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    A dirt cheap solution? Common clay materials may help curb methane emissions

    Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and it has a pronounced effect within first two decades of its presence in the atmosphere. In the recent international climate negotiations in Glasgow, abatement of methane emissions was identified as a major priority in attempts to curb global climate change quickly.

    Now, a team of researchers at MIT has come up with a promising approach to controlling methane emissions and removing it from the air, using an inexpensive and abundant type of clay called zeolite. The findings are described in the journal ACS Environment Au, in a paper by doctoral student Rebecca Brenneis, Associate Professor Desiree Plata, and two others.

    Although many people associate atmospheric methane with drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas, those sources only account for about 18 percent of global methane emissions, Plata says. The vast majority of emitted methane comes from such sources as slash-and-burn agriculture, dairy farming, coal and ore mining, wetlands, and melting permafrost. “A lot of the methane that comes into the atmosphere is from distributed and diffuse sources, so we started to think about how you could take that out of the atmosphere,” she says.

    The answer the researchers found was something dirt cheap — in fact, a special kind of “dirt,” or clay. They used zeolite clays, a material so inexpensive that it is currently used to make cat litter. Treating the zeolite with a small amount of copper, the team found, makes the material very effective at absorbing methane from the air, even at extremely low concentrations.

    The system is simple in concept, though much work remains on the engineering details. In their lab tests, tiny particles of the copper-enhanced zeolite material, similar to cat litter, were packed into a reaction tube, which was then heated from the outside as the stream of gas, with methane levels ranging from just 2 parts per million up to 2 percent concentration, flowed through the tube. That range covers everything that might exist in the atmosphere, down to subflammable levels that cannot be burned or flared directly.

    The process has several advantages over other approaches to removing methane from air, Plata says. Other methods tend to use expensive catalysts such as platinum or palladium, require high temperatures of at least 600 degrees Celsius, and tend to require complex cycling between methane-rich and oxygen-rich streams, making the devices both more complicated and more risky, as methane and oxygen are highly combustible on their own and in combination.

    “The 600 degrees where they run these reactors makes it almost dangerous to be around the methane,” as well as the pure oxygen, Brenneis says. “They’re solving the problem by just creating a situation where there’s going to be an explosion.” Other engineering complications also arise from the high operating temperatures. Unsurprisingly, such systems have not found much use.

    As for the new process, “I think we’re still surprised at how well it works,” says Plata, who is the Gilbert W. Winslow Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The process seems to have its peak effectiveness at about 300 degrees Celsius, which requires far less energy for heating than other methane capture processes. It also can work at concentrations of methane lower than other methods can address, even small fractions of 1 percent, which most methods cannot remove, and does so in air rather than pure oxygen, a major advantage for real-world deployment.

    The method converts the methane into carbon dioxide. That might sound like a bad thing, given the worldwide efforts to combat carbon dioxide emissions. “A lot of people hear ‘carbon dioxide’ and they panic; they say ‘that’s bad,’” Plata says. But she points out that carbon dioxide is much less impactful in the atmosphere than methane, which is about 80 times stronger as a greenhouse gas over the first 20 years, and about 25 times stronger for the first century. This effect arises from that fact that methane turns into carbon dioxide naturally over time in the atmosphere. By accelerating that process, this method would drastically reduce the near-term climate impact, she says. And, even converting half of the atmosphere’s methane to carbon dioxide would increase levels of the latter by less than 1 part per million (about 0.2 percent of today’s atmospheric carbon dioxide) while saving about 16 percent of total radiative warming.

    The ideal location for such systems, the team concluded, would be in places where there is a relatively concentrated source of methane, such as dairy barns and coal mines. These sources already tend to have powerful air-handling systems in place, since a buildup of methane can be a fire, health, and explosion hazard. To surmount the outstanding engineering details, the team has just been awarded a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue to develop specific equipment for methane removal in these types of locations.

    “The key advantage of mining air is that we move a lot of it,” she says. “You have to pull fresh air in to enable miners to breathe, and to reduce explosion risks from enriched methane pockets. So, the volumes of air that are moved in mines are enormous.” The concentration of methane is too low to ignite, but it’s in the catalysts’ sweet spot, she says.

    Adapting the technology to specific sites should be relatively straightforward. The lab setup the team used in their tests consisted of  “only a few components, and the technology you would put in a cow barn could be pretty simple as well,” Plata says. However, large volumes of gas do not flow that easily through clay, so the next phase of the research will focus on ways of structuring the clay material in a multiscale, hierarchical configuration that will aid air flow.

    “We need new technologies for oxidizing methane at concentrations below those used in flares and thermal oxidizers,” says Rob Jackson, a professor of earth systems science at Stanford University, who was not involved in this work. “There isn’t a cost-effective technology today for oxidizing methane at concentrations below about 2,000 parts per million.”

    Jackson adds, “Many questions remain for scaling this and all similar work: How quickly will the catalyst foul under field conditions? Can we get the required temperatures closer to ambient conditions? How scaleable will such technologies be when processing large volumes of air?”

    One potential major advantage of the new system is that the chemical process involved releases heat. By catalytically oxidizing the methane, in effect the process is a flame-free form of combustion. If the methane concentration is above 0.5 percent, the heat released is greater than the heat used to get the process started, and this heat could be used to generate electricity.

    The team’s calculations show that “at coal mines, you could potentially generate enough heat to generate electricity at the power plant scale, which is remarkable because it means that the device could pay for itself,” Plata says. “Most air-capture solutions cost a lot of money and would never be profitable. Our technology may one day be a counterexample.”

