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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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    At Climate Grand Challenges showcase event, an exploration of how to accelerate breakthrough solutions

    On the eve of Earth Day, more than 300 faculty, researchers, students, government officials, and industry leaders gathered in the Samberg Conference Center, along with thousands more who tuned in online, to celebrate MIT’s first-ever Climate Grand Challenges and the five most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition.

    The event began with a climate policy conversation between MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, followed by presentations from each of the winning flagship teams, and concluded with an expert panel that explored pathways for moving from ideas to impact at scale as quickly as possible.

    “In 2020, when we launched the Climate Grand Challenges, we wanted to focus the daring creativity and pioneering expertise of the MIT community on the urgent problem of climate change,” said President Reif in kicking off the event. “Together these flagship projects will define a transformative new research agenda at MIT, one that has the potential to make meaningful contributions to the global climate response.”

    Reif and Kerry discussed multiple aspects of the climate crisis, including mitigation, adaptation, and the policies and strategies that can help the world avert the worst consequences of climate change and make the United States a leader again in bringing technology into commercial use. Referring to the accelerated wartime research effort that helped turn the tide in World War II, which included work conducted at MIT, Kerry said, “We need about five Manhattan Projects, frankly.”

    “People are now sensing a much greater urgency to finding solutions — new technology — and taking to scale some of the old technologies,” Kerry said. “There are things that are happening that I think are exciting, but the problem is it’s not happening fast enough.”

    Strategies for taking technology from the lab to the marketplace were the basis for the final portion of the event. The panel was moderated by Alicia Barton, president and CEO of FirstLight Power, and included Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Jack Little, CEO and co-founder of MathWorks; Arati Prabhakar, president of Actuate and former head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; and Katie Rae, president and managing director of The Engine. The discussion touched upon the importance of marshaling the necessary resources and building the cross-sector partnerships required to scale the technologies being developed by the flagship teams and to deliver them to the world in time to make a difference. 

    “MIT doesn’t sit on its hands ever, and innovation is central to its founding,” said Rae. “The students coming out of MIT at every level, along with the professors, have been committed to these challenges for a long time and therefore will have a big impact. These flagships have always been in process, but now we have an extraordinary moment to commercialize these projects.”

    The panelists weighed in on how to change the mindset around finance, policy, business, and community adoption to scale massive shifts in energy generation, transportation, and other major carbon-emitting industries. They stressed the importance of policies that address the economic, equity, and public health impacts of climate change and of reimagining supply chains and manufacturing to grow and distribute these technologies quickly and affordably. 

    “We are embarking on five adventures, but we do not know yet, cannot know yet, where these projects will take us,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “These are powerful and promising ideas. But each one will require focused effort, creative and interdisciplinary teamwork, and sustained commitment and support if they are to become part of the climate and energy revolution that the world urgently needs. This work begins now.” 

    Zuber called for investment from philanthropists and financiers, and urged companies, governments, and others to join this all-of-humanity effort. Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester echoed this message in closing the event. 

    “Every one of us needs to put our shoulder to the wheel at the points where our leverage is maximized — where we can do what we’re best at,” Lester said. “For MIT, Climate Grand Challenges is one of those maximum leverage points.” More

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    A community approach to improving the health of the planet

    Earlier this month, MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) hosted a Health of the Planet Showcase. The event was the culmination of a four-year long community initiative to focus on what the mechanical engineering community at MIT can do to solve some of the biggest challenges the planet faces on a local and global scale. Structured like an informal poster session, the event marked the first time that administrative staff joined students, researchers, and postdocs in sharing their own research.

    When Evelyn Wang started her tenure as mechanical engineering department head in July 2018, she and associate department heads Pierre Lermusiaux and Rohit Karnik made the health of the planet a top priority for the department. Their goal was to bring students, faculty, and staff together to develop solutions that address the many problems related to the health of the planet.

    “As a field, mechanical engineering is unique in its diversity,” says Wang, the Ford Professor of Engineering. “We have researchers who are world-leading experts on desalination, ocean engineering, energy storage, and photovoltaics, just to name a few. One of our driving motivations has been getting those experts to collaborate and work on new health of the planet research projects together.”

    Wang also saw an opportunity to tap into the passions of the department’s students and staff, many of whom devote their extracurricular and personal time to environmental causes. She enlisted the help of a team of faculty and staff to launch what has become known as the MechE Health of the Planet Initiative.

