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

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

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

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

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

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

    Mobile evaporative cooling rooms for vegetable preservation

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

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

    Off-grid portable ion concentration polarization desalination unit

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

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

    Converting dairy industry waste into food and feed ingredients

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

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

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    Climate and sustainability classes expand at MIT

    In fall 2019, a new class, 6.S898/12.S992 (Climate Change Seminar), arrived at MIT. It was, at the time, the only course in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) to tackle the science of climate change. The class covered climate models and simulations alongside atmospheric science, policy, and economics.

    Ron Rivest, MIT Institute Professor of Computer Science, was one of the class’s three instructors, with Alan Edelman of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and John Fernández of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “Computer scientists have much to contribute to climate science,” Rivest says. “In particular, the modeling and simulation of climate can benefit from advances in computer science.”

    Rivest is one of many MIT faculty members who have been working in recent years to bring topics in climate, sustainability, and the environment to students in a growing variety of fields. And students have said they want this trend to continue.

    “Sustainability is something that touches all disciplines,” says Megan Xu, a rising senior in biological engineering and advisory chair of the Undergraduate Association Sustainability Committee. “As students who have grown up knowing that climate change is real and witnessed climate disaster after disaster, we know this is a huge problem that needs to be addressed by our generation.”

    Expanding the course catalog

    As education program manager at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, Sarah Meyers has repeatedly had a hand in launching new sustainability classes. She has steered grant money to faculty, brought together instructors, and helped design syllabi — all in the service of giving MIT students the same world-class education in climate and sustainability that they get in science and engineering.

    Her work has given Meyers a bird’s-eye view of MIT’s course offerings in this area. By her count, there are now over 120 undergraduate classes, across 23 academic departments, that teach climate, environment, and sustainability principles.

    “Educating the next generation is the most important way that MIT can have an impact on the world’s environmental challenges,” she says. “MIT students are going to be leaders in their fields, whatever they may be. If they really understand sustainable design practices, if they can balance the needs of all stakeholders to make ethical decisions, then that actually changes the way our world operates and can move humanity towards a more sustainable future.”

    Some sustainability classes are established institutions at MIT. Success stories include 2.00A (Fundamentals of Engineering Design: Explore Space, Sea and Earth), a hands-on engineering class popular with first-year students; and 21W.775 (Writing About Nature and Environmental Issues), which has helped undergraduates fulfill their HASS-H (humanities distribution subject) and CI-H (Communication Intensive subject in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) graduation requirements for 15 years.

    Expanding this list of classes is an institutional priority. In the recently released Climate Action Plan for the Decade, MIT pledged to recruit at least 20 additional faculty members who will teach climate-related classes.

    “I think it’s easy to find classes if you’re looking for sustainability classes to take,” says Naomi Lutz, a senior in mechanical engineering who helped advise the MIT administration on education measures in the Climate Action Plan. “I usually scroll through the titles of the classes in courses 1, 2, 11, and 12 to see if any are of interest. I also have used the Environment & Sustainability Minor class list to look for sustainability-related classes to take.

    “The coming years are critical for the future of our planet, so it’s important that we all learn about sustainability and think about how to address it,” she adds.

    Working with students’ schedules

    Still, despite all this activity, climate and sustainability are not yet mainstream parts of an MIT education. Last year, a survey of over 800 MIT undergraduates, taken by the Undergraduate Association Sustainability Committee, found that only one in four had ever taken a class related to sustainability. But it doesn’t seem to be from lack of interest in the topic. More than half of those surveyed said that sustainability is a factor in their career planning, and almost 80 percent try to practice sustainability in their daily lives.

    “I’ve often had conversations with students who were surprised to learn there are so many classes available,” says Meyers. “We do need to do a better job communicating about them, and making it as easy as possible to enroll.”

    A recurring challenge is helping students fit sustainability into their plans for graduation, which are often tightly mapped-out.

    “We each only have four years — around 32 to 40 classes — to absorb all that we can from this amazing place,” says Xu. “Many of these classes are mandated to be GIRs [General Institute Requirements] and major requirements. Many students recognize that sustainability is important, but might not have the time to devote an entire class to the topic if it would not count toward their requirements.”

    This was a central focus for the students who were involved in forming education recommendations for the Climate Action Plan. “We propose that more sustainability-related courses or tracks are offered in the most common majors, especially in Course 6 [EECS],” says Lutz. “If students can fulfill major requirements while taking courses that address environmental problems, we believe more students will pursue research and careers related to sustainability.”

    She also recommends that students look into the dozens of climate and sustainability classes that fulfill GIRs. “It’s really easy to take sustainability-related courses that fulfill HASS [Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences] requirements,” she says. For example, students can meet their HASS-S (social sciences sistribution subject) requirement by taking 21H.185 (Environment and History), or fulfill their HASS-A requirement with CMS.374 (Transmedia Art, Extraction and Environmental Justice).

    Classes with impact

    For those students who do seek out sustainability classes early in their MIT careers, the experience can shape their whole education.

    “My first semester at MIT, I took Environment and History, co-taught by professors Susan Solomon and Harriet Ritvo,” says Xu. “It taught me that there is so much more involved than just science and hard facts to solving problems in sustainability and climate. I learned to look at problems with more of a focus on people, which has informed much of the extracurricular work that I’ve gone on to do at MIT.”

