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    On batteries, teaching, and world peace

    Over his long career as an electrochemist and professor, Donald Sadoway has earned an impressive variety of honors, from being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012 to appearing on “The Colbert Report,” where he talked about “renewable energy and world peace,” according to Comedy Central.

    What does he personally consider to be his top achievements?

    “That’s easy,” he says immediately. “For teaching, it’s 3.091,” the MIT course on solid-state chemistry he led for some 18 years. An MIT core requirement, 3.091 is also one of the largest classes at the Institute. In 2003 it was the largest, with 630 students. Sadoway, who retires this year after 45 years in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, estimates that over the years he’s taught the course to some 10,000 undergraduates.

    A passion for teaching

    Along the way he turned the class into an MIT favorite, complete with music, art, and literature. “I brought in all that enrichment because I knew that 95 percent of the students in that room weren’t going to major in anything chemical and this might be the last class they’d take in the subject. But it’s a requirement. So they’re 18 years old, they’re very smart, and many of them are very bored. You have to find a hook [to reach them]. And I did.”

    In 1995, Sadoway was named a Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, an honor that recognizes outstanding classroom teaching at the Institute. Among the communications in support of his nomination:

    “His contributions are enormous and the class is in rapt attention from beginning to end. His lectures are highly articulate yet animated and he has uncommon grace and style. I was awed by his ability to introduce playful and creative elements into a core lecture…”

    Bill Gates would agree. In the early 2000s Sadoway’s lectures were shared with the world through OpenCourseWare, the web-based publication of MIT course materials. Gates was so inspired by the lectures that he asked to meet with Sadoway to learn more about his research. (Sadoway initially ignored Gates’ email because he thought his account had been hacked by MIT pranksters.)

    Research breakthroughs

    Teaching is not Sadoway’s only passion. He’s also proud of his accomplishments in electrochemistry. The discipline that involves electron transfer reactions is key to everything from batteries to the primary extraction of metals like aluminum and magnesium. “It’s quite wide-ranging,” says the John F. Elliott Professor Emeritus of Materials Chemistry.

    Sadoway’s contributions include two battery breakthroughs. First came the liquid metal battery, which could enable the large-scale storage of renewable energy. “That represents a huge step forward in the transition to green energy,” said António Campinos, president of the European Patent Office, earlier this year when Sadoway won the 2022 European Inventor Award for the invention in the category for Non-European Patent Office Countries.

    On “The Colbert Report,” Sadoway alluded to that work when he told Stephen Colbert that electrochemistry is the key to world peace. Why? Because it could lead to a battery capable of storing energy from the sun when the sun doesn’t shine and otherwise make renewables an important part of the clean energy mix. And that in turn could “plummet the price of petroleum and depose dictators all over the world without one shot being fired,” he recently recalled.

    The liquid metal battery is the focus of Ambri, one of six companies based on Sadoway’s inventions. Bill Gates was the first funder of the company, which formed in 2010 and aims to install its first battery soon. That battery will store energy from a reported 500 megawatts of on-site renewable generation, the same output as a natural gas power plant.

    Then, in August of this year, Sadoway and colleagues published a paper in Nature about “one of the first new battery chemistries in 30 years,” Sadoway says. “I wanted to invent something that was better, much better,” than the expensive lithium-ion batteries used in, for example, today’s electric cars.

    That battery is the focus of Avanti, one of three Sadoway companies formed just last year. The other two are Pure Lithium, to commercialize his inventions related to that element, and Sadoway Labs. The latter, a nonprofit, is essentially “a space to try radical innovations. We’re gonna start working on wild ideas.”

    Another focus of Sadoway’s research: green steel. Steelmaking produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Enter Boston Metal, another Sadoway company. This one is developing a new approach to producing steel based on research begun some 25 years ago. Unlike the current technology for producing steel, the Boston Metal approach — molten oxide electrolysis — does not use the element at the root of steel’s problems: carbon. The principal byproduct of the new system? Oxygen.

    In 2012, Sadoway gave a TED talk to 2,000 people on the liquid metal battery. He believes that that talk, which has now been seen by almost 2.5 million people, led to the wider publicity of his work — and science overall — on “The Colbert Report” and elsewhere. “The moral here is that if you step out of your comfort zone, you might be surprised at what can happen,” he concludes.

    Colleagues’ reflections

    “I met Don in 2006 when I was working for the iron and steel industry in Europe on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the production of those materials,” says Antoine Allanore, professor of metallurgy, Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “He was the same Don Sadoway that you see in recordings of his lectures: very elegant, very charismatic, and passionate about the technical solutions and underlying science of the process we were all investigating; electrolysis. A few years later, when I decided to pursue an academic career, I contacted Don and became a postdoctoral associate in his lab. That ultimately led to my becoming an MIT professor. People don’t believe me, but before I came to MIT the only thing I knew about the Institute was that Noam Chomsky was there … and Don Sadoway. And I felt, that’s a great place to be. And I stayed because I saw the exceptional things that can be accomplished at MIT and Don is the perfect example of that.”

    “I had the joy of meeting Don when I first arrived on the MIT campus in 1994,” recalls Felice Frankel, research scientist in the MIT departments of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. “I didn’t have to talk him into the idea that researchers needed to take their images and graphics more seriously.  He got it — that it wasn’t just about pretty pictures. He was an important part of our five-year National Science Foundation project — Picturing to Learn — to bring that concept into the classroom. How lucky that was for me!”

    “Don has been a friend and mentor since we met in 1995 when I was an MIT senior,” says Luis Ortiz, co-founder and chief executive officer, Avanti Battery Co. “One story that is emblematic of Don’s insistence on excellence is from when he and I met with Bill Gates about the challenges in addressing climate change and how batteries could be the linchpin in solving them. I suggested that we create our presentation in PowerPoint [Microsoft software]. Don balked. He insisted that we present using Keynote on his MacBook Air, because ‘it looks so much better.’ I was incredulous that he wanted to walk into that venue exclusively using Apple products. Of course, he won the argument, but not without my admonition that there had better not be even a blip of an issue. In the meeting room, Microsoft’s former chief technology officer asked Don if he needed anything to hook up to the screen, ‘we have all those dongles.’ Don declined, but gave me that knowing look and whispered, ‘You see, they know, too.’ I ate my crow and we had a great long conversation without any issues.”

