On Sept. 19, Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, announced the membership of a community committee to plan and implement the MIT Climate Change Conversation. As Zuber noted, “The Committee should seek broad input from the Institute community on how the US and the world can most effectively address global climate change. The Conversation should explore pathways to effective climate change mitigation, including how the MIT community — through education, research and campus engagement — can constructively move the global and national agendas forward.”

Roman Stocker, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and chair of the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation, spoke with MIT News about the committee’s charge, its progress to date, and its next steps.

Q. What does the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation aim to achieve?

A. We aim to explore and assess the broad range of actions that MIT could take to make a significant positive contribution to address climate change. The global nature of this problem and the amount of debate and polarization that surround it are daunting, but the premise of the committee is that the complexity of the problem is uniquely suited for MIT, given our strong problem-solving ethos, and that a leading technical institution can have unique roles to play in responding to the climate crisis. Identifying and evaluating these potential roles is the purpose of the Conversation.

Importantly, the committee will only be the catalyst of the Conversation: Its main actor will be the MIT community! In other words, what we really aim to achieve is the engagement of the widest possible fraction of the MIT community in developing and debating bold ideas — MIT-style! — to help identify the pros and cons of different options. We believe that this approach will allow us, as a community, to identify a broad spectrum of action items; estimate the effectiveness of each action in addressing the problem; and thereby determine how our Institute can most effectively drive forward the national and global agendas on climate change.

We will consider actions at all levels: from new educational initiatives at MIT and via its edX megaphone, to new opportunities for research that capitalize and expand on MIT’s presence in the field, to improvements to campus infrastructure and operations aimed at reducing MIT’s own carbon footprint, to leveraging MIT’s visibility to drive more effective policy.

These are but examples, as we do not want to constrain the creativity of the MIT community. We will welcome any and all ideas through the multiple opportunities for input and feedback that we will construct. We look forward to this Conversation as a catalyst for original ideas, debate, and sound analysis.      

Q. What has the committee done to date, since its membership was announced on Sept. 19?

A. Devising the right ingredients to make this MIT Conversation successful is what has kept us busy during this first month, and still is. Part of this effort consists of educating ourselves, within the committee, about the landscape of activities that already exist at MIT in the area of climate change, as some of these activities could represent important nucleation sites for bold ideas for action. At the same time, this knowledge will allow us to engage the MIT community in a more informed and meaningful way, through the Conversation activities we have begun to plan for the fall and spring.

Personally, this first month has also allowed me to appreciate the expertise we have on the committee, which I feel will be an invaluable asset in catalyzing this Conversation. The committee is composed of one faculty member per school, as well as representatives from the undergraduate and graduate student bodies, from the postdocs, and from the staff. Collectively, this group encompasses a wide range of expertise, covering both the science and the economics of climate change, as well as the on-campus infrastructural and operational aspects of a university planning for climate change.

The committee is unanimous in its feeling not only of the urgency of the problem — expressed with particular emphasis by the younger generations — but also of the unique opportunity that this Conversation represents for MIT to take on a visible leadership role in the solution of the problem.

Q. How can a member of MIT get engaged in this Conversation?

A. We will create multiple opportunities for engagement throughout the current academic year. In the next few weeks, we will launch both an Idea Bank and a survey. The Idea Bank intends to capture the expertise and creativity of the MIT community and to engage it in a campus-wide brainstorm about what actions MIT could take to address climate change. We will welcome input on the full spectrum of possible actions that MIT could take. We will particularly welcome bold, creative ideas, because we feel that the spectrum of options for action available to a leading technical institution has not been fully explored to date.

The survey is being designed to provide input for the committee in structuring the Conversation. With the survey, we aim to reach a wider fraction of the MIT community — hopefully, all of you! — and to understand how we can best support the community in this important Conversation.

We will carefully review the input we receive through both the Idea Bank and the survey, distill it into broad categories for potential action, and use it to inform the centerpiece of the Conversation, a series of high-profile forums to be held in the spring term. These forums will focus on the different action categories that MIT can consider investing in to further its role in addressing climate change, including education, research, financial actions, policy, campus operations — with specifics that will be refined based on community input.

The months ahead will represent a vibrant time to discuss climate-change actions at MIT. We invite everyone in the community to be part of this Conversation! 

By News Office

You might not picture former Secretary of State George Shultz PhD ’49 as someone who drives an electric car, or has solar panels on the roof of his home. But he does — and Shultz has become a vocal proponent of action to combat climate change.

Shultz brought that message to MIT in a talk on Tuesday afternoon, advocating further policy and research efforts to address the problem, and discussing ways to engage people who have not previously supported action on climate change.

“The climate is changing,” Shultz told an audience in MIT’s Wong Auditorium. Speaking of those who have resisted the scientific consensus on the matter, he added, “If you don’t like the science, use your eyes.”

