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    Engineers solve a mystery on the path to smaller, lighter batteries

    A discovery by MIT researchers could finally unlock the door to the design of a new kind of rechargeable lithium battery that is more lightweight, compact, and safe than current versions, and that has been pursued by labs around the world for years.

    The key to this potential leap in battery technology is replacing the liquid electrolyte that sits between the positive and negative electrodes with a much thinner, lighter layer of solid ceramic material, and replacing one of the electrodes with solid lithium metal. This would greatly reduce the overall size and weight of the battery and remove the safety risk associated with liquid electrolytes, which are flammable. But that quest has been beset with one big problem: dendrites.

    Dendrites, whose name comes from the Latin for branches, are projections of metal that can build up on the lithium surface and penetrate into the solid electrolyte, eventually crossing from one electrode to the other and shorting out the battery cell. Researchers haven’t been able to agree on what gives rise to these metal filaments, nor has there been much progress on how to prevent them and thus make lightweight solid-state batteries a practical option.

    The new research, being published today in the journal Joule in a paper by MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang, graduate student Cole Fincher, and five others at MIT and Brown University, seems to resolve the question of what causes dendrite formation. It also shows how dendrites can be prevented from crossing through the electrolyte.

    Chiang says in the group’s earlier work, they made a “surprising and unexpected” finding, which was that the hard, solid electrolyte material used for a solid-state battery can be penetrated by lithium, which is a very soft metal, during the process of charging and discharging the battery, as ions of lithium move between the two sides.

    This shuttling back and forth of ions causes the volume of the electrodes to change. That inevitably causes stresses in the solid electrolyte, which has to remain fully in contact with both of the electrodes that it is sandwiched between. “To deposit this metal, there has to be an expansion of the volume because you’re adding new mass,” Chiang says. “So, there’s an increase in volume on the side of the cell where the lithium is being deposited. And if there are even microscopic flaws present, this will generate a pressure on those flaws that can cause cracking.”

    Those stresses, the team has now shown, cause the cracks that allow dendrites to form. The solution to the problem turns out to be more stress, applied in just the right direction and with the right amount of force.

    While previously, some researchers thought that dendrites formed by a purely electrochemical process, rather than a mechanical one, the team’s experiments demonstrate that it is mechanical stresses that cause the problem.

    The process of dendrite formation normally takes place deep within the opaque materials of the battery cell and cannot be observed directly, so Fincher developed a way of making thin cells using a transparent electrolyte, allowing the whole process to be directly seen and recorded. “You can see what happens when you put a compression on the system, and you can see whether or not the dendrites behave in a way that’s commensurate with a corrosion process or a fracture process,” he says.

    The team demonstrated that they could directly manipulate the growth of dendrites simply by applying and releasing pressure, causing the dendrites to zig and zag in perfect alignment with the direction of the force.

    Applying mechanical stresses to the solid electrolyte doesn’t eliminate the formation of dendrites, but it does control the direction of their growth. This means they can be directed to remain parallel to the two electrodes and prevented from ever crossing to the other side, and thus rendered harmless.

    In their tests, the researchers used pressure induced by bending the material, which was formed into a beam with a weight at one end. But they say that in practice, there could be many different ways of producing the needed stress. For example, the electrolyte could be made with two layers of material that have different amounts of thermal expansion, so that there is an inherent bending of the material, as is done in some thermostats.

    Another approach would be to “dope” the material with atoms that would become embedded in it, distorting it and leaving it in a permanently stressed state. This is the same method used to produce the super-hard glass used in the screens of smart phones and tablets, Chiang explains. And the amount of pressure needed is not extreme: The experiments showed that pressures of 150 to 200 megapascals were sufficient to stop the dendrites from crossing the electrolyte.

    The required pressure is “commensurate with stresses that are commonly induced in commercial film growth processes and many other manufacturing processes,” so should not be difficult to implement in practice, Fincher adds.

    In fact, a different kind of stress, called stack pressure, is often applied to battery cells, by essentially squishing the material in the direction perpendicular to the battery’s plates — somewhat like compressing a sandwich by putting a weight on top of it. It was thought that this might help prevent the layers from separating. But the experiments have now demonstrated that pressure in that direction actually exacerbates dendrite formation. “We showed that this type of stack pressure actually accelerates dendrite-induced failure,” Fincher says.

    What is needed instead is pressure along the plane of the plates, as if the sandwich were being squeezed from the sides. “What we have shown in this work is that when you apply a compressive force you can force the dendrites to travel in the direction of the compression,” Fincher says, and if that direction is along the plane of the plates, the dendrites “will never get to the other side.”

    That could finally make it practical to produce batteries using solid electrolyte and metallic lithium electrodes. Not only would these pack more energy into a given volume and weight, but they would eliminate the need for liquid electrolytes, which are flammable materials.

    Having demonstrated the basic principles involved, the team’s next step will be to try to apply these to the creation of a functional prototype battery, Chiang says, and then to figure out exactly what manufacturing processes would be needed to produce such batteries in quantity. Though they have filed for a patent, the researchers don’t plan to commercialize the system themselves, he says, as there are already companies working on the development of solid-state batteries. “I would say this is an understanding of failure modes in solid-state batteries that we believe the industry needs to be aware of and try to use in designing better products,” he says.

