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    Ocean vital signs

    Without the ocean, the climate crisis would be even worse than it is. Each year, the ocean absorbs billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere, preventing warming that greenhouse gas would otherwise cause. Scientists estimate about 25 to 30 percent of all carbon released into the atmosphere by both human and natural sources is absorbed by the ocean.

    “But there’s a lot of uncertainty in that number,” says Ryan Woosley, a marine chemist and a principal research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT. Different parts of the ocean take in different amounts of carbon depending on many factors, such as the season and the amount of mixing from storms. Current models of the carbon cycle don’t adequately capture this variation.

    To close the gap, Woosley and a team of other MIT scientists developed a research proposal for the MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition — an Institute-wide campaign to catalyze and fund innovative research addressing the climate crisis. The team’s proposal, “Ocean Vital Signs,” involves sending a fleet of sailing drones to cruise the oceans taking detailed measurements of how much carbon the ocean is really absorbing. Those data would be used to improve the precision of global carbon cycle models and improve researchers’ ability to verify emissions reductions claimed by countries.

    “If we start to enact mitigation strategies—either through removing CO2 from the atmosphere or reducing emissions — we need to know where CO2 is going in order to know how effective they are,” says Woosley. Without more precise models there’s no way to confirm whether observed carbon reductions were thanks to policy and people, or thanks to the ocean.

    “So that’s the trillion-dollar question,” says Woosley. “If countries are spending all this money to reduce emissions, is it enough to matter?”

    In February, the team’s Climate Grand Challenges proposal was named one of 27 finalists out of the almost 100 entries submitted. From among this list of finalists, MIT will announce in April the selection of five flagship projects to receive further funding and support.

    Woosley is leading the team along with Christopher Hill, a principal research engineer in EAPS. The team includes physical and chemical oceanographers, marine microbiologists, biogeochemists, and experts in computational modeling from across the department, in addition to collaborators from the Media Lab and the departments of Mathematics, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

    Today, data on the flux of carbon dioxide between the air and the oceans are collected in a piecemeal way. Research ships intermittently cruise out to gather data. Some commercial ships are also fitted with sensors. But these present a limited view of the entire ocean, and include biases. For instance, commercial ships usually avoid storms, which can increase the turnover of water exposed to the atmosphere and cause a substantial increase in the amount of carbon absorbed by the ocean.

    “It’s very difficult for us to get to it and measure that,” says Woosley. “But these drones can.”

    If funded, the team’s project would begin by deploying a few drones in a small area to test the technology. The wind-powered drones — made by a California-based company called Saildrone — would autonomously navigate through an area, collecting data on air-sea carbon dioxide flux continuously with solar-powered sensors. This would then scale up to more than 5,000 drone-days’ worth of observations, spread over five years, and in all five ocean basins.

    Those data would be used to feed neural networks to create more precise maps of how much carbon is absorbed by the oceans, shrinking the uncertainties involved in the models. These models would continue to be verified and improved by new data. “The better the models are, the more we can rely on them,” says Woosley. “But we will always need measurements to verify the models.”

    Improved carbon cycle models are relevant beyond climate warming as well. “CO2 is involved in so much of how the world works,” says Woosley. “We’re made of carbon, and all the other organisms and ecosystems are as well. What does the perturbation to the carbon cycle do to these ecosystems?”

    One of the best understood impacts is ocean acidification. Carbon absorbed by the ocean reacts to form an acid. A more acidic ocean can have dire impacts on marine organisms like coral and oysters, whose calcium carbonate shells and skeletons can dissolve in the lower pH. Since the Industrial Revolution, the ocean has become about 30 percent more acidic on average.

    “So while it’s great for us that the oceans have been taking up the CO2, it’s not great for the oceans,” says Woosley. “Knowing how this uptake affects the health of the ocean is important as well.” More

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    Improving predictions of sea level rise for the next century

    When we think of climate change, one of the most dramatic images that comes to mind is the loss of glacial ice. As the Earth warms, these enormous rivers of ice become a casualty of the rising temperatures. But, as ice sheets retreat, they also become an important contributor to one the more dangerous outcomes of climate change: sea-level rise. At MIT, an interdisciplinary team of scientists is determined to improve sea level rise predictions for the next century, in part by taking a closer look at the physics of ice sheets.

    Last month, two research proposals on the topic, led by Brent Minchew, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), were announced as finalists in the MIT Climate Grand Challenges initiative. Launched in July 2020, Climate Grand Challenges fielded almost 100 project proposals from collaborators across the Institute who heeded the bold charge: to develop research and innovations that will deliver game-changing advances in the world’s efforts to address the climate challenge.

    As finalists, Minchew and his collaborators from the departments of Urban Studies and Planning, Economics, Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Haystack Observatory, and external partners, received $100,000 to develop their research plans. A subset of the 27 proposals tapped as finalists will be announced next month, making up a portfolio of multiyear “flagship” projects receiving additional funding and support.

    One goal of both Minchew proposals is to more fully understand the most fundamental processes that govern rapid changes in glacial ice, and to use that understanding to build next-generation models that are more predictive of ice sheet behavior as they respond to, and influence, climate change.

