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    Seizing solar’s bright future

    Consider the dizzying ascent of solar energy in the United States: In the past decade, solar capacity increased nearly 900 percent, with electricity production eight times greater in 2023 than in 2014. The jump from 2022 to 2023 alone was 51 percent, with a record 32 gigawatts (GW) of solar installations coming online. In the past four years, more solar has been added to the grid than any other form of generation. Installed solar now tops 179 GW, enough to power nearly 33 million homes. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is so bullish on the sun that its decarbonization plans envision solar satisfying 45 percent of the nation’s electricity demands by 2050.But the continued rapid expansion of solar requires advances in technology, notably to improve the efficiency and durability of solar photovoltaic (PV) materials and manufacturing. That’s where Optigon, a three-year-old MIT spinout company, comes in.“Our goal is to build tools for research and industry that can accelerate the energy transition,” says Dane deQuilettes, the company’s co-founder and chief science officer. “The technology we have developed for solar will enable measurements and analysis of materials as they are being made both in lab and on the manufacturing line, dramatically speeding up the optimization of PV.”With roots in MIT’s vibrant solar research community, Optigon is poised for a 2024 rollout of technology it believes will drastically pick up the pace of solar power and other clean energy projects.Beyond siliconSilicon, the material mainstay of most PV, is limited by the laws of physics in the efficiencies it can achieve converting photons from the sun into electrical energy. Silicon-based solar cells can theoretically reach power conversion levels of just 30 percent, and real-world efficiency levels hover in the low 20s. But beyond the physical limitations of silicon, there is another issue at play for many researchers and the solar industry in the United States and elsewhere: China dominates the silicon PV market, from supply chains to manufacturing.Scientists are eagerly pursuing alternative materials, either for enhancing silicon’s solar conversion capacity or for replacing silicon altogether.In the past decade, a family of crystal-structured semiconductors known as perovskites has risen to the fore as a next-generation PV material candidate. Perovskite devices lend themselves to a novel manufacturing process using printing technology that could circumvent the supply chain juggernaut China has built for silicon. Perovskite solar cells can be stacked on each other or layered atop silicon PV, to achieve higher conversion efficiencies. Because perovskite technology is flexible and lightweight, modules can be used on roofs and other structures that cannot support heavier silicon PV, lowering costs and enabling a wider range of building-integrated solar devices.But these new materials require testing, both during R&D and then on assembly lines, where missing or defective optical, electrical, or dimensional properties in the nano-sized crystal structures can negatively impact the end product.“The actual measurement and data analysis processes have been really, really slow, because you have to use a bunch of separate tools that are all very manual,” says Optigon co-founder and chief executive officer Anthony Troupe ’21. “We wanted to come up with tools for automating detection of a material’s properties, for determining whether it could make a good or bad solar cell, and then for optimizing it.”“Our approach packed several non-contact, optical measurements using different types of light sources and detectors into a single system, which together provide a holistic, cross-sectional view of the material,” says Brandon Motes ’21, ME ’22, co-founder and chief technical officer.“This breakthrough in achieving millisecond timescales for data collection and analysis means we can take research-quality tools and actually put them on a full production system, getting extremely detailed information about products being built at massive, gigawatt scale in real-time,” says Troupe.This streamlined system takes measurements “in the snap of the fingers, unlike the traditional tools,” says Joseph Berry, director of the US Manufacturing of Advanced Perovskites Consortium and a senior research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “Optigon’s techniques are high precision and allow high throughput, which means they can be used in a lot of contexts where you want rapid feedback and the ability to develop materials very, very quickly.”According to Berry, Optigon’s technology may give the solar industry not just better materials, but the ability to pump out high-quality PV products at a brisker clip than is currently possible. “If Optigon is successful in deploying their technology, then we can more rapidly develop the materials that we need, manufacturing with the requisite precision again and again,” he says. “This could lead to the next generation of PV modules at a much, much lower cost.”Measuring makes the differenceWith Small Business Innovation Research funding from DOE to commercialize its products and a grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Optigon has settled into a space at the climate technology incubator Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts. Here, the team is preparing for this spring’s launch of its first commercial product, whose genesis lies in MIT’s GridEdge Solar Research Program.Led by Vladimir Bulović, a professor of electrical engineering and the director of MIT.nano, the GridEdge program was established with funding from the Tata Trusts to develop lightweight, flexible, and inexpensive solar cells for distribution to rural communities around the globe. When deQuilettes joined the group in 2017 as a postdoc, he was tasked with directing the program and building the infrastructure to study and make perovskite solar modules.“We were trying to understand once we made the material whether or not it was good,” he recalls. “There were no good commercial metrology [the science of measurements] tools for materials beyond silicon, so we started to build our own.” Recognizing the group’s need for greater expertise on the problem, especially in the areas of electrical, software, and mechanical engineering, deQuilettes put a call out for undergraduate researchers to help build metrology tools for new solar materials.“Forty people inquired, but when I met Brandon and Anthony, something clicked; it was clear we had a complementary skill set,” says deQuilettes. “We started working together, with Anthony coming up with beautiful designs to integrate multiple measurements, and Brandon creating boards to control all of the hardware, including different types of lasers. We started filing multiple patents and that was when we saw it all coming together.”“We knew from the start that metrology could vastly improve not just materials, but production yields,” says Troupe. Adds deQuilettes, “Our goal was getting to the highest performance orders of magnitude faster than it would ordinarily take, so we developed tools that would not just be useful for research labs but for manufacturing lines to give live feedback on quality.”The device Optigon designed for industry is the size of a football, “with sensor packages crammed into a tiny form factor, taking measurements as material flows directly underneath,” says Motes. “We have also thought carefully about ways to make interaction with this tool as seamless and, dare I say, as enjoyable as possible, streaming data to both a dashboard an operator can watch and to a custom database.”Photovoltaics is just the startThe company may have already found its market niche. “A research group paid us to use our in-house prototype because they have such a burning need to get these sorts of measurements,” says Troupe, and according to Motes, “Potential customers ask us if they can buy the system now.” deQuilettes says, “Our hope is that we become the de facto company for doing any sort of characterization metrology in the United States and beyond.”Challenges lie ahead for Optigon: product launches, full-scale manufacturing, technical assistance, and sales. Greentown Labs offers support, as does MIT’s own rich community of solar researchers and entrepreneurs. But the founders are already thinking about next phases.“We are not limiting ourselves to the photovoltaics area,” says deQuilettes. “We’re planning on working in other clean energy materials such as batteries and fuel cells.”That’s because the team wants to make the maximum impact on the climate challenge. “We’ve thought a lot about the potential our tools will have on reducing carbon emissions, and we’ve done a really in-depth analysis looking at how our system can increase production yields of solar panels and other energy technologies, reducing materials and energy wasted in conventional optimization,” deQuilettes says. “If we look across all these sectors, we can expect to offset about 1,000 million metric tons of CO2 [carbon dioxide] per year in the not-too-distant future.”The team has written scale into its business plan. “We want to be the key enabler for bringing these new energy technologies to market,” says Motes. “We envision being deployed on every manufacturing line making these types of materials. It’s our goal to walk around and know that if we see a solar panel deployed, there’s a pretty high likelihood that it will be one we measured at some point.” More

