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    Solar-powered desalination device wins MIT $100K competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “We’re here to create a world where everyone feels invited to the conversation,” said MBA candidate Yeti Khim, who co-founded the company with fellow MBA candidates Joyce Chen and Priya Bhasin.

    Inclusive.ly can scan a range of communications and make suggestions for improvement. The algorithm can detect discrimination, microaggression, and condescension, and the founders say it analyzes language in a more nuanced way than tools like Grammarly.

    The company is currently developing a plugin for web browsers and is hoping to partner with large enterprise customers later this year. It will work with internal communications like emails as well as external communications like sales and marketing material.

    Inclusive.ly plans to sell to organizations on a subscription model and notes that diversity and inclusion is becoming a higher priority in many companies. Khim cited studies showing that lack of inclusion hinders employee productivity, retention, and recruiting.

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

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

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

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

    The other finalist teams were:

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

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

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

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

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    Material designed to improve power plant efficiency wins 2022 Water Innovation Prize

    The winner of this year’s Water Innovation Prize is a company commercializing a material that could dramatically improve the efficiency of power plants.

    The company, Mesophase, is developing a more efficient power plant steam condenser that leverages a surface coating developed in the lab of Evelyn Wang, MIT’s Ford Professor of Engineering and the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Such condensers, which convert steam into water, sit at the heart of the energy extraction process in most of the world’s power plants.

    In the winning pitch, company founders said they believe their low-cost, durable coating will improve the heat transfer performance of such condensers.

    “What makes us excited about this technology is that in the condenser field, this is the first time we’ve seen a coating that can last long enough for industrial applications and be made with a high potential to scale up,” said Yajing Zhao SM ’18, who is currently a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT. “When compared to what’s available in academia and industry, we believe you’ll see record performance in terms of both heat transfer and lifetime.”

    In most power plants, condensers cool steam to turn it into water. The pressure change caused by that conversion creates a vacuum that pulls steam through a turbine. Mesophase’s patent-pending surface coating improves condensers’ ability to transfer heat, thus allowing operators to extract power more efficiently.

    Based on lab tests, the company predicts it can increase power plant output by up to 7 percent using existing infrastructure. Because steam condensers are used around the world, this advance could help increase global electricity production by 500 terawatt hours per year, which is equivalent to the electricity supply for about 1 billion people.

    The efficiency gains will also lead to less water use. Water sent from cooling towers is a common means of keeping condensers cool. The company estimates its system could reduce fresh water withdrawals by the equivalent of what is used by 50 million people per year.

    After running pilots, the company believes the new material could be installed in power plants during the regularly scheduled maintenance that occurs every two to five years. The company is also planning to work with existing condenser manufacturers to get to market faster.

    “This all works because a condenser with our technology in it has significantly more attractive economics than what you find in the market today,” says Mesophase’s Michael Gangemi, an MBA candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

    The company plans to start in the U.S. geothermal space, where Mesophase estimates its technology is worth about $800 million a year.

    “Much of the geothermal capacity in the U.S. was built in the ’50s and ’60s,” Gangemi said. “That means most of these plants are operating way below capacity, and they invest frequently in technology like ours just to maintain their power output.”

    The company will use the prize money, in part, to begin testing in a real power plant environment.

    “We are excited about these developments, but we know that they are only first steps as we move toward broader energy applications,” Gangemi said.

    MIT’s Water Innovation Prize helps translate water-related research and ideas into businesses and impact. Each year, student-led finalist teams pitch their innovations to students, faculty, investors, and people working in various water-related industries.

    This year’s event, held in a virtual hybrid format in MIT’s Media Lab, included five finalist teams. The second-place $15,000 award was given to Livingwater Systems, which provides portable rainwater collection and filtration systems to displaced and off-grid communities.

    The company’s product consists of a low-cost mesh that goes on roofs to collect the water and a collapsible storage unit that incorporates a sediment filter. The water becomes drinkable after applying chlorine tablets to the storage unit.

    “Perhaps the single greatest attraction of our units is their elegance and simplicity,” Livingwater CEO Joshua Kao said in the company’s pitch. “Anyone can take advantage of their easy, do-it-yourself setup without any preexisting knowhow.”

    The company says the system works on the pitched roofs used in many off-grid settlements, refugee camps, and slums. The entire unit fits inside a backpack.

    The team also notes existing collection systems cost thousands of dollars, require expert installation, and can’t be attached to surfaces like tents. Livingwater is aiming to partner with nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit entities to sell its systems for $60 each, which would represent significant cost savings when compared to alternatives like busing water into settlements.

    The company will be running a paid pilot with the World Food Program this fall.

    “Support from MIT will be crucial for building the core team on the ground,” said Livingwater’s Gabriela Saade, a master’s student in public policy at the University of Chicago. “Let’s begin to realize a new era of water security in Latin America and across the globe.”

