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    A delicate dance

    In early 2022, economist Catherine Wolfram was at her desk in the U.S. Treasury building. She could see the east wing of the White House, just steps away.

    Russia had just invaded Ukraine, and Wolfram was thinking about Russia, oil, and sanctions. She and her colleagues had been tasked with figuring out how to restrict the revenues that Russia was using to fuel its brutal war while keeping Russian oil available and affordable to the countries that depended on it.

    Now the William F. Pounds Professor of Energy Economics at MIT, Wolfram was on leave from academia to serve as deputy assistant secretary for climate and energy economics.

    Working for Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, Wolfram and her colleagues developed dozens of models and forecasts and projections. It struck her, she said later, that “huge decisions [affecting the global economy] would be made on the basis of spreadsheets that I was helping create.” Wolfram composed a memo to the Biden administration and hoped her projections would pan out the way she believed they would.

    Tackling conundrums that weigh competing, sometimes contradictory, interests has defined much of Wolfram’s career.

    Wolfram specializes in the economics of energy markets. She looks at ways to decarbonize global energy systems while recognizing that energy drives economic development, especially in the developing world.

    “The way we’re currently making energy is contributing to climate change. There’s a delicate dance we have to do to make sure that we treat this important industry carefully, but also transform it rapidly to a cleaner, decarbonized system,” she says.

    Economists as influencers

    While Wolfram was growing up in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, her father was a law professor and her mother taught English as a second language. Her mother helped spawn Wolfram’s interest in other cultures and her love of travel, but it was an experience closer to home that sparked her awareness of the effect of human activities on the state of the planet.

    Minnesota’s nickname is “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Wolfram remembers swimming in a nearby lake sometimes covered by a thick sludge of algae. “Thinking back on it, it must’ve had to do with fertilizer runoff,” she says. “That was probably the first thing that made me think about the environment and policy.”

    In high school, Wolfram liked “the fact that you could use math to understand the world. I also was interested in the types of questions about human behavior that economists were thinking about.

    “I definitely think economics is good at sussing out how different actors are likely to react to a particular policy and then designing policies with that in mind.”

    After receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University in 1989, Wolfram worked with a Massachusetts agency that governed rate hikes for utilities. Seeing its reliance on research, she says, illuminated the role academics could play in policy setting. It made her think she could make a difference from within academia.

    While pursuing a PhD in economics from MIT, Wolfram counted Paul L. Joskow, the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics and former director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, and Nancy L. Rose, the Charles P. Kindleberger Professor of Applied Economics, among her mentors and influencers.

    After spending 1996 to 2000 as an assistant professor of economics at Harvard, she joined the faculty at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley.

    At Berkeley, it struck Wolfram that while she labored over ways to marginally boost the energy efficiency of U.S. power plants, the economies of China and India were growing rapidly, with a corresponding growth in energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. “It hit home that to understand the climate issue, I needed to understand energy demand in the developing world,” she says.

    The problem was that the developing world didn’t always offer up the kind of neatly packaged, comprehensive data economists relied on. She wondered if, by relying on readily accessible data, the field was looking under the lamppost — while losing sight of what the rest of the street looked like.

    To make up for a lack of available data on the state of electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, Wolfram developed and administered surveys to individual, remote rural households using on-the-ground field teams.

    Her results suggested that in the world’s poorest countries, the challenges involved in expanding the grid in rural areas should be weighed against potentially greater economic and social returns on investments in the transportation, education, or health sectors.

    Taking the lead

    Within months of Wolfram’s memo to the Biden administration, leaders of the intergovernmental political forum Group of Seven (G7) agreed to the price cap. Tankers from coalition countries would only transport Russian crude sold at or below the price cap level, initially set at $60 per barrel.

    “A price cap was not something that had ever been done before,” Wolfram says. “In some ways, we were making it up out of whole cloth. It was exciting to see that I wrote one of the original memos about it, and then literally three-and-a-half months later, the G7 was making an announcement.

