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    Shell joins MIT.nano Consortium

    MIT.nano has announced that Shell, a global group of energy and petrochemical companies, has joined the MIT.nano Consortium.

    “With an international perspective on the world’s energy challenges, Shell is an exciting addition to the MIT.nano Consortium,” says Vladimir Bulović, the founding faculty director of MIT.nano and the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technologies. “The quest to build a sustainable energy future will require creative thinking backed by broad and deep expertise that our Shell colleagues bring. They will be insightful collaborators for the MIT community and for our member companies as we work together to explore innovative technology strategies.”

    Founded in 1907 when Shell Transport and Trading Co. merged with Royal Dutch, Shell has more than a century’s worth of experience in the exploration, production, refining, and marketing of oil and natural gas and the manufacturing and marketing of chemicals. Operating in over 70 countries, Shell has set a target to become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050. To achieve this, Shell is supporting developments of low-carbon energy solutions such as biofuels, hydrogen, charging for electric vehicles, and electricity generated by solar and wind power.

    “In line with our Powering Progress strategy, our research efforts to become a net-zero emission energy company by 2050 will require intense collaboration with academic leaders across a wide range of disciplines,” says Rolf van Benthem, Shell’s chief scientist for materials science. “We look forward to engaging with the top-notch PIs [principal investigators] at MIT.nano who excel in fields like materials design and nanoscale characterization for use in energy applications and carbon utilization. Together we can work on truly sustainable solutions for our society.”

    Shell has been engaged in research collaborations with MIT since 2002 and is a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). Recent MIT projects supported by Shell include an urban building energy model with the MIT Sustainable Design Laboratory that explores energy-saving building retrofits, a study of the role and impact of hydrogen-based technology pathways with MITEI, and a materials science and engineering project to design better batteries for electric vehicles.

    The MIT.nano Consortium is a platform for academia-industry collaboration centered around research and innovation emerging from nanoscale science and engineering at MIT. Through activities that include quarterly industry consortium meetings, Shell will gain insight into the work of MIT.nano’s community of users and provide advice to help guide and advance nanoscale innovations at MIT alongside the 11 other consortium companies:

    Analog Devices;
    Draper;
    Edwards;
    Fujikura;
    IBM Research;
    Lam Research;
    NC;
    NEC;
    Raith;
    UpNano; and
    Viavi Solutions.
    MIT.nano continues to welcome new companies as sustaining members. For more details, visit the MIT.nano Consortium page. More

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    Fast-tracking fusion energy’s arrival with AI and accessibility

    As the impacts of climate change continue to grow, so does interest in fusion’s potential as a clean energy source. While fusion reactions have been studied in laboratories since the 1930s, there are still many critical questions scientists must answer to make fusion power a reality, and time is of the essence. As part of their strategy to accelerate fusion energy’s arrival and reach carbon neutrality by 2050, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has announced new funding for a project led by researchers at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) and four collaborating institutions.

    Cristina Rea, a research scientist and group leader at the PSFC, will serve as the primary investigator for the newly funded three-year collaboration to pilot the integration of fusion data into a system that can be read by AI-powered tools. The PSFC, together with scientists from the College of William and Mary, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Auburn University, and the nonprofit HDF Group, plan to create a holistic fusion data platform, the elements of which could offer unprecedented access for researchers, especially underrepresented students. The project aims to encourage diverse participation in fusion and data science, both in academia and the workforce, through outreach programs led by the group’s co-investigators, of whom four out of five are women. 

    The DoE’s award, part of a $29 million funding package for seven projects across 19 institutions, will support the group’s efforts to distribute data produced by fusion devices like the PSFC’s Alcator C-Mod, a donut-shaped “tokamak” that utilized powerful magnets to control and confine fusion reactions. Alcator C-Mod operated from 1991 to 2016 and its data are still being studied, thanks in part to the PSFC’s commitment to the free exchange of knowledge.

    Currently, there are nearly 50 public experimental magnetic confinement-type fusion devices; however, both historical and current data from these devices can be difficult to access. Some fusion databases require signing user agreements, and not all data are catalogued and organized the same way. Moreover, it can be difficult to leverage machine learning, a class of AI tools, for data analysis and to enable scientific discovery without time-consuming data reorganization. The result is fewer scientists working on fusion, greater barriers to discovery, and a bottleneck in harnessing AI to accelerate progress.

    The project’s proposed data platform addresses technical barriers by being FAIR — Findable, Interoperable, Accessible, Reusable — and by adhering to UNESCO’s Open Science (OS) recommendations to improve the transparency and inclusivity of science; all of the researchers’ deliverables will adhere to FAIR and OS principles, as required by the DoE. The platform’s databases will be built using MDSplusML, an upgraded version of the MDSplus open-source software developed by PSFC researchers in the 1980s to catalogue the results of Alcator C-Mod’s experiments. Today, nearly 40 fusion research institutes use MDSplus to store and provide external access to their fusion data. The release of MDSplusML aims to continue that legacy of open collaboration.

    The researchers intend to address barriers to participation for women and disadvantaged groups not only by improving general access to fusion data, but also through a subsidized summer school that will focus on topics at the intersection of fusion and machine learning, which will be held at William and Mary for the next three years.

