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    Methane research takes on new urgency at MIT

    One of the most notable climate change provisions in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act is the first U.S. federal tax on a greenhouse gas (GHG). That the fee targets methane (CH4), rather than carbon dioxide (CO2), emissions is indicative of the urgency the scientific community has placed on reducing this short-lived but powerful gas. Methane persists in the air about 12 years — compared to more than 1,000 years for CO2 — yet it immediately causes about 120 times more warming upon release. The gas is responsible for at least a quarter of today’s gross warming. 

    “Methane has a disproportionate effect on near-term warming,” says Desiree Plata, the director of MIT Methane Network. “CH4 does more damage than CO2 no matter how long you run the clock. By removing methane, we could potentially avoid critical climate tipping points.” 

    Because GHGs have a runaway effect on climate, reductions made now will have a far greater impact than the same reductions made in the future. Cutting methane emissions will slow the thawing of permafrost, which could otherwise lead to massive methane releases, as well as reduce increasing emissions from wetlands.  

    “The goal of MIT Methane Network is to reduce methane emissions by 45 percent by 2030, which would save up to 0.5 degree C of warming by 2100,” says Plata, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and director of the Plata Lab. “When you consider that governments are trying for a 1.5-degree reduction of all GHGs by 2100, this is a big deal.” 

    Under normal concentrations, methane, like CO2, poses no health risks. Yet methane assists in the creation of high levels of ozone. In the lower atmosphere, ozone is a key component of air pollution, which leads to “higher rates of asthma and increased emergency room visits,” says Plata. 

    Methane-related projects at the Plata Lab include a filter made of zeolite — the same clay-like material used in cat litter — designed to convert methane into CO2 at dairy farms and coal mines. At first glance, the technology would appear to be a bit of a hard sell, since it converts one GHG into another. Yet the zeolite filter’s low carbon and dollar costs, combined with the disproportionate warming impact of methane, make it a potential game-changer.

    The sense of urgency about methane has been amplified by recent studies that show humans are generating far more methane emissions than previously estimated, and that the rates are rising rapidly. Exactly how much methane is in the air is uncertain. Current methods for measuring atmospheric methane, such as ground, drone, and satellite sensors, “are not readily abundant and do not always agree with each other,” says Plata.  

    The Plata Lab is collaborating with Tim Swager in the MIT Department of Chemistry to develop low-cost methane sensors. “We are developing chemiresisitive sensors that cost about a dollar that you could place near energy infrastructure to back-calculate where leaks are coming from,” says Plata.  

    The researchers are working on improving the accuracy of the sensors using machine learning techniques and are planning to integrate internet-of-things technology to transmit alerts. Plata and Swager are not alone in focusing on data collection: the Inflation Reduction Act adds significant funding for methane sensor research. 

    Other research at the Plata Lab includes the development of nanomaterials and heterogeneous catalysis techniques for environmental applications. The lab also explores mitigation solutions for industrial waste, particularly those related to the energy transition. Plata is the co-founder of an lithium-ion battery recycling startup called Nth Cycle. 

    On a more fundamental level, the Plata Lab is exploring how to develop products with environmental and social sustainability in mind. “Our overarching mission is to change the way that we invent materials and processes so that environmental objectives are incorporated along with traditional performance and cost metrics,” says Plata. “It is important to do that rigorous assessment early in the design process.”

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    MIT amps up methane research 

    The MIT Methane Network brings together 26 researchers from MIT along with representatives of other institutions “that are dedicated to the idea that we can reduce methane levels in our lifetime,” says Plata. The organization supports research such as Plata’s zeolite and sensor projects, as well as designing pipeline-fixing robots, developing methane-based fuels for clean hydrogen, and researching the capture and conversion of methane into liquid chemical precursors for pharmaceuticals and plastics. Other members are researching policies to encourage more sustainable agriculture and land use, as well as methane-related social justice initiatives. 

    “Methane is an especially difficult problem because it comes from all over the place,” says Plata. A recent Global Carbon Project study estimated that half of methane emissions are caused by humans. This is led by waste and agriculture (28 percent), including cow and sheep belching, rice paddies, and landfills.  

    Fossil fuels represent 18 percent of the total budget. Of this, about 63 percent is derived from oil and gas production and pipelines, 33 percent from coal mining activities, and 5 percent from industry and transportation. Human-caused biomass burning, primarily from slash-and-burn agriculture, emits about 4 percent of the global total.  

    The other half of the methane budget includes natural methane emissions from wetlands (20 percent) and other natural sources (30 percent). The latter includes permafrost melting and natural biomass burning, such as forest fires started by lightning.  

    With increases in global warming and population, the line between anthropogenic and natural causes is getting fuzzier. “Human activities are accelerating natural emissions,” says Plata. “Climate change increases the release of methane from wetlands and permafrost and leads to larger forest and peat fires.”  

