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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Stability in data

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

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

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

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

    Speeding to a stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Ocean microbes get their diet through a surprising mix of sources, study finds

    One of the smallest and mightiest organisms on the planet is a plant-like bacterium known to marine biologists as Prochlorococcus. The green-tinted microbe measures less than a micron across, and its populations suffuse through the upper layers of the ocean, where a single teaspoon of seawater can hold millions of the tiny organisms.

    Prochlorococcus grows through photosynthesis, using sunlight to convert the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide into organic carbon molecules. The microbe is responsible for 5 percent of the world’s photosynthesizing activity, and scientists have assumed that photosynthesis is the microbe’s go-to strategy for acquiring the carbon it needs to grow.

    But a new MIT study in Nature Microbiology today has found that Prochlorococcus relies on another carbon-feeding strategy, more than previously thought.

    Organisms that use a mix of strategies to provide carbon are known as mixotrophs. Most marine plankton are mixotrophs. And while Prochlorococcus is known to occasionally dabble in mixotrophy, scientists have assumed the microbe primarily lives a phototrophic lifestyle.

    The new MIT study shows that in fact, Prochlorococcus may be more of a mixotroph than it lets on. The microbe may get as much as one-third of its carbon through a second strategy: consuming the dissolved remains of other dead microbes.

    The new estimate may have implications for climate models, as the microbe is a significant force in capturing and “fixing” carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean.

    “If we wish to predict what will happen to carbon fixation in a different climate, or predict where Prochlorococcus will or will not live in the future, we probably won’t get it right if we’re missing a process that accounts for one-third of the population’s carbon supply,” says Mick Follows, a professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and its Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    The study’s co-authors include first author and MIT postdoc Zhen Wu, along with collaborators from the University of Haifa, the Leibniz-Institute for Baltic Sea Research, the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, and Potsdam University.

    Persistent plankton

    Since Prochlorococcus was first discovered in the Sargasso Sea in 1986, by MIT Institute Professor Sallie “Penny” Chisholm and others, the microbe has been observed throughout the world’s oceans, inhabiting the upper sunlit layers ranging from the surface down to about 160 meters. Within this range, light levels vary, and the microbe has evolved a number of ways to photosynthesize carbon in even low-lit regions.

    The organism has also evolved ways to consume organic compounds including glucose and certain amino acids, which could help the microbe survive for limited periods of time in dark ocean regions. But surviving on organic compounds alone is a bit like only eating junk food, and there is evidence that Prochlorococcus will die after a week in regions where photosynthesis is not an option.

    And yet, researchers including Daniel Sher of the University of Haifa, who is a co-author of the new study, have observed healthy populations of Prochlorococcus that persist deep in the sunlit zone, where the light intensity should be too low to maintain a population. This suggests that the microbes must be switching to a non-photosynthesizing, mixotrophic lifestyle in order to consume other organic sources of carbon.

    “It seems that at least some Prochlorococcus are using existing organic carbon in a mixotrophic way,” Follows says. “That stimulated the question: How much?”

    What light cannot explain

    In their new paper, Follows, Wu, Sher, and their colleagues looked to quantify the amount of carbon that Prochlorococcus is consuming through processes other than photosynthesis.

    The team looked first to measurements taken by Sher’s team, which previously took ocean samples at various depths in the Mediterranean Sea and measured the concentration of phytoplankton, including Prochlorococcus, along with the associated intensity of light and the concentration of nitrogen — an essential nutrient that is richly available in deeper layers of the ocean and that plankton can assimilate to make proteins.

    Wu and Follows used this data, and similar information from the Pacific Ocean, along with previous work from Chisholm’s lab, which established the rate of photosynthesis that Prochlorococcus could carry out in a given intensity of light.

    “We converted that light intensity profile into a potential growth rate — how fast the population of Prochlorococcus could grow if it was acquiring all it’s carbon by photosynthesis, and light is the limiting factor,” Follows explains.

    The team then compared this calculated rate to growth rates that were previously observed in the Pacific Ocean by several other research teams.

    “This data showed that, below a certain depth, there’s a lot of growth happening that photosynthesis simply cannot explain,” Follows says. “Some other process must be at work to make up the difference in carbon supply.”

    The researchers inferred that, in deeper, darker regions of the ocean, Prochlorococcus populations are able to survive and thrive by resorting to mixotrophy, including consuming organic carbon from detritus. Specifically, the microbe may be carrying out osmotrophy — a process by which an organism passively absorbs organic carbon molecules via osmosis.