    Of the importance of their research, Rea says, “This project is about responding to the fusion community’s needs and setting ourselves up for success. Scientific advancements in fusion are enabled via multidisciplinary collaboration and cross-pollination, so accessibility is absolutely essential. I think we all understand now that diverse communities have more diverse ideas, and they allow faster problem-solving.”

    The collaboration’s work also aligns with vital areas of research identified in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “AI for Fusion” Coordinated Research Project (CRP). Rea was selected as the technical coordinator for the IAEA’s CRP emphasizing community engagement and knowledge access to accelerate fusion research and development. In a letter of support written for the group’s proposed project, the IAEA stated that, “the work [the researchers] will carry out […] will be beneficial not only to our CRP but also to the international fusion community in large.”

    PSFC Director and Hitachi America Professor of Engineering Dennis Whyte adds, “I am thrilled to see PSFC and our collaborators be at the forefront of applying new AI tools while simultaneously encouraging and enabling extraction of critical data from our experiments.”

    “Having the opportunity to lead such an important project is extremely meaningful, and I feel a responsibility to show that women are leaders in STEM,” says Rea. “We have an incredible team, strongly motivated to improve our fusion ecosystem and to contribute to making fusion energy a reality.” More

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    New clean air and water labs to bring together researchers, policymakers to find climate solutions

    MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is launching the Clean Air and Water Labs, with support from Community Jameel, to generate evidence-based solutions aimed at increasing access to clean air and water.

    Led by J-PAL’s Africa, Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and South Asia regional offices, the labs will partner with government agencies to bring together researchers and policymakers in areas where impactful clean air and water solutions are most urgently needed.

    Together, the labs aim to improve clean air and water access by informing the scaling of evidence-based policies and decisions of city, state, and national governments that serve nearly 260 million people combined.

    The Clean Air and Water Labs expand the work of J-PAL’s King Climate Action Initiative, building on the foundational support of King Philanthropies, which significantly expanded J-PAL’s work at the nexus of climate change and poverty alleviation worldwide. 

    Air pollution, water scarcity and the need for evidence 

    Africa, MENA, and South Asia are on the front lines of global air and water crises. 

    “There is no time to waste investing in solutions that do not achieve their desired effects,” says Iqbal Dhaliwal, global executive director of J-PAL. “By co-generating rigorous real-world evidence with researchers, policymakers can have the information they need to dedicate resources to scaling up solutions that have been shown to be effective.”

    In India, about 75 percent of households did not have drinking water on premises in 2018. In MENA, nearly 90 percent of children live in areas facing high or extreme water stress. Across Africa, almost 400 million people lack access to safe drinking water. 

    Simultaneously, air pollution is one of the greatest threats to human health globally. In India, extraordinary levels of air pollution are shortening the average life expectancy by five years. In Africa, rising indoor and ambient air pollution contributed to 1.1 million premature deaths in 2019. 

    There is increasing urgency to find high-impact and cost-effective solutions to the worsening threats to human health and resources caused by climate change. However, data and evidence on potential solutions are limited.

    Fostering collaboration to generate policy-relevant evidence 

    The Clean Air and Water Labs will foster deep collaboration between government stakeholders, J-PAL regional offices, and researchers in the J-PAL network. 

    Through the labs, J-PAL will work with policymakers to:

    co-diagnose the most pressing air and water challenges and opportunities for policy innovation;
    expand policymakers’ access to and use of high-quality air and water data;
    co-design potential solutions informed by existing evidence;
    co-generate evidence on promising solutions through rigorous evaluation, leveraging existing and new data sources; and
    support scaling of air and water policies and programs that are found to be effective through evaluation. 
    A research and scaling fund for each lab will prioritize resources for co-generated pilot studies, randomized evaluations, and scaling projects. 

    The labs will also collaborate with C40 Cities, a global network of mayors of the world’s leading cities that are united in action to confront the climate crisis, to share policy-relevant evidence and identify opportunities for potential new connections and research opportunities within India and across Africa.

    This model aims to strengthen the use of evidence in decision-making to ensure solutions are highly effective and to guide research to answer policymakers’ most urgent questions. J-PAL Africa, MENA, and South Asia’s strong on-the-ground presence will further bridge research and policy work by anchoring activities within local contexts. 

    “Communities across the world continue to face challenges in accessing clean air and water, a threat to human safety that has only been exacerbated by the climate crisis, along with rising temperatures and other hazards,” says George Richards, director of Community Jameel. “Through our collaboration with J-PAL and C40 in creating climate policy labs embedded in city, state, and national governments in Africa and South Asia, we are committed to innovative and science-based approaches that can help hundreds of millions of people enjoy healthier lives.”

    J-PAL Africa, MENA, and South Asia will formally launch Clean Air and Water Labs with government partners over the coming months. J-PAL is housed in the MIT Department of Economics, within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. More

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    Supporting sustainability, digital health, and the future of work

    The MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology has selected three new research projects that will receive support from the initiative. The research projects aim to accelerate progress in meeting complex societal needs through new business convergence insights in technology and innovation.