    Using the new grant money, she says, “over the next 18 months we’re aiming to demonstrate a proof of concept that this can work in the field,” where conditions can be more challenging than in the lab. Ultimately, they hope to be able to make devices that would be compatible with existing air-handling systems and could simply be an extra component added in place. “The coal mining application is meant to be at a stage that you could hand to a commercial builder or user three years from now,” Plata says.

    In addition to Plata and Brenneis, the team included Yale University PhD student Eric Johnson and former MIT postdoc Wenbo Shi. The work was supported by the Gerstner Philanthropies, Vanguard Charitable Trust, the Betty Moore Inventor Fellows Program, and MIT’s Research Support Committee. More

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    Seeing the plasma edge of fusion experiments in new ways with artificial intelligence

    To make fusion energy a viable resource for the world’s energy grid, researchers need to understand the turbulent motion of plasmas: a mix of ions and electrons swirling around in reactor vessels. The plasma particles, following magnetic field lines in toroidal chambers known as tokamaks, must be confined long enough for fusion devices to produce significant gains in net energy, a challenge when the hot edge of the plasma (over 1 million degrees Celsius) is just centimeters away from the much cooler solid walls of the vessel.

    Abhilash Mathews, a PhD candidate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering working at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), believes this plasma edge to be a particularly rich source of unanswered questions. A turbulent boundary, it is central to understanding plasma confinement, fueling, and the potentially damaging heat fluxes that can strike material surfaces — factors that impact fusion reactor designs.

    To better understand edge conditions, scientists focus on modeling turbulence at this boundary using numerical simulations that will help predict the plasma’s behavior. However, “first principles” simulations of this region are among the most challenging and time-consuming computations in fusion research. Progress could be accelerated if researchers could develop “reduced” computer models that run much faster, but with quantified levels of accuracy.

    For decades, tokamak physicists have regularly used a reduced “two-fluid theory” rather than higher-fidelity models to simulate boundary plasmas in experiment, despite uncertainty about accuracy. In a pair of recent publications, Mathews begins directly testing the accuracy of this reduced plasma turbulence model in a new way: he combines physics with machine learning.

    “A successful theory is supposed to predict what you’re going to observe,” explains Mathews, “for example, the temperature, the density, the electric potential, the flows. And it’s the relationships between these variables that fundamentally define a turbulence theory. What our work essentially examines is the dynamic relationship between two of these variables: the turbulent electric field and the electron pressure.”

    In the first paper, published in Physical Review E, Mathews employs a novel deep-learning technique that uses artificial neural networks to build representations of the equations governing the reduced fluid theory. With this framework, he demonstrates a way to compute the turbulent electric field from an electron pressure fluctuation in the plasma consistent with the reduced fluid theory. Models commonly used to relate the electric field to pressure break down when applied to turbulent plasmas, but this one is robust even to noisy pressure measurements.

    In the second paper, published in Physics of Plasmas, Mathews further investigates this connection, contrasting it against higher-fidelity turbulence simulations. This first-of-its-kind comparison of turbulence across models has previously been difficult — if not impossible — to evaluate precisely. Mathews finds that in plasmas relevant to existing fusion devices, the reduced fluid model’s predicted turbulent fields are consistent with high-fidelity calculations. In this sense, the reduced turbulence theory works. But to fully validate it, “one should check every connection between every variable,” says Mathews.

    Mathews’ advisor, Principal Research Scientist Jerry Hughes, notes that plasma turbulence is notoriously difficult to simulate, more so than the familiar turbulence seen in air and water. “This work shows that, under the right set of conditions, physics-informed machine-learning techniques can paint a very full picture of the rapidly fluctuating edge plasma, beginning from a limited set of observations. I’m excited to see how we can apply this to new experiments, in which we essentially never observe every quantity we want.”

    These physics-informed deep-learning methods pave new ways in testing old theories and expanding what can be observed from new experiments. David Hatch, a research scientist at the Institute for Fusion Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, believes these applications are the start of a promising new technique.

    “Abhi’s work is a major achievement with the potential for broad application,” he says. “For example, given limited diagnostic measurements of a specific plasma quantity, physics-informed machine learning could infer additional plasma quantities in a nearby domain, thereby augmenting the information provided by a given diagnostic. The technique also opens new strategies for model validation.”

    Mathews sees exciting research ahead.

    “Translating these techniques into fusion experiments for real edge plasmas is one goal we have in sight, and work is currently underway,” he says. “But this is just the beginning.”

    Mathews was supported in this work by the Manson Benedict Fellowship, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science under the Fusion Energy Sciences program.​ More

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    Meet the 2021-22 Accenture Fellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Helping to make nuclear fusion a reality

    Up until she served in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Rachel Bielajew was open to a career reboot. Having studied nuclear engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduate school had been on her mind. But seeing the drastic impacts of climate change play out in real-time in Malawi — the lives of the country’s subsistence farmers swing wildly, depending on the rains — convinced Bielajew of the importance of nuclear engineering. Bielajew was struck that her high school students in the small town of Chisenga had a shaky understanding of math, but universally understood global warming. “The concept of the changing world due to human impact was evident, and they could see it,” Bielajew says.

    Bielajew was looking to work on solutions that could positively impact global problems and feed her love of physics. Nuclear engineering, especially the study of fusion as a carbon-free energy source, checked off both boxes. Bielajew is now a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). She researches magnetic confinement fusion in the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) with Professor Anne White.