    “As economists and as policymakers, we must set the parameters and get the incentives right. The price cap was basically asking developing countries to buy cheap oil, which was consistent with their incentives.”

    In May 2023, the U.S. Department of the Treasury reported that despite widespread initial skepticism about the price cap, market participants and geopolitical analysts believe it is accomplishing its goals of restricting Russia’s oil revenues while maintaining the supply of Russian oil and keeping energy costs in check for consumers and businesses around the world.

    Wolfram held the U.S. Treasury post from March 2021 to October 2022 while on leave from UC Berkeley. In July 2023, she joined MIT Sloan School of Management partly to be geographically closer to the policymakers of the nation’s capital. She’s also excited about the work taking place elsewhere at the Institute to stay ahead of climate change.

    Her time in D.C. was eye-opening, particularly in terms of the leadership power of the United States. She worries that the United States is falling prey to “lost opportunities” in terms of addressing climate change. “We were showing real leadership on the price cap, and if we could only do that on climate, I think we could make faster inroads on a global agreement,” she says.

    Now focused on structuring global agreements in energy policy among developed and developing countries, she’s considering how the United States can take advantage of its position as a world leader. “We need to be thinking about how what we do in the U.S. affects the rest of the world from a climate perspective. We can’t go it alone.

    “The U.S. needs to be more aligned with the European Union, Canada, and Japan to try to find areas where we’re taking a common approach to addressing climate change,” she says. She will touch on some of those areas in the class she will teach in spring 2024 titled “Climate and Energy in the Global Economy,” offered through MIT Sloan.

    Looking ahead, she says, “I’m a techno optimist. I believe in human innovation. I’m optimistic that we’ll find ways to live with climate change and, hopefully, ways to minimize it.”

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

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    Engineers find a new way to convert carbon dioxide into useful products

    MIT chemical engineers have devised an efficient way to convert carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, a chemical precursor that can be used to generate useful compounds such as ethanol and other fuels.

    If scaled up for industrial use, this process could help to remove carbon dioxide from power plants and other sources, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere.

    “This would allow you to take carbon dioxide from emissions or dissolved in the ocean, and convert it into profitable chemicals. It’s really a path forward for decarbonization because we can take CO2, which is a greenhouse gas, and turn it into things that are useful for chemical manufacture,” says Ariel Furst, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and the senior author of the study.

    The new approach uses electricity to perform the chemical conversion, with help from a catalyst that is tethered to the electrode surface by strands of DNA. This DNA acts like Velcro to keep all the reaction components in close proximity, making the reaction much more efficient than if all the components were floating in solution.

    Furst has started a company called Helix Carbon to further develop the technology. Former MIT postdoc Gang Fan is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society Au. Other authors include Nathan Corbin PhD ’21, Minju Chung PhD ’23, former MIT postdocs Thomas Gill and Amruta Karbelkar, and Evan Moore ’23.

    Breaking down CO2

    Converting carbon dioxide into useful products requires first turning it into carbon monoxide. One way to do this is with electricity, but the amount of energy required for that type of electrocatalysis is prohibitively expensive.

    To try to bring down those costs, researchers have tried using electrocatalysts, which can speed up the reaction and reduce the amount of energy that needs to be added to the system. One type of catalyst used for this reaction is a class of molecules known as porphyrins, which contain metals such as iron or cobalt and are similar in structure to the heme molecules that carry oxygen in blood. 

    During this type of electrochemical reaction, carbon dioxide is dissolved in water within an electrochemical device, which contains an electrode that drives the reaction. The catalysts are also suspended in the solution. However, this setup isn’t very efficient because the carbon dioxide and the catalysts need to encounter each other at the electrode surface, which doesn’t happen very often.

    To make the reaction occur more frequently, which would boost the efficiency of the electrochemical conversion, Furst began working on ways to attach the catalysts to the surface of the electrode. DNA seemed to be the ideal choice for this application.