    Established in MIT’s School of Engineering and now in its third year, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative is furthering its mission to bring together technological experts from across business and academia to share insights and learn from one another. Recently, Thomas W. Malone, the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management, joined the initiative as its first-ever faculty lead. The research projects relate to three of the initiative’s key focus areas: sustainability, digital health, and the future of work.

    “The solutions these research teams are developing have the potential to have tremendous impact,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They embody the initiative’s focus on advancing data-driven research that addresses technology and industry convergence.”

    “The convergence of science and technology driven by advancements in generative AI, digital twins, quantum computing, and other technologies makes this an especially exciting time for Accenture and MIT to be undertaking this joint research,” says Kenneth Munie, senior managing director at Accenture Strategy, Life Sciences. “Our three new research projects focusing on sustainability, digital health, and the future of work have the potential to help guide and shape future innovations that will benefit the way we work and live.”

    The MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative charter project researchers are described below.

    Accelerating the journey to net zero with industrial clusters

    Jessika Trancik is a professor at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Trancik’s research examines the dynamic costs, performance, and environmental impacts of energy systems to inform climate policy and accelerate beneficial and equitable technology innovation. Trancik’s project aims to identify how industrial clusters can enable companies to derive greater value from decarbonization, potentially making companies more willing to invest in the clean energy transition.

    To meet the ambitious climate goals that have been set by countries around the world, rising greenhouse gas emissions trends must be rapidly reversed. Industrial clusters — geographically co-located or otherwise-aligned groups of companies representing one or more industries — account for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions globally. With major energy consumers “clustered” in proximity, industrial clusters provide a potential platform to scale low-carbon solutions by enabling the aggregation of demand and the coordinated investment in physical energy supply infrastructure.

    In addition to Trancik, the research team working on this project will include Aliza Khurram, a postdoc in IDSS; Micah Ziegler, an IDSS research scientist; Melissa Stark, global energy transition services lead at Accenture; Laura Sanderfer, strategy consulting manager at Accenture; and Maria De Miguel, strategy senior analyst at Accenture.

    Eliminating childhood obesity

    Anette “Peko” Hosoi is the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering. A common theme in her work is the fundamental study of shape, kinematic, and rheological optimization of biological systems with applications to the emergent field of soft robotics. Her project will use both data from existing studies and synthetic data to create a return-on-investment (ROI) calculator for childhood obesity interventions so that companies can identify earlier returns on their investment beyond reduced health-care costs.

    Childhood obesity is too prevalent to be solved by a single company, industry, drug, application, or program. In addition to the physical and emotional impact on children, society bears a cost through excess health care spending, lost workforce productivity, poor school performance, and increased family trauma. Meaningful solutions require multiple organizations, representing different parts of society, working together with a common understanding of the problem, the economic benefits, and the return on investment. ROI is particularly difficult to defend for any single organization because investment and return can be separated by many years and involve asymmetric investments, returns, and allocation of risk. Hosoi’s project will consider the incentives for a particular entity to invest in programs in order to reduce childhood obesity.

    Hosoi will be joined by graduate students Pragya Neupane and Rachael Kha, both of IDSS, as well a team from Accenture that includes Kenneth Munie, senior managing director at Accenture Strategy, Life Sciences; Kaveh Safavi, senior managing director in Accenture Health Industry; and Elizabeth Naik, global health and public service research lead.

    Generating innovative organizational configurations and algorithms for dealing with the problem of post-pandemic employment

    Thomas Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. His research focuses on how new organizations can be designed to take advantage of the possibilities provided by information technology. Malone will be joined in this project by John Horton, the Richard S. Leghorn (1939) Career Development Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, whose research focuses on the intersection of labor economics, market design, and information systems. Malone and Horton’s project will look to reshape the future of work with the help of lessons learned in the wake of the pandemic.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has been a major disrupter of work and employment, and it is not at all obvious how governments, businesses, and other organizations should manage the transition to a desirable state of employment as the pandemic recedes. Using natural language processing algorithms such as GPT-4, this project will look to identify new ways that companies can use AI to better match applicants to necessary jobs, create new types of jobs, assess skill training needed, and identify interventions to help include women and other groups whose employment was disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

    In addition to Malone and Horton, the research team will include Rob Laubacher, associate director and research scientist at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, and Kathleen Kennedy, executive director at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and senior director at MIT Horizon. The team will also include Nitu Nivedita, managing director of artificial intelligence at Accenture, and Thomas Hancock, data science senior manager at Accenture. More

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    J-WAFS announces 2023 seed grant recipients

