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    MIT J-WAFS announces 2022 seed grant recipients

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has awarded eight MIT principal investigators with 2022 J-WAFS seed grants. The grants support innovative MIT research that has the potential to have significant impact on water- and food-related challenges.

    The only program at MIT that is dedicated to water- and food-related research, J-WAFS has offered seed grant funding to MIT principal investigators and their teams for the past eight years. The grants provide up to $75,000 per year, overhead-free, for two years to support new, early-stage research in areas such as water and food security, safety, supply, and sustainability. Past projects have spanned many diverse disciplines, including engineering, science, technology, and business innovation, as well as social science and economics, architecture, and urban planning. 

    Seven new projects led by eight researchers will be supported this year. With funding going to four different MIT departments, the projects address a range of challenges by employing advanced materials, technology innovations, and new approaches to resource management. The new projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop drought monitoring systems for farmers, improve management of the shellfish industry, optimize water purification materials, and more.

    “Climate change, the pandemic, and most recently the war in Ukraine have exacerbated and put a spotlight on the serious challenges facing global water and food systems,” says J-WAFS director John H. Lienhard. He adds, “The proposals chosen this year have the potential to create measurable, real-world impacts in both the water and food sectors.”  

    The 2022 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects are:

    Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is using sunlight to desalinate water. The use of solar energy for desalination is not a new idea, particularly solar thermal evaporation methods. However, the solar thermal evaporation process has an overall low efficiency because it relies on breaking hydrogen bonds among individual water molecules, which is very energy-intensive. Chen and his lab recently discovered a photomolecular effect that dramatically lowers the energy required for desalination. 

    The bonds among water molecules inside a water cluster in liquid water are mostly hydrogen bonds. Chen discovered that a photon with energy larger than the bonding energy between the water cluster and the remaining water liquids can cleave off the water cluster at the water-air interface, colliding with air molecules and disintegrating into 60 or even more individual water molecules. This effect has the potential to significantly boost clean water production via new desalination technology that produces a photomolecular evaporation rate that exceeds pure solar thermal evaporation by at least ten-fold. 

    John E. Fernández is the director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and a professor in the Department of Architecture, and also affiliated with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Fernández is working with Scott D. Odell, a postdoc in the ESI, to better understand the impacts of mining and climate change in water-stressed regions of Chile.

    The country of Chile is one of the world’s largest exporters of both agricultural and mineral products; however, little research has been done on climate change effects at the intersection of these two sectors. Fernández and Odell will explore how desalination is being deployed by the mining industry to relieve pressure on continental water supplies in Chile, and with what effect. They will also research how climate change and mining intersect to affect Andean glaciers and agricultural communities dependent upon them. The researchers intend for this work to inform policies to reduce social and environmental harms from mining, desalination, and climate change.

    Ariel L. Furst is the Raymond (1921) and Helen St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. Her 2022 J-WAFS seed grant project seeks to effectively remove dangerous and long-lasting chemicals from water supplies and other environmental areas. 

    Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a component of Teflon, is a member of a group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These human-made chemicals have been extensively used in consumer products like nonstick cooking pans. Exceptionally high levels of PFOA have been measured in water sources near manufacturing sites, which is problematic as these chemicals do not readily degrade in our bodies or the environment. The majority of humans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, which can lead to significant health issues including cancer, liver damage, and thyroid effects, as well as developmental effects in infants. Current remediation methods are limited to inefficient capture and are mostly confined to laboratory settings. Furst’s proposed method utilizes low-energy, scaffolded enzyme materials to move beyond simple capture to degrade these hazardous pollutants.

    Heather J. Kulik is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT who is developing novel computational strategies to identify optimal materials for purifying water. Water treatment requires purification by selectively separating small ions from water. However, human-made, scalable materials for water purification and desalination are often not stable in typical operating conditions and lack precision pores for good separation. 

    Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are promising materials for water purification because their pores can be tailored to have precise shapes and chemical makeup for selective ion affinity. Yet few MOFs have been assessed for their properties relevant to water purification. Kulik plans to use virtual high-throughput screening accelerated by machine learning models and molecular simulation to accelerate discovery of MOFs. Specifically, Kulik will be looking for MOFs with ultra-stable structures in water that do not break down at certain temperatures. 

    Gregory C. Rutledge is the Lammot du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. He is leading a project that will explore how to better separate oils from water. This is an important problem to solve given that industry-generated oil-contaminated water is a major source of pollution to the environment.

    Emulsified oils are particularly challenging to remove from water due to their small droplet sizes and long settling times. Microfiltration is an attractive technology for the removal of emulsified oils, but its major drawback is fouling, or the accumulation of unwanted material on solid surfaces. Rutledge will examine the mechanism of separation behind liquid-infused membranes (LIMs) in which an infused liquid coats the surface and pores of the membrane, preventing fouling. Robustness of the LIM technology for removal of different types of emulsified oils and oil mixtures will be evaluated. César Terrer is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering whose J-WAFS project seeks to answer the question: How can satellite images be used to provide a high-resolution drought monitoring system for farmers? 

    Drought is recognized as one of the world’s most pressing issues, with direct impacts on vegetation that threaten water resources and food production globally. However, assessing and monitoring the impact of droughts on vegetation is extremely challenging as plants’ sensitivity to lack of water varies across species and ecosystems. Terrer will leverage a new generation of remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution assessments of plant water stress at regional to global scales. The aim is to provide a plant drought monitoring product with farmland-specific services for water and socioeconomic management.

    Michael Triantafyllou is the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is developing a web-based system for natural resources management that will deploy geospatial analysis, visualization, and reporting to better manage and facilitate aquaculture data.  By providing value to commercial fisheries’ permit holders who employ significant numbers of people and also to recreational shellfish permit holders who contribute to local economies, the project has attracted support from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries as well as a number of local resource management departments.

