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    Extracting hydrogen from rocks

    It’s commonly thought that the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen, exists mainly alongside other elements — with oxygen in water, for example, and with carbon in methane. But naturally occurring underground pockets of pure hydrogen are punching holes in that notion — and generating attention as a potentially unlimited source of carbon-free power. One interested party is the U.S. Department of Energy, which last month awarded $20 million in research grants to 18 teams from laboratories, universities, and private companies to develop technologies that can lead to cheap, clean fuel from the subsurface. Geologic hydrogen, as it’s known, is produced when water reacts with iron-rich rocks, causing the iron to oxidize. One of the grant recipients, MIT Assistant Professor Iwnetim Abate’s research group, will use its $1.3 million grant to determine the ideal conditions for producing hydrogen underground — considering factors such as catalysts to initiate the chemical reaction, temperature, pressure, and pH levels. The goal is to improve efficiency for large-scale production, meeting global energy needs at a competitive cost. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are potentially billions of tons of geologic hydrogen buried in the Earth’s crust. Accumulations have been discovered worldwide, and a slew of startups are searching for extractable deposits. Abate is looking to jump-start the natural hydrogen production process, implementing “proactive” approaches that involve stimulating production and harvesting the gas.                                                                                                                         “We aim to optimize the reaction parameters to make the reaction faster and produce hydrogen in an economically feasible manner,” says Abate, the Chipman Development Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). Abate’s research centers on designing materials and technologies for the renewable energy transition, including next-generation batteries and novel chemical methods for energy storage. 

    Sparking innovation

    Interest in geologic hydrogen is growing at a time when governments worldwide are seeking carbon-free energy alternatives to oil and gas. In December, French President Emmanuel Macron said his government would provide funding to explore natural hydrogen. And in February, government and private sector witnesses briefed U.S. lawmakers on opportunities to extract hydrogen from the ground. Today commercial hydrogen is manufactured at $2 a kilogram, mostly for fertilizer and chemical and steel production, but most methods involve burning fossil fuels, which release Earth-heating carbon. “Green hydrogen,” produced with renewable energy, is promising, but at $7 per kilogram, it’s expensive. “If you get hydrogen at a dollar a kilo, it’s competitive with natural gas on an energy-price basis,” says Douglas Wicks, a program director at Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), the Department of Energy organization leading the geologic hydrogen grant program. Recipients of the ARPA-E grants include Colorado School of Mines, Texas Tech University, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, plus private companies including Koloma, a hydrogen production startup that has received funding from Amazon and Bill Gates. The projects themselves are diverse, ranging from applying industrial oil and gas methods for hydrogen production and extraction to developing models to understand hydrogen formation in rocks. The purpose: to address questions in what Wicks calls a “total white space.” “In geologic hydrogen, we don’t know how we can accelerate the production of it, because it’s a chemical reaction, nor do we really understand how to engineer the subsurface so that we can safely extract it,” Wicks says. “We’re trying to bring in the best skills of each of the different groups to work on this under the idea that the ensemble should be able to give us good answers in a fairly rapid timeframe.” Geochemist Viacheslav Zgonnik, one of the foremost experts in the natural hydrogen field, agrees that the list of unknowns is long, as is the road to the first commercial projects. But he says efforts to stimulate hydrogen production — to harness the natural reaction between water and rock — present “tremendous potential.” “The idea is to find ways we can accelerate that reaction and control it so we can produce hydrogen on demand in specific places,” says Zgonnik, CEO and founder of Natural Hydrogen Energy, a Denver-based startup that has mineral leases for exploratory drilling in the United States. “If we can achieve that goal, it means that we can potentially replace fossil fuels with stimulated hydrogen.”