    The calculations can get complicated. For example, wetlands provide benefits from CO2 capture, biological diversity, and sea level rise resiliency that more than compensate for methane releases. Meanwhile, draining swamps for development increases emissions. 

    Over 100 nations have signed onto the U.N.’s Global Methane Pledge to reduce at least 30 percent of anthropogenic emissions within the next 10 years. The U.N. report estimates that this goal can be achieved using proven technologies and that about 60 percent of these reductions can be accomplished at low cost. 

    Much of the savings would come from greater efficiencies in fossil fuel extraction, processing, and delivery. The methane fees in the Inflation Reduction Act are primarily focused on encouraging fossil fuel companies to accelerate ongoing efforts to cap old wells, flare off excess emissions, and tighten pipeline connections.  

    Fossil fuel companies have already made far greater pledges to reduce methane than they have with CO2, which is central to their business. This is due, in part, to the potential savings, as well as in preparation for methane regulations expected from the Environmental Protection Agency in late 2022. The regulations build upon existing EPA oversight of drilling operations, and will likely be exempt from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that limits the federal government’s ability to regulate GHGs. 

    Zeolite filter targets methane in dairy and coal 

    The “low-hanging fruit” of gas stream mitigation addresses most of the 20 percent of total methane emissions in which the gas is released in sufficiently high concentrations for flaring. Plata’s zeolite filter aims to address the thornier challenge of reducing the 80 percent of non-flammable dilute emissions. 

    Plata found inspiration in decades-old catalysis research for turning methane into methanol. One strategy has been to use an abundant, low-cost aluminosilicate clay called zeolite.  

    “The methanol creation process is challenging because you need to separate a liquid, and it has very low efficiency,” says Plata. “Yet zeolite can be very efficient at converting methane into CO2, and it is much easier because it does not require liquid separation. Converting methane to CO2 sounds like a bad thing, but there is a major anti-warming benefit. And because methane is much more dilute than CO2, the relative CO2 contribution is minuscule.”  

    Using zeolite to create methanol requires highly concentrated methane, high temperatures and pressures, and industrial processing conditions. Yet Plata’s process, which dopes the zeolite with copper, operates in the presence of oxygen at much lower temperatures under typical pressures. “We let the methane proceed the way it wants from a thermodynamic perspective from methane to methanol down to CO2,” says Plata. 

    Researchers around the world are working on other dilute methane removal technologies. Projects include spraying iron salt aerosols into sea air where they react with natural chlorine or bromine radicals, thereby capturing methane. Most of these geoengineering solutions, however, are difficult to measure and would require massive scale to make a difference.  

    Plata is focusing her zeolite filters on environments where concentrations are high, but not so high as to be flammable. “We are trying to scale zeolite into filters that you could snap onto the side of a cross-ventilation fan in a dairy barn or in a ventilation air shaft in a coal mine,” says Plata. “For every packet of air we bring in, we take a lot of methane out, so we get more bang for our buck.”  

    The major challenge is creating a filter that can handle high flow rates without getting clogged or falling apart. Dairy barn air handlers can push air at up to 5,000 cubic feet per minute and coal mine handlers can approach 500,000 CFM. 

    Plata is exploring engineering options including fluidized bed reactors with floating catalyst particles. Another filter solution, based in part on catalytic converters, features “higher-order geometric structures where you have a porous material with a long path length where the gas can interact with the catalyst,” says Plata. “This avoids the challenge with fluidized beds of containing catalyst particles in the reactor. Instead, they are fixed within a structured material.”  

    Competing technologies for removing methane from mine shafts “operate at temperatures of 1,000 to 1,200 degrees C, requiring a lot of energy and risking explosion,” says Plata. “Our technology avoids safety concerns by operating at 300 to 400 degrees C. It reduces energy use and provides more tractable deployment costs.” 

    Potentially, energy and dollar costs could be further reduced in coal mines by capturing the heat generated by the conversion process. “In coal mines, you have enrichments above a half-percent methane, but below the 4 percent flammability threshold,” says Plata. “The excess heat from the process could be used to generate electricity using off-the-shelf converters.” 

    Plata’s dairy barn research is funded by the Gerstner Family Foundation and the coal mining project by the U.S. Department of Energy. “The DOE would like us to spin out the technology for scale-up within three years,” says Plata. “We cannot guarantee we will hit that goal, but we are trying to develop this as quickly as possible. Our society needs to start reducing methane emissions now.”  More

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    Hurricane-resistant construction may be undervalued by billions of dollars annually

    In Florida, June typically marks the beginning of hurricane season. Preparation for a storm may appear as otherworldly as it is routine: businesses and homes board up windows and doors, bottled water is quick to sell out, and public buildings cease operations to serve as emergency shelters.

