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    Helping renewable energy projects succeed in local communities

    Jungwoo Chun makes surprising discoveries about sustainability initiatives by zooming in on local communities.

    His discoveries lie in understanding how renewable energy infrastructure develops at a local level. With so many stakeholders in a community — citizens, government officials, businesses, and other organizations — the development process gets complicated very quickly. Chun works to unpack stakeholder relationships to help local renewable energy projects move forward.

    While his interests today are in local communities around the U.S., Chun comes from a global background. Growing up, his family moved frequently due to his dad’s work. He lived in Seoul, South Korea until elementary school and then hopped from city to city around Asia, spending time in China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. When it was time for college, he returned to South Korea, majoring in international studies at Korea University and later completing his master’s there in the same field.

    After graduating, Chun wanted to leverage his international expertise to tackle climate change. So, he pursued a second master’s in international environmental policy with William Moomaw at Tufts University.

    During that time, Chun came across an article on climate change by David Victor, a professor in public policy at the University of California at San Diego. Victor argued that while international efforts to fight climate change are necessary, more tangible progress can be made through local efforts catered to each country. That prompted Chun to think a step further: “What can we do in the local community to make a little bit of a difference, which could add up to something big in the long term?”

    With a renewed direction for his goals, Chun arrived at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, specializing in environmental policy and planning. But he was still missing that final inspirational spark to proactively pursue his goals — until he began working with his primary advisor, Lawrence Susskind, the Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and director of the Science Impact Collaborative.

    For previous research projects, “I would just do what I was told,” Chun says, but his new advisor “really opened [his] eyes” to being an active member of the community. From the start, Susskind has encouraged Chun to share his research ideas and has shown him how to leverage his research skills for public service. Over the past few years, Chun has also taught several classes with Susskind, learning to approach education thoughtfully for an engaging and equitable classroom. Because of their relationship, Chun now always searches for ways to make a difference through research, teaching, and public service.

    Understanding renewable energy projects at a local level

    For his main dissertation project with Susskind, Chun is studying community-owned solar energy projects, working to understand what makes them successful.

    Often, communities don’t have the required expertise to carry out these projects on their own and instead look to advisory organizations for help. But little research has been done on these organizations and the roles that they play in developing solar energy infrastructure.

    Through over 200 surveys and counting, Chun has discovered that these organizations act as life-long collaborators to communities and are critical in getting community-owned solar projects up and running. At the start of these projects, they walk communities through a mountain of logistics for setting up solar energy infrastructure, including permit applications, budgeting, and contractor employment. After the infrastructure is in place, the organizations stay involved, serving as consultants when needed and sometimes even becoming partners.

    Because of these roles, Chun calls these organizations “intermediaries,” drawing a parallel with roles in in conflict resolution. “But it’s much more than that,” he adds. Intermediaries help local communities “build a movement [for community-owned solar energy projects] … and empower them to be independent and self-sustaining.”

    Chun is also working on another project with Susskind, looking at situations where communities are opposed to renewable energy infrastructure. For this project, Chun is supervising and mentoring a group of five undergraduates. Together, they are trying to pinpoint the reasons behind local opposition to renewable energy projects.

    The idea for this project emerged two years ago, when Chun heard in the news that many solar and wind projects were being delayed or cancelled due to local opposition. But the reasons for this opposition weren’t thoroughly researched.

    “When we started to dig a little deeper, [we found that] communities oppose these projects even though they aren’t opposed to renewable energy,” Chun says. The primary reasons for opposition lie in land use concerns, including financial challenges, health and safety concerns, and ironically, environmental consequences. By better understanding these concerns, Chun hopes to help more renewable energy projects succeed and bring society closer to a sustainable future.

    Bringing research to the classroom and community

    Right now, Chun is looking to bring his research insights on renewable energy infrastructure into the classroom. He’s developing a course on renewable energy that will act as a “clinic” where students will work with communities to understand their concerns for potential renewable energy projects. The students’ findings will then be passed onto project leaders to help them address these concerns.

    This new course is modeled after 11.074/11.274 (Cybersecurity Clinic), which Chun has helped develop over the past few years. In this clinic, students work with local governments in New England to assess potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities in their digital systems. At first, “a lot of city governments were very skeptical, like ‘students doing service for us…?’” Chun says. “But in the end, they were all very satisfied with the outcome” and found the assessments “impactful.”

    Since the Cybersecurity Clinic has kicked off, other universities have approached Chun and his co-instructors about developing their own regional clinics. Now, there are cybersecurity clinics operating around the world. “That’s been a huge success,” Chun says. Going forward, “we’d like to expand the benefit of this clinic [to address] communities opposing renewable energy [projects].” The new course will be a philosophical trifecta for Chun, combining his commitments to research, teaching, and public service.

    Chun plans to wrap up his PhD at the end of this summer and is currently writing his dissertation on community-owned solar energy projects. “I’m done with all the background work — working the soil and throwing the seeds in the right place,” he says, “It’s now time to gather all the crops and present the work.” More

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    “The world needs your smarts, your skills,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tells MIT’s Class of 2022

    On a clear warm day, the MIT graduating class of 2022 gathered in Killian Court for the first in-person commencement exercises in three years, after two years of online ceremonies due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala MCP ’78, PhD ’81, director-general of the World Trade Organization, delivered the Commencement address, stressing the global need for science-informed policy to address problems of climate change, pandemics, international security, and wealth disparities. She told the graduates: “In these uncertain times, in this complex world in which you are entering, you need not be so daunted, if you can search for the opportunities hidden in challenges.” She urged them to go “into the world to embrace the opportunities to serve.”

