More stories

  • in

    MIT PhD students shed light on important water and food research

    One glance at the news lately will reveal countless headlines on the dire state of global water and food security. Pollution, supply chain disruptions, and the war in Ukraine are all threatening water and food systems, compounding climate change impacts from heat waves, drought, floods, and wildfires.

    Every year, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) offers fellowships to outstanding MIT graduate students who are working on innovative ways to secure water and food supplies in light of these urgent worldwide threats. J-WAFS announced this year’s fellowship recipients last April. Aditya Ghodgaonkar and Devashish Gokhale were awarded Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowships for Water Solutions, which are made possible by a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family. James Zhang, Katharina Fransen, and Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang were awarded J-WAFS Fellowships for Water and Food Solutions. The J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions is funded in part by J-WAFS Research Affiliate companies: Xylem, Inc., a water technology company, and GoAigua, a company leading the digital transformation of the water industry.

    The five fellows were each awarded a stipend and full tuition for one semester. They also benefit from mentorship, networking connections, and opportunities to showcase their research.

    “This year’s cohort of J-WAFS fellows show an indefatigable drive to explore, create, and push back boundaries,” says John H. Lienhard, director of J-WAFS. “Their passion and determination to create positive change for humanity are evident in these unique video portraits, which describe their solutions-oriented research in water and food,” Lienhard adds.

    J-WAFS funder Community Jameel recently commissioned video portraitures of each student that highlight their work and their inspiration to solve challenges in water and food. More about each J-WAFS fellow and their research follows.

    Play video

    Katharina Fransen

    In Professor Bradley Olsen’s lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Katharina Fransen works to develop biologically-based, biodegradable plastics which can be used for food packing that won’t pollute the environment. Fransen, a third-year PhD student, is motivated by the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable global communities from waste generated by the materials that are essential to connecting them to the global food supply. “We can’t ensure that all of our plastic waste gets recycled or reused, and so we want to make sure that if it does escape into the environment it can degrade, and that’s kind of where a lot of my research really comes in,” says Fransen. Most of her work involves creating polymers, or “really long chains of chemicals,” kind of like the paper rings a lot of us looped into chains as kids, Fransen explains. The polymers are optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresher for longer, preventing food waste. Fransen says she finds the work “really interesting from the scientific perspective as well as from the idea that [she’s] going to make the world a little better with these new materials.” She adds, “I think it is both really fulfilling and really exciting and engaging.”

    Play video

    Aditya Ghodgaonkar

    “When I went to Kenya this past spring break, I had an opportunity to meet a lot of farmers and talk to them about what kind of maintenance issues they face,” says Aditya Ghodgaonkar, PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Ghodgaonkar works with Associate Professor Amos Winter in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, where he designs hydraulic components for drip irrigation systems to make them water-efficient, off-grid, inexpensive, and low-maintenance. On his trip to Kenya, Ghodgaonkar gained firsthand knowledge from farmers about a common problem they encounter: clogging of drip irrigation emitters. He learned that clogging can be an expensive technical challenge to diagnose, mitigate, and resolve. He decided to focus his attention on designing emitters that are resistant to clogging, testing with sand and passive hydrodynamic filtration back in the lab at MIT. “I got into this from an academic standpoint,” says Ghodgaonkar. “It is only once I started working on the emitters, spoke with industrial partners that make these emitters, spoke with farmers, that I really truly appreciated the impact of what we’re doing.”

    Play video

    Devashish Gokhale

    Devashish Gokhale is a PhD student advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stems from his childhood in Pune, India, where both flooding and drought can occur depending on the time of year. “I’ve had these experiences where there’s been too much water and also too little water” he recalls. At MIT, Gokhale is developing cost-effective, sustainable, and reusable materials for water treatment with a focus on the elimination of emerging contaminants and low-concentration pollutants like heavy metals. Specifically, he works on making and optimizing polymeric hydrogel microparticles that can absorb micropollutants. “I know how important it is to do something which is not just scientifically interesting, but something which is impactful in a real way,” says Gokhale. Before starting a research project he asks himself, “are people going to be able to afford this? Is it really going to reach the people who need it the most?” Adding these constraints in the beginning of the research process sometimes makes the problem more difficult to solve, but Gokhale notes that in the end, the solution is much more promising.

    Play video

    James Zhang

    “We don’t really think much about it, it’s transparent, odorless, we just turn on our sink in many parts of the world and it just flows through,” says James Zhang when talking about water. Yet he notes that “many other parts of the world face water scarcity and this will only get worse due to global climate change.” A PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Zhang works in the Nano Engineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen. Zhang is working on a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light at different wavelengths interacts with liquids at the surface, particularly with brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical and experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in desalinating water at high energy efficiencies. Zhang hopes that the technology can one day “produce lots of clean water for communities around the world that currently don’t have access to fresh water,” and create a new appreciation for this common liquid that many of us might not think about on a day-to-day basis.