    What happens next may be unpredictable. If things take a turn for the worse, myriad homes may be leveled. A 2019 Congressional Budget Office report estimated that hurricane-related wind damage causes $14 billion in losses to the residential sector annually. 

    However, new research led by Ipek Bensu Manav, an MIT graduate student in civil and environmental engineering and research assistant at MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub, suggests that the value of mitigating this wind damage through stronger construction methods may be significantly underestimated. 

    In fact, the failure of wind loss models to account for neighborhood texture — the density and configuration of surrounding buildings with respect to a building of interest — may result in an over 80 percent undervaluation of these methods in Florida.

    Methodology

    Hazus, a loss estimation tool developed and currently used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), estimates physical and economic damage to buildings due to wind and windborne debris. However, the tool assumes that all buildings in a neighborhood experience the same wind loading.

    Manav notes that this assumption disregards the complexity of neighborhood texture. Buildings of different shapes and sizes can be arranged in innumerable ways. This arrangement can amplify or reduce the wind load on buildings within the neighborhood. 

    Wind load amplifications and reductions result from effects referred to as tunneling and shielding. Densely built-up areas with grid-like layouts are particularly susceptible to wind tunneling effects. You might have experienced these effects yourself walking down a windy street, such as Main Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near the MIT campus, only to turn the corner and feel calmer air.

    To address this, Manav and her team sought to create a hurricane loss model that accounts for neighborhood texture. By combining GIS files, census tract data, and models of wind recurrence and structural performance, the researchers constructed a high-resolution estimate of expected wind-related structural losses, as well as the benefits of mitigation to reduce those losses. 

    The model builds on prior research led by Jacob Roxon, a recent CSHub postdoc and co-author of this paper, who developed an empirical relationship that estimates building-specific wind gusts with information about building layout in a given neighborhood. 

    A challenge the researchers had to overcome was the fact that the building footprints that were available for this estimation have little-to-no information on occupancy and building type.

    Manav addressed this by developing a novel statistical model that assigns occupancy and building types to structures based on characteristics of the census tract in which they are located.

    Analysis and cost perspective

    The researchers then estimated the value of stronger construction in a case study of residential buildings in Florida. This involved modeling the impact of several mitigation measures applied to over 9.3 million housing units spread across 6.9 million buildings.

    A map of effective wind speed ratio in Florida. Orange coloration indicates census tracts where, on average, structures experience amplifications in wind loads beyond what current tools estimate. Blue coloration indicates census tracts where, on average, structures experience reductions in wind loads.

    Image courtesy of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub.

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    Texture-related loss implications were found to be higher in census tracts along the coast. This occurs because these areas tend to be more dense and ordered, leading to higher wind load amplifications. Also, these loss implications are particularly high for single-family homes, which are more susceptible to damage and have a higher replacement cost per housing unit.

    “Our results sound the alarm that wind loads are more severe than we think,” says Manav. “That is not even accounting for climate change, which might make hurricanes more frequent and their wind speeds more intense over time.”

    The researchers computed expected losses and benefits statewide for hurricane wind damage and its mitigation. They found that $8.1 billion could be saved per year in a scenario where all homes were mitigated with simple measures such as stronger connections between roofs and walls or tighter nail spacing.

    Conventional loss estimation models value these same measures as saving only $4.4 billion per year. This means that conventional models are underestimating the value of stronger construction by over 80 percent.

    “It is important that the benefits of resilient design be quantified so that financial incentives — whether lending, insurance, or otherwise — can be brought to bear to increase mitigation. Manav’s research will move the industry forward toward justifying these benefits,” says structural engineer Evan Reis, who is the executive director of the U.S. Resiliency Council.

    Further implications

    The paper recommends that coastal states enhance their building codes, especially in densely built-up areas, to save dollars and save lives. Manav notes that current building codes do not sufficiently account for texture-induced load amplifications. 

    “Even a building built to code may not be able to protect you and your family,” says Manav. “We need to properly quantify the benefits of mitigating in areas that are exposed to high winds so we promote the right standards of construction where losses can be catastrophic.”

    A goal of Manav’s work is to provide citizens with the information they need before disaster strikes. She has created an online dashboard where you can preview the potential benefits of applying mitigation measures in different communities — perhaps even your own.

    “During my research, I kept hitting a wall. I found that it was difficult to use publicly available information to piece together the bigger picture,” she comments. “We started developing the dashboard to equip homeowners and stakeholders with accessible and actionable information.”

    As a next step, Manav is investigating socioeconomic consequences of hurricane wind damage. 

    “High-resolution analysis, like our case study, allows us to simulate individual household impacts within a geographical context,” adds Manav. “With this, we can capture how differing availability of financial resources may influence how communities cope with the aftermath of natural hazards.” More

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    Companies use MIT research to identify and respond to supply chain risks

    In February 2020, MIT professor David Simchi-Levi predicted the future. In an article in Harvard Business Review, he and his colleague warned that the new coronavirus outbreak would throttle supply chains and shutter tens of thousands of businesses across North America and Europe by mid-March.