    The research team included Christos Athanasiou and Brian Sheldon at Brown University, and Colin Gilgenbach, Michael Wang, and W. Craig Carter at MIT. The work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy. More

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    On batteries, teaching, and world peace

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

    What does he personally consider to be his top achievements?

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

    A passion for teaching

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

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

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

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

    Research breakthroughs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Colleagues’ reflections

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

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

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

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

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    Keeping indoor humidity levels at a “sweet spot” may reduce spread of Covid-19

    We know proper indoor ventilation is key to reducing the spread of Covid-19. Now, a study by MIT researchers finds that indoor relative humidity may also influence transmission of the virus.

    Relative humidity is the amount of moisture in the air compared to the total moisture the air can hold at a given temperature before saturating and forming condensation.

    In a study appearing today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the MIT team reports that maintaining an indoor relative humidity between 40 and 60 percent is associated with relatively lower rates of Covid-19 infections and deaths, while indoor conditions outside this range are associated with worse Covid-19 outcomes. To put this into perspective, most people are comfortable between 30 and 50 percent relative humidity, and an airplane cabin is at around 20 percent relative humidity.

    The findings are based on the team’s analysis of Covid-19 data combined with meteorological measurements from 121 countries, from January 2020 through August 2020. Their study suggests a strong connection between regional outbreaks and indoor relative humidity.

    In general, the researchers found that whenever a region experienced a rise in Covid-19 cases and deaths prevaccination, the estimated indoor relative humidity in that region, on average, was either lower than 40 percent or higher than 60 percent regardless of season. Nearly all regions in the study experienced fewer Covid-19 cases and deaths during periods when estimated indoor relative humidity was within a “sweet spot” between 40 and 60 percent.

    “There’s potentially a protective effect of this intermediate indoor relative humidity,” suggests lead author Connor Verheyen, a PhD student in medical engineering and medical physics in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology.

    “Indoor ventilation is still critical,” says co-author Lydia Bourouiba, director of the MIT Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory and associate professor in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, and at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science at MIT. “However, we find that maintaining an indoor relative humidity in that sweet spot — of 40 to 60 percent — is associated with reduced Covid-19 cases and deaths.”

    Seasonal swing?

    Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, scientists have considered the possibility that the virus’ virulence swings with the seasons. Infections and associated deaths appear to rise in winter and ebb in summer. But studies looking to link the virus’ patterns to seasonal outdoor conditions have yielded mixed results.

    Verheyen and Bourouiba examined whether Covid-19 is influenced instead by indoor — rather than outdoor — conditions, and, specifically, relative humidity. After all, they note that most societies spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, where the majority of viral transmission has been shown to occur. What’s more, indoor conditions can be quite different from outdoor conditions as a result of climate control systems, such as heaters that significantly dry out indoor air.

    Could indoor relative humidity have affected the spread and severity of Covid-19 around the world? And could it help explain the differences in health outcomes from region to region?

    Tracking humidity

    For answers, the team focused on the early period of the pandemic when vaccines were not yet available, reasoning that vaccinated populations would obscure the influence of any other factor such as indoor humidity. They gathered global Covid-19 data, including case counts and reported deaths, from January 2020 to August 2020,  and identified countries with at least 50 deaths, indicating at least one outbreak had occurred in those countries.

    In all, they focused on 121 countries where Covid-19 outbreaks occurred. For each country, they also tracked the local Covid-19 related policies, such as isolation, quarantine, and testing measures, and their statistical association with Covid-19 outcomes.

    For each day that Covid-19 data was available, they used meteorological data to calculate a country’s outdoor relative humidity. They then estimated the average indoor relative humidity, based on outdoor relative humidity and guidelines on temperature ranges for human comfort. For instance, guidelines report that humans are comfortable between 66 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit indoors. They also assumed that on average, most populations have the means to heat indoor spaces to comfortable temperatures. Finally, they also collected experimental data, which they used to validate their estimation approach.

    For every instance when outdoor temperatures were below the typical human comfort range, they assumed indoor spaces were heated to reach that comfort range. Based on the added heating, they calculated the associated drop in indoor relative humidity.

    In warmer times, both outdoor and indoor relative humidity for each country was about the same, but they quickly diverged in colder times. While outdoor humidity remained around 50 percent throughout the year, indoor relative humidity for countries in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres dropped below 40 percent in their respective colder periods, when Covid-19 cases and deaths also spiked in these regions.

    For countries in the tropics, relative humidity was about the same indoors and outdoors throughout the year, with a gradual rise indoors during the region’s summer season, when high outdoor humidity likely raised the indoor relative humidity over 60 percent. They found this rise mirrored the gradual increase in Covid-19 deaths in the tropics.

    “We saw more reported Covid-19 deaths on the low and high end of indoor relative humidity, and less in this sweet spot of 40 to 60 percent,” Verheyen says. “This intermediate relative humidity window is associated with a better outcome, meaning fewer deaths and a deceleration of the pandemic.”

