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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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    Letting the Earth answer back: Designing better planetary conversations

    For Chen Chu MArch ’21, the invitation to join the 2023-24 cohort of Morningside Academy for Design Design Fellows has been an unparalleled opportunity to investigate the potential of design as an alternative method of problem-solving.

    After earning a master’s degree in architecture at MIT and gaining professional experience as a researcher at an environmental nongovernmental organization, Chu decided to pursue a PhD in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “I discovered that I needed to engage in a deeper way with the most difficult ethical challenges of our time, especially those arising from the fact of climate change,” he explains. “For me, MIT has always represented this wonderful place where people are inherently intellectually curious — it’s a very rewarding community to be part of.”

    Chu’s PhD research, guided by his doctoral advisor Delia Wendel, assistant professor of urban studies and international development, focuses on how traditional practices of floodplain agriculture can inform local and global strategies for sustainable food production and distribution in response to climate change. 

    Typically located alongside a river or stream, floodplains arise from seasonal flooding patterns that distribute nutrient-rich silt and create connectivity between species. This results in exceptionally high levels of biodiversity and microbial richness, generating the ideal conditions for agriculture. It’s no accident that the first human civilizations were founded on floodplains, including Mesopotamia (named for its location poised between two rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris), the Indus River Civilization, and the cultures of Ancient Egypt based around the Nile. Riverine transportation networks and predictable flooding rhythms provide a framework for trade and cultivation; nonetheless, floodplain communities must learn to live with risk, subject to the sudden disruptions of high waters, drought, and ecological disequilibrium. 

    For Chu, the “unstable and ungovernable” status of floodplains makes them fertile ground for thinking about. “I’m drawn to these so-called ‘wet landscapes’ — edge conditions that act as transitional spaces between land and water, between humans and nature, between city and river,” he reflects. “The development of extensively irrigated agricultural sites is typically a collective effort, which raises intriguing questions about how communities establish social organizations that simultaneously negotiate top-down state control and adapt to the uncertainty of nature.”

    Chu is in the process of honing the focus of his dissertation and refining his data collection methods, which will include archival research and fieldwork, as well as interviews with floodplain inhabitants to gain an understanding of sociopolitical nuances. Meanwhile, his role as a design fellow gives him the space to address the big questions that fire his imagination. How can we live well on shared land? How can we take responsibility for the lives of future generations? What types of political structures are required to get everyone on board? 

    These are just a few of the questions that Chu recently put to his cohort in a presentation. During the weekly seminars for the fellowship, he has the chance to converse with peers and mentors of multiple disciplines — from researchers rethinking the pedagogy of design to entrepreneurs applying design thinking to new business models to architects and engineers developing new habitats to heal our relationship with the natural world. 

    “I’ll admit — I’m wary of the human instinct to problem-solve,” says Chu. “When it comes to the material conditions and lived experience of people and planet, there’s a limit to our economic and political reasoning, and to conventional architectural practice. That said, I do believe that the mindset of a designer can open up new ways of thinking. At its core, design is an interdisciplinary practice based on the understanding that a problem can’t be solved from a narrow, singular perspective.” 

    The stimulating structure of a MAD Fellowship — free from immediate obligations to publish or produce, fellows learn from one another and engage with visiting speakers via regular seminars and events — has prompted Chu to consider what truly makes for generative conversation in the contexts of academia and the private and public sectors. In his opinion, discussions around climate change often fail to take account of one important voice; an absence he describes as “that silent being, the Earth.”

    “You can’t ask the Earth, ‘What does justice mean to you?’ Nature will not respond,” he reflects. To bridge the gap, Chu believes it’s important to combine the study of specific political and social conditions with broader existential questions raised by the environmental humanities. His own research draws upon the perspectives of thinkers including Dipesh Chakrabarty, Donna Haraway, Peter Singer,  Anna Tsing, and Michael Watts, among others. He cites James C. Scott’s lecture “In Praise of Floods” as one of his most important influences.

    In addition to his instinctive appreciation for theory, Chu’s outlook is grounded by an attention to innovation at the local level. He is currently establishing the parameters of his research, examining case studies of agricultural systems and flood mitigation strategies that have been sustained for centuries. 

