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    Improving working environments amid environmental distress

    In less than a decade, MIT economist Namrata Kala has produced a corpus of work too rich, inventive, and diverse to be easily summarized. Let’s try anyway.Kala, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, often studies environmental problems and their effects on workers and firms, with implications for government policy, corporate managers, and anyone concerned about climate change. She also examines the effects of innovation on productivity, from farms to factories, and scrutinizes firm organization in light of such major changes.Kala has published papers on topics including the long-term effects of climate change on agriculture in Africa and India; the impact of mechanization on farmers’ incomes; the extent to which linguistic differences create barriers to trade; and even the impact of LED light bulbs on factory productivity. Characteristically, Kala looks at issues of global scale and pinpoints their effects at the level of individuals.Consider one paper Kala and two colleagues published a couple of years ago, about the effects of air pollution on garment factory workers in India. The scholars examined patterns of particulate-matter pollution and linked that to detailed, worker-level data about how productive workers were along the production line. The study shows that air pollution damages sewing productivity, and that some managers (not all) are adept at recognizing which workers are most affected by it.What emerges from much of this work is a real-time picture of human adaptation in a time of environmental distress.“I feel like I’m part of a long tradition of trying to understand resilience and adaptation, but now in the face of a changing world,” Kala says. “Understanding interventions that are good for resilience while the world is changing is what motivates me, along with the fact that the vast majority of the world is vulnerable to events that may impact economic growth.”For her research and teaching, Kala was awarded tenure at MIT last year.Joining academia, then staying in itKala, who grew up in Punjab, India, was long mindful of big issues pertaining to society, the economy, and the environment.“Growing up in India, it’s very difficult not to be interested in the some of the questions that are important for development and environmental economics,” Kala says.However, Kala did not expect that interest to lead her into academia. She attended Delhi University as an undergraduate, earning her degree with honors in economics while expecting to find a job in the area of development. To help facilitate that, Kala enrolled in a one-year master’s program at Yale University, in international and development economics.Before that year was out, Kala had a new realization: Studying development problems was integral to solving them. Academia is not on the sidelines when it comes to development, but helps generate crucial knowledge to foster better and smarter growth policies.“I came to Yale for a one-year master’s because I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a university for another two years,” Kala says. “I wanted to work on problems in the world. And that’s when I became enthralled with research. It was this wonderful year where I could study anything, and it completely changed my perspective on what I could do next. So I did the PhD, and that’s how I became an economist.”After receiving her PhD in 2015, Kala spent the next two years supported by a Prize Fellowship in Economics, History, and Politics at Harvard University and a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT’s own Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). In 2017, she joined the MIT faculty on a full-time basis, and has remained at the Institute since then.The source material for Kala’s studies varies widely, though in all cases she is looking for ways to construct well-defined empirical studies tackling major questions, with key issues often revealed in policy or firm details.“I find reading stuff about policy reform strangely interesting,” she quips.Development, but with environmental qualityIndeed, sometimes the spark for Kala’s studies comes from her own broad knowledge of past policy reforms, combined with an ability to locate data that reveals their effects.For instance, one working paper Kala and a colleague recently completed looks at an Indian policy to move industrial firms out of Delhi in order to help solve the city’s pollution problems; the policy randomly relocated companies in an industrial belt around the city. But what effect did this have on the firms? After examining the records of 20,000 companies, the researchers found these firms’ survival rate was 8 percent to 20 percent lower than if the policy called for them to be clustered more efficiently.That finding suggests how related environmental policies can be designed in the future.“This environmental policy was important in that it improved air quality in Delhi, but there’s a way to do that which also reduces the cost on firms,” Kala says.Kala says she expects India to be the locus of many, though hardly all, of her future studies. The country provides a wide range of opportunities for research.“India currently has both the largest number of poor people in the world as well as 21 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world,” Kala says. “Clearly, the tradeoff between development and environmental quality is extremely salient, and we need progress in understanding industrial policies that are at least environmentally neutral or improving environmental quality.”Kala will continue to look for new ways to take pressing, large-scale issues and study their effects in daily life. But the fact that her work ranges so widely is not just due to the places she studies; it is also because of the place she studies them from. MIT, she believes, has provided her with an environment of its own, which in this case enhances her own productivity.“One thing that helps a lot is having colleagues and co-authors to bounce ideas of off,” Kala says. “Sloan is the heart of so much interdisciplinary work. That is one big reason why I’ve had a broad set of interests and continue to work on many things.”“At Sloan,” she adds, “there are people doing fascinating things that I’m happy to listen to, as well as people in different disciplines working on related things who have a perspective I find extremely enriching. There are excellent economists, but I also go into seminars about work or productivity or the environment and come away with a perspective I don’t think I could have come up with myself.” More

