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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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    Solar-powered desalination device wins MIT $100K competition

    The winner of this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition is commercializing a new water desalination technology.

    Nona Desalination says it has developed a device capable of producing enough drinking water for 10 people at half the cost and with 1/10th the power of other water desalination devices. The device is roughly the size and weight of a case of bottled water and is powered by a small solar panel.

    “Our mission is to make portable desalination sustainable and easy,” said Nona CEO and MIT MBA candidate Bruce Crawford in the winning pitch, delivered to an audience in the Kresge Auditorium and online.

    The traditional approach for water desalination relies on a power-intensive process called reverse osmosis. In contrast, Nona uses a technology developed in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics that removes salt and bacteria from seawater using an electrical current.

    “Because we can do all this at super low pressure, we don’t need the high-pressure pump [used in reverse osmosis], so we don’t need a lot of electricity,” says Crawford, who co-founded the company with MIT Research Scientist Junghyo Yoon. “Our device runs on less power than a cell phone charger.”

    The founders cited problems like tropical storms, drought, and infrastructure crises like the one in Flint, Michigan, to underscore that clean water access is not just a problem in developing countries. In Houston, after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in 2017, some residents were advised not to drink their tap water for months.

    The company has already developed a small prototype that produces clean drinking water. With its winnings, Nona will build more prototypes to give to early customers.

    The company plans to sell its first units to sailors before moving into the emergency preparedness space in the U.S., which it estimates to be a $5 billion industry. From there, it hopes to scale globally to help with disaster relief. The technology could also possibly be used for hydrogen production, oil and gas separation, and more.

    The MIT $100K is MIT’s largest entrepreneurship competition. It began in 1989 and is organized by students with support from the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the MIT Sloan School of Management. Each team must include at least one current MIT student.

    The second-place $25,000 prize went to, a company helping people and organizations create a more inclusive environment.

    The company uses conversational artificial intelligence and natural language processing to detect words and phrases that contain bias, and can measure the level of bias or inclusivity in communication.

    “We’re here to create a world where everyone feels invited to the conversation,” said MBA candidate Yeti Khim, who co-founded the company with fellow MBA candidates Joyce Chen and Priya Bhasin. can scan a range of communications and make suggestions for improvement. The algorithm can detect discrimination, microaggression, and condescension, and the founders say it analyzes language in a more nuanced way than tools like Grammarly.

    The company is currently developing a plugin for web browsers and is hoping to partner with large enterprise customers later this year. It will work with internal communications like emails as well as external communications like sales and marketing material. plans to sell to organizations on a subscription model and notes that diversity and inclusion is becoming a higher priority in many companies. Khim cited studies showing that lack of inclusion hinders employee productivity, retention, and recruiting.

    “We could all use a little bit of help to create the most inclusive version of ourselves,” Khim said.

    The third-place prize went to RTMicrofluidics, which is building at-home tests for a range of diseases including strep throat, tuberculosis, and mononucleosis. The test is able to detect a host of bacterial and viral pathogens in saliva and provide accurate test results in less than 30 minutes.

    The audience choice award went to Sparkle, which has developed a molecular dye technology that can illuminate tumors, making them easier to remove during surgery.

    This year’s $100K event was the culmination of a process that began last March, when 60 teams applied for the program. Out of that pool, 20 semifinalists were given additional mentoring and support before eight finalists were selected to pitch.

    The other finalist teams were:

    Astrahl, which is developing high resolution and affordable X-ray systems by integrating nanotechnologies with scintillators;

    Encreto Therapeutics, which is discovering medications to satiate appetite for people with obesity;

    Iridence, which has patented a biomaterial to replace minerals like mica as a way to make the beauty industry more sustainable; and

    Mantel, which is developing a liquid material for more efficient carbon removal that operates at high temperatures. More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Using plant biology to address climate change

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

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

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

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

    Promoting crop resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Creating “self-fertilizing” crops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Ocean vital signs

    Without the ocean, the climate crisis would be even worse than it is. Each year, the ocean absorbs billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere, preventing warming that greenhouse gas would otherwise cause. Scientists estimate about 25 to 30 percent of all carbon released into the atmosphere by both human and natural sources is absorbed by the ocean.

    “But there’s a lot of uncertainty in that number,” says Ryan Woosley, a marine chemist and a principal research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT. Different parts of the ocean take in different amounts of carbon depending on many factors, such as the season and the amount of mixing from storms. Current models of the carbon cycle don’t adequately capture this variation.

