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    MIT researchers remotely map crops, field by field

    Crop maps help scientists and policymakers track global food supplies and estimate how they might shift with climate change and growing populations. But getting accurate maps of the types of crops that are grown from farm to farm often requires on-the-ground surveys that only a handful of countries have the resources to maintain.

    Now, MIT engineers have developed a method to quickly and accurately label and map crop types without requiring in-person assessments of every single farm. The team’s method uses a combination of Google Street View images, machine learning, and satellite data to automatically determine the crops grown throughout a region, from one fraction of an acre to the next. 

    The researchers used the technique to automatically generate the first nationwide crop map of Thailand — a smallholder country where small, independent farms make up the predominant form of agriculture. The team created a border-to-border map of Thailand’s four major crops — rice, cassava, sugarcane, and maize — and determined which of the four types was grown, at every 10 meters, and without gaps, across the entire country. The resulting map achieved an accuracy of 93 percent, which the researchers say is comparable to on-the-ground mapping efforts in high-income, big-farm countries.

    The team is applying their mapping technique to other countries such as India, where small farms sustain most of the population but the type of crops grown from farm to farm has historically been poorly recorded.

    “It’s a longstanding gap in knowledge about what is grown around the world,” says Sherrie Wang, the d’Arbeloff Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). “The final goal is to understand agricultural outcomes like yield, and how to farm more sustainably. One of the key preliminary steps is to map what is even being grown — the more granularly you can map, the more questions you can answer.”

    Wang, along with MIT graduate student Jordi Laguarta Soler and Thomas Friedel of the agtech company PEAT GmbH, will present a paper detailing their mapping method later this month at the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence.

    Ground truth

    Smallholder farms are often run by a single family or farmer, who subsist on the crops and livestock that they raise. It’s estimated that smallholder farms support two-thirds of the world’s rural population and produce 80 percent of the world’s food. Keeping tabs on what is grown and where is essential to tracking and forecasting food supplies around the world. But the majority of these small farms are in low to middle-income countries, where few resources are devoted to keeping track of individual farms’ crop types and yields.

    Crop mapping efforts are mainly carried out in high-income regions such as the United States and Europe, where government agricultural agencies oversee crop surveys and send assessors to farms to label crops from field to field. These “ground truth” labels are then fed into machine-learning models that make connections between the ground labels of actual crops and satellite signals of the same fields. They then label and map wider swaths of farmland that assessors don’t cover but that satellites automatically do.

    “What’s lacking in low- and middle-income countries is this ground label that we can associate with satellite signals,” Laguarta Soler says. “Getting these ground truths to train a model in the first place has been limited in most of the world.”

    The team realized that, while many developing countries do not have the resources to maintain crop surveys, they could potentially use another source of ground data: roadside imagery, captured by services such as Google Street View and Mapillary, which send cars throughout a region to take continuous 360-degree images with dashcams and rooftop cameras.

    In recent years, such services have been able to access low- and middle-income countries. While the goal of these services is not specifically to capture images of crops, the MIT team saw that they could search the roadside images to identify crops.

    Cropped image

    In their new study, the researchers worked with Google Street View (GSV) images taken throughout Thailand — a country that the service has recently imaged fairly thoroughly, and which consists predominantly of smallholder farms.

    Starting with over 200,000 GSV images randomly sampled across Thailand, the team filtered out images that depicted buildings, trees, and general vegetation. About 81,000 images were crop-related. They set aside 2,000 of these, which they sent to an agronomist, who determined and labeled each crop type by eye. They then trained a convolutional neural network to automatically generate crop labels for the other 79,000 images, using various training methods, including iNaturalist — a web-based crowdsourced  biodiversity database, and GPT-4V, a “multimodal large language model” that enables a user to input an image and ask the model to identify what the image is depicting. For each of the 81,000 images, the model generated a label of one of four crops that the image was likely depicting — rice, maize, sugarcane, or cassava.

    The researchers then paired each labeled image with the corresponding satellite data taken of the same location throughout a single growing season. These satellite data include measurements across multiple wavelengths, such as a location’s greenness and its reflectivity (which can be a sign of water). 

    “Each type of crop has a certain signature across these different bands, which changes throughout a growing season,” Laguarta Soler notes.

    The team trained a second model to make associations between a location’s satellite data and its corresponding crop label. They then used this model to process satellite data taken of the rest of the country, where crop labels were not generated or available. From the associations that the model learned, it then assigned crop labels across Thailand, generating a country-wide map of crop types, at a resolution of 10 square meters.

    This first-of-its-kind crop map included locations corresponding to the 2,000 GSV images that the researchers originally set aside, that were labeled by arborists. These human-labeled images were used to validate the map’s labels, and when the team looked to see whether the map’s labels matched the expert, “gold standard” labels, it did so 93 percent of the time.