    The initiative, which capitalizes on the diverse range of research fields in mechanical engineering, encouraged both grand research ideas that could have impact on a global scale, and smaller personal habits that could help on a smaller scale.

    “We wanted to encourage everyone in our community to think about their daily routine and make small changes that really add up over time,” says Dorothy Hanna, program administrator at MIT and one of the staff members leading the initiative.

    The Health of the Planet team started small. They hosted an office supply swap day to encourage recycling and reuse of everyday office products. This idea expanded to include the launch of “Lab Reuse Days.” Members of the Rohsenow Kendall Lab, including members of the research groups of professors Gang Chen, John Lienhard, and Evelyn Wang, gathered extra materials for reuse. Researchers from other labs picked up Arduino kits, tubing, and electrical wiring to use for their own projects.

    While individuals were encouraged to adopt small habits at home and at work to help the health of the planet, research teams were encouraged to work together on solutions on a larger scale.

    Seed funding for collaborative research

    In early 2020, the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering launched a new collaborative seed research program based on funding from MathWorks, the computing software company that developed MATLAB. The first seed funding supported health of the planet research projects led by two or more mechanical engineering faculty members.

    “One of the driving goals of MechE has been fostering collaborations and supporting interdisciplinary research on the grand challenges our world faces,” says Pierre Lermusiaux, the Nam P. Suh Professor and associate department head for operations. “The seed funding from MathWorks was a great opportunity to build upon the diverse expertise and creativity our researchers have to address health of the planet related issues.” 

    The research projects supported by the seed funding ranged from lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles to high-performance household energy products for low- and middle-income countries. Each project differs in scope and application, and draws upon the expertise of at least two different research groups at MIT.

    Throughout the past two years, faculty presented about these research projects in several community seminars. They also participated in a full-day faculty research retreat focused on health of the planet research that included presentations from local Cambridge and Boston city leaders, as well as experts from other MIT departments and Harvard University.

    These projects have helped break down barriers and increased collaboration among research groups that focus on different areas. The third round of seed funding for collaborative research projects was recently announced and new projects will be chosen in the coming weeks.

    A community showcase

    Upon returning to the campus last fall, the Health of the Planet team began planning an event to bring the community together and celebrate the department’s research efforts. The Health of the Planet Showcase, which took place on April 4, featured 26 presenters from across the mechanical engineering community at MIT.

    Projects included a marine coastal monitoring robot, solar hydrogen production with thermochemical cycles, and a portable atmospheric water extractor for dry climates. Among the presenters was Administrative Assistant Tony Pulsone, who presented on how honeybees navigate their surroundings, as well as program manager Theresa Werth and program administrator Dorothy Hanna, who presented on reducing bottled water use and practical strategies developed by staff to overcome functional barriers on campus.

    The event concluded with the announcement of the Fay and Alfred D. Chandler Jr. Research Fellowship, awarded to a MechE student-led effort to propose a new paradigm to improve the health of our planet. Graduate student Charlene Xia won for her work developing a real-time opto-fluidics system for monitoring the soil microbiome.

    “The soil microbiome governs the biogeochemical cycling of macronutrients, micronutrients, and other elements vital for the growth of plants and animal life,” Xia said. “Understanding and predicting the impact of climate change on soil microbiomes and the ecosystem services they provide present a grand challenge and major opportunity.”

    The Chandler Fellowship will continue during the 2022-23 academic year, when another student-led project will be chosen. The department also hopes to make the Health of the Planet Showcase an annual gathering.

    “The showcase was such a vibrant event,” adds Wang. “It really energized the department and renewed our commitment to growing community efforts and continuing to advance research to help improve and protect the health of our planet.” More

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    Empowering people to adapt on the frontlines of climate change

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

    In the coastal south of Bangladesh, rice paddies that farmers could once harvest three times a year lie barren. Sea-level rise brings saltwater to the soil, ruining the staple crop. It’s one of many impacts, and inequities, of climate change. Despite producing less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions, Bangladesh is suffering more than most countries. Rising seas, heat waves, flooding, and cyclones threaten 90 million people.

    A platform being developed in a collaboration between MIT and BRAC, a Bangladesh-based global development organization, aims to inform and empower climate-threatened communities to proactively adapt to a changing future. Selected as one of five MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects, the Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet) will forecast the local impacts of climate change on people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods. These forecasts will guide BRAC’s development of climate-resiliency programs to help residents prepare for and adapt to life-altering conditions.