    “DNA is relatively inexpensive, you can modify it chemically, and you can control the interaction between two strands by changing the sequences,” she says. “It’s like a sequence-specific Velcro that has very strong but reversible interactions that you can control.”

    To attach single strands of DNA to a carbon electrode, the researchers used two “chemical handles,” one on the DNA and one on the electrode. These handles can be snapped together, forming a permanent bond. A complementary DNA sequence is then attached to the porphyrin catalyst, so that when the catalyst is added to the solution, it will bind reversibly to the DNA that’s already attached to the electrode — just like Velcro.

    Once this system is set up, the researchers apply a potential (or bias) to the electrode, and the catalyst uses this energy to convert carbon dioxide in the solution into carbon monoxide. The reaction also generates a small amount of hydrogen gas, from the water. After the catalysts wear out, they can be released from the surface by heating the system to break the reversible bonds between the two DNA strands, and replaced with new ones.

    An efficient reaction

    Using this approach, the researchers were able to boost the Faradaic efficiency of the reaction to 100 percent, meaning that all of the electrical energy that goes into the system goes directly into the chemical reactions, with no energy wasted. When the catalysts are not tethered by DNA, the Faradaic efficiency is only about 40 percent.

    This technology could be scaled up for industrial use fairly easily, Furst says, because the carbon electrodes the researchers used are much less expensive than conventional metal electrodes. The catalysts are also inexpensive, as they don’t contain any precious metals, and only a small concentration of the catalyst is needed on the electrode surface.

    By swapping in different catalysts, the researchers plan to try making other products such as methanol and ethanol using this approach. Helix Carbon, the company started by Furst, is also working on further developing the technology for potential commercial use.

    The research was funded by the U.S. Army Research Office, the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program, the MIT Energy Initiative, and the MIT Deshpande Center. More

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    MIT-derived algorithm helps forecast the frequency of extreme weather

    To assess a community’s risk of extreme weather, policymakers rely first on global climate models that can be run decades, and even centuries, forward in time, but only at a coarse resolution. These models might be used to gauge, for instance, future climate conditions for the northeastern U.S., but not specifically for Boston.

    To estimate Boston’s future risk of extreme weather such as flooding, policymakers can combine a coarse model’s large-scale predictions with a finer-resolution model, tuned to estimate how often Boston is likely to experience damaging floods as the climate warms. But this risk analysis is only as accurate as the predictions from that first, coarser climate model.

    “If you get those wrong for large-scale environments, then you miss everything in terms of what extreme events will look like at smaller scales, such as over individual cities,” says Themistoklis Sapsis, the William I. Koch Professor and director of the Center for Ocean Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

    Sapsis and his colleagues have now developed a method to “correct” the predictions from coarse climate models. By combining machine learning with dynamical systems theory, the team’s approach “nudges” a climate model’s simulations into more realistic patterns over large scales. When paired with smaller-scale models to predict specific weather events such as tropical cyclones or floods, the team’s approach produced more accurate predictions for how often specific locations will experience those events over the next few decades, compared to predictions made without the correction scheme.

    Play video

    This animation shows the evolution of storms around the northern hemisphere, as a result of a high-resolution storm model, combined with the MIT team’s corrected global climate model. The simulation improves the modeling of extreme values for wind, temperature, and humidity, which typically have significant errors in coarse scale models. Credit: Courtesy of Ruby Leung and Shixuan Zhang, PNNL

    Sapsis says the new correction scheme is general in form and can be applied to any global climate model. Once corrected, the models can help to determine where and how often extreme weather will strike as global temperatures rise over the coming years. 

    “Climate change will have an effect on every aspect of human life, and every type of life on the planet, from biodiversity to food security to the economy,” Sapsis says. “If we have capabilities to know accurately how extreme weather will change, especially over specific locations, it can make a lot of difference in terms of preparation and doing the right engineering to come up with solutions. This is the method that can open the way to do that.”