    “A full-circle moment”

    For Abate, the connection to the project is personal. As a child in his hometown in Ethiopia, power outages were a usual occurrence — the lights would be out three, maybe four days a week. Flickering candles or pollutant-emitting kerosene lamps were often the only source of light for doing homework at night. “And for the household, we had to use wood and charcoal for chores such as cooking,” says Abate. “That was my story all the way until the end of high school and before I came to the U.S. for college.” In 1987, well-diggers drilling for water in Mali in Western Africa uncovered a natural hydrogen deposit, causing an explosion. Decades later, Malian entrepreneur Aliou Diallo and his Canadian oil and gas company tapped the well and used an engine to burn hydrogen and power electricity in the nearby village. Ditching oil and gas, Diallo launched Hydroma, the world’s first hydrogen exploration enterprise. The company is drilling wells near the original site that have yielded high concentrations of the gas. “So, what used to be known as an energy-poor continent now is generating hope for the future of the world,” Abate says. “Learning about that was a full-circle moment for me. Of course, the problem is global; the solution is global. But then the connection with my personal journey, plus the solution coming from my home continent, makes me personally connected to the problem and to the solution.”

    Experiments that scale

    Abate and researchers in his lab are formulating a recipe for a fluid that will induce the chemical reaction that triggers hydrogen production in rocks. The main ingredient is water, and the team is testing “simple” materials for catalysts that will speed up the reaction and in turn increase the amount of hydrogen produced, says postdoc Yifan Gao. “Some catalysts are very costly and hard to produce, requiring complex production or preparation,” Gao says. “A catalyst that’s inexpensive and abundant will allow us to enhance the production rate — that way, we produce it at an economically feasible rate, but also with an economically feasible yield.” The iron-rich rocks in which the chemical reaction happens can be found across the United States and the world. To optimize the reaction across a diversity of geological compositions and environments, Abate and Gao are developing what they call a high-throughput system, consisting of artificial intelligence software and robotics, to test different catalyst mixtures and simulate what would happen when applied to rocks from various regions, with different external conditions like temperature and pressure. “And from that we measure how much hydrogen we are producing for each possible combination,” Abate says. “Then the AI will learn from the experiments and suggest to us, ‘Based on what I’ve learned and based on the literature, I suggest you test this composition of catalyst material for this rock.’” The team is writing a paper on its project and aims to publish its findings in the coming months. The next milestones for the project, after developing the catalyst recipe, is designing a reactor that will serve two purposes. First, fitted with technologies such as Raman spectroscopy, it will allow researchers to identify and optimize the chemical conditions that lead to improved rates and yield of hydrogen production. The lab-scale device will also inform the design of a real-world reactor that can accelerate hydrogen production in the field. “That would be a plant-scale reactor that would be implanted into the subsurface,” Abate says. The cross-disciplinary project is also tapping the expertise of Yang Shao-Horn, of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and DMSE, for computational analysis of the catalyst, and Esteban Gazel, a Cornell University scientist who will lend his expertise in geology and geochemistry. He’ll focus on understanding the iron-rich ultramafic rock formations across the United States and the globe and how they react with water. For Wicks at ARPA-E, the questions Abate and the other grant recipients are asking are just the first, critical steps in uncharted energy territory. “If we can understand how to stimulate these rocks into generating hydrogen, safely getting it up, it really unleashes the potential energy source,” he says. Then the emerging industry will look to oil and gas for the drilling, piping, and gas extraction know-how. “As I like to say, this is enabling technology that we hope to, in a very short term, enable us to say, ‘Is there really something there?’” More

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    Four researchers with MIT ties earn 2023 Schmidt Science Fellowships

    Four researchers with ties to MIT have been named Schmidt Science Fellows this year. Lillian Chin ’17, SM ’19; Neil Dalvie PD ’22, PhD ’22; Suong Nguyen, and Yirui Zhang SM ’19, PhD ’23 are among the 32 exceptional early-career scientists worldwide chosen to receive the prestigious fellowships.

    “History provides powerful examples of what happens when scientists are given the freedom to ask big questions which can achieve real breakthroughs across disciplines,” says Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Futures and president of the Schmidt Family Foundation. “Schmidt Science Fellows are tackling climate destruction, discovering new drugs against disease, developing novel materials, using machine learning to understand the drivers of human health, and much more. This new cohort will add to this legacy in applying scientific discovery to improve human health and opportunity, and preserve and restore essential planetary systems.”