    “The communities that CREWSnet will focus on have done little to contribute to the problem of climate change in the first place. However, because of socioeconomic situations, they may be among the most vulnerable. We hope that by providing state-of-the-art projections and sharing them broadly with communities, and working through partners like BRAC, we can help improve the capacity of local communities to adapt to climate change, significantly,” says Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    Eltahir leads the project with John Aldridge and Deborah Campbell in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at Lincoln Laboratory. Additional partners across MIT include the Center for Global Change Science; the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change; and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. 

    Predicting local risks

    CREWSnet’s forecasts rely upon a sophisticated model, developed in Eltahir’s research group over the past 25 years, called the MIT Regional Climate Model. This model zooms in on climate processes at local scales, at a resolution as granular as 6 miles. In Bangladesh’s population-dense cities, a 6-mile area could encompass tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of people. The model takes into account the details of a region’s topography, land use, and coastline to predict changes in local conditions.

    When applying this model over Bangladesh, researchers found that heat waves will get more severe and more frequent over the next 30 years. In particular, wet-bulb temperatures, which indicate the ability for humans to cool down by sweating, will rise to dangerous levels rarely observed today, particularly in western, inland cities.

    Such hot spots exacerbate other challenges predicted to worsen near Bangladesh’s coast. Rising sea levels and powerful cyclones are eroding and flooding coastal communities, causing saltwater to surge into land and freshwater. This salinity intrusion is detrimental to human health, ruins drinking water supplies, and harms crops, livestock, and aquatic life that farmers and fishermen depend on for food and income.

    CREWSnet will fuse climate science with forecasting tools that predict the social and economic impacts to villages and cities. These forecasts — such as how often a crop season may fail, or how far floodwaters will reach — can steer decision-making.

    “What people need to know, whether they’re a governor or head of a household, is ‘What is going to happen in my area, and what decisions should I make for the people I’m responsible for?’ Our role is to integrate this science and technology together into a decision support system,” says Aldridge, whose group at Lincoln Laboratory specializes in this area. Most recently, they transitioned a hurricane-evacuation planning system to the U.S. government. “We know that making decisions based on climate change requires a deep level of trust. That’s why having a powerful partner like BRAC is so important,” he says.

    Testing interventions

    Established 50 years ago, just after Bangladesh’s independence, BRAC works in every district of the nation to provide social services that help people rise from extreme poverty. Today, it is one of the world’s largest nongovernmental organizations, serving 110 million people across 11 countries in Asia and Africa, but its success is cultivated locally.

    “BRAC is thrilled to partner with leading researchers at MIT to increase climate resilience in Bangladesh and provide a model that can be scaled around the globe,” says Donella Rapier, president and CEO of BRAC USA. “Locally led climate adaptation solutions that are developed in partnership with communities are urgently needed, particularly in the most vulnerable regions that are on the frontlines of climate change.”

    CREWSnet will help BRAC identify communities most vulnerable to forecasted impacts. In these areas, they will share knowledge and innovate or bolster programs to improve households’ capacity to adapt.

    Many climate initiatives are already underway. One program equips homes to filter and store rainwater, as salinity intrusion makes safe drinking water hard to access. Another program is building resilient housing, able to withstand 120-mile-per-hour winds, that can double as local shelters during cyclones and flooding. Other services are helping farmers switch to different livestock or crops better suited for wetter or saltier conditions (e.g., ducks instead of chickens, or salt-tolerant rice), providing interest-free loans to enable this change.

    But adapting in place will not always be possible, for example in areas predicted to be submerged or unbearably hot by midcentury. “Bangladesh is working on identifying and developing climate-resilient cities and towns across the country, as closer-by alternative destinations as compared to moving to Dhaka, the overcrowded capital of Bangladesh,” says Campbell. “CREWSnet can help identify regions better suited for migration, and climate-resilient adaptation strategies for those regions.” At the same time, BRAC’s Climate Bridge Fund is helping to prepare cities for climate-induced migration, building up infrastructure and financial services for people who have been displaced.

    Evaluating impact

    While CREWSnet’s goal is to enable action, it can’t quite measure the impact of those actions. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a development economics program in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, will help evaluate the effectiveness of the climate-adaptation programs.