    Researching fusion’s big challenge

    You need to confine plasma effectively in order to generate the extremely high temperatures (100 million degrees Celsius) fusion needs, without melting the walls of the tokamak, the device that hosts these reactions. Magnets can do the job, but “plasmas are weird, they behave strangely and are challenging to understand,” Bielajew says. Small instabilities in plasma can coalesce into fluctuating turbulence that can drive heat and particles out of the machine.

    In high-confinement mode, the edges of the plasma have less tolerance for such unruly behavior. “The turbulence gets damped out and sheared apart at the edge,” Bielajew says. This might seem like a good thing, but high-confinement plasmas have their own challenges. They are so tightly bound that they create edge-localized modes (ELMs), bursts of damaging particles and energy, that can be extremely damaging to the machine.

    The questions Bielajew is looking to answer: How do we get high confinement without ELMs? How do turbulence and transport play a role in plasmas? “We do not fully understand turbulence, even though we have studied it for a long time,” Bielajew says, “It is a big and important problem to solve for fusion to be a reality. I like that challenge,” Bielajew adds.

    A love of science

    Confronting such challenges head-on has been part of Bielajew’s toolkit since she was a child growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her father, Alex Bielajew, is a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan, and Bielajew’s mother also pursued graduate studies.

    Bielajew’s parents encouraged her to follow her own path and she found it led to her father’s chosen profession: nuclear engineering. Once she decided to pursue research in fusion, MIT stood out as a school she could set her sights on. “I knew that MIT had an extensive program in fusion and a lot of faculty in the field,” Bielajew says. The mechanics of the application were challenging: Chisenga had limited internet access, so Bielajew had to ride on the back of a pickup truck to meet a friend in a city a few hours away and use his phone as a hotspot to send the documents.

    A similar tenacity has surfaced in Bielajew’s approach to research during the Covid-19 pandemic. Working off a blueprint, Bielajew built the Correlation Cyclotron Emission Diagnostic, which measures turbulent electron temperature fluctuations. Through a collaboration, Bielajew conducts her plasma research at the ASDEX Upgrade tokamak in Germany. Traditionally, Bielajew would ship the diagnostic to Germany, follow and install it, and conduct the research in person. The pandemic threw a wrench in the plans, so Bielajew shipped the diagnostic and relied on team members to install it. She Zooms into the control room and trusts others to run the plasma experiments.

    DEI advocate

    Bielajew is very hands-on with another endeavor: improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in her own backyard. Having grown up with parental encouragement and in an environment that never doubted her place as a woman in engineering, Bielajew realizes not everyone has the same opportunities. “I wish that the world was in a place where all I had to do was care about my research, but it’s not,” Bielajew says. While science can solve many problems, more fundamental ones about equity need humans to act in specific ways, she points out. “I want to see more women represented, more people of color. Everyone needs a voice in building a better world,” Bielajew says.

    To get there, Bielajew co-launched NSE’s Graduate Application Assistance Program, which connects underrepresented student applicants with NSE mentors. She has been the DEI officer with NSE’s student group, ANS, and is very involved in the department’s DEI committee.

    As for future research, Bielajew hopes to concentrate on the experiments that make her question existing paradigms about plasmas under high confinement. Bielajew has registered more head-scratching “hmm” moments than “a-ha” ones. Measurements from her experiments drive the need for more intensive study.

    Bielajew’s dogs, Dobby and Winky, keep her company through it all. They came home with her from Malawi. More

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    MIT in the media: 2021 in review

    From Institute-wide efforts to address the climate crisis to responding to Covid-19, members of the MIT community made headlines this year for their innovative work in a variety of areas. Faculty, students, and staff were on the front lines of addressing many pressing issues this year, raising their voices and sharing their findings. Below are highlights of news stories that spotlight the many efforts underway at MIT to help make a better world.

    Fireside chat: Tackling global challenges with a culture of innovationPresident L. Rafael Reif and Linda Henry, CEO of Boston Globe Media Partners, took part in a wide-ranging fireside chat during the inaugural Globe Summit, touching upon everything from the urgent need to address the climate crisis to MIT’s response to Covid-19, the Institute’s approach to artificial intelligence education and the greater Boston innovation ecosystem.Full discussion via Globe Summit

    A real-world revolution in economicsProfessor Joshua Angrist, one of the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economic sciences, spoke with The Economist’s Money Talks podcast about the evolution of his research and how his work has helped bring the field of economics closer to real life. “I like to tell graduate students that a good scholar is like a good hitter in baseball,” says Angrist of his advice for economics students. “You get on base about a third of the time you’re doing pretty well, which means you strike out most of the time.”Full story via The Economist

    Paula Hammond guest edits C&EN’s 2021 Trailblazers issueC&EN’s 2021 Trailblazers issue, curated by guest editor Paula Hammond, celebrated Black chemists and chemical engineers. “As we learn from several of the personal stories highlighted in this issue,” writes Hammond, “that first connection to science and research is critical to engage and inspire the next generation.” Helping propel the issue’s message about the importance of mentorship was a one-on-one with Professor Kristala Prather about her career path and a wide-ranging interview with Hammond herself on building a home at MIT.Full issue via C&EN

    Can fusion put the brakes on climate change? MIT’s new Climate Action Plan for the Decade calls for going as far as we can, as fast as we can, with the tools and methods we have now — but also asserts that ultimate success depends on breakthroughs. Commercial fusion energy is potentially one such game-changer, and a unique collaboration between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) is pursuing it. As Joy Dunn ’08, head of manufacturing at CFS, explains to the New Yorker’s Rivka Galchen: “When people ask me, ‘Why fusion? Why not other renewables,’ my thinking is: This is a solution at the scale of the problem.”Full story via New Yorker