    “I remember when I first started working with Don on the liquid metal battery project at MIT, after I had chosen it as the topic for my master’s of engineering thesis,” adds David Bradwell, co-founder and chief technology officer, Ambri. “I was a wide-eyed graduate student, sitting in his office, amongst his art deco decorations, unique furniture, and historical and stylistic infographics, and from our first meeting, I could see Don’s passion for coming up with new and creative, yet practical scientific ideas, and for working on hard problems, in service of society. Don’s approaches always appear to be unconventional — wanting to stand out in a crowd, take the path less trodden, both based on his ideas, and his sense of style. It’s been an amazing journey working with him over the past decade-and-a-half, and I remain excited to see what other new, unconventional ideas, he can bring to this world.” More

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    Finding community in high-energy-density physics

    Skylar Dannhoff knew one thing: She did not want to be working alone.

    As an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University, she had committed to a senior project that often felt like solitary lab work, a feeling heightened by the pandemic. Though it was an enriching experience, she was determined to find a graduate school environment that would foster community, one “with lots of people, lots of collaboration; where it’s impossible to work until 3 a.m. without anyone noticing.” A unique group at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) looked promising: the High-Energy-Density Physics (HEDP) division, a lead partner in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Center for Excellence at MIT.

    “It was a shot in the dark, just more of a whim than anything,” she says of her request to join HEDP on her application to MIT’s Department of Physics. “And then, somehow, they reached out to me. I told them I’m willing to learn about plasma. I didn’t know anything about it.”

    What she did know was that the HEDP group collaborates with other U.S. laboratories on an approach to creating fusion energy known as inertial confinement fusion (ICF). One version of the technique, known as direct-drive ICF, aims multiple laser beams symmetrically onto a spherical capsule filled with nuclear fuel. The other, indirect-drive ICF, instead aims multiple lasers beams into a gold cylindrical cavity called a hohlraum, within which the spherical fuel capsule is positioned. The laser beams are configured to hit the inner hohlraum wall, generating a “bath” of X-rays, which in turn compress the fuel capsule.

    Imploding the capsule generates intense fusion energy within a tiny fraction of a second (an order of tens of picoseconds). In August 2021, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) used this method to produce an historic fusion yield of 1.3 megajoules, putting researchers within reach of “ignition,” the point where the self-sustained fusion burn spreads into the surrounding fuel, leading to a high fusion-energy gain.  

    Joining the group just a month before this long-sought success, Dannhoff was impressed more with the response of her new teammates and the ICF community than with the scientific milestone. “I got a better appreciation for people who had spent their entire careers working on this project, just chugging along doing their best, ignoring the naysayers. I was excited for the people.”

    Dannhoff is now working toward extending the success of NIF and other ICF experiments, like the OMEGA laser at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Under the supervision of Senior Research Scientist Chikang Li, she is studying what happens to the flow of plasma within the hohlraum cavity during indirect ICF experiments, particularly for hohlraums with inner-wall aerogel foam linings. Experiments, over the last decade, have shown just how excruciatingly precise the symmetry in ICF targets must be. The more symmetric the X-ray drive, the more effective the implosion, and it is possible that these foam linings will improve the X-ray symmetry and drive efficiency.

    Dannhoff is specifically interested in studying the behavior of silicon and tantalum-based foam liners. She is as concerned with the challenges of the people at General Atomics (GA) and LLNL who are creating these targets as she is with the scientific outcome.

    “I just had a meeting with GA yesterday,” she notes. “And it’s a really tricky process. It’s kind of pushing the boundaries of what is doable at the moment. I got a much better sense of how demanding this project is for them, how much we’re asking of them.”

    What excites Dannhoff is the teamwork she observes, both at MIT and between ICF institutions around the United States. With roughly 10 graduate students and postdocs down the hall, each with an assigned lead role in lab management, she knows she can consult an expert on almost any question. And collaborators across the country are just an email away. “Any information that people can give you, they will give you, and usually very freely,” she notes. “Everyone just wants to see this work.”

    That Dannhoff is a natural team player is also evidenced in her hobbies. A hockey goalie, she prioritizes playing with MIT’s intramural teams, “because goalies are a little hard to come by. I just play with whoever needs a goalie on that night, and it’s a lot of fun.”

    She is also a member of the radio community, a fellowship she first embraced at Case Western — a moment she describes as a turning point in her life. “I literally don’t know who I would be today if I hadn’t figured out radio is something I’m interested in,” she admits. The MIT Radio Society provided the perfect landing pad for her arrival in Cambridge, full of the kinds of supportive, interesting, knowledgeable students she had befriended as an undergraduate. She credits radio with helping her realize that she could make her greatest contributions to science by focusing on engineering.

    Danhoff gets philosophical as she marvels at the invisible waves that surround us.

    “Not just radio waves: every wave,” she asserts. “The voice is the everywhere. Music, signal, space phenomena: it’s always around. And all we have to do is make the right little device and have the right circuit elements put in the right order to unmix and mix the signals and amplify them. And bada-bing, bada-boom, we’re talking with the universe.”

    “Maybe that epitomizes physics to me,” she adds. “We’re trying to listen to the universe, and it’s talking to us. We just have to come up with the right tools and hear what it’s trying to say.” More

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    Studying floods to better predict their dangers

    “My job is basically flooding Cambridge,” says Katerina “Katya” Boukin, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at MIT and the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub’s resident expert on flood simulations. 

    You can often find her fine-tuning high-resolution flood risk models for the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, or talking about hurricanes with fellow researcher Ipek Bensu Manav.

