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    Embracing ancient materials and 21st-century challenges

    When Sophia Mittman was 10 years old, she wanted to be an artist. But instead of using paint, she preferred the mud in her backyard. She sculpted it into pots and bowls like the ones she had seen at the archaeological museums, transforming the earthly material into something beautiful.

    Now an MIT senior studying materials science and engineering, Mittman seeks modern applications for sustainable materials in ways that benefit the community around her.

    Growing up in San Diego, California, Mittman was homeschooled, and enjoyed the process of teaching herself new things. After taking a pottery class in seventh grade, she became interested in sculpture, teaching herself how to make fused glass. From there, Mittman began making pottery and jewelry. This passion to create new things out of sustainable materials led her to pursue materials science, a subject she didn’t even know was originally offered at the Institute.

    “I didn’t know the science behind why those materials had the properties they did. And materials science explained it,” she says.

    During her first year at MIT, Mittman took 2.00b (Toy Product Design), which she considers one of her most memorable classes at the Institute. She remembers learning about the mechanical side of building, using drill presses and sanding machines to create things. However, her favorite part was the seminars on the weekends, where she learned how to make things such as stuffed animals or rolling wooden toys. She appreciated the opportunity to learn how to use everyday materials like wood to construct new and exciting gadgets.

    From there, Mittman got involved in the Glass Club, using blowtorches to melt rods of glass to make things like marbles and little fish decorations. She also took a few pottery and ceramics classes on campus, learning how to hone her skills to craft new things. Understanding MIT’s hands-on approach to learning, Mittman was excited to use her newly curated skills in the various workshops on campus to apply them to the real world.

    In the summer after her first year, Mittman became an undergraduate field and conservation science researcher for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She traveled to various cities across Italy to collaborate with international art restorers, conservation scientists, and museum curators to study archaeological materials and their applications to modern sustainability. One of her favorite parts was restoring the Roman baths, and studying the mosaics on the ground. She did a research project on Egyptian Blue, one of the first synthetic pigments, which has modern applications because of its infrared luminescence, which can be used for detecting fingerprints in crime scenes. The experience was eye-opening for Mittman; she got to directly experience what she had been learning in the classroom about sustainable materials and how she could preserve and use them for modern applications.

    The next year, upon returning to campus, Mittman joined Incredible Foods as a polymeric food science and technology intern. She learned how to create and apply a polymer coating to natural fruit snacks to replicate real berries. “It was fun to see the breadth of material science because I had learned about polymers in my material science classes, but then never thought that it could be applied to making something as fun as fruit snacks,” she says.

    Venturing into yet another new area of materials science, Mittman last year pursued an internship with Phoenix Tailings, which aims to be the world’s first “clean” mining company. In the lab, she helped develop and analyze chemical reactions to physically and chemically extract rare earth metals and oxides from mining waste. She also worked to engineer bright-colored, high-performance pigments using nontoxic chemicals. Mittman enjoyed the opportunity to explore a mineralogically sustainable method for mining, something she hadn’t previously explored as a branch of materials science research.

    “I’m still able to contribute to environmental sustainability and to try to make a greener world, but it doesn’t solely have to be through energy because I’m dealing with dirt and mud,” she says.

    Outside of her academic work, Mittman is involved with the Tech Catholic Community (TCC) on campus. She has held roles as the music director, prayer chair, and social committee chair, organizing and managing social events for over 150 club members. She says the TCC is the most supportive community in her campus life, as she can meet people who have similar interests as her, though are in different majors. “There are a lot of emotional aspects of being at MIT, and there’s a spiritual part that so many students wrestle with. The TCC is where I’ve been able to find so much comfort, support, and encouragement; the closest friends I have are in the Tech Catholic Community,” she says.

    Mittman is also passionate about teaching, which allows her to connect to students and teach them material in new and exciting ways. In the fall of her junior and senior years, she was a teaching assistant for 3.091 (Introduction to Solid State Chemistry), where she taught two recitations of 20 students and offered weekly private tutoring. She enjoyed helping students tackle difficult course material in ways that are enthusiastic and encouraging, as she appreciated receiving the same help in her introductory courses.

    Looking ahead, Mittman plans to work fulltime at Phoenix Tailings as a materials scientist following her graduation. In this way, she feels like she has come full circle: from playing in the mud as a kid to working with it as a materials scientist to extract materials to help build a sustainable future for nearby and international communities.

    “I want to be able to apply what I’m enthusiastic about, which is materials science, by way of mineralogical sustainability, so that it can help mines here in America but also mines in Brazil, Austria, Jamaica — all over the world, because ultimately, I think that will help more people live better lives,” she says. More

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    Finding the questions that guide MIT fusion research

    “One of the things I learned was, doing good science isn’t so much about finding the answers as figuring out what the important questions are.”

    As Martin Greenwald retires from the responsibilities of senior scientist and deputy director of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), he reflects on his almost 50 years of science study, 43 of them as a researcher at MIT, pursuing the question of how to make the carbon-free energy of fusion a reality.

    Most of Greenwald’s important questions about fusion began after graduating from MIT with a BS in both physics and chemistry. Beginning graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, he felt compelled to learn more about fusion as an energy source that could have “a real societal impact.” At the time, researchers were exploring new ideas for devices that could create and confine fusion plasmas. Greenwald worked on Berkeley’s “alternate concept” TORMAC, a Toroidal Magnetic Cusp. “It didn’t work out very well,” he laughs. “The first thing I was known for was making the measurements that shut down the program.”