    “One example is the polder system that is practiced in the Netherlands, China, Bangladesh, and many parts of the world: small, low-lying tracts of land submerged in water and surrounded by dykes and canals,” he explains. “You’ll find a different but comparable strategy in the colder regions of Japan. Crops are protected from the winter winds by constructing a spatial unit with the house at the center; trees behind the house serve as windbreakers and paddy fields for rice are located in front of the house, providing an integrated system of food and livelihood security.”

    Chu observes that there is a tendency for international policymakers to overlook local solutions in favor of grander visions and ambitious climate pledges — but he is equally keen not to romanticize vernacular practices. “Realistically, it’s always a two-way interaction. Unless you already have a workable local system in place, it’s difficult to implement a solution without top-down support. On the other hand, the large-scale technocratic dreams are empty if ignorant of local traditions and histories.” 

    By navigating between the global and the local, the theoretical and the practical, the visionary and the cautionary, Chu has hope in the possibility of gradually finding a way toward long-term solutions that adapt to specific conditions over time. It’s a model of ambition and criticality that Chu sees played out during dialogue at MAD and within his department; at root, he’s aware that the outcome of these conversations depends on the ethical context that shapes them.

    “I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors who have taught me the power of humility; a respect for the finitude, fragility,  and uncertainty of life,” he recalls. “It’s a mindset that’s barely apparent in today’s push for economic growth.” The flip-side of hubristic growth is an assumption that technological ingenuity will be enough to solve the climate crisis, but Chu’s optimism arises from a different source: “When I feel overwhelmed by the weight of the problems we’re facing, I just need to look around me,” he says. “Here on campus — at MAD, in my home department, and increasingly among the new generations of students — there’s a powerful ethos of political sensitivity, ethical compassion, and an attention to clear and critical judgment. That always gives me hope for the planet.” More

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    Moving past the Iron Age

    MIT graduate student Sydney Rose Johnson has never seen the steel mills in central India. She’s never toured the American Midwest’s hulking steel plants or the mini mills dotting the Mississippi River. But in the past year, she’s become more familiar with steel production than she ever imagined.

    A fourth-year dual degree MBA and PhD candidate in chemical engineering and a graduate research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) as well as a 2022-23 Shell Energy Fellow, Johnson looks at ways to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated by industrial processes in hard-to-abate industries. Those include steel.

    Almost every aspect of infrastructure and transportation — buildings, bridges, cars, trains, mass transit — contains steel. The manufacture of steel hasn’t changed much since the Iron Age, with some steel plants in the United States and India operating almost continually for more than a century, their massive blast furnaces re-lined periodically with carbon and graphite to keep them going.

    According to the World Economic Forum, steel demand is projected to increase 30 percent by 2050, spurred in part by population growth and economic development in China, India, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

    The steel industry is among the three biggest producers of CO2 worldwide. Every ton of steel produced in 2020 emitted, on average, 1.89 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — around 8 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to the World Steel Association.

    A combination of technical strategies and financial investments, Johnson notes, will be needed to wrestle that 8 percent figure down to something more planet-friendly.

    Johnson’s thesis focuses on modeling and analyzing ways to decarbonize steel. Using data mined from academic and industry sources, she builds models to calculate emissions, costs, and energy consumption for plant-level production.

    “I optimize steel production pathways using emission goals, industry commitments, and cost,” she says. Based on the projected growth of India’s steel industry, she applies this approach to case studies that predict outcomes for some of the country’s thousand-plus factories, which together have a production capacity of 154 million metric tons of steel. For the United States, she looks at the effect of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) credits. The 2022 IRA provides incentives that could accelerate the steel industry’s efforts to minimize its carbon emissions.

    Johnson compares emissions and costs across different production pathways, asking questions such as: “If we start today, what would a cost-optimal production scenario look like years from now? How would it change if we added in credits? What would have to happen to cut 2005 levels of emissions in half by 2030?”

    “My goal is to gain an understanding of how current and emerging decarbonization strategies will be integrated into the industry,” Johnson says.

