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    On batteries, teaching, and world peace

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

    What does he personally consider to be his top achievements?

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

    A passion for teaching

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

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

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

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

    Research breakthroughs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Colleagues’ reflections

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

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

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

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

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    Simplifying the production of lithium-ion batteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A simplified design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Enabling the battery revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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    Professor Emeritus Richard “Dick” Eckaus, who specialized in development economics, dies at 96

    Richard “Dick” Eckaus, Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, emeritus, in the Department of Economics, died on Sept. 11 in Boston. He was 96 years old.

    Eckaus was born in Kansas City, Missouri on April 30, 1926, the youngest of three children to parents who had emigrated from Lithuania. His father, Julius Eckaus, was a tailor, and his mother, Bessie (Finkelstein) Eckaus helped run the business. The family struggled to make ends meet financially but academic success offered Eckaus a way forward.

    He graduated from Westport High School, joined the United States Navy, and was awarded a college scholarship via the V-12 Navy College Training Program during World War II to study electrical engineering at Iowa State University. After graduating in 1944, Eckaus served on a base in New York State until he was discharged in 1946 as lieutenant junior grade.

    He attended Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on the GI Bill, graduating in 1948 with a master’s degree in economics, before relocating to Boston and serving as instructor of economics at Babson Institute, and then assistant and associate professor of economics at Brandeis University from 1951 to 1962. He concurrently earned a PhD in economics from MIT in 1954.

    The following year, the American Economic Review published “The Factor Proportions Problem in Economic Development,” a paper written by Eckaus that remained part of the macroeconomics canon for decades. He returned to MIT in 1962 and went on to teach development economics to generations of MIT students, serving as head of the department from 1986 to 1990 and continuing to work there for the remainder of his career.

    The development economist Paul Rosenstein-Rodan (1902-85), Eckaus’ mentor at MIT, took him to live and work first in Italy in 1954 and then in India in 1961. These stints helping governments abroad solidified Eckaus’ commitment to not only excelling in the field, but also creating opportunities for colleagues and students to contribute as well — occasionally in conjunction with the World Bank.

    Longtime colleague Abhijit Banerjee, a Nobel laureate, Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, and director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, recalls reading a reprint of Eckaus’ 1955 paper as an undergraduate in India. When he subsequently arrived at MIT as a doctoral candidate, he remembers “trying to tread lightly and not to take up too much space,” around the senior economist. “In fact, he made me feel so welcome,” Banerjee says. “He was both an outstanding scholar and someone who had the modesty and generosity to make younger scholars feel valued and heard.”

    The field of development economics provided Eckaus with a broad, powerful platform to work with governments in developing countries — including India, Egypt, Bhutan, Mexico, and Portugal — to set up economic systems. His development planning models helped governments to forecast where their economies were headed and how public policies could be implemented to shift or accelerate the direction.

    The Government of Portugal awarded Eckaus the Great-Cross of the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator after he brought teams from MIT to assist the country in its peaceful transition to democracy following the 1974 Carnation Revolution. Initiated at the request of the Portuguese Central Bank, these graduate students became some of the most prominent economists of their generation in America. They include Paul Krugman, Andrew Abel, Jeremy I. Bulow, and Kenneth Rogoff.

    His colleague for five decades, Paul Joskow, the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics at MIT, says that’s no surprise. “He was a real rock of the economics department. He deeply cared about the graduate students and younger faculty. He was a very supportive person.”

    Eckaus was also deeply interested in economic aspects of energy and environment, and in 1991 was instrumental in the formation of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, a program that integrates the natural and social sciences in analysis of global climate threat. As Joint Program co-founder Henry Jacoby observes, “Dick provided crucial ideas as to how that kind of interdisciplinary work might be done at MIT. He was already 65 at the time, and continued for three decades to be active in guiding the research and analysis.”

    Although Eckaus retired officially in 1996, he continued to attend weekly faculty lunches, conduct research, mentor colleagues, and write papers related to climate change and the energy crisis. He leaves behind a trove of more than 100 published papers and eight authored and co-authored books.

    “He was continuously retooling himself and creating new interests. I was impressed by his agility of mind and his willingness to shift to new areas,” says his oldest living friend and peer, Jagdish Bhagwati, Columbia University professor of economics, law, and international relations, emeritus, and director of the Raj Center on Indian Economic Policies. “In their early career, economists usually write short theoretical articles that make large points, and Dick did that with two seminal articles in the leading professional journals of the time, the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the American Economic Review. Then, he shifted his focus to building large computable models. He also diversified by working in an advisory capacity in countries as diverse as Portugal and India. He was a ‘complete’ economist who straddled all styles of economics with distinction.” 

