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    MADMEC winner identifies sustainable greenhouse-cooling materials

    The winners of this year’s MADMEC competition identified a class of materials that could offer a more efficient way to keep greenhouses cool.

    After Covid-19 put the materials science competition on pause for two years, on Tuesday SmartClime, a team made up of three MIT graduate students, took home the first place, $10,000 prize.

    The team showed that a type of material that changes color in response to an electric voltage could reduce energy usage and save money if coated onto the panes of glass in greenhouses.

    “This project came out of our love of gardening,” said SmartClime team member and PhD candidate Isabella Caruso in the winning presentation. “Greenhouses let you grow things year-round, even in New England, but even greenhouse pros need to use heating furnaces in the winter and ventilation in the summer. All of that can be very labor- and energy-intensive.”

    Current options to keep greenhouses cool include traditional air conditioning units, venting and fans, and simple cloth. To develop a better solution, the team looked through scientific papers to find materials with the right climate control properties.

    Two classes of materials that looked promising were thermochromic coatings, which change color based on temperature, and electrochromic solutions, which change color based on electric voltage.

    Creating both the thermochromic and electrochromic solutions required the team to assemble nanoparticles and spin-coat them onto glass substrates. In lab tests, the electrochromic material performed well, turning a deep bluish hue to reduce the heat coming into the greenhouse while also letting in enough light for plants. Specifically, the electrochromic cell kept its test box about 1 to 3 degrees Celsius cooler than the test box coated in regular glass.

    The team estimated that greenhouse owners could make back the added costs of the electrochromic paneling through savings on other climate-control measures. Additional benefits of using the material include reducing heat-related crop losses, increasing crop yields, and reducing water requirements.

    Hosted by MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), the competition was the culmination of team projects that began last spring and included a series of design challenges throughout the summer. Each team received guidance, access to equipment and labs, and up to $1,000 in funding to build and test their prototypes.

    “It’s great to be back and to have everyone here in person,” Mike Tarkanian, a senior lecturer in DMSE and coordinator of MADMEC, said at the event. “I’ve enjoyed getting back to normal, doing the design challenges over the summer and celebrating with everyone here today.”

    The second-place prize was split between YarnZ, which identified a nanofiber yarn that is more sustainable than traditional textile fibers, and WasteAway, which has developed a waste bin monitoring device that can identify the types of items thrown into trash and recycling bins and flag misplaced items.

    YarnZ (which stands for Yarns Are Really NanofiberZ), developed a nanofiber yarn that is more degradable than traditional microfiber yarns without sacrificing on performance.

    A large chunk of the waste and emissions in the clothing industry come from polyester, a slow-degrading polymer that requires an energy-intensive melt spinning process before it’s spun into the fibers of our clothes.

    “The biggest thing I want to impress upon you today is that the textile industry is a major greenhouse gas-producing entity and also produces a huge amount of waste,” YarnZ member and PhD candidate Natalie Mamrol said in the presentation.

    To replace polyester, the team developed a continuous process in which a type of nanofiber film collects in a water bath before being twisted into yarn. In subsequent tests, the nanofiber-based yarn degraded more quicky than traditional microfibers and showed comparable durability. YarnZ believes this early data should encourage others to explore nanofibers as a viable replacement in the clothing industry and to invest in scaling the approach for industrial settings.

    WasteAway’s system includes a camera that sits on top of trash bins and uses artificial intelligence to recognize items that people throw away.

    Of the 300 million tons of waste generated in the U.S. each year, more than half ends up in landfills. A lot of that waste could have been composted or recycled but was misplaced during disposal.

    “When someone throws something into the bin, our sensor detects the motion and captures an image,” explains WasteAway’s Melissa Stok, an undergraduate at MIT. “Those images are then processed by our machine-learning algorithm to find contamination.”

    Each device costs less than $30, and the team says that cost could go down as parts are bought at larger scales. The insights gleaned from the device could help waste management officials identify contaminated trash piles as well as inform education efforts by revealing common mistakes people make.

    Overall, Tarkanian believes the competition was a success not only because of the final results, but because of the experience the students got throughout the MADMEC program, which included several smaller, hands-on competitions involving laser cutters, 3-D printers, soldering irons, and other equipment many students said they had never used before.