    “We were very skeptical initially, especially as the Covid-19 data can be noisy and inconsistent,” Bourouiba says. “We thus were very thorough trying to poke holes in our own analysis, using a range of approaches to test the limits and robustness of the findings, including taking into account factors such as government intervention. Despite all our best efforts, we found that even when considering countries with very strong versus very weak Covid-19 mitigation policies, or wildly different outdoor conditions, indoor — rather than outdoor — relative humidity maintains an underlying strong and robust link with Covid-19 outcomes.”

    It’s still unclear how indoor relative humidity affects Covid-19 outcomes. The team’s follow-up studies suggest that pathogens may survive longer in respiratory droplets in both very dry and very humid conditions.

    “Our ongoing work shows that there are emerging hints of mechanistic links between these factors,” Bourouiba says. “For now however, we can say that indoor relative humidity emerges in a robust manner as another mitigation lever that organizations and individuals can monitor, adjust, and maintain in the optimal 40 to 60 percent range, in addition to proper ventillation.”

    This research was made possible, in part, by an MIT Alumni Class fund, the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation. More

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    With new heat treatment, 3D-printed metals can withstand extreme conditions

    A new MIT-developed heat treatment transforms the microscopic structure of 3D-printed metals, making the materials stronger and more resilient in extreme thermal environments. The technique could make it possible to 3D print high-performance blades and vanes for power-generating gas turbines and jet engines, which would enable new designs with improved fuel consumption and energy efficiency.

    Today’s gas turbine blades are manufactured through conventional casting processes in which molten metal is poured into complex molds and directionally solidified. These components are made from some of the most heat-resistant metal alloys on Earth, as they are designed to rotate at high speeds in extremely hot gas, extracting work to generate electricity in power plants and thrust in jet engines.

    There is growing interest in manufacturing turbine blades through 3D-printing, which, in addition to its environmental and cost benefits, could allow manufacturers to quickly produce more intricate, energy-efficient blade geometries. But efforts to 3D-print turbine blades have yet to clear a big hurdle: creep.

    In metallurgy, creep refers to a metal’s tendency to permanently deform in the face of persistent mechanical stress and high temperatures. While researchers have explored printing turbine blades, they have found that the printing process produces fine grains on the order of tens to hundreds of microns in size — a microstructure that is especially vulnerable to creep.

    “In practice, this would mean a gas turbine would have a shorter life or less fuel efficiency,” says Zachary Cordero, the Boeing Career Development Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. “These are costly, undesirable outcomes.”

    Cordero and his colleagues found a way to improve the structure of 3D-printed alloys by adding an additional heat-treating step, which transforms the as-printed material’s fine grains into much larger “columnar” grains — a sturdier microstructure that should minimize the material’s creep potential, since the “columns” are aligned with the axis of greatest stress. The researchers say the method, outlined today in Additive Manufacturing, clears the way for industrial 3D-printing of gas turbine blades.

    “In the near future, we envision gas turbine manufacturers will print their blades and vanes at large-scale additive manufacturing plants, then post-process them using our heat treatment,” Cordero says. “3D-printing will enable new cooling architectures that can improve the thermal efficiency of a turbine, so that it produces the same amount of power while burning less fuel and ultimately emits less carbon dioxide.”

    Cordero’s co-authors on the study are lead author Dominic Peachey, Christopher Carter, and Andres Garcia-Jimenez at MIT, Anugrahaprada Mukundan and Marie-Agathe Charpagne of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Donovan Leonard of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    Triggering a transformation

    The team’s new method is a form of directional recrystallization — a heat treatment that passes a material through a hot zone at a precisely controlled speed to meld a material’s many microscopic grains into larger, sturdier, and more uniform crystals.

    Directional recrystallization was invented more than 80 years ago and has been applied to wrought materials. In their new study, the MIT team adapted directional recrystallization for 3D-printed superalloys.

    The team tested the method on 3D-printed nickel-based superalloys — metals that are typically cast and used in gas turbines. In a series of experiments, the researchers placed 3D-printed samples of rod-shaped superalloys in a room-temperature water bath placed just below an induction coil. They slowly drew each rod out of the water and through the coil at various speeds, dramatically heating the rods to temperatures varying between 1,200 and 1,245 degrees Celsius.

    They found that drawing the rods at a particular speed (2.5 millimeters per hour) and through a specific temperature (1,235 degrees Celsius) created a steep thermal gradient that triggered a transformation in the material’s printed, fine-grained microstructure.

    “The material starts as small grains with defects called dislocations, that are like a mangled spaghetti,” Cordero explains. “When you heat this material up, those defects can annihilate and reconfigure, and the grains are able to grow. We’re continuously elongating the grains by consuming the defective material and smaller grains — a process termed recrystallization.”

    Creep away

    After cooling the heat-treated rods, the researchers examined their microstructure using optical and electron microscopy, and found that the material’s printed microscopic grains were replaced with “columnar” grains, or long crystal-like regions that were significantly larger than the original grains.