    “In the U.S., we’re also looking at over 90 percent accuracy, whereas with previous work in India, we’ve only seen 75 percent because ground labels are limited,” Wang says. “Now we can create these labels in a cheap and automated way.”

    The researchers are moving to map crops across India, where roadside images via Google Street View and other services have recently become available.

    “There are over 150 million smallholder farmers in India,” Wang says. “India is covered in agriculture, almost wall-to-wall farms, but very small farms, and historically it’s been very difficult to create maps of India because there are very sparse ground labels.”

    The team is working to generate crop maps in India, which could be used to inform policies having to do with assessing and bolstering yields, as global temperatures and populations rise.

    “What would be interesting would be to create these maps over time,” Wang says. “Then you could start to see trends, and we can try to relate those things to anything like changes in climate and policies.” More

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    3 Questions: The Climate Project at MIT

    MIT is preparing a major campus-wide effort to develop technological, behavioral, and policy solutions to some of the toughest problems now impeding an effective global climate response. The Climate Project at MIT, as the new enterprise is known, includes new arrangements for promoting cross-Institute collaborations and new mechanisms for engaging with outside partners to speed the development and implementation of climate solutions.

    MIT News spoke with Richard K. Lester, MIT’s vice provost for international activities, who has helped oversee the development of the project.

    Q: What is the Climate Project at MIT?

    A: In her inaugural address last May, President Kornbluth called on the MIT community to join her in a “bold, tenacious response” to climate change. The Climate Project at MIT is a response to that call. It aims to mobilize every part of MIT to develop, deliver, and scale up practical climate solutions, as quickly as possible.

    Play video

    At MIT, well over 300 of our faculty are already working with their students and research staff members on different aspects of the climate problem. Almost all of our academic departments and more than a score of our interdepartmental labs and centers are involved in some way. What they are doing is remarkable, and this decentralized structure reflects the best traditions of MIT as a “bottom up,” entrepreneurial institution. But, as President Kornbluth said, we must do much more. We must be bolder in our research choices and more creative in how we organize ourselves to work with each other and with our partners. The purpose of the Climate Project is to support our community’s efforts to do bigger things faster in the climate domain. We will have succeeded if our work changes the trajectory of global climate outcomes for the better.

    I want to be clear that the clay is still wet here. The Climate Project will continue to take shape as more members of the MIT community bring their excellence, their energy, and their ambition to bear on the climate challenge. But I believe we have a vision and a framework for accelerating and amplifying MIT’s real-world climate impact, and I know that President Kornbluth is eager to share this progress report with the MIT community now to convey the breadth and ambition of what we’re planning.

    Q: How will the project be organized?

    A: The Climate Project will have three core components: the Climate Missions; their offshoots, the Climate Frontier Projects; and Climate HQ. A new vice president for climate will lead the enterprise.

    Initially there will be six missions, which you can read about in the plan. Each will address a different domain of climate impact where new solutions are required and where a critical mass of research excellence exists at MIT. One such mission, of course, is to decarbonize energy and industry, an area where we estimate that about 150 of our faculty are already working.

    The mission leaders will build multidisciplinary problem-solving communities reaching across the Institute and beyond. Each of these will be charged with roadmapping and assessing progress toward its mission, identifying critical gaps and bottlenecks, and launching applied research projects to accelerate progress where the MIT community and our partners are well-positioned to achieve impactful results. These projects — the climate frontier projects — will benefit from active, professional project management, with clear metrics and milestones. We are in a critical decade for responding to climate change, so it’s important that these research projects move quickly, with an eye on producing real-world results.

    The new Climate HQ will drive the overall vision for the Climate Project and support the work of the missions. We’ve talked about a core focus on impact-driven research, but much is still unknown about the Earth’s physical and biogeochemical systems, and there is also much to be learned about the behavior of the social and political systems that led us to the very difficult situation the world now faces. Climate HQ will support fundamental research in the scientific and humanistic disciplines related to climate, and will promote engagement between these disciplines and the missions. We must also advance climate-related education, led by departments and programs, as well as policy work, public outreach, and more, including an MIT-wide student-centric Climate Corps to elevate climate-related, community-focused service in MIT’s culture.

    Q: Why are partners a key part of this project?

    A: It is important to build strong partners right from the very start for our innovations, inventions, and discoveries to have any prospect of achieving scale. And in many cases, with climate change, it’s all about scale.

    One of the aims of this initiative is to strengthen MIT’s climate “scaffolding” — the people and processes connecting what we do on campus to the practical world of climate impact and response. We can build on MIT’s highly developed infrastructure for translation, innovation, and entrepreneurship, even as we promote other important pathways to scale involving communities, municipalities, and other not-for-profit organizations. Working with all these different organizations will help us build a broad infrastructure to help us get traction in the world. On a related note, the Sloan School of Management will be sharing details in the coming days of an exciting new effort to enhance MIT’s contributions in the climate policy arena.

