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    Study finds natural sources of air pollution exceed air quality guidelines in many regions

    Alongside climate change, air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health. Tiny particles known as particulate matter or PM2.5 (named for their diameter of just 2.5 micrometers or less) are a particularly hazardous type of pollutant. These particles are produced from a variety of sources, including wildfires and the burning of fossil fuels, and can enter our bloodstream, travel deep into our lungs, and cause respiratory and cardiovascular damage. Exposure to particulate matter is responsible for millions of premature deaths globally every year.

    In response to the increasing body of evidence on the detrimental effects of PM2.5, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated its air quality guidelines, lowering its recommended annual PM2.5 exposure guideline by 50 percent, from 10 micrograms per meter cubed (μm3) to 5 μm3. These updated guidelines signify an aggressive attempt to promote the regulation and reduction of anthropogenic emissions in order to improve global air quality.

    A new study by researchers in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering explores if the updated air quality guideline of 5 μm3 is realistically attainable across different regions of the world, particularly if anthropogenic emissions are aggressively reduced. 

    The first question the researchers wanted to investigate was to what degree moving to a no-fossil-fuel future would help different regions meet this new air quality guideline.

    “The answer we found is that eliminating fossil-fuel emissions would improve air quality around the world, but while this would help some regions come into compliance with the WHO guidelines, for many other regions high contributions from natural sources would impede their ability to meet that target,” says senior author Colette Heald, the Germeshausen Professor in the MIT departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. 

    The study by Heald, Professor Jesse Kroll, and graduate students Sidhant Pai and Therese Carter, published June 6 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, finds that over 90 percent of the global population is currently exposed to average annual concentrations that are higher than the recommended guideline. The authors go on to demonstrate that over 50 percent of the world’s population would still be exposed to PM2.5 concentrations that exceed the new air quality guidelines, even in the absence of all anthropogenic emissions.

    This is due to the large natural sources of particulate matter — dust, sea salt, and organics from vegetation — that still exist in the atmosphere when anthropogenic emissions are removed from the air. 

    “If you live in parts of India or northern Africa that are exposed to large amounts of fine dust, it can be challenging to reduce PM2.5 exposures below the new guideline,” says Sidhant Pai, co-lead author and graduate student. “This study challenges us to rethink the value of different emissions abatement controls across different regions and suggests the need for a new generation of air quality metrics that can enable targeted decision-making.”

    The researchers conducted a series of model simulations to explore the viability of achieving the updated PM2.5 guidelines worldwide under different emissions reduction scenarios, using 2019 as a representative baseline year. 

    Their model simulations used a suite of different anthropogenic sources that could be turned on and off to study the contribution of a particular source. For instance, the researchers conducted a simulation that turned off all human-based emissions in order to determine the amount of PM2.5 pollution that could be attributed to natural and fire sources. By analyzing the chemical composition of the PM2.5 aerosol in the atmosphere (e.g., dust, sulfate, and black carbon), the researchers were also able to get a more accurate understanding of the most important PM2.5 sources in a particular region. For example, elevated PM2.5 concentrations in the Amazon were shown to predominantly consist of carbon-containing aerosols from sources like deforestation fires. Conversely, nitrogen-containing aerosols were prominent in Northern Europe, with large contributions from vehicles and fertilizer usage. The two regions would thus require very different policies and methods to improve their air quality. 

    “Analyzing particulate pollution across individual chemical species allows for mitigation and adaptation decisions that are specific to the region, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach, which can be challenging to execute without an understanding of the underlying importance of different sources,” says Pai. 

    When the WHO air quality guidelines were last updated in 2005, they had a significant impact on environmental policies. Scientists could look at an area that was not in compliance and suggest high-level solutions to improve the region’s air quality. But as the guidelines have tightened, globally-applicable solutions to manage and improve air quality are no longer as evident. 

    “Another benefit of speciating is that some of the particles have different toxicity properties that are correlated to health outcomes,” says Therese Carter, co-lead author and graduate student. “It’s an important area of research that this work can help motivate. Being able to separate out that piece of the puzzle can provide epidemiologists with more insights on the different toxicity levels and the impact of specific particles on human health.”

    The authors view these new findings as an opportunity to expand and iterate on the current guidelines.  

    “Routine and global measurements of the chemical composition of PM2.5 would give policymakers information on what interventions would most effectively improve air quality in any given location,” says Jesse Kroll, a professor in the MIT departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Chemical Engineering. “But it would also provide us with new insights into how different chemical species in PM2.5 affect human health.”

    “I hope that as we learn more about the health impacts of these different particles, our work and that of the broader atmospheric chemistry community can help inform strategies to reduce the pollutants that are most harmful to human health,” adds Heald. More

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    MIT J-WAFS announces 2022 seed grant recipients

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has awarded eight MIT principal investigators with 2022 J-WAFS seed grants. The grants support innovative MIT research that has the potential to have significant impact on water- and food-related challenges.

    The only program at MIT that is dedicated to water- and food-related research, J-WAFS has offered seed grant funding to MIT principal investigators and their teams for the past eight years. The grants provide up to $75,000 per year, overhead-free, for two years to support new, early-stage research in areas such as water and food security, safety, supply, and sustainability. Past projects have spanned many diverse disciplines, including engineering, science, technology, and business innovation, as well as social science and economics, architecture, and urban planning. 