    Play video

    Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang

    “Around the world there are about 2 billion people currently suffering from micronutrient deficiency because they do not have access to very healthy, very fresh food,” says chemical engineering PhD candidate Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang. This fact led Zhang to develop a micronutrient delivery platform that fortifies foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. With her advisors, Professor Robert Langer and Research Scientist Ana Jaklenec, Zhang brings biomedical engineering approaches to global health issues. Zhang says that “one of the most serious problems is vitamin A deficiency, because vitamin A is not very stable.” She goes on to explain that although vitamin A is present in different vegetables, when the vegetables are cooked, vitamin A can easily degrade. Zhang helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers that can stabilize micronutrients under cooking and storage conditions. With this technology, vitamin A, for example, could be encapsulated and effectively stabilized under boiling water. The platform has also shown efficient release in a simulation of the stomach environment. Zhang says it is the “little, tiny steps every day that are pushing us forward to the final impactful product.” More

  • in

    Pesticide innovation takes top prize at Collegiate Inventors Competition

    On Oct. 12, MIT mechanical engineering alumnus Vishnu Jayaprakash SM ’19, PhD ’22 was named the first-place winner in the graduate category of the Collegiate Inventors Competition. The annual competition, which is organized by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, celebrates college and university student inventors. Jayaprakash won for his pesticide innovation AgZen-Cloak, which he developed while he was a student in the lab of Kripa Varanasi, a professor of mechanical engineering.

    Currently, only 2 percent of pesticide spray is retained by crops. Many crops are naturally water-repellent, causing pesticide-laden water to bounce off of them. Farmers are forced to over-spray significantly to ensure proper spray coverage on their crops. Not only does this waste expensive pesticides, but it also comes at an environmental cost.

    Runoff from pesticide treatment pollutes soil and nearby streams. Droplets can travel in the air, leading to illness and death in nearby populations. It is estimated that each year, pesticide pollution causes between 20,000 and 200,000 deaths, and up to 385 million acute illnesses like cancer, birth defects, and neurological conditions.   

    With his invention AgZen-Cloak, Jayaprakash has found a way to keep droplets of water containing pesticide from bouncing off crops by “cloaking” the droplets in a small amount of plant-derived oil. As a result, farmers could use just one-fifth the amount of spray, minimizing water waste and cost for farmers and eliminating airborne pollution and toxic runoff. It also improves pesticide retention, which can lead to higher crop yield.

    “By cloaking each droplet with a minute quantity of a plant-based oil, we promote water retention on even the most water-repellent plant surfaces,” says Jayaprakash. “AgZen-Cloak presents a universal, inexpensive, and environmentally sustainable way to prevent pesticide overuse and waste.”

    Farming is in Jayaprakash’s DNA. His family operates a 10-acre farm near Chennai, India, where they grow rice and mangoes. Upon joining the Varanasi Research Group as a graduate student, Jayaprakash was instantly drawn to Varanasi’s work on pesticides in agriculture.

    “Growing up, I would spray crops on my family farm wearing a backpack sprayer. So, I’ve always wanted to work on research that made farmer’s lives easier,” says Jayaprakash, who serves as CEO of the startup AgZen.

    Play video

    2022 World Food Day First Prize Winner – AgZen Cloak: Reducing Pesticide Pollution and Waste

    Helping droplets stick

    Varanasi and his lab at MIT work on what is known as interfacial phenomena — or the study of what happens when different phases come into contact and interact with one another. Understanding how a liquid interacts with a solid or how a liquid reacts to a certain gas has endless applications, which explains the diversity of the research Varanasi has conducted over the years. He and his team have developed solutions for everything from consumer product packaging to power plant emissions.

    In 2009, Varanasi gave a talk at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). There, he learned from the USDA just how big of a problem runoff from pesticide spray was for farmers around the world.
    A green cabbage leaf is treated with pesticide-laden water using conventional spraying. Image courtesy of AgZen.A green cabbage leaf is treated with pesticide-laden water using AgZen’s technology. By cloaking droplets in a tiny amount of plant-derived oil, the droplets stick to the leaf, minimizing over-spraying, waste, and pollution. Image courtesy of AgZen.He enlisted the help of then-graduate student Maher Damak SM ’15, PhD ’18 to apply their work in interfacial phenomena to pesticide sprays. Over the next several years, the Varanasi Research Group developed a technology that utilized electrically charged polymers to keep droplets from bouncing off hydrophobic surfaces. When droplets containing positively and negatively charged additives meet, their surface chemistry allows them to stick to a plant’s surface.

    Using polyelectrolytes, the researchers could reduce the amount of spray needed to cover a crop by tenfold in the lab. This motivated the Varanasi Research Group to pursue three years of field trials with various commercial growers around the world, where they were able to demonstrate significant savings for farmers.

    “We got fantastic feedback on our technology from farmers. We are really excited to change the paradigm for agriculture. Not only is it good for the environment, but we’ve heard from farmers that they love it. If we can put money back into farms, it helps society as a whole,” adds Varanasi.

    In response to the positive feedback, Varanasi and Jayaprakash co-founded startup AgZen in 2020. 

    When field testing their polyelectrolyte technology, Varanasi and Jayaprakash came up with the idea to explore the use of a fully plant-based material to help farmers achieve the same savings. 

    Cloaking droplets and engineering nozzles

    Jayaprakash found that by cloaking a small amount of plant-derived oil around a water droplet, droplets stick to plant surfaces that would typically repel water. After conducting many studies in the lab, he found that the oil only needs to make up 0.1 percent of a droplet’s total volume to stick to crops and provide total, uniform coverage.