    Grappling with industrial problems

    Growing up in Marietta, Georgia, outside Atlanta, the closest she ever came to a plant of any kind was through her father, a chemical engineer working in logistics and procuring steel for an aerospace company, and during high school, when she spent a semester working alongside chemical engineers tweaking the pH of an anti-foaming agent.

    At Kennesaw Mountain High School, a STEM magnet program in Cobb County, students devote an entire semester of their senior year to an internship and research project.

    Johnson chose to work at Kemira Chemicals, which develops chemical solutions for water-intensive industries with a focus on pulp and paper, water treatment, and energy systems.

    “My goal was to understand why a polymer product was falling out of suspension — essentially, why it was less stable,” she recalls. She learned how to formulate a lab-scale version of the product and conduct tests to measure its viscosity and acidity. Comparing the lab-scale and regular product results revealed that acidity was an important factor. “Through conversations with my mentor, I learned this was connected with the holding conditions, which led to the product being oxidized,” she says. With the anti-foaming agent’s problem identified, steps could be taken to fix it.

    “I learned how to apply problem-solving. I got to learn more about working in an industrial environment by connecting with the team in quality control as well as with R&D and chemical engineers at the plant site,” Johnson says. “This experience confirmed I wanted to pursue engineering in college.”

    As an undergraduate at Stanford University, she learned about the different fields — biotechnology, environmental science, electrochemistry, and energy, among others — open to chemical engineers. “It seemed like a very diverse field and application range,” she says. “I was just so intrigued by the different things I saw people doing and all these different sets of issues.”

    Turning up the heat

    At MIT, she turned her attention to how certain industries can offset their detrimental effects on climate.

    “I’m interested in the impact of technology on global communities, the environment, and policy. Energy applications affect every field. My goal as a chemical engineer is to have a broad perspective on problem-solving and to find solutions that benefit as many people, especially those under-resourced, as possible,” says Johnson, who has served on the MIT Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Advisory Board, the MIT Energy and Climate Club, and is involved with diversity and inclusion initiatives.

    The steel industry, Johnson acknowledges, is not what she first imagined when she saw herself working toward mitigating climate change.

    “But now, understanding the role the material has in infrastructure development, combined with its heavy use of coal, has illuminated how the sector, along with other hard-to-abate industries, is important in the climate change conversation,” Johnson says.

    Despite the advanced age of many steel mills, some are quite energy-efficient, she notes. Yet these operations, which produce heat upwards of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, are still emission-intensive.

    Steel is made from iron ore, a mixture of iron, oxygen, and other minerals found on virtually every continent, with Brazil and Australia alone exporting millions of metric tons per year. Commonly based on a process dating back to the 19th century, iron is extracted from the ore through smelting — heating the ore with blast furnaces until the metal becomes spongy and its chemical components begin to break down.

    A reducing agent is needed to release the oxygen trapped in the ore, transforming it from its raw form to pure iron. That’s where most emissions come from, Johnson notes.

    “We want to reduce emissions, and we want to make a cleaner and safer environment for everyone,” she says. “It’s not just the CO2 emissions. It’s also sometimes NOx and SOx [nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides] and air pollution particulate matter at some of these production facilities that can affect people as well.”

    In 2020, the International Energy Agency released a roadmap exploring potential technologies and strategies that would make the iron and steel sector more compatible with the agency’s vision of increased sustainability. Emission reductions can be accomplished with more modern technology, the agency suggests, or by substituting the fuels producing the immense heat needed to process ore. Traditionally, the fuels used for iron reduction have been coal and natural gas. Alternative fuels include clean hydrogen, electricity, and biomass.

    Using the MITEI Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME), Johnson analyzes various decarbonization strategies. She considers options such as switching fuel for furnaces to hydrogen with a little bit of natural gas or adding carbon-capture devices. The models demonstrate how effective these tactics are likely to be. The answers aren’t always encouraging.

    “Upstream emissions can determine how effective the strategies are,” Johnson says. Charcoal derived from forestry biomass seemed to be a promising alternative fuel, but her models showed that processing the charcoal for use in the blast furnace limited its effectiveness in negating emissions.

