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    Susan Solomon wins VinFuture Award for Female Innovators

    Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies Susan Solomon has been awarded the 2023 VinFuture Award for Female Innovators. Solomon was picked out of almost 1,400 international nominations across four categories for “The discovery of the ozone depletion mechanism in Antarctica, contributing to the establishment of the Montreal Protocol.” The award, which comes with a $500,000 prize, highlights outstanding female researchers and innovators that can serve as role models for aspiring scientists.

    “I’m tremendously humbled by that, and I’ll do my best to live up to it,” says Solomon, who attended the ceremony in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Dec. 20.

    The VinFuture Awards are given annually to “honor scientific research and breakthrough technological innovations that can make a significant difference” according to their site. In addition to Female Innovators, the award has two other special categories, Innovators from Developing Countries and Innovators with Outstanding Achievements in Emerging Fields, as well as their overall grand prize. The awards have been given out by the Vietnam-based VinFuture Foundation since 2021.

    “Countries all around the world are part of scientific progress and innovation, and that a developing country is honoring that is really very lovely,” says Solomon, whose career as an atmospheric chemist has brought her onto the international stage and has shown her firsthand how important developing countries are in crafting global policy.

    In 1986 Solomon led an expedition of 16 scientists to Antarctica to measure the degradation of the ozone layer; she was the only woman on the team. She and her collaborators were able to figure out the atmospheric chemistry of chlorofluorocarbons and other similar chemicals that are now known as ozone-depleting substances. This work became foundational to the creation of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that banned damaging chemicals and has allowed the ozone to recover.

    Solomon joined the MIT faculty in 2012 and holds joint appointments in the departments of Chemistry and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. The success of the Montreal Protocol demonstrates the ability for international cooperation to enact effective environmental agreements; Solomon sees it as a blueprint for crafting further policy when it comes to addressing global climate change.

    “Women can do anything, even help save the ozone layer and solve other environmental problems,” she says. “Today’s problem of climate change is for all of us to be involved in solving.” More

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    Climate action, here and now

    A few years ago, David Hsu started taking a keen interest in some apartment buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx — but not because he was looking for a place to live. Hsu, an associate professor at MIT, works on urban climate change solutions. The property owners were retrofitting their buildings to make them net-zero emitters of carbon dioxide via better insulation, ventilation, and electric heating and appliances. They also wanted to see the effect on interior air quality.

    In the process, the owners started working with Hsu and an MIT team to assess the results using top-grade air quality sensors. They found that beyond its climate benefits, retrofitting lowered indoor pollutants from high levels to almost-undetectable levels. It is a win-win outcome.

    “Not only are those buildings cleaner and use less energy and do not emit greenhouse gases, they also have better air quality,” Hsu says. “The hopeful thing is that as we remake our buildings for decarbonization, a lot of technologies are so superior that our lives will be better, too.”

    Hsu’s projects frequently yield practical, concrete steps for climate action. In New York City, Hsu found, mandating the measurement of energy use lowered consumption 13 to 14 percent over four years. In a 2017 paper, he and his co-authors studied which climate actions would most reduce carbon emissions in 11 major U.S. cities. Cleveland and Denver can greatly reduce use of fossil fuels, for example, while better energy efficiency in new homes would make a big difference in Houston and Phoenix.

    “You have to figure out what works and doesn’t work,” Hsu says. “I try to figure out how we can have cleaner and healthier cities that will be more sustainable, equitable, and more just.”

    Significantly, Hsu does not just prescribe climate action elsewhere, he also works for change at MIT. He helped create a zero-emissions roadmap for MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning as well as the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where he is an associate professor of urban and environmental planning and is part of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, serving in the Climate Education Working Group.

    “People can get depressed about how you tackle this large, civilization-wide problem, and then you realize lots of other people care about this. Lots of smart people at MIT and other places are working on it, and there are lots of things we can do, individually and collectively,” Hsu says.

    And as Hsu’s work shows, lots of people tackle the climate crisis by working on local issues. For his research and teaching, Hsu was granted tenure at MIT this year.

    Urban planning by way of Amherst

    Hsu studies cities, but is not from one. Growing up in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, Hsu could walk out of his home and “be in the woods in a minute.” He attended Yale University as an undergraduate, majoring in physics, and started venturing into New York City with friends. After graduation, Hsu moved there and got a job.

    Or three jobs, really. Over the next 10 years, Hsu worked as an engineer, in real estate finance, and for the New York City government as a vice president at the NYC Economic Development Corporation, where he helped manage the city’s post-September 11 redevelopment of the East River waterfront. Eventually, he decided to pursue graduate studies in urban planning, building on his experience.

    “Engineering, finance, and government, you put those three things together and they’re basically urban planning,” Hsu says. “It took me a decade after school to realize urban planning is a thing I could do. I say to students, ‘You’re lucky, you have this major. I never had this in college.’”

    As a graduate student, Hsu received an MS from Cornell University in applied and engineering physics, then an MSc from the London School of Economics and Political Science in city design and social science, before getting his PhD in urban design and planning at the University of Washington in Seattle. He served on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania before moving to MIT in 2015.

    Hsu studies an array of topics involving local governments and climate policy. He has published multiple papers on Philadelphia’s attempts to refurbish its stormwater infrastructure, for example. His studies about retrofitted apartment buildings are forthcoming as three papers. A 2022 Hsu paper, “Straight out of Cape Cod,” looked at the origins of Community Choice Aggregation, an approach to purchasing clean energy that started in a few Massachusetts communities and now involves 11 percent of the U.S. population.

    “I joke that the ideal reader of my articles is not a mayor and it’s not an academic, it’s a midcareer bureaucrat trying to implement a policy,” Hsu says.

    Actually, that’s no mere joke. At MIT, City of Cambridge officials have contacted Hsu to discuss his studies of New York and Philadelphia, something he welcomes. Even if not in local government himself, Hsu says, “I know I can do research that might move some of those projects along. It’s my way of trying to contribute to the world outside of academia.”

    “It’s all important”

    There is still another way Hsu contributes to climate action: by influencing what MIT does. He helped craft the climate policies of the School of Architecture and Planning and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, which aim to produce net zero emissions for the department through the use of tools like carbon offsets for travel. As part of the Institute-wide Climate Education Working Group convened under the Fast Forward plan, Hsu is busy thinking about how to integrate climate studies into MIT education.

    “Our Fast Forward team does great work together. David McGee, Lisa Ghaffari, Kate Trimble, Antje Danielson, Curt Newton, they’re so engaged,” says Hsu. “Our students are terrifically hard-working and skilled and care about climate change, but don’t know how to affect it necessarily. We want to give them on-ramps and skills.”

    He is also chair of the fast-growing 11-6 major that combines urban studies and planning with computer science.