    The genius next door: Taylor Perron discusses landscape evolutionProfessor and geomorphologist Taylor Perron, a recipient this year’s MacArthur Fellowships, joined Callie Crossley of GBH’s Under the Radar to discuss his work studying the mechanisms that shape landscapes on Earth and other planets. “We try to figure out how we can look at landscapes and read them, and try to figure out what happened in the past and also anticipate what might happen in the future,” says Perron.Full story via GBH

    How the pandemic “re-imagined how we can exhibit” Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and curator of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, spoke with Cajsa Carlson of Dezeen about how the field of architecture is transforming due to climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and efforts to increase diversity and representation. “Talent and imagination are not restricted to advanced development economically,” says Sarkis. “I hope this message comes across in this biennale.”Full story via Dezeen

    10 years at the top of the QS World University RankingsProvost Martin Schmidt spoke with TopUniversities.com reporter Chloe Lane about how MIT has maintained its position as the top university in the world on the QS World University Rankings for 10 consecutive years. “The Institute is full of a diverse community of people from all corners of the globe dedicated to solving the world’s most difficult problems,” says Schmidt. “Their efforts have a demonstrable impact through ambitious high-impact activities.”  Full story via TopUniversities.com

    Tackling Covid-19 and the Impact of a Global PandemicIn 2021, MIT researchers turned their attention to addressing the widespread effects of a global pandemic, exploring everything from supply chain issues to K-12 education.Massachusetts Miracle: “There are a lot of potential Modernas”Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung spotlighted how the development of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine demonstrates the success of the Massachusetts life sciences sector. “For more than half a century, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been the epicenter of that curiosity, with a focus on molecular biology — initially to find a cure for cancer,” writes Leung.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Weak links in the supply chainProfessor Yossi Sheffi spoke with David Pogue of CBS Sunday Morning about what’s causing supply chain breakdowns. “The underlying cause of all of this is actually a huge increase in demand,” says Sheffi. “People did not spend during the pandemic. And then, all the government help came; trillions of dollars went to households. So, they order stuff. They order more and more stuff. And the global markets were not ready for this.”Full story via CBS News

    Recruiting students and teachers to rethink schoolsA report co-authored by Associate Professor Justin Reich proposed a new path forward for rethinking K-12 schools after Covid-19, reported Paul Darvasi for KQED. “The report recommends that educators build on the positive aspects of their pandemic learning experience in the years ahead,” notes Darvasi, “and supports increased student independence to cultivate a safe and healthy environment that is more conducive to learning.”Full story via KQED

    This staff member has been quietly curating a flower box at the Collier MemorialResearch Specialist Kathy Cormier’s dedication to tending a flower planter at the Collier Memorial throughout the pandemic captured the hearts of many in the MIT community. “Here’s something that’s empty that I can fill, and make myself feel better and make other people — hopefully — feel better,” she says.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Amazing Alumni MIT alumni made headlines for their efforts to change the world, both here on Earth and in outer space. NASA selects three new astronaut candidates with MIT rootsMarcos Berríos ’06, Christina Birch PhD ’15 and Christopher Williams PhD ’12 were selected among NASA’s 10-member 2021 astronaut candidate class, reported WBUR’s Bill Chappell. “Alone, each candidate has ‘the right stuff,’ but together they represent the creed of our country: E pluribus unum — out of many, one,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.Full story via WBUR

    Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala named WTO director-generalNgozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78, PhD ’81, a former Nigerian finance minister, was named director-general of the World Trade Organization, reported William Wallace for the Financial Times. “Okonjo-Iweala sees an opportunity for the organization to rediscover some of its original purpose of raising living standards across the board and to bring its outdated rule book up to date at a time of accelerating change,” notes Wallace.Full story via Financial Times

    She doesn’t think skateboarding’s a sport, but she competed for a medalAlexis Sablone MArch ’16 spoke with Washington Post reporter Les Carpenter about street skateboarding, competing at this year’s Olympic Games, and why she is uncomfortable with being defined. “To me, I’m just always like trying to be myself and do things that I love to do and not try to fit into these categories in ways that I don’t feel comfortable with,” says Sablone.Full story via The Washington Post

    Applauding the culture of aerospace engineeringTiera Fletcher ’17, a structural design engineer working on building NASA’s Space Launch System, and her husband Myron Fletcher spoke with the hosts of The Real about what inspired them to pursue careers in aerospace engineering and their organization Rocket with the Fletchers, which is aimed at introducing youth to the field of aerodynamics.Full story via The Real

    Addressing the Climate CrisisThe urgent need to take action on climate change became more apparent in 2021. MIT researchers across campus answered the call and are unleashing innovative ideas to help address the biggest threat of our time.

