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    Researchers develop a detector for continuously monitoring toxic gases

    Most systems used to detect toxic gases in industrial or domestic settings can be used only once, or at best a few times. Now, researchers at MIT have developed a detector that could provide continuous monitoring for the presence of these gases, at low cost.The new system combines two existing technologies, bringing them together in a way that preserves the advantages of each while avoiding their limitations. The team used a material called a metal-organic framework, or MOF, which is highly sensitive to tiny traces of gas but whose performance quickly degrades, and combined it with a polymer material that is highly durable and easier to process, but much less sensitive.The results are reported today in the journal Advanced Materials, in a paper by MIT professors Aristide Gumyusenge, Mircea Dinca, Heather Kulik, and Jesus del Alamo, graduate student Heejung Roh, and postdocs Dong-Ha Kim, Yeongsu Cho, and Young-Moo Jo.Highly porous and with large surface areas, MOFs come in a variety of compositions. Some can be insulators, but the ones used for this work are highly electrically conductive. With their sponge-like form, they are effective at capturing molecules of various gases, and the sizes of their pores can be tailored to make them selective for particular kinds of gases. “If you are using them as a sensor, you can recognize if the gas is there if it has an effect on the resistivity of the MOF,” says Gumyusenge, the paper’s senior author and the Merton C. Flemings Career Development Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.The drawback for these materials’ use as detectors for gases is that they readily become saturated, and then can no longer detect and quantify new inputs. “That’s not what you want. You want to be able to detect and reuse,” Gumyusenge says. “So, we decided to use a polymer composite to achieve this reversibility.”The team used a class of conductive polymers that Gumyusenge and his co-workers had previously shown can respond to gases without permanently binding to them. “The polymer, even though it doesn’t have the high surface area that the MOFs do, will at least provide this recognize-and-release type of phenomenon,” he says.The team combined the polymers in a liquid solution along with the MOF material in powdered form, and deposited the mixture on a substrate, where they dry into a uniform, thin coating. By combining the polymer, with its quick detection capability, and the more sensitive MOFs, in a one-to-one ratio, he says, “suddenly we get a sensor that has both the high sensitivity we get from the MOF and the reversibility that is enabled by the presence of the polymer.”The material changes its electrical resistance when molecules of the gas are temporarily trapped in the material. These changes in resistance can be continuously monitored by simply attaching an ohmmeter to track the resistance over time. Gumyusenge and his students demonstrated the composite material’s ability to detect nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas produced by many kinds of combustion, in a small lab-scale device. After 100 cycles of detection, the material was still maintaining its baseline performance within a margin of about 5 to 10 percent, demonstrating its long-term use potential.In addition, this material has far greater sensitivity than most presently used detectors for nitrogen dioxide, the team reports. This gas is often detected after the use of stove ovens. And, with this gas recently linked to many asthma cases in the U.S., reliable detection in low concentrations is important. The team demonstrated that this new composite could detect, reversibly, the gas at concentrations as low as 2 parts per million.While their demonstration was specifically aimed at nitrogen dioxide, Gumyusenge says, “we can definitely tailor the chemistry to target other volatile molecules,” as long as they are small polar analytes, “which tend to be most of the toxic gases.”Besides being compatible with a simple hand-held detector or a smoke-alarm type of device, one advantage of the material is that the polymer allows it to be deposited as an extremely thin uniform film, unlike regular MOFs, which are generally in an inefficient powder form. Because the films are so thin, there is little material needed and production material costs could be low; the processing methods could be typical of those used for industrial coating processes. “So, maybe the limiting factor will be scaling up the synthesis of the polymers, which we’ve been synthesizing in small amounts,” Gumyusenge says.“The next steps will be to evaluate these in real-life settings,” he says. For example, the material could be applied as a coating on chimneys or exhaust pipes to continuously monitor gases through readings from an attached resistance monitoring device. In such settings, he says, “we need tests to check if we truly differentiate it from other potential contaminants that we might have overlooked in the lab setting. Let’s put the sensors out in real-world scenarios and see how they do.”The work was supported by the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT, and the U.S. Department of Energy. More

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    Scientists develop an affordable sensor for lead contamination

