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    3 Questions: Robert Stoner unpacks US climate and infrastructure laws

    This month, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) takes place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, bringing together governments, experts, journalists, industry, and civil society to discuss climate action to enable countries to collectively sharply limit anthropogenic climate change. As MIT Energy Initiative Deputy Director for Science and Technology Robert Stoner attends the conference, he takes a moment to speak about the climate and infrastructure laws enacted in the last year in the United States, and about the impact these laws can have in the global energy transition.

    Q: COP27 is now underway. Can you set the scene?

    A: There’s a lot of interest among vulnerable countries about compensation for the impacts climate change has had on them, or “loss and damage,” a topic that the United States refused to address last year at COP26, for fear of opening up a floodgate and leaving U.S. taxpayers exposed to unlimited liability for our past (and future) emissions. This is a crucial issue of fairness for developed countries — and, well, of acknowledging our common humanity. But in a sense, it’s also a sideshow, and addressing it won’t prevent a climate catastrophe — we really need to focus on mitigation. With the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the United States is now in a strong position to twist some arms. These laws are largely about subsidizing the deployment of low-carbon technologies — pretty much all of them. We’re going to do a lot in the United States in the next decade that will lead to dramatic cost reductions for these technologies and enable other countries with fewer resources to adopt them as well. It’s exactly the leadership role the United States has needed to assume. Now we have the opportunity to rally the rest of the world and get other countries to commit to more ambitious decarbonization goals, and to build practical programs that take advantage of the investable pathways we’re going to create for public and private actors.

    But that alone won’t get us there — money is still a huge problem, especially in emerging markets and developing countries. And I don’t think the institutions we rely on to help these countries fund infrastructure — energy and everything else — are adequately funded. Nor do these institutions have the right structures, incentives, and staffing to fund low-carbon development in these countries rapidly enough or on the necessary scale. I’m talking about the World Bank, for instance, but the other multilateral organizations have similar issues. I frankly don’t think the multilaterals can be reformed or sufficiently redirected on a short enough time frame. We definitely need new leadership for these organizations, and I think we probably need to quickly establish new multilaterals with new people, more money, and a clarity of purpose that is likely beyond what can be achieved incrementally. I don’t know if this is going to be an active public discussion at COP27, but I hope it takes place somewhere soon. Given the strong role our government plays in financing and selecting the leadership of these institutions, perhaps this is another opportunity for the United States to demonstrate courage and leadership.

    Q: What “investable pathways” are you talking about?

    A: Well, the pathways we’re implicitly trying to pursue with the Infrastructure Act and IRA are pretty clear, and I’ll come back to them. But first let me describe the landscape: There are three main sources of demand for energy in the economy — industry (meaning chemical production, fuel for electricity generation, cement production, materials and manufacturing, and so on), transportation (cars, trucks, ships, planes, and trains), and buildings (for heating and cooling, mostly). That’s about it, and these three sectors account for 75 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions. So the pathways are all about how to decarbonize these three end-use sectors. There are a lot of technologies — some that exist, some that don’t — that will have to be brought to bear. And so it can be a little overwhelming to try to imagine how it will all transpire, but it’s pretty clear at a high level what our options are:

    First, generate a lot of low-carbon electricity and electrify as many industrial processes, vehicles, and building heating systems as we can.
    Second, develop and deploy at massive scale technologies that can capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks, or the air, and put it somewhere that it can never escape from — in other words, carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS.
    Third, for end uses like aviation that really need to use fuels because of their extraordinary energy density, develop low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.
    And fourth is energy efficiency across the board — but I don’t really count that as a separate pathway per se.
    So, by “investable pathways” I mean specific ways to pursue these options that will attract investors. What the Infrastructure Act and the IRA do is deploy carrots (in the form of subsidies) in a variety of ways to close the gap between what it costs to deploy technologies like CCS that aren’t yet at a commercial stage because they’re immature, and what energy markets will tolerate. A similar situation occurs for low-carbon production of hydrogen, one of the leading low-carbon fuel candidates. We can make it by splitting water with electricity (electrolysis), but that costs too much with present-day technology; or we can make it more cheaply by separating it from methane (which is what natural gas mainly is), but that creates CO2 that has to be transported and sequestered somewhere. And then we have to store the hydrogen until we’re ready to use it, and transport it by pipeline to the industrial facilities where it will be used. That requires infrastructure that doesn’t exist — pipelines, compression stations, big tanks! Come to think of it, the demand for all that hydrogen doesn’t exist either — at least not if industry has to pay what it actually costs.

    So, one very important thing these new acts do is subsidize production of hydrogen in various ways — and subsidize the creation of a CCS industry. The other thing they do is subsidize the deployment at enormous scale of low-carbon energy technologies. Some of them are already pretty cheap, like solar and wind, but they need to be supported by a lot of storage on the grid (which we don’t yet have) and by other sorts of grid infrastructure that, again, don’t exist. So, they now get subsidized, too, along with other carbon-free and low-carbon generation technologies — basically all of them. The idea is that by stimulating at-scale deployment of all these established and emerging technologies, and funding demonstrations of novel infrastructure — effectively lowering the cost of supply of low-carbon energy in the form of electricity and fuels — we will draw out the private sector to build out much more of the connective infrastructure and invest in new industrial processes, new home heating systems, and low-carbon transportation. This subsidized build-out will take place over a decade and then phase out as costs fall — hopefully, leaving the foundation for a thriving low-carbon energy economy in its wake, along with crucial technologies and knowledge that will benefit the whole world.

    Q: Is all of the federal investment in energy infrastructure in the United States relevant to the energy crisis in Europe right now?

    A: Not in a direct way — Europe is a near-term catastrophe with a long-term challenge that is in many ways more difficult than ours because Europe doesn’t have the level of primary energy resources like oil and gas that we have in abundance. Energy costs more in Europe, especially absent Russian pipelines. In a way, the narrowing of Europe’s options creates an impetus to invest in low-carbon technologies sooner than otherwise. The result either way will be expensive energy and quite a lot of economic suffering for years. The near-term challenge is to protect people from high energy prices. The big spikes in electricity prices we see now are driven by the natural gas market disruption, which will eventually dissipate as new sources of electricity come online (Sweden, for example, just announced a plan to develop new nuclear, and we’re seeing other countries like Germany soften their stance on nuclear) — and gas markets will sort themselves out. Meanwhile governments are trying to shield their people with electricity price caps and other subsidies, but that’s enormously burdensome.

    The EU recently announced gas price caps for imported gas to try to eliminate price-gouging by importers and reduce the subsidy burden. That may help to lower downstream prices, or it may make matters worse by reducing the flow of gas into the EU and fueling scarcity pricing, and ultimately adding to the subsidy burden. A lot people are quite reasonably suggesting that if electricity prices are subject to crazy behavior in gas markets, then why not disconnect from the grid and self-generate? Wouldn’t that also help reduce demand for gas overall and also reduce CO2 emissions? It would. But it’s expensive to put solar panels on your roof and batteries in your basement — so for those rich enough to do this, it would lead to higher average electricity costs that would live on far into the future, even when grid prices eventually come down.

