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    Exploring new sides of climate and sustainability research

    When the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC) launched its Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program in fall 2022, the goal was to offer undergraduate students a unique way to develop and implement research projects with the strong support of each other and MIT faculty. Now into its second semester, the program is underscoring the value of fostering this kind of network — a community with MIT students at its core, exploring their diverse interests and passions in the climate and sustainability realms.Inspired by MIT’s successful SuperUROP [Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program], the yearlong MCSC Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program includes a classroom component combined with experiential learning opportunities and mentorship, all centered on climate and sustainability topics.“Harnessing the innovation, passion, and expertise of our talented students is critical to MIT’s mission of tackling the climate crisis,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering, Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and chair of the MCSC. “The program is helping train students from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds to be effective leaders in climate and sustainability-focused roles in the future.”

    “What we found inspiring about MIT’s existing SuperUROP program was how it provides students with the guidance, training, and resources they need to investigate the world’s toughest problems,” says Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and MCSC co-director. “This incredible level of support and mentorship encourages students to think and explore in creative ways, make new connections, and develop strategies and solutions that propel their work forward.”The first and current cohort of Climate and Sustainability Scholars consists of 19 students, representing MIT’s School of Engineering, MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, School of Science, School of Architecture and Planning, and MIT Sloan School of Management. These students are learning new perspectives, approaches, and angles in climate and sustainability — from each other, MIT faculty, and industry professionals.Projects with real-world applicationsStudents in the program work directly with faculty and principal investigators across MIT to develop their research projects focused on a large scope of sustainability topics.

    “This broad scope is important,” says Desirée Plata, MIT’s Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, “because climate and sustainability solutions are needed in every facet of society. For a long time, people were searching for a ‘silver bullet’ solution to the climate change problems, but we didn’t get to this point with a single technological decision. This problem was created across a spectrum of sociotechnological activities, and fundamentally different thinking across a spectrum of solutions is what’s needed to move us forward. MCSC students are working to provide those solutions.”

    Undergraduate student and physics major M. (MG) Geogdzhayeva is working with Raffaele Ferrari, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate, on their project “Using Continuous Time Markov Chains to Project Extreme Events under Climate.” Geogdzhayeva’s research supports the Flagship Climate Grand Challenges project that Ferrari is leading along with Professor Noelle Eckley Selin.

    “The project I am working on has a similar approach to the Climate Grand Challenges project entitled “Bringing computation to the climate challenge,” says Geogdzhayeva. “I am designing an emulator for climate extremes. Our goal is to boil down climate information to what is necessary and to create a framework that can deliver specific information — in order to develop valuable forecasts. As someone who comes from a physics background, the Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program has helped me think about how my research fits into the real world, and how it could be implemented.”

    Investigating technology and stakeholders

    Within technology development, Jade Chongsathapornpong, also a physics major, is diving into photo-modulated catalytic reactions for clean energy applications. Chongsathapornpong, who has worked with the MCSC on carbon capture and sequestration through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), is now working with Harry Tuller, MIT’s R.P. Simmons Professor of Ceramics and Electronic Materials. Louise Anderfaas, majoring in materials science and engineering, is also working with Tuller on her project “Robust and High Sensitivity Detectors for Exploration of Deep Geothermal Wells.”Two other students who have worked with the MCSC through UROP include Paul Irvine, electrical engineering and computer science major, who is now researching American conservatism’s current relation to and views about sustainability and climate change, and Pamela Duke, management major, now investigating the use of simulation tools to empower industrial decision-makers around climate change action.Other projects focusing on technology development include the experimental characterization of poly(arylene ethers) for energy-efficient propane/propylene separations by Duha Syar, who is a chemical engineering major and working with Zachary Smith, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering; developing methods to improve sheet steel recycling by Rebecca Lizarde, who is majoring in materials science and engineering; and ion conduction in polymer-ceramic composite electrolytes by Melissa Stok, also majoring in materials science and engineering.

    Melissa Stok, materials science and engineering major, during a classroom discussion.

    Photo: Andrew Okyere

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    “My project is very closely connected to developing better Li-Ion batteries, which are extremely important in our transition towards clean energy,” explains Stok, who is working with Bilge Yildiz, MIT’s Breene M. Kerr (1951) Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering. “Currently, electric cars are limited in their range by their battery capacity, so working to create more effective batteries with higher energy densities and better power capacities will help make these cars go farther and faster. In addition, using safer materials that do not have as high of an environmental toll for extraction is also important.” Claire Kim, a chemical engineering major, is focusing on batteries as well, but is honing in on large form factor batteries more relevant for grid-scale energy storage with Fikile Brushett, associate professor of chemical engineering.Some students in the program chose to focus on stakeholders, which, when it comes to climate and sustainability, can range from entities in business and industry to farmers to Indigenous people and their communities. Shivani Konduru, an electrical engineering and computer science major, is exploring the “backfire effects” in climate change communication, focusing on perceptions of climate change and how the messenger may change outcomes, and Einat Gavish, mathematics major, on how different stakeholders perceive information on driving behavior.Two students are researching the impact of technology on local populations. Anushree Chaudhuri, who is majoring in urban studies and planning, is working with Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, on community acceptance of renewable energy siting, and Amelia Dogan, also an urban studies and planning major, is working with Danielle Wood, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics and media arts and sciences, on Indigenous data sovereignty in environmental contexts.

