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    Moving past the Iron Age

    MIT graduate student Sydney Rose Johnson has never seen the steel mills in central India. She’s never toured the American Midwest’s hulking steel plants or the mini mills dotting the Mississippi River. But in the past year, she’s become more familiar with steel production than she ever imagined.

    A fourth-year dual degree MBA and PhD candidate in chemical engineering and a graduate research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) as well as a 2022-23 Shell Energy Fellow, Johnson looks at ways to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated by industrial processes in hard-to-abate industries. Those include steel.

    Almost every aspect of infrastructure and transportation — buildings, bridges, cars, trains, mass transit — contains steel. The manufacture of steel hasn’t changed much since the Iron Age, with some steel plants in the United States and India operating almost continually for more than a century, their massive blast furnaces re-lined periodically with carbon and graphite to keep them going.

    According to the World Economic Forum, steel demand is projected to increase 30 percent by 2050, spurred in part by population growth and economic development in China, India, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

    The steel industry is among the three biggest producers of CO2 worldwide. Every ton of steel produced in 2020 emitted, on average, 1.89 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — around 8 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to the World Steel Association.

    A combination of technical strategies and financial investments, Johnson notes, will be needed to wrestle that 8 percent figure down to something more planet-friendly.

    Johnson’s thesis focuses on modeling and analyzing ways to decarbonize steel. Using data mined from academic and industry sources, she builds models to calculate emissions, costs, and energy consumption for plant-level production.

    “I optimize steel production pathways using emission goals, industry commitments, and cost,” she says. Based on the projected growth of India’s steel industry, she applies this approach to case studies that predict outcomes for some of the country’s thousand-plus factories, which together have a production capacity of 154 million metric tons of steel. For the United States, she looks at the effect of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) credits. The 2022 IRA provides incentives that could accelerate the steel industry’s efforts to minimize its carbon emissions.

    Johnson compares emissions and costs across different production pathways, asking questions such as: “If we start today, what would a cost-optimal production scenario look like years from now? How would it change if we added in credits? What would have to happen to cut 2005 levels of emissions in half by 2030?”

    “My goal is to gain an understanding of how current and emerging decarbonization strategies will be integrated into the industry,” Johnson says.

    Grappling with industrial problems

    Growing up in Marietta, Georgia, outside Atlanta, the closest she ever came to a plant of any kind was through her father, a chemical engineer working in logistics and procuring steel for an aerospace company, and during high school, when she spent a semester working alongside chemical engineers tweaking the pH of an anti-foaming agent.

    At Kennesaw Mountain High School, a STEM magnet program in Cobb County, students devote an entire semester of their senior year to an internship and research project.

    Johnson chose to work at Kemira Chemicals, which develops chemical solutions for water-intensive industries with a focus on pulp and paper, water treatment, and energy systems.

    “My goal was to understand why a polymer product was falling out of suspension — essentially, why it was less stable,” she recalls. She learned how to formulate a lab-scale version of the product and conduct tests to measure its viscosity and acidity. Comparing the lab-scale and regular product results revealed that acidity was an important factor. “Through conversations with my mentor, I learned this was connected with the holding conditions, which led to the product being oxidized,” she says. With the anti-foaming agent’s problem identified, steps could be taken to fix it.

    “I learned how to apply problem-solving. I got to learn more about working in an industrial environment by connecting with the team in quality control as well as with R&D and chemical engineers at the plant site,” Johnson says. “This experience confirmed I wanted to pursue engineering in college.”

    As an undergraduate at Stanford University, she learned about the different fields — biotechnology, environmental science, electrochemistry, and energy, among others — open to chemical engineers. “It seemed like a very diverse field and application range,” she says. “I was just so intrigued by the different things I saw people doing and all these different sets of issues.”

    Turning up the heat

    At MIT, she turned her attention to how certain industries can offset their detrimental effects on climate.

    “I’m interested in the impact of technology on global communities, the environment, and policy. Energy applications affect every field. My goal as a chemical engineer is to have a broad perspective on problem-solving and to find solutions that benefit as many people, especially those under-resourced, as possible,” says Johnson, who has served on the MIT Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Advisory Board, the MIT Energy and Climate Club, and is involved with diversity and inclusion initiatives.

    The steel industry, Johnson acknowledges, is not what she first imagined when she saw herself working toward mitigating climate change.

    “But now, understanding the role the material has in infrastructure development, combined with its heavy use of coal, has illuminated how the sector, along with other hard-to-abate industries, is important in the climate change conversation,” Johnson says.

    Despite the advanced age of many steel mills, some are quite energy-efficient, she notes. Yet these operations, which produce heat upwards of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, are still emission-intensive.

    Steel is made from iron ore, a mixture of iron, oxygen, and other minerals found on virtually every continent, with Brazil and Australia alone exporting millions of metric tons per year. Commonly based on a process dating back to the 19th century, iron is extracted from the ore through smelting — heating the ore with blast furnaces until the metal becomes spongy and its chemical components begin to break down.

    A reducing agent is needed to release the oxygen trapped in the ore, transforming it from its raw form to pure iron. That’s where most emissions come from, Johnson notes.

    “We want to reduce emissions, and we want to make a cleaner and safer environment for everyone,” she says. “It’s not just the CO2 emissions. It’s also sometimes NOx and SOx [nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides] and air pollution particulate matter at some of these production facilities that can affect people as well.”

    In 2020, the International Energy Agency released a roadmap exploring potential technologies and strategies that would make the iron and steel sector more compatible with the agency’s vision of increased sustainability. Emission reductions can be accomplished with more modern technology, the agency suggests, or by substituting the fuels producing the immense heat needed to process ore. Traditionally, the fuels used for iron reduction have been coal and natural gas. Alternative fuels include clean hydrogen, electricity, and biomass.

    Using the MITEI Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME), Johnson analyzes various decarbonization strategies. She considers options such as switching fuel for furnaces to hydrogen with a little bit of natural gas or adding carbon-capture devices. The models demonstrate how effective these tactics are likely to be. The answers aren’t always encouraging.

    “Upstream emissions can determine how effective the strategies are,” Johnson says. Charcoal derived from forestry biomass seemed to be a promising alternative fuel, but her models showed that processing the charcoal for use in the blast furnace limited its effectiveness in negating emissions.

    Despite the challenges, “there are definitely ways of moving forward,” Johnson says. “It’s been an intriguing journey in terms of understanding where the industry is at. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s doable.”

    Johnson is heartened by the steel industry’s efforts to recycle scrap into new steel products and incorporate more emission-friendly technologies and practices, some of which result in significantly lower CO2 emissions than conventional production.

    A major issue is that low-carbon steel can be more than 50 percent more costly than conventionally produced steel. “There are costs associated with making the transition, but in the context of the environmental implications, I think it’s well worth it to adopt these technologies,” she says.

    After graduation, Johnson plans to continue to work in the energy field. “I definitely want to use a combination of engineering knowledge and business knowledge to work toward mitigating climate change, potentially in the startup space with clean technology or even in a policy context,” she says. “I’m interested in connecting the private and public sectors to implement measures for improving our environment and benefiting as many people as possible.” More

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    Explained: Carbon credits

    One of the most contentious issues faced at the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) on climate change last December was a proposal for a U.N.-sanctioned market for trading carbon credits. Such a mechanism would allow nations and industries making slow progress in reducing their own carbon emissions to pay others to take emissions-reducing measures, such as improving energy efficiency or protecting forests.