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    Q&A: The power of tiny gardens and their role in addressing climate change

    To address the climate crisis, one must understand environmental history. MIT Professor Kate Brown’s research has typically focused on environmental catastrophes. More recently, Brown has been exploring a more hopeful topic: tiny gardens.Brown is the Thomas M. Siebel Distinguished Professor in History of Science in the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society. In this Q&A, Brown discusses her research, and how she believes her current project could help put power into the hands of everyday people.This is part of an ongoing series exploring how the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is addressing the climate crisis.Q: You have created an unusual niche for yourself as an historian of environmental catastrophes. What drew you to such a dismal beat?A: Historians often study New York, Warsaw, Moscow, Berlin, but if you go to these little towns that nobody’s ever heard of, that’s where you see the destruction in the wake of progress. This is likely because I grew up in a manufacturing town in the Midwestern Rust Belt, watching stores go bankrupt and houses sit empty. I became very interested in the people who were the last to turn off the lights.Q: Did this interest in places devastated by technological and economic change eventually lead to your investigation of Chernobyl?A: I first studied the health and environmental consequences of radioactive waste on communities near nuclear weapons facilities in the U.S. and Russia, and then decided to focus on the health and environmental impacts of fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear energy plant disaster. After gaining access to the KGB records in Kiev, I realized that there was a Klondike of records describing what Soviet officials at the time called a “public health disaster.” People on the ground recognized the saturation of radioactivity into environments and food supplies not with any with sensitive devices, but by noticing the changes in ecologies and on human bodies. I documented how Moscow leaders historically and decades later engaged in a coverup, and that even international bodies charged with examining nuclear issues were reluctant to acknowledge this ongoing public health disaster due to liabilities in their own countries from the production and testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.Q: Why did you turn from detailed studies of what you call “modernist wastelands” to the subject of climate change?A: Journalists and scholars have worked hard in the last two decades to get people to understand the scope and the scale and the verisimilitude of climate change. And that’s great, but some of these catastrophic stories we tell don’t make people feel very safe or secure. They have a paralyzing effect on us. Climate change is one of many problems that are too big for any one person to tackle, or any one entity, whether it’s a huge nation like the United States or an international body like the U.N.So I thought I would start to work on something that is very small scale that puts action in the hands of just regular people to try to tell a more hopeful story. I am finishing a new book about working-class people who got pushed off their farms in the 19th century, and ended up in mega cities like London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Washington D.C., find land on the periphery of the cities. They start digging, growing their own food, cooperating together. They basically recreated forms of the commons in cities. And in so doing, they generate the most productive agriculture in recorded history.Q: What are some highlights of this extraordinary city-based food generation?A: In Paris circa 1900, 5,000 urban farmers grew fruits and vegetables and fresh produce for 2 million Parisians with a surplus left over to sell to London. They would plant three to six crops a year on one tract of land using horse manure to heat up soils from below to push the season and grow spring crops in winter and summer crops in spring.An agricultural economist looked at the inputs and the outputs from these Parisian farms. He found there was no comparison to the Green Revolution fields of the 1970s. These urban gardeners were producing far more per acre, with no petroleum-based fertilizers.Q: What is the connection between little gardens like these and the global climate crisis, where individuals can feel at loss facing the scale of the problems?A: You can think of a tiny city garden like a coral reef, where one little worm comes and builds its cave. And then another one attaches itself to the first, and so on. Pretty soon you have a great coral reef with a platform to support hundreds of different species — a rich biodiversity. Tiny gardens work that way in cities, which is one reason cities are now surprising hotspots of biodiversity.Transforming urban green space into tiny gardens doesn’t take an act of God, the U.N., or the U.S. Congress to make a change. You could just go to your municipality and say, “Listen, right now we have a zoning code that says every time there’s a new condo, you have to have one or two parking spaces, but we’d rather see one or two garden spaces.”And if you don’t want a garden, you’ll have a neighbor who does. So people are outside and they have their hands in the soil and then they start to exchange produce with one another. As they share carrots and zucchini, they exchange soil and human microbes as well. We know that when people share microbiomes, they get along better, have more in common. It comes as no surprise that humans have organized societies around shaking hands, kissing on the cheek, producing food together and sharing meals. That’s what I think we’ve lost in our remote worlds.Q: So can we address or mitigate the impacts of climate change on a community-by-community basis?A: I believe that’s probably the best way to do it. When we think of energy we often imagine deposits of oil or gas, but, as our grad student Turner Adornetto points out, every environment has energy running through it. Every environment has its own best solution. If it’s a community that lives along a river, tap into hydropower; or if it’s a community that has tons of organic waste, maybe you want to use microbial power; and if it’s a community that has lots of sun then use different kinds of solar power. The legacy of midcentury modernism is that engineers came up with one-size-fits-all solutions to plug in anywhere in the world, regardless of local culture, traditions, or environment. That is one of the problems that has gotten us into this fix in the first place.Politically, it’s a good idea to avoid making people feel they’re being pushed around by one set of codes, one set of laws in terms of coming up with solutions that work. There are ways of deriving energy and nutrients that enrich the environment, ways that don’t drain and deplete. You see that so clearly with a plant, which just does nothing but grow and contribute and give, whether it’s in life or in death. It’s just constantly improving its environment.Q: How do you unleash creativity and propagate widespread local responses to climate change?A: One of the important things we are trying to accomplish in the humanities is communicating in the most down-to-earth ways possible to our students and the public so that anybody — from a fourth grader to a retired person — can get engaged.There’s “TECHNOLOGY” in uppercase letters, the kind that is invented and patented in places like MIT. And then there’s technology in lowercase letters, where people are working with things readily at hand. That is the kind of creativity we don’t often pay enough attention to.Keep in mind that at the end of the 19th century, scientists were sure that the earth was cooling and the earth would all under ice by 2020. In the 1950s, many people feared nuclear warfare. In the 1960s the threat was the “population bomb.” Every generation seems to have its apocalyptic sense of doom. It is helpful to take climate change and the Anthropocene and put them in perspective. These are problems we can solve. More