    “I am interviewing Indigenous environmental activists for my project,” says Dogan. “This course is the first one directly related to sustainability that I have taken, and I am really enjoying it. It has opened me up to other aspects of climate beyond just the humanity side, which is my focus. I did MIT’s SuperUROP program and loved it, so was excited to do this similar opportunity with the climate and sustainability focus.”

    Other projects include in-field monitoring of water quality by Dahlia Dry, a physics major; understanding carbon release and accrual in coastal wetlands by Trinity Stallins, an urban studies and planning major; and investigating enzyme synthesis for bioremediation by Delight Nweneka, an electrical engineering and computer science major, each linked to the MCSC’s impact pathway work in nature-based solutions.

    The wide range of research topics underscores the Climate and Sustainability Program’s goal of bringing together diverse interests, backgrounds, and areas of study even within the same major. For example, Helena McDonald is studying pollution impacts of rocket launches, while Aviva Intveld is analyzing the paleoclimate and paleoenvironment background of the first peopling of the Americas. Both students are Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences majors but are researching climate impacts from very different perspectives. Intveld was recently named a 2023 Gates Cambridge Scholar.

    “There are students represented from several majors in the program, and some people are working on more technical projects, while others are interpersonal. Both approaches are really necessary in the pursuit of climate resilience,” says Grace Harrington, who is majoring in civil and environmental engineering and whose project investigates ways to optimize the power of the wind farm. “I think it’s one of the few classes I’ve taken with such an interdisciplinary nature.”

    Shivani Konduru, electrical engineering and computer science major, during a classroom lecture

    Photo: Andrew Okyere

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    Perspectives and guidance from MIT and industry expertsAs students are developing these projects, they are also taking the program’s course (Climate.UAR), which covers key topics in climate change science, decarbonization strategies, policy, environmental justice, and quantitative methods for evaluating social and environmental impacts. The course is cross-listed in departments across all five schools and is taught by an experienced and interdisciplinary team. Desirée Plata was central to developing the Climate and Sustainability Scholars Programs and course with Associate Professor Elsa Olivetti, who taught the first semester. Olivetti is now co-teaching the second semester with Jeffrey C. Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and MCSC co-director. The course’s writing instructors are Caroline Beimford and David Larson.  

    “I have been introduced to a lot of new angles in the climate space through the weekly guest lecturers, who each shared a different sustainability-related perspective,” says Claire Kim. “As a chemical engineering major, I have mostly looked into the technologies for decarbonization, and how to scale them, so learning about policy, for example, was helpful for me. Professor Black from the Department of History spoke about how we can analyze the effectiveness of past policy to guide future policy, while Professor Selin talked about framing different climate policies as having co-benefits. These perspectives are really useful because no matter how good a technology is, you need to convince other people to adopt it, or have strong policy in place to encourage its use, in order for it to be effective.”

    Bringing the industry perspective, guests have presented from MCSC member companies such as PepsiCo, Holcim, Apple, Cargill, and Boeing. As an example, in one class, climate leaders from three companies presented together on their approaches to setting climate goals, barriers to reaching them, and ways to work together. “When I presented to the class, alongside my counterparts at Apple and Boeing, the student questions pushed us to explain how can collaborate on ways to achieve our climate goals, reflecting the broader opportunity we find within the MCSC,” says Dana Boyer, sustainability manager at Cargill.

    Witnessing the cross-industry dynamics unfold in class was particularly engaging for the students. “The most beneficial part of the program for me is the number of guest lectures who have come in to the class, not only from MIT but also from the industry side,” Grace Harrington adds. “The diverse range of people talking about their own fields has allowed me to make connections between all my classes.”Bringing in perspectives from both academia and industry is a reflection of the MCSC’s larger mission of linking its corporate members with each other and with the MIT community to develop scalable climate solutions.“In addition to focusing on an independent research project and engaging with a peer community, we’ve had the opportunity to hear from speakers across the sustainability space who are also part of or closely connected to the MIT ecosystem,” says Anushree Chaudhuri. “These opportunities have helped me make connections and learn about initiatives at the Institute that are closely related to existing or planned student sustainability projects. These connections — across topics like waste management, survey best practices, and climate communications — have strengthened student projects and opened pathways for future collaborations.

    Basuhi Ravi, MIT PhD candidate, giving a guest lecture

    Photo: Andrew Okyere

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    Having a positive impact as students and after graduation

    At the start of the program, students identified several goals, including developing focused independent research questions, drawing connections and links with real-world challenges, strengthening their critical thinking skills, and reflecting on their future career ambitions. A common thread throughout them all: the commitment to having a meaningful impact on climate and sustainability challenges both as students now, and as working professionals after graduation.“I’ve absolutely loved connecting with like-minded peers through the program. I happened to know most of the students coming in from various other communities on campus, so it’s been a really special experience for all of these people who I couldn’t connect with as a cohesive cohort before to come together. Whenever we have small group discussions in class, I’m always grateful for the time to learn about the interdisciplinary research projects everyone is involved with,” concludes Chaudhuri. “I’m looking forward to staying in touch with this group going forward, since I think most of us are planning on grad school and/or careers related to climate and sustainability.”