    While his cloaking solution worked in the lab, Jayaprakash knew that to have a tangible impact in the real world he needed to find an easy, low-cost way for farmers to coat pesticide spray droplets in oil.

    Jayaprakash focused on spray nozzles. He developed a proprietary nozzle that coats each droplet with a small amount of oil as they are being formed. The nozzles can easily be added to any hose or farming equipment.

    “What we’ve done is figured out a smart way to cloak these droplets by using a very small quantity of oil on the outside of each drop. Because of that, we get this drastic improvement in performance that can really be a game-changer for farmers,” says Jayaprakash.

    In addition to improving pesticide retention in crops, the AgZen-Cloak solves a second problem. Since large droplets are prone to break apart and bounce off crops, historically, farmers have sprayed pesticide in tiny, mist-like droplets. These fine droplets are often carried by the wind, increasing pesticide pollution in nearby areas. 

    When AgZen-Cloak is used, the pesticide-laden droplets can be larger and still stick to crops. These larger droplets aren’t carried by the wind, decreasing the risk of pollution and minimizing the health impacts on local populations.  

    “We’re actually solving two problems with one solution. With the cloaking technology, we can spray much larger droplets that aren’t prone to wind drift and they can stick to the plant,” Jayaprakash adds.

    Bringing AgZen-Cloaks to farmers around the world

    This spring, Varanasi encouraged Jayaprakash to submit AgZen-Cloak to the Collegiate Inventors Competition. Out of hundreds of applications, Jayaprakash was one of 25 student inventors to be chosen as a finalist.

    On Oct. 12, Jayaprakash presented his technology to a panel of judges composed of National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officials. Meeting with such an illustrious group of inventors and officials left an impression on Jayaprakash.

    “These are people who have invented things that have changed the world. So, to get their feedback on what we’re doing was incredibly valuable,” he says. Jayaprakash received a $10,000 prize for being named the first-place graduate winner.

    As full-time CEO of AgZen, Jayaprakash is shifting focus to field testing and commercialization. He and the AgZen team have already conducted field testing across the world at locations including a Prosecco vineyard outside of Venice, a ranch in California, and Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, Massachusetts. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s vegetable extension program, led by their program director Susan Scheufele, recently concluded a field test that validated AgZen’s on-field performance.

    Two days after his win at the Collegiate Inventors Competition, Jayaprakash was named the first prize winner of the MIT Abdul Latif Jamel Water and Food Systems Lab World Food Day student video competition. Hours later, he flew across the country to attend an agricultural tech conference in California, eager to meet with farmers and discuss plans for rolling out AgZen’s innovations to farms everywhere. More

  • in

    Coordinating climate and air-quality policies to improve public health

    As America’s largest investment to fight climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act positions the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But as it edges the United States closer to achieving its international climate commitment, the legislation is also expected to yield significant — and more immediate — improvements in the nation’s health. If successful in accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives, the IRA will sharply reduce atmospheric concentrations of fine particulates known to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cause premature deaths, along with other air pollutants that degrade human health. One recent study shows that eliminating air pollution from fossil fuels in the contiguous United States would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and avoid more than $600 billion in health costs each year.

    While national climate policies such as those advanced by the IRA can simultaneously help mitigate climate change and improve air quality, their results may vary widely when it comes to improving public health. That’s because the potential health benefits associated with air quality improvements are much greater in some regions and economic sectors than in others. Those benefits can be maximized, however, through a prudent combination of climate and air-quality policies.

    Several past studies have evaluated the likely health impacts of various policy combinations, but their usefulness has been limited due to a reliance on a small set of standard policy scenarios. More versatile tools are needed to model a wide range of climate and air-quality policy combinations and assess their collective effects on air quality and human health. Now researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and MIT Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) have developed a publicly available, flexible scenario tool that does just that.

    In a study published in the journal Geoscientific Model Development, the MIT team introduces its Tool for Air Pollution Scenarios (TAPS), which can be used to estimate the likely air-quality and health outcomes of a wide range of climate and air-quality policies at the regional, sectoral, and fuel-based level. 

    “This tool can help integrate the siloed sustainability issues of air pollution and climate action,” says the study’s lead author William Atkinson, who recently served as a Biogen Graduate Fellow and research assistant at the IDSS Technology and Policy Program’s (TPP) Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. “Climate action does not guarantee a clean air future, and vice versa — but the issues have similar sources that imply shared solutions if done right.”

    The study’s initial application of TAPS shows that with current air-quality policies and near-term Paris Agreement climate pledges alone, short-term pollution reductions give way to long-term increases — given the expected growth of emissions-intensive industrial and agricultural processes in developing regions. More ambitious climate and air-quality policies could be complementary, each reducing different pollutants substantially to give tremendous near- and long-term health benefits worldwide.

    “The significance of this work is that we can more confidently identify the long-term emission reduction strategies that also support air quality improvements,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, a co-author of the study. “This is a win-win for setting climate targets that are also healthy targets.”

    TAPS projects air quality and health outcomes based on three integrated components: a recent global inventory of detailed emissions resulting from human activities (e.g., fossil fuel combustion, land-use change, industrial processes); multiple scenarios of emissions-generating human activities between now and the year 2100, produced by the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis model; and emissions intensity (emissions per unit of activity) scenarios based on recent data from the Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model.