    “We need to develop more accurate and computationally efficient models that provide testable projections of sea-level rise over the coming decades. To do so quickly, we want to make better and more frequent observations and learn the physics of ice sheets from these data,” says Minchew. “For example, how much stress do you have to apply to ice before it breaks?”

    Currently, Minchew’s Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing group uses satellites to observe the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica primarily with interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR). But the data are often collected over long intervals of time, which only gives them “before and after” snapshots of big events. By taking more frequent measurements on shorter time scales, such as hours or days, they can get a more detailed picture of what is happening in the ice.

    “Many of the key unknowns in our projections of what ice sheets are going to look like in the future, and how they’re going to evolve, involve the dynamics of glaciers, or our understanding of how the flow speed and the resistances to flow are related,” says Minchew.

    At the heart of the two proposals is the creation of SACOS, the Stratospheric Airborne Climate Observatory System. The group envisions developing solar-powered drones that can fly in the stratosphere for months at a time, taking more frequent measurements using a new lightweight, low-power radar and other high-resolution instrumentation. They also propose air-dropping sensors directly onto the ice, equipped with seismometers and GPS trackers to measure high-frequency vibrations in the ice and pinpoint the motions of its flow.

    How glaciers contribute to sea level rise

    Current climate models predict an increase in sea levels over the next century, but by just how much is still unclear. Estimates are anywhere from 20 centimeters to two meters, which is a large difference when it comes to enacting policy or mitigation. Minchew points out that response measures will be different, depending on which end of the scale it falls toward. If it’s closer to 20 centimeters, coastal barriers can be built to protect low-level areas. But with higher surges, such measures become too expensive and inefficient to be viable, as entire portions of cities and millions of people would have to be relocated.

    “If we’re looking at a future where we could get more than a meter of sea level rise by the end of the century, then we need to know about that sooner rather than later so that we can start to plan and to do our best to prepare for that scenario,” he says.

    There are two ways glaciers and ice sheets contribute to rising sea levels: direct melting of the ice and accelerated transport of ice to the oceans. In Antarctica, warming waters melt the margins of the ice sheets, which tends to reduce the resistive stresses and allow ice to flow more quickly to the ocean. This thinning can also cause the ice shelves to be more prone to fracture, facilitating the calving of icebergs — events which sometimes cause even further acceleration of ice flow.

    Using data collected by SACOS, Minchew and his group can better understand what material properties in the ice allow for fracturing and calving of icebergs, and build a more complete picture of how ice sheets respond to climate forces. 

    “What I want is to reduce and quantify the uncertainties in projections of sea level rise out to the year 2100,” he says.

    From that more complete picture, the team — which also includes economists, engineers, and urban planning specialists — can work on developing predictive models and methods to help communities and governments estimate the costs associated with sea level rise, develop sound infrastructure strategies, and spur engineering innovation.

    Understanding glacier dynamics

    More frequent radar measurements and the collection of higher-resolution seismic and GPS data will allow Minchew and the team to develop a better understanding of the broad category of glacier dynamics — including calving, an important process in setting the rate of sea level rise which is currently not well understood.  

    “Some of what we’re doing is quite similar to what seismologists do,” he says. “They measure seismic waves following an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption, or things of this nature and use those observations to better understand the mechanisms that govern these phenomena.”

    Air-droppable sensors will help them collect information about ice sheet movement, but this method comes with drawbacks — like installation and maintenance, which is difficult to do out on a massive ice sheet that is moving and melting. Also, the instruments can each only take measurements at a single location. Minchew equates it to a bobber in water: All it can tell you is how the bobber moves as the waves disturb it.

    But by also taking continuous radar measurements from the air, Minchew’s team can collect observations both in space and in time. Instead of just watching the bobber in the water, they can effectively make a movie of the waves propagating out, as well as visualize processes like iceberg calving happening in multiple dimensions.

    Once the bobbers are in place and the movies recorded, the next step is developing machine learning algorithms to help analyze all the new data being collected. While this data-driven kind of discovery has been a hot topic in other fields, this is the first time it has been applied to glacier research.

    “We’ve developed this new methodology to ingest this huge amount of data,” he says, “and from that create an entirely new way of analyzing the system to answer these fundamental and critically important questions.”  More

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    Setting carbon management in stone

    Keeping global temperatures within limits deemed safe by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change means doing more than slashing carbon emissions. It means reversing them.

    “If we want to be anywhere near those limits [of 1.5 or 2 C], then we have to be carbon neutral by 2050, and then carbon negative after that,” says Matěj Peč, a geoscientist and the Victor P. Starr Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

    Going negative will require finding ways to radically increase the world’s capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere and put it somewhere where it will not leak back out. Carbon capture and storage projects already suck in tens of million metric tons of carbon each year. But putting a dent in emissions will mean capturing many billions of metric tons more. Today, people emit around 40 billion tons of carbon each year globally, mainly by burning fossil fuels.

