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    MIT J-WAFS announces 2022 seed grant recipients

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has awarded eight MIT principal investigators with 2022 J-WAFS seed grants. The grants support innovative MIT research that has the potential to have significant impact on water- and food-related challenges.

    The only program at MIT that is dedicated to water- and food-related research, J-WAFS has offered seed grant funding to MIT principal investigators and their teams for the past eight years. The grants provide up to $75,000 per year, overhead-free, for two years to support new, early-stage research in areas such as water and food security, safety, supply, and sustainability. Past projects have spanned many diverse disciplines, including engineering, science, technology, and business innovation, as well as social science and economics, architecture, and urban planning. 

    Seven new projects led by eight researchers will be supported this year. With funding going to four different MIT departments, 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 drought monitoring systems for farmers, improve management of the shellfish industry, optimize water purification materials, and more.

    “Climate change, the pandemic, and most recently the war in Ukraine have exacerbated and put a spotlight on the serious challenges facing global water and food systems,” says J-WAFS director John H. Lienhard. He adds, “The proposals chosen this year have the potential to create measurable, real-world impacts in both the water and food sectors.”  

    The 2022 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects are:

    Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is using sunlight to desalinate water. The use of solar energy for desalination is not a new idea, particularly solar thermal evaporation methods. However, the solar thermal evaporation process has an overall low efficiency because it relies on breaking hydrogen bonds among individual water molecules, which is very energy-intensive. Chen and his lab recently discovered a photomolecular effect that dramatically lowers the energy required for desalination. 

    The bonds among water molecules inside a water cluster in liquid water are mostly hydrogen bonds. Chen discovered that a photon with energy larger than the bonding energy between the water cluster and the remaining water liquids can cleave off the water cluster at the water-air interface, colliding with air molecules and disintegrating into 60 or even more individual water molecules. This effect has the potential to significantly boost clean water production via new desalination technology that produces a photomolecular evaporation rate that exceeds pure solar thermal evaporation by at least ten-fold. 

    John E. Fernández is the director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and a professor in the Department of Architecture, and also affiliated with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Fernández is working with Scott D. Odell, a postdoc in the ESI, to better understand the impacts of mining and climate change in water-stressed regions of Chile.

    The country of Chile is one of the world’s largest exporters of both agricultural and mineral products; however, little research has been done on climate change effects at the intersection of these two sectors. Fernández and Odell will explore how desalination is being deployed by the mining industry to relieve pressure on continental water supplies in Chile, and with what effect. They will also research how climate change and mining intersect to affect Andean glaciers and agricultural communities dependent upon them. The researchers intend for this work to inform policies to reduce social and environmental harms from mining, desalination, and climate change.

    Ariel L. Furst is the Raymond (1921) and Helen St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. Her 2022 J-WAFS seed grant project seeks to effectively remove dangerous and long-lasting chemicals from water supplies and other environmental areas. 

    Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a component of Teflon, is a member of a group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These human-made chemicals have been extensively used in consumer products like nonstick cooking pans. Exceptionally high levels of PFOA have been measured in water sources near manufacturing sites, which is problematic as these chemicals do not readily degrade in our bodies or the environment. The majority of humans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, which can lead to significant health issues including cancer, liver damage, and thyroid effects, as well as developmental effects in infants. Current remediation methods are limited to inefficient capture and are mostly confined to laboratory settings. Furst’s proposed method utilizes low-energy, scaffolded enzyme materials to move beyond simple capture to degrade these hazardous pollutants.

    Heather J. Kulik is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT who is developing novel computational strategies to identify optimal materials for purifying water. Water treatment requires purification by selectively separating small ions from water. However, human-made, scalable materials for water purification and desalination are often not stable in typical operating conditions and lack precision pores for good separation. 

    Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are promising materials for water purification because their pores can be tailored to have precise shapes and chemical makeup for selective ion affinity. Yet few MOFs have been assessed for their properties relevant to water purification. Kulik plans to use virtual high-throughput screening accelerated by machine learning models and molecular simulation to accelerate discovery of MOFs. Specifically, Kulik will be looking for MOFs with ultra-stable structures in water that do not break down at certain temperatures. 

    Gregory C. Rutledge is the Lammot du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. He is leading a project that will explore how to better separate oils from water. This is an important problem to solve given that industry-generated oil-contaminated water is a major source of pollution to the environment.

    Emulsified oils are particularly challenging to remove from water due to their small droplet sizes and long settling times. Microfiltration is an attractive technology for the removal of emulsified oils, but its major drawback is fouling, or the accumulation of unwanted material on solid surfaces. Rutledge will examine the mechanism of separation behind liquid-infused membranes (LIMs) in which an infused liquid coats the surface and pores of the membrane, preventing fouling. Robustness of the LIM technology for removal of different types of emulsified oils and oil mixtures will be evaluated. César Terrer is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering whose J-WAFS project seeks to answer the question: How can satellite images be used to provide a high-resolution drought monitoring system for farmers? 

    Drought is recognized as one of the world’s most pressing issues, with direct impacts on vegetation that threaten water resources and food production globally. However, assessing and monitoring the impact of droughts on vegetation is extremely challenging as plants’ sensitivity to lack of water varies across species and ecosystems. Terrer will leverage a new generation of remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution assessments of plant water stress at regional to global scales. The aim is to provide a plant drought monitoring product with farmland-specific services for water and socioeconomic management.

    Michael Triantafyllou is the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is developing a web-based system for natural resources management that will deploy geospatial analysis, visualization, and reporting to better manage and facilitate aquaculture data.  By providing value to commercial fisheries’ permit holders who employ significant numbers of people and also to recreational shellfish permit holders who contribute to local economies, the project has attracted support from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries as well as a number of local resource management departments.