    So, an interesting idea is taking hold, with considerable encouragement from national governments — the idea of “energy communities,” basically, towns or cities that encourage local firms and homeowners to install solar and batteries, and make some sort of business arrangement with the local utility to allow the community to disconnect from the national grid at times of high prices and self-supply — in other words, use the utility’s wires to sell locally generated power locally. It’s interesting to think about — it takes less battery storage to handle the intermittency of solar when you have a lot of generators and consumers, so forming a community helps lower costs, and with a good deal from the utility for using their wires, it might not be that much more expensive. And of course, when the national grid is working well and prices are normal, the community would reconnect and buy power cheaply, while selling back its self-generated power to the grid. There are also potentially important social benefits that might accrue in these energy communities, too. It’s not a dumb idea, and we’ll see some interesting experimentation in this area in the coming years — as usual, the Germans are enthusiastic! More

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    Advancing the energy transition amidst global crises

    “The past six years have been the warmest on the planet, and our track record on climate change mitigation is drastically short of what it needs to be,” said Robert C. Armstrong, MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) director and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering, introducing MITEI’s 15th Annual Research Conference.

    At the symposium, participants from academia, industry, and finance acknowledged the deepening difficulties of decarbonizing a world rocked by geopolitical conflicts and suffering from supply chain disruptions, energy insecurity, inflation, and a persistent pandemic. In spite of this grim backdrop, the conference offered evidence of significant progress in the energy transition. Researchers provided glimpses of a low-carbon future, presenting advances in such areas as long-duration energy storage, carbon capture, and renewable technologies.

    In his keynote remarks, Ernest J. Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus, founding director of MITEI, and former U.S. secretary of energy, highlighted “four areas that have materially changed in the last year” that could shake up, and possibly accelerate, efforts to address climate change.

    Extreme weather seems to be propelling the public and policy makers of both U.S. parties toward “convergence … at least in recognition of the challenge,” Moniz said. He perceives a growing consensus that climate goals will require — in diminishing order of certainty — firm (always-on) power to complement renewable energy sources, a fuel (such as hydrogen) flowing alongside electricity, and removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with its “weaponization of natural gas” and global energy impacts, underscores the idea that climate, energy security, and geopolitics “are now more or less recognized widely as one conversation.” Moniz pointed as well to new U.S. laws on climate change and infrastructure that will amplify the role of science and technology and “address the drive to technological dominance by China.”

    The rapid transformation of energy systems will require a comprehensive industrial policy, Moniz said. Government and industry must select and rapidly develop low-carbon fuels, firm power sources (possibly including nuclear power), CO2 removal systems, and long-duration energy storage technologies. “We will need to make progress on all fronts literally in this decade to come close to our goals for climate change mitigation,” he concluded.

    Global cooperation?

    Over two days, conference participants delved into many of the issues Moniz raised. In one of the first panels, scholars pondered whether the international community could forge a coordinated climate change response. The United States’ rift with China, especially over technology trade policies, loomed large.

    “Hatred of China is a bipartisan hobby and passion, but a blanket approach isn’t right, even for the sake of national security,” said Yasheng Huang, the Epoch Foundation Professor of Global Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Although the United States and China working together would have huge effects for both countries, it is politically unpalatable in the short term,” said F. Taylor Fravel, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program. John E. Parsons, deputy director for research at the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, suggested that the United States should use this moment “to get our own act together … and start doing things,” such as building nuclear power plants in a cost-effective way.

    Debating carbon removal

    Several panels took up the matter of carbon emissions and the most promising technologies for contending with them. Charles Harvey, MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at MITEI, set the stage early, debating whether capturing carbon was essential to reaching net-zero targets.

    “I have no trouble getting to net zero without carbon capture and storage,” said David Keith, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard University, in a subsequent roundtable. Carbon capture seems more risky to Keith than solar geoengineering, which involves injecting sulfur into the stratosphere to offset CO2 and its heat-trapping impacts.

    There are new ways of moving carbon from where it’s a problem to where it’s safer. Kripa K. Varanasi, MIT professor of mechanical engineering, described a process for modulating the pH of ocean water to remove CO2. Timothy Krysiek, managing director for Equinor Ventures, talked about construction of a 900-kilometer pipeline transporting CO2 from northern Germany to a large-scale storage site located in Norwegian waters 3,000 meters below the seabed. “We can use these offshore Norwegian assets as a giant carbon sink for Europe,” he said.

    A startup showcase featured additional approaches to the carbon challenge. Mantel, which received MITEI Seed Fund money, is developing molten salt material to capture carbon for long-term storage or for use in generating electricity. Verdox has come up with an electrochemical process for capturing dilute CO2 from the atmosphere.

    But while much of the global warming discussion focuses on CO2, other greenhouse gases are menacing. Another panel discussed measuring and mitigating these pollutants. “Methane has 82 times more warming power than CO2 from the point of emission,” said Desirée L. Plata, MIT associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change in the next 25 years — really the only lever.”

    Steven Hamburg, chief scientist and senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, cautioned that emission of hydrogen molecules into the atmosphere can cause increases in other greenhouse gases such as methane, ozone, and water vapor. As researchers and industry turn to hydrogen as a fuel or as a feedstock for commercial processes, “we will need to minimize leakage … or risk increasing warming,” he said.

    Supply chains, markets, and new energy ventures

    In panels on energy storage and the clean energy supply chain, there were interesting discussions of challenges ahead. High-density energy materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and vanadium for grid-scale energy storage, electric vehicles (EVs), and other clean energy technologies, can be difficult to source. “These often come from water-stressed regions, and we need to be super thoughtful about environmental stresses,” said Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. She also noted that in light of the explosive growth in demand for metals such as lithium, recycling EVs won’t be of much help. “The amount of material coming back from end-of-life batteries is minor,” she said, until EVs are much further along in their adoption cycle.

    Arvind Sanger, founder and managing partner of Geosphere Capital, said that the United States should be developing its own rare earths and minerals, although gaining the know-how will take time, and overcoming “NIMBYism” (not in my backyard-ism) is a challenge. Sanger emphasized that we must continue to use “denser sources of energy” to catalyze the energy transition over the next decade. In particular, Sanger noted that “for every transition technology, steel is needed,” and steel is made in furnaces that use coal and natural gas. “It’s completely woolly-headed to think we can just go to a zero-fossil fuel future in a hurry,” he said.

    The topic of power markets occupied another panel, which focused on ways to ensure the distribution of reliable and affordable zero-carbon energy. Integrating intermittent resources such as wind and solar into the grid requires a suite of retail markets and new digital tools, said Anuradha Annaswamy, director of MIT’s Active-Adaptive Control Laboratory. Tim Schittekatte, a postdoc at the MIT Sloan School of Management, proposed auctions as a way of insuring consumers against periods of high market costs.

    Another panel described the very different investment needs of new energy startups, such as longer research and development phases. Hooisweng Ow, technology principal at Eni Next LLC Ventures, which is developing drilling technology for geothermal energy, recommends joint development and partnerships to reduce risk. Michael Kearney SM ’11, PhD ’19, SM ’19 is a partner at The Engine, a venture firm built by MIT investing in path-breaking technology to solve the toughest challenges in climate and other problems. Kearney believes the emergence of new technologies and markets will bring on “a labor transition on an order of magnitude never seen before in this country,” he said. “Workforce development is not a natural zone for startups … and this will have to change.”

    Supporting the global South

    The opportunities and challenges of the energy transition look quite different in the developing world. In conversation with Robert Armstrong, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment of the Republic of Indonesia, reported that his “nation is rich with solar, wind, and energy transition minerals like nickel and copper,” but cannot on its own tackle developing renewable energy or reducing carbon emissions and improving grid infrastructure. “Education is a top priority, and we are very far behind in high technologies,” he said. “We need help and support from MIT to achieve our target,” he said.