Shultz’s preferred approach involves two main steps: a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and increased government funding of research on clean technologies. The carbon tax would apply to the sale of fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gases that become trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and raise temperatures; money raised by that tax would then be refunded to citizens — making the approach “revenue-neutral,” meaning the government would not take in added revenue.

Shultz suggested referring to such initiatives as an “insurance policy” in recruiting support among those reluctant to take climate action. These policies, Shultz emphasized, would not be costly, especially compared with the long-term expense of dealing with climate change.

“The insurance policy isn’t even that expensive,” Shultz asserted. When it comes to R&D funding, he said, “The amount of federal government dollars is trivial. It isn’t even a rounding error.”

Moreover, he added, “You get a multiple out of the federal effort”: Private-sector investors will want to join a growing area of technological innovation.

In particular, Shultz emphasized, better electricity storage, whether through batteries or other technologies, would be a highly significant development, allowing intermittent solar and wind energy to be used when the sun is not shining, or when there is no wind.

“One of the real breakthroughs is when someone figures out long-term storage capacity,” Shultz said.

He added that implementing policies can bring about subsequent cultural or social changes as well.

“Once you have something like this in [place], it has an effect on people’s attitudes,” Shultz said. He noted that the Canadian province of British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008, and has subsequently seen sales of hybrid and electric vehicles rise, perhaps as a result.

“We shouldn’t be discouraged”

Shultz’s talk, titled, “How to Think about Energy and Climate,” was hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative, where Shultz serves on the external advisory board. Working to address climate change “is very much in the MIT tradition,” Shultz told the audience.

Shultz received his PhD in economics at MIT, and served on the economics faculty in the 1950s. From 1969 through 1974, he served as U.S. secretary of labor, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and secretary of the Treasury. Shultz served as secretary of state from 1982 to 1989, during which time he helped construct the last major international agreement on the atmosphere — the Montreal Protocol of 1987 phasing out chlorofluorocarbons, which deplete the ozone layer.

Then as now, Shultz recalled, some observers adopted a skeptical position about the scientific evidence. However, he noted, “In the case of the Montreal Protocol, the people who were worried [about the atmosphere] were right.”

Then-President Ronald Reagan also “thought we should take out an insurance policy,” Shultz said, and backed the treaty.

While a significant gulf exists between the nation’s two major political parties on the issue of climate policy, Shultz tried to persuade the audience that progress was still possible among congressional Republicans. “We have to think about how we approach people to find a common ground,” Shultz said, urging diplomacy toward those currently opposing action.

In 2009, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have limited carbon emissions through a “cap-and-trade” system, but the measure died in the Senate. The Obama administration has since directed the Environmental Protection Agency to limit greenhouse gases, a directive the Supreme Court largely upheld this summer, but the EPA’s efforts are still in their early stages.

Shultz also recommended that the U.S. and China pursue a bilateral agreement regarding climate and technology items where they could find common ground, and then use that to get other countries to sign on for further climate action, rather than waiting for global acceptance of a climate accord.

Shultz has made climate change one of his major interests as a policy advocate. In a 2013 interview with Scientific American, he noted that he had solar panels installed on his house several years ago and now drives an electric car, saying, “I figure I’ve got to walk the talk.” The presence of his four great-grandchildren, Shultz noted in those remarks, has helped give him a sense of urgency about the matter.

As difficult as the issue might seem, Shultz told his MIT audience yesterday, there is some progress being made, and more is possible.

“We shouldn’t be discouraged and think that nothing is happening,” Shultz said.

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

Global temperature is likely to rise 3.3-5.6 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, unless international climate negotiations in Paris next year are more effective than expected, according to a report released Monday by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. The predicted temperature increase surpasses the threshold identified by the United Nations as necessary to avoid the most serious impacts of climate change, altering precipitation patterns and heightening the pressures of population and economic growth.

“Our world is rapidly changing,” says John Reilly, co-director of the MIT Joint Program and a coauthor of the report. “We need to understand the nature of the risks we’re facing so we can prepare for them.”

Publication of the report, “2014 Climate and Energy Outlook,” comes on the heels of last week’s UN Climate Summit in New York City, where more than 120 heads of state gathered in preparation for climate negotiations next year. The agreement that comes out of the 2015 talks will inform global climate action after 2020, when existing measures agreed to in Copenhagen and Cancun expire.

The outlook report extends the existing measures after they end to evaluate global changes under possible post-2020 climate action. It uses UN population data and projects economic growth to explore the connections between socioeconomic factors and changing climate, land use, and water. 

“Population and economic growth are key drivers of change,” Reilly says. “Developing countries like China and India are growing fast, and will play a big role in future emissions. They’re also facing the unique challenge of trying to plan for this growth under a changing climate.”

The MIT team expects world energy use to double by 2050, largely due to increased energy use in developing countries, where booming industry and larger, wealthier populations will have more access to personal vehicles. Globally, clean energy sources will make some headway, but energy use will continue to be largely dominated by fossil fuels. As a result, global emissions are expected to double by the end of the century. To stay below the warming threshold, global emissions need to peak soon, if not immediately, the report concludes.