    Because of the need for new ideas when it comes to carbon storage, Peč has created a proposal for the MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition — a bold and sweeping effort by the Institute to support paradigm-shifting research and innovation to address the climate crisis. Called the Advanced Carbon Mineralization Initiative, his team’s proposal aims to bring geologists, chemists, and biologists together to make permanently storing carbon underground workable under different geological conditions. That means finding ways to speed-up the process by which carbon pumped underground is turned into rock, or mineralized.

    “That’s what the geology has to offer,” says Peč, who is a lead on the project, along with Ed Boyden, professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and media arts and sciences, and Yogesh Surendranath, professor of chemistry. “You look for the places where you can safely and permanently store these huge volumes of CO2.”

    Peč‘s proposal is one of 27 finalists selected from a pool of almost 100 Climate Grand Challenge proposals submitted by collaborators from across the Institute. Each finalist team received $100,000 to further develop their research proposals. A subset of finalists will be announced in April, making up a portfolio of multiyear “flagship” projects receiving additional funding and support.

    Building industries capable of going carbon negative presents huge technological, economic, environmental, and political challenges. For one, it’s expensive and energy-intensive to capture carbon from the air with existing technologies, which are “hellishly complicated,” says Peč. Much of the carbon capture underway today focuses on more concentrated sources like coal- or gas-burning power plants.

    It’s also difficult to find geologically suitable sites for storage. To keep it in the ground after it has been captured, carbon must either be trapped in airtight reservoirs or turned to stone.

    One of the best places for carbon capture and storage (CCS) is Iceland, where a number of CCS projects are up and running. The island’s volcanic geology helps speed up the mineralization process, as carbon pumped underground interacts with basalt rock at high temperatures. In that ideal setting, says Peč, 95 percent of carbon injected underground is mineralized after just two years — a geological flash.

    But Iceland’s geology is unusual. Elsewhere requires deeper drilling to reach suitable rocks at suitable temperature, which adds costs to already expensive projects. Further, says Peč, there’s not a complete understanding of how different factors influence the speed of mineralization.

    Peč‘s Climate Grand Challenge proposal would study how carbon mineralizes under different conditions, as well as explore ways to make mineralization happen more rapidly by mixing the carbon dioxide with different fluids before injecting it underground. Another idea — and the reason why there are biologists on the team — is to learn from various organisms adept at turning carbon into calcite shells, the same stuff that makes up limestone.

    Two other carbon management proposals, led by EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor Bradford Hager, were also selected as Climate Grand Challenge finalists. They focus on both the technologies necessary for capturing and storing gigatons of carbon as well as the logistical challenges involved in such an enormous undertaking.

    That involves everything from choosing suitable sites for storage, to regulatory and environmental issues, as well as how to bring disparate technologies together to improve the whole pipeline. The proposals emphasize CCS systems that can be powered by renewable sources, and can respond dynamically to the needs of different hard-to-decarbonize industries, like concrete and steel production.

    “We need to have an industry that is on the scale of the current oil industry that will not be doing anything but pumping CO2 into storage reservoirs,” says Peč.

    For a problem that involves capturing enormous amounts of gases from the atmosphere and storing it underground, it’s no surprise EAPS researchers are so involved. The Earth sciences have “everything” to offer, says Peč, including the good news that the Earth has more than enough places where carbon might be stored.

    “Basically, the Earth is really, really large,” says Peč. “The reasonably accessible places, which are close to the continents, store somewhere on the order of tens of thousands to hundreds thousands of gigatons of carbon. That’s orders of magnitude more than we need to put back in.” More

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    Q&A: Climate Grand Challenges finalists on accelerating reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions

    This is the second article in a four-part interview series highlighting the work of the 27 MIT Climate Grand Challenges finalists, which received a total of $2.7 million in startup funding to advance their projects. In April, the Institute will name a subset of the finalists as multiyear flagship projects.

    Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an expert body of the United Nations representing 195 governments, released its latest scientific report on the growing threats posed by climate change, and called for drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avert the most catastrophic outcomes for humanity and natural ecosystems.

    Bringing the global economy to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by midcentury is complex and demands new ideas and novel approaches. The first-ever MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition focuses on four problem areas including removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and identifying effective, economic solutions for managing and storing these gases. The other Climate Grand Challenges research themes address using data and science to forecast climate-related risk, decarbonizing complex industries and processes, and building equity and fairness into climate solutions.

    In the following conversations prepared for MIT News, faculty from three of the teams working to solve “Removing, managing, and storing greenhouse gases” explain how they are drawing upon geological, biological, chemical, and oceanic processes to develop game-changing techniques for carbon removal, management, and storage. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

    Directed evolution of biological carbon fixation

    Agricultural demand is estimated to increase by 50 percent in the coming decades, while climate change is simultaneously projected to drastically reduce crop yield and predictability, requiring a dramatic acceleration of land clearing. Without immediate intervention, this will have dire impacts on wild habitat, rob the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers, and create hundreds of gigatons of new emissions. Matthew Shoulders, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, talks about the working group he is leading in partnership with Ed Boyden, the Y. Eva Tan professor of neurotechnology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, that aims to massively reduce carbon emissions from agriculture by relieving core biochemical bottlenecks in the photosynthetic process using the most sophisticated synthetic biology available to science.

