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    Processing waste biomass to reduce airborne emissions

    To prepare fields for planting, farmers the world over often burn corn stalks, rice husks, hay, straw, and other waste left behind from the previous harvest. In many places, the practice creates huge seasonal clouds of smog, contributing to air pollution that kills 7 million people globally a year, according to the World Health Organization.

    Annually, $120 billion worth of crop and forest residues are burned in the open worldwide — a major waste of resources in an energy-starved world, says Kevin Kung SM ’13, PhD ’17. Kung is working to transform this waste biomass into marketable products — and capitalize on a billion-dollar global market — through his MIT spinoff company, Takachar.

    Founded in 2015, Takachar develops small-scale, low-cost, portable equipment to convert waste biomass into solid fuel using a variety of thermochemical treatments, including one known as oxygen-lean torrefaction. The technology emerged from Kung’s PhD project in the lab of Ahmed Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane (1972) Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT.

    Biomass fuels, including wood, peat, and animal dung, are a major source of carbon emissions — but billions of people rely on such fuels for cooking, heating, and other household needs. “Currently, burning biomass generates 10 percent of the primary energy used worldwide, and the process is used largely in rural, energy-poor communities. We’re not going to change that overnight. There are places with no other sources of energy,” Ghoniem says.

    What Takachar’s technology provides is a way to use biomass more cleanly and efficiently by concentrating the fuel and eliminating contaminants such as moisture and dirt, thus creating a “clean-burning” fuel — one that generates less smoke. “In rural communities where biomass is used extensively as a primary energy source, torrefaction will address air pollution head-on,” Ghoniem says.

    Thermochemical treatment densifies biomass at elevated temperatures, converting plant materials that are typically loose, wet, and bulky into compact charcoal. Centralized processing plants exist, but collection and transportation present major barriers to utilization, Kung says. Takachar’s solution moves processing into the field: To date, Takachar has worked with about 5,500 farmers to process 9,000 metric tons of crops.

    Takachar estimates its technology has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by gigatons per year at scale. (“Carbon dioxide equivalent” is a measure used to gauge global warming potential.) In recognition, in 2021 Takachar won the first-ever Earthshot Prize in the clean air category, a £1 million prize funded by Prince William and Princess Kate’s Royal Foundation.

    Roots in Kenya

    As Kung tells the story, Takachar emerged from a class project that took him to Kenya — which explains the company’s name, a combination of takataka, which mean “trash” in Swahili, and char, for the charcoal end product.

    It was 2011, and Kung was at MIT as a biological engineering grad student focused on cancer research. But “MIT gives students big latitude for exploration, and I took courses outside my department,” he says. In spring 2011, he signed up for a class known as 15.966 (Global Health Delivery Lab) in the MIT Sloan School of Management. The class brought Kung to Kenya to work with a nongovernmental organization in Nairobi’s Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa.

    “We interviewed slum households for their views on health, and that’s when I noticed the charcoal problem,” Kung says. The problem, as Kung describes it, was that charcoal was everywhere in Kibera — piled up outside, traded by the road, and used as the primary fuel, even indoors. Its creation contributed to deforestation, and its smoke presented a serious health hazard.

    Eager to address this challenge, Kung secured fellowship support from the MIT International Development Initiative and the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center to conduct more research in Kenya. In 2012, he formed Takachar as a team and received seed money from the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, and D-Lab to produce charcoal from household organic waste. (This work also led to a fertilizer company, Safi Organics, that Kung founded in 2016 with the help of MIT IDEAS. But that is another story.)

    Meanwhile, Kung had another top priority: finding a topic for his PhD dissertation. Back at MIT, he met Alexander Slocum, the Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who on a long walk-and-talk along the Charles River suggested he turn his Kenya work into a thesis. Slocum connected him with Robert Stoner, deputy director for science and technology at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and founding director of MITEI’s Tata Center for Technology and Design. Stoner in turn introduced Kung to Ghoniem, who became his PhD advisor, while Slocum and Stoner joined his doctoral committee.

    Roots in MIT lab

    Ghoniem’s telling of the Takachar story begins, not surprisingly, in the lab. Back in 2010, he had a master’s student interested in renewable energy, and he suggested the student investigate biomass. That student, Richard Bates ’10, SM ’12, PhD ’16, began exploring the science of converting biomass to more clean-burning charcoal through torrefaction.

    Most torrefaction (also known as low-temperature pyrolysis) systems use external heating sources, but the lab’s goal, Ghoniem explains, was to develop an efficient, self-sustained reactor that would generate fewer emissions. “We needed to understand the chemistry and physics of the process, and develop fundamental scaling models, before going to the lab to build the device,” he says.