    Engineers at MIT, Nanytang Technological University, and several companies have developed a compact and inexpensive technology for detecting and measuring lead concentrations in water, potentially enabling a significant advance in tackling this persistent global health issue.The World Health Organization estimates that 240 million people worldwide are exposed to drinking water that contains unsafe amounts of toxic lead, which can affect brain development in children, cause birth defects, and produce a variety of neurological, cardiac, and other damaging effects. In the United States alone, an estimated 10 million households still get drinking water delivered through lead pipes.“It’s an unaddressed public health crisis that leads to over 1 million deaths annually,” says Jia Xu Brian Sia, an MIT postdoc and the senior author of the paper describing the new technology.But testing for lead in water requires expensive, cumbersome equipment and typically requires days to get results. Or, it uses simple test strips that simply reveal a yes-or-no answer about the presence of lead but no information about its concentration. Current EPA regulations require drinking water to contain no more that 15 parts per billion of lead, a concentration so low it is difficult to detect.The new system, which could be ready for commercial deployment within two or three years, could detect lead concentrations as low as 1 part per billion, with high accuracy, using a simple chip-based detector housed in a handheld device. The technology gives nearly instant quantitative measurements and requires just a droplet of water.The findings are described in a paper appearing today in the journal Nature Communications, by Sia, MIT graduate student and lead author Luigi Ranno, Professor Juejun Hu, and 12 others at MIT and other institutions in academia and industry.The team set out to find a simple detection method based on the use of photonic chips, which use light to perform measurements. The challenging part was finding a way to attach to the photonic chip surface certain ring-shaped molecules known as crown ethers, which can capture specific ions such as lead. After years of effort, they were able to achieve that attachment via a chemical process known as Fischer esterification. “That is one of the essential breakthroughs we have made in this technology,” Sia says.In testing the new chip, the researchers showed that it can detect lead in water at concentrations as low as one part per billion. At much higher concentrations, which may be relevant for testing environmental contamination such as mine tailings, the accuracy is within 4 percent.The device works in water with varying levels of acidity, ranging from pH values of 6 to 8, “which covers most environmental samples,” Sia says. They have tested the device with seawater as well as tap water, and verified the accuracy of the measurements.In order to achieve such levels of accuracy, current testing requires a device called an inductive coupled plasma mass spectrometer. “These setups can be big and expensive,” Sia says. The sample processing can take days and requires experienced technical personnel.While the new chip system they developed is “the core part of the innovation,” Ranno says, further work will be needed to develop this into an integrated, handheld device for practical use. “For making an actual product, you would need to package it into a usable form factor,” he explains. This would involve having a small chip-based laser coupled to the photonic chip. “It’s a matter of mechanical design, some optical design, some chemistry, and figuring out the supply chain,” he says. While that takes time, he says, the underlying concepts are straightforward.The system can be adapted to detect other similar contaminants in water, including cadmium, copper, lithium, barium, cesium, and radium, Ranno says. The device could be used with simple cartridges that can be swapped out to detect different elements, each using slightly different crown ethers that can bind to a specific ion.“There’s this problem that people don’t measure their water enough, especially in the developing countries,” Ranno says. “And that’s because they need to collect the water, prepare the sample, and bring it to these huge instruments that are extremely expensive.” Instead, “having this handheld device, something compact that even untrained personnel can just bring to the source for on-site monitoring, at low costs,” could make regular, ongoing widespread testing feasible.Hu, who is the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, says, “I’m hoping this will be quickly implemented, so we can benefit human society. This is a good example of a technology coming from a lab innovation where it may actually make a very tangible impact on society, which is of course very fulfilling.”“If this study can be extended to simultaneous detection of multiple metal elements, especially the presently concerning radioactive elements, its potential would be immense,” says Hou Wang, an associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Hunan University in China, who was not associated with this work.Wang adds, “This research has engineered a sensor capable of instantaneously detecting lead concentration in water. This can be utilized in real-time to monitor the lead pollution concentration in wastewater discharged from industries such as battery manufacturing and lead smelting, facilitating the establishment of industrial wastewater monitoring systems. I think the innovative aspects and developmental potential of this research are quite commendable.”Wang Qian, a principal research scientist at the Institute of Materials Research in Singapore, who also was not affiliated with this work, says, “The ability for the pervasive, portable, and quantitative detection of lead has proved to be challenging primarily due to cost concerns. This work demonstrates the potential to do so in a highly integrated form factor and is compatible with large-scale, low-cost manufacturing.”The team included researchers at MIT, at Nanyang Technological University and Temasek Laboratories in Singapore, at the University of Southampton in the U.K., and at companies Fingate Technologies, in Singapore, and Vulcan Photonics, headquartered in Malaysia. The work used facilities at MIT.nano, the Harvard University Center for Nanoscale Systems, NTU’s Center for Micro- and Nano-Electronics, and the Nanyang Nanofabrication Center. More

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    Two MIT teams selected for NSF sustainable materials grants

    Two teams led by MIT researchers were selected in December 2023 by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator, a part of the TIP Directorate, to receive awards of $5 million each over three years, to pursue research aimed at helping to bring cutting-edge new sustainable materials and processes from the lab into practical, full-scale industrial production. The selection was made after 16 teams from around the country were chosen last year for one-year grants to develop detailed plans for further research aimed at solving problems of sustainability and scalability for advanced electronic products.

    Of the two MIT-led teams chosen for this current round of funding, one team, Topological Electric, is led by Mingda Li, an associate professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. This team will be finding pathways to scale up sustainable topological materials, which have the potential to revolutionize next-generation microelectronics by showing superior electronic performance, such as dissipationless states or high-frequency response. The other team, led by Anuradha Agarwal, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Materials Research Laboratory, will be focusing on developing new materials, devices, and manufacturing processes for microchips that minimize energy consumption using electronic-photonic integration, and that detect and avoid the toxic or scarce materials used in today’s production methods.

    Scaling the use of topological materials

    Li explains that some materials based on quantum effects have achieved successful transitions from lab curiosities to successful mass production, such as blue-light LEDs, and giant magnetorestance (GMR) devices used for magnetic data storage. But he says there are a variety of equally promising materials that have shown promise but have yet to make it into real-world applications.

    “What we really wanted to achieve is to bring newer-generation quantum materials into technology and mass production, for the benefit of broader society,” he says. In particular, he says, “topological materials are really promising to do many different things.”

    Topological materials are ones whose electronic properties are fundamentally protected against disturbance. For example, Li points to the fact that just in the last two years, it has been shown that some topological materials are even better electrical conductors than copper, which are typically used for the wires interconnecting electronic components. But unlike the blue-light LEDs or the GMR devices, which have been widely produced and deployed, when it comes to topological materials, “there’s no company, no startup, there’s really no business out there,” adds Tomas Palacios, the Clarence J. Lebel Professor in Electrical Engineering at MIT and co-principal investigator on Li’s team. Part of the reason is that many versions of such materials are studied “with a focus on fundamental exotic physical properties with little or no consideration on the sustainability aspects,” says Liang Fu, an MIT professor of physics and also a co-PI. Their team will be looking for alternative formulations that are more amenable to mass production.

