More stories

  • in

    Mitigating hazards with vulnerability in mind

    From tropical storms to landslides, the form and frequency of natural hazards vary widely. But the feelings of vulnerability they can provoke are universal.

    Growing up in hazard-prone cities, Ipek Bensu Manav, a civil and environmental engineering PhD candidate with the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub), noticed that this vulnerability was always at the periphery. Today, she’s studying vulnerability, in both its engineering and social dimensions, with the aim of promoting more hazard-resilient communities.

    Her research at CSHub has taken her across the country to attend impactful conferences and allowed her to engage with prominent experts and decision-makers in the realm of resilience. But more fundamentally, it has also taken her beyond the conventional bounds of engineering, reshaping her understanding of the practice.

    From her time in Miami, Florida, and Istanbul, Turkey, Manav is no stranger to natural hazards. Istanbul, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 1999, is predicted to experience an equally violent tremor in the near future, while Miami ranks among the top cities in the U.S. in terms of natural disaster risk due to its vulnerability to hurricanes.

    “Growing up in Miami, I’d always hear about hurricane season on the news,” recounts Manav, “While in Istanbul there was a constant fear about the next big earthquake. Losing people and [witnessing] those kinds of events instilled in me a desire to tame nature.”

    It was this desire to “push the bounds of what is possible” — and to protect lives in the process — that motivated Manav to study civil engineering at Boğaziçi University. Her studies there affirmed her belief in the formidable power of engineering to “outsmart nature.”

    This, in part, led her to continue her studies at MIT CSHub — a team of interdisciplinary researchers who study how to achieve resilient and sustainable infrastructure. Her role at CSHub has given her the opportunity to study resilience in depth. It has also challenged her understanding of natural disasters — and whether they are “natural” at all.

    “Over the past few decades, some policy choices have increased the risk of experiencing disasters,” explains Manav. “An increasingly popular sentiment among resilience researchers is that natural disasters are not ‘natural,’ but are actually man-made. At CSHub we believe there is an opportunity to do better with the growing knowledge and engineering and policy research.”

    As a part of the CSHub portfolio, Manav’s research looks not just at resilient engineering, but the engineering of resilient communities.

    Her work draws on a metric developed at CSHub known as city texture, which is a measurement of the rectilinearity of a city’s layout. City texture, Manav and her colleagues have found, is a versatile and informative measurement. By capturing a city’s order or disorder, it can predict variations in wind flow — variations currently too computationally intensive for most cities to easily render.  

    Manav has derived this metric for her native South Florida. A city texture analysis she conducted there found that numerous census tracts could experience wind speeds 50 percent greater than currently predicted. Mitigating these wind variations could lead to some $697 million in savings annually.

    Such enormous hazard losses and the growing threat of climate change have presented her with a new understanding of engineering.

    “With resilience and climate change at the forefront of engineering, the focus has shifted,” she explains, “from defying limits and building impressive structures to making structures that adapt to the changing environment around us.”

    Witnessing this shift has reoriented her relationship with engineering. Rather than viewing it as a distinct science, she has begun to place it in its broader social and political context — and to recognize how those social and political dynamics often determine engineering outcomes.

    “When I started grad school, I often felt ‘Oh this is an engineering problem. I can engineer a solution’,” recounts Manav. “But as I’ve read more about resilience, I’ve realized that it’s just as much a concern of politics and policy as it is of engineering.”

    She attributes her awareness of policy to MIT CSHub’s collaboration with the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research & Education Foundation. The commitment of the concrete and cement industries to resilient construction has exposed her to the myriad policies that dictate the resilience of communities.

    “Spending time with our partners made me realize how much of a policy issue [resilience] is,” she explains. “And working with them has provided me with a seat at the table with the people engaged in resilience.”

    Opportunities for engagement have been plentiful. She has attended numerous conferences and met with leaders in the realm of sustainability and resilience, including the International Code Council (ICC), Smart Home America, and Strengthen Alabama Homes.

    Some opportunities have proven particularly fortuitous. When attending a presentation hosted by the ICC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that highlighted people of color working on building codes, Manav felt inspired to reach out to the presenters. Soon after, she found herself collaborating with them on a policy report on resilience in communities of color.

