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Remarks from the installation ceremony for MIT Chaplain Kirstin Boswell-Ford

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 3:25pm

Reverend Kirstin Boswell-Ford was installed as MIT Chaplain at a ceremony on Sept. 28. Her remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below.

Thank you.

  • President Reif
  • Chancellor Barnhart
  • Vice President and Dean Nelson
  • My wonderful colleagues: Gus Burkett, Diversity and Community Involvement, and so many others across the Institute that have reached across boundaries of divisions and departments to fully embrace me and our joint work for this great institution. 
  • Thank you to Gayle Gallagher and the wonderful team in Institute Events.
  • To the chaplains, chaplain conveners, and my ever-steady assistant, Christina English, it is my honor to count you all as colleagues.
  • I do indeed feel blessed to have my family here — and friends who are like family in the truest sense.
  • Thank you to my chaplain colleagues from Tufts, Wellesley, and Brown, who participated in this program and are truly partners in this journey.

One of my favorite lyrics from the work of Canadian singer, songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen, is taken from his song, “Anthem,” which he penned over the course of an entire decade. The phrase, a powerful and meaningful message for our time, is:

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

When I was leaving my role at Brown University to come to MIT in 2017, Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson and the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life gave me a wonderful gift, which hangs in my office, and which I read often — especially during difficult times.

I have since heard it referred to as a “manifesto for our time.”

Influenced by Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and writer Courtney E. Martin composed the following, which seems especially poignant for this moment in our history and herstory. 

“Feel all the things. Feel the hard things. The inexplicable things, the things that make you disavow humanity’s capacity for redemption.
Feel all the maddening paradoxes. Feel overwhelmed, crazy. Feel uncertain. Feel angry. Feel afraid. Feel powerless. Feel frozen. 
And then ... FOCUS.
Pick up your pen. Pick up your paintbrush.
Pick up your damn chin.
Put your two calloused hands on the turntables, in the clay, on the strings.
Get behind the camera. Look for that pinprick of light.
Look for the truth (yes, it is a thing — it still exists).
Focus on that light. Enlarge it.
Reveal the fierce urgency of now.
Reveal how shattered we are, how capable of being repaired.
But don’t lament the break.
Nothing new would be built if things were never broken.
A wise man once said: There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in. Get after that light. This is your assignment."

According to our mission, this Institute is committed to “generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges … [Embracing our] diversity … we seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.”

That is the light that we are after, and it is no small task.

The question is how … how to engage this awesome responsibility.

In his writing, Dr. Howard Thurman described a sense of wholeness that lies at the core of every human being. This wholeness, he said, “must abound in all that he/she does,” and is the end that each of us seeks throughout the course of our lives.

I believe that this quest for wholeness needs to be at the center of what we do in the academy and should be the foundation for our work. 

The divided self is the unfulfilled and less abled self, but when we integrate the intellectual with the spiritual, the ethical, the emotional, the physical — when all of these pieces learn to truly work in concert with each other, that is when wholeness abounds.  

I’m so glad to be here — at an institution that values this quality of the human condition.

Where inquiry and dialogue — between faith communities and those in every location on the spectrum of religion, spirituality, secularity, ethical and moral engagement — where this dialogue can happen in a respectful and open manner.  

Where we can all take away bits and pieces — ideas, knowledge, new and different questions … and incorporate them into ourselves, our understanding of ourselves and the world — into our very particularity.  

This exchange then enriches us all.  

For you see, wholeness is not about us as individuals — but also for others and the environment around us.

Writing from a Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

As we prepare to leave this celebration, let us rejoice in this beginning, and go forth to change the world. 


From security to systems: J-WAFS name change reflects its breadth and impact

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 1:00pm

The terms “food system” or “water system” refer to the broad array of activities, resources, and technologies — as well as policies and economics — involved in the production, processing, transport, and consumption or use of food and water.  These terms encompass issues such as food and water safety, access to fertilizer, water purification, climate change, and the sustainability of water supplies and food production systems. 

Water and food security, which is generally defined as providing all people access to sufficient clean water and safe and nutritious food, is an important aspect of our local, national, and global food and water systems.

That's why the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab has announced it is changing its name to the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, reflecting the broader range of challenges embodied by the terms “food systems” and “water systems.”  It retains the acronym “J-WAFS,” by which has been known, but will adopt a new tag line: “Securing humankind’s vital resources.”

J-WAFS was founded in 2014 by MIT and Community Jameel, the social enterprise organization, to leverage the Institute’s strengths in order to find solutions to global-scale challenges that our water and food systems are facing, challenges that are exacerbated by climate change, urbanization, and population rise.

J-WAFS catalyzes MIT food and water research that is geared toward real world impact. By awarding seed research grants, supporting commercialization of breakthrough water and food technologies, funding and mentoring graduate students, and convening global experts to set international research and policy agendas, J-WAFS works to advance knowledge and innovation to build resilient systems that can deliver safe and adequate supplies of water and food for our changing world.  

While the name has changed, the same commitment remains, says J-WAFS’ director, Professor John Lienhard.

“Our goal in this name change is to even more accurately represent what we already do. We considered various terms that reflect the range of water and food sector issues that we focus on: supply, safety, solutions, sustainability,” Lienhard says. “Systems was a clear winner for conveying the comprehensive perspective and breadth of our work across the Institute.”

J-WAFS has funded principal investigators from all five schools at MIT. Well over 10 percent of all MIT faculty — from disciplines as diverse as mechanical engineering, chemistry, and anthropology — have submitted proposals for J-WAFS funding.  J-WAFS’ growing portfolio of funded research is driving improvements in:

  • water safety and supply;
  • food safety and supply;
  • agricultural technology (food genetics, fertilizers, irrigation, and packaging);
  • sustainability of food and water systems and the adaptation strategies needed to respond to climate change;
  • energy efficiency of our water and food systems; and
  • economic and policy strategies for resilient water and food supplies.

To date, two companies have spun out of MIT as the result of J-WAFS support, and millions of dollars of follow-on funding have been raised by the recipients of J-WAFS’ seed grants. J-WAFS is helping to build a solutions-oriented research community that will meet humankind’s water and food needs today and in the future even as the goal stays the same: securing water and food, humankind’s vital resources.   

Celebrating the life of Colt Richter ’16

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 11:00am

“Flying with Colt above glaciers and between mountain peaks, I understood how he fell in love with flying, and why he was so excited to share that with others.”

Sam Parker ’15 wrote that about his late friend and classmate Colt Richter ’16. He added that Richter, who died this past July when the small plane he was piloting crashed in Alaska, relished service above all else and often refused to claim credit or recognition, “as his humility wouldn't allow it.”

Another close companion, MIT alumnus Dylan Soukup ’14, echoed such a sentiment, writing that Richter had “a love of helping others, a passion for selflessness” and a deep connection to the breathtaking natural beauty of his native state of Alaska. As a newly arrived first-year student, Richter said in an interview for MIT News that one of the things he anticipated missing most about his home was the view.

“I can look out my window and see mountains,” said Richter, who went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering. “In Boston, it’s really, really flat.”

Judging by how he embraced his time on and around campus, Richter managed to adjust to the more linear landscape. He joined the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity, sung in the Ohms a cappella group, and served as a volunteer emergency medical technician for MIT EMS. He served on MIT’s student-run ambulance service during all four of his years on campus, and as a junior he became the chief and built close ties to members of the MIT Police.

Richter also served as a student member of the Presidential Advisory Cabinet. MIT President L. Rafael Reif expressed fond memories, saying “Colt was one of the most exceptional students to serve.”

“He was thoughtful, warm, and wise, and he cared deeply about MIT's students,” President Reif said. “As we mourn Colt's tragic loss, we are grateful for the time he spent on our campus. He was a special young man, and he made all of MIT better and stronger.”

Richter had planned to put all of his MIT experiences to good use, as he had long expressed a dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He had been accepted to medical school at the University of Washington and was due to start this past August. Richter spent the past two gap years flying commercially throughout Alaska.

His passion for aviation is hard to overstate. All of his friends commented that he was most comfortable in the air and made those with him equally so.

Richter received his pilot’s license at just 17, allowing him, said close friend and fellow aviation enthusiast Matt Guthmiller ’18, to “fly a wider variety of airplanes and in more diverse environments in 24 years than many pilots do in a lifetime.” Not surprisingly, he even taught a flying class at MIT.

Flying was a family affair too, as Richter’s father flew as did his grandfather, who was a fighter pilot in World War II prior to becoming a commercial airline pilot. When Richter was not in the air, he was exploring all the places travel could take him, enjoying hiking in the remote outdoors as well as fishing, skiing, or skydiving. 

As busy as he was — Guthmiller noted his classmate’s talent playing piano, guitar, and singing — Richter made finding time for others his greatest priority.

“He was the kind of person who, despite keeping extremely busy, was never too busy for friends or family,” Guthmiller said. “He cared deeply about the people around him, took care of them, had a tremendous amount of fun, and simply made you want to be a better person.”

Tom Troxel, a lifelong Alaskan friend who considered Richter a brother, conveyed the value his friend placed on family.

