Skip to content ↓

Seed Awards Projects

Decarbonized and resilient value chains

Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab (a research lead on Climate Grand Challenges flagship project) and Nicholas de Monchaux, professor and department head in the Department of Architecture

Resource-constrained communities globally are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. To effectively mitigate climate-change-induced disasters, fostering a culture of preparedness at the community level is essential. Collective risk identification and community-led mapping can leverage specific contextual knowledge, raise awareness and enhance the sense of stewardship among local communities. Assimilation of bottom-up data in formal response protocols also helps foster a culture of consensual, inclusive policy-making around difficult choices such as relocation in the face of exacerbating climate-change impacts. At present, such community-level data collection, coordination, and planning are done through predominantly paper-based maps and analog methods, resulting in data that is seldom helpful for broader policy-making without resource-intensive digitization. We will develop a digital toolkit for community-led mapping of tangible and intangible assets through this grant. Focusing on the Southeast Asian context, this toolkit will leverage internet connected mobile devices to help collaboratively gather in-depth qualitative and quantitative information about the community’s tangible and intangible resilience assets and provide a platform for hyper-local resilience planning. This toolkit will provide resource-constrained communities with a novel tool to respond to disasters and plan for collective climate action by mediating bottom-up participation with top-down guidelines.

Chris Hill, principal research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab and the Apollo Program Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics
Supporting researchers: Björn Lütjens, PhD candidate; Mark Veillette, senior technical staff in the MIT Lincoln Laboratory

Climate Projections For All (CP4All) will research scientific machine learning schemes for the fast generation of synthetic local climate projections for any location on Earth and for any time in the next 70 years. It can provide a prototype tool for use in practical future climate planning, for characterizing climate risk, and for societal understanding and response. Our proposed approach will enable the rapid generation of targeted ensembles of likely local weather for different climate scenarios. We use local weather forecast ensembles and local climate projections synonymously, as local weather statistics are ultimately the real-world short-term experience of climate change and are accessible to non-experts. These ensembles can be used to guide adaptation and resilience strategies of local and regional communities and financial and infrastructure planners. Our proposed approaches leverage and extend prior work by our team in scientific machine learning for weather and climate modeling that have already proven impactful.

Mert Demirer, assistant professor of applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Jing Li, assistant professor and William Barton Rogers Career Development Chair of Energy Economics in the MIT Sloan School of Management

As climate action becomes increasingly imperative for all, more firms are pledging aggressive future emission reductions. We seek to understand how firms might be able to reduce their emissions and the potential impacts of reducing energy and emission intensity on the economic performance of firms. We propose to use detailed plant-level data on US manufacturers to answer two research questions: (i) what is the impact of improving general productivity on a firm’s emission intensity and total emissions, and (ii) what is the impact of reducing energy and emission intensity on a firm’s general productivity? Among US manufacturers, higher productivity is associated with lower emission intensity of air pollutants on average. Yet, whether interventions to reduce emission intensity would improve productivity, or vice versa, is not well-understood. Key to answering our research question is a model of firm production that allows emission “production” to vary flexibly from the productivity of other inputs. We will use variation from regulatory stringency and energy prices to disentangle the causal relationship between emission intensity and general productivity.

Alex Jacquillat, the 1942 Career Development Professor and assistant professor of operations research and statistics in the MIT Sloan School of Management

The logistics sector contributes to 20–25% of GHG emissions, a third of which stems from road freight. Whereas vehicle electrification is underway in car markets, it has been lagging in freight due to limited volumes of electric trucks in the market and to the lack of available and inter-operable charging stations along long-haul routes. In response, this project proposes analytics-based solutions to support the electrification of long-haul logistics operations, evaluate opportunities for public-private collaborations toward a scalable and inter-operable charging infrastructure, and assess the impact of electrification toward freight decarbonization. From an operational standpoint, this project develops algorithms to support vehicle routing operations in existing logistics networks characterized by partial electrification and limited charging infrastructure. From a planning standpoint, this project optimizes the deployment of dedicated charging stations for logistics providers. From a design standpoint, this project evaluates collaborative mechanisms between competing logistics providers and governments to accelerate the deployment of charging infrastructure in logistics networks. Methodologically, this project will contribute new models and algorithms for optimization under uncertainty, combining vehicle routing and facility location models. Practically, it will contribute new decision tools and policy recommendations to support the ongoing transition toward electrified logistics.