The outlook also examines a more ambitious climate agreement, based on expectations of what countries might pledge in the 2015 climate talks. The more ambitious pledges will further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it finds, but even with these pledges the world will release enough greenhouse gases by 2040 to make it unlikely that warming will stop at 2 C. 

“There is some uncertainty associated with these estimates,” says Erwan Monier, a research scientist at the Joint Program and a coauthor of the report. “The fact is that there is uncertainty about future emissions, and also in the climate’s response to those emissions. Yet, it is clear that we are not meeting the 2 C target based on current efforts alone.”

New this year is a focus on how these changes impact water resources, which will have to support a growing population’s need for food and energy. The “2014 Climate and Energy Outlook” evaluates water stress, or the amount of water used in an area for irrigation, industry, and household use, compared with how much freshwater is available in that area.

By the end of the century, freshwater supplies will increase 15 percent as hotter temperatures speed up the hydrological cycle, leading to more rain and snow. Global water use will keep pace, and is expected to increase 19 percent.

Water use is expected to skyrocket in India, China, parts of the Middle East, and North Africa, even though some of these countries, like India, will see more rain and snow. Hotter temperatures will lead to more precipitation, but it may fall at the wrong time of the year, after the growing season is over, or may runoff into the ocean.

Globally, most water is used for irrigation. As industrial and household water use grow, they can edge out irrigation, just as more water is needed for irrigation to feed more people.

“These pressures on water will mean increased focus on making sure there is enough water where and when it is needed,” says Charles Fant, a postdoctoral associate at the Joint Program and a coauthor of the report. “This can be done by transporting water to where it is needed, building more storage, or conservation and efficiency efforts.”

Solutions like these are often difficult to put in place, Fant cautions, as they are expensive and may be damaging to the environment.

“Preparing for these issues now simplifies things quite a lot for the future,” Fant says.

By Audrey Resutek | MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

Concrete is the world’s most-used construction material, and a leading contributor to global warming, producing as much as one-tenth of industry-generated greenhouse-gas emissions. Now a new study suggests a way in which those emissions could be reduced by more than half — and the result would be a stronger, more durable material.

The findings come from the most detailed molecular analysis yet of the complex structure of concrete, which is a mixture of sand, gravel, water, and cement. Cement is made by cooking calcium-rich material, usually limestone, with silica-rich material — typically clay — at temperatures of 1,500 degrees Celsius, yielding a hard mass called “clinker.” This is then ground up into a powder. The decarbonation of limestone, and the heating of cement, are responsible for most of the material’s greenhouse-gas output.

The new analysis suggests that reducing the ratio of calcium to silicate would not only cut those emissions, but would actually produce better, stronger concrete. These findings are described in the journal Nature Communications by MIT senior research scientist Roland Pellenq; professors Krystyn Van Vliet, Franz-Josef Ulm, Sidney Yip, and Markus Buehler; and eight co-authors at MIT and at CNRS in Marseille, France.

“Cement is the most-used material on the planet,” Pellenq says, noting that its present usage is estimated to be three times that of steel. “There’s no other solution to sheltering mankind in a durable way — turning liquid into stone in 10 hours, easily, at room temperature. That’s the magic of cement.”

In conventional cements, Pellenq explains, the calcium-to-silica ratio ranges anywhere from about 1.2 to 2.2, with 1.7 accepted as the standard. But the resulting molecular structures have never been compared in detail. Pellenq and his colleagues built a database of all these chemical formulations, finding that the optimum mixture was not the one typically used today, but rather a ratio of about 1.5.

As the ratio varies, he says, the molecular structure of the hardened material progresses from a tightly ordered crystalline structure to a disordered glassy structure. They found the ratio of 1.5 parts calcium for every one part silica to be “a magical ratio,” Pellenq says, because at that point the material can achieve “two times the resistance of normal cement, in mechanical resistance to fracture, with some molecular-scale design.”

The findings, Pellenq adds, were “validated against a large body of experimental data.” Since emissions related to concrete production are estimated to represent 5 to 10 percent of industrial greenhouse-gas emissions, he says, “any reduction in calcium content in the cement mix will have an impact on the CO2.” In fact, he says, the reduction in carbon emissions could be as much as 60 percent.

In addition to the overall improvement in mechanical strength, Pellenq says, because the material would be more glassy and less crystalline, there would be “no residual stresses in the material, so it would be more fracture-resistant.”

The work is the culmination of five years of research by a collaborative team from MIT and CNRS, where Pellenq is research director. The two institutions have a joint laboratory at MIT called the Multi-Scale Materials Science for Energy and Environment, run by Pellenq and Ulm, who is director of MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub, and hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative.

Because of its improved resistance to mechanical stress, Pellenq says the revised formulation could be of particular interest to the oil and gas industries, where cement around well casings is crucial to preventing leakage and blowouts. “More resistant cement certainly is something they would consider,” Pellenq says.