    Flooding represents one of the world’s gravest natural hazards. Extreme climate events inducing flooding, like severe storms, winter storms, and tropical cyclones, caused an estimated $128.1 billion of damages in 2021 alone. 

    Climate simulation models suggest that severe storms will become more frequent in the coming years, necessitating a better understanding of which parts of cities are most vulnerable — an understanding that can be improved through modeling.

    A problem with current flood models is that they struggle to account for an oft-misunderstood type of flooding known as pluvial flooding. 

    “You might think of flooding as the overflowing of a body of water, like a river. This is fluvial flooding. This can be somewhat predictable, as you can think of proximity to water as a risk factor,” Boukin explains.

    However, the “flash flooding” that causes many deaths each year can happen even in places nowhere near a body of water. This is an example of pluvial flooding, which is affected by terrain, urban infrastructure, and the dynamic nature of storm loads.

    “If we don’t know how a flood is propagating, we don’t know the risk it poses to the urban environment. And if we don’t understand the risk, we can’t really discuss mitigation strategies,” says Boukin, “That’s why I pursue improving flood propagation models.”

    Boukin is leading development of a new flood prediction method that seeks to address these shortcomings. By better representing the complex morphology of cities, Boukin’s approach may provide a clearer forecast of future urban flooding.

    Katya Boukin developed this model of the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The base model was provided through a collaboration between MIT, the City of Cambridge, and Dewberry Engineering.

    Image: Katya Boukin

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    “In contrast to the more typical traditional catchment model, our method has rainwater spread around the urban environment based on the city’s topography, below-the-surface features like sewer pipes, and the characteristics of local soils,” notes Boukin.

    “We can simulate the flooding of regions with local rain forecasts. Our results can show how flooding propagates by the foot and by the second,” she adds.

    While Boukin’s current focus is flood simulation, her unconventional academic career has taken her research in many directions, like examining structural bottlenecks in dense urban rail systems and forecasting ground displacement due to tunneling. 

    “I’ve always been interested in the messy side of problem-solving. I think that difficult problems present a real chance to gain a deeper understanding,” says Boukin.

    Boukin credits her upbringing for giving her this perspective. A native of Israel, Boukin says that civil engineering is the family business. “My parents are civil engineers, my mom’s parents are, too, her grandfather was a professor in civil engineering, and so on. Civil engineering is my bloodline.”

    However, the decision to follow the family tradition did not come so easily. “After I took the Israeli equivalent of the SAT, I was at a decision point: Should I go to engineering school or medical school?” she recalls.

    “I decided to go on a backpacking trip to help make up my mind. It’s sort of an Israeli rite to explore internationally, so I spent six months in South America. I think backpacking is something everyone should do.”

    After this soul searching, Boukin landed on engineering school, where she fell in love with structural engineering. “It was the option that felt most familiar and interesting. I grew up playing with AutoCAD on the family computer, and now I use AutoCAD professionally!” she notes.

    “For my master’s degree, I was looking to study in a department that would help me integrate knowledge from fields like climatology and civil engineering. I found the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to be an excellent fit,” she says.

    “I am lucky that MIT has so many people that work together as well as they do. I ended up at the Concrete Sustainability Hub, where I’m working on projects which are the perfect fit between what I wanted to do and what the department wanted to do.” 

    Boukin’s move to Cambridge has given her a new perspective on her family and childhood. 

    “My parents brought me to Israel when I was just 1 year old. In moving here as a second-time immigrant, I have a new perspective on what my parents went through during the move to Israel. I moved when I was 27 years old, the same age as they were. They didn’t have a support network and worked any job they could find,” she explains.

    “I am incredibly grateful to them for the morals they instilled in my sister, who recently graduated medical school, and I. I know I can call my parents if I ever need something, and they will do whatever they can to help.”

    Boukin hopes to honor her parents’ efforts through her research.

    “Not only do I want to help stakeholders understand flood risks, I want to make awareness of flooding more accessible. Each community needs different things to be resilient, and different cultures have different ways of delivering and receiving information,” she says.

    “Everyone should understand that they, in addition to the buildings and infrastructure around them, are part of a complex ecosystem. Any change to a city can affect the rest of it. If designers and residents are aware of this when considering flood mitigation strategies, we can better design cities and understand the consequences of damage.” More

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    Simulating neutron behavior in nuclear reactors

    Amelia Trainer applied to MIT because she lost a bet.

    As part of what the fourth-year nuclear science and engineering (NSE) doctoral student labels her “teenage rebellious phase,” Trainer was quite convinced she would just be wasting the application fee were she to submit an application. She wasn’t even “super sure” she wanted to go to college. But a high-school friend was convinced Trainer would get into a “top school” if she only applied. A bet followed: If Trainer lost, she would have to apply to MIT. Trainer lost — and is glad she did.

    Growing up in Daytona Beach, Florida, good grades were Trainer’s thing. Seeing friends participate in interschool math competitions, Trainer decided she would tag along and soon found she loved them. She remembers being adept at reading the room: If teams were especially struggling over a problem, Trainer figured the answer had to be something easy, like zero or one. “The hardest problems would usually have the most goofball answers,” she laughs.

    Simulating neutron behavior

    As a doctoral student, hard problems in math, specifically computational reactor physics, continue to be Trainer’s forte.

    Her research, under the guidance of Professor Benoit Forget in MIT NSE’s Computational Reactor Physics Group (CRPG), focuses on modeling complicated neutron behavior in reactors. Simulation helps forecast the behavior of reactors before millions of dollars sink into development of a potentially uneconomical unit. Using simulations, Trainer can see “where the neutrons are going, how much heat is being produced, and how much power the reactor can generate.” Her research helps form the foundation for the next generation of nuclear power plants.

    To simulate neutron behavior inside of a nuclear reactor, you first need to know how neutrons will interact with the various materials inside the system. These neutrons can have wildly different energies, thereby making them susceptible to different physical phenomena. For the entirety of her graduate studies, Trainer has been primarily interested in the physics regarding slow-moving neutrons and their scattering behavior.

