Desirée Plata, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, has been named co-director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), effective Sept. 1. Plata will serve on the MCSC’s leadership team alongside Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and MCSC chair; Elsa Olivetti, the Jerry McAfee Professor in Engineering, a professor of materials science and engineering, and associate dean of engineering, and MCSC co-director; and Jeremy Gregory, MCSC executive director.Plata succeeds Jeffrey Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, who has served as co-director since the MCSC’s launch in January 2021. Grossman, who played a central role in the ideation and launch of the MCSC, will continue his work with the MCSC as strategic advisor.“Professor Plata is a valued member of the MIT community. She brings a deep understanding of and commitment to climate and sustainability initiatives at MIT, as well as extensive experience working with industry, to her new role within the MCSC,” says Chandrakasan. The MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium is an academia-industry collaboration working to accelerate implementation of large-scale solutions across sectors of the global economy. It aims to lay the groundwork for one critical aspect of MIT’s continued and intensified commitment to climate: helping large companies usher in, adapt to, and prosper in a decarbonized world.“We are thrilled to bring Professor Plata’s knowledge, vision, and passion to our leadership team,” says Olivetti. “Her experience developing sustainable technologies that have the potential to improve the environment and reduce the impacts of climate change will help move our work forward in meaningful ways. We have valued Professor Plata’s contributions to the consortium and look forward to continuing our work with her.”Plata played a pivotal role in the creation and launch of the MCSC’s Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program and its yearlong course for MIT rising juniors and seniors — an effort that she and Olivetti were recently recognized for with the Class of 1960 Innovation in Education Fellowship. She has also been a member of the MCSC’s Faculty Steering Committee since the consortium’s launch, helping to shape and guide its vision and work.Plata is a dedicated researcher, educator, and mentor. A member of MIT’s faculty since 2018, Plata and her team at the Plata Lab are helping to guide industry to more environmentally sustainable practices and develop new ways to protect the health of the planet — using chemistry to understand the impact that industrial materials and processes have on the environment. By coupling devices that simulate industrial systems with computation, she helps industry develop more environmentally friendly practices.To celebrate her work in the lab, classroom, and community, Plata has received many awards and honors. In 2020, she won MIT’s prestigious Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award, recognizing her innovative approach to environmentally sustainable industrial practices, her inspirational teaching and mentoring, and her service to MIT and the community. She is a two-time National Academy of Sciences Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow, a two-time National Academy of Engineers Frontiers of Engineering Fellow, and a Caltech Young Investigator Sustainability Fellow. She has also won the ACS C. Ellen Gonter Environmental Chemistry Award, an NSF CAREER award, and the 2016 Odebrecht Award for Sustainable Development.Beyond her work in the academic space, Plata is co-founder of two climate- and energy-related startups: Nth Cycle and Moxair, illustrating her commitment to translating academic innovations for real-world implementation — a core value of the MCSC.Plata received her bachelor’s degree from Union College and her PhD from the MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (MIT-WHOI) joint program in oceanography/applied ocean science and engineering. After receiving her doctorate, Plata held positions at Mount Holyoke College, Duke University, and Yale University. More
Elsa Olivetti, the Jerry McAfee (1940) Professor in Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has been appointed as associate dean of engineering, effective Sept. 1.
As associate dean, Olivetti will oversee a number of strategically important programs and initiatives across MIT’s School of Engineering. She will help lead and shape school-wide efforts related to climate and sustainability. In close collaboration with Nandi Bynoe, the assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion; the school’s DEI faculty lead; and various program faculty leads, Olivetti will oversee the school’s DEI activities and programs. She will also assist with the faculty promotion process and will support both faculty and students across the school with regards fellowships, awards, and honors.
“Professor Olivetti has demonstrated tremendous leadership abilities, particularly as co-director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium. Her contributions as a researcher, educator, and leader at MIT have been substantial,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I am thrilled to welcome her to the School of Engineering leadership team and look forward to closely with her in this new role.”
Olivetti first joined MIT as a graduate student after receiving her bachelor’s degree in engineering science from the University of Virginia. As a PhD student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), her research focused on electrochemistry in inorganic materials for use in lithium-ion batteries. Through postdoctoral research and a staff scientist position with the MIT Materials System Laboratory beginning in 2009, Olivetti developed methods for streamlined carbon footprinting of electronics, a method that is still used widely by the electronics industry.
In 2014, Olivetti joined the DMSE faculty, where her team works in sustainable and scalable design, processing, and manufacturing of materials use across industries. The Olivetti Group develops experimental and analytical methods for efficient use of industrial waste and recycled materials in concrete, metals, and plastic guiding decisions on a plant floor to policy makers.
Olivetti’s team has also developed methods to automatically learn from texts within materials ranging from inorganic materials synthesis, zeolites, solid state batteries, and cement. Her work uses an interdisciplinary approach combining industrial ecology with materials science and engineering to inform and then mitigate the environmental and economic impact of materials.
Olivetti has lead climate and sustainability efforts across the Institute. She serves as the co-director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC). Launched in 2021, the MCSC fosters collaboration between academia and industry in an effort to accelerate real-world solutions for the climate crisis at scale. Under Olivetti’s leadership alongside co-director Jeffrey Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, and executive director Jeremy Gregory, the consortium has grown to 18 member companies and has provided 20 research projects with seed funding. It has also launched programs such as the MCSC Climate and Sustainability Scholars Program for undergraduate students and the MCSC Impact Fellows Program for postdocs.
In addition to her leadership at the MCSC, Olivetti is a member of the MIT Climate Nucleus, a faculty committee responsible for the implementation of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade.”
A dedicated educator, Olivetti has made significant contributions to MIT’s material science and engineering education. She was instrumental in the development of a refined DMSE undergraduate curriculum. She also launched a new class 3.081 (Industrial Ecology of Materials) and served as a founding thread lead for MIT New Engineering Education Transformation’s Advanced Materials Machines program. Olivetti launched “Course 3 Industry Seminars,” which provide undergraduate students an opportunity to learn from industry leaders in fields like manufacturing and environmental consulting.
Throughout her career, Olivetti has received numerous awards and honors for both her commitment to students and her research contributions. She is the recipient of the 2017 Earll M. Murman Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Advising, a 2020 Paul Gray Award for Public Service, the 2021 Bose Teaching Award, 2021 MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, and the 2023 Capers (1976) and Marion McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising. She also received an Early Career Faculty Fellowship from the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society as well as a National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award.
Olivetti joins Dean Chandrakasan and Deputy Dean Maria Yang, the Gail E. Kendall (1978) Professor, on the School of Engineering faculty leadership team. More
July 2023 was the hottest month globally since humans began keeping records. People all over the U.S. experienced punishingly high temperatures this summer. In Phoenix, there were a record-setting 31 consecutive days with a high temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit or more. July was the hottest month on record in Miami. A scan of high temperatures around the country often yielded some startlingly high numbers: Dallas, 110 F; Reno, 108 F; Salt Lake City, 106 F; Portland, 105 F.