    An expert in global finance, economics, and international development, Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and first African to lead the WTO. She earned a master’s degree in city planning from MIT in 1978, and a PhD in regional economics and development in 1981.

    Okonjo-Iweala began her address by paying tribute to MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who earlier this semester announced plans to end his decade-long tenure in that role. Calling this a “bittersweet day” because of his departure, she honored “his academic, institutional, and thought leadership of these past 10 years.”

    She spoke warmly of the way MIT had helped her while she was a graduate student struggling to pay the bills. She was assured that the Institute would do whatever was needed to make sure she could complete her studies, she recalled, saying, “They had my back.” Noting that this year’s graduating class had their own educational journeys challenged by the global pandemic, she described how her own early education was interrupted for three years by civil war in her home country of Nigeria. She also noted the recent tragic shootings in Uvalde, Texas, saying that “I feel grief as a mother and a grandmother.”

    “MIT has helped make me who I am today,” she said. “My parents made it clear to me that education was a privilege, and that with that privilege comes responsibility — the responsibility to use it for others, not just for yourself.”

    She said that what the world needs in this time of multiple global challenges, including Covid-19, climate change, public health, and international security, is an approach “combining science, social science, and public policy, to meet the challenges of our future.”

    Friday’s Commencement ceremony celebrated the 1,099 undergraduate and 2,590 graduate students receiving MIT diplomas this year.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

    MIT President L. Rafael Reif walked near the head of the procession to Killian Court, followed by Commencement speaker Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles, and others.

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    Temiloluwa Omitoogun, president of the Class of 2022, told his classmates, “MIT is hard. MIT during an unprecedented pandemic is even harder, but we did it.”

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    In a longstanding MIT Commencement ritual, graduates turn over their class ring, the “brass rat.” The ring’s image of the Boston skyline faces students until they graduate, and thereafter they will see the Cambridge skyline, in effect looking back at campus.

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    Members of the Class of 2022 celebrated on Killian Court.

    Photo: Adam Glanzman

    Fifty years after their own graduation, members of the Class of 1972 attended the ceremony as special guests, wearing signature red jackets. Members of the Classes of ’70 and ’71 also joined the festivities.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

    Members of the Class of 2022 celebrated on Killian Court.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

    President Reif urged the assembled graduates to shout out a loud “thank you!” to all family, professors, friends, and others who helped them reach today’s milestone.

    Photo: Gretchen Ertl

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    Okonjo-Iweala, who was formerly head of the World Bank, said that “a common thread running through many of these challenges is the central role for science,” and she stressed the need for technological innovation to address the global problems facing humanity. “New inventions and new ways of doing things will have an impact, mainly to the extent they are scaled up across the dividing lines of income and geography,” she said.

    “We don’t just need vaccines,” she continued. “We need shots in arms across the world, to be safe. We need new renewable technologies diffused not just in rich countries to fight climate change, but also in poor ones. We need new agricultural technologies built to local conditions and culture, if we’re to fight hunger. In other words, we need innovation. But we also need access, equity, diffusion.”

    In the case of the global response to the pandemic, she noted that only 17 percent of people in Africa and 13 percent of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated, compared to 75 percent of people in high income countries. “Since we all know that no one is safe until everyone is safe, the risk of more dangerous variants and pathogens remains real because of this public policy lapse and the lack of timely international cooperation,” she said.

    As for climate change, she pointed out that the world somehow managed to come up with $14 trillion to address the Covid-19 pandemic but has not managed to fulfill the pledges nations made to provide $100 billion to help less-developed nations build renewable energy solutions.

    To address these global challenges, she told the new graduates, “the world needs your smarts, your skills, your adaptability, and the great training you have received here at MIT. The world needs you for innovation, for policymaking, for connecting the dots so that implementation can actually happen.”

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    President Reif, in his charge to the graduates, urged the assembled crowd to shout out a loud “thank you!” to all family, professors, friends, and other who helped them reach today’s milestone. He pointed out that research, including from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, shows that “simply expressing gratitude does wonderful things to your brain. It gets different parts of your brain to act in a synchronized way. It lights up reward pathways!”

    “All of us could use a reliable device for feeling better. So now, thanks to brain science, Course 9, you have one! The Gratitude Amplifier is unbreakable. Its battery never dies, it will never try to sell you anything, you can use it every day, forever — and it’s free!”

    He recalled the example of the way students banded together to create a new space for relaxation on campus, now known as the Banana Lounge, a central location where students could relax with free coffee and bananas. “The students have done this all essentially themselves, applying their skills and the most delightful MIT values.” The project has already distributed a half-million bananas, he said, and produced a “wonderful, tropical, perfectly improbable new MIT institution.”

    He urged the graduating students to work to “make the world a little more like MIT. More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, inventive and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, more kind.” And, he added, “try always to share your bananas!”

    Adam Joseph “AJ” Miller, president of the Graduate Student Council, said, “Today marks the end of a chapter, the culmination of so many late nights, to forge lifelong friendships, to hold onto new experiences, to shape our dreams.” He added that “Something I heard a lot about when I first got here was all the doubt so many of us had in ourselves. I can say unequivocally today though, there are no impostors before me. Nobody sits where you sit by accident. You’re all now graduates of MIT, carrying on an incredibly impressive history.”

    Miller urged his fellow students to “stay confident in yourselves because of the challenges you’ve overcome. Be courageous in trying, because failure is learning and investing in each other.”