    “We conduct randomized controlled trials, similar to medical trials, that help us understand if a program improved people’s lives,” says Claire Walsh, the project director of the King Climate Action Initiative at J-PAL. “Once CREWSnet helps BRAC implement adaptation programs, we will generate scientific evidence on their impacts, so that BRAC and CREWSnet can make a case to funders and governments to expand effective programs.”

    The team aspires to bring CREWSnet to other nations disproportionately impacted by climate change. “Our vision is to have this be a globally extensible capability,” says Campbell. CREWSnet’s name evokes another early-warning decision-support system, FEWSnet, that helped organizations address famine in eastern Africa in the 1980s. Today it is a pillar of food-security planning around the world.

    CREWSnet hopes for a similar impact in climate change planning. Its selection as an MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project will inject the project with more funding and resources, momentum that will also help BRAC’s fundraising. The team plans to deploy CREWSnet to southwestern Bangladesh within five years.

    “The communities that we are aspiring to reach with CREWSnet are deeply aware that their lives are changing — they have been looking climate change in the eye for many years. They are incredibly resilient, creative, and talented,” says Ashley Toombs, the external affairs director for BRAC USA. “As a team, we are excited to bring this system to Bangladesh. And what we learn together, we will apply at potentially even larger scales.” More

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    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

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    Leveraging science and technology against the world’s top problems

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

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

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

    Nuclear to the core

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

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

    Chancing into a discipline

    Lester’s introduction to nuclear science was pure happenstance.

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

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

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

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

    Research and policy

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

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

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

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

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

  • in

    Q&A: Climate Grand Challenges finalists on new pathways to decarbonizing industry

    Note: This is the third article in a four-part interview series highlighting the work of the 27 MIT Climate Grand Challenges finalist teams, 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.

    The industrial sector is the backbone of today’s global economy, yet its activities are among the most energy-intensive and the toughest to decarbonize. Efforts to reach net-zero targets and avert runaway climate change will not succeed without new solutions for replacing sources of carbon emissions with low-carbon alternatives and developing scalable nonemitting applications of hydrocarbons.

    In conversations prepared for MIT News, faculty from three of the teams with projects in the competition’s “Decarbonizing complex industries and processes” category discuss strategies for achieving impact in hard-to-abate sectors, from long-distance transportation and building construction to textile manufacturing and chemical refining. The other Climate Grand Challenges research themes include using data and science to forecast climate-related risk, building equity and fairness into climate solutions, and removing, managing, and storing greenhouse gases. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

    Moving toward an all-carbon material approach to building

    Faced with the prospect of building stock doubling globally by 2050, there is a great need for sustainable alternatives to conventional mineral- and metal-based construction materials. Mark Goulthorpe, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, explains the methods behind Carbon >Building, an initiative to develop energy-efficient building materials by reorienting hydrocarbons from current use as fuels to environmentally benign products, creating an entirely new genre of lightweight, all-carbon buildings that could actually drive decarbonization.

    Q: What are all-carbon buildings and how can they help mitigate climate change?

    A: Instead of burning hydrocarbons as fuel, which releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to atmospheric pollution, we seek to pioneer a process that uses carbon materially to build at macro scale. New forms of carbon — carbon nanotube, carbon foam, etc. — offer salient properties for building that might effectively displace the current material paradigm. Only hydrocarbons offer sufficient scale to beat out the billion-ton mineral and metal markets, and their perilous impact. Carbon nanotube from methane pyrolysis is of special interest, as it offers hydrogen as a byproduct.

    Q: How will society benefit from the widespread use of all-carbon buildings?

    A: We anticipate reducing costs and timelines in carbon composite buildings, while increasing quality, longevity, and performance, and diminishing environmental impact. Affordability of buildings is a growing problem in all global markets as the cost of labor and logistics in multimaterial assemblies creates a burden that is very detrimental to economic growth and results in overcrowding and urban blight.

    Alleviating these challenges would have huge societal benefits, especially for those in lower income brackets who cannot afford housing, but the biggest benefit would be in drastically reducing the environmental footprint of typical buildings, which account for nearly 40 percent of global energy consumption.

    An all-carbon building sector will not only reduce hydrocarbon extraction, but can produce higher value materials for building. We are looking to rethink the building industry by greatly streamlining global production and learning from the low-labor methods pioneered by composite manufacturing such as wind turbine blades, which are quick and cheap to produce. This technology can improve the sustainability and affordability of buildings — and holds the promise of faster, cheaper, greener, and more resilient modes of dwelling.