    Such trading systems have already grown to a multibillion-dollar market despite a lack of clear international regulations to define and monitor the claimed emissions reductions. During weeks of feverish negotiations, some nations, including the U.S., advocated for a somewhat looser approach to regulations in the interests of getting a system in place quickly. Others, including the European Union, advocated much tighter regulation, in light of a history of questionable or even counterproductive projects of this kind in the past. In the end, no agreement was reached on the subject, which will be revisited at a later meeting.

    The concept seems simple enough: Offset emissions in one place by preventing or capturing an equal amount of emissions elsewhere. But implementing that idea has turned out to be far more complex and fraught with problems than many expected.

    For example, projects that aim to preserve a section of forest — which can remove carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in the soil — face numerous issues. Will the preservation of one parcel just lead to the clearcutting of an adjacent parcel? Would the preserved land have been left uncut anyway? And what if it ends up being destroyed by wildfire, drought, or insect infestation — all of which are expected to become more likely with climate change?

    Similarly, projects that aim to capture carbon dioxide emissions and inject them into the ground are sometimes used to justify increasing the production of petroleum or natural gas, negating the intended climate mitigation of the process.

    Several experts at MIT now say that the system could be effective, at least in certain circumstances, but it must be thoroughly evaluated and regulated.

    Carbon removal, natural or mechanical

    Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, co-led a study and workshop last year that included policymakers, industry representatives, and researchers. They focused on one kind of carbon offsets, those based on natural climate solutions — restoration or preservation of natural systems that not only sequester carbon but also provide other benefits, such as greater biodiversity. “We find a lot of confusion and misperceptions and misinformation, even about how you define the term carbon credit or offset,” he says.

    He points out that there has been a lot of criticism of the whole idea of carbon offsets, “and that criticism is well-placed. I think that’s a very healthy conversation, to clarify what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. What are the real actions versus what is greenwashing?”

    He says that government-mandated and managed carbon trading programs in some places, including British Columbia and parts of Europe, have been somewhat effective because they have clear standards in place, whereas unregulated carbon credit systems have often been abused.

    Charles Harvey, an MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering, should know, having been actively involved in both sides of the issue over the last two decades. He co-founded a company in 2008 that was the first private U.S. company to attempt to remove carbon dioxide from emissions on a commercial scale, a process called carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. Such projects have been a major recipient of federal subsidies aimed at combatting climate change, but Harvey now says these are largely a waste of money and in most cases do not achieve their stated objective.

    In fact, he says that according to industry sources, as of 2021 more than 90 percent of CCS projects in the U.S. have been used for the production of more fossil fuels — oil and natural gas. Here’s how it works: Natural gas wells often produce methane mixed with carbon dioxide, which must be removed to produce a marketable natural gas. This carbon dioxide is then injected into oil wells to stimulate more production. So, the net effect is the creation of more total greenhouse gas emissions rather than less, explains Harvey, who recently received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to explore CCS projects and whether they can be made to contribute to true emissions reductions.

    What went wrong with the ambitious startup CCS company Harvey co-founded? “What happened is that the prices of renewables and energy storage are now incredibly cheap,” he says. “It makes no sense to do this, ever, on power plants because honestly, fossil fuel power plants don’t even really make economic sense anymore.”

    Where does Harvey see potential for carbon credits to work? One possibility is the preservation or restoration of tropical peatlands, which he has received another grant to study. These are vast areas of permanently waterlogged land in which dead plant matter —and the carbon it contains — remains in place because the water prevents the normal decomposition processes that would otherwise release the stored carbon back into the air.

    While it is virtually impossible to quantify the amount of carbon stored in the soil of forest or farmland, in peatlands that’s easy to do because essentially all of the submerged material is carbon-based. Simply measuring changes in the elevation of such land, which can be done remotely by plane or satellite, gives a precise measure of how much carbon has been stored or released. When a patch of peat forest that has been clear-cut to build plantations or roads is reforested, the amount of carbon emissions that were prevented can be measured accurately.

    Because of that potential for accurate documentation, protecting or restoring peat bogs can also be a good way to achieve meaningful offsets for carbon emissions elsewhere, Harvey says. Rewetting a previously drained peat forest can immediately counteract the release of its stored carbon and can keep it there as long as it is not drained again — something that can be verified using satellite data.

    Paltsev adds that while such nature-based systems for countering carbon emissions can be a key component of addressing climate change, especially in very difficult-to-decarbonize industries such as aviation, carbon credits for such programs “shouldn’t be a replacement for our efforts at emissions reduction. It should be in addition.”

    Criteria for meaningful offsets

    John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has published a set of criteria for evaluating proposed carbon offset plans to make sure they would provide the benefits they claim. At present, “there’s no regulation, there’s no oversight” for carbon offsets, he says. “There have been many scandals over this.”

    For example, one company was providing what it claimed was certification for carbon offset projects but was found to have such lax standards that the claimed offsets were often not real. For example, there were multiple claims to protect the same piece of forest and claims to protect land that was already legally protected.

    Sterman’s proposed set of criteria goes by the acronym AVID+. “It stands for four principles that you have to meet in order for your offset to be legitimate: It has to be additional, verifiable, immediate, and durable,” he says. “And then I call it AVID+,” he adds, the “plus” being for plans that have additional benefits as well, such as improving health, creating jobs, or helping historically disadvantaged communities.

    Offsets can be useful, he says, for addressing especially hard-to-abate industries such as steel or cement manufacturing, or aviation. But it is essential to meet all four of the criteria, or else real emissions are not really being offset. For example, planting trees today, while often a good thing to do, would take decades to offset emissions going into the atmosphere now, where they may persist for centuries — so that fails to meet the “immediate” requirement.

    And protecting existing forests, while also desirable, is very hard to prove as being additional, because “that requires a counterfactual that you can never observe,” he says. “That’s where a lot of squirrely accounting and a lot of fraud comes in, because how do you know that the forest would have been cut down but for the offset?” In one well-documented case, he points out, a company tried to sell carbon offsets for a section of forest that was already an established nature preserve.

    Are there offsets that can meet all the criteria and provide real benefits in helping to address climate change? Yes, Sterman and Harvey say, but they need to be evaluated carefully.

    “My favorite example,” Sterman says, “is doing deep energy retrofits and putting solar panels on low-income housing.” These measures can help address the so-called landlord-tenant problem: If tenants typically pay the utility bills, landlords have little incentive to pay for efficiency improvements, and the tenants don’t have the capital to make such improvements on their own. “Policies that would make this possible are pretty good candidates for legitimate offsets, because they are additional — low-income households can’t afford to do it without assistance, so it’s not going to happen without a program. It’s verifiable, because you’ve got the utility bills pre and post.” They are also quite immediate, typically taking only a year or so to implement, and “they’re pretty durable,” he says.

    Another example is a recent plan in Alaska that allows cruise ships to offset the emissions caused by their trips by paying into a fund that provides subsidies for Alaskan citizens to install heat pumps in their homes, thus preventing emissions from wood or fossil fuel heating systems. “I think this is a pretty good candidate to meet the criteria, certainly a lot better than much of what’s being done today,” Sterman says.

    But eventually, what is really needed, the researchers agree, are real, enforceable standards. After COP28, carbon offsets are still allowed, Sterman says, “but there is still no widely accepted mandatory regulation. We’re still in the wild West.”