    “We see the climate crisis as a health crisis, and believe that evidence-based approaches are key to making the most of this historic investment in the future, particularly for vulnerable communities,” says Johanna Jobin, global head of corporate reputation and responsibility at Biogen. “The scientific community has spoken with unanimity and alarm that not all climate-related actions deliver equal health benefits. We’re proud of our collaboration with the MIT Joint Program to develop this tool that can be used to bridge research-to-policy gaps, support policy decisions to promote health among vulnerable communities, and train the next generation of scientists and leaders for far-reaching impact.”

    The tool can inform decision-makers about a wide range of climate and air-quality policies. Policy scenarios can be applied to specific regions, sectors, or fuels to investigate policy combinations at a more granular level, or to target short-term actions with high-impact benefits.

    TAPS could be further developed to account for additional emissions sources and trends.

    “Our new tool could be used to examine a large range of both climate and air quality scenarios. As the framework is expanded, we can add detail for specific regions, as well as additional pollutants such as air toxics,” says study supervising co-author Noelle Selin, professor at IDSS and the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of TPP.    

    This research was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program; Biogen; TPP’s Leading Technology and Policy Initiative; and TPP’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. More

  • in

    Two first-year students named Rise Global Winners for 2022

    In 2019, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, launched a $1 billion philanthropic commitment to identify global talent. Part of that effort is the Rise initiative, which selects 100 young scholars, ages 15-17, from around the world who show unusual promise and a drive to serve others. This year’s cohort of 100 Rise Global Winners includes two MIT first-year students, Jacqueline Prawira and Safiya Sankari.

    Rise intentionally targets younger-aged students and focuses on identifying what the program terms “hidden brilliance” in any form, anywhere in the world, whether it be in a high school or a refugee camp. Another defining aspect of the program is that Rise winners receive sustained support — not just in secondary school, but throughout their lives.

    “We believe that the answers to the world’s toughest problems lie in the imagination of the world’s brightest minds,” says Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures, which manages Rise along with the Rhodes Trust. “Rise is an integral part of our mission to create the best, largest, and most enduring pipeline of exceptional talent globally and match it to opportunities to serve others for life.”

    The Rise program creates this enduring pipeline by providing a lifetime of benefits, including funding, programming, and mentoring opportunities. These resources can be tailored to each person as they evolve throughout their career. In addition to a four-year college scholarship, winners receive mentoring and career services; networking opportunities with other Rise recipients and partner organizations; technical equipment such as laptops or tablets; courses on topics like leadership and human-centered design; and opportunities to apply for graduate scholarships and for funding throughout their careers to support their innovative ideas, such as grants or seed money to start a social enterprise.

    Prawira and Sankari’s winning service projects focus on global sustainability and global medical access, respectively. Prawira invented a way to use upcycled fish-scale waste to absorb heavy metals in wastewater. She first started experimenting with fish-scale waste in middle school to try to find a bio-based alternative to plastic. More recently, she discovered that the calcium salts and collagen in fish scales can absorb up to 82 percent of heavy metals from water, and 91 percent if an electric current is passed through the water. Her work has global implications for treating contaminated water at wastewater plants and in developing countries.

    Prawiri published her research in 2021 and has won awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several other organizations. She’s planning to major in Course 3 (materials science and engineering), perhaps with an environmentally related minor. “I believe that sustainability and solving environmental problems requires a multifaced approach,” she says. “Creating greener materials for use in our daily lives will have a major impact in solving current environmental issues.”

    For Sankari’s service project, she developed an algorithm to analyze data from electronic nano-sensor devices, or e-noses, which can detect certain diseases from a patient’s breath. The devices are calibrated to detect volatile organic compound biosignatures that are indicative of diseases like diabetes and cancer. “E-nose disease detection is much faster and cheaper than traditional methods of diagnosis, making medical care more accessible to many,” she explains. The Python-based algorithm she created can translate raw data from e-noses into a result that the user can read.

    Sankari is a lifetime member of the American Junior Academy of Science and has been a finalist in several prestigious science competitions. She is considering a major in Course 6-7 (computer science and molecular biology) at MIT and hopes to continue to explore the intersection between nanotechnology and medicine.

    While the 2022 Rise recipients share a desire to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems, their ideas and interests, as reflected by their service projects, are broad, innovative, and diverse. A winner from Belarus used bioinformatics to predict the molecular effect of a potential Alzheimer’s drug. A Romanian student created a magazine that aims to promote acceptance of transgender bodies. A Vietnamese teen created a prototype of a toothbrush that uses a nano chip to detect cancerous cells in saliva. And a recipient from the United States designed modular, tiny homes for the unhoused that are affordable and sustainable, as an alternative to homeless shelters.

    This year’s winners were selected from over 13,000 applicants from 47 countries, from Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso to Lebanon and Paraguay. The selection process includes group interviews, peer and expert review of each applicant’s service project, and formal talent assessments. More

  • in

    New process could enable more efficient plastics recycling

    The accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans, soil, and even in our bodies is one of the major pollution issues of modern times, with over 5 billion tons disposed of so far. Despite major efforts to recycle plastic products, actually making use of that motley mix of materials has remained a challenging issue.

    A key problem is that plastics come in so many different varieties, and chemical processes for breaking them down into a form that can be reused in some way tend to be very specific to each type of plastic. Sorting the hodgepodge of waste material, from soda bottles to detergent jugs to plastic toys, is impractical at large scale. Today, much of the plastic material gathered through recycling programs ends up in landfills anyway. Surely there’s a better way.