    Eckaus is survived by his beloved wife of 32 years Patricia Leahy Meaney of Brookline, Massachusetts. The two traveled the world, hiked the Alps, and collected pre-Columbian and contemporary art. He is lovingly remembered by his daughter Susan Miller; his step-son James Meaney (Bruna); step-daughter Caitlin Meaney Burrows (Lee); and four grandchildren, Chloe Burrows, Finley Burrows, Brandon Meaney, and Maria Sophia Meaney.

    In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation in Eckaus’ name to MIT Economics (77 Massachusetts Ave., Building E52-300, Cambridge, MA 02139). A memorial in his honor will be held later this year. More

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    3 Questions: Janelle Knox-Hayes on producing renewable energy that communities want

    Wind power accounted for 8 percent of U.S. electricity consumption in 2020, and is growing rapidly in the country’s energy portfolio. But some projects, like the now-defunct Cape Wind proposal for offshore power in Massachusetts, have run aground due to local opposition. Are there ways to avoid this in the future?

    MIT professors Janelle Knox-Hayes and Donald Sadoway think so. In a perspective piece published today in the journal Joule, they and eight other professors call for a new approach to wind-power deployment, one that engages communities in a process of “co-design” and adapts solutions to local needs. That process, they say, could spur additional creativity in renewable energy engineering, while making communities more amenable to existing technologies. In addition to Knox-Hayes and Sadoway, the paper’s co-authors are Michael J. Aziz of Harvard University; Dennice F. Gayme of Johns Hopkins University; Kathryn Johnson of the Colorado School of Mines; Perry Li of the University of Minnesota; Eric Loth of the University of Virginia; Lucy Y. Pao of the University of Colorado; Jessica Smith of the Colorado School of Mines; and Sonya Smith of Howard University.

    Knox-Hayes is the Lister Brothers Associate Professor of Economic Geography and Planning in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and an expert on the social and political context of renewable energy adoption; Sadoway is the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and a leading global expert on developing new forms of energy storage. MIT News spoke with Knox-Hayes about the topic.

    Q: What is the core problem you are addressing in this article?

    A: It is problematic to act as if technology can only be engineered in a silo and then delivered to society. To solve problems like climate change, we need to see technology as a socio-technical system, which is integrated from its inception into society. From a design standpoint, that begins with conversations, values assessments, and understanding what communities need.  If we can do that, we will have a much easier time delivering the technology in the end.

    What we have seen in the Northeast, in trying to meet our climate objectives and energy efficiency targets, is that we need a lot of offshore wind, and a lot of projects have stalled because a community was saying “no.” And part of the reason communities refuse projects is because they that they’ve never been properly consulted. What form does the technology take, and how would it operate within a community? That conversation can push the boundaries of engineering.

    Q: The new paper makes the case for a new practice of “co-design” in the field of renewable energy. You call this the “STEP” process, standing for all the socio-technical-political-economic issues that an engineering project might encounter. How would you describe the STEP idea? And to what extent would industry be open to new attempts to design an established technology?

    A: The idea is to bring together all these elements in an interdisciplinary process, and engage stakeholders. The process could start with a series of community forums where we bring everyone together, and do a needs assessment, which is a common practice in planning. We might see that offshore wind energy needs to be considered in tandem with the local fishing industry, or servicing the installations, or providing local workforce training. The STEP process allows us to take a step back, and start with planners, policymakers, and community members on the ground.

    It is also about changing the nature of research and practice and teaching, so that students are not just in classrooms, they are also learning to work with communities. I think formalizing that piece is important. We are starting now to really feel the impacts of climate change, so we have to confront the reality of breaking through political boundaries, even in the United States. That is the only way to make this successful, and that comes back to how can technology be co-designed.

    At MIT, innovation is the spirit of the endeavor, and that is why MIT has so many industry partners engaged in initiatives like MITEI [the MIT Energy Initiative] and the Climate Consortium. The value of the partnership is that MIT pushes the boundaries of what is possible. It is the idea that we can advance and we can do something incredible, we can innovate the future. What we are suggesting with this work is that innovation isn’t something that happens exclusively in a laboratory, but something that is very much built in partnership with communities and other stakeholders.

    Q: How much does this approach also apply to solar power, as the other leading type of renewable energy? It seems like communities also wrestle with where to locate solar arrays, or how to compensate homeowners, communities, and other solar hosts for the power they generate.