    “Climate change is happening so fast, and is so big, that every job could be climate-change related,” Hsu says. “If people leave MIT with a higher base understanding of climate change, then you can be a lawyer or consultant or work in finance or computer science and address the unsolved problems.”

    Indeed, Hsu thinks many students, who he believes increasingly recognize the severity of climate change, need to prioritize the battle against it when shaping their careers.

    “Our fight against climate change is not going to be over by 2050, but 25 years from now, we’re going to know if we transitioned to a net-zero-emitting society for the sake of humanity,” Hsu says. “The students are more aware than ever that climate change is going to dominate their lives. I want students to look back with satisfaction that they helped society.”

    More bluntly, he says: “Are you going to say, ‘Oh, I made some money and enhanced my career, but the planet’s going to be destroyed? Or ideally will you find a job that’s satisfying and can support your future hopes for yourself and your family, and also save the planet? Because I think there are a lot of [job] options like that out there.”

    Hsu adds, “We’re going to need people pulling in different directions. It’s all important. That’s the message to our students. Go find something you think is important and use your skills. We’re going to need that many people to work on climate change.” More

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    MIT in the media: 2023 in review

    It was an eventful trip around the sun for MIT this year, from President Sally Kornbluth’s inauguration and Mark Rober’s Commencement address to Professor Moungi Bawendi winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 2023 MIT researchers made key advances, detecting a dying star swallowing a planet, exploring the frontiers of artificial intelligence, creating clean energy solutions, inventing tools aimed at earlier detection and diagnosis of cancer, and even exploring the science of spreading kindness. Below are highlights of some of the uplifting people, breakthroughs, and ideas from MIT that made headlines in 2023.

    The gift: Kindness goes viral with Steve HartmanSteve Hartman visited Professor Anette “Peko” Hosoi to explore the science behind whether a single act of kindness can change the world.Full story via CBS News

    Trio wins Nobel Prize in chemistry for work on quantum dots, used in electronics and medical imaging“The motivation really is the basic science. A basic understanding, the curiosity of ‘how does the world work?’” said Professor Moungi Bawendi of the inspiration for his research on quantum dots, for which he was co-awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.Full story via the Associated Press

    How MIT’s all-women leadership team plans to change science for the betterPresident Sally Kornbluth, Provost Cynthia Barnhart, and Chancellor Melissa Nobles emphasized the importance of representation for women and underrepresented groups in STEM.Full story via Radio Boston

    MIT via community college? Transfer students find a new path to a degreeUndergraduate Subin Kim shared his experience transferring from community college to MIT through the Transfer Scholars Network, which is aimed at helping community college students find a path to four-year universities.Full story via the Christian Science Monitor

    MIT president Sally Kornbluth doesn’t think we can hit the pause button on AIPresident Kornbluth discussed the future of AI, ethics in science, and climate change with columnist Shirley Leung on her new “Say More” podcast. “I view [the climate crisis] as an existential issue to the extent that if we don’t take action there, all of the many, many other things that we’re working on, not that they’ll be irrelevant, but they’ll pale in comparison,” Kornbluth said.Full story via The Boston Globe 

    It’s the end of a world as we know itAstronomers from MIT, Harvard University, Caltech and elsewhere spotted a dying star swallowing a large planet. Postdoc Kishalay De explained that: “Finding an event like this really puts all of the theories that have been out there to the most stringent tests possible. It really opens up this entire new field of research.”Full story via The New York Times

    Frontiers of AI

    Hey, Alexa, what should students learn about AI?The Day of AI is a program developed by the MIT RAISE initiative aimed at introducing and teaching K-12 students about AI. “We want students to be informed, responsible users and informed, responsible designers of these technologies,” said Professor Cynthia Breazeal, dean of digital learning at MIT.Full story via The New York Times

    AI tipping pointFour faculty members from across MIT — Professors Song Han, Simon Johnson, Yoon Kim and Rosalind Picard — described the opportunities and risks posed by the rapid advancements in the field of AI.Full story via Curiosity Stream 

    A look into the future of AI at MIT’s robotics laboratoryProfessor Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, discussed the future of artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning, emphasizing the importance of balancing the development of new technologies with the need to ensure they are deployed in a way that benefits humanity.Full story via Mashable

    Health care providers say artificial intelligence could transform medicineProfessor Regina Barzilay spoke about her work developing new AI systems that could be used to help diagnose breast and lung cancer before the cancers are detectable to the human eye.Full story via Chronicle

    Is AI coming for your job? Tech experts weigh in: “They don’t replace human labor”Professor David Autor discussed how the rise of artificial intelligence could change the quality of jobs available.Full story via CBS News

    Big tech is bad. Big AI will be worse.Institute Professor Daron Acemoglu and Professor Simon Johnson made the case that “rather than machine intelligence, what we need is ‘machine usefulness,’ which emphasizes the ability of computers to augment human capabilities.”Full story via The New York Times

    Engineering excitement

    MIT’s 3D-printed hearts could pump new life into customized treatments MIT engineers developed a technique for 3D printing a soft, flexible, custom-designed replica of a patient’s heart.Full story via WBUR

    Mystery of why Roman buildings have survived so long has been unraveled, scientists sayScientists from MIT and other institutions discovered that ancient Romans used lime clasts when manufacturing concrete, giving the material self-healing properties.Full story via CNN

    The most interesting startup in America is in Massachusetts. You’ve probably never heard of it.VulcanForms, an MIT startup, is at the “leading edge of a push to transform 3D printing from a niche technology — best known for new-product prototyping and art-class experimentation — into an industrial force.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    Catalyzing climate innovations

    Can Boston’s energy innovators save the world?Boston Magazine reporter Rowan Jacobsen spotlighted how MIT faculty, students, and alumni are leading the charge in clean energy startups. “When it comes to game-changing breakthroughs in energy, three letters keep surfacing again and again: MIT,” writes Jacobsen.Full story via Boston Magazine

    MIT research could be game changer in combating water shortagesMIT researchers discovered that a common hydrogel used in cosmetic creams, industrial coatings, and pharmaceutical capsules can absorb moisture from the atmosphere even as the temperature rises. “For a planet that’s getting hotter, this could be a game-changing discovery.”Full story via NBC Boston

    Energy-storing concrete could form foundations for solar-powered homesMIT engineers uncovered a new way of creating an energy supercapacitor by combining cement, carbon black, and water that could one day be used to power homes or electric vehicles.Full story via New Scientist

    MIT researchers tackle key question of EV adoption: When to charge?MIT scientists found that delayed charging and strategic placement of EV charging stations could help reduce additional energy demands caused by more widespread EV adoption.Full story via Fast Company

    Building better buildingsProfessor John Fernández examined how to reduce the climate footprints of homes and office buildings, recommending creating airtight structures, switching to cleaner heating sources, using more environmentally friendly building materials, and retrofitting existing homes and offices.Full story via The New York Times