    MIT is committing $75 million, including $25 million from Sloan, at the outset of the project. But we anticipate developing new partnerships, including philanthropic partnerships, to increase that scope dramatically. More

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    Reflecting on COP28 — and humanity’s progress toward meeting global climate goals

    With 85,000 delegates, the 2023 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP28, was the largest U.N. climate conference in history. It was held at the end of the hottest year in recorded history. And after 12 days of negotiations, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, it produced a decision that included, for the first time, language calling for “transitioning away from fossil fuels,” though it stopped short of calling for their complete phase-out.

    U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said the outcome in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, COP28’s host city, signaled “the beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. 

    COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held this year for the 28th time. Through the negotiations — and the immense conference and expo that takes place alongside them — a delegation of faculty, students, and staff from MIT was in Dubai to observe the negotiations, present new climate technologies, speak on panels, network, and conduct research.

    On Jan. 17, the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS) hosted a panel discussion with MIT delegates who shared their reflections on the experience. Asking what’s going on at COP is “like saying, ‘What’s going on in the city of Boston today?’” quipped Evan Lieberman, the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa, director of CIS, and faculty director of MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI). “The value added that all of us can provide for the MIT community is [to share] what we saw firsthand and how we experienced it.” 

    Phase-out, phase down, transition away?

    In the first week of COP28, over 100 countries issued a joint statement that included a call for “the global phase out of unabated fossil fuels.” The question of whether the COP28 decision — dubbed the “UAE Consensus” — would include this phase-out language animated much of the discussion in the days and weeks leading up to COP28. 

    Ultimately, the decision called for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.” It also called for “accelerating efforts towards the phase down of unabated coal power,” referring to the combustion of coal without efforts to capture and store its emissions.

    In Dubai to observe the negotiations, graduate student Alessandra Fabbri said she was “confronted” by the degree to which semantic differences could impose significant ramifications — for example, when negotiators referred to a “just transition,” or to “developed vs. developing nations” — particularly where evolution in recent scholarship has produced more nuanced understandings of the terms.

    COP28 also marked the conclusion of the first global stocktake, a core component of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The effort every five years to assess the world’s progress in responding to climate change is intended as a basis for encouraging countries to strengthen their climate goals over time, a process often referred to as the Paris Agreement’s “ratchet mechanism.” 

    The technical report of the first global stocktake, published in September 2023, found that while the world has taken actions that have reduced forecasts of future warming, they are not sufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

    “Despite minor, punctual advancements in climate action, parties are far from being on track to meet the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement,” said Fabbri, a graduate student in the School of Architecture and Planning and a fellow in MIT’s Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. Citing a number of persistent challenges, including some parties’ fears that rapid economic transition may create or exacerbate vulnerabilities, she added, “There is a noted lack of accountability among certain countries in adhering to their commitments and responsibilities under international climate agreements.” 

    Climate and trade

    COP28 was the first climate summit to formally acknowledge the importance of international trade by featuring an official “Trade Day” on Dec. 4. Internationally traded goods account for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, raising complex questions of accountability and concerns about offshoring of industrial manufacturing, a phenomenon known as “emissions leakage.” Addressing the nexus of climate and trade is therefore considered essential for successful decarbonization, and a growing number of countries are leveraging trade policies — such as carbon fees applied to imported goods — to secure climate benefits. 

    Members of the MIT delegation participated in several related activities, sharing research and informing decision-makers. Catherine Wolfram, professor of applied economics in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR), presented options for international cooperation on such trade policies at side events, including ones hosted by the World Trade Organization and European Parliament. 

    “While COPs are often criticized for highlighting statements that don’t have any bite, they are also tremendous opportunities to get people from around the world who care about climate and think deeply about these issues in one place,” said Wolfram.

    Climate and health

    For the first time in the conference’s nearly 30-year history, COP28 included a thematic “Health Day” that featured talks on the relationship between climate and health. Researchers from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) have been testing policy solutions in this area for years through research funds such as the King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI). 

    “An important but often-neglected area where climate action can lead to improved health is combating air pollution,” said Andre Zollinger, K-CAI’s senior policy manager. “COP28’s announcement on reducing methane leaks is an important step because action in this area could translate to relatively quick, cost-effective ways to curb climate change while improving air quality, especially for people living near these industrial sites.” K-CAI has an ongoing project in Colorado investigating the use of machine learning to predict leaks and improve the framework for regulating industrial methane emissions, Zollinger noted.

    This was J-PAL’s third time at COP, which Zollinger said typically presented an opportunity for researchers to share new findings and analysis with government partners, nongovernmental organizations, and companies. This year, he said, “We have [also] been working with negotiators in the [Middle East and North Africa] region in the months preceding COP to plug them into the latest evidence on water conservation, on energy access, on different challenging areas of adaptation that could be useful for them during the conference.”

