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    Helping the cause of environmental resilience

    Haruko Wainwright, the Norman C. Rasmussen Career Development Professor in Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) and assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at MIT, grew up in rural Japan, where many nuclear facilities are located. She remembers worrying about the facilities as a child. Wainwright was only 6 at the time of the Chernobyl accident in 1986, but still recollects it vividly.

    Those early memories have contributed to Wainwright’s determination to research how technologies can mold environmental resilience — the capability of mitigating the consequences of accidents and recovering from contamination.

    Wainwright believes that environmental monitoring can help improve resilience. She co-leads the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Advanced Long-term Environmental Monitoring Systems (ALTEMIS) project, which integrates technologies such as in situ sensors, geophysics, remote sensing, simulations, and artificial intelligence to establish new paradigms for monitoring. The project focuses on soil and groundwater contamination at more than 100 U.S. sites that were used for nuclear weapons production.

    As part of this research, which was featured last year in Environmental Science & Technology Journal, Wainwright is working on a machine learning framework for improving environmental monitoring strategies. She hopes the ALTEMIS project will enable the rapid detection of anomalies while ensuring the stability of residual contamination and waste disposal facilities.

    Childhood in rural Japan

    Even as a child, Wainwright was interested in physics, history, and a variety of other subjects.

    But growing up in a rural area was not ideal for someone interested in STEM. There were no engineers or scientists in the community and no science museums, either. “It was not so cool to be interested in science, and I never talked about my interest with anyone,” Wainwright recalls.

    Television and books were the only door to the world of science. “I did not study English until middle school and I had never been on a plane until college. I sometimes find it miraculous that I am now working in the U.S. and teaching at MIT,” she says.

    As she grew a little older, Wainwright heard a lot of discussions about nuclear facilities in the region and many stories about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    At the same time, giants like Marie Curie inspired her to pursue science. Nuclear physics was particularly fascinating. “At some point during high school, I started wondering ‘what are radiations, what is radioactivity, what is light,’” she recalls. Reading Richard Feynman’s books and trying to understand quantum mechanics made her want to study physics in college.

    Pursuing research in the United States

    Wainwright pursued an undergraduate degree in engineering physics at Kyoto University. After two research internships in the United States, Wainwright was impressed by the dynamic and fast-paced research environment in the country.

    And compared to Japan, there were “more women in science and engineering,” Wainwright says. She enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 2005, where she completed her doctorate in nuclear engineering with minors in statistics and civil and environmental engineering.

    Before moving to MIT NSE in 2022, Wainwright was a staff scientist in the Earth and Environmental Area at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). She worked on a variety of topics, including radioactive contamination, climate science, CO2 sequestration, precision agriculture, and watershed science. Her time at LBNL helped Wainwright build a solid foundation about a variety of environmental sensors and monitoring and simulation methods across different earth science disciplines.   

    Empowering communities through monitoring

    One of the most compelling takeaways from Wainwright’s early research: People trust actual measurements and data as facts, even though they are skeptical about models and predictions. “I talked with many people living in Fukushima prefecture. Many of them have dosimeters and measure radiation levels on their own. They might not trust the government, but they trust their own data and are then convinced that it is safe to live there and to eat local food,” Wainwright says.

    She has been impressed that area citizens have gained significant knowledge about radiation and radioactivity through these efforts. “But they are often frustrated that people living far away, in cities like Tokyo, still avoid agricultural products from Fukushima,” Wainwright says.

    Wainwright thinks that data derived from environmental monitoring — through proper visualization and communication — can address misconceptions and fake news that often hurt people near contaminated sites.

    Wainwright is now interested in how these technologies — tested with real data at contaminated sites — can be proactively used for existing and future nuclear facilities “before contamination happens,” as she explored for Nuclear News. “I don’t think it is a good idea to simply dismiss someone’s concern as irrational. Showing credible data has been much more effective to provide assurance. Or a proper monitoring network would enable us to minimize contamination or support emergency responses when accidents happen,” she says.

    Educating communities and students

    Part of empowering communities involves improving their ability to process science-based information. “Potentially hazardous facilities always end up in rural regions; minorities’ concerns are often ignored. The problem is that these regions don’t produce so many scientists or policymakers; they don’t have a voice,” Wainwright says, “I am determined to dedicate my time to improve STEM education in rural regions and to increase the voice in these regions.”

    In a project funded by DOE, she collaborates with the team of researchers at the University of Alaska — the Alaska Center for Energy and Power and Teaching Through Technology program — aiming to improve STEM education for rural and indigenous communities. “Alaska is an important place for energy transition and environmental justice,” Wainwright says. Micro-nuclear reactors can potentially improve the life of rural communities who bear the brunt of the high cost of fuel and transportation. However, there is a distrust of nuclear technologies, stemming from past nuclear weapon testing. At the same time, Alaska has vast metal mining resources for renewable energy and batteries. And there are concerns about environmental contamination from mining and various sources. The teams’ vision is much broader, she points out. “The focus is on broader environmental monitoring technologies and relevant STEM education, addressing general water and air qualities,” Wainwright says.

    The issues also weave into the courses Wainwright teaches at MIT. “I think it is important for engineering students to be aware of environmental justice related to energy waste and mining as well as past contamination events and their recovery,” she says. “It is not OK just to send waste to, or develop mines in, rural regions, which could be a special place for some people. We need to make sure that these developments will not harm the environment and health of local communities.” Wainwright also hopes that this knowledge will ultimately encourage students to think creatively about engineering designs that minimize waste or recycle material.

    The last question of the final quiz of one of her recent courses was: Assume that you store high-level radioactive waste in your “backyard.” What technical strategies would make you and your family feel safe? “All students thought about this question seriously and many suggested excellent points, including those addressing environmental monitoring,” Wainwright says, “that made me hopeful about the future.” More

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    Minimizing electric vehicles’ impact on the grid

    National and global plans to combat climate change include increasing the electrification of vehicles and the percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources. But some projections show that these trends might require costly new power plants to meet peak loads in the evening when cars are plugged in after the workday. What’s more, overproduction of power from solar farms during the daytime can waste valuable electricity-generation capacity.

    In a new study, MIT researchers have found that it’s possible to mitigate or eliminate both these problems without the need for advanced technological systems of connected devices and real-time communications, which could add to costs and energy consumption. Instead, encouraging the placing of charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) in strategic ways, rather than letting them spring up anywhere, and setting up systems to initiate car charging at delayed times could potentially make all the difference.