    For Simchi-Levi, who had developed new models of supply chain resiliency and advised major companies on how to best shield themselves from supply chain woes, the signs of disruption were plain to see. Two years later, the professor of engineering systems at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and director of the MIT Data Science Lab has found a “flood of interest” from companies anxious to apply his Risk Exposure Index (REI) research to identify and respond to hidden risks in their own supply chains.

    His work on “stress tests” for critical supply chains and ways to guide global supply chain recovery were included in the 2022 Economic Report of the President presented to the U.S. Congress in April.

    It is rare that data science research can influence policy at the highest levels, Simchi-Levi says, but his models reflect something that business needs now: a new world of continuing global crisis, without relying on historical precedent.

    “What the last two years showed is that you cannot plan just based on what happened last year or the last two years,” Simchi-Levi says.

    He recalled the famous quote, sometimes attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzsky, that good players don’t skate to where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be. “We are not focusing on the state of the supply chain right now, but what may happen six weeks from now, eight weeks from now, to prepare ourselves today to prevent the problems of the future.”

    Finding hidden risks

    At the heart of REI is a mathematical model of the supply chain that focuses on potential failures at different supply chain nodes — a flood at a supplier’s factory, or a shortage of raw materials at another factory, for instance. By calculating variables such as “time-to-recover” (TTR), which measures how long it will take a particular node to be back at full function, and time-to-survive (TTS), which identifies the maximum duration that the supply chain can match supply with demand after a disruption, the model focuses on the impact of disruption on the supply chain, rather than the cause of disruption.

    Even before the pandemic, catastrophic events such as the 2010 Iceland volcanic eruption and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan were threatening these nodes. “For many years, companies from a variety of industries focused mostly on efficiency, cutting costs as much as possible, using strategies like outsourcing and offshoring,” Simchi-Levi says. “They were very successful doing this, but it has dramatically increased their exposure to risk.”

    Using their model, Simchi-Levi and colleagues began working with Ford Motor Company in 2013 to improve the company’s supply chain resiliency. The partnership uncovered some surprising hidden risks.

    To begin with, the researchers found out that Ford’s “strategic suppliers” — the nodes of the supply chain where the company spent large amount of money each year — had only moderate exposure to risk. Instead, the biggest risk “tended to come from tiny suppliers that provide Ford with components that cost about 10 cents,” says Simchi-Levi.

    The analysis also found that risky suppliers are everywhere across the globe. “There is this idea that if you just move suppliers closer to market, to demand, to North America or to Mexico, you increase the resiliency of your supply chain. That is not supported by our data,” he says.

    Rewards of resiliency

    By creating a virtual representation, or “digital twin,” of the Ford supply chain, the researchers were able to test out strategies at each node to see what would increase supply chain resiliency. Should the company invest in more warehouses to store a key component? Should it shift production of a component to another factory?

    Companies are sometimes reluctant to invest in supply chain resiliency, Simchi-Levi says, but the analysis isn’t just about risk. “It’s also going to help you identify savings opportunities. The company may be building a lot of misplaced, costly inventory, for instance, and our method helps them to identify these inefficiencies and cut costs.”

    Since working with Ford, Simchi-Levi and colleagues have collaborated with many other companies, including a partnership with Accenture, to scale the REI technology to a variety of industries including high-tech, industrial equipment, home improvement retailers, fashion retailers, and consumer packaged goods.

    Annette Clayton, the CEO of Schneider Electric North America and previously its chief supply chain officer, has worked with Simchi-Levi for 17 years. “When I first went to work for Schneider, I asked David and his team to help us look at resiliency and inventory positioning in order to make the best cost, delivery, flexibility, and speed trade-offs for the North American supply chain,” she says. “As the pandemic unfolded, the very learnings in supply chain resiliency we had worked on before became even more important and we partnered with David and his team again,”

    “We have used TTR and TTS to determine places where we need to develop and duplicate supplier capability, from raw materials to assembled parts. We increased inventories where our time-to-recover because of extended logistics times exceeded our time-to-survive,” Clayton adds. “We have used TTR and TTS to prioritize our workload in supplier development, procurement and expanding our own manufacturing capacity.”

    The REI approach can even be applied to an entire country’s economy, as the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has done for developing countries such as Thailand in the wake of disastrous flooding in 2011.

    Simchi-Levi and colleagues have been motivated by the pandemic to enhance the REI model with new features. “Because we have started collaborating with more companies, we have realized some interesting, company-specific business constraints,” he says, which are leading to more efficient ways of calculating hidden risk. More

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    On the road to cleaner, greener, and faster driving

    No one likes sitting at a red light. But signalized intersections aren’t just a minor nuisance for drivers; vehicles consume fuel and emit greenhouse gases while waiting for the light to change.