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    HPI-MIT design research collaboration creates powerful teams

    The recent ransomware attack on ChangeHealthcare, which severed the network connecting health care providers, pharmacies, and hospitals with health insurance companies, demonstrates just how disruptive supply chain attacks can be. In this case, it hindered the ability of those providing medical services to submit insurance claims and receive payments.This sort of attack and other forms of data theft are becoming increasingly common and often target large, multinational corporations through the small and mid-sized vendors in their corporate supply chains, enabling breaks in these enormous systems of interwoven companies.Cybersecurity researchers at MIT and the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) in Potsdam, Germany, are focused on the different organizational security cultures that exist within large corporations and their vendors because it’s that difference that creates vulnerabilities, often due to the lack of emphasis on cybersecurity by the senior leadership in these small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).Keri Pearlson, executive director of Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan (CAMS); Jillian Kwong, a research scientist at CAMS; and Christian Doerr, a professor of cybersecurity and enterprise security at HPI, are co-principal investigators (PIs) on the research project, “Culture and the Supply Chain: Transmitting Shared Values, Attitudes and Beliefs across Cybersecurity Supply Chains.”Their project was selected in the 2023 inaugural round of grants from the HPI-MIT Designing for Sustainability program, a multiyear partnership funded by HPI and administered by the MIT Morningside Academy for Design (MAD). The program awards about 10 grants annually of up to $200,000 each to multidisciplinary teams with divergent backgrounds in computer science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, engineering, design, architecture, the natural sciences, humanities, and business and management. The 2024 Call for Applications is open through June 3.Designing for Sustainability grants support scientific research that promotes the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on topics involving sustainable design, innovation, and digital technologies, with teams made up of PIs from both institutions. The PIs on these projects, who have common interests but different strengths, create more powerful teams by working together.Transmitting shared values, attitudes, and beliefs to improve cybersecurity across supply chainsThe MIT and HPI cybersecurity researchers say that most ransomware attacks aren’t reported. Smaller companies hit with ransomware attacks just shut down, because they can’t afford the payment to retrieve their data. This makes it difficult to know just how many attacks and data breaches occur. “As more data and processes move online and into the cloud, it becomes even more important to focus on securing supply chains,” Kwong says. “Investing in cybersecurity allows information to be exchanged freely while keeping data safe. Without it, any progress towards sustainability is stalled.”One of the first large data breaches in the United States to be widely publicized provides a clear example of how an SME cybersecurity can leave a multinational corporation vulnerable to attack. In 2013, hackers entered the Target Corporation’s own network by obtaining the credentials of a small vendor in its supply chain: a Pennsylvania HVAC company. Through that breach, thieves were able to install malware that stole the financial and personal information of 110 million Target customers, which they sold to card shops on the black market.To prevent such attacks, SME vendors in a large corporation’s supply chain are required to agree to follow certain security measures, but the SMEs usually don’t have the expertise or training to make good on these cybersecurity promises, leaving their own systems, and therefore any connected to them, vulnerable to attack.“Right now, organizations are connected economically, but not aligned in terms of organizational culture, values, beliefs, and practices around cybersecurity,” explains Kwong. “Basically, the big companies are realizing the smaller ones are not able to implement all the cybersecurity requirements. We have seen some larger companies address this by reducing requirements or making the process shorter. However, this doesn’t mean companies are more secure; it just lowers the bar for the smaller suppliers to clear it.”Pearlson emphasizes the importance of board members and senior management taking responsibility for cybersecurity in order to change the culture at SMEs, rather than pushing that down to a single department, IT office, or in some cases, one IT employee.The research team is using case studies based on interviews, field studies, focus groups, and direct observation of people in their natural work environments to learn how companies engage with vendors, and the specific ways cybersecurity is implemented, or not, in everyday operations. The goal is to create a shared culture around cybersecurity that can be adopted correctly by all vendors in a supply chain.This approach is in line with the goals of the Charter of Trust Initiative, a partnership of large, multinational corporations formed to establish a better means of implementing cybersecurity in the supply chain network. The HPI-MIT team worked with companies from the Charter of Trust and others last year to understand the impacts of cybersecurity regulation on SME participation in supply chains and develop a conceptual framework to implement changes for stabilizing supply chains.Cybersecurity is a prerequisite needed to achieve any of the United Nations’ SDGs, explains Kwong. Without secure supply chains, access to key resources and institutions can be abruptly cut off. This could include food, clean water and sanitation, renewable energy, financial systems, health care, education, and resilient infrastructure. Securing supply chains helps enable progress on all SDGs, and the HPI-MIT project specifically supports SMEs, which are a pillar of the U.S. and European economies.Personalizing product designs while minimizing material wasteIn a vastly different Designing for Sustainability joint research project that employs AI with engineering, “Personalizing Product Designs While Minimizing Material Waste” will use AI design software to lay out multiple parts of a pattern on a sheet of plywood, acrylic, or other material, so that they can be laser cut to create new products in real time without wasting material.Stefanie Mueller, the TIBCO Career Development Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Patrick Baudisch, a professor of computer science and chair of the Human Computer Interaction Lab at HPI, are co-PIs on the project. The two have worked together for years; Baudisch was Mueller’s PhD research advisor at HPI.Baudisch’s lab developed an online design teaching system called Kyub that lets students design 3D objects in pieces that are laser cut from sheets of wood and assembled to become chairs, speaker boxes, radio-controlled aircraft, or even functional musical instruments. For instance, each leg of a chair would consist of four identical vertical pieces attached at the edges to create a hollow-centered column, four of which will provide stability to the chair, even though the material is very lightweight.“By designing and constructing such furniture, students learn not only design, but also structural engineering,” Baudisch says. “Similarly, by designing and constructing musical instruments, they learn about structural engineering, as well as resonance, types of musical tuning, etc.”Mueller was at HPI when Baudisch developed the Kyub software, allowing her to observe “how they were developing and making all the design decisions,” she says. “They built a really neat piece for people to quickly design these types of 3D objects.” However, using Kyub for material-efficient design is not fast; in order to fabricate a model, the software has to break the 3D models down into 2D parts and lay these out on sheets of material. This takes time, and makes it difficult to see the impact of design decisions on material use in real-time.Mueller’s lab at MIT developed software based on a layout algorithm that uses AI to lay out pieces on sheets of material in real time. This allows AI to explore multiple potential layouts while the user is still editing, and thus provide ongoing feedback. “As the user develops their design, Fabricaide decides good placements of parts onto the user’s available materials, provides warnings if the user does not have enough material for a design, and makes suggestions for how the user can resolve insufficient material cases,” according to the project website.The joint MIT-HPI project integrates Mueller’s AI software with Baudisch’s Kyub software and adds machine learning to train the AI to offer better design suggestions that save material while adhering to the user’s design intent.“The project is all about minimizing the waste on these materials sheets,” Mueller says. She already envisions the next step in this AI design process: determining how to integrate the laws of physics into the AI’s knowledge base to ensure the structural integrity and stability of objects it designs.AI-powered startup design for the Anthropocene: Providing guidance for novel enterprisesThrough her work with the teams of MITdesignX and its international programs, Svafa Grönfeldt, faculty director of MITdesignX and professor of the practice in MIT MAD, has helped scores of people in startup companies use the tools and methods of design to ensure that the solution a startup proposes actually fits the problem it seeks to solve. This is often called the problem-solution fit.Grönfeldt and MIT postdoc Norhan Bayomi are now extending this work to incorporate AI into the process, in collaboration with MIT Professor John Fernández and graduate student Tyler Kim. The HPI team includes Professor Gerard de Melo; HPI School of Entrepreneurship Director Frank Pawlitschek; and doctoral student Michael Mansfeld.“The startup ecosystem is characterized by uncertainty and volatility compounded by growing uncertainties in climate and planetary systems,” Grönfeldt says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need for a robust model that can objectively predict startup success and guide design for the Anthropocene.”While startup-success forecasting is gaining popularity, it currently focuses on aiding venture capitalists in selecting companies to fund, rather than guiding the startups in the design of their products, services and business plans.“The coupling of climate and environmental priorities with startup agendas requires deeper analytics for effective enterprise design,” Grönfeldt says. The project aims to explore whether AI-augmented decision-support systems can enhance startup-success forecasting.“We’re trying to develop a machine learning approach that will give a forecasting of probability of success based on a number of parameters, including the type of business model proposed, how the team came together, the team members’ backgrounds and skill sets, the market and industry sector they’re working in and the problem-solution fit,” says Bayomi, who works with Fernández in the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. The two are co-founders of the startup Lamarr.AI, which employs robotics and AI to help reduce the carbon dioxide impact of the built environment.The team is studying “how company founders make decisions across four key areas, starting from the opportunity recognition, how they are selecting the team members, how they are selecting the business model, identifying the most automatic strategy, all the way through the product market fit to gain an understanding of the key governing parameters in each of these areas,” explains Bayomi.The team is “also developing a large language model that will guide the selection of the business model by using large datasets from different companies in Germany and the U.S. We train the model based on the specific industry sector, such as a technology solution or a data solution, to find what would be the most suitable business model that would increase the success probability of a company,” she says.The project falls under several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including economic growth, innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, and climate action.Furthering the goals of the HPI-MIT Joint Research ProgramThese three diverse projects all advance the mission of the HPI-MIT collaboration. MIT MAD aims to use design to transform learning, catalyze innovation, and empower society by inspiring people from all disciplines to interweave design into problem-solving. HPI uses digital engineering concentrated on the development and research of user-oriented innovations for all areas of life.Interdisciplinary teams with members from both institutions are encouraged to develop and submit proposals for ambitious, sustainable projects that use design strategically to generate measurable, impactful solutions to the world’s problems. More

