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    MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium announces recipients of inaugural MCSC Seed Awards

    The MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC) has awarded 20 projects a total of $5 million over two years in its first-ever 2022 MCSC Seed Awards program. The winning projects are led by principal investigators across all five of MIT’s schools.

    The goal of the MCSC Seed Awards is to engage MIT researchers and link the economy-wide work of the consortium to ongoing and emerging climate and sustainability efforts across campus. The program offers further opportunity to build networks among the awarded projects to deepen the impact of each and ensure the total is greater than the sum of its parts.

    For example, to drive progress under the awards category Circularity and Materials, the MCSC can facilitate connections between the technologists at MIT who are developing recovery approaches for metals, plastics, and fiber; the urban planners who are uncovering barriers to reuse; and the engineers, who will look for efficiency opportunities in reverse supply chains.

    “The MCSC Seed Awards are designed to complement actions previously outlined in Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade and, more specifically, the Climate Grand Challenges,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering, Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and chair of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium. “In collaboration with seed award recipients and MCSC industry members, we are eager to engage in interdisciplinary exploration and propel urgent advancements in climate and sustainability.” 

    By supporting MIT researchers with expertise in economics, infrastructure, community risk assessment, mobility, and alternative fuels, the MCSC will accelerate implementation of cross-disciplinary solutions in the awards category Decarbonized and Resilient Value Chains. Enhancing Natural Carbon Sinks and building connections to local communities will require associations across experts in ecosystem change, biodiversity, improved agricultural practice and engagement with farmers, all of which the consortium can begin to foster through the seed awards.

    “Funding opportunities across campus has been a top priority since launching the MCSC,” says Jeremy Gregory, MCSC executive director. “It is our honor to support innovative teams of MIT researchers through the inaugural 2022 MCSC Seed Awards program.”

    The winning projects are tightly aligned with the MCSC’s areas of focus, which were derived from a year of highly engaged collaborations with MCSC member companies. The projects apply across the member’s climate and sustainability goals.

    The MCSC’s 16 member companies span many industries, and since early 2021, have met with members of the MIT community to define focused problem statements for industry-specific challenges, identify meaningful partnerships and collaborations, and develop clear and scalable priorities. Outcomes from these collaborations laid the foundation for the focus areas, which have shaped the work of the MCSC. Specifically, the MCSC Industry Advisory Board engaged with MIT on key strategic directions, and played a critical role in the MCSC’s series of interactive events. These included virtual workshops hosted last summer, each on a specific topic that allowed companies to work with MIT and each other to align key assumptions, identify blind spots in corporate goal-setting, and leverage synergies between members, across industries. The work continued in follow-up sessions and an annual symposium.

    “We are excited to see how the seed award efforts will help our member companies reach or even exceed their ambitious climate targets, find new cross-sector links among each other, seek opportunities to lead, and ripple key lessons within their industry, while also deepening the Institute’s strong foundation in climate and sustainability research,” says Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and MCSC co-director.

    As the seed projects take shape, the MCSC will provide ongoing opportunities for awardees to engage with the Industry Advisory Board and technical teams from the MCSC member companies to learn more about the potential for linking efforts to support and accelerate their climate and sustainability goals. Awardees will also have the chance to engage with other members of the MCSC community, including its interdisciplinary Faculty Steering Committee.

    “One of our mantras in the MCSC is to ‘amplify and extend’ existing efforts across campus; we’re always looking for ways to connect the collaborative industry relationships we’re building and the work we’re doing with other efforts on campus,” notes Jeffrey Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and MCSC co-director. “We feel the urgency as well as the potential, and we don’t want to miss opportunities to do more and go faster.”

    The MCSC Seed Awards complement the Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to mobilize the entire MIT research community around developing the bold, interdisciplinary solutions needed to address difficult, unsolved climate problems. The 27 finalist teams addressed four broad research themes, which align with the MCSC’s focus areas. From these finalist teams, five flagship projects were announced in April 2022.

    The parallels between MCSC’s focus areas and the Climate Grand Challenges themes underscore an important connection between the shared long-term research interests of industry and academia. The challenges that some of the world’s largest and most influential companies have identified are complementary to MIT’s ongoing research and innovation — highlighting the tremendous opportunity to develop breakthroughs and scalable solutions quickly and effectively. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry underscored the importance of developing these scalable solutions, including critical new technology, during a conversation with MIT President L. Rafael Reif at MIT’s first Climate Grand Challenges showcase event last month.

    Both the MCSC Seed Awards and the Climate Grand Challenges are part of MIT’s larger commitment and initiative to combat climate change; this was underscored in “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021.

    The project titles and research leads for each of the 20 awardees listed below are categorized by MCSC focus area.