    What if motorists could time their trips so they arrive at the intersection when the light is green? While that might be just a lucky break for a human driver, it could be achieved more consistently by an autonomous vehicle that uses artificial intelligence to control its speed.

    In a new study, MIT researchers demonstrate a machine-learning approach that can learn to control a fleet of autonomous vehicles as they approach and travel through a signalized intersection in a way that keeps traffic flowing smoothly.

    Using simulations, they found that their approach reduces fuel consumption and emissions while improving average vehicle speed. The technique gets the best results if all cars on the road are autonomous, but even if only 25 percent use their control algorithm, it still leads to substantial fuel and emissions benefits.

    “This is a really interesting place to intervene. No one’s life is better because they were stuck at an intersection. With a lot of other climate change interventions, there is a quality-of-life difference that is expected, so there is a barrier to entry there. Here, the barrier is much lower,” says senior author Cathy Wu, the Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS).

    The lead author of the study is Vindula Jayawardana, a graduate student in LIDS and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The research will be presented at the European Control Conference.

    Intersection intricacies

    While humans may drive past a green light without giving it much thought, intersections can present billions of different scenarios depending on the number of lanes, how the signals operate, the number of vehicles and their speeds, the presence of pedestrians and cyclists, etc.

    Typical approaches for tackling intersection control problems use mathematical models to solve one simple, ideal intersection. That looks good on paper, but likely won’t hold up in the real world, where traffic patterns are often about as messy as they come.

    Wu and Jayawardana shifted gears and approached the problem using a model-free technique known as deep reinforcement learning. Reinforcement learning is a trial-and-error method where the control algorithm learns to make a sequence of decisions. It is rewarded when it finds a good sequence. With deep reinforcement learning, the algorithm leverages assumptions learned by a neural network to find shortcuts to good sequences, even if there are billions of possibilities.

    This is useful for solving a long-horizon problem like this; the control algorithm must issue upwards of 500 acceleration instructions to a vehicle over an extended time period, Wu explains.

    “And we have to get the sequence right before we know that we have done a good job of mitigating emissions and getting to the intersection at a good speed,” she adds.

    But there’s an additional wrinkle. The researchers want the system to learn a strategy that reduces fuel consumption and limits the impact on travel time. These goals can be conflicting.

    “To reduce travel time, we want the car to go fast, but to reduce emissions, we want the car to slow down or not move at all. Those competing rewards can be very confusing to the learning agent,” Wu says.

    While it is challenging to solve this problem in its full generality, the researchers employed a workaround using a technique known as reward shaping. With reward shaping, they give the system some domain knowledge it is unable to learn on its own. In this case, they penalized the system whenever the vehicle came to a complete stop, so it would learn to avoid that action.

    Traffic tests

    Once they developed an effective control algorithm, they evaluated it using a traffic simulation platform with a single intersection. The control algorithm is applied to a fleet of connected autonomous vehicles, which can communicate with upcoming traffic lights to receive signal phase and timing information and observe their immediate surroundings. The control algorithm tells each vehicle how to accelerate and decelerate.

    Their system didn’t create any stop-and-go traffic as vehicles approached the intersection. (Stop-and-go traffic occurs when cars are forced to come to a complete stop due to stopped traffic ahead). In simulations, more cars made it through in a single green phase, which outperformed a model that simulates human drivers. When compared to other optimization methods also designed to avoid stop-and-go traffic, their technique resulted in larger fuel consumption and emissions reductions. If every vehicle on the road is autonomous, their control system can reduce fuel consumption by 18 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent, while boosting travel speeds by 20 percent.

    “A single intervention having 20 to 25 percent reduction in fuel or emissions is really incredible. But what I find interesting, and was really hoping to see, is this non-linear scaling. If we only control 25 percent of vehicles, that gives us 50 percent of the benefits in terms of fuel and emissions reduction. That means we don’t have to wait until we get to 100 percent autonomous vehicles to get benefits from this approach,” she says.

    Down the road, the researchers want to study interaction effects between multiple intersections. They also plan to explore how different intersection set-ups (number of lanes, signals, timings, etc.) can influence travel time, emissions, and fuel consumption. In addition, they intend to study how their control system could impact safety when autonomous vehicles and human drivers share the road. For instance, even though autonomous vehicles may drive differently than human drivers, slower roadways and roadways with more consistent speeds could improve safety, Wu says.

    While this work is still in its early stages, Wu sees this approach as one that could be more feasibly implemented in the near-term.

    “The aim in this work is to move the needle in sustainable mobility. We want to dream, as well, but these systems are big monsters of inertia. Identifying points of intervention that are small changes to the system but have significant impact is something that gets me up in the morning,” she says.  