    Paltsev nevertheless sees reasons for optimism about nature-based carbon offset systems. For example, he says the aviation industry has recently agreed to implement a set of standards for offsetting their emissions, known as CORSIA, for carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation. “It’s a point for optimism,” he says, “because they issued very tough guidelines as to what projects are eligible and what projects are not.”

    He adds, “There is a solution if you want to find a good solution. It is doable, when there is a will and there is the need.” More

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    3 Questions: The Climate Project at MIT

    MIT is preparing a major campus-wide effort to develop technological, behavioral, and policy solutions to some of the toughest problems now impeding an effective global climate response. The Climate Project at MIT, as the new enterprise is known, includes new arrangements for promoting cross-Institute collaborations and new mechanisms for engaging with outside partners to speed the development and implementation of climate solutions.

    MIT News spoke with Richard K. Lester, MIT’s vice provost for international activities, who has helped oversee the development of the project.

    Q: What is the Climate Project at MIT?

    A: In her inaugural address last May, President Kornbluth called on the MIT community to join her in a “bold, tenacious response” to climate change. The Climate Project at MIT is a response to that call. It aims to mobilize every part of MIT to develop, deliver, and scale up practical climate solutions, as quickly as possible.

    Play video

    At MIT, well over 300 of our faculty are already working with their students and research staff members on different aspects of the climate problem. Almost all of our academic departments and more than a score of our interdepartmental labs and centers are involved in some way. What they are doing is remarkable, and this decentralized structure reflects the best traditions of MIT as a “bottom up,” entrepreneurial institution. But, as President Kornbluth said, we must do much more. We must be bolder in our research choices and more creative in how we organize ourselves to work with each other and with our partners. The purpose of the Climate Project is to support our community’s efforts to do bigger things faster in the climate domain. We will have succeeded if our work changes the trajectory of global climate outcomes for the better.

    I want to be clear that the clay is still wet here. The Climate Project will continue to take shape as more members of the MIT community bring their excellence, their energy, and their ambition to bear on the climate challenge. But I believe we have a vision and a framework for accelerating and amplifying MIT’s real-world climate impact, and I know that President Kornbluth is eager to share this progress report with the MIT community now to convey the breadth and ambition of what we’re planning.

    Q: How will the project be organized?

    A: The Climate Project will have three core components: the Climate Missions; their offshoots, the Climate Frontier Projects; and Climate HQ. A new vice president for climate will lead the enterprise.

    Initially there will be six missions, which you can read about in the plan. Each will address a different domain of climate impact where new solutions are required and where a critical mass of research excellence exists at MIT. One such mission, of course, is to decarbonize energy and industry, an area where we estimate that about 150 of our faculty are already working.

    The mission leaders will build multidisciplinary problem-solving communities reaching across the Institute and beyond. Each of these will be charged with roadmapping and assessing progress toward its mission, identifying critical gaps and bottlenecks, and launching applied research projects to accelerate progress where the MIT community and our partners are well-positioned to achieve impactful results. These projects — the climate frontier projects — will benefit from active, professional project management, with clear metrics and milestones. We are in a critical decade for responding to climate change, so it’s important that these research projects move quickly, with an eye on producing real-world results.

    The new Climate HQ will drive the overall vision for the Climate Project and support the work of the missions. We’ve talked about a core focus on impact-driven research, but much is still unknown about the Earth’s physical and biogeochemical systems, and there is also much to be learned about the behavior of the social and political systems that led us to the very difficult situation the world now faces. Climate HQ will support fundamental research in the scientific and humanistic disciplines related to climate, and will promote engagement between these disciplines and the missions. We must also advance climate-related education, led by departments and programs, as well as policy work, public outreach, and more, including an MIT-wide student-centric Climate Corps to elevate climate-related, community-focused service in MIT’s culture.

    Q: Why are partners a key part of this project?

    A: It is important to build strong partners right from the very start for our innovations, inventions, and discoveries to have any prospect of achieving scale. And in many cases, with climate change, it’s all about scale.

    One of the aims of this initiative is to strengthen MIT’s climate “scaffolding” — the people and processes connecting what we do on campus to the practical world of climate impact and response. We can build on MIT’s highly developed infrastructure for translation, innovation, and entrepreneurship, even as we promote other important pathways to scale involving communities, municipalities, and other not-for-profit organizations. Working with all these different organizations will help us build a broad infrastructure to help us get traction in the world. On a related note, the Sloan School of Management will be sharing details in the coming days of an exciting new effort to enhance MIT’s contributions in the climate policy arena.

    MIT is committing $75 million, including $25 million from Sloan, at the outset of the project. But we anticipate developing new partnerships, including philanthropic partnerships, to increase that scope dramatically. More

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    Reflecting on COP28 — and humanity’s progress toward meeting global climate goals

    With 85,000 delegates, the 2023 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP28, was the largest U.N. climate conference in history. It was held at the end of the hottest year in recorded history. And after 12 days of negotiations, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, it produced a decision that included, for the first time, language calling for “transitioning away from fossil fuels,” though it stopped short of calling for their complete phase-out.

    U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said the outcome in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, COP28’s host city, signaled “the beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. 

    COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held this year for the 28th time. Through the negotiations — and the immense conference and expo that takes place alongside them — a delegation of faculty, students, and staff from MIT was in Dubai to observe the negotiations, present new climate technologies, speak on panels, network, and conduct research.

    On Jan. 17, the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS) hosted a panel discussion with MIT delegates who shared their reflections on the experience. Asking what’s going on at COP is “like saying, ‘What’s going on in the city of Boston today?’” quipped Evan Lieberman, the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa, director of CIS, and faculty director of MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). “The value added that all of us can provide for the MIT community is [to share] what we saw firsthand and how we experienced it.” 

    Phase-out, phase down, transition away?

    In the first week of COP28, over 100 countries issued a joint statement that included a call for “the global phase out of unabated fossil fuels.” The question of whether the COP28 decision — dubbed the “UAE Consensus” — would include this phase-out language animated much of the discussion in the days and weeks leading up to COP28. 

    Ultimately, the decision called for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.” It also called for “accelerating efforts towards the phase down of unabated coal power,” referring to the combustion of coal without efforts to capture and store its emissions.

    In Dubai to observe the negotiations, graduate student Alessandra Fabbri said she was “confronted” by the degree to which semantic differences could impose significant ramifications — for example, when negotiators referred to a “just transition,” or to “developed vs. developing nations” — particularly where evolution in recent scholarship has produced more nuanced understandings of the terms.

    COP28 also marked the conclusion of the first global stocktake, a core component of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The effort every five years to assess the world’s progress in responding to climate change is intended as a basis for encouraging countries to strengthen their climate goals over time, a process often referred to as the Paris Agreement’s “ratchet mechanism.” 

    The technical report of the first global stocktake, published in September 2023, found that while the world has taken actions that have reduced forecasts of future warming, they are not sufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

    “Despite minor, punctual advancements in climate action, parties are far from being on track to meet the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement,” said Fabbri, a graduate student in the School of Architecture and Planning and a fellow in MIT’s Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. Citing a number of persistent challenges, including some parties’ fears that rapid economic transition may create or exacerbate vulnerabilities, she added, “There is a noted lack of accountability among certain countries in adhering to their commitments and responsibilities under international climate agreements.” 