    Judging by how fast the microbe is estimated to be growing below the sunlit zone, the team calculates that Prochlorococcus obtains up to one-third of its carbon diet through mixotrophic strategies.

    “It’s kind of like going from a specialist to a generalist lifestyle,” Follows says. “If I only eat pizza, then if I’m 20 miles from a pizza place, I’m in trouble, whereas if I eat burgers as well, I could go to the nearby McDonald’s. People had thought of Prochlorococcus as a specialist, where they do this one thing (photosynthesis) really well. But it turns out they may have more of a generalist lifestyle than we previously thought.”

    Chisholm, who has both literally and figuratively written the book on Prochlorococcus, says the group’s findings “expand the range of conditions under which their populations can not only survive, but also thrive. This study changes the way we think about the role of Prochlorococcus in the microbial food web.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the Israel Science Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Simons Foundation. More

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    Studying floods to better predict their dangers

    “My job is basically flooding Cambridge,” says Katerina “Katya” Boukin, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at MIT and the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub’s resident expert on flood simulations. 

    You can often find her fine-tuning high-resolution flood risk models for the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, or talking about hurricanes with fellow researcher Ipek Bensu Manav.

    Flooding represents one of the world’s gravest natural hazards. Extreme climate events inducing flooding, like severe storms, winter storms, and tropical cyclones, caused an estimated $128.1 billion of damages in 2021 alone. 

    Climate simulation models suggest that severe storms will become more frequent in the coming years, necessitating a better understanding of which parts of cities are most vulnerable — an understanding that can be improved through modeling.

    A problem with current flood models is that they struggle to account for an oft-misunderstood type of flooding known as pluvial flooding. 

    “You might think of flooding as the overflowing of a body of water, like a river. This is fluvial flooding. This can be somewhat predictable, as you can think of proximity to water as a risk factor,” Boukin explains.

    However, the “flash flooding” that causes many deaths each year can happen even in places nowhere near a body of water. This is an example of pluvial flooding, which is affected by terrain, urban infrastructure, and the dynamic nature of storm loads.

    “If we don’t know how a flood is propagating, we don’t know the risk it poses to the urban environment. And if we don’t understand the risk, we can’t really discuss mitigation strategies,” says Boukin, “That’s why I pursue improving flood propagation models.”

    Boukin is leading development of a new flood prediction method that seeks to address these shortcomings. By better representing the complex morphology of cities, Boukin’s approach may provide a clearer forecast of future urban flooding.

    Katya Boukin developed this model of the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The base model was provided through a collaboration between MIT, the City of Cambridge, and Dewberry Engineering.

    Image: Katya Boukin

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    “In contrast to the more typical traditional catchment model, our method has rainwater spread around the urban environment based on the city’s topography, below-the-surface features like sewer pipes, and the characteristics of local soils,” notes Boukin.

    “We can simulate the flooding of regions with local rain forecasts. Our results can show how flooding propagates by the foot and by the second,” she adds.

    While Boukin’s current focus is flood simulation, her unconventional academic career has taken her research in many directions, like examining structural bottlenecks in dense urban rail systems and forecasting ground displacement due to tunneling. 

    “I’ve always been interested in the messy side of problem-solving. I think that difficult problems present a real chance to gain a deeper understanding,” says Boukin.

    Boukin credits her upbringing for giving her this perspective. A native of Israel, Boukin says that civil engineering is the family business. “My parents are civil engineers, my mom’s parents are, too, her grandfather was a professor in civil engineering, and so on. Civil engineering is my bloodline.”

    However, the decision to follow the family tradition did not come so easily. “After I took the Israeli equivalent of the SAT, I was at a decision point: Should I go to engineering school or medical school?” she recalls.

    “I decided to go on a backpacking trip to help make up my mind. It’s sort of an Israeli rite to explore internationally, so I spent six months in South America. I think backpacking is something everyone should do.”

    After this soul searching, Boukin landed on engineering school, where she fell in love with structural engineering. “It was the option that felt most familiar and interesting. I grew up playing with AutoCAD on the family computer, and now I use AutoCAD professionally!” she notes.

    “For my master’s degree, I was looking to study in a department that would help me integrate knowledge from fields like climatology and civil engineering. I found the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to be an excellent fit,” she says.