    Massachusetts shell fisheries generated roughly $339 million in 2020, accounting for 17 percent of U.S. East Coast production. Managing such a large industry is a time-consuming process, given there are thousands of acres of coastal areas grouped within over 800 classified shellfish growing areas. Extreme climate events present additional challenges. Triantafyllou’s research will help efforts to enforce environmental regulations, support habitat restoration efforts, and prevent shellfish-related food safety issues. More

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    MIT Climate “Plug-In” highlights first year of progress on MIT’s climate plan

    In a combined in-person and virtual event on Monday, members of the three working groups established last year under MIT’s “Fast Forward” climate action plan reported on the work they’ve been doing to meet the plan’s goals, including reaching zero direct carbon emissions by 2026.

    Introducing the session, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said that “many universities have climate plans that are inward facing, mostly focused on the direct impacts of their operations on greenhouse gas emissions. And that is really important, but ‘Fast Forward’ is different in that it’s also outward facing — it recognizes climate change as a global crisis.”

    That, she said, “commits us to an all-of-MIT effort to help the world solve the super wicked problem in practice.” That means “helping the world to go as far as it can, as fast as it can, to deploy currently available technologies and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” while also quickly developing new tools and approaches to deal with the most difficult areas of decarbonization, she said.

    Significant strides have been made in this first year, according to Zuber. The Climate Grand Challenges competition, announced last year as part of the plan, has just announced five flagship projects. “Each of these projects is potentially important in its own right, and is also exemplary of the kinds of bold thinking about climate solutions that the world needs,” she said.

    “We’ve also created new climate-focused institutions within MIT to improve accountability and transparency and to drive action,” Zuber said, including the Climate Nucleus, which comprises heads of labs and departments involved in climate-change work and is led by professors Noelle Selin and Anne White. The “Fast Forward” plan also established three working groups that report to the Climate Nucleus — on climate education, climate policy, and MIT’s carbon footprint — whose members spoke at Monday’s event.

    David McGee, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary science, co-director of MIT’s Terrascope program for first-year students, and co-chair of the education working group, said that over the last few years of Terrascope, “we’ve begun focusing much more explicitly on the experiences of, and the knowledge contained within, impacted communities … both for mitigation efforts and how they play out, and also adaptation.” Figuring out how to access the expertise of local communities “in a way that’s not extractive is a challenge that we face,” he added.

    Eduardo Rivera, managing director for MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) programs in several countries and a member of the education team, noted that about 1,000 undergraduates travel each year to work on climate and sustainability challenges. These include, for example, working with a lab in Peru assessing pollution in the Amazon, developing new insulation materials in Germany, developing affordable solar panels in China, working on carbon-capture technology in France or Israel, and many others, Rivera said. These are “unique opportunities to learn about the discipline, where the students can do hands-on work along with the professionals and the scientists in the front lines.” He added that MISTI has just launched a pilot project to help these students “to calculate their carbon footprint, to give them resources, and to understand individual responsibilities and collective responsibilities in this area.”

    Yujie Wang, a graduate student in architecture and an education working group member, said that during her studies she worked on a project focused on protecting biodiversity in Colombia, and also worked with a startup to reduce pesticide use in farming through digital monitoring. In Colombia, she said, she came to appreciate the value of interactions among researchers using satellite data, with local organizations, institutions and officials, to foster collaboration on solving common problems.

    The second panel addressed policy issues, as reflected by the climate policy working group. David Goldston, director of MIT’s Washington office, said “I think policy is totally central, in that for each part of the climate problem, you really can’t make progress without policy.” Part of that, he said, “involves government activities to help communities, and … to make sure the transition [involving the adoption of new technologies] is as equitable as possible.”

    Goldston said “a lot of the progress that’s been made already, whether it’s movement toward solar and wind energy and many other things, has been really prompted by government policy. I think sometimes people see it as a contest, should we be focusing on technology or policy, but I see them as two sides of the same coin. … You can’t get the technology you need into operation without policy tools, and the policy tools won’t have anything to work with unless technology is developed.”

    As for MIT, he said, “I think everybody at MIT who works on any aspect of climate change should be thinking about what’s the policy aspect of it, how could policy help them? How could they help policymakers? I think we need to coordinate better.” The Institute needs to be more strategic, he said, but “that doesn’t mean MIT advocating for specific policies. It means advocating for climate action and injecting a wide range of ideas into the policy arena.”

    Anushree Chaudhari, a student in economics and in urban studies and planning, said she has been learning about the power of negotiations in her work with Professor Larry Susskind. “What we’re currently working on is understanding why there are so many sources of local opposition to scaling renewable energy projects in the U.S.,” she explained. “Even though over 77 percent of the U.S. population actually is in support of renewables, and renewables are actually economically pretty feasible as their costs have come down in the last two decades, there’s still a huge social barrier to having them become the new norm,” she said. She emphasized that a fair and just energy transition will require listening to community stakeholders, including indigenous groups and low-income communities, and understanding why they may oppose utility-scale solar farms and wind farms.

    Joy Jackson, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, said that the implementation of research findings into policy at state, local, and national levels is a “very messy, nonlinear, sort of chaotic process.” One avenue for research to make its way into policy, she said, is through formal processes, such as congressional testimony. But a lot is also informal, as she learned while working as an intern in government offices, where she and her colleagues reached out to professors, researchers, and technical experts of various kinds while in the very early stages of policy development.

    “The good news,” she said, “is there’s a lot of touch points.”

    The third panel featured members of the working group studying ways to reduce MIT’s own carbon footprint. Julie Newman, head of MIT’s Office of Sustainability and co-chair of that group, summed up MIT’s progress toward its stated goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2026. “I can cautiously say we’re on track for that one,” she said. Despite headwinds in the solar industry due to supply chain issues, she said, “we’re well positioned” to meet that near-term target.