    “They end up getting into the lab through these design challenges, which have them compete in various engineering tasks,” Tarkanian says. “It helps them get comfortable designing and prototyping, and they often end up using those tools in their research later.” More

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    Simulating neutron behavior in nuclear reactors

    Amelia Trainer applied to MIT because she lost a bet.

    As part of what the fourth-year nuclear science and engineering (NSE) doctoral student labels her “teenage rebellious phase,” Trainer was quite convinced she would just be wasting the application fee were she to submit an application. She wasn’t even “super sure” she wanted to go to college. But a high-school friend was convinced Trainer would get into a “top school” if she only applied. A bet followed: If Trainer lost, she would have to apply to MIT. Trainer lost — and is glad she did.

    Growing up in Daytona Beach, Florida, good grades were Trainer’s thing. Seeing friends participate in interschool math competitions, Trainer decided she would tag along and soon found she loved them. She remembers being adept at reading the room: If teams were especially struggling over a problem, Trainer figured the answer had to be something easy, like zero or one. “The hardest problems would usually have the most goofball answers,” she laughs.

    Simulating neutron behavior

    As a doctoral student, hard problems in math, specifically computational reactor physics, continue to be Trainer’s forte.

    Her research, under the guidance of Professor Benoit Forget in MIT NSE’s Computational Reactor Physics Group (CRPG), focuses on modeling complicated neutron behavior in reactors. Simulation helps forecast the behavior of reactors before millions of dollars sink into development of a potentially uneconomical unit. Using simulations, Trainer can see “where the neutrons are going, how much heat is being produced, and how much power the reactor can generate.” Her research helps form the foundation for the next generation of nuclear power plants.

    To simulate neutron behavior inside of a nuclear reactor, you first need to know how neutrons will interact with the various materials inside the system. These neutrons can have wildly different energies, thereby making them susceptible to different physical phenomena. For the entirety of her graduate studies, Trainer has been primarily interested in the physics regarding slow-moving neutrons and their scattering behavior.

    When a slow neutron scatters off of a material, it can induce or cancel out molecular vibrations between the material’s atoms. The effect that material vibrations can have on neutron energies, and thereby on reactor behavior, has been heavily approximated over the years. Trainer is primarily interested in chipping away at these approximations by creating scattering data for materials that have historically been misrepresented and by exploring new techniques for preparing slow-neutron scattering data.

    Trainer remembers waiting for a simulation to complete in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when she discovered a way to predict neutron behavior with limited input data. Traditionally, “people have to store large tables of what neutrons will do under specific circumstances,” she says. “I’m really happy about it because it’s this really cool method of sampling what your neutron does from very little information,” Trainer says.

    Amelia Trainer — Modeling complicated neutron behavior in nuclear reactors

    As part of her research, Trainer often works closely with two software packages: OpenMC and NJOY. OpenMC is a Monte Carlo neutron transport simulation code that was developed in the CRPG and is used to simulate neutron behavior in reactor systems. NJOY is a nuclear data processing tool, and is used to create, augment, and prepare material data that is fed into tools like OpenMC. By editing both these codes to her specifications, Trainer is able to observe the effect that “upstream” material data has on the “downstream” reactor calculations. Through this, she hopes to identify additional problems: approximations that could lead to a noticeable misrepresentation of the physics.

    A love of geometry and poetry

    Trainer discovered the coolness of science as a child. Her mother, who cares for indoor plants and runs multiple greenhouses, and her father, a blacksmith and farrier, who explored materials science through his craft, were self-taught inspirations.

    Trainer’s father urged his daughter to learn and pursue any topics that she found exciting and encouraged her to read poems from “Calvin and Hobbes” out loud when she struggled with a speech impediment in early childhood. Reading the same passages every day helped her memorize them. “The natural manifestation of that extended into [a love of] poetry,” Trainer says.

    A love of poetry, combined with Trainer’s propensity for fun, led her to compose an ode to pi as part of an MIT-sponsored event for alumni. “I was really only in it for the cupcake,” she laughs. (Participants received an indulgent treat).