    The study, published today in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science, is by Zachary Needell PhD ’22, postdoc Wei Wei, and Professor Jessika Trancik of MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.

    In their analysis, the researchers used data collected in two sample cities: New York and Dallas. The data were gathered from, among other sources, anonymized records collected via onboard devices in vehicles, and surveys that carefully sampled populations to cover variable travel behaviors. They showed the times of day cars are used and for how long, and how much time the vehicles spend at different kinds of locations — residential, workplace, shopping, entertainment, and so on.

    The findings, Trancik says, “round out the picture on the question of where to strategically locate chargers to support EV adoption and also support the power grid.”

    Better availability of charging stations at workplaces, for example, could help to soak up peak power being produced at midday from solar power installations, which might otherwise go to waste because it is not economical to build enough battery or other storage capacity to save all of it for later in the day. Thus, workplace chargers can provide a double benefit, helping to reduce the evening peak load from EV charging and also making use of the solar electricity output.

    These effects on the electric power system are considerable, especially if the system must meet charging demands for a fully electrified personal vehicle fleet alongside the peaks in other demand for electricity, for example on the hottest days of the year. If unmitigated, the evening peaks in EV charging demand could require installing upwards of 20 percent more power-generation capacity, the researchers say.

    “Slow workplace charging can be more preferable than faster charging technologies for enabling a higher utilization of midday solar resources,” Wei says.

    Meanwhile, with delayed home charging, each EV charger could be accompanied by a simple app to estimate the time to begin its charging cycle so that it charges just before it is needed the next day. Unlike other proposals that require a centralized control of the charging cycle, such a system needs no interdevice communication of information and can be preprogrammed — and can accomplish a major shift in the demand on the grid caused by increasing EV penetration. The reason it works so well, Trancik says, is because of the natural variability in driving behaviors across individuals in a population.

    By “home charging,” the researchers aren’t only referring to charging equipment in individual garages or parking areas. They say it’s essential to make charging stations available in on-street parking locations and in apartment building parking areas as well.

    Trancik says the findings highlight the value of combining the two measures — workplace charging and delayed home charging — to reduce peak electricity demand, store solar energy, and conveniently meet drivers’ charging needs on all days. As the team showed in earlier research, home charging can be a particularly effective component of a strategic package of charging locations; workplace charging, they have found, is not a good substitute for home charging for meeting drivers’ needs on all days.

    “Given that there’s a lot of public money going into expanding charging infrastructure,” Trancik says, “how do you incentivize the location such that this is going to be efficiently and effectively integrated into the power grid without requiring a lot of additional capacity expansion?” This research offers some guidance to policymakers on where to focus rules and incentives.

    “I think one of the fascinating things about these findings is that by being strategic you can avoid a lot of physical infrastructure that you would otherwise need,” she adds. “Your electric vehicles can displace some of the need for stationary energy storage, and you can also avoid the need to expand the capacity of power plants, by thinking about the location of chargers as a tool for managing demands — where they occur and when they occur.”

    Delayed home charging could make a surprising amount of difference, the team found. “It’s basically incentivizing people to begin charging later. This can be something that is preprogrammed into your chargers. You incentivize people to delay the onset of charging by a bit, so that not everyone is charging at the same time, and that smooths out the peak.”

    Such a program would require some advance commitment on the part of participants. “You would need to have enough people committing to this program in advance to avoid the investment in physical infrastructure,” Trancik says. “So, if you have enough people signing up, then you essentially don’t have to build those extra power plants.”

    It’s not a given that all of this would line up just right, and putting in place the right mix of incentives would be crucial. “If you want electric vehicles to act as an effective storage technology for solar energy, then the [EV] market needs to grow fast enough in order to be able to do that,” Trancik says.

    To best use public funds to help make that happen, she says, “you can incentivize charging installations, which would go through ideally a competitive process — in the private sector, you would have companies bidding for different projects, but you can incentivize installing charging at workplaces, for example, to tap into both of these benefits.” Chargers people can access when they are parked near their residences are also important, Trancik adds, but for other reasons. Home charging is one of the ways to meet charging needs while avoiding inconvenient disruptions to people’s travel activities.

    The study was supported by the European Regional Development Fund Operational Program for Competitiveness and Internationalization, the Lisbon Portugal Regional Operation Program, and the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology. More

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    Shrinky Dinks, nail polish, and smelly bacteria

    In a lab on the fourth floor of MIT’s Building 56, a group of Massachusetts high school students gathered around a device that measures conductivity.

    Vincent Nguyen, 15, from Saugus, thought of the times the material on their sample electrode flaked off the moment they took it out of the oven. Or how the electrode would fold weirdly onto itself. The big fails were kind of funny, but discouraging. The students had worked for a month, experimenting with different materials, and 17-year-old Brianna Tong of Malden wondered if they’d finally gotten it right: Would their electrode work well enough to power a microbial fuel cell?

    The students secured their electrode with alligator clips, someone hit start, and the teens watched anxiously as the device searched for even the faintest electrical current.

    Capturing electrons from bacteria

    Last July, Tong, Nguyen, and six other students from Malden Catholic High School commuted between the lab of MIT chemical engineer Ariel L. Furst and their school’s chemistry lab. Their goal was to fashion electrodes for low-cost microbial fuel cells — miniature bioreactors that generate small amounts of electricity by capturing electrons transferred from living microbes. These devices can double as electrochemical sensors.

    Furst, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering, uses a mix of electrochemistry, microbial engineering, and materials science to address challenges in human health and clean energy. “The goal of all of our projects is to increase sustainability, clean energy, and health equity globally,” she says.

    Electrochemical sensors are powerful, sensitive detection and measurement tools. Typically, their electrodes need to be built in precisely engineered environments. “Thinking about ways of making devices without needing a cleanroom is important for coming up with inexpensive devices that can be deployed in low-resource settings under non-ideal conditions,” Furst says.

    For 17-year-old Angelina Ang of Everett, the project illuminated the significance of “coming together to problem-solve for a healthier and more sustainable earth,” she says. “It made me realize that we hold the answers to fix our dying planet.”

    With the help of a children’s toy called Shrinky Dinks, carbon-based materials, nail polish, and a certain smelly bacterium, the students got — literally — a trial-by-fire introduction to the scientific method. At one point, one of their experimental electrodes burst into flames. Other results were more promising.

    The students took advantage of the electrical properties of a bacterium — Shewanella oneidensis — that’s been called nature’s microscopic power plant. As part of their metabolism, Shewanella oneidensis generate electricity by oxidizing organic matter. In essence, they spit out electrons. Put enough together, and you get a few milliamps.

