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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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    MIT Energy Initiative awards seven Seed Fund grants for early-stage energy research

    The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) has awarded seven Seed Fund grants to support novel, early-stage energy research by faculty and researchers at MIT. The awardees hail from a range of disciplines, but all strive to bring their backgrounds and expertise to address the global climate crisis by improving the efficiency, scalability, and adoption of clean energy technologies.

    “Solving climate change is truly an interdisciplinary challenge,” says MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong. “The Seed Fund grants foster collaboration and innovation from across all five of MIT’s schools and one college, encouraging an ‘all hands on deck approach’ to developing the energy solutions that will prove critical in combatting this global crisis.”

    This year, MITEI’s Seed Fund grant program received 70 proposals from 86 different principal investigators (PIs) across 25 departments, labs, and centers. Of these proposals, 31 involved collaborations between two or more PIs, including 24 that involved multiple departments.

    The winning projects reflect this collaborative nature with topics addressing the optimization of low-energy thermal cooling in buildings; the design of safe, robust, and resilient distributed power systems; and how to design and site wind farms with consideration of wind resource uncertainty due to climate change.

    Increasing public support for low-carbon technologies

    One winning team aims to leverage work done in the behavioral sciences to motivate sustainable behaviors and promote the adoption of clean energy technologies.

    “Objections to scalable low-carbon technologies such as nuclear energy and carbon sequestration have made it difficult to adopt these technologies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Howard Herzog, a senior research scientist at MITEI and co-PI. “These objections tend to neglect the sheer scale of energy generation required and the inability to meet this demand solely with other renewable energy technologies.”

    This interdisciplinary team — which includes researchers from MITEI, the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and the MIT Sloan School of Management — plans to convene industry professionals and academics, as well as behavioral scientists, to identify common objections, design messaging to overcome them, and prove that these messaging campaigns have long-lasting impacts on attitudes toward scalable low-carbon technologies.

    “Our aim is to provide a foundation for shifting the public and policymakers’ views about these low-carbon technologies from something they, at best, tolerate, to something they actually welcome,” says co-PI David Rand, the Erwin H. Schell Professor and professor of management science and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT Sloan School of Management.

    Siting and designing wind farms

    Michael Howland, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, will use his Seed Fund grant to develop a foundational methodology for wind farm siting and design that accounts for the uncertainty of wind resources resulting from climate change.

    “The optimal wind farm design and its resulting cost of energy is inherently dependent on the wind resource at the location of the farm,” says Howland. “But wind farms are currently sited and designed based on short-term climate records that do not account for the future effects of climate change on wind patterns.”

    Wind farms are capital-intensive infrastructure that cannot be relocated and often have lifespans exceeding 20 years — all of which make it especially important that developers choose the right locations and designs based not only on wind patterns in the historical climate record, but also based on future predictions. The new siting and design methodology has the potential to replace current industry standards to enable a more accurate risk analysis of wind farm development and energy grid expansion under climate change-driven energy resource uncertainty.

    Membraneless electrolyzers for hydrogen production

    Producing hydrogen from renewable energy-powered water electrolyzers is central to realizing a sustainable and low-carbon hydrogen economy, says Kripa Varanasi, a professor of mechanical engineering and a Seed Fund award recipient. The idea of using hydrogen as a fuel has existed for decades, but it has yet to be widely realized at a considerable scale. Varanasi hopes to change that with his Seed Fund grant.

    “The critical economic hurdle for successful electrolyzers to overcome is the minimization of the capital costs associated with their deployment,” says Varanasi. “So, an immediate task at hand to enable electrochemical hydrogen production at scale will be to maximize the effectiveness of the most mature, least complex, and least expensive water electrolyzer technologies.”

    To do this, he aims to combine the advantages of existing low-temperature alkaline electrolyzer designs with a novel membraneless electrolyzer technology that harnesses a gas management system architecture to minimize complexity and costs, while also improving efficiency. Varanasi hopes his project will demonstrate scalable concepts for cost-effective electrolyzer technology design to help realize a decarbonized hydrogen economy.