    They’re building an “ice penetrator” on a hillside in WestfordResearchers from MIT’s Haystack Observatory built an “ice penetrator,” a device designed to monitor the changing conditions of sea ice.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Healing health solutions

    How Boston is beating cancerMIT researchers are developing drug-delivery nanoparticles aimed at targeting cancer cells without disturbing healthy cells. Essentially, the nanoparticles are “engineered for selectivity,” explained Professor Paula Hammond, head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering.Full story via Boston Magazine

    A new antibiotic, discovered with artificial intelligence, may defeat a dangerous superbugUsing a machine-learning algorithm, researchers from MIT discovered a type of antibiotic that’s effective against a particular strain of drug-resistant bacteria.Full story via CNN

    To detect breast cancer sooner, an MIT professor designs an ultrasound braMIT researchers designed a wearable ultrasound device that attaches to a bra and could be used to detect early-stage breast tumors.Full story via STAT

    The quest for a switch to turn on hungerAn ingestible pill developed by MIT scientists can raise levels of hormones to help increase appetite and decrease nausea in patients with gastroparesis.Full story via Wired

    Here’s how to use dreams for creative inspirationMIT scientists found that the earlier stages of sleep are key to sparking creativity and that people can be guided to dream about specific topics, further boosting creativity.Full story via Scientific American

    Astounding art

    An AI opera from 1987 reboots for a new generationProfessor Tod Machover discussed the restaging of his opera “VALIS” at MIT, which featured an artificial intelligence-assisted musical instrument developed by Nina Masuelli ’23.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Surfacing the stories hidden in migration dataAssociate Professor Sarah Williams discussed the Civic Data Design Lab’s “Motivational Tapestry,” a large woven art piece that uses data from the United Nations World Food Program to visually represent the individual motivations of 1,624 Central Americans who have migrated to the U.S.Full story via Metropolis

    Augmented reality-infused production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” opens Bayreuth FestivalProfessor Jay Scheib’s augmented reality-infused production of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” brought “fantastical images” to audience members.Full story via the Associated Press

    Understanding our universe

    New image reveals violent events near a supermassive black holeScientists captured a new image of M87*, the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, showing the “launching point of a colossal jet of high-energy particles shooting outward into space.”Full story via Reuters

    Gravitational waves: A new universeMIT researchers Lisa Barsotti, Deep Chatterjee, and Victoria Xu explored how advances in gravitational wave detection are enabling a better understanding of the universe.Full story via Curiosity Stream 

    Nergis Mavalvala helped detect the first gravitational wave. Her work doesn’t stop thereProfessor Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science, discussed her work searching for gravitational waves, the importance of skepticism in scientific research, and why she enjoys working with young people.Full story via Wired

    Hitting the books

    “The Transcendent Brain” review: Beyond ones and zeroesIn his book “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science,” Alan Lightman, a professor of the practice of humanities, displayed his gift for “distilling complex ideas and emotions to their bright essence.”Full story via The Wall Street Journal

    What happens when CEOs treat workers better? Companies (and workers) win.Professor of the practice Zeynep Ton published a book, “The Case for Good Jobs,” and is “on a mission to change how company leaders think, and how they treat their employees.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    How to wage war on conspiracy theoriesProfessor Adam Berinsky’s book, “Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight it,” examined “attitudes toward both politics and health, both of which are undermined by distrust and misinformation in ways that cause harm to both individuals and society.”Full story via Politico

    What it takes for Mexican coders to cross the cultural border with Silicon ValleyAssistant Professor Héctor Beltrán discussed his new book, “Code Work: Hacking across the U.S./México Techno-Borderlands,” which explores the culture of hackathons and entrepreneurship in Mexico.Full story via Marketplace

    Cultivating community

    The Indigenous rocketeerNicole McGaa, a fourth-year student at MIT, discussed her work leading MIT’s all-Indigenous rocket team at the 2023 First Nations Launch National Rocket Competition.Full story via Nature

    “You totally got this,” YouTube star and former NASA engineer Mark Rober tells MIT graduatesDuring his Commencement address at MIT, Mark Rober urged graduates to embrace their accomplishments and boldly face any challenges they encounter.Full story via The Boston Globe

    MIT Juggling Club going strong after half centuryAfter almost 50 years, the MIT Juggling Club, which was founded in 1975 and then merged with a unicycle club, is the oldest drop-in juggling club in continuous operation and still welcomes any aspiring jugglers to come toss a ball (or three) into the air.Full story via Cambridge Day

    Volpe Transportation Center opens as part of $750 million deal between MIT and fedsThe John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Kendall Square was the first building to open in MIT’s redevelopment of the 14-acre Volpe site that will ultimately include “research labs, retail, affordable housing, and open space, with the goal of not only encouraging innovation, but also enhancing the surrounding community.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    Sparking conversation

    The future of AI innovation and the role of academics in shaping itProfessor Daniela Rus emphasized the central role universities play in fostering innovation and the importance of ensuring universities have the computing resources necessary to help tackle major global challenges.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Moving the needle on supply chain sustainabilityProfessor Yossi Sheffi examined several strategies companies could use to help improve supply chain sustainability, including redesigning last-mile deliveries, influencing consumer choices and incentivizing returnable containers.Full story via The Hill

    Expelled from the mountain top?Sylvester James Gates Jr. ’73, PhD ’77 made the case that “diverse learning environments expose students to a broader range of perspectives, enhance education, and inculcate creativity and innovative habits of mind.”Full story via Science

    Marketing magic of “Barbie” movie has lessons for women’s sportsMIT Sloan Lecturer Shira Springer explored how the success of the “Barbie” movie could be applied to women’s sports.Full story via Sports Business Journal

    We’re already paying for universal health care. Why don’t we have it?Professor Amy Finkelstein asserted that the solution to health insurance reform in the U.S. is “universal coverage that is automatic, free and basic.”Full story via The New York Times 

    The internet could be so good. Really.Professor Deb Roy described how “new kinds of social networks can be designed for constructive communication — for listening, dialogue, deliberation, and mediation — and they can actually work.”Full story via The Atlantic

    Fostering educational excellence

    MIT students give legendary linear algebra professor standing ovation in last lectureAfter 63 years of teaching and over 10 million views of his online lectures, Professor Gilbert Strang received a standing ovation after his last lecture on linear algebra. “I am so grateful to everyone who likes linear algebra and sees its importance. So many universities (and even high schools) now appreciate how beautiful it is and how valuable it is,” said Strang.Full story via USA Today

    “Brave Behind Bars”: Reshaping the lives of inmates through coding classesGraduate students Martin Nisser and Marisa Gaetz co-founded Brave Behind Bars, a program designed to provide incarcerated individuals with coding and digital literacy skills to better prepare them for life after prison.Full story via MSNBC

    Melrose TikTok user “Ms. Nuclear Energy” teaching about nuclear power through social mediaGraduate student Kaylee Cunningham discussed her work using social media to help educate and inform the public about nuclear energy.Full story via CBS Boston  More

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    Unlocking the secrets of natural materials

    Growing up in Milan, Benedetto Marelli liked figuring out how things worked. He repaired broken devices simply to have the opportunity to take them apart and put them together again. Also, from a young age, he had a strong desire to make a positive impact on the world. Enrolling at the Polytechnic University of Milan, he chose to study engineering.