    Temiloluwa Omitoogun, president of the Class of 2022, told his classmates, “MIT is hard. MIT during an unprecedented pandemic is even harder, but we did it. Even if you don’t realize it, this is a huge accomplishment.” He added that “it’s sad that we’re all parting ways at the moment, but I’m even more excited than sad. I’m excited to see what more you all will accomplish. I look out and I don’t just see friends and classmates. I see future leaders, people who will change the world. I’m going to try my best to keep up and change the world too.”

    Later in the day, in a separate ceremony on Briggs Field, each of the members of the undergraduate Class of 2022 had a chance to hear their names read aloud as they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. Right before this presentation, senior and physics and mathematics major Quinn Brodsky performed a heartful rendition of “Hypotheticals” by Lake Street Dive.

    Addressing the graduating seniors, Chancellor Melissa Nobles urged them to “absorb and relish this celebration of what you’ve achieved during your transformative time at MIT. How much you have grown, academically, professionally and personally!” She added that “the lifelong friends and mentors you found here are the people who I know will continue to be sources of encouragement, support, and inspiration as you make your way in the world.”

    Recalling the way the pandemic altered their academic careers, she said “you should know now that you can handle whatever life throws your way. Never forget that you are stronger and more resilient than you think you are.” She added, “hold on to the way this pandemic has put certain things into perspective. Time with people we care about is precious. So are our health and wellbeing, and the health and wellbeing of the ones we love. Looking out for others and feeling a sense of shared responsibility for the common good are paramount.”

    Nobles concluded that “your journey into the future holds countless possibilities, risks, joys, rewards, sometimes failures, and always surprises. … We wish you well on the road ahead.” More

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    Solar-powered desalination device wins MIT $100K competition

    The winner of this year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition is commercializing a new water desalination technology.

    Nona Desalination says it has developed a device capable of producing enough drinking water for 10 people at half the cost and with 1/10th the power of other water desalination devices. The device is roughly the size and weight of a case of bottled water and is powered by a small solar panel.

    “Our mission is to make portable desalination sustainable and easy,” said Nona CEO and MIT MBA candidate Bruce Crawford in the winning pitch, delivered to an audience in the Kresge Auditorium and online.

    The traditional approach for water desalination relies on a power-intensive process called reverse osmosis. In contrast, Nona uses a technology developed in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics that removes salt and bacteria from seawater using an electrical current.

    “Because we can do all this at super low pressure, we don’t need the high-pressure pump [used in reverse osmosis], so we don’t need a lot of electricity,” says Crawford, who co-founded the company with MIT Research Scientist Junghyo Yoon. “Our device runs on less power than a cell phone charger.”

    The founders cited problems like tropical storms, drought, and infrastructure crises like the one in Flint, Michigan, to underscore that clean water access is not just a problem in developing countries. In Houston, after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in 2017, some residents were advised not to drink their tap water for months.

    The company has already developed a small prototype that produces clean drinking water. With its winnings, Nona will build more prototypes to give to early customers.

    The company plans to sell its first units to sailors before moving into the emergency preparedness space in the U.S., which it estimates to be a $5 billion industry. From there, it hopes to scale globally to help with disaster relief. The technology could also possibly be used for hydrogen production, oil and gas separation, and more.

    The MIT $100K is MIT’s largest entrepreneurship competition. It began in 1989 and is organized by students with support from the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the MIT Sloan School of Management. Each team must include at least one current MIT student.

    The second-place $25,000 prize went to Inclusive.ly, a company helping people and organizations create a more inclusive environment.

    The company uses conversational artificial intelligence and natural language processing to detect words and phrases that contain bias, and can measure the level of bias or inclusivity in communication.

    “We’re here to create a world where everyone feels invited to the conversation,” said MBA candidate Yeti Khim, who co-founded the company with fellow MBA candidates Joyce Chen and Priya Bhasin.

    Inclusive.ly can scan a range of communications and make suggestions for improvement. The algorithm can detect discrimination, microaggression, and condescension, and the founders say it analyzes language in a more nuanced way than tools like Grammarly.

    The company is currently developing a plugin for web browsers and is hoping to partner with large enterprise customers later this year. It will work with internal communications like emails as well as external communications like sales and marketing material.

    Inclusive.ly plans to sell to organizations on a subscription model and notes that diversity and inclusion is becoming a higher priority in many companies. Khim cited studies showing that lack of inclusion hinders employee productivity, retention, and recruiting.

    “We could all use a little bit of help to create the most inclusive version of ourselves,” Khim said.

    The third-place prize went to RTMicrofluidics, which is building at-home tests for a range of diseases including strep throat, tuberculosis, and mononucleosis. The test is able to detect a host of bacterial and viral pathogens in saliva and provide accurate test results in less than 30 minutes.

    The audience choice award went to Sparkle, which has developed a molecular dye technology that can illuminate tumors, making them easier to remove during surgery.

    This year’s $100K event was the culmination of a process that began last March, when 60 teams applied for the program. Out of that pool, 20 semifinalists were given additional mentoring and support before eight finalists were selected to pitch.

    The other finalist teams were:

    Astrahl, which is developing high resolution and affordable X-ray systems by integrating nanotechnologies with scintillators;

    Encreto Therapeutics, which is discovering medications to satiate appetite for people with obesity;

    Iridence, which has patented a biomaterial to replace minerals like mica as a way to make the beauty industry more sustainable; and

    Mantel, which is developing a liquid material for more efficient carbon removal that operates at high temperatures. More

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    MIT Climate “Plug-In” highlights first year of progress on MIT’s climate plan

    In a combined in-person and virtual event on Monday, members of the three working groups established last year under MIT’s “Fast Forward” climate action plan reported on the work they’ve been doing to meet the plan’s goals, including reaching zero direct carbon emissions by 2026.