    “I am lucky that MIT has so many people that work together as well as they do. I ended up at the Concrete Sustainability Hub, where I’m working on projects which are the perfect fit between what I wanted to do and what the department wanted to do.” 

    Boukin’s move to Cambridge has given her a new perspective on her family and childhood. 

    “My parents brought me to Israel when I was just 1 year old. In moving here as a second-time immigrant, I have a new perspective on what my parents went through during the move to Israel. I moved when I was 27 years old, the same age as they were. They didn’t have a support network and worked any job they could find,” she explains.

    “I am incredibly grateful to them for the morals they instilled in my sister, who recently graduated medical school, and I. I know I can call my parents if I ever need something, and they will do whatever they can to help.”

    Boukin hopes to honor her parents’ efforts through her research.

    “Not only do I want to help stakeholders understand flood risks, I want to make awareness of flooding more accessible. Each community needs different things to be resilient, and different cultures have different ways of delivering and receiving information,” she says.

    “Everyone should understand that they, in addition to the buildings and infrastructure around them, are part of a complex ecosystem. Any change to a city can affect the rest of it. If designers and residents are aware of this when considering flood mitigation strategies, we can better design cities and understand the consequences of damage.” More

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    Kerry Emanuel: A climate scientist and meteorologist in the eye of the storm

    Kerry Emanuel once joked that whenever he retired, he would start a “hurricane safari” so other people could experience what it’s like to fly into the eye of a hurricane.

    “All of a sudden, the turbulence stops, the sun comes out, bright sunshine, and it’s amazingly calm. And you’re in this grand stadium [of clouds miles high],” he says. “It’s quite an experience.”

    While the hurricane safari is unlikely to come to fruition — “You can’t just conjure up a hurricane,” he explains — Emanuel, a world-leading expert on links between hurricanes and climate change, is retiring from teaching in the Department of Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT after a more than 40-year career.

    Best known for his foundational contributions to the science of tropical cyclones, climate, and links between them, Emanuel has also been a prominent voice in public debates on climate change, and what we should do about it.

    “Kerry has had an enormous effect on the world through the students and junior scientists he has trained,” says William Boos PhD ’08, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. “He’s a brilliant enough scientist and theoretician that he didn’t need any of us to accomplish what he has, but he genuinely cares about educating new generations of scientists and helping to launch their careers.”

    In recognition of Emanuel’s teaching career and contributions to science, a symposium was held in his honor at MIT on June 21 and 22, organized by several of his former students and collaborators, including Boos. Research presented at the symposium focused on the many fields influenced by Emanuel’s more than 200 published research papers — on everything from forecasting the risks posed by tropical cyclones to understanding how rainfall is produced by continent-sized patterns of atmospheric circulation.

    Emanuel’s career observing perturbations of Earth’s atmosphere started earlier than he can remember. “According to my older brother, from the age of 2, I would crawl to the window whenever there was a thunderstorm,” he says. At first, those were the rolling thunderheads of the Midwest where he grew up, then it was the edges of hurricanes during a few teenage years in Florida. Eventually, he would find himself watching from the very eye of the storm, both physically and mathematically.

    Emanuel attended MIT both as an undergraduate studying Earth and planetary sciences, and for his PhD in meteorology, writing a dissertation on thunderstorms that form ahead of cold fronts. Within the department, he worked with some of the central figures of modern meteorology such as Jule Charney, Fred Sanders, and Edward Lorenz — the founder of chaos theory.

    After receiving his PhD in 1978, Emanuel joined the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles. During this period, he also took a semester sabbatical to film the wind speeds of tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma. After three years, he returned to MIT and joined the Department of Meteorology in 1981. Two years later, the department merged with Earth and Planetary Sciences to form EAPS as it is known today, and where Emanuel has remained ever since.

    At MIT, he shifted scales. The thunderstorms and tornadoes that had been the focus of Emanuel’s research up to then were local atmospheric phenomena, or “mesoscale” in the language of meteorologists. The larger “synoptic scale” storms that are hurricanes blew into Emanuel’s research when as a young faculty member he was asked to teach a class in tropical meteorology; in prepping for the class, Emanuel found his notes on hurricanes from graduate school no longer made sense.

    “I realized I didn’t understand them because they couldn’t have been correct,” he says. “And so I set out to try to find a much better theoretical formulation for hurricanes.”