    This work was supported, in part, by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

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    Improving predictions of sea level rise for the next century

    When we think of climate change, one of the most dramatic images that comes to mind is the loss of glacial ice. As the Earth warms, these enormous rivers of ice become a casualty of the rising temperatures. But, as ice sheets retreat, they also become an important contributor to one the more dangerous outcomes of climate change: sea-level rise. At MIT, an interdisciplinary team of scientists is determined to improve sea level rise predictions for the next century, in part by taking a closer look at the physics of ice sheets.

    Last month, two research proposals on the topic, led by Brent Minchew, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), were announced as finalists in the MIT Climate Grand Challenges initiative. Launched in July 2020, Climate Grand Challenges fielded almost 100 project proposals from collaborators across the Institute who heeded the bold charge: to develop research and innovations that will deliver game-changing advances in the world’s efforts to address the climate challenge.

    As finalists, Minchew and his collaborators from the departments of Urban Studies and Planning, Economics, Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Haystack Observatory, and external partners, received $100,000 to develop their research plans. A subset of the 27 proposals tapped as finalists will be announced next month, making up a portfolio of multiyear “flagship” projects receiving additional funding and support.

    One goal of both Minchew proposals is to more fully understand the most fundamental processes that govern rapid changes in glacial ice, and to use that understanding to build next-generation models that are more predictive of ice sheet behavior as they respond to, and influence, climate change.

    “We need to develop more accurate and computationally efficient models that provide testable projections of sea-level rise over the coming decades. To do so quickly, we want to make better and more frequent observations and learn the physics of ice sheets from these data,” says Minchew. “For example, how much stress do you have to apply to ice before it breaks?”

    Currently, Minchew’s Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing group uses satellites to observe the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica primarily with interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR). But the data are often collected over long intervals of time, which only gives them “before and after” snapshots of big events. By taking more frequent measurements on shorter time scales, such as hours or days, they can get a more detailed picture of what is happening in the ice.

    “Many of the key unknowns in our projections of what ice sheets are going to look like in the future, and how they’re going to evolve, involve the dynamics of glaciers, or our understanding of how the flow speed and the resistances to flow are related,” says Minchew.

    At the heart of the two proposals is the creation of SACOS, the Stratospheric Airborne Climate Observatory System. The group envisions developing solar-powered drones that can fly in the stratosphere for months at a time, taking more frequent measurements using a new lightweight, low-power radar and other high-resolution instrumentation. They also propose air-dropping sensors directly onto the ice, equipped with seismometers and GPS trackers to measure high-frequency vibrations in the ice and pinpoint the motions of its flow.

    How glaciers contribute to sea level rise

    Current climate models predict an increase in sea levels over the next century, but by just how much is still unclear. Estimates are anywhere from 20 centimeters to two meters, which is a large difference when it comes to enacting policy or mitigation. Minchew points out that response measures will be different, depending on which end of the scale it falls toward. If it’s closer to 20 centimeters, coastal barriers can be built to protect low-level areas. But with higher surges, such measures become too expensive and inefficient to be viable, as entire portions of cities and millions of people would have to be relocated.

    “If we’re looking at a future where we could get more than a meter of sea level rise by the end of the century, then we need to know about that sooner rather than later so that we can start to plan and to do our best to prepare for that scenario,” he says.

    There are two ways glaciers and ice sheets contribute to rising sea levels: direct melting of the ice and accelerated transport of ice to the oceans. In Antarctica, warming waters melt the margins of the ice sheets, which tends to reduce the resistive stresses and allow ice to flow more quickly to the ocean. This thinning can also cause the ice shelves to be more prone to fracture, facilitating the calving of icebergs — events which sometimes cause even further acceleration of ice flow.

    Using data collected by SACOS, Minchew and his group can better understand what material properties in the ice allow for fracturing and calving of icebergs, and build a more complete picture of how ice sheets respond to climate forces. 

    “What I want is to reduce and quantify the uncertainties in projections of sea level rise out to the year 2100,” he says.

    From that more complete picture, the team — which also includes economists, engineers, and urban planning specialists — can work on developing predictive models and methods to help communities and governments estimate the costs associated with sea level rise, develop sound infrastructure strategies, and spur engineering innovation.

    Understanding glacier dynamics

    More frequent radar measurements and the collection of higher-resolution seismic and GPS data will allow Minchew and the team to develop a better understanding of the broad category of glacier dynamics — including calving, an important process in setting the rate of sea level rise which is currently not well understood.  

    “Some of what we’re doing is quite similar to what seismologists do,” he says. “They measure seismic waves following an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption, or things of this nature and use those observations to better understand the mechanisms that govern these phenomena.”

    Air-droppable sensors will help them collect information about ice sheet movement, but this method comes with drawbacks — like installation and maintenance, which is difficult to do out on a massive ice sheet that is moving and melting. Also, the instruments can each only take measurements at a single location. Minchew equates it to a bobber in water: All it can tell you is how the bobber moves as the waves disturb it.