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    Offering clean energy around the clock

    As remarkable as the rise of solar and wind farms has been over the last 20 years, achieving complete decarbonization is going to require a host of complementary technologies. That’s because renewables offer only intermittent power. They also can’t directly provide the high temperatures necessary for many industrial processes.

    Now, 247Solar is building high-temperature concentrated solar power systems that use overnight thermal energy storage to provide round-the-clock power and industrial-grade heat.

    The company’s modular systems can be used as standalone microgrids for communities or to provide power in remote places like mines and farms. They can also be used in conjunction with wind and conventional solar farms, giving customers 24/7 power from renewables and allowing them to offset use of the grid.

    “One of my motivations for working on this system was trying to solve the problem of intermittency,” 247Solar CEO Bruce Anderson ’69, SM ’73 says. “I just couldn’t see how we could get to zero emissions with solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind. Even with PV, wind, and batteries, we can’t get there, because there’s always bad weather, and current batteries aren’t economical over long periods. You have to have a solution that operates 24 hours a day.”

    The company’s system is inspired by the design of a high-temperature heat exchanger by the late MIT Professor Emeritus David Gordon Wilson, who co-founded the company with Anderson. The company integrates that heat exchanger into what Anderson describes as a conventional, jet-engine-like turbine, enabling the turbine to produce power by circulating ambient pressure hot air with no combustion or emissions — what the company calls a first in the industry.

    Here’s how the system works: Each 247Solar system uses a field of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats to reflect sunlight to the top of a central tower. The tower features a proprietary solar receiver that heats air to around 1,000 Celsius at atmospheric pressure. The air is then used to drive 247Solar’s turbines and generate 400 kilowatts of electricity and 600 kilowatts of heat. Some of the hot air is also routed through a long-duration thermal energy storage system, where it heats solid materials that retain the heat. The stored heat is then used to drive the turbines when the sun stops shining.

    “We offer round-the-clock electricity, but we also offer a combined heat and power option, with the ability to take heat up to 970 Celsius for use in industrial processes,” Anderson says. “It’s a very flexible system.”

    The company’s first deployment will be with a large utility in India. If that goes well, 247Solar hopes to scale up rapidly with other utilities, corporations, and communities around the globe.

    A new approach to concentrated solar

    Anderson kept in touch with his MIT network after graduating in 1973. He served as the director of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) between 1996 and 2000 and was elected as an alumni member of the MIT Corporation in 2013. The ILP connects companies with MIT’s network of students, faculty, and alumni to facilitate innovation, and the experience changed the course of Anderson’s career.

    “That was an extremely fascinating job, and from it two things happened,” Anderson says. “One is that I realized I was really an entrepreneur and was not well-suited to the university environment, and the other is that I was reminded of the countless amazing innovations coming out of MIT.”

    After leaving as director, Anderson began a startup incubator where he worked with MIT professors to start companies. Eventually, one of those professors was Wilson, who had invented the new heat exchanger and a ceramic turbine. Anderson and Wilson ended up putting together a small team to commercialize the technology in the early 2000s.

    Anderson had done his MIT master’s thesis on solar energy in the 1970s, and the team realized the heat exchanger made possible a novel approach to concentrated solar power. In 2010, they received a $6 million development grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. But their first solar receiver was damaged during shipping to a national laboratory for testing, and the company ran out of money.

    It wasn’t until 2015 that Anderson was able to raise money to get the company back off the ground. By that time, a new high-temperature metal alloy had been developed that Anderson swapped out for Wilson’s ceramic heat exchanger.

    The Covid-19 pandemic further slowed 247’s plans to build a demonstration facility at its test site in Arizona, but strong customer interest has kept the company busy. Concentrated solar power doesn’t work everywhere — Arizona’s clear sunshine is a better fit than Florida’s hazy skies, for example — but Anderson is currently in talks with communities in parts of the U.S., India, Africa, and Australia where the technology would be a good fit.