    Emissions reduction through innovation in the textile industry

    Collectively, the textile industry is responsible for over 4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, or 5 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than aviation and maritime shipping combined. And the problem is only getting worse with the industry’s rapid growth. Under the current trajectory, consumption is projected to increase 30 percent by 2030, reaching 102 million tons. A diverse group of faculty and researchers led by Gregory Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Yuly Fuentes-Medel, project manager for fiber technologies and research advisor to the MIT Innovation Initiative, is developing groundbreaking innovations to reshape how textiles are selected, sourced, designed, manufactured, and used, and to create the structural changes required for sustained reductions in emissions by this industry.

    Q: Why has the textile industry been difficult to decarbonize?

    A: The industry currently operates under a linear model that relies heavily on virgin feedstock, at roughly 97 percent, yet recycles or downcycles less than 15 percent. Furthermore, recent trends in “fast fashion” have led to massive underutilization of apparel, such that products are discarded on average after only seven to 10 uses. In an industry with high volume and low margins, replacement technologies must achieve emissions reduction at scale while maintaining performance and economic efficiency.

    There are also technical barriers to adopting circular business models, from the challenge of dealing with products comprising fiber blends and chemical additives to the low maturity of recycling technologies. The environmental impacts of textiles and apparel have been estimated using life cycle analysis, and industry-standard indexes are under development to assess sustainability throughout the life cycle of a product, but information and tools are needed to model how new solutions will alter those impacts and include the consumer as an active player to keep our planet safe. This project seeks to deliver both the new solutions and the tools to evaluate their potential for impact.

    Q: Describe the five components of your program. What is the anticipated timeline for implementing these solutions?

    A: Our plan comprises five programmatic sections, which include (1) enabling a paradigm shift to sustainable materials using nontraditional, carbon-negative polymers derived from biomass and additives that facilitate recycling; (2) rethinking manufacturing with processes to structure fibers and fabrics for performance, waste reduction, and increased material efficiency; (3) designing textiles for value by developing products that are customized, adaptable, and multifunctional, and that interact with their environment to reduce energy consumption; (4) exploring consumer behavior change through human interventions that reduce emissions by encouraging the adoption of new technologies, increased utilization of products, and circularity; and (5) establishing carbon transparency with systems-level analyses that measure the impact of these strategies and guide decision making.

    We have proposed a five-year timeline with annual targets for each project. Conservatively, we estimate our program could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the industry by 25 percent by 2030, with further significant reductions to follow.

    Tough-to-decarbonize transportation

    Airplanes, transoceanic ships, and freight trucks are critical to transporting people and delivering goods, and the cornerstone of global commerce, manufacturing, and tourism. But these vehicles also emit 3.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually and, left unchecked, they could take up a quarter of the remaining carbon budget by 2050. William Green, the Hoyt C. Hottel Professor in the Department Chemical Engineering, co-leads a multidisciplinary team with Steven Barrett, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and director of the MIT Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment, that is working to identify and advance economically viable technologies and policies for decarbonizing heavy duty trucking, shipping, and aviation. The Tough to Decarbonize Transportation research program aims to design and optimize fuel chemistry and production, vehicles, operations, and policies to chart the course to net-zero emissions by midcentury.

    Q: What are the highest priority focus areas of your research program?

    A: Hydrocarbon fuels made from biomass are the least expensive option, but it seems impractical, and probably damaging to the environment, to harvest the huge amount of biomass that would be needed to meet the massive and growing energy demands from these sectors using today’s biomass-to-fuel technology. We are exploring strategies to increase the amount of useful fuel made per ton of biomass harvested, other methods to make low-climate-impact hydrocarbon fuels, such as from carbon dioxide, and ways to make fuels that do not contain carbon at all, such as with hydrogen, ammonia, and other hydrogen carriers.

    These latter zero-carbon options free us from the need for biomass or to capture gigatons of carbon dioxide, so they could be a very good long-term solution, but they would require changing the vehicles significantly, and the construction of new refueling infrastructure, with high capital costs.

    Q: What are the scientific, technological, and regulatory barriers to scaling and implementing potential solutions?

    A: Reimagining an aviation, trucking, and shipping sector that connects the world and increases equity without creating more environmental damage is challenging because these vehicles must operate disconnected from the electrical grid and have energy requirements that cannot be met by batteries alone. Some of the concepts do not even exist in prototype yet, and none of the appealing options have been implemented at anywhere near the scale required.