    The MCSC Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program is representative of MIT’s ambitious and bold initiatives on climate and sustainability — bringing together faculty and students across MIT to collaborate with industry on developing climate and sustainability solutions in the context of undergraduate education and research. Learn about how you can get involved. More

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    Scientists uncover the amazing way sandgrouse hold water in their feathers

    Many birds’ feathers are remarkably efficient at shedding water — so much so that “like water off a duck’s back” is a common expression. Much more unusual are the belly feathers of the sandgrouse, especially Namaqua sandgrouse, which absorb and retain water so efficiently the male birds can fly more than 20 kilometers from a distant watering hole back to the nest and still retain enough water in their feathers for the chicks to drink and sustain themselves in the searing deserts of Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa.

    How do those feathers work? While scientists had inferred a rough picture, it took the latest tools of microscopy, and patient work with a collection of sandgrouse feathers, to unlock the unique structural details that enable the feathers to hold water. The findings appear today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, in a paper by Lorna Gibson, the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, and Professor Jochen Mueller of Johns Hopkins University.

    The unique water-carrying ability of sandgrouse feathers was first reported back in 1896, Gibson says, by E.G.B. Meade-Waldo, who was breeding the birds in captivity. “He saw them behaving like this, and nobody believed him! I mean, it just sounded so outlandish,” Gibson says.

    In 1967, Tom Cade and Gordon MacLean reported detailed observations of the birds at watering holes, in a study that proved the unique behavior was indeed real. The scientists found that male sandgrouse feathers could hold about 25 milliliters of water, or about a tenth of a cup, after the bird had spent about five minutes dipping in the water and fluffing its feathers.

    About half of that amount can evaporate during the male bird’s half-hour-long flight back to the nest, where the chicks, which cannot fly for about their first month, drink the remainder straight from the feathers.

    Cade and MacLean “had part of the story,” Gibson says, but the tools didn’t exist at the time to carry out the detailed imaging of the feather structures that the new study was able to do.

    Gibson and Mueller carried out their study using scanning electron microscopy, micro-computed tomography, and video imaging. They borrowed Namaqua sandgrouse belly feathers from Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, which has a collection of specimens of about 80 percent of the world’s birds.

    Bird feathers in general have a central shaft, from which smaller barbs extend, and then smaller barbules extend out from those. Sandgrouse feathers are structured differently, however. In the inner zone of the feather, the barbules have a helically coiled structure close to their base and then a straight extension. In the outer zone of the feather, the barbules lack the helical coil and are simply straight. Both parts lack the grooves and hooks that hold the vane of contour feathers together in most other birds.
    Video of water spreading through the specialized sandgrouse feathers, under magnification, shows the uncoiling and spreading of the feather’s barbules as they become wet. Initially, most barbules in the outer zone of the feather form tubular features.Credit: Specimen #142928, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

    When wetted, the coiled portions of the barbules unwind and rotate to be perpendicular to the vane, producing a dense forest of fibers that can hold water through capillary action. At the same time, the barbules in the outer zone curl inward, helping to hold the water in.

    The microscopy techniques used in the new study allowed the dimensions of the different parts of the feather to be measured. In the inner zone, the barb shafts are large and stiff enough to provide a rigid base about which the other parts of the feather deform, and the barbules are small and flexible enough that surface tension is sufficient to bend the straight extensions into tear-like structures that hold water. And in the outer zone, the barb shafts and barbules are smaller still, allowing them to curl around the inner zone, further retaining water.

    While previous work had suggested that surface tension produced the water retention characteristics, “what we did was make measurements of the dimensions and do some calculations to show that that’s what is actually happening,” Gibson says. Her group’s work demonstrated that the varying stiffnesses of the different feather parts plays a key role in their ability to hold water.

    The study was mostly driven by intellectual curiosity about this unique behavioral phenomenon, Gibson says. “We just wanted to see how it works. The whole story just seemed so interesting.” But she says it might lead to some useful applications. For example, in desert regions where water is scarce but fog and dew regularly occur, such as in Chile’s Atacama Desert, some adaptation of this feather structure might be incorporated into the systems of huge nets that are used to collect water. “You could imagine this could be a way to improve those systems,” she says. “A material with this kind of structure might be more effective at fog harvesting and holding the water.”

    “This fascinating and in-depth study reveals how the different parts of the sandgrouse’s belly feathers — including the microscopic barb shafts and barbules — work together to hold water,” says Mary Caswell Stoddard, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, who was not associated with this study. “By using a suite of advanced imaging techniques to describe the belly feathers and estimate their bending stiffnesses, Mueller and Gibson add rich new details to our understanding of the sandgrouse’s water-carrying feathers. … This study may inspire others to take a closer look at diverse feather microstructures across bird species — and to wonder whether these structures, as in sandgrouse, help support unusual or surprising functions.”

    The work was partly supported by the National Science Foundation and the Matoula S. Salapatas Professorship in Materials Science and Engineering at MIT. More

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    MIT-led teams win National Science Foundation grants to research sustainable materials

    Three MIT-led teams are among 16 nationwide to receive funding awards to address sustainable materials for global challenges through the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program. Launched in 2019, the program targets solutions to especially compelling societal or scientific challenges at an accelerated pace, by incorporating a multidisciplinary research approach.

    “Solutions for today’s national-scale societal challenges are hard to solve within a single discipline. Instead, these challenges require convergence to merge ideas, approaches, and technologies from a wide range of diverse sectors, disciplines, and experts,” the NSF explains in its description of the Convergence Accelerator program. Phase 1 of the award involves planning to expand initial concepts, identify new team members, participate in an NSF development curriculum, and create an early prototype.