    The team’s results appear today in the Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems. The study’s MIT co-authors include postdoc Benedikt Barthel Sorensen and Alexis-Tzianni Charalampopoulos SM ’19, PhD ’23, with Shixuan Zhang, Bryce Harrop, and Ruby Leung of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state.

    Over the hood

    Today’s large-scale climate models simulate weather features such as the average temperature, humidity, and precipitation around the world, on a grid-by-grid basis. Running simulations of these models takes enormous computing power, and in order to simulate how weather features will interact and evolve over periods of decades or longer, models average out features every 100 kilometers or so.

    “It’s a very heavy computation requiring supercomputers,” Sapsis notes. “But these models still do not resolve very important processes like clouds or storms, which occur over smaller scales of a kilometer or less.”

    To improve the resolution of these coarse climate models, scientists typically have gone under the hood to try and fix a model’s underlying dynamical equations, which describe how phenomena in the atmosphere and oceans should physically interact.

    “People have tried to dissect into climate model codes that have been developed over the last 20 to 30 years, which is a nightmare, because you can lose a lot of stability in your simulation,” Sapsis explains. “What we’re doing is a completely different approach, in that we’re not trying to correct the equations but instead correct the model’s output.”

    The team’s new approach takes a model’s output, or simulation, and overlays an algorithm that nudges the simulation toward something that more closely represents real-world conditions. The algorithm is based on a machine-learning scheme that takes in data, such as past information for temperature and humidity around the world, and learns associations within the data that represent fundamental dynamics among weather features. The algorithm then uses these learned associations to correct a model’s predictions.

    “What we’re doing is trying to correct dynamics, as in how an extreme weather feature, such as the windspeeds during a Hurricane Sandy event, will look like in the coarse model, versus in reality,” Sapsis says. “The method learns dynamics, and dynamics are universal. Having the correct dynamics eventually leads to correct statistics, for example, frequency of rare extreme events.”

    Climate correction

    As a first test of their new approach, the team used the machine-learning scheme to correct simulations produced by the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM), a climate model run by the U.S. Department of Energy, that simulates climate patterns around the world at a resolution of 110 kilometers. The researchers used eight years of past data for temperature, humidity, and wind speed to train their new algorithm, which learned dynamical associations between the measured weather features and the E3SM model. They then ran the climate model forward in time for about 36 years and applied the trained algorithm to the model’s simulations. They found that the corrected version produced climate patterns that more closely matched real-world observations from the last 36 years, not used for training.

    “We’re not talking about huge differences in absolute terms,” Sapsis says. “An extreme event in the uncorrected simulation might be 105 degrees Fahrenheit, versus 115 degrees with our corrections. But for humans experiencing this, that is a big difference.”

    When the team then paired the corrected coarse model with a specific, finer-resolution model of tropical cyclones, they found the approach accurately reproduced the frequency of extreme storms in specific locations around the world.

    “We now have a coarse model that can get you the right frequency of events, for the present climate. It’s much more improved,” Sapsis says. “Once we correct the dynamics, this is a relevant correction, even when you have a different average global temperature, and it can be used for understanding how forest fires, flooding events, and heat waves will look in a future climate. Our ongoing work is focusing on analyzing future climate scenarios.”

    “The results are particularly impressive as the method shows promising results on E3SM, a state-of-the-art climate model,” says Pedram Hassanzadeh, an associate professor who leads the Climate Extremes Theory and Data group at the University of Chicago and was not involved with the study. “It would be interesting to see what climate change projections this framework yields once future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios are incorporated.”

    This work was supported, in part, by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. More

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    Artificial reef designed by MIT engineers could protect marine life, reduce storm damage

    The beautiful, gnarled, nooked-and-crannied reefs that surround tropical islands serve as a marine refuge and natural buffer against stormy seas. But as the effects of climate change bleach and break down coral reefs around the world, and extreme weather events become more common, coastal communities are left increasingly vulnerable to frequent flooding and erosion.