    Seven new projects led by eight researchers will be supported this year. With funding going to four different MIT departments, the projects address a range of challenges by employing advanced materials, technology innovations, and new approaches to resource management. The new projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop drought monitoring systems for farmers, improve management of the shellfish industry, optimize water purification materials, and more.

    “Climate change, the pandemic, and most recently the war in Ukraine have exacerbated and put a spotlight on the serious challenges facing global water and food systems,” says J-WAFS director John H. Lienhard. He adds, “The proposals chosen this year have the potential to create measurable, real-world impacts in both the water and food sectors.”  

    The 2022 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects are:

    Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is using sunlight to desalinate water. The use of solar energy for desalination is not a new idea, particularly solar thermal evaporation methods. However, the solar thermal evaporation process has an overall low efficiency because it relies on breaking hydrogen bonds among individual water molecules, which is very energy-intensive. Chen and his lab recently discovered a photomolecular effect that dramatically lowers the energy required for desalination. 

    The bonds among water molecules inside a water cluster in liquid water are mostly hydrogen bonds. Chen discovered that a photon with energy larger than the bonding energy between the water cluster and the remaining water liquids can cleave off the water cluster at the water-air interface, colliding with air molecules and disintegrating into 60 or even more individual water molecules. This effect has the potential to significantly boost clean water production via new desalination technology that produces a photomolecular evaporation rate that exceeds pure solar thermal evaporation by at least ten-fold. 

    John E. Fernández is the director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and a professor in the Department of Architecture, and also affiliated with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Fernández is working with Scott D. Odell, a postdoc in the ESI, to better understand the impacts of mining and climate change in water-stressed regions of Chile.

    The country of Chile is one of the world’s largest exporters of both agricultural and mineral products; however, little research has been done on climate change effects at the intersection of these two sectors. Fernández and Odell will explore how desalination is being deployed by the mining industry to relieve pressure on continental water supplies in Chile, and with what effect. They will also research how climate change and mining intersect to affect Andean glaciers and agricultural communities dependent upon them. The researchers intend for this work to inform policies to reduce social and environmental harms from mining, desalination, and climate change.

    Ariel L. Furst is the Raymond (1921) and Helen St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. Her 2022 J-WAFS seed grant project seeks to effectively remove dangerous and long-lasting chemicals from water supplies and other environmental areas. 

    Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a component of Teflon, is a member of a group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These human-made chemicals have been extensively used in consumer products like nonstick cooking pans. Exceptionally high levels of PFOA have been measured in water sources near manufacturing sites, which is problematic as these chemicals do not readily degrade in our bodies or the environment. The majority of humans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, which can lead to significant health issues including cancer, liver damage, and thyroid effects, as well as developmental effects in infants. Current remediation methods are limited to inefficient capture and are mostly confined to laboratory settings. Furst’s proposed method utilizes low-energy, scaffolded enzyme materials to move beyond simple capture to degrade these hazardous pollutants.

    Heather J. Kulik is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT who is developing novel computational strategies to identify optimal materials for purifying water. Water treatment requires purification by selectively separating small ions from water. However, human-made, scalable materials for water purification and desalination are often not stable in typical operating conditions and lack precision pores for good separation. 

    Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are promising materials for water purification because their pores can be tailored to have precise shapes and chemical makeup for selective ion affinity. Yet few MOFs have been assessed for their properties relevant to water purification. Kulik plans to use virtual high-throughput screening accelerated by machine learning models and molecular simulation to accelerate discovery of MOFs. Specifically, Kulik will be looking for MOFs with ultra-stable structures in water that do not break down at certain temperatures. 

    Gregory C. Rutledge is the Lammot du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. He is leading a project that will explore how to better separate oils from water. This is an important problem to solve given that industry-generated oil-contaminated water is a major source of pollution to the environment.

    Emulsified oils are particularly challenging to remove from water due to their small droplet sizes and long settling times. Microfiltration is an attractive technology for the removal of emulsified oils, but its major drawback is fouling, or the accumulation of unwanted material on solid surfaces. Rutledge will examine the mechanism of separation behind liquid-infused membranes (LIMs) in which an infused liquid coats the surface and pores of the membrane, preventing fouling. Robustness of the LIM technology for removal of different types of emulsified oils and oil mixtures will be evaluated. César Terrer is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering whose J-WAFS project seeks to answer the question: How can satellite images be used to provide a high-resolution drought monitoring system for farmers? 

    Drought is recognized as one of the world’s most pressing issues, with direct impacts on vegetation that threaten water resources and food production globally. However, assessing and monitoring the impact of droughts on vegetation is extremely challenging as plants’ sensitivity to lack of water varies across species and ecosystems. Terrer will leverage a new generation of remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution assessments of plant water stress at regional to global scales. The aim is to provide a plant drought monitoring product with farmland-specific services for water and socioeconomic management.

    Michael Triantafyllou is the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is developing a web-based system for natural resources management that will deploy geospatial analysis, visualization, and reporting to better manage and facilitate aquaculture data.  By providing value to commercial fisheries’ permit holders who employ significant numbers of people and also to recreational shellfish permit holders who contribute to local economies, the project has attracted support from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries as well as a number of local resource management departments.