    By the time Kung joined the lab in 2013, Ghoniem was working with the Tata Center to identify technology suitable for developing countries and largely based on renewable energy. Kung was able to secure a Tata Fellowship and — building on Bates’ research — develop the small-scale, practical device for biomass thermochemical conversion in the field that launched Takachar.

    This device, which was patented by MIT with inventors Kung, Ghoniem, Stoner, MIT research scientist Santosh Shanbhogue, and Slocum, is self-contained and scalable. It burns a little of the biomass to generate heat; this heat bakes the rest of the biomass, releasing gases; the system then introduces air to enable these gases to combust, which burns off the volatiles and generates more heat, keeping the thermochemical reaction going.

    “The trick is how to introduce the right amount of air at the right location to sustain the process,” Ghoniem explains. “If you put in more air, that will burn the biomass. If you put in less, there won’t be enough heat to produce the charcoal. That will stop the reaction.”

    About 10 percent of the biomass is used as fuel to support the reaction, Kung says, adding that “90 percent is densified into a form that’s easier to handle and utilize.” He notes that the research received financial support from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab and the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, both at MIT. Sonal Thengane, another postdoc in Ghoniem’s lab, participated in the effort to scale up the technology at the MIT Bates Lab (no relation to Richard Bates).

    The charcoal produced is more valuable per ton and easier to transport and sell than biomass, reducing transportation costs by two-thirds and giving farmers an additional income opportunity — and an incentive not to burn agricultural waste, Kung says. “There’s more income for farmers, and you get better air quality.”

    Roots in India

    When Kung became a Tata Fellow, he joined a program founded to take on the biggest challenges of the developing world, with a focus on India. According to Stoner, Tata Fellows, including Kung, typically visit India twice a year and spend six to eight weeks meeting stakeholders in industry, the government, and in communities to gain perspective on their areas of study.

    “A unique part of Tata is that you’re considering the ecosystem as a whole,” says Kung, who interviewed hundreds of smallholder farmers, met with truck drivers, and visited existing biomass processing plants during his Tata trips to India. (Along the way, he also connected with Indian engineer Vidyut Mohan, who became Takachar’s co-founder.)

    “It was very important for Kevin to be there walking about, experimenting, and interviewing farmers,” Stoner says. “He learned about the lives of farmers.”

    These experiences helped instill in Kung an appreciation for small farmers that still drives him today as Takachar rolls out its first pilot programs, tinkers with the technology, grows its team (now up to 10), and endeavors to build a revenue stream. So, while Takachar has gotten a lot of attention and accolades — from the IDEAS award to the Earthshot Prize — Kung says what motivates him is the prospect of improving people’s lives.

    The dream, he says, is to empower communities to help both the planet and themselves. “We’re excited about the environmental justice perspective,” he says. “Our work brings production and carbon removal or avoidance to rural communities — providing them with a way to convert waste, make money, and reduce air pollution.”

    This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Passion projects prepare to launch

    At the start of the sixth annual MITdesignX “Pitch Day,” Svafa Grönfeldt, the program’s faculty director, made a point of noting that many of the teams about to showcase their ventures had changed direction multiple times on their projects.

    “Some of you have pivoted more times than we can count,” Grönfeldt said in her welcoming address. “This makes for a fantastic idea because you have the courage to actually question if your ideas are the right ones. In the true spirit of human-centered design, you actually try to understand the problem before you solve it!”

    MITdesignX, a venture accelerator based in the School of Architecture and Planning, is an interdisciplinary academic program operating at the intersection of design, business, and technology. The launching pad for startups focuses on applying design to engage complex problems and discovering high-impact solutions to address critical challenges facing the future of design, cities, and the global environment. The program reflects a new approach to entrepreneurship education, drawing on business theory, design thinking, and entrepreneurial practices.

    At this year’s event, 11 teams pitched their ideas before a panel of three judges, an on-site audience, and several hundred viewers watching the livestream event.

    “These teams have been working hard on solutions,” Gilad Rosenzweig, executive director of MITdesignX, told the audience. “They’re not designing solutions for people. They’re designing solutions with people.”

    Solving urgent problems

    Some of the issues addressed by the teams were lack of adequate housing, endangered food supplies, toxic pollution, and threats to democracy. Many of the students were inspired to create their venture because of problems they encountered in their careers or concerns impacting their home countries. The 25 team members in this year’s cohort represent work on five continents.

    “We’re very proud of our international representation because we want our impact to be felt outside of Cambridge,” said Rosenzweig. “We want to make an impact around the country and around the world.”