    An MIT team is now hoping to fortify coastlines with “architected” reefs — sustainable, offshore structures engineered to mimic the wave-buffering effects of natural reefs while also providing pockets for fish and other marine life.

    The team’s reef design centers on a cylindrical structure surrounded by four rudder-like slats. The engineers found that when this structure stands up against a wave, it efficiently breaks the wave into turbulent jets that ultimately dissipate most of the wave’s total energy. The team has calculated that the new design could reduce as much wave energy as existing artificial reefs, using 10 times less material.

    The researchers plan to fabricate each cylindrical structure from sustainable cement, which they would mold in a pattern of “voxels” that could be automatically assembled, and would provide pockets for fish to explore and other marine life to settle in. The cylinders could be connected to form a long, semipermeable wall, which the engineers could erect along a coastline, about half a mile from shore. Based on the team’s initial experiments with lab-scale prototypes, the architected reef could reduce the energy of incoming waves by more than 95 percent.

    “This would be like a long wave-breaker,” says Michael Triantafyllou, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “If waves are 6 meters high coming toward this reef structure, they would be ultimately less than a meter high on the other side. So, this kills the impact of the waves, which could prevent erosion and flooding.”

    Details of the architected reef design are reported today in a study appearing in the open-access journal PNAS Nexus. Triantafyllou’s MIT co-authors are Edvard Ronglan SM ’23; graduate students Alfonso Parra Rubio, Jose del Auila Ferrandis, and Erik Strand; research scientists Patricia Maria Stathatou and Carolina Bastidas; and Professor Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms; along with Alexis Oliveira Da Silva at the Polytechnic Institute of Paris, Dixia Fan of Westlake University, and Jeffrey Gair Jr. of Scinetics, Inc.

    Leveraging turbulence

    Some regions have already erected artificial reefs to protect their coastlines from encroaching storms. These structures are typically sunken ships, retired oil and gas platforms, and even assembled configurations of concrete, metal, tires, and stones. However, there’s variability in the types of artificial reefs that are currently in place, and no standard for engineering such structures. What’s more, the designs that are deployed tend to have a low wave dissipation per unit volume of material used. That is, it takes a huge amount of material to break enough wave energy to adequately protect coastal communities.

    The MIT team instead looked for ways to engineer an artificial reef that would efficiently dissipate wave energy with less material, while also providing a refuge for fish living along any vulnerable coast.

    “Remember, natural coral reefs are only found in tropical waters,” says Triantafyllou, who is director of the MIT Sea Grant. “We cannot have these reefs, for instance, in Massachusetts. But architected reefs don’t depend on temperature, so they can be placed in any water, to protect more coastal areas.”

    MIT researchers test the wave-breaking performance of two artificial reef structures in the MIT Towing Tank.Credit: Courtesy of the researchers

    The new effort is the result of a collaboration between researchers in MIT Sea Grant, who developed the reef structure’s hydrodynamic design, and researchers at the Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), who worked to make the structure modular and easy to fabricate on location. The team’s architected reef design grew out of two seemingly unrelated problems. CBA researchers were developing ultralight cellular structures for the aerospace industry, while Sea Grant researchers were assessing the performance of blowout preventers in offshore oil structures — cylindrical valves that are used to seal off oil and gas wells and prevent them from leaking.

    The team’s tests showed that the structure’s cylindrical arrangement generated a high amount of drag. In other words, the structure appeared to be especially efficient in dissipating high-force flows of oil and gas. They wondered: Could the same arrangement dissipate another type of flow, in ocean waves?