    Why closing California’s last nuclear power plant would be a mistake The Washington Post Editorial Board highlighted a report co-authored by MIT researchers that found keeping the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California open would help the state reach its climate goals.Full story via The Washington Post

    What will the U.S. do to reach emission reduction targets?Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, spoke with Brian Cheung of Yahoo Finance about climate change, the path to net-zero emissions, and COP26. Paltsev was a lead author of the Fifth Assessment Report Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC. Full story via Yahoo News

    Lithium battery costs have fallen by 98% in three decadesA study by Professor Jessika Trancik and postdoc Micah Ziegler examining the plunge in lithium-ion battery costs finds “every time output doubles, as it did five times between 2006 and 2016, battery prices fall by about a quarter,” reports The Economist, which highlighted the work in its popular “Daily chart” feature. (Trancik’s research detailing carbon impacts of different cars was also cited by The Washington Post as a climate-change innovation helping respond to calls for action.)Full story via The Economist

    MIT students display a “climate clock” outside the Green BuildingBoston Globe reporter Matt Berg spotlights how a team from the MIT D-Lab created a climate clock, which was projected on the exterior of the Green Building at MIT in an effort to showcase key data about climate change. “The display highlights goals of the fight against climate change, such as limiting the annual temperature increases to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit,” writes Berg.Full story via The Boston Globe

    Social Impact

    MIT community members increasingly sought to address social issues around the world, from the spread of misinformation to ensuring marginalized communities could share their experiences. At MIT, arts, humanities and STEM fields forge an essential partnershipWriting for Times Higher Ed, Agustín Rayo, interim dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and Hashim Sarkis, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, underscore the importance of the arts, humanities, and design fields as “an essential part of an MIT education, critical to the Institute’s capacity for innovation and vital to its mission to make a better world.” They add that “the MIT mission is to serve humankind, and the arts and humanities are essential resources for knowledge and understanding of the human condition.”Full story via Times Higher Ed

    Helping Bostonians feel heard with MIT’s “Real Talk” portalAn MIT initiative called “Real Talk for Change” launched a new online portal of more than 200 audio stories collected from Boston residents as part of an effort to “help prompt future community dialogues about the lived experiences of everyday Bostonians, particularly those in marginalized communities,” reported Meghan E. Irons for The Boston Globe.Full story via Boston Globe

    Why nations fail, America editionProfessor Daron Acemoglu spoke with Greg Rosalsky of NPR’s Planet Money about his book, “Why Nations Fail,” and whether the attack on the U.S. Capitol signals difficulties for U.S. institutions, and how politicians can create more shared prosperity through a “good jobs” agenda. “We are still at a point where we can reverse things,” Acemoglu says. “But I think if we paper over these issues, we will most likely see a huge deterioration in institutions. And it can happen very rapidly.”Full story via Planet Money

    Why confronting disinformation spreaders online only makes it worseA study by MIT researchers found that correcting people who were spreading misinformation on Twitter led to people retweeting and sharing even more misinformation, reported Matthew Gault for Motherboard. Professor David Rand explains that the research is aimed at identifying “what kinds of interventions increase versus decrease the quality of news people share. There is no question that social media has changed the way people interact. But understanding how exactly it’s changed things is really difficult.” Full story via Motherboard

    Out of This WorldFrom designing a new instrument that can extract oxygen out of Martian air to investigating gravitational waves, MIT community members continued their longstanding tradition of deepening our understanding of the cosmos. MOXIE pulled breathable oxygen out of thin Martian airMichael Hecht of MIT’s Haystack Observatory spoke with GBH’s Edgar Herwick about how the MIT-designed MOXIE instrument successfully extracted oxygen out of Martian air. “I’ve been using the expression ‘a small breath for man, a giant leap for humankind,’” says Hecht, who is the principal investigator for MOXIE.Full story via GBH

    The down-to-Earth applications of spaceAssistant Professor Danielle Wood joined Bloomberg TV to discuss her work focused on using space technologies as a way to advance the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. She emphasizes how space “is a platform for serving the broad public. We use satellites to observe the environment and the climate, we use satellites to connect people across different parts of the Earth, and they give us information about our positions and our weather. All of these are broad public goods that really can serve people across the world all at once.”Full story via Bloomberg TV

    How Perseverance is hunting for life on MarsIn a conversation with New Scientist reporter Jonathan O’Callaghan, Professor Tanja Bosak discussed her work with the NASA Perseverance rover’s rock reconnaissance mission. “In the middle of a pandemic, I think we needed something good to happen, and that’s why so many people wanted all the science and engineering that goes into landing a rover on Mars to succeed,” says Bosak.Full story via New Scientist

    What scientists have learned from hidden ripples in spacetimeNergis Mavalvala, dean of the School of Science, spoke with Becky Ferreira of Motherboard’s “Space Show” about LIGO’s 2015 discovery of gravitational waves and what researchers in the field have learned since then. “Every one of these observations tells us a little bit more about how nature has assembled our universe,” says Mavalvala. “Really, in the end, the question we’re asking is: ‘How did this universe that we observe come about?’” Full story via MotherboardJoining the Conversation

    MIT authors contributed nearly 100 op-eds and essays to top news outlets this year, along with research-focused deep dives in The Conversation.