    To build bacteria-friendly electrodes, one of the first things the students did was culture Shewanella. They learned how to pour a growth medium into petri dishes where the reddish, normally lake-living bacteria could multiply. The microbes, Furst notes, are a little stinky, like cabbage. “But we think they’re really cool,” she says.

    With the right engineering, Shewanella can produce electric current when they detect toxins in water or soil. They could be used for bioremediation of wastewater. Low-cost versions could be useful for areas with limited or no access to reliable electricity and clean water.

    Next-generation chemists

    The Malden Catholic-MIT program resulted from a fluke encounter between Furst and a Malden Catholic parent.

    Mary-Margaret O’Donnell-Zablocki, then a medicinal chemist at a Kendall Square biotech startup, met Furst through a mutual friend. She asked Furst if she’d consider hosting high school chemistry students in her lab for the summer.

    Furst was intrigued. She traces her own passion for science to a program she’d happened upon between her junior and senior years in high school in St. Louis. The daughter of a software engineer and a businesswoman, Furst was casting around for potential career interests when she came across a summer program that enlisted scientists in academia and private research to introduce high school students and teachers to aspects of the scientific enterprise.

    “That’s when I realized that research is not like a lab class where there’s an expected outcome,” Furst recalls. “It’s so much cooler than that.”

    Using startup funding from an MIT Energy Initiative seed grant, Furst developed a curriculum with Malden Catholic chemistry teacher Seamus McGuire, and students were invited to apply. In addition to Tong, Ang, and Nguyen, participants included Chengxiang Lou, 18, from China; Christian Ogata, 14, of Wakefield; Kenneth Ramirez, 17, of Everett; Isaac Toscano, 17, of Medford; and MaryKatherine Zablocki, 15, of Revere and Wakefield. O’Donnell-Zablocki was surprised — and pleased — when her daughter applied to the program and was accepted.

    Furst notes that women are still underrepresented in chemical engineering. She was particularly excited to mentor young women through the program.

    A conductive ink

    The students were charged with identifying materials that had high conductivity, low resistance, were a bit soluble, and — with the help of a compatible “glue” — were able to stick to a substrate.

    Furst showed the Malden Catholic crew Shrinky Dinks — a common polymer popularized in the 1970s as a craft material that, when heated in a toaster oven, shrinks to a third of its size and becomes thicker and more rigid. Electrodes based on Shrinky Dinks would cost pennies, making it an ideal, inexpensive material for microbial fuel cells that could monitor, for instance, soil health in low- and middle-income countries.

    “Right now, monitoring soil health is problematic,” Furst says. “You have to collect a sample and bring it back to the lab to analyze in expensive equipment. But if we have these little devices that cost a couple of bucks each, we can monitor soil health remotely.”

    After a crash course in conductive carbon-based inks and solvent glues, the students went off to Malden Catholic to figure out what materials they wanted to try.

    Tong rattled them off: carbon nanotubes, carbon nanofibers, graphite powder, activated carbon. Potential solvents to help glue the carbon to the Shrinky Dinks included nail polish, corn syrup, and embossing ink, to name a few. They tested and retested. When they hit a dead end, they revised their hypotheses.

    They tried using a 3D printed stencil to daub the ink-glue mixture onto the Shrinky Dinks. They hand-painted them. They tried printing stickers. They worked with little squeegees. They tried scooping and dragging the material. Some of their electro-materials either flaked off or wouldn’t stick in the heating process.

    “Embossing ink never dried after baking the Shrinky Dink,” Ogata recalls. “In fact, it’s probably still liquid! And corn syrup had a tendency to boil. Seeing activated carbon ignite or corn syrup boiling in the convection oven was quite the spectacle.”

    “After the electrode was out of the oven and cooled down, we would check the conductivity,” says Tong, who plans to pursue a career in science. “If we saw there was a high conductivity, we got excited and thought those materials worked.”

    The moment of truth came in Furst’s MIT lab, where the students had access to more sophisticated testing equipment. Would their electrodes conduct electricity?

    Many of them didn’t. Tong says, “At first, we were sad, but then Dr. Furst told us that this is what science is, testing repeatedly and sometimes not getting the results we wanted.” Lou agrees. “If we just copy the data left by other scholars and don’t collect and figure it out by ourselves, then it is difficult to be a qualified researcher,” he says.

    Some of the students plan to continue the project one afternoon a week at MIT and as an independent study at Malden Catholic. The long-term goal is to create a field-based soil sensor that employs a bacterium like Shewanella.

    By chance, the students’ very first electrode — made of graphite powder ink and nail polish glue — generated the most current. One of the team’s biggest surprises was how much better black nail polish worked than clear nail polish. It turns out black nail polish contains iron-based pigment — a conductor. The unexpected win took some of the sting out of the failures.

    “They learned a very hard lesson: Your results might be awesome, and things are exciting, but then nothing else might work. And that’s totally fine,” Furst says.

    This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Working to make nuclear energy more competitive

    Assil Halimi has loved science since he was a child, but it was a singular experience at a college internship that stoked his interest in nuclear engineering. As part of work on a conceptual design for an aircraft electric propulsion system, Halimi had to read a chart that compared the energy density of various fuel sources. He was floored to see that the value for uranium was orders of magnitude higher than the rest. “Just a fuel pellet the size of my fingertip can generate as much energy as a ton of coal or 150 gallons of oil,” Halimi points out.

    Having grown up in Algeria, in an economy dominated by oil and gas, Halimi was always aware of energy’s role in fueling growth. But here was a source that showed enormous potential. “The more I read about nuclear, the more I saw its direct relationship with climate change and how nuclear energy can potentially replace the carbonized economy,” Halimi says. “The problem we’re dealing with right now is that the source of energy is not clean. Nuclear [presented itself] as an answer, or at least as a promise that you can dig into,” he says. “I was also seeing the electrification of systems and the economy evolving.”

    A tectonic shift was brewing, and Halimi wanted in.

    Then an electrical engineering major at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Lyon (INSA Lyon), Halimi added nuclear engineering as a second major. Today, the second-year doctoral student at MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) has expanded on his early curiosity in the field and researches methods of improving the design of small modular reactors. Under Professor Koroush Shirvan’s advisement, Halimi also studies high burnup fuel so we can extract more energy from the same amount of material.