So far, the work has remained at the molecular level of analysis, he says. “Next, we have to make sure these nanoscale properties translate to the mesoscale” — that is, to the engineering scale of applications for infrastructure, housing, and other uses.

Zdeněk Bažant, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, and materials science and engineering at Northwestern University who was not involved in this research, says, “Roland Pellenq, with his group at MIT, is doing cutting-edge research, clarifying the nanostructure and properties of cement hydrates.”

The Concrete Sustainability Hub is supported by the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research and Education Foundation.

By David L. Chandler | MIT News Office

The following email was sent today to the MIT community by Maria T. Zuber, vice president for research.

To the members of the MIT Community:

I am pleased to share important news about the MIT Climate Change Conversation.

Last May, President Reif announced that a team composed of myself, Provost Marty Schmidt, MIT Energy Initiative Director Bob Armstrong and Professor Susan Solomon, Director of MIT’s environmental initiative (now the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative) would launch an open, campus-wide conversation on the challenge of climate change.

Today, I am very pleased to announce the broader community committee that is primed to plan and implement that conversation. As you will see from the roster below, the Committee reflects a range of expertise and perspectives. We would like to thank everyone, including the members of Fossil Free MIT and the MIT Office of Sustainability, who provided input and ideas that helped us build a committee of community members who could do justice to the complexity of the subject, stimulate fresh ideas, and think boldly and wisely together.

The Committee has accepted the following charge:

Charge to the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation
The Committee will plan and implement the MIT Climate Change Conversation, reporting to the Conversation Leadership (Provost Marty Schmidt, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, Environmental Solutions Initiative Director Susan Solomon and MITEI Director Bob Armstrong).

The Committee should seek broad input from the Institute community on how the US and the world can most effectively address global climate change. The Conversation should explore pathways to effective climate change mitigation, including how the MIT community – through education, research and campus engagement – can constructively move the global and national agendas forward. Possible activities for the Campus Conversation could include a lecture series, panels and a survey in which all points of view of the MIT community are sought, presented and discussed.

The Committee should produce a final report to be delivered to the Conversation Leadership. The report should list, in unranked order, key suggestions with associated pros and cons that encompass the range of views of the community. The Committee should accomplish its work during the FY14-15 academic year and submit its report by Commencement 2015.

The Conversation Leadership will solicit reactions to the report from the MIT community and, from the collective input, recommend to the President a path forward.

*         *         *

As President Reif noted last spring, at MIT, we achieve breakthroughs by encouraging widely different minds to tackle hard problems together. We are very grateful to everyone who has agreed to serve on the Committee. It is worth noting that, without exception, every member of the Committee was deeply grateful for the opportunity to help lead our community forward in meeting the pressing civilizational challenge of climate change.

I look forward to joining with all of you in an intense year of open debate, deep learning and new ideas.


Maria T. Zuber

The Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation

Roman Stocker (chair)
Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Adam Berinsky
Professor of Political Science
Department of Political Science

Kerry Emanuel
Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science
Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

Henry “Jake” Jacoby
William F. Pounds Professor of Management Emeritus
Sloan School of Management

Bernadette Johnson
Chief Technology Officer
Lincoln Lab

Jacqueline Kuo
Department of Mechanical Engineering

Christoph Reinhart
Associate Professor in Building Technology
Department of Architecture

Anne Slinn
Executive Director for Research
Center for Global Change Science

Tavneet Suri
Maurice J. Strong Career Development Associate Professor
Sloan School of Management

Geoffrey Supran
Graduate Student
Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Stian Ueland
Postdoctoral Associate
Department of Materials Science and Engineering

By News Office

Leslie Bromberg, a research scientist at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, and Alexander Sappok ’09 have been recognized by R&D Magazine for inventing one of the top 100 technologies of the year: the RF-DPF™ Diesel Particulate Filter Sensor. Sappok and Bromberg created the technology, which measures the amount, type, and distribution of contaminants on filters used to reduce engine and vehicle emissions, while Sappok was still a graduate student at MIT’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory.

The two first met when Bromberg attended Sappok’s Sloan Lab seminar about his research on diesel particulate filters (DPF).  “After the seminar, Leslie talked to me about an idea he had regarding the potential use of microwaves to try and measure the soot build-up inside the DPF,” Sappok notes. “The core idea was to use inexpensive circuit chips already mass produced for cell phones and other wireless devices in a new and unique application. Rather than transmitting data wirelessly, our approach was to monitor changes in the wireless signal itself, and use the signal to sense specific quantities of interest, such as soot, in the DPF.”

Bromberg had a number of DPFs in his lab, left over from plasma experiments focused on making auto engines burn fuel more cleanly and efficiently. In their spare time Bromberg and Sappok conducted preliminary tests, first using toothpicks to simulate soot loading in the tiny filter channels.  