    A: I would not say solar has the same set of challenges, but rather that renewable technologies face similar challenges. With solar, there are also questions of access and siting. Another big challenge is to create financing models that provide value and opportunity at different scales. For example, is solar viable for tenants in multi-family units who want to engage with clean energy? This is a similar question for micro-wind opportunities for buildings. With offshore wind, a restriction is that if it is within sightlines, it might be problematic. But there are exciting technologies that have enabled deep wind, or the establishment of floating turbines up to 50 kilometers offshore. Storage solutions such as hydro-pneumatic energy storage, gravity energy storage or buoyancy storage can help maintain the transmission rate while reducing the number of transmission lines needed.

    In a lot of communities, the reality of renewables is that if you can generate your own energy, you can establish a level of security and resilience that feeds other benefits. 

    Nevertheless, as demonstrated in the Cape Wind case, technology [may be rejected] unless a community is involved from the beginning. Community involvement also creates other opportunities. Suppose, for example, that high school students are working as interns on renewable energy projects with engineers at great universities from the region. This provides a point of access for families and allows them to take pride in the systems they create.  It gives a further sense of purpose to the technology system, and vests the community in the system’s success. It is the difference between, “It was delivered to me,” and “I built it.” For researchers the article is a reminder that engineering and design are more successful if they are inclusive. Engineering and design processes are also meant to be accessible and fun. More

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    Cracking the carbon removal challenge

    By most measures, MIT chemical engineering spinoff Verdox has been enjoying an exceptional year. The carbon capture and removal startup, launched in 2019, announced $80 million in funding in February from a group of investors that included Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Then, in April — after recognition as one of the year’s top energy pioneers by Bloomberg New Energy Finance — the company and partner Carbfix won a $1 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal milestone award. This was the first round in the Musk Foundation’s four-year, $100 million-competition, the largest prize offered in history.

    “While our core technology has been validated by the significant improvement of performance metrics, this external recognition further verifies our vision,” says Sahag Voskian SM ’15, PhD ’19, co-founder and chief technology officer at Verdox. “It shows that the path we’ve chosen is the right one.”

    The search for viable carbon capture technologies has intensified in recent years, as scientific models show with increasing certainty that any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change means limiting CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million by 2100. Alternative energies will only get humankind so far, and a vast removal of CO2 will be an important tool in the race to remove the gas from the atmosphere.

    Voskian began developing the company’s cost-effective and scalable technology for carbon capture in the lab of T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “It feels exciting to see ideas move from the lab to potential commercial production,” says Hatton, a co-founder of the company and scientific advisor, adding that Verdox has speedily overcome the initial technical hiccups encountered by many early phase companies. “This recognition enhances the credibility of what we’re doing, and really validates our approach.”

    At the heart of this approach is technology Voskian describes as “elegant and efficient.” Most attempts to grab carbon from an exhaust flow or from air itself require a great deal of energy. Voskian and Hatton came up with a design whose electrochemistry makes carbon capture appear nearly effortless. Their invention is a kind of battery: conductive electrodes coated with a compound called polyanthraquinone, which has a natural chemical attraction to carbon dioxide under certain conditions, and no affinity for CO2 when these conditions are relaxed. When activated by a low-level electrical current, the battery charges, reacting with passing molecules of CO2 and pulling them onto its surface. Once the battery becomes saturated, the CO2 can be released with a flip of voltage as a pure gas stream.

    “We showed that our technology works in a wide range of CO2 concentrations, from the 20 percent or higher found in cement and steel industry exhaust streams, down to the very diffuse 0.04 percent in air itself,” says Hatton. Climate change science suggests that removing CO2 directly from air “is an important component of the whole mitigation strategy,” he adds.

    “This was an academic breakthrough,” says Brian Baynes PhD ’04, CEO and co-founder of Verdox. Baynes, a chemical engineering alumnus and a former associate of Hatton’s, has many startups to his name, and a history as a venture capitalist and mentor to young entrepreneurs. When he first encountered Hatton and Voskian’s research in 2018, he was “impressed that their technology showed it could reduce energy consumption for certain kinds of carbon capture by 70 percent compared to other technologies,” he says. “I was encouraged and impressed by this low-energy footprint, and recommended that they start a company.”

    Neither Hatton nor Voskian had commercialized a product before, so they asked Baynes to help them get going. “I normally decline these requests, because the costs are generally greater than the upside,” Baynes says. “But this innovation had the potential to move the needle on climate change, and I saw it as a rare opportunity.”