    When a slow neutron scatters off of a material, it can induce or cancel out molecular vibrations between the material’s atoms. The effect that material vibrations can have on neutron energies, and thereby on reactor behavior, has been heavily approximated over the years. Trainer is primarily interested in chipping away at these approximations by creating scattering data for materials that have historically been misrepresented and by exploring new techniques for preparing slow-neutron scattering data.

    Trainer remembers waiting for a simulation to complete in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when she discovered a way to predict neutron behavior with limited input data. Traditionally, “people have to store large tables of what neutrons will do under specific circumstances,” she says. “I’m really happy about it because it’s this really cool method of sampling what your neutron does from very little information,” Trainer says.

    Amelia Trainer — Modeling complicated neutron behavior in nuclear reactors

    As part of her research, Trainer often works closely with two software packages: OpenMC and NJOY. OpenMC is a Monte Carlo neutron transport simulation code that was developed in the CRPG and is used to simulate neutron behavior in reactor systems. NJOY is a nuclear data processing tool, and is used to create, augment, and prepare material data that is fed into tools like OpenMC. By editing both these codes to her specifications, Trainer is able to observe the effect that “upstream” material data has on the “downstream” reactor calculations. Through this, she hopes to identify additional problems: approximations that could lead to a noticeable misrepresentation of the physics.

    A love of geometry and poetry

    Trainer discovered the coolness of science as a child. Her mother, who cares for indoor plants and runs multiple greenhouses, and her father, a blacksmith and farrier, who explored materials science through his craft, were self-taught inspirations.

    Trainer’s father urged his daughter to learn and pursue any topics that she found exciting and encouraged her to read poems from “Calvin and Hobbes” out loud when she struggled with a speech impediment in early childhood. Reading the same passages every day helped her memorize them. “The natural manifestation of that extended into [a love of] poetry,” Trainer says.

    A love of poetry, combined with Trainer’s propensity for fun, led her to compose an ode to pi as part of an MIT-sponsored event for alumni. “I was really only in it for the cupcake,” she laughs. (Participants received an indulgent treat).

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    MIT Matters: A Love Poem to Pi

    Computations and nuclear science

    After being accepted at MIT, Trainer knew she wanted to study in a field that would take her skills at the levels they were at — “my math skills were pretty underdeveloped in the grand scheme of things,” she says. An open-house weekend at MIT, where she met with faculty from the NSE department, and the opportunity to contribute to a discipline working toward clean energy, cemented Trainer’s decision to join NSE.

    As a high schooler, Trainer won a scholarship to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to learn computer coding and knew computational physics might be more aligned with her interests. After she joined MIT as an undergraduate student in 2014, she realized that the CRPG, with its focus on coding and modeling, might be a good fit. Fortunately, a graduate student from Forget’s team welcomed Trainer’s enthusiasm for research even as an undergraduate first-year. She has stayed with the lab ever since. 

    Research internships at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the creators of NJOY, have furthered Trainer’s enthusiasm for modeling and computational physics. She met a Los Alamos scientist after he presented a talk at MIT and it snowballed into a collaboration where she could work on parts of the NJOY code. “It became a really cool collaboration which led me into a deep dive into physics and data preparation techniques, which was just so fulfilling,” Trainer says. As for what’s next, Trainer was awarded the Rickover fellowship in nuclear engineering by the the Department of Energy’s Naval Reactors Division and will join the program in Pittsburgh after she graduates.

    For many years, Trainer’s cats, Jacques and Monster, have been a constant companion. “Neutrons, computers, and cats, that’s my personality,” she laughs. Work continues to fuel her passion. To borrow a favorite phrase from Spaceman Spiff, Trainer’s favorite “Calvin” avatar, Trainer’s approach to research has invariably been: “Another day, another mind-boggling adventure.” More

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    A lasting — and valuable — legacy

    Betar Gallant, MIT associate professor and Class of 1922 Career Development Chair in Mechanical Engineering, grew up in a curious, independently minded family. Her mother had multiple jobs over the years, including in urban planning and in the geospatial field. Her father, although formally trained in English, read textbooks of all kinds from cover to cover, taught himself numerous technical fields including engineering, and worked successfully in them. When Gallant was very young, she and her father did science experiments in the basement.

    It wasn’t until she was in her teenage years, though, that she says she got drawn into science. Her father, who had fallen ill five years before, died when Gallant was 16, and while grieving, “when I was missing him the most,” she started to look at what had captivated her father.

    “I started to take a deeper interest in the things he had spent his life working on as a way to feel closer to him in his absence,” Gallant says. “I spent a few long months one summer looking through some of the things he had worked on, and found myself reading physics textbooks. That was enough, and I was hooked.”

    The love for independently finding and understanding solutions, that she had apparently inherited from her parents, eventually took her to the professional love of her life: electrochemistry.

    As an undergraduate at MIT, Gallant did an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project with Professor Yang Shao-Horn’s research group that went from her sophomore year through her senior thesis. This was Gallant’s first official exposure to electrochemistry.

    “When I met Yang, she showed me very quickly how challenging and enriching electrochemistry can be, and there was real conviction and excitement in how she and her group members talked about research,” Gallant says. “It was totally eye-opening, and I’m fortunate that she was a (relatively rare) electrochemist in a mechanical engineering department, or else I likely would not have been able to go down that road.”

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    Gallant earned three degrees at MIT (’08, SM ’10, and PhD ’13). Before joining the MIT faculty in 2016, she was a Kavli Nanoscience Institute Prize Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

    Her passion for electrochemistry is enormous. “Electrons are just dazzling — they power so much of our everyday world, and are the key to a renewable future,” she says, explaining that despite electrons’ amazing potential, isolated electrons cannot be stored and produced on demand, because “nature doesn’t allow excessive amounts of charge imbalances to accumulate.”

