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    MIT-designed project achieves major advance toward fusion energy

    It was a moment three years in the making, based on intensive research and design work: On Sept. 5, for the first time, a large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet was ramped up to a field strength of 20 tesla, the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth. That successful demonstration helps resolve the greatest uncertainty in the quest to build the world’s first fusion power plant that can produce more power than it consumes, according to the project’s leaders at MIT and startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).

    That advance paves the way, they say, for the long-sought creation of practical, inexpensive, carbon-free power plants that could make a major contribution to limiting the effects of global climate change.

    “Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.” The fuel used to create fusion energy comes from water, and “the Earth is full of water — it’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it.”

    Developing the new magnet is seen as the greatest technological hurdle to making that happen; its successful operation now opens the door to demonstrating fusion in a lab on Earth, which has been pursued for decades with limited progress. With the magnet technology now successfully demonstrated, the MIT-CFS collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion device that can create and confine a plasma that produces more energy than it consumes. That demonstration device, called SPARC, is targeted for completion in 2025.

    “The challenges of making fusion happen are both technical and scientific,” says Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which is working with CFS to develop SPARC. But once the technology is proven, he says, “it’s an inexhaustible, carbon-free source of energy that you can deploy anywhere and at any time. It’s really a fundamentally new energy source.”

    Whyte, who is the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, says this week’s demonstration represents a major milestone, addressing the biggest questions remaining about the feasibility of the SPARC design. “It’s really a watershed moment, I believe, in fusion science and technology,” he says.

    The sun in a bottle

    Fusion is the process that powers the sun: the merger of two small atoms to make a larger one, releasing prodigious amounts of energy. But the process requires temperatures far beyond what any solid material could withstand. To capture the sun’s power source here on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and containing something that hot — 100,000,000 degrees or more — by suspending it in a way that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid.

    That’s done through intense magnetic fields, which form a kind of invisible bottle to contain the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons, called a plasma. Because the particles have an electric charge, they are strongly controlled by the magnetic fields, and the most widely used configuration for containing them is a donut-shaped device called a tokamak. Most of these devices have produced their magnetic fields using conventional electromagnets made of copper, but the latest and largest version under construction in France, called ITER, uses what are known as low-temperature superconductors.

    The major innovation in the MIT-CFS fusion design is the use of high-temperature superconductors, which enable a much stronger magnetic field in a smaller space. This design was made possible by a new kind of superconducting material that became commercially available a few years ago. The idea initially arose as a class project in a nuclear engineering class taught by Whyte. The idea seemed so promising that it continued to be developed over the next few iterations of that class, leading to the ARC power plant design concept in early 2015. SPARC, designed to be about half the size of ARC, is a testbed to prove the concept before construction of the full-size, power-producing plant.

    Until now, the only way to achieve the colossally powerful magnetic fields needed to create a magnetic “bottle” capable of containing plasma heated up to hundreds of millions of degrees was to make them larger and larger. But the new high-temperature superconductor material, made in the form of a flat, ribbon-like tape, makes it possible to achieve a higher magnetic field in a smaller device, equaling the performance that would be achieved in an apparatus 40 times larger in volume using conventional low-temperature superconducting magnets. That leap in power versus size is the key element in ARC’s revolutionary design.

    The use of the new high-temperature superconducting magnets makes it possible to apply decades of experimental knowledge gained from the operation of tokamak experiments, including MIT’s own Alcator series. The new approach, led by Zach Hartwig, the MIT principal investigator and the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, uses a well-known design but scales everything down to about half the linear size and still achieves the same operational conditions because of the higher magnetic field.

    A series of scientific papers published last year outlined the physical basis and, by simulation, confirmed the viability of the new fusion device. The papers showed that, if the magnets worked as expected, the whole fusion system should indeed produce net power output, for the first time in decades of fusion research.

    Martin Greenwald, deputy director and senior research scientist at the PSFC, says unlike some other designs for fusion experiments, “the niche that we were filling was to use conventional plasma physics, and conventional tokamak designs and engineering, but bring to it this new magnet technology. So, we weren’t requiring innovation in a half-dozen different areas. We would just innovate on the magnet, and then apply the knowledge base of what’s been learned over the last decades.”