    Decarbonized and resilient value chains

    “Collaborative community mapping toolkit for resilience planning,” led by Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab (a research lead on Climate Grand Challenges flagship project) and Nicholas de Monchaux, professor and department head in the Department of Architecture
    “CP4All: Fast and local climate projections with scientific machine learning — towards accessibility for all of humanity,” led by Chris Hill, principal research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab and the Apollo Program Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
    “Emissions reductions and productivity in U.S. manufacturing,” led by Mert Demirer, assistant professor of applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Jing Li, assistant professor and William Barton Rogers Career Development Chair of Energy Economics in the MIT Sloan School of Management
    “Logistics electrification through scalable and inter-operable charging infrastructure: operations, planning, and policy,” led by Alex Jacquillat, the 1942 Career Development Professor and assistant professor of operations research and statistics in the MIT Sloan School of Management
    “Powertrain and system design for LOHC-powered long-haul trucking,” led by William Green, the Hoyt Hottel Professor in Chemical Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering and postdoctoral officer, and Wai K. Cheng, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory
    “Sustainable Separation and Purification of Biochemicals and Biofuels using Membranes,” led by John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, and director of the Rohsenow Kendall Heat Transfer Laboratory; and Nicolas Hadjiconstantinou, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, co-director of the Center for Computational Science and Engineering, associate director of the Center for Exascale Simulation of Materials in Extreme Environments, and graduate officer
    “Toolkit for assessing the vulnerability of industry infrastructure siting to climate change,” led by Michael Howland, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Circularity and Materials

    “Colorimetric Sulfidation for Aluminum Recycling,” led by Antoine Allanore, associate professor of metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering
    “Double Loop Circularity in Materials Design Demonstrated on Polyurethanes,” led by Brad Olsen, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor and graduate admissions co-chair in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Kristala Prather, the Arthur Dehon Little Professor and department executive officer in the Department of Chemical Engineering
    “Engineering of a microbial consortium to degrade and valorize plastic waste,” led by Otto Cordero, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Desiree Plata, the Gilbert W. Winslow (1937) Career Development Professor in Civil Engineering and associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    “Fruit-peel-inspired, biodegradable packaging platform with multifunctional barrier properties,” led by Kripa Varanasi, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
    “High Throughput Screening of Sustainable Polyesters for Fibers,” led by Gregory Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Brad Olsen, Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor and graduate admissions co-chair in the Department of Chemical Engineering
    “Short-term and long-term efficiency gains in reverse supply chains,” led by Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics
    The costs and benefits of circularity in building construction, led by Siqi Zheng, the STL Champion Professor of Urban and Real Estate Sustainability at the MIT Center for Real Estate and Department of Urban Studies and Planning, faculty director of the MIT Center for Real Estate, and faculty director for the MIT Sustainable Urbanization Lab; and Randolph Kirchain, principal research scientist and co-director of MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub

    Natural carbon sinks

    “Carbon sequestration through sustainable practices by smallholder farmers,” led by Joann de Zegher, the Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor and assistant professor of operations management in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Karen Zheng the George M. Bunker Professor and associate professor of operations management in the MIT Sloan School of Management
    “Coatings to protect and enhance diverse microbes for improved soil health and crop yields,” led by Ariel Furst, the Raymond A. (1921) And Helen E. St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Mary Gehring, associate professor of biology in the Department of Biology, core member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and graduate officer
    “ECO-LENS: Mainstreaming biodiversity data through AI,” led by John Fernández, professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture and director of MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative
    “Growing season length, productivity, and carbon balance of global ecosystems under climate change,” led by Charles Harvey, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and César Terrer, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Social dimensions and adaptation

    “Anthro-engineering decarbonization at the million-person scale,” led by Manduhai Buyandelger, professor in the Anthropology Section, and Michael Short, the Class of ’42 Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
    “Sustainable solutions for climate change adaptation: weaving traditional ecological knowledge and STEAM,” led by Janelle Knox-Hayes, the Lister Brothers Associate Professor of Economic Geography and Planning and head of the Environmental Policy and Planning Group in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab (a research lead on a Climate Grand Challenges flagship project) More

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    Expanding energy access in rural Lesotho

    Matt Orosz’s mission for the last 20 years can be explained with a single picture: a satellite image of the world at night, with major cities blazing with light and large swaths of land shrouded in darkness.

    The image reminds Orosz SM ’03, SM ’06, PhD ’12 of what he’s trying to change. Orosz is the CEO of OnePower, an MIT spinout building networks of minigrids powered by solar energy to bring electricity to rural regions of Lesotho.

    There are other companies building minigrids in Africa, but OnePower is the only one to have accomplished the feat in Lesotho, and it’s not hard to understand why. Known as the kingdom in the sky, Lesotho is a small, developing country crossed by mountain ranges and rivers, making it difficult to get electricity to rural regions. Recent estimates suggest that less than half of all households have electricity.

    OnePower’s first minigrid is a small system that has been serving around 200 customers for more than a year. The operation is part of an eight-minigrid project that will provide reliable electricity for the first time to more than 30,000 people, 13 health clinics, 25 schools, and over 100 small businesses.