    Schmidt Futures is a philanthropic initiative that brings talented people together in networks to prove out their ideas and solve hard problems in science and society. Schmidt Science Fellows receive a stipend of $100,000 a year for up to two years of postdoctoral research in a discipline different from their PhD at a world-leading lab anywhere across the globe.

    Lillian Chin ’17, SM ’19 is currently pursuing her PhD in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Her research focuses on creating new materials for robots. By designing the geometry of a material, Chin creates new “meta-materials” that have different properties from the original. Using this technique, she has created robot balls that dramatically expand in volume and soft grippers that can work in dangerous environments. All of these robots are built out of a single material, letting the researchers 3D print them with extra internal features like channels. These channels help to measure the deformation of metamaterials, enabling Chin and her collaborators to create robots that are strong, can move, and sense their own shape, like muscles do.

    “I feel very honored to have been chosen for this fellowship,” says Chin. “I feel like I proposed a very risky pivot, since my background is only in engineering, with very limited exposure to neuroscience. I’m very excited to be given the opportunity to learn best practices for interacting with patients and be able to translate my knowledge from robotics to biology.”

    With the Schmidt Fellowship, Chin plans to pursue new frontiers for custom materials with internal sensors, which can measure force and deformation and can be placed anywhere within the material. “I want to use these materials to make tools for clinicians and neuroscientists to better understand how humans touch and grasp objects around them,” says Chin. “I’m especially interested in seeing how my materials could help in diagnosis motor-related diseases or improve rehab outcomes by providing the patient with feedback. This will help me create robots that have a better sense of touch and learn how to move objects around like humans do.”

    Neil Dalvie PD ’22, PhD ’22 is a graduate of the Department of Chemical Engineering, where he worked with Professor J. Christopher Love on manufacturing of therapeutic proteins. Dalvie developed molecular biology techniques for manufacturing high-quality proteins in yeast, which enables rapid testing of new products and low-cost manufacturing and large scales. During the pandemic, he led a team that applied these learnings to develop a Covid-19 vaccine that was deployed in multiple low-income countries. After graduating, Dalvie wanted to apply the precision biological engineering that is routinely deployed in medicinal manufacturing to other large-scale bioprocesses.

    “It’s rare for scientists to cross large technical gaps after so many years of specific training to get a PhD — you get comfy being an expert in your field,” says Dalvie. “I was definitely intimidated by the giant leap from vaccine manufacturing to the natural rock cycle. The fellowship has allowed me to dive into the new field by removing immediate pressure to publish or find my next job. I am excited for what commonalities we will find between biomanufacturing and biogeochemistry.”

    As a Schmidt Science Fellow, Dalvie will work with Professor Pamela Silver at Harvard Medical School on engineering microorganisms for enhanced rock weathering and carbon sequestration to combat climate change. They are applying modern molecular biology to enhance natural biogeochemical processes at gigaton scales.

    Suong (Su) Nguyen, a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Jeremiah Johnson’s lab in the Department of Chemistry, earned her PhD from Princeton University, where she developed light-driven, catalytic methodologies for organic synthesis, biomass valorization, plastic waste recycling, and functionalization of quantum sensing materials.

    As a Schmidt Science fellow, Nguyen will pivot from organic chemistry to nanomaterials. Biological systems are able to synthesize macromolecules with precise structure essential for their biological function. Scientists have long dreamed of achieving similar control over synthetic materials, but existing methods are inefficient and limited in scope. Nguyen hopes to develop new strategies to achieve such high level of control over the structure and properties of nanomaterials and explore their potential for use in therapeutic applications.

    “I feel extremely honored and grateful to receive the Schmidt Science Fellowship,” says Nguyen. “The fellowship will provide me with a unique opportunity to engage with scientists from a very wide range of research backgrounds. I believe this will significantly shape the research objectives for my future career.”