    Electrons can, however, be stored on molecules, in bonds and in metal ions or nonmetal centers that are able to lose and gain electrons — as long as positive charge transfers occur to accommodate the electrons.

    “Here’s where chemistry rears its head,” Gallant says. “What types of molecules or materials can behave in this way? How do we store as much charge as possible while making the weight and volume as low as possible?”

    Gallant points out that early battery developers using lithium and ions built a technology that “has arguably shaped our modern world more than any other.

    “If you look at some early papers, the concepts of how a lithium-ion battery or a lithium metal anode worked were sketched out by hand — they had been deduced to be true, before the field even had the tools to prove all the mechanisms were actually occurring — yet even now, those ideas are still turning out to be right!”

    Gallant says, “that’s because if you truly understand the basic principles of electrochemistry, you can start to intuit how systems will behave. Once you can do that, you can really begin to engineer better materials and devices.”

    Truly her father’s daughter, Gallant’s emphasis is on independently finding solutions.

    “Ultimately, it’s a race to have the best mental models,” she says. “A great lab and lots of funding and personnel to run it are very nice, but the most valuable tools in the toolbox are solid mental models and a way of thinking about electrochemistry, which is actually very personalized depending on the researcher.”

    She says one project with immediate impact that’s coming out of her Gallant Energy and Carbon Conversion Lab relates to primary (non-rechargeable) battery work that she and her team are working to commercialize. It involves injecting new electrochemically active electrolytes into leading high-energy batteries as they’re being assembled. Replacing a conventional electrolyte with the new chemistry decreases the normally inactive weight of the battery and boosts the energy substantially, Gallant says. One important application of such batteries would be for medical devices such as pacemakers.

    “If you can extend lifetime, you’re talking about longer times between invasive replacement surgeries, which really affects patient quality of life,” she says.

    Gallant’s team is also leading efforts to enable higher-energy rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. Key to a step-change in energy, and therefore driving range, is to use a lithium metal anode in place of graphite. Lithium metal is highly reactive, however, with all battery electrolytes, and its interface needs to be stabilized in ways that still elude researchers. Gallant’s team is developing design guidelines for such interfaces, and for next-generation electrolytes to form and sustain these interfaces. Gallant says that applying the technology to that purpose and commercializing it would be “a bit longer-term, but I believe this change to lithium anodes will happen, and it’s just a matter of when.”

    About six years ago, when Gallant founded her lab, she and her team started introducing carbon dioxide into batteries as a way to experiment with electrochemical conversion of the greenhouse gas. She says they realized that batteries do not present the best practical technology to mitigate CO2, but their experimentation did open up new paths to carbon capture and conversion. “That work allowed us to think creatively, and we started to realize that there is tremendous potential to manipulate CO2 reactions by carefully designing the electrochemical environment.” That led her team to the idea of conducting electrochemical transformations on CO2 from a captured state bound to a capture sorbent, replacing the energy-intense regeneration step of today’s capture processes and streamlining the process.  

    “Now we’re seeing other researchers working on that, too, and taking this idea in exciting directions — it’s a very challenging and very rich topic,” she says.

    Gallant has won awards including an MIT Bose Fellowship, the Army Research Office Young Investigator Award, the Scialog Fellowship in Energy Storage and in Negative Emissions Science, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Distinguished Teaching at MIT, the Electrochemical Society (ECS) Battery Division Early Career award, and an ECS-Toyota Young Investigator Award.

    These days, Gallant does some of her best thinking while brainstorming with her research group members and with her husband, who is also an academic. She says being a professor at MIT means she has “a queue of things to think about,” but she sometimes gets awarded with a revelation.

    “My brain gets overloaded because I can’t think through everything instantaneously; ideas have to get in line! So there’s a lot going on in the background at all times,” she say. “I don’t know how it works, but sometimes I’ll be going for a walk or doing something else, and an idea breaks through. Those are the fun ones.” More

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    High energy and hungry for the hardest problems

    A high school track star and valedictorian, Anne White has always relished moving fast and clearing high hurdles. Since joining the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) in 2009 she has produced path-breaking fusion research, helped attract a more diverse cohort of students and scholars into the discipline, and, during a worldwide pandemic, assumed the role of department head as well as co-lead of an Institute-wide initiative to address climate change. For her exceptional leadership, innovation, and accomplishments in education and research, White was named the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering in July 2020.

    But White declares little interest in recognition or promotions. “I don’t care about all that stuff,” she says. She’s in the race for much bigger stakes. “I want to find ways to save the world with nuclear,” she says.

    Tackling turbulence

    It was this goal that drew White to MIT. Her research, honed during graduate studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, involved developing a detailed understanding of conditions inside fusion devices, and resolving issues critical to realizing the vision of fusion energy — a carbon-free, nearly limitless source of power generated by 150-million-degree plasma.

    Harnessing this superheated, gaseous form of matter requires a special donut-shaped device called a tokamak, which contains the plasma within magnetic fields. When White entered fusion around the turn of the millennium, models of plasma behavior in tokamaks didn’t reliably match observed or experimental conditions. She was determined to change that picture, working with MIT’s state-of-the-art research tokamak, Alcator C-Mod.

    Play video

    Alcator C-Mod Tokamak Tour

    White believed solving the fusion puzzle meant getting a handle on plasma turbulence — the process by which charged atomic particles, breaking out of magnetic confinement, transport heat from the core to the cool edges of the tokamak. Although researchers knew that fusion energy depends on containing and controlling the heat of plasma reactions, White recalls that when she began grad school, “it was not widely accepted that turbulence was important, and that it was central to heat transport. She “felt it was critical to compare experimental measurements to first principles physics models, so we could demonstrate the significance of turbulence and give tokamak models better predictive ability.”

    In a series of groundbreaking studies, White’s team created the tools for measuring turbulence in different conditions, and developed computational models that could account for variations in turbulence, all validated by experiments. She was one of the first fusion scientists both to perform experiments and conduct simulations. “We lived in the domain between these two worlds,” she says.