    Construction on those sites is underway, and Orosz is currently working on a power transmission and road crossing over the Senqu river, the largest in southern Africa. During the project, the operators of a health clinic on the off-grid side of the river let Orosz stay there on the condition that he fix their diesel generator. He got the generator working again, but if everything goes according to plan, the clinic won’t need it for much longer.

    “If you don’t have power, then you don’t have lights, you don’t have computers, you don’t have communications,” Orosz says. “That means hospitals can’t refer patients or get expert opinions or run equipment, and schools can’t get internet. When the fundamental institutions for health and education don’t have power, their effectiveness is pretty limited, which affects quality of life for everybody that lives in the area.”

    Finding a spark

    The health clinic Orosz is staying in isn’t far from where he first learned about energy access problems in rural Africa. Between 2000 and 2002, Orosz lived in Lesotho, without electricity, as a member of the Peace Corps. The experience inspired him to help, but without an engineering background, he knew he’d need to gain more skills first.

    “I applied to MIT so that I could gain some knowledge and experience and apply it in this setting,” Orosz says, noting he spent a lot longer at MIT than he initially intended.

    Orosz first joined the research lab of Harry Hemond, the William E Leonhard Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, learning about topics like physics and fluid mechanics as part of his first year at MIT. After that, he enrolled in another master’s program in technology and policy. In 2007, he began a PhD at MIT studying solar thermal and photovoltaic hybrid power generation.

    The education wasn’t the only reason Orosz stayed at MIT. Throughout his time on campus, he also took advantage of funding opportunities presented by the IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge and the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition (the $50K at the time). Orosz was also awarded a Fulbright scholarship while at MIT, and was selected for grants from the World Bank and the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Orosz also aligned himself closely with MIT D-Lab. During his second master’s, he led trips to Lesotho with other D-Lab students. Between his master’s and his PhD, Orosz spent a year living in Lesotho exploring energy solutions with three other MIT students, including Amy Mueller ’02, SM ’03, PhD ’12, who is currently chief financial officer of OnePower.

    In 2015, Orosz moved to Lesotho to work on OnePower full-time. The move coincided with OnePower’s successful bid to develop the first utility-scale solar project in Lesotho, a 20-megawatt project that will sell electricity to Lesotho’s central grid in addition to OnePower’s minigrid work. OnePower expects that project, named Neo 1, to start delivering power to Lesotho’s central electric grid next year.

    “It takes quite a lot of time and money to develop utility scale solar projects, but we’ve been told by investors and partners that seven years is not unusual,” Orosz says. “It kind of reminds me of the time it took to get a PhD — surprisingly long, but corroborated by others’ experiences.”

    In conjunction with the grid-scale project, OnePower also piloted the first privately financed, fully licensed minigrid in Lesotho. The company has also set up minigrids to help power six health care centers in the mountains of Lesotho.

    OnePower’s grid-scale project and its minigrids use industry standard, large-format bifacial solar panels, mounted on single axis tracking substructures designed and built in Lesotho by OnePower, but the minigrids send energy to a powerhouse filled with lithium-ion batteries. From there, transmission lines bring the electricity to different villages, where it powers homes, businesses, schools, health clinics, police stations, churches, and more. A smart meter at each customer’s building tracks electricity usage, and customers use a phone app to pay for their electricity.

    OnePower secured funding for the projects from a network of private investors rather than through grants and donations. By paying the investors back, Orosz says OnePower will be showing that funding such projects can be a profitable investment in addition to an impactful one.

    That’s important because grants and donations will only take minigrid operators so far. Orosz says in order to provide reliable electricity to the entire continent of Africa, a huge amount of private investment is needed.

    “The goal is ultimately to prove that you can make this work: that you can generate electricity and sell it to a customer in Africa, and that revenue enables you to pay back the financier that helped you build the infrastructure in the first place,” Orosz says. “Once you close that loop, then it can scale. That’s the holy grail of minigrids.”

    Orosz believes OnePower is differentiated from other minigrid companies in that it develops and owns more of the value chain, like the tracking substructures that allow solar panels to adjust with the sun, which has helped the company continue operations during the pandemic. The technical innovations his team developed at MIT ultimately help OnePower offer lower electricity prices to people in Lesotho.

    Turning the lights on

    OnePower has doubled its employees over the last year as construction on the eight minigrids ramps up. As his team stays busy rolling those projects out, Orosz is already exploring options for the next cluster of minigrids OnePower will build.

    “If we can solve the economics and logistics in Lesotho, then it should be a lot easier to replicate this in other markets,” Orosz says.

    The goal is to bring OnePower’s minigrids to the rural communities that would benefit from them the most. As the satellite image of earth at night shows, that includes many unelectrified community across sub-Saharan Africa.

    “We think Africans in rural areas should have the same quality of power as Africans in urban areas, and that should be the same quality power as everywhere else in the world,” Orosz says. More

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    MIT Climate “Plug-In” highlights first year of progress on MIT’s climate plan

    In a combined in-person and virtual event on Monday, members of the three working groups established last year under MIT’s “Fast Forward” climate action plan reported on the work they’ve been doing to meet the plan’s goals, including reaching zero direct carbon emissions by 2026.