    A foot in two worlds

    The son of a computer engineer father and a mother who works as a judge, Halimi was born in Algiers and grew up in Cherchell, a small town near the capital. His interest in science grew sharper in middle school; Halimi remembers being a member of the astronomy club. As a middle and high schooler, Halimi traveled to areas with low light pollution to observe the night skies.

    As a teenager, Halimi set his goals high, enrolling in high school in both Algeria and France. Taking classes in Arabic and French, he found a fair amount of overlap between the two curricula. The divergence in the nonscientific classes gave Halimi a better understanding of the cultural perspectives. After studying the French curriculum remotely, Halimi graduated with two diplomas. He remembers having to take two baccalaureate exams, which didn’t bother him much, but he did have to miss viewing parts of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament.

    A multidisciplinary approach to engineering

    After high school, Halimi moved to France to study engineering at INSA Lyon. He elected for a major in electrical engineering and, ever the pragmatist, also signed up for a bachelor’s degree in math and economics. “You can build a lot of amazing things, but you have to take costs into account to make sure you’re proposing something feasible that can make it in the real world,” Halimi says, explaining his motivation to study economics.

    Wrapping up his bachelor’s in math and economics in two short years, Halimi decided to pursue a double curriculum in electrical and nuclear engineering during his final year of engineering studies. Since his school in Lyon did not offer the double curriculum, Halimi had to move to Paris to study at The French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), part of the University of Paris-Saclay. The summer before he started, he traveled to Japan and toured the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

    Halimi first conducted research at MIT NSE as part of an internship in nuclear engineering when he was still a student in France. He remembers wanting to explore work on reactor design, when an advisor at CEA recommended interning with Shirvan.

    Pragmatism in nuclear energy adoption

    Halimi’s work at MIT NSE focuses on high burnup fuel assessment and small modular reactor (SMR) design.

    Existing nuclear plants have faced stiff competition during the last decade. Improving the fuel efficiency (high burnup) is a potential way of improving the economic competitiveness of the existing reactor fleet. One challenge is that materials degrade when you keep them longer in the reactor. Halimi evaluates fuel performance and safety features of more efficient fuel operation using advanced computer simulation tools. At the 2022 TopFuel Light Water Reactor Fuel Performance Conference, Halimi presented a paper describing strategies to achieve higher burnups. He is now working on journal paper about this work.

    Halimi’s research on SMR design is motivated by the industry’s move to smaller plants that take less time to construct. The challenge, he says, is that if you simply make the reactors smaller, you lose the advantages of economies of scale and might end up with a more expensive economic proposal. Halimi’s goal is to analyze how smaller reactors can compensate for economies of scale by improving their technical design. Other advantages stacked in favor of smaller reactors is that they can be constructed faster and in series.

    Halimi analyzes the fuel performance, core design, thermal hydraulics, and safety of these small reactors. “One efficient way that I particularly assess to improve their economics is high power density operation,” he says. In late 2021 Halimi published a paper on the relationship between cost and reactor power density in Nuclear Engineering and Design Journal. The research has been featured in other conference papers.

    When he’s not working, Halimi makes time to play soccer and hopes to get back into astronomy. “I sold all my gear when I moved from Europe so I need to buy new ones at some point,” he says.

    Halimi is convinced that nuclear power will be a serious contender in the energy landscape. “You have to propose something that will make everyone happy,” Halimi laughs when he describes work in nuclear science and engineering.

    The work ahead is daunting — “Nuclear power is safe, sustainable, and reliable; now we need to be on time and on budget [to achieve] climate goals” he says — but Halimi is ready. By addressing both the competitiveness of the existing reactors through high burnup fuels and designing the next generation of nuclear plants, he is adopting a dual-pronged approach to make nuclear energy an economical and viable alternative to carbon-based fuels. More

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    3 Questions: Antje Danielson on energy education and its role in climate action

    The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) leads energy education at MIT, developing and implementing a robust educational toolkit for MIT graduate and undergraduate students, online learners around the world, and high school students who want to contribute to the energy transition. As MITEI’s director of education, Antje Danielson manages a team devoted to training the next generation of energy innovators, entrepreneurs, and policymakers. Here, she discusses new initiatives in MITEI’s education program and how they are preparing students to take an active role in climate action.

    Q: What role are MITEI’s education efforts playing in climate action initiatives at MIT, and what more could we be doing?

    A: This is a big question. The carbon emissions from energy are such an important factor in climate mitigation; therefore, what we do in energy education is practically synonymous with climate education. This is well illustrated in a 2018 Nature Energy paper by Fuso Nerini, which outlines that affordable, clean energy is related to many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — not just SDG 7, which specifically calls for “affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all” by 2030. There are 17 SDGs containing 169 targets, of which 113 (65 percent) require actions to be taken concerning energy systems.

    Now, can we equate education with action? The answer is yes, but only if it is done correctly. From the behavioral change literature, we know that knowledge alone is not enough to change behavior. So, one important part of our education program is practice and experience through research, internships, stakeholder engagement, and other avenues. At a minimum, education must give the learner the knowledge, skills, and courage to be ready to jump into action, but ideally, practice is a part of the offering. We also want our learners to go out into the world and share what they know and do. If done right, education is an energy transition accelerator.

    At MITEI, our learners are not just MIT students. We are creating online offerings based on residential MIT courses to train global professionals, policymakers, and students in research methods and tools to support and accelerate the energy transition. These are free and open to learners worldwide. We have five courses available now, with more to come.

    Our latest program is a collaboration with MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR): Climate Action through Education, or CATE. This is a teach-the-teacher program for high school curriculum and is a part of the MIT Climate Action Plan. The aim is to develop interdisciplinary, solutions-focused climate change curricula for U.S. high school teachers with components in history/social science, English/language arts, math, science, and computer science.

    We are rapidly expanding our programming. In the online space, for our global learners, we are bundling courses for professional development certificates; for our undergraduates, we are redesigning the energy studies minor to reflect what we have learned over the past 12 years; and for our graduate students, we are adding a new program that allows them to garner industry experience related to the energy transition. Meanwhile, CATE is creating a support network for the teachers who adopt the curriculum. We are also working on creating an energy and climate alliance with other universities around the world.

    On the Institute level, I am a member of the Climate Education Working Group, a subgroup of the Climate Nucleus, where we discuss and will soon recommend further climate action the Institute can take. Stay tuned for that.

    Q: You mentioned that you are leading an effort to create a consortium of energy and climate education programs at universities around the world. How does this effort fit into MITEI’s educational mission?