    One possible application of these topological materials is for detecting terahertz radiation, explains Keith Nelson, an MIT professor of chemistry and co-PI. This extremely high-frequency electronics can carry far more information than conventional radio or microwaves, but at present there are no mature electronic devices available that are scalable at this frequency range. “There’s a whole range of possibilities for topological materials” that could work at these frequencies, he says. In addition, he says, “we hope to demonstrate an entire prototype system like this in a single, very compact solid-state platform.”

    Li says that among the many possible applications of topological devices for microelectronics devices of various kinds, “we don’t know which, exactly, will end up as a product, or will reach real industrial scaleup. That’s why this opportunity from NSF is like a bridge, which is precious, to allow us to dig deeper to unleash the true potential.”

    In addition to Li, Palacios, Fu, and Nelson, the Topological Electric team includes Qiong Ma, assistant professor of physics in Boston College; Farnaz Niroui, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT; Susanne Stemmer, professor of materials at the University of California at Santa Barbara; Judy Cha, professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell University; industrial partners including IBM, Analog Devices, and Raytheon; and professional consultants. “We are taking this opportunity seriously,” Li says. “We really want to see if the topological materials are as good as we show in the lab when being scaled up, and how far we can push to broadly industrialize them.”

    Toward sustainable microchip production and use

    The microchips behind everything from smartphones to medical imaging are associated with a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions today, and every year the world produces more than 50 million metric tons of electronic waste, the equivalent of about 5,000 Eiffel Towers. Further, the data centers necessary for complex computations and huge amount of data transfer — think AI and on-demand video — are growing and will require 10 percent of the world’s electricity by 2030.

    “The current microchip manufacturing supply chain, which includes production, distribution, and use, is neither scalable nor sustainable, and cannot continue. We must innovate our way out of this crisis,” says Agarwal.

    The name of Agarwal’s team, FUTUR-IC, is a reference to the future of the integrated circuits, or chips, through a global alliance for sustainable microchip manufacturing. Says Agarwal, “We bring together stakeholders from industry, academia, and government to co-optimize across three dimensions: technology, ecology, and workforce. These were identified as key interrelated areas by some 140 stakeholders. With FUTUR-IC we aim to cut waste and CO2-equivalent emissions associated with electronics by 50 percent every 10 years.”

    The market for microelectronics in the next decade is predicted to be on the order of a trillion dollars, but most of the manufacturing for the industry occurs only in limited geographical pockets around the world. FUTUR-IC aims to diversify and strengthen the supply chain for manufacturing and packaging of electronics. The alliance has 26 collaborators and is growing. Current external collaborators include the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI), Tyndall National Institute, SEMI, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Intel, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

    Agarwal leads FUTUR-IC in close collaboration with others, including, from MIT, Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; Elsa Olivetti, the Jerry McAfee Professor in Engineering; Randolph Kirchain, principal research scientist in the Materials Research Laboratory; and Greg Norris, director of MIT’s Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE). All are affiliated with the Materials Research Laboratory. They are joined by Samuel Serna, an MIT visiting professor and assistant professor of physics at Bridgewater State University. Other key personnel include Sajan Saini, education director for the Initiative for Knowledge and Innovation in Manufacturing in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Peter O’Brien, a professor from Tyndall National Institute; and Shekhar Chandrashekhar, CEO of iNEMI.

    “We expect the integration of electronics and photonics to revolutionize microchip manufacturing, enhancing efficiency, reducing energy consumption, and paving the way for unprecedented advancements in computing speed and data-processing capabilities,” says Serna, who is the co-lead on the project’s technology “vector.”

    Common metrics for these efforts are needed, says Norris, co-lead for the ecology vector, adding, “The microchip industry must have transparent and open Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) models and data, which are being developed by FUTUR-IC.” This is especially important given that microelectronics production transcends industries. “Given the scale and scope of microelectronics, it is critical for the industry to lead in the transition to sustainable manufacture and use,” says Kirchain, another co-lead and the co-director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT. To bring about this cross-fertilization, co-lead Olivetti, also co-director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), will collaborate with FUTUR-IC to enhance the benefits from microchip recycling, leveraging the learning across industries.

    Saini, the co-lead for the workforce vector, stresses the need for agility. “With a workforce that adapts to a practice of continuous upskilling, we can help increase the robustness of the chip-manufacturing supply chain, and validate a new design for a sustainability curriculum,” he says.

    “We have become accustomed to the benefits forged by the exponential growth of microelectronic technology performance and market size,” says Kimerling, who is also director of MIT’s Materials Research Laboratory and co-director of the MIT Microphotonics Center. “The ecological impact of this growth in terms of materials use, energy consumption and end-of-life disposal has begun to push back against this progress. We believe that concurrently engineered solutions for these three dimensions will build a common learning curve to power the next 40 years of progress in the semiconductor industry.”

    The MIT teams are two of six that received awards addressing sustainable materials for global challenges through phase two of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program. Launched in 2019, the program targets solutions to especially compelling challenges at an accelerated pace by incorporating a multidisciplinary research approach. More

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    MIT announces 2024 Bose Grants

    MIT Provost Cynthia Barnhart announced four Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grants to support bold research projects across diverse areas of study, including a way to generate clean hydrogen from deep in the Earth, build an environmentally friendly house of basalt, design maternity clothing that monitors fetal health, and recruit sharks as ocean oxygen monitors.