“We lived at each other’s houses and in the summers, we would sneak off to our cabins every chance we could. Whether we were debating constitutional law or getting up to no good at Big Lake, Colt always knew how to put a smile on my face and he always had a big grin spread across his,” Troxel said. “He was part of my family and I was part of his. After graduating from MIT, Colt came back to Alaska, partially so he could fly full-time but more importantly so he could spend more time with his dad and mom. I remember talking to him so many times since he moved back home about how important it was for him to be in Alaska with them — he loved Cathy and Rick so very much.”

In the words of his parents, Cathy and Rick Richter: “Colt was our only child and the perfect son to us. We miss him deeply and are so appreciative of the loving support we have received throughout this difficult time.”

Richter, at once grounded and in the clouds, carved out a path for others to follow. His parents noted that dozens of those who knew him whether near or far, did not hesitate to come to Alaska for the service and celebration of his life. For all of his talent, drive, and interests, a simple wish from those who loved him said it all: “Fly high my friend.”

A celebration of life event, led by MIT Reverend Kristin Boswell-Ford, will take place on campus on Nov. 16.

The Colt Richter (2016) Scholarship Fund has been established by Colt’s parents at MIT. Gifts may be made on-line using the following link: Checks, payable to MIT, may be sent to: MIT Office of Memorial Gifts, 600 Memorial Drive Room W98-526, Cambridge MA 02139. Questions about gifts may be directed to Bonny Kellermann at 617-253-9722 or

MIT Solve selects new class of innovators for 2018

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 10:40am

A group of 60 promising social entrepreneurs from around the globe convened in New York City at the MIT Solve Challenge Finals on Sept. 23 to pitch their solutions to four global Challenges: Coastal Communities, Frontlines of Health, Teachers and Educators, and Work of the Future.

The teams unveiled ideas ranging from sea urchin-fighting robots to a platform for multilingual books to a neonatal vital sign monitor to a virtual reality job training tool. After a long day of pitches and deliberation, four judging panels (made up of Solve’s Challenge Leadership Groups) selected 33 teams to form the 2018 Solver class, including:

The finals began with an engaging opening plenary session titled “Big Bold Optimism for Progress.”

“While there’s still much to be done in the world, we’ve made great progress in the last decades,” Alex Amouyel, Solve’s executive director, said to kick off the session. “We can do much more by taking risks and investing in innovation.”

Hala Hanna, Solve’s managing director of community, and David Moinina Sengeh SM '12, PhD '16, chief innovation officer for Sierra Leone, then began the first discussion of the day. The speakers focused on Solve’s core value: that even big challenges are solvable. But how?

“It’s about redirecting the money and the resources that are there now to supporting the people who are doing, who are coding, who are Solvers,” Sengeh said.

The Atlassian Foundation and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also announced an additional $2.6 million in follow-on funding for last year’s Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future Solver teams during the opening plenary.

In the closing plenary, “Bridging the Pioneer Gap,” a panel of Noubar Afeyan of Flagship Pioneering, Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations spoke about their common goal to close the pioneer gap and ensure that every great idea had the chance to flourish. During the discussion, which was moderated by Leslie Picker of CNBC, the panelists said that to accomplish this, innovators need more than just funding, they also need support.

“Many of the contestants came here and said partnerships are about capacity, about ideas, about exchange, and moral support,” said Okonjo-Iweala. “You can get far more from these networks and partnerships than just money.”

After the panel, the new Solver Class was announced, and five prizes were awarded.

Among them was the General Motors Prize for Advanced Technologies, which was presented by, Ken Kelzer, General Motors’ vice president of global vehicle components and subsystems.

“The optimism, the partnership, the open innovation, the focus on human solutions, and the desire to use technology to solve the world’s most pressing problems are all values that GM shares with MIT Solve,” Kelzer said.

This prize awards $100,000 to solutions that deploy advanced technologies within the Teachers and Educators and Work of the Future challenges, with the goal of advancing innovations that provide skills and jobs in the transportation sector. Kelzer and General Motors recognized the importance of strong schools and workers for the future of their own organization and awarded the generous prize to four Solver teams:, Virtual Grasp, Livox, and TalkingPoints.

Four other organizations similarly supported new Solver teams. In total, $1 million in prize funding is available for the new Solver class, with a total of over $3.5 million in funding for current and new Solver teams. A full list of prizes and their recipients is available online. A livestream of the event is also available for viewing.

The new Solver class will spend the next year working closely with Solve to grow and improve their solutions through funding, mentorship, and support from the Solve community.

The Committee on Animal Care solicits feedback

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 10:29am

The Committee on Animal Care (CAC) and the vice president for research welcome any information which would aid efforts to assure the humane care of research animals used at MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

Established to ensure that MIT researchers working with animals comply with federal, state, local, and institutional regulations on animal care, the CAC inspects animals, animal facilities, and laboratories, and reviews all research and teaching exercises that involve animals before experiments are performed.

If you have concerns about animal welfare, please contact the Committee on Animal Care (CAC) by calling 617-324-6892, or send your concern in writing to the CAC Office (Room 16-408), or email The issue will be forwarded to the chair of the CAC and the attending veterinarian.

You may also contact any of the following:

•          Vice president for research: 617-253-3206,

•          Director of the Division of Comparative Medicine / attending veterinarian: 617-253-1735,

•          CAC chair: 781-858-4011,

All concerns about animal welfare will remain confidential; the identity of individuals who contact the CAC with concerns will be treated as confidential and individuals will be protected against reprisal and discrimination consistent with MIT policies. The Committee on Animal Care will report its findings and actions to correct the issue to the vice president for research, the director of comparative medicine, the individual who reported the concern (if not reported anonymously), and oversight agencies as applicable.

Beach sand ripples can be fingerprints for ancient weather conditions

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 11:59pm

When a coastal tide rolls out, it can reveal beautiful ripples in the temporarily exposed sand. These same undulating patterns can also be seen in ancient, petrified seabeds that have been exposed in various parts of the world and preserved for millions or even billions of years.

Geologists look to ancient sand ripples for clues to the environmental conditions in which they formed. For instance, the spacing between ripples is proportional to the depth of the water and the size of the waves that molded the underlying ripples.

But sand ripples aren’t always perfectly parallel, carbon-copies of each other, and can display various kinks and sworls. Can these more subtle, seemingly random deviations or defects tell us something about the conditions in which a sandy seabed formed?

The answer, according to researchers from MIT and elsewhere, is yes. In a paper published online and appearing in the Oct. 1 issue of Geology, the team reports that some common defects found in both ancient and modern seabeds are associated with certain wave conditions. In particular, their findings suggest that ripple defects resembling hourglasses, zigzags, and tuning forks were likely shaped in periods of environmental flux — for instance, during strong storms, or significant changes in tidal flows.

“The type of defect you see in ripples could tell you about how dramatic the shifts in weather conditions were at the time,” says Taylor Perron, associate professor of geology and associate head of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “We can use these defects as fingerprints to tell not just what the average conditions were in the past, but how things were changing.”

Ripple defects in ancient sandbeds may also influence how fluids flow through sedimentary rocks, including underground reservoirs that hold water, oil and gas, or even stored carbon dioxide, according to Perron.

In addition, he says, ripple patterns in modern sand act to roughen the seabed, slowing down ocean currents near the shore. Knowing how ripples change in response to shifting waves and tides may therefore help predict coastal erosion and flooding.

Perron’s co-authors are on the paper are former MIT graduate student Kimberly Huppert ’11, PhD ’17, former undergraduate and current postdoc Abigail Koss ’12, Paul Myrow of Colorado College, and former undergraduate Andrew Wickert ’08 of the University of Minnesota.

Wrinkles preserved

The team began looking into the significance of ripple defects several years ago, when Myrow, who at the time was spending his sabbatical at MIT, showed Perron some photos that he had taken of sedimentary rocks etched with ripples and grooves. The rocks were, in fact, ancient sandbeds that were hundreds of millions of years old.

Wave-sculpted ripples form as waves travel across the surface of a body of liquid. These waves cause water beneath the surface to circle around and around, generating oscillating flows that pick up sand grains and set them down in a process that eventually carves out troughs and grooves throughout the sandbed.

But how could such delicate patterns be preserved for millions of years? Perron says that various processes could essentially set ripples in place. For instance, if the water level suddenly dropped, it could leave a sand bed’s ripples exposed to the air, drying them out and hardening them to some extent, so that they retained their patterns even as more sediment slowly layered itself on top of them over billions of years.

Similarly, if a finer sediment like mud or silt covers a sand bed, such as after a large storm, these sediments could blanket the existing ripples. As Perron explains, this would essentially “armor them, keeping the waves from eroding the ripples before more sediment buries them.” Over time, the sediments turn into rock as they are buried deep below Earth’s surface. Later, the rock overlaying the ripples can naturally erode away, exposing the preserved ripples at the surface again.

In looking through photos of sand ripples, Perron and Myrow noticed small defects resembling tuning forks, zigzags, and hourglasses, across both ancient and modern sandbeds.

“People have noticed these defects before, but we wondered, are they just random, or do they actually contain some information?” Perron says.

Paddling through waves

The researchers set out to study the various wave conditions that generate certain ripple patterns and defects. To do this, they built an acrylic wave tank measuring 60 centimers wide, 50 centimers deep, and 7 meters long. At one end of the tank, they attached a motor-driven paddle, which swished back and forth to generate waves that traveled across the tank.

At the other end of the tank, they erected an artificial sloping “beach” covered in a polymer mesh. This setup served to minimize any wave reflections: As a wave crashed onto the artificial beach, the energy dissipated within the mesh instead of splashing back and influencing oncoming waves.