    Building on Vannevar Bush’s “wild garden” to cultivate solutions to human needsPresident L. Rafael Reif examined Vannevar Bush’s groundbreaking 1945 “Science, the Endless Frontier” report and considered how our needs today have changed. “To meet this moment, we need to ensure that our federally sponsored research addresses questions that will enhance our competitiveness now and in the future,” writes Reif. “Our current system has many strengths … but we must not allow these historical advantages to blind us to gaps that could become fatal weaknesses.”Full story via Issues in Science and Technology

    Good news: There’s a labor shortageWriting for The New York Times, Professor David Autor explored how the current labor shortage provides an opportunity to improve the quality of jobs in the U.S. “The period of labor scarcity, then, is an opportunity to catalyze better working conditions for those who need them most,” writes Autor.Full story via New York Times

    Opening the path to biotechIn an editorial for Science, Professor Sangeeta Bhatia, Professor Emerita Nancy Hopkins, and President Emerita Susan Hockfield underscored the importance of addressing the underrepresentation of women and individuals of color in tech transfer. “The discoveries women and minority researchers are making today have great potential as a force for good in the world,” they write, “but reaching that potential is only possible if paths to real-world applications are open to everybody.”Full story via Science

    To protect from lab leaks, we need “banal” safety rules, not anti-terrorism measuresMIT Professor Susan Silbey and Professor Ruthanne Huising of Emlyon Business School made the case that to prevent lab leaks, there should be a greater emphasis placed on biosafety. “The global research community does not need more rules, more layers of oversight, and more intermediary actors,” they write. “What it needs is more attention and respect to already known biosafety measures and techniques.”Full story via Stat

    Boston: The Silicon Valley of longevity?Writing for The Boston Globe, AgeLab Director Joseph Coughlin and Research Associate Luke Yoquinto explored how Greater Boston could serve as an innovation hub for aging populations. “By making groundbreaking creativity and inventiveness for older adults both seen and felt, Greater Boston and New England will be able to offer the world a new vision of old age,” they write.Full story via The Boston Globe

    More of the latest MIT In the Media summaries, with links to the original reporting, are available at news.mit.edu/in-the-media. More

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    MIT community in 2021: A year in review

    During 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic continued to color much of the year, as MIT saw both the promise of vaccines as well as the rise of troubling new variants. The Institute also made new commitments to climate action, saw the opening of new and renovated spaces, continued in its efforts to support its diverse voices, and celebrated new Nobel laureates and astronaut candidates. Here are some of the top stories in the MIT community this year.

    Continuing to work through CovidVaccines became widely available to the MIT community early in the year — thanks, in significant part, to the ingenuity of MIT scientists and engineers. In response, the Institute developed a policy requiring vaccination for most members of the community and planned a return to fully in-person teaching and working at MIT for the fall 2021 semester.

    With copious protections in place, the fall semester in many ways embodied MIT’s resilience: In-person teaching expanded, staff returned with new flexible arrangements, and community spirit lifted as face-to-face meetings became possible in many cases once again. Some annual traditions, such as Commencement, stayed remote, while others, like the outdoor Great Glass Pumpkin Patch, and 2.009 grand finale, returned, adding smiles and a sense of gratitude among community members.Melissa Nobles appointed chancellor

    In August, Melissa Nobles, the former Kenin Sahin Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, became the Institute’s new chancellor. A political scientist, Nobles succeeded Cynthia Barnhart, who returned to research and teaching after seven years as chancellor.

    In other news related to MIT’s top administration, Martin Schmidt announced in November that after 40 years at MIT, he plans to step down as provost to become the next president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, his alma mater.

    New climate action plan

    MIT unveiled a new action plan to tackle the climate crisis, committing to net-zero emissions by 2026 and charting a course marshaling all of MIT’s capabilities toward decarbonization. The plan includes a broad array of new initiatives and significant expansions of existing programs to address the needs for new technologies, new policies, and new kinds of outreach to bring the Institute’s expertise to bear on this critical global issue.

    In November, a delegation from MIT also traveled to Scotland for COP26, the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, where international negotiators sought to keep global climate goals on track. Approximately 20 MIT faculty, staff, and students were on hand to observe the negotiations, share and conduct research, and launch new initiatives.

    MIT and Harvard transfer edX

    MIT and Harvard University announced in June that assets of edX, the nonprofit they launched in 2012 to provide an open online platform for university courses, would be acquired by the publicly-traded education technology company 2U, and reorganized as a public benefit company under the 2U umbrella. In exchange, 2U was set to transfer net proceeds from the $800 million transaction to a nonprofit organization, also led by MIT and Harvard, to explore the next generation of online education.

    Supporting our diverse communityAs an important step forward in MIT’s ongoing efforts to create a more welcoming and inclusive community, the Institute hired six new assistant deans, one in each school and in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, to serve as diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals. In addition, this week Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier provided an update on the Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the first draft of which was released in March.

    A community discussion also examined the complexities of Asian American and Pacific Islander identity and acceptance at MIT, while underscoring the need for collaborative work among groups to combat prejudice and create equity. The forum was held amid a string of violent assaults on Asian Americans in the U.S., which raised public awareness about anti-Asian discrimination. Meanwhile, Professor Emma Teng provided historic context for the crisis.

    Three with MIT ties win Nobel PrizesProfessor Joshua Angrist, whose influential work has enhanced rigorous empirical research in economics, shared half of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economic sciences with Guido Imbens of the Stanford Graduate School of Business; the other half went to David Card of the University of California at Berkeley.

    In addition, David Julius ’77, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Ardem Patapoutian, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, for their discoveries in how the body senses touch and temperature. And Maria Ressa, a journalist in the Philippines and digital fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, shared the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with journalist Dmitry Muratov of Russia.

    National STEM leadersBefore taking office in January, President Joe Biden selected two MIT faculty leaders for top science and technology posts in his administration. Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute and professor of biology, was named presidential science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Maria Zuber, vice president for research and professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, was named co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), along with Caltech chemical engineer Frances Arnold — the first women ever to co-chair PCAST.

    Paula Hammond, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, was also chosen to serve as a member of PCAST. Earlier in the year, Hammond, along with chemical engineer Arup Chakraborty, was named an Institute Professor, the highest honor bestowed upon MIT faculty.