    Massachusetts shell fisheries generated roughly $339 million in 2020, accounting for 17 percent of U.S. East Coast production. Managing such a large industry is a time-consuming process, given there are thousands of acres of coastal areas grouped within over 800 classified shellfish growing areas. Extreme climate events present additional challenges. Triantafyllou’s research will help efforts to enforce environmental regulations, support habitat restoration efforts, and prevent shellfish-related food safety issues. More

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    Absent legislative victory, the president can still meet US climate goals

    The most recent United Nations climate change report indicates that without significant action to mitigate global warming, the extent and magnitude of climate impacts — from floods to droughts to the spread of disease — could outpace the world’s ability to adapt to them. The latest effort to introduce meaningful climate legislation in the United States Congress, the Build Back Better bill, has stalled. The climate package in that bill — $555 billion in funding for climate resilience and clean energy — aims to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the nation’s current Paris Agreement pledge. With prospects of passing a standalone climate package in the Senate far from assured, is there another pathway to fulfilling that pledge?

    Recent detailed legal analysis shows that there is at least one viable option for the United States to achieve the 2030 target without legislative action. Under Section 115 on International Air Pollution of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could assign emissions targets to the states that collectively meet the national goal. The president could simply issue an executive order to empower the EPA to do just that. But would that be prudent?

    A new study led by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change explores how, under a federally coordinated carbon dioxide emissions cap-and-trade program aligned with the U.S. Paris Agreement pledge and implemented through Section 115 of the Clean Air Act, the EPA might allocate emissions cuts among states. Recognizing that the Biden or any future administration considering this strategy would need to carefully weigh its benefits against its potential political risks, the study highlights the policy’s net economic benefits to the nation.

    The researchers calculate those net benefits by combining the estimated total cost of carbon dioxide emissions reduction under the policy with the corresponding estimated expenditures that would be avoided as a result of the policy’s implementation — expenditures on health care due to particulate air pollution, and on society at large due to climate impacts.

    Assessing three carbon dioxide emissions allocation strategies (each with legal precedent) for implementing Section 115 to return cap-and-trade program revenue to the states and distribute it to state residents on an equal per-capita basis, the study finds that at the national level, the economic net benefits are substantial, ranging from $70 to $150 billion in 2030. The results appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

    “Our findings not only show significant net gains to the U.S. economy under a national emissions policy implemented through the Clean Air Act’s Section 115,” says Mei Yuan, a research scientist at the MIT Joint Program and lead author of the study. “They also show the policy impact on consumer costs may differ across states depending on the choice of allocation strategy.”

    The national price on carbon needed to achieve the policy’s emissions target, as well as the policy’s ultimate cost to consumers, are substantially lower than those found in studies a decade earlier, although in line with other recent studies. The researchers speculate that this is largely due to ongoing expansion of ambitious state policies in the electricity sector and declining renewable energy costs. The policy is also progressive, consistent with earlier studies, in that equal lump-sum distribution of allowance revenue to state residents generally leads to net benefits to lower-income households. Regional disparities in consumer costs can be moderated by the allocation of allowances among states.

    State-by-state emissions estimates for the study are derived from MIT’s U.S. Regional Energy Policy model, with electricity sector detail of the Renewable Energy Development System model developed by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory; air quality benefits are estimated using U.S. EPA and other models; and the climate benefits estimate is based on the social cost of carbon, the U.S. federal government’s assessment of the economic damages that would result from emitting one additional ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (currently $51/ton, adjusted for inflation). 

    “In addition to illustrating the economic, health, and climate benefits of a Section 115 implementation, our study underscores the advantages of a policy that imposes a uniform carbon price across all economic sectors,” says John Reilly, former co-director of the MIT Joint Program and a study co-author. “A national carbon price would serve as a major incentive for all sectors to decarbonize.” More

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    How can we reduce the carbon footprint of global computing?

    The voracious appetite for energy from the world’s computers and communications technology presents a clear threat for the globe’s warming climate. That was the blunt assessment from presenters in the intensive two-day Climate Implications of Computing and Communications workshop held on March 3 and 4, hosted by MIT’s Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and the Schwarzman College of Computing.

    The virtual event featured rich discussions and highlighted opportunities for collaboration among an interdisciplinary group of MIT faculty and researchers and industry leaders across multiple sectors — underscoring the power of academia and industry coming together.

    “If we continue with the existing trajectory of compute energy, by 2040, we are supposed to hit the world’s energy production capacity. The increase in compute energy and demand has been increasing at a much faster rate than the world energy production capacity increase,” said Bilge Yildiz, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the MIT departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, one of the workshop’s 18 presenters. This computing energy projection draws from the Semiconductor Research Corporations’s decadal report.To cite just one example: Information and communications technology already account for more than 2 percent of global energy demand, which is on a par with the aviation industries emissions from fuel.“We are the very beginning of this data-driven world. We really need to start thinking about this and act now,” said presenter Evgeni Gousev, senior director at Qualcomm.  Innovative energy-efficiency optionsTo that end, the workshop presentations explored a host of energy-efficiency options, including specialized chip design, data center architecture, better algorithms, hardware modifications, and changes in consumer behavior. Industry leaders from AMD, Ericsson, Google, IBM, iRobot, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Tertill, Texas Instruments, and Verizon outlined their companies’ energy-saving programs, while experts from across MIT provided insight into current research that could yield more efficient computing.Panel topics ranged from “Custom hardware for efficient computing” to “Hardware for new architectures” to “Algorithms for efficient computing,” among others.