    And the faculty, too, sometimes find that teaching in this area opens new doors for them. Rivest, who taught the climate change seminar in Course 6, is now working to build a simplified climate model with his co-instructor Alan Edelman, their teaching assistant Henri Drake, and Professor John Deutch of the Department of Chemistry, who joined the class as a guest lecturer. “I very much enjoyed meeting new colleagues from all around MIT,” Rivest says. “Teaching a class like this fosters connections between computer scientists and climate scientists.”

    Which is why Meyers will continue helping to get these classes off the ground. “We know students think climate is a huge issue for their futures. We know faculty agree with them,” she says. “Everybody wants this to be part of an MIT education. The next step is to really reach out to students and departments to fill the classrooms. That’s the start of a virtuous cycle where enrollment drives more sustainability instruction in every part of MIT.” More

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    Energy storage from a chemistry perspective

    The transition toward a more sustainable, environmentally sound electrical grid has driven an upsurge in renewables like solar and wind. But something as simple as cloud cover can cause grid instability, and wind power is inherently unpredictable. This intermittent nature of renewables has invigorated the competitive landscape for energy storage companies looking to enhance power system flexibility while enabling the integration of renewables.

    “Impact is what drives PolyJoule more than anything else,” says CEO Eli Paster. “We see impact from a renewable integration standpoint, from a curtailment standpoint, and also from the standpoint of transitioning from a centralized to a decentralized model of energy-power delivery.”

    PolyJoule is a Billerica, Massachusetts-based startup that’s looking to reinvent energy storage from a chemistry perspective. Co-founders Ian Hunter of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Tim Swager of the Department of Chemistry are longstanding MIT professors considered luminaries in their respective fields. Meanwhile, the core team is a small but highly skilled collection of chemists, manufacturing specialists, supply chain optimizers, and entrepreneurs, many of whom have called MIT home at one point or another.

    “The ideas that we work on in the lab, you’ll see turned into products three to four years from now, and they will still be innovative and well ahead of the curve when they get to market,” Paster says. “But the concepts come from the foresight of thinking five to 10 years in advance. That’s what we have in our back pocket, thanks to great minds like Ian and Tim.”

    PolyJoule takes a systems-level approach married to high-throughput, analytical electrochemistry that has allowed the company to pinpoint a chemical cell design based on 10,000 trials. The result is a battery that is low-cost, safe, and has a long lifetime. It’s capable of responding to base loads and peak loads in microseconds, allowing the same battery to participate in multiple power markets and deployment use cases.

    In the energy storage sphere, interesting technologies abound, but workable solutions are few and far between. But Paster says PolyJoule has managed to bridge the gap between the lab and the real world by taking industry concerns into account from the beginning. “We’ve taken a slightly contrarian view to all of the other energy storage companies that have come before us that have said, ‘If we build it, they will come.’ Instead, we’ve gone directly to the customer and asked, ‘If you could have a better battery storage platform, what would it look like?’”

    With commercial input feeding into the thought processes behind their technological and commercial deployment, PolyJoule says they’ve designed a battery that is less expensive to make, less expensive to operate, safer, and easier to deploy.

    Traditionally, lithium-ion batteries have been the go-to energy storage solution. But lithium has its drawbacks, including cost, safety issues, and detrimental effects on the environment. But PolyJoule isn’t interested in lithium — or metals of any kind, in fact. “We start with the periodic table of organic elements,” says Paster, “and from there, we derive what works at economies of scale, what is easy to converge and convert chemically.”

    Having an inherently safer chemistry allows PolyJoule to save on system integration costs, among other things. PolyJoule batteries don’t contain flammable solvents, which means no added expenses related to fire mitigation. Safer chemistry also means ease of storage, and PolyJoule batteries are currently undergoing global safety certification (UL approval) to be allowed indoors and on airplanes. Finally, with high power built into the chemistry, PolyJoule’s cells can be charged and discharged to extremes, without the need for heating or cooling systems.

    “From raw material to product delivery, we examine each step in the value chain with an eye towards reducing costs,” says Paster. It all starts with designing the chemistry around earth-abundant elements, which allows the small startup to compete with larger suppliers, even at smaller scales. Consider the fact that PolyJoule’s differentiating material cost is less than $1 per kilogram, whereas lithium carbonate sells for $20 per kilogram.

    On the manufacturing side, Paster explains that PolyJoule cuts costs by making their cells in old paper mills and warehouses, employing off-the-shelf equipment previously used for tissue paper or newspaper printing. “We use equipment that has been around for decades because we don’t want to create a cutting-edge technology that requires cutting-edge manufacturing,” he says. “We want to create a cutting-edge technology that can be deployed in industrialized nations and in other nations that can benefit the most from energy storage.”

    PolyJoule’s first customer is an industrial distributed energy consumer with baseline energy consumption that increases by a factor of 10 when the heavy machinery kicks on twice a day. In the early morning and late afternoon, it consumes about 50 kilowatts for 20 minutes to an hour, compared to a baseline rate of 5  kilowatts. It’s an application model that is translatable to a variety of industries. Think wastewater treatment, food processing, and server farms — anything with a fluctuation in power consumption over a 24-hour period.

    By the end of the year, PolyJoule will have delivered its first 10 kilowatt-hour system, exiting stealth mode and adding commercial viability to demonstrated technological superiority. “What we’re seeing, now is massive amounts of energy storage being added to renewables and grid-edge applications,” says Paster. “We anticipated that by 12-18 months, and now we’re ramping up to catch up with some of the bigger players.” More

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    Why boiling droplets can race across hot oily surfaces

    When you’re frying something in a skillet and some droplets of water fall into the pan, you may have noticed those droplets skittering around on top of the film of hot oil. Now, that seemingly trivial phenomenon has been analyzed and understood for the first time by researchers at MIT — and may have important implications for microfluidic devices, heat transfer systems, and other useful functions.