    The third-place $10,000 prize went to Algeon Materials, which is creating sustainable and environmentally friendly bioplastics from kelp. Algeon also won the $5,000 audience choice award for its system, which doesn’t require water, fertilizer, or land to produce.

    The other finalists were:

    Flowless, which uses artificial intelligence and an internet of things (IoT) platform to detect leaks and optimize water-related processes to reduce waste;
    Hydrologistics Africa Ltd, a platform to help consumers and utilities manage their water consumption; and
    Watabot, which is developing autonomous, artificial intelligence-powered systems to monitor harmful algae in real time and predict algae activity.

    Each year the Water Innovation Prize, hosted by the MIT Water Club, awards up to $50,000 in grants to teams from around the world. This year’s program received over 50 applications. A group of 20 semifinalist teams spent one month working with mentors to refine their pitches and business plans, and the final field of finalists received another month of mentorship.

    The Water Innovation Prize started in 2015 and has awarded more than $275,000 to 24 different teams to date. More

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    Surface coating designed to improve power plant efficiency wins 2022 Water Innovation Prize

    The winner of this year’s Water Innovation Prize is a company commercializing a material that could dramatically improve the efficiency of power plants.

    The company, Mesophase, is developing a more efficient power plant steam condenser that leverages a surface coating developed in the lab of Evelyn Wang, MIT’s Ford Professor of Engineering and the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Such condensers, which convert steam into water, sit at the heart of the energy extraction process in most of the world’s power plants.

    In the winning pitch, company founders said they believe their low-cost, durable coating will improve the heat transfer performance of such condensers.

    “What makes us excited about this technology is that in the condenser field, this is the first time we’ve seen a coating that can last long enough for industrial applications and be made with a high potential to scale up,” said Yajing Zhao SM ’18, who is currently a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT. “When compared to what’s available in academia and industry, we believe you’ll see record performance in terms of both heat transfer and lifetime.”

    In most power plants, condensers cool steam to turn it into water. The pressure change caused by that conversion creates a vacuum that pulls steam through a turbine. Mesophase’s patent-pending surface coating improves condensers’ ability to transfer heat, thus allowing operators to extract power more efficiently.

    Based on lab tests, the company predicts it can increase power plant output by up to 7 percent using existing infrastructure. Because steam condensers are used around the world, this advance could help increase global electricity production by 500 terawatt hours per year, which is equivalent to the electricity supply for about 1 billion people.

    The efficiency gains will also lead to less water use. Water sent from cooling towers is a common means of keeping condensers cool. The company estimates its system could reduce fresh water withdrawals by the equivalent of what is used by 50 million people per year.

    After running pilots, the company believes the new material could be installed in power plants during the regularly scheduled maintenance that occurs every two to five years. The company is also planning to work with existing condenser manufacturers to get to market faster.

    “This all works because a condenser with our technology in it has significantly more attractive economics than what you find in the market today,” says Mesophase’s Michael Gangemi, an MBA candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

    The company plans to start in the U.S. geothermal space, where Mesophase estimates its technology is worth about $800 million a year.

    “Much of the geothermal capacity in the U.S. was built in the ’50s and ’60s,” Gangemi said. “That means most of these plants are operating way below capacity, and they invest frequently in technology like ours just to maintain their power output.”

    The company will use the prize money, in part, to begin testing in a real power plant environment.

    “We are excited about these developments, but we know that they are only first steps as we move toward broader energy applications,” Gangemi said.

    MIT’s Water Innovation Prize helps translate water-related research and ideas into businesses and impact. Each year, student-led finalist teams pitch their innovations to students, faculty, investors, and people working in various water-related industries.

    This year’s event, held in a virtual hybrid format in MIT’s Media Lab, included five finalist teams. The second-place $15,000 award was given to Livingwater Systems, which provides portable rainwater collection and filtration systems to displaced and off-grid communities.

    The company’s product consists of a low-cost mesh that goes on roofs to collect the water and a collapsible storage unit that incorporates a sediment filter. The water becomes drinkable after applying chlorine tablets to the storage unit.

    “Perhaps the single greatest attraction of our units is their elegance and simplicity,” Livingwater CEO Joshua Kao said in the company’s pitch. “Anyone can take advantage of their easy, do-it-yourself setup without any preexisting knowhow.”

    The company says the system works on the pitched roofs used in many off-grid settlements, refugee camps, and slums. The entire unit fits inside a backpack.

    The team also notes existing collection systems cost thousands of dollars, require expert installation, and can’t be attached to surfaces like tents. Livingwater is aiming to partner with nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit entities to sell its systems for $60 each, which would represent significant cost savings when compared to alternatives like busing water into settlements.

    The company will be running a paid pilot with the World Food Program this fall.