    Believing the temperature of the plasma generated by the device would not be as high as his group leader expected, Greenwald developed hardware that could measure the low temperatures predicted by his own “back of the envelope calculations.” As he anticipated, his measurements showed that “this was not a fusion plasma; this was hardly a confined plasma at all.”

    With a PhD from Berkeley, Greenwald returned to MIT for a research position at the PSFC, attracted by the center’s “esprit de corps.”

    He arrived in time to participate in the final experiments on Alcator A, the first in a series of tokamaks built at MIT, all characterized by compact size and featuring high-field magnets. The tokamak design was then becoming favored as the most effective route to fusion: its doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, surrounded by electromagnets, could confine the turbulent plasma long enough, while increasing its heat and density, to make fusion occur.

    Alcator A showed that the energy confinement time improves in relation to increasing plasma density. MIT’s succeeding device, Alcator C, was designed to use higher magnetic fields, boosting expectations that it would reach higher densities and better confinement. To attain these goals, however, Greenwald had to pursue a new technique that increased density by injecting pellets of frozen fuel into the plasma, a method he likens to throwing “snowballs in hell.” This work was notable for the creation of a new regime of enhanced plasma confinement on Alcator C. In those experiments, a confined plasma surpassed for the first time one of the two Lawson criteria — the minimum required value for the product of the plasma density and confinement time — for making net power from fusion. This had been a milestone for fusion research since their publication by John Lawson in 1957.

    Greenwald continued to make a name for himself as part of a larger study into the physics of the Compact Ignition Tokamak — a high-field burning plasma experiment that the U.S. program was proposing to build in the late 1980s. The result, unexpectedly, was a new scaling law, later known as the “Greenwald Density Limit,” and a new theory for the mechanism of the limit. It has been used to accurately predict performance on much larger machines built since.

    The center’s next tokamak, Alcator C-Mod, started operation in 1993 and ran for more than 20 years, with Greenwald as the chair of its Experimental Program Committee. Larger than Alcator C, the new device supported a highly shaped plasma, strong radiofrequency heating, and an all-metal plasma-facing first wall. All of these would eventually be required in a fusion power system.

    C-Mod proved to be MIT’s most enduring fusion experiment to date, producing important results for 20 years. During that time Greenwald contributed not only to the experiments, but to mentoring the next generation. Research scientist Ryan Sweeney notes that “Martin quickly gained my trust as a mentor, in part due to his often casual dress and slightly untamed hair, which are embodiments of his transparency and his focus on what matters. He can quiet a room of PhDs and demand attention not by intimidation, but rather by his calmness and his ability to bring clarity to complicated problems, be they scientific or human in nature.”

    Greenwald worked closely with the group of students who, in PSFC Director Dennis Whyte’s class, came up with the tokamak concept that evolved into SPARC. MIT is now pursuing this compact, high-field tokamak with Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup that grew out of the collective enthusiasm for this concept, and the growing realization it could work. Greenwald now heads the Physics Group for the SPARC project at MIT. He has helped confirm the device’s physics basis in order to predict performance and guide engineering decisions.

    “Martin’s multifaceted talents are thoroughly embodied by, and imprinted on, SPARC” says Whyte. “First, his leadership in its plasma confinement physics validation and publication place SPARC on a firm scientific footing. Secondly, the impact of the density limit he discovered, which shows that fuel density increases with magnetic field and decreasing the size of the tokamak, is critical in obtaining high fusion power density not just in SPARC, but in future power plants. Third, and perhaps most impressive, is Martin’s mentorship of the SPARC generation of leadership.”

    Greenwald’s expertise and easygoing personality have made him an asset as head of the PSFC Office for Computer Services and group leader for data acquisition and computing, and sought for many professional committees. He has been an APS Fellow since 2000, and was an APS Distinguished Lecturer in Plasma Physics (2001-02). He was also presented in 2014 with a Leadership Award from Fusion Power Associates. He is currently an associate editor for Physics of Plasmas and a member of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Physical Sciences Directorate External Review Committee.

    Although leaving his full-time responsibilities, Greenwald will remain at MIT as a visiting scientist, a role he says will allow him to “stick my nose into everything without being responsible for anything.”

    “At some point in the race you have to hand off the baton,“ he says. “And it doesn’t mean you’re not interested in the outcome; and it doesn’t mean you’re just going to walk away into the stands. I want to be there at the end when we succeed.” More

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    Leveraging science and technology against the world’s top problems

    Looking back on nearly a half-century at MIT, Richard K. Lester, associate provost and Japan Steel Industry Professor, sees a “somewhat eccentric professional trajectory.”

    But while his path has been irregular, there has been a clearly defined through line, Lester says: the emergence of new science and new technologies, the potential of these developments to shake up the status quo and address some of society’s most consequential problems, and what the outcomes might mean for America’s place in the world.