The team filled the tank with a 5-centimeter-thick bed of fine sand and enough water to reach 40 centimeters in depth. For each experiment, they set the paddle to swish back and forth at a constant distance, and recorded the sand bed as ripples formed. At a certain point, they observed that the ripples — and in particular, the spacing between the ripples — reaches a stable, consistent pattern. They recorded this spacing, along with the speed and amplitude of the paddle, and then, over 32 experimental runs, either increased or decreased the paddle’s motion, causing the ripples to morph again to either a wider or narrower spacing.

Interestingly, they found that, in the process of adjusting to a new spacing, ripples formed intermediary defects resembling zigzags, hourglasses, and tuning forks, depending on the wave conditions set by the tank’s paddle.

As the researchers shortened the paddle’s back-and-forth motion, this created shorter waves, narrower ripples, and patterns that resembled hourglasses. If the paddle’s motion was shortened even further — creating faster, shorter waves — a pattern of “secondary crests,” in which existing ripples appeared to form temporary “shadow” ripples on either side, took over. When the researchers widened the paddle’s motion, generating longer waves, the ripples formed zigzag patterns as they shifted to a wider spacing.

“If you see these types of defects in nature, we argue that the seabed was undergoing some kind of change in weather conditions, tides, or something else that affected water depth or waves, probably over the course of hours or days,” Perron says. “For instance, if you’re seeing lots of secondary crests, you can tell there was a pretty big change in the waves as opposed to a smaller change, which might give you hourglasses instead.”

The researchers observed that in all scenarios, patterns resembling tuning forks cropped up, even after ripples had reached a new, stable spacing.

“These tuning forks tend to stick around for a long time,” Perron says. “If you see these in modern or ancient rock, they suggest a seabed experienced a change, but then the conditions remained steady, and the bed had a long time to adjust.”

Going forward, Perron says geologists can use the team’s results as a blueprint to connect certain ripple defects with the water conditions that may have created them, in both the modern environment and in the ancient past.  

“We think these small defects can tell you a lot more about an ancient environment than just what the average size of the waves and water depth was,” Perron says. “They could tell you if it was an environment that had tides that were large enough to change ripples by this much, or if a place was experiencing periodic storms, even billions of years ago. And if we find ancient wave ripples on Mars, we’ll know how to read them.”

This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

For collecting weather data, tiny satellites measure up to billion-dollar cousins

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 3:15pm

Big storms are getting bigger. Typhoon Jebi became the strongest tropical cyclone to hit Japan in 25 years and killed at least 10 people this past summer. Hurricane Florence awed even veteran meteorologists with its powerful combination of high winds and extreme moisture when it made landfall in North Carolina on Sept. 14.

Now, some MIT researchers say that the best way to study and understand these monster storms is to make the satellites that track them smaller.

A group of researchers from MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, led by PhD candidate Angela "Angie" Crews and Associate Professor Kerri Cahoy, in collaboration with Vince Leslie and William Blackwell at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, have published a new study comparing weather data collected by a CubeSat — a low-cost satellite about the size of a shoebox — with data from a traditional weather satellite.

“The bottom line is that this tiny satellite collected data that is as good as the data from a billion-dollar government satellite,” says Crews, the lead author of the paper, “Calibration and Validation of Small Satellite Passive Microwave Radiometers: MicroMAS-2A and TROPICS.” The research was presented at a conference of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

CubeSats have a number of advantages over larger cousins like the NOAA-20 satellite, which weighs nearly 2,300 kilograms, while the diminutive MicroMAS-2A weighs less than 4 kg. NOAA-20 took eight years from the time the contract was awarded to when it was operational in space, while CubeSats can be built and deployed in a year or two.

“You can build them faster, which means you can put new technology on quicker instead of waiting 10 years for new technology infusion on a government program,” Cahoy says.

Big satellites also need their own dedicated launch vehicle, but CubeSats can stow away as secondary payloads whenever a launch vehicle has a little extra payload space.

CubeSats do have some drawbacks when compared with their larger kin, such as a shorter lifespan and the fact that they carry a more limited array of instruments. The MicroMAS-2 satellite, which measures temperature, water vapor, and cloud ice in the atmosphere, is basically a platform for a single 10-channel scanning microwave radiometer mounted in a rotating cube at one end of the satellite.

Yet the most important thing about weather CubeSats isn’t necessarily what they can do alone, it’s what multiple CubeSats can accomplish in concert. When oxygen and water vapor naturally emit signals in the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and those signals are measured at different heights by multiple satellites in a low-earth orbit constellation, they have the combined impact of the instruments on a larger satellite, and fed into weather models where the data are used for enhanced modeling and forecasting of hurricanes, tropical storms and thunderstorms, including 3-D reconstruction.

“A constellation of CubeSats lets you get data over the same spot multiple times on the same day, which is not possible with the standard government weather satellites right now, which maybe give you data over the same spot once a week,” Cahoy says. “If you’re tracking a tropical storm or a hurricane and you want to use data to update your forecasting models, that’s not as good as you would like it.”

That’s where MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats) project comes in. TROPICS, led by Bill Blackwell, comprises a constellation of six CubeSats in three low-Earth orbital planes expected to be fully deployed sometime in 2020.

“TROPICS, in particular, is really aimed at looking at tropical cyclones, where the inner core conditions can change very rapidly,” says Crews. “So, if we have the constellation up there we can learn a lot more about tropical life cycles, and we can learn about factors that affect the intensity and just get a lot more data and really characterize these tropical cyclones better.”

Another advantage that bigger satellites have over the CubeSats is that they are easier to calibrate. But Crews, Cahoy and the MIT team found a novel way to improve calibration in the MicroMAS-2A. Because the MicroMAS-2A is carrying a radiometer spinning 30 times a minute, they found it was experiencing solar and lunar intrusions (times when the sun or the moon entered the scanning field and affected the satellite’s measurements) at a much higher rate. Where the NOAA-20 instrument would experience perhaps 44 intrusions over the course of a year, MicroMAS-2A would experience 5,700. So instead of discarding the data or correcting for it, they plan to use the intrusions as a calibration source because they are so frequent.

The researchers say they are just scratching the surface of what CubeSats can do, and that in the coming years they could have mean groundbreaking advancements in commerce, shipping, and military applications.

“CubeSats will continue to let us test new and better technologies — new chips, new electronics, new sensors  —  faster because we can get on orbit more quickly to see how they work, and do a better job of designing these instruments, cost everyone less money and get us more data,” Cahoy says.

Adds Crews: “It’s an exciting time to be in the field.”

MIT Press, Media Lab launch Knowledge Futures Group

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 1:50pm

The MIT Press has announced the launch of the Knowledge Futures Group (KFG), a first-of-its kind collaboration between a leading publisher and a world-class academic lab to transform how research information is created and shared.

The joint initiative of the MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab seeks to redefine research publishing from a closed, sequential process into an open, community-driven one. The goal is to develop and deploy technologies that form part of a new open knowledge ecosystem, one that fully exploits the capabilities of the web to accelerate discovery and the transmission of knowledge.

The effort has thus far received $1.5 million for its initial year of operation, through the generous support of Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a member of the MIT Media Lab’s Advisory Council, as well as smaller project-specific gifts from the Siegel Family Endowment, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Protocol Labs, and several individual donors.

Hoffman says he is supporting the effort “because I believe our future depends on how effectively we can combat the spread of misinformation and democratize access to trustworthy, verifiable sources of information.”

“It is imperative that we must move quickly toward a more open system of knowledge creation and sharing,” he says.

Several months ago, Media Lab Director Joi Ito and MIT Press Director Amy Brand began exploring the creation of an incubator at MIT for tools and technologies that could enable a more open model of research.

“We’ve created this space for pure experimentation,” says Brand. “And we’ve already seen the benefits of sharing ideas between our core publishing groups and the KFG in innovative projects like FrankenbookJoDS, and our Works in Progress Open Access book community. We believe these examples are just the beginning of what will come from continued testing, development, and cross-collaboration.”

Ito, a member of the MIT Press Management Board, says publishing models “need to get better at aligning academic incentives with societally beneficial outcomes.

“We’d also like to serve as a model for others of what institutional ownership of this essential infrastructure looks like and how it can succeed at amplifying the impact of investment in basic research,” he says.

Terry Ehling, director of strategic initiatives at the MIT Press, says the need to promote the efficient and equitable dissemination of research information has never been more urgent.

“The press is in a unique position among mission-driven publishers to take a disciplined and transparent approach to open collaboration and experimentation,” says Ehling, who also serves as managing director of the Knowledge Futures Group.

One of the KFG’s first projects is PubPub, an open authoring and publishing platform that was developed by Travis Rich and Thariq Shihipar while they were graduate students at the Media Lab. The platform socializes the process of knowledge creation by integrating conversation, annotation, and versioning into a digital publication.

The KFG is also incubating the Underlay, an open, distributed knowledge store that was conceived by Danny Hillis and Sam Klein and is being developed with Joel Gustafson. The Underlay is architected to capture, connect, and archive publicly available knowledge and its provenance.

The initiative will be based in close proximity to both the Media Lab and MIT Press at the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square.