    As for working toward the 2050 target of eliminating all direct emissions, she said, it is “quite a challenge.” But under the leadership of Joe Higgins, the vice president for campus services and stewardship, MIT is implementing a number of measures, including deep energy retrofits, investments in high-performance buildings, an extremely efficient central utilities plant, and more.

    She added that MIT is particularly well-positioned in its thinking about scaling its solutions up. “A couple of years ago we approached a handful of local organizations, and over a couple of years have built a consortium to look at large-scale carbon reduction in the world. And it’s a brilliant partnership,” she said, noting that details are still being worked out and will be reported later.

    The work is challenging, because “MIT was built on coal, this campus was not built to get to zero carbon emissions.” Nevertheless, “we think we’re on track” to meet the ambitious goals of the Fast Forward plan, she said. “We’re going to have to have multiple pathways, because we may come to a pathway that may turn out not to be feasible.”

    Jay Dolan, head of facilities development at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, said that campus faces extra hurdles compared to the main MIT campus, as it occupies buildings that are owned and maintained by the U.S. Air Force, not MIT. They are still at the data-gathering stage to see what they can do to improve their emissions, he said, and a website they set up to solicit suggestions for reducing their emissions had received 70 suggestions within a few days, which are still being evaluated. “All that enthusiasm, along with the intelligence at the laboratory, is very promising,” he said.

    Peter Jacobson, a graduate student in Leaders for Global Operations, said that in his experience, projects that are most successful start not from a focus on the technology, but from collaborative efforts working with multiple stakeholders. “I think this is exactly why the Climate Nucleus and our working groups are so important here at MIT,” he said. “We need people tasked with thinking at this campus scale, figuring out what the needs and priorities of all the departments are and looking for those synergies, and aligning those needs across both internal and external stakeholders.”

    But, he added, “MIT’s complexity and scale of operations definitely poses unique challenges. Advanced research is energy hungry, and in many cases we don’t have the technology to decarbonize those research processes yet. And we have buildings of varying ages with varying stages of investment.” In addition, MIT has “a lot of people that it needs to feed, and that need to travel and commute, so that poses additional and different challenges.”

    Asked what individuals can do to help MIT in this process, Newman said, “Begin to leverage and figure out how you connect your research to informing our thinking on campus. We have channels for that.”

    Noelle Selin, co-chair of MIT’s climate nucleus and moderator of the third panel, said in conclusion “we’re really looking for your input into all of these working groups and all of these efforts. This is a whole of campus effort. It’s a whole of world effort to address the climate challenge. So, please get in touch and use this as a call to action.” More

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    Material designed to improve power plant efficiency wins 2022 Water Innovation Prize

    The winner of this year’s Water Innovation Prize is a company commercializing a material that could dramatically improve the efficiency of power plants.

    The company, Mesophase, is developing a more efficient power plant steam condenser that leverages a surface coating developed in the lab of Evelyn Wang, MIT’s Ford Professor of Engineering and the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Such condensers, which convert steam into water, sit at the heart of the energy extraction process in most of the world’s power plants.

    In the winning pitch, company founders said they believe their low-cost, durable coating will improve the heat transfer performance of such condensers.

    “What makes us excited about this technology is that in the condenser field, this is the first time we’ve seen a coating that can last long enough for industrial applications and be made with a high potential to scale up,” said Yajing Zhao SM ’18, who is currently a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT. “When compared to what’s available in academia and industry, we believe you’ll see record performance in terms of both heat transfer and lifetime.”

    In most power plants, condensers cool steam to turn it into water. The pressure change caused by that conversion creates a vacuum that pulls steam through a turbine. Mesophase’s patent-pending surface coating improves condensers’ ability to transfer heat, thus allowing operators to extract power more efficiently.

    Based on lab tests, the company predicts it can increase power plant output by up to 7 percent using existing infrastructure. Because steam condensers are used around the world, this advance could help increase global electricity production by 500 terawatt hours per year, which is equivalent to the electricity supply for about 1 billion people.

    The efficiency gains will also lead to less water use. Water sent from cooling towers is a common means of keeping condensers cool. The company estimates its system could reduce fresh water withdrawals by the equivalent of what is used by 50 million people per year.

    After running pilots, the company believes the new material could be installed in power plants during the regularly scheduled maintenance that occurs every two to five years. The company is also planning to work with existing condenser manufacturers to get to market faster.

    “This all works because a condenser with our technology in it has significantly more attractive economics than what you find in the market today,” says Mesophase’s Michael Gangemi, an MBA candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

    The company plans to start in the U.S. geothermal space, where Mesophase estimates its technology is worth about $800 million a year.

    “Much of the geothermal capacity in the U.S. was built in the ’50s and ’60s,” Gangemi said. “That means most of these plants are operating way below capacity, and they invest frequently in technology like ours just to maintain their power output.”

    The company will use the prize money, in part, to begin testing in a real power plant environment.

    “We are excited about these developments, but we know that they are only first steps as we move toward broader energy applications,” Gangemi said.

    MIT’s Water Innovation Prize helps translate water-related research and ideas into businesses and impact. Each year, student-led finalist teams pitch their innovations to students, faculty, investors, and people working in various water-related industries.

    This year’s event, held in a virtual hybrid format in MIT’s Media Lab, included five finalist teams. The second-place $15,000 award was given to Livingwater Systems, which provides portable rainwater collection and filtration systems to displaced and off-grid communities.

    The company’s product consists of a low-cost mesh that goes on roofs to collect the water and a collapsible storage unit that incorporates a sediment filter. The water becomes drinkable after applying chlorine tablets to the storage unit.