From those early primitive measurements they were able to demonstrate the proof-of-concept, and over the next few years they worked on the idea, eventually building a business case around the technology. Entering the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition in 2009, they made it to the semifinals for the MIT Clean Energy Prize. They also worked closely with MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS).

In 2009 Bromberg and Sappok formally incorporated their company as Filter Sensing Technologies, Inc. (FST). On the day of his graduation that year, Sappok received a letter from the National Science Foundation notifying him of a grant to further develop the technology.  This allowed FST to build a rough prototype and conduct an engine test at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to prove that the sensing method would work on an engine. The company has since grown, and in 2011 it received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to further develop and commercialize the technology.

Bromberg and Sappok expect their sensing technology to offer an economical alternative to the current pressure sensor-based controls, which measure the amount of contaminants indirectly and suffer from a large degree of error. The RF-DPF can measure the amount of soot and ash directly and more accurately, enabling improved engine control and reduced fuel consumption. Results from fleet testing with Volvo/Mack trucks operated by the New York City Department of Sanitation have shown the potential to reduce the DPF-related fuel consumption by up to a factor of two, and have helped attract interest from major engine and vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers.

By Paul Rivenberg | Plasma Science and Fusion Center

When Kelly Heber goes snorkeling in Bali, she’s not exactly vacationing: In a few minutes, she’ll be onboard a nearby boat, asking the captain if he’s seen any comeback in his fish stocks in recent years. She’ll ask how he decides if a coral reef is healthy enough to support daily visits from boatloads of tourists, and if littering and pollution pose threats.

As a PhD student in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning working in the Science Impact Collaborative, Heber performs her environmental policy fieldwork in rural villages in Indonesia that are fringed by vibrant coral reefs. These reefs suffered during the period from the 1950s to the 1990s, when fishermen commonly exploded cyanide bombs in the water to kill and harvest all the fish in an area at once. Still in recovery, these “postblast” coral reefs now attract thousands of tourists a year, generating the main source of income for village communities.

To sustain their fragile marine resources, many postblast fishing villages have set up reef-management cooperatives. These self-governing groups of young men establish and live by a set of rules called “awig-awig,” which guide how the organization leaders resolve disputes with other villages over tour-boat or fishing privileges. They also carry out actions to promote reef health, such as holding dedicated “reef clean-up days” to pick up after tourists.

Coral-reef ecosystems are rebounding more quickly in some villages than others. So Heber studies the ways that different communities manage their reefs and eelgrass mangroves in order to identify the key ingredients for successful reef comeback. She ultimately wants to help fishing villages in Southeast Asia’s “Coral Triangle” build resilient reef-management systems that can respond to the effects of climate change and ocean acidification.

“The guiding question of my research,” Heber says, “is how do we keep these coral mangrove systems intact and productive, while still allowing villages to derive economic benefits and livelihoods from their local resource stock?”

Heber uses a mix of methods, both qualitative and quantitative. She conducts in-depth interviews, surveys, and focus groups in the communities, for which she designs questions based on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a well-established framework to assess human well-being in the context of ecosystem change. If she’s not immersed in village life, she’s in the ocean. Using Geographic Information Systems-based spatial mapping technology, she tracks changes in local coral-reef ecosystems. From her dives and interviews, she is building an understanding of how human factors, such as religion or socioeconomic status, relate to reef health. This August, she heads to Tioman, Malaysia, to add two new reef-community cases to her collection.

“She’s a person who swims with sharks. She’s not afraid of anything,” says her advisor, Lawrence Susskind, the Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, “and that’s the only way she could do the work she’s doing, to go off to Southeast Asia as a single woman by herself, tromping through these rural areas, talking to people, learning Indonesian, and doing whatever she needs to do. It takes guts. That’s Kelly.”

Heber is beginning to see why some villages are having less success with reef comeback than others. “It’s like there is a gap in knowledge,” she says. “They know about climate change, coral bleaching, and the reasons for sustainable practices, but it doesn’t filter down into day-to-day practices.” Heber once watched a cooperative member fish a piece of trash from the water, and then toss it off the other side of the boat where no tourists were swimming. “I was surprised until I realized that it wasn’t a sanctioned ‘reef clean-up day,’ so the idea of littering as something not to do just wasn’t clicking,” she says.

In the Balinese villages that have more resurgent reefs, Heber notices that the local reef-management cooperative is nested inside the pre-existing religious structure, usually Hinduism. The young men who belong to the so-called “pecelan laut,” or “sea police,” incorporate religion into their sense of stewardship over the reef, and feel a deep commitment to performing the reef-management duties.

Heber has critiqued the efforts of nongovernmental environmental organizations that try — and fail — to institute the awig-awig structure in Balinese villages without learning about the community beforehand. “If there aren’t key variables in place, people are just not going to buy into it,” she says. For example, the reef-management strategies that work in Hindu villages are not what work in Muslim villages, which do not have the direct democracy system needed for awig-awig rules.