    The Verdox team has no illusions about the challenge ahead. “The scale of the problem is enormous,” says Voskian. “Our technology must be in a position to capture mega- and gigatons of CO2 from air and emission sources.” Indeed, the International Panel on Climate Change estimates the world must remove 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050 in order to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius.

    To scale up successfully and at a pace that could meet the world’s climate challenge, Verdox must become “a business that works in a technoeconomic sense,” as Baynes puts it. This means, for instance, ensuring its carbon capture system offers clear and competitive cost benefits when deployed. Not a problem, says Voskian: “Our technology, because it uses electric energy, can be easily integrated into the grid, working with solar and wind on a plug-and-play basis.” The Verdox team believes their carbon footprint will beat that of competitors by orders of magnitude.

    The company is pushing past a series of technical obstacles as it ramps up: enabling the carbon capture battery to run hundreds of thousands of cycles before its performance wanes, and enhancing the polyanthraquinone chemistry so that the device is even more selective for CO2.

    After hurtling past critical milestones, Verdox is now working with its first announced commercial client: Norwegian aluminum company Hydro, which aims to eliminate CO2 from the exhaust of its smelters as it transitions to zero-carbon production.

    Verdox is also developing systems that can efficiently pull CO2 out of ambient air. “We’re designing units that would look like rows and rows of big fans that bring the air into boxes containing our batteries,” he says. Such approaches might prove especially useful in locations such as airfields, where there are higher-than-normal concentrations of CO2 emissions present.

    All this captured carbon needs to go somewhere. With XPRIZE partner Carbfix, which has a decade-old, proven method for mineralizing captured CO2 and depositing it in deep underground caverns, Verdox will have a final resting place for CO2 that cannot immediately be reused for industrial applications such as new fuels or construction materials.

    With its clients and partners, the team appears well-positioned for the next round of the carbon removal XPRIZE competition, which will award up to $50 million to the group that best demonstrates a working solution at a scale of at least 1,000 tons removed per year, and can present a viable blueprint for scaling to gigatons of removal per year.

    Can Verdox meaningfully reduce the planet’s growing CO2 burden? Voskian is sure of it. “Going at our current momentum, and seeing the world embrace carbon capture, this is the right path forward,” he says. “With our partners, deploying manufacturing facilities on a global scale, we will make a dent in the problem in our lifetime.” More

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    A lasting — and valuable — legacy

    Betar Gallant, MIT associate professor and Class of 1922 Career Development Chair in Mechanical Engineering, grew up in a curious, independently minded family. Her mother had multiple jobs over the years, including in urban planning and in the geospatial field. Her father, although formally trained in English, read textbooks of all kinds from cover to cover, taught himself numerous technical fields including engineering, and worked successfully in them. When Gallant was very young, she and her father did science experiments in the basement.

    It wasn’t until she was in her teenage years, though, that she says she got drawn into science. Her father, who had fallen ill five years before, died when Gallant was 16, and while grieving, “when I was missing him the most,” she started to look at what had captivated her father.

    “I started to take a deeper interest in the things he had spent his life working on as a way to feel closer to him in his absence,” Gallant says. “I spent a few long months one summer looking through some of the things he had worked on, and found myself reading physics textbooks. That was enough, and I was hooked.”

    The love for independently finding and understanding solutions, that she had apparently inherited from her parents, eventually took her to the professional love of her life: electrochemistry.

    As an undergraduate at MIT, Gallant did an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project with Professor Yang Shao-Horn’s research group that went from her sophomore year through her senior thesis. This was Gallant’s first official exposure to electrochemistry.

    “When I met Yang, she showed me very quickly how challenging and enriching electrochemistry can be, and there was real conviction and excitement in how she and her group members talked about research,” Gallant says. “It was totally eye-opening, and I’m fortunate that she was a (relatively rare) electrochemist in a mechanical engineering department, or else I likely would not have been able to go down that road.”

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    Gallant earned three degrees at MIT (’08, SM ’10, and PhD ’13). Before joining the MIT faculty in 2016, she was a Kavli Nanoscience Institute Prize Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

    Her passion for electrochemistry is enormous. “Electrons are just dazzling — they power so much of our everyday world, and are the key to a renewable future,” she says, explaining that despite electrons’ amazing potential, isolated electrons cannot be stored and produced on demand, because “nature doesn’t allow excessive amounts of charge imbalances to accumulate.”