    This year’s recipients are Iwnetim Abate, assistant professor of materials science and engineering; Andrew Babbin, the Cecil and Ida Green Associate Professor in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; Yoel Fink, professor of materials science and engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science; and Skylar Tibbits, associate professor of design research in the Department of Architecture.

    The program was named for the visionary founder of the Bose Corporation and MIT alumnus Amar G. Bose ’51, SM ’52, ScD ’56. After gaining admission to MIT, Bose became a top math student and a Fulbright Scholarship recipient. He spent 46 years as a professor at MIT, led innovations in sound design, and founded the Bose Corp. in 1964. MIT launched the Bose grant program 11 years ago to provide funding over a three-year period to MIT faculty who propose original, cross-disciplinary, and often risky research projects that would likely not be funded by conventional sources.

    “The promise of the Bose Fellowship is to help bold, daring ideas become realities, an approach that honors Amar Bose’s legacy,” says Barnhart. “Thanks to support from this program, these talented faculty members have the freedom to explore their bold and innovative ideas.”

    Deep and clean hydrogen futures

    A green energy future will depend on harnessing hydrogen as a clean energy source, sequestering polluting carbon dioxide, and mining the minerals essential to building clean energy technologies such as advanced batteries. Iwnetim Abate thinks he has a solution for all three challenges: an innovative hydrogen reactor.

    He plans to build a reactor that will create natural hydrogen from ultramafic mineral rocks in the crust. “The Earth is literally a giant hydrogen factory waiting to be tapped,” Abate explains. “A back-of-the-envelope calculation for the first seven kilometers of the Earth’s crust estimates that there is enough ultramafic rock to produce hydrogen for 250,000 years.”

    The reactor envisioned by Abate injects water to create a reaction that releases hydrogen, while also supporting the injection of climate-altering carbon dioxide into the rock, providing a global carbon capacity of 100 trillion tons. At the same time, the reactor process could provide essential elements such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt — some of the most important raw materials used in advanced batteries and electronics.

    “Ultimately, our goal is to design and develop a scalable reactor for simultaneously tapping into the trifecta from the Earth’s subsurface,” Abate says.

    Sharks as oceanographers

    If we want to understand more about how oxygen levels in the world’s seas are disturbed by human activities and climate change, we should turn to a sensing platform “that has been honed by 400 million years of evolution to perfectly sample the ocean: sharks,” says Andrew Babbin.

    As the planet warms, oceans are projected to contain less dissolved oxygen, with impacts on the productivity of global fisheries, natural carbon sequestration, and the flux of climate-altering greenhouse gasses from the ocean to the air. While scientists know dissolved oxygen is important, it has proved difficult to track over seasons, decades, and underexplored regions both shallow and deep.

    Babbin’s goal is to develop a low-cost sensor for dissolved oxygen that can be integrated with preexisting electronic shark tags used by marine biologists. “This fleet of sharks … will finally enable us to measure the extent of the low-oxygen zones of the ocean, how they change seasonally and with El Niño/La Niña oscillation, and how they expand or contract into the future.”

    The partnership with sharks will also spotlight the importance of these often-maligned animals for global marine and fisheries health, Babbin says. “We hope in pursuing this work marrying microscopic and macroscopic life we will inspire future oceanographers and conservationists, and lead to a better appreciation for the chemistry that underlies global habitability.”

    Maternity wear that monitors fetal health

    There are 2 million stillbirths around the world each year, and in the United States alone, 21,000 families suffer this terrible loss. In many cases, mothers and their doctors had no warning of any abnormalities or changes in fetal health leading up to these deaths. Yoel Fink and colleagues are looking for a better way to monitor fetal health and provide proactive treatment.

    Fink is building on years of research on acoustic fabrics to design an affordable shirt for mothers that would monitor and communicate important details of fetal health. His team’s original research drew inspiration from the function of the eardrum, designing a fiber that could be woven into other fabrics to create a kind of fabric microphone.

    “Given the sensitivity of the acoustic fabrics in sensing these nanometer-scale vibrations, could a mother’s clothing transcend its conventional role and become a health monitor, picking up on the acoustic signals and subsequent vibrations that arise from her unborn baby’s heartbeat and motion?” Fink says. “Could a simple and affordable worn fabric allow an expecting mom to sleep better, knowing that her fetus is being listened to continuously?”

    The proposed maternity shirt could measure fetal heart and breathing rate, and might be able to give an indication of the fetal body position, he says. In the final stages of development, he and his colleagues hope to develop machine learning approaches that would identify abnormal fetal heart rate and motion and deliver real-time alerts.

    A basalt house in Iceland

    In the land of volcanoes, Skylar Tibbits wants to build a case-study home almost entirely from the basalt rock that makes up the Icelandic landscape.

    Architects are increasingly interested in building using one natural material — creating a monomaterial structure — that can be easily recycled. At the moment, the building industry represents 40 percent of carbon emissions worldwide, and consists of many materials and structures, from metal to plastics to concrete, that can’t be easily disassembled or reused.

    The proposed basalt house in Iceland, a project co-led by J. Jih, associate professor of the practice in the Department of Architecture, is “an architecture that would be fully composed of the surrounding earth, that melts back into that surrounding earth at the end of its lifespan, and that can be recycled infinitely,” Tibbits explains.

    Basalt, the most common rock form in the Earth’s crust, can be spun into fibers for insulation and rebar. Basalt fiber performs as well as glass and carbon fibers at a lower cost in some applications, although it is not widely used in architecture. In cast form, it can make corrosion- and heat-resistant plumbing, cladding and flooring.