Climate change is a global and national crisis that cannot be solved by city governments alone, but cities suffering from it can try to enact new policies reducing emissions and adapting its effects. MIT’s David Hsu, an associate professor of urban and environmental planning, is an expert on metropolitan and regional climate policy. In one 2017 paper, Hsu and some colleagues estimated how 11 major U.S. cities could best reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, through energy-efficient home construction and retrofitting, improvements in vehicle gas mileage, more housing density, robust transit systems, and more. As we near the end of this historically hot summer, MIT News talked to Hsu about what cities are now doing in response to record heat, and the possibilities for new policy measures.
Q: We’ve had record-setting temperatures in many cities across the U.S. this summer. Dealing with climate change certainly isn’t just the responsibility of those cities, but what have they been doing to make a difference, to the extent they can?
A: I think this is a very top-of-mind question because even 10 or 15 years ago, we talked about adapting to a changed climate future, which seemed further off. But literally every week this summer we can refer to [dramatic] things that are already happening, clearly linked to climate change, and are going to get worse. We had wildfire smoke in the Northeast and throughout the Eastern Seaboard in June, this tragic wildfire in Hawaii that led to more deaths than any other wildfire in the U.S., [plus record high temperatures]. A lot of city leaders face climate challenges they thought were maybe 20 or 30 years in the future, and didn’t expect to see happen with this severity and intensity.
One thing you’re seeing is changes in governance. A lot of cities have recently appointed a chief heat officer. Miami and Phoenix have them now, and this is someone responsible for coordinating response to heat waves, which turn out to be one of the biggest killers among climatological effects. There is an increasing realization not only among local governments, but insurance companies and the building industry, that flooding is going to affect many places. We have already seen flooding in the seaport area in Boston, the most recently built part of our city. In some sense just the realization among local governments, insurers, building owners, and residents, that some risks are here and now, already is changing how people think about those risks.
Q: To what extent does a city being active about climate change at least signal to everyone, at the state or national level, that we have to do more? At the same time, some states are reacting against cities that are trying to institute climate initiatives and trying to prevent clean energy advances. What is possible at this point?
A: We have this very large, heterogeneous and polarized country, and we have differences between states and within states in how they’re approaching climate change. You’ve got some cities trying to enact things like natural gas bans, or trying to limit greenhouse gas emissions, with some state governments trying to preempt them entirely. I think cities have a role in showing leadership. But one thing I harp on, having worked in city government myself, is that sometimes in cities we can be complacent. While we pride ourselves on being centers of innovation and less per-capita emissions — we’re using less than rural areas, and you’ll see people celebrating New York City as the greenest in the world — cities are responsible for consumption that produces a majority of emissions in most countries. If we’re going to decarbonize society, we have to get to zero altogether, and that requires cities to act much more aggressively.
There is not only a pessimistic narrative. With the Inflation Reduction Act, which is rapidly accelerating the production of renewable energy, you see many of those subsidies going to build new manufacturing in red states. There’s a possibility people will see there are plenty of better paying, less dangerous jobs in [clean energy]. People don’t like monopolies wherever they live, so even places people consider fairly conservative would like local control [of energy], and that might mean greener jobs and lower prices. Yes, there is a doomscrolling loop of thinking polarization is insurmountable, but I feel surprisingly optimistic sometimes.
Large parts of the Midwest, even in places people think of as being more conservative, have chosen to build a lot of wind energy, partly because it’s profitable. Historically, some farmers were self-reliant and had wind power before the electrical grid came. Even now in some places where people don’t want to address climate change, they’re more than happy to have wind power.
Q: You’ve published work on which cities can pursue which policies to reduce emissions the most: better housing construction, more transit, more fuel-efficient vehicles, possibly higher housing density, and more. The exact recipe varies from place to place. But what are the common threads people can think about?
A: It’s important to think about what the status quo is, and what we should be preparing for. The status quo simply doesn’t serve large parts of the population right now. Heat risk, flooding, and wildfires all disproportionately affect populations that are already vulnerable. If you’re elderly, or lack access to mobility, information, or warnings, you probably have a lower risk of surviving a wildfire. Many people do not have high-quality housing, and may be more exposed to heat or smoke. We know the climate has already changed, and is going to change more, but we have failed to prepare for foreseeable changes that already here. Lots of things that are climate-related but not only about climate change, like affordable housing, transportation, energy access for everyone so they can have services like cooking and the internet — those are things that we can change going forward. The hopeful message is: Cities are always changing and being built, so we should make them better. The urgent message is: We shouldn’t accept the status quo. More
The MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology has selected three new research projects that will receive support from the initiative. The research projects aim to accelerate progress in meeting complex societal needs through new business convergence insights in technology and innovation.
Established in MIT’s School of Engineering and now in its third year, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative is furthering its mission to bring together technological experts from across business and academia to share insights and learn from one another. Recently, Thomas W. Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management, joined the initiative as its first-ever faculty lead. The research projects relate to three of the initiative’s key focus areas: sustainability, digital health, and the future of work.
“The solutions these research teams are developing have the potential to have tremendous impact,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They embody the initiative’s focus on advancing data-driven research that addresses technology and industry convergence.”
“The convergence of science and technology driven by advancements in generative AI, digital twins, quantum computing, and other technologies makes this an especially exciting time for Accenture and MIT to be undertaking this joint research,” says Kenneth Munie, senior managing director at Accenture Strategy, Life Sciences. “Our three new research projects focusing on sustainability, digital health, and the future of work have the potential to help guide and shape future innovations that will benefit the way we work and live.”
The MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative charter project researchers are described below.
Accelerating the journey to net zero with industrial clusters
Jessika Trancik is a professor at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Trancik’s research examines the dynamic costs, performance, and environmental impacts of energy systems to inform climate policy and accelerate beneficial and equitable technology innovation. Trancik’s project aims to identify how industrial clusters can enable companies to derive greater value from decarbonization, potentially making companies more willing to invest in the clean energy transition.
To meet the ambitious climate goals that have been set by countries around the world, rising greenhouse gas emissions trends must be rapidly reversed. Industrial clusters — geographically co-located or otherwise-aligned groups of companies representing one or more industries — account for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions globally. With major energy consumers “clustered” in proximity, industrial clusters provide a potential platform to scale low-carbon solutions by enabling the aggregation of demand and the coordinated investment in physical energy supply infrastructure.
In addition to Trancik, the research team working on this project will include Aliza Khurram, a postdoc in IDSS; Micah Ziegler, an IDSS research scientist; Melissa Stark, global energy transition services lead at Accenture; Laura Sanderfer, strategy consulting manager at Accenture; and Maria De Miguel, strategy senior analyst at Accenture.
Eliminating childhood obesity
Anette “Peko” Hosoi is the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering. A common theme in her work is the fundamental study of shape, kinematic, and rheological optimization of biological systems with applications to the emergent field of soft robotics. Her project will use both data from existing studies and synthetic data to create a return-on-investment (ROI) calculator for childhood obesity interventions so that companies can identify earlier returns on their investment beyond reduced health-care costs.