    Despite the challenges, “there are definitely ways of moving forward,” Johnson says. “It’s been an intriguing journey in terms of understanding where the industry is at. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s doable.”

    Johnson is heartened by the steel industry’s efforts to recycle scrap into new steel products and incorporate more emission-friendly technologies and practices, some of which result in significantly lower CO2 emissions than conventional production.

    A major issue is that low-carbon steel can be more than 50 percent more costly than conventionally produced steel. “There are costs associated with making the transition, but in the context of the environmental implications, I think it’s well worth it to adopt these technologies,” she says.

    After graduation, Johnson plans to continue to work in the energy field. “I definitely want to use a combination of engineering knowledge and business knowledge to work toward mitigating climate change, potentially in the startup space with clean technology or even in a policy context,” she says. “I’m interested in connecting the private and public sectors to implement measures for improving our environment and benefiting as many people as possible.” More

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    Gosha Geogdzhayev and Sadhana Lolla named 2024 Gates Cambridge Scholars

    This article was updated on April 23 to reflect the promotion of Gosha Geogdzhayev from alternate to winner of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

    MIT seniors Gosha Geogdzhayev and Sadhana Lolla have won the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which offers students an opportunity to pursue graduate study in the field of their choice at Cambridge University in the U.K.

    Established in 2000, Gates Cambridge offers full-cost post-graduate scholarships to outstanding applicants from countries outside of the U.K. The mission of Gates Cambridge is to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.

    Gosha Geogdzhayev

    Originally from New York City, Geogdzhayev is a senior majoring in physics with minors in mathematics and computer science. At Cambridge, Geogdzhayev intends to pursue an MPhil in quantitative climate and environmental science. He is interested in applying these subjects to climate science and intends to spend his career developing novel statistical methods for climate prediction.

    At MIT, Geogdzhayev researches climate emulators with Professor Raffaele Ferrari’s group in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and is part of the “Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge” Grand Challenges project. He is currently working on an operator-based emulator for the projection of climate extremes. Previously, Geogdzhayev studied the statistics of changing chaotic systems, work that has recently been published as a first-author paper.

    As a recipient of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) Hollings Scholarship, Geogdzhayev has worked on bias correction methods for climate data at the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. He is the recipient of several other awards in the field of earth and atmospheric sciences, notably the American Meteorological Society Ward and Eileen Seguin Scholarship.

    Outside of research, Geogdzhayev enjoys writing poetry and is actively involved with his living community, Burton 1, for which he has previously served as floor chair.

    Sadhana Lolla

    Lolla, a senior from Clarksburg, Maryland, is majoring in computer science and minoring in mathematics and literature. At Cambridge, she will pursue an MPhil in technology policy.

    In the future, Lolla aims to lead conversations on deploying and developing technology for marginalized communities, such as the rural Indian village that her family calls home, while also conducting research in embodied intelligence.

    At MIT, Lolla conducts research on safe and trustworthy robotics and deep learning at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory with Professor Daniela Rus. Her research has spanned debiasing strategies for autonomous vehicles and accelerating robotic design processes. At Microsoft Research and Themis AI, she works on creating uncertainty-aware frameworks for deep learning, which has impacts across computational biology, language modeling, and robotics. She has presented her work at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) conference and the International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML). 

    Outside of research, Lolla leads initiatives to make computer science education more accessible globally. She is an instructor for class 6.s191 (MIT Introduction to Deep Learning), one of the largest AI courses in the world, which reaches millions of students annually. She serves as the curriculum lead for Momentum AI, the only U.S. program that teaches AI to underserved students for free, and she has taught hundreds of students in Northern Scotland as part of the MIT Global Teaching Labs program.

    Lolla was also the director for xFair, MIT’s largest student-run career fair, and is an executive board member for Next Sing, where she works to make a cappella more accessible for students across musical backgrounds. In her free time, she enjoys singing, solving crossword puzzles, and baking. More

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    Anushree Chaudhuri: Involving local communities in renewable energy planning

    Anushree Chaudhuri has a history of making bold decisions. In fifth grade, she biked across her home state of California with little prior experience. In her first year at MIT, she advocated for student recommendations in the preparation of the Institute’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade. And recently, she led a field research project throughout California to document the perspectives of rural and Indigenous populations affected by climate change and clean energy projects.