    A droplet of boiling water on a hot surface will sometimes levitate on a thin vapor film, a well-studied phenomenon called the Leidenfrost effect. Because it is suspended on a cushion of vapor, the droplet can move across the surface with little friction. If the surface is coated with hot oil, which has much greater friction than the vapor film under a Leidenfrost droplet, the hot droplet should be expected to move much more slowly. But, counterintuitively, the series of experiments at MIT has showed that the opposite effect happens: The droplet on oil zooms away much more rapidly than on bare metal.

    This effect, which propels droplets across a heated oily surface 10 to 100 times faster than on bare metal, could potentially be used for self-cleaning or de-icing systems, or to propel tiny amounts of liquid through the tiny tubing of microfluidic devices used for biomedical and chemical research and testing. The findings are described today in a paper in the journal Physical Review Letters, written by graduate student Victor Julio Leon and professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi.

    In previous research, Varanasi and his team showed that it would be possible to harness this phenomenon for some of these potential applications, but the new work, producing such high velocities (approximately 50 times faster), could open up even more new uses, Varanasi says.

    After long and painstaking analysis, Leon and Varanasi were able to determine the reason for the rapid ejection of these droplets from the hot surface. Under the right conditions of high temperature, oil viscosity, and oil thickness, the oil will form a kind of thin cloak coating the outside of each water droplet. As the droplet heats up, tiny bubbles of vapor form along the interface between the droplet and the oil. Because these minuscule bubbles accumulate randomly along the droplet’s base, asymmetries develop, and the lowered friction under the bubble loosens the droplet’s attachment to the surface and propels it away.

    The oily film acts almost like the rubber of a balloon, and when the tiny vapor bubbles burst through, they impart a force and “the balloon just flies off because the air is going out one side, creating a momentum transfer,” Varanasi says. Without the oil cloak, the vapor bubbles would just flow out of the droplet in all directions, preventing self-propulsion, but the cloaking effect holds them in like the skin of the balloon.

    Researchers used extreme high-speed photography to reveal the details of the moving droplets. “You can actually see the fluctuations on the surface,” graduate student Victor Leon says.

    The phenomenon sounds simple, but it turns out to depend on a complex interplay between events happening at different timescales.

    This newly analyzed self-ejection phenomenon depends on a number of factors, including the droplet size, the thickness and viscosity of the oil film, the thermal conductivity of the surface, the surface tension of the different liquids in the system, the type of oil, and the texture of the surface.

    In their experiments, the lowest viscosity of the several oils they tested was about 100 times more viscous than the surrounding air. So, it would have been expected to make bubbles move much more slowly than on the air cushion of the Leidenfrost effect. “That gives an idea of how surprising it is that this droplet is moving faster,” Leon says.

    As boiling starts, bubbles will randomly form from some nucleation site that is not right at its center. Bubble formation will increase on that side, leading to the propulsion off in one direction. So far, the researchers have not been able to control the direction of that randomly induced propulsion, but they are now working on some possible ways to control the directionality in the future. “We have ideas of how to trigger the propulsion in controlled directions,” Leon says.

    Remarkably, the tests showed that even though the oil film of the surface, which was a silicon wafer, was only 10 to 100 microns thick — about the thickness of a human hair — its behavior didn’t match the equations for a thin film. Instead, because of the vaporization the film, it was actually behaving like an infinitely deep pool of oil. “We were kind of astounded” by that finding, Leon says. While a thin film should have caused it to stick, the virtually infinite pool gave the droplet much lower friction, allowing it to move more rapidly than expected, Leon says.

    The effect depends on the fact that the formation of the tiny bubbles is a much more rapid process than the transfer of heat through the oil film, about a thousand times faster, leaving plenty of time for the asymmetries within the droplet to accumulate. When the bubbles of vapor initially form at the oil-water interface, they are  much more insulating that the liquid of the droplet, leading to significant thermal disturbances in the oil film. These disturbances cause the droplet to vibrate, reducing friction and increasing vaporization rate.

    It took extreme high-speed photography to reveal the details of this rapid effect, Leon says, using a 100,000 frames per second video camera. “You can actually see the fluctuations on the surface,” Leon says.

    Initially, Varanasi says, “we were stumped at multiple levels as to what was going on, because the effect was so unexpected. … It’s a fairly complex answer to what may look seemingly simple, but it really creates this fast propulsion.”

    In practice, the effect means that in certain situations, a simple heating of a surface, by the right amount and with the right kind of oily coating, could cause corrosive scaling drops to be cleared from a surface. Further down the line, once the researchers have more control over directionality, the system could potentially substitute for some high-tech pumps in microfluidic devices to propel droplets through the right tubes at the right time. This might be especially useful in microgravity situations, where ordinary pumps don’t function as usual.

    It may also be possible to attach a payload to the droplets, creating a kind of microscale robotic delivery system, Varanasi says. And while their tests focused on water droplets, potentially it could apply to many different kinds of liquids and sublimating solids, he says.

    The work was supported by the National Science Foundation. More

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    MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team wins 2021 American Solar Challenge

    After three years of hard work, the MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team took first place at the 2021 American Solar Challenge (ASC) on August 7 in the Single Occupancy Vehicle (SOV) category. During the five-day race, their solar car, Nimbus — designed and built entirely by students — beat eight other SOVs from schools across the country, traversing 1,109 miles and maintaining an average speed of 38.4 miles per hour.