    Sustainable microchips

    One of the funded projects, “Building a Sustainable, Innovative Ecosystem for Microchip Manufacturing,” will be led by Anuradha Murthy Agarwal, a principal research scientist at the MIT Materials Research Laboratory. The aim of this project is to help transition the manufacturing of microchips to more sustainable processes that, for example, can reduce e-waste landfills by allowing repair of chips, or enable users to swap out a rogue chip in a motherboard rather than tossing out the entire laptop or cellphone.

    “Our goal is to help transition microchip manufacturing towards a sustainable industry,” says Agarwal. “We aim to do that by partnering with industry in a multimodal approach that prototypes technology designs to minimize energy consumption and waste generation, retrains the semiconductor workforce, and creates a roadmap for a new industrial ecology to mitigate materials-critical limitations and supply-chain constraints.”

    Agarwal’s co-principal investigators are Samuel Serna, an MIT visiting professor and assistant professor of physics at Bridgewater State University, and two MIT faculty affiliated with the Materials Research Laboratory: Juejun Hu, the John Elliott Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; and Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.

    The training component of the project will also create curricula for multiple audiences. “At Bridgewater State University, we will create a new undergraduate course on microchip manufacturing sustainability, and eventually adapt it for audiences from K-12, as well as incumbent employees,” says Serna.

    Sajan Saini and Erik Verlage of the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), and Randolph Kirchain from the MIT Materials Systems Laboratory, who have led MIT initiatives in virtual reality digital education, materials criticality, and roadmapping, are key contributors. The project also includes DMSE graduate students Drew Weninger and Luigi Ranno, and undergraduate Samuel Bechtold from Bridgewater State University’s Department of Physics.

    Sustainable topological materials

    Under the direction of Mingda Li, the Class of 1947 Career Development Professor and an Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, the “Sustainable Topological Energy Materials (STEM) for Energy-efficient Applications” project will accelerate research in sustainable topological quantum materials.

    Topological materials are ones that retain a particular property through all external disturbances. Such materials could potentially be a boon for quantum computing, which has so far been plagued by instability, and would usher in a post-silicon era for microelectronics. Even better, says Li, topological materials can do their job without dissipating energy even at room temperatures.

    Topological materials can find a variety of applications in quantum computing, energy harvesting, and microelectronics. Despite their promise, and a few thousands of potential candidates, discovery and mass production of these materials has been challenging. Topology itself is not a measurable characteristic so researchers have to first develop ways to find hints of it. Synthesis of materials and related process optimization can take months, if not years, Li adds. Machine learning can accelerate the discovery and vetting stage.

    Given that a best-in-class topological quantum material has the potential to disrupt the semiconductor and computing industries, Li and team are paying special attention to the environmental sustainability of prospective materials. For example, some potential candidates include gold, lead, or cadmium, whose scarcity or toxicity does not lend itself to mass production and have been disqualified.

    Co-principal investigators on the project include Liang Fu, associate professor of physics at MIT; Tomas Palacios, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and director of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories; Susanne Stemmer of the University of California at Santa Barbara; and Qiong Ma of Boston College. The $750,000 one-year Phase 1 grant will focus on three priorities: building a topological materials database; identifying the most environmentally sustainable candidates for energy-efficient topological applications; and building the foundation for a Center for Sustainable Topological Energy Materials at MIT that will encourage industry-academia collaborations.

    At a time when the size of silicon-based electronic circuit boards is reaching its lower limit, the promise of topological materials whose conductivity increases with decreasing size is especially attractive, Li says. In addition, topological materials can harvest wasted heat: Imagine using your body heat to power your phone. “There are different types of application scenarios, and we can go much beyond the capabilities of existing materials,” Li says, “the possibilities of topological materials are endlessly exciting.”

    Socioresilient materials design

    Researchers in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) have been awarded $750,000 in a cross-disciplinary project that aims to fundamentally redirect materials research and development toward more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable and resilient materials. This “socioresilient materials design” will serve as the foundation for a new research and development framework that takes into account technical, environmental, and social factors from the beginning of the materials design and development process.

    Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Ellan Spero PhD ’14, an instructor in DMSE, are leading this research effort, which includes Cornell University, the University of Swansea, Citrine Informatics, Station1, and 14 other organizations in academia, industry, venture capital, the social sector, government, and philanthropy.

    The team’s project, “Mind Over Matter: Socioresilient Materials Design,” emphasizes that circular design approaches, which aim to minimize waste and maximize the reuse, repair, and recycling of materials, are often insufficient to address negative repercussions for the planet and for human health and safety.

    Too often society understands the unintended negative consequences long after the materials that make up our homes and cities and systems have been in production and use for many years. Examples include disparate and negative public health impacts due to industrial scale manufacturing of materials, water and air contamination with harmful materials, and increased risk of fire in lower-income housing buildings due to flawed materials usage and design. Adverse climate events including drought, flood, extreme temperatures, and hurricanes have accelerated materials degradation, for example in critical infrastructure, leading to amplified environmental damage and social injustice. While classical materials design and selection approaches are insufficient to address these challenges, the new research project aims to do just that.

    “The imagination and technical expertise that goes into materials design is too often separated from the environmental and social realities of extraction, manufacturing, and end-of-life for materials,” says Ortiz. 