Childhood obesity is too prevalent to be solved by a single company, industry, drug, application, or program. In addition to the physical and emotional impact on children, society bears a cost through excess health care spending, lost workforce productivity, poor school performance, and increased family trauma. Meaningful solutions require multiple organizations, representing different parts of society, working together with a common understanding of the problem, the economic benefits, and the return on investment. ROI is particularly difficult to defend for any single organization because investment and return can be separated by many years and involve asymmetric investments, returns, and allocation of risk. Hosoi’s project will consider the incentives for a particular entity to invest in programs in order to reduce childhood obesity.
Hosoi will be joined by graduate students Pragya Neupane and Rachael Kha, both of IDSS, as well a team from Accenture that includes Kenneth Munie, senior managing director at Accenture Strategy, Life Sciences; Kaveh Safavi, senior managing director in Accenture Health Industry; and Elizabeth Naik, global health and public service research lead.
Generating innovative organizational configurations and algorithms for dealing with the problem of post-pandemic employment
Thomas Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. His research focuses on how new organizations can be designed to take advantage of the possibilities provided by information technology. Malone will be joined in this project by John Horton, the Richard S. Leghorn (1939) Career Development Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, whose research focuses on the intersection of labor economics, market design, and information systems. Malone and Horton’s project will look to reshape the future of work with the help of lessons learned in the wake of the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a major disrupter of work and employment, and it is not at all obvious how governments, businesses, and other organizations should manage the transition to a desirable state of employment as the pandemic recedes. Using natural language processing algorithms such as GPT-4, this project will look to identify new ways that companies can use AI to better match applicants to necessary jobs, create new types of jobs, assess skill training needed, and identify interventions to help include women and other groups whose employment was disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
In addition to Malone and Horton, the research team will include Rob Laubacher, associate director and research scientist at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, and Kathleen Kennedy, executive director at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and senior director at MIT Horizon. The team will also include Nitu Nivedita, managing director of artificial intelligence at Accenture, and Thomas Hancock, data science senior manager at Accenture. More
In 2021, nearly a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions came from the transportation sector, with aviation being a significant contributor. While the growing use of electric vehicles is helping to clean up ground transportation, today’s batteries can’t compete with fossil fuel-derived liquid hydrocarbons in terms of energy delivered per pound of weight — a major concern when it comes to flying. Meanwhile, based on projected growth in travel demand, consumption of jet fuel is projected to double between now and 2050 — the year by which the international aviation industry has pledged to be carbon neutral.
Many groups have targeted a 100 percent sustainable hydrocarbon fuel for aircraft, but without much success. Part of the challenge is that aviation fuels are so tightly regulated. “This is a subclass of fuels that has very specific requirements in terms of the chemistry and the physical properties of the fuel, because you can’t risk something going wrong in an airplane engine,” says Yuriy Román-Leshkov, the Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering. “If you’re flying at 30,000 feet, it’s very cold outside, and you don’t want the fuel to thicken or freeze. That’s why the formulation is very specific.”
Aviation fuel is a combination of two large classes of chemical compounds. Some 75 to 90 percent of it is made up of “aliphatic” molecules, which consist of long chains of carbon atoms linked together. “This is similar to what we would find in diesel fuels, so it’s a classic hydrocarbon that is out there,” explains Román-Leshkov. The remaining 10 to 25 percent consists of “aromatic” molecules, each of which includes at least one ring made up of six connected carbon atoms.
In most transportation fuels, aromatic hydrocarbons are viewed as a source of pollution, so they’re removed as much as possible. However, in aviation fuels, some aromatic molecules must remain because they set the necessary physical and combustion properties of the overall mixture. They also perform one more critical task: They ensure that seals between various components in the aircraft’s fuel system are tight. “The aromatics get absorbed by the plastic seals and make them swell,” explains Román-Leshkov. “If for some reason the fuel changes, so can the seals, and that’s very dangerous.”
As a result, aromatics are a necessary component — but they’re also a stumbling block in the move to create sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs. Companies know how to make the aliphatic fraction from inedible parts of plants and other renewables, but they haven’t yet developed an approved method of generating the aromatic fraction from sustainable sources. As a result, there’s a “blending wall,” explains Román-Leshkov. “Since we need that aromatic content — regardless of its source — there will always be a limit on how much of the sustainable aliphatic hydrocarbons we can use without changing the properties of the mixture.” He notes a similar blending wall with gasoline. “We have a lot of ethanol, but we can’t add more than 10 percent without changing the properties of the gasoline. In fact, current engines can’t handle even 15 percent ethanol without modification.”
No shortage of renewable source material — or attempts to convert it
For the past five years, understanding and solving the SAF problem has been the goal of research by Román-Leshkov and his MIT team — Michael L. Stone PhD ’21, Matthew S. Webber, and others — as well as their collaborators at Washington State University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Their work has focused on lignin, a tough material that gives plants structural support and protection against microbes and fungi. About 30 percent of the carbon in biomass is in lignin, yet when ethanol is generated from biomass, the lignin is left behind as a waste product.
Despite valiant efforts, no one has found an economically viable, scalable way to turn lignin into useful products, including the aromatic molecules needed to make jet fuel 100 percent sustainable. Why not? As Román-Leshkov says, “It’s because of its chemical recalcitrance.” It’s difficult to make it chemically react in useful ways. As a result, every year millions of tons of waste lignin are burned as a low-grade fuel, used as fertilizer, or simply thrown away.
Understanding the problem requires understanding what’s happening at the atomic level. A single lignin molecule — the starting point of the challenge — is a big “macromolecule” made up of a network of many aromatic rings connected by oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Put simply, the key to converting lignin into the aromatic fraction of SAF is to break that macromolecule into smaller pieces while in the process getting rid of all of the oxygen atoms.
In general, most industrial processes begin with a chemical reaction that prevents the subsequent upgrading of lignin: As the lignin is extracted from the biomass, the aromatic molecules in it react with one another, linking together to form strong networks that won’t react further. As a result, the lignin is no longer useful for making aviation fuels.
To avoid that outcome, Román-Leshkov and his team utilize another approach: They use a catalyst to induce a chemical reaction that wouldn’t normally occur during extraction. By reacting the biomass in the presence of a ruthenium-based catalyst, they are able to remove the lignin from the biomass and produce a black liquid called lignin oil. That product is chemically stable, meaning that the aromatic molecules in it will no longer react with one another.
So the researchers have now successfully broken the original lignin macromolecule into fragments that contain just one or two aromatic rings each. However, while the isolated fragments don’t chemically react, they still contain oxygen atoms. Therefore, one task remains: finding a way to remove the oxygen atoms.
In fact, says Román-Leshkov, getting from the molecules in the lignin oil to the targeted aromatic molecules required them to accomplish three things in a single step: They needed to selectively break the carbon-oxygen bonds to free the oxygen atoms; they needed to avoid incorporating noncarbon atoms into the aromatic rings (for example, atoms from the hydrogen gas that must be present for all of the chemical transformations to occur); and they needed to preserve the carbon backbone of the molecule — that is, the series of linked carbon atoms that connect the aromatic rings that remain.