William Green, the Hoyt Hottel Professor in Chemical Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering and postdoctoral officer, and Wai K. Cheng, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory

Supporting Student Researchers: Sayandeep Biswas and Kariana Moreno

Long-distance freight transport is a major contributor to GHG emissions and is classified as a “Tough to Decarbonize” sector, since batteries do not have a high enough specific energy to achieve the required vehicle range. High pressure gaseous hydrogen can provide the range, but is expensive to store and deliver to a truck. Cryogenic liquid H2 is also expensive and hard to handle. We propose a different energy carrier for long-haul trucks and certain ships: Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carriers (LOHC). LOHC are room-temperature liquids that can release gaseous hydrogen fuel. They are inexpensive, commercially produced at large volumes, and allow long-term energy storage and safe distribution using existing fuel infrastructure. They have higher specific energy than batteries. We will design a novel powertrain to enable onboard H2 release from LOHC as needed to power the truck, and will explore a method to improve system efficiency by up to 30% by using heat in the vehicle exhaust. This can decarbonize long-haul trucking (and some shipping) with no need for expensive new refueling infrastructure. The proposed decarbonization concept for trucking and some shipping has the potential for relatively easy worldwide implementation, delivering needed reductions in GHG emissions from the transport sector.

John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, and director of the Rohsenow Kendall Heat Transfer Laboratory; and Nicolas Hadjiconstantinou, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, co-director of the Center for Computational Science and Engineering, associate director of the Center for Exascale Simulation of Materials in Extreme Environments, and graduate officer

Sustainable biochemical and biofuel production is essential for the deep decarbonization of commodities ranging from polymers to high-density liquid fuels. Separation and purification account for 40% of the energy consumed during the production of biomass-derived feedstocks requiring energy-intensive thermal distillation. Developing sustainable separations processes can drastically reduce the energy- and carbon-intensity of biobased chemicals and fuels. The proposed research endeavors to build computational tools to accelerate the development of reverse osmosis (RO), an energy-efficient membrane-based process, for the separation and purification of biochemicals and biofuels. The proposed investigation will begin by building a computational platform to predict the chemical potential of molecular species in complex multicomponent mixtures. Currently, estimating the chemical potential in bio-derived feedstocks is challenging as they often contain a large number of components, including a wide range of functional groups. We will combine group contribution and neural networks to predict chemical potential in complex mixtures. Grand Canonical Monte Carlo combined with Gaussian process regression will be used to directly estimate and bound chemical potential estimates in multicomponent mixtures. Finally, the chemical potential model will be used to estimate the energy savings attainable using RO for two key biochemical and biofuel separations, guiding future membrane and materials development.

Michael Howland, Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Infrastructure elements which consume high quantities of energy, such as data or manufacturing centers, may be vulnerable to the effects of climate change on energy systems. As energy generation is decarbonized with variable renewable energy and many hydrocarbon-based processes are electrified, both energy generation and demand will depend on weather and climate variations. Climate change will impact weather conditions. In this project, we will develop a toolkit to assess the vulnerability of industry infrastructure siting to the impacts of climate change on energy systems. We will develop a framework which leverages climate and energy system modeling to identify risk events. Climate model projections are inherently uncertain, relying on many unknown parameters – we will assess the uncertainty of the modeling framework. We will perform a validation study using publicly available historical data to establish confidence in assessing potential vulnerabilities in future climates, for which we do not yet have validation data. Finally, we will perform case studies to assess infrastructure siting locations which are resilient to the effects of climate change through decision-making under uncertainty including realistic costs and constraints.

Circularity and Materials

Antoine Allanore, associate professor of metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Supporting Researchers: Katie Daehn, Postdoctoral Associate

We have developed a new, cost-effective sulfidation technology that is particularly suited to treat typical pigments and impurities found in aluminum scrap mixed that are currently landfilled. In addition, the technology and chemical principle offers to color selectively different aluminum alloys based on their alloying element (Si, Mg, Zn, Cu). We propose herein to evaluate the technical and economical feasibility of using the new sulfidation technology to process and sort aluminum scraps that today are either difficult to distinguish, or that are simply landfilled due to their unfavorable coatings.