    Technologies that could springboard Indonesia and other nations of the global South toward their climate goals are emerging in MITEI-supported projects and at young companies MITEI helped spawn. Among the promising innovations unveiled at the conference are new materials and designs for cooling buildings in hot climates and reducing the environmental costs of construction, and a sponge-like substance that passively sucks moisture out of the air to lower the energy required for running air conditioners in humid climates.

    Other ideas on the move from lab to market have great potential for industrialized nations as well, such as a computational framework for maximizing the energy output of ocean-based wind farms; a process for using ammonia as a renewable fuel with no CO2 emissions; long-duration energy storage derived from the oxidation of iron; and a laser-based method for unlocking geothermal steam to drive power plants. More

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    Methane research takes on new urgency at MIT

    One of the most notable climate change provisions in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act is the first U.S. federal tax on a greenhouse gas (GHG). That the fee targets methane (CH4), rather than carbon dioxide (CO2), emissions is indicative of the urgency the scientific community has placed on reducing this short-lived but powerful gas. Methane persists in the air about 12 years — compared to more than 1,000 years for CO2 — yet it immediately causes about 120 times more warming upon release. The gas is responsible for at least a quarter of today’s gross warming. 

    “Methane has a disproportionate effect on near-term warming,” says Desiree Plata, the director of MIT Methane Network. “CH4 does more damage than CO2 no matter how long you run the clock. By removing methane, we could potentially avoid critical climate tipping points.” 

    Because GHGs have a runaway effect on climate, reductions made now will have a far greater impact than the same reductions made in the future. Cutting methane emissions will slow the thawing of permafrost, which could otherwise lead to massive methane releases, as well as reduce increasing emissions from wetlands.  

    “The goal of MIT Methane Network is to reduce methane emissions by 45 percent by 2030, which would save up to 0.5 degree C of warming by 2100,” says Plata, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and director of the Plata Lab. “When you consider that governments are trying for a 1.5-degree reduction of all GHGs by 2100, this is a big deal.” 

    Under normal concentrations, methane, like CO2, poses no health risks. Yet methane assists in the creation of high levels of ozone. In the lower atmosphere, ozone is a key component of air pollution, which leads to “higher rates of asthma and increased emergency room visits,” says Plata. 

    Methane-related projects at the Plata Lab include a filter made of zeolite — the same clay-like material used in cat litter — designed to convert methane into CO2 at dairy farms and coal mines. At first glance, the technology would appear to be a bit of a hard sell, since it converts one GHG into another. Yet the zeolite filter’s low carbon and dollar costs, combined with the disproportionate warming impact of methane, make it a potential game-changer.

    The sense of urgency about methane has been amplified by recent studies that show humans are generating far more methane emissions than previously estimated, and that the rates are rising rapidly. Exactly how much methane is in the air is uncertain. Current methods for measuring atmospheric methane, such as ground, drone, and satellite sensors, “are not readily abundant and do not always agree with each other,” says Plata.  

    The Plata Lab is collaborating with Tim Swager in the MIT Department of Chemistry to develop low-cost methane sensors. “We are developing chemiresisitive sensors that cost about a dollar that you could place near energy infrastructure to back-calculate where leaks are coming from,” says Plata.  

    The researchers are working on improving the accuracy of the sensors using machine learning techniques and are planning to integrate internet-of-things technology to transmit alerts. Plata and Swager are not alone in focusing on data collection: the Inflation Reduction Act adds significant funding for methane sensor research. 

    Other research at the Plata Lab includes the development of nanomaterials and heterogeneous catalysis techniques for environmental applications. The lab also explores mitigation solutions for industrial waste, particularly those related to the energy transition. Plata is the co-founder of an lithium-ion battery recycling startup called Nth Cycle. 

    On a more fundamental level, the Plata Lab is exploring how to develop products with environmental and social sustainability in mind. “Our overarching mission is to change the way that we invent materials and processes so that environmental objectives are incorporated along with traditional performance and cost metrics,” says Plata. “It is important to do that rigorous assessment early in the design process.”

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    MIT amps up methane research 

    The MIT Methane Network brings together 26 researchers from MIT along with representatives of other institutions “that are dedicated to the idea that we can reduce methane levels in our lifetime,” says Plata. The organization supports research such as Plata’s zeolite and sensor projects, as well as designing pipeline-fixing robots, developing methane-based fuels for clean hydrogen, and researching the capture and conversion of methane into liquid chemical precursors for pharmaceuticals and plastics. Other members are researching policies to encourage more sustainable agriculture and land use, as well as methane-related social justice initiatives. 

    “Methane is an especially difficult problem because it comes from all over the place,” says Plata. A recent Global Carbon Project study estimated that half of methane emissions are caused by humans. This is led by waste and agriculture (28 percent), including cow and sheep belching, rice paddies, and landfills.  

    Fossil fuels represent 18 percent of the total budget. Of this, about 63 percent is derived from oil and gas production and pipelines, 33 percent from coal mining activities, and 5 percent from industry and transportation. Human-caused biomass burning, primarily from slash-and-burn agriculture, emits about 4 percent of the global total.  

    The other half of the methane budget includes natural methane emissions from wetlands (20 percent) and other natural sources (30 percent). The latter includes permafrost melting and natural biomass burning, such as forest fires started by lightning.  

    With increases in global warming and population, the line between anthropogenic and natural causes is getting fuzzier. “Human activities are accelerating natural emissions,” says Plata. “Climate change increases the release of methane from wetlands and permafrost and leads to larger forest and peat fires.”  

    The calculations can get complicated. For example, wetlands provide benefits from CO2 capture, biological diversity, and sea level rise resiliency that more than compensate for methane releases. Meanwhile, draining swamps for development increases emissions. 

    Over 100 nations have signed onto the U.N.’s Global Methane Pledge to reduce at least 30 percent of anthropogenic emissions within the next 10 years. The U.N. report estimates that this goal can be achieved using proven technologies and that about 60 percent of these reductions can be accomplished at low cost. 

    Much of the savings would come from greater efficiencies in fossil fuel extraction, processing, and delivery. The methane fees in the Inflation Reduction Act are primarily focused on encouraging fossil fuel companies to accelerate ongoing efforts to cap old wells, flare off excess emissions, and tighten pipeline connections.  

    Fossil fuel companies have already made far greater pledges to reduce methane than they have with CO2, which is central to their business. This is due, in part, to the potential savings, as well as in preparation for methane regulations expected from the Environmental Protection Agency in late 2022. The regulations build upon existing EPA oversight of drilling operations, and will likely be exempt from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that limits the federal government’s ability to regulate GHGs. 

    Zeolite filter targets methane in dairy and coal 

    The “low-hanging fruit” of gas stream mitigation addresses most of the 20 percent of total methane emissions in which the gas is released in sufficiently high concentrations for flaring. Plata’s zeolite filter aims to address the thornier challenge of reducing the 80 percent of non-flammable dilute emissions. 

    Plata found inspiration in decades-old catalysis research for turning methane into methanol. One strategy has been to use an abundant, low-cost aluminosilicate clay called zeolite.  