Math Prize for Girls competition helps to close the gender gap in mathematics

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 12:30pm

When Glenn Ellison coached his daughters’ all-girl math team all the way to the state finals, he noticed that his team was vastly outnumbered by boys.

Ellison, the Gregory K. Palm (1970) Professor of Economics at MIT, turned his dismay into research. With Ashley Swanson of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Ellison published a paper that showed a huge gender gap in high school mathematics.

In the paper, “Dynamics of the Gender Gap in High Math Achievement,” distributed in August by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they reported that of the top 5,000 9th graders participating in the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC) from 1999 to 2007, just 30 percent were girls. By senior year, the number drops to 22 percent. High-achieving female math students were so discouraged they either dropped out of math contests, or saw their scores droop by their senior year.

The research confirmed and quantified what others had already come to know. Back in 2009, in an attempt to address this trend, Ravi Boppana ’86, a research affiliate with MIT’s Department of Mathematics, helped launch the Advantage Testing Foundation Math Prize for Girls. This past weekend marked the 10th anniversary of the contest, as a record 285 middle and high school female students from the United States and Canada arrived at MIT to compete for $60,000 in cash prizes.

Helping female mathletes thrive

“It is imperative to bridge the gender gap in math and science so that the best and brightest women as well as men reach their fullest academic and professional potential,” said Arun Alagappan, Advantage Testing’s founder and president. “Even as we help empower young women to believe in and express their abilities, we are helping build a more robust group of leaders in the STEM professions, and a more competitive economy as well.”

Advantage Testing’s goal is to bring girls with strong math skills together to encourage their talent, build a network lasting into college and beyond, and inspire them to mentor girl math students. “We want to give these girls the opportunity to thrive in an environment where their sense of belonging is never in question," said Alagappan.

Boppana added: "Girls perform as well as or better than boys in math classes in grade school, but there is an alarming drop-off in the number of young women who study math in college and pursue math-related careers. We created the Math Prize for Girls to help debunk gender stereotypes, and to support young women who see higher-level mathematics as a pursuit that is challenging, fun, and incredibly rewarding."

Contest and community

“The Math Prize is far more than a prestigious math competition,” said Maria De Vuono-Homberg, associate director for the Math Prize for Girls. “It is a weekend-long event which encourages the girls who attend to get to know each other and forge connections for their future in college, industry, and research.”  

Young female “mathletes,” who qualified with a top score on the American Mathematics Competition exam in February, arrived last Saturday for a campus tour and an MIT admissions informational session, followed by a non-competitive game night in the Math Department’s Norbert Wiener Common Room. The next morning, while parents attended a panel by Math Prize alumnae, contestants took a 2.5-hour exam with 20 multistage problems in geometry, algebra, and trigonometry.

While the results were reviewed by a panel of judges from MIT and Advantage Testing, MIT students and Math Prize alumnae Justina Yang and Emma Kerwin helped host the awards ceremony. The MIT Muses entertained the participants, and Associate Professor Moon Duchin of Tufts University’s Department of Mathematics gave the Maryam Mirzakhani keynote lecture: "Random walks in theory and practice.”

First prize was a tie, with 17 out of 20 questions answered correctly, between Yuxuan Zheng, a Princeton International School of Math and Science Junior from New Jersey, and Catherine Wu, a senior at Saratoga High School in California. Seventh grader Jessica Wan of Puerto Rico took third place. A list of the winners can be found at the Art of Problem Solving website.

Honorable Mention awardees received $250 merit scholarships to the Canada/USA MathCamp summer program, and MIT Department of Mathematics Head Michel Goemans presented awards to the 2017 Advantage Testing Foundation Math Prize Olympiad winners, including Gold medalists Wanlin Li of New York and Yuting “Emma” Qin of California. The top 35 Math Prize performers are invited to compete in the next Olympiad in November 2018.

Emma Kerwin, a senior management major, gave a talk on why girls should stay interested in math, even if, she said, they are “the only girl in the room.” The highlight of the event for her is the camaraderie. “They don't just have girls do the contest and then leave,” said Kerwin, who competed in the Math Prize competition during her junior and senior year of high school. “There is also a focus on having fun and being part of a supportive community. This provides a much more holistic experience for contestants.”

More importantly, she said, the competition gives contestants a chance to meet other girls who are interested in mathematics. “The overall nature of the event is very empowering and is focused on celebrating contestants' capabilities and unique interests.”

MIT supports girls in STEM

The Math Prize board of advisers includes Michael Sipser, dean of the MIT School of Science and the Donner Professor of Mathematics; Gigliola Staffilani, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Mathematics; Lauren K. Williams ’05, a math professor at the University of California at Berkeley; and Ioana Dumitriu, ’03, a math professor at the University of Washington. This was MIT’s 8th year hosting the contest.

“These competitors are the future problem-solvers in our field,” said Sipser. “It is critical to the advancement of mathematics to keep the pipeline of women into STEM programs strong, here at MIT and elsewhere. This contest accords these talented students the visibility and community necessary to support women who have the potential to pursue mathematics at a professional level.”   

The contest also creates a pipeline of talent to MIT, to which more than half of the top awardees have matriculated. “Every year, the girls who participate in this event never fail to impress us with their creative problem-solving skills and their enthusiasm for mathematics,” said Goemans. “This competition encourages more women into studying mathematics, and this is much needed.”

Because many high school mathematics programs face challenges in reaching the level of study required in the MIT mathematics curriculum, the department has designed programs to prepare students, including women, with supplemental education opportunities. These include the Summer Program in Undergraduate Research (SPUR) and SPUR+, (Summer Program in Undergraduate Research); the Directed Reading Program; Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP)  and UROP+; MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP); and PRIMES (Program for Research in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science).

Once they are at MIT, the department continues to support female math majors by arranging dinners and lunch seminars, encouraging them to mentor future women in mathematicians at middle and high school, and supporting the Undergraduate Society of Women in Mathematics and MIT Black Women’s Alliance. The Department of Mathematics also hosted February’s Graduate Workshop in Algebraic Geometry for Women and Mathematicians of Minority Genders.  

“The Department of Mathematics aims to be a strong advocate on behalf of girls and women interested in a STEM career,” Goemans said.

Math Prize board member Ioana Dumitriu recalled feeling supported as a doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Mathematics, but she also said she recalls being very aware of a dearth of women math majors and faculty. Now a math professor at the University of Washington, she said she has grown dismayed over how girls and boys are taught STEM in the United States. “Girls are getting the short end of the stick in this country,” she said. “I see that there is definitely disparity between the levels of encourage we give to boys and the encouragement we give to girls with respect to math and STEM-related fields.”

This need for encouragement is why she is passionate about her involvement in the Math Prize for Girls contest, as well as a driving force behind her involvement as a coach for the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.

“I see a huge difference self-confidence makes,” Dumitriu said. “It’s hard to attract female students (to the Putnam) because they come in and they see self-confident boys. That somehow discourages them from participating.”

The key to change this is faculty involvement, she said. “Seeing top mathematicians acknowledging your talents and your merits and congratulating you, that’s when you believe in yourself,” she said. “Role models are very important. I think that self-confidence is one of the biggest differences that one can make at this level.”

3Q: David Simchi-Levi on advancing global retail operations through analytics and machine learning

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 10:00am

Three technology trends are quickly changing global supply chains, revenue management, and the retail industry as a whole: digitization, analytics, and automation. But digital innovation does not come easily. Challenges include internal resistance to change, the siloing of data, and difficulty providing companies with the skills required to understand, predict, and change behavior.

The Accenture and MIT Alliance for Business Analytics has been collaborating with entities across multiple industries to take advantage of these technology trends to impact their business performance. Implementing machine intelligence and digital processes is a substantial opportunity for companies who are willing to innovate. Indeed, the difference between the companies that take advantage of these technology trends and those who do not is the difference between industry performance leaders and industry followers.

Data suggest delaying digital innovation could be a risk to a firm’s long-term health. The Alliance for Business Analytics recently collected data from hundreds of companies and found clear and definable differences between companies that are truly data-driven and those that either have not been successful in using data or have not made a serious attempt to use data in their business. Their study reports a direct relationship between the adoption of machine intelligence and digital business innovation and leading business performance indicators, independent of the industry. In the end, digital innovation not only impacts cost reduction, revenue, profit, and market share but it also affects customer satisfaction, retention, and experience. David Simchi-Levi, professor of engineering systems and of civil and environmental engineering, leader of the Alliance for Business Analytics, and member of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, recently sat down to discuss the alliance's work.

Q: How are you working with industry to advance your research and application of your models?

A: Our research has been applied in many companies including Groupon, Rue La La, and a few airline carriers. This has resulted in improved efficiencies, risk mitigation, and significant revenue increase. We are actively working with most of the largest global retailers in the world. This is very exciting, as we're helping to shape the digital retail experience and improve results for both the industry as a whole and the consumer.

Students and postdocs in my analytics lab collaborate with companies across various industries to combine data science, machine learning, and optimization modeling. Together with these companies, we conduct in-depth research on supply chain, business-to-business and business-to-consumer demand prediction improvement, supply chain revenue, and operations optimization using data from across a company’s enterprise.

The companies we work with bring their challenges to us and our focus is on the integration of machine learning and optimization techniques in a way that solve these problems and create competitive opportunities. We work with each company’s internal data and relevant external data and their application environment where our team conducts the research. This enables the development of new approaches that decipher supply chain demand, increase proactive cognitive supply chain responses, predicts consumer demand and optimizes pricing.