    “A monomaterial architecture is both a simple and radical proposal that unfortunately falls outside of traditional funding avenues,” says Tibbits. “The Bose grant is the perfect and perhaps the only option for our research, which we see as a uniquely achievable moonshot with transformative potential for the entire built environment.” More

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    Extracting hydrogen from rocks

    It’s commonly thought that the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen, exists mainly alongside other elements — with oxygen in water, for example, and with carbon in methane. But naturally occurring underground pockets of pure hydrogen are punching holes in that notion — and generating attention as a potentially unlimited source of carbon-free power. One interested party is the U.S. Department of Energy, which last month awarded $20 million in research grants to 18 teams from laboratories, universities, and private companies to develop technologies that can lead to cheap, clean fuel from the subsurface. Geologic hydrogen, as it’s known, is produced when water reacts with iron-rich rocks, causing the iron to oxidize. One of the grant recipients, MIT Assistant Professor Iwnetim Abate’s research group, will use its $1.3 million grant to determine the ideal conditions for producing hydrogen underground — considering factors such as catalysts to initiate the chemical reaction, temperature, pressure, and pH levels. The goal is to improve efficiency for large-scale production, meeting global energy needs at a competitive cost. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are potentially billions of tons of geologic hydrogen buried in the Earth’s crust. Accumulations have been discovered worldwide, and a slew of startups are searching for extractable deposits. Abate is looking to jump-start the natural hydrogen production process, implementing “proactive” approaches that involve stimulating production and harvesting the gas.                                                                                                                         “We aim to optimize the reaction parameters to make the reaction faster and produce hydrogen in an economically feasible manner,” says Abate, the Chipman Development Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). Abate’s research centers on designing materials and technologies for the renewable energy transition, including next-generation batteries and novel chemical methods for energy storage. 

    Sparking innovation

    Interest in geologic hydrogen is growing at a time when governments worldwide are seeking carbon-free energy alternatives to oil and gas. In December, French President Emmanuel Macron said his government would provide funding to explore natural hydrogen. And in February, government and private sector witnesses briefed U.S. lawmakers on opportunities to extract hydrogen from the ground. Today commercial hydrogen is manufactured at $2 a kilogram, mostly for fertilizer and chemical and steel production, but most methods involve burning fossil fuels, which release Earth-heating carbon. “Green hydrogen,” produced with renewable energy, is promising, but at $7 per kilogram, it’s expensive. “If you get hydrogen at a dollar a kilo, it’s competitive with natural gas on an energy-price basis,” says Douglas Wicks, a program director at Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), the Department of Energy organization leading the geologic hydrogen grant program. Recipients of the ARPA-E grants include Colorado School of Mines, Texas Tech University, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, plus private companies including Koloma, a hydrogen production startup that has received funding from Amazon and Bill Gates. The projects themselves are diverse, ranging from applying industrial oil and gas methods for hydrogen production and extraction to developing models to understand hydrogen formation in rocks. The purpose: to address questions in what Wicks calls a “total white space.” “In geologic hydrogen, we don’t know how we can accelerate the production of it, because it’s a chemical reaction, nor do we really understand how to engineer the subsurface so that we can safely extract it,” Wicks says. “We’re trying to bring in the best skills of each of the different groups to work on this under the idea that the ensemble should be able to give us good answers in a fairly rapid timeframe.” Geochemist Viacheslav Zgonnik, one of the foremost experts in the natural hydrogen field, agrees that the list of unknowns is long, as is the road to the first commercial projects. But he says efforts to stimulate hydrogen production — to harness the natural reaction between water and rock — present “tremendous potential.” “The idea is to find ways we can accelerate that reaction and control it so we can produce hydrogen on demand in specific places,” says Zgonnik, CEO and founder of Natural Hydrogen Energy, a Denver-based startup that has mineral leases for exploratory drilling in the United States. “If we can achieve that goal, it means that we can potentially replace fossil fuels with stimulated hydrogen.”

    “A full-circle moment”

    For Abate, the connection to the project is personal. As a child in his hometown in Ethiopia, power outages were a usual occurrence — the lights would be out three, maybe four days a week. Flickering candles or pollutant-emitting kerosene lamps were often the only source of light for doing homework at night. “And for the household, we had to use wood and charcoal for chores such as cooking,” says Abate. “That was my story all the way until the end of high school and before I came to the U.S. for college.” In 1987, well-diggers drilling for water in Mali in Western Africa uncovered a natural hydrogen deposit, causing an explosion. Decades later, Malian entrepreneur Aliou Diallo and his Canadian oil and gas company tapped the well and used an engine to burn hydrogen and power electricity in the nearby village. Ditching oil and gas, Diallo launched Hydroma, the world’s first hydrogen exploration enterprise. The company is drilling wells near the original site that have yielded high concentrations of the gas. “So, what used to be known as an energy-poor continent now is generating hope for the future of the world,” Abate says. “Learning about that was a full-circle moment for me. Of course, the problem is global; the solution is global. But then the connection with my personal journey, plus the solution coming from my home continent, makes me personally connected to the problem and to the solution.”