    Yirui Zhang SM ’19, PhD ’22 is a graduate of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Zhang’s research focuses on electrochemical energy storage and conversion, including lithium-ion batteries and electrocatalysis. She has developed in situ spectroscopy and electrochemical methods to probe the electrode-electrolyte interface, understand the interfacial molecular structures, and unravel the fundamental thermodynamics and kinetics of (electro)chemical reactions in energy storage. Further, she has leveraged the physical chemistry of liquids and tuned the molecular structures at the interface to improve the stability and kinetics of electrochemical reactions. 

    “I am honored and thrilled to have been named a Schmidt Science Fellow,” says Zhang. “The fellowship will not only provide me with the unique opportunity to broaden my scientific perspectives and pursue pivoting research, but also create a lifelong network for us to collaborate across diverse fields and become scientific and societal thought leaders. I look forward to pushing the boundaries of my research and advancing technologies to tackle global challenges in energy storage and health care with interdisciplinary efforts!”

    As a Schmidt Science Fellow, Zhang will work across disciplines and pivot to biosensing. She plans to combine spectroscopy, electrokinetics, and machine learning to develop a fast and cost-effective technique for monitoring and understanding infectious disease. The innovations will benefit next-generation point-of-care medical devices and wastewater-based epidemiology to provide timely diagnosis and help protect humans against deadly infections and antimicrobial resistance. More

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    Sensing with purpose

    Fadel Adib never expected that science would get him into the White House, but in August 2015 the MIT graduate student found himself demonstrating his research to the president of the United States.

    Adib, fellow grad student Zachary Kabelac, and their advisor, Dina Katabi, showcased a wireless device that uses Wi-Fi signals to track an individual’s movements.

    As President Barack Obama looked on, Adib walked back and forth across the floor of the Oval Office, collapsed onto the carpet to demonstrate the device’s ability to monitor falls, and then sat still so Katabi could explain to the president how the device was measuring his breathing and heart rate.

    “Zach started laughing because he could see that my heart rate was 110 as I was demoing the device to the president. I was stressed about it, but it was so exciting. I had poured a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into that project,” Adib recalls.

    For Adib, the White House demo was an unexpected — and unforgettable — culmination of a research project he had launched four years earlier when he began his graduate training at MIT. Now, as a newly tenured associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Media Lab, he keeps building off that work. Adib, the Doherty Chair of Ocean Utilization, seeks to develop wireless technology that can sense the physical world in ways that were not possible before.

    In his Signal Kinetics group, Adib and his students apply knowledge and creativity to global problems like climate change and access to health care. They are using wireless devices for contactless physiological sensing, such as measuring someone’s stress level using Wi-Fi signals. The team is also developing battery-free underwater cameras that could explore uncharted regions of the oceans, tracking pollution and the effects of climate change. And they are combining computer vision and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to build robots that find hidden items, to streamline factory and warehouse operations and, ultimately, alleviate supply chain bottlenecks.

    While these areas may seem quite different, each time they launch a new project, the researchers uncover common threads that tie the disciplines together, Adib says.

    “When we operate in a new field, we get to learn. Every time you are at a new boundary, in a sense you are also like a kid, trying to understand these different languages, bring them together, and invent something,” he says.

    A science-minded child

    A love of learning has driven Adib since he was a young child growing up in Tripoli on the coast of Lebanon. He had been interested in math and science for as long as he could remember, and had boundless energy and insatiable curiosity as a child.

    “When my mother wanted me to slow down, she would give me a puzzle to solve,” he recalls.

    By the time Adib started college at the American University of Beirut, he knew he wanted to study computer engineering and had his sights set on MIT for graduate school.

    Seeking to kick-start his future studies, Adib reached out to several MIT faculty members to ask about summer internships. He received a response from the first person he contacted. Katabi, the Thuan and Nicole Pham Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), and a principal investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the MIT Jameel Clinic, interviewed him and accepted him for a position. He immersed himself in the lab work and, as the end of summer approached, Katabi encouraged him to apply for grad school at MIT and join her lab.