    In most cases, we do not know the best way to make the fuel, and for new fuels the vehicles and refueling systems all need to be developed. Also, new fuels, or large-scale use of biomass, will introduce new environmental problems that need to be carefully considered, to ensure that decarbonization solutions do not introduce big new problems.

    Perhaps most difficult are the policy, economic, and equity issues. A new long-haul transportation system will be expensive, and everyone will be affected by the increased cost of shipping freight. To have the desired climate impact, the transport system must change in almost every country. During the transition period, we will need both the existing vehicle and fuel system to keep running smoothly, even as a new low-greenhouse system is introduced. We will also examine what policies could make that work and how we can get countries around the world to agree to implement them. More

  • in

    Q&A: Climate Grand Challenges finalists on new pathways to decarbonizing industry

    Note: This is the third article in a four-part interview series highlighting the work of the 27 MIT Climate Grand Challenges finalist teams, 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.

    The industrial sector is the backbone of today’s global economy, yet its activities are among the most energy-intensive and the toughest to decarbonize. Efforts to reach net-zero targets and avert runaway climate change will not succeed without new solutions for replacing sources of carbon emissions with low-carbon alternatives and developing scalable nonemitting applications of hydrocarbons.

    In conversations prepared for MIT News, faculty from three of the teams with projects in the competition’s “Decarbonizing complex industries and processes” category discuss strategies for achieving impact in hard-to-abate sectors, from long-distance transportation and building construction to textile manufacturing and chemical refining. The other Climate Grand Challenges research themes include using data and science to forecast climate-related risk, building equity and fairness into climate solutions, and removing, managing, and storing greenhouse gases. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

    Moving toward an all-carbon material approach to building

    Faced with the prospect of building stock doubling globally by 2050, there is a great need for sustainable alternatives to conventional mineral- and metal-based construction materials. Mark Goulthorpe, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, explains the methods behind Carbon >Building, an initiative to develop energy-efficient building materials by reorienting hydrocarbons from current use as fuels to environmentally benign products, creating an entirely new genre of lightweight, all-carbon buildings that could actually drive decarbonization.

    Q: What are all-carbon buildings and how can they help mitigate climate change?

    A: Instead of burning hydrocarbons as fuel, which releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to atmospheric pollution, we seek to pioneer a process that uses carbon materially to build at macro scale. New forms of carbon — carbon nanotube, carbon foam, etc. — offer salient properties for building that might effectively displace the current material paradigm. Only hydrocarbons offer sufficient scale to beat out the billion-ton mineral and metal markets, and their perilous impact. Carbon nanotube from methane pyrolysis is of special interest, as it offers hydrogen as a byproduct.

    Q: How will society benefit from the widespread use of all-carbon buildings?

    A: We anticipate reducing costs and timelines in carbon composite buildings, while increasing quality, longevity, and performance, and diminishing environmental impact. Affordability of buildings is a growing problem in all global markets as the cost of labor and logistics in multimaterial assemblies creates a burden that is very detrimental to economic growth and results in overcrowding and urban blight.

    Alleviating these challenges would have huge societal benefits, especially for those in lower income brackets who cannot afford housing, but the biggest benefit would be in drastically reducing the environmental footprint of typical buildings, which account for nearly 40 percent of global energy consumption.

    An all-carbon building sector will not only reduce hydrocarbon extraction, but can produce higher value materials for building. We are looking to rethink the building industry by greatly streamlining global production and learning from the low-labor methods pioneered by composite manufacturing such as wind turbine blades, which are quick and cheap to produce. This technology can improve the sustainability and affordability of buildings — and holds the promise of faster, cheaper, greener, and more resilient modes of dwelling.

    Emissions reduction through innovation in the textile industry

    Collectively, the textile industry is responsible for over 4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, or 5 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than aviation and maritime shipping combined. And the problem is only getting worse with the industry’s rapid growth. Under the current trajectory, consumption is projected to increase 30 percent by 2030, reaching 102 million tons. A diverse group of faculty and researchers led by Gregory Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Yuly Fuentes-Medel, project manager for fiber technologies and research advisor to the MIT Innovation Initiative, is developing groundbreaking innovations to reshape how textiles are selected, sourced, designed, manufactured, and used, and to create the structural changes required for sustained reductions in emissions by this industry.

    Q: Why has the textile industry been difficult to decarbonize?