Ultimately, Román-Leshkov and his team found a special ingredient that would do the trick: a molybdenum carbide catalyst. “It’s actually a really amazing catalyst because it can perform those three actions very well,” says Román-Leshkov. “In addition to that, it’s extremely resistant to poisons. Plants can contain a lot of components like proteins, salts, and sulfur, which often poison catalysts so they don’t work anymore. But molybdenum carbide is very robust and isn’t strongly influenced by such impurities.”
Trying it out on lignin from poplar trees
To test their approach in the lab, the researchers first designed and built a specialized “trickle-bed” reactor, a type of chemical reactor in which both liquids and gases flow downward through a packed bed of catalyst particles. They then obtained biomass from a poplar, a type of tree known as an “energy crop” because it grows quickly and doesn’t require a lot of fertilizer.
To begin, they reacted the poplar biomass in the presence of their ruthenium-based catalyst to extract the lignin and produce the lignin oil. They then flowed the oil through their trickle-bed reactor containing the molybdenum carbide catalyst. The mixture that formed contained some of the targeted product but also a lot of others that still contained oxygen atoms.
Román-Leshkov notes that in a trickle-bed reactor, the time during which the lignin oil is exposed to the catalyst depends entirely on how quickly it drips down through the packed bed. To increase the exposure time, they tried passing the oil through the same catalyst twice. However, the distribution of products that formed in the second pass wasn’t as they had predicted based on the outcome of the first pass.
With further investigation, they figured out why. The first time the lignin oil drips through the reactor, it deposits oxygen onto the catalyst. The deposition of the oxygen changes the behavior of the catalyst such that certain products appear or disappear — with the temperature being critical. “The temperature and oxygen content set the condition of the catalyst in the first pass,” says Román-Leshkov. “Then, on the second pass, the oxygen content in the flow is lower, and the catalyst can fully break the remaining carbon-oxygen bonds.” The process can thus operate continuously: Two separate reactors containing independent catalyst beds would be connected in series, with the first pretreating the lignin oil and the second removing any oxygen that remains.
Based on a series of experiments involving lignin oil from poplar biomass, the researchers determined the operating conditions yielding the best outcome: 350 degrees Celsius in the first step and 375 C in the second step. Under those optimized conditions, the mixture that forms is dominated by the targeted aromatic products, with the remainder consisting of small amounts of other jet-fuel aliphatic molecules and some remaining oxygen-containing molecules. The catalyst remains stable while generating more than 87 percent (by weight) of aromatic molecules.
“When we do our chemistry with the molybdenum carbide catalyst, our total carbon yields are nearly 85 percent of the theoretical carbon yield,” says Román-Leshkov. “In most lignin-conversion processes, the carbon yields are very low, on the order of 10 percent. That’s why the catalysis community got very excited about our results — because people had not seen carbon yields as high as the ones we generated with this catalyst.”
There remains one key question: Does the mixture of components that forms have the properties required for aviation fuel? “When we work with these new substrates to make new fuels, the blend that we create is different from standard jet fuel,” says Román-Leshkov. “Unless it has the exact properties required, it will not qualify for certification as jet fuel.”
To check their products, Román-Leshkov and his team send samples to Washington State University, where a team operates a combustion lab devoted to testing fuels. Results from initial testing of the composition and properties of the samples have been encouraging. Based on the composition and published prescreening tools and procedures, the researchers have made initial property predictions for their samples, and they looked good. For example, the freezing point, viscosity, and threshold sooting index are predicted to be lower than the values for conventional aviation aromatics. (In other words, their material should flow more easily and be less likely to freeze than conventional aromatics while also generating less soot in the atmosphere when they burn.) Overall, the predicted properties are near to or more favorable than those of conventional fuel aromatics.
The researchers are continuing to study how their sample blends behave at different temperatures and, in particular, how well they perform that key task: soaking into and swelling the seals inside jet engines. “These molecules are not the typical aromatic molecules that you use in jet fuel,” says Román-Leshkov. “Preliminary tests with sample seals show that there’s no difference in how our lignin-derived aromatics swell the seals, but we need to confirm that. There’s no room for error.”
In addition, he and his team are working with their NREL collaborators to scale up their methods. NREL has much larger reactors and other infrastructure needed to produce large quantities of the new sustainable blend. Based on the promising results thus far, the team wants to be prepared for the further testing required for the certification of jet fuels. In addition to testing samples of the fuel, the full certification procedure calls for demonstrating its behavior in an operating engine — “not while flying, but in a lab,” clarifies Román-Leshkov. In addition to requiring large samples, that demonstration is both time-consuming and expensive — which is why it’s the very last step in the strict testing required for a new sustainable aviation fuel to be approved.
Román-Leshkov and his colleagues are now exploring the use of their approach with other types of biomass, including pine, switchgrass, and corn stover (the leaves, stalks, and cobs left after corn is harvested). But their results with poplar biomass are promising. If further testing confirms that their aromatic products can replace the aromatics now in jet fuel, “the blending wall could disappear,” says Román-Leshkov. “We’ll have a means of producing all the components in aviation fuel from renewable material, potentially leading to aircraft fuel that’s 100 percent sustainable.”
This research was initially funded by the Center for Bioenergy Innovation, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Research Center supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science. More recent funding came from the DOE Bioenergy Technologies Office and from Eni S.p.A. through the MIT Energy Initiative. Michael L. Stone PhD ’21 is now a postdoc in chemical engineering at Stanford University. Matthew S. Webber is a graduate student in the Román-Leshkov group, now on leave for an internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More
The Venice Architecture Biennale, the world’s largest and most visited exhibition focusing on architecture, is once again featuring work by many MIT faculty, students, and alumni. On view through Nov. 26, the 2023 biennale, curated by Ghanaian-Scottish architect, academic, and novelist Lesley Lokko, is showcasing projects responding to the theme of “The Laboratory of Change.”
Architecture and Planning and curator of the previous Venice Biennale. “Our students, faculty, and alumni have responded to the speculative theme with innovative projects at a range of scales and in varied media.”
Below are descriptions of MIT-related projects and activities.
MIT faculty participants
Xavi Laida Aguirre, assistant professor of architecture
Project: Everlasting Plastics
Project description: SPACES, a nonprofit alternative art organization based in Cleveland, Ohio, and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs are behind the U.S. Pavilion’s exhibition at this year’s biennale. The theme, Everlasting Plastics, provides a platform for artists and designers to engage audiences in reframing the overabundance of plastic detritus in our waterways, landfills, and streets as a rich resource. Aguirre’s installation covers two rooms and holds a series of partial scenographies examining indoor proofing materials such as coatings, rubbers, gaskets, bent aluminum, silicone, foam, cement board, and beveled edges.
Yolande Daniels, associate professor of architecture
Project: The BLACK City Astrolabe: A Constellation of African Diasporic Women
Project description: From the multiple displacements of race and gender, enter “The BLACK City Astrolabe,” a space-time field comprised of a 3D map and a 24-hour cycle of narratives that reorder the forces of subjugation, devaluation, and displacement through the spaces and events of African diasporic women. The diaspora map traces the flows of descendants of Africa (whether voluntary or forced) atop the visible tension between the mathematical regularity of meridians of longitude and the biases of international date lines.