    “We’ve completely transformed the structure,” says lead author Dominic Peachey. “We show we can increase the grain size by orders of magnitude, to massive columnar grains, which theoretically should lead to dramatic improvements in creep properties.”

    The team also showed they could manipulate the draw speed and temperature of the rod samples to tailor the material’s growing grains, creating regions of specific grain size and orientation. This level of control, Cordero says, can enable manufacturers to print turbine blades with site-specific microstructures that are resilient to specific operating conditions.

    Cordero plans to test the heat treatment on 3D-printed geometries that more closely resemble turbine blades. The team is also exploring ways to speed up the draw rate, as well as test a heat-treated structure’s resistance to creep. Then, they envision that the heat treatment could enable the practical application of 3D-printing to produce industrial-grade turbine blades, with more complex shapes and patterns.

    “New blade and vane geometries will enable more energy-efficient land-based gas turbines, as well as, eventually, aeroengines,” Cordero notes. “This could from a baseline perspective lead to lower carbon dioxide emissions, just through improved efficiency of these devices.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. More

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    MIT PhD students shed light on important water and food research

    One glance at the news lately will reveal countless headlines on the dire state of global water and food security. Pollution, supply chain disruptions, and the war in Ukraine are all threatening water and food systems, compounding climate change impacts from heat waves, drought, floods, and wildfires.

    Every year, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) offers fellowships to outstanding MIT graduate students who are working on innovative ways to secure water and food supplies in light of these urgent worldwide threats. J-WAFS announced this year’s fellowship recipients last April. Aditya Ghodgaonkar and Devashish Gokhale were awarded Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowships for Water Solutions, which are made possible by a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family. James Zhang, Katharina Fransen, and Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang were awarded J-WAFS Fellowships for Water and Food Solutions. The J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions is funded in part by J-WAFS Research Affiliate companies: Xylem, Inc., a water technology company, and GoAigua, a company leading the digital transformation of the water industry.

    The five fellows were each awarded a stipend and full tuition for one semester. They also benefit from mentorship, networking connections, and opportunities to showcase their research.

    “This year’s cohort of J-WAFS fellows show an indefatigable drive to explore, create, and push back boundaries,” says John H. Lienhard, director of J-WAFS. “Their passion and determination to create positive change for humanity are evident in these unique video portraits, which describe their solutions-oriented research in water and food,” Lienhard adds.

    J-WAFS funder Community Jameel recently commissioned video portraitures of each student that highlight their work and their inspiration to solve challenges in water and food. More about each J-WAFS fellow and their research follows.

    Play video

    Katharina Fransen

    In Professor Bradley Olsen’s lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Katharina Fransen works to develop biologically-based, biodegradable plastics which can be used for food packing that won’t pollute the environment. Fransen, a third-year PhD student, is motivated by the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable global communities from waste generated by the materials that are essential to connecting them to the global food supply. “We can’t ensure that all of our plastic waste gets recycled or reused, and so we want to make sure that if it does escape into the environment it can degrade, and that’s kind of where a lot of my research really comes in,” says Fransen. Most of her work involves creating polymers, or “really long chains of chemicals,” kind of like the paper rings a lot of us looped into chains as kids, Fransen explains. The polymers are optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresher for longer, preventing food waste. Fransen says she finds the work “really interesting from the scientific perspective as well as from the idea that [she’s] going to make the world a little better with these new materials.” She adds, “I think it is both really fulfilling and really exciting and engaging.”

    Play video

    Aditya Ghodgaonkar

    “When I went to Kenya this past spring break, I had an opportunity to meet a lot of farmers and talk to them about what kind of maintenance issues they face,” says Aditya Ghodgaonkar, PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Ghodgaonkar works with Associate Professor Amos Winter in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, where he designs hydraulic components for drip irrigation systems to make them water-efficient, off-grid, inexpensive, and low-maintenance. On his trip to Kenya, Ghodgaonkar gained firsthand knowledge from farmers about a common problem they encounter: clogging of drip irrigation emitters. He learned that clogging can be an expensive technical challenge to diagnose, mitigate, and resolve. He decided to focus his attention on designing emitters that are resistant to clogging, testing with sand and passive hydrodynamic filtration back in the lab at MIT. “I got into this from an academic standpoint,” says Ghodgaonkar. “It is only once I started working on the emitters, spoke with industrial partners that make these emitters, spoke with farmers, that I really truly appreciated the impact of what we’re doing.”

    Play video

    Devashish Gokhale

    Devashish Gokhale is a PhD student advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stems from his childhood in Pune, India, where both flooding and drought can occur depending on the time of year. “I’ve had these experiences where there’s been too much water and also too little water” he recalls. At MIT, Gokhale is developing cost-effective, sustainable, and reusable materials for water treatment with a focus on the elimination of emerging contaminants and low-concentration pollutants like heavy metals. Specifically, he works on making and optimizing polymeric hydrogel microparticles that can absorb micropollutants. “I know how important it is to do something which is not just scientifically interesting, but something which is impactful in a real way,” says Gokhale. Before starting a research project he asks himself, “are people going to be able to afford this? Is it really going to reach the people who need it the most?” Adding these constraints in the beginning of the research process sometimes makes the problem more difficult to solve, but Gokhale notes that in the end, the solution is much more promising.