    Massachusetts shell fisheries generated roughly $339 million in 2020, accounting for 17 percent of U.S. East Coast production. Managing such a large industry is a time-consuming process, given there are thousands of acres of coastal areas grouped within over 800 classified shellfish growing areas. Extreme climate events present additional challenges. Triantafyllou’s research will help efforts to enforce environmental regulations, support habitat restoration efforts, and prevent shellfish-related food safety issues. More

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    Five MIT PhD students awarded 2022 J-WAFS fellowships for water and food solutions

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) recently announced the selection of its 2022-23 cohort of graduate fellows. Two students were named Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellows for Water Solutions and three students were named J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellows. All five fellows will receive full tuition and a stipend for one semester, and J-WAFS will support the students throughout the 2022-23 academic year by providing networking, mentorship, and opportunities to showcase their research.

    New this year, fellowship nominations were open not only to students pursuing water research, but food-related research as well. The five students selected were chosen for their commitment to solutions-based research that aims to alleviate problems such as water supply or purification, food security, or agriculture. Their projects exemplify the wide range of research that J-WAFS supports, from enhancing nutrition through improved methods to deliver micronutrients to developing high-performance drip irrigation technology. The strong applicant pool reflects the passion MIT students have to address the water and food crises currently facing the planet.

    “This year’s fellows are drawn from a dynamic and engaged community across the Institute whose creativity and ingenuity are pushing forward transformational water and food solutions,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “We congratulate these students as we recognize their outstanding achievements and their promise as up-and-coming leaders in global water and food sectors.”

    2022-23 Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellows for Water SolutionsThe Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions is a fellowship for students pursuing water-related research at MIT. The Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions was made possible by a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family.

    Aditya Ghodgaonkar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where he works in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab under Professor Amos Winter. Ghodgaonkar received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the RV College of Engineering in India. He then moved to the United States and received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University.Ghodgaonkar is currently designing hydraulic components for drip irrigation that could support the development of water-efficient irrigation systems that are off-grid, inexpensive, and low-maintenance. He has focused on designing drip irrigation emitters that are resistant to clogging, seeking inspiration about flow regulation from marine fauna such as manta rays, as well as turbomachinery concepts. Ghodgaonkar notes that clogging is currently an expensive technical challenge to diagnose, mitigate, and resolve. With an eye on hundreds of millions of farms in developing countries, he aims to bring the benefits of irrigation technology to even the poorest farmers.Outside of his research, Ghodgaonkar is a mentor in MIT Makerworks and has been a teaching assistant for classes such as 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I). He also helped organize the annual MIT Water Summit last fall.

    Devashish Gokhale is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, where he researched fluid flow in energy-efficient pumps. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stemmed from his experience growing up in India, where water sources are threatened by population growth, industrialization, and climate change.As a researcher in the Doyle group, Devashish is developing sustainable and reusable materials for water treatment, with a focus on the elimination of emerging contaminants and other micropollutants from water through cost-effective processes. Many of these contaminants are carcinogens or endocrine disruptors, posing significant threats to both humans and animals. His advisor notes that Devashish was the first researcher in the Doyle group to work on water purification, bringing his passion for the topic to the lab.Gokhale’s research won an award for potential scalability in last year’s J-WAFS World Water Day competition. He also serves as the lecture series chair in the MIT Water Club.

    2022-23 J-WAFS Graduate Student FellowsThe J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions is funded by the J-WAFS Research Affiliate Program, which offers companies the opportunity to collaborate with MIT on water and food research. A portion of each research affiliate’s fees supports this fellowship. The program is central to J-WAFS’ efforts to engage across sector and disciplinary boundaries in solving real-world problems. Currently, there are two J-WAFS Research Affiliates: Xylem, Inc., a water technology company, and GoAigua, a company leading the digital transformation of the water industry.

    James Zhang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where he has worked in the NanoEngineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen since 2019. As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, he double majored in mechanical engineering and engineering public policy. He then received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. In addition to working in the NanoEngineering Laboratory, James has also worked in the Zhao Laboratory and in the Boriskina Research Group at MIT.Zhang is developing a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light interacts with brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical as well as experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in desalinating brackish water at high energy efficiencies. Outside of his research, Zhang has served as a student moderator for the MIT International Colloquia on Thermal Innovations.

    Katharina Fransen is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Bradley Olsen in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, where she was involved in the Society of Women Engineers. Fransen is motivated by the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable global communities from the large quantities of plastic waste associated with traditional food packaging materials. As a researcher in the Olsen Lab, Fransen is developing new plastics that are biologically-based and biodegradable, so they can degrade in the environment instead of polluting communities with plastic waste. These polymers are also optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresher for longer, preventing food waste.Outside of her research, Fransen is involved in Diversity in Chemical Engineering as the coordinator for the graduate application mentorship program for underrepresented groups. She is also an active member of Graduate Womxn in ChemE and mentors an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program student.

    Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Robert Langer and Ana Jaklenec in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she researched how to genetically engineer microorganisms for the efficient production of advanced biofuels and chemicals.Zhang is currently developing a micronutrient delivery platform that fortifies foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. She has helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers that can stabilize micronutrients under harsh conditions, enabling local food companies to fortify food with essential vitamins. This work aims to tackle a hidden crisis in low- and middle-income countries, where a chronic lack of essential micronutrients affects an estimated 2 billion people.Zhang is also working on the development of self-boosting vaccines to promote more widespread vaccine access and serves as a research mentor in the Langer Lab. More

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    How to clean solar panels without water

    Solar power is expected to reach 10 percent of global power generation by the year 2030, and much of that is likely to be located in desert areas, where sunlight is abundant. But the accumulation of dust on solar panels or mirrors is already a significant issue — it can reduce the output of photovoltaic panels by as much as 30 percent in just one month — so regular cleaning is essential for such installations.