    “For me, it was a shifting point, going from prophesizing about what we could be doing, to observing what is being done. It was a very humbling experience,” she says. “Having worked in this lab made me feel more comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone and reaching out.”

    Manav credits this growing confidence to her mentorship at CSHub. More than just providing support, CSHub Co-director Randy Kirchain has routinely challenged her and inspired further growth.

    “There have been countless times that I’ve reached out to him because I was feeling unsure of myself or my ideas,” says Manav. “And he’s offered clarity and assurance.”

    Before her first conference, she recalls Kirchain staying in the office well into the evening to help her practice and hone her presentation. He’s also advocated for her on research projects to ensure that her insight is included and that she receives the credit she deserves. But most of all, he’s been a great person to work with.

    “Randy is a lighthearted, funny, and honest person to be around,” recounts Manav. “He builds in me the confidence to dive straight into whatever task I’m tackling.”

    That current task is related to equity. Inspired by her conversations with members of the NAACP, Manav has introduced a new dimension to her research — social vulnerability.

    In contrast to place vulnerability, which captures the geographical susceptibility to hazards, social vulnerability captures the extent to which residents have the resources to respond to and recover from hazard events. Household income could act as a proxy for these resources, and the spread of household income across geographies and demographics can help derive metrics of place and social vulnerability. And these metrics matter.

    “Selecting different metrics favors different people when distributing hazard mitigation and recovery funds,” explains Manav. “If we’re looking at just the dollar value of losses, then wealthy households with more valuable properties disproportionally benefit. But, conversely, if we look at losses as a percentage of income, we’re going to prioritize low-income households that might not necessarily have the resources to recover.”

    Manav has incorporated metrics of social vulnerability into her city texture loss estimations. The resulting approach could predict unmitigated damage, estimate subsequent hazard losses, and measure the disparate impact of those losses on low-income and socially vulnerable communities.

    Her hope is that this streamlined approach could change how funds are disbursed and give communities the tools to solve the entwined challenges of climate change and equity.

    The city texture work Manav has adopted is quite different from the gravity-defying engineering that drew her to the field. But she’s found that it is often more pragmatic and impactful.

    Rather than mastering the elements, she’s learning how to adapt to them and help others do the same. Solutions to climate change, she’s discovered, demand the collaboration of numerous parties — as well as a willingness to confront one’s own vulnerabilities and make the decision to reach out.  More

  • in

    The boiling crisis — and how to avoid it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • in

    Amy Watterson: Model engineer

    “I love that we are doing something that no one else is doing.”

    Amy Watterson is excited when she talks about SPARC, the pilot fusion plant being developed by MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CSF). Since being hired as a mechanical engineer at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) two years ago, Watterson has found her skills stretching to accommodate the multiple needs of the project.

    Fusion, which fuels the sun and stars, has long been sought as a carbon-free energy source for the world. For decades researchers have pursued the “tokamak,” a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber where hot plasma can be contained by magnetic fields and heated to the point where fusion occurs. Sustaining the fusion reactions long enough to draw energy from them has been a challenge.

    Watterson is intimately aware of this difficulty. Much of her life she has heard the quip, “Fusion is 50 years away and always will be.” The daughter of PSFC research scientist Catherine Fiore, who headed the PSFC’s Office of Environment, Safety and Health, and Reich Watterson, an optical engineer working at the center, she had watched her parents devote years to making fusion a reality. She determined before entering Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that she could forgo any attempt to follow her parents into a field that might not produce results during her career.

    Working on SPARC has changed her mindset. Taking advantage of a novel high-temperature superconducting tape, SPARC’s magnets will be compact while generating magnetic fields stronger than would be possible from other mid-sized tokamaks, and producing more fusion power. It suggests a high-field device that produces net fusion gain is not 50 years away. SPARC is scheduled to be begin operation in 2025.

    An education in modeling

    Watterson’s current excitement, and focus, is due to an approaching milestone for SPARC: a test of the Toroidal Field Magnet Coil (TFMC), a scaled prototype for the HTS magnets that will surround SPARC’s toroidal vacuum chamber. Its design and manufacture have been shaped by computer models and simulations. As part of a large research team, Waterson has received an education in modeling over the past two years.