    Perhaps no assignment in Lester’s portfolio better captures this theme than the new MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition. Spearheaded by Lester and Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research, and launched at the height of the pandemic in summer 2020, this initiative is designed to mobilize the entire MIT research community around tackling “the really hard, challenging problems currently standing in the way of an effective global response to the climate emergency,” says Lester. “The focus is on those problems where progress requires developing and applying frontier knowledge in the natural and social sciences and cutting-edge technologies. This is the MIT community swinging for the fences in areas where we have a comparative advantage.”This is a passion project for him, not least because it has engaged colleagues from nearly all of MIT’s departments. After nearly 100 initial ideas were submitted by more than 300 faculty, 27 teams were named finalists and received funding to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans in such areas as decarbonizing complex industries; risk forecasting and adaptation; advancing climate equity; and carbon removal, management, and storage. In April, a small subset of this group will become multiyear flagship projects, augmenting the work of existing MIT units that are pursuing climate research. Lester is sunny in the face of these extraordinarily complex problems. “This is a bottom-up effort with exciting proposals, and where the Institute is collectively committed — it’s MIT at its best.”

    Nuclear to the core

    This initiative carries a particular resonance for Lester, who remains deeply engaged in nuclear engineering. “The role of nuclear energy is central and will need to become even more central if we’re to succeed in addressing the climate challenge,” he says. He also acknowledges that for nuclear energy technologies — both fission and fusion — to play a vital role in decarbonizing the economy, they must not just win “in the court of public opinion, but in the marketplace,” he says. “Over the years, my research has sought to elucidate what needs to be done to overcome these obstacles.”

    In fact, Lester has been campaigning for much of his career for a U.S. nuclear innovation agenda, a commitment that takes on increased urgency as the contours of the climate crisis sharpen. He argues for the rapid development and testing of nuclear technologies that can complement the renewable but intermittent energy sources of sun and wind. Whether powerful, large-scale, molten-salt-cooled reactors or small, modular, light water reactors, nuclear batteries or promising new fusion projects, U.S. energy policy must embrace nuclear innovation, says Lester, or risk losing the high-stakes race for a sustainable future.

    Chancing into a discipline

    Lester’s introduction to nuclear science was pure happenstance.

    Born in the English industrial city of Leeds, he grew up in a musical family and played piano, violin, and then viola. “It was a big part of my life,” he says, and for a time, music beckoned as a career. He tumbled into a chemical engineering concentration at Imperial College, London, after taking a job in a chemical factory following high school. “There’s a certain randomness to life, and in my case, it’s reflected in my choice of major, which had a very large impact on my ultimate career.”

    In his second year, Lester talked his way into running a small experiment in the university’s research reactor, on radiation effects in materials. “I got hooked, and began thinking of studying nuclear engineering.” But there were few graduate programs in British universities at the time. Then serendipity struck again. The instructor of Lester’s single humanities course at Imperial had previously taught at MIT, and suggested Lester take a look at the nuclear program there. “I will always be grateful to him (and, indirectly, to MIT’s Humanities program) for opening my eyes to the existence of this institution where I’ve spent my whole adult life,” says Lester.

    He arrived at MIT with the notion of mitigating the harms of nuclear weapons. It was a time when the nuclear arms race “was an existential threat in everyone’s life,” he recalls. He targeted his graduate studies on nuclear proliferation. But he also encountered an electrifying study by MIT meteorologist Jule Charney. “Professor Charney produced one of the first scientific assessments of the effects on climate of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, with quantitative estimates that have not fundamentally changed in 40 years.”

    Lester shifted directions. “I came to MIT to work on nuclear security, but stayed in the nuclear field because of the contributions that it can and must make in addressing climate change,” he says.

    Research and policy

    His path forward, Lester believed, would involve applying his science and technology expertise to critical policy problems, grounded in immediate, real-world concerns, and aiming for broad policy impacts. Even as a member of NSE, he joined with colleagues from many MIT departments to study American industrial practices and what was required to make them globally competitive, and then founded MIT’s Industrial Performance Center (IPC). Working at the IPC with interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students on the sources of productivity and innovation, his research took him to many countries at different stages of industrialization, including China, Taiwan, Japan, and Brazil.

    Lester’s wide-ranging work yielded books (including the MIT Press bestseller “Made in America”), advisory positions with governments, corporations, and foundations, and unexpected collaborations. “My interests were always fairly broad, and being at MIT made it possible to team up with world-leading scholars and extraordinary students not just in nuclear engineering, but in many other fields such as political science, economics, and management,” he says.

    Forging cross-disciplinary ties and bringing creative people together around a common goal proved a valuable skill as Lester stepped into positions of ever-greater responsibility at the Institute. He didn’t exactly relish the prospect of a desk job, though. “I religiously avoided administrative roles until I felt I couldn’t keep avoiding them,” he says.

    Today, as associate provost, he tends to MIT’s international activities — a daunting task given increasing scrutiny of research universities’ globe-spanning research partnerships and education of foreign students. But even in the midst of these consuming chores, Lester remains devoted to his home department. “Being a nuclear engineer is a central part of my identity,” he says.

    To students entering the nuclear field nearly 50 years after he did, who are understandably “eager to fix everything that seems wrong immediately,” he has a message: “Be patient. The hard things, the ones that are really worth doing, will take a long time to do.” Putting the climate crisis behind us will take two generations, Lester believes. Current students will start the job, but it will also take the efforts of their children’s generation before it is done.  “So we need you to be energetic and creative, of course, but whatever you do we also need you to be patient and to have ‘stick-to-itiveness’ — and maybe also a moral compass that our generation has lacked.” More

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    Finding her way to fusion

    “I catch myself startling people in public.”

    Zoe Fisher’s animated hands carry part of the conversation as she describes how her naturally loud and expressive laughter turned heads in the streets of Yerevan. There during MIT’s Independent Activities period (IAP), she was helping teach nuclear science at the American University of Armenia, before returning to MIT to pursue fusion research at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).