    “It doesn’t matter who you are or how young you are, you can get involved with something and inspire others to do so,” the senior says.

    Initially a materials science and engineering major, Chaudhuri was quickly drawn to environmental policy issues and later decided to double-major in urban studies and planning and in economics. Chaudhuri will receive her bachelor’s degrees this month, followed by a master’s degree in city planning in the spring.

    The importance of community engagement in policymaking has become one of Chaudhuri’s core interests. A 2024 Marshall Scholar, she is headed to the U.K. next year to pursue a PhD related to environment and development. She hopes to build on her work in California and continue to bring attention to impacts that energy transitions can have on local communities, which tend to be rural and low-income. Addressing resistance to these projects can be challenging, but “ignoring it leaves these communities in the dust and widens the urban-rural divide,” she says.

    Silliness and sustainability 

    Chaudhuri classifies her many activities into two groups: those that help her unwind, like her living community, Conner Two, and those that require intensive deliberation, like her sustainability-related organizing.

    Conner Two, in the Burton-Conner residence hall, is where Chaudhuri feels most at home on campus. She describes the group’s activities as “silly” and emphasizes their love of jokes, even in the floor’s nickname, “the British Floor,” which is intentionally absurd, as the residents are rarely British.

    Chaudhuri’s first involvement with sustainability issues on campus was during the preparation of MIT’s Fast Forward Climate Action Plan in the 2020-2021 academic year. As a co-lead of one of several student working groups, she helped organize key discussions between the administration, climate experts, and student government to push for six main goals in the plan, including an ethical investing framework. Being involved with a significant student movement so early on in her undergraduate career was a learning opportunity for Chaudhuri and impressed upon her that young people can play critical roles in making far-reaching structural changes.

    The experience also made her realize how many organizations on campus shared similar goals even if their perspectives varied, and she saw the potential for more synergy among them.

    Chaudhuri went on to co-lead the Student Sustainability Coalition to help build community across the sustainability-related organizations on campus and create a centralized system that would make it easier for outsiders and group members to access information and work together. Through the coalition, students have collaborated on efforts including campus events, and off-campus matters such as the Cambridge Green New Deal hearings.

    Another benefit to such a network: It creates a support system that recognizes even small-scale victories. “Community is so important to avoid burnout when you’re working on something that can be very frustrating and an uphill battle like negotiating with leadership or seeking policy changes,” Chaudhuri says.

    Fieldwork

    For the past year, Chaudhuri has been doing independent research in California with the support of several advisory organizations to host conversations with groups affected by renewable energy projects, which, as she has documented, are often concentrated in rural, low-income, and Indigenous communities. The introduction of renewable energy facilities, such as wind and solar farms, can perpetuate existing inequities if they ignore serious community concerns, Chaudhuri says.

    As state or federal policymakers and private developers carry out the permitting process for these projects, “they can repeat histories of extraction, sometimes infringing on the rights of a local or Tribal government to decide what happens with their land,” she says.

    In her site visits, she is documenting community opposition to controversial solar and wind proposals and collecting oral histories. Doing fieldwork for the first time as an outsider was difficult for Chaudhuri, as she dealt with distrust, unpredictability, and needing to be completely flexible for her sources. “A lot of it was just being willing to drop everything and go and be a little bit adventurous and take some risks,” she says.

    Role models and reading

    Chaudhuri is quick to credit many of the role models and other formative influences in her life.

    After working on the Climate Action Plan, Chaudhuri attended a public narrative workshop at Harvard University led by Marshall Ganz, a grassroots community organizer who worked with Cesar Chavez and on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. “That was a big inspiration and kind of shaped how I viewed leadership in, for example, campus advocacy, but also in other projects and internships.”

    Reading has also influenced Chaudhuri’s perspective on community organizing, “After the Climate Action Plan campaign, I realized that a lot of what made the campaign successful or not could track well with organizing and social change theories, and histories of social movements. So, that was a good experience for me, being able to critically reflect on it and tie it into these other things I was learning about.”