    To close the gap, Woosley and a team of other MIT scientists developed a research proposal for the MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition — an Institute-wide campaign to catalyze and fund innovative research addressing the climate crisis. The team’s proposal, “Ocean Vital Signs,” involves sending a fleet of sailing drones to cruise the oceans taking detailed measurements of how much carbon the ocean is really absorbing. Those data would be used to improve the precision of global carbon cycle models and improve researchers’ ability to verify emissions reductions claimed by countries.

    “If we start to enact mitigation strategies—either through removing CO2 from the atmosphere or reducing emissions — we need to know where CO2 is going in order to know how effective they are,” says Woosley. Without more precise models there’s no way to confirm whether observed carbon reductions were thanks to policy and people, or thanks to the ocean.

    “So that’s the trillion-dollar question,” says Woosley. “If countries are spending all this money to reduce emissions, is it enough to matter?”

    In February, the team’s Climate Grand Challenges proposal was named one of 27 finalists out of the almost 100 entries submitted. From among this list of finalists, MIT will announce in April the selection of five flagship projects to receive further funding and support.

    Woosley is leading the team along with Christopher Hill, a principal research engineer in EAPS. The team includes physical and chemical oceanographers, marine microbiologists, biogeochemists, and experts in computational modeling from across the department, in addition to collaborators from the Media Lab and the departments of Mathematics, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

    Today, data on the flux of carbon dioxide between the air and the oceans are collected in a piecemeal way. Research ships intermittently cruise out to gather data. Some commercial ships are also fitted with sensors. But these present a limited view of the entire ocean, and include biases. For instance, commercial ships usually avoid storms, which can increase the turnover of water exposed to the atmosphere and cause a substantial increase in the amount of carbon absorbed by the ocean.

    “It’s very difficult for us to get to it and measure that,” says Woosley. “But these drones can.”

    If funded, the team’s project would begin by deploying a few drones in a small area to test the technology. The wind-powered drones — made by a California-based company called Saildrone — would autonomously navigate through an area, collecting data on air-sea carbon dioxide flux continuously with solar-powered sensors. This would then scale up to more than 5,000 drone-days’ worth of observations, spread over five years, and in all five ocean basins.

    Those data would be used to feed neural networks to create more precise maps of how much carbon is absorbed by the oceans, shrinking the uncertainties involved in the models. These models would continue to be verified and improved by new data. “The better the models are, the more we can rely on them,” says Woosley. “But we will always need measurements to verify the models.”

    Improved carbon cycle models are relevant beyond climate warming as well. “CO2 is involved in so much of how the world works,” says Woosley. “We’re made of carbon, and all the other organisms and ecosystems are as well. What does the perturbation to the carbon cycle do to these ecosystems?”

    One of the best understood impacts is ocean acidification. Carbon absorbed by the ocean reacts to form an acid. A more acidic ocean can have dire impacts on marine organisms like coral and oysters, whose calcium carbonate shells and skeletons can dissolve in the lower pH. Since the Industrial Revolution, the ocean has become about 30 percent more acidic on average.

    “So while it’s great for us that the oceans have been taking up the CO2, it’s not great for the oceans,” says Woosley. “Knowing how this uptake affects the health of the ocean is important as well.” More

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    A better way to separate gases

    Industrial processes for chemical separations, including natural gas purification and the production of oxygen and nitrogen for medical or industrial uses, are collectively responsible for about 15 percent of the world’s energy use. They also contribute a corresponding amount to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Now, researchers at MIT and Stanford University have developed a new kind of membrane for carrying out these separation processes with roughly 1/10 the energy use and emissions.

    Using membranes for separation of chemicals is known to be much more efficient than processes such as distillation or absorption, but there has always been a tradeoff between permeability — how fast gases can penetrate through the material — and selectivity — the ability to let the desired molecules pass through while blocking all others. The new family of membrane materials, based on “hydrocarbon ladder” polymers, overcomes that tradeoff, providing both high permeability and extremely good selectivity, the researchers say.

    The findings are reported today in the journal Science, in a paper by Yan Xia, an associate professor of chemistry at Stanford; Zachary Smith, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at MIT; Ingo Pinnau, a professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and five others.