    Visual representation of the conversation during the workshop session entitled “Energy Efficient Systems.”

    Image: Haley McDevitt

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    The goal, said Yildiz, is to improve energy efficiency associated with computing by more than a million-fold.“I think part of the answer of how we make computing much more sustainable has to do with specialized architectures that have very high level of utilization,” said Darío Gil, IBM senior vice president and director of research, who stressed that solutions should be as “elegant” as possible.  For example, Gil illustrated an innovative chip design that uses vertical stacking to reduce the distance data has to travel, and thus reduces energy consumption. Surprisingly, more effective use of tape — a traditional medium for primary data storage — combined with specialized hard drives (HDD), can yield a dramatic savings in carbon dioxide emissions.Gil and presenters Bill Dally, chief scientist and senior vice president of research of NVIDIA; Ahmad Bahai, CTO of Texas Instruments; and others zeroed in on storage. Gil compared data to a floating iceberg in which we can have fast access to the “hot data” of the smaller visible part while the “cold data,” the large underwater mass, represents data that tolerates higher latency. Think about digital photo storage, Gil said. “Honestly, are you really retrieving all of those photographs on a continuous basis?” Storage systems should provide an optimized mix of of HDD for hot data and tape for cold data based on data access patterns.Bahai stressed the significant energy saving gained from segmenting standby and full processing. “We need to learn how to do nothing better,” he said. Dally spoke of mimicking the way our brain wakes up from a deep sleep, “We can wake [computers] up much faster, so we don’t need to keep them running in full speed.”Several workshop presenters spoke of a focus on “sparsity,” a matrix in which most of the elements are zero, as a way to improve efficiency in neural networks. Or as Dally said, “Never put off till tomorrow, where you could put off forever,” explaining efficiency is not “getting the most information with the fewest bits. It’s doing the most with the least energy.”Holistic and multidisciplinary approaches“We need both efficient algorithms and efficient hardware, and sometimes we need to co-design both the algorithm and the hardware for efficient computing,” said Song Han, a panel moderator and assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT.Some presenters were optimistic about innovations already underway. According to Ericsson’s research, as much as 15 percent of the carbon emissions globally can be reduced through the use of existing solutions, noted Mats Pellbäck Scharp, head of sustainability at Ericsson. For example, GPUs are more efficient than CPUs for AI, and the progression from 3G to 5G networks boosts energy savings.“5G is the most energy efficient standard ever,” said Scharp. “We can build 5G without increasing energy consumption.”Companies such as Google are optimizing energy use at their data centers through improved design, technology, and renewable energy. “Five of our data centers around the globe are operating near or above 90 percent carbon-free energy,” said Jeff Dean, Google’s senior fellow and senior vice president of Google Research.Yet, pointing to the possible slowdown in the doubling of transistors in an integrated circuit — or Moore’s Law — “We need new approaches to meet this compute demand,” said Sam Naffziger, AMD senior vice president, corporate fellow, and product technology architect. Naffziger spoke of addressing performance “overkill.” For example, “we’re finding in the gaming and machine learning space we can make use of lower-precision math to deliver an image that looks just as good with 16-bit computations as with 32-bit computations, and instead of legacy 32b math to train AI networks, we can use lower-energy 8b or 16b computations.”

    Visual representation of the conversation during the workshop session entitled “Wireless, networked, and distributed systems.”

    Image: Haley McDevitt

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    Other presenters singled out compute at the edge as a prime energy hog.“We also have to change the devices that are put in our customers’ hands,” said Heidi Hemmer, senior vice president of engineering at Verizon. As we think about how we use energy, it is common to jump to data centers — but it really starts at the device itself, and the energy that the devices use. Then, we can think about home web routers, distributed networks, the data centers, and the hubs. “The devices are actually the least energy-efficient out of that,” concluded Hemmer.Some presenters had different perspectives. Several called for developing dedicated silicon chipsets for efficiency. However, panel moderator Muriel Medard, the Cecil H. Green Professor in EECS, described research at MIT, Boston University, and Maynooth University on the GRAND (Guessing Random Additive Noise Decoding) chip, saying, “rather than having obsolescence of chips as the new codes come in and in different standards, you can use one chip for all codes.”Whatever the chip or new algorithm, Helen Greiner, CEO of Tertill (a weeding robot) and co-founder of iRobot, emphasized that to get products to market, “We have to learn to go away from wanting to get the absolute latest and greatest, the most advanced processor that usually is more expensive.” She added, “I like to say robot demos are a dime a dozen, but robot products are very infrequent.”Greiner emphasized consumers can play a role in pushing for more energy-efficient products — just as drivers began to demand electric cars.Dean also sees an environmental role for the end user.“We have enabled our cloud customers to select which cloud region they want to run their computation in, and they can decide how important it is that they have a low carbon footprint,” he said, also citing other interfaces that might allow consumers to decide which air flights are more efficient or what impact installing a solar panel on their home would have.However, Scharp said, “Prolonging the life of your smartphone or tablet is really the best climate action you can do if you want to reduce your digital carbon footprint.”Facing increasing demandsDespite their optimism, the presenters acknowledged the world faces increasing compute demand from machine learning, AI, gaming, and especially, blockchain. Panel moderator Vivienne Sze, associate professor in EECS, noted the conundrum.“We can do a great job in making computing and communication really efficient. But there is this tendency that once things are very efficient, people use more of it, and this might result in an overall increase in the usage of these technologies, which will then increase our overall carbon footprint,” Sze said.Presenters saw great potential in academic/industry partnerships, particularly from research efforts on the academic side. “By combining these two forces together, you can really amplify the impact,” concluded Gousev.Presenters at the Climate Implications of Computing and Communications workshop also included: Joel Emer, professor of the practice in EECS at MIT; David Perreault, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of EECS at MIT; Jesús del Alamo, MIT Donner Professor and professor of electrical engineering in EECS at MIT; Heike Riel, IBM Fellow and head science and technology at IBM; and Takashi Ando, principal research staff member at IBM Research. The recorded workshop sessions are available on YouTube. More

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    What choices does the world need to make to keep global warming below 2 C?