    Sharing knowledge, learning from others

    MIT student Runako Gentles described COP28 as a “springboard” to greater impact. A senior from Jamaica studying civil and environmental engineering, Gentles said it was exciting to introduce himself as an MIT undergraduate to U.N. employees and Jamaican delegates in Dubai. “There’s a lot of talk on mitigation and cutting carbon emissions, but there needs to be much more going into climate adaptation, especially for small-island developing states like those in the Caribbean,” he said. “One of the things I can do, while I still try to finish my degree, is communicate — get the story out there to raise awareness.”

    At an official side event at COP28 hosted by MIT, Pennsylvania State University, and the American Geophysical Union, Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, stressed the importance of opportunities to share knowledge and learn from people around the world.

    “The reason this two-way learning is so important for us is simple: The ideas we come up with in a university setting, whether they’re technological or policy or any other kind of innovations — they only matter in the practical world if they can be put to good use and scaled up,” said Zuber. “And the only way we can know that our work has practical relevance for addressing climate is by working hand-in-hand with communities, industries, governments, and others.”

    Marcela Angel, research program director at the Environmental Solutions Initiative, and Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, also spoke at the event, which was moderated by Bethany Patten, director of policy and engagement for sustainability at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  More

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    MADMEC winner creates “temporary tattoos” for T-shirts

    Have you ever gotten a free T-shirt at an event that you never wear? What about a music or sports-themed shirt you wear to one event and then lose interest in entirely? Such one-off T-shirts — and the waste and pollution associated with them — are an unfortunately common part of our society.

    But what if you could change the designs on shirts after each use? The winners of this year’s MADMEC competition developed biodegradable “temporary tattoos” for T-shirts to make one-wear clothing more sustainable.

    Members of the winning team, called Me-Shirts, got their inspiration from the MADMEC event itself, which ordinarily makes a different T-shirt each year.

    “If you think about all the textile waste that’s produced for all these shirts, it’s insane,” team member and PhD candidate Isabella Caruso said in the winning presentation. “The main markets we are trying to address are for one-time T-shirts and custom T-shirts.”

    The problem is a big one. According to the team, the custom T-shirt market is a $4.3 billion industry. That doesn’t include trends like fast fashion that contribute to the 17 million tons of textile waste produced each year.

    “Our proposed solution is a temporary shirt tattoo made from biodegradable, nontoxic materials,” Caruso explained. “We wanted designs that are fully removable through washing, so that you can wear your T-shirt for your one-time event and then get a nice white T-shirt back afterward.”

    The team’s scalable design process mixes three simple ingredients: potato starch, glycerin, and water. The design can be imprinted on the shirt temporarily through ironing.

    The Me-Shirt team, which earned $10,000 with the win, plans to continue exploring material combinations to make the design more flexible and easier for people to apply at home. Future iterations could allow users to decide if they want the design to stay on the shirt during washes based on the settings of the washing machine.

    Hosted by MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), the competition was the culmination of team projects that began in the fall and included a series of design challenges throughout the semester. Each team received guidance, access to equipment and labs, and up to $1,000 in funding to build and test their prototypes.

    “The main goal is that they gained some confidence in their ability to design and build devices and platforms that are different from their normal experiences,” Mike Tarkanian, a senior lecturer in DMSE and coordinator of MADMEC, said at the event. “If it’s a departure from their normal research and coursework activities that’s a win, I think, to make them better engineers.”

    The second-place, $6,000 prize went to Alkalyne, which is creating a carbon-neutral polymer for petrochemical production. The company is developing approaches for using electricity and inorganic carbon to generate a high-energy hydrocarbon precursor. If developed using renewable energy, the approach could be used to achieve carbon negative petrochemical production.

    “A lot of our research, and a lot of the research around MIT in general, has to do with sustainability, so we wanted to try an angle that we think looks promising but doesn’t seem to be investigated enough,” PhD candidate Christopher Mallia explained.

    The third-place prize went to Microbeco, which is exploring the use of microbial fuel cells for continuous water quality monitoring. Microbes have been proposed as a way to detect and measure contaminants in water for decades, but the team believes the varying responses of microbes to different contaminants has limited the effectiveness of the approach.

    To overcome that problem, the team is working to isolate microbial strains that respond more regularly to specific contaminants.

    Overall, Tarkanian believes this year’s program was a success not only because of the final results presented at the competition, but because of the experience the students got along the way using equipment like laser cutters, 3D printers, and soldering irons. Many participants said they had never used that type of equipment before. They also said by working to build physical prototypes, the program helped make their coursework come to life.

    “It was a chance to try something new by applying my skills to a different environment,” PhD candidate Zachary Adams said. “I can see a lot of the concepts I learn in my classes through this work.” More

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    New MIT.nano equipment to accelerate innovation in “tough tech” sectors

    A new set of advanced nanofabrication equipment will make MIT.nano one of the world’s most advanced research facilities in microelectronics and related technologies, unlocking new opportunities for experimentation and widening the path for promising inventions to become impactful new products.