    Experiments that scale

    Abate and researchers in his lab are formulating a recipe for a fluid that will induce the chemical reaction that triggers hydrogen production in rocks. The main ingredient is water, and the team is testing “simple” materials for catalysts that will speed up the reaction and in turn increase the amount of hydrogen produced, says postdoc Yifan Gao. “Some catalysts are very costly and hard to produce, requiring complex production or preparation,” Gao says. “A catalyst that’s inexpensive and abundant will allow us to enhance the production rate — that way, we produce it at an economically feasible rate, but also with an economically feasible yield.” The iron-rich rocks in which the chemical reaction happens can be found across the United States and the world. To optimize the reaction across a diversity of geological compositions and environments, Abate and Gao are developing what they call a high-throughput system, consisting of artificial intelligence software and robotics, to test different catalyst mixtures and simulate what would happen when applied to rocks from various regions, with different external conditions like temperature and pressure. “And from that we measure how much hydrogen we are producing for each possible combination,” Abate says. “Then the AI will learn from the experiments and suggest to us, ‘Based on what I’ve learned and based on the literature, I suggest you test this composition of catalyst material for this rock.’” The team is writing a paper on its project and aims to publish its findings in the coming months. The next milestones for the project, after developing the catalyst recipe, is designing a reactor that will serve two purposes. First, fitted with technologies such as Raman spectroscopy, it will allow researchers to identify and optimize the chemical conditions that lead to improved rates and yield of hydrogen production. The lab-scale device will also inform the design of a real-world reactor that can accelerate hydrogen production in the field. “That would be a plant-scale reactor that would be implanted into the subsurface,” Abate says. The cross-disciplinary project is also tapping the expertise of Yang Shao-Horn, of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and DMSE, for computational analysis of the catalyst, and Esteban Gazel, a Cornell University scientist who will lend his expertise in geology and geochemistry. He’ll focus on understanding the iron-rich ultramafic rock formations across the United States and the globe and how they react with water. For Wicks at ARPA-E, the questions Abate and the other grant recipients are asking are just the first, critical steps in uncharted energy territory. “If we can understand how to stimulate these rocks into generating hydrogen, safely getting it up, it really unleashes the potential energy source,” he says. Then the emerging industry will look to oil and gas for the drilling, piping, and gas extraction know-how. “As I like to say, this is enabling technology that we hope to, in a very short term, enable us to say, ‘Is there really something there?’” More

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    Power when the sun doesn’t shine

    In 2016, at the huge Houston energy conference CERAWeek, MIT materials scientist Yet-Ming Chiang found himself talking to a Tesla executive about a thorny problem: how to store the output of solar panels and wind turbines for long durations.        

    Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Mateo Jaramillo, a vice president at Tesla, knew that utilities lacked a cost-effective way to store renewable energy to cover peak levels of demand and to bridge the gaps during windless and cloudy days. They also knew that the scarcity of raw materials used in conventional energy storage devices needed to be addressed if renewables were ever going to displace fossil fuels on the grid at scale.

    Energy storage technologies can facilitate access to renewable energy sources, boost the stability and reliability of power grids, and ultimately accelerate grid decarbonization. The global market for these systems — essentially large batteries — is expected to grow tremendously in the coming years. A study by the nonprofit LDES (Long Duration Energy Storage) Council pegs the long-duration energy storage market at between 80 and 140 terawatt-hours by 2040. “That’s a really big number,” Chiang notes. “Every 10 people on the planet will need access to the equivalent of one EV [electric vehicle] battery to support their energy needs.”

    In 2017, one year after they met in Houston, Chiang and Jaramillo joined forces to co-found Form Energy in Somerville, Massachusetts, with MIT graduates Marco Ferrara SM ’06, PhD ’08 and William Woodford PhD ’13, and energy storage veteran Ted Wiley.

    “There is a burgeoning market for electrical energy storage because we want to achieve decarbonization as fast and as cost-effectively as possible,” says Ferrara, Form’s senior vice president in charge of software and analytics.

    Investors agreed. Over the next six years, Form Energy would raise more than $800 million in venture capital.

    Bridging gaps

    The simplest battery consists of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte. During discharge, with the help of the electrolyte, electrons flow from the negative anode to the positive cathode. During charge, external voltage reverses the process. The anode becomes the positive terminal, the cathode becomes the negative terminal, and electrons move back to where they started. Materials used for the anode, cathode, and electrolyte determine the battery’s weight, power, and cost “entitlement,” which is the total cost at the component level.

    During the 1980s and 1990s, the use of lithium revolutionized batteries, making them smaller, lighter, and able to hold a charge for longer. The storage devices Form Energy has devised are rechargeable batteries based on iron, which has several advantages over lithium. A big one is cost.

    Chiang once declared to the MIT Club of Northern California, “I love lithium-ion.” Two of the four MIT spinoffs Chiang founded center on innovative lithium-ion batteries. But at hundreds of dollars a kilowatt-hour (kWh) and with a storage capacity typically measured in hours, lithium-ion was ill-suited for the use he now had in mind.

    The approach Chiang envisioned had to be cost-effective enough to boost the attractiveness of renewables. Making solar and wind energy reliable enough for millions of customers meant storing it long enough to fill the gaps created by extreme weather conditions, grid outages, and when there is a lull in the wind or a few days of clouds.

    To be competitive with legacy power plants, Chiang’s method had to come in at around $20 per kilowatt-hour of stored energy — one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion battery storage.

    But how to transition from expensive batteries that store and discharge over a couple of hours to some as-yet-undefined, cheap, longer-duration technology?

    “One big ball of iron”

    That’s where Ferrara comes in. Ferrara has a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of L’Aquila in his native Italy. In 2017, as a research affiliate at the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, he worked with Chiang to model the grid’s need to manage renewables’ intermittency.

    How intermittent depends on where you are. In the United States, for instance, there’s the windy Great Plains; the sun-drenched, relatively low-wind deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada; and the often-cloudy Pacific Northwest.

    Ferrara, in collaboration with Professor Jessika Trancik of MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and her MIT team, modeled four representative locations in the United States and concluded that energy storage with capacity costs below roughly $20/kWh and discharge durations of multiple days would allow a wind-solar mix to provide cost-competitive, firm electricity in resource-abundant locations.