    Held every two years, the ASC has traditionally been a timed event. This year, however, the race was based on the total distance traveled. Each team followed the same prescribed route, from Independence, Missouri, to Las Vegas, New Mexico. But teams could drive additional miles within each of the three stages — if their battery had enough juice to continue. Nimbus surpassed the closest runner-up, the University of Kentucky, by over 100 miles.

    “It’s still a little surreal,” says SEVT captain Aditya Mehrotra, a rising senior in electrical engineering and computer science. “We were all hopeful, but I don’t think you ever go into racing like, ‘We got this.’ It’s more like, ‘We’re going to do our best and see how we fare.’ In this case, we were fortunate enough to do really well. The car worked beautifully, and — more importantly — the team worked beautifully and we learned a lot.”

    Team work makes the dream work

    Two weeks before the ASC race, each solar car was put through its paces in the Formula Sun Grand Prix at Heartland Motorsports Park in Topeka, Kansas. First, vehicles had to perform a series of qualifying challenges, called “scrutineering.” Cars that passed could participate in a track race in hopes of qualifying for ASC. Nimbus placed second, completing a total of 239 laps around the track over three days (equivalent to 597.5 miles).

    In the process, SEVT member and rising junior in mechanical engineering Cameron Kokesh tied the Illinois State driver for the fastest single lap time around the track, clocking in at three minutes and 19 seconds. She’s not one to rest on her laurels, though. “It would be fun to see if we could beat that time at the next race,” she says with a smile.

    Nimbus’s performance at the Formula Sun Grand Prix and ASC is a manifestation of team’s proficiency in not only designing and building a superior solar vehicle, but other skills, as well, including managing logistics, communications, and teamwork. “It’s a huge operation,” says Mehrotra. “It’s not like we drive the car straight down the highway during the race.”

    Indeed, Nimbus travels with an impressive caravan of seven vehicles manned by about two dozen SEVT members. A scout vehicle is at the front, monitoring road and weather conditions, followed by a lead car that oversees navigation. Nimbus is third in the caravan, trailed by a chase vehicle, in which the strategy team manages tasks like monitoring telemetry data, calculating how much power the solar panels are generating and the remaining travel distance, and setting target speeds. Bringing up the rear are the transport truck and trailer, a media car, and “Cupcake,” a support vehicle with food, supplies, and camping gear.

    Leading up to the three-week event, the team devoted three years to designing, building, refining, and testing Nimbus. (The ASC was scheduled for 2020, but it was postponed until this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.) They spent countless hours in the MIT Edgerton Center’s machine shop in Building N51, making, building, and iterating. They drove the car in the greater-Boston area, up to Salem, Massachusetts, and to Cape Cod. In the spring, they traveled to Palmer Motorsports Park in Palmer, Massachusetts, to practice various components of the race. They performed scrutineering tasks like the slalom test and figure eight test, conducted team operations training to optimize the caravan’s performance, and, of course, the “shakedown.” 

    “Shakedown is just, you drive the car around the track and you basically see what falls off and then you know what you need to fix,” Mehrotra explains. “Hopefully nothing too major falls off!”

    The road ahead

    At the conclusion of the race, Mehotra officially stepped down and handed SEVT’s reins to its new leaders: Kotesh will take the helm as team captain, and rising sophomore Sydney Kim, an ocean engineering major, will serve as vice-captain. The long drive back from the Midwest gave them time to reflect on the win and future plans.

    Although Nimbus performed well, there were a few instructive glitches here and there, mostly during scrutineering. But there was nothing the team couldn’t handle. For example, the canopy latch didn’t always hold, so the clear acrylic bubble covering the driver would pop open. (A little spring adjustment and tape did the trick.) In addition, Nimbus had a tendency to skid when the driver slammed on the brakes. (Driver training, and letting some air out of the tires, improved the traction.)

    Then there were the unpredictable variables, beyond the team’s control. On one day, with little sun, Nimbus had to chug along the highway at a mere 15 miles per hour. And there was the time that the Kansas State Police pulled the entire caravan over. “They didn’t realize we were coming through,” Mehrotra explains.

    Kim thinks one of the keys to the team’s success is that Nimbus is quite reliable. “We didn’t have wheels falling off on the road. Once we got the car rolling, things didn’t go wrong mechanically or electrically. Also, it’s very energy efficient because it’s lightweight and the shape of the vehicle is very aerodynamic. On a nice sunny day, it allows us to drive 40 miles per hour energy-neutral — the battery stays at the same amount of charge as we drive,” she says.

    The next ASC will take place in 2022, so this year the team will focus on refining Nimbus to race it again next summer. Also, they’ve set their sights on building a car to enter in the Multiple Occupancy Vehicle (MOV) class in the 2024 race — something the team has never done. “It will definitely take the three years to build a good car to compete,” Kotesh muses. “But it’s a really good transition period, after doing so well on this race, so our team is excited about it.”

    “It will be challenging for them, but I wouldn’t put it anything past them,” says Patrick McAtamney, the Edgerton Center technical instructor and shop manager who works with all the student clubs and teams, from solar vehicles to Formula race cars to rockets. He attended ASC, too, and has the utmost admiration for SEVT. “It’s totally student-run. They do all the designing and machining themselves. I always tell people that sometimes I feel like my only job is to make sure they have 10 fingers when they leave the shop.”