    The equipment, provided by Applied Materials, will significantly expand MIT.nano’s nanofabrication capabilities, making them compatible with wafers — thin, round slices of semiconductor material — up to 200 millimeters, or 8 inches, in diameter, a size widely used in industry. The new tools will allow researchers to prototype a vast array of new microelectronic devices using state-of-the-art materials and fabrication processes. At the same time, the 200-millimeter compatibility will support close collaboration with industry and enable innovations to be rapidly adopted by companies and mass produced.

    MIT.nano’s leaders say the equipment, which will also be available to scientists outside of MIT, will dramatically enhance their facility’s capabilities, allowing experts in the region to more efficiently explore new approaches in “tough tech” sectors, including advanced electronics, next-generation batteries, renewable energies, optical computing, biological sensing, and a host of other areas — many likely yet to be imagined.

    “The toolsets will provide an accelerative boost to our ability to launch new technologies that can then be given to the world at scale,” says MIT.nano Director Vladimir Bulović, who is also the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology. “MIT.nano is committed to its expansive mission — to build a better world. We provide toolsets and capabilities that, in the hands of brilliant researchers, can effectively move the world forward.”

    The announcement comes as part of an agreement between MIT and Applied Materials, Inc. that, together with a grant to MIT from the Northeast Microelectronics Coalition (NEMC) Hub, commits more than $40 million of estimated private and public investment to add advanced nano-fabrication equipment and capabilities at MIT.nano.

    “We don’t believe there is another space in the United States that will offer the same kind of versatility, capability, and accessibility, with 8-inch toolsets integrated right next to more fundamental toolsets for research discoveries,” Bulović says. “It will create a seamless path to accelerate the pace of innovation.”

    Pushing the boundaries of innovation

    Applied Materials is the world’s largest supplier of equipment for manufacturing semiconductors, displays, and other advanced electronics. The company will provide at MIT.nano several state-of-the-art process tools capable of supporting 150- and 200-millimeter wafers and will enhance and upgrade an existing tool owned by MIT. In addition to assisting MIT.nano in the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the equipment, Applied Materials engineers will develop new process capabilities to benefit researchers and students from MIT and beyond.

    “This investment will significantly accelerate the pace of innovation and discovery in microelectronics and microsystems,” says Tomás Palacios, director of MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories and the Clarence J. Lebel Professor in Electrical Engineering. “It’s wonderful news for our community, wonderful news for the state, and, in my view, a tremendous step forward toward implementing the national vision for the future of innovation in microelectronics.”

    Nanoscale research at universities is traditionally conducted on machines that are less compatible with industry, which makes academic innovations more difficult to turn into impactful, mass-produced products. Jorg Scholvin, associate director for MIT.nano’s shared fabrication facility, says the new machines, when combined with MIT.nano’s existing equipment, represent a step-change improvement in that area: Researchers will be able to take an industry-standard wafer and build their technology on top of it to prove to companies it works on existing devices, or to co-fabricate new ideas in close collaboration with industry partners.

    “In the journey from an idea to a fully working device, the ability to begin on a small scale, figure out what you want to do, rapidly debug your designs, and then scale it up to an industry-scale wafer is critical,” Scholvin says. “It means a student can test out their idea on wafer-scale quickly and directly incorporate insights into their project so that their processes are scalable. Providing such proof-of-principle early on will accelerate the idea out of the academic environment, potentially reducing years of added effort. Other tools at MIT.nano can supplement work on the 200-millimeter wafer scale, but the higher throughput and higher precision of the Applied equipment will provide researchers with repeatability and accuracy that is unprecedented for academic research environments. Essentially what you have is a sharper, faster, more precise tool to do your work.”

    Scholvin predicts the equipment will lead to exponential growth in research opportunities.

    “I think a key benefit of these tools is they allow us to push the boundary of research in a variety of different ways that we can predict today,” Scholvin says. “But then there are also unpredictable benefits, which are hiding in the shadows waiting to be discovered by the creativity of the researchers at MIT. With each new application, more ideas and paths usually come to mind — so that over time, more and more opportunities are discovered.”

    Because the equipment is available for use by people outside of the MIT community, including regional researchers, industry partners, nonprofit organizations, and local startups, they will also enable new collaborations.

    “The tools themselves will be an incredible meeting place — a place that can, I think, transpose the best of our ideas in a much more effective way than before,” Bulović says. “I’m extremely excited about that.”

    Palacios notes that while microelectronics is best known for work making transistors smaller to fit on microprocessors, it’s a vast field that enables virtually all the technology around us, from wireless communications and high-speed internet to energy management, personalized health care, and more.

    He says he’s personally excited to use the new machines to do research around power electronics and semiconductors, including exploring promising new materials like gallium nitride, which could dramatically improve the efficiency of electronic devices.