In this moment we are running out of time. The meridians and timeline decades are indexed to an infinite conical projection metered in decades. It structures both the diaspora map and timeline and serves as a threshold to project future structures and events. “The BLACK City Astrolabe” is a vehicle to proactively contemplate things that have happened, that are happening, and that will happen. Yesterday, a “Black” woman went to the future, and here she is.
Mark Jarzombek, professor of architecture
Project: Kishkindha NY
Project description: “Kishkindha NY (Office of (Un)Certainty Research: Mark Jarzombek and Vikramaditya Parakash)” is inspired by an imagined forest-city as described in the ancient Indian text the Ramayana. It comes into being not through the limitations of human agency, but through a multi-species creature that destroys and rebuilds. It is exhibited as a video (Space, Time, Existence) and as a special dance performance.
Ana Miljački, professor of architecture
Team: Ana Miljački, professor of architecture and director of Critical Broadcasting Lab, MIT; Ous Abou Ras, MArch candidate; Julian Geltman, MArch; Recording and Design, faculty of Dramatic Arts, Belgrade; Calvin Zhong, MArch candidate. Sound design and production: Pavle Dinulović, assistant professor, Department of Sound Recording and Design, University of Arts in Belgrade.
Collaborators: Melika Konjičanin, researcher, faculty of architecture, Sarajevo; Ana Martina Bakić, assistant professor, head of department of drawing and visual design, faculty of architecture, Zagreb; Jelica Jovanović, Grupa Arhitekata, Belgrade; Andrew Lawler, Belgrade; Sandro Đukić, CCN Images, Zagreb; Other Tomorrows, Boston.
Project: The Pilgrimage/Pionirsko hodočašće
Project description: The artifacts that constitute Yugoslavia’s socialist architectural heritage, and especially those instrumental in the ideological wiring of several postwar generations for anti-fascism and inclusive living, have been subject to many forms of local and global political investment in forgetting their meaning, as well as to vandalism. The “Pilgrimage” synthesizes “memories” from Yugoslavian childhood visits to myriad postwar anti-fascist memorial monuments and offers them in a shifting and spatial multi-channel video presentation accompanied by a nonlinear documentary soundscape, presenting thus anti-fascism and unity as political and activist positions available (and necessary) today, for the sake of the future. Supported by: MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) Mellon Faculty Grant.
Adèle Naudé Santos, professor of architecture, planning, and urban design; and Mohamad Nahleh, lecturer in architecture and urbanism; in collaboration with the Beirut Urban Lab at the American University of Beirut
MIT research team: Ghida El Bsat, Joude Mabsout, Sarin Gacia Vosgerichian, Lasse Rau
Project: Housing as Infrastructure
Project description: On Aug. 4, 2020, an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut exploded, resulting in the deaths of more than 200 people and the devastation of port-adjacent neighborhoods. With over 200,000 housing units in disrepair, exploitative real estate ventures, and the lack of equitable housing policies, we viewed the port blast as a potential escalation of the mechanisms that have produced the ongoing affordable housing crisis across the city.
The Dar Group requested proposals to rethink the affected part of the city, through MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. To best ground our design proposal, we invited the Beirut Urban Lab at the American University of Beirut to join us. We chose to work on the heavily impacted low-rise and high-density neighborhood of Mar Mikhael. Our resultant urban strategy anchors housing within a corridor of shared open spaces. Housing is inscribed within this network and sustained through an adaptive system defined by energy-efficiency and climate responsiveness. Cross-ventilation sweeps through the project on all sides, with solar panel lined roofs integrated to always provide adequate levels of electricity for habitation. These strategies are coupled with an array of modular units designed to echo the neighborhood’s intimate quality — all accessible through shared ramps and staircases. Within this context, housing itself becomes the infrastructure, guiding circulation, managing slopes, integrating green spaces, and providing solar energy across the community.
Rafi Segal, associate professor of architecture and urbanism, director of the Future Urban Collectives Lab, director of the SMArchS program; and Susannah Drake.
Contributors: Olivia Serra, William Minghao Du
Project: From Redlining to Blue Zoning: Equity and Environmental Risk, Miami 2100 (2021)
Project description: As part of Susannah Drake and Rafi Segal’s ongoing work on “Coastal Urbanism,” this project examines the legacy of racial segregation in South Florida and the existential threat that climate change poses to communities in Miami. Through models of coops and community-owned urban blocks, this project seeks to empower formerly disenfranchised communities with new methods of equity capture, allowing residents whose parents and grandparents suffered from racial discrimination to build wealth and benefit from increased real estate value and development.
Nomeda Urbonas, Art, Culture, and Technology research affiliate; and Gediminas Urbonas, ACT associate professor
Project: The Swamp Observatory
Project description: “The Swamp Observatory” augmented reality app is a result of two-year collaboration with a school in Gotland Island in the Baltic Sea, arguably the most polluted sea in the world. Developed as a conceptual playground and a digital tool to augment reality with imaginaries for new climate commons, the app offers new perspective to the planning process, suggesting eco-monsters as emergent ecology for the planned stormwater ponds in the new sustainable city.
Sarah Williams, associate professor, technology and urban planning
Team members: listed here.
Project: DISTANCE UNKNOWN: RISKS AND OPPORTUNITIES OF MIGRATION IN THE AMERICAS
Project description: On view are visualizations made by the MIT Civic Data Design Lab and the United Nations World Food Program that helped to shape U.S. migration policy. The exhibition is built from a unique dataset collected from 4,998 households surveyed in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A tapestry woven out of money and constructed by the hands of Central America migrants illustrates that migrants spent $2.2 billion to migrate from Central America in 2021.
MIT student curators
Carmelo Ignaccolo, PhD candidate, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP)
Curator: Carmelo Ignaccolo; advisor: Sarah Williams; researchers: Emily Levenson (DUSP), Melody Phu (MIT), Leo Saenger (Harvard University), Yuke Zheng (Harvard); digital animation designer: Ting Zhang
Exhibition Design Assistant: Dila Ozberkman (architecture and DUSP)
Project: The Consumed City
Project description: “The Consumed City” narrates a spatial investigation of “overtourism” in the historic city of Venice by harnessing granular data on lodging, dining, and shopping. The exhibition presents two large maps and digital animations to showcase the complexity of urban tourism and to reveal the spatial interplay between urban tourism and urban features, such as landmarks, bridges, and street patterns. By leveraging by-product geospatial datasets and advancing visualization techniques, “The Consumed City” acts as a prototype to call for novel policymaking tools in cities “consumed” by “overtourism.”
MIT-affiliated auxiliary events
Rania Ghosn, associate professor of architecture and urbanism, El Hadi Jazairy, Anhong Li, and Emma Jurczynski, with initial contributions from Marco Nieto and Zhifei Xu. Graphic design: Office of Luke Bulman.