Brad Olsen, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor and graduate admissions co-chair in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Kristala Prather, the Arthur Dehon Little Professor and department executive officer in the Department of Chemical Engineering

Plastic waste is creating a growing environmental crisis.  While recycling provides one possible solution, challenges with product form factor and waste collection make it an imperfect solution.  Biomass-based and biodegradable polymers provide a circular process that includes the environment, but they fail to capture the full efficiency possible via mechanical recycling and therefore demand heavy resource utilization.  Here, we will develop materials for a new double loop circularity paradigm whereby biomass-based polymers are designed to be mechanically recycled when they are collected but biodegraded when they are accidentally released, providing a high carbon-efficiency and environmentally robust solution to plastics sustainability.  We will demonstrate this new paradigm on polyurethanes of potential interest as interlayer adhesives in multilayer packaging, a large sustainability challenge due to its lack of biodegradation and incompatibility with most current and proposed recycling processes.  Work will involve methods for identifying monomer candidates from metabolic networks and candidate prioritization, material synthesis and testing, and demonstrating both recycling and degradation circularity loops.

Otto Cordero, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Desiree Plata, the Gilbert W. Winslow (1937) Career Development Professor in Civil Engineering and associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Plastic pollution is one of the major environmental crises of our times. Every year, over two megatons of plastic waste flow into the seas and oceans and plastic debris litter our cities, contaminate our soils and water supplies. With the demand for plastic-based products increasing faster than ever, we need solutions to circularize the plastic economy, by replacing traditional plastics with biodegradable alternatives and developing strategies to recycle and convert these materials into valuable byproducts. Microbes such as bacteria can play a key role in this strategy, as they have the power to break down complex polymers. In this work, we will engineer a synthetic microbiome based on marine microbes that degrade bio-based polymers used for packaging. We will explore the interaction mechanisms between microorganisms in a 7-8 species consortium and their impact on degradation rates and chemical degradation products. After characterizing the consortium and identifying its optimal composition, we will propose a pilot-scale reactor to demonstrate the feasibility of this concept as a novel waste management strategy that enables the recovery and recycling of biodegradable plastics.

Kripa Varanasi, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering

An unacceptable amount of plastic waste is dumped into the environment. A large body of research has been towards creating “biodegradable” plastics. Unfortunately, these “biodegradable” plastics do not always degrade completely, leaving micro-plastics in the environment. Furthermore, even biodegradable materials have to be coated with nonbiodegradable materials to impart essential barrier properties (such as moisture, O2), thereby preventing recycling and composting. In contrast, fruit peels offer an enticing possibility: fruits, such as apples, can last 2 to 4 weeks without going bad at room temperature and are completely biodegradable. Inspired by fruit peels and other composite materials in nature, we propose to develop natural biodegradable packaging materials with multifunctional barrier properties. We aim to establish a framework which will allow the design of low-cost sustainable packing with high flexibility in mechanical characteristics, barrier properties as well as fabrication methods. Based on this framework we will develop coatings to enhance barrier properties of existing biodegradable packaging, such as paper cups, as well as stand-alone packaging materials. If successful, our approach will solve a major challenge in packaging.

Gregory Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Brad Olsen, Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor and graduate admissions co-chair in the Department of Chemical Engineering

Textiles and fibers represent at massive industry with significant impact on both the environment and climate. Unlocking circularity in the use and reuse of these materials would liberate this industry from its heavy reliance on virgin feedstock for both natural and synthetic fibers. Chemical recycling offers the surest means for achieving true material circularity, avoiding the progressive degradation of performance associated with other recycling methods. In particular, material substitution with degradable polyesters would eliminate problems of environmental persistence while simultaneously enabling circularity via plant-based and microbial processes. However, compared to petroleum-based polymers, only a fraction of the polyester composition space has been evaluated for properties pertinent to fiber formation and textile performance. In this project, we propose to develop high throughput screening techniques suitable for the rapid evaluation and identification of candidate polyesters that are synthesizable, spinnable, meet the performance profiles of existing synthetic and/or natural fibers, and degradable. As demonstration cases, we will collect data on two polyester families, the poly(3-hydroxyalkanoates) and polyesters based on furan dicarboxylic acid. Furthermore, from the data collected we will develop quantitative structure-property relationships to predict the properties of polyesters yet to be synthesized.

Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics

Supporting Researchers: Milena Janjevic, research scientist in the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics and lead researcher for the MIT CTL Supply Chain Design Initiative, and Matthias Winkenbach, research scientist in the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, director of the MIT Megacity Logistics Lab, and director of MIT CAVE Lab

This study focuses on the recovery and recycling system for the municipal solid waste, which is currently affected by numerous inefficiencies: underserved communities because of the extant coverage of the processing facilities, high cost of transportation and high environmental impact. The study is composed of two phases aiming to explore short-term and long-term opportunities to improve the efficiency and decrease the externalities associated with the recovery and recycling of goods. Short term opportunities concern the design and evaluation of alternative operating models that can be deployed within the current infrastructure of large-scale processing facilities (e.g., deployment of community collectors or small-scale materials recovery facilities). Long-term opportunities concern structural changes to the infrastructure which are needed to accommodate future needs. To this end, this research project will prototype a series of quantitative models which allow assess the comparative performance of competing models for reverse logistics.

Siqi Zheng, the STL Champion Professor of Urban and Real Estate Sustainability at the MIT Center for Real Estate and Department of Urban Studies and Planning, faculty director of the MIT Center for Real Estate, and faculty director for the MIT Sustainable Urbanization Lab; and Randolph Kirchain, principal research scientist and co-director of MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub

This project aims to characterize the barriers and opportunities for increased circularity of building materials and develop a preliminary roadmap to overcome those barriers for construction materials. A key barrier to circularity is uncertainty about the supply of and demand for recycled materials. Uncertainties create real and perceived risks that dissuade firms from engaging in circular practices. Increased information about secondary materials supply and demand should reduce perceived risks and, therefore, foster more materials reuse. We will address this gap by surveying 500 members of at least one large state building association to assess their current circular practices, their attitudes towards, beliefs about, and experiences with circular building practices. The survey will be designed collaboratively, together with a team of MIT researchers and builders. It will aim to identify circular building practices that might be targeted for further adoption, and to develop interventions to address misperceptions amongst builders. Its output will be used for an academic publication, and white paper(s) to engage industry members and policy makers.

Natural carbon sinks

Joann de Zegher, the Maurice F. Strong Career Development Professor and assistant professor of operations management in the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Karen Zheng the George M. Bunker Professor and associate professor of operations management in the MIT Sloan School of Management

Abstract: Nearly 20% of humanity’s yearly carbon footprint can be sequestered by farmers and ranchers worldwide through sustainable practices. However, this potential is largely unrealized due to a lack of wide-spread adoption of these practices, specifically by smallholder farmers in developing countries because of economic and information obstacles. There is an exciting opportunity of leveraging global carbon markets as a financing mechanism to accelerate adoption of sustainable practices and turn resource constrained smallholder farmers into “carbon farmers.” To enable this opportunity, our research goal is to design effective incentive systems based on soil carbon measurements to motivate large-scale adoption of sustainable farming practices. The proposed research will take a data-driven, community-centered, iterative approach to address several key questions in the incentive design: (i) identify local operational and behavioral constraints for interpretability and practical implementation, (ii) how to account for inherent data uncertainty and fluctuations in soil carbon measurements, and (iii) how to incorporate the influence of nonlinearity in biological processes. The team has strong research expertise in practical mechanism design and has developed significant field-based capabilities to pilot the proposed solutions with farming communities and eventually bring the most promising solution to scale.

Ariel Furst, the Raymond A. (1921) And Helen E. St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Mary Gehring, associate professor of biology in the Department of Biology, core member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and graduate officer

Interactions between microbes in the soil and plant root systems are essential to maintain healthy ecosystems. Unfortunately, in many cases, beneficial microbes have been effectively destroyed due to current farming and land management practices. Thus, significant effort has been focused on developing microbes for delivery to soil to replenish the rhizome, decrease the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and improve the resilience of plants upon environmental stress. However, the majority of these efforts have been limited due to difficulties with production and transport of target microbes to areas most in need. We have developed an inexpensive, easy-to-apply protective coating that enables the production and transport of microbes under non-ideal conditions. The coating self-assembles on individual microbes and is derived from components that are generally recognized as safe by the FDA. This advance will enable the global restoration of soil microbiomes and increase crop yields from treated farmland.