    Introducing the session, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said that “many universities have climate plans that are inward facing, mostly focused on the direct impacts of their operations on greenhouse gas emissions. And that is really important, but ‘Fast Forward’ is different in that it’s also outward facing — it recognizes climate change as a global crisis.”

    That, she said, “commits us to an all-of-MIT effort to help the world solve the super wicked problem in practice.” That means “helping the world to go as far as it can, as fast as it can, to deploy currently available technologies and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” while also quickly developing new tools and approaches to deal with the most difficult areas of decarbonization, she said.

    Significant strides have been made in this first year, according to Zuber. The Climate Grand Challenges competition, announced last year as part of the plan, has just announced five flagship projects. “Each of these projects is potentially important in its own right, and is also exemplary of the kinds of bold thinking about climate solutions that the world needs,” she said.

    “We’ve also created new climate-focused institutions within MIT to improve accountability and transparency and to drive action,” Zuber said, including the Climate Nucleus, which comprises heads of labs and departments involved in climate-change work and is led by professors Noelle Selin and Anne White. The “Fast Forward” plan also established three working groups that report to the Climate Nucleus — on climate education, climate policy, and MIT’s carbon footprint — whose members spoke at Monday’s event.

    David McGee, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary science, co-director of MIT’s Terrascope program for first-year students, and co-chair of the education working group, said that over the last few years of Terrascope, “we’ve begun focusing much more explicitly on the experiences of, and the knowledge contained within, impacted communities … both for mitigation efforts and how they play out, and also adaptation.” Figuring out how to access the expertise of local communities “in a way that’s not extractive is a challenge that we face,” he added.

    Eduardo Rivera, managing director for MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) programs in several countries and a member of the education team, noted that about 1,000 undergraduates travel each year to work on climate and sustainability challenges. These include, for example, working with a lab in Peru assessing pollution in the Amazon, developing new insulation materials in Germany, developing affordable solar panels in China, working on carbon-capture technology in France or Israel, and many others, Rivera said. These are “unique opportunities to learn about the discipline, where the students can do hands-on work along with the professionals and the scientists in the front lines.” He added that MISTI has just launched a pilot project to help these students “to calculate their carbon footprint, to give them resources, and to understand individual responsibilities and collective responsibilities in this area.”

    Yujie Wang, a graduate student in architecture and an education working group member, said that during her studies she worked on a project focused on protecting biodiversity in Colombia, and also worked with a startup to reduce pesticide use in farming through digital monitoring. In Colombia, she said, she came to appreciate the value of interactions among researchers using satellite data, with local organizations, institutions and officials, to foster collaboration on solving common problems.

    The second panel addressed policy issues, as reflected by the climate policy working group. David Goldston, director of MIT’s Washington office, said “I think policy is totally central, in that for each part of the climate problem, you really can’t make progress without policy.” Part of that, he said, “involves government activities to help communities, and … to make sure the transition [involving the adoption of new technologies] is as equitable as possible.”

    Goldston said “a lot of the progress that’s been made already, whether it’s movement toward solar and wind energy and many other things, has been really prompted by government policy. I think sometimes people see it as a contest, should we be focusing on technology or policy, but I see them as two sides of the same coin. … You can’t get the technology you need into operation without policy tools, and the policy tools won’t have anything to work with unless technology is developed.”

    As for MIT, he said, “I think everybody at MIT who works on any aspect of climate change should be thinking about what’s the policy aspect of it, how could policy help them? How could they help policymakers? I think we need to coordinate better.” The Institute needs to be more strategic, he said, but “that doesn’t mean MIT advocating for specific policies. It means advocating for climate action and injecting a wide range of ideas into the policy arena.”

    Anushree Chaudhari, a student in economics and in urban studies and planning, said she has been learning about the power of negotiations in her work with Professor Larry Susskind. “What we’re currently working on is understanding why there are so many sources of local opposition to scaling renewable energy projects in the U.S.,” she explained. “Even though over 77 percent of the U.S. population actually is in support of renewables, and renewables are actually economically pretty feasible as their costs have come down in the last two decades, there’s still a huge social barrier to having them become the new norm,” she said. She emphasized that a fair and just energy transition will require listening to community stakeholders, including indigenous groups and low-income communities, and understanding why they may oppose utility-scale solar farms and wind farms.

    Joy Jackson, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, said that the implementation of research findings into policy at state, local, and national levels is a “very messy, nonlinear, sort of chaotic process.” One avenue for research to make its way into policy, she said, is through formal processes, such as congressional testimony. But a lot is also informal, as she learned while working as an intern in government offices, where she and her colleagues reached out to professors, researchers, and technical experts of various kinds while in the very early stages of policy development.

    “The good news,” she said, “is there’s a lot of touch points.”