    Play video

    MIT Matters: A Love Poem to Pi

    Computations and nuclear science

    After being accepted at MIT, Trainer knew she wanted to study in a field that would take her skills at the levels they were at — “my math skills were pretty underdeveloped in the grand scheme of things,” she says. An open-house weekend at MIT, where she met with faculty from the NSE department, and the opportunity to contribute to a discipline working toward clean energy, cemented Trainer’s decision to join NSE.

    As a high schooler, Trainer won a scholarship to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to learn computer coding and knew computational physics might be more aligned with her interests. After she joined MIT as an undergraduate student in 2014, she realized that the CRPG, with its focus on coding and modeling, might be a good fit. Fortunately, a graduate student from Forget’s team welcomed Trainer’s enthusiasm for research even as an undergraduate first-year. She has stayed with the lab ever since. 

    Research internships at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the creators of NJOY, have furthered Trainer’s enthusiasm for modeling and computational physics. She met a Los Alamos scientist after he presented a talk at MIT and it snowballed into a collaboration where she could work on parts of the NJOY code. “It became a really cool collaboration which led me into a deep dive into physics and data preparation techniques, which was just so fulfilling,” Trainer says. As for what’s next, Trainer was awarded the Rickover fellowship in nuclear engineering by the the Department of Energy’s Naval Reactors Division and will join the program in Pittsburgh after she graduates.

    For many years, Trainer’s cats, Jacques and Monster, have been a constant companion. “Neutrons, computers, and cats, that’s my personality,” she laughs. Work continues to fuel her passion. To borrow a favorite phrase from Spaceman Spiff, Trainer’s favorite “Calvin” avatar, Trainer’s approach to research has invariably been: “Another day, another mind-boggling adventure.” More

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    Passion projects prepare to launch

    At the start of the sixth annual MITdesignX “Pitch Day,” Svafa Grönfeldt, the program’s faculty director, made a point of noting that many of the teams about to showcase their ventures had changed direction multiple times on their projects.

    “Some of you have pivoted more times than we can count,” Grönfeldt said in her welcoming address. “This makes for a fantastic idea because you have the courage to actually question if your ideas are the right ones. In the true spirit of human-centered design, you actually try to understand the problem before you solve it!”

    MITdesignX, a venture accelerator based in the School of Architecture and Planning, is an interdisciplinary academic program operating at the intersection of design, business, and technology. The launching pad for startups focuses on applying design to engage complex problems and discovering high-impact solutions to address critical challenges facing the future of design, cities, and the global environment. The program reflects a new approach to entrepreneurship education, drawing on business theory, design thinking, and entrepreneurial practices.

    At this year’s event, 11 teams pitched their ideas before a panel of three judges, an on-site audience, and several hundred viewers watching the livestream event.

    “These teams have been working hard on solutions,” Gilad Rosenzweig, executive director of MITdesignX, told the audience. “They’re not designing solutions for people. They’re designing solutions with people.”

    Solving urgent problems

    Some of the issues addressed by the teams were lack of adequate housing, endangered food supplies, toxic pollution, and threats to democracy. Many of the students were inspired to create their venture because of problems they encountered in their careers or concerns impacting their home countries. The 25 team members in this year’s cohort represent work on five continents.

    “We’re very proud of our international representation because we want our impact to be felt outside of Cambridge,” said Rosenzweig. “We want to make an impact around the country and around the world.”

    John Devine, a JD/Masters in City Planning (MCP) candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, created a new software platform, “Civic Atlas.” In his pitch, he explained that having worked in city planning in Texas for a decade before coming to MIT, he saw how difficult it was for communities to wade through and comprehend the dense, technical language in city council agendas. Zoning cases, bond projects, and transportation investments are just some of the significant projects that affect a community, and Devine saw many instances where decisions were being made without community awareness as a result of inadequate communication.

    “When communities don’t have access to clear, accessible information, we have poor outcomes,” Devine told the audience. “I realized the solution to this is to make accessible and inclusive digital experiences that really facilitate communication between planners, developers, and members of the community.”

    Seizing the opportunity, Devine taught himself how to code and built a fully automated web tool for the Dallas City Planning Commission. The tool checks the city’s website daily and translates documents into interactive maps, allowing residents to view plans in their community. Devine is starting in Dallas, but says that there are more than 800 cities across the United States with a population greater than 50,000 that present an excellent target market for this product.