    Task Force 2021 final report

    MIT’s Task Force 2021 and Beyond, charged with reimagining the future of MIT, released its final report, 18 months after it began work in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report offers 17 recommendations to strengthen and streamline MIT, and make the Institute more successful across its teaching, research, and innovation endeavors. In addition to a providing a substantive list of recommendations, the report suggests routes to implementation, and assigns one or more senior leaders or faculty governance committees with oversight, for every idea presented.

    Newly opened or reopened

    A number of facilities, new or newly redesigned, opened in 2021. These included a new MIT Welcome Center in Kendall Square; the new InnovationHQ, a hub for MIT entrepreneurship; the newly renovated and reimagined Hayden Library and courtyard; and the new MIT Press Bookstore. Two new student residences also opened, and the community welcomed programming from the Institute’s new outdoor open space.

    Students win an impressive number of distinguished fellowshipsAs always, MIT students continued to shine. This year, exceptional undergraduates were awarded Fulbright, Marshall, Mitchell, Rhodes, and Schwarzman scholarships.

    Remembering those we’ve lostAmong community members who died this year were William Dalzell, Sergio Dominguez, Gene Dresselhaus, Sow Hsin-Chen, Ronald Kurtz, Paul Lagacé, Shirley McBay, ChoKyun Rha, George Shultz, Isadore Singer, James Swan, and Jing Wang. A longer list of 2021 obituaries is available on MIT News.

    In Case You Missed It… 

    Additional top community stories of 2021 included NASA’s selection of three new alumni astronaut candidates; the announcement of the 2021 MIT Solve Global Challenges; the successful conclusion of the MIT Campaign for a Better World; a win for MIT in the American Solar Challenge; a look at chess at the Institute; a roundup of new books from MIT authors; and the introduction of STEM-focused young-adult graphic fiction from the MIT Press. More

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    Selective separation could help alleviate critical metals shortage

    New processing methods developed by MIT researchers could help ease looming shortages of the essential metals that power everything from phones to automotive batteries, by making it easier to separate these rare metals from mining ores and recycled materials.

    Selective adjustments within a chemical process called sulfidation allowed professor of metallurgy Antoine Allanore and his graduate student Caspar Stinn to successfully target and separate rare metals, such as the cobalt in a lithium-ion battery, from mixed-metal materials.

    As they report in the journal Nature, their processing techniques allow the metals to remain in solid form and be separated without dissolving the material. This avoids traditional but costly liquid separation methods that require significant energy. The researchers developed processing conditions for 56 elements and tested these conditions on 15 elements.

    Their sulfidation approach, they write in the paper, could reduce the capital costs of metal separation between 65 and 95 percent from mixed-metal oxides. Their selective processing could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 90 percent compared to traditional liquid-based separation.

    “We were excited to find replacements for processes that had really high levels of water usage and greenhouse gas emissions, such as lithium-ion battery recycling, rare-earth magnet recycling, and rare-earth separation,” says Stinn. “Those are processes that make materials for sustainability applications, but the processes themselves are very unsustainable.”

    The findings offer one way to alleviate a growing demand for minor metals like cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements that are used in “clean” energy products like electric cars, solar cells, and electricity-generating windmills. According to a 2021 report by the International Energy Agency, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has risen by 50 percent since 2010, as renewable energy technologies using these metals expand their reach.

    Opportunity for selectivity

    For more than a decade, the Allanore group has been studying the use of sulfide materials in developing new electrochemical routes for metal production. Sulfides are common materials, but the MIT scientists are experimenting with them under extreme conditions like very high temperatures — from 800 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit — that are used in manufacturing plants but not in a typical university lab.

    “We are looking at very well-established materials in conditions that are uncommon compared to what has been done before,” Allanore explains, “and that is why we are finding new applications or new realities.”

    In the process of synthetizing high-temperature sulfide materials to support electrochemical production, Stinn says, “we learned we could be very selective and very controlled about what products we made. And it was with that understanding that we realized, ‘OK, maybe there’s an opportunity for selectivity in separation here.’”

    The chemical reaction exploited by the researchers reacts a material containing a mix of metal oxides to form new metal-sulfur compounds or sulfides. By altering factors like temperature, gas pressure, and the addition of carbon in the reaction process, Stinn and Allanore found that they could selectively create a variety of sulfide solids that can be physically separated by a variety of methods, including crushing the material and sorting different-sized sulfides or using magnets to separate different sulfides from one another.

    Current methods of rare metal separation rely on large quantities of energy, water, acids, and organic solvents which have costly environmental impacts, says Stinn. “We are trying to use materials that are abundant, economical, and readily available for sustainable materials separation, and we have expanded that domain to now include sulfur and sulfides.”

    Stinn and Allanore used selective sulfidation to separate out economically important metals like cobalt in recycled lithium-ion batteries. They also used their techniques to separate dysprosium — a rare-earth element used in applications ranging from data storage devices to optoelectronics — from rare-earth-boron magnets, or from the typical mixture of oxides available from mining minerals such as bastnaesite.

    Leveraging existing technology

    Metals like cobalt and rare earths are only found in small amounts in mined materials, so industries must process large volumes of material to retrieve or recycle enough of these metals to be economically viable, Allanore explains. “It’s quite clear that these processes are not efficient. Most of the emissions come from the lack of selectivity and the low concentration at which they operate.”

    By eliminating the need for liquid separation and the extra steps and materials it requires to dissolve and then reprecipitate individual elements, the MIT researchers’ process significantly reduces the costs incurred and emissions produced during separation.