    “Perhaps the single greatest attraction of our units is their elegance and simplicity,” Livingwater CEO Joshua Kao said in the company’s pitch. “Anyone can take advantage of their easy, do-it-yourself setup without any preexisting knowhow.”

    The company says the system works on the pitched roofs used in many off-grid settlements, refugee camps, and slums. The entire unit fits inside a backpack.

    The team also notes existing collection systems cost thousands of dollars, require expert installation, and can’t be attached to surfaces like tents. Livingwater is aiming to partner with nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit entities to sell its systems for $60 each, which would represent significant cost savings when compared to alternatives like busing water into settlements.

    The company will be running a paid pilot with the World Food Program this fall.

    “Support from MIT will be crucial for building the core team on the ground,” said Livingwater’s Gabriela Saade, a master’s student in public policy at the University of Chicago. “Let’s begin to realize a new era of water security in Latin America and across the globe.”

    The third-place $10,000 prize went to Algeon Materials, which is creating sustainable and environmentally friendly bioplastics from kelp. Algeon also won the $5,000 audience choice award for its system, which doesn’t require water, fertilizer, or land to produce.

    The other finalists were:

    Flowless, which uses artificial intelligence and an internet of things (IoT) platform to detect leaks and optimize water-related processes to reduce waste;
    Hydrologistics Africa Ltd, a platform to help consumers and utilities manage their water consumption; and
    Watabot, which is developing autonomous, artificial intelligence-powered systems to monitor harmful algae in real time and predict algae activity.

    Each year the Water Innovation Prize, hosted by the MIT Water Club, awards up to $50,000 in grants to teams from around the world. This year’s program received over 50 applications. A group of 20 semifinalist teams spent one month working with mentors to refine their pitches and business plans, and the final field of finalists received another month of mentorship.

    The Water Innovation Prize started in 2015 and has awarded more than $275,000 to 24 different teams to date. More

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    Surface coating designed to improve power plant efficiency wins 2022 Water Innovation Prize

    The winner of this year’s Water Innovation Prize is a company commercializing a material that could dramatically improve the efficiency of power plants.

    The company, Mesophase, is developing a more efficient power plant steam condenser that leverages a surface coating developed in the lab of Evelyn Wang, MIT’s Ford Professor of Engineering and the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Such condensers, which convert steam into water, sit at the heart of the energy extraction process in most of the world’s power plants.

    In the winning pitch, company founders said they believe their low-cost, durable coating will improve the heat transfer performance of such condensers.

    “What makes us excited about this technology is that in the condenser field, this is the first time we’ve seen a coating that can last long enough for industrial applications and be made with a high potential to scale up,” said Yajing Zhao SM ’18, who is currently a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT. “When compared to what’s available in academia and industry, we believe you’ll see record performance in terms of both heat transfer and lifetime.”

    In most power plants, condensers cool steam to turn it into water. The pressure change caused by that conversion creates a vacuum that pulls steam through a turbine. Mesophase’s patent-pending surface coating improves condensers’ ability to transfer heat, thus allowing operators to extract power more efficiently.

    Based on lab tests, the company predicts it can increase power plant output by up to 7 percent using existing infrastructure. Because steam condensers are used around the world, this advance could help increase global electricity production by 500 terawatt hours per year, which is equivalent to the electricity supply for about 1 billion people.

    The efficiency gains will also lead to less water use. Water sent from cooling towers is a common means of keeping condensers cool. The company estimates its system could reduce fresh water withdrawals by the equivalent of what is used by 50 million people per year.

    After running pilots, the company believes the new material could be installed in power plants during the regularly scheduled maintenance that occurs every two to five years. The company is also planning to work with existing condenser manufacturers to get to market faster.

    “This all works because a condenser with our technology in it has significantly more attractive economics than what you find in the market today,” says Mesophase’s Michael Gangemi, an MBA candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

    The company plans to start in the U.S. geothermal space, where Mesophase estimates its technology is worth about $800 million a year.

    “Much of the geothermal capacity in the U.S. was built in the ’50s and ’60s,” Gangemi said. “That means most of these plants are operating way below capacity, and they invest frequently in technology like ours just to maintain their power output.”

    The company will use the prize money, in part, to begin testing in a real power plant environment.

    “We are excited about these developments, but we know that they are only first steps as we move toward broader energy applications,” Gangemi said.

    MIT’s Water Innovation Prize helps translate water-related research and ideas into businesses and impact. Each year, student-led finalist teams pitch their innovations to students, faculty, investors, and people working in various water-related industries.

    This year’s event, held in a virtual hybrid format in MIT’s Media Lab, included five finalist teams. The second-place $15,000 award was given to Livingwater Systems, which provides portable rainwater collection and filtration systems to displaced and off-grid communities.

    The company’s product consists of a low-cost mesh that goes on roofs to collect the water and a collapsible storage unit that incorporates a sediment filter. The water becomes drinkable after applying chlorine tablets to the storage unit.

    “Perhaps the single greatest attraction of our units is their elegance and simplicity,” Livingwater CEO Joshua Kao said in the company’s pitch. “Anyone can take advantage of their easy, do-it-yourself setup without any preexisting knowhow.”

    The company says the system works on the pitched roofs used in many off-grid settlements, refugee camps, and slums. The entire unit fits inside a backpack.

    The team also notes existing collection systems cost thousands of dollars, require expert installation, and can’t be attached to surfaces like tents. Livingwater is aiming to partner with nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit entities to sell its systems for $60 each, which would represent significant cost savings when compared to alternatives like busing water into settlements.

    The company will be running a paid pilot with the World Food Program this fall.

    “Support from MIT will be crucial for building the core team on the ground,” said Livingwater’s Gabriela Saade, a master’s student in public policy at the University of Chicago. “Let’s begin to realize a new era of water security in Latin America and across the globe.”