    In the meantime, before the school year begins, SEVT has another challenge: deciding where to put the trophy. “It’s huge,” McAtamney says. “It’s about the size of the Stanley Cup!” More

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    Using aluminum and water to make clean hydrogen fuel — when and where it’s needed

    As the world works to move away from fossil fuels, many researchers are investigating whether clean hydrogen fuel can play an expanded role in sectors from transportation and industry to buildings and power generation. It could be used in fuel cell vehicles, heat-producing boilers, electricity-generating gas turbines, systems for storing renewable energy, and more.

    But while using hydrogen doesn’t generate carbon emissions, making it typically does. Today, almost all hydrogen is produced using fossil fuel-based processes that together generate more than 2 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, hydrogen is often produced in one location and consumed in another, which means its use also presents logistical challenges.

    A promising reaction

    Another option for producing hydrogen comes from a perhaps surprising source: reacting aluminum with water. Aluminum metal will readily react with water at room temperature to form aluminum hydroxide and hydrogen. That reaction doesn’t typically take place because a layer of aluminum oxide naturally coats the raw metal, preventing it from coming directly into contact with water.

    Using the aluminum-water reaction to generate hydrogen doesn’t produce any greenhouse gas emissions, and it promises to solve the transportation problem for any location with available water. Simply move the aluminum and then react it with water on-site. “Fundamentally, the aluminum becomes a mechanism for storing hydrogen — and a very effective one,” says Douglas P. Hart, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Using aluminum as our source, we can ‘store’ hydrogen at a density that’s 10 times greater than if we just store it as a compressed gas.”

    Two problems have kept aluminum from being employed as a safe, economical source for hydrogen generation. The first problem is ensuring that the aluminum surface is clean and available to react with water. To that end, a practical system must include a means of first modifying the oxide layer and then keeping it from re-forming as the reaction proceeds.

    The second problem is that pure aluminum is energy-intensive to mine and produce, so any practical approach needs to use scrap aluminum from various sources. But scrap aluminum is not an easy starting material. It typically occurs in an alloyed form, meaning that it contains other elements that are added to change the properties or characteristics of the aluminum for different uses. For example, adding magnesium increases strength and corrosion-resistance, adding silicon lowers the melting point, and adding a little of both makes an alloy that’s moderately strong and corrosion-resistant.

    Despite considerable research on aluminum as a source of hydrogen, two key questions remain: What’s the best way to prevent the adherence of an oxide layer on the aluminum surface, and how do alloying elements in a piece of scrap aluminum affect the total amount of hydrogen generated and the rate at which it is generated?

    “If we’re going to use scrap aluminum for hydrogen generation in a practical application, we need to be able to better predict what hydrogen generation characteristics we’re going to observe from the aluminum-water reaction,” says Laureen Meroueh PhD ’20, who earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering.

    Since the fundamental steps in the reaction aren’t well understood, it’s been hard to predict the rate and volume at which hydrogen forms from scrap aluminum, which can contain varying types and concentrations of alloying elements. So Hart, Meroueh, and Thomas W. Eagar, a professor of materials engineering and engineering management in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, decided to examine — in a systematic fashion — the impacts of those alloying elements on the aluminum-water reaction and on a promising technique for preventing the formation of the interfering oxide layer.

    To prepare, they had experts at Novelis Inc. fabricate samples of pure aluminum and of specific aluminum alloys made of commercially pure aluminum combined with either 0.6 percent silicon (by weight), 1 percent magnesium, or both — compositions that are typical of scrap aluminum from a variety of sources. Using those samples, the MIT researchers performed a series of tests to explore different aspects of the aluminum-water reaction.

    Pre-treating the aluminum

    The first step was to demonstrate an effective means of penetrating the oxide layer that forms on aluminum in the air. Solid aluminum is made up of tiny grains that are packed together with occasional boundaries where they don’t line up perfectly. To maximize hydrogen production, researchers would need to prevent the formation of the oxide layer on all those interior grain surfaces.

    Research groups have already tried various ways of keeping the aluminum grains “activated” for reaction with water. Some have crushed scrap samples into particles so tiny that the oxide layer doesn’t adhere. But aluminum powders are dangerous, as they can react with humidity and explode. Another approach calls for grinding up scrap samples and adding liquid metals to prevent oxide deposition. But grinding is a costly and energy-intensive process.

    To Hart, Meroueh, and Eagar, the most promising approach — first introduced by Jonathan Slocum ScD ’18 while he was working in Hart’s research group — involved pre-treating the solid aluminum by painting liquid metals on top and allowing them to permeate through the grain boundaries.

    To determine the effectiveness of that approach, the researchers needed to confirm that the liquid metals would reach the internal grain surfaces, with and without alloying elements present. And they had to establish how long it would take for the liquid metal to coat all of the grains in pure aluminum and its alloys.

    They started by combining two metals — gallium and indium — in specific proportions to create a “eutectic” mixture; that is, a mixture that would remain in liquid form at room temperature. They coated their samples with the eutectic and allowed it to penetrate for time periods ranging from 48 to 96 hours. They then exposed the samples to water and monitored the hydrogen yield (the amount formed) and flow rate for 250 minutes. After 48 hours, they also took high-magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM) images so they could observe the boundaries between adjacent aluminum grains.

    Based on the hydrogen yield measurements and the SEM images, the MIT team concluded that the gallium-indium eutectic does naturally permeate and reach the interior grain surfaces. However, the rate and extent of penetration vary with the alloy. The permeation rate was the same in silicon-doped aluminum samples as in pure aluminum samples but slower in magnesium-doped samples.