    These days, the company is increasingly proposing combining its systems with traditional solar PV, which lets customers reap the benefits of low-cost solar electricity during the day while using 247’s energy at night.

    “That way we can get at least 24, if not more, hours of energy from a sunny day,” Anderson says. “We’re really moving toward these hybrid systems, which work like a Prius: Sometimes you’re using one source of energy, sometimes you’re using the other.”

    The company also sells its HeatStorE thermal batteries as standalone systems. Instead of being heated by the solar system, the thermal storage is heated by circulating air through an electric coil that’s been heated by electricity, either from the grid, standalone PV, or wind. The heat can be stored for nine hours or more on a single charge and then dispatched as electricity plus industrial process heat at 250 Celsius, or as heat only, up to 970 Celsius.

    Anderson says 247’s thermal battery is about one-seventh the cost of lithium-ion batteries per kilowatt hour produced.

    Scaling a new model

    The company is keeping its system flexible for whatever path customers want to take to complete decarbonization.

    In addition to 247’s India project, the company is in advanced talks with off-grid communities in the Unites States and Egypt, mining operators around the world, and the government of a small country in Africa. Anderson says the company’s next customer will likely be an off-grid community in the U.S. that currently relies on diesel generators for power.

    The company has also partnered with a financial company that will allow it to access capital to fund its own projects and sell clean energy directly to customers, which Anderson says will help 247 grow faster than relying solely on selling entire systems to each customer.

    As it works to scale up its deployments, Anderson believes 247 offers a solution to help customers respond to increasing pressure from governments as well as community members.

    “Emerging economies in places like Africa don’t have any alternative to fossil fuels if they want 24/7 electricity,” Anderson says. “Our owning and operating costs are less than half that of diesel gen-sets. Customers today really want to stop producing emissions if they can, so you’ve got villages, mines, industries, and entire countries where the people inside are saying, ‘We can’t burn diesel anymore.’” More

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    A home where world-changing innovations take flight

    In a large, open space on the first floor of 750 Main Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a carbon-capture company is heating up molten salts to 600 degrees Celsius right next to a quantum computing company’s device for supercooling qubits. The difference is about 900 degrees across 15 feet.

    It doesn’t take long in the tour of The Engine Accelerator to realize this isn’t your typical co-working space. Companies here are working at the extremes to develop new technologies with world-changing impact — what The Engine Accelerator’s leaders call “tough tech.”

    Comprising four floors and 150,000 square feet next door to MIT’s campus, the new space offers startups specialized lab equipment, advanced machining, fabrication facilities, office space, and a range of startup support services.

    The goal is to give young companies merging science and engineering all of the resources they need to move ideas from the lab bench to their own mass manufacturing lines.

    “The infrastructure has always been a really important accelerant for getting these kinds of companies off and running,” The Engine Accelerator President Emily Knight says. “Now you can start a company and, on day one, start building. Real estate is such a big factor. Our thought was, let’s make this investment in the infrastructure for the founders. It’s an agile lease that enables them to be very flexible as they grow.”

    Since the new facility opened its doors in the summer of 2022, the Accelerator has welcomed around 100 companies that employ close to 1,000 people. In addition to the space, members enjoy educational workshops on topics like fundraising and hiring, events, and networking opportunities that the Accelerator team hopes foster a sense of community among people working in the tough tech space overall.

    “We’re not just advocates for the startups in the space,” Knight says. “We’re advocates for tough tech as a whole. We think it’s important for the state of Massachusetts to create a tough tech hub here, and we think it’s important for national competitiveness.”

    Tough tech gets a home

    The Engine was spun out of MIT in 2016 as a public benefit corporation with the mission of bridging the gap between discovery and commercialization. Since its inception, it has featured an investment component, now known as Engine Ventures, and a shared services component.

    From the moment The Engine opened its doors to startups in its original headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, the services team got a firsthand look at the unique challenges faced by tough tech startups. After speaking with founders, they realized their converted office space would need more power, stronger floors, and full lab accommodations.

    The team rose to the challenge. They turned a closet into a bio lab. They turned an unused wellness room into a laser lab. They managed to accommodate Commonwealth Fusion Systems when the founders informed them a 5,000-pound magnet would soon arrive for testing.

    But supporting ambitious founders in their quest to build world-changing companies was always going to require a bigger boat. As early as 2017, MIT’s leaders were considering turning the old Polaroid building, which had sat empty next to MIT’s campus for nearly 20 years, into the new home for tough tech.

    Speaking of tough, construction crews began the extensive building renovations for the Accelerator at the end of 2019, a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic. The team managed to avoid the worst of the supply chain disruptions, but they quickly learned the building has its quirks. Each floor is a different ceiling height, and massive pillars known as mushroom columns punctuate each floor.

    Based on conversations with founders, The Engine’s Accelerator team outfitted the renovated building with office and co-working space, a full machine shop, labs for biology and chemistry work, an array of 3D printers, bike storage, and, perhaps most important, cold brew on tap.

    “I think of the Accelerator as a really great Airbnb host rather than a landlord, where maybe you rented a bedroom in a large house, but you feel like you rented the whole thing because you have access to all kinds of amazing equipment,” says Bernardo Cervantes PhD ’20, co-founder of Concerto Biosciences, which is developing microbes for a variety of uses in human health and agriculture.

    The Engine Accelerator’s team credits MIT leadership with helping them manage the project, noting that the MIT Environment, Health and Safety office was particularly helpful.

    A week after the Accelerator opened its doors in August 2022, on a single sweltering day, 35 companies moved in. By 2023, the Accelerator was home to 55 companies. Since then, the Accelerator’s team has done everything they could to continue to grow.

    “At one point, one of our team members came to me with her tail between her legs and sheepishly said, ‘I gave our office space to a startup,’” Knight recalls. “I said, ‘Yes! That means you get it! We don’t need an office — we can sit anywhere.’”

    The first floor holds some of the largest machinery, including that molten salt device (developed by Mantel Capture) and the quantum computer (developed by Atlantic Quantum). On the next level, a machine shop and a fabrication space featuring every 3D printer imaginable offer ways for companies to quickly build prototype products or parts. Another floor is dubbed “the Avenue” and features a kitchen and tables for networking and serendipitous meetings. The Avenue is lined by huge garage doors that open to accommodate larger crowds for workshops and meeting spaces.

    “Even though the founders are working in different spaces, we wanted to create an area where people can connect and run into each other and get help with 3D printing or hiring or anything else,” Knight says. “It fosters those casual interactions that are very important for startups.”

    An ecosystem to change the world

    Only about one-fifth of the companies in the Accelerator space are portfolio companies of Engine Ventures. The two entities operate separately, but they pool their shared learning about supporting tough tech, and Engine Ventures has an office in the Accelerator’s space.

    Engine Ventures CEO Katie Rae sees it as a symbiotic partnership.