    A: Yes, we are currently calling it the “Energy and Climate Education Alliance.” The background to this is that the problem we are facing — transitioning the entire global energy system from high carbon emissions to low, no, and negative carbon emissions — is global, huge, and urgent. Following the proverbial “many hands make light work,” we believe that the success of this very complex task is accomplished quicker with more participants. There is, of course, more to this as well. The complexity of the problem is such that (1) MIT doesn’t have all the expertise needed to accomplish the educational needs of the climate and energy crisis, (2) there is a definite local and regional component to capacity building, and (3) collaborations with universities around the world will make our mission-driven work more efficient. Finally, these collaborations will be advantageous for our students as they will be able to learn from real-world case studies that are not U.S.-based and maybe even visit other universities abroad, do internships, and engage in collaborative research projects. Also, students from those universities will be able to come here and experience MIT’s unique intellectual environment.

    Right now, we are very much in the beginning stages of creating the alliance. We have signed a collaboration agreement with the Technical University of Berlin, Germany, and are engaged in talks with other European and Southeast Asian universities. Some of the collaborations we are envisioning relate to course development, student exchange, collaborative research, and course promotion. We are very excited about this collaboration. It fits well into MIT’s ambition to take climate action outside of the university, while still staying within our educational mission.

    Q: It is clear to me from this conversation that MITEI’s education program is undertaking a number of initiatives to prepare MIT students and interested learners outside of the Institute to take an active role in climate action. But, the reality is that despite our rapidly changing climate and the immediate need to decarbonize our global economy, climate denialism and a lack of climate and energy understanding persist in the greater global population. What do you think must be done, and what can MITEI do, to increase climate and energy literacy broadly?

    A: I think the basic problem is not necessarily a lack of understanding but an abundance of competing issues that people are dealing with every day. Poverty, personal health, unemployment, inflation, pandemics, housing, wars — all are very immediate problems people have. And climate change is perceived to be in the future.

    The United States is a very bottom-up country, where corporations offer what people buy, and politicians advocate for what voters want and what money buys. Of course, this is overly simplified, but as long as we don’t come up with mechanisms to achieve a monumental shift in consumer and voter behavior, we are up against these immediate pressures. However, we are seeing some movement in this area due to rising gas and heating oil prices and the many natural disasters we are encountering now. People are starting to understand that climate change will hit their pocketbook, whether or not we have a carbon tax. The recent Florida hurricane damage, wildfires in the west, extreme summer temperatures, frequent droughts, increasing numbers of poisonous and disease-carrying insects — they all illustrate the relationship between climate change, health, and financial damage. Fewer and fewer people will be able to deny the existence of climate change because they will either be directly affected or know someone who is.

    The question is one of speed and scale. The more we can help to make the connections even more visible and understood, the faster we get to the general acceptance that this is real. Research projects like CEEPR’s Roosevelt Project, which develops action plans to help communities deal with industrial upheaval in the context of the energy transition, are contributing to this effect, as are studies related to climate change and national security. This is a fast-moving world, and our research findings need to be translated as we speak. A real problem in education is that we have the tendency to teach the tried and true. Our education programs have to become much nimbler, which means curricula have to be updated frequently, and that is expensive. And of course, the speed and magnitude of our efforts are dependent on the funding we can attract, and fundraising for education is more difficult than fundraising for research.

    However, let me pivot: You alluded to the fact that this is a global problem. The immediate pressures of poverty and hunger are a matter of survival in many parts of the world, and when it comes to surviving another day, who cares if climate change will render your fields unproductive in 20 years? Or if the weather turns your homeland into a lake, will you think about lobbying your government to reduce carbon emissions, or will you ask for help to rebuild your existence? On the flip side, politicians and government authorities in those areas have to deal with extremely complex situations, balancing local needs with global demands. We should learn from them. What we need is to listen. What do these areas of the world need most, and how can climate action be included in the calculations? The Global Commission to End Energy Poverty, a collaboration between MITEI and the Rockefeller Foundation to bring electricity to the billion people across the globe who currently live without it, is a good example of what we are already doing. Both our online education program and the Energy and Climate Education Alliance aim to go in this direction.

    The struggle and challenge to solve climate change can be pretty depressing, and there are many days when I feel despondent about the speed and progress we are making in saving the future of humanity. But, the prospect of contributing to such a large mission, even if the education team can only nudge us a tiny bit away from the business-as-usual scenario, is exciting. In particular, working on an issue like this at MIT is amazing. So much is happening here, and there don’t seem to be intellectual limits; in fact, thinking big is encouraged. It is very refreshing when one has encountered the old “you can’t do this” too often in the past. I want our students to take this attitude with them and go out there and think big. More

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    Study: Carbon-neutral pavements are possible by 2050, but rapid policy and industry action are needed

    Almost 2.8 million lane-miles, or about 4.6 million lane-kilometers, of the United States are paved.

    Roads and streets form the backbone of our built environment. They take us to work or school, take goods to their destinations, and much more.

    However, a new study by MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub) researchers shows that the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of all construction materials used in the U.S. pavement network are 11.9 to 13.3 megatons. This is equivalent to the emissions of a gasoline-powered passenger vehicle driving about 30 billion miles in a year.

    As roads are built, repaved, and expanded, new approaches and thoughtful material choices are necessary to dampen their carbon footprint. 

    The CSHub researchers found that, by 2050, mixtures for pavements can be made carbon-neutral if industry and governmental actors help to apply a range of solutions — like carbon capture — to reduce, avoid, and neutralize embodied impacts. (A neutralization solution is any compensation mechanism in the value chain of a product that permanently removes the global warming impact of the processes after avoiding and reducing the emissions.) Furthermore, nearly half of pavement-related greenhouse gas (GHG) savings can be achieved in the short term with a negative or nearly net-zero cost.

    The research team, led by Hessam AzariJafari, MIT CSHub’s deputy director, closed gaps in our understanding of the impacts of pavements decisions by developing a dynamic model quantifying the embodied impact of future pavements materials demand for the U.S. road network. 

    The team first split the U.S. road network into 10-mile (about 16 kilometer) segments, forecasting the condition and performance of each. They then developed a pavement management system model to create benchmarks helping to understand the current level of emissions and the efficacy of different decarbonization strategies. 

    This model considered factors such as annual traffic volume and surface conditions, budget constraints, regional variation in pavement treatment choices, and pavement deterioration. The researchers also used a life-cycle assessment to calculate annual state-level emissions from acquiring pavement construction materials, considering future energy supply and materials procurement.