    When the 2015 Paris Agreement set a long-term goal of keeping global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels” to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, it did not specify how its nearly 200 signatory nations could collectively achieve that goal. Each nation was left to its own devices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in alignment with the 2 C target. Now a new modeling strategy developed at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change that explores hundreds of potential future development pathways provides new insights on the energy and technology choices needed for the world to meet that target.

    Described in a study appearing in the journal Earth’s Future, the new strategy combines two well-known computer modeling techniques to scope out the energy and technology choices needed over the coming decades to reduce emissions sufficiently to achieve the Paris goal.

    The first technique, Monte Carlo analysis, quantifies uncertainty levels for dozens of energy and economic indicators including fossil fuel availability, advanced energy technology costs, and population and economic growth; feeds that information into a multi-region, multi-economic-sector model of the world economy that captures the cross-sectoral impacts of energy transitions; and runs that model hundreds of times to estimate the likelihood of different outcomes. The MIT study focuses on projections through the year 2100 of economic growth and emissions for different sectors of the global economy, as well as energy and technology use.

    The second technique, scenario discovery, uses machine learning tools to screen databases of model simulations in order to identify outcomes of interest and their conditions for occurring. The MIT study applies these tools in a unique way by combining them with the Monte Carlo analysis to explore how different outcomes are related to one another (e.g., do low-emission outcomes necessarily involve large shares of renewable electricity?). This approach can also identify individual scenarios, out of the hundreds explored, that result in specific combinations of outcomes of interest (e.g., scenarios with low emissions, high GDP growth, and limited impact on electricity prices), and also provide insight into the conditions needed for that combination of outcomes.

    Using this unique approach, the MIT Joint Program researchers find several possible patterns of energy and technology development under a specified long-term climate target or economic outcome.

    “This approach shows that there are many pathways to a successful energy transition that can be a win-win for the environment and economy,” says Jennifer Morris, an MIT Joint Program research scientist and the study’s lead author. “Toward that end, it can be used to guide decision-makers in government and industry to make sound energy and technology choices and avoid biases in perceptions of what ’needs’ to happen to achieve certain outcomes.”

    For example, while achieving the 2 C goal, the global level of combined wind and solar electricity generation by 2050 could be less than three times or more than 12 times the current level (which is just over 2,000 terawatt hours). These are very different energy pathways, but both can be consistent with the 2 C goal. Similarly, there are many different energy mixes that can be consistent with maintaining high GDP growth in the United States while also achieving the 2 C goal, with different possible roles for renewables, natural gas, carbon capture and storage, and bioenergy. The study finds renewables to be the most robust electricity investment option, with sizable growth projected under each of the long-term temperature targets explored.

    The researchers also find that long-term climate targets have little impact on economic output for most economic sectors through 2050, but do require each sector to significantly accelerate reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions intensity (emissions per unit of economic output) so as to reach near-zero levels by midcentury.

    “Given the range of development pathways that can be consistent with meeting a 2 degrees C goal, policies that target only specific sectors or technologies can unnecessarily narrow the solution space, leading to higher costs,” says former MIT Joint Program Co-Director John Reilly, a co-author of the study. “Our findings suggest that policies designed to encourage a portfolio of technologies and sectoral actions can be a wise strategy that hedges against risks.”

    The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. More

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    A community approach to improving the health of the planet

    Earlier this month, MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) hosted a Health of the Planet Showcase. The event was the culmination of a four-year long community initiative to focus on what the mechanical engineering community at MIT can do to solve some of the biggest challenges the planet faces on a local and global scale. Structured like an informal poster session, the event marked the first time that administrative staff joined students, researchers, and postdocs in sharing their own research.

    When Evelyn Wang started her tenure as mechanical engineering department head in July 2018, she and associate department heads Pierre Lermusiaux and Rohit Karnik made the health of the planet a top priority for the department. Their goal was to bring students, faculty, and staff together to develop solutions that address the many problems related to the health of the planet.

    “As a field, mechanical engineering is unique in its diversity,” says Wang, the Ford Professor of Engineering. “We have researchers who are world-leading experts on desalination, ocean engineering, energy storage, and photovoltaics, just to name a few. One of our driving motivations has been getting those experts to collaborate and work on new health of the planet research projects together.”

    Wang also saw an opportunity to tap into the passions of the department’s students and staff, many of whom devote their extracurricular and personal time to environmental causes. She enlisted the help of a team of faculty and staff to launch what has become known as the MechE Health of the Planet Initiative.

    The initiative, which capitalizes on the diverse range of research fields in mechanical engineering, encouraged both grand research ideas that could have impact on a global scale, and smaller personal habits that could help on a smaller scale.

    “We wanted to encourage everyone in our community to think about their daily routine and make small changes that really add up over time,” says Dorothy Hanna, program administrator at MIT and one of the staff members leading the initiative.