    Computer models move scientific experiments forward by allowing researchers to predict what will happen to an experiment — or its materials — if a parameter is changed. Modeling a component of the TFMC, for example, researchers can test how it is affected by varying amounts of current, different temperatures or different materials. With this information they can make choices that will improve the success of the experiment.

    In preparation for the magnet testing, Watterson has modeled aspects of the cryogenic system that will circulate helium gas around the TFMC to keep it cold enough to remain superconducting. Taking into consideration the amount of cooling entering the system, the flow rate of the helium, the resistance created by valves and transfer lines and other parameters, she can model how much helium flow will be necessary to guarantee the magnet stays cold enough. Adjusting a parameter can make the difference between a magnet remaining superconducting and becoming overheated or even damaged.

    Watterson and her teammates have also modeled pressures and stress on the inside of the TFMC. Pumping helium through the coil to cool it down will add 20 atmospheres of pressure, which could create a degree of flex in elements of the magnet that are welded down. Modeling can help determine how much pressure a weld can sustain.

    “How thick does a weld need to be, and where should you put the weld so that it doesn’t break — that’s something you don’t want to leave until you’re finally assembling it,” says Watterson.

    Modeling the behavior of helium is particularly challenging because its properties change significantly as the pressure and temperature change.

    “A few degrees or a little pressure will affect the fluid’s viscosity, density, thermal conductivity, and heat capacity,” says Watterson. “The flow has different pressures and temperatures at different places in the cryogenic loop. You end up with a set of equations that are very dependent on each other, which makes it a challenge to solve.”

    Role model

    Watterson notes that her modeling depends on the contributions of colleagues at the PSFC, and praises the collaborative spirit among researchers and engineers, a community that now feels like family. Her teammates have been her mentors. “I’ve learned so much more on the job in two years than I did in four years at school,” she says.

    She realizes that having her mother as a role model in her own family has always made it easier for her to imagine becoming a scientist or engineer. Tracing her early passion for engineering to a middle school Lego robotics tournament, her eyes widen as she talks about the need for more female engineers, and the importance of encouraging girls to believe they are equal to the challenge.

    “I want to be a role model and tell them ‘I’m a successful engineer, you can be too.’ Something I run into a lot is that little girls will say, ‘I can’t be an engineer, I’m not cut out for that.’ And I say, ‘Well that’s not true. Let me show you. If you can make this Lego robot, then you can be an engineer.’ And it turns out they usually can.”

    Then, as if making an adjustment to one of her computer models, she continues.

    “Actually, they always can.” More

  • in

    Investigating materials for safe, secure nuclear power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • in

    A material difference

    Eesha Khare has always seen a world of matter. The daughter of a hardware engineer and a biologist, she has an insatiable interest in what substances — both synthetic and biological — have in common. Not surprisingly, that perspective led her to the study of materials.

    “I recognized early on that everything around me is a material,” she says. “How our phones respond to touches, how trees in nature to give us both structural wood and foldable paper, or how we are able to make high skyscrapers with steel and glass, it all comes down to the fundamentals: This is materials science and engineering.”

    As a rising fourth-year PhD student in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), Khare now studies the metal-coordination bonds that allow mussels to bind to rocks along turbulent coastlines. But Khare’s scientific enthusiasm has also led to expansive interests from science policy to climate advocacy and entrepreneurship.

    A material world

    A Silicon Valley native, Khare recalls vividly how excited she was about science as a young girl, both at school and at myriad science fairs and high school laboratory internships. One such internship at the University of California at Santa Cruz introduced her to the study of nanomaterials, or materials that are smaller than a single human cell. The project piqued her interest in how research could lead to energy-storage applications, and she began to ponder the connections between materials, science policy, and the environment.

    As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Khare pursued a degree in engineering sciences and chemistry while also working at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. There, she grew fascinated by environmental advocacy in the policy space, working for then-professor Gina McCarthy, who is currently serving in the Biden administration as the first-ever White House climate advisor.

    Following her academic explorations in college, Khare wanted to consider science in a new light before pursuing her doctorate in materials science and engineering. She deferred her program acceptance at MIT in order to attend Cambridge University in the U.K., where she earned a master’s degree in the history and philosophy of science. “Especially in a PhD program, it can often feel like your head is deep in the science as you push new research frontiers, but I wanted take a step back and be inspired by how scientists in the past made their discoveries,” she says.