    Drawing on materials science and engineering, chemistry, and computer science, the project will develop a framework for materials design and development. It will incorporate powerful computational capabilities — artificial intelligence and machine learning with physics-based materials models — plus rigorous methodologies from the social sciences and the humanities to understand what impacts any new material put into production could have on society. More

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    Aviva Intveld named 2023 Gates Cambridge Scholar

    MIT senior Aviva Intveld has won the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which offers students an opportunity to pursue graduate study in the field of their choice at Cambridge University in the U.K. Intveld will join the other 23 U.S. citizens selected for the 2023 class of scholars.

    Intveld, from Los Angeles, is majoring in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, and minoring in materials science and engineering with concentrations in geology, geochemistry, and archaeology. Her research interests span the intersections among those fields to better understand how the natural environments of the past have shaped human movement and decision-making.

    At Cambridge, Intveld will undertake a research MPhil in earth sciences at the Godwin Lab for Paleoclimate Research, where she will investigate the impact of past climate on the ancient Maya in northwest Yucatán via cave sediment records. She hopes to pursue an impact-oriented research career in paleoclimate and paleoenvironment reconstruction and ultimately apply the lessons learned from her research to inform modern climate policy. She is particularly passionate about sustainable mining of energy-critical elements and addressing climate change inequality in her home state of California.

    Intveld’s work at Cambridge will build upon her extensive research experience at MIT. She currently works in the McGee Lab reconstructing the Late Pleistocene-Early Holocene paleoclimate of northeastern Mexico to provide a climatic background to the first peopling of the Americas. Previously, she explored the influence of mountain plate tectonics on biodiversity in the Perron Lab. During a summer research position at the University of Haifa in Israel she analyzed the microfossil assemblage of an offshore sediment core for paleo-coastal reconstruction.

    Last summer, Intveld interned at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Homer, Alaska, to identify geologic controls on regional groundwater chemistry. She has also interned with the World Wildlife Fund and with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. During her the spring semester of her junior year, Intveld studied abroad through MISTI at Imperial College London’s Royal School of Mines and completed geology field work in Sardinia, Italy.

    Intveld has been a strong presence on MIT’s campus, serving as the undergraduate representative on the EAPS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. She leads tours for the MIT List Visual Arts Center, is a member of and associate advisor for the Terrascope Learning Community, and is a participant in the Addir Interfaith Dialogue Fellowship.

    Inveld was advised in her application by Kim Benard, associate dean of the Distinguished Fellowships team in Career Advising and Professional Development, who says, “Aviva’s work is at a fascinating crossroads of archeology, geology, and sustainability. She has already done extraordinary work, and this opportunity will prepare her even more to be influential in the fight for climate mitigation.”

    Established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship provides full funding for talented students from outside the United Kingdom to pursue postgraduate study in any subject at Cambridge University. Since the program’s inception in 2001, there have been 33 Gates Cambridge Scholars from MIT. More

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    Engineers solve a mystery on the path to smaller, lighter batteries

    A discovery by MIT researchers could finally unlock the door to the design of a new kind of rechargeable lithium battery that is more lightweight, compact, and safe than current versions, and that has been pursued by labs around the world for years.

    The key to this potential leap in battery technology is replacing the liquid electrolyte that sits between the positive and negative electrodes with a much thinner, lighter layer of solid ceramic material, and replacing one of the electrodes with solid lithium metal. This would greatly reduce the overall size and weight of the battery and remove the safety risk associated with liquid electrolytes, which are flammable. But that quest has been beset with one big problem: dendrites.

    Dendrites, whose name comes from the Latin for branches, are projections of metal that can build up on the lithium surface and penetrate into the solid electrolyte, eventually crossing from one electrode to the other and shorting out the battery cell. Researchers haven’t been able to agree on what gives rise to these metal filaments, nor has there been much progress on how to prevent them and thus make lightweight solid-state batteries a practical option.

    The new research, being published today in the journal Joule in a paper by MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang, graduate student Cole Fincher, and five others at MIT and Brown University, seems to resolve the question of what causes dendrite formation. It also shows how dendrites can be prevented from crossing through the electrolyte.

    Chiang says in the group’s earlier work, they made a “surprising and unexpected” finding, which was that the hard, solid electrolyte material used for a solid-state battery can be penetrated by lithium, which is a very soft metal, during the process of charging and discharging the battery, as ions of lithium move between the two sides.

    This shuttling back and forth of ions causes the volume of the electrodes to change. That inevitably causes stresses in the solid electrolyte, which has to remain fully in contact with both of the electrodes that it is sandwiched between. “To deposit this metal, there has to be an expansion of the volume because you’re adding new mass,” Chiang says. “So, there’s an increase in volume on the side of the cell where the lithium is being deposited. And if there are even microscopic flaws present, this will generate a pressure on those flaws that can cause cracking.”

    Those stresses, the team has now shown, cause the cracks that allow dendrites to form. The solution to the problem turns out to be more stress, applied in just the right direction and with the right amount of force.

    While previously, some researchers thought that dendrites formed by a purely electrochemical process, rather than a mechanical one, the team’s experiments demonstrate that it is mechanical stresses that cause the problem.

    The process of dendrite formation normally takes place deep within the opaque materials of the battery cell and cannot be observed directly, so Fincher developed a way of making thin cells using a transparent electrolyte, allowing the whole process to be directly seen and recorded. “You can see what happens when you put a compression on the system, and you can see whether or not the dendrites behave in a way that’s commensurate with a corrosion process or a fracture process,” he says.