    The Health of the Planet team started small. They hosted an office supply swap day to encourage recycling and reuse of everyday office products. This idea expanded to include the launch of “Lab Reuse Days.” Members of the Rohsenow Kendall Lab, including members of the research groups of professors Gang Chen, John Lienhard, and Evelyn Wang, gathered extra materials for reuse. Researchers from other labs picked up Arduino kits, tubing, and electrical wiring to use for their own projects.

    While individuals were encouraged to adopt small habits at home and at work to help the health of the planet, research teams were encouraged to work together on solutions on a larger scale.

    Seed funding for collaborative research

    In early 2020, the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering launched a new collaborative seed research program based on funding from MathWorks, the computing software company that developed MATLAB. The first seed funding supported health of the planet research projects led by two or more mechanical engineering faculty members.

    “One of the driving goals of MechE has been fostering collaborations and supporting interdisciplinary research on the grand challenges our world faces,” says Pierre Lermusiaux, the Nam P. Suh Professor and associate department head for operations. “The seed funding from MathWorks was a great opportunity to build upon the diverse expertise and creativity our researchers have to address health of the planet related issues.” 

    The research projects supported by the seed funding ranged from lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles to high-performance household energy products for low- and middle-income countries. Each project differs in scope and application, and draws upon the expertise of at least two different research groups at MIT.

    Throughout the past two years, faculty presented about these research projects in several community seminars. They also participated in a full-day faculty research retreat focused on health of the planet research that included presentations from local Cambridge and Boston city leaders, as well as experts from other MIT departments and Harvard University.

    These projects have helped break down barriers and increased collaboration among research groups that focus on different areas. The third round of seed funding for collaborative research projects was recently announced and new projects will be chosen in the coming weeks.

    A community showcase

    Upon returning to the campus last fall, the Health of the Planet team began planning an event to bring the community together and celebrate the department’s research efforts. The Health of the Planet Showcase, which took place on April 4, featured 26 presenters from across the mechanical engineering community at MIT.

    Projects included a marine coastal monitoring robot, solar hydrogen production with thermochemical cycles, and a portable atmospheric water extractor for dry climates. Among the presenters was Administrative Assistant Tony Pulsone, who presented on how honeybees navigate their surroundings, as well as program manager Theresa Werth and program administrator Dorothy Hanna, who presented on reducing bottled water use and practical strategies developed by staff to overcome functional barriers on campus.

    The event concluded with the announcement of the Fay and Alfred D. Chandler Jr. Research Fellowship, awarded to a MechE student-led effort to propose a new paradigm to improve the health of our planet. Graduate student Charlene Xia won for her work developing a real-time opto-fluidics system for monitoring the soil microbiome.

    “The soil microbiome governs the biogeochemical cycling of macronutrients, micronutrients, and other elements vital for the growth of plants and animal life,” Xia said. “Understanding and predicting the impact of climate change on soil microbiomes and the ecosystem services they provide present a grand challenge and major opportunity.”

    The Chandler Fellowship will continue during the 2022-23 academic year, when another student-led project will be chosen. The department also hopes to make the Health of the Planet Showcase an annual gathering.

    “The showcase was such a vibrant event,” adds Wang. “It really energized the department and renewed our commitment to growing community efforts and continuing to advance research to help improve and protect the health of our planet.” More

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    Using plant biology to address climate change

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the fourth in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    The impact of our changing climate on agriculture and food security — and how contemporary agriculture contributes to climate change — is at the forefront of MIT’s multidisciplinary project “Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops.” The project The project is one of five flagship winners in the Climate Grand Challenges competition, and brings together researchers from the departments of Biology, Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    “Our team’s research seeks to address two connected challenges: first, the need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by agricultural fertilizer; second, the fact that the yields of many current agricultural crops will decrease, due to the effects of climate change on plant metabolism,” says the project’s faculty lead, Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering. “We are pursuing six interdisciplinary projects that are each key to our overall goal of developing low-emissions methods for fertilizing plants that are bioengineered to be more resilient and productive in a changing climate.”

    Whitehead Institute members Mary Gehring and Jing-Ke Weng, plant biologists who are also associate professors in MIT’s Department of Biology, will lead two of those projects.

    Promoting crop resilience

    For most of human history, climate change occurred gradually, over hundreds or thousands of years. That pace allowed plants to adapt to variations in temperature, precipitation, and atmospheric composition. However, human-driven climate change has occurred much more quickly, and crop plants have suffered: Crop yields are down in many regions, as is seed protein content in cereal crops.

    “If we want to ensure an abundant supply of nutritious food for the world, we need to develop fundamental mechanisms for bioengineering a wide variety of crop plants that will be both hearty and nutritious in the face of our changing climate,” says Gehring. In her previous work, she has shown that many aspects of plant reproduction and seed development are controlled by epigenetics — that is, by information outside of the DNA sequence. She has been using that knowledge and the research methods she has developed to identify ways to create varieties of seed-producing plants that are more productive and resilient than current food crops.

    But plant biology is complex, and while it is possible to develop plants that integrate robustness-enhancing traits by combining dissimilar parental strains, scientists are still learning how to ensure that the new traits are carried forward from one generation to the next. “Plants that carry the robustness-enhancing traits have ‘hybrid vigor,’ and we believe that the perpetuation of those traits is controlled by epigenetics,” Gehring explains. “Right now, some food crops, like corn, can be engineered to benefit from hybrid vigor, but those traits are not inherited. That’s why farmers growing many of today’s most productive varieties of corn must purchase and plant new batches of seeds each year. Moreover, many important food crops have not yet realized the benefits of hybrid vigor.”

    The project Gehring leads, “Developing Clonal Seed Production to Fix Hybrid Vigor,” aims to enable food crop plants to create seeds that are both more robust and genetically identical to the parent — and thereby able to pass beneficial traits from generation to generation.