    The third panel featured members of the working group studying ways to reduce MIT’s own carbon footprint. Julie Newman, head of MIT’s Office of Sustainability and co-chair of that group, summed up MIT’s progress toward its stated goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2026. “I can cautiously say we’re on track for that one,” she said. Despite headwinds in the solar industry due to supply chain issues, she said, “we’re well positioned” to meet that near-term target.

    As for working toward the 2050 target of eliminating all direct emissions, she said, it is “quite a challenge.” But under the leadership of Joe Higgins, the vice president for campus services and stewardship, MIT is implementing a number of measures, including deep energy retrofits, investments in high-performance buildings, an extremely efficient central utilities plant, and more.

    She added that MIT is particularly well-positioned in its thinking about scaling its solutions up. “A couple of years ago we approached a handful of local organizations, and over a couple of years have built a consortium to look at large-scale carbon reduction in the world. And it’s a brilliant partnership,” she said, noting that details are still being worked out and will be reported later.

    The work is challenging, because “MIT was built on coal, this campus was not built to get to zero carbon emissions.” Nevertheless, “we think we’re on track” to meet the ambitious goals of the Fast Forward plan, she said. “We’re going to have to have multiple pathways, because we may come to a pathway that may turn out not to be feasible.”

    Jay Dolan, head of facilities development at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, said that campus faces extra hurdles compared to the main MIT campus, as it occupies buildings that are owned and maintained by the U.S. Air Force, not MIT. They are still at the data-gathering stage to see what they can do to improve their emissions, he said, and a website they set up to solicit suggestions for reducing their emissions had received 70 suggestions within a few days, which are still being evaluated. “All that enthusiasm, along with the intelligence at the laboratory, is very promising,” he said.

    Peter Jacobson, a graduate student in Leaders for Global Operations, said that in his experience, projects that are most successful start not from a focus on the technology, but from collaborative efforts working with multiple stakeholders. “I think this is exactly why the Climate Nucleus and our working groups are so important here at MIT,” he said. “We need people tasked with thinking at this campus scale, figuring out what the needs and priorities of all the departments are and looking for those synergies, and aligning those needs across both internal and external stakeholders.”

    But, he added, “MIT’s complexity and scale of operations definitely poses unique challenges. Advanced research is energy hungry, and in many cases we don’t have the technology to decarbonize those research processes yet. And we have buildings of varying ages with varying stages of investment.” In addition, MIT has “a lot of people that it needs to feed, and that need to travel and commute, so that poses additional and different challenges.”

    Asked what individuals can do to help MIT in this process, Newman said, “Begin to leverage and figure out how you connect your research to informing our thinking on campus. We have channels for that.”

    Noelle Selin, co-chair of MIT’s climate nucleus and moderator of the third panel, said in conclusion “we’re really looking for your input into all of these working groups and all of these efforts. This is a whole of campus effort. It’s a whole of world effort to address the climate challenge. So, please get in touch and use this as a call to action.” More

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    MIT expands research collaboration with Commonwealth Fusion Systems to build net energy fusion machine, SPARC

    MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) will substantially expand its fusion energy research and education activities under a new five-year agreement with Institute spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).

    “This expanded relationship puts MIT and PSFC in a prime position to be an even stronger academic leader that can help deliver the research and education needs of the burgeoning fusion energy industry, in part by utilizing the world’s first burning plasma and net energy fusion machine, SPARC,” says PSFC director Dennis Whyte. “CFS will build SPARC and develop a commercial fusion product, while MIT PSFC will focus on its core mission of cutting-edge research and education.”

    Commercial fusion energy has the potential to play a significant role in combating climate change, and there is a concurrent increase in interest from the energy sector, governments, and foundations. The new agreement, administered by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), where CFS is a startup member, will help PSFC expand its fusion technology efforts with a wider variety of sponsors. The collaboration enables rapid execution at scale and technology transfer into the commercial sector as soon as possible.

    This new agreement doubles CFS’ financial commitment to PSFC, enabling greater recruitment and support of students, staff, and faculty. “We’ll significantly increase the number of graduate students and postdocs, and just as important they will be working on a more diverse set of fusion science and technology topics,” notes Whyte. It extends the collaboration between PSFC and CFS that resulted in numerous advances toward fusion power plants, including last fall’s demonstration of a high-temperature superconducting (HTS) fusion electromagnet with record-setting field strength of 20 tesla.

    The combined magnetic fusion efforts at PSFC will surpass those in place during the operations of the pioneering Alcator C-Mod tokamak device that operated from 1993 to 2016. This increase in activity reflects a moment when multiple fusion energy technologies are seeing rapidly accelerating development worldwide, and the emergence of a new fusion energy industry that would require thousands of trained people.

    MITEI director Robert Armstrong adds, “Our goal from the beginning was to create a membership model that would allow startups who have specific research challenges to leverage the MITEI ecosystem, including MIT faculty, students, and other MITEI members. The team at the PSFC and MITEI have worked seamlessly to support CFS, and we are excited for this next phase of the relationship.”