    That combination of scientifically established design principles and game-changing magnetic field strength is what makes it possible to achieve a plant that could be economically viable and developed on a fast track. “It’s a big moment,” says Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS. “We now have a platform that is both scientifically very well-advanced, because of the decades of research on these machines, and also commercially very interesting. What it does is allow us to build devices faster, smaller, and at less cost,” he says of the successful magnet demonstration. 

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    Proof of the concept

    Bringing that new magnet concept to reality required three years of intensive work on design, establishing supply chains, and working out manufacturing methods for magnets that may eventually need to be produced by the thousands.

    “We built a first-of-a-kind, superconducting magnet. It required a lot of work to create unique manufacturing processes and equipment. As a result, we are now well-prepared to ramp-up for SPARC production,” says Joy Dunn, head of operations at CFS. “We started with a physics model and a CAD design, and worked through lots of development and prototypes to turn a design on paper into this actual physical magnet.” That entailed building manufacturing capabilities and testing facilities, including an iterative process with multiple suppliers of the superconducting tape, to help them reach the ability to produce material that met the needed specifications — and for which CFS is now overwhelmingly the world’s biggest user.

    They worked with two possible magnet designs in parallel, both of which ended up meeting the design requirements, she says. “It really came down to which one would revolutionize the way that we make superconducting magnets, and which one was easier to build.” The design they adopted clearly stood out in that regard, she says.

    In this test, the new magnet was gradually powered up in a series of steps until reaching the goal of a 20 tesla magnetic field — the highest field strength ever for a high-temperature superconducting fusion magnet. The magnet is composed of 16 plates stacked together, each one of which by itself would be the most powerful high-temperature superconducting magnet in the world.

    “Three years ago we announced a plan,” says Mumgaard, “to build a 20-tesla magnet, which is what we will need for future fusion machines.” That goal has now been achieved, right on schedule, even with the pandemic, he says.

    Citing the series of physics papers published last year, Brandon Sorbom, the chief science officer at CFS, says “basically the papers conclude that if we build the magnet, all of the physics will work in SPARC. So, this demonstration answers the question: Can they build the magnet? It’s a very exciting time! It’s a huge milestone.”

    The next step will be building SPARC, a smaller-scale version of the planned ARC power plant. The successful operation of SPARC will demonstrate that a full-scale commercial fusion power plant is practical, clearing the way for rapid design and construction of that pioneering device can then proceed full speed.

    Zuber says that “I now am genuinely optimistic that SPARC can achieve net positive energy, based on the demonstrated performance of the magnets. The next step is to scale up, to build an actual power plant. There are still many challenges ahead, not the least of which is developing a design that allows for reliable, sustained operation. And realizing that the goal here is commercialization, another major challenge will be economic. How do you design these power plants so it will be cost effective to build and deploy them?”

    Someday in a hoped-for future, when there may be thousands of fusion plants powering clean electric grids around the world, Zuber says, “I think we’re going to look back and think about how we got there, and I think the demonstration of the magnet technology, for me, is the time when I believed that, wow, we can really do this.”

    The successful creation of a power-producing fusion device would be a tremendous scientific achievement, Zuber notes. But that’s not the main point. “None of us are trying to win trophies at this point. We’re trying to keep the planet livable.” More

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    The boiling crisis — and how to avoid it

    It’s rare for a pre-teen to become enamored with thermodynamics, but those consumed by such a passion may consider themselves lucky to end up at a place like MIT. Madhumitha Ravichandran certainly does. A PhD student in Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), Ravichandran first encountered the laws of thermodynamics as a middle school student in Chennai, India. “They made complete sense to me,” she says. “While looking at the refrigerator at home, I wondered if I might someday build energy systems that utilized these same principles. That’s how it started, and I’ve sustained that interest ever since.”