    “We needed to have all these robust services for everyone in tough tech, not just the portfolio companies,” Rae says. “We’ll always work together and produce the Tough Tech Summit together because of our overarching missions. It’s very much like a rising tide lifts all boats. All of these companies are working to change the world in their own verticals, so we’re just focusing on the impact they’re trying to have and making that the story.”

    Rae says MIT has helped both of The Engine’s teams think through the best way to support tough tech startups.

    “Being a partner with MIT, which understands innovation and safety better than anyone, has allowed us to say yes to more things and have more flexibility,” Rae says. “If you’re going to go at breakneck speed to solve global problems, you better have a mentality of getting things done fast and safely, and I think that’s been a core tenet of The Engine.”

    Meanwhile, Knight says her team hasn’t stopped learning from the tough tech community and will continue to adapt.

    “There’s just a waterfall of information coming from these companies,” Knight says. “It’s about iterating on our services to best support them, so we can go to people on our team and ask, ‘Can you learn to run this type of program, because we just learned these five founders need it?’ Every founder we know in the area has a badge so they can come in. We want to create a hub for tough tech within this Kendall Square area that’s already a hub in so many ways.” More

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    Shining a light on oil fields to make them more sustainable

    Operating an oil field is complex and there is a staggeringly long list of things that can go wrong.

    One of the most common problems is spills of the salty brine that’s a toxic byproduct of pumping oil. Another is over- or under-pumping that can lead to machine failure and methane leaks. (The oil and gas industry is the largest industrial emitter of methane in the U.S.) Then there are extreme weather events, which range from winter frosts to blazing heat, that can put equipment out of commission for months. One of the wildest problems Sebastien Mannai SM ’14, PhD ’18 has encountered are hogs that pop open oil tanks with their snouts to enjoy on-demand oil baths.

    Mannai helps oil field owners detect and respond to these problems while optimizing the operation of their machinery to prevent the issues from occurring in the first place. He is the founder and CEO of Amplified Industries, a company selling oil field monitoring and control tools that help make the industry more efficient and sustainable.

    Amplified Industries’ sensors and analytics give oil well operators real-time alerts when things go wrong, allowing them to respond to issues before they become disasters.

    “We’re able to find 99 percent of the issues affecting these machines, from mechanical failures to human errors, including issues happening thousands of feet underground,” Mannai explains. “With our AI solution, operators can put the wells on autopilot, and the system automatically adjusts or shuts the well down as soon as there’s an issue.”

    Amplified currently works with private companies in states spanning from Texas to Wyoming, that own and operate as many as 3,000 wells. Such companies make up the majority of oil well operators in the U.S. and operate both new and older, more failure-prone equipment that has been in the field for decades.

    Such operators also have a harder time responding to environmental regulations like the Environmental Protection Agency’s new methane guidelines, which seek to dramatically reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas in the industry over the next few years.

    “These operators don’t want to be releasing methane,” Mannai explains. “Additionally, when gas gets into the pumping equipment, it leads to premature failures. We can detect gas and slow the pump down to prevent it. It’s the best of both worlds: The operators benefit because their machines are working better, saving them money while also giving them a smaller environmental footprint with fewer spills and methane leaks.”

    Leveraging “every MIT resource I possibly could”

    Mannai learned about the cutting-edge technology used in the space and aviation industries as he pursued his master’s degree at the Gas Turbine Laboratory in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Then, during his PhD at MIT, he worked with an oil services company and discovered the oil and gas industry was still relying on decades-old technologies and equipment.

    “When I first traveled to the field, I could not believe how old-school the actual operations were,” says Mannai, who has previously worked in rocket engine and turbine factories. “A lot of oil wells have to be adjusted by feel and rules of thumb. The operators have been let down by industrial automation and data companies.”

    Monitoring oil wells for problems typically requires someone in a pickup truck to drive hundreds of miles between wells looking for obvious issues, Mannai says. The sensors that are deployed are expensive and difficult to replace. Over time, they’re also often damaged in the field to the point of being unusable, forcing technicians to make educated guesses about the status of each well.

    “We often see that equipment unplugged or programmed incorrectly because it is incredibly over-complicated and ill-designed for the reality of the field,” Mannai says. “Workers on the ground often have to rip it out and bypass the control system to pump by hand. That’s how you end up with so many spills and wells pumping at suboptimal levels.”

    To build a better oil field monitoring system, Mannai received support from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund and the Venture Mentoring Service (VMS). He also participated in the delta V summer accelerator at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, the fuse program during IAP, and the MIT I-Corps program, and took a number of classes at the MIT Sloan School of Management. In 2019, Amplified Industries — which operated under the name Acoustic Wells until recently — won the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship competition.

    “My approach was to sign up to every possible entrepreneurship related program and to leverage every MIT resource I possibly could,” Mannai says. “MIT was amazing for us.”

    Mannai officially launched the company after his postdoc at MIT, and Amplified raised its first round of funding in early 2020. That year, Amplified’s small team moved into the Greentown Labs startup incubator in Somerville.

    Mannai says building the company’s battery-powered, low-cost sensors was a huge challenge. The sensors run machine-learning inference models and their batteries last for 10 years. They also had to be able to handle extreme conditions, from the scorching hot New Mexico desert to the swamps of Louisiana and the freezing cold winters in North Dakota.

    “We build very rugged, resilient hardware; it’s a must in those environments” Mannai says. “But it’s also very simple to deploy, so if a device does break, it’s like changing a lightbulb: We ship them a new one and it takes them a couple of minutes to swap it out.”

    Customers equip each well with four or five of Amplified’s sensors, which attach to the well’s cables and pipes to measure variables like tension, pressure, and amps. Vast amounts of data are then sent to Amplified’s cloud and processed by their analytics engine. Signal processing methods and AI models are used to diagnose problems and control the equipment in real-time, while generating notifications for the operators when something goes wrong. Operators can then remotely adjust the well or shut it down.

    “That’s where AI is important, because if you just record everything and put it in a giant dashboard, you create way more work for people,” Mannai says. “The critical part is the ability to process and understand this newly recorded data and make it readily usable in the real world.”

    Amplified’s dashboard is customized for different people in the company, so field technicians can quickly respond to problems and managers or owners can get a high-level view of how everything is running.

    Mannai says often when Amplified’s sensors are installed, they’ll immediately start detecting problems that were unknown to engineers and technicians in the field. To date, Amplified has prevented hundreds of thousands of gallons worth of brine water spills, which are particularly damaging to surrounding vegetation because of their high salt and sulfur content.

    Preventing those spills is only part of Amplified’s positive environmental impact; the company is now turning its attention toward the detection of methane leaks.

    Helping a changing industry

    The EPA’s proposed new Waste Emissions Charge for oil and gas companies would start at $900 per metric ton of reported methane emissions in 2024 and increase to $1,500 per metric ton in 2026 and beyond.

    Mannai says Amplified is well-positioned to help companies comply with the new rules. Its equipment has already showed it can detect various kinds of leaks across the field, purely based on analytics of existing data.