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    School of Engineering welcomes new faculty

    The School of Engineering welcomes 15 new faculty members across six of its academic departments. This new cohort of faculty members, who have either recently started their roles at MIT or will start within the next year, conduct research across a diverse range of disciplines.Many of these new faculty specialize in research that intersects with multiple fields. In addition to positions in the School of Engineering, a number of these faculty have positions at other units across MIT. Faculty with appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) report into both the School of Engineering and the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. This year, new faculty also have joint appointments between the School of Engineering and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the School of Science.“I am delighted to welcome this cohort of talented new faculty to the School of Engineering,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, chief innovation and strategy officer, dean of engineering, and Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I am particularly struck by the interdisciplinary approach many of these new faculty take in their research. They are working in areas that are poised to have tremendous impact. I look forward to seeing them grow as researchers and educators.”The new engineering faculty include:Stephen Bates joined the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as an assistant professor in September 2023. He is also a member of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS). Bates uses data and AI for reliable decision-making in the presence of uncertainty. In particular, he develops tools for statistical inference with AI models, data impacted by strategic behavior, and settings with distribution shift. Bates also works on applications in life sciences and sustainability. He previously worked as a postdoc in the Statistics and EECS departments at the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). Bates received a BS in statistics and mathematics at Harvard University and a PhD from Stanford University.Abigail Bodner joined the Department of EECS and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences as an assistant professor in January. She is also a member of the LIDS. Bodner’s research interests span climate, physical oceanography, geophysical fluid dynamics, and turbulence. Previously, she worked as a Simons Junior Fellow at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. Bodner received her BS in geophysics and mathematics and MS in geophysics from Tel Aviv University, and her SM in applied mathematics and PhD from Brown University.Andreea Bobu ’17 will join the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics as an assistant professor in July. Her research sits at the intersection of robotics, mathematical human modeling, and deep learning. Previously, she was a research scientist at the Boston Dynamics AI Institute, focusing on how robots and humans can efficiently arrive at shared representations of their tasks for more seamless and reliable interactions. Bobu earned a BS in computer science and engineering from MIT and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley.Suraj Cheema will join the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, with a joint appointment in the Department of EECS, as an assistant professor in July. His research explores atomic-scale engineering of electronic materials to tackle challenges related to energy consumption, storage, and generation, aiming for more sustainable microelectronics. This spans computing and energy technologies via integrated ferroelectric devices. He previously worked as a postdoc at UC Berkeley. Cheema earned a BS in applied physics and applied mathematics from Columbia University and a PhD in materials science and engineering from UC Berkeley.Samantha Coday joins the Department of EECS as an assistant professor in July. She will also be a member of the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics. Her research interests include ultra-dense power converters enabling renewable energy integration, hybrid electric aircraft and future space exploration. To enable high-performance converters for these critical applications her research focuses on the optimization, design, and control of hybrid switched-capacitor converters. Coday earned a BS in electrical engineering and mathematics from Southern Methodist University and an MS and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley.Mitchell Gordon will join the Department of EECS as an assistant professor in July. He will also be a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In his research, Gordon designs interactive systems and evaluation approaches that bridge principles of human-computer interaction with the realities of machine learning. He currently works as a postdoc at the University of Washington. Gordon received a BS from the University of Rochester, and MS and PhD from Stanford University, all in computer science.Kaiming He joined the Department of EECS as an associate professor in February. He will also be a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). His research interests cover a wide range of topics in computer vision and deep learning. He is currently focused on building computer models that can learn representations and develop intelligence from and for the complex world. Long term, he hopes to augment human intelligence with improved artificial intelligence. Before joining MIT, He was a research scientist at Facebook AI. He earned a BS from Tsinghua University and a PhD from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.Anna Huang SM ’08 will join the departments of EECS and Music and Theater Arts as assistant professor in September. She will help develop graduate programming focused on music technology. Previously, she spent eight years with Magenta at Google Brain and DeepMind, spearheading efforts in generative modeling, reinforcement learning, and human-computer interaction to support human-AI partnerships in music-making. She is the creator of Music Transformer and Coconet (which powered the Bach Google Doodle). She was a judge and organizer for the AI Song Contest. Anna holds a Canada CIFAR AI Chair at Mila, a BM in music composition, and BS in computer science from the University of Southern California, an MS from the MIT Media Lab, and a PhD from Harvard University.Yael Kalai PhD ’06 will join the Department of EECS as a professor in September. She is also a member of CSAIL. Her research interests include cryptography, the theory of computation, and security and privacy. Kalai currently focuses on both the theoretical and real-world applications of cryptography, including work on succinct and easily verifiable non-interactive proofs. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a master’s degree at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and a PhD from MIT.Sendhil Mullainathan will join the departments of EECS and Economics as a professor in July. His research uses machine learning to understand complex problems in human behavior, social policy, and medicine. Previously, Mullainathan spent five years at MIT before joining the faculty at Harvard in 2004, and then the University of Chicago in 2018. He received his BA in computer science, mathematics, and economics from Cornell University and his PhD from Harvard University.Alex Rives will join the Department of EECS as an assistant professor in September, with a core membership in the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. In his research, Rives is focused on AI for scientific understanding, discovery, and design for biology. Rives worked with Meta as a New York University graduate student, where he founded and led the Evolutionary Scale Modeling team that developed large language models for proteins. Rives received his BS in philosophy and biology from Yale University and is completing his PhD in computer science at NYU.Sungho Shin will join the Department of Chemical Engineering as an assistant professor in July. His research interests include control theory, optimization algorithms, high-performance computing, and their applications to decision-making in complex systems, such as energy infrastructures. Shin is a postdoc at the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory. He received a BS in mathematics and chemical engineering from Seoul National University and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.Jessica Stark joined the Department of Biological Engineering as an assistant professor in January. In her research, Stark is developing technologies to realize the largely untapped potential of cell-surface sugars, called glycans, for immunological discovery and immunotherapy. Previously, Stark was an American Cancer Society postdoc at Stanford University. She earned a BS in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Cornell University and a PhD in chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University.Thomas John “T.J.” Wallin joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering as an assistant professor in January. As a researcher, Wallin’s interests lay in advanced manufacturing of functional soft matter, with an emphasis on soft wearable technologies and their applications in human-computer interfaces. Previously, he was a research scientist at Meta’s Reality Labs Research working in their haptic interaction team. Wallin earned a BS in physics and chemistry from the College of William and Mary, and an MS and PhD in materials science and engineering from Cornell University.Gioele Zardini joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering as an assistant professor in September. He will also join LIDS and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. Driven by societal challenges, Zardini’s research interests include the co-design of sociotechnical systems, compositionality in engineering, applied category theory, decision and control, optimization, and game theory, with society-critical applications to intelligent transportation systems, autonomy, and complex networks and infrastructures. He received his BS, MS, and PhD in mechanical engineering with a focus on robotics, systems, and control from ETH Zurich, and spent time at MIT, Stanford University, and Motional. More

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    Making steel with electricity