    Q: Describe the two pathways you have identified for improving agricultural productivity and climate resiliency.

    A: First, cyanobacteria grow millions of times faster than plants and dozens of times faster than microalgae. Engineering these cyanobacteria as a source of key food products using synthetic biology will enable food production using less land, in a fundamentally more climate-resilient manner. Second, carbon fixation, or the process by which carbon dioxide is incorporated into organic compounds, is the rate-limiting step of photosynthesis and becomes even less efficient under rising temperatures. Enhancements to Rubisco, the enzyme mediating this central process, will both improve crop yields and provide climate resilience to crops needed by 2050. Our team, led by Robbie Wilson and Max Schubert, has created new directed evolution methods tailored for both strategies, and we have already uncovered promising early results. Applying directed evolution to photosynthesis, carbon fixation, and food production has the potential to usher in a second green revolution.

    Q: What partners will you need to accelerate the development of your solutions?

    A: We have already partnered with leading agriculture institutes with deep experience in plant transformation and field trial capacity, enabling the integration of our improved carbon-dioxide-fixing enzymes into a wide range of crop plants. At the deployment stage, we will be positioned to partner with multiple industry groups to achieve improved agriculture at scale. Partnerships with major seed companies around the world will be key to leverage distribution channels in manufacturing supply chains and networks of farmers, agronomists, and licensed retailers. Support from local governments will also be critical where subsidies for seeds are necessary for farmers to earn a living, such as smallholder and subsistence farming communities. Additionally, our research provides an accessible platform that is capable of enabling and enhancing carbon dioxide sequestration in diverse organisms, extending our sphere of partnership to a wide range of companies interested in industrial microbial applications, including algal and cyanobacterial, and in carbon capture and storage.

    Strategies to reduce atmospheric methane

    One of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane is emitted by a range of human activities and natural processes that include agriculture and waste management, fossil fuel production, and changing land use practices — with no single dominant source. Together with a diverse group of faculty and researchers from the schools of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Architecture and Planning; Engineering; and Science; plus the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, Desiree Plata, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is spearheading the MIT Methane Network, an integrated approach to formulating scalable new technologies, business models, and policy solutions for driving down levels of atmospheric methane.

    Q: What is the problem you are trying to solve and why is it a “grand challenge”?

    A: Removing methane from the atmosphere, or stopping it from getting there in the first place, could change the rates of global warming in our lifetimes, saving as much as half a degree of warming by 2050. Methane sources are distributed in space and time and tend to be very dilute, making the removal of methane a challenge that pushes the boundaries of contemporary science and engineering capabilities. Because the primary sources of atmospheric methane are linked to our economy and culture — from clearing wetlands for cultivation to natural gas extraction and dairy and meat production — the social and economic implications of a fundamentally changed methane management system are far-reaching. Nevertheless, these problems are tractable and could significantly reduce the effects of climate change in the near term.

    Q: What is known about the rapid rise in atmospheric methane and what questions remain unanswered?

    A: Tracking atmospheric methane is a challenge in and of itself, but it has become clear that emissions are large, accelerated by human activity, and cause damage right away. While some progress has been made in satellite-based measurements of methane emissions, there is a need to translate that data into actionable solutions. Several key questions remain around improving sensor accuracy and sensor network design to optimize placement, improve response time, and stop leaks with autonomous controls on the ground. Additional questions involve deploying low-level methane oxidation systems and novel catalytic materials at coal mines, dairy barns, and other enriched sources; evaluating the policy strategies and the socioeconomic impacts of new technologies with an eye toward decarbonization pathways; and scaling technology with viable business models that stimulate the economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    Deploying versatile carbon capture technologies and storage at scale

    There is growing consensus that simply capturing current carbon dioxide emissions is no longer sufficient — it is equally important to target distributed sources such as the oceans and air where carbon dioxide has accumulated from past emissions. Betar Gallant, the American Bureau of Shipping Career Development Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, discusses her work with Bradford Hager, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth Sciences in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the School of Chemical Engineering Practice, to dramatically advance the portfolio of technologies available for carbon capture and permanent storage at scale. (A team led by Assistant Professor Matěj Peč of EAPS is also addressing carbon capture and storage.)

    Q: Carbon capture and storage processes have been around for several decades. What advances are you seeking to make through this project?

    A: Today’s capture paradigms are costly, inefficient, and complex. We seek to address this challenge by developing a new generation of capture technologies that operate using renewable energy inputs, are sufficiently versatile to accommodate emerging industrial demands, are adaptive and responsive to varied societal needs, and can be readily deployed to a wider landscape.