    Startling people may simply be in Fisher’s DNA. She admits that when she first arrived at MIT, knowing nothing about nuclear science and engineering (NSE), she chose to join that department’s Freshman Pre-Orientation Program (FPOP) “for the shock value.” It was a choice unexpected by family, friends, and mostly herself. Now in her senior year, a 2021 recipient of NSE’s Irving Kaplan Award for academic achievements by a junior and entering a fifth-year master of science program in nuclear fusion, Fisher credits that original spontaneous impulse for introducing her to a subject she found so compelling that, after exploring multiple possibilities, she had to return to it.

    Fisher’s venture to Armenia, under the guidance of NSE associate professor Areg Danagoulian, is not the only time she has taught oversees with MISTI’s Global Teaching Labs, though it is the first time she has taught nuclear science, not to mention thermodynamics and materials science. During IAP 2020 she was a student teacher at a German high school, teaching life sciences, mathematics, and even English to grades five through 12. And after her first year she explored the transportation industry with a mechanical engineering internship in Tuscany, Italy.

    By the time she was ready to declare her NSE major she had sampled the alternatives both overseas and at home, taking advantage of MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Drawn to fusion’s potential as an endless source of carbon-free energy on earth, she decided to try research at the PSFC, to see if the study was a good fit. 

    Much fusion research at MIT has favored heating hydrogen fuel inside a donut-shaped device called a tokamak, creating plasma that is hot and dense enough for fusion to occur. Because plasma will follow magnetic field lines, these devices are wrapped with magnets to keep the hot fuel from damaging the chamber walls.

    Fisher was assigned to SPARC, the PSFC’s new tokamak collaboration with MIT startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CSF), which uses a game-changing high-temperature superconducting (HTS) tape to create fusion magnets that minimize tokamak size and maximize performance. Working on a database reference book for SPARC materials, she was finding purpose even in the most repetitive tasks. “Which is how I knew I wanted to stay in fusion,” she laughs.

    Fisher’s latest UROP assignment takes her — literally — deeper into SPARC research. She works in a basement laboratory in building NW13 nicknamed “The Vault,” on a proton accelerator whose name conjures an underworld: DANTE. Supervised by PSFC Director Dennis Whyte and postdoc David Fischer, she is exploring the effects of radiation damage on the thin HTS tape that is key to SPARC’s design, and ultimately to the success of ARC, a prototype working fusion power plant.

    Because repetitive bombardment with neutrons produced during the fusion process can diminish the superconducting properties of the HTS, it is crucial to test the tape repeatedly. Fisher assists in assembling and testing the experimental setups for irradiating the HTS samples. Fisher recalls her first project was installing a “shutter” that would allow researchers to control exactly how much radiation reached the tape without having to turn off the entire experiment.

    “You could just push the button — block the radiation — then unblock it. It sounds super simple, but it took many trials. Because first I needed the right size solenoid, and then I couldn’t find a piece of metal that was small enough, and then we needed cryogenic glue…. To this day the actual final piece is made partially of paper towels.”

    She shrugs and laughs. “It worked, and it was the cheapest option.”

    Fisher is always ready to find the fun in fusion. Referring to DANTE as “A really cool dude,” she admits, “He’s perhaps a bit fickle. I may or may not have broken him once.” During a recent IAP seminar, she joined other PSFC UROP students to discuss her research, and expanded on how a mishap can become a gateway to understanding.

    “The grad student I work with and I got to repair almost the entire internal circuit when we blew the fuse — which originally was a really bad thing. But it ended up being great because we figured out exactly how it works.”

    Fisher’s upbeat spirit makes her ideal not only for the challenges of fusion research, but for serving the MIT community. As a student representative for NSE’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, she meets monthly with the goal of growing and supporting diversity within the department.

    “This opportunity is impactful because I get my voice, and the voices of my peers, taken seriously,” she says. “Currently, we are spending most of our efforts trying to identify and eliminate hurdles based on race, ethnicity, gender, and income that prevent people from pursuing — and applying to — NSE.”

    To break from the lab and committees, she explores the Charles River as part of MIT’s varsity sailing team, refusing to miss a sunset. She also volunteers as an FPOP mentor, seeking to provide incoming first-years with the kind of experience that will make them want to return to the topic, as she did.

    She looks forward to continuing her studies on the HTS tapes she has been irradiating, proposing to send a current pulse above the critical current through the tape, to possibly anneal any defects from radiation, which would make repairs on future fusion power plants much easier.

    Fisher credits her current path to her UROP mentors and their infectious enthusiasm for the carbon-free potential of fusion energy.

    “UROPing around the PSFC showed me what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “Who doesn’t want to save the world?” More

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    Building communities, founding a startup with people in mind

    MIT postdoc Francesco Benedetti admits he wasn’t always a star student. But the people he met along his educational journey inspired him to strive, which led him to conduct research at MIT, launch a startup, and even lead the team that won the 2021 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. Now he is determined to make sure his company, Osmoses, succeeds in boosting the energy efficiency of traditional and renewable natural gas processing, hydrogen production, and carbon capture — thus helping to address climate change.

    “I can’t be grateful enough to MIT for bringing together a community of people who want to change the world,” Benedetti says. “Now we have a technology that can solve one of the big problems of our society.”