    The third-place $10,000 prize went to Algeon Materials, which is creating sustainable and environmentally friendly bioplastics from kelp. Algeon also won the $5,000 audience choice award for its system, which doesn’t require water, fertilizer, or land to produce.

    The other finalists were:

    Flowless, which uses artificial intelligence and an internet of things (IoT) platform to detect leaks and optimize water-related processes to reduce waste;
    Hydrologistics Africa Ltd, a platform to help consumers and utilities manage their water consumption; and
    Watabot, which is developing autonomous, artificial intelligence-powered systems to monitor harmful algae in real time and predict algae activity.

    Each year the Water Innovation Prize, hosted by the MIT Water Club, awards up to $50,000 in grants to teams from around the world. This year’s program received over 50 applications. A group of 20 semifinalist teams spent one month working with mentors to refine their pitches and business plans, and the final field of finalists received another month of mentorship.

    The Water Innovation Prize started in 2015 and has awarded more than $275,000 to 24 different teams to date. More

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    Given what we know, how do we live now?

    To truly engage the climate crisis, as so many at MIT are doing, can be daunting and draining. But it need not be lonely. Building collective insight and companionship for this undertaking is the aim of the Council on the Uncertain Human Future (CUHF), an international network launched at Clark University in 2014 and active at MIT since 2020.

    Gathering together in council circles of 8-12 people, MIT community members make space to examine — and even to transform — their questions and concerns about climate change. Through a practice of intentional conversation in small groups, the council calls participants to reflect on our human interdependence with each other and the natural world, and on where we are in both social and planetary terms. It urges exploration of how we got here and what that means, and culminates by asking: Given what we know, how do we live now?

    Origins

    CUHF developed gradually in conversations between co-founders Sarah Buie and Diana Chapman Walsh, who met when they were, respectively, the director of Clark’s Higgins School of Humanities and the president of Wellesley College. Buie asked Walsh to keynote a Ford-funded Difficult Dialogues initiative in 2006. In the years and conversations that followed, they concluded that the most difficult dialogue wasn’t happening: an honest engagement with the realities and implications of a rapidly heating planet Earth.

    With social scientist Susi Moser, they chose the practice of council, a blend of both modern and traditional dialogic forms, and began with a cohort of 12 environmental leaders willing to examine the gravest implications of climate change in a supportive setting — what Walsh calls “a kind of container for a deep dive into dark waters.” That original circle met in three long weekends over 2014 and continues today as the original CUHF Steady Council.

    Taking root at MIT

    Since then, the Council on the Uncertain Human Future has grown into an international network, with circles at universities, research centers, and other communities across the United States and in Scotland and Kathmandu. The practice took root at MIT (where Walsh is a life member emerita of the MIT Corporation) in 2020.

    Leadership and communications teams in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS) Office of the Dean and the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) recognized the need the council could meet on a campus buzzing with research and initiatives aimed at improving the health of the planet. Joining forces with the council leadership, the two MIT groups collaborated to launch the program at MIT, inviting participants from across the institute, and sharing information on the MIT Climate Portal. Intentional conversations

    “The council gives the MIT community the kind of deep discourse that is so necessary to face climate change and a rapidly changing world,” says ESI director and professor of architecture John Fernández. “These conversations open an opportunity to create a new kind of breakthrough of mindsets. It’s a rare chance to pause and ask: Are we doing the things we should be doing, given MIT’s mission to the nation and the world, and given the challenges facing us?”

    As the CUHF practice spreads, agendas expand to acknowledge changing times; the group produces films and collections of readings, curates an online resource site, and convenes international Zoom events for members on a range of topics, many of which interact with climate, including racism and Covid-19. But its core activity remains the same: an intentional, probing conversation over time. There are no preconceived objectives, only a few simple guidelines: speak briefly, authentically, and spontaneously, moving around the circle; listen with attention and receptivity; observe confidentiality. “Through this process of honest speaking and listening, insight arises and trustworthy community is built,” says Buie.

    While these meetings were held in person before 2020, the full council experience pivoted to Zoom at the start of the pandemic with two-hour discussions forming an arc over a period of five weeks. Sessions begin with a call for participants to slow down and breathe, grounding themselves for the conversation. The convener offers a series of questions that elicit spontaneous responses, concerns, and observations; later, they invite visioning of new possibilities. Inviting emergent possibility

    While the process may yield tangible outcomes — for example, a curriculum initiative at Clark called A New Earth Conversation — its greatest value, according to Buie, “is the collective listening, acknowledgment, and emergent possibility it invites. Given the profound cultural misunderstandings and misalignments behind it, climate breakdown defies normative approaches to ‘problem-solving.’ The Council enables us to live into the uncertainty with more awareness, humility, curiosity, and compassion. Participants feel the change; they return to their work and lives differently, and less alone.”

    Roughly 60 faculty and staff from across MIT, all engaged in climate-related work, have participated so far in council circles. The 2021 edition of the Institute’s Climate Action Plan provides for the expansion of councils at MIT to deepen humanistic understanding of the climate crisis. The conversations are also a space for engaging with how the climate crisis is related to what the plan calls “the imperative of justice” and “the intertwined problems of equity and economic transition.”

    Reflecting on the growth of the council’s humanistic practice at MIT, Agustín Rayo, professor of philosophy and the Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT SHASS, says: “The council conversations about the future of our species and the planet are an invaluable contribution to MIT’s ‘whole-campus’ focus on the climate crisis.”

    Growing the council at MIT means broadening participation. Postdocs will join a new circle this fall, with opportunities for student involvement soon to follow. More than a third of MIT’s prior council participants have continued with monthly Steady Council meetings, which sometimes reference recent events while deepening the council practice at MIT. The session in December 2021, for example, began with reports from MIT community members who had attended the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, then broke into council circles to engage the questions raised.