    Introducing the session, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said that “many universities have climate plans that are inward facing, mostly focused on the direct impacts of their operations on greenhouse gas emissions. And that is really important, but ‘Fast Forward’ is different in that it’s also outward facing — it recognizes climate change as a global crisis.”

    That, she said, “commits us to an all-of-MIT effort to help the world solve the super wicked problem in practice.” That means “helping the world to go as far as it can, as fast as it can, to deploy currently available technologies and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” while also quickly developing new tools and approaches to deal with the most difficult areas of decarbonization, she said.

    Significant strides have been made in this first year, according to Zuber. The Climate Grand Challenges competition, announced last year as part of the plan, has just announced five flagship projects. “Each of these projects is potentially important in its own right, and is also exemplary of the kinds of bold thinking about climate solutions that the world needs,” she said.

    “We’ve also created new climate-focused institutions within MIT to improve accountability and transparency and to drive action,” Zuber said, including the Climate Nucleus, which comprises heads of labs and departments involved in climate-change work and is led by professors Noelle Selin and Anne White. The “Fast Forward” plan also established three working groups that report to the Climate Nucleus — on climate education, climate policy, and MIT’s carbon footprint — whose members spoke at Monday’s event.

    David McGee, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary science, co-director of MIT’s Terrascope program for first-year students, and co-chair of the education working group, said that over the last few years of Terrascope, “we’ve begun focusing much more explicitly on the experiences of, and the knowledge contained within, impacted communities … both for mitigation efforts and how they play out, and also adaptation.” Figuring out how to access the expertise of local communities “in a way that’s not extractive is a challenge that we face,” he added.

    Eduardo Rivera, managing director for MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) programs in several countries and a member of the education team, noted that about 1,000 undergraduates travel each year to work on climate and sustainability challenges. These include, for example, working with a lab in Peru assessing pollution in the Amazon, developing new insulation materials in Germany, developing affordable solar panels in China, working on carbon-capture technology in France or Israel, and many others, Rivera said. These are “unique opportunities to learn about the discipline, where the students can do hands-on work along with the professionals and the scientists in the front lines.” He added that MISTI has just launched a pilot project to help these students “to calculate their carbon footprint, to give them resources, and to understand individual responsibilities and collective responsibilities in this area.”

    Yujie Wang, a graduate student in architecture and an education working group member, said that during her studies she worked on a project focused on protecting biodiversity in Colombia, and also worked with a startup to reduce pesticide use in farming through digital monitoring. In Colombia, she said, she came to appreciate the value of interactions among researchers using satellite data, with local organizations, institutions and officials, to foster collaboration on solving common problems.

    The second panel addressed policy issues, as reflected by the climate policy working group. David Goldston, director of MIT’s Washington office, said “I think policy is totally central, in that for each part of the climate problem, you really can’t make progress without policy.” Part of that, he said, “involves government activities to help communities, and … to make sure the transition [involving the adoption of new technologies] is as equitable as possible.”

    Goldston said “a lot of the progress that’s been made already, whether it’s movement toward solar and wind energy and many other things, has been really prompted by government policy. I think sometimes people see it as a contest, should we be focusing on technology or policy, but I see them as two sides of the same coin. … You can’t get the technology you need into operation without policy tools, and the policy tools won’t have anything to work with unless technology is developed.”

    As for MIT, he said, “I think everybody at MIT who works on any aspect of climate change should be thinking about what’s the policy aspect of it, how could policy help them? How could they help policymakers? I think we need to coordinate better.” The Institute needs to be more strategic, he said, but “that doesn’t mean MIT advocating for specific policies. It means advocating for climate action and injecting a wide range of ideas into the policy arena.”

    Anushree Chaudhari, a student in economics and in urban studies and planning, said she has been learning about the power of negotiations in her work with Professor Larry Susskind. “What we’re currently working on is understanding why there are so many sources of local opposition to scaling renewable energy projects in the U.S.,” she explained. “Even though over 77 percent of the U.S. population actually is in support of renewables, and renewables are actually economically pretty feasible as their costs have come down in the last two decades, there’s still a huge social barrier to having them become the new norm,” she said. She emphasized that a fair and just energy transition will require listening to community stakeholders, including indigenous groups and low-income communities, and understanding why they may oppose utility-scale solar farms and wind farms.

    Joy Jackson, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, said that the implementation of research findings into policy at state, local, and national levels is a “very messy, nonlinear, sort of chaotic process.” One avenue for research to make its way into policy, she said, is through formal processes, such as congressional testimony. But a lot is also informal, as she learned while working as an intern in government offices, where she and her colleagues reached out to professors, researchers, and technical experts of various kinds while in the very early stages of policy development.

    “The good news,” she said, “is there’s a lot of touch points.”

    The third panel featured members of the working group studying ways to reduce MIT’s own carbon footprint. Julie Newman, head of MIT’s Office of Sustainability and co-chair of that group, summed up MIT’s progress toward its stated goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2026. “I can cautiously say we’re on track for that one,” she said. Despite headwinds in the solar industry due to supply chain issues, she said, “we’re well positioned” to meet that near-term target.

    As for working toward the 2050 target of eliminating all direct emissions, she said, it is “quite a challenge.” But under the leadership of Joe Higgins, the vice president for campus services and stewardship, MIT is implementing a number of measures, including deep energy retrofits, investments in high-performance buildings, an extremely efficient central utilities plant, and more.