    Steel is one of the most useful materials on the planet. A backbone of modern life, it’s used in skyscrapers, cars, airplanes, bridges, and more. Unfortunately, steelmaking is an extremely dirty process.The most common way it’s produced involves mining iron ore, reducing it in a blast furnace through the addition of coal, and then using an oxygen furnace to burn off excess carbon and other impurities. That’s why steel production accounts for around 7 to 9 percent of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, making it one of the dirtiest industries on the planet.Now Boston Metal is seeking to clean up the steelmaking industry using an electrochemical process called molten oxide electrolysis (MOE), which eliminates many steps in steelmaking and releases oxygen as its sole byproduct.The company, which was founded by MIT Professor Emeritus Donald Sadoway, Professor Antoine Allanore, and James Yurko PhD ’01, is already using MOE to recover high-value metals from mining waste at its Brazilian subsidiary, Boston Metal do Brasil. That work is helping Boston Metal’s team deploy its technology at commercial scale and establish key partnerships with mining operators. It has also built a prototype MOE reactor to produce green steel at its headquarters in Woburn, Massachusetts.And despite its name, Boston Metal has global ambitions. The company has raised more than $370 million to date from organizations across Europe, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East, and its leaders expect to scale up rapidly to transform steel production in every corner of the world.“There’s a worldwide recognition that we need to act rapidly, and that’s going to happen through technology solutions like this that can help us move away from incumbent technologies,” Boston Metal Chief Scientist and former MIT postdoc Guillaume Lambotte says. “More and more, climate change is a part of our lives, so the pressure is on everyone to act fast.”To the moon and backThe origins of Boston Metal’s technology start on the moon. In the mid 2000s, Sadoway, who is the John F. Elliott Professor Emeritus of Materials Chemistry in MIT’s Department of Materials Science, received a grant from NASA to explore ways to produce oxygen for future lunar bases. Sadoway and other MIT researchers explored the idea of sending an electric current through the iron oxide rock on the moon’s surface, using rock from an old asteroid in Arizona for their experiments. The reaction produced oxygen, with metal as a byproduct.The research stuck with Sadoway, who noticed that down here on Earth, that metal byproduct would be of interest. To help make the electrolysis reaction he studied more viable, he joined forces with Allanore, who is a professor of metallurgy at MIT and the Lechtman Chair in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. The professors were able to identify a less expensive anode and partnered with Yurko, a former student, to found Boston Metal.“All of the fundamental studies and the initial technologies came out of MIT,” Lambotte says. “We spun out of research that was patented at MIT and licensed from MIT’s Technology Licensing Office.”Lambotte joined the company shortly after Boston Metal’s team published a 2013 paper in Nature describing the MOE platform.“That’s when it went from the lab, with a coffee cup-sized experiment to prove the fundamentals and produce a few grams, to a company that can produce hundreds of kilograms, and soon, tons of metal,” Lambotte says.

    Boston Metal’s process takes place in modular MOE cells the size of a school bus. Here is a schematic of the process.

    Boston Metal’s molten oxide electrolysis process takes place in modular MOE cells the size of a school bus. Iron ore rock is fed into the cell, which contains the cathode (the negative terminal of the MOE cell) and an anode immersed in a liquid electrolyte. The anode is inert, meaning it doesn’t dissolve in the electrolyte or take part in the reaction other than serving as the positive terminal. When electricity runs between the anode and cathode and the cell reaches around 1,600 degrees Celsius, the iron oxide bonds in the ore are split, producing pure liquid metal at the bottom that can be tapped. The byproduct of the reaction is oxygen, and the process doesn’t require water, hazardous chemicals, or precious-metal catalysts.The production of each cell depends on the size of its current. Lambotte says with about 600,000 amps, each cell could produce up to 10 tons of metal every day. Steelmakers would license Boston Metal’s technology and deploy as many cells as needed to reach their production targets.Boston Metal is already using MOE to help mining companies recover high-value metals from their mining waste, which usually needs to undergo costly treatment or storage. Lambotte says it could also be used to produce many other kinds of metals down the line, and Boston Metal was recently selected to negotiate grant funding to produce chromium metal — critical for a number of clean energy applications — in West Virginia.“If you look around the world, a lot of the feedstocks for metal are oxides, and if it’s an oxide, then there’s a chance we can work with that feedstock,” Lambotte says. “There’s a lot of excitement because everyone needs a solution capable of decarbonizing the metal industry, so a lot of people are interested to understand where MOE fits in their own processes.”Gigatons of potentialBoston Metal’s steel decarbonization technology is currently slated to reach commercial-scale in 2026, though its Brazil plant is already introducing the industry to MOE.“I think it’s a window for the metal industry to get acquainted with MOE and see how it works,” Lambotte says. “You need people in the industry to grasp this technology. It’s where you form connections and how new technology spreads.”The Brazilian plant runs on 100 percent renewable energy.“We can be the beneficiary of this tremendous worldwide push to decarbonize the energy sector,” Lambotte says. “I think our approach goes hand in hand with that. Fully green steel requires green electricity, and I think what you’ll see is deployment of this technology where [clean electricity] is already readily available.”Boston Metal’s team is excited about MOE’s application across the metals industry but is focused first and foremost on eliminating the gigatons of emissions from steel production.“Steel produces around 10 percent of global emissions, so that is our north star,” Lambotte says. “Everyone is pledging carbon reductions, emissions reductions, and making net zero goals, so the steel industry is really looking hard for viable technology solutions. People are ready for new approaches.” More

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    Q&A: Exploring ethnic dynamics and climate change in Africa