    Cognitive leaps

    The MIT Steady Council is organized by Curt Newton, director of MIT OpenCourseWare and an early contributor to the online platform that became the Institute’s Climate Portal. Newton sees a productive tension between MIT’s culture of problem-solving and the council’s call for participants to slow down and question the paradigms in which they operate. “It can feel wrong, or at least unfamiliar, to put ourselves in a mode where we’re not trying to create an agenda and an action plan,” he says. “To get us to step back from that and think together about the biggest picture before we allow ourselves to be pulled into that solution mindset  — it’s a necessary experiment for places like MIT.”

    Over the past decade, Newton says, he has searched for ways to direct his energies toward environmental issues “with one foot firmly planted at MIT and one foot out in the world.” The silo-busting personal connections he’s made with colleagues through the council have empowered him “to show up with my full climate self at work.”

    Walsh finds it especially promising to see CUHF taking root at MIT, “a place of intensity, collaboration, and high ideals, where the most stunning breakthroughs occur when someone takes a step back, stops the action, changes the trajectory for a time and begins asking new questions that challenge received wisdom.” She sees council as a communal practice that encourages those cognitive leaps. “If ever there were a moment in history that cried out for a paradigm shift,” she says, “surely this is it.”

    Funding for the Council on the Uncertain Human Future comes from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

    Prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditorial team: Nicole Estvanik Taylor and Emily Hiestand More

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    Strengthening students’ knowledge and experience in climate and sustainability

    Tackling the climate crisis is central to MIT. Critical to this mission is harnessing the innovation, passion, and expertise of MIT’s talented students, from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. To help raise this student involvement to the next level, the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC) recently launched a program that will engage MIT undergraduates in a unique, year-long, interdisciplinary experience both developing and implementing climate and sustainability research projects.

    The MCSC Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program is a way for students to dive deeply and directly into climate and sustainability research, strengthen their skill sets in a variety of climate and sustainability-related areas, build their networks, and continue to embrace and grow their passion.The MCSC Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program is representative of MIT’s ambitious and bold initiatives on climate and sustainability — bringing together faculty and students across MIT to collaborate with industry on developing climate and sustainability solutions in the context of undergraduate education and research.

    The program, open to rising juniors and seniors from all majors and departments, is inspired by MIT’s SuperUROP program. Students will enroll in a year-long class while simultaneously engaging in research. Research projects will be climate- and sustainability-focused and can be on or off campus. The course will be initially facilitated by Desiree Plata, the Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and MCSC co-director.“Climate and sustainability challenges face real barriers in science, technology, policy, and beyond,” says Plata, who also serves on the MCSC’s Faculty Steering Committee. “We need to motivate an all-hands effort to bring MIT talent to bear on these challenges, and we need to give our students the tools to make tangible benefits within and between their disciplines. This was our goal in designing the MCSC Scholars Program, and it’s what I’m most excited about.”

    The Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program has relevance across all five schools, and the number of places the course is cross-listed continues to grow. As is the broader goal of the MCSC, the Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program aims to amplify and extend MIT’s expertise — through engaging students of all backgrounds and majors, bringing in faculty mentors and instructors from around the Institute, and identifying research opportunities and principal investigators that span disciplines. The student cohort model will also build off of the successful community-building endeavors by the MIT Energy Initiative and Environmental Solutions Initiative, among others, to bring students with similar interests together into an interdisciplinary, problem-solving space.The program’s fall semester will focus on key climate and sustainability topics, such as decarbonization strategies, policy, environmental justice, and quantitative methods for evaluating social and environmental impacts, and humanities-based communication of climate topics, all while students engage in research. Students will simultaneously develop project proposals, participate in a project through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and communicate their work using written and oral media. The spring semester’s course will focus on research and experiential activities, and help students communicate their outputs in entrepreneurial or policy activities that would enable the research outcomes to be rapidly scaled for impact.Throughout the program, students will engage with their research mentors, additional mentors drawn from MCSC-affiliated faculty, postdoctoral Impact Fellows, and graduate students — and there will also be opportunities for interaction with representatives of MCSC member companies.“Providing opportunities for students to sharpen the skills and knowledge needed to pioneer solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation is critical,” says Olivetti. “We are excited that the Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program can contribute to that important mission.” More

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    Looking forward to forecast the risks of a changing climate

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the third in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition, and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    Extreme weather events that were once considered rare have become noticeably less so, from intensifying hurricane activity in the North Atlantic to wildfires generating massive clouds of ozone-damaging smoke. But current climate models are unprepared when it comes to estimating the risk that these increasingly extreme events pose — and without adequate modeling, governments are left unable to take necessary precautions to protect their communities.

    MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS) Professor Paul O’Gorman researches this trend by studying how climate affects the atmosphere and incorporating what he learns into climate models to improve their accuracy. One particular focus for O’Gorman has been changes in extreme precipitation and midlatitude storms that hit areas like New England.

    “These extreme events are having a lot of impact, but they’re also difficult to model or study,” he says. Seeing the pressing need for better climate models that can be used to develop preparedness plans and climate change mitigation strategies, O’Gorman and collaborators Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in EAPS, and Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Architecture, are leading an interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, and designers to tackle this problem with their MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project, “Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes.”

    “We know already from observations and from climate model predictions that weather and climate extremes are changing and will change more,” O’Gorman says. “The grand challenge is preparing for those changing extremes.”