    “Support from MIT will be crucial for building the core team on the ground,” said Livingwater’s Gabriela Saade, a master’s student in public policy at the University of Chicago. “Let’s begin to realize a new era of water security in Latin America and across the globe.”

    The third-place $10,000 prize went to Algeon Materials, which is creating sustainable and environmentally friendly bioplastics from kelp. Algeon also won the $5,000 audience choice award for its system, which doesn’t require water, fertilizer, or land to produce.

    The other finalists were:

    Flowless, which uses artificial intelligence and an internet of things (IoT) platform to detect leaks and optimize water-related processes to reduce waste;
    Hydrologistics Africa Ltd, a platform to help consumers and utilities manage their water consumption; and
    Watabot, which is developing autonomous, artificial intelligence-powered systems to monitor harmful algae in real time and predict algae activity.

    Each year the Water Innovation Prize, hosted by the MIT Water Club, awards up to $50,000 in grants to teams from around the world. This year’s program received over 50 applications. A group of 20 semifinalist teams spent one month working with mentors to refine their pitches and business plans, and the final field of finalists received another month of mentorship.

    The Water Innovation Prize started in 2015 and has awarded more than $275,000 to 24 different teams to date. More

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    Leveraging science and technology against the world’s top problems

    Looking back on nearly a half-century at MIT, Richard K. Lester, associate provost and Japan Steel Industry Professor, sees a “somewhat eccentric professional trajectory.”

    But while his path has been irregular, there has been a clearly defined through line, Lester says: the emergence of new science and new technologies, the potential of these developments to shake up the status quo and address some of society’s most consequential problems, and what the outcomes might mean for America’s place in the world.

    Perhaps no assignment in Lester’s portfolio better captures this theme than the new MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition. Spearheaded by Lester and Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research, and launched at the height of the pandemic in summer 2020, this initiative is designed to mobilize the entire MIT research community around tackling “the really hard, challenging problems currently standing in the way of an effective global response to the climate emergency,” says Lester. “The focus is on those problems where progress requires developing and applying frontier knowledge in the natural and social sciences and cutting-edge technologies. This is the MIT community swinging for the fences in areas where we have a comparative advantage.”This is a passion project for him, not least because it has engaged colleagues from nearly all of MIT’s departments. After nearly 100 initial ideas were submitted by more than 300 faculty, 27 teams were named finalists and received funding to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans in such areas as decarbonizing complex industries; risk forecasting and adaptation; advancing climate equity; and carbon removal, management, and storage. In April, a small subset of this group will become multiyear flagship projects, augmenting the work of existing MIT units that are pursuing climate research. Lester is sunny in the face of these extraordinarily complex problems. “This is a bottom-up effort with exciting proposals, and where the Institute is collectively committed — it’s MIT at its best.”

    Nuclear to the core

    This initiative carries a particular resonance for Lester, who remains deeply engaged in nuclear engineering. “The role of nuclear energy is central and will need to become even more central if we’re to succeed in addressing the climate challenge,” he says. He also acknowledges that for nuclear energy technologies — both fission and fusion — to play a vital role in decarbonizing the economy, they must not just win “in the court of public opinion, but in the marketplace,” he says. “Over the years, my research has sought to elucidate what needs to be done to overcome these obstacles.”

    In fact, Lester has been campaigning for much of his career for a U.S. nuclear innovation agenda, a commitment that takes on increased urgency as the contours of the climate crisis sharpen. He argues for the rapid development and testing of nuclear technologies that can complement the renewable but intermittent energy sources of sun and wind. Whether powerful, large-scale, molten-salt-cooled reactors or small, modular, light water reactors, nuclear batteries or promising new fusion projects, U.S. energy policy must embrace nuclear innovation, says Lester, or risk losing the high-stakes race for a sustainable future.

    Chancing into a discipline

    Lester’s introduction to nuclear science was pure happenstance.

    Born in the English industrial city of Leeds, he grew up in a musical family and played piano, violin, and then viola. “It was a big part of my life,” he says, and for a time, music beckoned as a career. He tumbled into a chemical engineering concentration at Imperial College, London, after taking a job in a chemical factory following high school. “There’s a certain randomness to life, and in my case, it’s reflected in my choice of major, which had a very large impact on my ultimate career.”

    In his second year, Lester talked his way into running a small experiment in the university’s research reactor, on radiation effects in materials. “I got hooked, and began thinking of studying nuclear engineering.” But there were few graduate programs in British universities at the time. Then serendipity struck again. The instructor of Lester’s single humanities course at Imperial had previously taught at MIT, and suggested Lester take a look at the nuclear program there. “I will always be grateful to him (and, indirectly, to MIT’s Humanities program) for opening my eyes to the existence of this institution where I’ve spent my whole adult life,” says Lester.