    She’s now drawing on her knowledge of thermodynamics in research carried out in the laboratory of NSE Assistant Professor Matteo Bucci, her doctoral supervisor. Ravichandran and Bucci are gaining key insights into the “boiling crisis” — a problem that has long saddled the energy industry.

    Ravichandran was well prepared for this work by the time she arrived at MIT in 2017. As an undergraduate at India’s Sastra University, she pursued research on “two-phase flows,” examining the transitions water undergoes between its liquid and gaseous forms. She continued to study droplet evaporation and related phenomena during an internship in early 2017 in the Bucci Lab. That was an eye-opening experience, Ravichandran explains. “Back at my university in India, only 2 to 3 percent of the mechanical engineering students were women, and there were no women on the faculty. It was the first time I had faced social inequities because of my gender, and I went through some struggles, to say the least.”

    MIT offered a welcome contrast. “The amount of freedom I was given made me extremely happy,” she says. “I was always encouraged to explore my ideas, and I always felt included.” She was doubly happy because, midway through the internship, she learned that she’d been accepted to MIT’s graduate program.

    As a PhD student, her research has followed a similar path. She continues to study boiling and heat transfer, but Bucci gave this work some added urgency. They’re now investigating the aforementioned boiling crisis, which affects nuclear reactors and other kinds of power plants that rely on steam generation to drive turbines. In a light water nuclear reactor, water is heated by fuel rods in which nuclear fission has occurred. Heat removal is most efficient when the water circulating past the rods boils. However, if too many bubbles form on the surface, enveloping the fuel rods in a layer of vapor, heat transfer is greatly reduced. That’s not only diminishes power generation, it can also be dangerous because the fuel rods must be continuously cooled to avoid a dreaded meltdown accident.

    Nuclear plants operate at low power ratings to provide an ample safety margin and thereby prevent such a scenario from occurring. Ravichandran believes these standards may be overly cautious, owing to the fact that people aren’t yet sure of the conditions that bring about the boiling crisis. This hurts the economic viability of nuclear power, she says, at a time when we desperately need carbon-free power sources. But Ravichandran and other researchers in the Bucci Lab are starting to fill some major gaps in our understanding.

    They initially ran experiments to determine how quickly bubbles form when water hits a hot surface, how big the bubbles get, how long they grow, and how the surface temperature changes. “A typical experiment lasted two minutes, but it took more than three weeks to pick out every bubble that formed and track its growth and evolution,” Ravichandran explains.

    To streamline this process, she and Bucci are implementing a machine learning approach, based on neural network technology. Neural networks are good at recognizing patterns, including those associated with bubble nucleation. “These networks are data hungry,” Ravichandran says. “The more data they’re fed, the better they perform.” The networks were trained on experimental results pertaining to bubble formation on different surfaces; the networks were then tested on surfaces for which the NSE researchers had no data and didn’t know what to expect.

    After gaining experimental validation of the output from the machine learning models, the team is now trying to get these models to make reliable predictions as to when the bubble crisis, itself, will occur. The ultimate goal is to have a fully autonomous system that can not only predict the boiling crisis, but also show why it happens and automatically shut down experiments before things go too far and lab equipment starts melting.

    In the meantime, Ravichandran and Bucci have made some important theoretical advances, which they report on in a recently published paper for Applied Physics Letters. There had been a debate in the nuclear engineering community as to whether the boiling crisis is caused by bubbles covering the fuel rod surface or due to bubbles growing on top of each other, extending outward from the surface. Ravichandran and Bucci determined that it is a surface-level phenomenon. In addition, they’ve identified the three main factors that trigger the boiling crisis. First, there’s the number of bubbles that form over a given surface area and, second, the average bubble size. The third factor is the product of the bubble frequency (the number of bubbles forming within a second at a given site) and the time it takes for a bubble to reach its full size.

    Ravichandran is happy to have shed some new light on this issue but acknowledges that there’s still much work to be done. Although her research agenda is ambitious and nearly all consuming, she never forgets where she came from and the sense of isolation she felt while studying engineering as an undergraduate. She has, on her own initiative, been mentoring female engineering students in India, providing both research guidance and career advice.