    “The methanol creation process is challenging because you need to separate a liquid, and it has very low efficiency,” says Plata. “Yet zeolite can be very efficient at converting methane into CO2, and it is much easier because it does not require liquid separation. Converting methane to CO2 sounds like a bad thing, but there is a major anti-warming benefit. And because methane is much more dilute than CO2, the relative CO2 contribution is minuscule.”  

    Using zeolite to create methanol requires highly concentrated methane, high temperatures and pressures, and industrial processing conditions. Yet Plata’s process, which dopes the zeolite with copper, operates in the presence of oxygen at much lower temperatures under typical pressures. “We let the methane proceed the way it wants from a thermodynamic perspective from methane to methanol down to CO2,” says Plata. 

    Researchers around the world are working on other dilute methane removal technologies. Projects include spraying iron salt aerosols into sea air where they react with natural chlorine or bromine radicals, thereby capturing methane. Most of these geoengineering solutions, however, are difficult to measure and would require massive scale to make a difference.  

    Plata is focusing her zeolite filters on environments where concentrations are high, but not so high as to be flammable. “We are trying to scale zeolite into filters that you could snap onto the side of a cross-ventilation fan in a dairy barn or in a ventilation air shaft in a coal mine,” says Plata. “For every packet of air we bring in, we take a lot of methane out, so we get more bang for our buck.”  

    The major challenge is creating a filter that can handle high flow rates without getting clogged or falling apart. Dairy barn air handlers can push air at up to 5,000 cubic feet per minute and coal mine handlers can approach 500,000 CFM. 

    Plata is exploring engineering options including fluidized bed reactors with floating catalyst particles. Another filter solution, based in part on catalytic converters, features “higher-order geometric structures where you have a porous material with a long path length where the gas can interact with the catalyst,” says Plata. “This avoids the challenge with fluidized beds of containing catalyst particles in the reactor. Instead, they are fixed within a structured material.”  

    Competing technologies for removing methane from mine shafts “operate at temperatures of 1,000 to 1,200 degrees C, requiring a lot of energy and risking explosion,” says Plata. “Our technology avoids safety concerns by operating at 300 to 400 degrees C. It reduces energy use and provides more tractable deployment costs.” 

    Potentially, energy and dollar costs could be further reduced in coal mines by capturing the heat generated by the conversion process. “In coal mines, you have enrichments above a half-percent methane, but below the 4 percent flammability threshold,” says Plata. “The excess heat from the process could be used to generate electricity using off-the-shelf converters.” 

    Plata’s dairy barn research is funded by the Gerstner Family Foundation and the coal mining project by the U.S. Department of Energy. “The DOE would like us to spin out the technology for scale-up within three years,” says Plata. “We cannot guarantee we will hit that goal, but we are trying to develop this as quickly as possible. Our society needs to start reducing methane emissions now.”  More

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    Doubling down on sustainability innovation in Kendall Square

    From its new headquarters in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, The Engine is investing in a number of “tough tech” startups seeking to transform the world’s energy systems. A few blocks away, the startup Inari is using gene editing to improve seeds’ resilience to climate change. On the MIT campus nearby, researchers are working on groundbreaking innovations to meet the urgent challenges our planet faces.

    Kendall Square is known as the biotech capital of the world, but as the latest annual meeting of the Kendal Square Association (KSA) made clear, it’s also a thriving hub of sustainability-related innovation.

    The Oct. 20 event, which began at MIT’s Welcome Center before moving to the MIT Museum for a panel discussion, brought together professionals from across Cambridge’s prolific innovation ecosystem — not just entrepreneurs working at startups, but also students, restaurant and retail shop owners, and people from local nonprofits.

    Titled “[Re] Imagining a Sustainable Future,” the meeting highlighted advances in climate change technologies that are afoot in Kendall Square, to help inspire and connect the community as it works toward common sustainability goals.

    “Our focus is on building a better future together — and together is the most important word there,” KSA Executive Director Beth O’Neill Maloney said in her opening remarks. “This is an incredibly innovative ecosystem and community that’s making changes that affect us here in Kendall Square and far, far beyond.”

    The pace of change

    The main event of the evening was a panel discussion moderated by Lee McGuire, the chief communications officer of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The panel featured Stuart Brown, chief financial officer at Inari; Emily Knight, chief operating officer at The Engine; and Joe Higgins, vice president for campus services and stewardship at MIT.

    “Sustainability is obviously one of the most important — if not the most important — challenge facing us as a society today,” said McGuire, opening the discussion. “Kendall Square is known for its work in biotech, life sciences, AI, and climate, and the more we dug into it the more we realized how interconnected all of those things are. The talent in Kendall Square wants to work on problems relevant for humanity, and the tools and skills you need for that can be very similar depending on the problem you’re working on.”

    Higgins, who oversees the creation of programs to reduce MIT’s environmental impact and improve the resilience of campus operations, focused on the enormity of the problem humanity is facing. He showed the audience a map of the U.S. power grid, with power plants and transmission lines illuminated in a complex web across the country, to underscore the scale of electrification that will be needed to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

    “The U.S. power grid is the largest machine ever made by mankind,” Higgins said. “It’s been developed over 100 years; it has 7,000 generating plants that feed into it every day; it has 7 million miles of cable and wires; there are transformers and substations; and it lives in every single one of your walls. But people don’t think about it that much.”

    Many cities, states, and organizations like MIT have made commitments to shift to 100 percent clean energy in coming decades. Higgins wanted the audience to try to grasp what that’s going to take.

    “Hundreds of millions of devices and equipment across the planet are going to have to be swapped from fossil fuel to electric-based,” Higgins said. “Our cars, appliances, processes in industry, like making steel and concrete, are going to need to come from this grid. It’ll need to undergo a major modernization and transformation. The good news is it’s already changing.”

    Multiple panelists pointed to developments like the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act to show there was progress being made in reaching urgent sustainability goals.

    “There is a tide change coming, and it’s not only being driven by private capital,” Knight said. “There’s a huge opportunity here, and it’s a really important part of this [Kendall Square] ecosystem.”

    Chief among the topics of discussion was technology development. Even as leaders implement today’s technologies to decarbonize, people in Kendall Square keep a close eye on the new tech being developed and commercialized nearby.

    “I was trying to think about where we are with gene editing,” Brown said. “CRISPR’s been around for 10 years. Compare that to video games. Pong was the first video game when it came out in 1972. Today you have Chess.com using artificial intelligence to power chess games. On gene editing and a lot of these other technologies, we’re much closer to Pong than we are to where it’s going to be. We just can’t imagine today the technology changes we’re going to see over the next five to 10 years.”

    In that regard, Knight discussed some of the promising portfolio companies of The Engine, which invests in early stage, technologically innovative companies. In particular, she highlighted two companies seeking to transform the world’s energy systems with entirely new, 100 percent clean energy sources. MIT spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems is working on nuclear fusion reactors that could provide abundant, safe, and constant streams of clean energy to our grids, while fellow MIT spinout Quaise Energy is seeking to harvest a new kind of deep geothermal energy using millimeter wave drilling technology.

    “All of our portfolio companies have a focus on sustainability in one way or another,” Knight said. “People who are working on these very hard technologies will change the world.”

    Knight says the kind of collaboration championed by the KSA is important for startups The Engine invests in.

    “We know these companies need a lot of people around them, whether from government, academia, advisors, corporate partners, anyone who can help them on their path, because for a lot of them this is a new path and a new market,” Knight said.