    But by also taking continuous radar measurements from the air, Minchew’s team can collect observations both in space and in time. Instead of just watching the bobber in the water, they can effectively make a movie of the waves propagating out, as well as visualize processes like iceberg calving happening in multiple dimensions.

    Once the bobbers are in place and the movies recorded, the next step is developing machine learning algorithms to help analyze all the new data being collected. While this data-driven kind of discovery has been a hot topic in other fields, this is the first time it has been applied to glacier research.

    “We’ve developed this new methodology to ingest this huge amount of data,” he says, “and from that create an entirely new way of analyzing the system to answer these fundamental and critically important questions.”  More

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    MIT ReACT welcomes first Afghan cohort to its largest-yet certificate program

    Through the championing support of the faculty and leadership of the MIT Afghan Working Group convened last September by Provost Martin Schmidt and chaired by Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester, MIT has come together to support displaced Afghan learners and scholars in a time of crisis. The MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) has opened opportunities for 25 talented Afghan learners to participate in the hub’s certificate program in computer and data science (CDS), now in its fourth year, welcoming its largest and most diverse cohort to date — 136 learners from 29 countries.

    ”Even in the face of extreme disruption, education and scholarship must continue, and MIT is committed to providing resources and safe forums for displaced scholars,” says Lester. “We greatly appreciate MIT ReACT’s work to create learning opportunities for Afghan students whose lives have been upended by the crisis in their homeland.”

    Currently, more than 3.5 million Afghans are internally displaced, while 2.5 million are registered refugees residing in other parts of the world. With millions in Afghanistan facing famine, poverty, and civil unrest in what has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, the United Nations predicts the number of Afghans forced to flee their homes will continue to rise. 

    “Forced displacement is on the rise, fueled not only by constant political, economical, and social turmoil worldwide, but also by the ongoing climate change crisis, which threatens costly disruptions to society and has potential to create unprecedented displacement internationally,” says associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and ReACT’s faculty founder Admir Masic. During the orientation for the new CDS cohort in January, Masic emphasized the great need for educational programs like ReACT’s that address the specific challenges refugees and displaced learners face.

    A former Bosnian refugee, Masic spent his teenage years in Croatia, where educational opportunities were limited for young people with refugee status. His experience motivated him to found ReACT, which launched in 2017. Housed within Open Learning, ReACT is an MIT-wide effort to deliver global education and professional development programs to underserved communities, including refugees and migrants. ReACT’s signature program, CDS is a year-long, online program that combines MITx courses in programming and data science, personal and professional development workshops including MIT Bootcamps, and opportunities for practical experience.

    ReACT’s group of 25 learners from Afghanistan, 52 percent of whom are women, joins the larger CDS cohort in the program. They will receive support from their new colleagues as well as members of ReACT’s mentor and alumni network. While the majority of the group are residing around the world, including in Europe, North America, and neighboring countries, several still remain in Afghanistan. With the support of the Afghan Working Group, ReACT is working to connect with communities from the region to provide safe and inclusive learning environments for the cohort. ​​

    Building community and confidence

    Selected from more than 1,000 applicants, the new CDS cohort reflected on their personal and professional goals during a weeklong orientation.

    “I am here because I want to change my career and learn basics in this field to then obtain networks that I wouldn’t have got if it weren’t for this program,” said Samiullah Ajmal, who is joining the program from Afghanistan.

    Interactive workshops on topics such as leadership development and virtual networking rounded out the week’s events. Members of ReACT’s greater community — which has grown in recent years to include a network of external collaborators including nonprofits, philanthropic supporters, universities, and alumni — helped facilitate these workshops and other orientation activities.

    For instance, Na’amal, a social enterprise that connects refugees to remote work opportunities, introduced the CDS learners to strategies for making career connections remotely. “We build confidence while doing,” says Susan Mulholland, a leadership and development coach with Na’amal who led the networking workshop.

    Along with the CDS program’s cohort-based model, ReACT also uses platforms that encourage regular communication between participants and with the larger ReACT network — making connections a critical component of the program.

    “I not only want to meet new people and make connections for my professional career, but I also want to test my communication and social skills,” says Pablo Andrés Uribe, a learner who lives in Colombia, describing ReACT’s emphasis on community-building. 

    Over the last two years, ReACT has expanded its geographic presence, growing from a hub in Jordan into a robust global community of many hubs, including in Colombia and Uganda. These regional sites connect talented refugees and displaced learners to internships and employment, startup networks and accelerators, and pathways to formal undergraduate and graduate education.

    This expansion is thanks to the generous support internally from the MIT Office of the Provost and Associate Provost Richard Lester and external organizations including the Western Union Foundation. ReACT will build new hubs this year in Greece, Uruguay, and Afghanistan, as a result of gifts from the Hatsopoulos family and the Pfeffer family.