    Since beginning her studies at MIT, Chaudhuri has become especially interested in social theory and political philosophy, starting with ancient forms of Western and Eastern ethic, and up to 20th and 21st century philosophers who inspire her. Chaudhuri cites Amartya Sen and Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò as particularly influential. “I think [they’ve] provided a really compelling framework to guide a lot of my own values,” she says.

    Another role model is Brenda Mallory, the current chair of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, who Chaudhuri was grateful to meet at the United Nations COP27 Climate Conference. As an intern at the U.S. Department of Energy, Chaudhuri worked within a team on implementing the federal administration’s Justice40 initiative, which commits 40 percent of federal climate investments to disadvantaged communities. This initiative was largely directed by Mallory, and Chaudhuri admires how Mallory was able to make an impact at different levels of government through her leadership. Chaudhuri hopes to follow in Mallory’s footsteps someday, as a public official committed to just policies and programs.

     “Good leaders are those who empower good leadership in others,” Chaudhuri says. More

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    Letter to the MIT community: Announcing the Climate Project at MIT

    The following letter was sent to the MIT community today by President Sally Kornbluth.

    Dear members of the MIT community,

    At my inauguration, echoing a sentiment I heard everywhere on my campus listening tour, I called on the people of MIT to come together in new ways to marshal a bold, tenacious response to the run-away crisis of climate change.

    I write with an update on how we’re bringing this vision to life.

    This letter includes several significant announcements – including an accelerated search for faculty leaders and a very substantial commitment of MIT funds – so please read on.

    A Record of MIT Leadership

    Since the late Professor Jule Charney led a 1979 National Academy of Sciences report that foretold the likely risks of global warming, MIT researchers have made pioneering contributions in countless relevant fields. Today, more than 300 faculty, working with their students and research and teaching staff, are engaged in leading-edge work on climate issues. The Institute has also taken important steps to enhance climate education, expand public outreach on climate and decarbonize the campus.

    But – as the community told me loud and clear – this moment demands a different order of speed, ambition, focus and scale.

    The Climate Project at MIT

    After extensive consultation with more than 150 faculty and senior researchers across the Institute – and building on the strengths of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, issued in 2021 – Vice Provost Richard Lester has led us in framing a new approach: the Climate Project at MIT.  

    Representing a compelling new strategy for accelerated, university-led innovation, the Climate Project at MIT will focus our community’s talent and resources on solving critical climate problems with all possible speed – and will connect us with a range of partners to deliver those technological, behavioral and policy solutions to the world.

    As Richard explains in this MIT News 3Q, the Climate Project at MIT is still in its early stages; as it gains new leaders and new allies from academia, industry, philanthropy and government, it will continue to be shaped by their insight and expertise.

    For now, we begin with a new structure and strategy for organizing the work. The Climate Project at MIT will consist of three interlocking elements:

    The Climate Missions
    The Climate Frontier projects
    The Climate HQ

    To learn more about these components, I encourage you to read this summary of the plan (PDF). 

    Recruiting Leaders for the Six Climate Missions

    The central focus will be six Climate Missions – each constituting a cross-disciplinary Institute-wide problem-solving community focused on a strategic area of the climate challenge:

    Decarbonizing Energy and Industry
    Restoring the Atmosphere, Protecting the Land and Oceans
    Empowering Frontline Communities
    Building and Adapting Healthy, Resilient Cities
    Inventing New Policy Approaches
    Wild Cards

    We’re now recruiting an MIT faculty leader for each of these missions – on an accelerated timeline. We welcome any interested faculty member to apply to be a Climate Mission leader or to nominate a colleague. Please submit your CV and statement of interest at climatesearch@mit.edu by February 22.

    You can learn more about the role on the Climate Project’s preliminary webpage. All submissions will be treated as confidential.

    A New Leadership Role, a Search Committee – and Significant MIT Resources

    The Climate Project at MIT is gathering steam – and we will build its momentum with these three important steps.