    The researchers began to play with the general structure in simulations of water flow, tweaking its dimensions and adding certain elements to see whether and how waves changed as they crashed against each simulated design. This iterative process ultimately landed on an optimized geometry: a vertical cylinder flanked by four long slats, each attached to the cylinder in a way that leaves space for water to flow through the resulting structure. They found this setup essentially breaks up any incoming wave energy, causing parts of the wave-induced flow to spiral to the sides rather than crashing ahead.

    “We’re leveraging this turbulence and these powerful jets to ultimately dissipate wave energy,” Ferrandis says.

    Standing up to storms

    Once the researchers identified an optimal wave-dissipating structure, they fabricated a laboratory-scale version of an architected reef made from a series of the cylindrical structures, which they 3D-printed from plastic. Each test cylinder measured about 1 foot wide and 4 feet tall. They assembled a number of cylinders, each spaced about a foot apart, to form a fence-like structure, which they then lowered into a wave tank at MIT. They then generated waves of various heights and measured them before and after passing through the architected reef.

    “We saw the waves reduce substantially, as the reef destroyed their energy,” Triantafyllou says.

    The team has also looked into making the structures more porous, and friendly to fish. They found that, rather than making each structure from a solid slab of plastic, they could use a more affordable and sustainable type of cement.

    “We’ve worked with biologists to test the cement we intend to use, and it’s benign to fish, and ready to go,” he adds.

    They identified an ideal pattern of “voxels,” or microstructures, that cement could be molded into, in order to fabricate the reefs while creating pockets in which fish could live. This voxel geometry resembles individual egg cartons, stacked end to end, and appears to not affect the structure’s overall wave-dissipating power.

    “These voxels still maintain a big drag while allowing fish to move inside,” Ferrandis says.

    The team is currently fabricating cement voxel structures and assembling them into a lab-scale architected reef, which they will test under various wave conditions. They envision that the voxel design could be modular, and scalable to any desired size, and easy to transport and install in various offshore locations. “Now we’re simulating actual sea patterns, and testing how these models will perform when we eventually have to deploy them,” says Anjali Sinha, a graduate student at MIT who recently joined the group.

    Going forward, the team hopes to work with beach towns in Massachusetts to test the structures on a pilot scale.

    “These test structures would not be small,” Triantafyllou emphasizes. “They would be about a mile long, and about 5 meters tall, and would cost something like 6 million dollars per mile. So it’s not cheap. But it could prevent billions of dollars in storm damage. And with climate change, protecting the coasts will become a big issue.”

    This work was funded, in part, by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. More

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    A new way to quantify climate change impacts: “Outdoor days”

    For most people, reading about the difference between a global average temperature rise of 1.5 C versus 2 C doesn’t conjure up a clear image of how their daily lives will actually be affected. So, researchers at MIT have come up with a different way of measuring and describing what global climate change patterns, in specific regions around the world, will mean for people’s daily activities and their quality of life.

    The new measure, called “outdoor days,” describes the number of days per year that outdoor temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for people to go about normal outdoor activities, whether work or leisure, in reasonable comfort. Describing the impact of rising temperatures in those terms reveals some significant global disparities, the researchers say.

    The findings are described in a research paper written by MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir and postdocs Yeon-Woo Choi and Muhammad Khalifa, and published in the Journal of Climate.

    Eltahir says he got the idea for this new system during his hourlong daily walks in the Boston area. “That’s how I interface with the temperature every day,” he says. He found that there have been more winter days recently when he could walk comfortably than in past years. Originally from Sudan, he says that when he returned there for visits, the opposite was the case: In winter, the weather tends to be relatively comfortable, but the number of these clement winter days has been declining. “There are fewer days that are really suitable for outdoor activity,” Eltahir says.

    Rather than predefine what constitutes an acceptable outdoor day, Eltahir and his co-authors created a website where users can set their own definition of the highest and lowest temperatures they consider comfortable for their outside activities, then click on a country within a world map, or a state within the U.S., and get a forecast of how the number of days meeting those criteria will change between now and the end of this century. The website is freely available for anyone to use.