This joint research environment is designed to yield powerful new capabilities to exploit data, machine learning and new innovative processes to deliver improved customer service, experience, and retention.

Once these new techniques have been implemented, companies have a new powerful data-driven platform that continues to learn, predict and optimize process and outcomes across the enterprise.

Q: How is technology affecting global supply chains and the retail industry?

A: Digitization, advanced analytics, and automations each enable three business opportunities: First is to improve operations. For example, the work I've done with my research team has provided Ford with the technology that applies data and analytics to identify hidden supply chain risks and develop the appropriate mitigation strategies. Similarly, the work I've conducted through the alliance has provided one of the largest mining companies in Latin America with analytics that uses data from thousands of sensors to improve product quality.

The second opportunity is to provide dynamic and customized offerings. Many retailers, both brick-and-mortar and online, use cost-plus when pricing their products, a simple strategy whereby price is determined by adding a pre-determined markup percentage to the product cost. In recent years, my lab has taken advantage of new opportunities provided by technology trends by applying them to optimize price at Boston-based flash sales retailer Rue La La, online market maker Groupon, and the largest online retailer in Latin America, B2W Digital (B2W). These examples are on-line businesses, which have readily available data and can change prices dynamically, but we also implemented similar methods for brick-and-mortar retailers in applications such as promotional pricing, new product introduction, and assortment optimization.

Finally, the third opportunity is to introduce new business models that were not possible before. This is nicely illustrated with the story of companies such as Rolls-Royce, General Electric, and United Technology. In all of these cases, the companies continuously monitor thousands of engines on commercial aircraft and use analytics to identify problems before they occur. They charge the carriers based on usage time while they are responsible for all maintenance and repairs. This allows the carriers to cut costs, engine downtime, and increase airline safety.

Q: Looking ahead, what do you suggest brick-and-mortar and online retailers should do to take advantage of current trends?

A: Recent trends present significant opportunities for many companies, particularly in the retail industry. But there is no one standard approach for digitizing the supply chain and becoming a data-driven organization. So, it's hard for executives to know where to start and how to integrate the various processes into an end-to-end strategy. That said, doing nothing is no longer a sustainable choice in the fast-paced digital world.

My experience is that to achieve value and scale, companies need to start a journey that involves defining the vision and value targets; identifying changes to the operating model, and organizational structure; and defining data and technology strategies. More importantly, these companies need to realize the future of their businesses requires attracting, motivating, and promoting people with new skills, people who can apply the data and analytics in an effective way.

Does free flow of capital make the economy more efficient?

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 11:59pm

David Thesmar is an MIT professor who studies the growing influence of the financial sector over large economies. But here’s another way of summarizing his work: Thesmar is a scholar of the turbulence these changes have created.

“My main research topic is the anatomy of financialization,” says Thesmar, “and how the contractual arrangements that get made in the financial sector trickle down to the rest of the economy.”

By that, Thesmar means he studies the consequences of the global wave of financial development since the 1980s. This “financial deepening,” as he puts it, came from a combination of deregulation and technological change; it led to the emergence of hedge funds, private equity funds, the promotion of shareholder value maximization, and deeper and more liquid stock markets. 

Advocates of such financialization contend that it improves the allocation of funds to worthy firms, and that hard-nosed management helps productivity and output. Opponents suggest it damages viable firms and needlessly leaves workers unemployed.

Through careful empirical study of his native France, Thesmar has found that, true to conventional wisdom, “Banks are accelerating the failure of failing firms and accelerating the [growth] of expanding firms. Professional financiers basically reallocate capital, and you get more creative destruction in the economy.”

As a result, Thesmar adds, “the [effect] of finance is very similar to that of technical change or international trade, in the sense that it does the same thing: It creates more turbulence within the economy. It destroys and creates more, and it creates winners and losers all the time, at a faster rate. It churns people more.” The churn is the cost of having a better allocation of finance to firms.

But Thesmar’s research about all this turbulence also turns up some unexpected results. The improved allocation coming from financial deepening may not be as enormous as many would expect, an issue Thesmar is continuing to study.

“But how big [an effect] is it?” Thesmar asks. “What I seem to be finding is that it’s not that big a difference.” Yes, better finance decisions take funds out of poorly performing firms and reallocate them to better firms. But the aggregate size of this reallocation tends to be rather small, partly because successful firms already generate a significant amount of internal funds to finance their operations.

“It turns out the reallocations we observe are not from bad firms to the best firms,” Thesmar says. “It goes from the next-best firm to the better firm, and so the difference in productivity between the classes of firms, the losers and the winners, is not big.”

After years of influential work on such questions, Thesmar recently joined MIT, where he is the Franco Modigliani Professor of Financial Economics, a prestigious chair (Modigliani was an MIT economist and Nobel laureate), and a professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Physics and finance

Thesmar’s presence in the U.S. economics orbit would have been hard to predict when he was young. He grew up in Paris, where his father was an art appraiser, and his mother was a lawyer.

“I guess I was much more into science than my parents were,” he says wryly. Thesmar had a long-running interest in physics, and he received his BA in 1995 in both physics and economics at the École Polytechnique. But eventually Thesmar became more interested in economics, and he earned his PhD from the Paris School of Economics, in 2000.

“What I found attractive about economics was its combination of rigor, like in physics, and of social science, because I was an avid history reader and follower of current affairs,” Thesmar says. Moreover, he adds, in his formative years as a student, “I had great teachers when I was at school, which is probably what also led me to study economics.”

Still, Thesmar did not immediately become an academic economist. First, he took a job at France’s statistical office, INSEE, where he studied business activity. This  turned out to be a crucial component of Thesmar’s career. INSEE had singularly comprehensive statistics on French firms. Before long, Thesmar was developing from-the-ground-up knowledge of the data — and formulating the kinds of research questions that information could address.

Finally, in 2005, Thesmar took a professorship at HEC Paris, a prominent French business school. He soon began publishing some influential papers, including two in 2007 that he still cites as being touchstones of his work.

Why family firms thrive

One of those papers, “Banking Deregulation and Industry Structure: Evidence from the French Banking Act of 1985,” written with two co-authors (including Antoinette Schoar, now an MIT professor as well), found that when France gave its banks more latitude to invest in other businesses, they aggressively reallocated capital away from struggling firms, giving empirical confirmation to the popular image.

On the other hand, another paper, “Performance and Behavior of Family Firms: Evidence from the French Stock Market,” found that family-run firms, which constitute two-thirds of publicly listed stocks in France, perform better than other corporations. Why? Essentially, these firms were “more parsimonious” in their spending, Thesmar found.

“Family firms tend to be productive and profitable,” Thesmar says. “The reason why they are profitable is they tend to pay their workers a little bit less, and the reason why they do that is, they take fewer risks. Because a company does not take risks, they are not having to fire their employees, and that is a kind of an insurance that people are willing to pay for, in the form of lower wages. They’ve got more job security.”

As deeply as Thesmar has dug into the financialization of firms, it is not the only subject he analyzes. He has also extensively studied the systemic shocks created by the market meltdowns in 2008; the effects of technological change on employment; and issues in the subfield of behavioral finance, especially how the structure of firms affects the decisions they make.

Thesmar’s move to the Institute has been made easier, he adds, because “I have great colleagues,” including several he currently works with, and others he has worked with in the past. And he looks forward to expanding his research portfolio at MIT. 

“It’s a fantastic place. It’s the center of innovation,” Thesmar says. “It’s something you feel very strongly when you come here, the energy around campus. People are very serious about the progression of academic science.”

One man’s flying car dream is taking off, thanks to MIT

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 5:00pm

Most children dream about fabulous flying machines. For electrical engineer Felipe Varon, it was a flying car. Now, a prototype he's developed is making test flights in his native Colombia, thanks to his experience with MIT Professional Education.

“As a child, I dreamed about flying,” says Varon, a graduate of MIT Professional Education’s Professional Certificate Program in Innovation and Technology. “But I don’t want just a cool toy. I want something with social impact to help people and cities. Something people can use today, not in some future time.”

Varon says MIT Professional Education (PE) provided the knowledge, training, and ideas he needed to upscale his invention in size, power and capability, and for strategies to finance, market, and mass produce it. In 2018, he completed courses including Beyond Smart Cities and Radical Innovation, Mastering Innovation and Design-Thinking, and Precision Engineering Principles for Mechanical Design.

MIT PE Executive Director Bhaskar Pant says entrepreneurs and innovators like Varon “are at the heart of our student population.”

“He is a great example of how people use knowledge gained from our certificate programs to drive innovation and leadership towards meaningful change,” Pant says.

A flying car was the subject of Varon’s 2006 graduate thesis at the Universidad Externo de Colombia.

“I put together this machine,” he says. “I knew a motor and propellers could make it fly, kind of like a table with four legs.”

Varon could be describing a drone, and the skies were already full of them. But he took drone technology to the next level. The company he founded with two partners, Varon Vehicles Corporation, built a prototype flying car designed to travel in its own lane, at low altitudes, safely clear of both land-bound and aeronautic traffic.

The car looks like a shiny red, two-seated blend of a Batmobile and Agent 007’s Aston Martin. The vehicle is entirely electric, with neither wheels nor wings, and Varon’s company logo — a multi-layered “V” — on the hood.