    She added that MIT is particularly well-positioned in its thinking about scaling its solutions up. “A couple of years ago we approached a handful of local organizations, and over a couple of years have built a consortium to look at large-scale carbon reduction in the world. And it’s a brilliant partnership,” she said, noting that details are still being worked out and will be reported later.

    The work is challenging, because “MIT was built on coal, this campus was not built to get to zero carbon emissions.” Nevertheless, “we think we’re on track” to meet the ambitious goals of the Fast Forward plan, she said. “We’re going to have to have multiple pathways, because we may come to a pathway that may turn out not to be feasible.”

    Jay Dolan, head of facilities development at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, said that campus faces extra hurdles compared to the main MIT campus, as it occupies buildings that are owned and maintained by the U.S. Air Force, not MIT. They are still at the data-gathering stage to see what they can do to improve their emissions, he said, and a website they set up to solicit suggestions for reducing their emissions had received 70 suggestions within a few days, which are still being evaluated. “All that enthusiasm, along with the intelligence at the laboratory, is very promising,” he said.

    Peter Jacobson, a graduate student in Leaders for Global Operations, said that in his experience, projects that are most successful start not from a focus on the technology, but from collaborative efforts working with multiple stakeholders. “I think this is exactly why the Climate Nucleus and our working groups are so important here at MIT,” he said. “We need people tasked with thinking at this campus scale, figuring out what the needs and priorities of all the departments are and looking for those synergies, and aligning those needs across both internal and external stakeholders.”

    But, he added, “MIT’s complexity and scale of operations definitely poses unique challenges. Advanced research is energy hungry, and in many cases we don’t have the technology to decarbonize those research processes yet. And we have buildings of varying ages with varying stages of investment.” In addition, MIT has “a lot of people that it needs to feed, and that need to travel and commute, so that poses additional and different challenges.”

    Asked what individuals can do to help MIT in this process, Newman said, “Begin to leverage and figure out how you connect your research to informing our thinking on campus. We have channels for that.”

    Noelle Selin, co-chair of MIT’s climate nucleus and moderator of the third panel, said in conclusion “we’re really looking for your input into all of these working groups and all of these efforts. This is a whole of campus effort. It’s a whole of world effort to address the climate challenge. So, please get in touch and use this as a call to action.” More

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    Material designed to improve power plant efficiency wins 2022 Water Innovation Prize

    The winner of this year’s Water Innovation Prize is a company commercializing a material that could dramatically improve the efficiency of power plants.

    The company, Mesophase, is developing a more efficient power plant steam condenser that leverages a surface coating developed in the lab of Evelyn Wang, MIT’s Ford Professor of Engineering and the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Such condensers, which convert steam into water, sit at the heart of the energy extraction process in most of the world’s power plants.

    In the winning pitch, company founders said they believe their low-cost, durable coating will improve the heat transfer performance of such condensers.

    “What makes us excited about this technology is that in the condenser field, this is the first time we’ve seen a coating that can last long enough for industrial applications and be made with a high potential to scale up,” said Yajing Zhao SM ’18, who is currently a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT. “When compared to what’s available in academia and industry, we believe you’ll see record performance in terms of both heat transfer and lifetime.”

    In most power plants, condensers cool steam to turn it into water. The pressure change caused by that conversion creates a vacuum that pulls steam through a turbine. Mesophase’s patent-pending surface coating improves condensers’ ability to transfer heat, thus allowing operators to extract power more efficiently.

    Based on lab tests, the company predicts it can increase power plant output by up to 7 percent using existing infrastructure. Because steam condensers are used around the world, this advance could help increase global electricity production by 500 terawatt hours per year, which is equivalent to the electricity supply for about 1 billion people.

    The efficiency gains will also lead to less water use. Water sent from cooling towers is a common means of keeping condensers cool. The company estimates its system could reduce fresh water withdrawals by the equivalent of what is used by 50 million people per year.

    After running pilots, the company believes the new material could be installed in power plants during the regularly scheduled maintenance that occurs every two to five years. The company is also planning to work with existing condenser manufacturers to get to market faster.

    “This all works because a condenser with our technology in it has significantly more attractive economics than what you find in the market today,” says Mesophase’s Michael Gangemi, an MBA candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

    The company plans to start in the U.S. geothermal space, where Mesophase estimates its technology is worth about $800 million a year.

    “Much of the geothermal capacity in the U.S. was built in the ’50s and ’60s,” Gangemi said. “That means most of these plants are operating way below capacity, and they invest frequently in technology like ours just to maintain their power output.”

    The company will use the prize money, in part, to begin testing in a real power plant environment.

    “We are excited about these developments, but we know that they are only first steps as we move toward broader energy applications,” Gangemi said.

    MIT’s Water Innovation Prize helps translate water-related research and ideas into businesses and impact. Each year, student-led finalist teams pitch their innovations to students, faculty, investors, and people working in various water-related industries.

    This year’s event, held in a virtual hybrid format in MIT’s Media Lab, included five finalist teams. The second-place $15,000 award was given to Livingwater Systems, which provides portable rainwater collection and filtration systems to displaced and off-grid communities.

    The company’s product consists of a low-cost mesh that goes on roofs to collect the water and a collapsible storage unit that incorporates a sediment filter. The water becomes drinkable after applying chlorine tablets to the storage unit.

    “Perhaps the single greatest attraction of our units is their elegance and simplicity,” Livingwater CEO Joshua Kao said in the company’s pitch. “Anyone can take advantage of their easy, do-it-yourself setup without any preexisting knowhow.”