    Reasons for hope

    The KSA is made up of over 150 organizations across Kendall Square. From major employers like Sanofi, Pfizer, MIT, and the Broad Institute to local nonprofit organizations, startups, and independent shops and restaurants, the KSA represents the entire Kendall ecosystem.

    O’Neill Maloney celebrated a visible example of sustainability in Kendall Square early on by the Charles River Conservancy, which has built a floating wetland designed to naturally remove harmful algae blooms from Charles River.

    Other examples of sustainability work in the neighborhood can be found at MIT. Under its “Fast Forward” climate action plan, the Institute has set a goal of eliminating direct emissions from its campus by 2050, including a near-term milestone of achieving net-zero emissions by 2026. Since 2014, when MIT launched a five-year plan for action on climate change, net campus emissions have already been cut by 20 percent by making its campus buildings more energy efficient, transitioning to electric vehicles, and enabling large-scale renewable energy projects, among other strategies.

    In the face of a daunting global challenge, such milestones are reason for optimism.

    “If anybody’s going to be able to do this [shift to 100 percent clean energy] and show how it can be done at an urban, city scale, it’s probably MIT and the city of Cambridge,” McGuire said. “We have a lot of good ingredients to figure this out.”

    Throughout the night, many speakers, attendees, and panelists echoed that sentiment. They said they see plenty of reasons for hope.

    “I’m absolutely optimistic,” Higgins said. “I’m seeing utility companies working with businesses working with regulators — people are coming together on this topic. And one of these new technologies being commercialized is going to change things before 2030, whether its fusion, deep geothermal, small modular nuclear reactors, the technology is just moving so quickly.” More

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    Cracking the carbon removal challenge

    By most measures, MIT chemical engineering spinoff Verdox has been enjoying an exceptional year. The carbon capture and removal startup, launched in 2019, announced $80 million in funding in February from a group of investors that included Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Then, in April — after recognition as one of the year’s top energy pioneers by Bloomberg New Energy Finance — the company and partner Carbfix won a $1 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal milestone award. This was the first round in the Musk Foundation’s four-year, $100 million-competition, the largest prize offered in history.

    “While our core technology has been validated by the significant improvement of performance metrics, this external recognition further verifies our vision,” says Sahag Voskian SM ’15, PhD ’19, co-founder and chief technology officer at Verdox. “It shows that the path we’ve chosen is the right one.”

    The search for viable carbon capture technologies has intensified in recent years, as scientific models show with increasing certainty that any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change means limiting CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million by 2100. Alternative energies will only get humankind so far, and a vast removal of CO2 will be an important tool in the race to remove the gas from the atmosphere.

    Voskian began developing the company’s cost-effective and scalable technology for carbon capture in the lab of T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. “It feels exciting to see ideas move from the lab to potential commercial production,” says Hatton, a co-founder of the company and scientific advisor, adding that Verdox has speedily overcome the initial technical hiccups encountered by many early phase companies. “This recognition enhances the credibility of what we’re doing, and really validates our approach.”

    At the heart of this approach is technology Voskian describes as “elegant and efficient.” Most attempts to grab carbon from an exhaust flow or from air itself require a great deal of energy. Voskian and Hatton came up with a design whose electrochemistry makes carbon capture appear nearly effortless. Their invention is a kind of battery: conductive electrodes coated with a compound called polyanthraquinone, which has a natural chemical attraction to carbon dioxide under certain conditions, and no affinity for CO2 when these conditions are relaxed. When activated by a low-level electrical current, the battery charges, reacting with passing molecules of CO2 and pulling them onto its surface. Once the battery becomes saturated, the CO2 can be released with a flip of voltage as a pure gas stream.

    “We showed that our technology works in a wide range of CO2 concentrations, from the 20 percent or higher found in cement and steel industry exhaust streams, down to the very diffuse 0.04 percent in air itself,” says Hatton. Climate change science suggests that removing CO2 directly from air “is an important component of the whole mitigation strategy,” he adds.

    “This was an academic breakthrough,” says Brian Baynes PhD ’04, CEO and co-founder of Verdox. Baynes, a chemical engineering alumnus and a former associate of Hatton’s, has many startups to his name, and a history as a venture capitalist and mentor to young entrepreneurs. When he first encountered Hatton and Voskian’s research in 2018, he was “impressed that their technology showed it could reduce energy consumption for certain kinds of carbon capture by 70 percent compared to other technologies,” he says. “I was encouraged and impressed by this low-energy footprint, and recommended that they start a company.”

    Neither Hatton nor Voskian had commercialized a product before, so they asked Baynes to help them get going. “I normally decline these requests, because the costs are generally greater than the upside,” Baynes says. “But this innovation had the potential to move the needle on climate change, and I saw it as a rare opportunity.”

    The Verdox team has no illusions about the challenge ahead. “The scale of the problem is enormous,” says Voskian. “Our technology must be in a position to capture mega- and gigatons of CO2 from air and emission sources.” Indeed, the International Panel on Climate Change estimates the world must remove 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050 in order to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius.

    To scale up successfully and at a pace that could meet the world’s climate challenge, Verdox must become “a business that works in a technoeconomic sense,” as Baynes puts it. This means, for instance, ensuring its carbon capture system offers clear and competitive cost benefits when deployed. Not a problem, says Voskian: “Our technology, because it uses electric energy, can be easily integrated into the grid, working with solar and wind on a plug-and-play basis.” The Verdox team believes their carbon footprint will beat that of competitors by orders of magnitude.

    The company is pushing past a series of technical obstacles as it ramps up: enabling the carbon capture battery to run hundreds of thousands of cycles before its performance wanes, and enhancing the polyanthraquinone chemistry so that the device is even more selective for CO2.

    After hurtling past critical milestones, Verdox is now working with its first announced commercial client: Norwegian aluminum company Hydro, which aims to eliminate CO2 from the exhaust of its smelters as it transitions to zero-carbon production.

    Verdox is also developing systems that can efficiently pull CO2 out of ambient air. “We’re designing units that would look like rows and rows of big fans that bring the air into boxes containing our batteries,” he says. Such approaches might prove especially useful in locations such as airfields, where there are higher-than-normal concentrations of CO2 emissions present.

    All this captured carbon needs to go somewhere. With XPRIZE partner Carbfix, which has a decade-old, proven method for mineralizing captured CO2 and depositing it in deep underground caverns, Verdox will have a final resting place for CO2 that cannot immediately be reused for industrial applications such as new fuels or construction materials.

    With its clients and partners, the team appears well-positioned for the next round of the carbon removal XPRIZE competition, which will award up to $50 million to the group that best demonstrates a working solution at a scale of at least 1,000 tons removed per year, and can present a viable blueprint for scaling to gigatons of removal per year.

    Can Verdox meaningfully reduce the planet’s growing CO2 burden? Voskian is sure of it. “Going at our current momentum, and seeing the world embrace carbon capture, this is the right path forward,” he says. “With our partners, deploying manufacturing facilities on a global scale, we will make a dent in the problem in our lifetime.” More

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    SMART Innovation Center awarded five-year NRF grant for new deep tech ventures

    The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore has announced a five-year grant awarded to the SMART Innovation Center (SMART IC) by the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF) as part of its Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 Plan. The SMART IC plays a key role in accelerating innovation and entrepreneurship in Singapore and will channel the grant toward refining and commercializing developments in the field of deep technologies through financial support and training.