    Gas separation is an important and widespread industrial process whose uses include removing impurities and undesired compounds from natural gas or biogas, separating oxygen and nitrogen from air for medical and industrial purposes, separating carbon dioxide from other gases for carbon capture, and producing hydrogen for use as a carbon-free transportation fuel. The new ladder polymer membranes show promise for drastically improving the performance of such separation processes. For example, separating carbon dioxide from methane, these new membranes have five times the selectivity and 100 times the permeability of existing cellulosic membranes for that purpose. Similarly, they are 100 times more permeable and three times as selective for separating hydrogen gas from methane.

    The new type of polymers, developed over the last several years by the Xia lab, are referred to as ladder polymers because they are formed from double strands connected by rung-like bonds, and these linkages provide a high degree of rigidity and stability to the polymer material. These ladder polymers are synthesized via an efficient and selective chemistry the Xia lab developed called CANAL, an acronym for catalytic arene-norbornene annulation, which stitches readily available chemicals into ladder structures with hundreds or even thousands of rungs. The polymers are synthesized in a solution, where they form rigid and kinked ribbon-like strands that can easily be made into a thin sheet with sub-nanometer-scale pores by using industrially available polymer casting processes. The sizes of the resulting pores can be tuned through the choice of the specific hydrocarbon starting compounds. “This chemistry and choice of chemical building blocks allowed us to make very rigid ladder polymers with different configurations,” Xia says.

    To apply the CANAL polymers as selective membranes, the collaboration made use of Xia’s expertise in polymers and Smith’s specialization in membrane research. Holden Lai, a former Stanford doctoral student, carried out much of the development and exploration of how their structures impact gas permeation properties. “It took us eight years from developing the new chemistry to finding the right polymer structures that bestow the high separation performance,” Xia says.

    The Xia lab spent the past several years varying the structures of CANAL polymers to understand how their structures affect their separation performance. Surprisingly, they found that adding additional kinks to their original CANAL polymers significantly improved the mechanical robustness of their membranes and boosted their selectivity  for molecules of similar sizes, such as oxygen and nitrogen gases, without losing permeability of the more permeable gas. The selectivity actually improves as the material ages. The combination of high selectivity and high permeability makes these materials outperform all other polymer materials in many gas separations, the researchers say.

    Today, 15 percent of global energy use goes into chemical separations, and these separation processes are “often based on century-old technologies,” Smith says. “They work well, but they have an enormous carbon footprint and consume massive amounts of energy. The key challenge today is trying to replace these nonsustainable processes.” Most of these processes require high temperatures for boiling and reboiling solutions, and these often are the hardest processes to electrify, he adds.

    For the separation of oxygen and nitrogen from air, the two molecules only differ in size by about 0.18 angstroms (ten-billionths of a meter), he says. To make a filter capable of separating them efficiently “is incredibly difficult to do without decreasing throughput.” But the new ladder polymers, when manufactured into membranes produce tiny pores that achieve high selectivity, he says. In some cases, 10 oxygen molecules permeate for every nitrogen, despite the razor-thin sieve needed to access this type of size selectivity. These new membrane materials have “the highest combination of permeability and selectivity of all known polymeric materials for many applications,” Smith says.

    “Because CANAL polymers are strong and ductile, and because they are soluble in certain solvents, they could be scaled for industrial deployment within a few years,” he adds. An MIT spinoff company called Osmoses, led by authors of this study, recently won the MIT $100K entrepreneurship competition and has been partly funded by The Engine to commercialize the technology.

    There are a variety of potential applications for these materials in the chemical processing industry, Smith says, including the separation of carbon dioxide from other gas mixtures as a form of emissions reduction. Another possibility is the purification of biogas fuel made from agricultural waste products in order to provide carbon-free transportation fuel. Hydrogen separation for producing a fuel or a chemical feedstock, could also be carried out efficiently, helping with the transition to a hydrogen-based economy.

    The close-knit team of researchers is continuing to refine the process to facilitate the development from laboratory to industrial scale, and to better understand the details on how the macromolecular structures and packing result in the ultrahigh selectivity. Smith says he expects this platform technology to play a role in multiple decarbonization pathways, starting with hydrogen separation and carbon capture, because there is such a pressing need for these technologies in order to transition to a carbon-free economy.

    “These are impressive new structures that have outstanding gas separation performance,” says Ryan Lively, am associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Georgia Tech, who was not involved in this work. “Importantly, this performance is improved during membrane aging and when the membranes are challenged with concentrated gas mixtures. … If they can scale these materials and fabricate membrane modules, there is significant potential practical impact.”