    “I sometimes feel there was a reason I went through those early hardships,” Ravichandran says. “That’s what made me decide that I want to be an educator.” She’s also grateful for the opportunities that have opened up for her since coming to MIT. A recipient of a 2021-22 MathWorks Engineering Fellowship, she says, “now it feels like the only limits on me are those that I’ve placed on myself.” More

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    A peculiar state of matter in layers of semiconductors

    Scientists around the world are developing new hardware for quantum computers, a new type of device that could accelerate drug design, financial modeling, and weather prediction. These computers rely on qubits, bits of matter that can represent some combination of 1 and 0 simultaneously. The problem is that qubits are fickle, degrading into regular bits when interactions with surrounding matter interfere. But new research at MIT suggests a way to protect their states, using a phenomenon called many-body localization (MBL).

    MBL is a peculiar phase of matter, proposed decades ago, that is unlike solid or liquid. Typically, matter comes to thermal equilibrium with its environment. That’s why soup cools and ice cubes melt. But in MBL, an object consisting of many strongly interacting bodies, such as atoms, never reaches such equilibrium. Heat, like sound, consists of collective atomic vibrations and can travel in waves; an object always has such heat waves internally. But when there’s enough disorder and enough interaction in the way its atoms are arranged, the waves can become trapped, thus preventing the object from reaching equilibrium.

    MBL had been demonstrated in “optical lattices,” arrangements of atoms at very cold temperatures held in place using lasers. But such setups are impractical. MBL had also arguably been shown in solid systems, but only with very slow temporal dynamics, in which the phase’s existence is hard to prove because equilibrium might be reached if researchers could wait long enough. The MIT research found a signatures of MBL in a “solid-state” system — one made of semiconductors — that would otherwise have reached equilibrium in the time it was watched.

    “It could open a new chapter in the study of quantum dynamics,” says Rahul Nandkishore, a physicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was not involved in the work.

    Mingda Li, the Norman C Rasmussen Assistant Professor Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, led the new study, published in a recent issue of Nano Letters. The researchers built a system containing alternating semiconductor layers, creating a microscopic lasagna — aluminum arsenide, followed by gallium arsenide, and so on, for 600 layers, each 3 nanometers (millionths of a millimeter) thick. Between the layers they dispersed “nanodots,” 2-nanometer particles of erbium arsenide, to create disorder. The lasagna, or “superlattice,” came in three recipes: one with no nanodots, one in which nanodots covered 8 percent of each layer’s area, and one in which they covered 25 percent.

    According to Li, the team used layers of material, instead of a bulk material, to simplify the system so dissipation of heat across the planes was essentially one-dimensional. And they used nanodots, instead of mere chemical impurities, to crank up the disorder.

    To measure whether these disordered systems are still staying in equilibrium, the researchers measured them with X-rays. Using the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab, they shot beams of radiation at an energy of more than 20,000 electron volts, and to resolve the energy difference between the incoming X-ray and after its reflection off the sample’s surface, with an energy resolution less than one one-thousandth of an electron volt. To avoid penetrating the superlattice and hitting the underlying substrate, they shot it at an angle of just half a degree from parallel.

    Just as light can be measured as waves or particles, so too can heat. The collective atomic vibration for heat in the form of a heat-carrying unit is called a phonon. X-rays interact with these phonons, and by measuring how X-rays reflect off the sample, the experimenters can determine if it is in equilibrium.

    The researchers found that when the superlattice was cold — 30 kelvin, about -400 degrees Fahrenheit — and it contained nanodots, its phonons at certain frequencies remained were not in equilibrium.

    More work remains to prove conclusively that MBL has been achieved, but “this new quantum phase can open up a whole new platform to explore quantum phenomena,” Li says, “with many potential applications, from thermal storage to quantum computing.”

    To create qubits, some quantum computers employ specks of matter called quantum dots. Li says quantum dots similar to Li’s nanodots could act as qubits. Magnets could read or write their quantum states, while the many-body localization would keep them insulated from heat and other environmental factors.