    The process of clonal (or asexual) production of seeds that are genetically identical to the maternal parent is called apomixis. Gehring says, “Because apomixis is present in 400 flowering plant species — about 1 percent of flowering plant species — it is probable that genes and signaling pathways necessary for apomixis are already present within crop plants. Our challenge is to tweak those genes and pathways so that the plant switches reproduction from sexual to asexual.”

    The project will leverage the fact that genes and pathways related to autonomous asexual development of the endosperm — a seed’s nutritive tissue — exist in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. In previous work on Arabidopsis, Gehring’s lab researched a specific gene that, when misregulated, drives development of an asexual endosperm-like material. “Normally, that seed would not be viable,” she notes. “But we believe that by epigenetic tuning of the expression of additional relevant genes, we will enable the plant to retain that material — and help achieve apomixis.”

    If Gehring and her colleagues succeed in creating a gene-expression “formula” for introducing endosperm apomixis into a wide range of crop plants, they will have made a fundamental and important achievement. Such a method could be applied throughout agriculture to create and perpetuate new crop breeds able to withstand their changing environments while requiring less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

    Creating “self-fertilizing” crops

    Roughly a quarter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States are a product of agriculture. Fertilizer production and use accounts for one third of those emissions and includes nitrous oxide, which has heat-trapping capacity 298-fold stronger than carbon dioxide, according to a 2018 Frontiers in Plant Science study. Most artificial fertilizer production also consumes huge quantities of natural gas and uses minerals mined from nonrenewable resources. After all that, much of the nitrogen fertilizer becomes runoff that pollutes local waterways. For those reasons, this Climate Grand Challenges flagship project aims to greatly reduce use of human-made fertilizers.

    One tantalizing approach is to cultivate cereal crop plants — which account for about 75 percent of global food production — capable of drawing nitrogen from metabolic interactions with bacteria in the soil. Whitehead Institute’s Weng leads an effort to do just that: genetically bioengineer crops such as corn, rice, and wheat to, essentially, create their own fertilizer through a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing microbes.

    “Legumes such as bean and pea plants can form root nodules through which they receive nitrogen from rhizobia bacteria in exchange for carbon,” Weng explains. “This metabolic exchange means that legumes release far less greenhouse gas — and require far less investment of fossil energy — than do cereal crops, which use a huge portion of the artificially produced nitrogen fertilizers employed today.

    “Our goal is to develop methods for transferring legumes’ ‘self-fertilizing’ capacity to cereal crops,” Weng says. “If we can, we will revolutionize the sustainability of food production.”

    The project — formally entitled “Mimicking legume-rhizobia symbiosis for fertilizer production in cereals” — will be a multistage, five-year effort. It draws on Weng’s extensive studies of metabolic evolution in plants and his identification of molecules involved in formation of the root nodules that permit exchanges between legumes and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It also leverages his expertise in reconstituting specific signaling and metabolic pathways in plants.

    Weng and his colleagues will begin by deciphering the full spectrum of small-molecule signaling processes that occur between legumes and rhizobium bacteria. Then they will genetically engineer an analogous system in nonlegume crop plants. Next, using state-of-the-art metabolomic methods, they will identify which small molecules excreted from legume roots prompt a nitrogen/carbon exchange from rhizobium bacteria. Finally, the researchers will genetically engineer the biosynthesis of those molecules in the roots of nonlegume plants and observe their effect on the rhizobium bacteria surrounding the roots.

    While the project is complex and technically challenging, its potential is staggering. “Focusing on corn alone, this could reduce the production and use of nitrogen fertilizer by 160,000 tons,” Weng notes. “And it could halve the related emissions of nitrous oxide gas.” More

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    Empowering people to adapt on the frontlines of climate change

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the fifth in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    In the coastal south of Bangladesh, rice paddies that farmers could once harvest three times a year lie barren. Sea-level rise brings saltwater to the soil, ruining the staple crop. It’s one of many impacts, and inequities, of climate change. Despite producing less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions, Bangladesh is suffering more than most countries. Rising seas, heat waves, flooding, and cyclones threaten 90 million people.

    A platform being developed in a collaboration between MIT and BRAC, a Bangladesh-based global development organization, aims to inform and empower climate-threatened communities to proactively adapt to a changing future. Selected as one of five MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects, the Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet) will forecast the local impacts of climate change on people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods. These forecasts will guide BRAC’s development of climate-resiliency programs to help residents prepare for and adapt to life-altering conditions.

    “The communities that CREWSnet will focus on have done little to contribute to the problem of climate change in the first place. However, because of socioeconomic situations, they may be among the most vulnerable. We hope that by providing state-of-the-art projections and sharing them broadly with communities, and working through partners like BRAC, we can help improve the capacity of local communities to adapt to climate change, significantly,” says Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    Eltahir leads the project with John Aldridge and Deborah Campbell in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at Lincoln Laboratory. Additional partners across MIT include the Center for Global Change Science; the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change; and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. 

    Predicting local risks

    CREWSnet’s forecasts rely upon a sophisticated model, developed in Eltahir’s research group over the past 25 years, called the MIT Regional Climate Model. This model zooms in on climate processes at local scales, at a resolution as granular as 6 miles. In Bangladesh’s population-dense cities, a 6-mile area could encompass tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of people. The model takes into account the details of a region’s topography, land use, and coastline to predict changes in local conditions.

    When applying this model over Bangladesh, researchers found that heat waves will get more severe and more frequent over the next 30 years. In particular, wet-bulb temperatures, which indicate the ability for humans to cool down by sweating, will rise to dangerous levels rarely observed today, particularly in western, inland cities.