To avoid this classic problem in natural-resource management, Heber practices participatory action research (PAR), a core approach within the MIT Science Impact Collaborative. PAR emphasizes a social scientist’s ethical obligation to foster a supportive, collaborative relationship with the local community. Next summer, she will return to Bali and share her research synthesis with the leaders of the local reef cooperatives in the awig-awig style.

Together, they will consider how Heber’s close analysis of their village can improve their reef management. She could help with building needed resources or writing grant applications for new technology to support reef health — such as “BioRock,” a method that speeds the growth of small areas of coral through electric shock generated by offshore. Residents of one village told her that they dream of a small library on the beach for tourists to learn about the coral-reef species they are about to visit.

By Genevieve Wanucha | Oceans at MIT

Smarter sensing

October 23, 2014

Joseph Azzarelli, a third-year MIT graduate student in chemistry, works on developing inexpensive, low-power chemical sensors — but the spark that set him on his scientific path has an unlikely source: a presentation on fly-fishing in a bookstore near Kankakee, Ill.

The speaker let Azzarelli, 9 years old at the time, practice casting a model fly rod in the store, and he was sold: “I was immediately captivated by the whole process,” Azzarelli says. He began saving money to buy a starter rod and learned to cast, fishing for largemouth bass and sunfish in the creeks and ponds around Kankakee.

By the time Azzarelli and his family moved from Illinois to Evergreen, Colo. — a fly-fishing mecca — when he was in the eighth grade, his interest had snowballed into full-blown obsession. He learned to tie flies, studied entomology, and combed through the vast literature on fly-fishing for trout. As a high-school freshman, he got a job at a fly shop in Evergreen called the Blue Quill Angler — “kind of like the MIT of fly-fishing shops,” Azzarelli says.

For Azzarelli, the sport shaped his approach to science. “Fly-fishing led me into this awareness of human impact on the environment, and that, in turn, led me into trying to learn about the science behind our impact,” Azzarelli says. “It really is a driving force for what I do now.”

A finger on the pulse

Today, Azzarelli is a student in the lab of Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT, where he works on developing improved chemical sensors for environmental and agricultural applications. Current sensors often use “high-temperature, metal oxide surfaces at which chemical reactions occur,” Azzarelli says. But maintaining those temperatures — as hot as 400 degrees Celsius — can be a power sink.

Azzarelli’s research aims to develop passive sensors that can be treated as simple circuit components; for example, the presence of the sensed chemical might lead to a change in resistance. Furthermore, a new method of constructing the sensing components — essentially, a pencil lead that can simply be drawn into a circuit — could achieve vast increases in affordability.

Lower cost and higher efficiency could allow the introduction of large numbers of chemical sensors into applications that are currently prohibitive. Azzarelli uses an environmental survey of a watershed as an example: “Right now, you have to contract a third party to come out and take those measurements and conduct a comprehensive study … but the problem is that that comprehensive study might happen once a month, or once a year, or once a decade.”

“The idea is to have sensors that are so inexpensive that you could have a lot of them and you could be collecting the data more frequently,” Azzarelli says. “The more continuously you can have your finger on that pulse, the more you can start to make intelligent decisions about activities that may influence those environments.”

“Sign me up”

Unlike his singular obsession with fly-fishing, Azzarelli’s path to MIT has been more convoluted. His interest in graduate school emerged during an internship with Stephen Buchwald, the Camille Dreyfus Professor of Chemistry, after his sophomore year at Montana State University. “I really did like the process of rigorous scientific inquiry,” Azzarelli said.

After graduating from Montana State in 2010, Azzarelli was accepted to graduate school at MIT, but decided to defer for a year to do an internship at Pfizer. “That gave me a taste of the corporate world,” Azzarelli says. “I was fortunate to gain insight into how a large organization like Pfizer operates at the level of an R&D center.”

While Azzarelli was considering both academic and nonacademic careers, he also became fascinated by an entirely different concept: the idea of economic externalities, costs or benefits that are incurred by a party that didn’t choose them, such as air and water pollution. Azzarelli was unsure of his future path when Swager contacted him about a project: using sensors to detect ethylene, a byproduct of fruit ripening, in order to determine fruit ripeness, and therefore reduce food waste.

It was the perfect project, combining Azzarelli’s scientific, economic, and entrepreneurial interests. “It was an incredibly serendipitous meeting, and once we had that conversation, I said, ‘I definitely want to join your lab, and any way I can be involved in that project, please sign me up,’” he says.

The team was awarded an MIT Deshpande Innovation Grant for the project, which has since spun out into a company, C2Sense. Although Azzarelli is not part of the company, entrepreneurship, he says, is likely to be in his future. “To me a technology is not successful by getting into a high-impact paper, it’s not successful by having a lot of people tell you it’s really interesting,” he says. “It’s successful once people are using it and find it valuable.”