    “I think cities have a ton to gain from working with us, including building trust and communication with constituents — something that’s vital for city halls to function,” says Devine.

    Next steps for the cohort

    The judges for this year’s event — Yscaira Jimenez, founder of LaborX; Magnus Ingi Oskarsson of Eyrir Venture Management in Reykjavik, Iceland; and Frank Pawlitschek, director, HPI School of Entrepreneurship in Potsdam, Germany — deliberated to identify the best teams based on three criteria: most innovative, greatest impact, and best presentation. The competition was so strong that the judges decided to award two honorable mentions. This year’s awardees are:

    Atacama, a company that is developing biomaterials to replace plastics, received the “Most Innovative” award and $5,000. The company accelerates the adoption of renewable and sustainable materials through machine learning and robotics, ensuring performance, cost-effectiveness, and environmental impact. Its founders are Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas PhD ’21, Jose Tomas Dominguez, and Jose Antonio Gonzalez.
    Grain Box, a startup focusing on optimizing the post-harvest supply chain for smallholder farmers in rural India, was awarded “Greatest Impact” and a $5,000 award. Its founders are Mona Vijaykumar SMArchS ’22 and T.R. (Radha) Radhakrishnan.
    Lamarr.AI, which offers an autonomous solution for rapid building envelope diagnostics using AI and cloud computing, was recognized for “Best Presentation” and awarded $2,500. Its founders are Norhan Bayomi PhD ’22, Tarek Rakha, PhD ’15, and John E. Fernandez ’85, professor and director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative.
    Honorable Mention: “News Detective,” a platform combining moderated, professional fact-checking and AI to fight misinformation on social media, created by rising senior Ilana Strauss.
    Honorable Mention: “La Firme,” which digitizes architectural services to reach families who self-build their homes in Latin America, created by Mora Orensanz MCP ’21, Fiorella Belli Ferro MCP ’21, and rising senior Raul Briceno Brignole.
    Following the award ceremony, Rosenzweig told the students that the process was not yet over because MITdesignX faculty and staff would always be available to continue guiding and supporting their journeys as they launch and grow their ventures.

    “You’re going to become alumni of MITdesignX,” he said. “You’re going to be joining over 50 teams that are working around the world, making an impact. They’re being recognized as leaders in innovation. They’re being recognized by investors who are helping them make an impact. This is your next step.” More

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    Solar-powered desalination device wins MIT $100K competition

    The winner of this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition is commercializing a new water desalination technology.

    Nona Desalination says it has developed a device capable of producing enough drinking water for 10 people at half the cost and with 1/10th the power of other water desalination devices. The device is roughly the size and weight of a case of bottled water and is powered by a small solar panel.

    “Our mission is to make portable desalination sustainable and easy,” said Nona CEO and MIT MBA candidate Bruce Crawford in the winning pitch, delivered to an audience in the Kresge Auditorium and online.

    The traditional approach for water desalination relies on a power-intensive process called reverse osmosis. In contrast, Nona uses a technology developed in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics that removes salt and bacteria from seawater using an electrical current.

    “Because we can do all this at super low pressure, we don’t need the high-pressure pump [used in reverse osmosis], so we don’t need a lot of electricity,” says Crawford, who co-founded the company with MIT Research Scientist Junghyo Yoon. “Our device runs on less power than a cell phone charger.”

    The founders cited problems like tropical storms, drought, and infrastructure crises like the one in Flint, Michigan, to underscore that clean water access is not just a problem in developing countries. In Houston, after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in 2017, some residents were advised not to drink their tap water for months.

    The company has already developed a small prototype that produces clean drinking water. With its winnings, Nona will build more prototypes to give to early customers.

    The company plans to sell its first units to sailors before moving into the emergency preparedness space in the U.S., which it estimates to be a $5 billion industry. From there, it hopes to scale globally to help with disaster relief. The technology could also possibly be used for hydrogen production, oil and gas separation, and more.

    The MIT $100K is MIT’s largest entrepreneurship competition. It began in 1989 and is organized by students with support from the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the MIT Sloan School of Management. Each team must include at least one current MIT student.