    He arrived at MIT with the notion of mitigating the harms of nuclear weapons. It was a time when the nuclear arms race “was an existential threat in everyone’s life,” he recalls. He targeted his graduate studies on nuclear proliferation. But he also encountered an electrifying study by MIT meteorologist Jule Charney. “Professor Charney produced one of the first scientific assessments of the effects on climate of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, with quantitative estimates that have not fundamentally changed in 40 years.”

    Lester shifted directions. “I came to MIT to work on nuclear security, but stayed in the nuclear field because of the contributions that it can and must make in addressing climate change,” he says.

    Research and policy

    His path forward, Lester believed, would involve applying his science and technology expertise to critical policy problems, grounded in immediate, real-world concerns, and aiming for broad policy impacts. Even as a member of NSE, he joined with colleagues from many MIT departments to study American industrial practices and what was required to make them globally competitive, and then founded MIT’s Industrial Performance Center (IPC). Working at the IPC with interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students on the sources of productivity and innovation, his research took him to many countries at different stages of industrialization, including China, Taiwan, Japan, and Brazil.

    Lester’s wide-ranging work yielded books (including the MIT Press bestseller “Made in America”), advisory positions with governments, corporations, and foundations, and unexpected collaborations. “My interests were always fairly broad, and being at MIT made it possible to team up with world-leading scholars and extraordinary students not just in nuclear engineering, but in many other fields such as political science, economics, and management,” he says.

    Forging cross-disciplinary ties and bringing creative people together around a common goal proved a valuable skill as Lester stepped into positions of ever-greater responsibility at the Institute. He didn’t exactly relish the prospect of a desk job, though. “I religiously avoided administrative roles until I felt I couldn’t keep avoiding them,” he says.

    Today, as associate provost, he tends to MIT’s international activities — a daunting task given increasing scrutiny of research universities’ globe-spanning research partnerships and education of foreign students. But even in the midst of these consuming chores, Lester remains devoted to his home department. “Being a nuclear engineer is a central part of my identity,” he says.

    To students entering the nuclear field nearly 50 years after he did, who are understandably “eager to fix everything that seems wrong immediately,” he has a message: “Be patient. The hard things, the ones that are really worth doing, will take a long time to do.” Putting the climate crisis behind us will take two generations, Lester believes. Current students will start the job, but it will also take the efforts of their children’s generation before it is done.  “So we need you to be energetic and creative, of course, but whatever you do we also need you to be patient and to have ‘stick-to-itiveness’ — and maybe also a moral compass that our generation has lacked.” More

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    MIT Energy Conference focuses on climate’s toughest challenges

    This year’s MIT Energy Conference, the largest student-led event of its kind, included keynote talks and panels that tackled some of the thorniest remaining challenges in the global effort to cut back on climate-altering emissions. These include the production of construction materials such as steel and cement, and the role of transportation including aviation and shipping. While the challenges are formidable, approaches incorporating methods such as fusion, heat pumps, energy efficiency, and the use of hydrogen hold promise, participants said.

    The two-day conference, held on March 31 and April 1 for more than 900 participants, included keynote lectures, 14 panel discussions, a fireside chat, networking events, and more. The event this year included the final round of the annual MIT Climate and Energy Prize, whose winning team receives $100,000 and other support. The prize, awarded since 2007, has led to the creation of more than 220 companies and $1.1 billion in investments.

    This year’s winner is a project that hopes to provide an innovative, efficient waterless washing machine aimed at the vast majority of the world’s people, who still do laundry by hand.

    “A truly consequential moment in history”

    In his opening keynote address Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, noted that this year’s conference was taking place during the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a leading gas and oil exporter. As a result, “global oil markets are going through a major turmoil,” he said.

    He said that Russian oil exports are expected to drop by 3 million barrels a day, and that international efforts to release reserves and promote increased production elsewhere will help, but will not suffice. “We have to look to other measures” to make up the shortfall, he said, noting that his agency has produced a 10-point plan of measures to help reduce global demand for oil.

    Europe gets 45 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and the agency also has developed a 10-point plan to help alleviate expected shortages there, including measures to improve energy efficiency in homes and industries, promote renewable heating sources, and postpone retirement of some nuclear plants. But he emphasized that “our goals to reach our climate targets should not be yet another victim of Mr. Putin and his allies.”  Unfortunately, Birol said, “I see that addressing climate change is sliding down in the policy agenda of many governments.”

    But he sees reasons for optimism as well, in terms of the feasibility of achieving the global emissions reduction target, agreed to by countries representing 80 percent of the global economy, of reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. The IEA has developed a roadmap for the entire energy sector to get there, which is now used by many governments as a benchmark, according to Birol.

    In addition, the trend is already clear, he said. “More than 90 percent of all power plants installed in the world [last year] were renewable energy,” mainly solar and wind. And 10 percent of cars sold worldwide last year, and 20 percent in Europe, were electric cars. “Please remember that in 2019 it was only 2 percent!” he said. He also predicted that “nuclear is going to make a comeback in many countries,” both in terms of large plants and newer small modular reactors.