    “Detecting methane leaks typically requires someone to walk around every valve and piece of piping with a thermal camera or sniffer, but these operators often have thousands of valves and hundreds of miles of pipes,” Mannai says. “What we see in the field is that a lot of times people don’t know where the pipes are because oil wells change owners so frequently, or they will miss an intermittent leak.”

    Ultimately Mannai believes a strong data backend and modernized sensing equipment will become the backbone of the industry, and is a necessary prerequisite to both improving efficiency and cleaning up the industry.

    “We’re selling a service that ensures your equipment is working optimally all the time,” Mannai says. “That means a lot fewer fines from the EPA, but it also means better-performing equipment. There’s a mindset change happening across the industry, and we’re helping make that transition as easy and affordable as possible.” More

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    Making the clean energy transition work for everyone

    The clean energy transition is already underway, but how do we make sure it happens in a manner that is affordable, sustainable, and fair for everyone?

    That was the overarching question at this year’s MIT Energy Conference, which took place March 11 and 12 in Boston and was titled “Short and Long: A Balanced Approach to the Energy Transition.”

    Each year, the student-run conference brings together leaders in the energy sector to discuss the progress and challenges they see in their work toward a greener future. Participants come from research, industry, government, academia, and the investment community to network and exchange ideas over two whirlwind days of keynote talks, fireside chats, and panel discussions.

    Several participants noted that clean energy technologies are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels, but changing the way the world works requires more than just technology.

    “None of this is easy, but I think developing innovative new technologies is really easy compared to the things we’re talking about here, which is how to blend social justice, soft engineering, and systems thinking that puts people first,” Daniel Kammen, a distinguished professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley, said in a keynote talk. “While clean energy has a long way to go, it is more than ready to transition us from fossil fuels.”

    The event also featured a keynote discussion between MIT President Sally Kornbluth and MIT’s Kyocera Professor of Ceramics Yet-Ming Chiang, in which Kornbluth discussed her first year at MIT as well as a recently announced, campus-wide effort to solve critical climate problems known as the Climate Project at MIT.

    “The reason I wanted to come to MIT was I saw that MIT has the potential to solve the world’s biggest problems, and first among those for me was the climate crisis,” Kornbluth said. “I’m excited about where we are, I’m excited about the enthusiasm of the community, and I think we’ll be able to make really impactful discoveries through this project.”

    Fostering new technologies

    Several panels convened experts in new or emerging technology fields to discuss what it will take for their solutions to contribute to deep decarbonization.

    “The fun thing and challenging thing about first-of-a-kind technologies is they’re all kind of different,” said Jonah Wagner, principal assistant director for industrial innovation and clean energy in the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy. “You can map their growth against specific challenges you expect to see, but every single technology is going to face their own challenges, and every single one will have to defy an engineering barrier to get off the ground.”

    Among the emerging technologies discussed was next-generation geothermal energy, which uses new techniques to extract heat from the Earth’s crust in new places.

    A promising aspect of the technology is that it can leverage existing infrastructure and expertise from the oil and gas industry. Many newly developed techniques for geothermal production, for instance, use the same drills and rigs as those used for hydraulic fracturing.

    “The fact that we have a robust ecosystem of oil and gas labor and technology in the U.S. makes innovation in geothermal much more accessible compared to some of the challenges we’re seeing in nuclear or direct-air capture, where some of the supply chains are disaggregated around the world,” said Gabrial Malek, chief of staff at the geothermal company Fervo Energy.

    Another technology generating excitement — if not net energy quite yet — is fusion, the process of combining, or fusing, light atoms together to form heavier ones for a net energy gain, in the same process that powers the sun. MIT spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) has already validated many aspects of its approach for achieving fusion power, and the company’s unique partnership with MIT was discussed in a panel on the industry’s progress.

    “We’re standing on the shoulders of decades of research from the scientific community, and we want to maintain those ties even as we continue developing our technology,” CFS Chief Science Officer Brandon Sorbom PhD ’17 said, noting that CFS is one of the largest company sponsors of research at MIT and collaborates with institutions around the world. “Engaging with the community is a really valuable lever to get new ideas and to sanity check our own ideas.”

    Sorbom said that as CFS advances fusion energy, the company is thinking about how it can replicate its processes to lower costs and maximize the technology’s impact around the planet.

    “For fusion to work, it has to work for everyone,” Sorbom said. “I think the affordability piece is really important. We can’t just build this technological jewel that only one class of nations can afford. It has to be a technology that can be deployed throughout the entire world.”

    The event also gave students — many from MIT — a chance to learn more about careers in energy and featured a startup showcase, in which dozens of companies displayed their energy and sustainability solutions.

    “More than 700 people are here from every corner of the energy industry, so there are so many folks to connect with and help me push my vision into reality,” says GreenLIB CEO Fred Rostami, whose company recycles lithium-ion batteries. “The good thing about the energy transition is that a lot of these technologies and industries overlap, so I think we can enable this transition by working together at events like this.”

    A focused climate strategy

    Kornbluth noted that when she came to MIT, a large percentage of students and faculty were already working on climate-related technologies. With the Climate Project at MIT, she wanted to help ensure the whole of those efforts is greater than the sum of its parts.

    The project is organized around six distinct missions, including decarbonizing energy and industry, empowering frontline communities, and building healthy, resilient cities. Kornbluth says the mission areas will help MIT community members collaborate around multidisciplinary challenges. Her team, which includes a committee of faculty advisors, has begun to search for the leads of each mission area, and Kornbluth said she is planning to appoint a vice president for climate at the Institute.

    “I want someone who has the purview of the whole Institute and will report directly to me to help make sure this project stays on track,” Kornbluth explained.

    In his conversation about the initiative with Kornbluth, Yet-Ming Chiang said projects will be funded based on their potential to reduce emissions and make the planet more sustainable at scale.

    “Projects should be very high risk, with very high impact,” Chiang explained. “They should have a chance to prove themselves, and those efforts should not be limited by resources, only by time.”

    In discussing her vision of the climate project, Kornbluth alluded to the “short and long” theme of the conference.

    “It’s about balancing research and commercialization,” Kornbluth said. “The climate project has a very variable timeframe, and I think universities are the sector that can think about the things that might be 30 years out. We have to think about the incentives across the entire innovation pipeline and how we can keep an eye on the long term while making sure the short-term things get out rapidly.” More

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    Reducing pesticide use while increasing effectiveness

    Farming can be a low-margin, high-risk business, subject to weather and climate patterns, insect population cycles, and other unpredictable factors. Farmers need to be savvy managers of the many resources they deal, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides are among their major recurring expenses.

    Despite the importance of these chemicals, a lack of technology that monitors and optimizes sprays has forced farmers to rely on personal experience and rules of thumb to decide how to apply these chemicals. As a result, these chemicals tend to be over-sprayed, leading to their runoff into waterways and buildup up in the soil.

    That could change, thanks to a new approach of feedback-optimized spraying, invented by AgZen, an MIT spinout founded in 2020 by Professor Kripa Varanasi and Vishnu Jayaprakash SM ’19, PhD ’22.