John Fernández, professor of building technology in the Department of Architecture and director of MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative
Supporting researchers: Marcela Angel, research program director at MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative; Norhan Bayomi, Post-doctoral Associate, MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative

Biodiversity is declining worldwide, driven foremost by the intensification in land conversion through the transformation of natural areas for agriculture, industrial-scale forestry production, and human settlements. Notably, much of the most rapidly urbanizing growth is located in or adjacent to regions of rich biodiversity and sensitive ecosystems. In addition, global urbanization affects ecosystems far beyond the spatial extent of cities, through resource extraction, air and water born pollution and waste, and diverse climate consequences. Mainstreaming biodiversity data is a priority to improve decision-making processes that enhance the relationships between cities and the biodiversity and ecosystems that support them. We propose the implementation of a biodiversity detection and classification framework using AI and multi-stakeholder engagement to overcome urban biodiversity mapping challenges. The project will focus on the context of two Colombian cities located in biodiversity and carbon-rich ecosystems, namely, Quibdó and Leticia.

Charles Harvey, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and César Terrer, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Although soils contain more carbon than plants and the atmosphere combined, the depletion of soil carbon stocks by intensive agriculture has created a global carbon debt of approximately 116 billion tons, equivalent to all the CO2 emitted by the United States since 1800. Recovering the critical role of soils in the natural carbon cycle is a vital element of defense in mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis. Just as important is opportunity for co-benefits: improving agricultural production provides an opportunity to engage entire value chains in the essential benefits of regenerative practices such as fostering community engagement, increasing soil fertility, improving water quality, and stemming additional loss of biodiversity. The proposed work aims to enhance data and methodology capability towards improved assessment of the potential for soil carbon removal.

Social dimensions and adaptation

Manduhai Buyandelger, professor in the Anthropology Section, and Michael Short, the Class of ’42 Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering

Supporting Researcher: Lauren Bonilla, postdoctoral fellow and social geographer, MIT Anthropology

With the growing urgency of climate change, large-scale communities must decarbonize as quickly as possible. Top-down solutions such as carbon credits and heavy-handed, local energy policies have yet to bear sufficient fruit, leading us to hypothesize that social, political, and anthropological factors must be given equal consideration to technical ones. In this MCSC Seed Award, we will develop a generalized framework to anthro-engineer decarbonization at the scale of millions of people – creating a solution for one focused demographic while generalizing our results to be used in other million person scale communities. We focus on Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – the coldest and most polluted capital city on Earth – where drastic environmental degradation to air pollution and climate change have led to rapid erosion of both environmental and democratic living conditions. This cross-school project, comprised of anthropology and engineering Co-PIs, postdocs, and NEET undergraduates, will explore the contexts for designing and implementing a locally specific, culturally acceptable, and socio-economically viable reusable molten salt heat bank, amenable to energy input by concentrated solar and nuclear power, to reduce this dependency of citizens on their government, and sustainably decarbonize the city.

Janelle Knox-Hayes, Associate Professor and Director of the Resilient Communities Lab, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab (a research lead on a  Climate Grand Challenges flagship project)

Supporting Researchers: Carolina Bastidas, Research Scientist in the Sea Grant College Program

While some individuals and communities will have the resources to adapt to or avoid the worst impacts of climate change, others will find their homes becoming uninhabitable, their livelihoods vanishing, and their health and security threatened. While such inequities are routinely noted, solutions that aim to increase resilience often focus on technological fixes and economic metrics rather than on the social complexities of communities. Convergence of traditional (TEK) and scientific (STEAM) ecological knowledge is critical to achieving equitable, sustainable, and regionally appropriate mitigation and adaptation to climate change. This proposal builds convergence by weaving together the expert knowledge of different STEAM disciplines, and by recognizing and integrating the unique scientific value of Indigenous knowledge and ecological practices. The project aims to build a collaborative network between academic, community, and policy groups across Massachusetts to mainstream TEK-STEAM knowledge in identifying critical regional socio-ecological systems that must be addressed to improve equitable sustainability and adaptation outcomes for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Back to top