    Electrons can, however, be stored on molecules, in bonds and in metal ions or nonmetal centers that are able to lose and gain electrons — as long as positive charge transfers occur to accommodate the electrons.

    “Here’s where chemistry rears its head,” Gallant says. “What types of molecules or materials can behave in this way? How do we store as much charge as possible while making the weight and volume as low as possible?”

    Gallant points out that early battery developers using lithium and ions built a technology that “has arguably shaped our modern world more than any other.

    “If you look at some early papers, the concepts of how a lithium-ion battery or a lithium metal anode worked were sketched out by hand — they had been deduced to be true, before the field even had the tools to prove all the mechanisms were actually occurring — yet even now, those ideas are still turning out to be right!”

    Gallant says, “that’s because if you truly understand the basic principles of electrochemistry, you can start to intuit how systems will behave. Once you can do that, you can really begin to engineer better materials and devices.”

    Truly her father’s daughter, Gallant’s emphasis is on independently finding solutions.

    “Ultimately, it’s a race to have the best mental models,” she says. “A great lab and lots of funding and personnel to run it are very nice, but the most valuable tools in the toolbox are solid mental models and a way of thinking about electrochemistry, which is actually very personalized depending on the researcher.”

    She says one project with immediate impact that’s coming out of her Gallant Energy and Carbon Conversion Lab relates to primary (non-rechargeable) battery work that she and her team are working to commercialize. It involves injecting new electrochemically active electrolytes into leading high-energy batteries as they’re being assembled. Replacing a conventional electrolyte with the new chemistry decreases the normally inactive weight of the battery and boosts the energy substantially, Gallant says. One important application of such batteries would be for medical devices such as pacemakers.

    “If you can extend lifetime, you’re talking about longer times between invasive replacement surgeries, which really affects patient quality of life,” she says.

    Gallant’s team is also leading efforts to enable higher-energy rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. Key to a step-change in energy, and therefore driving range, is to use a lithium metal anode in place of graphite. Lithium metal is highly reactive, however, with all battery electrolytes, and its interface needs to be stabilized in ways that still elude researchers. Gallant’s team is developing design guidelines for such interfaces, and for next-generation electrolytes to form and sustain these interfaces. Gallant says that applying the technology to that purpose and commercializing it would be “a bit longer-term, but I believe this change to lithium anodes will happen, and it’s just a matter of when.”

    About six years ago, when Gallant founded her lab, she and her team started introducing carbon dioxide into batteries as a way to experiment with electrochemical conversion of the greenhouse gas. She says they realized that batteries do not present the best practical technology to mitigate CO2, but their experimentation did open up new paths to carbon capture and conversion. “That work allowed us to think creatively, and we started to realize that there is tremendous potential to manipulate CO2 reactions by carefully designing the electrochemical environment.” That led her team to the idea of conducting electrochemical transformations on CO2 from a captured state bound to a capture sorbent, replacing the energy-intense regeneration step of today’s capture processes and streamlining the process.  

    “Now we’re seeing other researchers working on that, too, and taking this idea in exciting directions — it’s a very challenging and very rich topic,” she says.

    Gallant has won awards including an MIT Bose Fellowship, the Army Research Office Young Investigator Award, the Scialog Fellowship in Energy Storage and in Negative Emissions Science, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Distinguished Teaching at MIT, the Electrochemical Society (ECS) Battery Division Early Career award, and an ECS-Toyota Young Investigator Award.

    These days, Gallant does some of her best thinking while brainstorming with her research group members and with her husband, who is also an academic. She says being a professor at MIT means she has “a queue of things to think about,” but she sometimes gets awarded with a revelation.

    “My brain gets overloaded because I can’t think through everything instantaneously; ideas have to get in line! So there’s a lot going on in the background at all times,” she say. “I don’t know how it works, but sometimes I’ll be going for a walk or doing something else, and an idea breaks through. Those are the fun ones.” More

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    Computing for the health of the planet

    The health of the planet is one of the most important challenges facing humankind today. From climate change to unsafe levels of air and water pollution to coastal and agricultural land erosion, a number of serious challenges threaten human and ecosystem health.

    Ensuring the health and safety of our planet necessitates approaches that connect scientific, engineering, social, economic, and political aspects. New computational methods can play a critical role by providing data-driven models and solutions for cleaner air, usable water, resilient food, efficient transportation systems, better-preserved biodiversity, and sustainable sources of energy.