    But cleaning solar panels currently is estimated to use about 10 billion gallons of water per year — enough to supply drinking water for up to 2 million people. Attempts at waterless cleaning are labor intensive and tend to cause irreversible scratching of the surfaces, which also reduces efficiency. Now, a team of researchers at MIT has devised a way of automatically cleaning solar panels, or the mirrors of solar thermal plants, in a waterless, no-contact system that could significantly reduce the dust problem, they say.

    The new system uses electrostatic repulsion to cause dust particles to detach and virtually leap off the panel’s surface, without the need for water or brushes. To activate the system, a simple electrode passes just above the solar panel’s surface, imparting an electrical charge to the dust particles, which are then repelled by a charge applied to the panel itself. The system can be operated automatically using a simple electric motor and guide rails along the side of the panel. The research is described today in the journal Science Advances, in a paper by MIT graduate student Sreedath Panat and professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi.

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    Despite concerted efforts worldwide to develop ever more efficient solar panels, Varanasi says, “a mundane problem like dust can actually put a serious dent in the whole thing.” Lab tests conducted by Panat and Varanasi showed that the dropoff of energy output from the panels happens steeply at the very beginning of the process of dust accumulation and can easily reach 30 percent reduction after just one month without cleaning. Even a 1 percent reduction in power, for a 150-megawatt solar installation, they calculated, could result in a $200,000 loss in annual revenue. The researchers say that globally, a 3 to 4 percent reduction in power output from solar plants would amount to a loss of between $3.3 billion and $5.5 billion.

    “There is so much work going on in solar materials,” Varanasi says. “They’re pushing the boundaries, trying to gain a few percent here and there in improving the efficiency, and here you have something that can obliterate all of that right away.”

    Many of the largest solar power installations in the world, including ones in China, India, the U.A.E., and the U.S., are located in desert regions. The water used for cleaning these solar panels using pressurized water jets has to be trucked in from a distance, and it has to be very pure to avoid leaving behind deposits on the surfaces. Dry scrubbing is sometimes used but is less effective at cleaning the surfaces and can cause permanent scratching that also reduces light transmission.

    Water cleaning makes up about 10 percent of the operating costs of solar installations. The new system could potentially reduce these costs while improving the overall power output by allowing for more frequent automated cleanings, the researchers say.

    “The water footprint of the solar industry is mind boggling,” Varanasi says, and it will be increasing as these installations continue to expand worldwide. “So, the industry has to be very careful and thoughtful about how to make this a sustainable solution.”

    Other groups have tried to develop electrostatic based solutions, but these have relied on a layer called an electrodynamic screen, using interdigitated electrodes. These screens can have defects that allow moisture in and cause them to fail, Varanasi says. While they might be useful on a place like Mars, he says, where moisture is not an issue, even in desert environments on Earth this can be a serious problem.

    The new system they developed only requires an electrode, which can be a simple metal bar, to pass over the panel, producing an electric field that imparts a charge to the dust particles as it goes. An opposite charge applied to a transparent conductive layer just a few nanometers thick deposited on the glass covering of the the solar panel then repels the particles, and by calculating the right voltage to apply, the researchers were able to find a voltage range sufficient to overcome the pull of gravity and adhesion forces, and cause the dust to lift away.

    Using specially prepared laboratory samples of dust with a range of particle sizes, experiments proved that the process works effectively on a laboratory-scale test installation, Panat says. The tests showed that humidity in the air provided a thin coating of water on the particles, which turned out to be crucial to making the effect work. “We performed experiments at varying humidities from 5 percent to 95 percent,” Panat says. “As long as the ambient humidity is greater than 30 percent, you can remove almost all of the particles from the surface, but as humidity decreases, it becomes harder.”

    Varanasi says that “the good news is that when you get to 30 percent humidity, most deserts actually fall in this regime.” And even those that are typically drier than that tend to have higher humidity in the early morning hours, leading to dew formation, so the cleaning could be timed accordingly.

    “Moreover, unlike some of the prior work on electrodynamic screens, which actually do not work at high or even moderate humidity, our system can work at humidity even as high as 95 percent, indefinitely,” Panat says.

    In practice, at scale, each solar panel could be fitted with railings on each side, with an electrode spanning across the panel. A small electric motor, perhaps using a tiny portion of the output from the panel itself, would drive a belt system to move the electrode from one end of the panel to the other, causing all the dust to fall away. The whole process could be automated or controlled remotely. Alternatively, thin strips of conductive transparent material could be permanently arranged above the panel, eliminating the need for moving parts.

    By eliminating the dependency on trucked-in water, by eliminating the buildup of dust that can contain corrosive compounds, and by lowering the overall operational costs, such systems have the potential to significantly improve the overall efficiency and reliability of solar installations, Varanasi says.

    The research was supported by Italian energy firm Eni. S.p.A. through the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Using soap to remove micropollutants from water

    Imagine millions of soapy sponges the size of human cells that can clean water by soaking up contaminants. This simplistic model is used to describe technology that MIT chemical engineers have recently developed to remove micropollutants from water — a concerning, worldwide problem.