Project: Climate Inheritance
Project description: “Climate Inheritance” is a speculative design research publication that reckons with the complexity of “heritage” and “world” in the Anthropocene Epoch. The impacts of climate change on heritage sites — from Venice flooding to extinction in the Galapagos Islands — have garnered empathetic attention in a media landscape that has otherwise mostly failed to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis. In a strategic subversion of the media aura of heritage, the project casts World Heritage sites as narrative figures to visualize pervasive climate risks all while situating the present emergency within the wreckage of other ends of worlds, replete with the salvages of extractivism, racism, and settler colonialism.
Rebuilding Beirut: Using Data to Co-Design a New Future
SA+P faculty, researchers, and students are participating in the sixth biennial architecture exhibition “Time Space Existence,” presented by the European Cultural Center. The exhibit showcases three collaborative research and design proposals that support the rebuilding efforts in Beirut following the catastrophic explosion at the Port of Beirut in August 2020.
“Living Heritage Atlas” captures the significance and vulnerability of Beirut’s cultural heritage.
“City Scanner” tracks the environmental impacts of the explosion and the subsequent rebuilding efforts. “Community Streets” supports the redesign of streets and public space.
The work is supported by the Dar Group Urban Seed Grant Fund at MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism.
Team members:Living Heritage AtlasCivic Data Design Lab and Future Heritage Lab at MITAssociate Professor Sarah Williams, co-principal investigator (PI)Associate Professor Azra Aksamija, co-PICity Scanner Senseable City Lab at MIT with the American University of Beirut and FAE Technology Professor Carlo Ratti, co-PIFábio Duarte, co-PISimone Mora, research and project leadCommunity Streets City Form Lab at MIT with the American University of BeirutAssociate Professor Andres Sevtsuk, co-PIProfessor Maya Abou-Zeid, co-PISchool of Architecture and Planning alumni participants Rodrigo Escandón Cesarman SMArchS Design ’20 (co-curator, Mexican Pavilion)Felecia Davis PhD ’17 Design and Computation, SOFTLAB@PSU (Penn State University)Jaekyung Jung SM ’10, (with the team for the Korean pavilion)Vijay Rajkumar MArch ’22 (with the team for the Bahrain Pavilion)
Other MIT alumni participants
Basis with GKZ
Team: Emily Mackevicius PhD ’18, brain and cognitive sciences, with Zenna Tavares, Kibwe Tavares, Gaika Tavares, and Eli Bingham
Project description: The nonprofit research group works on rethinking AI as a “reasoning machine.” Their two goals are to develop advanced technological models and to make society able to tackle “intractable problems.” Their approach to technology is founded less on pattern elaboration than on the Bayes’ hypothesis, the ability of machines to work on abductive reasoning, which is the same used by the human mind. Two city-making projects model cities after interaction between experts and stakeholders, and representation is at the heart of the dialogue. More
Cathy Wu has always delighted in systems that run smoothly. In high school, she designed a project to optimize the best route for getting to class on time. Her research interests and career track are evidence of a propensity for organizing and optimizing, coupled with a strong sense of responsibility to contribute to society instilled by her parents at a young age.
As an undergraduate at MIT, Wu explored domains like agriculture, energy, and education, eventually homing in on transportation. “Transportation touches each of our lives,” she says. “Every day, we experience the inefficiencies and safety issues as well as the environmental harms associated with our transportation systems. I believe we can and should do better.”
But doing so is complicated. Consider the long-standing issue of traffic systems control. Wu explains that it is not one problem, but more accurately a family of control problems impacted by variables like time of day, weather, and vehicle type — not to mention the types of sensing and communication technologies used to measure roadway information. Every differentiating factor introduces an exponentially larger set of control problems. There are thousands of control-problem variations and hundreds, if not thousands, of studies and papers dedicated to each problem. Wu refers to the sheer number of variations as the curse of variety — and it is hindering innovation.
“To prove that a new control strategy can be safely deployed on our streets can take years. As time lags, we lose opportunities to improve safety and equity while mitigating environmental impacts. Accelerating this process has huge potential,” says Wu.
Which is why she and her group in the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems are devising machine learning-based methods to solve not just a single control problem or a single optimization problem, but families of control and optimization problems at scale. “In our case, we’re examining emerging transportation problems that people have spent decades trying to solve with classical approaches. It seems to me that we need a different approach.”
Currently, Wu’s largest research endeavor is called Project Greenwave. There are many sectors that directly contribute to climate change, but transportation is responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions — 29 percent, of which 81 percent is due to land transportation. And while much of the conversation around mitigating environmental impacts related to mobility is focused on electric vehicles (EVs), electrification has its drawbacks. EV fleet turnover is time-consuming (“on the order of decades,” says Wu), and limited global access to the technology presents a significant barrier to widespread adoption.
Wu’s research, on the other hand, addresses traffic control problems by leveraging deep reinforcement learning. Specifically, she is looking at traffic intersections — and for good reason. In the United States alone, there are more than 300,000 signalized intersections where vehicles must stop or slow down before re-accelerating. And every re-acceleration burns fossil fuels and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Highlighting the magnitude of the issue, Wu says, “We have done preliminary analysis indicating that up to 15 percent of land transportation CO2 is wasted through energy spent idling and re-accelerating at intersections.”
To date, she and her group have modeled 30,000 different intersections across 10 major metropolitan areas in the United States. That is 30,000 different configurations, roadway topologies (e.g., grade of road or elevation), different weather conditions, and variations in travel demand and fuel mix. Each intersection and its corresponding scenarios represents a unique multi-agent control problem.
Wu and her team are devising techniques that can solve not just one, but a whole family of problems comprised of tens of thousands of scenarios. Put simply, the idea is to coordinate the timing of vehicles so they arrive at intersections when traffic lights are green, thereby eliminating the start, stop, re-accelerate conundrum. Along the way, they are building an ecosystem of tools, datasets, and methods to enable roadway interventions and impact assessments of strategies to significantly reduce carbon-intense urban driving.
Their collaborator on the project is the Utah Department of Transportation, which Wu says has played an essential role, in part by sharing data and practical knowledge that she and her group otherwise would not have been able to access publicly.
“I appreciate industry and public sector collaborations,” says Wu. “When it comes to important societal problems, one really needs grounding with practitioners. One needs to be able to hear the perspectives in the field. My interactions with practitioners expand my horizons and help ground my research. You never know when you’ll hear the perspective that is the key to the solution, or perhaps the key to understanding the problem.”
Finding the best routes
In a similar vein, she and her research group are tackling large coordination problems. For example, vehicle routing. “Every day, delivery trucks route more than a hundred thousand packages for the city of Boston alone,” says Wu. Accomplishing the task requires, among other things, figuring out which trucks to use, which packages to deliver, and the order in which to deliver them as efficiently as possible. If and when the trucks are electrified, they will need to be charged, adding another wrinkle to the process and further complicating route optimization.
The vehicle routing problem, and therefore the scope of Wu’s work, extends beyond truck routing for package delivery. Ride-hailing cars may need to pick up objects as well as drop them off; and what if delivery is done by bicycle or drone? In partnership with Amazon, for example, Wu and her team addressed routing and path planning for hundreds of robots (up to 800) in their warehouses.