    John Devine, a JD/Masters in City Planning (MCP) candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, created a new software platform, “Civic Atlas.” In his pitch, he explained that having worked in city planning in Texas for a decade before coming to MIT, he saw how difficult it was for communities to wade through and comprehend the dense, technical language in city council agendas. Zoning cases, bond projects, and transportation investments are just some of the significant projects that affect a community, and Devine saw many instances where decisions were being made without community awareness as a result of inadequate communication.

    “When communities don’t have access to clear, accessible information, we have poor outcomes,” Devine told the audience. “I realized the solution to this is to make accessible and inclusive digital experiences that really facilitate communication between planners, developers, and members of the community.”

    Seizing the opportunity, Devine taught himself how to code and built a fully automated web tool for the Dallas City Planning Commission. The tool checks the city’s website daily and translates documents into interactive maps, allowing residents to view plans in their community. Devine is starting in Dallas, but says that there are more than 800 cities across the United States with a population greater than 50,000 that present an excellent target market for this product.

    “I think cities have a ton to gain from working with us, including building trust and communication with constituents — something that’s vital for city halls to function,” says Devine.

    Next steps for the cohort

    The judges for this year’s event — Yscaira Jimenez, founder of LaborX; Magnus Ingi Oskarsson of Eyrir Venture Management in Reykjavik, Iceland; and Frank Pawlitschek, director, HPI School of Entrepreneurship in Potsdam, Germany — deliberated to identify the best teams based on three criteria: most innovative, greatest impact, and best presentation. The competition was so strong that the judges decided to award two honorable mentions. This year’s awardees are:

    Atacama, a company that is developing biomaterials to replace plastics, received the “Most Innovative” award and $5,000. The company accelerates the adoption of renewable and sustainable materials through machine learning and robotics, ensuring performance, cost-effectiveness, and environmental impact. Its founders are Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas PhD ’21, Jose Tomas Dominguez, and Jose Antonio Gonzalez.
    Grain Box, a startup focusing on optimizing the post-harvest supply chain for smallholder farmers in rural India, was awarded “Greatest Impact” and a $5,000 award. Its founders are Mona Vijaykumar SMArchS ’22 and T.R. (Radha) Radhakrishnan.
    Lamarr.AI, which offers an autonomous solution for rapid building envelope diagnostics using AI and cloud computing, was recognized for “Best Presentation” and awarded $2,500. Its founders are Norhan Bayomi PhD ’22, Tarek Rakha, PhD ’15, and John E. Fernandez ’85, professor and director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative.
    Honorable Mention: “News Detective,” a platform combining moderated, professional fact-checking and AI to fight misinformation on social media, created by rising senior Ilana Strauss.
    Honorable Mention: “La Firme,” which digitizes architectural services to reach families who self-build their homes in Latin America, created by Mora Orensanz MCP ’21, Fiorella Belli Ferro MCP ’21, and rising senior Raul Briceno Brignole.
    Following the award ceremony, Rosenzweig told the students that the process was not yet over because MITdesignX faculty and staff would always be available to continue guiding and supporting their journeys as they launch and grow their ventures.

    “You’re going to become alumni of MITdesignX,” he said. “You’re going to be joining over 50 teams that are working around the world, making an impact. They’re being recognized as leaders in innovation. They’re being recognized by investors who are helping them make an impact. This is your next step.” More

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    Getting the carbon out of India’s heavy industries

    The world’s third largest carbon emitter after China and the United States, India ranks seventh in a major climate risk index. Unless India, along with the nearly 200 other signatory nations of the Paris Agreement, takes aggressive action to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels, physical and financial losses from floods, droughts, and cyclones could become more severe than they are today. So, too, could health impacts associated with the hazardous air pollution levels now affecting more than 90 percent of its population.  

    To address both climate and air pollution risks and meet its population’s escalating demand for energy, India will need to dramatically decarbonize its energy system in the coming decades. To that end, its initial Paris Agreement climate policy pledge calls for a reduction in carbon dioxide intensity of GDP by 33-35 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, and an increase in non-fossil-fuel-based power to about 40 percent of cumulative installed capacity in 2030. At the COP26 international climate change conference, India announced more aggressive targets, including the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2070.

    Meeting its climate targets will require emissions reductions in every economic sector, including those where emissions are particularly difficult to abate. In such sectors, which involve energy-intensive industrial processes (production of iron and steel; nonferrous metals such as copper, aluminum, and zinc; cement; and chemicals), decarbonization options are limited and more expensive than in other sectors. Whereas replacing coal and natural gas with solar and wind could lower carbon dioxide emissions in electric power generation and transportation, no easy substitutes can be deployed in many heavy industrial processes that release CO2 into the air as a byproduct.