    He soon made two important contributions. In 1986, his paper “An Air-Sea Interaction Theory for Tropical Cyclones. Part 1: Steady-State Maintenance” developed a new theory for upper limits of hurricane intensity given atmospheric conditions. This work in turn led to even larger-scale questions to address. “That upper bound had to be dependent on climate, and it was likely to go up if we were to warm the climate,” Emanuel says — a phenomenon he explored in another paper, “The Dependence of Hurricane Intensity on Climate,” which showed how warming sea surface temperatures and changing atmospheric conditions from a warming climate would make hurricanes more destructive.

    “In my view, this is among the most remarkable achievements in theoretical geophysics,” says Adam Sobel PhD ’98, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University who got to know Emanuel after he graduated and became interested in tropical meteorology. “From first principles, using only pencil-and-paper analysis and physical reasoning, he derives a quantitative bound on hurricane intensity that has held up well over decades of comparison to observations” and underpins current methods of predicting hurricane intensity and how it changes with climate.

    This and diverse subsequent work led to numerous honors, including membership to the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

    Emanuel’s research was never confined to academic circles, however; when politicians and industry leaders voiced loud opposition to the idea that human-caused climate change posed a threat, he spoke up.

    “I felt kind of a duty to try to counter that,” says Emanuel. “I thought it was an interesting challenge to see if you could go out and convince what some people call climate deniers, skeptics, that this was a serious risk and we had to treat it as such.”

    In addition to many public lectures and media appearances discussing climate change, Emanuel penned a book for general audiences titled “What We Know About Climate Change,” in addition to a widely-read primer on climate change and risk assessment designed to influence business leaders.

    “Kerry has an unmatched physical understanding of tropical climate phenomena,” says Emanuel’s colleague, Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at EAPS. “But he’s also a great communicator and has generously given his time to public outreach. His book ‘What We Know About Climate Change’ is a beautiful piece of work that is readily understandable and has captivated many a non-expert reader.”

    Along with a number of other prominent climate scientists, Emanuel also began advocating for expanding nuclear power as the most rapid path to decarbonizing the world’s energy systems.

    “I think the impediment to nuclear is largely irrational in the United States,” he says. “So, I’ve been trying to fight that just like I’ve been trying to fight climate denial.”

    One lesson Emanuel has taken from his public work on climate change is that skeptical audiences often respond better to issues framed in positive terms than to doom and gloom; he’s found emphasizing the potential benefits rather than the sacrifices involved in the energy transition can engage otherwise wary audiences.

    “It’s really not opposition to science, per se,” he says. “It’s fear of the societal changes they think are required to do something about it.”

    He has also worked to raise awareness about how insurance companies significantly underestimate climate risks in their policies, in particular by basing hurricane risk on unreliable historical data. One recent practical result has been a project by the First Street Foundation to assess the true flood risk of every property in the United States using hurricane models Emanuel developed.

    “I think it’s transformative,” Emanuel says of the project with First Street. “That may prove to be the most substantive research I’ve done.”

    Though Emanuel is retiring from teaching, he has no plans to stop working. “When I say ‘retire’ it’s in quotes,” he says. In 2011, Emanuel and Professor of Geophysics Daniel Rothman founded the Lorenz Center, a climate research center at MIT in honor of Emanuel’s mentor and friend Edward Lorenz. Emanuel will continue to participate in work at the center, which aims to counter what Emanuel describes as a trend away from “curiosity-driven” work in climate science.

    “Even if there were no such thing as global warming, [climate science] would still be a really, really exciting field,” says Emanuel. “There’s so much to understand about climate, about the climates of the past, about the climates of other planets.”

    In addition to work with the Lorenz Center, he’s become interested once again in tornadoes and severe local storms, and understanding whether climate also controls such local phenomena. He’s also involved in two of MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges projects focused on translating climate hazards to explicit financial and health risks — what will bring the dangers of climate change home to people, he says, is for the public to understand more concrete risks, like agricultural failure, water shortages, electricity shortages, and severe weather events. Capturing that will drive the next few years of his work.

    “I’m going to be stepping up research in some respects,” he says, now living full-time at his home in Maine.

    Of course, “retiring” does mean a bit more free time for new pursuits, like learning a language or an instrument, and “rediscovering the art of sailing,” says Emanuel. He’s looking forward to those days on the water, whatever storms are to come. More

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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