    Singapore has recently expanded its innovation ecosystem to hone deep technologies to solve complex problems in areas of pivotal importance. While there has been increased support for deep tech here, with investments in deep tech startups surging from $324 million in 2020 to $861 million in 2021, startups of this nature tend to take a longer time to scale, get acquired, or get publicly listed due to increased time, labor, and capital needed. By providing researchers with financial and strategic support from the early stages of their research and development, the SMART IC hopes to accelerate this process and help bring new and disruptive technologies to the market.

    “SMART’s Innovation Center prides itself as being one of the key drivers of research and innovation, by identifying and nurturing emerging technologies and accelerating them towards commercialization,” says Howard Califano, director of SMART IC. “With the support of the NRF, we look forward to another five years of further growing the ecosystem by ensuring an environment where research — and research funds — are properly directed to what the market and society need. This is how we will be able to solve problems faster and more efficiently, and ensure that value is generated from scientific research.”

    Set up in 2009 by MIT and funded by the NRF, the SMART IC furthers SMART’s goals by nurturing promising and innovative technologies that faculty and research teams in Singapore are working on. Some emerging technologies include, but are not limited to, biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations.

    Having trained over 300 postdocs since its inception, the SMART IC has supported the launch of 55 companies that have created over 3,300 jobs. Some of these companies were spearheaded by SMART’s interdisciplinary research groups, including biotech companies Theonys and Thrixen, autonomous vehicle software company nuTonomy, and integrated circuit company New Silicon. During the RIE 2020 period, 66 Ignition Grants and 69 Innovation Grants were awarded to SMART’s researchers, as well as faculty at other Singapore universities and research institutes.

    The following four programs are open to researchers from education and research facilities, as well as institutes of higher learning, in Singapore:

    Innovation Grant 2.0: The enhanced SMART Innovation Center’s flagship program, the Innovation Grant 2.0, is a gated three-phase program focused on enabling scientist-entrepreneurs to launch a successful venture, with training and intense monitoring across all phases. This grant program can provide up to $800,000 Singaporean dollars and is open to all areas of deep technology (engineering, artificial intelligence, biomedical, new materials, etc). The first grant call for the Innovation Grant 2.0 is open through Oct. 15. Researchers, scientists, and engineers at Singapore’s public institutions of higher learning, research centers, public hospitals, and medical research centers — especially those working on disruptive technologies with commercial potential — are invited to apply for the Innovation Grant 2.0.

    I2START Grant: In collaboration with SMART, the National Health Innovation Center Singapore, and Enterprise Singapore, this novel integrated program will develop master classes on venture building, with a focus on medical devices, diagnostics, and medical technologies. The grant amount is up to S$1,350,000. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

    STDR Stream 2: The Singapore Therapeutics Development Review (STDR) program is jointly operated by SMART, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and the Experimental Drug Development Center. The grant is available in two phases, a pre-pilot phase of S$100,000 and a Pilot phase of S$830,000, with a potential combined total of up to S$930,000. The next STDR Pre-Pilot grant call will open on Sept. 15.

    Central Gap Fund: The SMART IC is an Innovation and Enterprise Office under the NRF’s Central Gap Fund. This program helps projects that have already received an Innovation 2.0, STDR Stream 2, or I2START Grant but require additional funding to bridge to seed or Series A funding, with possible funding of up to S$5 million. Applications are accepted throughout the year.

    The SMART IC will also continue developing robust entrepreneurship mentorship programs and regular industry events to encourage closer collaboration among faculty innovators and the business community.

    “SMART, through the Innovation Center, is honored to be able to help researchers take these revolutionary technologies to the marketplace, where they can contribute to the economy and society. The projects we fund are commercialized in Singapore, ensuring that the local economy is the first to benefit,” says Eugene Fitzgerald, chief executive officer and director of SMART, and professor of materials science and engineering at MIT.

    SMART was established by MIT and the NRF in 2007 and serves as an intellectual and innovation hub for cutting-edge research of interest to both parties. SMART is the first entity in the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise. SMART currently comprises an Innovation Center and five Interdisciplinary Research Groups: Antimicrobial Resistance, Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalized-Medicine, Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision, Future Urban Mobility, and Low Energy Electronic Systems.

    The SMART IC was set up by MIT and the NRF in 2009. It identifies and nurtures a broad range of emerging technologies including but not limited to biotechnology, biomedical devices, information technology, new materials, nanotechnology, and energy innovations, and accelerates them toward commercialization. The SMART IC runs a rigorous grant system that identifies and funds promising projects to help them de-risk their technologies, conduct proof-of-concept experiments, and determine go-to-market strategies. It also prides itself on robust entrepreneurship boot camps and mentorship, and frequent industry events to encourage closer collaboration among faculty innovators and the business community. SMART’s Innovation grant program is the only scheme that is open to all institutes of higher learning and research institutes across Singapore. More

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    Designing zeolites, porous materials made to trap molecules

    Zeolites are a class of minerals used in everything from industrial catalysts and chemical filters to laundry detergents and cat litter. They are mostly composed of silicon and aluminum — two abundant, inexpensive elements — plus oxygen; they have a crystalline structure; and most significantly, they are porous. Among the regularly repeating atomic patterns in them are tiny interconnected openings, or pores, that can trap molecules that just fit inside them, allow smaller ones to pass through, or block larger ones from entering. A zeolite can remove unwanted molecules from gases and liquids, or trap them temporarily and then release them, or hold them while they undergo rapid chemical reactions.

    Some zeolites occur naturally, but they take unpredictable forms and have variable-sized pores. “People synthesize artificial versions to ensure absolute purity and consistency,” says Rafael Gómez-Bombarelli, the Jeffrey Cheah Career Development Chair in Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). And they work hard to influence the size of the internal pores in hopes of matching the molecule or other particle they’re looking to capture.

    The basic recipe for making zeolites sounds simple. Mix together the raw ingredients — basically, silicon dioxide and aluminum oxide — and put them in a reactor for a few days at a high temperature and pressure. Depending on the ratio between the ingredients and the temperature, pressure, and timing, as the initial gel slowly solidifies into crystalline form, different zeolites emerge.

    But there’s one special ingredient to add “to help the system go where you want it to go,” says Gómez-Bombarelli. “It’s a molecule that serves as a template so that the zeolite you want will crystallize around it and create pores of the desired size and shape.”

    The so-called templating molecule binds to the material before it solidifies. As crystallization progresses, the molecule directs the structure, or “framework,” that forms around it. After crystallization, the temperature is raised and the templating molecule burns off, leaving behind a solid aluminosilicate material filled with open pores that are — given the correct templating molecule and synthesis conditions — just the right size and shape to recognize the targeted molecule.

    The zeolite conundrum

    Theoretical studies suggest that there should be hundreds of thousands of possible zeolites. But despite some 60 years of intensive research, only about 250 zeolites have been made. This is sometimes called the “zeolite conundrum.” Why haven’t more been made — especially now, when they could help ongoing efforts to decarbonize energy and the chemical industry?

    One challenge is figuring out the best recipe for making them: Factors such as the best ratio between the silicon and aluminum, what cooking temperature to use, and whether to stir the ingredients all influence the outcome. But the real key, the researchers say, lies in choosing a templating molecule that’s best for producing the intended zeolite framework. Making that match is difficult: There are hundreds of known templating molecules and potentially a million zeolites, and researchers are continually designing new molecules because millions more could be made and might work better.