    However, other methods could be used to lower the emissions associated with these processes, which draw upon roughly 50 percent of India’s natural gas, 25 percent of its coal, and 20 percent of its oil. Evaluating the potential effectiveness of such methods in the next 30 years, a new study in the journal Energy Economics led by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change is the first to explicitly explore emissions-reduction pathways for India’s hard-to-abate sectors.

    Using an enhanced version of the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis (EPPA) model, the study assesses existing emissions levels in these sectors and projects how much they can be reduced by 2030 and 2050 under different policy scenarios. Aimed at decarbonizing industrial processes, the scenarios include the use of subsidies to increase electricity use, incentives to replace coal with natural gas, measures to improve industrial resource efficiency, policies to put a price on carbon, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, and hydrogen in steel production.

    The researchers find that India’s 2030 Paris Agreement pledge may still drive up fossil fuel use and associated greenhouse gas emissions, with projected carbon dioxide emissions from hard-to-abate sectors rising by about 2.6 times from 2020 to 2050. But scenarios that also promote electrification, natural gas support, and resource efficiency in hard-to-abate sectors can lower their CO2 emissions by 15-20 percent.

    While appearing to move the needle in the right direction, those reductions are ultimately canceled out by increased demand for the products that emerge from these sectors. So what’s the best path forward?

    The researchers conclude that only the incentive of carbon pricing or the advance of disruptive technology can move hard-to-abate sector emissions below their current levels. To achieve significant emissions reductions, they maintain, the price of carbon must be high enough to make CCS economically viable. In that case, reductions of 80 percent below current levels could be achieved by 2050.

    “Absent major support from the government, India will be unable to reduce carbon emissions in its hard-to-abate sectors in alignment with its climate targets,” says MIT Joint Program deputy director Sergey Paltsev, the study’s lead author. “A comprehensive government policy could provide robust incentives for the private sector in India and generate favorable conditions for foreign investments and technology advances. We encourage decision-makers to use our findings to design efficient pathways to reduce emissions in those sectors, and thereby help lower India’s climate and air pollution-related health risks.” More

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    Conversations at the front line of climate

    The climate crisis is a novel and developing chapter in human and planetary history. As a species, humankind is still very much learning how to face this crisis, and the world’s frontline communities — those being most affected by climate change — are struggling to make their voices heard. How can communities imperiled by climate change convey the urgency of their situation to countries and organizations with the means to make a difference? And how can governments and other powerful groups provide resources to these vulnerable frontline communities?The MIT Civic Design Initiative (CDI), an interdisciplinary confluence of media studies and design expertise, emerged in 2020 to tackle just these kinds of questions. It brings together the MIT Design Lab, a program originally founded in the School of Architecture and Planning with its research practices in design, and the Comparative Media Studies program (CMS/W) with its focus on the fundamentals of human connection and communication. Drawing on these complementary sources of scholarly perspective and expertise, CDI is a suitably broad umbrella for the range of climate-related issues that humanistic research and design can potentially address. Based in the CMS/W program of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the initiative is responding to the climate crises with a spirit of inquiry, listening, and solid data. Reflecting on the mission, James Paradis, the Robert M. Metcalfe Professor of CMS/W and CDI faculty director, says the core idea is to address global issues by combining new and emerging technologies with an equally keen focus on the social and cultural contexts — the human dimensions of the issue — with many of their nuances.  Working closely with Paradis on this vision are the two CDI co-directors: Yihyun Lim, an architect, urban designer, and MIT researcher; and Eric Gordon, a visiting professor of civic media in MIT CMS/W. Prior to CDI, when she was leading the MIT Design Lab research group, Lim says “At MIT Design Lab, I was working within the realm of applied research with industry partnerships, how we can apply user-centered design methods in creating connected experiences. Eric, Jim, and I wanted to shift the focus into a more civic realm, where we could bring all our collective expertise together to address tricky problems.”

    Deep listeningThe initiative’s flagship project, the Deep Listening Project, is currently working with an initial group of frontline communities in Nepal and Indigenous tribes in the United States and Canada. The work is a direct application of communication protocols: understanding how people are communicating with and often without technologies — and how technologies can be better used to help people get the help they need, when they need it, in the face of the climate crisis.

    The CDI team describes deep listening as “a form of institutional and community intake that considers diversity, tensions, and frictions, and that incorporates communities’ values in creating solutions.”