    Since its establishment in 2008, the MITEI Seed Fund Program has supported 194 energy-focused seed projects through grants totaling more than $26 million. This funding comes primarily from MITEI’s founding and sustaining members, supplemented by gifts from generous donors.

    Recipients of the 2021 MITEI Seed Fund grants are:

    “Design automation of safe, robust, and resilient distributed power systems” — Chuchu Fan of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
    “Advanced MHD topping cycles: For fission, fusion, solar power plants” — Jeffrey Freidberg of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and Dennis Whyte of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center
    “Robust wind farm siting and design under climate-change‐driven wind resource uncertainty” — Michael Howland of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    “Low-energy thermal comfort for buildings in the Global South: Optimal design of integrated structural-thermal systems” — Leslie Norford of the Department of Architecture and Caitlin Mueller of the departments of Architecture and Civil and Environmental Engineering
    “New low-cost, high energy-density boron-based redox electrolytes for nonaqueous flow batteries” — Alexander Radosevich of the Department of Chemistry
    “Increasing public support for scalable low-carbon energy technologies using behavorial science insights” — David Rand of the MIT Sloan School of Management, Koroush Shirvan of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Howard Herzog of the MIT Energy Initiative, and Jacopo Buongiorno of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
    “Membraneless electrolyzers for efficient hydrogen production using nanoengineered 3D gas capture electrode architectures” — Kripa Varanasi of the Department of Mechanical Engineering More

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    Research collaboration puts climate-resilient crops in sight

    Any houseplant owner knows that changes in the amount of water or sunlight a plant receives can put it under immense stress. A dying plant brings certain disappointment to anyone with a green thumb. 

    But for farmers who make their living by successfully growing plants, and whose crops may nourish hundreds or thousands of people, the devastation of failing flora is that much greater. As climate change is poised to cause increasingly unpredictable weather patterns globally, crops may be subject to more extreme environmental conditions like droughts, fluctuating temperatures, floods, and wildfire. 

    Climate scientists and food systems researchers worry about the stress climate change may put on crops, and on global food security. In an ambitious interdisciplinary project funded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), David Des Marais, the Gale Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, and Caroline Uhler, an associate professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, are investigating how plant genes communicate with one another under stress. Their research results can be used to breed plants more resilient to climate change.

    Crops in trouble

    Governing plants’ responses to environmental stress are gene regulatory networks, or GRNs, which guide the development and behaviors of living things. A GRN may be comprised of thousands of genes and proteins that all communicate with one another. GRNs help a particular cell, tissue, or organism respond to environmental changes by signaling certain genes to turn their expression on or off.

    Even seemingly minor or short-term changes in weather patterns can have large effects on crop yield and food security. An environmental trigger, like a lack of water during a crucial phase of plant development, can turn a gene on or off, and is likely to affect many others in the GRN. For example, without water, a gene enabling photosynthesis may switch off. This can create a domino effect, where the genes that rely on those regulating photosynthesis are silenced, and the cycle continues. As a result, when photosynthesis is halted, the plant may experience other detrimental side effects, like no longer being able to reproduce or defend against pathogens. The chain reaction could even kill a plant before it has the chance to be revived by a big rain.

    Des Marais says he wishes there was a way to stop those genes from completely shutting off in such a situation. To do that, scientists would need to better understand how exactly gene networks respond to different environmental triggers. Bringing light to this molecular process is exactly what he aims to do in this collaborative research effort.

    Solving complex problems across disciplines

    Despite their crucial importance, GRNs are difficult to study because of how complex and interconnected they are. Usually, to understand how a particular gene is affecting others, biologists must silence one gene and see how the others in the network respond. 

    For years, scientists have aspired to an algorithm that could synthesize the massive amount of information contained in GRNs to “identify correct regulatory relationships among genes,” according to a 2019 article in the Encyclopedia of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. 