    “To me, that was a shock because I felt this imposter syndrome. I thought I was moving like a turtle with my research, but I did not realize that with research itself, because you are at the boundary of human knowledge, you are expected to progress iteratively and slowly,” he says.

    As an MIT grad student, he began contributing to a number of projects. But his passion for invention pushed him to embark into unexplored territory. Adib had an idea: Could he use Wi-Fi to see through walls?

    “It was a crazy idea at the time, but my advisor let me work on it, even though it was not something the group had been working on at all before. We both thought it was an exciting idea,” he says.

    As Wi-Fi signals travel in space, a small part of the signal passes through walls — the same way light passes through windows — and is then reflected by whatever is on the other side. Adib wanted to use these signals to “see” what people on the other side of a wall were doing.

    Discovering new applications

    There were a lot of ups and downs (“I’d say many more downs than ups at the beginning”), but Adib made progress. First, he and his teammates were able to detect people on the other side of a wall, then they could determine their exact location. Almost by accident, he discovered that the device could be used to monitor someone’s breathing.

    “I remember we were nearing a deadline and my friend Zach and I were working on the device, using it to track people on the other side of the wall. I asked him to hold still, and then I started to see him appearing and disappearing over and over again. I thought, could this be his breathing?” Adib says.

    Eventually, they enabled their Wi-Fi device to monitor heart rate and other vital signs. The technology was spun out into a startup, which presented Adib with a conundrum once he finished his PhD — whether to join the startup or pursue a career in academia.

    He decided to become a professor because he wanted to dig deeper into the realm of invention. But after living through the winter of 2014-2015, when nearly 109 inches of snow fell on Boston (a record), Adib was ready for a change of scenery and a warmer climate. He applied to universities all over the United States, and while he had some tempting offers, Adib ultimately realized he didn’t want to leave MIT. He joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor in 2016 and was named associate professor in 2020.

    “When I first came here as an intern, even though I was thousands of miles from Lebanon, I felt at home. And the reason for that was the people. This geekiness — this embrace of intellect — that is something I find to be beautiful about MIT,” he says.

    He’s thrilled to work with brilliant people who are also passionate about problem-solving. The members of his research group are diverse, and they each bring unique perspectives to the table, which Adib says is vital to encourage the intellectual back-and-forth that drives their work.

    Diving into a new project

    For Adib, research is exploration. Take his work on oceans, for instance. He wanted to make an impact on climate change, and after exploring the problem, he and his students decided to build a battery-free underwater camera.

    Adib learned that the ocean, which covers 70 percent of the planet, plays the single largest role in the Earth’s climate system. Yet more than 95 percent of it remains unexplored. That seemed like a problem the Signal Kinetics group could help solve, he says.

    But diving into this research area was no easy task. Adib studies Wi-Fi systems, but Wi-Fi does not work underwater. And it is difficult to recharge a battery once it is deployed in the ocean, making it hard to build an autonomous underwater robot that can do large-scale sensing.

    So, the team borrowed from other disciplines, building an underwater camera that uses acoustics to power its equipment and capture and transmit images.

    “We had to use piezoelectric materials, which come from materials science, to develop transducers, which come from oceanography, and then on top of that we had to marry these things with technology from RF known as backscatter,” he says. “The biggest challenge becomes getting these things to gel together. How do you decode these languages across fields?”

    It’s a challenge that continues to motivate Adib as he and his students tackle problems that are too big for one discipline.

    He’s excited by the possibility of using his undersea wireless imaging technology to explore distant planets. These same tools could also enhance aquaculture, which could help eradicate food insecurity, or support other emerging industries.

    To Adib, the possibilities seem endless.

    “With each project, we discover something new, and that opens up a whole new world to explore. The biggest driver of our work in the future will be what we think is impossible, but that we could make possible,” he says. More

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    New MIT internships expand research opportunities in Africa

    With new support from the Office of the Associate Provost for International Activities, MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) and the MIT-Africa program are expanding internship opportunities for MIT students at universities and leading academic research centers in Africa. This past summer, MISTI supported 10 MIT student interns at African universities, significantly more than in any previous year.