    PSFC is supporting CFS’ efforts toward realizing the SPARC fusion platform, which facilitates rapid development and refinement of elements (including HTS magnets) needed to build ARC, a compact, modular, high-field fusion power plant that would set the stage for commercial fusion energy production. The concepts originated in Whyte’s nuclear science and engineering class 22.63 (Principles of Fusion Engineering) and have been carried forward by students and PSFC staff, many of whom helped found CFS; the new activity will expand research into advanced technologies for the envisioned pilot plant.

    “This has been an incredibly effective collaboration that has resulted in a major breakthrough for commercial fusion with the successful demonstration of revolutionary fusion magnet technology that will enable the world’s first commercially relevant net energy fusion device, SPARC, currently under construction,” says Bob Mumgaard SM ’15, PhD ’15, CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems. “We look forward to this next phase in the collaboration with MIT as we tackle the critical research challenges ahead for the next steps toward fusion power plant development.”

    In the push for commercial fusion energy, the next five years are critical, requiring intensive work on materials longevity, heat transfer, fuel recycling, maintenance, and other crucial aspects of power plant development. It will need innovation from almost every engineering discipline. “Having great teams working now, it will cut the time needed to move from SPARC to ARC, and really unleash the creativity. And the thing MIT does so well is cut across disciplines,” says Whyte.

    “To address the climate crisis, the world needs to deploy existing clean energy solutions as widely and as quickly as possible, while at the same time developing new technologies — and our goal is that those new technologies will include fusion power,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “To make new climate solutions a reality, we need focused, sustained collaborations like the one between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Delivering fusion power onto the grid is a monumental challenge, and the combined capabilities of these two organizations are what the challenge demands.”

    On a strategic level, climate change and the imperative need for widely implementable carbon-free energy have helped orient the PSFC team toward scalability. “Building one or 10 fusion plants doesn’t make a difference — we have to build thousands,” says Whyte. “The design decisions we make will impact the ability to do that down the road. The real enemy here is time, and we want to remove as many impediments as possible and commit to funding a new generation of scientific leaders. Those are critically important in a field with as much interdisciplinary integration as fusion.” More

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    Machine learning, harnessed to extreme computing, aids fusion energy development

    MIT research scientists Pablo Rodriguez-Fernandez and Nathan Howard have just completed one of the most demanding calculations in fusion science — predicting the temperature and density profiles of a magnetically confined plasma via first-principles simulation of plasma turbulence. Solving this problem by brute force is beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced supercomputers. Instead, the researchers used an optimization methodology developed for machine learning to dramatically reduce the CPU time required while maintaining the accuracy of the solution.

    Fusion energyFusion offers the promise of unlimited, carbon-free energy through the same physical process that powers the sun and the stars. It requires heating the fuel to temperatures above 100 million degrees, well above the point where the electrons are stripped from their atoms, creating a form of matter called plasma. On Earth, researchers use strong magnetic fields to isolate and insulate the hot plasma from ordinary matter. The stronger the magnetic field, the better the quality of the insulation that it provides.

    Rodriguez-Fernandez and Howard have focused on predicting the performance expected in the SPARC device, a compact, high-magnetic-field fusion experiment, currently under construction by the MIT spin-out company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) and researchers from MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. While the calculation required an extraordinary amount of computer time, over 8 million CPU-hours, what was remarkable was not how much time was used, but how little, given the daunting computational challenge.

    The computational challenge of fusion energyTurbulence, which is the mechanism for most of the heat loss in a confined plasma, is one of the science’s grand challenges and the greatest problem remaining in classical physics. The equations that govern fusion plasmas are well known, but analytic solutions are not possible in the regimes of interest, where nonlinearities are important and solutions encompass an enormous range of spatial and temporal scales. Scientists resort to solving the equations by numerical simulation on computers. It is no accident that fusion researchers have been pioneers in computational physics for the last 50 years.

    One of the fundamental problems for researchers is reliably predicting plasma temperature and density given only the magnetic field configuration and the externally applied input power. In confinement devices like SPARC, the external power and the heat input from the fusion process are lost through turbulence in the plasma. The turbulence itself is driven by the difference in the extremely high temperature of the plasma core and the relatively cool temperatures of the plasma edge (merely a few million degrees). Predicting the performance of a self-heated fusion plasma therefore requires a calculation of the power balance between the fusion power input and the losses due to turbulence.

    These calculations generally start by assuming plasma temperature and density profiles at a particular location, then computing the heat transported locally by turbulence. However, a useful prediction requires a self-consistent calculation of the profiles across the entire plasma, which includes both the heat input and turbulent losses. Directly solving this problem is beyond the capabilities of any existing computer, so researchers have developed an approach that stitches the profiles together from a series of demanding but tractable local calculations. This method works, but since the heat and particle fluxes depend on multiple parameters, the calculations can be very slow to converge.