    Evan Lieberman is the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at MIT, and is also director of the Center for International Studies. During a semester-long sabbatical, he’s currently based at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town.In this Q&A, Lieberman discusses several climate-related research projects he’s pursuing in South Africa and surrounding countries. This is part of an ongoing series exploring how the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is addressing the climate crisis.Q: South Africa is a nation whose political and economic development you have long studied and written about. Do you see this visit as an extension of the kind of research you have been pursuing, or a departure from it?A: Much of my previous work has been animated by the question of understanding the causes and consequences of group-based disparities, whether due to AIDS or Covid. These are problems that know no geographic boundaries, and where ethnic and racial minorities are often hardest hit. Climate change is an analogous problem, with these minority populations living in places where they are most vulnerable, in heat islands in cities, and in coastal areas where they are not protected. The reality is they might get hit much harder by longer-term trends and immediate shocks.In one line of research, I seek to understand how people in different African countries, in different ethnic groups, perceive the problems of climate change and their governments’ response to it. There are ethnic divisions of labor in terms of what people do — whether they are farmers or pastoralists, or live in cities. So some ethnic groups are simply more affected by drought or extreme weather than others, and this can be a basis for conflict, especially when competing for often limited government resources.In this area, just like in my previous research, learning what shapes ordinary citizen perspectives is really important, because these views affect people’s everyday practices, and the extent to which they support certain kinds of policies and investments their government makes in response to climate-related challenges. But I will also try to learn more about the perspectives of policymakers and various development partners who seek to balance climate-related challenges against a host of other problems and priorities.Q: You recently published “Until We Have Won Our Liberty,” which examines the difficult transition of South Africa from apartheid to a democratic government, scrutinizing in particular whether the quality of life for citizens has improved in terms of housing, employment, discrimination, and ethnic conflicts. How do climate change-linked issues fit into your scholarship?A: I never saw myself as a climate researcher, but a number of years ago, heavily influenced by what I was learning at MIT, I began to recognize more and more how important the issue of climate change is. And I realized there were lots of ways in which the climate problem resonated with other kinds of problems I had tackled in earlier parts of my work.There was once a time when climate and the environment was the purview primarily of white progressives: the “tree huggers.” And that’s really changed in recent decades as it has become evident that the people who’ve been most affected by the climate emergency are ethnic and racial minorities. We saw with Hurricane Katrina and other places [that] if you are Black, you’re more likely to live in a vulnerable area and to just generally experience more environmental harms, from pollution and emissions, leaving these communities much less resilient than white communities. Government has largely not addressed this inequity. When you look at American survey data in terms of who’s concerned about climate change, Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans are more unified in their worries than are white Americans.There are analogous problems in Africa, my career research focus. Governments there have long responded in different ways to different ethnic groups. The research I am starting looks at the extent to which there are disparities in how governments try to solve climate-related challenges.Q: It’s difficult enough in the United States taking the measure of different groups’ perceptions of the impact of climate change and government’s effectiveness in contending with it. How do you go about this in Africa?A: Surprisingly, there’s only been a little bit of work done so far on how ordinary African citizens, who are ostensibly being hit the hardest in the world by the climate emergency, are thinking about this problem. Climate change has not been politicized there in a very big way. In fact, only 50 percent of Africans in one poll had heard of the term.In one of my new projects, with political science faculty colleague Devin Caughey and political science doctoral student Preston Johnston, we are analyzing social and climate survey data [generated by the Afrobarometer research network] from over 30 African countries to understand within and across countries the ways in which