    The company says the system works on the pitched roofs used in many off-grid settlements, refugee camps, and slums. The entire unit fits inside a backpack.

    The team also notes existing collection systems cost thousands of dollars, require expert installation, and can’t be attached to surfaces like tents. Livingwater is aiming to partner with nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit entities to sell its systems for $60 each, which would represent significant cost savings when compared to alternatives like busing water into settlements.

    The company will be running a paid pilot with the World Food Program this fall.

    “Support from MIT will be crucial for building the core team on the ground,” said Livingwater’s Gabriela Saade, a master’s student in public policy at the University of Chicago. “Let’s begin to realize a new era of water security in Latin America and across the globe.”

    The third-place $10,000 prize went to Algeon Materials, which is creating sustainable and environmentally friendly bioplastics from kelp. Algeon also won the $5,000 audience choice award for its system, which doesn’t require water, fertilizer, or land to produce.

    The other finalists were:

    Flowless, which uses artificial intelligence and an internet of things (IoT) platform to detect leaks and optimize water-related processes to reduce waste;
    Hydrologistics Africa Ltd, a platform to help consumers and utilities manage their water consumption; and
    Watabot, which is developing autonomous, artificial intelligence-powered systems to monitor harmful algae in real time and predict algae activity.

    Each year the Water Innovation Prize, hosted by the MIT Water Club, awards up to $50,000 in grants to teams from around the world. This year’s program received over 50 applications. A group of 20 semifinalist teams spent one month working with mentors to refine their pitches and business plans, and the final field of finalists received another month of mentorship.

    The Water Innovation Prize started in 2015 and has awarded more than $275,000 to 24 different teams to date. More

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    Surface coating designed to improve power plant efficiency wins 2022 Water Innovation Prize

    The winner of this year’s Water Innovation Prize is a company commercializing a material that could dramatically improve the efficiency of power plants.

    The company, Mesophase, is developing a more efficient power plant steam condenser that leverages a surface coating developed in the lab of Evelyn Wang, MIT’s Ford Professor of Engineering and the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Such condensers, which convert steam into water, sit at the heart of the energy extraction process in most of the world’s power plants.

    In the winning pitch, company founders said they believe their low-cost, durable coating will improve the heat transfer performance of such condensers.

    “What makes us excited about this technology is that in the condenser field, this is the first time we’ve seen a coating that can last long enough for industrial applications and be made with a high potential to scale up,” said Yajing Zhao SM ’18, who is currently a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT. “When compared to what’s available in academia and industry, we believe you’ll see record performance in terms of both heat transfer and lifetime.”

    In most power plants, condensers cool steam to turn it into water. The pressure change caused by that conversion creates a vacuum that pulls steam through a turbine. Mesophase’s patent-pending surface coating improves condensers’ ability to transfer heat, thus allowing operators to extract power more efficiently.

    Based on lab tests, the company predicts it can increase power plant output by up to 7 percent using existing infrastructure. Because steam condensers are used around the world, this advance could help increase global electricity production by 500 terawatt hours per year, which is equivalent to the electricity supply for about 1 billion people.

    The efficiency gains will also lead to less water use. Water sent from cooling towers is a common means of keeping condensers cool. The company estimates its system could reduce fresh water withdrawals by the equivalent of what is used by 50 million people per year.

    After running pilots, the company believes the new material could be installed in power plants during the regularly scheduled maintenance that occurs every two to five years. The company is also planning to work with existing condenser manufacturers to get to market faster.

    “This all works because a condenser with our technology in it has significantly more attractive economics than what you find in the market today,” says Mesophase’s Michael Gangemi, an MBA candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

    The company plans to start in the U.S. geothermal space, where Mesophase estimates its technology is worth about $800 million a year.

    “Much of the geothermal capacity in the U.S. was built in the ’50s and ’60s,” Gangemi said. “That means most of these plants are operating way below capacity, and they invest frequently in technology like ours just to maintain their power output.”

    The company will use the prize money, in part, to begin testing in a real power plant environment.

    “We are excited about these developments, but we know that they are only first steps as we move toward broader energy applications,” Gangemi said.

    MIT’s Water Innovation Prize helps translate water-related research and ideas into businesses and impact. Each year, student-led finalist teams pitch their innovations to students, faculty, investors, and people working in various water-related industries.

    This year’s event, held in a virtual hybrid format in MIT’s Media Lab, included five finalist teams. The second-place $15,000 award was given to Livingwater Systems, which provides portable rainwater collection and filtration systems to displaced and off-grid communities.

    The company’s product consists of a low-cost mesh that goes on roofs to collect the water and a collapsible storage unit that incorporates a sediment filter. The water becomes drinkable after applying chlorine tablets to the storage unit.

    “Perhaps the single greatest attraction of our units is their elegance and simplicity,” Livingwater CEO Joshua Kao said in the company’s pitch. “Anyone can take advantage of their easy, do-it-yourself setup without any preexisting knowhow.”

    The company says the system works on the pitched roofs used in many off-grid settlements, refugee camps, and slums. The entire unit fits inside a backpack.

    The team also notes existing collection systems cost thousands of dollars, require expert installation, and can’t be attached to surfaces like tents. Livingwater is aiming to partner with nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit entities to sell its systems for $60 each, which would represent significant cost savings when compared to alternatives like busing water into settlements.

    The company will be running a paid pilot with the World Food Program this fall.