    Her experience at Cambridge was both challenging and informative, but Khare quickly found that her mechanistic curiosity remained persistent — a realization that came in the form of a biological material.

    “My very first master’s research project was about environmental pollution indicators in the U.K., and I was looking specifically at lichen to understand the social and political reasons why they were adopted by the public as pollution indicators,” Khare explains. “But I found myself wondering more about how lichen can act as pollution indicators. And I found that to be quite similar for most of my research projects: I was more interested in how the technology or discovery actually worked.”

    Enthusiasm for innovation

    Fittingly, these bioindicators confirmed for her that studying materials at MIT was the right course. Now Khare works on a different organism altogether, conducting research on the metal-coordination chemical interactions of a biopolymer secreted by mussels.

    “Mussels secrete this thread and can adhere to ocean walls. So, when ocean waves come, mussels don’t get dislodged that easily,” Khare says. “This is partly because of how metal ions in this material bind to different amino acids in the protein. There’s no input from the mussel itself to control anything there; all the magic is in this biological material that is not only very sticky, but also doesn’t break very readily, and if you cut it, it can re-heal that interface as well! If we could better understand and replicate this biological material in our own world, we could have materials self-heal and never break and thus eliminate so much waste.”

    To study this natural material, Khare combines computational and experimental techniques, experimentally synthesizing her own biopolymers and studying their properties with in silico molecular dynamics. Her co-advisors — Markus Buehler, the Jerry McAfee Professor of Engineering in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Niels Holten-Andersen, professor of materials science and engineering — have embraced this dual-approach to her project, as well as her abundant enthusiasm for innovation.

    Khare likes to take one exploratory course per semester, and a recent offering in the MIT Sloan School of Management inspired her to pursue entrepreneurship. These days she is spending much of her free time on a startup called Taxie, formed with fellow MIT students after taking the course 15.390 (New Enterprises). Taxie attempts to electrify the rideshare business by making electric rental cars available to rideshare drivers. Khare hopes this project will initiate some small first steps in making the ridesharing industry environmentally cleaner — and in democratizing access to electric vehicles for rideshare drivers, who often hail from lower-income or immigrant backgrounds.

    “There are a lot of goals thrown around for reducing emissions or helping our environment. But we are slowly getting physical things on the road, physical things to real people, and I like to think that we are helping to accelerate the electric transition,” Khare says. “These small steps are helpful for learning, at the very least, how we can make a transition to electric or to a cleaner industry.”

    Alongside her startup work, Khare has pursued a number of other extracurricular activities at MIT, including co-organizing her department’s Student Application Assistance Program and serving on DMSE’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. Her varied interests also have led to a diverse group of friends, which suits her well, because she is a self-described “people-person.”

    In a year where maintaining connections has been more challenging than usual, Khare has focused on the positive, spending her spring semester with family in California and practicing Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance, over Zoom. As she looks to the future, Khare hopes to bring even more of her interests together, like materials science and climate.

    “I want to understand the energy and environmental sector at large to identify the most pressing technology gaps and how can I use my knowledge to contribute. My goal is to figure out where can I personally make a difference and where it can have a bigger impact to help our climate,” she says. “I like being outside of my comfort zone.” More

  • in

    Manipulating magnets in the quest for fusion

    “You get the high field, you get the performance.”

    Senior Research Scientist Brian LaBombard is summarizing what might be considered a guiding philosophy behind designing and engineering fusion devices at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC). Beginning in 1972 with the Alcator A tokamak, through Alcator C (1978) and Alcator C-Mod (1991), the PSFC has used magnets with high fields to confine the hot plasma in compact, high-performance tokamaks. Joining what was then the Plasma Fusion Center as a graduate student in 1978, just as Alcator A was finishing its run, LaBombard is one of the few who has worked with each iteration of the high-field concept. Now he has turned his attention to the PSFC’s latest fusion venture, a fusion energy project called SPARC.

    Designed in collaboration with MIT spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), SPARC employs novel high temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets at high-field to achieve fusion that will produce net energy gain. Some of these magnets will wrap toroidally around the tokamak’s doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, confining fusion reactions and preventing damage to the walls of the device.