    Now that they had a time frame, they turned their attention to materials. At the price point Form Energy was aiming for, lithium was out of the question. Chiang looked at plentiful and cheap sulfur. But a sulfur, sodium, water, and air battery had technical challenges.

    Thomas Edison once used iron as an electrode, and iron-air batteries were first studied in the 1960s. They were too heavy to make good transportation batteries. But this time, Chiang and team were looking at a battery that sat on the ground, so weight didn’t matter. Their priorities were cost and availability.

    “Iron is produced, mined, and processed on every continent,” Chiang says. “The Earth is one big ball of iron. We wouldn’t ever have to worry about even the most ambitious projections of how much storage that the world might use by mid-century.” If Form ever moves into the residential market, “it’ll be the safest battery you’ve ever parked at your house,” Chiang laughs. “Just iron, air, and water.”

    Scientists call it reversible rusting. While discharging, the battery takes in oxygen and converts iron to rust. Applying an electrical current converts the rusty pellets back to iron, and the battery “breathes out” oxygen as it charges. “In chemical terms, you have iron, and it becomes iron hydroxide,” Chiang says. “That means electrons were extracted. You get those electrons to go through the external circuit, and now you have a battery.”

    Form Energy’s battery modules are approximately the size of a washer-and-dryer unit. They are stacked in 40-foot containers, and several containers are electrically connected with power conversion systems to build storage plants that can cover several acres.

    The right place at the right time

    The modules don’t look or act like anything utilities have contracted for before.

    That’s one of Form’s key challenges. “There is not widespread knowledge of needing these new tools for decarbonized grids,” Ferrara says. “That’s not the way utilities have typically planned. They’re looking at all the tools in the toolkit that exist today, which may not contemplate a multi-day energy storage asset.”

    Form Energy’s customers are largely traditional power companies seeking to expand their portfolios of renewable electricity. Some are in the process of decommissioning coal plants and shifting to renewables.

    Ferrara’s research pinpointing the need for very low-cost multi-day storage provides key data for power suppliers seeking to determine the most cost-effective way to integrate more renewable energy.

    Using the same modeling techniques, Ferrara and team show potential customers how the technology fits in with their existing system, how it competes with other technologies, and how, in some cases, it can operate synergistically with other storage technologies.

    “They may need a portfolio of storage technologies to fully balance renewables on different timescales of intermittency,” he says. But other than the technology developed at Form, “there isn’t much out there, certainly not within the cost entitlement of what we’re bringing to market.”  Thanks to Chiang and Jaramillo’s chance encounter in Houston, Form has a several-year lead on other companies working to address this challenge. 

    In June 2023, Form Energy closed its biggest deal to date for a single project: Georgia Power’s order for a 15-megawatt/1,500-megawatt-hour system. That order brings Form’s total amount of energy storage under contracts with utility customers to 40 megawatts/4 gigawatt-hours. To meet the demand, Form is building a new commercial-scale battery manufacturing facility in West Virginia.

    The fact that Form Energy is creating jobs in an area that lost more than 10,000 steel jobs over the past decade is not lost on Chiang. “And these new jobs are in clean tech. It’s super exciting to me personally to be doing something that benefits communities outside of our traditional technology centers.

    “This is the right time for so many reasons,” Chiang says. He says he and his Form Energy co-founders feel “tremendous urgency to get these batteries out into the world.”

    This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    MADMEC winner creates “temporary tattoos” for T-shirts

    Have you ever gotten a free T-shirt at an event that you never wear? What about a music or sports-themed shirt you wear to one event and then lose interest in entirely? Such one-off T-shirts — and the waste and pollution associated with them — are an unfortunately common part of our society.

    But what if you could change the designs on shirts after each use? The winners of this year’s MADMEC competition developed biodegradable “temporary tattoos” for T-shirts to make one-wear clothing more sustainable.

    Members of the winning team, called Me-Shirts, got their inspiration from the MADMEC event itself, which ordinarily makes a different T-shirt each year.

    “If you think about all the textile waste that’s produced for all these shirts, it’s insane,” team member and PhD candidate Isabella Caruso said in the winning presentation. “The main markets we are trying to address are for one-time T-shirts and custom T-shirts.”

    The problem is a big one. According to the team, the custom T-shirt market is a $4.3 billion industry. That doesn’t include trends like fast fashion that contribute to the 17 million tons of textile waste produced each year.

    “Our proposed solution is a temporary shirt tattoo made from biodegradable, nontoxic materials,” Caruso explained. “We wanted designs that are fully removable through washing, so that you can wear your T-shirt for your one-time event and then get a nice white T-shirt back afterward.”

    The team’s scalable design process mixes three simple ingredients: potato starch, glycerin, and water. The design can be imprinted on the shirt temporarily through ironing.

    The Me-Shirt team, which earned $10,000 with the win, plans to continue exploring material combinations to make the design more flexible and easier for people to apply at home. Future iterations could allow users to decide if they want the design to stay on the shirt during washes based on the settings of the washing machine.

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

    “The main goal is that they gained some confidence in their ability to design and build devices and platforms that are different from their normal experiences,” Mike Tarkanian, a senior lecturer in DMSE and coordinator of MADMEC, said at the event. “If it’s a departure from their normal research and coursework activities that’s a win, I think, to make them better engineers.”

    The second-place, $6,000 prize went to Alkalyne, which is creating a carbon-neutral polymer for petrochemical production. The company is developing approaches for using electricity and inorganic carbon to generate a high-energy hydrocarbon precursor. If developed using renewable energy, the approach could be used to achieve carbon negative petrochemical production.