    “This is actually a new feature that’s quite innovative,” he says. “We don’t tell people what an outdoor day should be; we let the user define an outdoor day. Hence, we invite them to participate in defining how future climate change will impact their quality of life, and hopefully, this will facilitate deeper understanding of how climate change will impact individuals directly.”

    After deciding that this was a way of looking at the issue of climate change that might be useful, Eltahir says, “we started looking at the data on this, and we made several discoveries that I think are pretty significant.”

    First of all, there will be winners and losers, and the losers tend to be concentrated in the global south. “In the North, in a place like Russia or Canada, you gain a significant number of outdoor days. And when you go south to places like Bangladesh or Sudan, it’s bad news. You get significantly fewer outdoor days. It is very striking.”

    To derive the data, the software developed by the team uses all of the available climate models, about 50 of them, and provides output showing all of those projections on a single graph to make clear the range of possibilities, as well as the average forecast.

    When we think of climate change, Eltahir says, we tend to look at maps that show that virtually everywhere, temperatures will rise. “But if you think in terms of outdoor days, you see that the world is not flat. The North is gaining; the South is losing.”

    While North-South disparity in exposure and vulnerability has been broadly recognized in the past, he says, this way of quantifying the effects on the hazard (change in weather patterns) helps to bring home how strong the uneven risks from climate change on quality of life will be. “When you look at places like Bangladesh, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Indonesia — they are all losing outdoor days.”

    The same kind of disparity shows up in Europe, he says. The effects are already being felt, and are showing up in travel patterns: “There is a shift to people spending time in northern European states. They go to Sweden and places like that instead of the Mediterranean, which is showing a significant drop,” he says.

    Placing this kind of detailed and localized information at people’s fingertips, he says, “I think brings the issue of communication of climate change to a different level.” With this tool, instead of looking at global averages, “we are saying according to your own definition of what a pleasant day is, [this is] how climate change is going to impact you, your activities.”

    And, he adds, “hopefully that will help society make decisions about what to do with this global challenge.”

    The project received support from the MIT Climate Grand Challenges project “Jameel Observatory – Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network,” as well as from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab. 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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    Making the clean energy transition work for everyone

    The clean energy transition is already underway, but how do we make sure it happens in a manner that is affordable, sustainable, and fair for everyone?

    That was the overarching question at this year’s MIT Energy Conference, which took place March 11 and 12 in Boston and was titled “Short and Long: A Balanced Approach to the Energy Transition.”

    Each year, the student-run conference brings together leaders in the energy sector to discuss the progress and challenges they see in their work toward a greener future. Participants come from research, industry, government, academia, and the investment community to network and exchange ideas over two whirlwind days of keynote talks, fireside chats, and panel discussions.

    Several participants noted that clean energy technologies are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels, but changing the way the world works requires more than just technology.

    “None of this is easy, but I think developing innovative new technologies is really easy compared to the things we’re talking about here, which is how to blend social justice, soft engineering, and systems thinking that puts people first,” Daniel Kammen, a distinguished professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley, said in a keynote talk. “While clean energy has a long way to go, it is more than ready to transition us from fossil fuels.”

    The event also featured a keynote discussion between MIT President Sally Kornbluth and MIT’s Kyocera Professor of Ceramics Yet-Ming Chiang, in which Kornbluth discussed her first year at MIT as well as a recently announced, campus-wide effort to solve critical climate problems known as the Climate Project at MIT.

    “The reason I wanted to come to MIT was I saw that MIT has the potential to solve the world’s biggest problems, and first among those for me was the climate crisis,” Kornbluth said. “I’m excited about where we are, I’m excited about the enthusiasm of the community, and I think we’ll be able to make really impactful discoveries through this project.”

    Fostering new technologies

    Several panels convened experts in new or emerging technology fields to discuss what it will take for their solutions to contribute to deep decarbonization.