    In terms of thermal storage, such a superlattice might switch in and out of an MBL phase by magnetically controlling the nanodots. It could insulate computer parts from heat at one moment, then allow parts to disperse heat when it won’t cause damage. Or it could allow heat to build up and be harnessed later for generating electricity.

    Conveniently, superlattices with nanodots can be constructed using traditional techniques for fabricating semiconductors, alongside other elements of computer chips. According to Li, “It’s a much larger design space than with chemical doping, and there are numerous applications.”

    “I am excited to see that signatures of MBL can now also be found in real material systems,” says Immanuel Bloch, scientific director at the Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics, of the new work. “I believe this will help us to better understand the conditions under which MBL can be observed in different quantum many-body systems and how possible coupling to the environment affects the stability of the system. These are fundamental and important questions and the MIT experiment is an important step helping us to answer them.”

    Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences program’s Neutron Scattering Program. 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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    Using graphene foam to filter toxins from drinking water

    Some kinds of water pollution, such as algal blooms and plastics that foul rivers, lakes, and marine environments, lie in plain sight. But other contaminants are not so readily apparent, which makes their impact potentially more dangerous. Among these invisible substances is uranium. Leaching into water resources from mining operations, nuclear waste sites, or from natural subterranean deposits, the element can now be found flowing out of taps worldwide.

    In the United States alone, “many areas are affected by uranium contamination, including the High Plains and Central Valley aquifers, which supply drinking water to 6 million people,” says Ahmed Sami Helal, a postdoc in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. This contamination poses a near and present danger. “Even small concentrations are bad for human health,” says Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor of materials science and engineering.

    Now, a team led by Li has devised a highly efficient method for removing uranium from drinking water. Applying an electric charge to graphene oxide foam, the researchers can capture uranium in solution, which precipitates out as a condensed solid crystal. The foam may be reused up to seven times without losing its electrochemical properties. “Within hours, our process can purify a large quantity of drinking water below the EPA limit for uranium,” says Li.

    A paper describing this work was published in this week Advanced Materials. The two first co-authors are Helal and Chao Wang, a postdoc at MIT during the study, who is now with the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Tongji University, Shanghai. Researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University, and the University of Tokyo also participated in the research. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (U.S. Department of Defense) funded later stages of this work.

    Targeting the contaminant

    The project, launched three years ago, began as an effort to find better approaches to environmental cleanup of heavy metals from mining sites. To date, remediation methods for such metals as chromium, cadmium, arsenic, lead, mercury, radium, and uranium have proven limited and expensive. “These techniques are highly sensitive to organics in water, and are poor at separating out the heavy metal contaminants,” explains Helal. “So they involve long operation times, high capital costs, and at the end of extraction, generate more toxic sludge.”

    To the team, uranium seemed a particularly attractive target. Field testing from the U.S. Geological Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has revealed unhealthy levels of uranium moving into reservoirs and aquifers from natural rock sources in the northeastern United States, from ponds and pits storing old nuclear weapons and fuel in places like Hanford, Washington, and from mining activities located in many western states. This kind of contamination is prevalent in many other nations as well. An alarming number of these sites show uranium concentrations close to or above the EPA’s recommended ceiling of 30 parts per billion (ppb) — a level linked to kidney damage, cancer risk, and neurobehavioral changes in humans.

    The critical challenge lay in finding a practical remediation process exclusively sensitive to uranium, capable of extracting it from solution without producing toxic residues. And while earlier research showed that electrically charged carbon fiber could filter uranium from water, the results were partial and imprecise.

    Wang managed to crack these problems — based on her investigation of the behavior of graphene foam used for lithium-sulfur batteries. “The physical performance of this foam was unique because of its ability to attract certain chemical species to its surface,” she says. “I thought the ligands in graphene foam would work well with uranium.”

    Simple, efficient, and clean

    The team set to work transforming graphene foam into the equivalent of a uranium magnet. They learned that by sending an electric charge through the foam, splitting water and releasing hydrogen, they could increase the local pH and induce a chemical change that pulled uranium ions out of solution. The researchers found that the uranium would graft itself onto the foam’s surface, where it formed a never-before-seen crystalline uranium hydroxide. On reversal of the electric charge, the mineral, which resembles fish scales, slipped easily off the foam.