    Such hot spots exacerbate other challenges predicted to worsen near Bangladesh’s coast. Rising sea levels and powerful cyclones are eroding and flooding coastal communities, causing saltwater to surge into land and freshwater. This salinity intrusion is detrimental to human health, ruins drinking water supplies, and harms crops, livestock, and aquatic life that farmers and fishermen depend on for food and income.

    CREWSnet will fuse climate science with forecasting tools that predict the social and economic impacts to villages and cities. These forecasts — such as how often a crop season may fail, or how far floodwaters will reach — can steer decision-making.

    “What people need to know, whether they’re a governor or head of a household, is ‘What is going to happen in my area, and what decisions should I make for the people I’m responsible for?’ Our role is to integrate this science and technology together into a decision support system,” says Aldridge, whose group at Lincoln Laboratory specializes in this area. Most recently, they transitioned a hurricane-evacuation planning system to the U.S. government. “We know that making decisions based on climate change requires a deep level of trust. That’s why having a powerful partner like BRAC is so important,” he says.

    Testing interventions

    Established 50 years ago, just after Bangladesh’s independence, BRAC works in every district of the nation to provide social services that help people rise from extreme poverty. Today, it is one of the world’s largest nongovernmental organizations, serving 110 million people across 11 countries in Asia and Africa, but its success is cultivated locally.

    “BRAC is thrilled to partner with leading researchers at MIT to increase climate resilience in Bangladesh and provide a model that can be scaled around the globe,” says Donella Rapier, president and CEO of BRAC USA. “Locally led climate adaptation solutions that are developed in partnership with communities are urgently needed, particularly in the most vulnerable regions that are on the frontlines of climate change.”

    CREWSnet will help BRAC identify communities most vulnerable to forecasted impacts. In these areas, they will share knowledge and innovate or bolster programs to improve households’ capacity to adapt.

    Many climate initiatives are already underway. One program equips homes to filter and store rainwater, as salinity intrusion makes safe drinking water hard to access. Another program is building resilient housing, able to withstand 120-mile-per-hour winds, that can double as local shelters during cyclones and flooding. Other services are helping farmers switch to different livestock or crops better suited for wetter or saltier conditions (e.g., ducks instead of chickens, or salt-tolerant rice), providing interest-free loans to enable this change.

    But adapting in place will not always be possible, for example in areas predicted to be submerged or unbearably hot by midcentury. “Bangladesh is working on identifying and developing climate-resilient cities and towns across the country, as closer-by alternative destinations as compared to moving to Dhaka, the overcrowded capital of Bangladesh,” says Campbell. “CREWSnet can help identify regions better suited for migration, and climate-resilient adaptation strategies for those regions.” At the same time, BRAC’s Climate Bridge Fund is helping to prepare cities for climate-induced migration, building up infrastructure and financial services for people who have been displaced.

    Evaluating impact

    While CREWSnet’s goal is to enable action, it can’t quite measure the impact of those actions. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a development economics program in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, will help evaluate the effectiveness of the climate-adaptation programs.

    “We conduct randomized controlled trials, similar to medical trials, that help us understand if a program improved people’s lives,” says Claire Walsh, the project director of the King Climate Action Initiative at J-PAL. “Once CREWSnet helps BRAC implement adaptation programs, we will generate scientific evidence on their impacts, so that BRAC and CREWSnet can make a case to funders and governments to expand effective programs.”

    The team aspires to bring CREWSnet to other nations disproportionately impacted by climate change. “Our vision is to have this be a globally extensible capability,” says Campbell. CREWSnet’s name evokes another early-warning decision-support system, FEWSnet, that helped organizations address famine in eastern Africa in the 1980s. Today it is a pillar of food-security planning around the world.

    CREWSnet hopes for a similar impact in climate change planning. Its selection as an MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project will inject the project with more funding and resources, momentum that will also help BRAC’s fundraising. The team plans to deploy CREWSnet to southwestern Bangladesh within five years.

    “The communities that we are aspiring to reach with CREWSnet are deeply aware that their lives are changing — they have been looking climate change in the eye for many years. They are incredibly resilient, creative, and talented,” says Ashley Toombs, the external affairs director for BRAC USA. “As a team, we are excited to bring this system to Bangladesh. And what we learn together, we will apply at potentially even larger scales.” More

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    Looking forward to forecast the risks of a changing climate

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the third in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition, and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    Extreme weather events that were once considered rare have become noticeably less so, from intensifying hurricane activity in the North Atlantic to wildfires generating massive clouds of ozone-damaging smoke. But current climate models are unprepared when it comes to estimating the risk that these increasingly extreme events pose — and without adequate modeling, governments are left unable to take necessary precautions to protect their communities.

    MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS) Professor Paul O’Gorman researches this trend by studying how climate affects the atmosphere and incorporating what he learns into climate models to improve their accuracy. One particular focus for O’Gorman has been changes in extreme precipitation and midlatitude storms that hit areas like New England.

    “These extreme events are having a lot of impact, but they’re also difficult to model or study,” he says. Seeing the pressing need for better climate models that can be used to develop preparedness plans and climate change mitigation strategies, O’Gorman and collaborators Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in EAPS, and Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Architecture, are leading an interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, and designers to tackle this problem with their MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project, “Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes.”

    “We know already from observations and from climate model predictions that weather and climate extremes are changing and will change more,” O’Gorman says. “The grand challenge is preparing for those changing extremes.”