    Play video

    James Zhang

    “We don’t really think much about it, it’s transparent, odorless, we just turn on our sink in many parts of the world and it just flows through,” says James Zhang when talking about water. Yet he notes that “many other parts of the world face water scarcity and this will only get worse due to global climate change.” A PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Zhang works in the Nano Engineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen. Zhang is working on a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light at different wavelengths interacts with liquids at the surface, particularly with brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical and experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in desalinating water at high energy efficiencies. Zhang hopes that the technology can one day “produce lots of clean water for communities around the world that currently don’t have access to fresh water,” and create a new appreciation for this common liquid that many of us might not think about on a day-to-day basis.

    Play video

    Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang

    “Around the world there are about 2 billion people currently suffering from micronutrient deficiency because they do not have access to very healthy, very fresh food,” says chemical engineering PhD candidate Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang. This fact led Zhang to develop a micronutrient delivery platform that fortifies foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. With her advisors, Professor Robert Langer and Research Scientist Ana Jaklenec, Zhang brings biomedical engineering approaches to global health issues. Zhang says that “one of the most serious problems is vitamin A deficiency, because vitamin A is not very stable.” She goes on to explain that although vitamin A is present in different vegetables, when the vegetables are cooked, vitamin A can easily degrade. Zhang helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers that can stabilize micronutrients under cooking and storage conditions. With this technology, vitamin A, for example, could be encapsulated and effectively stabilized under boiling water. The platform has also shown efficient release in a simulation of the stomach environment. Zhang says it is the “little, tiny steps every day that are pushing us forward to the final impactful product.” More

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    Advancing the energy transition amidst global crises

    “The past six years have been the warmest on the planet, and our track record on climate change mitigation is drastically short of what it needs to be,” said Robert C. Armstrong, MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) director and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering, introducing MITEI’s 15th Annual Research Conference.

    At the symposium, participants from academia, industry, and finance acknowledged the deepening difficulties of decarbonizing a world rocked by geopolitical conflicts and suffering from supply chain disruptions, energy insecurity, inflation, and a persistent pandemic. In spite of this grim backdrop, the conference offered evidence of significant progress in the energy transition. Researchers provided glimpses of a low-carbon future, presenting advances in such areas as long-duration energy storage, carbon capture, and renewable technologies.

    In his keynote remarks, Ernest J. Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus, founding director of MITEI, and former U.S. secretary of energy, highlighted “four areas that have materially changed in the last year” that could shake up, and possibly accelerate, efforts to address climate change.

    Extreme weather seems to be propelling the public and policy makers of both U.S. parties toward “convergence … at least in recognition of the challenge,” Moniz said. He perceives a growing consensus that climate goals will require — in diminishing order of certainty — firm (always-on) power to complement renewable energy sources, a fuel (such as hydrogen) flowing alongside electricity, and removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with its “weaponization of natural gas” and global energy impacts, underscores the idea that climate, energy security, and geopolitics “are now more or less recognized widely as one conversation.” Moniz pointed as well to new U.S. laws on climate change and infrastructure that will amplify the role of science and technology and “address the drive to technological dominance by China.”

    The rapid transformation of energy systems will require a comprehensive industrial policy, Moniz said. Government and industry must select and rapidly develop low-carbon fuels, firm power sources (possibly including nuclear power), CO2 removal systems, and long-duration energy storage technologies. “We will need to make progress on all fronts literally in this decade to come close to our goals for climate change mitigation,” he concluded.

    Global cooperation?

    Over two days, conference participants delved into many of the issues Moniz raised. In one of the first panels, scholars pondered whether the international community could forge a coordinated climate change response. The United States’ rift with China, especially over technology trade policies, loomed large.

    “Hatred of China is a bipartisan hobby and passion, but a blanket approach isn’t right, even for the sake of national security,” said Yasheng Huang, the Epoch Foundation Professor of Global Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Although the United States and China working together would have huge effects for both countries, it is politically unpalatable in the short term,” said F. Taylor Fravel, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program. John E. Parsons, deputy director for research at the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, suggested that the United States should use this moment “to get our own act together … and start doing things,” such as building nuclear power plants in a cost-effective way.

    Debating carbon removal

    Several panels took up the matter of carbon emissions and the most promising technologies for contending with them. Charles Harvey, MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at MITEI, set the stage early, debating whether capturing carbon was essential to reaching net-zero targets.

    “I have no trouble getting to net zero without carbon capture and storage,” said David Keith, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard University, in a subsequent roundtable. Carbon capture seems more risky to Keith than solar geoengineering, which involves injecting sulfur into the stratosphere to offset CO2 and its heat-trapping impacts.