Every variation requires custom heuristics that are expensive and time-consuming to develop. Again, this is really a family of problems — each one complicated, time-consuming, and currently unsolved by classical techniques — and they are all variations of a central routing problem. The curse of variety meets operations and logistics.
By combining classical approaches with modern deep-learning methods, Wu is looking for a way to automatically identify heuristics that can effectively solve all of these vehicle routing problems. So far, her approach has proved successful.
“We’ve contributed hybrid learning approaches that take existing solution methods for small problems and incorporate them into our learning framework to scale and accelerate that existing solver for large problems. And we’re able to do this in a way that can automatically identify heuristics for specialized variations of the vehicle routing problem.” The next step, says Wu, is applying a similar approach to multi-agent robotics problems in automated warehouses.
Wu and her group are making big strides, in part due to their dedication to use-inspired basic research. Rather than applying known methods or science to a problem, they develop new methods, new science, to address problems. The methods she and her team employ are necessitated by societal problems with practical implications. The inspiration for the approach? None other than Louis Pasteur, who described his research style in a now-famous article titled “Pasteur’s Quadrant.” Anthrax was decimating the sheep population, and Pasteur wanted to better understand why and what could be done about it. The tools of the time could not solve the problem, so he invented a new field, microbiology, not out of curiosity but out of necessity. More
Five speakers at a recent public panel discussion hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and introduced by Deputy Director for Science and Technology Robert Stoner tackled one of the thorniest, yet most critical, questions facing the world today: How can we achieve the ambitious goals set by governments around the globe, including the United States, to reach net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century?
While the challenges are great, the panelists agreed, there is reason for optimism that these technological challenges can be solved. More uncertain, some suggested, are the social, economic, and political hurdles to bringing about the needed innovations.
The speakers addressed areas where new or improved technologies or systems are needed if these ambitious goals are to be achieved. Anne White, aassociate provost and associate vice president for research administration and a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, moderated the panel discussion. She said that achieving the ambitious net-zero goal “has to be accomplished by filling some gaps, and going after some opportunities.” In addressing some of these needs, she said the five topics chosen for the panel discussion were “places where MIT has significant expertise, and progress is already ongoing.”
First of these was the heating and cooling of buildings. Christoph Reinhart, a professor of architecture and director of the Building Technology Program, said that currently about 1 percent of existing buildings are being retrofitted each year for energy efficiency and conversion from fossil-fuel heating systems to efficient electric ones — but that is not nearly enough to meet the 2050 net-zero target. “It’s an enormous task,” he said. To meet the goals, he said, would require increasing the retrofitting rate to 5 percent per year, and to require all new construction to be carbon neutral as well.
Reinhart then showed a series of examples of how such conversions could take place using existing solar and heat pump technology, and depending on the configuration, how they could provide a payback to the homeowner within 10 years or less. However, without strong policy incentives the initial cost outlay for such a system, on the order of $50,000, is likely to put conversions out of reach of many people. Still, a recent survey found that 30 percent of homeowners polled said they would accept installation at current costs. While there is government money available for incentives for others, “we have to be very clever on how we spend all this money … and make sure that everybody is basically benefiting.”
William Green, a professor of chemical engineering, spoke about the daunting challenge of bringing aviation to net zero. “More and more people like to travel,” he said, but that travel comes with carbon emissions that affect the climate, as well as air pollution that affects human health. The economic costs associated with these emissions, he said, are estimated at $860 per ton of jet fuel used — which is very close to the cost of the fuel itself. So the price paid by the airlines, and ultimately by the passengers, “is only about half of the true cost to society, and the other half is being borne by all of us, by the fact that it’s affecting the climate and it’s causing medical problems for people.”
Eliminating those emissions is a major challenge, he said. Virtually all jet fuel today is fossil fuel, but airlines are starting to incorporate some biomass-based fuel, derived mostly from food waste. But even these fuels are not carbon-neutral, he said. “They actually have pretty significant carbon intensity.”
But there are possible alternatives, he said, mostly based on using hydrogen produced by clean electricity, and making fuels out of that hydrogen by reacting it, for example, with carbon dioxide. This could indeed produce a carbon-neutral fuel that existing aircraft could use, but the process is costly, requiring a great deal of hydrogen, and ways of concentrating carbon dioxide. Other viable options also exist, but all would add significant expense, at least with present technology. “It’s going to cost a lot more for the passengers on the plane,” Green said, “But the society will benefit from that.”
Increased electrification of heating and transportation in order to avoid the use of fossil fuels will place major demands on the existing electric grid systems, which have to perform a constant delicate balancing of production with demand. Anuradha Annaswamy, a senior research scientist in MIT’s mechanical engineering department, said “the electric grid is an engineering marvel.” In the United States it consists of 300,000 miles of transmission lines capable of carrying 470,000 megawatts of power.
But with a projected doubling of energy from renewable sources entering the grid by 2030, and with a push to electrify everything possible — from transportation to buildings to industry — the load is not only increasing, but the patterns of both energy use and production are changing. Annaswamy said that “with all these new assets and decision-makers entering the picture, the question is how you can use a more sophisticated information layer that coordinates how all these assets are either consuming or producing or storing energy, and have that information layer coexist with the physical layer to make and deliver electricity in all these ways. It’s really not a simple problem.”
But there are ways of addressing these complexities. “Certainly, emerging technologies in power electronics and control and communication can be leveraged,” she said. But she added that “This is not just a technology problem, really, it is something that requires technologists, economists, and policymakers to all come together.”
As for industrial processes, Bilge Yildiz, a professor of nuclear science and engineering and materials science and engineering, said that “the synthesis of industrial chemicals and materials constitutes about 33 percent of global CO2 emissions at present, and so our goal is to decarbonize this difficult sector.” About half of all these industrial emissions come from the production of just four materials: steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene, so there is a major focus of research on ways to reduce their emissions.
Most of the processes to make these materials have changed little for more than a century, she said, and they are mostly heat-based processes that involve burning a lot of fossil fuel. But the heat can instead be provided from renewable electricity, which can also be used to drive electrochemical reactions in some cases as a substitute for the thermal reactions. Already, there are processes for making cement and steel that produce only about half the present carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
The production of ammonia, which is widely used in fertilizer and other bulk chemicals, accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other industrial source. The present thermochemical process could be replaced by an electrochemical process, she said. Similarly, the production of ethylene, as a feedstock for plastics and other materials, is the second-highest emissions producer, with three tons of carbon dioxide released for every ton of ethylene produced. Again, an electrochemical alternative method exists, but needs to be improved to be cost competitive.
As the world moves toward electrification of industrial processes to eliminate fossil fuels, the need for emissions-free sources of electricity will continue to increase. One very promising potential addition to the range of carbon-free generation sources is fusion, a field in which MIT is a leader in developing a particularly promising technology that takes advantage of the unique properties of high-temperature superconducting (HTS) materials.