    According to new research from MIT and elsewhere, it appears there may indeed be a much better way. A chemical process using a catalyst based on cobalt has been found to be very effective at breaking down a variety of plastics, such as polyethylene (PET) and polypropylene (PP), the two most widely produced forms of plastic, into a single product, propane. Propane can then be used as a fuel for stoves, heaters, and vehicles, or as a feedstock for the production of a wide variety of products — including new plastics, thus potentially providing at least a partial closed-loop recycling system.

    The finding is described today in the open access journal  JACS Au, in a paper by MIT professor of chemical engineering Yuriy Román-Leshkov, postdoc Guido Zichitella, and seven others at MIT, the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

    Recycling plastics has been a thorny problem, Román-Leshkov explains, because the long-chain molecules in plastics are held together by carbon bonds, which are “very stable and difficult to break apart.” Existing techniques for breaking these bonds tend to produce a random mix of different molecules, which would then require complex refining methods to separate out into usable specific compounds. “The problem is,” he says, “there’s no way to control where in the carbon chain you break the molecule.”

    But to the surprise of the researchers, a catalyst made of a microporous material called a zeolite that contains cobalt nanoparticles can selectively break down various plastic polymer molecules and turn more than 80 percent of them into propane.

    Although zeolites are riddled with tiny pores less than a nanometer wide (corresponding to the width of the polymer chains), a logical assumption had been that there would be little interaction at all between the zeolite and the polymers. Surprisingly, however, the opposite turned out to be the case: Not only do the polymer chains enter the pores, but the synergistic work between cobalt and the acid sites in the zeolite can break the chain at the same point. That cleavage site turned out to correspond to chopping off exactly one propane molecule without generating unwanted methane, leaving the rest of the longer hydrocarbons ready to undergo the process, again and again.

    “Once you have this one compound, propane, you lessen the burden on downstream separations,” Román-Leshkov says. “That’s the essence of why we think this is quite important. We’re not only breaking the bonds, but we’re generating mainly a single product” that can be used for many different products and processes.

    The materials needed for the process, zeolites and cobalt, “are both quite cheap” and widely available, he says, although today most cobalt comes from troubled areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some new production is being developed in Canada, Cuba, and other places. The other material needed for the process is hydrogen, which today is mostly produced from fossil fuels but can easily be made other ways, including electrolysis of water using carbon-free electricity such as solar or wind power.

    The researchers tested their system on a real example of mixed recycled plastic, producing promising results. But more testing will be needed on a greater variety of mixed waste streams to determine how much fouling takes place from various contaminants in the material — such as inks, glues, and labels attached to the plastic containers, or other nonplastic materials that get mixed in with the waste — and how that affects the long-term stability of the process.

    Together with collaborators at NREL, the MIT team is also continuing to study the economics of the system, and analyzing how it can fit into today’s systems for handling plastic and mixed waste streams. “We don’t have all the answers yet,” Román-Leshkov says, but preliminary analysis looks promising.

    The research team included Amani Ebrahim and Simone Bare at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Jie Zhu, Anna Brenner, Griffin Drake and Julie Rorrer at MIT; and Greg Beckham at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the DoE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), and Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), as part of the the Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment (BOTTLE) Consortium. More

  • in

    Processing waste biomass to reduce airborne emissions

    To prepare fields for planting, farmers the world over often burn corn stalks, rice husks, hay, straw, and other waste left behind from the previous harvest. In many places, the practice creates huge seasonal clouds of smog, contributing to air pollution that kills 7 million people globally a year, according to the World Health Organization.

    Annually, $120 billion worth of crop and forest residues are burned in the open worldwide — a major waste of resources in an energy-starved world, says Kevin Kung SM ’13, PhD ’17. Kung is working to transform this waste biomass into marketable products — and capitalize on a billion-dollar global market — through his MIT spinoff company, Takachar.

    Founded in 2015, Takachar develops small-scale, low-cost, portable equipment to convert waste biomass into solid fuel using a variety of thermochemical treatments, including one known as oxygen-lean torrefaction. The technology emerged from Kung’s PhD project in the lab of Ahmed Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane (1972) Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT.

    Biomass fuels, including wood, peat, and animal dung, are a major source of carbon emissions — but billions of people rely on such fuels for cooking, heating, and other household needs. “Currently, burning biomass generates 10 percent of the primary energy used worldwide, and the process is used largely in rural, energy-poor communities. We’re not going to change that overnight. There are places with no other sources of energy,” Ghoniem says.

    What Takachar’s technology provides is a way to use biomass more cleanly and efficiently by concentrating the fuel and eliminating contaminants such as moisture and dirt, thus creating a “clean-burning” fuel — one that generates less smoke. “In rural communities where biomass is used extensively as a primary energy source, torrefaction will address air pollution head-on,” Ghoniem says.

    Thermochemical treatment densifies biomass at elevated temperatures, converting plant materials that are typically loose, wet, and bulky into compact charcoal. Centralized processing plants exist, but collection and transportation present major barriers to utilization, Kung says. Takachar’s solution moves processing into the field: To date, Takachar has worked with about 5,500 farmers to process 9,000 metric tons of crops.