Team player

Given his wide array of interests, it’s unsurprising that Azzarelli is enticed by interdisciplinary work — such as a recent collaboration with Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. King approached the Swager lab with an ancient papyrus that addresses early Christian values on celibacy — a document that has received attention for its suggestion that Jesus had a wife. Azzarelli helped analyze the authenticity of the document using a process known as FT-IR spectroscopy, which revealed that the papyrus is homogeneous “old paper,” and probably does not reflect modern tampering.

At MIT, Azzarelli is the outgoing president of the MIT Science Policy Initiative, a group that focuses on how scientists and engineers can best inform policymakers to help create laws that are most beneficial to society. He was also part of the MIT Strong team, which ran the Boston Marathon in April to raise money for the Sean A. Collier Memorial Fund, which honors the MIT Police officer who was killed in the line of duty last year.

“I think that the Collier Fund is a way to have a remembrance in the right way,” Azzarelli says, “not, ‘Let’s forever be sad about this event,’ but rather, ‘Let’s forever celebrate the people who, like Sean Collier, go above and beyond to make their communities better places.’”

By Zach Wener-Fligner | MIT News correspondent

What’s in your air?

October 23, 2014

Every senior at MIT has come to know the campus in a personal way, having established favorite haunts for studying, eating, resting, and playing during their four years at the Institute. But the Course 1 Class of 2014 is getting to know the campus on an even more intimate level, and wants to share that with others.

These students in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) just completed deployment of a highly sophisticated air-quality monitoring network that covers most of the 0.25-square-mile campus. The network, called CLAIRITY, has 24 indoor and outdoor sensor nodes that continuously measure gases and the small particles found in air pollution and send these data via wireless to a central computer. They formally launched the network and its web portal in a public presentation May 6 in Room 46-3002.

The network represents two semesters of work for the students, who designed, built, and deployed the network as the capstone project in the CEE engineering design subject. They worked at Beaver Works, a joint facility of MIT Lincoln Lab and MIT’s School of Engineering, located in Technology Square.

Air-quality networks like CLAIRITY, and other new types of innovative infrastructure, provide information essential to the design of smarter cities, a major goal of civil and environmental engineers.

“This project exemplifies the very best in our students, to take a project from an idea, to a plan, to implementation,” says CEE department head Markus Buehler, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “I congratulate the Class of 2014 on this major accomplishment, and am excited about the potential impact of this new technology.”

Smart cities need better air-quality monitoring

Air pollution is the leading environmental cause of premature death and a major contributor to chronic illness like asthma, particularly in congested urban areas with dense vehicle traffic. This is true in U.S. cities and even more so in many developing countries where the rapid rise in automobile use is leading to dangerously high levels of airborne particles and gases.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors air quality by measuring levels of particulate matter and gases defined by the Clean Air Act. In Massachusetts, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), following EPA protocols, has deployed sensors at 28 monitoring stations strategically placed across the commonwealth. Five of these monitoring stations are in Boston. Most cities, including Cambridge, have no DEP monitoring stations.

Thanks to the CEE students, the MIT campus now has its own network that provides extremely high-resolution, precise data — each sensor is calibrated using a state-of-the-art lab system — on par with the DEP monitoring stations. But a monitoring station in the DEP’s statewide network is more than 50 times as expensive as nodes in the CLAIRITY system, each of which cost only $1,500 to build.

The MIT network measures ozone, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and small particles like soot, dust, and pollen that can increase risk of lung and heart disease. The web portal shows a map indicating air health at each node, and displays data from one or more sensor nodes as a graph, in time intervals of the user’s choice, and makes these data downloadable as a CSV file. The site automatically refreshes every 10 seconds.

CLAIRITY reports that air on the Cambridge campus is relatively clean. The network picked up the occasional blast of gas and particles related to heavy vehicle traffic at certain points in the day – events that standard hourly monitors tend to average out, rather than report. It also recorded bursts of pollution at some indoor nodes, as well as outdoor pollution events that affected the entire Boston area.

The inexpensive network — now operational — could serve as a template for air-quality monitoring in other cities, even the more polluted cities throughout the developing world.

Hands-on project from start to finish

The students conceived of the project, created the initial design, and built the first prototype of their sensor node in the fall 2013 semester. This spring they fine-tuned the design, purchased the parts, assembled the gas sensors, placed a commercial laser particle sensor and microprocessor on each node, and then 3-D printed the housing for the sensors, as well as the weather-protection casing that covers the entire node.

“The seniors really rose to the challenge of this class, dedicating extensive time and energy to learning new skills and working through a problem from design to implementation and all the hiccups along the way,” says associate professor Colette Heald, who taught the class with lecturer Eben Cross and associate professor Jesse Kroll. “This network is a tremendous accomplishment, and something that we hope will be a part of the legacy of the CEE Class of 2014.”

The class divided into five teams, each with primary responsibility for one aspect of the project. The hardware team selected, purchased, designed and 3-D printed, and assembled the sensor nodes. The software team wrote the code used by each Raspberry Pi microprocessor to decipher data and forward it to the central computer. The calibration team translated voltage into concentration volumes, and then calibrated the continuous sensor data against high-fidelity instruments. Students on the deployment team installed all 24 nodes, and wired them to power connections. The communications team built and populated the web portal and translated data into easily understandable formats.