    For decades, the exploration of how to synthesize a particular zeolite has been done largely by trial and error — a time-consuming, expensive, inefficient way to go about it. There has also been considerable effort to use “atomistic” (atom-by-atom) simulation to figure out what known or novel templating molecule to use to produce a given zeolite. But the experimental and modeling results haven’t generated reliable guidance. In many cases, researchers have carefully selected or designed a molecule to make a particular zeolite, but when they tried their molecule in the lab, the zeolite that formed wasn’t what they expected or desired. So they needed to start over.

    Those experiences illustrate what Gómez-Bombarelli and his colleagues believe is the problem that’s been plaguing zeolite design for decades. All the efforts — both experimental and theoretical — have focused on finding the templating molecule that’s best for forming a specific zeolite. But what if that templating molecule is also really good — or even better — at forming some other zeolite?

    To determine the “best” molecule for making a certain zeolite framework, and the “best” zeolite framework to act as host to a particular molecule, the researchers decided to look at both sides of the pairing. Daniel Schwalbe-Koda PhD ’22, a former member of Gómez-Bombarelli’s group and now a postdoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, describes the process as a sort of dance with molecules and zeolites in a room looking for partners. “Each molecule wants to find a partner zeolite, and each zeolite wants to find a partner molecule,” he says. “But it’s not enough to find a good dance partner from the perspective of only one dancer. The potential partner could prefer to dance with someone else, after all. So it needs to be a particularly good pairing.” The upshot: “You need to look from the perspective of each of them.”

    To find the best match from both perspectives, the researchers needed to try every molecule with every zeolite and quantify how well the pairings worked.

    A broader metric for evaluating pairs

    Before performing that analysis, the researchers defined a new “evaluating metric” that they could use to rank each templating molecule-zeolite pair. The standard metric for measuring the affinity between a molecule and a zeolite is “binding energy,” that is, how strongly the molecule clings to the zeolite or, conversely, how much energy is required to separate the two. While recognizing the value of that metric, the MIT-led team wanted to take more parameters into account.

    Their new evaluating metric therefore includes not only binding energy but also the size, shape, and volume of the molecule and the opening in the zeolite framework. And their approach calls for turning the molecule to different orientations to find the best possible fit.

    Affinity scores for all molecule-zeolite pairs based on that evaluating metric would enable zeolite researchers to answer two key questions: What templating molecule will form the zeolite that I want? And if I use that templating molecule, what other zeolites might it form instead? Using the molecule-zeolite affinity scores, researchers could first identify molecules that look good for making a desired zeolite. They could then rule out the ones that also look good for forming other zeolites, leaving a set of molecules deemed to be “highly selective” for making the desired zeolite.  

    Validating the approach: A rich literature

    But does their new metric work better than the standard one? To find out, the team needed to perform atomistic simulations using their new evaluating metric and then benchmark their results against experimental evidence reported in the literature. There are many thousands of journal articles reporting on experiments involving zeolites — in many cases, detailing not only the molecule-zeolite pairs and outcomes but also synthesis conditions and other details. Ferreting out articles with the information the researchers needed was a job for machine learning — in particular, for natural language processing.

    For that task, Gómez-Bombarelli and Schwalbe-Koda turned to their DMSE colleague Elsa Olivetti PhD ’07, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. Using a literature-mining technique that she and a group of collaborators had developed, she and her DMSE team processed more than 2 million materials science papers, found some 90,000 relating to zeolites, and extracted 1,338 of them for further analysis. The yield was 549 templating molecules tested, 209 zeolite frameworks produced, and 5,663 synthesis routes followed.

    Based on those findings, the researchers used their new evaluating metric and a novel atomistic simulation technique to examine more than half-a-million templating molecule-zeolite pairs. Their results reproduced experimental outcomes reported in more than a thousand journal articles. Indeed, the new metric outperformed the traditional binding energy metric, and their simulations were orders of magnitude faster than traditional approaches.

    Ready for experimental investigations

    Now the researchers were ready to put their approach to the test: They would use it to design new templating molecules and try them out in experiments performed by a team led by Yuriy Román-Leshkov, the Robert T. Haslam (1911) Professor of Chemical Engineering, and a team from the Instituto de Tecnologia Química in Valencia, Spain, led by Manuel Moliner and Avelino Corma.

    One set of experiments focused on a zeolite called chabazite, which is used in catalytic converters for vehicles. Using their techniques, the researchers designed a new templating molecule for synthesizing chabazite, and the experimental results confirmed their approach. Their analyses had shown that the new templating molecule would be good for forming chabazite and not for forming anything else. “Its binding strength isn’t as high as other molecules for chabazite, so people hadn’t used it,” says Gómez-Bombarelli. “But it’s pretty good, and it’s not good for anything else, so it’s selective — and it’s way cheaper than the usual ones.”

    In addition, in their new molecule, the electrical charge is distributed differently than in the traditional ones, which led to new possibilities. The researchers found that by adjusting both the shape and charge of the molecule, they could control where the negative charge occurs on the pore that’s created in the final zeolite. “The charge placement that results can make the chabazite a much better catalyst than it was before,” says Gómez-Bombarelli. “So our same rules for molecule design also determine where the negative charge is going to end up, which can lead to whole different classes of catalysts.”

    Schwalbe-Koda describes another experiment that demonstrates the importance of molecular shape as well as the types of new materials made possible using the team’s approach. In one striking example, the team designed a templating molecule with a height and width that’s halfway between those of two molecules that are now commonly used—one for making chabazite and the other for making a zeolite called AEI. (Every new zeolite structure is examined by the International Zeolite Association and — once approved — receives a three-letter designation.)

    Experiments using that in-between templating molecule resulted in the formation of not one zeolite or the other, but a combination of the two in a single solid. “The result blends two different structures together in a way that the final result is better than the sum of its parts,” says Schwalbe-Koda. “The catalyst is like the one used in catalytic converters in today’s trucks — only better.” It’s more efficient in converting nitrogen oxides to harmless nitrogen gases and water, and — because of the two different pore sizes and the aluminosilicate composition — it works well on exhaust that’s fairly hot, as during normal operation, and also on exhaust that’s fairly cool, as during startup.

    Putting the work into practice

    As with all materials, the commercial viability of a zeolite will depend in part on the cost of making it. The researchers’ technique can identify promising templating molecules, but some of them may be difficult to synthesize in the lab. As a result, the overall cost of that molecule-zeolite combination may be too high to be competitive.

    Gómez-Bombarelli and his team therefore include in their assessment process a calculation of cost for synthesizing each templating molecule they identified — generally the most expensive part of making a given zeolite. They use a publicly available model devised in 2018 by Connor Coley PhD ’19, now the Henri Slezynger (1957) Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. The model takes into account all the starting materials and the step-by-step chemical reactions needed to produce the targeted templating molecule.

    However, commercialization decisions aren’t based solely on cost. Sometimes there’s a trade-off between cost and performance. “For instance, given our chabazite findings, would customers or the community trade a little bit of activity for a 100-fold decrease in the cost of the templating molecule?” says Gómez-Bombarelli. “The answer is likely yes. So we’ve made a tool that can help them navigate that trade-off.” And there are other factors to consider. For example, is this templating molecule truly novel, or have others already studied it — or perhaps even hold a patent on it?

    “While an algorithm can guide development of templating molecules and quantify specific molecule-zeolite matches, other types of assessments are best left to expert judgment,” notes Schwalbe-Koda. “We need a partnership between computational analysis and human intuition and experience.”