    White’s turbulence models opened up approaches for managing turbulence and maximizing tokamak performance, paving the way for net-energy fusion energy devices, including ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment, and SPARC, a compact, high-magnetic-field tokamak, a collaboration between MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

    Laser-focused on turbulence

    Growing up in the desert city of Yuma, Arizona, White spent her free time outdoors, hiking and camping. “I was always in the space of protecting the environment,” she says. The daughter of two lawyers who taught her “to argue quickly and efficiently,” she excelled in math and physics in high school. Awarded a full ride at the University of Arizona, she was intent on a path in science, one where she could tackle problems like global warming, as it was known then. Physics seemed like the natural concentration for her.

    But there was unexpected pushback. The physics advisor believed her physics grades were lackluster. “I said, ‘Who cares what this guy thinks; I’ll take physics classes anyway,’” recalls White. Being tenacious and “thick skinned,” says White, turned out to be life-altering. “I took nuclear physics, which opened my eyes to fission, which then set me off on a path of understanding nuclear power and advanced nuclear systems,” she says. Math classes introduced her to chaotic systems, and she decided she wanted to study turbulence. Then, at a Society of Physics Students meeting White says she attended for the free food, she learned about fusion.

    “I realized this was what I wanted to do,” says White. “I became totally laser focused on turbulence and tokamaks.”

    At UCLA, she began to develop instruments and methods for measuring and modeling plasma turbulence, working on three different fusion research reactors, and earning fellowships from the Department of Energy (DOE) during her graduate and post-graduate years in fusion energy science. At MIT, she received a DOE Early Career Award that enabled her to build a research team that she now considers her “legacy.”

    As she expanded her research portfolio, White was also intent on incorporating fusion into the NSE curriculum at the undergraduate and graduate level, and more broadly, on making NSE a destination for students concerned about climate change. In recognition of her efforts, she received the 2014 Junior Bose Teaching Award. She also helped design the EdX course, Nuclear Engineering: Science, Systems and Society, introducing thousands of online learners to the potential of the field. “I have to be in the classroom,” she says. “I have to be with students, interacting, and sharing knowledge and lines of inquiry with them.”

    But even as she deepened her engagement with teaching and with her fusion research, which was helping spur development of new fusion energy technologies, White could not resist leaping into a consequential new undertaking: chairing the department. “It sounds cheesy, but I did it for my kid,” she says. “I can be helpful working on fusion, but I thought, what if I can help more by enabling other people across all areas of nuclear? This department gave me so much, I wanted to give back.”

    Although the pandemic struck just months after she stepped into the role in 2019, White propelled the department toward a new strategic plan. “It captures all the urgency and passion of the faculty, and is attractive to new students, with more undergraduates enrolling and more graduate students applying,” she says. White sees the department advancing the broader goals of the field, “articulating why nuclear is fundamentally important across many dimensions for carbon-free electricity and generation.” This means getting students involved in advanced fission technologies such as nuclear batteries and small modular reactors, as well as giving them an education in fusion that will help catalyze a nascent energy industry.

    Restless for a challenge

    White feels she’s still growing into the leadership role. “I’m really enthusiastic and sometimes too intense for people, so I have to dial it back during challenging conversations,” she says. She recently completed a Harvard Business School course on leadership.

    As the recently named co-chair of MIT’s Climate Nucleus (along with Professor Noelle Selin), charged with overseeing MIT’s campus initiatives around climate change, White says she draws on a repertoire of skills that come naturally to her: listening carefully, building consensus, and seeing value in the diversity of opinion. She is optimistic about mobilizing the Institute around goals to lower MIT’s carbon footprint, “using the entire campus as a research lab,” she says.

    In the midst of this push, White continues to advance projects of concern to her, such as making nuclear physics education more accessible. She developed an in-class module involving a simple particle detector for measuring background radiation. “Any high school or university student could build this experiment in 10 minutes and see alpha particle clusters and muons,” she says.

    White is also planning to host “Rising Stars,” an international conference intended to help underrepresented groups break barriers to entry in the field of nuclear science and engineering. “Grand intellectual challenges like saving the world appeal to all genders and backgrounds,” she says.

    These projects, her departmental and institutional duties, and most recently a new job chairing DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee leave her precious little time for a life outside work. But she makes time for walks and backpacking with her husband and toddler son, and reading the latest books by female faculty colleagues, such as “The New Breed,” by Media Lab robotics researcher Kate Darling, and “When People Want Punishment,” by Lily Tsai, Ford Professor of Political Science. “There are so many things I don’t know and want to understand,” says White.

    Yet even at leisure, White doesn’t slow down. “It’s restlessness: I love to learn, and anytime someone says a problem is hard, or impossible, I want to tackle it,” she says. There’s no time off, she believes, when the goal is “solving climate change and amplifying the work of other people trying to solve it.” More

  • in

    High-energy and hungry for the hardest problems

    A high school track star and valedictorian, Anne White has always relished moving fast and clearing high hurdles. Since joining the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) in 2009 she has produced path-breaking fusion research, helped attract a more diverse cohort of students and scholars into the discipline, and, during a worldwide pandemic, assumed the role of department head as well as co-lead of an Institute-wide initiative to address climate change. For her exceptional leadership, innovation, and accomplishments in education and research, White was named the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering in July 2020.

    But White declares little interest in recognition or promotions. “I don’t care about all that stuff,” she says. She’s in the race for much bigger stakes. “I want to find ways to save the world with nuclear,” she says.

    Tackling turbulence

    It was this goal that drew White to MIT. Her research, honed during graduate studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, involved developing a detailed understanding of conditions inside fusion devices, and resolving issues critical to realizing the vision of fusion energy — a carbon-free, nearly limitless source of power generated by 150-million-degree plasma.