    New approaches will require the redesign of the entire capture process, necessitating basic science and engineering efforts that are broadly interdisciplinary in nature. At the same time, incumbent technologies have been optimized largely for integration with coal- or natural gas-burning power plants. Future applications must shift away from legacy emitters in the power sector towards hard-to-mitigate sectors such as cement, iron and steel, chemical, and hydrogen production. It will become equally important to develop and optimize systems targeted for much lower concentrations of carbon dioxide, such as in oceans or air. Our effort will expand basic science studies as well as human impacts of storage, including how public engagement and education can alter attitudes toward greater acceptance of carbon dioxide geologic storage.

    Q: What are the expected impacts of your proposed solution, both positive and negative?

    A: Renewable energy cannot be deployed rapidly enough everywhere, nor can it supplant all emissions sources, nor can it account for past emissions. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) provides a demonstrated method to address emissions that will undoubtedly occur before the transition to low-carbon energy is completed. CCS can succeed even if other strategies fail. It also allows for developing nations, which may need to adopt renewables over longer timescales, to see equitable economic development while avoiding the most harmful climate impacts. And, CCS enables the future viability of many core industries and transportation modes, many of which do not have clear alternatives before 2050, let alone 2040 or 2030.

    The perceived risks of potential leakage and earthquakes associated with geologic storage can be minimized by choosing suitable geologic formations for storage. Despite CCS providing a well-understood pathway for removing enough of the carbon dioxide already emitted into the atmosphere, some environmentalists vigorously oppose it, fearing that CCS rewards oil companies and disincentivizes the transition away from fossil fuels. We believe that it is more important to keep in mind the necessity of meeting key climate targets for the sake of the planet, and welcome those who can help. More

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    How to clean solar panels without water

    Solar power is expected to reach 10 percent of global power generation by the year 2030, and much of that is likely to be located in desert areas, where sunlight is abundant. But the accumulation of dust on solar panels or mirrors is already a significant issue — it can reduce the output of photovoltaic panels by as much as 30 percent in just one month — so regular cleaning is essential for such installations.

    But cleaning solar panels currently is estimated to use about 10 billion gallons of water per year — enough to supply drinking water for up to 2 million people. Attempts at waterless cleaning are labor intensive and tend to cause irreversible scratching of the surfaces, which also reduces efficiency. Now, a team of researchers at MIT has devised a way of automatically cleaning solar panels, or the mirrors of solar thermal plants, in a waterless, no-contact system that could significantly reduce the dust problem, they say.

    The new system uses electrostatic repulsion to cause dust particles to detach and virtually leap off the panel’s surface, without the need for water or brushes. To activate the system, a simple electrode passes just above the solar panel’s surface, imparting an electrical charge to the dust particles, which are then repelled by a charge applied to the panel itself. The system can be operated automatically using a simple electric motor and guide rails along the side of the panel. The research is described today in the journal Science Advances, in a paper by MIT graduate student Sreedath Panat and professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi.

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    Despite concerted efforts worldwide to develop ever more efficient solar panels, Varanasi says, “a mundane problem like dust can actually put a serious dent in the whole thing.” Lab tests conducted by Panat and Varanasi showed that the dropoff of energy output from the panels happens steeply at the very beginning of the process of dust accumulation and can easily reach 30 percent reduction after just one month without cleaning. Even a 1 percent reduction in power, for a 150-megawatt solar installation, they calculated, could result in a $200,000 loss in annual revenue. The researchers say that globally, a 3 to 4 percent reduction in power output from solar plants would amount to a loss of between $3.3 billion and $5.5 billion.

    “There is so much work going on in solar materials,” Varanasi says. “They’re pushing the boundaries, trying to gain a few percent here and there in improving the efficiency, and here you have something that can obliterate all of that right away.”

    Many of the largest solar power installations in the world, including ones in China, India, the U.A.E., and the U.S., are located in desert regions. The water used for cleaning these solar panels using pressurized water jets has to be trucked in from a distance, and it has to be very pure to avoid leaving behind deposits on the surfaces. Dry scrubbing is sometimes used but is less effective at cleaning the surfaces and can cause permanent scratching that also reduces light transmission.

    Water cleaning makes up about 10 percent of the operating costs of solar installations. The new system could potentially reduce these costs while improving the overall power output by allowing for more frequent automated cleanings, the researchers say.

    “The water footprint of the solar industry is mind boggling,” Varanasi says, and it will be increasing as these installations continue to expand worldwide. “So, the industry has to be very careful and thoughtful about how to make this a sustainable solution.”

    Other groups have tried to develop electrostatic based solutions, but these have relied on a layer called an electrodynamic screen, using interdigitated electrodes. These screens can have defects that allow moisture in and cause them to fail, Varanasi says. While they might be useful on a place like Mars, he says, where moisture is not an issue, even in desert environments on Earth this can be a serious problem.

    The new system they developed only requires an electrode, which can be a simple metal bar, to pass over the panel, producing an electric field that imparts a charge to the dust particles as it goes. An opposite charge applied to a transparent conductive layer just a few nanometers thick deposited on the glass covering of the the solar panel then repels the particles, and by calculating the right voltage to apply, the researchers were able to find a voltage range sufficient to overcome the pull of gravity and adhesion forces, and cause the dust to lift away.