    The team demonstrated that they could directly manipulate the growth of dendrites simply by applying and releasing pressure, causing the dendrites to zig and zag in perfect alignment with the direction of the force.

    Applying mechanical stresses to the solid electrolyte doesn’t eliminate the formation of dendrites, but it does control the direction of their growth. This means they can be directed to remain parallel to the two electrodes and prevented from ever crossing to the other side, and thus rendered harmless.

    In their tests, the researchers used pressure induced by bending the material, which was formed into a beam with a weight at one end. But they say that in practice, there could be many different ways of producing the needed stress. For example, the electrolyte could be made with two layers of material that have different amounts of thermal expansion, so that there is an inherent bending of the material, as is done in some thermostats.

    Another approach would be to “dope” the material with atoms that would become embedded in it, distorting it and leaving it in a permanently stressed state. This is the same method used to produce the super-hard glass used in the screens of smart phones and tablets, Chiang explains. And the amount of pressure needed is not extreme: The experiments showed that pressures of 150 to 200 megapascals were sufficient to stop the dendrites from crossing the electrolyte.

    The required pressure is “commensurate with stresses that are commonly induced in commercial film growth processes and many other manufacturing processes,” so should not be difficult to implement in practice, Fincher adds.

    In fact, a different kind of stress, called stack pressure, is often applied to battery cells, by essentially squishing the material in the direction perpendicular to the battery’s plates — somewhat like compressing a sandwich by putting a weight on top of it. It was thought that this might help prevent the layers from separating. But the experiments have now demonstrated that pressure in that direction actually exacerbates dendrite formation. “We showed that this type of stack pressure actually accelerates dendrite-induced failure,” Fincher says.

    What is needed instead is pressure along the plane of the plates, as if the sandwich were being squeezed from the sides. “What we have shown in this work is that when you apply a compressive force you can force the dendrites to travel in the direction of the compression,” Fincher says, and if that direction is along the plane of the plates, the dendrites “will never get to the other side.”

    That could finally make it practical to produce batteries using solid electrolyte and metallic lithium electrodes. Not only would these pack more energy into a given volume and weight, but they would eliminate the need for liquid electrolytes, which are flammable materials.

    Having demonstrated the basic principles involved, the team’s next step will be to try to apply these to the creation of a functional prototype battery, Chiang says, and then to figure out exactly what manufacturing processes would be needed to produce such batteries in quantity. Though they have filed for a patent, the researchers don’t plan to commercialize the system themselves, he says, as there are already companies working on the development of solid-state batteries. “I would say this is an understanding of failure modes in solid-state batteries that we believe the industry needs to be aware of and try to use in designing better products,” he says.

    The research team included Christos Athanasiou and Brian Sheldon at Brown University, and Colin Gilgenbach, Michael Wang, and W. Craig Carter at MIT. The work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy. More

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    On batteries, teaching, and world peace

    Over his long career as an electrochemist and professor, Donald Sadoway has earned an impressive variety of honors, from being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012 to appearing on “The Colbert Report,” where he talked about “renewable energy and world peace,” according to Comedy Central.

    What does he personally consider to be his top achievements?

    “That’s easy,” he says immediately. “For teaching, it’s 3.091,” the MIT course on solid-state chemistry he led for some 18 years. An MIT core requirement, 3.091 is also one of the largest classes at the Institute. In 2003 it was the largest, with 630 students. Sadoway, who retires this year after 45 years in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, estimates that over the years he’s taught the course to some 10,000 undergraduates.

    A passion for teaching

    Along the way he turned the class into an MIT favorite, complete with music, art, and literature. “I brought in all that enrichment because I knew that 95 percent of the students in that room weren’t going to major in anything chemical and this might be the last class they’d take in the subject. But it’s a requirement. So they’re 18 years old, they’re very smart, and many of them are very bored. You have to find a hook [to reach them]. And I did.”

    In 1995, Sadoway was named a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, an honor that recognizes outstanding classroom teaching at the Institute. Among the communications in support of his nomination:

    “His contributions are enormous and the class is in rapt attention from beginning to end. His lectures are highly articulate yet animated and he has uncommon grace and style. I was awed by his ability to introduce playful and creative elements into a core lecture…”

    Bill Gates would agree. In the early 2000s Sadoway’s lectures were shared with the world through OpenCourseWare, the web-based publication of MIT course materials. Gates was so inspired by the lectures that he asked to meet with Sadoway to learn more about his research. (Sadoway initially ignored Gates’ email because he thought his account had been hacked by MIT pranksters.)

    Research breakthroughs

    Teaching is not Sadoway’s only passion. He’s also proud of his accomplishments in electrochemistry. The discipline that involves electron transfer reactions is key to everything from batteries to the primary extraction of metals like aluminum and magnesium. “It’s quite wide-ranging,” says the John F. Elliott Professor Emeritus of Materials Chemistry.

    Sadoway’s contributions include two battery breakthroughs. First came the liquid metal battery, which could enable the large-scale storage of renewable energy. “That represents a huge step forward in the transition to green energy,” said António Campinos, president of the European Patent Office, earlier this year when Sadoway won the 2022 European Inventor Award for the invention in the category for Non-European Patent Office Countries.