    There are new ways of moving carbon from where it’s a problem to where it’s safer. Kripa K. Varanasi, MIT professor of mechanical engineering, described a process for modulating the pH of ocean water to remove CO2. Timothy Krysiek, managing director for Equinor Ventures, talked about construction of a 900-kilometer pipeline transporting CO2 from northern Germany to a large-scale storage site located in Norwegian waters 3,000 meters below the seabed. “We can use these offshore Norwegian assets as a giant carbon sink for Europe,” he said.

    A startup showcase featured additional approaches to the carbon challenge. Mantel, which received MITEI Seed Fund money, is developing molten salt material to capture carbon for long-term storage or for use in generating electricity. Verdox has come up with an electrochemical process for capturing dilute CO2 from the atmosphere.

    But while much of the global warming discussion focuses on CO2, other greenhouse gases are menacing. Another panel discussed measuring and mitigating these pollutants. “Methane has 82 times more warming power than CO2 from the point of emission,” said Desirée L. Plata, MIT associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change in the next 25 years — really the only lever.”

    Steven Hamburg, chief scientist and senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, cautioned that emission of hydrogen molecules into the atmosphere can cause increases in other greenhouse gases such as methane, ozone, and water vapor. As researchers and industry turn to hydrogen as a fuel or as a feedstock for commercial processes, “we will need to minimize leakage … or risk increasing warming,” he said.

    Supply chains, markets, and new energy ventures

    In panels on energy storage and the clean energy supply chain, there were interesting discussions of challenges ahead. High-density energy materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and vanadium for grid-scale energy storage, electric vehicles (EVs), and other clean energy technologies, can be difficult to source. “These often come from water-stressed regions, and we need to be super thoughtful about environmental stresses,” said Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. She also noted that in light of the explosive growth in demand for metals such as lithium, recycling EVs won’t be of much help. “The amount of material coming back from end-of-life batteries is minor,” she said, until EVs are much further along in their adoption cycle.

    Arvind Sanger, founder and managing partner of Geosphere Capital, said that the United States should be developing its own rare earths and minerals, although gaining the know-how will take time, and overcoming “NIMBYism” (not in my backyard-ism) is a challenge. Sanger emphasized that we must continue to use “denser sources of energy” to catalyze the energy transition over the next decade. In particular, Sanger noted that “for every transition technology, steel is needed,” and steel is made in furnaces that use coal and natural gas. “It’s completely woolly-headed to think we can just go to a zero-fossil fuel future in a hurry,” he said.

    The topic of power markets occupied another panel, which focused on ways to ensure the distribution of reliable and affordable zero-carbon energy. Integrating intermittent resources such as wind and solar into the grid requires a suite of retail markets and new digital tools, said Anuradha Annaswamy, director of MIT’s Active-Adaptive Control Laboratory. Tim Schittekatte, a postdoc at the MIT Sloan School of Management, proposed auctions as a way of insuring consumers against periods of high market costs.

    Another panel described the very different investment needs of new energy startups, such as longer research and development phases. Hooisweng Ow, technology principal at Eni Next LLC Ventures, which is developing drilling technology for geothermal energy, recommends joint development and partnerships to reduce risk. Michael Kearney SM ’11, PhD ’19, SM ’19 is a partner at The Engine, a venture firm built by MIT investing in path-breaking technology to solve the toughest challenges in climate and other problems. Kearney believes the emergence of new technologies and markets will bring on “a labor transition on an order of magnitude never seen before in this country,” he said. “Workforce development is not a natural zone for startups … and this will have to change.”

    Supporting the global South

    The opportunities and challenges of the energy transition look quite different in the developing world. In conversation with Robert Armstrong, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment of the Republic of Indonesia, reported that his “nation is rich with solar, wind, and energy transition minerals like nickel and copper,” but cannot on its own tackle developing renewable energy or reducing carbon emissions and improving grid infrastructure. “Education is a top priority, and we are very far behind in high technologies,” he said. “We need help and support from MIT to achieve our target,” he said.

    Technologies that could springboard Indonesia and other nations of the global South toward their climate goals are emerging in MITEI-supported projects and at young companies MITEI helped spawn. Among the promising innovations unveiled at the conference are new materials and designs for cooling buildings in hot climates and reducing the environmental costs of construction, and a sponge-like substance that passively sucks moisture out of the air to lower the energy required for running air conditioners in humid climates.

    Other ideas on the move from lab to market have great potential for industrialized nations as well, such as a computational framework for maximizing the energy output of ocean-based wind farms; a process for using ammonia as a renewable fuel with no CO2 emissions; long-duration energy storage derived from the oxidation of iron; and a laser-based method for unlocking geothermal steam to drive power plants. More

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    New materials could enable longer-lasting implantable batteries

    For the last few decades, battery research has largely focused on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which are used in everything from electric cars to portable electronics and have improved dramatically in terms of affordability and capacity. But nonrechargeable batteries have seen little improvement during that time, despite their crucial role in many important uses such as implantable medical devices like pacemakers.

    Now, researchers at MIT have come up with a way to improve the energy density of these nonrechargeable, or “primary,” batteries. They say it could enable up to a 50 percent increase in useful lifetime, or a corresponding decrease in size and weight for a given amount of power or energy capacity, while also improving safety, with little or no increase in cost.