    It took hundreds of tries to get the chemical composition and electrolysis just right. “We kept changing the functional chemical groups to get them to work correctly,” says Helal. “And the foam was initially quite fragile, tending to break into pieces, so we needed to make it stronger and more durable,” says Wang.

    This uranium filtration process is simple, efficient, and clean, according to Li: “Each time it’s used, our foam can capture four times its own weight of uranium, and we can achieve an extraction capacity of 4,000 mg per gram, which is a major improvement over other methods,” he says. “We’ve also made a major breakthrough in reusability, because the foam can go through seven cycles without losing its extraction efficiency.” The graphene foam functions as well in seawater, where it reduces uranium concentrations from 3 parts per million to 19.9 ppb, showing that other ions in the brine do not interfere with filtration.

    The team believes its low-cost, effective device could become a new kind of home water filter, fitting on faucets like those of commercial brands. “Some of these filters already have activated carbon, so maybe we could modify these, add low-voltage electricity to filter uranium,” says Li.

    “The uranium extraction this device achieves is very impressive when compared to existing methods,” says Ho Jin Ryu, associate professor of nuclear and quantum engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Ryu, who was not involved in the research, believes that the demonstration of graphene foam reusability is a “significant advance,” and that “the technology of local pH control to enhance uranium deposition will be impactful because the scientific principle can be applied more generally to heavy metal extraction from polluted water.”

    The researchers have already begun investigating broader applications of their method. “There is a science to this, so we can modify our filters to be selective for other heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium,” says Li. He notes that radium is another significant danger for locales in the United States and elsewhere that lack resources for reliable drinking water infrastructure.

    “In the future, instead of a passive water filter, we could be using a smart filter powered by clean electricity that turns on electrolytic action, which could extract multiple toxic metals, tell you when to regenerate the filter, and give you quality assurance about the water you’re drinking.” 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

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    Inaugural fund supports early-stage collaborations between MIT and Jordan

    MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), together with the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation (AHSF), the cultural and social responsibility arm of the Arab Bank, recently created a new initiative to support collaboration with the Middle East. The MIT-Jordan Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation Seed Fund is providing awardees with financial grants up to $30,000 to cover travel, meeting, and workshop expenses, including in-person visits to build cultural and scientific connections between MIT and Jordan. MISTI and AHSF recently celebrated the first round of awardees in a virtual ceremony held in Amman and the United States.

    The new grant is part of the Global Seed Funds (GSF), MISTI’s annual grant program that enables participating teams to collaborate with international peers, either at MIT or abroad, to develop and launch joint research projects. Many of the projects funded lead to additional grant awards and the development of valuable long-term relationships between international researchers and MIT faculty and students.

    Since MIT’s first major collaboration in the Middle East in the 1970s, the Institute has deepened its connection and commitment to the region, expanding to create the MIT-Arab World program. The MIT-Jordan Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation Seed Fund enables the MIT-Arab World program to move forward on its key objectives: build critical cultural and scientific connections between MIT and the Arab world; develop a cadre of students who have a deep understanding of the Middle East; and bring tangible value to the partners in the region.

    Valentina Qussisiya, CEO of the foundation, shared the importance of collaboration between research institutes to improve and advance scientific research. She highlighted the role of AHSF in supporting science and researchers since 1982, emphasizing, “The partnership with MIT through the MISTI program is part of AHSF commitment toward this role in Jordan and hoped-for future collaborations and the impact of the fund on science in Jordan.”

    The new fund, open to both Jordanian and MIT faculty, is available to those pursuing research in the following fields: environmental engineering; water resource management; lean and modern technologies; automation; nanotechnology; entrepreneurship; nuclear engineering; materials engineering; energy and thermal engineering; biomedical engineering, prostheses, computational neuroscience, and technology; social and management sciences; urban studies and planning; science, technology, and society; innovation in education; Arabic language automation; and food security and sustainable agriculture.