    Today, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) announced its ninth round of seed grants to support innovative research projects at MIT. The grants are designed to fund research efforts that tackle challenges related to water and food for human use, with the ultimate goal of creating meaningful impact as the world population continues to grow and the planet undergoes significant climate and environmental changes.Ten new projects led by 15 researchers from seven different departments will be supported this year. The projects address a range of challenges by employing advanced materials, technology innovations, and new approaches to resource management. The new projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop monitoring and other systems to help manage various aquaculture industries, optimize water purification materials, and more.“The seed grant program is J-WAFS’ flagship grant initiative,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “The funding is intended to spur groundbreaking MIT research addressing complex issues that are challenging our water and food systems. The 10 projects selected this year show great promise, and we look forward to the progress and accomplishments these talented researchers will make,” she adds.The 2023 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects are:Sara Beery, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), is building the first completely automated system to estimate the size of salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest (PNW).Salmon are a keystone species in the PNW, feeding human populations for the last 7,500 years at least. However, overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change threaten extinction of salmon populations across the region. Accurate salmon counts during their seasonal migration to their natal river to spawn are essential for fisheries’ regulation and management but are limited by human capacity. Fish population monitoring is a widespread challenge in the United States and worldwide. Beery and her team are working to build a system that will provide a detailed picture of the state of salmon populations in unprecedented, spatial, and temporal resolution by combining sonar sensors and computer vision and machine learning (CVML) techniques. The sonar will capture individual fish as they swim upstream and CVML will train accurate algorithms to interpret the sonar video for detecting, tracking, and counting fish automatically while adapting to changing river conditions and fish densities.Another aquaculture project is being led by Michael Triantafyllou, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Robert Vincent, the assistant director at MIT’s Sea Grant Program. They are working with Otto Cordero, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, to control harmful bacteria blooms in aquaculture algae feed production.

    Aquaculture in the United States represents a $1.5 billion industry annually and helps support 1.7 million jobs, yet many American hatcheries are not able to keep up with demand. One barrier to aquaculture production is the high degree of variability in survival rates, most likely caused by a poorly controlled microbiome that leads to bacterial infections and sub-optimal feed efficiency. Triantafyllou, Vincent, and Cordero plan to monitor the microbiome composition of a shellfish hatchery in order to identify possible causing agents of mortality, as well as beneficial microbes. They hope to pair microbe data with detail phenotypic information about the animal population to generate rapid diagnostic tests and explore the potential for microbiome therapies to protect larvae and prevent future outbreaks. The researchers plan to transfer their findings and technology to the local and regional aquaculture community to ensure healthy aquaculture production that will support the expansion of the U.S. aquaculture industry.