    “The fun thing and challenging thing about first-of-a-kind technologies is they’re all kind of different,” said Jonah Wagner, principal assistant director for industrial innovation and clean energy in the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy. “You can map their growth against specific challenges you expect to see, but every single technology is going to face their own challenges, and every single one will have to defy an engineering barrier to get off the ground.”

    Among the emerging technologies discussed was next-generation geothermal energy, which uses new techniques to extract heat from the Earth’s crust in new places.

    A promising aspect of the technology is that it can leverage existing infrastructure and expertise from the oil and gas industry. Many newly developed techniques for geothermal production, for instance, use the same drills and rigs as those used for hydraulic fracturing.

    “The fact that we have a robust ecosystem of oil and gas labor and technology in the U.S. makes innovation in geothermal much more accessible compared to some of the challenges we’re seeing in nuclear or direct-air capture, where some of the supply chains are disaggregated around the world,” said Gabrial Malek, chief of staff at the geothermal company Fervo Energy.

    Another technology generating excitement — if not net energy quite yet — is fusion, the process of combining, or fusing, light atoms together to form heavier ones for a net energy gain, in the same process that powers the sun. MIT spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) has already validated many aspects of its approach for achieving fusion power, and the company’s unique partnership with MIT was discussed in a panel on the industry’s progress.

    “We’re standing on the shoulders of decades of research from the scientific community, and we want to maintain those ties even as we continue developing our technology,” CFS Chief Science Officer Brandon Sorbom PhD ’17 said, noting that CFS is one of the largest company sponsors of research at MIT and collaborates with institutions around the world. “Engaging with the community is a really valuable lever to get new ideas and to sanity check our own ideas.”

    Sorbom said that as CFS advances fusion energy, the company is thinking about how it can replicate its processes to lower costs and maximize the technology’s impact around the planet.

    “For fusion to work, it has to work for everyone,” Sorbom said. “I think the affordability piece is really important. We can’t just build this technological jewel that only one class of nations can afford. It has to be a technology that can be deployed throughout the entire world.”

    The event also gave students — many from MIT — a chance to learn more about careers in energy and featured a startup showcase, in which dozens of companies displayed their energy and sustainability solutions.

    “More than 700 people are here from every corner of the energy industry, so there are so many folks to connect with and help me push my vision into reality,” says GreenLIB CEO Fred Rostami, whose company recycles lithium-ion batteries. “The good thing about the energy transition is that a lot of these technologies and industries overlap, so I think we can enable this transition by working together at events like this.”

    A focused climate strategy

    Kornbluth noted that when she came to MIT, a large percentage of students and faculty were already working on climate-related technologies. With the Climate Project at MIT, she wanted to help ensure the whole of those efforts is greater than the sum of its parts.

    The project is organized around six distinct missions, including decarbonizing energy and industry, empowering frontline communities, and building healthy, resilient cities. Kornbluth says the mission areas will help MIT community members collaborate around multidisciplinary challenges. Her team, which includes a committee of faculty advisors, has begun to search for the leads of each mission area, and Kornbluth said she is planning to appoint a vice president for climate at the Institute.

    “I want someone who has the purview of the whole Institute and will report directly to me to help make sure this project stays on track,” Kornbluth explained.

    In his conversation about the initiative with Kornbluth, Yet-Ming Chiang said projects will be funded based on their potential to reduce emissions and make the planet more sustainable at scale.

    “Projects should be very high risk, with very high impact,” Chiang explained. “They should have a chance to prove themselves, and those efforts should not be limited by resources, only by time.”

    In discussing her vision of the climate project, Kornbluth alluded to the “short and long” theme of the conference.

    “It’s about balancing research and commercialization,” Kornbluth said. “The climate project has a very variable timeframe, and I think universities are the sector that can think about the things that might be 30 years out. We have to think about the incentives across the entire innovation pipeline and how we can keep an eye on the long term while making sure the short-term things get out rapidly.” More