    Globally, the majority of climate response funding currently goes toward mitigation efforts — such as reducing emissions or using more eco-friendly materials. It is only in recent years that more substantial funding has been focused on climate adaptation: making adjustments that can help a community adapt to present changes and impacts and also prepare for future climate-related crises. For the millions of people in frontline communities, such adaptation can be crucial to protecting and sustaining their communities.Gordon describes the scope of the situation: “We know that over the next 10 years, climate change will drive over 100 million people to adapt where and how they live, regardless of the success of mitigation efforts. And in order for those adaptations to succeed, there must be a concerted collaborative effort between frontline communities and institutions with the resources to facilitate adaptation.“Communication between institutions and their constituents is a fundamental planning problem in any context,” Gordon continues. “In the case of climate adaptation, there will not be a surplus of time to get things right. Putting communication mechanisms in place to connect affected communities with institutional resources is already imperative.“This situation requires that we figure out, quickly, how to listen to the people who will rely on [those institutions] for their lives and livelihoods. We want to understand how institutions — from governments to universities to NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] — are adopting and adapting technologies, and how that is benefiting or hurting their constituencies.  People with direct frontline experience need to be supported in their speech and ideas, and institutions need to be able to take in the data from these communities, listen carefully to discern its significance, and then act upon it.” Sensemaking: infrastructure for connection

    One important aspect of meaningful, effective communication will be the ability of frontline and Indigenous communities to communicate likely or imagined futures, based on their own knowledge and desires. One potential tool is what the initiative calls “sensemaking:” producing and sharing data visualizations that can communicate to governments the experiences of frontline communities. The initiative also hopes to develop additional elements of the “deep listening infrastructure” — mechanisms to make sure important community voices carry and that important data isn’t lost to noise in the vast question of climate adaptability.“Oftentimes in academia, the paper gets published or the website gets developed, and everybody says, ‘OK, we’ve done our work,’” Paradis observes. “What we’re aiming to do in the CDI is the necessary work that happens after the publication of research — where research is applied to actually improve peoples’ lives.”The Deep Listening Project is also building a network of scholars and practitioners nationwide, including Henry Jenkins, co-founder and former faculty member at MIT CMS/W; Sangita Shresthova SM ’03 at the University of Southern California; and Darren Ranco at the University of Maine. Ranco, an anthropologist, Indigenous activist, and organizational leader, has been instrumental in connecting with Indigenous groups and tribal governments across North America. Meanwhile, Gordon has helped forge connections with groups like the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, the World Bank, and the UN Development. At the root of these connections is the impetus to communicate lived realities from the level of a small community to that of global relief organizations and governmental powers.

    Potential human futures

    Mona Vijaykumar, a second-year student in the SMArchS Architecture and Urbanism program in the Department of Architecture, and among the first student researcher assistants attached to the new initiative, is excited to have the chance to help build CDI from the ground up. “It’s been a great honor to be working with CDI’s amazing team for the last eight months,” she says. With her background in urban design and research interest in climate adaptation processes, Vijaykumar has been engaged in developing the Deep Listening Project’s white paper as part of MIT Climate Grand Challenges. She works alongside the initiative’s two other inaugural research assistants: Tomas Guarna, a master’s student in CMS, and Gabriela Degetau, a master’s student in the SMarchS Urbanism program, with Vijaykumar.“I was involved in analyzing the literature case study on community-based adaptation processes and co-writing the white paper,” Vijaykumar says, “and am currently working on conducting interviews with communities and institutions in India. Going forward, Gabriela and I will be presenting the white paper at gatherings such as the American Association of Geographers’ Conference in New York and the Climate and Social Impact Conference in Vancouver.”“The support and collaboration of the team have been incredibly empowering,” reflects Degetau, who will be co-presenting the white paper with Vijaykumar in New York and Vancouver, British Columbia. “Even when working from different countries and through Zoom, the experience has been unique and cohesive.”Both Degetau and Vijaykumar were selected as the first fellows of the Vuslat Foundation, organized by the MIT Transmedia Storytelling Initiative. In this one-year fellowship, they are seeking to co-design “climate imaginaries” through the Deep Listening Project. Vijaykumar’s work is also supported by the MIT Human Rights and Technology Fellowship for 2021-22, which guides her personal focus on what she refers to as the “dual sword” of technology and data colonialism in India.As the Deep Listening Project continues to develop a sustainable and balanced communication infrastructure, Lim reflects that a vital part of that is sharing how potential futures are envisioned. Both large institutions and individual communities imagine, separately — and hopefully soon together — how the human world will reshape itself to be viable in profoundly shifting climate conditions. “What are our possible futures?” asks Lim. “What are people dreaming?” 

    Story prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditorial and design director: Emily HiestandSenior communications associate: Alison Lanier 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