    On “The Colbert Report,” Sadoway alluded to that work when he told Stephen Colbert that electrochemistry is the key to world peace. Why? Because it could lead to a battery capable of storing energy from the sun when the sun doesn’t shine and otherwise make renewables an important part of the clean energy mix. And that in turn could “plummet the price of petroleum and depose dictators all over the world without one shot being fired,” he recently recalled.

    The liquid metal battery is the focus of Ambri, one of six companies based on Sadoway’s inventions. Bill Gates was the first funder of the company, which formed in 2010 and aims to install its first battery soon. That battery will store energy from a reported 500 megawatts of on-site renewable generation, the same output as a natural gas power plant.

    Then, in August of this year, Sadoway and colleagues published a paper in Nature about “one of the first new battery chemistries in 30 years,” Sadoway says. “I wanted to invent something that was better, much better,” than the expensive lithium-ion batteries used in, for example, today’s electric cars.

    That battery is the focus of Avanti, one of three Sadoway companies formed just last year. The other two are Pure Lithium, to commercialize his inventions related to that element, and Sadoway Labs. The latter, a nonprofit, is essentially “a space to try radical innovations. We’re gonna start working on wild ideas.”

    Another focus of Sadoway’s research: green steel. Steelmaking produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Enter Boston Metal, another Sadoway company. This one is developing a new approach to producing steel based on research begun some 25 years ago. Unlike the current technology for producing steel, the Boston Metal approach — molten oxide electrolysis — does not use the element at the root of steel’s problems: carbon. The principal byproduct of the new system? Oxygen.

    In 2012, Sadoway gave a TED talk to 2,000 people on the liquid metal battery. He believes that that talk, which has now been seen by almost 2.5 million people, led to the wider publicity of his work — and science overall — on “The Colbert Report” and elsewhere. “The moral here is that if you step out of your comfort zone, you might be surprised at what can happen,” he concludes.

    Colleagues’ reflections

    “I met Don in 2006 when I was working for the iron and steel industry in Europe on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the production of those materials,” says Antoine Allanore, professor of metallurgy, Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “He was the same Don Sadoway that you see in recordings of his lectures: very elegant, very charismatic, and passionate about the technical solutions and underlying science of the process we were all investigating; electrolysis. A few years later, when I decided to pursue an academic career, I contacted Don and became a postdoctoral associate in his lab. That ultimately led to my becoming an MIT professor. People don’t believe me, but before I came to MIT the only thing I knew about the Institute was that Noam Chomsky was there … and Don Sadoway. And I felt, that’s a great place to be. And I stayed because I saw the exceptional things that can be accomplished at MIT and Don is the perfect example of that.”

    “I had the joy of meeting Don when I first arrived on the MIT campus in 1994,” recalls Felice Frankel, research scientist in the MIT departments of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. “I didn’t have to talk him into the idea that researchers needed to take their images and graphics more seriously.  He got it — that it wasn’t just about pretty pictures. He was an important part of our five-year National Science Foundation project — Picturing to Learn — to bring that concept into the classroom. How lucky that was for me!”

    “Don has been a friend and mentor since we met in 1995 when I was an MIT senior,” says Luis Ortiz, co-founder and chief executive officer, Avanti Battery Co. “One story that is emblematic of Don’s insistence on excellence is from when he and I met with Bill Gates about the challenges in addressing climate change and how batteries could be the linchpin in solving them. I suggested that we create our presentation in PowerPoint [Microsoft software]. Don balked. He insisted that we present using Keynote on his MacBook Air, because ‘it looks so much better.’ I was incredulous that he wanted to walk into that venue exclusively using Apple products. Of course, he won the argument, but not without my admonition that there had better not be even a blip of an issue. In the meeting room, Microsoft’s former chief technology officer asked Don if he needed anything to hook up to the screen, ‘we have all those dongles.’ Don declined, but gave me that knowing look and whispered, ‘You see, they know, too.’ I ate my crow and we had a great long conversation without any issues.”

    “I remember when I first started working with Don on the liquid metal battery project at MIT, after I had chosen it as the topic for my master’s of engineering thesis,” adds David Bradwell, co-founder and chief technology officer, Ambri. “I was a wide-eyed graduate student, sitting in his office, amongst his art deco decorations, unique furniture, and historical and stylistic infographics, and from our first meeting, I could see Don’s passion for coming up with new and creative, yet practical scientific ideas, and for working on hard problems, in service of society. Don’s approaches always appear to be unconventional — wanting to stand out in a crowd, take the path less trodden, both based on his ideas, and his sense of style. It’s been an amazing journey working with him over the past decade-and-a-half, and I remain excited to see what other new, unconventional ideas, he can bring to this world.” More

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    Simplifying the production of lithium-ion batteries

    When it comes to battery innovations, much attention gets paid to potential new chemistries and materials. Often overlooked is the importance of production processes for bringing down costs.

    Now the MIT spinout 24M Technologies has simplified lithium-ion battery production with a new design that requires fewer materials and fewer steps to manufacture each cell. The company says the design, which it calls “SemiSolid” for its use of gooey electrodes, reduces production costs by up to 40 percent. The approach also improves the batteries’ energy density, safety, and recyclability.

    Judging by industry interest, 24M is onto something. Since coming out of stealth mode in 2015, 24M has licensed its technology to multinational companies including Volkswagen, Fujifilm, Lucas TVS, Axxiva, and Freyr. Those last three companies are planning to build gigafactories (factories with gigawatt-scale annual production capacity) based on 24M’s technology in India, China, Norway, and the United States.