    Benedetti and his team have developed an innovative way to separate molecules using a membrane fine enough to extract impurities such as carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide from raw natural gas to obtain higher-quality fuel, fulfilling a crucial need in the energy industry. “Natural gas now provides about 40 percent of the energy used to power homes and industry in the United States,” Benedetti says. Using his team’s technology to upgrade natural gas more efficiently could reduce emissions of greenhouse gases while saving enough energy to power the equivalent of 7 million additional U.S. homes for a year, he adds.

    The MIT community

    Benedetti first came to MIT in 2017 as a visiting student from the University of Bologna in Italy, where he was working on membranes for gas separation for his PhD in chemical engineering. Having completed a master’s thesis on water desalination at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, he connected with UT alumnus Zachary P. Smith, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, and the two discovered they shared a vision. “We found ourselves very much aligned on the need for new technology in industry to lower the energy consumption of separating components,” Benedetti says.

    Although Benedetti had always been interested in making a positive impact on the world, particularly the environment, he says it was his university studies that first sparked his interest in more efficient separation technologies. “When you study chemical engineering, you understand hundreds of ways the field can have a positive impact in the world. But we learn very early that 15 percent of the world’s energy is wasted because of inefficient chemical separation — because we still rely on centuries-old technology,” he says. Most separation processes still use heat or toxic solvents to separate components, he explains.

    Still, Benedetti says, his main drive comes from the joy of working with terrific mentors and colleagues. “It’s the people I’ve met that really inspired me to tackle the biggest challenges and find that intrinsic motivation,” he says.

    To help build his community at MIT and provide support for international students, Benedetti co-founded the MIT Visiting Student Association (VISTA) in September 2017. By February 2018, the organization had hundreds of members and official Institute recognition. In May 2018, the group won two Institute awards, including the Golden Beaver Award for enhancing the campus environment. “VISTA gave me a sense of belonging; I loved it,” Benedetti says.

    Membrane technology

    Benedetti also published two papers on membrane research during his stint as a visiting student at MIT, so he was delighted to return in 2019 for postdoctoral work through the MIT Energy Initiative, where he was a 2019-20 ExxonMobil-MIT Energy Fellow. “I came back because the research was extremely exciting, but also because I got extremely passionate about the energy I found on campus and with the people,” he says.

    Returning to MIT enabled Benedetti to continue his work with Smith and Holden Lai, both of whom helped co-found Osmoses. Lai, a recent Stanford PhD in chemistry who was also a visiting student at MIT in 2018, is now the chief technology officer at Osmoses. Co-founder Katherine Mizrahi Rodriguez ’17, an MIT PhD candidate, joined the team more recently.

    Together, the Osmoses team has developed polymer membranes with microporosities capable of filtering gases by separating out molecules that differ by as little as a fraction of an angstrom — a unit of length equal to one hundred-millionth of a centimeter. “We can get up to five times higher selectivity than commercially available technology for methane upgrading, and this has been observed operating the membranes in industrially relevant environments,” Benedetti says.

    Today, methane upgrading — removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from raw natural gas to obtain a higher-grade fuel — is often accomplished using amine absorption, a process that uses toxic solvents to capture CO2 and burns methane to fuel the regeneration of those solvents for reuse. Using Osmoses’ filters would eliminate the need for such solvents while reducing CO2 emissions by up to 16 million metric tons per year in the United States alone, Benedetti says.

    The technology has a wide range of applications — in oxygen and nitrogen generation, hydrogen purification, and carbon capture, for example — but Osmoses plans to start with the $5 billion market for natural gas upgrading because the need to bring innovation and sustainability to that space is urgent, says Benedetti, who received guidance in bringing technology to market from MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The Osmoses team has also received support from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program.

    The next step for the startup is to build an industrial-scale prototype, and Benedetti says the company got a huge boost toward that goal in May when it won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, a student-run contest that has launched more than 160 companies since it began in 1990. Ninety teams began the competition by pitching their startup ideas; 20 received mentorship and development funding; then eight finalists presented business plans to compete for the $100,000 prize. “Because of this, we’re getting a lot of interest from venture capital firms, investors, companies, corporate funds, et cetera, that want to partner with us or to use our product,” he says. In June, the Osmoses team received a two-year Activate Fellowship, which will support moving its research to market; in October, it won the Northeast Regional and Carbon Sequestration Prizes at the Cleantech Open Accelerator; and in November, the team closed a $3 million pre-seed round of financing.

    FAIL!

    Naturally, Benedetti hopes Osmoses is on the path to success, but he wants everyone to know that there is no shame in failures that come from best efforts. He admits it took him three years longer than usual to finish his undergraduate and master’s degrees, and he says, “I have experienced the pressure you feel when society judges you like a book by its cover and how much a lack of inspired leaders and a supportive environment can kill creativity and the will to try.”

    That’s why in 2018 he, along with other MIT students and VISTA members, started FAIL!–Inspiring Resilience, an organization that provides a platform for sharing unfiltered stories and the lessons leaders have gleaned from failure. “We wanted to help de-stigmatize failure, appreciate vulnerabilities, and inspire humble leadership, eventually creating better communities,” Benedetti says. “If we can make failures, big and small, less intimidating and all-consuming, individuals with great potential will be more willing to take risks, think outside the box, and try things that may push new boundaries. In this way, more breakthrough discoveries are likely to follow, without compromising anyone’s mental health.”

    Benedetti says he will strive to create a supportive culture at Osmoses, because people are central to success. “What drives me every day is the people. I would have no story without the people around me,” he says. “The moment you lose touch with people, you lose the opportunity to create something special.”