    Perhaps most interesting were the results from samples doped with both silicon and magnesium — an aluminum alloy often found in recycling streams. Silicon and magnesium chemically bond to form magnesium silicide, which occurs as solid deposits on the internal grain surfaces. Meroueh hypothesized that when both silicon and magnesium are present in scrap aluminum, those deposits can act as barriers that impede the flow of the gallium-indium eutectic.

    The experiments and images confirmed her hypothesis: The solid deposits did act as barriers, and images of samples pre-treated for 48 hours showed that permeation wasn’t complete. Clearly, a lengthy pre-treatment period would be critical for maximizing the hydrogen yield from scraps of aluminum containing both silicon and magnesium.

    Meroueh cites several benefits to the process they used. “You don’t have to apply any energy for the gallium-indium eutectic to work its magic on aluminum and get rid of that oxide layer,” she says. “Once you’ve activated your aluminum, you can drop it in water, and it’ll generate hydrogen — no energy input required.” Even better, the eutectic doesn’t chemically react with the aluminum. “It just physically moves around in between the grains,” she says. “At the end of the process, I could recover all of the gallium and indium I put in and use it again” — a valuable feature as gallium and (especially) indium are costly and in relatively short supply.

    Impacts of alloying elements on hydrogen generation

    The researchers next investigated how the presence of alloying elements affects hydrogen generation. They tested samples that had been treated with the eutectic for 96 hours; by then, the hydrogen yield and flow rates had leveled off in all the samples.

    The presence of 0.6 percent silicon increased the hydrogen yield for a given weight of aluminum by 20 percent compared to pure aluminum — even though the silicon-containing sample had less aluminum than the pure aluminum sample. In contrast, the presence of 1 percent magnesium produced far less hydrogen, while adding both silicon and magnesium pushed the yield up, but not to the level of pure aluminum.

    The presence of silicon also greatly accelerated the reaction rate, producing a far higher peak in the flow rate but cutting short the duration of hydrogen output. The presence of magnesium produced a lower flow rate but allowed the hydrogen output to remain fairly steady over time. And once again, aluminum with both alloying elements produced a flow rate between that of magnesium-doped and pure aluminum.

    Those results provide practical guidance on how to adjust the hydrogen output to match the operating needs of a hydrogen-consuming device. If the starting material is commercially pure aluminum, adding small amounts of carefully selected alloying elements can tailor the hydrogen yield and flow rate. If the starting material is scrap aluminum, careful choice of the source can be key. For high, brief bursts of hydrogen, pieces of silicon-containing aluminum from an auto junkyard could work well. For lower but longer flows, magnesium-containing scraps from the frame of a demolished building might be better. For results somewhere in between, aluminum containing both silicon and magnesium should work well; such material is abundantly available from scrapped cars and motorcycles, yachts, bicycle frames, and even smartphone cases.

    It should also be possible to combine scraps of different aluminum alloys to tune the outcome, notes Meroueh. “If I have a sample of activated aluminum that contains just silicon and another sample that contains just magnesium, I can put them both into a container of water and let them react,” she says. “So I get the fast ramp-up in hydrogen production from the silicon and then the magnesium takes over and has that steady output.”

    Another opportunity for tuning: Reducing grain size

    Another practical way to affect hydrogen production could be to reduce the size of the aluminum grains — a change that should increase the total surface area available for reactions to occur.

    To investigate that approach, the researchers requested specially customized samples from their supplier. Using standard industrial procedures, the Novelis experts first fed each sample through two rollers, squeezing it from the top and bottom so that the internal grains were flattened. They then heated each sample until the long, flat grains had reorganized and shrunk to a targeted size.

    In a series of carefully designed experiments, the MIT team found that reducing the grain size increased the efficiency and decreased the duration of the reaction to varying degrees in the different samples. Again, the presence of particular alloying elements had a major effect on the outcome.

    Needed: A revised theory that explains observations

    Throughout their experiments, the researchers encountered some unexpected results. For example, standard corrosion theory predicts that pure aluminum will generate more hydrogen than silicon-doped aluminum will — the opposite of what they observed in their experiments.

    To shed light on the underlying chemical reactions, Hart, Meroueh, and Eagar investigated hydrogen “flux,” that is, the volume of hydrogen generated over time on each square centimeter of aluminum surface, including the interior grains. They examined three grain sizes for each of their four compositions and collected thousands of data points measuring hydrogen flux.

    Their results show that reducing grain size has significant effects. It increases the peak hydrogen flux from silicon-doped aluminum as much as 100 times and from the other three compositions by 10 times. With both pure aluminum and silicon-containing aluminum, reducing grain size also decreases the delay before the peak flux and increases the rate of decline afterward. With magnesium-containing aluminum, reducing the grain size brings about an increase in peak hydrogen flux and results in a slightly faster decline in the rate of hydrogen output. With both silicon and magnesium present, the hydrogen flux over time resembles that of magnesium-containing aluminum when the grain size is not manipulated. When the grain size is reduced, the hydrogen output characteristics begin to resemble behavior observed in silicon-containing aluminum. That outcome was unexpected because when silicon and magnesium are both present, they react to form magnesium silicide, resulting in a new type of aluminum alloy with its own properties.

    The researchers stress the benefits of developing a better fundamental understanding of the underlying chemical reactions involved. In addition to guiding the design of practical systems, it might help them find a replacement for the expensive indium in their pre-treatment mixture. Other work has shown that gallium will naturally permeate through the grain boundaries of aluminum. “At this point, we know that the indium in our eutectic is important, but we don’t really understand what it does, so we don’t know how to replace it,” says Hart.