Daphne Basangwa, a member of the hardware team, says that “seeing the different teams’ representatives working together to reach a common goal” and “knowing this is how it will work in real life” injected the project with a sense of reality.

“Just keeping track of the email threads from all the people involved” in installing the 24 nodes was a challenge, says Linda Seymour, a member of the deployment team. “But the people we’re working with on installation are great. We’re meeting some of the people who make MIT function, like the electricians and the people who run the Tech shuttle.”

CLAIRITY node locations include Killian Court, Briggs Field, Stratton Student Center, Kresge Lot, the roof of the Green Building, inside the MIT cogeneration plant, on top of a Facilities flatbed truck, on a Tech Shuttle bus, and inside and outside Next House dining hall.

To see all node locations and learn more about the project, visit clairity.mit.edu.

By Denise Brehm | Civil and Environmental Engineering

MIT has announced a major new campuswide initiative to promote transformative, cross-disciplinary research relating to the environment.

The initiative will be formally launched in the fall, and its founding director will be Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science. Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, stewarded the establishment of the new initiative, and expressed gratitude to Solomon for having agreed to serve as its first leader.

“Professor Solomon is one of the finest climate scientists in the world,” Zuber says. “Her service in the coming year will be of immense value to MIT, and to the world.” A search will be mounted for a permanent director to run the initiative after its first year.

A major component of the initiative will be the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), whose creation was announced this week; J-WAFS was established through a major gift from MIT alumnus Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel. Headed by John Lienhard, the Jameel Professor of Water and Food, the lab is intended to help humankind adapt to a rapidly rising population, a changing climate, and increasing urbanization and development. The lab will work toward environmentally benign, scalable solutions for water and food supply across a range of regional, social, and economic contexts. 

Regarding the environment initiative, Solomon says, “Our faculty, students, and staff have a deeply shared vision of being responsible stewards of the environment. This initiative will focus and amplify the aspirations of our community to understand, inform, and seek solutions to pressing problems of the natural world and built environment.”

This new initiative, she says, will promote research that engages wide participation by members of the MIT community to address the most significant interdisciplinary problems in our environment, spanning the physical and social sciences; engineering; and urban planning and policy.

“The goal of the initiative will be very specific: for faculty members to self-organize into teams of people who are interested in defining genuinely new research directions; to come up with ideas across schools; and to propose research that might not easily be funded by current federal agencies, which tend to be defined by disciplinary areas,” Solomon says. Such interdisciplinary research is recognized as a key way to bring about significant advances in technology and understanding.

Like the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), the new program is also expected to produce detailed, comprehensive studies in particular areas of concern — in this case, large-scale environmental issues. “Such studies by MIT would be welcomed on Capitol Hill,” Solomon says.

“One of the most important challenges of our time is the question of how to build a sustainable human society,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in an email to the MIT community this morning. “The intense interest in this subject from our students and faculty reflects a shared sense of urgency and obligation. With Professor Solomon’s leadership, the environment initiative will help focus MIT’s distinctive strengths on advancing science, engineering, management, design and policy solutions to help drive the kind of progress required in time to make a difference.”

The initiative, which does not yet have a formal name, will start with funding for five years of operation, partly provided by MIT; after that it is expected to be self-sustaining, Solomon says. It will tie together research undertaken by many departments and centers at MIT, including, in addition to J-WAFS, the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; the Department of Urban Studies and Planning; the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; the Center for Global Change Science; and the Earth System Initiative, among others. Some themes of the new initiative will link closely with ongoing efforts in MITEI, particularly on climate change and water.

The search for the director was announced in February by Provost Martin Schmidt. The search committee, chaired by Professor Markus Buehler, included Professors Rob van der Hilst, Eran Ben-Joseph, JoAnne Yates, and Melissa Nobles. Professors Robert Armstrong and Vladimir Bulović also served on the committee; they were asked to help think through coordination with existing MIT initiatives. The committee worked with students to get their input.

The initiative will put out a call for initial interdisciplinary proposals this fall, Zuber says, adding: “We want new ideas. MIT can bring its special talents to bear to address global concerns, in the process drawing in people from across the campus.”

Additionally, a group consisting of Solomon, Zuber, Schmidt, and Armstrong (who serves as director of MITEI) will lead a series of conversations around campus on how MIT should engage to address the issue of climate change. This activity will include a series of lectures by prominent speakers representing a diverse set of perspectives.

The initiative will place a high priority on engaging the many students whose interests center on the environment and sustainability issues, Solomon says.

“There are a lot of opportunities for synergies,” she continues. “The initiative will take advantage of the traditionally open atmosphere at MIT, which fosters interactions among people working in very different fields of study. That spirit of collaboration, and the possibilities it unleashes, are very powerful.”

By David L. Chandler | MIT News Office