    Play video

    AgZen has developed a system for farming that can monitor exactly how much of the sprayed chemicals adheres to plants, in real time, as the sprayer drives through a field. Built-in software running on a tablet shows the operator exactly how much of each leaf has been covered by the spray.

    Over the past decade, AgZen’s founders have developed products and technologies to control the interactions of droplets and sprays with plant surfaces. The Boston-based venture-backed company launched a new commercial product in 2024 and is currently piloting another related product. Field tests of both have shown the products can help farmers spray more efficiently and effectively, using fewer chemicals overall.

    “Worldwide, farms spend approximately $60 billion a year on pesticides. Our objective is to reduce the number of pesticides sprayed and lighten the financial burden on farms without sacrificing effective pest management,” Varanasi says.

    Getting droplets to stick

    While the world pesticide market is growing rapidly, a lot of the pesticides sprayed don’t reach their target. A significant portion bounces off the plant surfaces, lands on the ground, and becomes part of the runoff that flows to streams and rivers, often causing serious pollution. Some of these pesticides can be carried away by wind over very long distances.

    “Drift, runoff, and poor application efficiency are well-known, longstanding problems in agriculture, but we can fix this by controlling and monitoring how sprayed droplets interact with leaves,” Varanasi says.

    With support from MIT Tata Center and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, Varanasi and his team analyzed how droplets strike plant surfaces, and explored ways to increase application efficiency. This research led them to develop a novel system of nozzles that cloak droplets with compounds that enhance the retention of droplets on the leaves, a product they call EnhanceCoverage.

    Field studies across regions — from Massachusetts to California to Italy and France —showed that this droplet-optimization system could allow farmers to cut the amount of chemicals needed by more than half because more of the sprayed substances would stick to the leaves.

    Measuring coverage

    However, in trying to bring this technology to market, the researchers faced a sticky problem: Nobody knew how well pesticide sprays were adhering to the plants in the first place, so how could AgZen say that the coverage was better with its new EnhanceCoverage system?

    “I had grown up spraying with a backpack on a small farm in India, so I knew this was an issue,” Jayaprakash says. “When we spoke to growers, they told me how complicated spraying is when you’re on a large machine. Whenever you spray, there are so many things that can influence how effective your spray is. How fast do you drive the sprayer? What flow rate are you using for the chemicals? What chemical are you using? What’s the age of the plants, what’s the nozzle you’re using, what is the weather at the time? All these things influence agrochemical efficiency.”

    Agricultural spraying essentially comes down to dissolving a chemical in water and then spraying droplets onto the plants. “But the interaction between a droplet and the leaf is complex,” Varanasi says. “We were coming in with ways to optimize that, but what the growers told us is, hey, we’ve never even really looked at that in the first place.”

    Although farmers have been spraying agricultural chemicals on a large scale for about 80 years, they’ve “been forced to rely on general rules of thumb and pick all these interlinked parameters, based on what’s worked for them in the past. You pick a set of these parameters, you go spray, and you’re basically praying for outcomes in terms of how effective your pest control is,” Varanasi says.

    Before AgZen could sell farmers on the new system to improve droplet coverage, the company had to invent a way to measure precisely how much spray was adhering to plants in real-time.

    Comparing before and after

    The system they came up with, which they tested extensively on farms across the country last year, involves a unit that can be bolted onto the spraying arm of virtually any sprayer. It carries two sensor stacks, one just ahead of the sprayer nozzles and one behind. Then, built-in software running on a tablet shows the operator exactly how much of each leaf has been covered by the spray. It also computes how much those droplets will spread out or evaporate, leading to a precise estimate of the final coverage.

    “There’s a lot of physics that governs how droplets spread and evaporate, and this has been incorporated into software that a farmer can use,” Varanasi says. “We bring a lot of our expertise into understanding droplets on leaves. All these factors, like how temperature and humidity influence coverage, have always been nebulous in the spraying world. But now you have something that can be exact in determining how well your sprays are doing.”

    “We’re not only measuring coverage, but then we recommend how to act,” says Jayaprakash, who is AgZen’s CEO. “With the information we collect in real-time and by using AI, RealCoverage tells operators how to optimize everything on their sprayer, from which nozzle to use, to how fast to drive, to how many gallons of spray is best for a particular chemical mix on a particular acre of a crop.”

    The tool was developed to prove how much AgZen’s EnhanceCoverage nozzle system (which will be launched in 2025) improves coverage. But it turns out that monitoring and optimizing droplet coverage on leaves in real-time with this system can itself yield major improvements.

    “We worked with large commercial farms last year in specialty and row crops,” Jayaprakash says. “When we saved our pilot customers up to 50 percent of their chemical cost at a large scale, they were very surprised.” He says the tool has reduced chemical costs and volume in fallow field burndowns, weed control in soybeans, defoliation in cotton, and fungicide and insecticide sprays in vegetables and fruits. Along with data from commercial farms, field trials conducted by three leading agricultural universities have also validated these results.

    “Across the board, we were able to save between 30 and 50 percent on chemical costs and increase crop yields by enabling better pest control,” Jayaprakash says. “By focusing on the droplet-leaf interface, our product can help any foliage spray throughout the year, whereas most technological advancements in this space recently have been focused on reducing herbicide use alone.” The company now intends to lease the system across thousands of acres this year.

    And these efficiency gains can lead to significant returns at scale, he emphasizes: In the U.S., farmers currently spend $16 billion a year on chemicals, to protect about $200 billion of crop yields.

    The company launched its first product, the coverage optimization system called RealCoverage, this year, reaching a wide variety of farms with different crops and in different climates. “We’re going from proof-of-concept with pilots in large farms to a truly massive scale on a commercial basis with our lease-to-own program,” Jayaprakash says.

    “We’ve also been tapped by the USDA to help them evaluate practices to minimize pesticides in watersheds,” Varanasi says, noting that RealCoverage can also be useful for regulators, chemical companies, and agricultural equipment manufacturers.

    Once AgZen has proven the effectiveness of using coverage as a decision metric, and after the RealCoverage optimization system is widely in practice, the company will next roll out its second product, EnhanceCoverage, designed to maximize droplet adhesion. Because that system will require replacing all the nozzles on a sprayer, the researchers are doing pilots this year but will wait for a full rollout in 2025, after farmers have gained experience and confidence with their initial product.

    “There is so much wastage,” Varanasi says. “Yet farmers must spray to protect crops, and there is a lot of environmental impact from this. So, after all this work over the years, learning about how droplets stick to surfaces and so on, now the culmination of it in all these products for me is amazing, to see all this come alive, to see that we’ll finally be able to solve the problem we set out to solve and help farmers.” More

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    Power when the sun doesn’t shine

    In 2016, at the huge Houston energy conference CERAWeek, MIT materials scientist Yet-Ming Chiang found himself talking to a Tesla executive about a thorny problem: how to store the output of solar panels and wind turbines for long durations.        

    Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Mateo Jaramillo, a vice president at Tesla, knew that utilities lacked a cost-effective way to store renewable energy to cover peak levels of demand and to bridge the gaps during windless and cloudy days. They also knew that the scarcity of raw materials used in conventional energy storage devices needed to be addressed if renewables were ever going to displace fossil fuels on the grid at scale.

    Energy storage technologies can facilitate access to renewable energy sources, boost the stability and reliability of power grids, and ultimately accelerate grid decarbonization. The global market for these systems — essentially large batteries — is expected to grow tremendously in the coming years. A study by the nonprofit LDES (Long Duration Energy Storage) Council pegs the long-duration energy storage market at between 80 and 140 terawatt-hours by 2040. “That’s a really big number,” Chiang notes. “Every 10 people on the planet will need access to the equivalent of one EV [electric vehicle] battery to support their energy needs.”

    In 2017, one year after they met in Houston, Chiang and Jaramillo joined forces to co-found Form Energy in Somerville, Massachusetts, with MIT graduates Marco Ferrara SM ’06, PhD ’08 and William Woodford PhD ’13, and energy storage veteran Ted Wiley.

    “There is a burgeoning market for electrical energy storage because we want to achieve decarbonization as fast and as cost-effectively as possible,” says Ferrara, Form’s senior vice president in charge of software and analytics.

    Investors agreed. Over the next six years, Form Energy would raise more than $800 million in venture capital.

    Bridging gaps

    The simplest battery consists of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte. During discharge, with the help of the electrolyte, electrons flow from the negative anode to the positive cathode. During charge, external voltage reverses the process. The anode becomes the positive terminal, the cathode becomes the negative terminal, and electrons move back to where they started. Materials used for the anode, cathode, and electrolyte determine the battery’s weight, power, and cost “entitlement,” which is the total cost at the component level.

    During the 1980s and 1990s, the use of lithium revolutionized batteries, making them smaller, lighter, and able to hold a charge for longer. The storage devices Form Energy has devised are rechargeable batteries based on iron, which has several advantages over lithium. A big one is cost.

    Chiang once declared to the MIT Club of Northern California, “I love lithium-ion.” Two of the four MIT spinoffs Chiang founded center on innovative lithium-ion batteries. But at hundreds of dollars a kilowatt-hour (kWh) and with a storage capacity typically measured in hours, lithium-ion was ill-suited for the use he now had in mind.

    The approach Chiang envisioned had to be cost-effective enough to boost the attractiveness of renewables. Making solar and wind energy reliable enough for millions of customers meant storing it long enough to fill the gaps created by extreme weather conditions, grid outages, and when there is a lull in the wind or a few days of clouds.

    To be competitive with legacy power plants, Chiang’s method had to come in at around $20 per kilowatt-hour of stored energy — one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion battery storage.

    But how to transition from expensive batteries that store and discharge over a couple of hours to some as-yet-undefined, cheap, longer-duration technology?

    “One big ball of iron”

    That’s where Ferrara comes in. Ferrara has a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of L’Aquila in his native Italy. In 2017, as a research affiliate at the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, he worked with Chiang to model the grid’s need to manage renewables’ intermittency.

    How intermittent depends on where you are. In the United States, for instance, there’s the windy Great Plains; the sun-drenched, relatively low-wind deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada; and the often-cloudy Pacific Northwest.

    Ferrara, in collaboration with Professor Jessika Trancik of MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and her MIT team, modeled four representative locations in the United States and concluded that energy storage with capacity costs below roughly $20/kWh and discharge durations of multiple days would allow a wind-solar mix to provide cost-competitive, firm electricity in resource-abundant locations.

    Now that they had a time frame, they turned their attention to materials. At the price point Form Energy was aiming for, lithium was out of the question. Chiang looked at plentiful and cheap sulfur. But a sulfur, sodium, water, and air battery had technical challenges.

    Thomas Edison once used iron as an electrode, and iron-air batteries were first studied in the 1960s. They were too heavy to make good transportation batteries. But this time, Chiang and team were looking at a battery that sat on the ground, so weight didn’t matter. Their priorities were cost and availability.

    “Iron is produced, mined, and processed on every continent,” Chiang says. “The Earth is one big ball of iron. We wouldn’t ever have to worry about even the most ambitious projections of how much storage that the world might use by mid-century.” If Form ever moves into the residential market, “it’ll be the safest battery you’ve ever parked at your house,” Chiang laughs. “Just iron, air, and water.”

    Scientists call it reversible rusting. While discharging, the battery takes in oxygen and converts iron to rust. Applying an electrical current converts the rusty pellets back to iron, and the battery “breathes out” oxygen as it charges. “In chemical terms, you have iron, and it becomes iron hydroxide,” Chiang says. “That means electrons were extracted. You get those electrons to go through the external circuit, and now you have a battery.”

    Form Energy’s battery modules are approximately the size of a washer-and-dryer unit. They are stacked in 40-foot containers, and several containers are electrically connected with power conversion systems to build storage plants that can cover several acres.

    The right place at the right time

    The modules don’t look or act like anything utilities have contracted for before.

    That’s one of Form’s key challenges. “There is not widespread knowledge of needing these new tools for decarbonized grids,” Ferrara says. “That’s not the way utilities have typically planned. They’re looking at all the tools in the toolkit that exist today, which may not contemplate a multi-day energy storage asset.”

    Form Energy’s customers are largely traditional power companies seeking to expand their portfolios of renewable electricity. Some are in the process of decommissioning coal plants and shifting to renewables.

    Ferrara’s research pinpointing the need for very low-cost multi-day storage provides key data for power suppliers seeking to determine the most cost-effective way to integrate more renewable energy.

    Using the same modeling techniques, Ferrara and team show potential customers how the technology fits in with their existing system, how it competes with other technologies, and how, in some cases, it can operate synergistically with other storage technologies.

    “They may need a portfolio of storage technologies to fully balance renewables on different timescales of intermittency,” he says. But other than the technology developed at Form, “there isn’t much out there, certainly not within the cost entitlement of what we’re bringing to market.”  Thanks to Chiang and Jaramillo’s chance encounter in Houston, Form has a several-year lead on other companies working to address this challenge. 

    In June 2023, Form Energy closed its biggest deal to date for a single project: Georgia Power’s order for a 15-megawatt/1,500-megawatt-hour system. That order brings Form’s total amount of energy storage under contracts with utility customers to 40 megawatts/4 gigawatt-hours. To meet the demand, Form is building a new commercial-scale battery manufacturing facility in West Virginia.

    The fact that Form Energy is creating jobs in an area that lost more than 10,000 steel jobs over the past decade is not lost on Chiang. “And these new jobs are in clean tech. It’s super exciting to me personally to be doing something that benefits communities outside of our traditional technology centers.

    “This is the right time for so many reasons,” Chiang says. He says he and his Form Energy co-founders feel “tremendous urgency to get these batteries out into the world.”

    This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More