    The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is committed to hiring multiple new faculty in computing for climate and the environment, as part of MIT’s plan to recruit 20 climate-focused faculty under its climate action plan. This year the college undertook searches with several departments in the schools of Engineering and Science for shared faculty in computing for health of the planet, one of the six strategic areas of inquiry identified in an MIT-wide planning process to help focus shared hiring efforts. The college also undertook searches for core computing faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

    The searches are part of an ongoing effort by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing to hire 50 new faculty — 25 shared with other academic departments and 25 in computer science and artificial intelligence and decision-making. The goal is to build capacity at MIT to help more deeply infuse computing and other disciplines in departments.

    Four interdisciplinary scholars were hired in these searches. They will join the MIT faculty in the coming year to engage in research and teaching that will advance physical understanding of low-carbon energy solutions, Earth-climate modeling, biodiversity monitoring and conservation, and agricultural management through high-performance computing, transformational numerical methods, and machine-learning techniques.

    “By coordinating hiring efforts with multiple departments and schools, we were able to attract a cohort of exceptional scholars in this area to MIT. Each of them is developing and using advanced computational methods and tools to help find solutions for a range of climate and environmental issues,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Henry Warren Ellis Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They will also help strengthen cross-departmental ties in computing across an important, critical area for MIT and the world.”

    “These strategic hires in the area of computing for climate and the environment are an incredible opportunity for the college to deepen its academic offerings and create new opportunity for collaboration across MIT,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The college plays a pivotal role in MIT’s overarching effort to hire climate-focused faculty — introducing the critical role of computing to address the health of the planet through innovative research and curriculum.”

    The four new faculty members are:

    Sara Beery will join MIT as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in September 2023. Beery received her PhD in computing and mathematical sciences at Caltech in 2022, where she was advised by Pietro Perona. Her research focuses on building computer vision methods that enable global-scale environmental and biodiversity monitoring across data modalities, tackling real-world challenges including strong spatiotemporal correlations, imperfect data quality, fine-grained categories, and long-tailed distributions. She partners with nongovernmental organizations and government agencies to deploy her methods in the wild worldwide and works toward increasing the diversity and accessibility of academic research in artificial intelligence through interdisciplinary capacity building and education.

    Priya Donti will join MIT as an assistant professor in the faculties of Electrical Engineering and Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in academic year 2023-24. Donti recently finished her PhD in the Computer Science Department and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, co-advised by Zico Kolter and Inês Azevedo. Her work focuses on machine learning for forecasting, optimization, and control in high-renewables power grids. Specifically, her research explores methods to incorporate the physics and hard constraints associated with electric power systems into deep learning models. Donti is also co-founder and chair of Climate Change AI, a nonprofit initiative to catalyze impactful work at the intersection of climate change and machine learning that is currently running through the Cornell Tech Runway Startup Postdoc Program.

    Ericmoore Jossou will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the faculty of electrical engineering in EECS in July 2023. He is currently an assistant scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy-affiliated lab that conducts research in nuclear and high energy physics, energy science and technology, environmental and bioscience, nanoscience, and national security. His research at MIT will focus on understanding the processing-structure-properties correlation of materials for nuclear energy applications through advanced experiments, multiscale simulations, and data science. Jossou obtained his PhD in mechanical engineering in 2019 from the University of Saskatchewan.

    Sherrie Wang will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society in academic year 2023-24. Wang is currently a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, hosted by Solomon Hsiang and the Global Policy Lab. She develops machine learning for Earth observation data. Her primary application areas are improving agricultural management and forecasting climate phenomena. She obtained her PhD in computational and mathematical engineering from Stanford University in 2021, where she was advised by David Lobell. More

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    Turning carbon dioxide into valuable products

    Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a major contributor to climate change and a significant product of many human activities, notably industrial manufacturing. A major goal in the energy field has been to chemically convert emitted CO2 into valuable chemicals or fuels. But while CO2 is available in abundance, it has not yet been widely used to generate value-added products. Why not?

    The reason is that CO2 molecules are highly stable and therefore not prone to being chemically converted to a different form. Researchers have sought materials and device designs that could help spur that conversion, but nothing has worked well enough to yield an efficient, cost-effective system.

    Two years ago, Ariel Furst, the Raymond (1921) and Helen St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, decided to try using something different — a material that gets more attention in discussions of biology than of chemical engineering. Already, results from work in her lab suggest that her unusual approach is paying off.