    But already Hart, Meroueh, and Eagar have demonstrated two practical ways of tuning the hydrogen reaction rate: by adding certain elements to the aluminum and by manipulating the size of the interior aluminum grains. In combination, those approaches can deliver significant results. “If you go from magnesium-containing aluminum with the largest grain size to silicon-containing aluminum with the smallest grain size, you get a hydrogen reaction rate that differs by two orders of magnitude,” says Meroueh. “That’s huge if you’re trying to design a real system that would use this reaction.”

    This research was supported through the MIT Energy Initiative by ExxonMobil-MIT Energy Fellowships awarded to Laureen Meroueh PhD ’20 from 2018 to 2020.

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

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    Vapor-collection technology saves water while clearing the air

    About two-fifths of all the water that gets withdrawn from lakes, rivers, and wells in the U.S. is used not for agriculture, drinking, or sanitation, but to cool the power plants that provide electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear power. Over 65 percent of these plants use evaporative cooling, leading to huge white plumes that billow from their cooling towers, which can be a nuisance and, in some cases, even contribute to dangerous driving conditions.

    Now, a small company based on technology recently developed at MIT by the Varanasi Research Group is hoping to reduce both the water needs at these plants and the resultant plumes — and to potentially help alleviate water shortages in areas where power plants put pressure on local water systems.

    The technology is surprisingly simple in principle, but developing it to the point where it can now be tested at full scale on industrial plants was a more complex proposition. That required the real-world experience that the company’s founders gained from installing prototype systems, first on MIT’s natural-gas-powered cogeneration plant and then on MIT’s nuclear research reactor.

    In these demanding tests, which involved exposure to not only the heat and vibrations of a working industrial plant but also the rigors of New England winters, the system proved its effectiveness at both eliminating the vapor plume and recapturing water. And, it purified the water in the process, so that it was 100 times cleaner than the incoming cooling water. The system is now being prepared for full-scale tests in a commercial power plant and in a chemical processing plant.

    “Campus as a living laboratory”

    The technology was originally envisioned by professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi to develop efficient water-recovery systems by capturing water droplets from both natural fog and plumes from power plant cooling towers. The project began as part of doctoral thesis research of Maher Damak PhD ’18, with funding from the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, to improve the efficiency of fog-harvesting systems like the ones used in some arid coastal regions as a source of potable water. Those systems, which generally consist of plastic or metal mesh hung vertically in the path of fogbanks, are extremely inefficient, capturing only about 1 to 3 percent of the water droplets that pass through them.

    Varanasi and Damak found that vapor collection could be made much more efficient by first zapping the tiny droplets of water with a beam of electrically charged particles, or ions, to give each droplet a slight electric charge. Then, the stream of droplets passes through a wire mesh, like a window screen, that has an opposite electrical charge. This causes the droplets to be strongly attracted to the mesh, where they fall away due to gravity and can be collected in trays placed below the mesh.

    Lab tests showed the concept worked, and the researchers, joined by Karim Khalil PhD ’18, won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2018 for the basic concept. The nascent company, which they called Infinite Cooling, with Damak as CEO, Khalil as CTO, and Varanasi as chairperson, immediately went to work setting up a test installation on one of the cooling towers of MIT’s natural-gas-powered Central Utility Plant, with funding from the MIT Office of Sustainability. After experimenting with various configurations, they were able to show that the system could indeed eliminate the plume and produce water of high purity.

    Professor Jacopo Buongiorno in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering immediately spotted a good opportunity for collaboration, offering the use of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory research facility for further testing of the system with the help of NRL engineer Ed Block. With its 24/7 operation and its higher-temperature vapor emissions, the plant would provide a more stringent real-world test of the system, as well as proving its effectiveness in an actual operating reactor licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an important step in “de-risking” the technology so that electric utilities could feel confident in adopting the system.

    After the system was installed above one of the plant’s four cooling towers, testing showed that the water being collected was more than 100 times cleaner than the feedwater coming into the cooling system. It also proved that the installation — which, unlike the earlier version, had its mesh screens mounted vertically, parallel to the vapor stream — had no effect at all on the operation of the plant. Video of the tests dramatically illustrates how as soon as the power is switched on to the collecting mesh, the white plume of vapor immediately disappears completely.

    The high temperature and volume of the vapor plume from the reactor’s cooling towers represented “kind of a worst-case scenario in terms of plumes,” Damak says, “so if we can capture that, we can basically capture anything.”

    Working with MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, Varanasi says, “has been quite an important step because it helped us to test it at scale. … It really both validated the water quality and the performance of the system.” The process, he says, “shows the importance of using the campus as a living laboratory. It allows us to do these kinds of experiments at scale, and also showed the ability to sustainably reduce the water footprint of the campus.”

    Far-reaching benefits

    Power plant plumes are often considered an eyesore and can lead to local opposition to new power plants because of the potential for obscured views, and even potential traffic hazards when the obscuring plumes blow across roadways. “The ability to eliminate the plumes could be an important benefit, allowing plants to be sited in locations that might otherwise be restricted,” Buongiorno says. At the same time, the system could eliminate a significant amount of water used by the plants and then lost to the sky, potentially alleviating pressure on local water systems, which could be especially helpful in arid regions.

    The system is essentially a distillation process, and the pure water it produces could go into power plant boilers — which are separate from the cooling system — that require high-purity water. That might reduce the need for both fresh water and purification systems for the boilers.

    What’s more, in many arid coastal areas power plants are cooled directly with seawater. This system would essentially add a water desalination capability to the plant, at a fraction of the cost of building a new standalone desalination plant, and at an even smaller fraction of its operating costs since the heat would essentially be provided for free.