    The team considered three scenarios for the U.S. pavement network: A business-as-usual scenario in which technology remains static, a projected improvement scenario aligned with stated industry and national goals, and an ambitious improvement scenario that intensifies or accelerates projected strategies to achieve carbon neutrality. 

    If no steps are taken to decarbonize pavement mixtures, the team projected that GHG emissions of construction materials used in the U.S. pavement network would increase by 19.5 percent by 2050. Under the projected scenario, there was an estimated 38 percent embodied impact reduction for concrete and 14 percent embodied impact reduction for asphalt by 2050.

    The keys to making the pavement network carbon neutral by 2050 lie in multiple places. Fully renewable energy sources should be used for pavement materials production, transportation, and other processes. The federal government must contribute to the development of these low-carbon energy sources and carbon capture technologies, as it would be nearly impossible to achieve carbon neutrality for pavements without them. 

    Additionally, increasing pavements’ recycled content and improving their design and production efficiency can lower GHG emissions to an extent. Still, neutralization is needed to achieve carbon neutrality.

    Making the right pavement construction and repair choices would also contribute to the carbon neutrality of the network. For instance, concrete pavements can offer GHG savings across the whole life cycle as they are stiffer and stay smoother for longer, meaning they require less maintenance and have a lesser impact on the fuel efficiency of vehicles. 

    Concrete pavements have other use-phase benefits including a cooling effect through an intrinsically high albedo, meaning they reflect more sunlight than regular pavements. Therefore, they can help combat extreme heat and positively affect the earth’s energy balance through positive radiative forcing, making albedo a potential neutralization mechanism.

    At the same time, a mix of fixes, including using concrete and asphalt in different contexts and proportions, could produce significant GHG savings for the pavement network; decision-makers must consider scenarios on a case-by-case basis to identify optimal solutions. 

    In addition, it may appear as though the GHG emissions of materials used in local roads are dwarfed by the emissions of interstate highway materials. However, the study found that the two road types have a similar impact. In fact, all road types contribute heavily to the total GHG emissions of pavement materials in general. Therefore, stakeholders at the federal, state, and local levels must be involved if our roads are to become carbon neutral. 

    The path to pavement network carbon-neutrality is, therefore, somewhat of a winding road. It demands regionally specific policies and widespread investment to help implement decarbonization solutions, just as renewable energy initiatives have been supported. Providing subsidies and covering the costs of premiums, too, are vital to avoid shifts in the market that would derail environmental savings.

    When planning for these shifts, we must recall that pavements have impacts not just in their production, but across their entire life cycle. As pavements are used, maintained, and eventually decommissioned, they have significant impacts on the surrounding environment.

    If we are to meet climate goals such as the Paris Agreement, which demands that we reach carbon-neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we — as well as industry and governmental stakeholders — must come together to take a hard look at the roads we use every day and work to reduce their life cycle emissions. 

    The study was published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. In addition to AzariJafari, the authors include Fengdi Guo of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Jeremy Gregory, executive director of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium; and Randolph Kirchain, director of the MIT CSHub. More

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    Using combustion to make better batteries

    For more than a century, much of the world has run on the combustion of fossil fuels. Now, to avert the threat of climate change, the energy system is changing. Notably, solar and wind systems are replacing fossil fuel combustion for generating electricity and heat, and batteries are replacing the internal combustion engine for powering vehicles. As the energy transition progresses, researchers worldwide are tackling the many challenges that arise.

    Sili Deng has spent her career thinking about combustion. Now an assistant professor in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Class of 1954 Career Development Professor, Deng leads a group that, among other things, develops theoretical models to help understand and control combustion systems to make them more efficient and to control the formation of emissions, including particles of soot.

    “So we thought, given our background in combustion, what’s the best way we can contribute to the energy transition?” says Deng. In considering the possibilities, she notes that combustion refers only to the process — not to what’s burning. “While we generally think of fossil fuels when we think of combustion, the term ‘combustion’ encompasses many high-temperature chemical reactions that involve oxygen and typically emit light and large amounts of heat,” she says.

    Given that definition, she saw another role for the expertise she and her team have developed: They could explore the use of combustion to make materials for the energy transition. Under carefully controlled conditions, combusting flames can be used to produce not polluting soot, but rather valuable materials, including some that are critical in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries.

    Improving the lithium-ion battery by lowering costs

    The demand for lithium-ion batteries is projected to skyrocket in the coming decades. Batteries will be needed to power the growing fleet of electric cars and to store the electricity produced by solar and wind systems so it can be delivered later when those sources aren’t generating. Some experts project that the global demand for lithium-ion batteries may increase tenfold or more in the next decade.

    Given such projections, many researchers are looking for ways to improve the lithium-ion battery technology. Deng and her group aren’t materials scientists, so they don’t focus on making new and better battery chemistries. Instead, their goal is to find a way to lower the high cost of making all of those batteries. And much of the cost of making a lithium-ion battery can be traced to the manufacture of materials used to make one of its two electrodes — the cathode.

    The MIT researchers began their search for cost savings by considering the methods now used to produce cathode materials. The raw materials are typically salts of several metals, including lithium, which provides ions — the electrically charged particles that move when the battery is charged and discharged. The processing technology aims to produce tiny particles, each one made up of a mixture of those ingredients, with the atoms arranged in the specific crystalline structure that will deliver the best performance in the finished battery.

    For the past several decades, companies have manufactured those cathode materials using a two-stage process called coprecipitation. In the first stage, the metal salts — excluding the lithium — are dissolved in water and thoroughly mixed inside a chemical reactor. Chemicals are added to change the acidity (the pH) of the mixture, and particles made up of the combined salts precipitate out of the solution. The particles are then removed, dried, ground up, and put through a sieve.

    A change in pH won’t cause lithium to precipitate, so it is added in the second stage. Solid lithium is ground together with the particles from the first stage until lithium atoms permeate the particles. The resulting material is then heated, or “annealed,” to ensure complete mixing and to achieve the targeted crystalline structure. Finally, the particles go through a “deagglomerator” that separates any particles that have joined together, and the cathode material emerges.

    Coprecipitation produces the needed materials, but the process is time-consuming. The first stage takes about 10 hours, and the second stage requires about 13 hours of annealing at a relatively low temperature (750 degrees Celsius). In addition, to prevent cracking during annealing, the temperature is gradually “ramped” up and down, which takes another 11 hours. The process is thus not only time-consuming but also energy-intensive and costly.