    Harnessing this superheated, gaseous form of matter requires a special donut-shaped device called a tokamak, which contains the plasma within magnetic fields. When White entered fusion around the turn of the millennium, models of plasma behavior in tokamaks didn’t reliably match observed or experimental conditions. She was determined to change that picture, working with MIT’s state-of-the-art research tokamak, Alcator C-Mod.

    Play video

    Alcator C-Mod Tokamak Tour

    White believed solving the fusion puzzle meant getting a handle on plasma turbulence — the process by which charged atomic particles, breaking out of magnetic confinement, transport heat from the core to the cool edges of the tokamak. Although researchers knew that fusion energy depends on containing and controlling the heat of plasma reactions, White recalls that when she began grad school, “it was not widely accepted that turbulence was important, and that it was central to heat transport. She “felt it was critical to compare experimental measurements to first principles physics models, so we could demonstrate the significance of turbulence and give tokamak models better predictive ability.”

    In a series of groundbreaking studies, White’s team created the tools for measuring turbulence in different conditions, and developed computational models that could account for variations in turbulence, all validated by experiments. She was one of the first fusion scientists both to perform experiments and conduct simulations. “We lived in the domain between these two worlds,” she says.

    White’s turbulence models opened up approaches for managing turbulence and maximizing tokamak performance, paving the way for net-energy fusion energy devices, including ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment, and SPARC, a compact, high-magnetic-field tokamak, a collaboration between MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

    Laser-focused on turbulence

    Growing up in the desert city of Yuma, Arizona, White spent her free time outdoors, hiking and camping. “I was always in the space of protecting the environment,” she says. The daughter of two lawyers who taught her “to argue quickly and efficiently,” she excelled in math and physics in high school. Awarded a full ride at the University of Arizona, she was intent on a path in science, one where she could tackle problems like global warming, as it was known then. Physics seemed like the natural concentration for her.

    But there was unexpected pushback. The physics advisor believed her physics grades were lackluster. “I said, ‘Who cares what this guy thinks; I’ll take physics classes anyway,’” recalls White. Being tenacious and “thick skinned,” says White, turned out to be life-altering. “I took nuclear physics, which opened my eyes to fission, which then set me off on a path of understanding nuclear power and advanced nuclear systems,” she says. Math classes introduced her to chaotic systems, and she decided she wanted to study turbulence. Then, at a Society of Physics Students meeting White says she attended for the free food, she learned about fusion.

    “I realized this was what I wanted to do,” says White. “I became totally laser focused on turbulence and tokamaks.”

    At UCLA, she began to develop instruments and methods for measuring and modeling plasma turbulence, working on three different fusion research reactors, and earning fellowships from the Department of Energy (DOE) during her graduate and post-graduate years in fusion energy science. At MIT, she received a DOE Early Career Award that enabled her to build a research team that she now considers her “legacy.”

    As she expanded her research portfolio, White was also intent on incorporating fusion into the NSE curriculum at the undergraduate and graduate level, and more broadly, on making NSE a destination for students concerned about climate change. In recognition of her efforts, she received the 2014 Junior Bose Teaching Award. She also helped design the EdX course, Nuclear Engineering: Science, Systems and Society, introducing thousands of online learners to the potential of the field. “I have to be in the classroom,” she says. “I have to be with students, interacting, and sharing knowledge and lines of inquiry with them.”

    But even as she deepened her engagement with teaching and with her fusion research, which was helping spur development of new fusion energy technologies, White could not resist leaping into a consequential new undertaking: chairing the department. “It sounds cheesy, but I did it for my kid,” she says. “I can be helpful working on fusion, but I thought, what if I can help more by enabling other people across all areas of nuclear? This department gave me so much, I wanted to give back.”

    Although the pandemic struck just months after she stepped into the role in 2019, White propelled the department toward a new strategic plan. “It captures all the urgency and passion of the faculty, and is attractive to new students, with more undergraduates enrolling and more graduate students applying,” she says. White sees the department advancing the broader goals of the field, “articulating why nuclear is fundamentally important across many dimensions for carbon-free electricity and generation.” This means getting students involved in advanced fission technologies such as nuclear batteries and small modular reactors, as well as giving them an education in fusion that will help catalyze a nascent energy industry.

    Restless for a challenge

    White feels she’s still growing into the leadership role. “I’m really enthusiastic and sometimes too intense for people, so I have to dial it back during challenging conversations,” she says. She recently completed a Harvard Business School course on leadership.

    As the recently named co-chair of MIT’s Climate Nucleus (along with Professor Noelle Selin), charged with overseeing MIT’s campus initiatives around climate change, White says she draws on a repertoire of skills that come naturally to her: listening carefully, building consensus, and seeing value in the diversity of opinion. She is optimistic about mobilizing the Institute around goals to lower MIT’s carbon footprint, “using the entire campus as a research lab,” she says.

    In the midst of this push, White continues to advance projects of concern to her, such as making nuclear physics education more accessible. She developed an in-class module involving a simple particle detector for measuring background radiation. “Any high school or university student could build this experiment in 10 minutes and see alpha particle clusters and muons,” she says.

    White is also planning to host “Rising Stars,” an international conference intended to help underrepresented groups break barriers to entry in the field of nuclear science and engineering. “Grand intellectual challenges like saving the world appeal to all genders and backgrounds,” she says.

    These projects, her departmental and institutional duties, and most recently a new job chairing DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee leave her precious little time for a life outside work. But she makes time for walks and backpacking with her husband and toddler son, and reading the latest books by female faculty colleagues, such as “The New Breed,” by Media Lab robotics researcher Kate Darling, and “When People Want Punishment,” by Lily Tsai, Ford Professor of Political Science. “There are so many things I don’t know and want to understand,” says White.

    Yet even at leisure, White doesn’t slow down. “It’s restlessness: I love to learn, and anytime someone says a problem is hard, or impossible, I want to tackle it,” she says. There’s no time off, she believes, when the goal is “solving climate change and amplifying the work of other people trying to solve it.” More

  • in

    Building better batteries, faster

    To help combat climate change, many car manufacturers are racing to add more electric vehicles in their lineups. But to convince prospective buyers, manufacturers need to improve how far these cars can go on a single charge. One of their main challenges? Figuring out how to make extremely powerful but lightweight batteries.