    Using specially prepared laboratory samples of dust with a range of particle sizes, experiments proved that the process works effectively on a laboratory-scale test installation, Panat says. The tests showed that humidity in the air provided a thin coating of water on the particles, which turned out to be crucial to making the effect work. “We performed experiments at varying humidities from 5 percent to 95 percent,” Panat says. “As long as the ambient humidity is greater than 30 percent, you can remove almost all of the particles from the surface, but as humidity decreases, it becomes harder.”

    Varanasi says that “the good news is that when you get to 30 percent humidity, most deserts actually fall in this regime.” And even those that are typically drier than that tend to have higher humidity in the early morning hours, leading to dew formation, so the cleaning could be timed accordingly.

    “Moreover, unlike some of the prior work on electrodynamic screens, which actually do not work at high or even moderate humidity, our system can work at humidity even as high as 95 percent, indefinitely,” Panat says.

    In practice, at scale, each solar panel could be fitted with railings on each side, with an electrode spanning across the panel. A small electric motor, perhaps using a tiny portion of the output from the panel itself, would drive a belt system to move the electrode from one end of the panel to the other, causing all the dust to fall away. The whole process could be automated or controlled remotely. Alternatively, thin strips of conductive transparent material could be permanently arranged above the panel, eliminating the need for moving parts.

    By eliminating the dependency on trucked-in water, by eliminating the buildup of dust that can contain corrosive compounds, and by lowering the overall operational costs, such systems have the potential to significantly improve the overall efficiency and reliability of solar installations, Varanasi says.

    The research was supported by Italian energy firm Eni. S.p.A. through the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Study: Ice flow is more sensitive to stress than previously thought

    The rate of glacier ice flow is more sensitive to stress than previously calculated, according to a new study by MIT researchers that upends a decades-old equation used to describe ice flow.

    Stress in this case refers to the forces acting on Antarctic glaciers, which are primarily influenced by gravity that drags the ice down toward lower elevations. Viscous glacier ice flows “really similarly to honey,” explains Joanna Millstein, a PhD student in the Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing Group and lead author of the study. “If you squeeze honey in the center of a piece of toast, and it piles up there before oozing outward, that’s the exact same motion that’s happening for ice.”

    The revision to the equation proposed by Millstein and her colleagues should improve models for making predictions about the ice flow of glaciers. This could help glaciologists predict how Antarctic ice flow might contribute to future sea level rise, although Millstein said the equation change is unlikely to raise estimates of sea level rise beyond the maximum levels already predicted under climate change models.

    “Almost all our uncertainties about sea level rise coming from Antarctica have to do with the physics of ice flow, though, so this will hopefully be a constraint on that uncertainty,” she says.

    Other authors on the paper, published in Nature Communications Earth and Environment, include Brent Minchew, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, and Samuel Pegler, a university academic fellow at the University of Leeds.

    Benefits of big data

    The equation in question, called Glen’s Flow Law, is the most widely used equation to describe viscous ice flow. It was developed in 1958 by British scientist J.W. Glen, one of the few glaciologists working on the physics of ice flow in the 1950s, according to Millstein.

    With relatively few scientists working in the field until recently, along with the remoteness and inaccessibility of most large glacier ice sheets, there were few attempts to calibrate Glen’s Flow Law outside the lab until recently. In the recent study, Millstein and her colleagues took advantage of a new wealth of satellite imagery over Antarctic ice shelves, the floating extensions of the continent’s ice sheet, to revise the stress exponent of the flow law.

    “In 2002, this major ice shelf [Larsen B] collapsed in Antarctica, and all we have from that collapse is two satellite images that are a month apart,” she says. “Now, over that same area we can get [imagery] every six days.”

    The new analysis shows that “the ice flow in the most dynamic, fastest-changing regions of Antarctica — the ice shelves, which basically hold back and hug the interior of the continental ice — is more sensitive to stress than commonly assumed,” Millstein says. She’s optimistic that the growing record of satellite data will help capture rapid changes on Antarctica in the future, providing insights into the underlying physical processes of glaciers.   

    But stress isn’t the only thing that affects ice flow, the researchers note. Other parts of the flow law equation represent differences in temperature, ice grain size and orientation, and impurities and water contained in the ice — all of which can alter flow velocity. Factors like temperature could be especially important in understanding how ice flow impacts sea level rise in the future, Millstein says.

    Cracking under strain

    Millstein and colleagues are also studying the mechanics of ice sheet collapse, which involves different physical models than those used to understand the ice flow problem. “The cracking and breaking of ice is what we’re working on now, using strain rate observations,” Millstein says.

    The researchers use InSAR, radar images of the Earth’s surface collected by satellites, to observe deformations of the ice sheets that can be used to make precise measurements of strain. By observing areas of ice with high strain rates, they hope to better understand the rate at which crevasses and rifts propagate to trigger collapse.

    The research was supported by the National Science Foundation. More

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    New maps show airplane contrails over the U.S. dropped steeply in 2020

    As Covid-19’s initial wave crested around the world, travel restrictions and a drop in passengers led to a record number of grounded flights in 2020. The air travel reduction cleared the skies of not just jets but also the fluffy white contrails they produce high in the atmosphere.