    However, techniques emerging from the field of machine learning are well suited to optimize just such a calculation. Starting with a set of computationally intensive local calculations run with the full-physics, first-principles CGYRO code (provided by a team from General Atomics led by Jeff Candy) Rodriguez-Fernandez and Howard fit a surrogate mathematical model, which was used to explore and optimize a search within the parameter space. The results of the optimization were compared to the exact calculations at each optimum point, and the system was iterated to a desired level of accuracy. The researchers estimate that the technique reduced the number of runs of the CGYRO code by a factor of four.

    New approach increases confidence in predictionsThis work, described in a recent publication in the journal Nuclear Fusion, is the highest fidelity calculation ever made of the core of a fusion plasma. It refines and confirms predictions made with less demanding models. Professor Jonathan Citrin, of the Eindhoven University of Technology and leader of the fusion modeling group for DIFFER, the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, commented: “The work significantly accelerates our capabilities in more routinely performing ultra-high-fidelity tokamak scenario prediction. This algorithm can help provide the ultimate validation test of machine design or scenario optimization carried out with faster, more reduced modeling, greatly increasing our confidence in the outcomes.” 

    In addition to increasing confidence in the fusion performance of the SPARC experiment, this technique provides a roadmap to check and calibrate reduced physics models, which run with a small fraction of the computational power. Such models, cross-checked against the results generated from turbulence simulations, will provide a reliable prediction before each SPARC discharge, helping to guide experimental campaigns and improving the scientific exploitation of the device. It can also be used to tweak and improve even simple data-driven models, which run extremely quickly, allowing researchers to sift through enormous parameter ranges to narrow down possible experiments or possible future machines.

    The research was funded by CFS, with computational support from the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility. More

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    At Climate Grand Challenges showcase event, an exploration of how to accelerate breakthrough solutions

    On the eve of Earth Day, more than 300 faculty, researchers, students, government officials, and industry leaders gathered in the Samberg Conference Center, along with thousands more who tuned in online, to celebrate MIT’s first-ever Climate Grand Challenges and the five most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition.

    The event began with a climate policy conversation between MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, followed by presentations from each of the winning flagship teams, and concluded with an expert panel that explored pathways for moving from ideas to impact at scale as quickly as possible.

    “In 2020, when we launched the Climate Grand Challenges, we wanted to focus the daring creativity and pioneering expertise of the MIT community on the urgent problem of climate change,” said President Reif in kicking off the event. “Together these flagship projects will define a transformative new research agenda at MIT, one that has the potential to make meaningful contributions to the global climate response.”

    Reif and Kerry discussed multiple aspects of the climate crisis, including mitigation, adaptation, and the policies and strategies that can help the world avert the worst consequences of climate change and make the United States a leader again in bringing technology into commercial use. Referring to the accelerated wartime research effort that helped turn the tide in World War II, which included work conducted at MIT, Kerry said, “We need about five Manhattan Projects, frankly.”

    “People are now sensing a much greater urgency to finding solutions — new technology — and taking to scale some of the old technologies,” Kerry said. “There are things that are happening that I think are exciting, but the problem is it’s not happening fast enough.”

    Strategies for taking technology from the lab to the marketplace were the basis for the final portion of the event. The panel was moderated by Alicia Barton, president and CEO of FirstLight Power, and included Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Jack Little, CEO and co-founder of MathWorks; Arati Prabhakar, president of Actuate and former head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; and Katie Rae, president and managing director of The Engine. The discussion touched upon the importance of marshaling the necessary resources and building the cross-sector partnerships required to scale the technologies being developed by the flagship teams and to deliver them to the world in time to make a difference. 

    “MIT doesn’t sit on its hands ever, and innovation is central to its founding,” said Rae. “The students coming out of MIT at every level, along with the professors, have been committed to these challenges for a long time and therefore will have a big impact. These flagships have always been in process, but now we have an extraordinary moment to commercialize these projects.”

    The panelists weighed in on how to change the mindset around finance, policy, business, and community adoption to scale massive shifts in energy generation, transportation, and other major carbon-emitting industries. They stressed the importance of policies that address the economic, equity, and public health impacts of climate change and of reimagining supply chains and manufacturing to grow and distribute these technologies quickly and affordably. 

    “We are embarking on five adventures, but we do not know yet, cannot know yet, where these projects will take us,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. “These are powerful and promising ideas. But each one will require focused effort, creative and interdisciplinary teamwork, and sustained commitment and support if they are to become part of the climate and energy revolution that the world urgently needs. This work begins now.” 

    Zuber called for investment from philanthropists and financiers, and urged companies, governments, and others to join this all-of-humanity effort. Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester echoed this message in closing the event. 

    “Every one of us needs to put our shoulder to the wheel at the points where our leverage is maximized — where we can do what we’re best at,” Lester said. “For MIT, Climate Grand Challenges is one of those maximum leverage points.” More

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    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

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    Finding the questions that guide MIT fusion research

    “One of the things I learned was, doing good science isn’t so much about finding the answers as figuring out what the important questions are.”

    As Martin Greenwald retires from the responsibilities of senior scientist and deputy director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), he reflects on his almost 50 years of science study, 43 of them as a researcher at MIT, pursuing the question of how to make the carbon-free energy of fusion a reality.