    Contamination of water is typically measured by testing its electrical conductivity, which increases with the amount of salts and other contaminants it contains. Water used in power plant cooling systems typically measures 3,000 microsiemens per centimeter, Khalil explains, while the water supply in the City of Cambridge is typically around 500 or 600 microsiemens per centimeter. The water captured by this system, he says, typically measures below 50 microsiemens per centimeter.

    Thanks to the validation provided by the testing on MIT’s plants, the company has now been able to secure arrangements for its first two installations on operating commercial plants, which should begin later this year. One is a 900-megawatt power plant where the system’s clean water production will be a major advantage, and the other is at a chemical manufacturing plant in the Midwest.

    In many locations power plants have to pay for the water they use for cooling, Varanasi says, and the new system is expected to reduce the need for water by up to 20 percent. For a typical power plant, that alone could account for about a million dollars saved in water costs per year, he says.

    “Innovation has been a hallmark of the U.S. commercial industry for more than six decades,” says Maria G. Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, who was not involved in the research. “As the changing climate impacts every aspect of life, including global water supplies, companies across the supply chain are innovating for solutions. The testing of this innovative technology at MIT provides a valuable basis for its consideration in commercial applications.” More

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    Amy Watterson: Model engineer

    “I love that we are doing something that no one else is doing.”

    Amy Watterson is excited when she talks about SPARC, the pilot fusion plant being developed by MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CSF). Since being hired as a mechanical engineer at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) two years ago, Watterson has found her skills stretching to accommodate the multiple needs of the project.

    Fusion, which fuels the sun and stars, has long been sought as a carbon-free energy source for the world. For decades researchers have pursued the “tokamak,” a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber where hot plasma can be contained by magnetic fields and heated to the point where fusion occurs. Sustaining the fusion reactions long enough to draw energy from them has been a challenge.

    Watterson is intimately aware of this difficulty. Much of her life she has heard the quip, “Fusion is 50 years away and always will be.” The daughter of PSFC research scientist Catherine Fiore, who headed the PSFC’s Office of Environment, Safety and Health, and Reich Watterson, an optical engineer working at the center, she had watched her parents devote years to making fusion a reality. She determined before entering Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that she could forgo any attempt to follow her parents into a field that might not produce results during her career.

    Working on SPARC has changed her mindset. Taking advantage of a novel high-temperature superconducting tape, SPARC’s magnets will be compact while generating magnetic fields stronger than would be possible from other mid-sized tokamaks, and producing more fusion power. It suggests a high-field device that produces net fusion gain is not 50 years away. SPARC is scheduled to be begin operation in 2025.

    An education in modeling

    Watterson’s current excitement, and focus, is due to an approaching milestone for SPARC: a test of the Toroidal Field Magnet Coil (TFMC), a scaled prototype for the HTS magnets that will surround SPARC’s toroidal vacuum chamber. Its design and manufacture have been shaped by computer models and simulations. As part of a large research team, Waterson has received an education in modeling over the past two years.

    Computer models move scientific experiments forward by allowing researchers to predict what will happen to an experiment — or its materials — if a parameter is changed. Modeling a component of the TFMC, for example, researchers can test how it is affected by varying amounts of current, different temperatures or different materials. With this information they can make choices that will improve the success of the experiment.

    In preparation for the magnet testing, Watterson has modeled aspects of the cryogenic system that will circulate helium gas around the TFMC to keep it cold enough to remain superconducting. Taking into consideration the amount of cooling entering the system, the flow rate of the helium, the resistance created by valves and transfer lines and other parameters, she can model how much helium flow will be necessary to guarantee the magnet stays cold enough. Adjusting a parameter can make the difference between a magnet remaining superconducting and becoming overheated or even damaged.

    Watterson and her teammates have also modeled pressures and stress on the inside of the TFMC. Pumping helium through the coil to cool it down will add 20 atmospheres of pressure, which could create a degree of flex in elements of the magnet that are welded down. Modeling can help determine how much pressure a weld can sustain.

    “How thick does a weld need to be, and where should you put the weld so that it doesn’t break — that’s something you don’t want to leave until you’re finally assembling it,” says Watterson.

    Modeling the behavior of helium is particularly challenging because its properties change significantly as the pressure and temperature change.

    “A few degrees or a little pressure will affect the fluid’s viscosity, density, thermal conductivity, and heat capacity,” says Watterson. “The flow has different pressures and temperatures at different places in the cryogenic loop. You end up with a set of equations that are very dependent on each other, which makes it a challenge to solve.”

    Role model

    Watterson notes that her modeling depends on the contributions of colleagues at the PSFC, and praises the collaborative spirit among researchers and engineers, a community that now feels like family. Her teammates have been her mentors. “I’ve learned so much more on the job in two years than I did in four years at school,” she says.

    She realizes that having her mother as a role model in her own family has always made it easier for her to imagine becoming a scientist or engineer. Tracing her early passion for engineering to a middle school Lego robotics tournament, her eyes widen as she talks about the need for more female engineers, and the importance of encouraging girls to believe they are equal to the challenge.

    “I want to be a role model and tell them ‘I’m a successful engineer, you can be too.’ Something I run into a lot is that little girls will say, ‘I can’t be an engineer, I’m not cut out for that.’ And I say, ‘Well that’s not true. Let me show you. If you can make this Lego robot, then you can be an engineer.’ And it turns out they usually can.”

    Then, as if making an adjustment to one of her computer models, she continues.

    “Actually, they always can.” More