the investable pathways we’re going to create for public and private actors.

    But that alone won’t get us there — money is still a huge problem, especially in emerging markets and developing countries. And I don’t think the institutions we rely on to help these countries fund infrastructure — energy and everything else — are adequately funded. Nor do these institutions have the right structures, incentives, and staffing to fund low-carbon development in these countries rapidly enough or on the necessary scale. I’m talking about the World Bank, for instance, but the other multilateral organizations have similar issues. I frankly don’t think the multilaterals can be reformed or sufficiently redirected on a short enough time frame. We definitely need new leadership for these organizations, and I think we probably need to quickly establish new multilaterals with new people, more money, and a clarity of purpose that is likely beyond what can be achieved incrementally. I don’t know if this is going to be an active public discussion at COP27, but I hope it takes place somewhere soon. Given the strong role our government plays in financing and selecting the leadership of these institutions, perhaps this is another opportunity for the United States to demonstrate courage and leadership.

    Q: What “investable pathways” are you talking about?

    A: Well, the pathways we’re implicitly trying to pursue with the Infrastructure Act and IRA are pretty clear, and I’ll come back to them. But first let me describe the landscape: There are three main sources of demand for energy in the economy — industry (meaning chemical production, fuel for electricity generation, cement production, materials and manufacturing, and so on), transportation (cars, trucks, ships, planes, and trains), and buildings (for heating and cooling, mostly). That’s about it, and these three sectors account for 75 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions. So the pathways are all about how to decarbonize these three end-use sectors. There are a lot of technologies — some that exist, some that don’t — that will have to be brought to bear. And so it can be a little overwhelming to try to imagine how it will all transpire, but it’s pretty clear at a high level what our options are:

    First, generate a lot of low-carbon electricity and electrify as many industrial processes, vehicles, and building heating systems as we can.
    Second, develop and deploy at massive scale technologies that can capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks, or the air, and put it somewhere that it can never escape from — in other words, carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS.
    Third, for end uses like aviation that really need to use fuels because of their extraordinary energy density, develop low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.
    And fourth is energy efficiency across the board — but I don’t really count that as a separate pathway per se.
    So, by “investable pathways” I mean specific ways to pursue these options that will attract investors. What the Infrastructure Act and the IRA do is deploy carrots (in the form of subsidies) in a variety of ways to close the gap between what it costs to deploy technologies like CCS that aren’t yet at a commercial stage because they’re immature, and what energy markets will tolerate. A similar situation occurs for low-carbon production of hydrogen, one of the leading low-carbon fuel candidates. We can make it by splitting water with electricity (electrolysis), but that costs too much with present-day technology; or we can make it more cheaply by separating it from methane (which is what natural gas mainly is), but that creates CO2 that has to be transported and sequestered somewhere. And then we have to store the hydrogen until we’re ready to use it, and transport it by pipeline to the industrial facilities where it will be used. That requires infrastructure that doesn’t exist — pipelines, compression stations, big tanks! Come to think of it, the demand for all that hydrogen doesn’t exist either — at least not if industry has to pay what it actually costs.

    So, one very important thing these new acts do is subsidize production of hydrogen in various ways — and subsidize the creation of a CCS industry. The other thing they do is subsidize the deployment at enormous scale of low-carbon energy technologies. Some of them are already pretty cheap, like solar and wind, but they need to be supported by a lot of storage on the grid (which we don’t yet have) and by other sorts of grid infrastructure that, again, don’t exist. So, they now get subsidized, too, along with other carbon-free and low-carbon generation technologies — basically all of them. The idea is that by stimulating at-scale deployment of all these established and emerging technologies, and funding demonstrations of novel infrastructure — effectively lowering the cost of supply of low-carbon energy in the form of electricity and fuels — we will draw out the private sector to build out much more of the connective infrastructure and invest in new industrial processes, new home heating systems, and low-carbon transportation. This subsidized build-out will take place over a decade and then phase out as costs fall — hopefully, leaving the foundation for a thriving low-carbon energy economy in its wake, along with crucial technologies and knowledge that will benefit the whole world.

    Q: Is all of the federal investment in energy infrastructure in the United States relevant to the energy crisis in Europe right now?

    A: Not in a direct way — Europe is a near-term catastrophe with a long-term challenge that is in many ways more difficult than ours because Europe doesn’t have the level of primary energy resources like oil and gas that we have in abundance. Energy costs more in Europe, especially absent Russian pipelines. In a way, the narrowing of Europe’s options creates an impetus to invest in low-carbon technologies sooner than otherwise. The result either way will be expensive energy and quite a lot of economic suffering for years. The near-term challenge is to protect people from high energy prices. The big spikes in electricity prices we see now are driven by the natural gas market disruption, which will eventually dissipate as new sources of electricity come online (Sweden, for example, just announced a plan to develop new nuclear, and we’re seeing other countries like Germany soften their stance on nuclear) — and gas markets will sort themselves out. Meanwhile governments are trying to shield their people with electricity price caps and other subsidies, but that’s enormously burdensome.

    The EU recently announced gas price caps for imported gas to try to eliminate price-gouging by importers and reduce the subsidy burden. That may help to lower downstream prices, or it may make matters worse by reducing the flow of gas into the EU and fueling scarcity pricing, and ultimately adding to the subsidy burden. A lot people are quite reasonably suggesting that if electricity prices are subject to crazy behavior in gas markets, then why not disconnect from the grid and self-generate? Wouldn’t that also help reduce demand for gas overall and also reduce CO2 emissions? It would. But it’s expensive to put solar panels on your roof and batteries in your basement — so for those rich enough to do this, it would lead to higher average electricity costs that would live on far into the future, even when grid prices eventually come down.

    So, an interesting idea is taking hold, with considerable encouragement from national governments — the idea of “energy communities,” basically, towns or cities that encourage local firms and homeowners to install solar and batteries, and make some sort of business arrangement with the local utility to allow the community to disconnect from the national grid at times of high prices and self-supply — in other words, use the utility’s wires to sell locally generated power locally. It’s interesting to think about — it takes less battery storage to handle the intermittency of solar when you have a lot of generators and consumers, so forming a community helps lower costs, and with a good deal from the utility for using their wires, it might not be that much more expensive. And of course, when the national grid is working well and prices are normal, the community would reconnect and buy power cheaply, while selling back its self-generated power to the grid. There are also potentially important social benefits that might accrue in these energy communities, too. It’s not a dumb idea, and we’ll see some interesting experimentation in this area in the coming years — as usual, the Germans are enthusiastic! 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