    “The SemiSolid platform has been proven at the scale of hundreds of megawatts being produced for residential energy-storage systems. Now we want to prove it at the gigawatt scale,” says 24M CEO Naoki Ota, whose team includes 24M co-founder, chief scientist, and MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang.

    Establishing large-scale production lines is only the first phase of 24M’s plan. Another key draw of its battery design is that it can work with different combinations of lithium-ion chemistries. That means 24M’s partners can incorporate better-performing materials down the line without substantially changing manufacturing processes.

    The kind of quick, large-scale production of next-generation batteries that 24M hopes to enable could have a dramatic impact on battery adoption across society — from the cost and performance of electric cars to the ability of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.

    “This is a platform technology,” Ota says. “We’re not just a low-cost and high-reliability operator. That’s what we are today, but we can also be competitive with next-generation chemistry. We can use any chemistry in the market without customers changing their supply chains. Other startups are trying to address that issue tomorrow, not today. Our tech can address the issue today and tomorrow.”

    A simplified design

    Chiang, who is MIT’s Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, got his first glimpse into large-scale battery production after co-founding another battery company, A123 Systems, in 2001. As that company was preparing to go public in the late 2000s, Chiang began wondering if he could design a battery that would be easier to manufacture.

    “I got this window into what battery manufacturing looked like, and what struck me was that even though we pulled it off, it was an incredibly complicated manufacturing process,” Chiang says. “It derived from magnetic tape manufacturing that was adapted to batteries in the late 1980s.”

    In his lab at MIT, where he’s been a professor since 1985, Chiang started from scratch with a new kind of device he called a “semi-solid flow battery” that pumps liquids carrying particle-based electrodes to and from tanks to store a charge.

    In 2010, Chiang partnered with W. Craig Carter, who is MIT’s POSCO Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and the two professors supervised a student, Mihai Duduta ’11, who explored flow batteries for his undergraduate thesis. Within a month, Duduta had developed a prototype in Chiang’s lab, and 24M was born. (Duduta was the company’s first hire.)

    But even as 24M worked with MIT’s Technology Licensing Office (TLO) to commercialize research done in Chiang’s lab, people in the company including Duduta began rethinking the flow battery concept. An internal cost analysis by Carter, who consulted for 24M for several years, ultimately lead the researchers to change directions.

    That left the company with loads of the gooey slurry that made up the electrodes in their flow batteries. A few weeks after Carter’s cost analysis, Duduta, then a senior research scientist at 24M, decided to start using the slurry to assemble batteries by hand, mixing the gooey electrodes directly into the electrolyte. The idea caught on.

    The main components of batteries are the positive and negatively charged electrodes and the electrolyte material that allows ions to flow between them. Traditional lithium-ion batteries use solid electrodes separated from the electrolyte by layers of inert plastics and metals, which hold the electrodes in place.

    Stripping away the inert materials of traditional batteries and embracing the gooey electrode mix gives 24M’s design a number of advantages.

    For one, it eliminates the energy-intensive process of drying and solidifying the electrodes in traditional lithium-ion production. The company says it also reduces the need for more than 80 percent of the inactive materials in traditional batteries, including expensive ones like copper and aluminum. The design also requires no binder and features extra thick electrodes, improving the energy density of the batteries.

    “When you start a company, the smart thing to do is to revisit all of your assumptions  and ask what is the best way to accomplish your objectives, which in our case was simply-manufactured, low-cost batteries,” Chiang says. “We decided our real value was in making a lithium-ion suspension that was electrochemically active from the beginning, with electrolyte in it, and you just use the electrolyte as the processing solvent.”

    In 2017, 24M participated in the MIT Industrial Liaison Program’s STEX25 Startup Accelerator, in which Chiang and collaborators made critical industry connections that would help it secure early partnerships. 24M has also collaborated with MIT researchers on projects funded by the Department of Energy.

    Enabling the battery revolution

    Most of 24M’s partners are eyeing the rapidly growing electric vehicle (EV) market for their batteries, and the founders believe their technology will accelerate EV adoption. (Battery costs make up 30 to 40 percent of the price of EVs, according to the Institute for Energy Research).

    “Lithium-ion batteries have made huge improvements over the years, but even Elon Musk says we need some breakthrough technology,” Ota says, referring to the CEO of EV firm Tesla. “To make EVs more common, we need a production cost breakthrough; we can’t just rely on cost reduction through scaling because we already make a lot of batteries today.”

    24M is also working to prove out new battery chemistries that its partners could quickly incorporate into their gigafactories. In January of this year, 24M received a grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to develop and scale a high-energy-density battery that uses a lithium metal anode and semi-solid cathode for use in electric aviation.

    That project is one of many around the world designed to validate new lithium-ion battery chemistries that could enable a long-sought battery revolution. As 24M continues to foster the creation of large scale, global production lines, the team believes it is well-positioned to turn lab innovations into ubiquitous, world-changing products.

    “This technology is a platform, and our vision is to be like Google’s Android [operating system], where other people can build things on our platform,” Ota says. “We want to do that but with hardware. That’s why we’re licensing the technology. Our partners can use the same production lines to get the benefits of new chemistries and approaches. This platform gives everyone more options.” More

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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