    Birol said that “I hope that the current crisis gives governments the impetus to address the energy security concerns, to reach our climate goals, and … [to] choose the right direction at this very important turning point.”

    The conference’s second day began with keynote talks by Gina McCarthy, national climate advisor at the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, and Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research. In her address, Zuber said, “This conference comes at a truly consequential moment in history — a moment that puts into stark relief the enormous risks created by our current fossil-fuel based energy system — risks we cannot continue to accept.”

    She added that “time is not on our side.” To meet global commitments for limiting climate impacts, the world needs to reduce emissions by about half by 2030, and get to net zero by 2050. “In other words, we need to transform our entire global energy system in a few decades,” she said. She cited MIT’s “Fast Forward” climate action plan, issued last year, as presenting the two tracks that the world needs to pursue simultaneously: going as far as possible, as fast as possible, with the tools that exist now, while also innovating and investing in new ideas, technologies, practices, and institutions that may be needed to reach the net-zero goal.

    On the first track, she said, citing an IEA report, “from here until 2040, we can get most of the emissions reductions we need with technologies that are currently available or on the verge of becoming commercially available.” These include electrifying and boosting efficiency in buildings, industry, and transportation; increasing the portion of electricity coming from emissions-free sources; and investing in new infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging stations.

    But more than that is needed, she pointed out. For example, the amount of methane that leaks away into the atmosphere from fossil fuel operations is equivalent to all the natural gas used in Europe’s power sector, Zuber said. Recovering and selling that methane can dramatically reduce global methane emissions, often at little or no cost.

    For the longer run, “we need track-two solutions to decarbonize tough industries like aviation, shipping, chemicals, concrete, and steel,” and to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. She described some of the promising technologies that are in the pipeline. Fusion, for example, has moved from being a scientific challenge to an engineering problem whose solution seems well underway, she said.

    Another important area is food-related systems, which currently account for a third of all global emissions. For example, fertilizer production uses a very energy-intensive process, but work on plants engineered to fix nitrogen directly could make a significant dent.

    These and several other advanced research areas may not all pan out, but some undoubtedly will, and will help curb climate change as well as create new jobs and reduce pollution.

    Though the problems we face are complex, they are not insurmountable, Zuber said. “We don’t need a miracle. What we need is to move along the two tracks I’ve outlined with determination, ingenuity, and fierce urgency.”

    The promise and challenges of hydrogen

    Other conference speakers took on some of the less-discussed but crucial areas that also need to be addressed in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Heavy transportation, and aviation in particular, have been considered especially challenging. In his keynote address, Glenn Llewellyn, vice president for zero-emission aircraft at Airbus, outlined several approaches his company is working on to develop competitive midrange alternative airliners by 2035 that use either batteries or fuel cells powered by hydrogen. The early-stage designs demonstrate that, contrary to some projections, there is a realistic pathway to weaning that industry from its present reliance on fossil fuel, chiefly kerosene.

    Hydrogen has real potential as an aviation fuel, he said, either directly for use in fuel cells for power or burned directly for propulsion, or indirectly as a feedstock for synthetic fuels. Both are being studied by the company, he said, including a hybrid model that uses both hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen-fueled jet engines. The company projects a range of 2,000 nautical miles for a jet carrying 200 to 300 passengers, he said — all with no direct emissions and no contrails.

    But this vision will not be practical, Llewellyn said, unless economies of scale help to significantly lower the cost of hydrogen production. “Hydrogen is at the hub of aviation decarbonization,” he said. But that kind of price reduction seems quite feasible, he said, given that other major industries are also seriously looking at the use of hydrogen for their own decarbonization plans, including the production of steel and cement.

    Such uses were the subject of a panel discussion entitled “Deploying the Hydrogen Economy.” Hydrogen production technology exists, but not nearly at the scale that’s needed, which is about 500 million tons a year, pointed out moderator Dharik Mallapragada of the MIT Energy Initiative.

    Yet in some applications, the use of hydrogen both reduces emissions and is economically competitive. Preeti Pande of Plug Power said that her company, which produces hydrogen fuel cells, has found a significant market in an unexpected place: fork lifts, used in warehouses and factories worldwide. It turns out that replacing current battery-operated versions with fuel cell versions is a win-win for the companies that use them, saving money while helping to meet decarbonization goals.

    Lindsay Ashby of Avangrid Renewables said that the company has installed fuel-cell buses in Barcelona that run entirely on hydrogen generated by solar panels. The company is also building a 100-megawatt solar facility to produce hydrogen for the production of fertilizer, another major industry in need of decarbonization because of its large emissions footprint. And Brett Perleman of the Center for Houston’s Future said of his city that “we’re already a hydrogen hub today, just not green hydrogen” since the gas is currently mostly produced as a byproduct of fossil fuels. But that is changing rapidly, he said, and Houston, along with several other cities, aims to be a center of activity for hydrogen produced from renewable, non-carbon-emitting sources. They aim to be producing 1,000 tons a day by 2028, “and I think we’ll end up exceeding that,” he said.