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

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    Tuning in to invisible waves on the JET tokamak

    Research scientist Alex Tinguely is readjusting to Cambridge and Boston.

    As a postdoc with the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), the MIT graduate spent the last two years in Oxford, England, a city he recalls can be traversed entirely “in the time it takes to walk from MIT to Harvard.” With its ancient stone walls, cathedrals, cobblestone streets, and winding paths, that small city was his home base for a big project: JET, a tokamak that is currently the largest operating magnetic fusion energy experiment in the world.

    Located at the Culham Center for Fusion Energy (CCFE), part of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, this key research center of the European Fusion Program has recently announced historic success. Using a 50-50 deuterium-tritium fuel mixture for the first time since 1997, JET established a fusion power record of 10 megawatts output over five seconds. It produced 59 megajoules of fusion energy, more than doubling the 22 megajoule record it set in 1997. As a member of the JET Team, Tinguely has overseen the measurement and instrumentation systems (diagnostics) contributed by the MIT group.

    A lucky chance

    The postdoctoral opportunity arose just as Tinguely was graduating with a PhD in physics from MIT. Managed by Professor Miklos Porkolab as the principal investigator for over 20 years, this postdoctoral program has prepared multiple young researchers for careers in fusion facilities around the world. The collaborative research provided Tinguely the chance to work on a fusion device that would be adding tritium to the usual deuterium fuel.

    Fusion, the process that fuels the sun and other stars, could provide a long-term source of carbon-free power on Earth, if it can be harnessed. For decades researchers have tried to create an artificial star in a doughnut-shaped bottle, or “tokamak,” using magnetic fields to keep the turbulent plasma fuel confined and away from the walls of its container long enough for fusion to occur.

    In his graduate student days at MIT, Tinguely worked on the PSFC’s Alcator C-Mod tokamak, now decommissioned, which, like most magnetic fusion devices, used deuterium to create the plasmas for experiments. JET, since beginning operation in 1983, has done the same, later joining a small number of facilities that added tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. While this addition increases the amount of fusion, it also creates much more radiation and activation.

    Tinguely considers himself fortunate to have been placed at JET.

    “There aren’t that many operating tokamaks in the U.S. right now,” says Tinguely, “not to mention one that would be running deuterium-tritium (DT), which hasn’t been run for over 20 years, and which would be making some really important measurements. I got a very lucky spot where I was an MIT postdoc, but I lived in Oxford, working on a very international project.”

    Strumming magnetic field lines

    The measurements that interest Tinguely are of low-frequency electromagnetic waves in tokamak plasmas. Tinguely uses an antenna diagnostic developed by MIT, EPFL Swiss Plasma Center, and CCFE to probe the so-called Alfvén eigenmodes when they are stable, before the energetic alpha particles produced by DT fusion plasmas can drive them toward instability.

    What makes MIT’s “Alfvén Eigenmode Active Diagnostic” essential is that without it researchers cannot see, or measure, stable eigenmodes. Unstable modes show up clearly as magnetic fluctuations in the data, but stable waves are invisible without prompting from the antenna. These measurements help researchers understand the physics of Alfvén waves and their potential for degrading fusion performance, providing insights that will be increasingly important for future DT fusion devices.

    Tinguely likens the diagnostic to fingers on guitar strings.

    “The magnetic field lines in the tokamak are like guitar strings. If you have nothing to give energy to the strings — or give energy to the waves of the magnetic field lines — they just sit there, they don’t do anything. The energetic plasma particles can essentially ‘play the guitar strings,’ strum the magnetic field lines of the plasma, and that’s when you can see the waves in your plasma. But if the energetic particle drive of the waves is not strong enough you won’t see them, so you need to come along and ‘pluck the strings’ with our antenna. And that’s how you learn some information about the waves.”

    Much of Tinguely’s experience on JET took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, when off-site operation and analysis were the norm. However, because the MIT diagnostic needed to be physically turned on and off, someone from Tinguely’s team needed to be on site twice a day, a routine that became even less convenient when tritium was introduced.

    “When you have deuterium and tritium, you produce a lot of neutrons. So, some of the buildings became off-limits during operation, which meant they had to be turned on really early in the morning, like 6:30 a.m., and then turned off very late at night, around 10:30 p.m.”

    Looking to the future

    Now a research scientist at the PSFC, Tinguely continues to work at JET remotely. He sometimes wishes he could again ride that train from Oxford to Culham — which he fondly remembers for its clean, comfortable efficiency — to see work colleagues and to visit local friends. The life he created for himself in England included practice and performance with the 125-year-old Oxford Bach Choir, as well as weekly dinner service at The Gatehouse, a facility that offers free support for the local homeless and low-income communities.

    “Being back is exciting too,” he says. “It’s fun to see how things have changed, how people and projects have grown, what new opportunities have arrived.”

    He refers specifically to a project that is beginning to take up more of his time: SPARC, the tokamak the PSFC supports in collaboration with Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Designed to use deuterium-tritium to make net fusion gains, SPARC will be able to use the latest research on JET to advantage. Tinguely is already exploring how his expertise with Alfvén eigenmodes can support the experiment.

    “I actually had an opportunity to do my PhD — or DPhil as they would call it — at Oxford University, but I went to MIT for grad school instead,” Tinguely reveals. “So, this is almost like closure, in a sense. I got to have my Oxford experience in the end, just in a different way, and have the MIT experience too.”