    Holding space to learn from each other

    In addition to establishing new global hubs, ReACT plans to expand its network of internship and experiential learning opportunities, increasing outreach to new collaborators such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), companies, and universities. Jointly with Na’amal and Paper Airplanes, a nonprofit that connects conflict-affected individuals with personal language tutors, ReACT will host the first Migration Summit. Scheduled for April 2022, the month-long global convening invites a broad range of participants, including displaced learners, universities, companies, nonprofits and NGOs, social enterprises, foundations, philanthropists, researchers, policymakers, employers, and governments, to address the key challenges and opportunities for refugee and migrant communities. The theme of the summit is “Education and Workforce Development in Displacement.”

    “The MIT Migration Summit offers a platform to discuss how new educational models, such as those employed in ReACT, can help solve emerging challenges in providing quality education and career opportunities to forcibly displaced and marginalized people around the world,” says Masic. 

    A key goal of the convening is to center the voices of those most directly impacted by displacement, such as ReACT’s learners from Afghanistan and elsewhere, in solution-making. More

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    3 Questions: What a single car can say about traffic

    Vehicle traffic has long defied description. Once measured roughly through visual inspection and traffic cameras, new smartphone crowdsourcing tools are now quantifying traffic far more precisely. This popular method, however, also presents a problem: Accurate measurements require a lot of data and users.

    Meshkat Botshekan, an MIT PhD student in civil and environmental engineering and research assistant at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub, has sought to expand on crowdsourcing methods by looking into the physics of traffic. During his time as a doctoral candidate, he has helped develop Carbin, a smartphone-based roadway crowdsourcing tool created by MIT CSHub and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and used its data to offer more insight into the physics of traffic — from the formation of traffic jams to the inference of traffic phase and driving behavior. Here, he explains how recent findings can allow smartphones to infer traffic properties from the measurements of a single vehicle.  

    Q: Numerous navigation apps already measure traffic. Why do we need alternatives?

    A: Traffic characteristics have always been tough to measure. In the past, visual inspection and cameras were used to produce traffic metrics. So, there’s no denying that today’s navigation tools apps offer a superior alternative. Yet even these modern tools have gaps.

    Chief among them is their dependence on spatially distributed user counts: Essentially, these apps tally up their users on road segments to estimate the density of traffic. While this approach may seem adequate, it is both vulnerable to manipulation, as demonstrated in some viral videos, and requires immense quantities of data for reliable estimates. Processing these data is so time- and resource-intensive that, despite their availability, they can’t be used to quantify traffic effectively across a whole road network. As a result, this immense quantity of traffic data isn’t actually optimal for traffic management.

    Q: How could new technologies improve how we measure traffic?

    A: New alternatives have the potential to offer two improvements over existing methods: First, they can extrapolate far more about traffic with far fewer data. Second, they can cost a fraction of the price while offering a far simpler method of data collection. Just like Waze and Google Maps, they rely on crowdsourcing data from users. Yet, they are grounded in the incorporation of high-level statistical physics into data analysis.

    For instance, the Carbin app, which we are developing in collaboration with UMass Dartmouth, applies principles of statistical physics to existing traffic models to entirely forgo the need for user counts. Instead, it can infer traffic density and driver behavior using the input of a smartphone mounted in single vehicle.

    The method at the heart of the app, which was published last fall in Physical Review E, treats vehicles like particles in a many-body system. Just as the behavior of a closed many-body system can be understood through observing the behavior of an individual particle relying on the ergodic theorem of statistical physics, we can characterize traffic through the fluctuations in speed and position of a single vehicle across a road. As a result, we can infer the behavior and density of traffic on a segment of a road.

    As far less data is required, this method is more rapid and makes data management more manageable. But most importantly, it also has the potential to make traffic data less expensive and accessible to those that need it.

    Q: Who are some of the parties that would benefit from new technologies?

    A: More accessible and sophisticated traffic data would benefit more than just drivers seeking smoother, faster routes. It would also enable state and city departments of transportation (DOTs) to make local and collective interventions that advance the critical transportation objectives of equity, safety, and sustainability.

    As a safety solution, new data collection technologies could pinpoint dangerous driving conditions on a much finer scale to inform improved traffic calming measures. And since socially vulnerable communities experience traffic violence disproportionately, these interventions would have the added benefit of addressing pressing equity concerns. 

    There would also be an environmental benefit. DOTs could mitigate vehicle emissions by identifying minute deviations in traffic flow. This would present them with more opportunities to mitigate the idling and congestion that generate excess fuel consumption.  

    As we’ve seen, these three challenges have become increasingly acute, especially in urban areas. Yet, the data needed to address them exists already — and is being gathered by smartphones and telematics devices all over the world. So, to ensure a safer, more sustainable road network, it will be crucial to incorporate these data collection methods into our decision-making. More