    Climate and trade

    COP28 was the first climate summit to formally acknowledge the importance of international trade by featuring an official “Trade Day” on Dec. 4. Internationally traded goods account for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, raising complex questions of accountability and concerns about offshoring of industrial manufacturing, a phenomenon known as “emissions leakage.” Addressing the nexus of climate and trade is therefore considered essential for successful decarbonization, and a growing number of countries are leveraging trade policies — such as carbon fees applied to imported goods — to secure climate benefits. 

    Members of the MIT delegation participated in several related activities, sharing research and informing decision-makers. Catherine Wolfram, professor of applied economics in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR), presented options for international cooperation on such trade policies at side events, including ones hosted by the World Trade Organization and European Parliament. 

    “While COPs are often criticized for highlighting statements that don’t have any bite, they are also tremendous opportunities to get people from around the world who care about climate and think deeply about these issues in one place,” said Wolfram.

    Climate and health

    For the first time in the conference’s nearly 30-year history, COP28 included a thematic “Health Day” that featured talks on the relationship between climate and health. Researchers from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) have been testing policy solutions in this area for years through research funds such as the King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI). 

    “An important but often-neglected area where climate action can lead to improved health is combating air pollution,” said Andre Zollinger, K-CAI’s senior policy manager. “COP28’s announcement on reducing methane leaks is an important step because action in this area could translate to relatively quick, cost-effective ways to curb climate change while improving air quality, especially for people living near these industrial sites.” K-CAI has an ongoing project in Colorado investigating the use of machine learning to predict leaks and improve the framework for regulating industrial methane emissions, Zollinger noted.

    This was J-PAL’s third time at COP, which Zollinger said typically presented an opportunity for researchers to share new findings and analysis with government partners, nongovernmental organizations, and companies. This year, he said, “We have [also] been working with negotiators in the [Middle East and North Africa] region in the months preceding COP to plug them into the latest evidence on water conservation, on energy access, on different challenging areas of adaptation that could be useful for them during the conference.”

    Sharing knowledge, learning from others

    MIT student Runako Gentles described COP28 as a “springboard” to greater impact. A senior from Jamaica studying civil and environmental engineering, Gentles said it was exciting to introduce himself as an MIT undergraduate to U.N. employees and Jamaican delegates in Dubai. “There’s a lot of talk on mitigation and cutting carbon emissions, but there needs to be much more going into climate adaptation, especially for small-island developing states like those in the Caribbean,” he said. “One of the things I can do, while I still try to finish my degree, is communicate — get the story out there to raise awareness.”

    At an official side event at COP28 hosted by MIT, Pennsylvania State University, and the American Geophysical Union, Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, stressed the importance of opportunities to share knowledge and learn from people around the world.

    “The reason this two-way learning is so important for us is simple: The ideas we come up with in a university setting, whether they’re technological or policy or any other kind of innovations — they only matter in the practical world if they can be put to good use and scaled up,” said Zuber. “And the only way we can know that our work has practical relevance for addressing climate is by working hand-in-hand with communities, industries, governments, and others.”

    Marcela Angel, research program director at the Environmental Solutions Initiative, and Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, also spoke at the event, which was moderated by Bethany Patten, director of policy and engagement for sustainability at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  More

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    MIT researchers map the energy transition’s effects on jobs

    A new analysis by MIT researchers shows the places in the U.S. where jobs are most linked to fossil fuels. The research could help policymakers better identify and support areas affected over time by a switch to renewable energy.

    While many of the places most potentially affected have intensive drilling and mining operations, the study also measures how areas reliant on other industries, such as heavy manufacturing, could experience changes. The research examines the entire U.S. on a county-by-county level.

    “Our result is that you see a higher carbon footprint for jobs in places that drill for oil, mine for coal, and drill for natural gas, which is evident in our maps,” says Christopher Knittel, an economist at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a new paper detailing the findings. “But you also see high carbon footprints in areas where we do a lot of manufacturing, which is more likely to be missed by policymakers when examining how the transition to a zero-carbon economy will affect jobs.”

    So, while certain U.S. areas known for fossil-fuel production would certainly be affected — including west Texas, the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, parts of Appalachia, and more — a variety of industrial areas in the Great Plains and Midwest could see employment evolve as well.

    The paper, “Assessing the distribution of employment vulnerability to the energy transition using employment carbon footprints,” is published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors are Kailin Graham, a master’s student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program and graduate research assistant at MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research; and Knittel, who is the George P. Shultz Professor at MIT Sloan.

    “Our results are unique in that we cover close to the entire U.S. economy and consider the impacts on places that produce fossil fuels but also on places that consume a lot of coal, oil, or natural gas for energy,” says Graham. “This approach gives us a much more complete picture of where communities might be affected and how support should be targeted.”

    Adjusting the targets

    The current study stems from prior research Knittel has conducted, measuring carbon footprints at the household level across the U.S. The new project takes a conceptually related approach, but for jobs in a given county. To conduct the study, the researchers used several data sources measuring energy consumption by businesses, as well as detailed employment data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

    The study takes advantage of changes in energy supply and demand over time to estimate how strongly a full range of jobs, not just those in energy production, are linked to use of fossil fuels. The sectors accounted for in the study comprise 86 percent of U.S. employment, and 94 percent of U.S. emissions apart from the transportation sector.

    The Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in August 2022, is the first federal legislation seeking to provide an economic buffer for places affected by the transition away from fossil fuels. The act provides expanded tax credits for economic projects located in “energy community” areas — defined largely as places with high fossil-fuel industry employment or tax revenue and with high unemployment. Areas with recently closed or downsized coal mines or power plants also qualify.

    Graham and Knittel measured the “employment carbon footprint” (ECF) of each county in the U.S., producing new results. Out of more than 3,000 counties in the U.S., the researchers found that 124 are at the 90th percentile or above in ECF terms, while not qualifying for Inflation Reduction Act assistance. Another 79 counties are eligible for Inflation Reduction Act assistance, while being in the bottom 20 percent nationally in ECF terms.

    Those may not seem like colossal differences, but the findings identify real communities potentially being left out of federal policy, and highlight the need for new targeting of such programs. The research by Graham and Knittel offers a precise way to assess the industrial composition of U.S. counties, potentially helping to target economic assistance programs.

    “The impact on jobs of the energy transition is not just going to be where oil and natural gas are drilled, it’s going to be all the way up and down the value chain of things we make in the U.S.,” Knittel says. “That’s a more extensive, but still focused, problem.”

    Graham adds: “It’s important that policymakers understand these economy-wide employment impacts. Our aim in providing these data is to help policymakers incorporate these considerations into future policies like the Inflation Reduction Act.”

    Adapting policy

    Graham and Knittel are still evaluating what the best policy measures might be to help places in the U.S. adapt to a move away from fossil fuels.

    “What we haven’t necessarily closed the loop on is the right way to build a policy that takes account of these factors,” Knittel says. “The Inflation Reduction Act is the first policy to think about a [fair] energy transition because it has these subsidies for energy-dependent counties.” But given enough political backing, there may be room for additional policy measures in this area.

    One thing clearly showing through in the study’s data is that many U.S. counties are in a variety of situations, so there may be no one-size-fits-all approach to encouraging economic growth while making a switch to clean energy. What suits west Texas or Wyoming best may not work for more manufacturing-based local economies. And even among primary energy-production areas, there may be distinctions, among those drilling for oil or natural gas and those producing coal, based on the particular economics of those fuels. The study includes in-depth data about each county, characterizing its industrial portfolio, which may help tailor approaches to a range of economic situations.