    “These internships are an opportunity to better merge the research ecosystem of MIT with academia-based research systems in Africa,” says Evan Lieberman, the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa and faculty director for MISTI.

    For decades, MISTI has helped MIT students to learn and explore through international experiential learning opportunities and internships in industries like health care, education, agriculture, and energy. MISTI’s MIT-Africa Seed Fund supports collaborative research between MIT faculty and Africa-based researchers, and the new student research internship opportunities are part of a broader vision for deeper engagement between MIT and research institutions across the African continent.

    While Africa is home to 12.5 percent of the world’s population, it generates less than 1 percent of scientific research output in the form of academic journal publications, according to the African Academy of Sciences. Research internships are one way that MIT can build mutually beneficial partnerships across Africa’s research ecosystem, to advance knowledge and spawn innovation in fields important to MIT and its African counterparts, including health care, biotechnology, urban planning, sustainable energy, and education.

    Ari Jacobovits, managing director of MIT-Africa, notes that the new internships provide additional funding to the lab hosting the MIT intern, enabling them to hire a counterpart student research intern from the local university. This support can make the internships more financially feasible for host institutions and helps to grow the research pipeline.

    With the support of MIT, State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) lecturers Raya Ahmada and Abubakar Bakar were able to hire local students to work alongside MIT graduate students Mel Isidor and Rajan Hoyle. Together the students collaborated over a summer on a mapping project designed to plan and protect Zanzibar’s coastal economy.

    “It’s been really exciting to work with research peers in a setting where we can all learn alongside one another and develop this project together,” says Hoyle.

    Using low-cost drone technology, the students and their local counterparts worked to create detailed maps of Zanzibar to support community planning around resilience projects designed to combat coastal flooding and deforestation and assess climate-related impacts to seaweed farming activities. 

    “I really appreciated learning about how engagement happens in this particular context and how community members understand local environmental challenges and conditions based on research and lived experience,” says Isidor. “This is beneficial for us whether we’re working in an international context or in the United States.”

    For biology major Shaida Nishat, her internship at the University of Cape Town allowed her to work in a vital sphere of public health and provided her with the chance to work with a diverse, international team headed by Associate Professor Salome Maswine, head of the global surgery division and a widely-renowned expert in global surgery, a multidisciplinary field in the sphere of global health focused on improved and equitable surgical outcomes.

    “It broadened my perspective as to how an effort like global surgery ties so many nations together through a common goal that would benefit them all,” says Nishat, who plans to pursue a career in public health.

    For computer science sophomore Antonio L. Ortiz Bigio, the MISTI research internship in Africa was an incomparable experience, culturally and professionally. Bigio interned at the Robotics Autonomous Intelligence and Learning Laboratory at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, led by Professor Benjamin Rosman, where he developed software to enable a robot to play chess. The experience has inspired Bigio to continue to pursue robotics and machine learning.

    Participating faculty at the host institutions welcomed their MIT interns, and were impressed by their capabilities. Both Rosman and Maswime described their MIT interns as hard-working and valued team members, who had helped to advance their own work.  

    Building strong global partnerships, whether through faculty research, student internships, or other initiatives, takes time and cultivation, explains Jacobovits. Each successful collaboration helps to seed future exchanges and builds interest at MIT and peer institutions in creative partnerships. As MIT continues to deepen its connections to institutions and researchers across Africa, says Jacobovits, “students like Shaida, Rajan, Mel, and Antonio are really effective ambassadors in building those networks.” More

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    Meet the 2021-22 Accenture Fellows

    Launched in October of 2020, the MIT and Accenture Convergence Initiative for Industry and Technology underscores the ways in which industry and technology come together to spur innovation. The five-year initiative aims to achieve its mission through research, education, and fellowships. To that end, Accenture has once again awarded five annual fellowships to MIT graduate students working on research in industry and technology convergence who are underrepresented, including by race, ethnicity, and gender.