    1. Vice President for Climate

    To match the prime importance of this work, we have created a new leadership role, reporting to me: Vice President for Climate (VPC). The VPC will oversee the Climate Project at MIT, take the lead on fundraising and implementation, and shape its strategic vision. We are opening the search now and welcome candidates from inside and outside MIT. You may submit your CV and statement of interest in the VPC role at climatesearch@mit.edu. A formal job description will be posted soon.

    2. Climate Search Advisory Committee

    To advise me in selecting the six mission leaders and the VPC, I have appointed the following faculty members to serve on the Climate Search Advisory Committee:

    Richard Lester, Chair
    Daron Acemoglu
    Yet-Ming Chiang
    Penny Chisholm
    Dava Newman
    Ron Rivest
    Susan Solomon
    John Sterman
    Larry Vale
    Rob van der Hilst
    Anne White

    3. $75 million in support from the Institute and MIT Sloan

    And finally: We will jumpstart the Climate Project at MIT with a commitment of $50 million in Institute resources – the largest direct investment the Institute has ever made in funding climate work, and just the beginning of a far more ambitious effort to raise the funds this extraordinary challenge demands. In addition, the Sloan School will contribute $25 million to endow a new climate policy center, to be formally announced in the coming days. Together, these funds will allow for early advances and express the seriousness of our intentions to potential partners around the world.

    *    *    *

    The Climate Project at MIT is ambitious, multifaceted and more complex than I could capture in a letter; I urge you to explore the summary of the plan (PDF) to see where you might fit. There will be a place for everyone, including all of our existing climate-involved DLCs. (And you might enjoy this brief video, which celebrates MIT’s distinctive gift for collaborative problem-solving on a grand scale.)

    At last spring’s inauguration, I said I hoped that, a decade hence, all of us at MIT could take pride in having “helped lead a powerful cross-sector coalition and placed big bets on big solutions, to dramatically accelerate progress against climate change.”

    With your creativity, support and drive, we have every reason to hope that the Climate Project at MIT can make that aspiration real.

    With enthusiasm and anticipation,

    Sally Kornbluth More

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    MADMEC winner creates “temporary tattoos” for T-shirts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Soaring high, in the Army and the lab

    Starting off as a junior helicopter pilot, Lt. Col. Jill Rahon deployed to Afghanistan three times. During the last one, she was an air mission commander, the  pilot who is designated to interface with the ground troops throughout the mission.

    Today, Rahon is a fourth-year doctoral student studying applied physics at the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). Under the supervision of Areg Danagoulian, she is working on engineering solutions for enforcement of nuclear nonproliferation treaties. Rahon and her husband have 2-year-old twins: “They have the same warm relationship with my advisor that I had with my dad’s (PhD) advisor,” she says.

    Jill Rahon: Engineering solutions for enforcement of nuclear nonproliferation treaties

    A path to the armed forces

    The daughter of a health physicist father and a food chemist mother, Rahon grew up in the Hudson Valley, very close to New York City. Nine-eleven was a life-altering event: “Many of my friends’ fathers and uncles were policemen and firefighters [who] died responding to the attacks,” Rahon says. A hurt and angry teenager, Rahon was determined to do her part to help: She joined the Army and decided to pursue science, becoming part of the first class to enter West Point after 9/11.

    Rahon started by studying strategic history, a field that covers treaties and geopolitical relationships. It would prove useful later. Inspired by her father, who works in the nuclear field, Rahon added on a nuclear science and engineering track.

    After graduating from West Point, Rahon wanted to join active combat and chose aviation. At flight school in Fort Novosel, Alabama, she discovered that she loved flying. It was there that Rahon learned to fly the legendary Chinook helicopter. In short order, Rahon was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and deployed to Afghanistan quickly thereafter.

    As expected, flying in Afghanistan, especially on night missions, was adrenaline-charged. “You’re thinking on the fly, you’re talking on five different radios, you’re making decisions for all the helicopters that are part of the mission,” Rahon remembers. Very often Rahon and her cohorts did not have the luxury of time. “We would get information that would need to be acted on quickly,” she says. During the planning meetings, she would be delighted to see a classmate from West Point function as the ground forces commander. “It would be surprising to see somebody you knew from a different setting halfway around the world, working toward common goals,” Rahon says.