    David Des Marais is the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His 2023 J-WAFS project seeks to understand plant growth responses to elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, in the hopes of identifying breeding strategies that maximize crop yield under future CO2 scenarios.Today’s crop plants experience higher atmospheric CO2 than 20 or 30 years ago. Crops such as wheat, oat, barley, and rice typically increase their growth rate and biomass when grown at experimentally elevated atmospheric CO2. This is known as the so-called “CO2 fertilization effect.” However, not all plant species respond to rising atmospheric CO2 with increased growth, and for the ones that do, increased growth doesn’t necessarily correspond to increased crop yield. Using specially built plant growth chambers that can control the concentration of CO2, Des Marais will explore how CO2 availability impacts the development of tillers (branches) in the grass species Brachypodium. He will study how gene expression controls tiller development, and whether this is affected by the growing environment. The tillering response refers to how many branches a plant produces, which sets a limit on how much grain it can yield. Therefore, optimizing the tillering response to elevated CO2 could greatly increase yield. Des Marais will also look at the complete genome sequence of Brachypodium, wheat, oat, and barley to help identify genes relevant for branch growth.Darcy McRose, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is researching whether a combination of plant metabolites and soil bacteria can be used to make mineral-associated phosphorus more bioavailable.The nutrient phosphorus is essential for agricultural plant growth, but when added as a fertilizer, phosphorus sticks to the surface of soil minerals, decreasing bioavailability, limiting plant growth, and accumulating residual phosphorus. Heavily fertilized agricultural soils often harbor large reservoirs of this type of mineral-associated “legacy” phosphorus. Redox transformations are one chemical process that can liberate mineral-associated phosphorus. However, this needs to be carefully controlled, as overly mobile phosphorus can lead to runoff and pollution of natural waters. Ideally, phosphorus would be made bioavailable when plants need it and immobile when they don’t. Many plants make small metabolites called coumarins that might be able to solubilize mineral-adsorbed phosphorus and be activated and inactivated under different conditions. McRose will use laboratory experiments to determine whether a combination of plant metabolites and soil bacteria can be used as a highly efficient and tunable system for phosphorus solubilization. She also aims to develop an imaging platform to investigate exchanges of phosphorus between plants and soil microbes.Many of the 2023 seed grants will support innovative technologies to monitor, quantify, and remediate various kinds of pollutants found in water. Two of the new projects address the problem of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), human-made chemicals that have recently emerged as a global health threat. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are used in many manufacturing processes. These chemicals are known to cause significant health issues including cancer, and they have become pervasive in soil, dust, air, groundwater, and drinking water. Unfortunately, the physical and chemical properties of PFAS render them difficult to detect and remove.Aristide Gumyusenge, the Merton C. Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, is using metal-organic frameworks for low-cost sensing and capture of PFAS. Most metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are synthesized as particles, which complicates their high accuracy sensing performance due to defects such as intergranular boundaries. Thin, film-based electronic devices could enable the use of MOFs for many applications, especially chemical sensing. Gumyusenge’s project aims to design test kits based on two-dimensional conductive MOF films for detecting PFAS in drinking water. In early demonstrations, Gumyusenge and his team showed that these MOF films can sense PFAS at low concentrations. They will continue to iterate using a computation-guided approach to tune sensitivity and selectivity of the kits with the goal of deploying them in real-world scenarios.Carlos Portela, the Brit (1961) and Alex (1949) d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Ariel Furst, the Cook Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, are building novel architected materials to act as filters for the removal of PFAS from water. Portela and Furst will design and fabricate nanoscale materials that use activated carbon and porous polymers to create a physical adsorption system. They will engineer the materials to have tunable porosities and morphologies that can maximize interactions between contaminated water and functionalized surfaces, while providing a mechanically robust system.Rohit Karnik is a Tata Professor and interim co-department head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is working on another technology, his based on microbead sensors, to rapidly measure and monitor trace contaminants in water.Water pollution from both biological and chemical contaminants contributes to an estimated 1.36 million deaths annually. Chemical contaminants include pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals like lead, and compounds used in manufacturing. These emerging contaminants can be found throughout the environment, including in water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States sets recommended water quality standards, but states are responsible for developing their own monitoring criteria and systems, which must be approved by the EPA every three years. However, the availability of data on regulated chemicals and on candidate pollutants is limited by current testing methods that are either insensitive or expensive and laboratory-based, requiring trained scientists and technicians. Karnik’s project proposes a simple, self-contained, portable system for monitoring trace and emerging pollutants in water, making it suitable for field studies. The concept is based on multiplexed microbead-based sensors that use thermal or gravitational actuation to generate a signal. His proposed sandwich assay, a testing format that is appealing for environmental sensing, will enable both single-use and continuous monitoring. The hope is that the bead-based assays will increase the ease and reach of detecting and quantifying trace contaminants in water for both personal and industrial scale applications.Alexander Radosevich, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, are teaming up to create rapid, cost-effective, and reliable techniques for on-site arsenic detection in water.Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a problem that affects as many as 500 million people worldwide. Arsenic poisoning can lead to a range of severe health problems from cancer to cardiovascular and neurological impacts. Both the EPA and the World Health Organization have established that 10 parts per billion is a practical threshold for arsenic in drinking water, but measuring arsenic in water at such low levels is challenging, especially in resource-limited environments where access to sensitive laboratory equipment may not be readily accessible. Radosevich and Swager plan to develop reaction-based chemical sensors that bind and extract electrons from aqueous arsenic. In this way, they will exploit the inherent reactivity of aqueous arsenic to selectively detect and quantify it. This work will establish the chemical basis for a new method of detecting trace arsenic in drinking water.Rajeev Ram is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. His J-WAFS research will advance a robust technology for monitoring nitrogen-containing pollutants, which threaten over 15,000 bodies of water in the United States alone.Nitrogen in the form of nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and urea can run off from agricultural fertilizer and lead to harmful algal blooms that jeopardize human health. Unfortunately, monitoring these contaminants in the environment is challenging, as sensors are difficult to maintain and expensive to deploy. Ram and his students will work to establish limits of detection for nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and urea in environmental, industrial, and agricultural samples using swept-source Raman spectroscopy. Swept-source Raman spectroscopy is a method of detecting the presence of a chemical by using a tunable, single mode laser that illuminates a sample. This method does not require costly, high-power lasers or a spectrometer. Ram will then develop and demonstrate a portable system that is capable of achieving chemical specificity in complex, natural environments. Data generated by such a system should help regulate polluters and guide remediation.Kripa Varanasi, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor and head of the Department of Biological Engineering, will join forces to develop an affordable water disinfection technology that selectively identifies, adsorbs, and kills “superbugs” in domestic and industrial wastewater.Recent research predicts that antibiotic-resistance bacteria (superbugs) will result in $100 trillion in health care expenses and 10 million deaths annually by 2050. The prevalence of superbugs in our water systems has increased due to corroded pipes, contamination, and climate change. Current drinking water disinfection technologies are designed to kill all types of bacteria before human consumption. However, for certain domestic and industrial applications there is a need to protect the good bacteria required for ecological processes that contribute to soil and plant health. Varanasi and Belcher will combine material, biological, process, and system engineering principles to design a sponge-based water disinfection technology that can identify and destroy harmful bacteria while leaving the good bacteria unharmed. By modifying the sponge surface with specialized nanomaterials, their approach will be able to kill superbugs faster and more efficiently. The sponge filters can be deployed under very low pressure, making them an affordable technology, especially in resource-constrained communities.In addition to the 10 seed grant projects, J-WAFS will also fund a research initiative led by Greg Sixt. Sixt is the research manager for climate and food systems at J-WAFS, and the director of the J-WAFS-led Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance. His project focuses on the Lake Victoria Basin (LVB) of East Africa. The second-largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Victoria straddles three countries (Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya) and has a catchment area that encompasses two more (Rwanda and Burundi). Sixt will collaborate with Michael Hauser of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, and Paul Kariuki, of the Lake Victoria Basin Commission.The group will study how to adapt food systems to climate change in the Lake Victoria Basin. The basin is facing a range of climate threats that could significantly impact livelihoods and food systems in the expansive region. For example, extreme weather events like droughts and floods are negatively affecting agricultural production and freshwater resources. Across the LVB, current approaches to land and water management are unsustainable and threaten future food and water security. The Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC), a specialized institution of the East African Community, wants to play a more vital role in coordinating transboundary land and water management to support transitions toward more resilient, sustainable, and equitable food systems. The primary goal of this research will be to support the LVBC’s transboundary land and water management efforts, specifically as they relate to sustainability and climate change adaptation in food systems. The research team will work with key stakeholders in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania to identify specific capacity needs to facilitate land and water management transitions. The two-year project will produce actionable recommendations to the LVBC. More