    “The next step is using this data more specifically to design policies to protect these communities,” Knittel says. More

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    A new way to swiftly eliminate micropollutants from water

    “Zwitterionic” might not be a word you come across every day, but for Professor Patrick Doyle of the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering, it’s a word that’s central to the technology his group is developing to remove micropollutants from water. Derived from the German word “zwitter,” meaning “hybrid,” “zwitterionic” molecules are those with an equal number of positive and negative charges.

    Devashish Gokhale, a PhD student in Doyle’s lab, uses the example of a magnet to describe zwitterionic materials. “On a magnet, you have a north pole and a south pole that stick to each other, and on a zwitterionic molecule, you have a positive charge and a negative charge which stick to each other in a similar way.” Because many inorganic micropollutants and some organic micropollutants are themselves charged, Doyle and his team have been investigating how to deploy zwitterionic molecules to capture micropollutants in water. 

    In a new paper in Nature Water, Doyle, Gokhale, and undergraduate student Andre Hamelberg explain how they use zwitterionic hydrogels to sustainably capture both organic and inorganic micropollutants from water with minimal operational complexity. In the past, zwitterionic molecules have been used as coatings on membranes for water treatment because of their non-fouling properties. But in the Doyle group’s system, zwitterionic molecules are used to form the scaffold material, or backbone within the hydrogel — a porous three-dimensional network of polymer chains that contains a significant amount of water. “Zwitterionic molecules have very strong attraction to water compared to other materials which are used to make hydrogels or polymers,” says Gokhale. What’s more, the positive and negative charges on zwitterionic molecules cause the hydrogels to have lower compressibility than what has been commonly observed in hydrogels. This makes for significantly more swollen, robust, and porous hydrogels, which is important for the scale up of the hydrogel-based system for water treatment.

    The early stages of this research were supported by a seed grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS). Doyle’s group is now pursuing commercialization of the platform for both at-home use and industrial scale applications, with support from a J-WAFS Solutions grant.

    Seeking a sustainable solution

    Micropollutants are chemically diverse materials that can be harmful to human health and the environment, even though they are typically found at low concentrations (micrograms to milligrams per liter) relative to conventional contaminants. Micropollutants can be organic or inorganic and can be naturally-occurring or synthetic. Organic micropollutants are mostly carbon-based molecules and include pesticides and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals.” Inorganic micropollutants, such as heavy metals like lead and arsenic, tend to be smaller than organic micropollutants. Unfortunately, both organic and inorganic micropollutants are pervasive in the environment.

    Many micropollutants come from industrial processes, but the effects of human-induced climate change are also contributing to the environmental spread of micropollutants. Gokhale explains that, in California, for example, fires burn plastic electrical cables and leech micropollutants into natural ecosystems. Doyle adds that “outside of climate change, things like pandemics can spike the number of organic micropollutants in the environment due to high concentrations of pharmaceuticals in wastewater.”

    It’s no surprise then, that over the past few years micropollutants have become more and more of a concern. These chemicals have garnered attention in the media and led to “significant change in the environmental engineering and regulatory landscape” says Gokhale. In March 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a strict, federal standard that would regulate six different PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Just last October, the EPA proposed banning the micropollutant trichloroethylene, a cancer-causing chemical that can be found in brake cleaners and other consumer products. And as recently as November, the EPA proposed that water utilities nationwide be required to replace all of their lead pipes to protect the public from lead exposure. Internationally, Gokhale notes the Oslo Paris Convention, whose mission is to protect the marine environment of the northeast Atlantic Ocean, including phasing out the discharge of offshore chemicals from the oil and gas industries. 

    With each new, necessary regulation to protect the safety of our water resources, the need for effective water treatment processes grows. Compounding this challenge is the need to make water treatment processes that are sustainable and energy-efficient. 

    The benchmark method to treat micropollutants in water is activated carbon. However, making filters with activated carbon is energy-intensive, requiring very high temperatures in large, centralized facilities. Gokhale says approximately “four kilograms of coal are needed to make one kilogram of activated carbon, so you lose a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the environment.” According to the World Economic Forum, global water and wastewater treatment accounts for 5 percent of annual emissions. In the U.S. alone, the EPA reports that drinking water and wastewater systems account for over 45 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

    “We need to develop methods which have smaller climate footprints than methods which are being used industrially today,” says Gokhale.

    Supporting a “high-risk” project

    In September 2019, Doyle and his lab embarked on an initial project to develop a microparticle-based platform to remove a broad range of micropollutants from water. Doyle’s group had been using hydrogels in pharmaceutical processing to formulate drug molecules into pill format. When he learned about the J-WAFS seed grant opportunity for early-stage research in water and food systems, Doyle realized his pharmaceutical work with hydrogels could be applied to environmental issues like water treatment. “I would never have gotten funding for this project if I went to the NSF [National Science Foundation], because they would just say, ‘you’re not a water person.’ But the J-WAFS seed grant offered a way for a high-risk, high-reward kind of project,” Doyle says.

    In March 2022, Doyle, Gokhale, and MIT undergraduate Ian Chen published findings from the seed grant work, describing their use of micelles within hydrogels for water treatment. Micelles are spherical structures that form when molecules called surfactants (found in things like soap), come in contact with water or other liquids. The team was able to synthesize micelle-laden hydrogel particles that soak up micropollutants from water like a sponge. Unlike activated carbon, the hydrogel particle system is made from environmentally friendly materials. Furthermore, the system’s materials are made at room temperature, making them exceedingly more sustainable than activated carbon.

    Building off the success of the seed grant, Doyle and his team were awarded a J-WAFS Solutions grant in September 2022 to help move their technology from the lab to the market. With this support, the researchers have been able to build, test, and refine pilot-scale prototypes of their hydrogel platform. System iterations during the solutions grant period have included the use of the zwitterionic molecules, a novel advancement from the seed grant work.  

    Rapid elimination of micropollutants is of special importance in commercial water treatment processes, where there is a limited amount of time water can spend inside the operational filtration unit. This is referred to as contact time, explains Gokhale. In municipal-scale or industrial-scale water treatment systems, contact times are usually less than 20 minutes and can be as short as five minutes. 

    “But as people have been trying to target these emerging micropollutants of concern, they realized they can’t get to sufficiently low concentrations on the same time scales as conventional contaminants,” Gokhale says. “Most technologies focus only on specific molecules or specific classes of molecules. So, you have whole technologies which are focusing only on PFAS, and then you have other technologies for lead and metals. When you start thinking about removing all of these contaminants from water, you end up with designs which have a very large number of unit operations. And that’s an issue because you have plants which are in the middle of large cities, and they don’t necessarily have space to expand to increase their contact times to efficiently remove multiple micropollutants,” he adds.

    Since zwitterionic molecules possess unique properties that confer high porosity, the researchers have been able to engineer a system for quicker uptake of micropollutants from water. Tests show that the hydrogels can eliminate six chemically diverse micropollutants at least 10 times faster than commercial activated carbon. The system is also compatible with a diverse set of materials, making it multifunctional. Micropollutants can bind to many different sites within the hydrogel platform: organic micropollutants bind to the micelles or surfactants while inorganic micropollutants bind to the zwitterionic molecules. Micelles, surfactants, zwitterionic molecules, and other chelating agents can be swapped in and out to essentially tune the system with different functionalities based on the profile of the water being treated. This kind of “plug-and-play” addition of various functional agents does not require a change in the design or synthesis of the hydrogel platform, and adding more functionalities does not take away from existing functionality. In this way, the zwitterionic-based system can rapidly remove multiple contaminants at lower concentrations in a single step, without the need for large, industrial units or capital expenditure. 