    Takachar estimates its technology has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by gigatons per year at scale. (“Carbon dioxide equivalent” is a measure used to gauge global warming potential.) In recognition, in 2021 Takachar won the first-ever Earthshot Prize in the clean air category, a £1 million prize funded by Prince William and Princess Kate’s Royal Foundation.

    Roots in Kenya

    As Kung tells the story, Takachar emerged from a class project that took him to Kenya — which explains the company’s name, a combination of takataka, which mean “trash” in Swahili, and char, for the charcoal end product.

    It was 2011, and Kung was at MIT as a biological engineering grad student focused on cancer research. But “MIT gives students big latitude for exploration, and I took courses outside my department,” he says. In spring 2011, he signed up for a class known as 15.966 (Global Health Delivery Lab) in the MIT Sloan School of Management. The class brought Kung to Kenya to work with a nongovernmental organization in Nairobi’s Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa.

    “We interviewed slum households for their views on health, and that’s when I noticed the charcoal problem,” Kung says. The problem, as Kung describes it, was that charcoal was everywhere in Kibera — piled up outside, traded by the road, and used as the primary fuel, even indoors. Its creation contributed to deforestation, and its smoke presented a serious health hazard.

    Eager to address this challenge, Kung secured fellowship support from the MIT International Development Initiative and the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center to conduct more research in Kenya. In 2012, he formed Takachar as a team and received seed money from the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, and D-Lab to produce charcoal from household organic waste. (This work also led to a fertilizer company, Safi Organics, that Kung founded in 2016 with the help of MIT IDEAS. But that is another story.)

    Meanwhile, Kung had another top priority: finding a topic for his PhD dissertation. Back at MIT, he met Alexander Slocum, the Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who on a long walk-and-talk along the Charles River suggested he turn his Kenya work into a thesis. Slocum connected him with Robert Stoner, deputy director for science and technology at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and founding director of MITEI’s Tata Center for Technology and Design. Stoner in turn introduced Kung to Ghoniem, who became his PhD advisor, while Slocum and Stoner joined his doctoral committee.

    Roots in MIT lab

    Ghoniem’s telling of the Takachar story begins, not surprisingly, in the lab. Back in 2010, he had a master’s student interested in renewable energy, and he suggested the student investigate biomass. That student, Richard Bates ’10, SM ’12, PhD ’16, began exploring the science of converting biomass to more clean-burning charcoal through torrefaction.

    Most torrefaction (also known as low-temperature pyrolysis) systems use external heating sources, but the lab’s goal, Ghoniem explains, was to develop an efficient, self-sustained reactor that would generate fewer emissions. “We needed to understand the chemistry and physics of the process, and develop fundamental scaling models, before going to the lab to build the device,” he says.

    By the time Kung joined the lab in 2013, Ghoniem was working with the Tata Center to identify technology suitable for developing countries and largely based on renewable energy. Kung was able to secure a Tata Fellowship and — building on Bates’ research — develop the small-scale, practical device for biomass thermochemical conversion in the field that launched Takachar.

    This device, which was patented by MIT with inventors Kung, Ghoniem, Stoner, MIT research scientist Santosh Shanbhogue, and Slocum, is self-contained and scalable. It burns a little of the biomass to generate heat; this heat bakes the rest of the biomass, releasing gases; the system then introduces air to enable these gases to combust, which burns off the volatiles and generates more heat, keeping the thermochemical reaction going.

    “The trick is how to introduce the right amount of air at the right location to sustain the process,” Ghoniem explains. “If you put in more air, that will burn the biomass. If you put in less, there won’t be enough heat to produce the charcoal. That will stop the reaction.”

    About 10 percent of the biomass is used as fuel to support the reaction, Kung says, adding that “90 percent is densified into a form that’s easier to handle and utilize.” He notes that the research received financial support from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab and the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, both at MIT. Sonal Thengane, another postdoc in Ghoniem’s lab, participated in the effort to scale up the technology at the MIT Bates Lab (no relation to Richard Bates).

    The charcoal produced is more valuable per ton and easier to transport and sell than biomass, reducing transportation costs by two-thirds and giving farmers an additional income opportunity — and an incentive not to burn agricultural waste, Kung says. “There’s more income for farmers, and you get better air quality.”

    Roots in India

    When Kung became a Tata Fellow, he joined a program founded to take on the biggest challenges of the developing world, with a focus on India. According to Stoner, Tata Fellows, including Kung, typically visit India twice a year and spend six to eight weeks meeting stakeholders in industry, the government, and in communities to gain perspective on their areas of study.

    “A unique part of Tata is that you’re considering the ecosystem as a whole,” says Kung, who interviewed hundreds of smallholder farmers, met with truck drivers, and visited existing biomass processing plants during his Tata trips to India. (Along the way, he also connected with Indian engineer Vidyut Mohan, who became Takachar’s co-founder.)

    “It was very important for Kevin to be there walking about, experimenting, and interviewing farmers,” Stoner says. “He learned about the lives of farmers.”

    These experiences helped instill in Kung an appreciation for small farmers that still drives him today as Takachar rolls out its first pilot programs, tinkers with the technology, grows its team (now up to 10), and endeavors to build a revenue stream. So, while Takachar has gotten a lot of attention and accolades — from the IDEAS award to the Earthshot Prize — Kung says what motivates him is the prospect of improving people’s lives.