    The stumbling block

    The challenge begins with the first step in the CO2 conversion process. Before being transformed into a useful product, CO2 must be chemically converted into carbon monoxide (CO). That conversion can be encouraged using electrochemistry, a process in which input voltage provides the extra energy needed to make the stable CO2 molecules react. The problem is that achieving the CO2-to-CO conversion requires large energy inputs — and even then, CO makes up only a small fraction of the products that are formed.

    To explore opportunities for improving this process, Furst and her research group focused on the electrocatalyst, a material that enhances the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed in the process. The catalyst is key to successful operation. Inside an electrochemical device, the catalyst is often suspended in an aqueous (water-based) solution. When an electric potential (essentially a voltage) is applied to a submerged electrode, dissolved CO2 will — helped by the catalyst — be converted to CO.

    But there’s one stumbling block: The catalyst and the CO2 must meet on the surface of the electrode for the reaction to occur. In some studies, the catalyst is dispersed in the solution, but that approach requires more catalyst and isn’t very efficient, according to Furst. “You have to both wait for the diffusion of CO2 to the catalyst and for the catalyst to reach the electrode before the reaction can occur,” she explains. As a result, researchers worldwide have been exploring different methods of “immobilizing” the catalyst on the electrode.

    Connecting the catalyst and the electrode

    Before Furst could delve into that challenge, she needed to decide which of the two types of CO2 conversion catalysts to work with: the traditional solid-state catalyst or a catalyst made up of small molecules. In examining the literature, she concluded that small-molecule catalysts held the most promise. While their conversion efficiency tends to be lower than that of solid-state versions, molecular catalysts offer one important advantage: They can be tuned to emphasize reactions and products of interest.

    Two approaches are commonly used to immobilize small-molecule catalysts on an electrode. One involves linking the catalyst to the electrode by strong covalent bonds — a type of bond in which atoms share electrons; the result is a strong, essentially permanent connection. The other sets up a non-covalent attachment between the catalyst and the electrode; unlike a covalent bond, this connection can easily be broken.

    Neither approach is ideal. In the former case, the catalyst and electrode are firmly attached, ensuring efficient reactions; but when the activity of the catalyst degrades over time (which it will), the electrode can no longer be accessed. In the latter case, a degraded catalyst can be removed; but the exact placement of the small molecules of the catalyst on the electrode can’t be controlled, leading to an inconsistent, often decreasing, catalytic efficiency — and simply increasing the amount of catalyst on the electrode surface without concern for where the molecules are placed doesn’t solve the problem.

    What was needed was a way to position the small-molecule catalyst firmly and accurately on the electrode and then release it when it degrades. For that task, Furst turned to what she and her team regard as a kind of “programmable molecular Velcro”: deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.

    Adding DNA to the mix

    Mention DNA to most people, and they think of biological functions in living things. But the members of Furst’s lab view DNA as more than just genetic code. “DNA has these really cool physical properties as a biomaterial that people don’t often think about,” she says. “DNA can be used as a molecular Velcro that can stick things together with very high precision.”

    Furst knew that DNA sequences had previously been used to immobilize molecules on surfaces for other purposes. So she devised a plan to use DNA to direct the immobilization of catalysts for CO2 conversion.

    Her approach depends on a well-understood behavior of DNA called hybridization. The familiar DNA structure is a double helix that forms when two complementary strands connect. When the sequence of bases (the four building blocks of DNA) in the individual strands match up, hydrogen bonds form between complementary bases, firmly linking the strands together.

    Using that behavior for catalyst immobilization involves two steps. First, the researchers attach a single strand of DNA to the electrode. Then they attach a complementary strand to the catalyst that is floating in the aqueous solution. When the latter strand gets near the former, the two strands hybridize; they become linked by multiple hydrogen bonds between properly paired bases. As a result, the catalyst is firmly affixed to the electrode by means of two interlocked, self-assembled DNA strands, one connected to the electrode and the other to the catalyst.

    Better still, the two strands can be detached from one another. “The connection is stable, but if we heat it up, we can remove the secondary strand that has the catalyst on it,” says Furst. “So we can de-hybridize it. That allows us to recycle our electrode surfaces — without having to disassemble the device or do any harsh chemical steps.”

    Experimental investigation

    To explore that idea, Furst and her team — postdocs Gang Fan and Thomas Gill, former graduate student Nathan Corbin PhD ’21, and former postdoc Amruta Karbelkar — performed a series of experiments using three small-molecule catalysts based on porphyrins, a group of compounds that are biologically important for processes ranging from enzyme activity to oxygen transport. Two of the catalysts involve a synthetic porphyrin plus a metal center of either cobalt or iron. The third catalyst is hemin, a natural porphyrin compound used to treat porphyria, a set of disorders that can affect the nervous system. “So even the small-molecule catalysts we chose are kind of inspired by nature,” comments Furst.