    “One of the nice things about separating materials using sulfidation is that a lot of existing technology and process infrastructure can be leveraged,” Stinn says. “It’s new conditions and new chemistries in established reactor styles and equipment.”

    The next step is to show that the process can work for large amounts of raw material — separating out 16 elements from rare-earth mining streams, for example. “Now we have shown that we can handle three or four or five of them together, but we have not yet processed an actual stream from an existing mine at a scale to match what’s required for deployment,” Allanore says.

    Stinn and colleagues in the lab have built a reactor that can process about 10 kilograms of raw material per day, and the researchers are starting conversations with several corporations about the possibilities.

    “We are discussing what it would take to demonstrate the performance of this approach with existing mineral and recycling streams,” Allanore says.

    This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. National Science Foundation. More

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    Expanding the conversation about sustainability

    Stacy Godfreey-Igwe sat in her dorm room at MIT, staring frantically at her phone. An unprecedented snowstorm had hit her hometown of Richardson, Texas, and she was having difficulty contacting her family. She felt worried and frustrated, aware that nearby neighborhoods hadn’t lost power during the storm but that her family home had suffered significant damage. She finally got a hold of her parents, who had taken refuge in a nearby office building, but the experience left her shaken and more determined than ever to devote herself to addressing climate injustice.

    Godfreey-Igwe, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, has long been concerned about how marginalized communities can shoulder a disproportionately heavy environmental burden. At MIT, she chose a double major in mechanical engineering with a concentration in global and sustainable development, and in African and African diaspora studies, a major she helped establish and became the first student to declare. Initially seeing the two fields as separate, she now embraces their intersectionality in her work in and out of the classroom.

    Through an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) project with Amah Edoh, the Homer A. Burnell Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at MIT, Godfreey-Igwe has learned more about her Igbo cultural heritage and hopes to understand what the future of climate change poses for the culture’s sustainability. Godfreey-Igwe herself is the “Ada” – or eldest child – in her family, a role that carries a responsibility for keeping her family’s culture alive. That sense of responsibility, to her community and to future generations, has stayed with her at MIT.

    For Independent Activities Period during her first year at the Institute, Godfreey-Igwe traveled to Kazakhstan through MIT’s Global Teaching Labs. As a student teacher, she taught Kazakh high school chemistry students about polymers and the impact plastic materials can have on the Earth’s climate. She was also an MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) Identity X Ambassador during her time there, blogging about her experiences as a Black woman in the country. She saw the role as an opportunity to shed light on the challenges of navigating her identity abroad, with hopes of fostering community through her posts.

    The following summer, Godfreey-Igwe interned for the Saathi Biodegradable Sanitary Napkins Startup in Ahmedabad, India. During her time there, she researched and wrote articles focused on educating the public about the benefits eco-friendly sanitary pads posed to public health and the environment. She also interviewed a director for the city’s Center for Environmental Education, about the importance of uplifting and supporting marginalized communities hit hardest by climate change. The conversation was eye-opening for Godfreey-Igwe; she saw not only how complex the process of mitigating climate change was, but also how diverse the solutions needed to be.

    She has also pursued her interest in plastics and sustainability through summer research projects. In of the summer of 2020, Godfreey-Igwe worked under a lab in Stanford University’s civil and environmental engineering department to create and design models maximizing the efficiency of bacterial processes leading to the creation of bioplastics. The project’s goal was to find a sustainable form of plastic breakdown for future applications in the environment.  She presented her research at the Harvard National Collegiate Research Conference and received a presentation award during the MIT Mechanical Engineering Research Exhibition. This past summer, she was awarded a grant through the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota to work on a research project seeking to understand microplastic generation.

    Ultimately, Godfreey-Igwe recognizes that to propose thoughtful solutions to climate issues, the people hit hardest must be a part of the conversation. For her, a key way to bring more people into conversations about sustainability and inclusion is through mentorship. This role is especially meaningful to Godfreey-Igwe because she knows firsthand how important for members of underrepresented groups to feel supported at a place like MIT. “The experience of coming to an institution like MIT, as someone who is low-income or of color, can be isolating. Especially if you feel like there are people who can’t relate to your background,” she says.

    Godfreey-Igwe is a member of Active Community Engagement FPOP (ACE), a social action group on campus that engages with local communities through public service work. Initially joining as a participant, Godfreey-Igwe became a counselor and then coordinator; she facilitates social action workshops and introduces students to service opportunities both at MIT and around Boston. She says her time in ACE has helped build her confidence in her abilities as a leader, mentor, and cultivator of inclusionary spaces. She is also a member of iHouse (International Development House), where she served for three years as the housing and service co-chair.

    Godfreey-Igwe also tutors one-on-one for Tutoring Plus in Cambridge, where since her first year she has provided mentorship and STEM tutoring to a low-income, high school student of color. Last spring, she was awarded the Tutoring Plus of Cambridge Unwavering Service Award for her service and commitment to the program.

    Looking ahead, Godfreey-Igwe hopes to use the skills learned from her mentorship and leadership roles to establish greater structures for collaboration on climate mitigation technologies, ideas, and practices. Focusing on mentoring young scientists of color, she wants to build up underprivileged groups and institutions for sustainable climate change research, ensuring everyone has a voice in the ongoing conversation.

    “In all this work, I’m hoping to make sure that globally marginalized communities are more visible in climate-related spaces, both in terms of who is doing the engineering and who the engineering works for,” she says. More