    A: The industry currently operates under a linear model that relies heavily on virgin feedstock, at roughly 97 percent, yet recycles or downcycles less than 15 percent. Furthermore, recent trends in “fast fashion” have led to massive underutilization of apparel, such that products are discarded on average after only seven to 10 uses. In an industry with high volume and low margins, replacement technologies must achieve emissions reduction at scale while maintaining performance and economic efficiency.

    There are also technical barriers to adopting circular business models, from the challenge of dealing with products comprising fiber blends and chemical additives to the low maturity of recycling technologies. The environmental impacts of textiles and apparel have been estimated using life cycle analysis, and industry-standard indexes are under development to assess sustainability throughout the life cycle of a product, but information and tools are needed to model how new solutions will alter those impacts and include the consumer as an active player to keep our planet safe. This project seeks to deliver both the new solutions and the tools to evaluate their potential for impact.

    Q: Describe the five components of your program. What is the anticipated timeline for implementing these solutions?

    A: Our plan comprises five programmatic sections, which include (1) enabling a paradigm shift to sustainable materials using nontraditional, carbon-negative polymers derived from biomass and additives that facilitate recycling; (2) rethinking manufacturing with processes to structure fibers and fabrics for performance, waste reduction, and increased material efficiency; (3) designing textiles for value by developing products that are customized, adaptable, and multifunctional, and that interact with their environment to reduce energy consumption; (4) exploring consumer behavior change through human interventions that reduce emissions by encouraging the adoption of new technologies, increased utilization of products, and circularity; and (5) establishing carbon transparency with systems-level analyses that measure the impact of these strategies and guide decision making.

    We have proposed a five-year timeline with annual targets for each project. Conservatively, we estimate our program could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the industry by 25 percent by 2030, with further significant reductions to follow.

    Tough-to-decarbonize transportation

    Airplanes, transoceanic ships, and freight trucks are critical to transporting people and delivering goods, and the cornerstone of global commerce, manufacturing, and tourism. But these vehicles also emit 3.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually and, left unchecked, they could take up a quarter of the remaining carbon budget by 2050. William Green, the Hoyt C. Hottel Professor in the Department Chemical Engineering, co-leads a multidisciplinary team with Steven Barrett, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and director of the MIT Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment, that is working to identify and advance economically viable technologies and policies for decarbonizing heavy duty trucking, shipping, and aviation. The Tough to Decarbonize Transportation research program aims to design and optimize fuel chemistry and production, vehicles, operations, and policies to chart the course to net-zero emissions by midcentury.

    Q: What are the highest priority focus areas of your research program?

    A: Hydrocarbon fuels made from biomass are the least expensive option, but it seems impractical, and probably damaging to the environment, to harvest the huge amount of biomass that would be needed to meet the massive and growing energy demands from these sectors using today’s biomass-to-fuel technology. We are exploring strategies to increase the amount of useful fuel made per ton of biomass harvested, other methods to make low-climate-impact hydrocarbon fuels, such as from carbon dioxide, and ways to make fuels that do not contain carbon at all, such as with hydrogen, ammonia, and other hydrogen carriers.

    These latter zero-carbon options free us from the need for biomass or to capture gigatons of carbon dioxide, so they could be a very good long-term solution, but they would require changing the vehicles significantly, and the construction of new refueling infrastructure, with high capital costs.

    Q: What are the scientific, technological, and regulatory barriers to scaling and implementing potential solutions?

    A: Reimagining an aviation, trucking, and shipping sector that connects the world and increases equity without creating more environmental damage is challenging because these vehicles must operate disconnected from the electrical grid and have energy requirements that cannot be met by batteries alone. Some of the concepts do not even exist in prototype yet, and none of the appealing options have been implemented at anywhere near the scale required.

    In most cases, we do not know the best way to make the fuel, and for new fuels the vehicles and refueling systems all need to be developed. Also, new fuels, or large-scale use of biomass, will introduce new environmental problems that need to be carefully considered, to ensure that decarbonization solutions do not introduce big new problems.

    Perhaps most difficult are the policy, economic, and equity issues. A new long-haul transportation system will be expensive, and everyone will be affected by the increased cost of shipping freight. To have the desired climate impact, the transport system must change in almost every country. During the transition period, we will need both the existing vehicle and fuel system to keep running smoothly, even as a new low-greenhouse system is introduced. We will also examine what policies could make that work and how we can get countries around the world to agree to implement them. More