“It’s very simple,” he says. “It doesn’t have any dials, buttons or strange pilot stuff. It steers just like a car. We’re trying to make it drivable by anybody. A computer does all the work.”

The design of the car has the sheen of power and luxury, which belies the high-flying altruistic purposes Varon and his partners foresee for their low-flying dream pod.

“We’re not focused on designing and building flying cars to sell them,” Varon says. “It would be for a service. And if I can get away with it, I would like the service to be free.”

He says it could go where traffic and congestion are a problem, or there’s a lack of public transportation.

“In developing countries, you have areas with low accessibility, low quality of life,” he says. “Nutritious food and other necessities can’t get to those in need. It would take an hour and a half to reach them. A flying car would take only 17 to 20 minutes.”

Varon and his partners did a soft-launch for the prototype in Colombia and received positive feedback. He says he’s also been invited to launch it in European countries and is in conversation with aeronautical regulatory authorities there. Similarly, he hopes to approach the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S., and is looking at a possible test site in Texas.

“We’ve tried to identify a market niche within an industry that hasn’t even appeared yet,” Varon says. 

Varon is still searching for a clean power source. 

“We’re clean at the point where we charge,” he says, “but what happens behind the grid?”

He envisions someday sharing assets with a hydro-electric power entity. “We don’t want to have a (negative) environmental impact,” he says. “We want to have a favorable social and economic impact, even providing jobs. We’re going to have a fleet of cars, so we’re going to need a fleet of drivers.”

At-cost grocery pilot opens in Walker Memorial

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 4:00pm

When the Food Insecurity Solutions Working Group (FISWG) submitted their report in the spring of 2017 to Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson, one of its recommendation stood out: Open a low-cost grocery store on the MIT campus.

In order to learn more about best practices and to inform MIT’s approach, working group members visited colleges and universities with food banks or low-cost stores that make staple foods available to students. Earlier this month, MIT’s own store — an at-cost grocery for students named TechMart — opened on the second floor of Walker Memorial, sharing space with Rebecca’s Café. In an agreement with the Division of Student Life (DSL), Rebecca’s will operate the store.

“We are very excited to take another significant step in making MIT a food-secure campus,” says Nelson, who with members of the FISWG and staff from DSL helped to spearhead the creation of TechMart. “We have seen the success of similar programs at other schools, and I think TechMart will help to answer students’ requests for convenient, on-campus access to affordable groceries.”

Mark Hayes, director of campus dining, worked closely with students and David Randall, senior associate dean for student support and wellbeing, to get the store up and running this fall.

“I’m grateful to everyone involved for their creativity and focus,” Hayes says. “The students on the FISWG have been great partners, as has the team from Rebecca’s Café who stepped up to take on a unique responsibility in a thoughtful way. Together, we accomplished a lot in a short period of time.”

Randall, who helped to lead the FISWG, has seen TechMart go from idea to reality in less than a year.

“The working group convened last fall, and among the first things they did was look at other colleges and universities to see how they addressed campus food insecurity,” he says. “Other schools showed us that an affordable grocery store was an important part of their overall approach. The working group members made this a key recommendation, and DSL really got behind it. Now here we are, opening just six months after we finalized the report. It’s really exciting.”

TechMart is open to all MIT students and carries wide variety of foods, from fresh produce and proteins (meat and tofu) to spices and sauces, all sold at cost. For students who don’t have time to shop, Rebecca’s will continue to offer grab-and-go chef’s boxes packed with ingredients for two servings of a healthy entrée.

“I think it’s really cool. It’s very close; closer than where I usually go to shop, and it seems like the prices are pretty good,” says sophomore Bianca Wang-Polendo, who was among the shoppers when TechMart opened on Sept. 17. “A zucchini is 81 cents and other goods are fairly priced, much better I think than other places.”

While the TechMart pilot is an important step in fulfilling the FISWG recommendations, other proposed solutions are either already underway — including SwipeShare and cooking and budgeting classes — or under consideration.

“We are looking to implement as many of the FISWG’s recommendations as is feasible,” Randall says.

The TechMart store's hours are 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday. Students need their MIT ID to purchase groceries, and the store accepts credit and debit cards, cash, TechCash, and dining dollars. Shoppers can share feedback about the store and product selection by leaving a comment card in the store or emailing

Software finds the best way to stick a Mars landing

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 12:00am

Selecting a landing site for a rover headed to Mars is a lengthy process that normally involves large committees of scientists and engineers. These committees typically spend several years weighing a mission’s science objectives against a vehicle’s engineering constraints, to identify sites that are both scientifically interesting and safe to land on.

For instance, a mission’s science team may want to explore certain geological sites for signs of water, life, and habitability. But engineers may find that those sites are too steep for a vehicle to land safely, or the locations may not receive enough sunlight to power the vehicle’s solar panels once it has landed. Finding a suitable landing site therefore involves piecing together information collected over the years by past Mars missions. These data, though growing with each mission, are patchy and incomplete.

Now researchers at MIT have developed a software tool for computer-aided discovery that could help mission planners make these decisions. It automatically produces maps of favorable landing sites, using the available data on Mars’ geology and terrain, as well as a list of scientific priorities and engineering constraints that a user can specify.

As an example, a user can stipulate that a rover should land in a site where it can explore certain geological targets, such as open-basin lakes. At the same time, the landing site should not exceed a certain slope, otherwise the vehicle would topple over while attempting to land. The program then generates a “favorability map” of landing sites that meet both constraints. These locations can shift and change as a user adds additional specifications.

The program can also lay out possible paths that a rover can take from a given landing site to certain geological features. For instance, if a user specifies that a rover should explore sedimentary rock exposures, the program produces paths to any such nearby structures and calculates the time that it would take to reach them.

Victor Pankratius, principal research scientist in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, says mission planners can use the program to quickly and efficiently consider different landing and exploratory scenarios.

“This is never going to replace the actual committee, but it can make things much more efficient, because you can play with different scenarios while you’re talking,” Pankratius says.

The team’s study was published online on Aug. 31 by Earth and Space Science and is part of the journal’s Sept. 8 online issue.

New sites

Pankratius and postdoc Guillaume Rongier, in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, created the program to identify favorable landing sites for a conceptual mission similar to NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which is engineered to land in horizontal, even, dust-free areas and aims to explore an ancient, potentially habitable, site with magmatic outcrops.

They found the program identified many landing sites for the rover that have been considered in the past, and it highlighted other promising landing sites that were rarely proposed. “We see there are sites we could explore with existing rover technologies, that landing site committees may want to reconsider,” Pankratius says.

The program could also be used to explore engineering requirements for future generations of Mars rovers. “Assuming you can land on steeper curves, or drive faster, then we can derive which new regions you can explore,” Pankratius says.

A fuzzy landing

The software relies partly on “fuzzy logic,” a mathematical logic scheme that groups things not in a binary fashion like Boolean logic, such as yes/no, true/false, or safe/unsafe, but in a more fluid, probability-based fashion.

“Traditionally this idea comes from mathematics, where instead of saying an element belongs to a set, yes or no, fuzzy logic says it belongs with a certain probability,” thus reflecting incomplete or imprecise information, Pankratius explains.

In the context of finding a suitable landing site, the program calculates the probability that a rover can climb a certain slope, with the probability decreasing as the a location becomes more steep.

“With fuzzy logic we can expresses this probability spatially — how bad is it if I’m this steep, versus this steep,” Pankratius says. “It’s is a way to deal with imprecision, in a way.”

Using algorithms related to fuzzy logic, the team creates raw, or initial, favorability maps of possible landing sites over the entire planet. These maps are gridded into individual cells, each representing about 3 square kilometers on the surface of Mars. The program calculates, for each cell, the probability that it is a favorable landing site, and generates a map that is color-graded to represent probabilities between 0 and 1. Darker cells represent sites with a near-zero probability of being a favorable landing site, while lighter locations have a higher chance of a safe landing with interesting scientific prospects.

Once they generate a raw map of possible landing sites, the researchers take into account various uncertainties in the landing location, such as changes in trajectory and potential navigation errors during descent. Considering these uncertainties, the program then generates landing ellipses, or circular targets where a rover is likely to land to maximize safety and scientific exploration.

The program also uses an algorithm known as fast marching to chart out paths that a rover can take over a given terrain once it’s landed. Fast marching is typically used to calculate the propagation of a front, such as how fast a front of wind reaches a shore if traveling at a given speed. For the first time, Pankratius and Rongier applied fast marching to compute a rover’s travel time as it travels from a starting point to a geological structure of interest.

“If you are somewhere on Mars and you get this processed map, you can ask, ‘From here, how fast can I go to any point in my surroundings? And this algorithm will tell you,” Pankratius says.

The algorithm can also map out routes to avoid certain obstacles that may slow down a rover’s trip, and chart out probabilities of hitting certain types of geological structures in a landing area.

“It’s more difficult for a rover to drive through dust, so it’ll go at a slower pace, and dust isn’t necessarily everywhere, just in patches,” Rongier says. “The algorithm will consider such obstacles when mapping out the fastest traverse paths.”

The teams says operators of current rovers on the Martian surface can use the software program to direct the vehicles more efficiently to sites of scientific interest. In the future, Pankratius envisions this technique or something similar to be integrated into increasingly autonomous rovers that don’t require humans to operate the vehicles all the time from Earth.