    This year’s Accenture Fellows work across disciplines including robotics, manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and biomedicine. Their research covers a wide array of subjects, including: advancing manufacturing through computational design, with the potential to benefit global vaccine production; designing low-energy robotics for both consumer electronics and the aerospace industry; developing robotics and machine learning systems that may aid the elderly in their homes; and creating ingestible biomedical devices that can help gather medical data from inside a patient’s body.

    Student nominations from each unit within the School of Engineering, as well as from the four other MIT schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, were invited as part of the application process. Five exceptional students were selected as fellows in the initiative’s second year.

    Xinming (Lily) Liu is a PhD student in operations research at MIT Sloan School of Management. Her work is focused on behavioral and data-driven operations for social good, incorporating human behaviors into traditional optimization models, designing incentives, and analyzing real-world data. Her current research looks at the convergence of social media, digital platforms, and agriculture, with particular attention to expanding technological equity and economic opportunity in developing countries. Liu earned her BS from Cornell University, with a double major in operations research and computer science.

    Caris Moses is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science specializing inartificial intelligence. Moses’ research focuses on using machine learning, optimization, and electromechanical engineering to build robotics systems that are robust, flexible, intelligent, and can learn on the job. The technology she is developing holds promise for industries including flexible, small-batch manufacturing; robots to assist the elderly in their households; and warehouse management and fulfillment. Moses earned her BS in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and her MS in computer science from Northeastern University.

    Sergio Rodriguez Aponte is a PhD student in biological engineering. He is working on the convergence of computational design and manufacturing practices, which have the potential to impact industries such as biopharmaceuticals, food, and wellness/nutrition. His current research aims to develop strategies for applying computational tools, such as multiscale modeling and machine learning, to the design and production of manufacturable and accessible vaccine candidates that could eventually be available globally. Rodriguez Aponte earned his BS in industrial biotechnology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

    Soumya Sudhakar SM ’20 is a PhD student in aeronautics and astronautics. Her work is focused on theco-design of new algorithms and integrated circuits for autonomous low-energy robotics that could have novel applications in aerospace and consumer electronics. Her contributions bring together the emerging robotics industry, integrated circuits industry, aerospace industry, and consumer electronics industry. Sudhakar earned her BSE in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University and her MS in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

    So-Yoon Yang is a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science. Her work on the development of low-power, wireless, ingestible biomedical devices for health care is at the intersection of the medical device, integrated circuit, artificial intelligence, and pharmaceutical fields. Currently, the majority of wireless biomedical devices can only provide a limited range of medical data measured from outside the body. Ingestible devices hold promise for the next generation of personal health care because they do not require surgical implantation, can be useful for detecting physiological and pathophysiological signals, and can also function as therapeutic alternatives when treatment cannot be done externally. Yang earned her BS in electrical and computer engineering from Seoul National University in South Korea and her MS in electrical engineering from Caltech. More

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    A robot that finds lost items

    A busy commuter is ready to walk out the door, only to realize they’ve misplaced their keys and must search through piles of stuff to find them. Rapidly sifting through clutter, they wish they could figure out which pile was hiding the keys.

    Researchers at MIT have created a robotic system that can do just that. The system, RFusion, is a robotic arm with a camera and radio frequency (RF) antenna attached to its gripper. It fuses signals from the antenna with visual input from the camera to locate and retrieve an item, even if the item is buried under a pile and completely out of view.

    The RFusion prototype the researchers developed relies on RFID tags, which are cheap, battery-less tags that can be stuck to an item and reflect signals sent by an antenna. Because RF signals can travel through most surfaces (like the mound of dirty laundry that may be obscuring the keys), RFusion is able to locate a tagged item within a pile.

    Using machine learning, the robotic arm automatically zeroes-in on the object’s exact location, moves the items on top of it, grasps the object, and verifies that it picked up the right thing. The camera, antenna, robotic arm, and AI are fully integrated, so RFusion can work in any environment without requiring a special set up.