    Perhaps most importantly, the particles in the Doyle group’s system can be regenerated and used over and over again. By simply soaking the particles in an ethanol bath, they can be washed of micropollutants for indefinite use without loss of efficacy. When activated carbon is used for water treatment, the activated carbon itself becomes contaminated with micropollutants and must be treated as toxic chemical waste and disposed of in special landfills. Over time, micropollutants in landfills will reenter the ecosystem, perpetuating the problem.

    Arjav Shah, a PhD-MBA candidate in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management, respectively, recently joined the team to lead commercialization efforts. The team has found that the zwitterionic hydrogels could be used in several real-world contexts, ranging from large-scale industrial packed beds to small-scale, portable, off-grid applications — for example, in tablets that could clean water in a canteen — and they have begun piloting the technology through a number of commercialization programs at MIT and in the greater Boston area.

    The combined strengths of each member of the team continue to drive the project forward in impactful ways, including undergraduate students like Andre Hamelberg, the third author on the Nature Water paper. Hamelberg is a participant in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Gokhale, who is also a J-WAFS Fellow, provides training and mentorship to Hamelberg and other UROP students in the lab.

    “We see this as an educational opportunity,” says Gokhale, noting that the UROP students learn science and chemical engineering through the research they conduct in the lab. The J-WAFS project has also been “a way of getting undergrads interested in water treatment and the more sustainable aspects of chemical engineering,” Gokhale says. He adds that it’s “one of the few projects which goes all the way from designing specific chemistries to building small filters and units and scaling them up and commercializing them. It’s a really good learning opportunity for the undergrads and we’re always excited to have them work with us.”

    In four years, the technology has been able to grow from an initial idea to a technology with scalable, real-world applications, making it an exemplar J-WAFS project. The fruitful collaboration between J-WAFS and the Doyle lab serves as inspiration for any MIT faculty who may want to apply their research to water or food systems projects.

    “The J-WAFS project serves as a way to demystify what a chemical engineer does,” says Doyle. “I think that there’s an old idea of chemical engineering as working in just oil and gas. But modern chemical engineering is focused on things which make life and the environment better.” More

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    MIT researchers outline a path for scaling clean hydrogen production

    Hydrogen is an integral component for the manufacture of steel, fertilizer, and a number of chemicals. Producing hydrogen using renewable electricity offers a way to clean up these and many other hard-to-decarbonize industries.

    But supporting the nascent clean hydrogen industry while ensuring it grows into a true force for decarbonization is complicated, in large part because of the challenges of sourcing clean electricity. To assist regulators and to clarify disagreements in the field, MIT researchers published a paper today in Nature Energy that outlines a path to scale the clean hydrogen industry while limiting emissions.

    Right now, U.S. electric grids are mainly powered by fossil fuels, so if scaling hydrogen production translates to greater electricity use, it could result in a major emissions increase. There is also the risk that “low-carbon” hydrogen projects could end up siphoning renewable energy that would have been built anyway for the grid. It is therefore critical to ensure that low-carbon hydrogen procures electricity from “additional” renewables, especially when hydrogen production is supported by public subsidies. The challenge is allowing hydrogen producers to procure renewable electricity in a cost-effective way that helps the industry grow, while minimizing the risk of high emissions.

    U.S. regulators have been tasked with sorting out this complexity. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is offering generous production tax credits for low-carbon hydrogen. But the law didn’t specify exactly how hydrogen’s carbon footprint should be judged.

    To this end, the paper proposes a phased approach to qualify for the tax credits. In the first phase, hydrogen created from grid electricity can receive the credits under looser standards as the industry gets its footing. Once electricity demand for hydrogen production grows, the industry should be required to adhere to stricter standards for ensuring the electricity is coming from renewable sources. Finally, many years from now when the grid is mainly powered by renewable energy, the standards can loosen again.

    The researchers say the nuanced approach ensures the law supports the growth of clean hydrogen without coming at the expense of emissions.

    “If we can scale low-carbon hydrogen production, we can cut some significant sources of existing emissions and enable decarbonization of other critical industries,” says paper co-author Michael Giovanniello, a graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program. “At the same time, there’s a real risk of implementing the wrong requirements and wasting lots of money to subsidize carbon-intensive hydrogen production. So, you have to balance scaling the industry with reducing the risk of emissions. I hope there’s clarity and foresight in how this policy is implemented, and I hope our paper makes the argument clear for policymakers.”

    Giovanniello’s co-authors on the paper are MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) Principal Research Scientist Dharik Mallapragada, MITEI Research Assistant Anna Cybulsky, and MIT Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer Tim Schittekatte.

    On definitions and disagreements

    When renewable electricity from a wind farm or solar array flows through the grid, it’s mixed with electricity from fossil fuels. The situation raises a question worth billions of dollars in federal tax credits: What are the carbon dioxide emissions of grid users who are also signing agreements to procure electricity from renewables?

    One way to answer this question is via energy system models that can simulate various scenarios related to technology configurations and qualifying requirements for receiving the credit.

    To date, many studies using such models have come up with very different emissions estimates for electrolytic hydrogen production. One source of disagreement is over “time matching,” which refers to how strictly to align the timing of electric hydrogen production with the generation of clean electricity. One proposed approach, known as hourly time matching, would require that electricity consumption to produce hydrogen is accounted for by procured clean electricity at every hour.

    A less stringent approach, called annual time matching, would offer more flexibility in hourly electricity consumption for hydrogen production, so long as the annual consumption matches the annual generation from the procured clean electricity generation. The added flexibility could reduce the cost of hydrogen production, which is critical for scaling its use, but could lead to greater emissions per unit of hydrogen produced.

    Another point of disagreement stems from how hydrogen producers purchase renewable electricity. If an electricity user procures energy from an existing solar farm, it’s simply increasing overall electricity demand and taking clean energy away from other users. But if the tax credits only go to electric hydrogen producers that sign power purchase agreements with new renewable suppliers, they’re supporting clean electricity that wouldn’t have otherwise been contributing to the grid. This concept is known as “additionality.”

    The researchers analyzed previous studies that reached conflicting conclusions, and identified different interpretations of additionality underlying their methodologies. One interpretation of additionality is that new electrolytic hydrogen projects do not compete with nonhydrogen demand for renewable energy resources. The other assumes that they do compete for all newly deployed renewables — and, because of low-carbon hydrogen subsidies, the electrolyzers take priority.

    Using DOLPHYN, an open-source energy systems model, the researchers tested how these two interpretations of additionality (the “compete” and “noncompete” scenarios) impact the cost and emissions of the alternative time-matching requirements (hourly and annual) associated with grid-interconnected hydrogen production. They modeled two regional U.S. grids — in Texas and Florida — which represent the high and low end of renewables deployment. They further tested the interaction of four critical policy factors with the hydrogen tax credits, including renewable portfolio standards, constraints of renewables and energy storage deployment, limits on hydrogen electrolyzer capacity factors, and competition with natural gas-based hydrogen with carbon capture.

    They show that the different modeling interpretations of additionality are the primary factor explaining the vastly different estimates of emissions from electrolyzer hydrogen under annual time-matching.