    To that end, the MIT researchers and their colleagues decided to share their techniques and findings with other zeolite researchers. Led by Schwalbe-Koda, they created an online database that they made publicly accessible and easy to use — an unusual step, given the competitive industries that rely on zeolites. The interactive website — zeodb.mit.edu — contains the researchers’ final metrics for templating molecule-zeolite pairs resulting from hundreds of thousands of simulations; all the identified journal articles, along with which molecules and zeolites were examined and what synthesis conditions were used; and many more details. Users are free to search and organize the data in any way that suits them.

    Gómez-Bombarelli, Schwalbe-Koda, and their colleagues hope that their techniques and the interactive website will help other researchers explore and discover promising new templating molecules and zeolites, some of which could have profound impacts on efforts to decarbonize energy and tackle climate change.

    This research involved a team of collaborators at MIT, the Instituto de Tecnologia Química (UPV-CSIC), and Stockholm University. The work was supported in part by the MIT Energy Initiative Seed Fund Program and by seed funds from the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative. Daniel Schwalbe-Koda was supported by an ExxonMobil-MIT Energy Fellowship in 2020–21.

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

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    A new concept for low-cost batteries

    As the world builds out ever larger installations of wind and solar power systems, the need is growing fast for economical, large-scale backup systems to provide power when the sun is down and the air is calm. Today’s lithium-ion batteries are still too expensive for most such applications, and other options such as pumped hydro require specific topography that’s not always available.

    Now, researchers at MIT and elsewhere have developed a new kind of battery, made entirely from abundant and inexpensive materials, that could help to fill that gap.

    The new battery architecture, which uses aluminum and sulfur as its two electrode materials, with a molten salt electrolyte in between, is described today in the journal Nature, in a paper by MIT Professor Donald Sadoway, along with 15 others at MIT and in China, Canada, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

    “I wanted to invent something that was better, much better, than lithium-ion batteries for small-scale stationary storage, and ultimately for automotive [uses],” explains Sadoway, who is the John F. Elliott Professor Emeritus of Materials Chemistry.

    In addition to being expensive, lithium-ion batteries contain a flammable electrolyte, making them less than ideal for transportation. So, Sadoway started studying the periodic table, looking for cheap, Earth-abundant metals that might be able to substitute for lithium. The commercially dominant metal, iron, doesn’t have the right electrochemical properties for an efficient battery, he says. But the second-most-abundant metal in the marketplace — and actually the most abundant metal on Earth — is aluminum. “So, I said, well, let’s just make that a bookend. It’s gonna be aluminum,” he says.

    Then came deciding what to pair the aluminum with for the other electrode, and what kind of electrolyte to put in between to carry ions back and forth during charging and discharging. The cheapest of all the non-metals is sulfur, so that became the second electrode material. As for the electrolyte, “we were not going to use the volatile, flammable organic liquids” that have sometimes led to dangerous fires in cars and other applications of lithium-ion batteries, Sadoway says. They tried some polymers but ended up looking at a variety of molten salts that have relatively low melting points — close to the boiling point of water, as opposed to nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit for many salts. “Once you get down to near body temperature, it becomes practical” to make batteries that don’t require special insulation and anticorrosion measures, he says.

    The three ingredients they ended up with are cheap and readily available — aluminum, no different from the foil at the supermarket; sulfur, which is often a waste product from processes such as petroleum refining; and widely available salts. “The ingredients are cheap, and the thing is safe — it cannot burn,” Sadoway says.

    In their experiments, the team showed that the battery cells could endure hundreds of cycles at exceptionally high charging rates, with a projected cost per cell of about one-sixth that of comparable lithium-ion cells. They showed that the charging rate was highly dependent on the working temperature, with 110 degrees Celsius (230 degrees Fahrenheit) showing 25 times faster rates than 25 C (77 F).

    Surprisingly, the molten salt the team chose as an electrolyte simply because of its low melting point turned out to have a fortuitous advantage. One of the biggest problems in battery reliability is the formation of dendrites, which are narrow spikes of metal that build up on one electrode and eventually grow across to contact the other electrode, causing a short-circuit and hampering efficiency. But this particular salt, it happens, is very good at preventing that malfunction.

    The chloro-aluminate salt they chose “essentially retired these runaway dendrites, while also allowing for very rapid charging,” Sadoway says. “We did experiments at very high charging rates, charging in less than a minute, and we never lost cells due to dendrite shorting.”

    “It’s funny,” he says, because the whole focus was on finding a salt with the lowest melting point, but the catenated chloro-aluminates they ended up with turned out to be resistant to the shorting problem. “If we had started off with trying to prevent dendritic shorting, I’m not sure I would’ve known how to pursue that,” Sadoway says. “I guess it was serendipity for us.”

    What’s more, the battery requires no external heat source to maintain its operating temperature. The heat is naturally produced electrochemically by the charging and discharging of the battery. “As you charge, you generate heat, and that keeps the salt from freezing. And then, when you discharge, it also generates heat,” Sadoway says. In a typical installation used for load-leveling at a solar generation facility, for example, “you’d store electricity when the sun is shining, and then you’d draw electricity after dark, and you’d do this every day. And that charge-idle-discharge-idle is enough to generate enough heat to keep the thing at temperature.”

    This new battery formulation, he says, would be ideal for installations of about the size needed to power a single home or small to medium business, producing on the order of a few tens of kilowatt-hours of storage capacity.

    For larger installations, up to utility scale of tens to hundreds of megawatt hours, other technologies might be more effective, including the liquid metal batteries Sadoway and his students developed several years ago and which formed the basis for a spinoff company called Ambri, which hopes to deliver its first products within the next year. For that invention, Sadoway was recently awarded this year’s European Inventor Award.

    The smaller scale of the aluminum-sulfur batteries would also make them practical for uses such as electric vehicle charging stations, Sadoway says. He points out that when electric vehicles become common enough on the roads that several cars want to charge up at once, as happens today with gasoline fuel pumps, “if you try to do that with batteries and you want rapid charging, the amperages are just so high that we don’t have that amount of amperage in the line that feeds the facility.” So having a battery system such as this to store power and then release it quickly when needed could eliminate the need for installing expensive new power lines to serve these chargers.

    The new technology is already the basis for a new spinoff company called Avanti, which has licensed the patents to the system, co-founded by Sadoway and Luis Ortiz ’96 ScD ’00, who was also a co-founder of Ambri. “The first order of business for the company is to demonstrate that it works at scale,” Sadoway says, and then subject it to a series of stress tests, including running through hundreds of charging cycles.

    Would a battery based on sulfur run the risk of producing the foul odors associated with some forms of sulfur? Not a chance, Sadoway says. “The rotten-egg smell is in the gas, hydrogen sulfide. This is elemental sulfur, and it’s going to be enclosed inside the cells.” If you were to try to open up a lithium-ion cell in your kitchen, he says (and please don’t try this at home!), “the moisture in the air would react and you’d start generating all sorts of foul gases as well. These are legitimate questions, but the battery is sealed, it’s not an open vessel. So I wouldn’t be concerned about that.”

    The research team included members from Peking University, Yunnan University and the Wuhan University of Technology, in China; the University of Louisville, in Kentucky; the University of Waterloo, in Canada; Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee; and MIT. The work was supported by the MIT Energy Initiative, the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, and ENN Group. More