“One day, if we have fully autonomous rovers, they can factor in all these things to know where they can go, and be able to adapt to unforeseen situations,” Pankratius says. “You want autonomy, otherwise it can take a long time to communicate back and forth when you have to make critical decisions quickly.”

The team is also looking into applications of the techniques in geothermal site exploration on Earth in collaboration with the MIT Earth Resources Lab in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

“It’s a very similar problem,” Pankratius says. “Instead of saying ‘Is this a good site, yes or no?’ you can say, ‘Show me a map of all the areas that would likely be viable for geothermal exploration.’”

As data improve, both for Mars and for geothermal structures on Earth, he says that that data can be fed into the existing program to provide more accurate analyses.

“The program is incrementally enhanceable,” he says.

This research was funded, in part, by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

John M. Deutch endows new MIT Institute Professorship

Wed, 09/26/2018 - 12:00am

Institute Professor Emeritus John M. Deutch ’61, PhD ’65 has made a generous endowment gift to name an MIT Institute Professorship. This appointment — the highest honor awarded by MIT’s faculty and administration — recognizes faculty members who have “demonstrated exceptional distinction by a combination of leadership, accomplishment, and service in the scholarly, educational, and general intellectual life of the Institute or wider academic community.”  Currently, MIT has 10 active and 12 emeritus Institute Professors.

Deutch says his motivation for making the gift was his “great respect for MIT and for the tremendous professional and personal satisfaction I have enjoyed as a member of the MIT community for over 59 years.”

Deutch has earned distinction across a career spanning academia and government — including service on the chemistry faculties at Princeton University and MIT, in the MIT administration, and in the administrations of four U.S. presidents.

“It’s rare for anyone to possess the intellectual intensity, managerial rigor, and strategic vision to excel in scholarship, in academic leadership, and in national service; John Deutch is that rare individual,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “Institute Professors are the keepers of the flame at MIT — those faculty members who in the eyes of their colleagues embody MIT’s highest ideals of scholarly achievement and service to the Institute and society. I find it wonderfully fitting that John has chosen to endow an Institute Professorship — an inspired act of creative citizenship.”

Deutch’s relationship with MIT began when he entered the three-two program in 1959. He holds a BA from Amherst College in history and economics and a BS in chemical engineering from MIT, awarded in 1961, as well as a PhD in physical chemistry from MIT, awarded in 1965. In 1966, after a year as a postdoc at the National Bureau of Standards, he joined the chemistry faculty at Princeton.

In 1970, Deutch returned to MIT to join the chemistry faculty, eventually serving as chair of the department from 1976 to 1977, dean of the School of Science from 1982 to 1985, and provost from 1985 to 1990. He was appointed an MIT Institute Professor in 1990, and in 2009 he received MIT’s Gordon Y Billard award “for special service of outstanding merit performed for the Institute.”

His career includes extensive government service: Director of Energy Research and Undersecretary of Energy in the Carter administration, a member of George H.W. Bush’s President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, as well as Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Technology, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Director of Central Intelligence in the first Clinton administration.

He has served on many presidential and congressional commissions and advisory committees for government agencies and received numerous public service awards.

Deutch has been a board member and advisor to numerous corporations and a director or trustee of nonprofit organizations, including the Center for American Progress; the Council on Foreign Relations; Resources for the Future; Massachusetts General Hospital’s Physicians Organization; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology; the Urban Institute; and Wellesley College.

Deutch was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2007, and he delivered the 2010 Harvard University Godkin Lectures on the Essentials of Free Government and the Duties of the Citizen.

Deutch has more than 150 scientific publications, as well as numerous articles on technology, energy, international security, and public policy issues. He has supervised graduate students interested in chemistry, national security, and global energy issues. In recent years Deutch has participated in MIT interdisciplinary energy studies including the Future of Nuclear Energy, the Future of Coal (with a focus on carbon dioxide capture and sequestration), the Future of Natural Gas, and the Future of Solar Energy.

Janelle Heslop awarded Switzer Fellowship

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 1:45pm

The Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation has chosen MIT graduate student Janelle Heslop as a Switzer Fellow. Heslop is one of 20 students to receive the fellowship for 2018. Heslop is currently pursuing both an MBA and a master's in civil and environmental engineering through the Leaders for Global Operations program.

The Switzer Foundation Fellowship is awarded to talented graduate students from New England and California who are pursuing career paths that will result in positive change for the environment and who have displayed leadership in their field.

“The Switzer Foundation is known to be a vibrant community for environmental leaders, and I am honored to have an association like Switzer say ‘this person is a leader in our field’,” Heslop says.

Prior to MIT, Heslop worked for seven years at the intersection of business and sustainability. As a consultant at GreenOrder, she advised companies on their environmental innovation strategies; she later oversaw operations and performance improvement for water utilities at Veolia, a global environmental services company.

“My goal is to apply my environmental passion and expertise to the corporate world, thinking about how we can bring sustainability as a lever for innovation to companies, and create products that reduce environmental impact; to do good business while decreasing environmental impact,” she says.

The Switzer Fellowship Network is comprised of over 600 fellows who are actively working to create a sustainable future in the areas of natural and social sciences, law, business, and policy. The network of fellows work together to provide expertise, support, and encouragement to each other.

Although Heslop has experience working in business through the environmental perspective, she is still exploring the future direction of her career and is hoping to gain more insight through her fellowship.

“The Switzer Foundation has been wonderful,” she says. “They have already identified six or seven potential mentors for me who have been in the field for a while. They are very proactive about helping you make connections, allowing you to think about what’s next in your career.”

Derek Straub: Shaping the future of additive manufacturing

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 1:30pm

Scattered about Derek Straub's office — its walls only slightly muffling the screech of the surrounding machine shop — are intriguing artifacts: webbed metallic structures, twisted cylinders made of polymer, aluminum blocks whose cross sections reveal intricate architecture inside. They were built, layer by layer, in the MIT Lincoln Laboratory's additive manufacturing (AM) machines. They were also born of Straub's vision.

Straub is the AM lead at Lincoln Laboratory. He's now being internationally recognized for his contributions to the additive manufacturing field. The magazine Manufacturing Engineering, a publication of SME (formally the Society of Manufacturing Engineers), has named Straub among the 30 individuals under the age of 30 who are leading the manufacturing industry into the future.

"I feel honored, especially to be recognized alongside so many talented and varied people, CEOs, academic researchers, entrepreneurs," says Straub, who works in the Fabrication Engineering Group. "I think one thing that sets me apart is my exploratory mindset. I take calculated, engineering-based risks to push the edge of what's possible in AM and then, at the laboratory, we quickly apply what we've learned straight into our real-world defense applications."

In his seven years at the laboratory, Straub has become the go-to expert for how to design, prototype, and build 3-D-printed parts that are used in systems as diverse as satellites, imaging systems, drones, and breath monitors. He earned a master's of engineering in manufacturing degree at MIT through the Lincoln Scholars Program in 2015.

In the shop where he works, Straub points out the array of conventional subtractive machines, which cut or laser away material to produce a final form. In contrast to subtractive processes, AM, as its name suggests, is additive, layering material to build the final form. Straub explained that AM is especially useful for making complex parts, ones that require intricate geometry, curves, or voids that would be difficult or impossible to carve by using subtractive tools.

"We can design complex parts that were previously unattainable, but are now actually achievable due to AM," he says. "It's here to stay, but it's not completely replacing subtractive machining; it's just another tool, a very important one."

Part of his role as AM lead is to open up engineers' minds to AM designs and the functions they can enable. Last year, 39 percent of hardware programs at the laboratory used AM in some aspect. Straub expects this figure to grow to close to 100 percent in five years.

One notable program was a high-energy laser system that was built with 115 additively manufactured parts, more than a quarter of the entire system's components. These parts helped keep the system lightweight and compact, two major program requirements, but also served functional purposes — for example, keeping the system cool and providing structural rigidity. The metal plates that house the system's fiber amplifier were built with flow channels inside, allowing cooling fluid to pass through tunnels following the curves of the hot laser fibers. This AM design would have otherwise been conventionally impossible to machine, Straub says.  

Jim Ingraham, Straub's former group leader, nominated him for the 30 Under 30 award.

"In my six years of working with Derek, I watched a highly creative and technically advanced engineer not only embrace and utilize additive manufacturing technologies but become a leader in the field, developing a variety of previously unattainable integrated multifunctional parts," Ingraham says.

While AM is more popularly known as "3-D printing" (a term coined by an MIT professor when machines first used inkjet heads to dispense adhesives to bind layers together), Straub prefers the term additive manufacturing because it is more encompassing of the various industrial techniques in use today.

One technique is called selective laser melting (SLM). Through the window on the SLM machine, Straub points out a 10-by-10-inch metal base plate and next to it a bin of aluminum powder. It's deceivingly heavy. "Try lifting a scoop of stainless steel," Straub says.

In the manufacturing process, a bar pushes a dusting of powder onto the plate, a laser above the plate melts the powder in specific spots, and the melted metal cools and solidifies. Over and over through this dusting, melting, and cooling dance, the part is produced. The SLM machine is one of nine industrial AM machines that Straub oversees daily.

In addition to supervising production, Straub is driving AM research at the laboratory. One area he's excited about is research in composites, like carbon fiber reinforced polymers. "Everyone agrees that composites are amazing, they're lighter, stronger, stiffer, and so on, but they're a nightmare to manufacture," he says.