    Their proposal is one of five flagship projects recently announced by the MIT Climate Grand Challenges initiative — an Institute-wide effort catalyzing novel research and engineering innovations to address the climate crisis. Selected from a field of almost 100 submissions, the team will receive additional funding and exposure to help accelerate and scale their project goals. Other MIT collaborators on the proposal include researchers from the School of Engineering, the School of Architecture and Planning, the Office of Sustainability, the Center for Global Change Science, and the Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

    Weather risk modeling

    Fifteen years ago, Kerry Emanuel developed a simple hurricane model. It was based on physics equations, rather than statistics, and could run in real time, making it useful for modeling risk assessment. Emanuel wondered if similar models could be used for long-term risk assessment of other things, such as changes in extreme weather because of climate change.

    “I discovered, somewhat to my surprise and dismay, that almost all extant estimates of long-term weather risks in the United States are based not on physical models, but on historical statistics of the hazards,” says Emanuel. “The problem with relying on historical records is that they’re too short; while they can help estimate common events, they don’t contain enough information to make predictions for more rare events.”

    Another limitation of weather risk models which rely heavily on statistics: They have a built-in assumption that the climate is static.

    “Historical records rely on the climate at the time they were recorded; they can’t say anything about how hurricanes grow in a warmer climate,” says Emanuel. The models rely on fixed relationships between events; they assume that hurricane activity will stay the same, even while science is showing that warmer temperatures will most likely push typical hurricane activity beyond the tropics and into a much wider band of latitudes.

    As a flagship project, the goal is to eliminate this reliance on the historical record by emphasizing physical principles (e.g., the laws of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics) in next-generation models. The downside to this is that there are many variables that have to be included. Not only are there planetary-scale systems to consider, such as the global circulation of the atmosphere, but there are also small-scale, extremely localized events, like thunderstorms, that influence predictive outcomes.

    Trying to compute all of these at once is costly and time-consuming — and the results often can’t tell you the risk in a specific location. But there is a way to correct for this: “What’s done is to use a global model, and then use a method called downscaling, which tries to infer what would happen on very small scales that aren’t properly resolved by the global model,” explains O’Gorman. The team hopes to improve downscaling techniques so that they can be used to calculate the risk of very rare but impactful weather events.

    Global climate models, or general circulation models (GCMs), Emanuel explains, are constructed a bit like a jungle gym. Like the playground bars, the Earth is sectioned in an interconnected three-dimensional framework — only it’s divided 100 to 200 square kilometers at a time. Each node comprises a set of computations for characteristics like wind, rainfall, atmospheric pressure, and temperature within its bounds; the outputs of each node are connected to its neighbor. This framework is useful for creating a big picture idea of Earth’s climate system, but if you tried to zoom in on a specific location — like, say, to see what’s happening in Miami or Mumbai — the connecting nodes are too far apart to make predictions on anything specific to those areas.

    Scientists work around this problem by using downscaling. They use the same blueprint of the jungle gym, but within the nodes they weave a mesh of smaller features, incorporating equations for things like topography and vegetation or regional meteorological models to fill in the blanks. By creating a finer mesh over smaller areas they can predict local effects without needing to run the entire global model.

    Of course, even this finer-resolution solution has its trade-offs. While we might be able to gain a clearer picture of what’s happening in a specific region by nesting models within models, it can still make for a computing challenge to crunch all that data at once, with the trade-off being expense and time, or predictions that are limited to shorter windows of duration — where GCMs can be run considering decades or centuries, a particularly complex local model may be restricted to predictions on timescales of just a few years at a time.

    “I’m afraid that most of the downscaling at present is brute force, but I think there’s room to do it in better ways,” says Emanuel, who sees the problem of finding new and novel methods of achieving this goal as an intellectual challenge. “I hope that through the Grand Challenges project we might be able to get students, postdocs, and others interested in doing this in a very creative way.”

    Adapting to weather extremes for cities and renewable energy

    Improving climate modeling is more than a scientific exercise in creativity, however. There’s a very real application for models that can accurately forecast risk in localized regions.

    Another problem is that progress in climate modeling has not kept up with the need for climate mitigation plans, especially in some of the most vulnerable communities around the globe.

    “It is critical for stakeholders to have access to this data for their own decision-making process. Every community is composed of a diverse population with diverse needs, and each locality is affected by extreme weather events in unique ways,” says Mazereeuw, the director of the MIT Urban Risk Lab. 

    A key piece of the team’s project is building on partnerships the Urban Risk Lab has developed with several cities to test their models once they have a usable product up and running. The cities were selected based on their vulnerability to increasing extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones in Broward County, Florida, and Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, and extratropical storms in Boston, Massachusetts, and Cape Town, South Africa.

    In their proposal, the team outlines a variety of deliverables that the cities can ultimately use in their climate change preparations, with ideas such as online interactive platforms and workshops with stakeholders — such as local governments, developers, nonprofits, and residents — to learn directly what specific tools they need for their local communities. By doing so, they can craft plans addressing different scenarios in their region, involving events such as sea-level rise or heat waves, while also providing information and means of developing adaptation strategies for infrastructure under these conditions that will be the most effective and efficient for them.

    “We are acutely aware of the inequity of resources both in mitigating impacts and recovering from disasters. Working with diverse communities through workshops allows us to engage a lot of people, listen, discuss, and collaboratively design solutions,” says Mazereeuw.

    By the end of five years, the team is hoping that they’ll have better risk assessment and preparedness tool kits, not just for the cities that they’re partnering with, but for others as well.

    “MIT is well-positioned to make progress in this area,” says O’Gorman, “and I think it’s an important problem where we can make a difference.” More

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    Leveraging science and technology against the world’s top problems

    Looking back on nearly a half-century at MIT, Richard K. Lester, associate provost and Japan Steel Industry Professor, sees a “somewhat eccentric professional trajectory.”