    The dream, he says, is to empower communities to help both the planet and themselves. “We’re excited about the environmental justice perspective,” he says. “Our work brings production and carbon removal or avoidance to rural communities — providing them with a way to convert waste, make money, and reduce air pollution.”

    This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

  • in

    Computing for the health of the planet

    The health of the planet is one of the most important challenges facing humankind today. From climate change to unsafe levels of air and water pollution to coastal and agricultural land erosion, a number of serious challenges threaten human and ecosystem health.

    Ensuring the health and safety of our planet necessitates approaches that connect scientific, engineering, social, economic, and political aspects. New computational methods can play a critical role by providing data-driven models and solutions for cleaner air, usable water, resilient food, efficient transportation systems, better-preserved biodiversity, and sustainable sources of energy.

    The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is committed to hiring multiple new faculty in computing for climate and the environment, as part of MIT’s plan to recruit 20 climate-focused faculty under its climate action plan. This year the college undertook searches with several departments in the schools of Engineering and Science for shared faculty in computing for health of the planet, one of the six strategic areas of inquiry identified in an MIT-wide planning process to help focus shared hiring efforts. The college also undertook searches for core computing faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

    The searches are part of an ongoing effort by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing to hire 50 new faculty — 25 shared with other academic departments and 25 in computer science and artificial intelligence and decision-making. The goal is to build capacity at MIT to help more deeply infuse computing and other disciplines in departments.

    Four interdisciplinary scholars were hired in these searches. They will join the MIT faculty in the coming year to engage in research and teaching that will advance physical understanding of low-carbon energy solutions, Earth-climate modeling, biodiversity monitoring and conservation, and agricultural management through high-performance computing, transformational numerical methods, and machine-learning techniques.

    “By coordinating hiring efforts with multiple departments and schools, we were able to attract a cohort of exceptional scholars in this area to MIT. Each of them is developing and using advanced computational methods and tools to help find solutions for a range of climate and environmental issues,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Henry Warren Ellis Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They will also help strengthen cross-departmental ties in computing across an important, critical area for MIT and the world.”

    “These strategic hires in the area of computing for climate and the environment are an incredible opportunity for the college to deepen its academic offerings and create new opportunity for collaboration across MIT,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The college plays a pivotal role in MIT’s overarching effort to hire climate-focused faculty — introducing the critical role of computing to address the health of the planet through innovative research and curriculum.”

    The four new faculty members are:

    Sara Beery will join MIT as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in September 2023. Beery received her PhD in computing and mathematical sciences at Caltech in 2022, where she was advised by Pietro Perona. Her research focuses on building computer vision methods that enable global-scale environmental and biodiversity monitoring across data modalities, tackling real-world challenges including strong spatiotemporal correlations, imperfect data quality, fine-grained categories, and long-tailed distributions. She partners with nongovernmental organizations and government agencies to deploy her methods in the wild worldwide and works toward increasing the diversity and accessibility of academic research in artificial intelligence through interdisciplinary capacity building and education.

    Priya Donti will join MIT as an assistant professor in the faculties of Electrical Engineering and Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in academic year 2023-24. Donti recently finished her PhD in the Computer Science Department and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, co-advised by Zico Kolter and Inês Azevedo. Her work focuses on machine learning for forecasting, optimization, and control in high-renewables power grids. Specifically, her research explores methods to incorporate the physics and hard constraints associated with electric power systems into deep learning models. Donti is also co-founder and chair of Climate Change AI, a nonprofit initiative to catalyze impactful work at the intersection of climate change and machine learning that is currently running through the Cornell Tech Runway Startup Postdoc Program.

    Ericmoore Jossou will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the faculty of electrical engineering in EECS in July 2023. He is currently an assistant scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy-affiliated lab that conducts research in nuclear and high energy physics, energy science and technology, environmental and bioscience, nanoscience, and national security. His research at MIT will focus on understanding the processing-structure-properties correlation of materials for nuclear energy applications through advanced experiments, multiscale simulations, and data science. Jossou obtained his PhD in mechanical engineering in 2019 from the University of Saskatchewan.

    Sherrie Wang will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society in academic year 2023-24. Wang is currently a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, hosted by Solomon Hsiang and the Global Policy Lab. She develops machine learning for Earth observation data. Her primary application areas are improving agricultural management and forecasting climate phenomena. She obtained her PhD in computational and mathematical engineering from Stanford University in 2021, where she was advised by David Lobell. More

  • in

    3Q: How MIT is working to reduce carbon emissions on our campus

    Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, launched in May 2021, charges MIT to eliminate its direct carbon emissions by 2050. Setting an interim goal of net zero emissions by 2026 is an important step to getting there. Joe Higgins, vice president for campus services and stewardship, speaks here about the coordinated, multi-team effort underway to address the Institute’s carbon-reduction goals, the challenges and opportunities in getting there, and creating a blueprint for a carbon-free campus in 2050.

    Q: The Fast Forward plan laid out specific goals for MIT to address its own carbon footprint. What has been the strategy to tackle these priorities?