    The research team also included Jun Myun Ahn and Ashley Robinson at Stanford, Francesco Benedetti at MIT, now the chief executive officer at Osmoses, and Yingge Wang at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. The work was supported by the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative, the Sloan Research Fellowship, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Basic Energy Sciences, and the National Science Foundation. More

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    Setting carbon management in stone

    Keeping global temperatures within limits deemed safe by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change means doing more than slashing carbon emissions. It means reversing them.

    “If we want to be anywhere near those limits [of 1.5 or 2 C], then we have to be carbon neutral by 2050, and then carbon negative after that,” says Matěj Peč, a geoscientist and the Victor P. Starr Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

    Going negative will require finding ways to radically increase the world’s capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere and put it somewhere where it will not leak back out. Carbon capture and storage projects already suck in tens of million metric tons of carbon each year. But putting a dent in emissions will mean capturing many billions of metric tons more. Today, people emit around 40 billion tons of carbon each year globally, mainly by burning fossil fuels.

    Because of the need for new ideas when it comes to carbon storage, Peč has created a proposal for the MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition — a bold and sweeping effort by the Institute to support paradigm-shifting research and innovation to address the climate crisis. Called the Advanced Carbon Mineralization Initiative, his team’s proposal aims to bring geologists, chemists, and biologists together to make permanently storing carbon underground workable under different geological conditions. That means finding ways to speed-up the process by which carbon pumped underground is turned into rock, or mineralized.

    “That’s what the geology has to offer,” says Peč, who is a lead on the project, along with Ed Boyden, professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and media arts and sciences, and Yogesh Surendranath, professor of chemistry. “You look for the places where you can safely and permanently store these huge volumes of CO2.”

    Peč‘s proposal is one of 27 finalists selected from a pool of almost 100 Climate Grand Challenge proposals submitted by collaborators from across the Institute. Each finalist team received $100,000 to further develop their research proposals. A subset of finalists will be announced in April, making up a portfolio of multiyear “flagship” projects receiving additional funding and support.

    Building industries capable of going carbon negative presents huge technological, economic, environmental, and political challenges. For one, it’s expensive and energy-intensive to capture carbon from the air with existing technologies, which are “hellishly complicated,” says Peč. Much of the carbon capture underway today focuses on more concentrated sources like coal- or gas-burning power plants.

    It’s also difficult to find geologically suitable sites for storage. To keep it in the ground after it has been captured, carbon must either be trapped in airtight reservoirs or turned to stone.

    One of the best places for carbon capture and storage (CCS) is Iceland, where a number of CCS projects are up and running. The island’s volcanic geology helps speed up the mineralization process, as carbon pumped underground interacts with basalt rock at high temperatures. In that ideal setting, says Peč, 95 percent of carbon injected underground is mineralized after just two years — a geological flash.

    But Iceland’s geology is unusual. Elsewhere requires deeper drilling to reach suitable rocks at suitable temperature, which adds costs to already expensive projects. Further, says Peč, there’s not a complete understanding of how different factors influence the speed of mineralization.

    Peč‘s Climate Grand Challenge proposal would study how carbon mineralizes under different conditions, as well as explore ways to make mineralization happen more rapidly by mixing the carbon dioxide with different fluids before injecting it underground. Another idea — and the reason why there are biologists on the team — is to learn from various organisms adept at turning carbon into calcite shells, the same stuff that makes up limestone.

    Two other carbon management proposals, led by EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor Bradford Hager, were also selected as Climate Grand Challenge finalists. They focus on both the technologies necessary for capturing and storing gigatons of carbon as well as the logistical challenges involved in such an enormous undertaking.

    That involves everything from choosing suitable sites for storage, to regulatory and environmental issues, as well as how to bring disparate technologies together to improve the whole pipeline. The proposals emphasize CCS systems that can be powered by renewable sources, and can respond dynamically to the needs of different hard-to-decarbonize industries, like concrete and steel production.

    “We need to have an industry that is on the scale of the current oil industry that will not be doing anything but pumping CO2 into storage reservoirs,” says Peč.

    For a problem that involves capturing enormous amounts of gases from the atmosphere and storing it underground, it’s no surprise EAPS researchers are so involved. The Earth sciences have “everything” to offer, says Peč, including the good news that the Earth has more than enough places where carbon might be stored.

    “Basically, the Earth is really, really large,” says Peč. “The reasonably accessible places, which are close to the continents, store somewhere on the order of tens of thousands to hundreds thousands of gigatons of carbon. That’s orders of magnitude more than we need to put back in.” More