    But while his path has been irregular, there has been a clearly defined through line, Lester says: the emergence of new science and new technologies, the potential of these developments to shake up the status quo and address some of society’s most consequential problems, and what the outcomes might mean for America’s place in the world.

    Perhaps no assignment in Lester’s portfolio better captures this theme than the new MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition. Spearheaded by Lester and Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research, and launched at the height of the pandemic in summer 2020, this initiative is designed to mobilize the entire MIT research community around tackling “the really hard, challenging problems currently standing in the way of an effective global response to the climate emergency,” says Lester. “The focus is on those problems where progress requires developing and applying frontier knowledge in the natural and social sciences and cutting-edge technologies. This is the MIT community swinging for the fences in areas where we have a comparative advantage.”This is a passion project for him, not least because it has engaged colleagues from nearly all of MIT’s departments. After nearly 100 initial ideas were submitted by more than 300 faculty, 27 teams were named finalists and received funding to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans in such areas as decarbonizing complex industries; risk forecasting and adaptation; advancing climate equity; and carbon removal, management, and storage. In April, a small subset of this group will become multiyear flagship projects, augmenting the work of existing MIT units that are pursuing climate research. Lester is sunny in the face of these extraordinarily complex problems. “This is a bottom-up effort with exciting proposals, and where the Institute is collectively committed — it’s MIT at its best.”

    Nuclear to the core

    This initiative carries a particular resonance for Lester, who remains deeply engaged in nuclear engineering. “The role of nuclear energy is central and will need to become even more central if we’re to succeed in addressing the climate challenge,” he says. He also acknowledges that for nuclear energy technologies — both fission and fusion — to play a vital role in decarbonizing the economy, they must not just win “in the court of public opinion, but in the marketplace,” he says. “Over the years, my research has sought to elucidate what needs to be done to overcome these obstacles.”

    In fact, Lester has been campaigning for much of his career for a U.S. nuclear innovation agenda, a commitment that takes on increased urgency as the contours of the climate crisis sharpen. He argues for the rapid development and testing of nuclear technologies that can complement the renewable but intermittent energy sources of sun and wind. Whether powerful, large-scale, molten-salt-cooled reactors or small, modular, light water reactors, nuclear batteries or promising new fusion projects, U.S. energy policy must embrace nuclear innovation, says Lester, or risk losing the high-stakes race for a sustainable future.

    Chancing into a discipline

    Lester’s introduction to nuclear science was pure happenstance.

    Born in the English industrial city of Leeds, he grew up in a musical family and played piano, violin, and then viola. “It was a big part of my life,” he says, and for a time, music beckoned as a career. He tumbled into a chemical engineering concentration at Imperial College, London, after taking a job in a chemical factory following high school. “There’s a certain randomness to life, and in my case, it’s reflected in my choice of major, which had a very large impact on my ultimate career.”

    In his second year, Lester talked his way into running a small experiment in the university’s research reactor, on radiation effects in materials. “I got hooked, and began thinking of studying nuclear engineering.” But there were few graduate programs in British universities at the time. Then serendipity struck again. The instructor of Lester’s single humanities course at Imperial had previously taught at MIT, and suggested Lester take a look at the nuclear program there. “I will always be grateful to him (and, indirectly, to MIT’s Humanities program) for opening my eyes to the existence of this institution where I’ve spent my whole adult life,” says Lester.

    He arrived at MIT with the notion of mitigating the harms of nuclear weapons. It was a time when the nuclear arms race “was an existential threat in everyone’s life,” he recalls. He targeted his graduate studies on nuclear proliferation. But he also encountered an electrifying study by MIT meteorologist Jule Charney. “Professor Charney produced one of the first scientific assessments of the effects on climate of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, with quantitative estimates that have not fundamentally changed in 40 years.”

    Lester shifted directions. “I came to MIT to work on nuclear security, but stayed in the nuclear field because of the contributions that it can and must make in addressing climate change,” he says.

    Research and policy

    His path forward, Lester believed, would involve applying his science and technology expertise to critical policy problems, grounded in immediate, real-world concerns, and aiming for broad policy impacts. Even as a member of NSE, he joined with colleagues from many MIT departments to study American industrial practices and what was required to make them globally competitive, and then founded MIT’s Industrial Performance Center (IPC). Working at the IPC with interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students on the sources of productivity and innovation, his research took him to many countries at different stages of industrialization, including China, Taiwan, Japan, and Brazil.

    Lester’s wide-ranging work yielded books (including the MIT Press bestseller “Made in America”), advisory positions with governments, corporations, and foundations, and unexpected collaborations. “My interests were always fairly broad, and being at MIT made it possible to team up with world-leading scholars and extraordinary students not just in nuclear engineering, but in many other fields such as political science, economics, and management,” he says.

    Forging cross-disciplinary ties and bringing creative people together around a common goal proved a valuable skill as Lester stepped into positions of ever-greater responsibility at the Institute. He didn’t exactly relish the prospect of a desk job, though. “I religiously avoided administrative roles until I felt I couldn’t keep avoiding them,” he says.

    Today, as associate provost, he tends to MIT’s international activities — a daunting task given increasing scrutiny of research universities’ globe-spanning research partnerships and education of foreign students. But even in the midst of these consuming chores, Lester remains devoted to his home department. “Being a nuclear engineer is a central part of my identity,” he says.

    To students entering the nuclear field nearly 50 years after he did, who are understandably “eager to fix everything that seems wrong immediately,” he has a message: “Be patient. The hard things, the ones that are really worth doing, will take a long time to do.” Putting the climate crisis behind us will take two generations, Lester believes. Current students will start the job, but it will also take the efforts of their children’s generation before it is done.  “So we need you to be energetic and creative, of course, but whatever you do we also need you to be patient and to have ‘stick-to-itiveness’ — and maybe also a moral compass that our generation has lacked.” More