    “Support from MIT will be crucial for building the core team on the ground,” said Livingwater’s Gabriela Saade, a master’s student in public policy at the University of Chicago. “Let’s begin to realize a new era of water security in Latin America and across the globe.”

    The third-place $10,000 prize went to Algeon Materials, which is creating sustainable and environmentally friendly bioplastics from kelp. Algeon also won the $5,000 audience choice award for its system, which doesn’t require water, fertilizer, or land to produce.

    The other finalists were:

    Flowless, which uses artificial intelligence and an internet of things (IoT) platform to detect leaks and optimize water-related processes to reduce waste;
    Hydrologistics Africa Ltd, a platform to help consumers and utilities manage their water consumption; and
    Watabot, which is developing autonomous, artificial intelligence-powered systems to monitor harmful algae in real time and predict algae activity.

    Each year the Water Innovation Prize, hosted by the MIT Water Club, awards up to $50,000 in grants to teams from around the world. This year’s program received over 50 applications. A group of 20 semifinalist teams spent one month working with mentors to refine their pitches and business plans, and the final field of finalists received another month of mentorship.

    The Water Innovation Prize started in 2015 and has awarded more than $275,000 to 24 different teams to date. More

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    Five MIT PhD students awarded 2022 J-WAFS fellowships for water and food solutions

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) recently announced the selection of its 2022-23 cohort of graduate fellows. Two students were named Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellows for Water Solutions and three students were named J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellows. All five fellows will receive full tuition and a stipend for one semester, and J-WAFS will support the students throughout the 2022-23 academic year by providing networking, mentorship, and opportunities to showcase their research.

    New this year, fellowship nominations were open not only to students pursuing water research, but food-related research as well. The five students selected were chosen for their commitment to solutions-based research that aims to alleviate problems such as water supply or purification, food security, or agriculture. Their projects exemplify the wide range of research that J-WAFS supports, from enhancing nutrition through improved methods to deliver micronutrients to developing high-performance drip irrigation technology. The strong applicant pool reflects the passion MIT students have to address the water and food crises currently facing the planet.

    “This year’s fellows are drawn from a dynamic and engaged community across the Institute whose creativity and ingenuity are pushing forward transformational water and food solutions,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “We congratulate these students as we recognize their outstanding achievements and their promise as up-and-coming leaders in global water and food sectors.”

    2022-23 Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellows for Water SolutionsThe Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions is a fellowship for students pursuing water-related research at MIT. The Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions was made possible by a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family.

    Aditya Ghodgaonkar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where he works in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab under Professor Amos Winter. Ghodgaonkar received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the RV College of Engineering in India. He then moved to the United States and received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University.Ghodgaonkar is currently designing hydraulic components for drip irrigation that could support the development of water-efficient irrigation systems that are off-grid, inexpensive, and low-maintenance. He has focused on designing drip irrigation emitters that are resistant to clogging, seeking inspiration about flow regulation from marine fauna such as manta rays, as well as turbomachinery concepts. Ghodgaonkar notes that clogging is currently an expensive technical challenge to diagnose, mitigate, and resolve. With an eye on hundreds of millions of farms in developing countries, he aims to bring the benefits of irrigation technology to even the poorest farmers.Outside of his research, Ghodgaonkar is a mentor in MIT Makerworks and has been a teaching assistant for classes such as 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I). He also helped organize the annual MIT Water Summit last fall.

    Devashish Gokhale is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, where he researched fluid flow in energy-efficient pumps. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stemmed from his experience growing up in India, where water sources are threatened by population growth, industrialization, and climate change.As a researcher in the Doyle group, Devashish is developing sustainable and reusable materials for water treatment, with a focus on the elimination of emerging contaminants and other micropollutants from water through cost-effective processes. Many of these contaminants are carcinogens or endocrine disruptors, posing significant threats to both humans and animals. His advisor notes that Devashish was the first researcher in the Doyle group to work on water purification, bringing his passion for the topic to the lab.Gokhale’s research won an award for potential scalability in last year’s J-WAFS World Water Day competition. He also serves as the lecture series chair in the MIT Water Club.

    2022-23 J-WAFS Graduate Student FellowsThe J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions is funded by the J-WAFS Research Affiliate Program, which offers companies the opportunity to collaborate with MIT on water and food research. A portion of each research affiliate’s fees supports this fellowship. The program is central to J-WAFS’ efforts to engage across sector and disciplinary boundaries in solving real-world problems. Currently, there are two J-WAFS Research Affiliates: Xylem, Inc., a water technology company, and GoAigua, a company leading the digital transformation of the water industry.

    James Zhang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where he has worked in the NanoEngineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen since 2019. As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, he double majored in mechanical engineering and engineering public policy. He then received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. In addition to working in the NanoEngineering Laboratory, James has also worked in the Zhao Laboratory and in the Boriskina Research Group at MIT.Zhang is developing a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light interacts with brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical as well as experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in desalinating brackish water at high energy efficiencies. Outside of his research, Zhang has served as a student moderator for the MIT International Colloquia on Thermal Innovations.

    Katharina Fransen is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Bradley Olsen in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, where she was involved in the Society of Women Engineers. Fransen is motivated by the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable global communities from the large quantities of plastic waste associated with traditional food packaging materials. As a researcher in the Olsen Lab, Fransen is developing new plastics that are biologically-based and biodegradable, so they can degrade in the environment instead of polluting communities with plastic waste. These polymers are also optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresher for longer, preventing food waste.Outside of her research, Fransen is involved in Diversity in Chemical Engineering as the coordinator for the graduate application mentorship program for underrepresented groups. She is also an active member of Graduate Womxn in ChemE and mentors an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program student.

    Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Robert Langer and Ana Jaklenec in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she researched how to genetically engineer microorganisms for the efficient production of advanced biofuels and chemicals.Zhang is currently developing a micronutrient delivery platform that fortifies foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. She has helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers that can stabilize micronutrients under harsh conditions, enabling local food companies to fortify food with essential vitamins. This work aims to tackle a hidden crisis in low- and middle-income countries, where a chronic lack of essential micronutrients affects an estimated 2 billion people.Zhang is also working on the development of self-boosting vaccines to promote more widespread vaccine access and serves as a research mentor in the Langer Lab. More

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    A community approach to improving the health of the planet

    Earlier this month, MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) hosted a Health of the Planet Showcase. The event was the culmination of a four-year long community initiative to focus on what the mechanical engineering community at MIT can do to solve some of the biggest challenges the planet faces on a local and global scale. Structured like an informal poster session, the event marked the first time that administrative staff joined students, researchers, and postdocs in sharing their own research.

    When Evelyn Wang started her tenure as mechanical engineering department head in July 2018, she and associate department heads Pierre Lermusiaux and Rohit Karnik made the health of the planet a top priority for the department. Their goal was to bring students, faculty, and staff together to develop solutions that address the many problems related to the health of the planet.

    “As a field, mechanical engineering is unique in its diversity,” says Wang, the Ford Professor of Engineering. “We have researchers who are world-leading experts on desalination, ocean engineering, energy storage, and photovoltaics, just to name a few. One of our driving motivations has been getting those experts to collaborate and work on new health of the planet research projects together.”

    Wang also saw an opportunity to tap into the passions of the department’s students and staff, many of whom devote their extracurricular and personal time to environmental causes. She enlisted the help of a team of faculty and staff to launch what has become known as the MechE Health of the Planet Initiative.

    The initiative, which capitalizes on the diverse range of research fields in mechanical engineering, encouraged both grand research ideas that could have impact on a global scale, and smaller personal habits that could help on a smaller scale.

    “We wanted to encourage everyone in our community to think about their daily routine and make small changes that really add up over time,” says Dorothy Hanna, program administrator at MIT and one of the staff members leading the initiative.

    The Health of the Planet team started small. They hosted an office supply swap day to encourage recycling and reuse of everyday office products. This idea expanded to include the launch of “Lab Reuse Days.” Members of the Rohsenow Kendall Lab, including members of the research groups of professors Gang Chen, John Lienhard, and Evelyn Wang, gathered extra materials for reuse. Researchers from other labs picked up Arduino kits, tubing, and electrical wiring to use for their own projects.

    While individuals were encouraged to adopt small habits at home and at work to help the health of the planet, research teams were encouraged to work together on solutions on a larger scale.

    Seed funding for collaborative research

    In early 2020, the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering launched a new collaborative seed research program based on funding from MathWorks, the computing software company that developed MATLAB. The first seed funding supported health of the planet research projects led by two or more mechanical engineering faculty members.

    “One of the driving goals of MechE has been fostering collaborations and supporting interdisciplinary research on the grand challenges our world faces,” says Pierre Lermusiaux, the Nam P. Suh Professor and associate department head for operations. “The seed funding from MathWorks was a great opportunity to build upon the diverse expertise and creativity our researchers have to address health of the planet related issues.” 

    The research projects supported by the seed funding ranged from lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles to high-performance household energy products for low- and middle-income countries. Each project differs in scope and application, and draws upon the expertise of at least two different research groups at MIT.

    Throughout the past two years, faculty presented about these research projects in several community seminars. They also participated in a full-day faculty research retreat focused on health of the planet research that included presentations from local Cambridge and Boston city leaders, as well as experts from other MIT departments and Harvard University.

    These projects have helped break down barriers and increased collaboration among research groups that focus on different areas. The third round of seed funding for collaborative research projects was recently announced and new projects will be chosen in the coming weeks.

    A community showcase

    Upon returning to the campus last fall, the Health of the Planet team began planning an event to bring the community together and celebrate the department’s research efforts. The Health of the Planet Showcase, which took place on April 4, featured 26 presenters from across the mechanical engineering community at MIT.

    Projects included a marine coastal monitoring robot, solar hydrogen production with thermochemical cycles, and a portable atmospheric water extractor for dry climates. Among the presenters was Administrative Assistant Tony Pulsone, who presented on how honeybees navigate their surroundings, as well as program manager Theresa Werth and program administrator Dorothy Hanna, who presented on reducing bottled water use and practical strategies developed by staff to overcome functional barriers on campus.

    The event concluded with the announcement of the Fay and Alfred D. Chandler Jr. Research Fellowship, awarded to a MechE student-led effort to propose a new paradigm to improve the health of our planet. Graduate student Charlene Xia won for her work developing a real-time opto-fluidics system for monitoring the soil microbiome.

    “The soil microbiome governs the biogeochemical cycling of macronutrients, micronutrients, and other elements vital for the growth of plants and animal life,” Xia said. “Understanding and predicting the impact of climate change on soil microbiomes and the ecosystem services they provide present a grand challenge and major opportunity.”

    The Chandler Fellowship will continue during the 2022-23 academic year, when another student-led project will be chosen. The department also hopes to make the Health of the Planet Showcase an annual gathering.

    “The showcase was such a vibrant event,” adds Wang. “It really energized the department and renewed our commitment to growing community efforts and continuing to advance research to help improve and protect the health of our planet.” More