    Fulfilling a mission

    MIT.nano’s leaders say a key driver of commercialization will be startups, both from MIT and beyond.

    “This is not only going to help the MIT research community innovate faster, it’s also going to enable a new wave of entrepreneurship,” Palacios says. “We’re reducing the barriers for students, faculty, and other entrepreneurs to be able to take innovation and get it to market. That fits nicely with MIT’s mission of making the world a better place through technology. I cannot wait to see the amazing new inventions that our colleagues and students will come out with.”

    Bulović says the announcement aligns with the mission laid out by MIT’s leaders at MIT.nano’s inception.

    “We have the space in MIT.nano to accommodate these tools, we have the capabilities inside MIT.nano to manage their operation, and as a shared and open facility, we have methodologies by which we can welcome anyone from the region to use the tools,” Bulović says. “That is the vision MIT laid out as we were designing MIT.nano, and this announcement helps to fulfill that vision.” More

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    Susan Solomon wins VinFuture Award for Female Innovators

    Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies Susan Solomon has been awarded the 2023 VinFuture Award for Female Innovators. Solomon was picked out of almost 1,400 international nominations across four categories for “The discovery of the ozone depletion mechanism in Antarctica, contributing to the establishment of the Montreal Protocol.” The award, which comes with a $500,000 prize, highlights outstanding female researchers and innovators that can serve as role models for aspiring scientists.

    “I’m tremendously humbled by that, and I’ll do my best to live up to it,” says Solomon, who attended the ceremony in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Dec. 20.

    The VinFuture Awards are given annually to “honor scientific research and breakthrough technological innovations that can make a significant difference” according to their site. In addition to Female Innovators, the award has two other special categories, Innovators from Developing Countries and Innovators with Outstanding Achievements in Emerging Fields, as well as their overall grand prize. The awards have been given out by the Vietnam-based VinFuture Foundation since 2021.

    “Countries all around the world are part of scientific progress and innovation, and that a developing country is honoring that is really very lovely,” says Solomon, whose career as an atmospheric chemist has brought her onto the international stage and has shown her firsthand how important developing countries are in crafting global policy.

    In 1986 Solomon led an expedition of 16 scientists to Antarctica to measure the degradation of the ozone layer; she was the only woman on the team. She and her collaborators were able to figure out the atmospheric chemistry of chlorofluorocarbons and other similar chemicals that are now known as ozone-depleting substances. This work became foundational to the creation of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that banned damaging chemicals and has allowed the ozone to recover.

    Solomon joined the MIT faculty in 2012 and holds joint appointments in the departments of Chemistry and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. The success of the Montreal Protocol demonstrates the ability for international cooperation to enact effective environmental agreements; Solomon sees it as a blueprint for crafting further policy when it comes to addressing global climate change.

    “Women can do anything, even help save the ozone layer and solve other environmental problems,” she says. “Today’s problem of climate change is for all of us to be involved in solving.” More

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    Q&A: A blueprint for sustainable innovation

    Atacama Biomaterials is a startup combining architecture, machine learning, and chemical engineering to create eco-friendly materials with multiple applications. Passionate about sustainable innovation, its co-founder Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas SM ’15, PhD ’21 highlights here how MIT has supported the project through several of its entrepreneurship initiatives, and reflects on the role of design in building a holistic vision for an expanding business.

    Q: What role do you see your startup playing in the sustainable materials space?

    A: Atacama Biomaterials is a venture dedicated to advancing sustainable materials through state-of-the-art technology. With my co-founder Jose Tomas Dominguez, we have been working on developing our technology since 2019. We initially started the company in 2020 under another name and received Sandbox funds the next year. In 2021, we went through The Engine’s accelerator, Blueprint, and changed our name to Atacama Biomaterials in 2022 during the MITdesignX program. 

    This technology we have developed allows us to create our own data and material library using artificial intelligence and machine learning, and serves as a platform applicable to various industries horizontally — biofuels, biological drugs, and even mining. Vertically, we produce inexpensive, regionally sourced, and environmentally friendly bio-based polymers and packaging — that is, naturally compostable plastics as a flagship product, along with AI products.

    Q: What motivated you to venture into biomaterials and found Atacama?

    A: I’m from Chile, a country with a beautiful, rich geography and nature where we can see all the problems stemming from industry, waste management, and pollution. We named our company Atacama Biomaterials because the Atacama Desert in Chile — one of the places where you can best see the stars in the world — is becoming a plastic dump, as many other places on Earth. I care deeply about sustainability, and I have an emotional attachment to stop these problems. Considering that manufacturing accounts for 29 percent of global carbon emissions, it is clear that sustainability has a role in how we define technology and entrepreneurship, as well as a socio-economic dimension.