    “Engineering seemed like the right fit to fulfill my passions at the intersection of discovering how the world works, together with understanding the rules of nature and harnessing this knowledge to create something new that could positively impact our society,” says Marelli, MIT’s Paul M. Cook Career Development Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    Marelli decided to focus on biomedical engineering, which at the time was the closest thing available to biological engineering. “I liked the idea of pursuing studies that provided me a background to engineer life,” in order to improve human health and agriculture, he says.

    Marelli went on to earn a PhD in materials science and engineering at McGill University and then worked in Tufts University’s biomaterials Silklab as a postdoc. After his postdoc, Marelli was drawn to MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental in large part because of the work of Markus Buehler, MIT’s McAfee Professor of Engineering, who studies how to design new materials by understanding the architecture of natural ones.

    “This resonated with my training and idea of using nature’s building blocks to build a more sustainable society,” Marelli says. “It was a big leap forward for me to go from biomedical engineering to civil and environmental engineering. It meant completely changing my community, understanding what I could teach and how to mentor students in a new engineering branch. As Markus is working with silk to study how to engineer better materials, this made me see a clear connection with what I was doing and what I could be doing. I consider him one of my mentors here at MIT and was fortunate to end up collaborating with him.”

    Marelli’s research is aimed at mitigating several pressing global problems, he says.

    “Boosting food production to provide food security to an ever-increasing population, soil restoration, decreasing the environmental impact of fertilizers, and addressing stressors coming from climate change are societal challenges that need the development of rapidly scalable and deployable technologies,” he says.

    Marelli and his fellow researchers have developed coatings derived from natural silk that extend the shelf life of food, deliver biofertilizers to seeds planted in salty, unproductive soils, and allow seeds to establish healthier plants and increase crop yield in drought-stricken lands. The technologies have performed well in field tests being conducted in Morocco in collaboration with the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Ben Guerir, according to Marelli, and offer much potential.

    “I believe that with this technology, together with the common efforts shared by the MIT PIs participating in the Climate Grand Challenge on Revolutionizing Agriculture, we have a  real opportunity to positively impact planetary health and find new solutions that work in both rural settings and highly modernized agricultural fields,” says Marelli, who recently earned tenure.

    As a researcher and entrepreneur with about 20 patents to his name and awards including a National Science Foundation CAREER award, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers award, and the Ole Madsen Mentoring Award, Marelli says that in general his insights into structural proteins — and how to use that understanding to manufacture advanced materials at multiple scales — are among his proudest achievements.

    More specifically, Marelli cites one of his breakthroughs involving a strawberry. Having dipped the berry in an odorless, tasteless edible silk suspension as part of a cooking contest held in his postdoctoral lab, he accidentally left it on his bench, only to find a week or so later that it had been well-preserved.

    “The coating of the strawberry to increase its shelf life is difficult to beat when it comes to inspiring people that natural polymers can serve as technical materials that can positively impact our society” by lessening food waste and the need for energy-intensive refrigerated shipping, Marelli says.

    When Marelli won the BioInnovation Institute and Science Prize for Innovation in 2022, he told the journal Science that he thinks students should be encouraged to choose an entrepreneurial path. He acknowledged the steepness of the learning curve of being an entrepreneur but also pointed out how the impact of research can be exponentially increased.

    He expanded on this idea more recently.

    “I believe an increasing number of academics and graduate students should try to get their hands ‘dirty’ with entrepreneurial efforts. We live in a time where academics are called to have a tangible impact on our society, and translating what we study in our labs is clearly a good way to employ our students and enhance the global effort to develop new technology that can make our society more sustainable and equitable,” Marelli says.

    Referring to a spinoff company, Mori, that grew out of the coated strawberry discovery and that develops silk-based products to preserve a wide range of perishable foods, Marelli says he finds it very satisfying to know that Mori has a product on the market that came out of his research efforts — and that 80 people are working to translate the discovery from “lab to fork.”

    “Knowing that the technology can move the needle in crises such as food waste and food-related environmental impact is the highest reward of all,” he says.

    Marelli says he tells students who are seeking solutions to extremely complicated problems to come up with one solution, “however crazy it might be,” and then do an extensive literature review to see what other researchers have done and whether “there is any hint that points toward developing their solution.”

    “Once we understand the feasibility, I typically work with them to simplify it as much as we can, and then to break down the problem in small parts that are addressable in series and/or in parallel,” Marelli says.

    That process of discovery is ongoing. Asked which of his technologies will have the greatest impact on the world, Marelli says, “I’d like to think it’s the ones that still need to be discovered.” More

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    Merging science and systems thinking to make materials more sustainable

    For Professor Elsa Olivetti, tackling a problem as large and complex as climate change requires not only lab research but also understanding the systems of production that power the global economy.

    Her career path reflects a quest to investigate materials at scales ranging from the microscopic to the mass-manufactured.

    “I’ve always known what questions I wanted to ask, and then set out to build the tools to help me ask those questions,” says Olivetti, the Jerry McAfee Professor in Engineering.

    Olivetti, who earned tenure in 2022 and was recently appointed associate dean of engineering, has sought to equip students with similar skills, whether in the classroom, in her lab group, or through the interdisciplinary programs she leads at MIT. Those efforts have earned her accolades including the Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching, a MacVicar Faculty Fellowship in 2021, and the McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising in 2023.

    “I think to make real progress in sustainability, materials scientists need to think in interdisciplinary, systems-level ways, but at a deep technical level,” Olivetti says. “Supporting my students so that’s something that a lot more people can do is very rewarding for me.”

    Her mission to make materials more sustainable also makes Olivetti grateful [EAO1] she’s at MIT, which has a long tradition of both interdisciplinary collaboration and technical know-how.

    “MIT’s core competencies are well-positioned for bold achievements in climate and sustainability — the deep expertise on the economics side, the frontier knowledge in science, the computational creativity,” Olivetti says. “It’s a really exciting time and place where the key ingredients for progress are simmering in transformative ways.”

    Answering the call

    The moment that set Olivetti on her life’s journey began when she was 8, with a knock at her door. Her parents were in the other room, so Olivetti opened the door and met an organizer for Greenpeace, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of environmental issues.

    “I had a chat with that guy and got hooked on environmental concerns,” Olivetti says. “I still remember that conversation.”