    Getting policy right

    The paper concludes that the right way to implement the production tax credit qualifying requirements depends on whether you believe we live in a “compete” or “noncompete” world. But reality is not so binary.

    “What framework is more appropriate is going to change with time as we deploy more hydrogen and the grid decarbonizes, so therefore the policy has to be adaptive to those changes,” Mallapragada says. “It’s an evolving story that’s tied to what’s happening in the rest of the energy system, and in particular the electric grid, both from the technological as policy perspective.”

    Today, renewables deployment is driven, in part, by binding factors, such as state renewable portfolio standards and corporate clean-energy commitments, as well as by purely market forces. Since the electrolyzer is so nascent, and today resembles a “noncompete” world, the researchers argue for starting with the less strict annual requirement. But as hydrogen demand for renewable electricity grows, and market competition drives an increasing quantity of renewables deployment, transitioning to hourly matching will be necessary to avoid high emissions.

    This phased approach necessitates deliberate, long-term planning from regulators. “If regulators make a decision and don’t outline when they’ll reassess that decision, they might never reassess that decision, so we might get locked into a bad policy,” Giovanniello explains. In particular, the paper highlights the risk of locking in an annual time-matching requirement that leads to significant emissions in future.

    The researchers hope their findings will contribute to upcoming policy decisions around the Inflation Reduction Act’s tax credits. They started looking into this question around a year ago, making it a quick turnaround by academic standards.

    “There was definitely a sense to be timely in our analysis so as to be responsive to the needs of policy,” Mallapragada says.

    The researchers say the paper can also help policymakers understand the emissions impacts of companies procuring renewable energy credits to meet net-zero targets and electricity suppliers attempting to sell “green” electricity.

    “This question is relevant in a lot of different domains,” Schittekatte says. “Other popular examples are the emission impacts of data centers that procure green power, or even the emission impacts of your own electric car sourcing power from your rooftop solar and the grid. There are obviously differences based on the technology in question, but the underlying research question we’ve answered is the same. This is an extremely important topic for the energy transition.” More

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    MIT in the media: 2023 in review

    It was an eventful trip around the sun for MIT this year, from President Sally Kornbluth’s inauguration and Mark Rober’s Commencement address to Professor Moungi Bawendi winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 2023 MIT researchers made key advances, detecting a dying star swallowing a planet, exploring the frontiers of artificial intelligence, creating clean energy solutions, inventing tools aimed at earlier detection and diagnosis of cancer, and even exploring the science of spreading kindness. Below are highlights of some of the uplifting people, breakthroughs, and ideas from MIT that made headlines in 2023.

    The gift: Kindness goes viral with Steve HartmanSteve Hartman visited Professor Anette “Peko” Hosoi to explore the science behind whether a single act of kindness can change the world.Full story via CBS News

    Trio wins Nobel Prize in chemistry for work on quantum dots, used in electronics and medical imaging“The motivation really is the basic science. A basic understanding, the curiosity of ‘how does the world work?’” said Professor Moungi Bawendi of the inspiration for his research on quantum dots, for which he was co-awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.Full story via the Associated Press

    How MIT’s all-women leadership team plans to change science for the betterPresident Sally Kornbluth, Provost Cynthia Barnhart, and Chancellor Melissa Nobles emphasized the importance of representation for women and underrepresented groups in STEM.Full story via Radio Boston

    MIT via community college? Transfer students find a new path to a degreeUndergraduate Subin Kim shared his experience transferring from community college to MIT through the Transfer Scholars Network, which is aimed at helping community college students find a path to four-year universities.Full story via the Christian Science Monitor

    MIT president Sally Kornbluth doesn’t think we can hit the pause button on AIPresident Kornbluth discussed the future of AI, ethics in science, and climate change with columnist Shirley Leung on her new “Say More” podcast. “I view [the climate crisis] as an existential issue to the extent that if we don’t take action there, all of the many, many other things that we’re working on, not that they’ll be irrelevant, but they’ll pale in comparison,” Kornbluth said.Full story via The Boston Globe 

    It’s the end of a world as we know itAstronomers from MIT, Harvard University, Caltech and elsewhere spotted a dying star swallowing a large planet. Postdoc Kishalay De explained that: “Finding an event like this really puts all of the theories that have been out there to the most stringent tests possible. It really opens up this entire new field of research.”Full story via The New York Times

    Frontiers of AI

    Hey, Alexa, what should students learn about AI?The Day of AI is a program developed by the MIT RAISE initiative aimed at introducing and teaching K-12 students about AI. “We want students to be informed, responsible users and informed, responsible designers of these technologies,” said Professor Cynthia Breazeal, dean of digital learning at MIT.Full story via The New York Times

    AI tipping pointFour faculty members from across MIT — Professors Song Han, Simon Johnson, Yoon Kim and Rosalind Picard — described the opportunities and risks posed by the rapid advancements in the field of AI.Full story via Curiosity Stream 

    A look into the future of AI at MIT’s robotics laboratoryProfessor Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, discussed the future of artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning, emphasizing the importance of balancing the development of new technologies with the need to ensure they are deployed in a way that benefits humanity.Full story via Mashable

    Health care providers say artificial intelligence could transform medicineProfessor Regina Barzilay spoke about her work developing new AI systems that could be used to help diagnose breast and lung cancer before the cancers are detectable to the human eye.Full story via Chronicle

    Is AI coming for your job? Tech experts weigh in: “They don’t replace human labor”Professor David Autor discussed how the rise of artificial intelligence could change the quality of jobs available.Full story via CBS News

    Big tech is bad. Big AI will be worse.Institute Professor Daron Acemoglu and Professor Simon Johnson made the case that “rather than machine intelligence, what we need is ‘machine usefulness,’ which emphasizes the ability of computers to augment human capabilities.”Full story via The New York Times

    Engineering excitement

    MIT’s 3D-printed hearts could pump new life into customized treatments MIT engineers developed a technique for 3D printing a soft, flexible, custom-designed replica of a patient’s heart.Full story via WBUR

    Mystery of why Roman buildings have survived so long has been unraveled, scientists sayScientists from MIT and other institutions discovered that ancient Romans used lime clasts when manufacturing concrete, giving the material self-healing properties.Full story via CNN

    The most interesting startup in America is in Massachusetts. You’ve probably never heard of it.VulcanForms, an MIT startup, is at the “leading edge of a push to transform 3D printing from a niche technology — best known for new-product prototyping and art-class experimentation — into an industrial force.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    Catalyzing climate innovations

    Can Boston’s energy innovators save the world?Boston Magazine reporter Rowan Jacobsen spotlighted how MIT faculty, students, and alumni are leading the charge in clean energy startups. “When it comes to game-changing breakthroughs in energy, three letters keep surfacing again and again: MIT,” writes Jacobsen.Full story via Boston Magazine

    MIT research could be game changer in combating water shortagesMIT researchers discovered that a common hydrogel used in cosmetic creams, industrial coatings, and pharmaceutical capsules can absorb moisture from the atmosphere even as the temperature rises. “For a planet that’s getting hotter, this could be a game-changing discovery.”Full story via NBC Boston

    Energy-storing concrete could form foundations for solar-powered homesMIT engineers uncovered a new way of creating an energy supercapacitor by combining cement, carbon black, and water that could one day be used to power homes or electric vehicles.Full story via New Scientist