ethnic identities structure people’s perception of the climate crisis, and their beliefs in what government ought to be doing. In largely agricultural African societies, people routinely experience drought, extreme rain, and heat. They also lack the infrastructure that can shield them from the intense variability of weather patterns. But we’re adding a lens, which is looking at sources of inequality, especially ethnic differences.I will also be investigating specific sectors. Africa is a continent where in most places people cannot take for granted universal, piped access to clean water. In Cape Town, several years ago, the combination of failure to replace infrastructure and lack of rain caused such extreme conditions that one of the world’s most important cities almost ran out of water.While these studies are in progress, it is clear that in many countries, there are substantively large differences in perceptions of the severity of climate change, and attitudes about who should be doing what, and who’s capable of doing what. In several countries, both perceptions and policy preferences are differentiated along ethnic lines, more so than with respect to generational or class differences within societies.This is interesting as a phenomenon, but substantively, I think it’s important in that it may provide the basis for how politicians and government actors decide to move on allocating resources and implementing climate-protection policies. We see this kind of political calculation in the U.S. and we shouldn’t be surprised that it happens in Africa as well.That’s ultimately one of the challenges from the perch of MIT, where we’re really interested in understanding climate change, and creating technological tools and policies for mitigating the problem or adapting to it. The reality is frustrating. The political world — those who make decisions about whether to acknowledge the problem and whether to implement resources in the best technical way — are playing a whole other game. That game is about rewarding key supporters and being reelected.Q: So how do you go from measuring perceptions and beliefs among citizens about climate change and government responsiveness to those problems, to policies and actions that might actually reduce disparities in the way climate-vulnerable African groups receive support?A: Some of the work I have been doing involves understanding what local and national governments across Africa are actually doing to address these problems. We will have to drill down into government budgets to determine the actual resources devoted to addressing a challenge, what sorts of practices the government follows, and the political ramifications for governments that act aggressively versus those that don’t. With the Cape Town water crisis, for example, the government dramatically changed residents’ water usage through naming and shaming, and transformed institutional practices of water collection. They made it through a major drought by using much less water, and doing it with greater energy efficiency. Through the government’s strong policy and implementation, and citizens’ active responses, an entire city, with all its disparate groups, gained resilience. Maybe we can highlight creative solutions to major climate-related problems and use them as prods to push more effective policies and solutions in other places.In the MIT Global Diversity Lab, along with political science faculty colleague Volha Charnysh, political science doctoral student Jared Kalow, and Institute for Data, Systems and Society doctoral student Erin Walk, we are exploring American perspectives on climate-related foreign aid, asking survey respondents whether the U.S. should be giving more to people in the global South who didn’t cause the problems of climate change but have to suffer the externalities. We are particularly interested in whether people’s desire to help vulnerable communities rests on the racial or national identity of those communities.From my new seat as director of the Center for International Studies (CIS), I hope to do more and more to connect social science findings to relevant policymakers, whether in the U.S. or in other places. CIS is making climate one of our thematic priority areas, directing hundreds of thousands of dollars for MIT faculty to spark climate collaborations with researchers worldwide through the Global Seed Fund program. COP 28 (the U.N. Climate Change Conference), which I attended in December in Dubai, really drove home the importance of people coming together from around the world to exchange ideas and form networks. It was unbelievably large, with 85,000 people. But so many of us shared the belief that we are not doing enough. We need enforceable global solutions and innovation. We need ways of financing. We need to provide opportunities for journalists to broadcast the importance of this problem. And we need to understand the incentives that different actors have and what sorts of messages and strategies will resonate with them, and inspire those who have resources to be more generous. More