    The interaction changed the way Olivetti thought about her place in the world, and her new perspective manifested itself in some unique ways. Her elementary school science fair projects became elaborate pursuits of environmental solutions involving burying various items in the backyard to test for biodegradability. There was also an awkward attempt at natural pesticide development, which lead to a worm hatching in her bedroom.

    As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Olivetti gravitated toward classes in environmentalism and materials science.

    “There was a link between materials science and a broader, systems way of framing design for environment, and that just clicked for me in terms of the way I wanted to think about environmental problems — from the atom to the system,” Olivetti recalls.

    That interest led Olivetti to MIT for a PhD in 2001, where she studied the feasibility of new materials for lithium-ion batteries.

    “I really wanted to be thinking of things at a systems level, but I wanted to ground that in lab-based research,” Olivetti says. “I wanted an experiential experience in grad school, and that’s why I chose MIT’s program.”

    Whether it was her undergraduate studies, her PhD, or her ensuing postdoc work at MIT, Olivetti sought to learn new skills to continue bridging the gap between materials science and environmental systems thinking.

    “I think of it as, ‘Here’s how I can build up the ways I ask questions,’” Olivetti explains. “How do we design these materials while thinking about their implications as early as possible?”

    Since joining MIT’s faculty in 2014, Olivetti has developed computational models to measure the cost and environmental impact of new materials, explored ways to adopt more sustainable and circular supply chains, and evaluated potential materials limitations as lithium-ion battery production is scaled. That work helps companies increase their use of greener, recyclable materials and more sustainably dispose of waste.

    Olivetti believes the wide scope of her research gives the students in her lab a more holistic understanding of the life cycle of materials.

    “When the group started, each student was working on a different aspect of the problem — like on the natural language processing pipeline, or on recycling technology assessment, or beneficial use of waste — and now each student can link each of those pieces in their research,” Olivetti explains.

    Beyond her research, Olivetti also co-directs the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, which has established a set of eight areas of sustainability that it organizes coalitions around. Each coalition involves technical leaders at companies and researchers at MIT that work together to accelerate the impact of MIT’s research by helping companies adopt innovative and more sustainable technologies.

    “Climate change mitigation and resilience is such a complex problem, and at MIT we have practice in working together across disciplines on many challenges,” Olivetti says. “It’s been exciting to lean on that culture and unlock ways to move forward more effectively.”

    Bridging divides

    Today, Olivetti tries to maximize the impact of her and her students’ research in materials industrial ecology by maintaining close ties to applications. In her research, this means working directly with aluminum companies to design alloys that could incorporate more scrap material or with nongovernmental organizations to incorporate agricultural residues in building products. In the classroom, that means bringing in people from companies to explain how they think about concepts like heat exchange or fluid flow in their products.

    “I enjoy trying to ground what students are learning in the classroom with what’s happening in the world,” Olivetti explains.

    Exposing students to industry is also a great way to help them think about their own careers. In her research lab, she’s started using the last 30 minutes of meetings to host talks from people working in national labs, startups, and larger companies to show students what they can do after their PhDs. The talks are similar to the Industry Seminar series Olivetti started that pairs undergraduate students with people working in areas like 3D printing, environmental consulting, and manufacturing.

    “It’s about helping students learn what they’re excited about,” Olivetti says.

    Whether in the classroom, lab, or at events held by organizations like MCSC, Olivetti believes collaboration is humanity’s most potent tool to combat climate change.

    “I just really enjoy building links between people,” Olivetti says. “Learning about people and meeting them where they are is a way that one can create effective links. It’s about creating the right playgrounds for people to think and learn.” More

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    Dennis Whyte steps down as director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center

    Dennis Whyte, who spearheaded the development of the world’s most powerful fusion electromagnet and grew the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s research volume by more than 50 percent, has announced he will be stepping down as the center’s director at the end of the year in order to devote his full attention to teaching, engaging in cutting-edge fusion research, and pursuing entrepreneurial activities at the PSFC.

    “The reason I came to MIT as a faculty member in ’06 was because of the PSFC and the very special place it held and still holds in fusion,” says Whyte, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. When he was appointed director of the PSFC in 2015, Whyte saw it as an opportunity to realize even more of the PSFC’s potential: “After 10 years I think we’ve seen that dream come to life. Research and entrepreneurship are stronger than ever.”

    Whyte’s passion has always been for fusion — the process by which light elements combine to form heavier ones, releasing massive amounts of energy. One hundred years ago fusion was solely the provenance of astronomers’ speculation; through the efforts of generations of scientists and engineers, fusion now holds the potential to offer humanity an entirely new source of clean, abundant energy — and Whyte has been at the forefront of that effort.

    “Fusion’s challenges require interdisciplinary work, so it’s always fresh, and you get these unexpected intersections that can have wild outcomes. As an inherently curious person, fusion is perfect for me.”

    Whyte’s enthusiasm is legendary, especially when it comes to teaching. The effects of that enthusiasm are easy to see: At the start of his tenure, only a handful of students chose to pursue plasma physics and fusion science. Since then, the number of students has ballooned, and this year nearly 100 students from six departments are working with 15 faculty members.

    Of the growth, Whyte says, “It’s not just that we have more students; it’s that they’re working on more diverse topics, and their passion to make fusion a reality is the best part of the PSFC. Seeing full seminars and classes is fundamentally why I’m here.”

    Even as he managed the directorship and pursued his own scholarly work, Whyte remained active in the classroom and continued advising students. Zach Hartwig, a former student who is now a PSFC researcher and MIT faculty member himself, recalled his first meeting with Whyte as an incoming PhD student: “I had to choose between several projects and advisors and meeting Dennis made my decision easy. He catapulted out of his chair and started sketching his vision for a new fusion diagnostic that many people thought was crazy. His passion and eagerness to tackle only the most difficult problems in the field was immediately tangible.”

    For the past 13 years Whyte has offered a fusion technology design class that has generated several key breakthroughs, including liquid immersion blankets essential for converting fusion energy to heat, inside launch radio frequency systems used to stabilize fusing plasmas, and high-temperature superconducting electromagnets that have opened the door to the possibility of fusion devices that are not only smaller, but also more powerful and efficient.

    In fact, the potential of these electromagnets was significant enough that Whyte, an MIT postdoc, and three of Whyte’s former students (Hartwig among them) spun out a private fusion company to fully realize the magnets’ capabilities. Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) both launched and signed a cooperative research agreement with the PSFC in 2018, and the founders’ vision parlayed into significant external investment, allowing a coalition of CFS and PSFC researchers to refine and develop the electromagnets first conceived in Whyte’s class.

    Three years later, after a historic day of testing, the magnet produced a field strength of 20 tesla, making it the most powerful fusion superconducting electromagnet in the world. According to Whyte, “The success of the TFMC magnet is an encapsulation of everything PSFC. It would’ve been impossible for a single investigator, or a lone spin-out, but we brought together all these disciplines in a team that could execute innovatively and incredibly quickly. We shortened the timescale not just for this project, but for fusion as a whole.”