    A: The launch of the Fast Forward Climate Action Plan empowered teams at MIT to expand the scope of our carbon reduction tasks beyond the work we’ve been doing to date. The on-campus activities called for in the plan range from substantially expanding our electric vehicle infrastructure on campus, to increasing our rooftop solar installations, to setting impact goals for food, water, and waste systems. Another strategy utilizes artificial intelligence to further reduce energy consumption and emissions from our buildings. When fully implemented, these systems will adjust a building’s temperature setpoints throughout the day while maintaining occupant comfort, and will use occupancy data, weather forecasts, and carbon intensity projections from the grid to make more efficient use of energy. 

    We have tremendous momentum right now thanks to the progress made over the past decade by our teams — which include planners, designers, engineers, construction managers, and sustainability and operations experts. Since 2014, our efforts to advance energy efficiency and incorporate renewable energy have reduced net emissions on campus by 20% (from a 2014 baseline) despite significant campus growth. One of our current goals is to further reduce energy use in high-intensity research buildings — 20 of our campus buildings consume more than 50% of our energy. To reduce energy usage in these buildings we have major energy retrofit projects in design or in planning for buildings 32, 46, 68, 76, E14, and E25, and we expect this work will reduce overall MIT emissions by an additional 10 to 15%.

    Q: The Fast Forward plan acknowledges the challenges we face in our efforts to reach our campus emission reduction goals, in part due to the current state of New England’s electrical grid. How does MIT’s district energy system factor into our approach? 

    A: MIT’s district energy system is a network of underground pipes and power lines that moves energy from the Central Utilities Plant (CUP) around to the vast majority of Institute buildings to provide electricity, heating, and air conditioning. Using a closed-loop, central-source system like this enables MIT to operate more efficiently by using less energy to heat and cool its buildings and labs, and by maintaining better load control to accommodate seasonal variations in peak demand.

    When the new MIT campus was built in Cambridge in 1916, it included a centralized state-of-the-art steam and electrical power plant that would service the campus buildings. This central district energy approach allowed MIT to avoid having individual furnaces in each building and to easily incorporate progressively cleaner fuel sources campus-wide over the years. After starting with coal as a primary energy source, MIT transitioned to fuel oil, then to natural gas, and then to cogeneration in 1995 — and each step has made the campus more energy efficient. Our continuous investment in a centralized infrastructure has facilitated our ability to improve energy efficiency while adding capacity; as new technologies become available, we can implement them across the entire campus. Our district energy system is very adaptable to seasonal variations in demand for cooling, heating and electricity, and builds upon decades of centralized investments in energy-efficient infrastructure.

    This past year, MIT completed a major upgrade of the district energy system whereby the majority of buildings on campus now benefit from the most advanced cogeneration technology for combined heating, cooling, and power delivery. This system generates electrical power that produces 15 to 25% less carbon than the current New England grid. We also have the ability to export power during times when the grid is most stressed, which contributes to the resiliency of local energy systems. On the flip side, any time the grid is a cleaner option, MIT is able to import a higher amount of electricity from the utility by distributing this energy through our centralized system. In fact, it’s important to note that we have the ability to import 100% of our electrical energy from the grid as it becomes cleaner. We anticipate that this will happen as the next major wave of technology innovation unfolds and the abundance of offshore wind and other renewable resources increases as anticipated by the end of this decade. As the grid gets greener, our adaptable district energy system will bring us closer to meeting our decarbonization goals.

    MIT’s ability to adapt its system and use new technologies is crucial right now as we work in collaboration with faculty, students, industry experts, peer institutions, and the cities of Cambridge and Boston to evaluate various strategies, opportunities, and constraints. In terms of evolving into a next-generation district energy system, we are reviewing options such as electric steam boilers and industrial-scale heat pumps, thermal batteries, geothermal exchange, micro-reactors, bio-based fuels, and green hydrogen produced from renewable energy. We are preparing to incorporate the most beneficial technologies into a blueprint that will get us to our 2050 goal.

    Q: What is MIT doing in the near term to reach the carbon-reduction goals of the climate action plan?

    A: In the near term, we are exploring several options, including enabling large-scale renewable energy projects and investing in verified carbon offset projects that reduce, avoid, or sequester carbon. In 2016, MIT joined a power purchase agreement (PPA) partnership that enabled the construction of a 650-acre solar farm in North Carolina and resulted in the early retirement of a nearby coal plant. We’ve documented a huge emissions savings from this, and we’re exploring how to do something similar on a much larger scale with a broader group of partners. As we seek out collaborative opportunities that enable the development of new renewable energy sources, we hope to provide a model for other institutions and organizations, as the original PPA did. Because PPAs accelerate the de-carbonization of regional electricity grids, they can have an enormous and far-reaching impact. We see these partnerships as an important component of achieving net zero emissions on campus as well as accelerating the de-carbonization of regional power grids — a transformation that must take place to reach zero emissions by 2050.

    Other near-term initiatives include enabling community solar power projects in Massachusetts to support the state’s renewable energy goals and provide opportunities for more property owners (municipalities, businesses, homeowners, etc.) to purchase affordable renewable energy. MIT is engaged with three of these projects; one of them is in operation today in Middleton, and the two others are scheduled to be built soon on Cape Cod.

    We’re joining the commonwealth and its cities, its organizations and utility providers on an unprecedented journey — the global transition to a clean energy system. Along the way, everything is going to change as technologies and the grid continue to evolve. Our focus is on both the near term and the future, as we plan a path into the next energy era. More