    For industries that can switch to renewably generated electricity, that is typically the best choice, Perleman said. “But for those that can’t, hydrogen is a great option,” and that includes aviation, shipping, and rail. “The big oil companies all have plans in place” to develop clean hydrogen production, he said. “It’s not just a dream, but a reality.”

    For shipping, which tends to rely on bunker fuel, a particularly high-emissions fossil fuel, another potential option could be a new generation of small nuclear plants, said Jeff Navin of Terrapower, a company currently developing such units. “Finding replacements for coal, oil, or natural gas for industrial purposes is very hard,” he said, but often what these processes require is consistent high heat, which nuclear can deliver, as long as costs and regulatory issues can be resolved.  

    MIT professor of nuclear engineering Jacopo Buongiorno pointed out that the primary reasons for delays and cost overruns in nuclear plants have had to do with issues at the construction site, many of which could be alleviated by having smaller, factory-built modular plants, or by building multiple units at a time of a standardized design. If the government would take on the nuclear waste disposal, as some other countries have done, then nuclear power could play an important part in the decarbonization of many industries, he said.

    Student-led startups

    The two-day conference concluded with the final round of the annual MIT Climate and Energy Prize, consisting of the five finalist teams presenting brief pitches for their startup company ideas, followed by questions from the panel of judges. This year’s finalists included a team called Muket, dedicated to finding ways of reducing methane emissions from cattle and dairy farms. Feed additives or other measures could cut the emissions by 50 percent, the team estimates.

    A team called Ivu Biologics described a system for incorporating nitrogen-fixing microbes into the coatings of seeds, thereby reducing the need for added fertilizers, whose production is a major greenhouse gas source. The company is making use of seed-coating technology developed at MIT over the last few years. Another team, called Mesophase, also based on MIT-developed technology, aims to replace the condensers used in power plants and other industrial systems with much more efficient versions, thus increasing the energy output from a given amount of fuel or other heat source.

    A team called TerraTrade aims to facilitate the adoption of power purchase agreements by companies, institutions and governments, by acting as a kind of broker to create and administer such agreements, making it easier for even smaller entities to take part in these plans, which help to enable rapid development of renewable fossil-fuel-free energy production.

    The grand prize of $100,000 was awarded to a team called Ultropia, which is developing a combined clothes washer and drier that uses ultrasound instead of water for its cleaning. The system does use a small amount of water, but this can be recycled, making these usable even in areas where water availability is limited. The devices could have a great impact on the estimated 6 billion people in the world today who are still limited to washing clothes by hand, the team says, and because the machines would be so efficient, they would require very little energy to run — a significant improvement over the wider adoption of conventional washers and driers. More

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    A better way to separate gases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Building communities, founding a startup with people in mind

    MIT postdoc Francesco Benedetti admits he wasn’t always a star student. But the people he met along his educational journey inspired him to strive, which led him to conduct research at MIT, launch a startup, and even lead the team that won the 2021 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. Now he is determined to make sure his company, Osmoses, succeeds in boosting the energy efficiency of traditional and renewable natural gas processing, hydrogen production, and carbon capture — thus helping to address climate change.

    “I can’t be grateful enough to MIT for bringing together a community of people who want to change the world,” Benedetti says. “Now we have a technology that can solve one of the big problems of our society.”

    Benedetti and his team have developed an innovative way to separate molecules using a membrane fine enough to extract impurities such as carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide from raw natural gas to obtain higher-quality fuel, fulfilling a crucial need in the energy industry. “Natural gas now provides about 40 percent of the energy used to power homes and industry in the United States,” Benedetti says. Using his team’s technology to upgrade natural gas more efficiently could reduce emissions of greenhouse gases while saving enough energy to power the equivalent of 7 million additional U.S. homes for a year, he adds.

    The MIT community

    Benedetti first came to MIT in 2017 as a visiting student from the University of Bologna in Italy, where he was working on membranes for gas separation for his PhD in chemical engineering. Having completed a master’s thesis on water desalination at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, he connected with UT alumnus Zachary P. Smith, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, and the two discovered they shared a vision. “We found ourselves very much aligned on the need for new technology in industry to lower the energy consumption of separating components,” Benedetti says.

    Although Benedetti had always been interested in making a positive impact on the world, particularly the environment, he says it was his university studies that first sparked his interest in more efficient separation technologies. “When you study chemical engineering, you understand hundreds of ways the field can have a positive impact in the world. But we learn very early that 15 percent of the world’s energy is wasted because of inefficient chemical separation — because we still rely on centuries-old technology,” he says. Most separation processes still use heat or toxic solvents to separate components, he explains.