    CFS remains an important collaborator, accounting for approximately 20 percent of the PSFC’s current research portfolio. While Whyte has no financial stake in the company, he remains a principal investigator on CFS’s SPARC project, a proof-of-concept fusion device predicted to produce more energy than it consumes, ready in 2025. SPARC is the lead-up to ARC, CFS’s commercially scalable fusion power plant planned to arrive in the early 2030s.

    The collaboration between CFS and MIT followed a blueprint that had been piloted more than a decade prior, when the Italian energy company Eni S.p.A signed on as a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative to develop low-carbon technologies. After many years of successfully working in tandem with MITEI to advance renewable energy research, in 2018 Eni made a significant investment in a young CFS to assist in realizing commercial fusion power, which in turn indirectly funded PSFC research; Eni also collaborated directly with the PSFC to create the Laboratory for Innovative Fusion Technologies, which remains active.

    Whyte believes that “thoughtful and meaningful collaboration with the energy industry can make a difference with research and climate change. Industry engagement is very relevant — it changed both of us. Now Eni has fusion in their portfolio.” The arrangement is a demonstration of how public-private collaborations can accelerate the progress of fusion science, and ultimately the arrival of fusion power.

    Whyte’s move to diversify collaborators, leverage the PSFC’s strength as a multidisciplinary hub, and expand research volume was essential to the center’s survival and growth. Early in his tenure, a shift in funding priorities necessitated the shutdown of Alcator C-Mod, the fusion research device in operation at the PSFC for 23 years — though not before C-Mod set the world record for plasma pressure on its last day of operation. Through this transition, Whyte and the members of his leadership team were able to keep the PSFC whole.

    One alumnus was a particular source of inspiration to Whyte during that time: “Reinier [Beeuwkes] said to me, ‘what you’re doing doesn’t just matter to students and MIT, it matters to the world.’ That was so meaningful, and his words really sustained me when I was feeling major doubt.” In 2022 Beeuwkes won the MIT Alumni Better World Service Award for his support of fusion and the PSFC. Since 2018, sponsored research at the PSFC has more than doubled, as have the number of personnel.

    Whyte’s determination to build and maintain a strong community is a prevailing feature of his leadership. Matt Fulton, who started at the PSFC in 1987 and is now director of operations, says of Whyte, “You want a leader like Dennis on your worst days. We were staring down disaster and he had a plan to hold the PSFC together, and somehow it worked. The research was important, but the people have always been more important to him. We’re so lucky to have him.”

    The Office of the Vice President for Research is launching a search for the PSFC’s next leader. Should the search extend beyond the end of the year, an interim director will be appointed.  

    “As MIT works to magnify its impact in the areas of climate and sustainability, Dennis has built the PSFC into an extraordinary resource for the Institute to draw upon,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “His leadership has positioned MIT on the leading edge of fusion research and the emerging commercial fusion industry, and while the nature of his contributions will change, … the value he brings to the MIT community will remain clear. As Dennis steps down as director, the PSFC is ascendant.”  More

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    Robert van der Hilst to step down as head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Robert van der Hilst, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has announced his decision to step down as the head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the end of this academic year.  A search committee will convene later this spring to recommend candidates for Van der Hilst’s successor.

    “Rob is a consummate seismologist whose images of Earth’s interior structure have deepened our understanding of how tectonic plates move, how mantle convection works, and why some areas of the Earth are hot-spots for seismic and geothermal activity,” says Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and the dean of the MIT School of Science. “As an academic leader, Rob has been a steadfast champion of the department’s cross-cutting research and education missions, especially regarding climate sciences writ large at MIT. His commitment to diversity and community have made the department — and indeed, MIT — a better place to do our best work.”

    “For 12 years, it has been my honor to lead this department and collaborate with all our community members — faculty, staff, and students,” says Van der Hilst. “EAPS is at the vanguard of climate science research at MIT, as well Earth and planetary sciences and studies into the co-evolution of life and changing environments.”

    Among his other leadership roles on campus, Van der Hilst most recently served as co-chair of the faculty review committee for MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges in which EAPS researchers secured nine finalists and two, funded flagship projects. He also serves on the Institute’s Climate Nucleus to help enact Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade.

    In his more-than-decade as department head, one of Van der Hilst’s major initiatives has been developing, funding, and constructing the Tina and Hamid Moghadam Building, rapidly nearing completion adjacent to Building 54. The $35 million, LEED-platinum Building 55 will be a vital center and showcase for environmental and climate research on MIT’s campus. With assistance from the Institute and generous donors, the renovations and expansion will add classrooms, meeting, and event spaces, and bring headquarters offices for EAPS, the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science, and MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) together, all under one roof.

    He also helped secure the generous gift that funded the Norman C. Rasmussen Laboratory for climate research in Building 4, as well as the Peter H. Stone and Paola Malanotte Stone Professorship, now held by prominent atmospheric scientist Arlene Fiore.

    On the academic side of the house, Van der Hilst and his counterpart from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Ali Jadbabaie, the JR East Professor and CEE department head, helped develop MIT’s new bachelor of science in climate system science and engineering (Course 1-12), jointly offered by EAPS and CEE.

    As part of MIT’s commitment to aid the global response to climate change, the new degree program is designed to train the next generation of leaders, providing a foundational understanding of both the Earth system and engineering principles — as well as an understanding of human and institutional behavior as it relates to the climate challenge.

    Beyond climate research, Van der Hilst’s tenure at the helm of the department has seen many research breakthroughs and accomplishments: from high-profile NASA missions with EAPS science leadership, including the most recent launch of the Psyche mission and the successful asteroid sample return from OSIRIS-REx, to the development of next-generation models capable of describing Earth systems with increasing detail and accuracy. Van der Hilst helped enable such scientific advancements through major improvements to experimental facilities across the department, and, more generally, his mission to double the number of fellowships available to EAPS graduate students.

    “By reducing the silos and inequities created by our disciplinary groups, we were able to foster collaborations that allow faculty, students, and researchers to explore fundamental science questions in novel ways that expand our understanding of the natural world — with profound implications for helping to guide communities and policymakers toward a sustainable future,” says Van der Hilst.

    Community-focused

    In 2019, Van der Hilst began looking ahead to the department’s 40th anniversary in 2023 and charged a number of working groups to evaluate the department’s past and present, and to re-imagine its future. Led by faculty, staff, and students, Task Force 2023 was a yearlong exercise of data-gathering and community deliberation, looking broadly at three focus areas: Image, Visibility, and Relevance; External Synergies: collaboration and partnerships across campus; and Departmental Organization and Cohesion. Despite being interrupted by the pandemic, the resulting reports became a detailed blueprint for EAPS to capitalize on its strengths and begin to effect systemic improvements in areas like undergraduate education, external messaging, and recognition and belonging for administrative and research staff.