    “A GRN can be seen as a large causal network, and understanding the effects that silencing one gene has on all other genes requires understanding the causal relationships among the genes,” says Uhler. “These are exactly the kinds of algorithms my group develops.”

    Des Marais and Uhler’s project aims to unravel these complex communication networks and discover how to breed crops that are more resilient to the increased droughts, flooding, and erratic weather patterns that climate change is already causing globally.

    In addition to climate change, by 2050, the world will demand 70 percent more food to feed a booming population. “Food systems challenges cannot be addressed individually in disciplinary or topic area silos,” says Greg Sixt, J-WAFS’ research manager for climate and food systems. “They must be addressed in a systems context that reflects the interconnected nature of the food system.”

    Des Marais’ background is in biology, and Uhler’s in statistics. “Dave’s project with Caroline was essentially experimental,” says Renee J. Robins, J-WAFS’ executive director. “This kind of exploratory research is exactly what the J-WAFS seed grant program is for.”

    Getting inside gene regulatory networks

    Des Marais and Uhler’s work begins in a windowless basement on MIT’s campus, where 300 genetically identical Brachypodium distachyon plants grow in large, temperature-controlled chambers. The plant, which contains more than 30,000 genes, is a good model for studying important cereal crops like wheat, barley, maize, and millet. For three weeks, all plants receive the same temperature, humidity, light, and water. Then, half are slowly tapered off water, simulating drought-like conditions.

    Six days into the forced drought, the plants are clearly suffering. Des Marais’ PhD student Jie Yun takes tissues from 50 hydrated and 50 dry plants, freezes them in liquid nitrogen to immediately halt metabolic activity, grinds them up into a fine powder, and chemically separates the genetic material. The genes from all 100 samples are then sequenced at a lab across the street.

    The team is left with a spreadsheet listing the 30,000 genes found in each of the 100 plants at the moment they were frozen, and how many copies there were. Uhler’s PhD student Anastasiya Belyaeva inputs the massive spreadsheet into the computer program she developed and runs her novel algorithm. Within a few hours, the group can see which genes were most active in one condition over another, how the genes were communicating, and which were causing changes in others. 

    The methodology captures important subtleties that could allow researchers to eventually alter gene pathways and breed more resilient crops. “When you expose a plant to drought stress, it’s not like there’s some canonical response,” Des Marais says. “There’s lots of things going on. It’s turning this physiologic process up, this one down, this one didn’t exist before, and now suddenly is turned on.” 

    In addition to Des Marais and Uhler’s research, J-WAFS has funded projects in food and water from researchers in 29 departments across all five MIT schools as well as the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. J-WAFS seed grants typically fund seven to eight new projects every year.

    “The grants are really aimed at catalyzing new ideas, providing the sort of support [for MIT researchers] to be pushing boundaries, and also bringing in faculty who may have some interesting ideas that they haven’t yet applied to water or food concerns,” Robins says. “It’s an avenue for researchers all over the Institute to apply their ideas to water and food.”

    Alison Gold is a student in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. More

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    J-WAFS announces 2021 Solutions Grants for commercializing water and food technologies

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) recently announced the 2021 J-WAFS Solutions grant recipients. The J-WAFS Solutions program aims to propel MIT water- and food-related research toward commercialization. Grant recipients receive one year of financial support, as well as mentorship, networking, and guidance from industry experts, to begin their journey into the commercial world — whether that be in the form of bringing innovative products to market or launching cutting-edge startup companies. 

    This year, three projects will receive funding across water, food, and agriculture spaces. The winning projects will advance nascent technologies for off-grid refrigeration, portable water filtration, and dairy waste recycling. Each provides an efficient, accessible solution to the respective challenge being addressed.

    Since the start of the J-WAFS Solutions program in 2015, grants have provided instrumental support in creating a number of key MIT startups that focus on major water and food challenges. A 2015-16 grant helped the team behind Via Separations develop their business plan to massively decarbonize industrial separations processes. Other successful J-WAFS Solutions alumni include researchers who created a low-cost water filter made from tree branches and the team that launched the startup Xibus Systems, which is developing a handheld food safety sensor.