    MIT researchers tackle key question of EV adoption: When to charge?MIT scientists found that delayed charging and strategic placement of EV charging stations could help reduce additional energy demands caused by more widespread EV adoption.Full story via Fast Company

    Building better buildingsProfessor John Fernández examined how to reduce the climate footprints of homes and office buildings, recommending creating airtight structures, switching to cleaner heating sources, using more environmentally friendly building materials, and retrofitting existing homes and offices.Full story via The New York Times

    They’re building an “ice penetrator” on a hillside in WestfordResearchers from MIT’s Haystack Observatory built an “ice penetrator,” a device designed to monitor the changing conditions of sea ice.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Healing health solutions

    How Boston is beating cancerMIT researchers are developing drug-delivery nanoparticles aimed at targeting cancer cells without disturbing healthy cells. Essentially, the nanoparticles are “engineered for selectivity,” explained Professor Paula Hammond, head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering.Full story via Boston Magazine

    A new antibiotic, discovered with artificial intelligence, may defeat a dangerous superbugUsing a machine-learning algorithm, researchers from MIT discovered a type of antibiotic that’s effective against a particular strain of drug-resistant bacteria.Full story via CNN

    To detect breast cancer sooner, an MIT professor designs an ultrasound braMIT researchers designed a wearable ultrasound device that attaches to a bra and could be used to detect early-stage breast tumors.Full story via STAT

    The quest for a switch to turn on hungerAn ingestible pill developed by MIT scientists can raise levels of hormones to help increase appetite and decrease nausea in patients with gastroparesis.Full story via Wired

    Here’s how to use dreams for creative inspirationMIT scientists found that the earlier stages of sleep are key to sparking creativity and that people can be guided to dream about specific topics, further boosting creativity.Full story via Scientific American

    Astounding art

    An AI opera from 1987 reboots for a new generationProfessor Tod Machover discussed the restaging of his opera “VALIS” at MIT, which featured an artificial intelligence-assisted musical instrument developed by Nina Masuelli ’23.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Surfacing the stories hidden in migration dataAssociate Professor Sarah Williams discussed the Civic Data Design Lab’s “Motivational Tapestry,” a large woven art piece that uses data from the United Nations World Food Program to visually represent the individual motivations of 1,624 Central Americans who have migrated to the U.S.Full story via Metropolis

    Augmented reality-infused production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” opens Bayreuth FestivalProfessor Jay Scheib’s augmented reality-infused production of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” brought “fantastical images” to audience members.Full story via the Associated Press

    Understanding our universe

    New image reveals violent events near a supermassive black holeScientists captured a new image of M87*, the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, showing the “launching point of a colossal jet of high-energy particles shooting outward into space.”Full story via Reuters

    Gravitational waves: A new universeMIT researchers Lisa Barsotti, Deep Chatterjee, and Victoria Xu explored how advances in gravitational wave detection are enabling a better understanding of the universe.Full story via Curiosity Stream 

    Nergis Mavalvala helped detect the first gravitational wave. Her work doesn’t stop thereProfessor Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science, discussed her work searching for gravitational waves, the importance of skepticism in scientific research, and why she enjoys working with young people.Full story via Wired

    Hitting the books

    “The Transcendent Brain” review: Beyond ones and zeroesIn his book “The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science,” Alan Lightman, a professor of the practice of humanities, displayed his gift for “distilling complex ideas and emotions to their bright essence.”Full story via The Wall Street Journal

    What happens when CEOs treat workers better? Companies (and workers) win.Professor of the practice Zeynep Ton published a book, “The Case for Good Jobs,” and is “on a mission to change how company leaders think, and how they treat their employees.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    How to wage war on conspiracy theoriesProfessor Adam Berinsky’s book, “Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight it,” examined “attitudes toward both politics and health, both of which are undermined by distrust and misinformation in ways that cause harm to both individuals and society.”Full story via Politico

    What it takes for Mexican coders to cross the cultural border with Silicon ValleyAssistant Professor Héctor Beltrán discussed his new book, “Code Work: Hacking across the U.S./México Techno-Borderlands,” which explores the culture of hackathons and entrepreneurship in Mexico.Full story via Marketplace

    Cultivating community

    The Indigenous rocketeerNicole McGaa, a fourth-year student at MIT, discussed her work leading MIT’s all-Indigenous rocket team at the 2023 First Nations Launch National Rocket Competition.Full story via Nature

    “You totally got this,” YouTube star and former NASA engineer Mark Rober tells MIT graduatesDuring his Commencement address at MIT, Mark Rober urged graduates to embrace their accomplishments and boldly face any challenges they encounter.Full story via The Boston Globe

    MIT Juggling Club going strong after half centuryAfter almost 50 years, the MIT Juggling Club, which was founded in 1975 and then merged with a unicycle club, is the oldest drop-in juggling club in continuous operation and still welcomes any aspiring jugglers to come toss a ball (or three) into the air.Full story via Cambridge Day

    Volpe Transportation Center opens as part of $750 million deal between MIT and fedsThe John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Kendall Square was the first building to open in MIT’s redevelopment of the 14-acre Volpe site that will ultimately include “research labs, retail, affordable housing, and open space, with the goal of not only encouraging innovation, but also enhancing the surrounding community.”Full story via The Boston Globe

    Sparking conversation

    The future of AI innovation and the role of academics in shaping itProfessor Daniela Rus emphasized the central role universities play in fostering innovation and the importance of ensuring universities have the computing resources necessary to help tackle major global challenges.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Moving the needle on supply chain sustainabilityProfessor Yossi Sheffi examined several strategies companies could use to help improve supply chain sustainability, including redesigning last-mile deliveries, influencing consumer choices and incentivizing returnable containers.Full story via The Hill

    Expelled from the mountain top?Sylvester James Gates Jr. ’73, PhD ’77 made the case that “diverse learning environments expose students to a broader range of perspectives, enhance education, and inculcate creativity and innovative habits of mind.”Full story via Science

    Marketing magic of “Barbie” movie has lessons for women’s sportsMIT Sloan Lecturer Shira Springer explored how the success of the “Barbie” movie could be applied to women’s sports.Full story via Sports Business Journal

    We’re already paying for universal health care. Why don’t we have it?Professor Amy Finkelstein asserted that the solution to health insurance reform in the U.S. is “universal coverage that is automatic, free and basic.”Full story via The New York Times 

    The internet could be so good. Really.Professor Deb Roy described how “new kinds of social networks can be designed for constructive communication — for listening, dialogue, deliberation, and mediation — and they can actually work.”Full story via The Atlantic

    Fostering educational excellence

    MIT students give legendary linear algebra professor standing ovation in last lectureAfter 63 years of teaching and over 10 million views of his online lectures, Professor Gilbert Strang received a standing ovation after his last lecture on linear algebra. “I am so grateful to everyone who likes linear algebra and sees its importance. So many universities (and even high schools) now appreciate how beautiful it is and how valuable it is,” said Strang.Full story via USA Today

    “Brave Behind Bars”: Reshaping the lives of inmates through coding classesGraduate students Martin Nisser and Marisa Gaetz co-founded Brave Behind Bars, a program designed to provide incarcerated individuals with coding and digital literacy skills to better prepare them for life after prison.Full story via MSNBC

    Melrose TikTok user “Ms. Nuclear Energy” teaching about nuclear power through social mediaGraduate student Kaylee Cunningham discussed her work using social media to help educate and inform the public about nuclear energy.Full story via CBS Boston  More