    The PSFC has spent three years researching, developing, and manufacturing a scaled version of these toroidal field (TF) coils — the toroidal field model coil, or TFMC. Before the TF coils can be built for SPARC, LaBombard and his team need to test the model coil under the conditions that it will experience in this tokamak.

    HTS magnets need to be cooled in order to remain superconducting, and to be protected from the heat generated by current. For testing, the TFMC will be enclosed in a cryostat, cooled to the low temperatures needed for eventual tokamak operation, and charged with current to produce magnetic field. How the magnet responds as the current is provided to the coil will determine if the technology is in hand to construct the 18 TF coils for SPARC.

    A history of achievement

    That LaBombard is part of the PSFC’s next fusion project is not unusual; that he is involved in designing, engineering, and testing the magnets is. Until 2018, when he led the R&D research team for one of the magnet designs being considered for SPARC, LaBombard’s 30-plus years of celebrated research had focused on other areas of the fusion question.

    As a graduate student, he gained early acclaim for the research he reported in his PhD thesis. Working on Alcator C, he made groundbreaking discoveries about the plasma physics in the “boundary” region of the tokamak, between the edge of the fusing core and the wall of the machine. With typical modesty, LaBombard credits some of his success to the fact that the topic was not well-studied, and that Alcator C provided measurements not possible on other machines.

    “People knew about the boundary, but nobody was really studying it in detail. On Alcator C, there were interesting phenomena, such as marfes [multifaceted asymmetric radiation from the edge], being detected for the first time. This pushed me to make boundary layer measurements in great detail that no one had ever seen before. It was all new territory, so I made a big splash.”

    That splash established him as a leading researcher in the field of boundary plasmas. After a two-year turn at the University of California at Los Angeles working on a plasma-wall test facility called PISCES, LaBombard, who grew up in New England, was happy to return to MIT to join the PSFC’s new Alcator C-Mod project.

    Over the next 28 years of C-Mod’s construction phase and operation, LaBombard continued to make groundbreaking contributions to understanding tokamak edge and divertor plasmas, and to design internal components that can survive the harsh conditions and provide plasma control — including C-Mod’s vertical target plate divertor and a unique divertor cryopump system. That experience led him to conceive of the “X-point target divertor” for handling extreme fusion power exhaust and to propose a national Advanced Divertor tokamak eXperiment (ADX) to test such ideas.

    All along, LaBombard’s true passion was in creating revolutionary diagnostics to unfold boundary layer physics and in guiding graduate students to do the same: an Omegatron, to measure impurity concentrations directly in the boundary plasma, resolved by charge-to-mass ratio; fast-scanning Langmuir-Mach probes to measure plasma flows; a Shoelace Antenna to provide insight into plasma fluctuations at the edge; the invention of a Mirror Langmuir Probe for the real-time measurements of plasma turbulence at high bandwidth.

    Switching sides

    His expertise established, he could have continued this focus on the edge of the plasma through collaborations with other laboratories and at the PSFC. Instead, he finds himself on the other side of the vacuum chamber, immersed in magnet design and technology. Challenged with finding an effective HTS magnet design for SPARC, he and his team were able to propose a winning strategy, one that seemed most likely to achieve the compact high field and high performance that PSFC tokamaks have been known for.

    LaBombard is stimulated by his new direction and excited about the upcoming test of the TFMC. His new role takes advantage of his physics background in electricity and magnetism. It also supports his passion for designing and building things, which he honed as high school apprentice to his machinist father and explored professionally building systems for Alcator C-Mod.

    “I view my principal role is to make sure the TF coil works electrically, the way it’s supposed to,” he says. “So it produces the magnetic field without damaging the coil.”

    A successful test would validate the understanding of how the new magnet technology works, and will prepare the team to build magnets for SPARC.

    Among those overseeing the hours of TFMC testing will be graduate students, current and former, reminding LaBombard of his own student days working on Alcator C, and of his years supervising students on Alcator C-Mod.

    “Those students were directly involved with Alcator C-Mod. They would jump in, make things happen — and as a team. This team spirit really enabled everyone to excel.

    “And looking to when SPARC was taking shape, you could see that across the board, from the new folks to the younger folks, they really got engaged by the spirit of Alcator — by recognition of the plasma performance that can be made possible by high magnetic fields.”

    He laughs as he looks to the past and to the future.

    “And they are taking it to SPARC.” More