    The second-place $25,000 prize went to Inclusive.ly, a company helping people and organizations create a more inclusive environment.

    The company uses conversational artificial intelligence and natural language processing to detect words and phrases that contain bias, and can measure the level of bias or inclusivity in communication.

    “We’re here to create a world where everyone feels invited to the conversation,” said MBA candidate Yeti Khim, who co-founded the company with fellow MBA candidates Joyce Chen and Priya Bhasin.

    Inclusive.ly can scan a range of communications and make suggestions for improvement. The algorithm can detect discrimination, microaggression, and condescension, and the founders say it analyzes language in a more nuanced way than tools like Grammarly.

    The company is currently developing a plugin for web browsers and is hoping to partner with large enterprise customers later this year. It will work with internal communications like emails as well as external communications like sales and marketing material.

    Inclusive.ly plans to sell to organizations on a subscription model and notes that diversity and inclusion is becoming a higher priority in many companies. Khim cited studies showing that lack of inclusion hinders employee productivity, retention, and recruiting.

    “We could all use a little bit of help to create the most inclusive version of ourselves,” Khim said.

    The third-place prize went to RTMicrofluidics, which is building at-home tests for a range of diseases including strep throat, tuberculosis, and mononucleosis. The test is able to detect a host of bacterial and viral pathogens in saliva and provide accurate test results in less than 30 minutes.

    The audience choice award went to Sparkle, which has developed a molecular dye technology that can illuminate tumors, making them easier to remove during surgery.

    This year’s $100K event was the culmination of a process that began last March, when 60 teams applied for the program. Out of that pool, 20 semifinalists were given additional mentoring and support before eight finalists were selected to pitch.

    The other finalist teams were:

    Astrahl, which is developing high resolution and affordable X-ray systems by integrating nanotechnologies with scintillators;

    Encreto Therapeutics, which is discovering medications to satiate appetite for people with obesity;

    Iridence, which has patented a biomaterial to replace minerals like mica as a way to make the beauty industry more sustainable; and

    Mantel, which is developing a liquid material for more efficient carbon removal that operates at high temperatures. More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The other finalists were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The other finalists were:

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

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

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

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    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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    Using plant biology to address 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 fourth in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    The impact of our changing climate on agriculture and food security — and how contemporary agriculture contributes to climate change — is at the forefront of MIT’s multidisciplinary project “Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops.” The project The project is one of five flagship winners in the Climate Grand Challenges competition, and brings together researchers from the departments of Biology, Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    “Our team’s research seeks to address two connected challenges: first, the need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by agricultural fertilizer; second, the fact that the yields of many current agricultural crops will decrease, due to the effects of climate change on plant metabolism,” says the project’s faculty lead, Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering. “We are pursuing six interdisciplinary projects that are each key to our overall goal of developing low-emissions methods for fertilizing plants that are bioengineered to be more resilient and productive in a changing climate.”

    Whitehead Institute members Mary Gehring and Jing-Ke Weng, plant biologists who are also associate professors in MIT’s Department of Biology, will lead two of those projects.

    Promoting crop resilience

    For most of human history, climate change occurred gradually, over hundreds or thousands of years. That pace allowed plants to adapt to variations in temperature, precipitation, and atmospheric composition. However, human-driven climate change has occurred much more quickly, and crop plants have suffered: Crop yields are down in many regions, as is seed protein content in cereal crops.

    “If we want to ensure an abundant supply of nutritious food for the world, we need to develop fundamental mechanisms for bioengineering a wide variety of crop plants that will be both hearty and nutritious in the face of our changing climate,” says Gehring. In her previous work, she has shown that many aspects of plant reproduction and seed development are controlled by epigenetics — that is, by information outside of the DNA sequence. She has been using that knowledge and the research methods she has developed to identify ways to create varieties of seed-producing plants that are more productive and resilient than current food crops.

    But plant biology is complex, and while it is possible to develop plants that integrate robustness-enhancing traits by combining dissimilar parental strains, scientists are still learning how to ensure that the new traits are carried forward from one generation to the next. “Plants that carry the robustness-enhancing traits have ‘hybrid vigor,’ and we believe that the perpetuation of those traits is controlled by epigenetics,” Gehring explains. “Right now, some food crops, like corn, can be engineered to benefit from hybrid vigor, but those traits are not inherited. That’s why farmers growing many of today’s most productive varieties of corn must purchase and plant new batches of seeds each year. Moreover, many important food crops have not yet realized the benefits of hybrid vigor.”