Dennis Whyte, the director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, pointed out that despite global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, “we use exactly the same percentage of carbon-based products to generate energy as 10 years ago, or 20 years ago.” To make a real difference in global emissions, “we need to make really massive amounts of carbon-free energy.”
Fusion, the process that powers the sun, is a particularly promising pathway, because the fuel, derived from water, is virtually inexhaustible. By using recently developed HTS material to generate the powerful magnetic fields needed to produce a sustained fusion reaction, the MIT-led project, which led to a spinoff company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems, was able to radically reduce the required size of a fusion reactor, Whyte explained. Using this approach, the company, in collaboration with MIT, expects to have a fusion system that produces net energy by the middle of this decade, and be ready to build a commercial plant to produce power for the grid early in the next. Meanwhile, at least 25 other private companies are also attempting to commercialize fusion technology. “I think we can take some credit for helping to spawn what is essentially now a new industry in the United States,” Whyte said.
Fusion offers the potential, along with existing solar and wind technologies, to provide the emissions-free power the world needs, Whyte says, but that’s only half the problem, the other part being how to get that power to where it’s needed, when it’s needed. “How do we adapt these new energy sources to be as compatible as possible with everything that we have already in terms of energy delivery?”
Part of the way to find answers to that, he suggested, is more collaborative work on these issues that cut across disciplines, as well as more of the kinds of cross-cutting conversations and interactions that took place in this panel discussion. More
Experiments often yield unexpected results. In research and in life, MIT Associate Professor Cem Tasan has learned to embrace that uncertainty.
“Very often we start with an idea or a hypothesis, and to test that idea we design experiments, and when we run the experiments, we see something totally different,” says Tasan, the newly tenured Thomas B. King Associate Professor of Metallurgy.
Tasan has used those surprises to explore the boundaries of metallurgy and solid mechanics, gleaning new insights into how metals break and deform, and designing new kinds of damage-resistant alloys.
“As they say, science is like taking a walk in the hills,” Tasan says. “You see the mountain far away, and that’s where you want to go, but as you head toward it, you see a beautiful flower on a different pathway, so you check that out. That happens so often to [my group]. It’s exciting.”
Tasan has extended that approach to his career, leading him to take a faculty position at MIT despite not seeing the campus until his first job interview.
“Being at MIT, or even in the USA, was never on my radar,” Tasan says. “It just wasn’t part of a plan.”
That mindset has also helped him mentor students, whom he’s learned never to judge based on initial impressions.
“I had a really bright student reach out and say ‘Everything is great, we have funding, we are productive, but I’m not sure I like what I’m doing,’” Tasan recalls. “We talked and identified another direction closer to the student’s interests, but that would mean we might not have secure funding or the necessary know-how, so there were all these disadvantages.
“But we went down that road and it was amazing, because now this student was doing the research they really liked, and that successful student became an amazing student. Mentoring is complicated because on the outside things can seem fine, but the key idea is to pay attention to small details and keep communicating with these young people, who are on their own journeys. There’s no easy way other than communicating and observing.”
A winding path
Tasan grew up in Turkey and studied metallurgical and materials engineering at the country’s top college in the field, the Middle East Technical University.
“What intrigued me about metallurgy is that it’s an engineering field, but it’s also strongly related with basic sciences,” Tasan says. “That connection exists in other engineering fields as well, but not as strongly. In materials science, it’s fair to say one leg is almost always in the fundamental side of things.”
Tasan also travelled a lot as a young adult, backpacking with friends across Europe on a shoestring budget.
“Early on, my personal goal in life was to move to Spain and eat tapas all the time and have fun,” Tasan jokes.
During one such trip, Tasan packed a suit in the bottom of his backpack just in case he landed an interview with a graduate program. The preparation paid off in the Netherlands, where he met with members of the mechanical engineering department at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Tasan would go on to earn his PhD at the school, studying how damage and cracking takes place in metals.
After earning his PhD in 2010, Tasan joined the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research in Germany, where he eventually led a research group that continued studying metal behavior and worked on creating new metal alloys that were more damage-resistant and had other unique properties.
By 2015, Tasan was settled into a comfortable life in Germany. Then a position at MIT opened up.
“At MIT, I could suddenly do much more on these topics that excited me, so my research could create a bigger impact,” Tasan says.
After traveling to MIT for interviews, the talent and atmosphere also convinced Tasan to make the move.
“I think it’s important to be surrounded by people who are very ambitious and who want to have a big impact,” Tasan says. “You walk in the Infinite Corridor, or any other MIT corridor, and every board you pass has stuff about people changing the world in a different way. Being in that environment inspires you.”
Once in Cambridge, Tasan immediately loved what he describes as its “small-town feel,” comparing it to some European towns. He’s also embraced the Boston culture, becoming a fan of baseball and the Red Sox.
Since arriving at MIT, Tasan’s group has studied metal samples’ response to stress and other stimuli in real time using a technique called in situ electron microscopy.
“We do in situ tests, which means you take an electron microscope and basically build machines inside that allows you to take any metal and put it under different conditions, as you watch its structure evolve,” Tasan explains. “Because these experiments are so unique and complex, when a student designs an experiment and eventually brings the results back to me, it’s often the first-ever observation of some phenomena.”
In 2020 Tasan’s group developed new in-situ methods for studying the effects of hydrogen in metals, leading to insights that could help with the transition to clean hydrogen energy. The approach has been adopted by other labs for further study.
Tasan’s group also created a more damage resistant, high temperature alloy that’s part of a class of metals known as high entropy alloys. That work was published in the journal Nature Materials.
“Doing physical metallurgy research allows us to connect basic understanding of metals and industrial applications,” Tasan says. “I’m dealing with atoms and how they interact — and at the same time I’m talking weekly with companies that produce thousands of tons of metals, and we’re using the same language. I can talk to a company producing steels for auto bodies or titanium for airplane engines, and the stuff I study in my lab is still valuable to them.”
In one much-publicized Science paper, Tasan’s group uncovered the reasons why even the sharpest knives and razors dull after everyday processes like shaving.
“We like to demonstrate the importance of materials science and metallurgy to a broader audience,” Tasan says. “The paper on why hair deforms steel was great because it was picked up in all kinds of news channels around the world, and it showed that even in very conventional areas, like making knives or blades, there’s a lot of new insights and paths to find.”
Solving the ultimate puzzles
Tasan brings the same careful diligence he uses to study metals to support students. He says he’s found that like metals, people also typically have more complex stories that you can only see if you look closely enough.
“It’s interesting because everybody is so different,” Tasan says. “Once you start working with people and trying to help them, you see so many different dimensions that were not visible before. You have the opportunity to sit down with them and look them in the eye and try to understand what they really want. And it’s interesting because often they also don’t know what they want, and sometimes they even don’t know that they don’t know that!”
Fortunately, Tasan enjoys those challenges most of all.
“In a way, the researchers are puzzles waiting to be solved, like the research itself,” Tasan says. “And if you put in enough effort and you really care, you get this enormously gratifying feeling of helping someone succeed in life. It’s really a unique part of the job, and it’s what I love more than anything.” More