    In their experiments, the researchers first needed to modify single strands of DNA and deposit them on one of the electrodes submerged in the solution inside their electrochemical cell. Though this sounds straightforward, it did require some new chemistry. Led by Karbelkar and third-year undergraduate researcher Rachel Ahlmark, the team developed a fast, easy way to attach DNA to electrodes. For this work, the researchers’ focus was on attaching DNA, but the “tethering” chemistry they developed can also be used to attach enzymes (protein catalysts), and Furst believes it will be highly useful as a general strategy for modifying carbon electrodes.

    Once the single strands of DNA were deposited on the electrode, the researchers synthesized complementary strands and attached to them one of the three catalysts. When the DNA strands with the catalyst were added to the solution in the electrochemical cell, they readily hybridized with the DNA strands on the electrode. After half-an-hour, the researchers applied a voltage to the electrode to chemically convert CO2 dissolved in the solution and used a gas chromatograph to analyze the makeup of the gases produced by the conversion.

    The team found that when the DNA-linked catalysts were freely dispersed in the solution, they were highly soluble — even when they included small-molecule catalysts that don’t dissolve in water on their own. Indeed, while porphyrin-based catalysts in solution often stick together, once the DNA strands were attached, that counterproductive behavior was no longer evident.

    The DNA-linked catalysts in solution were also more stable than their unmodified counterparts. They didn’t degrade at voltages that caused the unmodified catalysts to degrade. “So just attaching that single strand of DNA to the catalyst in solution makes those catalysts more stable,” says Furst. “We don’t even have to put them on the electrode surface to see improved stability.” When converting CO2 in this way, a stable catalyst will give a steady current over time. Experimental results showed that adding the DNA prevented the catalyst from degrading at voltages of interest for practical devices. Moreover, with all three catalysts in solution, the DNA modification significantly increased the production of CO per minute.

    Allowing the DNA-linked catalyst to hybridize with the DNA connected to the electrode brought further improvements, even compared to the same DNA-linked catalyst in solution. For example, as a result of the DNA-directed assembly, the catalyst ended up firmly attached to the electrode, and the catalyst stability was further enhanced. Despite being highly soluble in aqueous solutions, the DNA-linked catalyst molecules remained hybridized at the surface of the electrode, even under harsh experimental conditions.

    Immobilizing the DNA-linked catalyst on the electrode also significantly increased the rate of CO production. In a series of experiments, the researchers monitored the CO production rate with each of their catalysts in solution without attached DNA strands — the conventional setup — and then with them immobilized by DNA on the electrode. With all three catalysts, the amount of CO generated per minute was far higher when the DNA-linked catalyst was immobilized on the electrode.

    In addition, immobilizing the DNA-linked catalyst on the electrode greatly increased the “selectivity” in terms of the products. One persistent challenge in using CO2 to generate CO in aqueous solutions is that there is an inevitable competition between the formation of CO and the formation of hydrogen. That tendency was eased by adding DNA to the catalyst in solution — and even more so when the catalyst was immobilized on the electrode using DNA. For both the cobalt-porphyrin catalyst and the hemin-based catalyst, the formation of CO relative to hydrogen was significantly higher with the DNA-linked catalyst on the electrode than in solution. With the iron-porphyrin catalyst they were about the same. “With the iron, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in solution or on the electrode,” Furst explains. “Both of them have selectivity for CO, so that’s good, too.”

    Progress and plans

    Furst and her team have now demonstrated that their DNA-based approach combines the advantages of the traditional solid-state catalysts and the newer small-molecule ones. In their experiments, they achieved the highly efficient chemical conversion of CO2 to CO and also were able to control the mix of products formed. And they believe that their technique should prove scalable: DNA is inexpensive and widely available, and the amount of catalyst required is several orders of magnitude lower when it’s immobilized using DNA.

    Based on her work thus far, Furst hypothesizes that the structure and spacing of the small molecules on the electrode may directly impact both catalytic efficiency and product selectivity. Using DNA to control the precise positioning of her small-molecule catalysts, she plans to evaluate those impacts and then extrapolate design parameters that can be applied to other classes of energy-conversion catalysts. Ultimately, she hopes to develop a predictive algorithm that researchers can use as they design electrocatalytic systems for a wide variety of applications.

    This research was supported by a grant from the MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund.

    This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More