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    William Green named director of MIT Energy Initiative

    MIT professor William H. Green has been named director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).In appointing Green, then-MIT Vice President for Research Maria Zuber highlighted his expertise in chemical kinetics — the understanding of the rates of chemical reactions — and the work of his research team in reaction kinetics, quantum chemistry, numerical methods, and fuel chemistry, as well as his work performing techno-economic assessments of proposed fuel and vehicle changes and biofuel production options.“Bill has been an active participant in MITEI; his broad view of energy science and technology will be a major asset and will position him well to contribute to the success of MIT’s exciting new Climate Project,” Zuber wrote in a letter announcing the appointment, which went into effect April 1. Green is the Hoyt C. Hottel Professor of Chemical Engineering and previously served as the executive officer of the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering from 2012 to 2015. He sees MITEI’s role today as bringing together the voices of engineering, science, industry, and policy to quickly drive the global energy transition.“MITEI has a very important role in fostering the energy and climate innovations happening at MIT and in building broader consensus, first in the engineering community and then ultimately to start the conversations that will lead to public acceptance and societal consensus,” says Green.Achieving consensus much more quickly is essential, says Green, who noted that it was during the 1992 Rio Summit that globally we recognized the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, yet almost a quarter-century passed before the Paris Agreement came into force. Eight years after the Paris Agreement, there is still disagreement over how to address this challenge in most sectors of the economy, and much work to be done to translate the Paris pledges into reality.“Many people feel we’re collectively too slow in dealing with the climate problem,” he says. “It’s very important to keep helping the research community be more effective and faster to provide the solutions that society needs, but we also need to work on being faster at reaching consensus around the good solutions we do have, and supporting them so they’ll actually be economically attractive so that investors can feel safe to invest in them, and to change regulations to make them feasible, when needed.”With experience in industry, policy, and academia, Green is well positioned to facilitate this acceleration. “I can see the situation from the point of view of a scientist, from the point of view of an engineer, from the point of view of the big companies, from the point of view of a startup company, and from the point of view of a parent concerned about the effects of climate change on the world my children are inheriting,” he says.Green also intends to extend MITEI’s engagement with a broader range of countries, industries, and economic sectors as MITEI focuses on decarbonization and accelerating the much-needed energy transition worldwide.Green received a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley and a BA in chemistry from Swarthmore College. He joined MIT in 1997. He is the recipient of the AIChE’s R.H. Wilhelm Award in Chemical Reaction Engineering and is an inaugural Fellow of the Combustion Institute.He succeeds Robert Stoner, who served as interim director of MITEI beginning in July 2023, when longtime director Robert C. Armstrong retired after serving in the role for a decade. More

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    Nuno Loureiro named director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center