    MIT engineers have mapped the contrails that were generated over the United States in 2020, and compared the results to prepandemic years. They found that on any given day in 2018, and again in 2019, contrails covered a total area equal to Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. In 2020, this contrail coverage shrank by about 20 percent, mirroring a similar drop in U.S. flights.  

    While 2020’s contrail dip may not be surprising, the findings are proof that the team’s mapping technique works. Their study marks the first time researchers have captured the fine and ephemeral details of contrails over a large continental scale.

    Now, the researchers are applying the technique to predict where in the atmosphere contrails are likely to form. The cloud-like formations are known to play a significant role in aviation-related global warming. The team is working with major airlines to forecast regions in the atmosphere where contrails may form, and to reroute planes around these regions to minimize contrail production.

    “This kind of technology can help divert planes to prevent contrails, in real time,” says Steven Barrett, professor and associate head of MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “There’s an unusual opportunity to halve aviation’s climate impact by eliminating most of the contrails produced today.”

    Barrett and his colleagues have published their results today in the journal Environmental Research Letters. His co-authors at MIT include graduate student Vincent Meijer, former graduate student Luke Kulik, research scientists Sebastian Eastham, Florian Allroggen, and Raymond Speth, and LIDS Director and professor Sertac Karaman.

    Trail training

    About half of the aviation industry’s contribution to global warming comes directly from planes’ carbon dioxide emissions. The other half is thought to be a consequence of their contrails. The signature white tails are produced when a plane’s hot, humid exhaust mixes with cool humid air high in the atmosphere. Emitted in thin lines, contrails quickly spread out and can act as blankets that trap the Earth’s outgoing heat.

    While a single contrail may not have much of a warming effect, taken together contrails have a significant impact. But the estimates of this effect are uncertain and based on computer modeling as well as limited satellite data. What’s more, traditional computer vision algorithms that analyze contrail data have a hard time discerning the wispy tails from natural clouds.

    To precisely pick out and track contrails over a large scale, the MIT team looked to images taken by NASA’s GOES-16, a geostationary satellite that hovers over the same swath of the Earth, including the United States, taking continuous, high-resolution images.

    The team first obtained about 100 images taken by the satellite, and trained a set of people to interpret remote sensing data and label each image’s pixel as either part of a contrail or not. They used this labeled dataset to train a computer-vision algorithm to discern a contrail from a cloud or other image feature.

    The researchers then ran the algorithm on about 100,000 satellite images, amounting to nearly 6 trillion pixels, each pixel representing an area of about 2 square kilometers. The images covered the contiguous U.S., along with parts of Canada and Mexico, and were taken about every 15 minutes, between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2020.

    The algorithm automatically classified each pixel as either a contrail or not a contrail, and generated daily maps of contrails over the United States. These maps mirrored the major flight paths of most U.S. airlines, with some notable differences. For instance, contrail “holes” appeared around major airports, which reflects the fact that planes landing and taking off around airports are generally not high enough in the atmosphere for contrails to form.

    “The algorithm knows nothing about where planes fly, and yet when processing the satellite imagery, it resulted in recognizable flight routes,” Barrett says. “That’s one piece of evidence that says this method really does capture contrails over a large scale.”

    Cloudy patterns

    Based on the algorithm’s maps, the researchers calculated the total area covered each day by contrails in the US. On an average day in 2018 and in 2019, U.S. contrails took up about 43,000 square kilometers. This coverage dropped by 20 percent in March of 2020 as the pandemic set in. From then on, contrails slowly reappeared as air travel resumed through the year.

    The team also observed daily and seasonal patterns. In general, contrails appeared to peak in the morning and decline in the afternoon. This may be a training artifact: As natural cirrus clouds are more likely to form in the afternoon, the algorithm may have trouble discerning contrails amid the clouds later in the day. But it might also be an important indication about when contrails form most. Contrails also peaked in late winter and early spring, when more of the air is naturally colder and more conducive for contrail formation.

    The team has now adapted the technique to predict where contrails are likely to form in real time. Avoiding these regions, Barrett says, could take a significant, almost immediate chunk out of aviation’s global warming contribution.  

    “Most measures to make aviation sustainable take a long time,” Barrett says. “(Contrail avoidance) could be accomplished in a few years, because it requires small changes to how aircraft are flown, with existing airplanes and observational technology. It’s a near-term way of reducing aviation’s warming by about half.”

    The team is now working towards this objective of large-scale contrail avoidance using realtime satellite observations.

    This research was supported in part by NASA and the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. More

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    Q&A: Climate Grand Challenges finalists on building equity and fairness into climate solutions

    Note: This is the first in a four-part interview series that will highlight the work of the Climate Grand Challenges finalists, ahead of the April announcement of several multiyear, flagship projects.

    The finalists in MIT’s first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition each received $100,000 to develop bold, interdisciplinary research and innovation plans designed to attack some of the world’s most difficult and unresolved climate problems. The 27 teams are addressing four Grand Challenge problem areas: building equity and fairness into climate solutions; decarbonizing complex industries and processes; removing, managing, and storing greenhouse gases; and using data and science for improved climate risk forecasting.  