    For the past two years, Deng and her group have been exploring better ways to make the cathode material. “Combustion is very effective at oxidizing things, and the materials for lithium-ion batteries are generally mixtures of metal oxides,” says Deng. That being the case, they thought this could be an opportunity to use a combustion-based process called flame synthesis.

    A new way of making a high-performance cathode material

    The first task for Deng and her team — mechanical engineering postdoc Jianan Zhang, Valerie L. Muldoon ’20, SM ’22, and current graduate students Maanasa Bhat and Chuwei Zhang — was to choose a target material for their study. They decided to focus on a mixture of metal oxides consisting of nickel, cobalt, and manganese plus lithium. Known as “NCM811,” this material is widely used and has been shown to produce cathodes for batteries that deliver high performance; in an electric vehicle, that means a long driving range, rapid discharge and recharge, and a long lifetime. To better define their target, the researchers examined the literature to determine the composition and crystalline structure of NCM811 that has been shown to deliver the best performance as a cathode material.

    They then considered three possible approaches to improving on the coprecipitation process for synthesizing NCM811: They could simplify the system (to cut capital costs), speed up the process, or cut the energy required.

    “Our first thought was, what if we can mix together all of the substances — including the lithium — at the beginning?” says Deng. “Then we would not need to have the two stages” — a clear simplification over coprecipitation.

    Introducing FASP

    One process widely used in the chemical and other industries to fabricate nanoparticles is a type of flame synthesis called flame-assisted spray pyrolysis, or FASP. Deng’s concept for using FASP to make their targeted cathode powders proceeds as follows.

    The precursor materials — the metal salts (including the lithium) — are mixed with water, and the resulting solution is sprayed as fine droplets by an atomizer into a combustion chamber. There, a flame of burning methane heats up the mixture. The water evaporates, leaving the precursor materials to decompose, oxidize, and solidify to form the powder product. The cyclone separates particles of different sizes, and the baghouse filters out those that aren’t useful. The collected particles would then be annealed and deagglomerated.

    To investigate and optimize this concept, the researchers developed a lab-scale FASP setup consisting of a homemade ultrasonic nebulizer, a preheating section, a burner, a filter, and a vacuum pump that withdraws the powders that form. Using that system, they could control the details of the heating process: The preheating section replicates conditions as the material first enters the combustion chamber, and the burner replicates conditions as it passes the flame. That setup allowed the team to explore operating conditions that would give the best results.

    Their experiments showed marked benefits over coprecipitation. The nebulizer breaks up the liquid solution into fine droplets, ensuring atomic-level mixing. The water simply evaporates, so there’s no need to change the pH or to separate the solids from a liquid. As Deng notes, “You just let the gas go, and you’re left with the particles, which is what you want.” With lithium included at the outset, there’s no need for mixing solids with solids, which is neither efficient 
nor effective.

    They could even control the structure, or “morphology,” of the particles that formed. In one series of experiments, they tried exposing the incoming spray to different rates of temperature change over time. They found that the temperature “history” has a direct impact on morphology. With no preheating, the particles burst apart; and with rapid preheating, the particles were hollow. The best outcomes came when they used temperatures ranging from 175-225 C. Experiments with coin-cell batteries (laboratory devices used for testing battery materials) confirmed that by adjusting the preheating temperature, they could achieve a particle morphology that would optimize the performance of their materials.

    Best of all, the particles formed in seconds. Assuming the time needed for conventional annealing and deagglomerating, the new setup could synthesize the finished cathode material in half the total time needed for coprecipitation. Moreover, the first stage of the coprecipitation system is replaced by a far simpler setup — a savings in capital costs.

    “We were very happy,” says Deng. “But then we thought, if we’ve changed the precursor side so the lithium is mixed well with the salts, do we need to have the same process for the second stage? Maybe not!”

    Improving the second stage

    The key time- and energy-consuming step in the second stage is the annealing. In today’s coprecipitation process, the strategy is to anneal at a low temperature for a long time, giving the operator time to manipulate and control the process. But running a furnace for some 20 hours — even at a low temperature — consumes a lot of energy.

    Based on their studies thus far, Deng thought, “What if we slightly increase the temperature but reduce the annealing time by orders of magnitude? Then we could cut energy consumption, and we might still achieve the desired crystal structure.”

    However, experiments at slightly elevated temperatures and short treatment times didn’t bring the results they had hoped for. In transmission electron microscope (TEM) images, the particles that formed had clouds of light-looking nanoscale particles attached to their surfaces. When the researchers performed the same experiments without adding the lithium, those nanoparticles didn’t appear. Based on that and other tests, they concluded that the nanoparticles were pure lithium. So, it seemed like long-duration annealing would be needed to ensure that the lithium made its way inside the particles.

    But they then came up with a different solution to the lithium-distribution problem. They added a small amount — just 1 percent by weight — of an inexpensive compound called urea to their mixture. In TEM images of the particles formed, the “undesirable nanoparticles were largely gone,” says Deng.

    Experiments in the laboratory coin cells showed that the addition of urea significantly altered the response to changes in the annealing temperature. When the urea was absent, raising the annealing temperature led to a dramatic decline in performance of the cathode material that formed. But with the urea present, the performance of the material that formed was unaffected by any temperature change.

    That result meant that — as long as the urea was added with the other precursors — they could push up the temperature, shrink the annealing time, and omit the gradual ramp-up and cool-down process. Further imaging studies confirmed that their approach yields the desired crystal structure and the homogeneous elemental distribution of the cobalt, nickel, manganese, and lithium within the particles. Moreover, in tests of various performance measures, their materials did as well as materials produced by coprecipitation or by other methods using long-time heat treatment. Indeed, the performance was comparable to that of commercial batteries with cathodes made of NCM811.

    So now the long and expensive second stage required in standard coprecipitation could be replaced by just 20 minutes of annealing at about 870 C plus 20 minutes of cooling down at room temperature.

    Theory, continuing work, and planning for scale-up

    While experimental evidence supports their approach, Deng and her group are now working to understand why it works. “Getting the underlying physics right will help us design the process to control the morphology and to scale up the process,” says Deng. And they have a hypothesis for why the lithium nanoparticles in their flame synthesis process end up on the surfaces of the larger particles — and why the presence of urea solves that problem.

    According to their theory, without the added urea, the metal and lithium atoms are initially well-mixed within the droplet. But as heating progresses, the lithium diffuses to the surface and ends up as nanoparticles attached to the solidified particle. As a result, a long annealing process is needed to move the lithium in among the other atoms.