    Nuno Loureiro, professor of nuclear science and engineering and of physics, has been appointed the new director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, effective May 1.Loureiro is taking the helm of one of MIT’s largest labs: more than 250 full-time researchers, staff members, and students work and study in seven buildings with 250,000 square feet of lab space. A theoretical physicist and fusion scientist, Loureiro joined MIT as a faculty member in 2016, and was appointed deputy director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) in 2022. Loureiro succeeds Dennis Whyte, who stepped down at the end of 2023 to return to teaching and research.Stepping into his new role as director, Loureiro says, “The PSFC has an impressive tradition of discovery and leadership in plasma and fusion science and engineering. Becoming director of the PSFC is an incredible opportunity to shape the future of these fields. We have a world-class team, and it’s an honor to be chosen as its leader.”Loureiro’s own research ranges widely. He is recognized for advancing the understanding of multiple aspects of plasma behavior, particularly turbulence and the physics underpinning solar flares and other astronomical phenomena. In the fusion domain, his work enables the design of fusion devices that can more efficiently control and harness the energy of fusing plasmas, bringing the dream of clean, near-limitless fusion power that much closer. Plasma physics is foundational to advancing fusion science, a fact Loureiro has embraced and that is relevant as he considers the direction of the PSFC’s multidisciplinary research. “But plasma physics is only one aspect of our focus. Building a scientific agenda that continues and expands on the PSFC’s history of innovation in all aspects of fusion science and engineering is vital, and a key facet of that work is facilitating our researchers’ efforts to produce the breakthroughs that are necessary for the realization of fusion energy.”As the climate crisis accelerates, fusion power continues to grow in appeal: It produces no carbon emissions, its fuel is plentiful, and dangerous “meltdowns” are impossible. The sooner that fusion power is commercially available, the greater impact it can have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting global climate goals. While technical challenges remain, “the PSFC is well poised to meet them, and continue to show leadership. We are a mission-driven lab, and our students and staff are incredibly motivated,” Loureiro comments.“As MIT continues to lead the way toward the delivery of clean fusion power onto the grid, I have no doubt that Nuno is the right person to step into this key position at this critical time,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s presidential advisor for science and technology policy. “I look forward to the steady advance of plasma physics and fusion science at MIT under Nuno’s leadership.”Over the last decade, there have been massive leaps forward in the field of fusion energy, driven in part by innovations like high-temperature superconducting magnets developed at the PSFC. Further progress is guaranteed: Loureiro believes that “The next few years are certain to be an exciting time for us, and for fusion as a whole. It’s the dawn of a new era with burning plasma experiments” — a reference to the collaboration between the PSFC and Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup company spun out of the PSFC, to build SPARC, a fusion device that is slated to turn on in 2026 and produce a burning plasma that yields more energy than it consumes. “It’s going to be a watershed moment,” says Loureiro.He continues, “In addition, we have strong connections to inertial confinement fusion experiments, including those at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and we’re looking forward to expanding our research into stellarators, which are another kind of magnetic fusion device.” Over recent years, the PSFC has significantly increased its collaboration with industrial partners such Eni, IBM, and others. Loureiro sees great value in this: “These collaborations are mutually beneficial: they allow us to grow our research portfolio while advancing companies’ R&D efforts. It’s very dynamic and exciting.”Loureiro’s directorship begins as the PSFC is launching key tech development projects like LIBRA, a “blanket” of molten salt that can be wrapped around fusion vessels and perform double duty as a neutron energy absorber and a breeder for tritium (the fuel for fusion). Researchers at the PSFC have also developed a way to rapidly test the durability of materials being considered for use in a fusion power plant environment, and are now creating an experiment that will utilize a powerful particle accelerator called a gyrotron to irradiate candidate materials.Interest in fusion is at an all-time high; the demand for researchers and engineers, particularly in the nascent commercial fusion industry, is reflected by the record number of graduate students that are studying at the PSFC — more than 90 across seven affiliated MIT departments. The PSFC’s classrooms are full, and Loureiro notes a palpable sense of excitement. “Students are our greatest strength,” says Loureiro. “They come here to do world-class research but also to grow as individuals, and I want to give them a great place to do that. Supporting those experiences, making sure they can be as successful as possible is one of my top priorities.” Loureiro plans to continue teaching and advising students after his appointment begins.MIT President Sally Kornbluth’s recently announced Climate Project is a clarion call for Loureiro: “It’s not hyperbole to say MIT is where you go to find solutions to humanity’s biggest problems,” he says. “Fusion is a hard problem, but it can be solved with resolve and ingenuity — characteristics that define MIT. Fusion energy will change the course of human history. It’s both humbling and exciting to be leading a research center that will play a key role in enabling that change.”  More

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    Two MIT teams selected for NSF sustainable materials grants

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

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

    Scaling the use of topological materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Toward sustainable microchip production and use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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