    He adds, “And I see myself being here at MIT for some time.” More

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    Nurturing human communities and natural ecosystems

    When she was in 7th grade, Heidi Li and the five other members of the Oyster Gardening Club cultivated hundreds of oysters to help repopulate the Chesapeake Bay. On the day they released the oysters into the bay, the event attracted TV journalists and local officials, including the governor. The attention opened the young Li’s eyes to the ways that a seemingly small effort in her local community could have a real-world impact.

    “I got to see firsthand how we can make change at a grassroots level and how that impacts where we are,” she says.

    Growing up in Howard County, Maryland, Li was constantly surrounded by nature. Her family made frequent trips to the Chesapeake Bay, as it reminded them of her parent’s home in Shandong, China. Li worked to bridge the cultural gap between parents, who grew up in China, and their children, who grew up in the U.S., and attended Chinese school every Sunday for 12 years. These experiences instilled in her a community-oriented mindset, which Li brought with her to MIT, where she now majors in materials science and engineering.

    During her first year, Li pursued a microbiology research project through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She studied microbes in aquatic environments, analyzing how the cleanliness of water impacted immunity and behavioral changes of the marine bacteria.

    The experience led her to consider the ways environmental policy affected sustainability efforts. She began applying the problem to energy, asking herself questions such as, “How can you take this specific economic principle and apply it to energy? What has energy policy looked like in the past and how can we tailor that to apply to our current energy system?”

    To explore the intersection of policy and energy, Li participated in the Roosevelt Project, through the Center of Energy and Environmental Policy Research, during the summer after her junior year. The project used case studies targeting specific communities in vulnerable areas to propose methods for a more sustainable future. Li focused on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, evaluating the efficiency of an energy transition from natural gas and fossil fuels to carbon-capture, which would mean redistributing the carbon dioxide produced by the coal industry. After traveling to Pittsburgh and interviewing stakeholders in the area, Li watched as local community leaders created physical places for citizens to share their ideas and opinions on the energy transition

    “I watched community leaders create a safe space for people from the surrounding town to share their ideas for entrepreneurship. I saw how important community is and how to create change at a grassroots level,” she says.

    In the summer of 2021, Li pursued an internship through the energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, where she looked at technologies that could potentially help with the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Her job was to make sure the technology could be implemented efficiently and cost-effectively, optimizing the resources available to the surrounding area. The project allowed Li to engage with industry-based efforts to chart and analyze the technological advancements for various decarbonization scenarios. She hopes to continue looking at both the local, community-based, and external, industry-based, inputs on how economic policy would affect stakeholders.

    On campus, Li is the current president of the Sustainable Energy Alliance (SEA), where she aims to make students more conscious about climate change and their impact on the environment. During summer of her sophomore year, Li chaired a sustainability hackathon for over 200 high school students, where she designed and led the “Protecting Climate Refugees” and “Tackling Environmental Injustice” challenges to inspire students to think about humanitarian efforts for protecting frontline communities.

    “The whole goal of this is to empower students to think about solutions for themselves. Empowering students is really important to show them they can make change and inspire hope in themselves and the people around them,” she says.

    Li also hosted and produced “Open SEAcrets,” a podcast designed to engage MIT students with topics surrounding energy sustainability and provide them with the opportunity to share their opinions on the subject. She sees the podcast as a platform to raise awareness about energy, climate change, and environmental policy, while also inspiring a sense of community with listeners.

    When she is not in the classroom or the lab, Li relaxes by playing volleyball. She joined the Volleyball Club during her first year at MIT, though she has been playing since she was 12. The sport allows her to not only relieve stress, but also have conversations with both undergrads and graduate students, who bring different their backgrounds, interests, and experiences to conversations. The sport has also taught Li about teamwork, trust, and the importance of community in ways that her other experience doesn’t.

    Looking ahead, Li is currently working on a UROP project, called Climate Action Through Education (CATE), that designs climate change curriculum for K-12 grades and aims to show how climate change and energy are integral to peoples’ daily lives. Seeing the energy transition as an interdisciplinary problem, she wants to educate students about the problems of climate change and sustainability using perspectives from math, science, history, and psychology to name a few areas.

    But above all, Li wants to empower younger generations to develop solution-minded approaches to environmentalism. She hopes to give local communities a voice in policy implementation, with the end goal of a more sustainable future for all.

    “Finding a community you really thrive in will allow you to push yourself and be the best version of yourself you can be. I want to take this mindset and create spaces for people and establish and instill this sense of community,” she says. More

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    Students dive into research with the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium

    Throughout the fall 2021 semester, the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC) supported several research projects with a climate-and-sustainability topic related to the consortium, through the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). These students, who represent a range of disciplines, had the opportunity to work with MCSC Impact Fellows on topics related directly to the ongoing work and collaborations with MCSC member companies and the broader MIT community, from carbon capture to value-chain resilience to biodegradables. Many of these students are continuing their work this spring semester.

    Hannah Spilman, who is studying chemical engineering, worked with postdoc Glen Junor, an MCSC Impact Fellow, to investigate carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), with the goal of facilitating CCUS on a gigaton scale, a much larger capacity than what currently exists. “Scientists agree CCUS will be an important tool in combating climate change, but the largest CCUS facility only captures CO2 on a megaton scale, and very few facilities are actually operating,” explains Spilman. 