    The new findings, which involve substituting the conventionally inactive battery electrolyte with a material that is active for energy delivery, are reported today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper by MIT Kavanaugh Postdoctoral Fellow Haining Gao, graduate student Alejandro Sevilla, associate professor of mechanical engineering Betar Gallant, and four others at MIT and Caltech.

    Replacing the battery in a pacemaker or other medical implant requires a surgical procedure, so any increase in the longevity of their batteries could have a significant impact on the patient’s quality of life, Gallant says. Primary batteries are used for such essential applications because they can provide about three times as much energy for a given size and weight as rechargeable batteries.

    That difference in capacity, Gao says, makes primary batteries “critical for applications where charging is not possible or is impractical.” The new materials work at human body temperature, so would be suitable for medical implants. In addition to implantable devices, with further development to make the batteries operate efficiently at cooler temperatures, applications could also include sensors in tracking devices for shipments, for example to ensure that temperature and humidity requirements for food or drug shipments are properly maintained throughout the shipping process. Or, they might be used in remotely operated aerial or underwater vehicles that need to remain ready for deployment over long periods.

    Pacemaker batteries typically last from five to 10 years, and even less if they require high-voltage functions such as defibrillation. Yet for such batteries, Gao says, the technology is considered mature, and “there haven’t been any major innovations in fundamental cell chemistries in the past 40 years.”

    The key to the team’s innovation is a new kind of electrolyte — the material that lies between the two electrical poles of the battery, the cathode and the anode, and allows charge carriers to pass through from one side to the other. Using a new liquid fluorinated compound, the team found that they could combine some of the functions of the cathode and the electrolyte in one compound, called a catholyte. This allows for saving much of the weight of typical primary batteries, Gao says.

    While there are other materials besides this new compound that could theoretically function in a similar catholyte role in a high-capacity battery, Gallant explains, those materials have lower inherent voltages that do not match those of the remainder of the material in a conventional pacemaker battery, a type known as CFx. Because the overall output from the battery can’t be more than that of the lesser of the two electrode materials,  the extra capacity would go to waste because of the voltage mismatch. But with the new material, “one of the key merits of our fluorinated liquids is that their voltage aligns very well with that of CFx,” Gallant says.

    In a conventional  CFx battery, the liquid electrolyte is essential because it allows charged particles to pass through from one electrode to the other. But “those electrolytes are actually chemically inactive, so they’re basically dead weight,” Gao says. This means about 50 percent of the battery’s key components, mainly the electrolyte, is inactive material. But in the new design with the fluorinated catholyte material, the amount of dead weight can be reduced to about 20 percent, she says.

    The new cells also provide safety improvements over other kinds of proposed chemistries that would use toxic and corrosive catholyte materials, which their formula does not, Gallant says. And preliminary tests have demonstrated a stable shelf life over more than a year, an important characteristic for primary batteries, she says.

    So far, the team has not yet experimentally achieved the full 50 percent improvement in energy density predicted by their analysis. They have demonstrated a 20 percent improvement, which in itself would be an important gain for some applications, Gallant says. The design of the cell itself has not yet been fully optimized, but the researchers can project the cell performance based on the performance of the active material itself. “We can see the projected cell-level performance when it’s scaled up can reach around 50 percent higher than the CFx cell,” she says. Achieving that level experimentally is the team’s next goal.

    Sevilla, a doctoral student in the mechanical engineering department, will be focusing on that work in the coming year. “I was brought into this project to try to understand some of the limitations of why we haven’t been able to attain the full energy density possible,” he says. “My role has been trying to fill in the gaps in terms of understanding the underlying reaction.”

    One big advantage of the new material, Gao says, is that it can easily be integrated into existing battery manufacturing processes, as a simple substitution of one material for another. Preliminary discussions with manufacturers confirm this potentially easy substitution, Gao says. The basic starting material, used for other purposes, has already been scaled up for production, she says, and its price is comparable to that of the materials currently used in CFx batteries. The cost of batteries using the new material is likely to be comparable to the existing batteries as well, she says. The team has already applied for a patent on the catholyte, and they expect that the medical applications are likely to be the first to be commercialized, perhaps with a full-scale prototype ready for testing in real devices within about a year.

    Further down the road, other applications could likely take advantage of the new materials as well, such as smart water or gas meters that can be read out remotely, or devices like EZPass transponders, increasing their usable lifetime, the researchers say. Power for drone aircraft or undersea vehicles would require higher power and so may take longer to be developed. Other uses could include batteries for equipment used at remote sites, such as drilling rigs for oil and gas, including devices sent down into the wells to monitor conditions.

    The team also included Gustavo Hobold, Aaron Melemed, and Rui Guo at MIT and Simon Jones at Caltech. The work was supported by MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the Army Research Office. More

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    Ocean microbes get their diet through a surprising mix of sources, study finds

    One of the smallest and mightiest organisms on the planet is a plant-like bacterium known to marine biologists as Prochlorococcus. The green-tinted microbe measures less than a micron across, and its populations suffuse through the upper layers of the ocean, where a single teaspoon of seawater can hold millions of the tiny organisms.