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    Inaugural J-WAFS Grand Challenge aims to develop enhanced crop variants and move them from lab to land

    According to MIT’s charter, established in 1861, part of the Institute’s mission is to advance the “development and practical application of science in connection with arts, agriculture, manufactures, and commerce.” Today, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) is one of the driving forces behind water and food-related research on campus, much of which relates to agriculture. In 2022, J-WAFS established the Water and Food Grand Challenge Grant to inspire MIT researchers to work toward a water-secure and food-secure future for our changing planet. Not unlike MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges, the J-WAFS Grand Challenge seeks to leverage multiple areas of expertise, programs, and Institute resources. The initial call for statements of interests returned 23 letters from MIT researchers spanning 18 departments, labs, and centers. J-WAFS hosted workshops for the proposers to present and discuss their initial ideas. These were winnowed down to a smaller set of invited concept papers, followed by the final proposal stage. 

    Today, J-WAFS is delighted to report that the inaugural J-WAFS Grand Challenge Grant has been awarded to a team of researchers led by Professor Matt Shoulders and research scientist Robert Wilson of the Department of Chemistry. A panel of expert, external reviewers highly endorsed their proposal, which tackles a longstanding problem in crop biology — how to make photosynthesis more efficient. The team will receive $1.5 million over three years to facilitate a multistage research project that combines cutting-edge innovations in synthetic and computational biology. If successful, this project could create major benefits for agriculture and food systems worldwide.

    “Food systems are a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions, and they are also increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. That’s why when we talk about climate change, we have to talk about food systems, and vice versa,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “J-WAFS is central to MIT’s efforts to address the interlocking challenges of climate, water, and food. This new grant program aims to catalyze innovative projects that will have real and meaningful impacts on water and food. I congratulate Professor Shoulders and the rest of the research team on being the inaugural recipients of this grant.”

    Shoulders will work with Bryan Bryson, associate professor of biological engineering, as well as Bin Zhang, associate professor of chemistry, and Mary Gehring, a professor in the Department of Biology and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Robert Wilson from the Shoulders lab will be coordinating the research effort. The team at MIT will work with outside collaborators Spencer Whitney, a professor from the Australian National University, and Ahmed Badran, an assistant professor at the Scripps Research Institute. A milestone-based collaboration will also take place with Stephen Long, a professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The group consists of experts in continuous directed evolution, machine learning, molecular dynamics simulations, translational plant biochemistry, and field trials.

    “This project seeks to fundamentally improve the RuBisCO enzyme that plants use to convert carbon dioxide into the energy-rich molecules that constitute our food,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard V. “This difficult problem is a true grand challenge, calling for extensive resources. With J-WAFS’ support, this long-sought goal may finally be achieved through MIT’s leading-edge research,” he adds.

    RuBisCO: No, it’s not a new breakfast cereal; it just might be the key to an agricultural revolution

    A growing global population, the effects of climate change, and social and political conflicts like the war in Ukraine are all threatening food supplies, particularly grain crops. Current projections estimate that crop production must increase by at least 50 percent over the next 30 years to meet food demands. One key barrier to increased crop yields is a photosynthetic enzyme called Ribulose-1,5-Bisphosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase (RuBisCO). During photosynthesis, crops use energy gathered from light to draw carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and transform it into sugars and cellulose for growth, a process known as carbon fixation. RuBisCO is essential for capturing the CO2 from the air to initiate conversion of CO2 into energy-rich molecules like glucose. This reaction occurs during the second stage of photosynthesis, also known as the Calvin cycle. Without RuBisCO, the chemical reactions that account for virtually all carbon acquisition in life could not occur.

    Unfortunately, RuBisCO has biochemical shortcomings. Notably, the enzyme acts slowly. Many other enzymes can process a thousand molecules per second, but RuBisCO in chloroplasts fixes less than six carbon dioxide molecules per second, often limiting the rate of plant photosynthesis. Another problem is that oxygen (O2) molecules and carbon dioxide molecules are relatively similar in shape and chemical properties, and RuBisCO is unable to fully discriminate between the two. The inadvertent fixation of oxygen by RuBisCO leads to energy and carbon loss. What’s more, at higher temperatures RuBisCO reacts even more frequently with oxygen, which will contribute to decreased photosynthetic efficiency in many staple crops as our climate warms.