    Also awesome: helping launch the first training program for female pilots to be recruited in the Afghan National Air Force. “I got to meet [and mentor] these strong young women who maybe didn’t have the same encouragement that I had growing up and they were out there hanging tough,” Rahon says.

    Exploring physics and nuclear engineering

    After serving in the combat forces, Rahon decided she wanted to teach physics at West Point. She applied to become a part of the Functional Area (FA52) as a nuclear and countering weapons of mass destruction officer.

    FA52 officers provide nuclear technical advice to maneuver commanders about nuclear weapons, effects, and operating in a nuclear environment or battlefield. Rahon’s specialty is radiation detection and operations in a nuclear environment, which poses unique threats and challenges to forces.

    Knowing she wanted to teach at West Point, she “brushed up extensively on math and physics” and applied to MIT NSE to pursue a master’s degree. “My fellow students were such an inspiration. They might not have had the same life experiences that I had but were still so mature and driven and knowledgeable not only about nuclear engineering but how that fits in the energy sector and in politics,” Rahon says.

    Resonance analysis to verify treaties

    Rahon returned to NSE to pursue her doctorate, where she does a “lot of detection and treaty verification work.”

    When looking at nuclear fuels to verify safeguards for treaties, experts search for the presence and quantities of heavy elements such as uranium, plutonium, thorium, and any of their decay products. To do so nondestructively is of high importance so they don’t destroy a piece of the material or fuel to identify it.

    Rahon’s research is built on resonance analysis, the fact that most midrange to heavy isotopes have unique resonance signatures that are accessed by neutrons of epithermal energy, which is relatively low on the scale of possible neutron energies. This means they travel slowly — crossing a distance of 2 meters in tens of microseconds, permitting their detection time to be used to calculate their energy.

    Studying how neutrons of a particular energy interact with a sample to identify worrisome nuclear materials is much like studying fingerprints to solve crimes. Isotopes that have a spike in likelihood of interaction occurring over a small neutron energy are said to have resonances, and these resonance patterns are isotopically unique. Experts can use this technique to nondestructively assess an item, identifying the constituent isotopes and their concentrations.

    Resonance analysis can be used to verify that the fuels are what the nuclear plant owner says they are. “There are a lot of safeguards activities and verification protocols that are managed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that a state is not misusing nuclear power for ulterior motives,” Rahon points out. And her method helps.

    “Our technique that leverages resonance analysis is nothing new,” Rahon says, “It’s been applied practically since the ’70s at very large beam facilities, hundreds of meters long with a very large accelerator that pulses neutrons, and then you’re able to correlate a neutron time of flight with a resonance profile. What we’ve done that is novel is we’ve shrunk it down to a 3-meter system with a portable neutron residence generator and a 2-meter beam path,” she says.

    Mobility confers many significant advantages: “This is something that could be conceivably put on the back of a truck and moved to a fuel facility, then driven to the next one for inspections or put at a treaty verification site. It could be taken out to a silo field where they are dismantling nuclear weapons,” Rahon says. However, the miniaturization does come with significant challenges, such as the neutron generator’s impacts on the signal to noise ratio.

    Rahon is delighted her research can ensure that a necessary fuel source will not be misused. “We need nuclear power. We need low-carbon solutions for energy and we need safe ones. We need to ensure that this powerful technology is not being misused. And that’s why these engineering solutions are needed for these safeguards,” she says.

    Rahon sees parallels between her time in active duty and her doctoral research. Teamwork and communication are key in both, she says. Her dad is her role model and Rahon is a firm believer in mentorship, something she nurtured both in the armed forces and at MIT. “My advisor is genuinely a wonderful person who has always given me so much support from not only being a student, but also being a parent,” Rahon adds.

    In turn, Danagoulian has been impressed by Rahon’s remarkable abilities: “Raising twins, doing research in applied nuclear physics, and flying coalition forces into Taliban territory while evading ground fire … [Jill] developed her own research project with minimal help from me and defended it brilliantly during the first part of the exam,” he says. 

    It seems that Rahon flies high no matter which mission she takes on. More