    Typically, however, it takes decades for scientists to thoroughly test new battery materials, says Pablo Leon, an MIT graduate student in materials science. To accelerate this process, Leon is developing a machine-learning tool for scientists to automate one of the most time-consuming, yet key, steps in evaluating battery materials.

    With his tool in hand, Leon plans to help search for new materials to enable the development of powerful and lightweight batteries. Such batteries would not only improve the range of EVs, but they could also unlock potential in other high-power systems, such as solar energy systems that continuously deliver power, even at night.

    From a young age, Leon knew he wanted to pursue a PhD, hoping to one day become a professor of engineering, like his father. Growing up in College Station, Texas, home to Texas A&M University, where his father worked, many of Leon’s friends also had parents who were professors or affiliated with the university. Meanwhile, his mom worked outside the university, as a family counselor in a neighboring city.

    In college, Leon followed in his father’s and older brother’s footsteps to become a mechanical engineer, earning his bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M. There, he learned how to model the behaviors of mechanical systems, such as a metal spring’s stiffness. But he wanted to delve deeper, down to the level of atoms, to understand exactly where these behaviors come from.

    So, when Leon applied to graduate school at MIT, he switched fields to materials science, hoping to satisfy his curiosity. But the transition to a different field was “a really hard process,” Leon says, as he rushed to catch up to his peers.

    To help with the transition, Leon sought out a congenial research advisor and found one in Rafael Gómez-Bombarelli, an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “Because he’s from Spain and my parents are Peruvian, there’s a cultural ease with the way we talk,” Leon says. According to Gómez-Bombarelli, sometimes the two of them even discuss research in Spanish — a “rare treat.” That connection has empowered Leon to freely brainstorm ideas or talk through concerns with his advisor, enabling him to make significant progress in his research.

    Leveraging machine learning to research battery materials

    Scientists investigating new battery materials generally use computer simulations to understand how different combinations of materials perform. These simulations act as virtual microscopes for batteries, zooming in to see how materials interact at an atomic level. With these details, scientists can understand why certain combinations do better, guiding their search for high-performing materials.

    But building accurate computer simulations is extremely time-intensive, taking years and sometimes even decades. “You need to know how every atom interacts with every other atom in your system,” Leon says. To create a computer model of these interactions, scientists first make a rough guess at a model using complex quantum mechanics calculations. They then compare the model with results from real-life experiments, manually tweaking different parts of the model, including the distances between atoms and the strength of chemical bonds, until the simulation matches real life.

    With well-studied battery materials, the simulation process is somewhat easier. Scientists can buy simulation software that includes pre-made models, Leon says, but these models often have errors and still require additional tweaking.

    To build accurate computer models more quickly, Leon is developing a machine-learning-based tool that can efficiently guide the trial-and-error process. “The hope with our machine learning framework is to not have to rely on proprietary models or do any hand-tuning,” he says. Leon has verified that for well-studied materials, his tool is as accurate as the manual method for building models.

    With this system, scientists will have a single, standardized approach for building accurate models in lieu of the patchwork of approaches currently in place, Leon says.

    Leon’s tool comes at an opportune time, when many scientists are investigating a new paradigm of batteries: solid-state batteries. Compared to traditional batteries, which contain liquid electrolytes, solid-state batteries are safer, lighter, and easier to manufacture. But creating versions of these batteries that are powerful enough for EVs or renewable energy storage is challenging.

    This is largely because in battery chemistry, ions dislike flowing through solids and instead prefer liquids, in which atoms are spaced further apart. Still, scientists believe that with the right combination of materials, solid-state batteries can provide enough electricity for high-power systems, such as EVs. 

    Leon plans to use his machine-learning tool to help look for good solid-state battery materials more quickly. After he finds some powerful candidates in simulations, he’ll work with other scientists to test out the new materials in real-world experiments.

    Helping students navigate graduate school

    To get to where he is today, doing exciting and impactful research, Leon credits his community of family and mentors. Because of his upbringing, Leon knew early on which steps he would need to take to get into graduate school and work toward becoming a professor. And he appreciates the privilege of his position, even more so as a Peruvian American, given that many Latino students are less likely to have access to the same resources. “I understand the academic pipeline in a way that I think a lot of minority groups in academia don’t,” he says.

    Now, Leon is helping prospective graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds navigate the pipeline through the DMSE Application Assistance Program. Each fall, he mentors applicants for the DMSE PhD program at MIT, providing feedback on their applications and resumes. The assistance program is student-run and separate from the admissions process.

    Knowing firsthand how invaluable mentorship is from his relationship with his advisor, Leon is also heavily involved in mentoring junior PhD students in his department. This past year, he served as the academic chair on his department’s graduate student organization, the Graduate Materials Council. With MIT still experiencing disruptions from Covid-19, Leon noticed a problem with student cohesiveness. “I realized that traditional [informal] modes of communication across [incoming class] years had been cut off,” he says, making it harder for junior students to get advice from their senior peers. “They didn’t have any community to fall back on.”

    To help fix this problem, Leon served as a go-to mentor for many junior students. He helped second-year PhD students prepare for their doctoral qualification exam, an often-stressful rite of passage. He also hosted seminars for first-year students to teach them how to make the most of their classes and help them acclimate to the department’s fast-paced classes. For fun, Leon organized an axe-throwing event to further facilitate student cameraderie.

    Leon’s efforts were met with success. Now, “newer students are building back the community,” he says, “so I feel like I can take a step back” from being academic chair. He will instead continue mentoring junior students through other programs within the department. He also plans to extend his community-building efforts among faculty and students, facilitating opportunities for students to find good mentors and work on impactful research. With these efforts, Leon hopes to help others along the academic pipeline that he’s become familiar with, journeying together over their PhDs. More