    Still, Benedetti says, his main drive comes from the joy of working with terrific mentors and colleagues. “It’s the people I’ve met that really inspired me to tackle the biggest challenges and find that intrinsic motivation,” he says.

    To help build his community at MIT and provide support for international students, Benedetti co-founded the MIT Visiting Student Association (VISTA) in September 2017. By February 2018, the organization had hundreds of members and official Institute recognition. In May 2018, the group won two Institute awards, including the Golden Beaver Award for enhancing the campus environment. “VISTA gave me a sense of belonging; I loved it,” Benedetti says.

    Membrane technology

    Benedetti also published two papers on membrane research during his stint as a visiting student at MIT, so he was delighted to return in 2019 for postdoctoral work through the MIT Energy Initiative, where he was a 2019-20 ExxonMobil-MIT Energy Fellow. “I came back because the research was extremely exciting, but also because I got extremely passionate about the energy I found on campus and with the people,” he says.

    Returning to MIT enabled Benedetti to continue his work with Smith and Holden Lai, both of whom helped co-found Osmoses. Lai, a recent Stanford PhD in chemistry who was also a visiting student at MIT in 2018, is now the chief technology officer at Osmoses. Co-founder Katherine Mizrahi Rodriguez ’17, an MIT PhD candidate, joined the team more recently.

    Together, the Osmoses team has developed polymer membranes with microporosities capable of filtering gases by separating out molecules that differ by as little as a fraction of an angstrom — a unit of length equal to one hundred-millionth of a centimeter. “We can get up to five times higher selectivity than commercially available technology for methane upgrading, and this has been observed operating the membranes in industrially relevant environments,” Benedetti says.

    Today, methane upgrading — removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from raw natural gas to obtain a higher-grade fuel — is often accomplished using amine absorption, a process that uses toxic solvents to capture CO2 and burns methane to fuel the regeneration of those solvents for reuse. Using Osmoses’ filters would eliminate the need for such solvents while reducing CO2 emissions by up to 16 million metric tons per year in the United States alone, Benedetti says.

    The technology has a wide range of applications — in oxygen and nitrogen generation, hydrogen purification, and carbon capture, for example — but Osmoses plans to start with the $5 billion market for natural gas upgrading because the need to bring innovation and sustainability to that space is urgent, says Benedetti, who received guidance in bringing technology to market from MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The Osmoses team has also received support from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program.

    The next step for the startup is to build an industrial-scale prototype, and Benedetti says the company got a huge boost toward that goal in May when it won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, a student-run contest that has launched more than 160 companies since it began in 1990. Ninety teams began the competition by pitching their startup ideas; 20 received mentorship and development funding; then eight finalists presented business plans to compete for the $100,000 prize. “Because of this, we’re getting a lot of interest from venture capital firms, investors, companies, corporate funds, et cetera, that want to partner with us or to use our product,” he says. In June, the Osmoses team received a two-year Activate Fellowship, which will support moving its research to market; in October, it won the Northeast Regional and Carbon Sequestration Prizes at the Cleantech Open Accelerator; and in November, the team closed a $3 million pre-seed round of financing.

    FAIL!

    Naturally, Benedetti hopes Osmoses is on the path to success, but he wants everyone to know that there is no shame in failures that come from best efforts. He admits it took him three years longer than usual to finish his undergraduate and master’s degrees, and he says, “I have experienced the pressure you feel when society judges you like a book by its cover and how much a lack of inspired leaders and a supportive environment can kill creativity and the will to try.”

    That’s why in 2018 he, along with other MIT students and VISTA members, started FAIL!–Inspiring Resilience, an organization that provides a platform for sharing unfiltered stories and the lessons leaders have gleaned from failure. “We wanted to help de-stigmatize failure, appreciate vulnerabilities, and inspire humble leadership, eventually creating better communities,” Benedetti says. “If we can make failures, big and small, less intimidating and all-consuming, individuals with great potential will be more willing to take risks, think outside the box, and try things that may push new boundaries. In this way, more breakthrough discoveries are likely to follow, without compromising anyone’s mental health.”

    Benedetti says he will strive to create a supportive culture at Osmoses, because people are central to success. “What drives me every day is the people. I would have no story without the people around me,” he says. “The moment you lose touch with people, you lose the opportunity to create something special.”

    This article appears in the Autumn 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    MIT entrepreneurs think globally, act locally

    Born and raised amid the natural beauty of the Dominican Republic, Andrés Bisonó León feels a deep motivation to help solve a problem that has been threatening the Caribbean island nation’s tourism industry, its economy, and its people.

    As Bisonó León discussed with his long-time friend and mentor, the Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Professor of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) Alexander Slocum Sr., ugly mats of toxic sargassum seaweed have been encroaching on the Dominican Republic’s pristine beaches and other beaches in the Caribbean region, and public and private organizations have fought a losing battle using expensive, environmentally damaging methods to clean it up. Slocum, who was on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Deepwater Horizon team, has extensive experience with systems that operate in the ocean.