    The scientific consensus is that genetic engineering and synthetic biology approaches could revolutionize photosynthesis and offer protection against crop losses. To date, crop RuBisCO engineering has been impaired by technological obstacles that have limited any success in significantly enhancing crop production. Excitingly, genetic engineering and synthetic biology tools are now at a point where they can be applied and tested with the aim of creating crops with new or improved biological pathways for producing more food for the growing population.

    An epic plan for fighting food insecurity

    The 2023 J-WAFS Grand Challenge project will use state-of-the-art, transformative protein engineering techniques drawn from biomedicine to improve the biochemistry of photosynthesis, specifically focusing on RuBisCO. Shoulders and his team are planning to build what they call the Enhanced Photosynthesis in Crops (EPiC) platform. The project will evolve and design better crop RuBisCO in the laboratory, followed by validation of the improved enzymes in plants, ultimately resulting in the deployment of enhanced RuBisCO in field trials to evaluate the impact on crop yield. 

    Several recent developments make high-throughput engineering of crop RuBisCO possible. RuBisCO requires a complex chaperone network for proper assembly and function in plants. Chaperones are like helpers that guide proteins during their maturation process, shielding them from aggregation while coordinating their correct assembly. Wilson and his collaborators previously unlocked the ability to recombinantly produce plant RuBisCO outside of plant chloroplasts by reconstructing this chaperone network in Escherichia coli (E. coli). Whitney has now established that the RuBisCO enzymes from a range of agriculturally relevant crops, including potato, carrot, strawberry, and tobacco, can also be expressed using this technology. Whitney and Wilson have further developed a range of RuBisCO-dependent E. coli screens that can identify improved RuBisCO from complex gene libraries. Moreover, Shoulders and his lab have developed sophisticated in vivo mutagenesis technologies that enable efficient continuous directed evolution campaigns. Continuous directed evolution refers to a protein engineering process that can accelerate the steps of natural evolution simultaneously in an uninterrupted cycle in the lab, allowing for rapid testing of protein sequences. While Shoulders and Badran both have prior experience with cutting-edge directed evolution platforms, this will be the first time directed evolution is applied to RuBisCO from plants.

    Artificial intelligence is changing the way enzyme engineering is undertaken by researchers. Principal investigators Zhang and Bryson will leverage modern computational methods to simulate the dynamics of RuBisCO structure and explore its evolutionary landscape. Specifically, Zhang will use molecular dynamics simulations to simulate and monitor the conformational dynamics of the atoms in a protein and its programmed environment over time. This approach will help the team evaluate the effect of mutations and new chemical functionalities on the properties of RuBisCO. Bryson will employ artificial intelligence and machine learning to search the RuBisCO activity landscape for optimal sequences. The computational and biological arms of the EPiC platform will work together to both validate and inform each other’s approaches to accelerate the overall engineering effort.

    Shoulders and the group will deploy their designed enzymes in tobacco plants to evaluate their effects on growth and yield relative to natural RuBisCO. Gehring, a plant biologist, will assist with screening improved RuBisCO variants using the tobacco variety Nicotiana benthamianaI, where transient expression can be deployed. Transient expression is a speedy approach to test whether novel engineered RuBisCO variants can be correctly synthesized in leaf chloroplasts. Variants that pass this quality-control checkpoint at MIT will be passed to the Whitney Lab at the Australian National University for stable transformation into Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco), enabling robust measurements of photosynthetic improvement. In a final step, Professor Long at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will perform field trials of the most promising variants.

    Even small improvements could have a big impact

    A common criticism of efforts to improve RuBisCO is that natural evolution has not already identified a better enzyme, possibly implying that none will be found. Traditional views have speculated a catalytic trade-off between RuBisCO’s specificity factor for CO2 / O2 versus its CO2 fixation efficiency, leading to the belief that specificity factor improvements might be offset by even slower carbon fixation or vice versa. This trade-off has been suggested to explain why natural evolution has been slow to achieve a better RuBisCO. But Shoulders and the team are convinced that the EPiC platform can unlock significant overall improvements to plant RuBisCO. This view is supported by the fact that Wilson and Whitney have previously used directed evolution to improve CO2 fixation efficiency by 50 percent in RuBisCO from cyanobacteria (the ancient progenitors of plant chloroplasts) while simultaneously increasing the specificity factor. 

    The EPiC researchers anticipate that their initial variants could yield 20 percent increases in RuBisCO’s specificity factor without impairing other aspects of catalysis. More sophisticated variants could lift RuBisCO out of its evolutionary trap and display attributes not currently observed in nature. “If we achieve anywhere close to such an improvement and it translates to crops, the results could help transform agriculture,” Shoulders says. “If our accomplishments are more modest, it will still recruit massive new investments to this essential field.”

    Successful engineering of RuBisCO would be a scientific feat of its own and ignite renewed enthusiasm for improving plant CO2 fixation. Combined with other advances in photosynthetic engineering, such as improved light usage, a new green revolution in agriculture could be achieved. Long-term impacts of the technology’s success will be measured in improvements to crop yield and grain availability, as well as resilience against yield losses under higher field temperatures. Moreover, improved land productivity together with policy initiatives would assist in reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture. With more “crop per drop,” reductions in water consumption from agriculture would be a major boost to sustainable farming practices.