    The project Gehring leads, “Developing Clonal Seed Production to Fix Hybrid Vigor,” aims to enable food crop plants to create seeds that are both more robust and genetically identical to the parent — and thereby able to pass beneficial traits from generation to generation.

    The process of clonal (or asexual) production of seeds that are genetically identical to the maternal parent is called apomixis. Gehring says, “Because apomixis is present in 400 flowering plant species — about 1 percent of flowering plant species — it is probable that genes and signaling pathways necessary for apomixis are already present within crop plants. Our challenge is to tweak those genes and pathways so that the plant switches reproduction from sexual to asexual.”

    The project will leverage the fact that genes and pathways related to autonomous asexual development of the endosperm — a seed’s nutritive tissue — exist in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. In previous work on Arabidopsis, Gehring’s lab researched a specific gene that, when misregulated, drives development of an asexual endosperm-like material. “Normally, that seed would not be viable,” she notes. “But we believe that by epigenetic tuning of the expression of additional relevant genes, we will enable the plant to retain that material — and help achieve apomixis.”

    If Gehring and her colleagues succeed in creating a gene-expression “formula” for introducing endosperm apomixis into a wide range of crop plants, they will have made a fundamental and important achievement. Such a method could be applied throughout agriculture to create and perpetuate new crop breeds able to withstand their changing environments while requiring less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

    Creating “self-fertilizing” crops

    Roughly a quarter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States are a product of agriculture. Fertilizer production and use accounts for one third of those emissions and includes nitrous oxide, which has heat-trapping capacity 298-fold stronger than carbon dioxide, according to a 2018 Frontiers in Plant Science study. Most artificial fertilizer production also consumes huge quantities of natural gas and uses minerals mined from nonrenewable resources. After all that, much of the nitrogen fertilizer becomes runoff that pollutes local waterways. For those reasons, this Climate Grand Challenges flagship project aims to greatly reduce use of human-made fertilizers.

    One tantalizing approach is to cultivate cereal crop plants — which account for about 75 percent of global food production — capable of drawing nitrogen from metabolic interactions with bacteria in the soil. Whitehead Institute’s Weng leads an effort to do just that: genetically bioengineer crops such as corn, rice, and wheat to, essentially, create their own fertilizer through a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing microbes.

    “Legumes such as bean and pea plants can form root nodules through which they receive nitrogen from rhizobia bacteria in exchange for carbon,” Weng explains. “This metabolic exchange means that legumes release far less greenhouse gas — and require far less investment of fossil energy — than do cereal crops, which use a huge portion of the artificially produced nitrogen fertilizers employed today.

    “Our goal is to develop methods for transferring legumes’ ‘self-fertilizing’ capacity to cereal crops,” Weng says. “If we can, we will revolutionize the sustainability of food production.”

    The project — formally entitled “Mimicking legume-rhizobia symbiosis for fertilizer production in cereals” — will be a multistage, five-year effort. It draws on Weng’s extensive studies of metabolic evolution in plants and his identification of molecules involved in formation of the root nodules that permit exchanges between legumes and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It also leverages his expertise in reconstituting specific signaling and metabolic pathways in plants.

    Weng and his colleagues will begin by deciphering the full spectrum of small-molecule signaling processes that occur between legumes and rhizobium bacteria. Then they will genetically engineer an analogous system in nonlegume crop plants. Next, using state-of-the-art metabolomic methods, they will identify which small molecules excreted from legume roots prompt a nitrogen/carbon exchange from rhizobium bacteria. Finally, the researchers will genetically engineer the biosynthesis of those molecules in the roots of nonlegume plants and observe their effect on the rhizobium bacteria surrounding the roots.

    While the project is complex and technically challenging, its potential is staggering. “Focusing on corn alone, this could reduce the production and use of nitrogen fertilizer by 160,000 tons,” Weng notes. “And it could halve the related emissions of nitrous oxide gas.” More