    In addition to helping the department mark its 40th anniversary with a celebration this coming spring, Van der Hilst will oversee the dedication of the Moghadam Building, including the renaming of lecture hall 54-100 for Dixie Lee Bryant, the first recipient (woman or man) of a geology degree from MIT in 1891.

    As department head, faculty renewal and retention were key areas of focus for Van der Hilst. In addition to improvements in the faculty search process, he was responsible for the appointment of 20 new faculty members, and in the process shifted the gender ratio from one-fifth to one-third of the faculty identifying as female; he also oversaw the development and implementation of a successful junior faculty mentoring program within EAPS in 2013.

    Van der Hilst also made great strides toward improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within the department in other ways. In 2016, he formed the inaugural EAPS Diversity Council (now the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee) and, in 2020, made EAPS the first department at MIT to appoint an associate department head for diversity, equity, and inclusion, tapping Associate Professor David McGee to guide ongoing community dialogues and initiatives supporting improvements in composition, achievement, belonging, engagement, and accountability.

    With McGee and EAPS student leadership, Van der Hilst supported the EAPS response to calls for social justice leadership and participation in national initiatives such as the American Geophysical Union’s Unlearning Racism in Geoscience program, and he helped navigate the changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic while maintaining a sense of community.

    Seismic shift

    After stepping down from his current role, Van der Hilst will have more time to catch up on research aimed at understanding of Earth’s deep interior structure and its evolution. With research collaborators, he developed seismic imaging methods to explore Earth’s interior from sedimentary basins near its surface down to the core–mantle boundary some 2,800 kilometers under the surface. Recently, he authored a Nature Communications paper with doctoral student Shujuan Mao PhD ’21 on a pilot application that uses seismometers as a cost-effective way to monitor and map groundwater fluctuations in order to measure groundwater reserves.

    Before becoming department head, Van der Hilst served as the director of the Earth Resources Laboratory (ERL). In the eight years he served as director, he helped to integrate across disciplines, departments, and schools, transforming ERL into MIT’s primary home for research and education focused on subsurface energy resources.

    Van der Hilst was named a fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in 1997 and became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014. Before he was named the Schlumberger Professor in 2011, Van der Hilst held a Cecil and Ida Green professorship chair. He has received many awards, including the Doornbos Memorial Prize from the International Association of Seismology and Physics of the Earth’s Interior, AGU’s James B. Macelwane Medal, a Packard Fellowship, and a VICI Innovative Research Award from the Dutch National Science Foundation.

    Van der Hilst received his PhD in geophysics from Utrecht University in 1990. After postdoctoral research at the University of Leeds and the Australian National University, he joined the MIT faculty in 1996. He was ERL director from 2004 to 2012, when he was then named EAPS department head, succeeding Maria Zuber, the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, MIT vice president for research, and presidential advisor for science and technology policy. More

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    How to decarbonize the world, at scale

    The world in recent years has largely been moving on from debates about the need to curb carbon emissions and focusing more on action — the development, implementation, and deployment of the technological, economic, and policy measures to spur the scale of reductions needed by mid-century. That was the message Robert Stoner, the interim director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), gave in his opening remarks at the 2023 MITEI Annual Research Conference.

    Attendees at the two-day conference included faculty members, researchers, industry and financial leaders, government officials, and students, as well as more than 50 online participants from around the world.

    “We are at an extraordinary inflection point. We have this narrow window in time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change by transforming our entire energy system and economy,” said Jonah Wagner, the chief strategist of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Loan Programs Office, in one of the conference’s keynote speeches.

    Yet the solutions exist, he said. “Most of the technologies that we need to deploy to stay close to the international target of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming are proven and ready to go,” he said. “We have over 80 percent of the technologies we will need through 2030, and at least half of the technologies we will need through 2050.”

    For example, Wagner pointed to the newly commissioned advanced nuclear power plant near Augusta, Georgia — the first new nuclear reactor built in the United States in a generation, partly funded through DOE loans. “It will be the largest source of clean power in America,” he said. Though implementing all the needed technologies in the United States through mid-century will cost an estimated $10 trillion, or about $300 billion a year, most of that money will come from the private sector, he said.

    As the United States faces what he describes as “a tsunami of distributed energy production,” one key example of the strategy that’s needed going forward, he said, is encouraging the development of virtual power plants (VPPs). The U.S. power grid is growing, he said, and will add 200 gigawatts of peak demand by 2030. But rather than building new, large power plants to satisfy that need, much of the increase can be accommodated by VPPs, he said — which are “aggregations of distributed energy resources like rooftop solar with batteries, like electric vehicles (EVs) and chargers, like smart appliances, commercial and industrial loads on the grid that can be used together to help balance supply and demand just like a traditional power plant.” For example, by shifting the time of demand for some applications where the timing is not critical, such as recharging EVs late at night instead of right after getting home from work when demand may be peaking, the need for extra peak power can be alleviated.

    Such programs “offer a broad range of benefits,” including affordability, reliability and resilience, decarbonization, and emissions reductions. But implementing such systems on a wide scale requires some up-front help, he explained. Payment for consumers to enroll in programs that allow such time adjustments “is the majority of the cost” of establishing VPPs, he says, “and that means most of the money spent on VPPs goes back into the pockets of American consumers.” But to make that happen, there is a need for standardization of VPP operations “so that we are not recreating the wheel every single time we deploy a pilot or an effort with a utility.”

    The conference’s other keynote speaker, Anne White, the vice provost and associate vice president for research administration at MIT, cited devastating recent floods, wildfires, and many other extreme weather-related crises around the world that have been exacerbated by climate change. “We saw in myriad ways that energy concerns and climate concerns are one and the same,” she said. “So, we must urgently develop and scale low-carbon and zero-carbon solutions to prevent future warming. And we must do this with a practical, systems-based approach that considers efficiency, affordability, equity, and sustainability for how the world will meet its energy needs.”

    White added that at MIT, “we are mobilizing everything.” People at MIT feel a strong sense of responsibility for dealing with these global issues, she said, “and I think it’s because we believe we have tools that can really make a difference.”

    Among the specific promising technologies that have sprung from MIT’s labs, she pointed out, is the rapid development of fusion technology that led to MIT spinoff company Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which aims to build a demonstration unit of a practical fusion power reactor by the decade’s end. That’s an outcome of decades of research, she emphasized — the kinds of early-stage risky work that only academic labs, with help from government grants, can carry out.

    For example, she pointed to the more than 200 projects that MITEI has provided seed funds of $150,000 each for two years, totaling over $28 million to date. Such early support is “a key part of producing the kind of transformative innovation we know we all need.” In addition, MIT’s The Engine has also helped launch not only Commonwealth Fusion Systems, but also Form Energy, a company building a plant in West Virginia to manufacture advanced iron-air batteries for renewable energy storage, and many others.