    Patrick S. Doyle, the Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering, PhD student Devashish Pratap Gokhale, and undergraduate Ian Chen recently published their research on micropollutant removal in the journal ACS Applied Polymer Materials. The work is funded by MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS).

    In spite of their low concentrations (about 0.01–100 micrograms per liter), micropollutants can be hazardous to the ecosystem and to human health. They come from a variety of sources and have been detected in almost all bodies of water, says Gokhale. Pharmaceuticals passing through people and animals, for example, can end up as micropollutants in the water supply. Others, like endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA), can leach from plastics during industrial manufacturing. Pesticides, dyes, petrochemicals, and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly known as PFAS, are also examples of micropollutants, as are some heavy metals like lead and arsenic. These are just some of the kinds of micropollutants, all of which can be toxic to humans and animals over time, potentially causing cancer, organ damage, developmental defects, or other adverse effects.

    Micropollutants are numerous but since their collective mass is small, they are difficult to remove from water. Currently, the most common practice for removing micropollutants from water is activated carbon adsorption. In this process, water passes through a carbon filter, removing only 30 percent of micropollutants. Activated carbon requires high temperatures to produce and regenerate, requiring specialized equipment and consuming large amounts of energy. Reverse osmosis can also be used to remove micropollutants from water; however, “it doesn’t lead to good elimination of this class of molecules, because of both their concentration and their molecular structure,” explains Doyle.

    Inspired by soap

    When devising their solution for how to remove micropollutants from water, the MIT researchers were inspired by a common household cleaning supply — soap. Soap cleans everything from our hands and bodies to dirty dishes to clothes, so perhaps the chemistry of soap could also be applied to sanitizing water. Soap has molecules called surfactants which have both hydrophobic (water-hating) and hydrophilic (water-loving) components. When water comes in contact with soap, the hydrophobic parts of the surfactant stick together, assembling into spherical structures called micelles with the hydrophobic portions of the molecules in the interior. The hydrophobic micelle cores trap and help carry away oily substances like dirt. 

    Doyle’s lab synthesized micelle-laden hydrogel particles to essentially cleanse water. Gokhale explains that they used microfluidics which “involve processing fluids on very small, micron-like scales” to generate uniform polymeric hydrogel particles continuously and reproducibly. These hydrogels, which are porous and absorbent, incorporate a surfactant, a photoinitiator (a molecule that creates reactive species), and a cross-linking agent known as PEGDA. The surfactant assembles into micelles that are chemically bonded to the hydrogel using ultraviolet light. When water flows through this micro-particle system, micropollutants latch onto the micelles and separate from the water. The physical interaction used in the system is strong enough to pull micropollutants from water, but weak enough that the hydrogel particles can be separated from the micropollutants, restabilized, and reused. Lab testing shows that both the speed and extent of pollutant removal increase when the amount of surfactant incorporated into the hydrogels is increased.

    “We’ve shown that in terms of rate of pullout, which is what really matters when you scale this up for industrial use, that with our initial format, we can already outperform the activated carbon,” says Doyle. “We can actually regenerate these particles very easily at room temperature. Nearly 10 regeneration cycles with minimal change in performance,” he adds.

    Regeneration of the particles occurs by soaking the micelles in 90 percent ethanol, whereby “all the pollutants just come out of the particles and back into the ethanol” says Gokhale. Ethanol is biosafe at low concentrations, inexpensive, and combustible, allowing for safe and economically feasible disposal. The recycling of the hydrogel particles makes this technology sustainable, which is a large advantage over activated carbon. The hydrogels can also be tuned to any hydrophobic micropollutant, making this system a novel, flexible approach to water purification.

    Scaling up

    The team experimented in the lab using 2-naphthol, a micropollutant that is an organic pollutant of concern and known to be difficult to remove by using conventional water filtration methods. They hope to continue testing with real water samples. 

    “Right now, we spike one micropollutant into pure lab water. We’d like to get water samples from the natural environment, that we can study and look at experimentally,” says Doyle. 

    By using microfluidics to increase particle production, Doyle and his lab hope to make household-scale filters to be tested with real wastewater. They then anticipate scaling up to municipal water treatment or even industrial wastewater treatment. 

    The lab recently filed an international patent application for their hydrogel technology that uses immobilized micelles. They plan to continue this work by experimenting with different kinds of hydrogels for the removal of heavy metal contaminants like lead from water. 

    Societal impacts

    Funded by a 2019 J-WAFS seed grant that is currently ongoing, this research has the potential to improve the speed, precision, efficiency, and environmental sustainability of water purification systems across the world. 

    “I always wanted to do work which had a social impact, and I was also always interested in water, because I think it’s really cool,” says Gokhale. He notes, “it’s really interesting how water sort of fits into different kinds of fields … we have to consider the cultures of peoples, how we’re going to use this, and then just the equity of these water processes.” Originally from India, Gokhale says he’s seen places that have barely any water at all and others that have floods year after year. “There’s a lot of interesting work to be done, and I think it’s work in this area that’s really going to impact a lot of people’s lives in years to come,” Gokhale says.

    Doyle adds, “water is the most important thing, perhaps for the next decades to come, so it’s very fulfilling to work on something that is so important to the whole world.” More

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    Overcoming a bottleneck in carbon dioxide conversion

    If researchers could find a way to chemically convert carbon dioxide into fuels or other products, they might make a major dent in greenhouse gas emissions. But many such processes that have seemed promising in the lab haven’t performed as expected in scaled-up formats that would be suitable for use with a power plant or other emissions sources.