    When the urea is present, it starts out mixed with the lithium and other atoms inside the droplet. As temperatures rise, the urea decomposes, forming bubbles. As heating progresses, the bubbles burst, increasing circulation, which keeps the lithium from diffusing to the surface. The lithium ends up uniformly distributed, so the final heat treatment can be very short.

    The researchers are now designing a system to suspend a droplet of their mixture so they can observe the circulation inside it, with and without the urea present. They’re also developing experiments to examine how droplets vaporize, employing tools and methods they have used in the past to study how hydrocarbons vaporize inside internal combustion engines.

    They also have ideas about how to streamline and scale up their process. In coprecipitation, the first stage takes 10 to 20 hours, so one batch at a time moves on to the second stage to be annealed. In contrast, the novel FASP process generates particles in 20 minutes or less — a rate that’s consistent with continuous processing. In their design for an “integrated synthesis system,” the particles coming out of the baghouse are deposited on a belt that carries them for 10 or 20 minutes through a furnace. A deagglomerator then breaks any attached particles apart, and the cathode powder emerges, ready to be fabricated into a high-performance cathode for a lithium-ion battery. The cathode powders for high-performance lithium-ion batteries would thus be manufactured at unprecedented speed, low cost, and low energy use.

    Deng notes that every component in their integrated system is already used in industry, generally at a large scale and high flow-through rate. “That’s why we see great potential for our technology to be commercialized and scaled up,” she says. “Where our expertise comes into play is in designing the combustion chamber to control the temperature and heating rate so as to produce particles with the desired morphology.” And while a detailed economic analysis has yet to be performed, it seems clear that their technique will be faster, the equipment simpler, and the energy use lower than other methods of manufacturing cathode materials for lithium-ion batteries — potentially a major contribution to the ongoing energy transition.

    This research was supported by the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering.

    This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Preparing students for the new nuclear

    As nuclear power has gained greater recognition as a zero-emission energy source, the MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program has taken notice.

    Two years ago, LGO began a collaboration with MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) as a way to showcase the vital contribution of both business savvy and scientific rigor that LGO’s dual-degree graduates can offer this growing field.

    “We saw that the future of fission and fusion required business acumen and management acumen,” says Professor Anne White, NSE department head. “People who are going to be leaders in our discipline, and leaders in the nuclear enterprise, are going to need all of the technical pieces of the puzzle that our engineering department can provide in terms of education and training. But they’re also going to need a much broader perspective on how the technology connects with society through the lens of business.”

    The resulting response has been positive: “Companies are seeing the value of nuclear technology for their operations,” White says, and this often happens in unexpected ways.

    For example, graduate student Santiago Andrade recently completed a research project at Caterpillar Inc., a preeminent manufacturer of mining and construction equipment. Caterpillar is one of more than 20 major companies that partner with the LGO program, offering six-month internships to each student. On the surface, it seemed like an improbable pairing; what could Andrade, who was pursuing his master’s in nuclear science and engineering, do for a manufacturing company? However, Caterpillar wanted to understand the technical and commercial feasibility of using nuclear energy to power mining sites and data centers when wind and solar weren’t viable.

    “They are leaving no stone unturned in the search of financially smart solutions that can support the transition to a clean energy dependency,” Andrade says. “My project, along with many others’, is part of this effort.”

    “The research done through the LGO program with Santiago is enabling Caterpillar to understand how alternative technologies, like the nuclear microreactor, could participate in these markets in the future,” says Brian George, product manager for large electric power solutions at Caterpillar. “Our ability to connect our customers with the research will provide for a more accurate understanding of the potential opportunity, and helps provide exposure for our customers to emerging technologies.”

    With looming threats of climate change, White says, “We’re going to require more opportunities for nuclear technologies to step in and be part of those solutions. A cohort of LGO graduates will come through this program with technical expertise — a master’s degree in nuclear engineering — and an MBA. There’s going to be a tremendous talent pool out there to help companies and governments.”

    Andrade, who completed an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and had a strong background in thermodynamics, applied to LGO unsure of which track to choose, but he knew he wanted to confront the world’s energy challenge. When MIT Admissions suggested that he join LGO’s new nuclear track, he was intrigued by how it could further his career.

    “Since the NSE department offers opportunities ranging from energy to health care and from quantum engineering to regulatory policy, the possibilities of career tracks after graduation are countless,” he says.

    He was also inspired by the fact that, as he says, “Nuclear is one of the less-popular solutions in terms of our energy transition journey. One of the things that attracted me is that it’s not one of the most popular, but it’s one of the most useful.”

    In addition to his work at Caterpillar, Andrade connected deeply with professors. He worked closely with professors Jacopo Buongiorno and John Parsons as a research assistant, helping them develop a business model to successfully support the deployment of nuclear microreactors. After graduation, he plans to work in the clean energy sector with an eye to innovations in the nuclear energy technology space.

    His LGO classmate, Lindsey Kennington, a control systems engineer, echoes his sentiments: This is a revolutionary time for nuclear technology.

    “Before MIT, I worked on a lot of nuclear waste or nuclear weapons-related projects. All of them were fission-related. I got disillusioned because of all the bureaucracy and the regulation,” Kennington says. “However, now there are a lot of new nuclear technologies coming straight out of MIT. Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a fusion startup, represents a prime example of MIT’s close relationship to new nuclear tech. Small modular reactors are another emerging technology being developed by MIT. Exposure to these cutting-edge technologies was the main sell factor for me.”

    Kennington conducted an internship with National Grid, where she used her expertise to evaluate how existing nuclear power plants could generate hydrogen. At MIT, she studied nuclear and energy policy, which offered her additional perspective that traditional engineering classes might not have provided. Because nuclear power has long been a hot-button issue, Kennington was able to gain nuanced insight about the pathways and roadblocks to its implementation.

    “I don’t think that other engineering departments emphasize that focus on policy quite as much. [Those classes] have been one of the most enriching parts of being in the nuclear department,” she says.

    Most of all, she says, it’s a pivotal time to be part of a new, blossoming program at the forefront of clean energy, especially as fusion research grows more prevalent.

    “We’re at an inflection point,” she says. “Whether or not we figure out fusion in the next five, 10, or 20 years, people are going to be working on it — and it’s a really exciting time to not only work on the science but to actually help the funding and business side grow.”

    White puts it simply.

    “This is not your parents’ nuclear,” she says. “It’s something totally different. Our discipline is evolving so rapidly that people who have technical expertise in nuclear will have a huge advantage in this next generation.” More