    “New technological advances are being made at MIT every day, and J-WAFS Solutions grants provide critical resources and support for these technologies to make it to market so that they can transform our local and global water and food systems,” says J-WAFS Executive Director Renee Robins. “This year’s grant recipients offer innovative tools that will provide more accessible food storage for smallholder farmers in places like Africa, safer drinking water, and a new approach to recycling food waste,” Robins notes. She adds, “J-WAFS is excited to work with these teams, and we look forward to seeing their impact on the water and food sectors.”

    The J-WAFS Solutions program is implemented in collaboration with Community Jameel, the global philanthropic organization founded by Mohammed Jameel ’78, and is supported by the MIT Venture Mentoring Service and the iCorps New England Regional Innovation Node at MIT.

    Mobile evaporative cooling rooms for vegetable preservation

    Food waste is a persistent problem across food systems supply chains, as 30-50 percent of food produced is lost before it reaches the table. The problem is compounded in areas without access to the refrigeration necessary to store food after it is harvested. Hot and dry climates in particular struggle to preserve food before it reaches consumers. A team led by Daniel Frey, faculty director for research at MIT D-Lab and professor of mechanical engineering, has pioneered a new approach to enable farmers to better preserve their produce and improve access to nutritious food in the community. The team includes Leon Glicksman, professor of building technology and mechanical engineering, and Eric Verploegen, a research engineer in MIT D-Lab.

    Instead of relying on traditional refrigeration with high energy and cost requirements, the team is utilizing forced-air evaporative cooling chambers. Their design, based on retrofitting shipping containers, will provide a lower-cost, better-performing solution enabling farmers to chill their produce without access to power. The research team was previously funded by J-WAFS through two different grants in 2019 to develop the off-grid technology in collaboration with researchers at the University of Nairobi and the Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), Jamshedpur. Now, the cooling rooms are ready for pilot testing, which the MIT team will conduct with rural farmers in Kenya and India. The MIT team will deploy and test the storage chambers through collaborations with two Kenyan social enterprises and a nongovernmental organization in Gujarat, India. 

    Off-grid portable ion concentration polarization desalination unit

    Shrinking aquifers, polluted rivers, and increased drought are making fresh drinking water increasingly scarce, driving the need for improved desalination technologies. The water purifiers market, which was $45 billion in 2019, is expected to grow to $90.1 billion in 2025. However, current products on the market are limited in scope, in that they are designed to treat water that is already relatively low in salinity, and do not account for lead contamination or other technical challenges. A better solution is required to ensure access to clean and safe drinking water in the face of water shortages. 

    A team led by Jongyoon Han, professor of biological engineering and electrical engineering at MIT, has developed a portable desalination unit that utilizes an ion concentration polarization process. The compact and lightweight unit has the ability to remove dissolved and suspended solids from brackish water at a rate of one liter per hour, both in installed and remote field settings. The unit was featured in an award-winning video in the 2021 J-WAFS World Water Day Video Competition: MIT Research for a Water Secure Future. The team plans to develop the next-generation prototype of the desalination unit alongside a mass-production strategy and business model.

    Converting dairy industry waste into food and feed ingredients

    One of the trendiest foods in the last decade, Greek yogurt, has a hidden dark side: acid whey. This low-pH, liquid by-product of yogurt production has been a growing problem for producers, as untreated disposal of the whey can pose environmental risks due to its high organic content and acidic odor.

    With an estimated 3 million tons of acid whey generated in the United States each year, MIT researchers saw an opportunity to turn waste into a valuable resource for our food systems. Led by the Willard Henry Dow Professor in Chemical Engineering, Gregory Stephanopoulos, and Anthony J. Sinskey, professor of microbiology, the researchers are utilizing metabolic engineering to turn acid whey into carotenoids, the yellow and orange organic pigments found naturally in carrots, autumn leaves, and salmon. The team is hoping that these carotenoids can be utilized as food supplements or feed additives to make the most of what otherwise would have been wasted. More