    Now, researchers at MIT have identified, quantified, and modeled a major reason for poor performance in such conversion systems. The culprit turns out to be a local depletion of the carbon dioxide gas right next to the electrodes being used to catalyze the conversion. The problem can be alleviated, the team found, by simply pulsing the current off and on at specific intervals, allowing time for the gas to build back up to the needed levels next to the electrode.

    The findings, which could spur progress on developing a variety of materials and designs for electrochemical carbon dioxide conversion systems, were published today in the journal Langmuir, in a paper by MIT postdoc Álvaro Moreno Soto, graduate student Jack Lake, and professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi.

    “Carbon dioxide mitigation is, I think, one of the important challenges of our time,” Varanasi says. While much of the research in the area has focused on carbon capture and sequestration, in which the gas is pumped into some kind of deep underground reservoir or converted to an inert solid such as limestone, another promising avenue has been converting the gas into other carbon compounds such as methane or ethanol, to be used as fuel, or ethylene, which serves as a precursor to useful polymers.

    There are several ways to do such conversions, including electrochemical, thermocatalytic, photothermal, or photochemical processes. “Each of these has problems or challenges,” Varanasi says. The thermal processes require very high temperature, and they don’t produce very high-value chemical products, which is a challenge with the light-activated processes as well, he says. “Efficiency is always at play, always an issue.”

    The team has focused on the electrochemical approaches, with a goal of getting “higher-C products” — compounds that contain more carbon atoms and tend to be higher-value fuels because of their energy per weight or volume. In these reactions, the biggest challenge has been curbing competing reactions that can take place at the same time, especially the splitting of water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen.

    The reactions take place as a stream of liquid electrolyte with the carbon dioxide dissolved in it passes over a metal catalytic surface that is electrically charged. But as the carbon dioxide gets converted, it leaves behind a region in the electrolyte stream where it has essentially been used up, and so the reaction within this depleted zone turns toward water splitting instead. This unwanted reaction uses up energy and greatly reduces the overall efficiency of the conversion process, the researchers found.

    “There’s a number of groups working on this, and a number of catalysts that are out there,” Varanasi says. “In all of these, I think the hydrogen co-evolution becomes a bottleneck.”

    One way of counteracting this depletion, they found, can be achieved by a pulsed system — a cycle of simply turning off the voltage, stopping the reaction and giving the carbon dioxide time to spread back into the depleted zone and reach usable levels again, and then resuming the reaction.

    Often, the researchers say, groups have found promising catalyst materials but haven’t run their lab tests long enough to observe these depletion effects, and thus have been frustrated in trying to scale up their systems. Furthermore, the concentration of carbon dioxide next to the catalyst dictates the products that are made. Hence, depletion can also change the mix of products that are produced and can make the process unreliable. “If you want to be able to make a system that works at industrial scale, you need to be able to run things over a long period of time,” Varanasi says, “and you need to not have these kinds of effects that reduce the efficiency or reliability of the process.”

    The team studied three different catalyst materials, including copper, and “we really focused on making sure that we understood and can quantify the depletion effects,” Lake says. In the process they were able to develop a simple and reliable way of monitoring the efficiency of the conversion process as it happens, by measuring the changing pH levels, a measure of acidity, in the system’s electrolyte.

    In their tests, they used more sophisticated analytical tools to characterize reaction products, including gas chromatography for analysis of the gaseous products, and nuclear magnetic resonance characterization for the system’s liquid products. But their analysis showed that the simple pH measurement of the electrolyte next to the electrode during operation could provide a sufficient measure of the efficiency of the reaction as it progressed.

    This ability to easily monitor the reaction in real-time could ultimately lead to a system optimized by machine-learning methods, controlling the production rate of the desired compounds through continuous feedback, Moreno Soto says.

    Now that the process is understood and quantified, other approaches to mitigating the carbon dioxide depletion might be developed, the researchers say, and could easily be tested using their methods.

    This work shows, Lake says, that “no matter what your catalyst material is” in such an electrocatalytic system, “you’ll be affected by this problem.” And now, by using the model they developed, it’s possible to determine exactly what kind of time window needs to be evaluated to get an accurate sense of the material’s overall efficiency and what kind of system operations could maximize its effectiveness.

    The research was supported by Shell, through the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Understanding air pollution from space

    Climate change and air pollution are interlocking crises that threaten human health. Reducing emissions of some air pollutants can help achieve climate goals, and some climate mitigation efforts can in turn improve air quality.

    One part of MIT Professor Arlene Fiore’s research program is to investigate the fundamental science in understanding air pollutants — how long they persist and move through our environment to affect air quality.

    “We need to understand the conditions under which pollutants, such as ozone, form. How much ozone is formed locally and how much is transported long distances?” says Fiore, who notes that Asian air pollution can be transported across the Pacific Ocean to North America. “We need to think about processes spanning local to global dimensions.”

    Fiore, the Peter H. Stone and Paola Malanotte Stone Professor in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, analyzes data from on-the-ground readings and from satellites, along with models, to better understand the chemistry and behavior of air pollutants — which ultimately can inform mitigation strategies and policy setting.

    A global concern

    At the United Nations’ most recent climate change conference, COP26, air quality management was a topic discussed over two days of presentations.