    In a conversation prepared for MIT News, faculty from three of the teams in the competition’s “Building equity and fairness into climate solutions” category share their thoughts on the need for inclusive solutions that prioritize disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, and discuss how they are working to accelerate their research to achieve the greatest impact. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

    The Equitable Resilience Framework

    Any effort to solve the most complex global climate problems must recognize the unequal burdens borne by different groups, communities, and societies — and should be equitable as well as effective. Janelle Knox-Hayes, associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, leads a team that is developing processes and practices for equitable resilience, starting with a local pilot project in Boston over the next five years and extending to other cities and regions of the country. The Equitable Resilience Framework (ERF) is designed to create long-term economic, social, and environmental transformations by increasing the capacity of interconnected systems and communities to respond to a broad range of climate-related events. 

    Q: What is the problem you are trying to solve?

    A: Inequity is one of the severe impacts of climate change and resonates in both mitigation and adaptation efforts. It is important for climate strategies to address challenges of inequity and, if possible, to design strategies that enhance justice, equity, and inclusion, while also enhancing the efficacy of mitigation and adaptation efforts. Our framework offers a blueprint for how communities, cities, and regions can begin to undertake this work.

    Q: What are the most significant barriers that have impacted progress to date?

    A: There is considerable inertia in policymaking. Climate change requires a rethinking, not only of directives but pathways and techniques of policymaking. This is an obstacle and part of the reason our project was designed to scale up from local pilot projects. Another consideration is that the private sector can be more adaptive and nimble in its adoption of creative techniques. Working with the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium there may be ways in which we could modify the ERF to help companies address similar internal adaptation and resilience challenges.

    Protecting and enhancing natural carbon sinks

    Deforestation and forest degradation of strategic ecosystems in the Amazon, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia continue to reduce capacity to capture and store carbon through natural systems and threaten even the most aggressive decarbonization plans. John Fernandez, professor in the Department of Architecture and director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative, reflects on his work with Daniela Rus, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Joann de Zegher, assistant professor of Operations Management at MIT Sloan, to protect tropical forests by deploying a three-part solution that integrates targeted technology breakthroughs, deep community engagement, and innovative bioeconomic opportunities. 

    Q: Why is the problem you seek to address a “grand challenge”?

    A: We are trying to bring the latest technology to monitoring, assessing, and protecting tropical forests, as well as other carbon-rich and highly biodiverse ecosystems. This is a grand challenge because natural sinks around the world are threatening to release enormous quantities of stored carbon that could lead to runaway global warming. When combined with deep community engagement, particularly with indigenous and afro-descendant communities, this integrated approach promises to deliver substantially enhanced efficacy in conservation coupled to robust and sustainable local development.

    Q: What is known about this problem and what questions remain unanswered?

    A: Satellites, drones, and other technologies are acquiring more data about natural carbon sinks than ever before. The problem is well-described in certain locations such as the eastern Amazon, which has shifted from a net carbon sink to now a net positive carbon emitter. It is also well-known that indigenous peoples are the most effective stewards of the ecosystems that store the greatest amounts of carbon. One of the key questions that remains to be answered is determining the bioeconomy opportunities inherent within the natural wealth of tropical forests and other important ecosystems that are important to sustained protection and conservation.

    Reducing group-based disparities in climate adaptation

    Race, ethnicity, caste, religion, and nationality are often linked to vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change, and if left unchecked, threaten to exacerbate long standing inequities. A team led by Evan Lieberman, professor of political science and director of the MIT Global Diversity Lab and MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, Danielle Wood, assistant professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Siqi Zheng, professor of urban and real estate sustainability in the Center for Real Estate and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, is seeking to  reduce ethnic and racial group-based disparities in the capacity of urban communities to adapt to the changing climate. Working with partners in nine coastal cities, they will measure the distribution of climate-related burdens and resiliency through satellites, a custom mobile app, and natural language processing of social media, to help design and test communication campaigns that provide accurate information about risks and remediation to impacted groups. 

    Q: How has this problem evolved?

    A: Group-based disparities continue to intensify within and across countries, owing in part to some randomness in the location of adverse climate events, as well as deep legacies of unequal human development. In turn, economically and politically privileged groups routinely hoard resources for adaptation. In a few cases — notably the United States, Brazil, and with respect to climate-related migrancy, in South Asia — there has been a great deal of research documenting the extent of such disparities. However, we lack common metrics, and for the most part, such disparities are only understood where key actors have politicized the underlying problems. In much of the world, relatively vulnerable and excluded groups may not even be fully aware of the nature of the challenges they face or the resources they require.

    Q: Who will benefit most from your research? 

    A: The greatest beneficiaries will be members of those vulnerable groups who lack the resources and infrastructure to withstand adverse climate shocks. We believe that it will be important to develop solutions such that relatively privileged groups do not perceive them as punitive or zero-sum, but rather as long-term solutions for collective benefit that are both sound and just. More