    “In the last 10 years,” says Bisonó León, now an MBA candidate in the MIT Sloan School of Management, “sargassum, a toxic seaweed invasion, has cost the Caribbean as much as $120 million a year in cleanup and has meant a 30 to 35 percent tourism reduction, affecting not only the tourism industry, but also the environment, marine life, local economies, and human health.”

    One of Bisonó León’s discussions with Slocum took place within earshot of MechE alumnus Luke Gray ’18, SM ’20, who had worked with Slocum on other projects and was at the time was about to begin his master’s program.

    “Professor Slocum and Andrés happened to be discussing the sargassum problem in Andrés’ home country,” Gray says. “A week later I was on a plane to the DR to collect sargassum samples and survey the problem in Punta Cana. When I returned, my master’s program was underway, and I already had my thesis project!”

    Gray also had started a working partnership with Bisonó León, which both say proceeded seamlessly right from the first moment.

    “I feel that Luke right away understood the magnitude of the problem and the value we could create in the Dominican Republic and across the Caribbean by teaming up,” Bisonó León says.

    Both Bisonó León and Gray also say they felt a responsibility to work toward helping the global environment.

    “All of my major projects up until now have involved machines for climate restoration and/or adaptation,” says Gray.

    The technologies Bisonó León and Gray arrived at after 18 months of R&D were designed to provide solutions both locally and globally.

    Their Littoral Collection Module (LCM) skims sargassum seaweed off the surface of the water with nets that can be mounted on any boat. The device sits across the boat, with two large hoops holding the nets open, one on each side. As the boat travels forward, it cuts through the seaweed, which flows to the sides of the vessel and through the hoops into the nets. Effective at sweeping the seaweed from the water, the device can be employed by anyone with a boat, including local fishermen whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the seaweed’s damaging effect on tourism and the local economy.

    The sargassum can then be towed out to sea, where Bisonó León’s and Gray’s second technology can come into play. By pumping the seaweed into very deep water, where it then sinks to the bottom of the ocean, the carbon in the seaweed can be sequestered. Other methods for disposing of the seaweed generally involve putting it into landfills, where it emits greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide as it breaks down. Although some seaweed can be put to other uses, including as fertilizer, sargassum has been found to contain hard-to-remove toxic substances such as arsenic and heavy metals.

    In spring 2020, Bisonó León and Gray formed a company, SOS (Sargassum Ocean Sequestration) Carbon.

    Bisonó León says he comes from a long line of entrepreneurs who often expressed much commitment to social impact. His family has been involved in several different industries, his grandfather and great uncles having opened the first cigar factory in the Dominican Republic in 1903.

    Gray says internships with startup companies and the undergraduate projects he did with Slocum developed his interest in entrepreneurship, and his involvement with the sargassum problem only reinforced that inclination. During his master’s program, he says he became “obsessed” with finding a solution.

    “Professor Slocum let me think extremely big, and so it was almost inevitable that the distillation of our two years of work would continue in some form, and starting a company happened to be the right path. My master’s experience of taking an essentially untouched problem like sargassum and then one year later designing, building, and sending 15,000 pounds of custom equipment to test for three months on a Dominican Navy ship made me realize I had discovered a recipe I could repeat — and machine design had become my core competency,” Gray says.

    During the initial research and development of their technologies, Bisonó León and Gray raised $258,000 from 20 different organizations. Between June and December 2021, they succeeded in removing 3.5 million pounds of sargassum and secured contracts with Grupo Puntacana, which operates several tourist resorts, and with other hotels such as Club Med in Punta Cana. The company subcontracts with the association of fishermen in Punta Cana, employing 15 fishermen who operate LCMs and training 35 others to join as the operation expands.

    Their success so far demonstrates “’mens et manus’ at work,” says Slocum, referring to MIT’s motto, which is Latin for “mind and hand.” “Geeks hear about a very real problem that affects very real people who have no other option for their livelihoods, and they respond by inventing a solution so elegant that it can be readily deployed by those most hurt by the problem to address the problem.

    “The team was always focused on the numbers, from physics to finance, and did not let hype or doubts deter their determination to rationally solve this huge problem.”

    Slocum says he could predict Bisonó León and Gray would work well together “because they started out as good, smart people with complementary skills whose hearts and minds were in the right place.”

    “We are working on having a global impact to reduce millions of tons of CO2 per year,” says Bisonó León. “With training from Sloan and cross-disciplinary collaborative spirit, we will be able to further expand environmental and social impact platforms much needed in the Caribbean to be able to drive real change regionally and globally.”

    “I hope SOS Carbon can serve as a model and inspire similar entrepreneurial efforts,” Gray says. More