    Philip S. Khoury, faculty director of MISTI’s MIT-Arab World program and Ford International Professor of History and associate provost at MIT, explained that the winning projects all deal with critical issues that will benefit both MIT and Jordan, both on- and off-campus. “Beyond the actual faculty collaboration, these projects will bring much value to the hands-on education of MIT and Jordanian students and their capacity to get to know one another as future leaders in science and technology,” he says.

    This year, the MIT-Jordan Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation Seed Fund received numerous high-quality proposals. Applications were reviewed by MIT and Jordanian faculty and selected by a committee of MIT faculty. There were six winning projects in the inaugural round:

    Low-Cost Renewable-Powered Electrodialysis Desalination and Drip Irrigation: Amos Winter (MIT principal investigator) and Samer Talozi (international collaborator)

    iPSC and CRISPR Gene Editing to Study Rare Diseases: Ernest Fraenkel (MIT principal investigator) and Nidaa Ababneh (international collaborator)

    Use of Distributed Low-Cost Sensor Networks for Air Quality Monitoring in Amann: Jesse Kroll (MIT principal investigator) and Tareq Hussein (international collaborator)

    Radiation Effects on Medical Devices Made by 3D Printing: Ju Li (MIT principal investigator) and Belal Gharaibeh (international collaborator)

    Superprotonic Conductivity in Metal-Organic Frameworks for Proton-Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells: Mircea Dinca (MIT principal investigator) and Kyle Cordova (international collaborator)

    Mapping Urban Air Quality Using Mobile Low-cost Sensors and Geospatial Techniques: Sarah Williams (MIT principal investigator) and Khaled Hazaymeh (international collaborator)

    The goal of these funded projects is for researchers and their students to form meaningful professional partnerships across cultures and leave a lasting impact upon the scientific communities in Jordan and at MIT.

    “[The fund will] enhance the future career prospects of emerging scholars from both countries,” said awardee Professor Kyle Cordova, executive director for scientific research at Royal Scientific Society and assistant to Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan for scientific affairs. “Our young scholars will gain a unique perspective of the influence of different cultures on scientific investigation that will help them to function effectively in a multidisciplinary and multicultural environment.” More

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    Investigating materials for safe, secure nuclear power

    Michael Short came to MIT in the fall of 2001 as an 18-year-old first-year who grew up in Boston’s North Shore. He immediately felt at home, so much so that he’s never really left. It’s not that Short has no interest in exploring the world beyond the confines of the Institute, as he is an energetic and venturesome fellow. It’s just that almost everything he hopes to achieve in his scientific career can, in his opinion, be best pursued at this university.

    Last year — after collecting four MIT degrees and joining the faculty of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) in 2013 — he was promoted to the status of tenured associate professor.

    Short’s enthusiasm for MIT began early in high school when he attended weekend programs that were mainly taught by undergraduates. “It was a program filled with my kind of people,” he recalls. “My high school was very good, but this was at a different level — at the level I was seeking and hoping to achieve. I felt more at home here than I did in my hometown, and the Saturdays at MIT were the highlight of my week.” He loved his four-year experience as an MIT undergraduate, including the research he carried out in the Uhlig Corrosion Laboratory, and he wasn’t ready for it to end.

    After graduating in 2005 with two BS degrees (one in NSE and another in materials science and engineering), he took on some computer programming jobs and worked half time in the Uhlig lab under the supervision of Ronald Ballinger, a professor in both NSE and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Short soon realized that computer programming was not for him, and he started graduate studies with Ballinger as his advisor, earning a master’s and a PhD in nuclear science and engineering in 2010.

    Even as an undergraduate, Short was convinced that nuclear power was essential to our nation’s (and the world’s) energy future, especially in light of the urgent need to move toward carbon-free sources of power. During his first year, he was told by Ballinger that the main challenge confronting nuclear power was to find materials, and metals in particular, that could last long enough in the face of radiation and the chemically destructive effects of corrosion.