    “Our collaborative team of biochemists and synthetic biologists, computational biologists, and chemists is deeply integrated with plant biologists and field trial experts, yielding a robust feedback loop for enzyme engineering,” Shoulders adds. “Together, this team will be able to make a concerted effort using the most modern, state-of-the-art techniques to engineer crop RuBisCO with an eye to helping make meaningful gains in securing a stable crop supply, hopefully with accompanying improvements in both food and water security.” More

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    Moving perovskite advancements from the lab to the manufacturing floor

    The following was issued as a joint announcement from MIT.nano and the MIT Research Laboratory for Electronics; CubicPV; Verde Technologies; Princeton University; and the University of California at San Diego.

    Tandem solar cells are made of stacked materials — such as silicon paired with perovskites — that together absorb more of the solar spectrum than single materials, resulting in a dramatic increase in efficiency. Their potential to generate significantly more power than conventional cells could make a meaningful difference in the race to combat climate change and the transition to a clean-energy future.

    However, current methods to create stable and efficient perovskite layers require time-consuming, painstaking rounds of design iteration and testing, inhibiting their development for commercial use. Today, the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) announced that MIT has been selected to receive an $11.25 million cost-shared award to establish a new research center to address this challenge by using a co-optimization framework guided by machine learning and automation.

    A collaborative effort with lead industry participant CubicPV, solar startup Verde Technologies, and academic partners Princeton University and the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego), the center will bring together teams of researchers to support the creation of perovskite-silicon tandem solar modules that are co-designed for both stability and performance, with goals to significantly accelerate R&D and the transfer of these achievements into commercial environments.

    “Urgent challenges demand rapid action. This center will accelerate the development of tandem solar modules by bringing academia and industry into closer partnership,” says MIT professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi, who will direct the center. “We’re grateful to the Department of Energy for supporting this powerful new model and excited to get to work.”

    Adam Lorenz, CTO of solar energy technology company CubicPV, stresses the importance of thinking about scale, alongside quality and efficiency, to accelerate the perovskite effort into the commercial environment. “Instead of chasing record efficiencies with tiny pixel-sized devices and later attempting to stabilize them, we will simultaneously target stability, reproducibility, and efficiency,” he says. “It’s a module-centric approach that creates a direct channel for R&D advancements into industry.”

    The center will be named Accelerated Co-Design of Durable, Reproducible, and Efficient Perovskite Tandems, or ADDEPT. The grant will be administered through the MIT Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE).

    David Fenning, associate professor of nanoengineering at UC San Diego, has worked with Buonassisi on the idea of merging materials, automation, and computation, specifically in this field of artificial intelligence and solar, since 2014. Now, a central thrust of the ADDEPT project will be to deploy machine learning and robotic screening to optimize processing of perovskite-based solar materials for efficiency and durability.

    “We have already seen early indications of successful technology transfer between our UC San Diego robot PASCAL and industry,” says Fenning. “With this new center, we will bring research labs and the emerging perovskite industry together to improve reproducibility and reduce time to market.”

    “Our generation has an obligation to work collaboratively in the fight against climate change,” says Skylar Bagdon, CEO of Verde Technologies, which received the American-Made Perovskite Startup Prize. “Throughout the course of this center, Verde will do everything in our power to help this brilliant team transition lab-scale breakthroughs into the world where they can have an impact.”

    Several of the academic partners echoed the importance of the joint effort between academia and industry. Barry Rand, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, pointed to the intersection of scientific knowledge and market awareness. “Understanding how chemistry affects films and interfaces will empower us to co-design for stability and performance,” he says. “The center will accelerate this use-inspired science, with close guidance from our end customers, the industry partners.”

    A critical resource for the center will be MIT.nano, a 200,000-square-foot research facility set in the heart of the campus. MIT.nano Director Vladimir Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology, says he envisions MIT.nano as a hub for industry and academic partners, facilitating technology development and transfer through shared lab space, open-access equipment, and streamlined intellectual property frameworks.

    “MIT has a history of groundbreaking innovation using perovskite materials for solar applications,” says Bulović. “We’re thrilled to help build on that history by anchoring ADDEPT at MIT.nano and working to help the nation advance the future of these promising materials.”

    MIT was selected as a part of the SETO Fiscal Year 2022 Photovoltaics (PV) funding program, an effort to reduce costs and supply chain vulnerabilities, further develop durable and recyclable solar technologies, and advance perovskite PV technologies toward commercialization. ADDEPT is one project that will tackle perovskite durability, which will extend module life. The overarching goal of these projects is to lower the levelized cost of electricity generated by PV.

    Research groups involved with the ADDEPT project at MIT include Buonassisi’s Accelerated Materials Laboratory for Sustainability (AMLS), Bulović’s Organic and Nanostructured Electronics (ONE) Lab, and the Bawendi Group led by Lester Wolfe Professor in Chemistry Moungi Bawendi. Also working on the project is Jeremiah Mwaura, research scientist in the ONE Lab. More

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

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

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

    Sustainable microchips

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

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

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

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

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

    Sustainable topological materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Socioresilient materials design

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

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

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

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

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

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