    “Breathing is vital. It’s life. But for the vast majority of people on this planet right now, the air that they breathe is not giving life, but cutting it short,” said Sarah Vogel, senior vice president for health at the Environmental Defense Fund, at the COP26 session.

    “We need to confront this twin challenge now through both a climate and clean air lens, of targeting those pollutants that warm both the air and harm our health.”

    Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its global air quality guidelines it had issued 15 years earlier for six key pollutants including ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). The new guidelines are more stringent based on what the WHO stated is the “quality and quantity of evidence” of how these pollutants affect human health. WHO estimates that roughly 7 million premature deaths are attributable to the joint effects of air pollution.

    “We’ve had all these health-motivated reductions of aerosol and ozone precursor emissions. What are the implications for the climate system, both locally but also around the globe? How does air quality respond to climate change? We study these two-way interactions between air pollution and the climate system,” says Fiore.

    But fundamental science is still required to understand how gases, such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide, linger and move throughout the troposphere — the lowermost layer of our atmosphere, containing the air we breathe.

    “We care about ozone in the air we’re breathing where we live at the Earth’s surface,” says Fiore. “Ozone reacts with biological tissue, and can be damaging to plants and human lungs. Even if you’re a healthy adult, if you’re out running hard during an ozone smog event, you might feel an extra weight on your lungs.”

    Telltale signs from space

    Ozone is not emitted directly, but instead forms through chemical reactions catalyzed by radiation from the sun interacting with nitrogen oxides — pollutants released in large part from burning fossil fuels—and volatile organic compounds. However, current satellite instruments cannot sense ground-level ozone.

    “We can’t retrieve surface- or even near-surface ozone from space,” says Fiore of the satellite data, “although the anticipated launch of a new instrument looks promising for new advances in retrieving lower-tropospheric ozone”. Instead, scientists can look at signatures from other gas emissions to get a sense of ozone formation. “Nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde are a heavy focus of our research because they serve as proxies for two of the key ingredients that go on to form ozone in the atmosphere.”

    To understand ozone formation via these precursor pollutants, scientists have gathered data for more than two decades using spectrometer instruments aboard satellites that measure sunlight in ultraviolet and visible wavelengths that interact with these pollutants in the Earth’s atmosphere — known as solar backscatter radiation.

    Satellites, such as NASA’s Aura, carry instruments like the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI). OMI, along with European-launched satellites such as the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment (GOME) and the Scanning Imaging Absorption spectroMeter for Atmospheric CartograpHY (SCIAMACHY), and the newest generation TROPOspheric Monitoring instrument (TROPOMI), all orbit the Earth, collecting data during daylight hours when sunlight is interacting with the atmosphere over a particular location.

    In a recent paper from Fiore’s group, former graduate student Xiaomeng Jin (now a postdoc at the University of California at Berkeley), demonstrated that she could bring together and “beat down the noise in the data,” as Fiore says, to identify trends in ozone formation chemistry over several U.S. metropolitan areas that “are consistent with our on-the-ground understanding from in situ ozone measurements.”

    “This finding implies that we can use these records to learn about changes in surface ozone chemistry in places where we lack on-the-ground monitoring,” says Fiore. Extracting these signals by stringing together satellite data — OMI, GOME, and SCIAMACHY — to produce a two-decade record required reconciling the instruments’ differing orbit days, times, and fields of view on the ground, or spatial resolutions. 

    Currently, spectrometer instruments aboard satellites are retrieving data once per day. However, newer instruments, such as the Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer launched in February 2020 by the National Institute of Environmental Research in the Ministry of Environment of South Korea, will monitor a particular region continuously, providing much more data in real time.

    Over North America, the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution Search (TEMPO) collaboration between NASA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, led by Kelly Chance of Harvard University, will provide not only a stationary view of the atmospheric chemistry over the continent, but also a finer-resolution view — with the instrument recording pollution data from only a few square miles per pixel (with an anticipated launch in 2022).

    “What we’re very excited about is the opportunity to have continuous coverage where we get hourly measurements that allow us to follow pollution from morning rush hour through the course of the day and see how plumes of pollution are evolving in real time,” says Fiore.

    Data for the people

    Providing Earth-observing data to people in addition to scientists — namely environmental managers, city planners, and other government officials — is the goal for the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST).

    Since 2016, Fiore has been part of HAQAST, including collaborative “tiger teams” — projects that bring together scientists, nongovernment entities, and government officials — to bring data to bear on real issues.

    For example, in 2017, Fiore led a tiger team that provided guidance to state air management agencies on how satellite data can be incorporated into state implementation plans (SIPs). “Submission of a SIP is required for any state with a region in non-attainment of U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards to demonstrate their approach to achieving compliance with the standard,” says Fiore. “What we found is that small tweaks in, for example, the metrics we use to convey the science findings, can go a long way to making the science more usable, especially when there are detailed policy frameworks in place that must be followed.”

    Now, in 2021, Fiore is part of two tiger teams announced by HAQAST in late September. One team is looking at data to address environmental justice issues, by providing data to assess communities disproportionately affected by environmental health risks. Such information can be used to estimate the benefits of governmental investments in environmental improvements for disproportionately burdened communities. The other team is looking at urban emissions of nitrogen oxides to try to better quantify and communicate uncertainties in the estimates of anthropogenic sources of pollution.

    “For our HAQAST work, we’re looking at not just the estimate of the exposure to air pollutants, or in other words their concentrations,” says Fiore, “but how confident are we in our exposure estimates, which in turn affect our understanding of the public health burden due to exposure. We have stakeholder partners at the New York Department of Health who will pair exposure datasets with health data to help prioritize decisions around public health.