    Their proposal is one of five flagship projects recently announced by the MIT Climate Grand Challenges initiative — an Institute-wide effort catalyzing novel research and engineering innovations to address the climate crisis. Selected from a field of almost 100 submissions, the team will receive additional funding and exposure to help accelerate and scale their project goals. Other MIT collaborators on the proposal include researchers from the School of Engineering, the School of Architecture and Planning, the Office of Sustainability, the Center for Global Change Science, and the Institute for Data, Systems and Society.

    Weather risk modeling

    Fifteen years ago, Kerry Emanuel developed a simple hurricane model. It was based on physics equations, rather than statistics, and could run in real time, making it useful for modeling risk assessment. Emanuel wondered if similar models could be used for long-term risk assessment of other things, such as changes in extreme weather because of climate change.

    “I discovered, somewhat to my surprise and dismay, that almost all extant estimates of long-term weather risks in the United States are based not on physical models, but on historical statistics of the hazards,” says Emanuel. “The problem with relying on historical records is that they’re too short; while they can help estimate common events, they don’t contain enough information to make predictions for more rare events.”

    Another limitation of weather risk models which rely heavily on statistics: They have a built-in assumption that the climate is static.

    “Historical records rely on the climate at the time they were recorded; they can’t say anything about how hurricanes grow in a warmer climate,” says Emanuel. The models rely on fixed relationships between events; they assume that hurricane activity will stay the same, even while science is showing that warmer temperatures will most likely push typical hurricane activity beyond the tropics and into a much wider band of latitudes.

    As a flagship project, the goal is to eliminate this reliance on the historical record by emphasizing physical principles (e.g., the laws of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics) in next-generation models. The downside to this is that there are many variables that have to be included. Not only are there planetary-scale systems to consider, such as the global circulation of the atmosphere, but there are also small-scale, extremely localized events, like thunderstorms, that influence predictive outcomes.

    Trying to compute all of these at once is costly and time-consuming — and the results often can’t tell you the risk in a specific location. But there is a way to correct for this: “What’s done is to use a global model, and then use a method called downscaling, which tries to infer what would happen on very small scales that aren’t properly resolved by the global model,” explains O’Gorman. The team hopes to improve downscaling techniques so that they can be used to calculate the risk of very rare but impactful weather events.

    Global climate models, or general circulation models (GCMs), Emanuel explains, are constructed a bit like a jungle gym. Like the playground bars, the Earth is sectioned in an interconnected three-dimensional framework — only it’s divided 100 to 200 square kilometers at a time. Each node comprises a set of computations for characteristics like wind, rainfall, atmospheric pressure, and temperature within its bounds; the outputs of each node are connected to its neighbor. This framework is useful for creating a big picture idea of Earth’s climate system, but if you tried to zoom in on a specific location — like, say, to see what’s happening in Miami or Mumbai — the connecting nodes are too far apart to make predictions on anything specific to those areas.

    Scientists work around this problem by using downscaling. They use the same blueprint of the jungle gym, but within the nodes they weave a mesh of smaller features, incorporating equations for things like topography and vegetation or regional meteorological models to fill in the blanks. By creating a finer mesh over smaller areas they can predict local effects without needing to run the entire global model.

    Of course, even this finer-resolution solution has its trade-offs. While we might be able to gain a clearer picture of what’s happening in a specific region by nesting models within models, it can still make for a computing challenge to crunch all that data at once, with the trade-off being expense and time, or predictions that are limited to shorter windows of duration — where GCMs can be run considering decades or centuries, a particularly complex local model may be restricted to predictions on timescales of just a few years at a time.

    “I’m afraid that most of the downscaling at present is brute force, but I think there’s room to do it in better ways,” says Emanuel, who sees the problem of finding new and novel methods of achieving this goal as an intellectual challenge. “I hope that through the Grand Challenges project we might be able to get students, postdocs, and others interested in doing this in a very creative way.”

    Adapting to weather extremes for cities and renewable energy

    Improving climate modeling is more than a scientific exercise in creativity, however. There’s a very real application for models that can accurately forecast risk in localized regions.

    Another problem is that progress in climate modeling has not kept up with the need for climate mitigation plans, especially in some of the most vulnerable communities around the globe.

    “It is critical for stakeholders to have access to this data for their own decision-making process. Every community is composed of a diverse population with diverse needs, and each locality is affected by extreme weather events in unique ways,” says Mazereeuw, the director of the MIT Urban Risk Lab. 

    A key piece of the team’s project is building on partnerships the Urban Risk Lab has developed with several cities to test their models once they have a usable product up and running. The cities were selected based on their vulnerability to increasing extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones in Broward County, Florida, and Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, and extratropical storms in Boston, Massachusetts, and Cape Town, South Africa.

    In their proposal, the team outlines a variety of deliverables that the cities can ultimately use in their climate change preparations, with ideas such as online interactive platforms and workshops with stakeholders — such as local governments, developers, nonprofits, and residents — to learn directly what specific tools they need for their local communities. By doing so, they can craft plans addressing different scenarios in their region, involving events such as sea-level rise or heat waves, while also providing information and means of developing adaptation strategies for infrastructure under these conditions that will be the most effective and efficient for them.

    “We are acutely aware of the inequity of resources both in mitigating impacts and recovering from disasters. Working with diverse communities through workshops allows us to engage a lot of people, listen, discuss, and collaboratively design solutions,” says Mazereeuw.

    By the end of five years, the team is hoping that they’ll have better risk assessment and preparedness tool kits, not just for the cities that they’re partnering with, but for others as well.

    “MIT is well-positioned to make progress in this area,” says O’Gorman, “and I think it’s an important problem where we can make a difference.” More