    Those words, persuasively stated, led him to his double major.  “Materials and radiation damage have been at the core of my research ever since,” Short says. “Remarkably, the stuff I started studying in my first year of college is what I do today, though I’ve extended this work in many directions.”

    Corrosion has proven to be an unexpectedly rich subject. “The traditional view is to expose metals to various things and see what happens — ‘cook and look,’ as it’s called,” he says. “A lot of folks view it that way, but it’s actually much more complex. In fact, some members of our own faculty don’t want to touch corrosion because it’s too complicated, too dirty. But that’s what I like about it.”

    In a 2020 paper published in Nature Communications, Short, his student Weiyue Zhou, and other colleagues made a surprising discovery. “Most people think radiation is bad and makes everything worse, but that’s not always the case,” Short maintains. His team found a specific set of conditions under which a metal (a nickel-chromium alloy) performs better when it is irradiated while undergoing corrosion in a molten salt mixture. Their finding is relevant, he adds, “because these are the conditions under which people are hoping to run the next generation of nuclear reactors.” Leading candidates for alternatives to today’s water-cooled reactors are molten salt and liquid metal (specifically liquid lead and sodium) cooled reactors. To this end, Short and his colleagues are currently carrying out similar experiments involving the irradiation of metal alloys immersed in liquid lead.

    Meanwhile, Short has pursued another multiyear project, trying to devise a new standard to serve as “a measurable unit of radiation damage.” In fact, these were the very words he wrote on his research statement when applying for his first faculty position at MIT, although he admits that he didn’t know then how to realize that goal. But the effort is finally paying off, as Short and his collaborators are about to submit their first big paper on the topic. He’s found that you can’t reduce radiation damage to a single number, which is what people have tried to do in the past, because that’s too simple. Instead, their new standard relates to the density of defects — the number of radiation-induced defects (or unintentional changes to the lattice structure) per unit volume for a given material.

    “Our approach is based on a theory that everyone agrees on — that defects have energy,” Short explains. However, many people told him and his team that the amount of energy stored within those defects would be too small to measure. But that just spurred them to try harder, making measurements at the microjoule level, at the very limits of detection.

    Short is convinced that their new standard will become “universally useful, but it will take years of testing on many, many materials followed by more years of convincing people using the classic method: Repeat, repeat, repeat, making sure that each time you get the same result. It’s the unglamorous side of science, but that’s the side that really matters.”

    The approach has already led Short, in collaboration with NSE proliferation expert Scott Kemp, into the field of nuclear security. Equipped with new insights into the signatures left behind by radiation damage, students co-supervised by Kemp and Short have devised methods for determining how much fissionable material has passed through a uranium enrichment facility, for example, by scrutinizing the materials exposed to these radioactive substances. “I never thought my preliminary work on corrosion experiments as an undergraduate would lead to this,” Short says.

    He has also turned his attention to “microreactors” — nuclear reactors with power ratings as small as a single megawatt, as compared to the 1,000-megawatt behemoths of today. Flexibility in the size of future power plants is essential to the economic viability of nuclear power, he insists, “because nobody wants to pay $10 billion for a reactor now, and I don’t blame them.”

    But the proposed microreactors, he says, “pose new material challenges that I want to solve. It comes down to cramming more material into a smaller volume, and we don’t have a lot of knowledge about how materials perform at such high densities.” Short is currently conducting experiments with the Idaho National Laboratory, irradiating possible microreactor materials to see how they change using a laser technique, transient grating spectroscopy (TGS), which his MIT group has had a big hand in advancing.

    It’s been an exhilarating 20 years at MIT for Short, and he has even more ambitious goals for the next 20 years. “I’d like to be one of those who came up with a way to verify the Iran nuclear deal and thereby helped clamp down on nuclear proliferation worldwide,” he says. “I’d like to choose the materials for our first power-generating nuclear fusion reactors. And I’d like to have influenced perhaps 50 to 100 former students who chose to stay in science because they truly enjoy it.

    “I see my job as creating scientists, not science,” he says, “though science is, of course, a convenient byproduct.” More