    “I enjoy working with stakeholders who have questions that require science to answer and can make a difference in their decisions.” Fiore says. More

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    J-PAL North America announces five new partnerships with state and local governments

    J-PAL North America, a research center in MIT’s Department of Economics, has announced five new partnerships with state and local governments across the United States after a call for proposals in early February. Over the next year, these partners will work with J-PAL North America’s State and Local Innovation Initiative to evaluate policy-relevant questions critical to alleviating poverty in the United States.

    J-PAL North America will work with the Colorado Department of Higher Education, Ohio’s Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services, the New Mexico Public Education Department, Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and Oregon’s Jackson County Fire District 3. Each partner will leverage support from J-PAL North America to develop randomized evaluations, which have the potential to reveal widely applicable lessons about which programs and policies are most effective. 

    State and local leaders are vital stakeholders in developing rigorous evidence in order to understand which policies and programs work to reduce poverty, and why. By supporting each government partner in developing these five evaluation projects, the voice of policymakers and practitioners will remain a central part of the research process. Each of this year’s selected projects seeks to address policy concerns that have been identified by state and local governments in J-PAL North America’s State and Local Learning Agenda as key areas for addressing barriers to mobility from poverty, including environment, education, economic security, and housing stability. 

    One project looks to mitigate the emission of carbon co-pollutants, which cause disproportionately high rates of health problems among communities experiencing poverty. 

    Oregon’s Jackson County Fire District 3 will investigate the impact of subsidies on the uptake of wildfire risk reduction activities in a county severely affected by wildfires. “Wildfires have become more prevalent, longer lasting, and more destructive in Oregon and across the western United States. We also know that wildfire is disproportionately impacting our most vulnerable populations,” says Bob Horton, fire chief of Jackson County Fire District 3. “With technical support from JPAL North America’s staff and this grant funding, we will devise the most current and effective strategy, deeply rooted in the evidence, to drive the take-up of home-hardening behaviors — methods to increase a home’s resistance to fire — and lower the risk to homes when faced with wildfire.” 

    This project is in alignment with the priorities of J-PAL’s Environment, Energy, and Climate Change sector and its agenda for catalyzing more policy-relevant research on adaptation strategies. 

    Policymakers and researchers have also identified programs aimed at increasing opportunity within education as a key priority for evaluation. In partnering with J-PAL North America, the Colorado Department of Higher Education will assess the impact of My Colorado Journey, an online platform available to all Coloradans that provides information on education, training, and career pathways. 

    “As Colorado builds back stronger from the pandemic, we know that education and workforce development are at the center of Colorado’s recovery agenda,” shares Executive Director Angie Paccione of the Colorado Department of Education. “Platforms like My Colorado Journey are key to supporting the education, training, and workforce exploration of Coloradans of any age. With support from J-PAL North America, we can better understand how to effectively serve Coloradans, further enhance this vital platform, and continue to build a Colorado for all.”

    Similarly, the New Mexico Public Education Department proposes their intervention within the context of New Mexico’s community school state initiative. They will look at the impact of case management and cash transfers on students at risk of multiple school transfers throughout their education, which include children who are experiencing homelessness, migrant children, children in the foster care system, and military-connected children, among others. “New Mexico is delighted to partner with J-PAL North America to explore visionary pathways to success for highly mobile students,” says New Mexico Public Education Secretary (Designate) Kurt Steinhaus. “We look forward to implementing and testing innovative solutions, such as cash transfers, that can expand our current nationally recognized community schools strategy. Together, we aim to find solutions that meet the needs of highly mobile students and families who lack stable housing.”

    Another key priority for the intersection of policy and research is economic security — fostering upward mobility by providing individuals with resources to promote stable incomes and increase standards of living. By adjusting caseworker employment services to better align with local needs, Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DEDC) looks to understand how individualized services can impact employment and earnings. 

    “The commitment of the government of Puerto Rico is to develop human resources to the highest quality standards,” says DEDC Secretary Cidre Miranda, whose statement was provided in Spanish and translated. “For the DEDC, it is fundamental to contribute to the development of initiatives like this one, because they have the objective of forging the future professionals that Puerto Rico requires and needs.” J-PAL North America’s partnership with DEDC has the potential to provide valuable lessons for other state and local programs also seeking to promote economic security. 

    Finally, Ohio’s Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services seeks to understand the impact of an eviction prevention workshop in a county with eviction rates that are higher than both the state and national average. “Stable housing should not be a luxury, but for far too many Franklin County families it has become one,” Deputy Franklin County Administrator Joy Bivens says. “We need to view our community’s affordable housing crisis through both a social determinants of health and racial equity lens. We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with J-PAL North America to ensure we are pursuing research-based interventions that, yes, address immediate housing needs, but also provide long-term stability so they can climb the economic ladder.”

    Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services’ evaluation aligns with policymaker and researcher interests to ensure safe and affordable housing. This partnership will have great potential to not only improve resources local to Franklin County, but, along with each of the other four agencies, can also provide a useful model for other government agencies facing similar challenges.For more information on state and local policy priorities, see J-PAL North America’s State and Local Learning Agenda. To learn more about the State and Local Innovation Initiative, please visit the Initiative webpage or contact Initiative Manager Louise Geraghty. More