    Most of Greenwald’s important questions about fusion began after graduating from MIT with a BS in both physics and chemistry. Beginning graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, he felt compelled to learn more about fusion as an energy source that could have “a real societal impact.” At the time, researchers were exploring new ideas for devices that could create and confine fusion plasmas. Greenwald worked on Berkeley’s “alternate concept” TORMAC, a Toroidal Magnetic Cusp. “It didn’t work out very well,” he laughs. “The first thing I was known for was making the measurements that shut down the program.”

    Believing the temperature of the plasma generated by the device would not be as high as his group leader expected, Greenwald developed hardware that could measure the low temperatures predicted by his own “back of the envelope calculations.” As he anticipated, his measurements showed that “this was not a fusion plasma; this was hardly a confined plasma at all.”

    With a PhD from Berkeley, Greenwald returned to MIT for a research position at the PSFC, attracted by the center’s “esprit de corps.”

    He arrived in time to participate in the final experiments on Alcator A, the first in a series of tokamaks built at MIT, all characterized by compact size and featuring high-field magnets. The tokamak design was then becoming favored as the most effective route to fusion: its doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, surrounded by electromagnets, could confine the turbulent plasma long enough, while increasing its heat and density, to make fusion occur.

    Alcator A showed that the energy confinement time improves in relation to increasing plasma density. MIT’s succeeding device, Alcator C, was designed to use higher magnetic fields, boosting expectations that it would reach higher densities and better confinement. To attain these goals, however, Greenwald had to pursue a new technique that increased density by injecting pellets of frozen fuel into the plasma, a method he likens to throwing “snowballs in hell.” This work was notable for the creation of a new regime of enhanced plasma confinement on Alcator C. In those experiments, a confined plasma surpassed for the first time one of the two Lawson criteria — the minimum required value for the product of the plasma density and confinement time — for making net power from fusion. This had been a milestone for fusion research since their publication by John Lawson in 1957.

    Greenwald continued to make a name for himself as part of a larger study into the physics of the Compact Ignition Tokamak — a high-field burning plasma experiment that the U.S. program was proposing to build in the late 1980s. The result, unexpectedly, was a new scaling law, later known as the “Greenwald Density Limit,” and a new theory for the mechanism of the limit. It has been used to accurately predict performance on much larger machines built since.

    The center’s next tokamak, Alcator C-Mod, started operation in 1993 and ran for more than 20 years, with Greenwald as the chair of its Experimental Program Committee. Larger than Alcator C, the new device supported a highly shaped plasma, strong radiofrequency heating, and an all-metal plasma-facing first wall. All of these would eventually be required in a fusion power system.

    C-Mod proved to be MIT’s most enduring fusion experiment to date, producing important results for 20 years. During that time Greenwald contributed not only to the experiments, but to mentoring the next generation. Research scientist Ryan Sweeney notes that “Martin quickly gained my trust as a mentor, in part due to his often casual dress and slightly untamed hair, which are embodiments of his transparency and his focus on what matters. He can quiet a room of PhDs and demand attention not by intimidation, but rather by his calmness and his ability to bring clarity to complicated problems, be they scientific or human in nature.”

    Greenwald worked closely with the group of students who, in PSFC Director Dennis Whyte’s class, came up with the tokamak concept that evolved into SPARC. MIT is now pursuing this compact, high-field tokamak with Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup that grew out of the collective enthusiasm for this concept, and the growing realization it could work. Greenwald now heads the Physics Group for the SPARC project at MIT. He has helped confirm the device’s physics basis in order to predict performance and guide engineering decisions.

    “Martin’s multifaceted talents are thoroughly embodied by, and imprinted on, SPARC” says Whyte. “First, his leadership in its plasma confinement physics validation and publication place SPARC on a firm scientific footing. Secondly, the impact of the density limit he discovered, which shows that fuel density increases with magnetic field and decreasing the size of the tokamak, is critical in obtaining high fusion power density not just in SPARC, but in future power plants. Third, and perhaps most impressive, is Martin’s mentorship of the SPARC generation of leadership.”

    Greenwald’s expertise and easygoing personality have made him an asset as head of the PSFC Office for Computer Services and group leader for data acquisition and computing, and sought for many professional committees. He has been an APS Fellow since 2000, and was an APS Distinguished Lecturer in Plasma Physics (2001-02). He was also presented in 2014 with a Leadership Award from Fusion Power Associates. He is currently an associate editor for Physics of Plasmas and a member of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Physical Sciences Directorate External Review Committee.

    Although leaving his full-time responsibilities, Greenwald will remain at MIT as a visiting scientist, a role he says will allow him to “stick my nose into everything without being responsible for anything.”

    “At some point in the race you have to hand off the baton,“ he says. “And it doesn’t mean you’re not interested in the outcome; and it doesn’t mean you’re just going to walk away into the stands. I want to be there at the end when we succeed.” More