    “A lot of our research, and a lot of the research around MIT in general, has to do with sustainability, so we wanted to try an angle that we think looks promising but doesn’t seem to be investigated enough,” PhD candidate Christopher Mallia explained.

    The third-place prize went to Microbeco, which is exploring the use of microbial fuel cells for continuous water quality monitoring. Microbes have been proposed as a way to detect and measure contaminants in water for decades, but the team believes the varying responses of microbes to different contaminants has limited the effectiveness of the approach.

    To overcome that problem, the team is working to isolate microbial strains that respond more regularly to specific contaminants.

    Overall, Tarkanian believes this year’s program was a success not only because of the final results presented at the competition, but because of the experience the students got along the way using equipment like laser cutters, 3D printers, and soldering irons. Many participants said they had never used that type of equipment before. They also said by working to build physical prototypes, the program helped make their coursework come to life.

    “It was a chance to try something new by applying my skills to a different environment,” PhD candidate Zachary Adams said. “I can see a lot of the concepts I learn in my classes through this work.” More

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    Angela Belcher delivers 2023 Dresselhaus Lecture on evolving organisms for new nanomaterials

    “How do we get to making nanomaterials that haven’t been evolved before?” asked Angela Belcher at the 2023 Mildred S. Dresselhaus Lecture at MIT on Nov. 20. “We can use elements that biology has already given us.”

    The combined in-person and virtual audience of over 300 was treated to a light-up, 3D model of M13 bacteriophage, a virus that only infects bacteria, complete with a pull-out strand of DNA. Belcher used the feather-boa-like model to show how her research group modifies the M13’s genes to add new DNA and peptide sequences to template inorganic materials.

    “I love controlling materials at the nanoscale using biology,” said Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering, materials science professor, and of the Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. “We all know if you control materials at the nanoscale and you can start to tune them, then you can have all kinds of different applications.” And the opportunities are indeed vast — from building batteries, fuel cells, and solar cells to carbon sequestration and storage, environmental remediation, catalysis, and medical diagnostics and imaging.

    Belcher sprinkled her talk with models and props, lined up on a table at the front of the 10-250 lecture hall, to demonstrate a wide variety of concepts and projects made possible by the intersection of biology and nanotechnology.

    Play video

    2023 Mildred S. Dresselhaus Lecture: Angela BelcherVideo: MIT.nano

    Energy storage and environment

    “How do you go from a DNA sequence to a functioning battery?” posed Belcher. Grabbing a model of a large carbon nanotube, she explained how her group engineered a phage to pick up carbon nanotubes that would wind all the way around the virus and then fill in with different cathode or anode materials to make nanowires for battery electrodes.

    How about using the M13 bacteriophage to improve the environment? Belcher referred to a project by former student Geran Zhang PhD ’19 that proved the virus can be modified for this context, too. He used the phage to template high-surface-area, carbon-based materials that can grab small molecules and break them down, Belcher said, opening a realm of possibilities from cleaning up rivers to developing chemical warfare agents to combating smog.

    Belcher’s lab worked with the U.S. Army to produce protective clothing and masks made of these carbon-based virus nanofibers. “We went from five liters in our lab to a thousand liters, then 10,000 liters in the army labs where we’re able to make kilograms of the material,” Belcher said, stressing the importance of being able to test and prototype at scale.

    Imaging tools and therapeutics in cancer

    In the area of biomedical imaging, Belcher explained, a lot less is known in near-infrared imaging — imaging in wavelengths above 1,000 nanometers — than other imaging techniques, yet with near-infrared scientists can see much deeper inside the body. Belcher’s lab built their own systems to image at these wavelengths. The third generation of this system provides real-time, sub-millimeter optical imaging for guided surgery.

    Working with Sangeeta Bhatia, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Engineering, Belcher used carbon nanotubes to build imaging tools that find tiny tumors during surgery that doctors otherwise would not be able to see. The tool is actually a virus engineered to carry with it a fluorescent, single-walled carbon nanotube as it seeks out the tumors.

    Nearing the end of her talk, Belcher presented a goal: to develop an accessible detection and diagnostic technology for ovarian cancer in five to 10 years.

    “We think that we can do it,” Belcher said. She described her students’ work developing a way to scan an entire fallopian tube, as opposed to just one small portion, to find pre-cancer lesions, and talked about the team of MIT faculty, doctors, and researchers working collectively toward this goal.

    “Part of the secret of life and the meaning of life is helping other people enjoy the passage of time,” said Belcher in her closing remarks. “I think that we can all do that by working to solve some of the biggest issues on the planet, including helping to diagnose and treat ovarian cancer early so people have more time to spend with their family.”

    Honoring Mildred S. Dresselhaus

    Belcher was the fifth speaker to deliver the Dresselhaus Lecture, an annual event organized by MIT.nano to honor the late MIT physics and electrical engineering Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus. The lecture features a speaker from anywhere in the world whose leadership and impact echo Dresselhaus’s life, accomplishments, and values.

    “Millie was and is a huge hero of mine,” said Belcher. “Giving a lecture in Millie’s name is just the greatest honor.”

    Belcher dedicated the talk to Dresselhaus, whom she described with an array of accolades — a trailblazer, a genius, an amazing mentor, teacher, and inventor. “Just knowing her was such a privilege,” she said.

    Belcher also dedicated her talk to her own grandmother and mother, both of whom passed away from cancer, as well as late MIT professors Susan Lindquist and Angelika Amon, who both died of ovarian cancer.

    “I’ve been so fortunate to work with just the most talented and dedicated graduate students, undergraduate students, postdocs, and researchers,” concluded Belcher. “It has been a pure joy to be in partnership with all of you to solve these very daunting problems.” More