    Throughout her UROP, she worked on analyzing the currently deployed technology in the CCUS field, using National Carbon Capture Center post-combustion project reports to synthesize the results and outline those technologies. Examining projects like the RTI-NAS experiment, which showcased innovation with carbon capture technology, was especially helpful. “We must first understand where we are, and as we continue to conduct analyses, we will be able to understand the field’s current state and path forward,” she concludes.

    Fellow chemical engineering students Claire Kim and Alfonso Restrepo are working with postdoc and MCSC Impact Fellow Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao, also on investigating CCUS technology. Kim’s focus is on life cycle assessment (LCA), while Restrepo’s focus is on techno-economic assessment (TEA). They have been working together to use the two tools to evaluate multiple CCUS technologies. While LCA and TEA are not new tools themselves, their application in CCUS has not been comprehensively defined and described. “CCUS can play an important role in the flexible, low-carbon energy systems,” says Kim, which was part of the motivation behind her project choice.

    Through TEA, Restrepo has been investigating how various startups and larger companies are incorporating CCUS technology in their processes. “In order to reduce CO2 emissions before it’s too late to act, there is a strong need for resources that effectively evaluate CCUS technology, to understand the effectiveness and viability of emerging technology for future implementation,” he explains. For their next steps, Kim and Restrepo will apply LCA and TEA to the analysis of a specific capture (for example, direct ocean capture) or conversion (for example, CO2-to-fuel conversion) process​ in CCUS.

    Cameron Dougal, a first-year student, and James Santoro, studying management, both worked with postdoc and MCSC Impact Fellow Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas on biodegradable materials. Dougal explored biodegradable packaging film in urban systems. “I have had a longstanding interest in sustainability, with a newer interest in urban planning and design, which motivated me to work on this project,” Dougal says. “Bio-based plastics are a promising step for the future.”

    Dougal spent time conducting internet and print research, as well as speaking with faculty on their relevant work. From these efforts, Dougal has identified important historical context for the current recycling landscape — as well as key case studies and cities around the world to explore further. In addition to conducting more research, Dougal plans to create a summary and statistic sheet.

    Santoro dove into the production angle, working on evaluating the economic viability of the startups that are creating biodegradable materials. “Non-renewable plastics (created with fossil fuels) continue to pollute and irreparably damage our environment,” he says. “As we look for innovative solutions, a key question to answer is how can we determine a more effective way to evaluate the economic viability and probability of success for new startups and technologies creating biodegradable plastics?” The project aims to develop an effective framework to begin to answer this.

    At this point, Santoro has been understanding the overall ecosystem, understanding how these biodegradable materials are developed, and analyzing the economics side of things. He plans to have conversations with company founders, investors, and experts, and identify major challenges for biodegradable technology startups in creating high performance products with attractive unit economics. There is also still a lot to research about new technologies and trends in the industry, the profitability of different products, as well as specific individual companies doing this type of work.

    Tess Buchanan, who is studying materials science and engineering, is working with Katharina Fransen and Sarah Av-Ron, MIT graduate students in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and principal investigator Professor Bradley Olsen, to also explore biodegradables by looking into their development from biomass “This is critical work, given the current plastics sustainability crisis, and the potential of bio-based polymers,” Buchanan says.

    The objective of the project is to explore new sustainable polymers through a biodegradation assay using clear zone growth analysis to yield degradation rates. For next steps, Buchanan is diving into synthesis expansion and using machine learning to understand the relationship between biodegradation and polymer chemistry.

    Kezia Hector, studying chemical engineering, and Tamsin Nottage, a first-year student, working with postdoc and MCSC Impact Fellow Sydney Sroka, explored advancing and establishing sustainable solutions for value chain resilience. Hector’s focus was understanding how wildfires can affect supply chains, specifically identifying sources of economic loss. She reviewed academic literature and news articles, and looked at the Amazon, California, Siberia, and Washington, finding that wildfires cause millions of dollars in damage every year and impact supply chains by cutting off or slowing down freight activity. She will continue to identify ways to make supply chains more resilient and sustainable.

    Nottage focused on the economic impact of typhoons, closely studying Typhoon Mangkhut, a powerful and catastrophic tropical cyclone that caused extensive damages of $593 million in Guam, the Philippines, and South China in September 2018. “As a Bahamian, I’ve witnessed the ferocity of hurricanes and challenges of rebuilding after them,” says Nottage. “I used this project to identify the tropical cyclones that caused the most extensive damage for further investigation.”She compiled the causes of damage and their costs to inform targets of supply chain resiliency reform (shipping, building materials, power supply, etc.). As a next step, Nottage will focus on modeling extreme events like Mangkunt to develop frameworks that companies can learn from and utilize to build more sustainable supply chains in the future.

    Ellie Vaserman, a first-year student working with postdoc and MCSC Impact Fellow Poushali Maji, also explored a topic related to value chains: unlocking circularity across the entire value chain through quality improvement, inclusive policy, and behavior to improve materials recovery. Specifically, her objectives have been to learn more about methods of chemolysis and the viability of their products, to compare methods of chemical recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) using quantitative metrics, and to design qualitative visuals to make the steps in PET chemical recycling processes more understandable.

    To do so, she conducted a literature review to identify main methods of chemolysis that are utilized in the field (and collect data about these methods) and created graphics for some of the more common processes. Moving forward, she hopes to compare the processes using other metrics and research the energy intensity of the monomer purification processes.

    The work of these students, as well as many others, continued over MIT’s Independent Activities Period in January. More