    When I first came to MIT, it was to develop software in the Department of Architecture’s Design and Computation Group, with MIT professors Svafa Gronfeldt as co-advisor and Regina Barzilay as committee member. During my PhD, I studied machine-learning methods simulating pedestrian motion to understand how people move in space. In my work, I would use lots of plastics for 3D printing and I couldn’t stop thinking about sustainability and climate change, so I reached out to material science and mechanical engineering professors to look into biopolymers and degradable bio-based materials. This is how I met my co-founder, as we were both working with MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld. Together, we were part of one of the first teams in the world to 3D print wood fibers, which is difficult — it’s slow and expensive — and quickly pivoted to sustainable packaging. 

    I then won a fellowship from MCSC [the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium], which gave me freedom to explore further, and I eventually got a postdoc in MIT chemical engineering, guided by MIT Professor Gregory Rutledge, a polymer physicist. This was unexpected in my career path. Winning Nucleate Eco Track 2022 and the MITdesignX Innovation Award in 2022 profiled Atacama Biomaterials as one of the rising startups in Boston’s biotechnology and climate-tech scene.

    Q: What is your process to develop new biomaterials?

    A: My PhD research, coupled with my background in material development and molecular dynamics, sparked the realization that principles I studied simulating pedestrian motion could also apply to molecular engineering. This connection may seem unconventional, but for me, it was a natural progression. Early in my career, I developed an intuition for materials, understanding their mechanics and physics.

    Using my experience and skills, and leveraging machine learning as a technology jump, I applied a similar conceptual framework to simulate the trajectories of molecules and find potential applications in biomaterials. Making that parallel and shift was amazing. It allowed me to optimize a state-of-the-art molecular dynamic software to run twice as fast as more traditional technologies through my algorithm presented at the International Conference of Machine Learning this year. This is very important, because this kind of simulation usually takes a week, so narrowing it down to two days has major implications for scientists and industry, in material science, chemical engineering, computer science and related fields. Such work greatly influenced the foundation of Atacama Biomaterials, where we developed our own AI to deploy our materials. In an effort to mitigate the environmental impact of manufacturing, Atacama is targeting a 16.7 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions associated with the manufacturing process of its polymers, through the use of renewable energy. 

    Another thing is that I was trained as an architect in Chile, and my degree had a design component. I think design allows me to understand problems at a very high level, and how things interconnect. It contributed to developing a holistic vision for Atacama, because it allowed me to jump from one technology or discipline to another and understand broader applications on a conceptual level. Our design approach also meant that sustainability came to the center of our work from the very beginning, not just a plus or an added cost.

    Q: What was the role of MITdesignX in Atacama’s development?

    A: I have known Svafa Grönfeldt, MITdesignX’s faculty director, for almost six years. She was the co-advisor of my PhD, and we had a mentor-mentee relationship. I admire the fact that she created a space for people interested in business and entrepreneurship to grow within the Department of Architecture. She and Executive Director Gilad Rosenzweig gave us fantastic advice, and we received significant support from mentors. For example, Daniel Tsai helped us with intellectual property, including a crucial patent for Atacama. And we’re still in touch with the rest of the cohort. I really like this “design your company” approach, which I find quite unique, because it gives us the opportunity to reflect on who we want to be as designers, technologists, and entrepreneurs. Studying user insights also allowed us to understand the broad applicability of our research, and align our vision with market demands, ultimately shaping Atacama into a company with a holistic perspective on sustainable material development.

    Q: How does Atacama approach scaling, and what are the immediate next steps for the company?

    A: When I think about accomplishing our vision, I feel really inspired by my 3-year-old daughter. I want her to experience a world with trees and wildlife when she’s 100 years old, and I hope Atacama will contribute to such a future.

    Going back to the designer’s perspective, we designed the whole process holistically, from feedstock to material development, incorporating AI and advanced manufacturing. Having proved that there is a demand for the materials we are developing, and having tested our products, manufacturing process, and technology in critical environments, we are now ready to scale. Our level of technology-readiness is comparable to the one used by NASA (level 4).

    We have proof of concept: a biodegradable and recyclable packaging material which is cost- and energy-efficient as a clean energy enabler in large-scale manufacturing. We have received pre-seed funding, and are sustainably scaling by taking advantage of available resources around the world, like repurposing machinery from the paper industry. As presented in the MIT Industrial Liaison and STEX Program’s recent Sustainability Conference, unlike our competitors, we have cost-parity with current packaging materials, as well as low-energy processes. And we also proved the demand for our products, which was an important milestone. Our next steps involve strategically expanding our manufacturing capabilities and research facilities and we are currently evaluating building a factory in Chile and establishing an R&D lab plus a manufacturing plant in the U.S. More

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    K. Lisa Yang Global Engineering and Research Center will prioritize innovations for resource-constrained communities

    Billions of people worldwide face threats to their livelihood, health, and well-being due to poverty. These problems persist because solutions offered in developed countries often do not meet the requirements — related to factors like price, performance, usability, robustness, and culture — of poor or developing countries. Academic labs frequently try to tackle these challenges, but often to no avail because they lack real-world, on-the-ground knowledge from key stakeholders, and because they do not have an efficient, reliable means of converting breakthroughs to real-world impact.