    Following that theme of supporting early innovation, the conference featured two panels that served to highlight the work of students and alumni and their energy-related startup companies. First, a startup showcase, moderated by Catarina Madeira, the director of MIT’s Startup Exchange, featured presentations about seven recent spinoff companies that are developing cutting-edge technologies that emerged from MIT research. These included:

    Aeroshield, developing a new kind of highly-insulated window using a unique aerogel material;
    Sublime, which is developing a low-emissions concrete;
    Found Energy, developing a way to use recycled aluminum as a fuel;
    Veir, developing superconducting power lines;
    Emvolom, developing inexpensive green fuels from waste gases;
    Boston Metal, developing low-emissions production processes for steel and other metals;
    Transaera, with a new kind of efficient air conditioning; and
    Carbon Recycling International, producing cheap hydrogen fuel and syngas.
    Later in the conference, a “student slam competition” featured presentations by 11 students who described results of energy projects they had been working on this past summer. The projects were as diverse as analyzing opposition to wind farms in Maine, how best to allocate EV charging stations, optimizing bioenergy production, recycling the lithium from batteries, encouraging adoption of heat pumps, and conflict analysis about energy project siting. Attendees voted on the quality of the student presentations, and electrical engineering and computer science student Tori Hagenlocker was declared first-place winner for her talk on heat pump adoption.

    Students were also featured in a first-time addition to the conference: a panel discussion among five current or recent students, giving their perspective on today’s energy issues and priorities, and how they are working toward trying to make a difference. Andres Alvarez, a recent graduate in nuclear engineering, described his work with a startup focused on identifying and supporting early-stage ideas that have potential. Graduate student Dyanna Jaye of urban studies and planning spoke about her work helping to launch a group called the Sunrise Movement to try to drive climate change as a top priority for the country, and her work helping to develop the Green New Deal.

    Peter Scott, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who is studying green hydrogen production, spoke of the need for a “very drastic and rapid phaseout of current, existing fossil fuels” and a halt on developing new sources. Amar Dayal, an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management, talked about the interplay between technology and policy, and the crucial role that legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act can have in enabling new energy technology to make the climb to commercialization. And Shreyaa Raghavan, a doctoral student in the Institute of Data, Systems, and Society, talked about the importance of multidisciplinary approaches to climate issues, including the important role of computer science. She added that MIT does well on this compared to other institutions, and “sustainability and decarbonization is a pillar in a lot of the different departments and programs that exist here.”

    Some recent recipients of MITEI’s Seed Fund grants reported on their progress in a panel discussion moderated by MITEI Executive Director Martha Broad. Seed grant recipient Ariel Furst, a professor of chemical engineering, pointed out that access to electricity is very much concentrated in the global North and that, overall, one in 10 people worldwide lacks access to electricity and some 2.5 billion people “rely on dirty fuels to heat their homes and cook their food,” with impacts on both health and climate. The solution her project is developing involves using DNA molecules combined with catalysts to passively convert captured carbon dioxide into ethylene, a widely used chemical feedstock and fuel. Kerri Cahoy, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, described her work on a system for monitoring methane emissions and power-line conditions by using satellite-based sensors. She and her team found that power lines often begin emitting detectable broadband radio frequencies long before they actually fail in a way that could spark fires.

    Admir Masic, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, described work on mining the ocean for minerals such as magnesium hydroxide to be used for carbon capture. The process can turn carbon dioxide into solid material that is stable over geological times and potentially usable as a construction material. Kripa Varanasi, a professor of mechanical engineering, said that over the years MITEI seed funding helped some of his projects that “went on to become startup companies, and some of them are thriving.” He described ongoing work on a new kind of electrolyzer for green hydrogen production. He developed a system using bubble-attracting surfaces to increase the efficiency of bioreactors that generate hydrogen fuel.

    A series of panel discussions over the two days covered a range of topics related to technologies and policies that could make a difference in combating climate change. On the technological side, one panel led by Randall Field, the executive director of MITEI’s Future Energy Systems Center, looked at large, hard-to-decarbonize industrial processes. Antoine Allanore, a professor of metallurgy, described progress in developing innovative processes for producing iron and steel, among the world’s most used commodities, in a way that drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Greg Wilson of JERA Americas described the potential for ammonia produced from renewable sources to substitute for natural gas in power plants, greatly reducing emissions. Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor in materials science and engineering, described ways to decarbonize cement production using a novel low-temperature process. And Guiyan Zang, a research scientist at MITEI, spoke of efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of producing ethylene, a major industrial chemical, by using an electrochemical process.

    Another panel, led by Jacopo Buongiorno, professor of nuclear science and engineering, explored the brightening future for expansion of nuclear power, including new, small, modular reactors that are finally emerging into commercial demonstration. “There is for the first time truly here in the U.S. in at least a decade-and-a-half, a lot of excitement, a lot of attention towards nuclear,” Buongiorno said. Nuclear power currently produces 45 to 50 percent of the nation’s carbon-free electricity, the panelists said, and with the first new nuclear power plant in decades now in operation, the stage is set for significant growth.

    Carbon capture and sequestration was the subject of a panel led by David Babson, the executive director of MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges program. MIT professors Betar Gallant and Kripa Varanasi and industry representatives Elisabeth Birkeland from Equinor and Luc Huyse from Chevron Technology Ventures described significant progress in various approaches to recovering carbon dioxide from power plant emissions, from the air, and from the ocean, and converting it into fuels, construction materials, or other valuable commodities.

    Some panel discussions also addressed the financial and policy side of the climate issue. A panel on geopolitical implications of the energy transition was moderated by MITEI Deputy Director of Policy Christopher Knittel, who said “energy has always been synonymous with geopolitics.” He said that as concerns shift from where to find the oil and gas to where is the cobalt and nickel and other elements that will be needed, “not only are we worried about where the deposits of natural resources are, but we’re going to be more and more worried about how governments are incentivizing the transition” to developing this new mix of natural resources. Panelist Suzanne Berger, an Institute professor, said “we’re now at a moment of unique openness and opportunity for creating a new American production system,” one that is much more efficient and less carbon-producing.

    One panel dealt with the investor’s perspective on the possibilities and pitfalls of emerging energy technologies. Moderator Jacqueline Pless, an assistant professor in MIT Sloan, said “there’s a lot of momentum now in this space. It’s a really ripe time for investing,” but the risks are real. “Tons of investment is needed in some very big and uncertain technologies.”

    The role that large, established companies can play in leading a transition to cleaner energy was addressed by another panel. Moderator J.J. Laukatis, MITEI’s director of member services, said that “the scale of this transformation is massive, and it will also be very different from anything we’ve seen in the past. We’re going to have to scale up complex new technologies and systems across the board, from hydrogen to EVs to the electrical grid, at rates we haven’t done before.” And doing so will require a concerted effort that includes industry as well as government and academia. More