    While finding lost keys is helpful, RFusion could have many broader applications in the future, like sorting through piles to fulfill orders in a warehouse, identifying and installing components in an auto manufacturing plant, or helping an elderly individual perform daily tasks in the home, though the current prototype isn’t quite fast enough yet for these uses.

    “This idea of being able to find items in a chaotic world is an open problem that we’ve been working on for a few years. Having robots that are able to search for things under a pile is a growing need in industry today. Right now, you can think of this as a Roomba on steroids, but in the near term, this could have a lot of applications in manufacturing and warehouse environments,” said senior author Fadel Adib, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of the Signal Kinetics group in the MIT Media Lab.

    Co-authors include research assistant Tara Boroushaki, the lead author; electrical engineering and computer science graduate student Isaac Perper; research associate Mergen Nachin; and Alberto Rodriguez, the Class of 1957 Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The research will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Embedded Networked Senor Systems next month.

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    Sending signals

    RFusion begins searching for an object using its antenna, which bounces signals off the RFID tag (like sunlight being reflected off a mirror) to identify a spherical area in which the tag is located. It combines that sphere with the camera input, which narrows down the object’s location. For instance, the item can’t be located on an area of a table that is empty.

    But once the robot has a general idea of where the item is, it would need to swing its arm widely around the room taking additional measurements to come up with the exact location, which is slow and inefficient.

    The researchers used reinforcement learning to train a neural network that can optimize the robot’s trajectory to the object. In reinforcement learning, the algorithm is trained through trial and error with a reward system.

    “This is also how our brain learns. We get rewarded from our teachers, from our parents, from a computer game, etc. The same thing happens in reinforcement learning. We let the agent make mistakes or do something right and then we punish or reward the network. This is how the network learns something that is really hard for it to model,” Boroushaki explains.

    In the case of RFusion, the optimization algorithm was rewarded when it limited the number of moves it had to make to localize the item and the distance it had to travel to pick it up.

    Once the system identifies the exact right spot, the neural network uses combined RF and visual information to predict how the robotic arm should grasp the object, including the angle of the hand and the width of the gripper, and whether it must remove other items first. It also scans the item’s tag one last time to make sure it picked up the right object.

    Cutting through clutter

    The researchers tested RFusion in several different environments. They buried a keychain in a box full of clutter and hid a remote control under a pile of items on a couch.

    But if they fed all the camera data and RF measurements to the reinforcement learning algorithm, it would have overwhelmed the system. So, drawing on the method a GPS uses to consolidate data from satellites, they summarized the RF measurements and limited the visual data to the area right in front of the robot.

    Their approach worked well — RFusion had a 96 percent success rate when retrieving objects that were fully hidden under a pile.

    “Sometimes, if you only rely on RF measurements, there is going to be an outlier, and if you rely only on vision, there is sometimes going to be a mistake from the camera. But if you combine them, they are going to correct each other. That is what made the system so robust,” Boroushaki says.

    In the future, the researchers hope to increase the speed of the system so it can move smoothly, rather than stopping periodically to take measurements. This would enable RFusion to be deployed in a fast-paced manufacturing or warehouse setting.

    Beyond its potential industrial uses, a system like this could even be incorporated into future smart homes to assist people with any number of household tasks, Boroushaki says.

    “Every year, billions of RFID tags are used to identify objects in today’s complex supply chains, including clothing and lots of other consumer goods. The RFusion approach points the way to autonomous robots that can dig through a pile of mixed items and sort them out using the data stored in the RFID tags, much more efficiently than having to inspect each item individually, especially when the items look similar to a computer vision system,” says Matthew S. Reynolds, CoMotion Presidential Innovation Fellow and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Washington, who was not involved in the research. “The RFusion approach is a great step forward for robotics operating in complex supply chains where identifying and ‘picking’ the right item quickly and accurately is the key to getting orders fulfilled on time and keeping demanding customers happy.”

    The research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, a Sloan Research Fellowship, NTT DATA, Toppan, Toppan Forms, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab. More