    Prochlorococcus grows through photosynthesis, using sunlight to convert the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide into organic carbon molecules. The microbe is responsible for 5 percent of the world’s photosynthesizing activity, and scientists have assumed that photosynthesis is the microbe’s go-to strategy for acquiring the carbon it needs to grow.

    But a new MIT study in Nature Microbiology today has found that Prochlorococcus relies on another carbon-feeding strategy, more than previously thought.

    Organisms that use a mix of strategies to provide carbon are known as mixotrophs. Most marine plankton are mixotrophs. And while Prochlorococcus is known to occasionally dabble in mixotrophy, scientists have assumed the microbe primarily lives a phototrophic lifestyle.

    The new MIT study shows that in fact, Prochlorococcus may be more of a mixotroph than it lets on. The microbe may get as much as one-third of its carbon through a second strategy: consuming the dissolved remains of other dead microbes.

    The new estimate may have implications for climate models, as the microbe is a significant force in capturing and “fixing” carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean.

    “If we wish to predict what will happen to carbon fixation in a different climate, or predict where Prochlorococcus will or will not live in the future, we probably won’t get it right if we’re missing a process that accounts for one-third of the population’s carbon supply,” says Mick Follows, a professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and its Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    The study’s co-authors include first author and MIT postdoc Zhen Wu, along with collaborators from the University of Haifa, the Leibniz-Institute for Baltic Sea Research, the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, and Potsdam University.

    Persistent plankton

    Since Prochlorococcus was first discovered in the Sargasso Sea in 1986, by MIT Institute Professor Sallie “Penny” Chisholm and others, the microbe has been observed throughout the world’s oceans, inhabiting the upper sunlit layers ranging from the surface down to about 160 meters. Within this range, light levels vary, and the microbe has evolved a number of ways to photosynthesize carbon in even low-lit regions.

    The organism has also evolved ways to consume organic compounds including glucose and certain amino acids, which could help the microbe survive for limited periods of time in dark ocean regions. But surviving on organic compounds alone is a bit like only eating junk food, and there is evidence that Prochlorococcus will die after a week in regions where photosynthesis is not an option.

    And yet, researchers including Daniel Sher of the University of Haifa, who is a co-author of the new study, have observed healthy populations of Prochlorococcus that persist deep in the sunlit zone, where the light intensity should be too low to maintain a population. This suggests that the microbes must be switching to a non-photosynthesizing, mixotrophic lifestyle in order to consume other organic sources of carbon.

    “It seems that at least some Prochlorococcus are using existing organic carbon in a mixotrophic way,” Follows says. “That stimulated the question: How much?”

    What light cannot explain

    In their new paper, Follows, Wu, Sher, and their colleagues looked to quantify the amount of carbon that Prochlorococcus is consuming through processes other than photosynthesis.

    The team looked first to measurements taken by Sher’s team, which previously took ocean samples at various depths in the Mediterranean Sea and measured the concentration of phytoplankton, including Prochlorococcus, along with the associated intensity of light and the concentration of nitrogen — an essential nutrient that is richly available in deeper layers of the ocean and that plankton can assimilate to make proteins.

    Wu and Follows used this data, and similar information from the Pacific Ocean, along with previous work from Chisholm’s lab, which established the rate of photosynthesis that Prochlorococcus could carry out in a given intensity of light.

    “We converted that light intensity profile into a potential growth rate — how fast the population of Prochlorococcus could grow if it was acquiring all it’s carbon by photosynthesis, and light is the limiting factor,” Follows explains.

    The team then compared this calculated rate to growth rates that were previously observed in the Pacific Ocean by several other research teams.

    “This data showed that, below a certain depth, there’s a lot of growth happening that photosynthesis simply cannot explain,” Follows says. “Some other process must be at work to make up the difference in carbon supply.”

    The researchers inferred that, in deeper, darker regions of the ocean, Prochlorococcus populations are able to survive and thrive by resorting to mixotrophy, including consuming organic carbon from detritus. Specifically, the microbe may be carrying out osmotrophy — a process by which an organism passively absorbs organic carbon molecules via osmosis.

    Judging by how fast the microbe is estimated to be growing below the sunlit zone, the team calculates that Prochlorococcus obtains up to one-third of its carbon diet through mixotrophic strategies.

    “It’s kind of like going from a specialist to a generalist lifestyle,” Follows says. “If I only eat pizza, then if I’m 20 miles from a pizza place, I’m in trouble, whereas if I eat burgers as well, I could go to the nearby McDonald’s. People had thought of Prochlorococcus as a specialist, where they do this one thing (photosynthesis) really well. But it turns out they may have more of a generalist lifestyle than we previously thought.”

    Chisholm, who has both literally and figuratively written the book on Prochlorococcus, says the group’s findings “expand the range of conditions under which their populations can not only survive, but also thrive. This study changes the way we think about the role of Prochlorococcus in the microbial food web.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the Israel Science Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Simons Foundation. More