    The new K. Lisa Yang Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Center at MIT, founded with a $28 million gift from philanthropist and investor Lisa Yang, aims to rethink how products and technologies for resource-constrained communities are conceived, designed, and commercialized. A collaboration between MIT’s School of Engineering and School of Science, the Yang GEAR Center will bring together a multidisciplinary team of MIT researchers to assess today’s most pressing global challenges in three critical areas: global health, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the water-energy-food nexus.

    “As she has shown over and over through her philanthropy, Lisa Yang shares MIT’s passion for connecting fundamental research and real-world data to create positive impact,” says MIT president Sally Kornbluth. “I’m grateful for her powerful vision and incredible generosity in founding the K. Lisa Yang GEAR Center. I can’t imagine a better use of MIT’s talents than working to improve the lives and health of people around the world.”

    Yang’s gift expands her exceptional philanthropic support of human health and basic science research at MIT over the past six years. Yang GEAR Center will join MIT’s Yang Tan Collective, an assemblage of six major research centers focused on accelerating collaboration in basic science, research, and engineering to realize translational strategies that improve human health and well-being at a global scale.

    “Billions of people face daily life-or-death challenges that could be improved with elegant technologies,” says Yang. “And yet I’ve learned how many products and tools created by top engineers don’t make it out of the lab. They may look like clever ideas during the prototype phase, but they are entirely ill-suited to the communities they were designed for. I am very excited about the potential of a deliberate and thoughtful engineering effort that will prioritize the design of technologies for use in impoverished communities.”

    Cost, material availability, cultural suitability, and other market mismatches hinder many major innovations in global health, food, and water from being translated to use in resource-constrained communities. Yang GEAR Center will support a major research and design program with its mission to strategically identify compelling challenges and associated scientific knowledge gaps in resource-constrained communities then address them through academic innovation to create and translate transformative technologies.

    The center will be led by Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering, whose lab focuses on creating technologies that marry innovative, low-cost design with an in-depth understanding of the unique socioeconomic constraints of emerging markets.

    “Academia has a key role to play in solving the historically unsolvable challenges in resource-constrained communities,” says Winter. “However, academic research is often disconnected from the real-world requirements that must be satisfied to make meaningful change. Yang GEAR Center will be a catalyst for innovation to impact by helping colleagues identify compelling problems and focus their talents on realizing real-world solutions, and by providing mechanisms for commercial dissemination. I am extremely grateful to find in Lisa a partner who shares a vision for how academic research can play a more efficient and targeted role in addressing the needs of the world’s most disadvantaged populations.”

    The backbone of the Yang GEAR Center will be a team of seasoned research scientists and engineers. These individuals will scout real-world problems and distill the relevant research questions then help assemble collaborative teams. As projects develop, center staff will mentor students, build and conduct field pilots, and foster relationships with stakeholders around the world. They will be strategically positioned to translate technology at the end of projects through licensing and startups. Center staff and collaborators will focus on creating products and services for climate-driven migrants, such as solar-powered energy and water networks; technologies for reducing atmospheric carbon and promoting the hydrogen economy; brackish water desalination and irrigation solutions; and high-performance, global health diagnostics and devices.

    For instance, a Yang GEAR Center team focused on creating water-saving and solar-powered irrigation solutions for farmers in the Middle East and North Africa will continue its work in the region. They will conduct exploratory research; build a team of stakeholders, including farmers, agricultural outreach organizations, irrigation hardware manufacturers, retailers, water and agriculture scientists, and local government officials; design, rigorously test, and iterate prototypes both in the lab and in the field; and conduct large-scale field trials to garner user feedback and pave the way to product commercialization.

    “Grounded in foundational scientific research and blended with excellence in the humanities, MIT provides a framework that integrates people, economics, research, and innovation. By incorporating multiple perspectives — and being attentive to the needs and cultures of the people who will ultimately rely on research outcomes — MIT can have the greatest impact in areas of health, climate science, and resource security,” says Nergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science and the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics.

    An overarching aim for the center will be to educate graduates who are global engineers, designers, and researchers positioned for a career of addressing compelling, high-impact challenges. The center includes four endowed Hock E. Tan GEAR Center Fellowships that will support graduate students and/or postdoctoral fellows eager to enter the field of global engineering. The fellowships are named for MIT alumnus and Broadcom CEO Hock E. Tan ’75 SM ’75.

    “I am thrilled that the Yang GEAR Center is taking a leading role in training problem-solvers who will rethink how products and inventions can help communities facing the most pressing challenges of our time,” adds Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “These talented young students,  postdocs, and staff have the potential to reach across disciplines — and across the globe — to truly transform the impact engineering can have in the future.” More