Straub wants to develop advanced AM processes to build composite materials that could be tailored to serve a part's function, for example, by being stiff in one area of the part but flexible in another. Multifunctional parts are also another focus; he envisions, and is already producing, AM structures that have several functions, such as ones embedded with electronics, RF antennas, or heat exchangers.

Besides being functional, many of the parts Straub produces also happen to be beautiful.

"Many of us engineers think rectilinearly; when we think about support, we think of trusses. But when we give our topology optimization software the constraints, it comes out with this," he says, holding out a small metal object. It's an optical mount, but the mount's supports look like metallic tree branches, crisscrossing and curving organically. "Sometimes nature has the best way figured out already."

Nature plays a role in Straub's big picture vision for AM. Can we use what nature provides us to manufacture what we need on the spot? He thinks about NASA's mission to send humans to Mars. "We won't be able to send everything we need; we aren't sending steel," Straub says, "but could we use the actual sand, the soil, the minerals there to additively manufacture buildings and structures?" Similarly, he thinks about military convoys and the lives lost transporting materials to bases. "With AM, we can make thousands of parts with the same tool.  It opens up the space to building on demand, on location," Straub says.

While Straub is leading AM into the future, he's also sharing what he's learned with the next generation. At the MIT Beaver Works Summer Institute in August, Straub and his colleagues developed a new unit that taught kids to hack a 3-D printer to do something new with it. The boom of commercial 3-D printers has kids enthusiastic about and familiar with the technology. This enthusiasm will only help fuel what Straub sees as an inevitably growing industry.

"AM is a game changer," he says. "It is greatly impacting the world and it's enabling new programs at Lincoln Laboratory. The only thing holding us back currently is our minds."

Honing quantum sensing

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 1:20pm

While quantum technologies have great long-term potential in computing applications, they are closer to practical use in sensing devices that will open new vistas in metrology, biology, neuroscience, and many other fields by enabling measurement of structures as small as individual photons, particles, and neurons.

New research from MIT’s interdisciplinary Quantum Engineering Group (QEG) is addressing one of the fundamental challenges facing these quantum sensor systems: removing environmental noise from the signal being measured.

The root of the problem, explains QEG doctoral student David Layden, is the extreme sensitivity of quantum sensors to their surrounding environment. These sensors typically start in a quantum superposition of two distinct states. Minuscule external forces induce a phase variation between the two states that can be leveraged to measure physical quantities like temperature, motion, and electric and magnetic fields with unprecedented resolution.

But this same sensitivity means that the sensors are also picking up many extraneous environmental inputs in addition to the signal of interest. Via a process called decoherence, this noise introduces uncertainty into the quantum sensors’ phase relationships and limits their ability to make precise measurements.

Several noise-reduction techniques have been developed to improve sensitivity by reducing decoherence. One common technique is dynamical decoupling — the introduction of a series of control pulses into the system, which allows the filtering of noise from signal based on frequency. This technique, however, is incompatible with DC signals, which are often what sensors are seeking to measure.

Research into quantum computing has also, over the past couple of decades, produced error-correction schemes like the use of redundant quantum bits. While these are useful in information-processing applications, they have significant limitations for sensors.

“The standard stuff from the computing world is a little overzealous here,” says Layden. “It’s very good at correcting errors and pushing down noise, but it also tends to correct away the signal because it can’t differentiate the two.”

More recently, error-corrected quantum sensing (ECQS) techniques have been developed, in which a recovery operation effectively removes noise that affects the sensor from a different direction than the signal — along the x-axis when the signal is along the z-axis, for example. These geometry-based techniques struggle, however, in the common situation where noise and signal affect the sensor from the same direction.

In a recent paper published in the journal npj Quantum Information, Layden and QEG leader Paola Cappellaro, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, unveil a novel way of applying established ECQS correction techniques to signal and noise that emanate from the same direction. This approach allows frequency-independent filtering, because it exploits spatial rather than temporal noise correlations.

“The usual way of looking at error correction, for quantum computing, was to cast as wide a net as possible to correct as much as you could,” says Layden. “In sensing applications, you instead want a very carefully shaped hole in your net to let through the specific signal you’re looking for. In effect, we’re adapting existing signal processing techniques for use in quantum devices. What’s surprising is how seamlessly these apparently unrelated ideas from quantum computing and signal processing fit together.”

Distinguishing signal from noise, the central requirement for noise-reduction techniques in quantum sensors, can be done in several ways. In addition to the geometric approach used in past ECQS techniques, researchers have exploited the fact that noise in many quantum devices is not completely unpredictable, but can instead be full of correlations. Dynamical decoupling, for instance, makes use of noise correlations at different times. Analogously, the QEG researchers’ new ECQS scheme makes use of noise correlations at different positions in a quantum sensor. In this way, the new approach can tell signal from noise even in the common case where both are in the same direction, say, along the z-axis.

Layden and Cappellaro’s approach is complementary to existing DD and ECQS methods, which is helpful because noise sources vary widely in different sensing applications. A diversity of filtering tools is desirable — and the new method could also open the door to quantum sensors that can correct for noise in all three spatial dimensions.

While development to date has been largely mathematical, experimental work is under way in the QEG’s laboratories, including evaluation of the noise challenges facing different types of quantum systems. “We’ve been working on getting something similar up and running,” explains Layden. Small-scale implementations have only recently become possible; while there are many theoretical ideas about how larger-scale quantum devices could operate, it’s likely that any practical near-term advances will come at intermediate scales, where the new QEG-developed techniques could prove especially useful.

Layden and Cappellaro are also working with collaborators at Yale University to advance the theoretical side of their project; funding is provided by the U.S. Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

“We’re not quite at the stage of getting experimental results yet, but we’re building hardware and doing simulations, and the interplay of going back and forth really shapes not just this project but several related ones as well,” adds Layden.

Developing new ways to advance copper production

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 1:10pm

MIT associate professor of metallurgy Antoine Allanore has received a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) to run larger scale tests of a new way to produce copper using electricity to separate copper from melted sulfur-based minerals, which are the main source of copper.

One of Allanore's primary goals is to make high-purity copper that can go directly into production of copper wire, which is in increasing demand for applications from renewable energy to electric vehicles. Production of electric and hybrid cars and buses is expected to rise from 3.1 million vehicles in 2017 to 27.2 million by 2027, with an accompanying nine-fold increase in demand for copper from 204,000 metric tons to 1.9 million metric tons (2.09 million U.S. tons) over the same period, according to a March 2017 IDTechEx report commissioned by the International Copper Association (ICA).

In June 2017, researchers in Allanore’s lab identified how to selectively separate pure copper and other metallic elements from sulfide mineral ore in one step. Their molten sulfide electrolysis process eliminates sulfur dioxide, a noxious byproduct of traditional copper extraction methods, instead producing pure elemental sulfur.

“We think that with our technology we could provide these copper wires with less energy consumption and higher productivity,” Allanore says. It may be possible to cut the energy needed for making copper by 20 percent.

In earlier research, postdoc Sulata K. Sahu and graduate student Brian J. Chmielowiec ’12, decomposed sulfur-rich minerals at high temperature into pure sulfur and extracted three different metals at very high purity: copper, molybdenum, and rhenium. The process is similar to the Hall-Héroult process, which uses electrolysis to produce aluminum, but operates at a higher operating temperature to enable production of liquid copper.

Currently, it takes multiple steps to separate out copper, first crushing sulfide minerals, and then floating out the copper-bearing parts. This copper-rich material — copper concentrate — is next partially refined in a smelter, and further purified with electrolytic refining. “Professor Allanore’s approach would work on the copper concentrate and has the potential to produce copper rod in a single operation while separating unwanted impurities and recovering valuable byproducts that are also in the concentrate,” says Hal Stillman, director of technology development and transfer for the International Copper Association. “Professor Allanore’s approach is a big step; it allows a completely new approach to refining copper.”

The three-year, $1.89 million DOE award will allow Allanore’s group to make a larger reactor, producing about 10 times as much liquid copper per hour, and to run the reactor for a longer time, enough to identify what happens to the other metals accompanying copper, which are also commercially important.

Allanore’s group effort began this year, and he hopes it will provide the data needed to move on to a pilot plant within three years. “We are aiming to be ready to provide the design criteria, the material and operating conditions of a one metric ton per day demonstration reactor,” Allanore says. “If everything is successful, that’s what we will deliver.”

Key technical challenges to overcome are proving the durability of the process over a longer time period and verifying the purity of the metals that are made in the process. Some of the byproducts of copper production, selenium, for example, are valuable in their own right.

“The revolution that we are proposing is that only one reactor would do everything. It would make the liquid copper product and allow us to recover elemental sulfur, and allows us to recover selenium,” Allanore says. “We are using electricity, and electrons can be very selective, so we are using electrons in a manner that enables the most efficient separation of the products of the chemical process.”

Conventional pyrometallurgy produces copper by burning the ore in air, requires four steps and produces noxious compounds like sulfur dioxide (SO2) that require secondary processing into sulfuric acid. The initial batch of copper also requires further processing. “It leaves behind copper metal with too much sulfur and too much oxygen, too much for downstream direct wire production,” Allanore says.

Allanore lab’s new molten sulfide electrolysis method better handles trace metals and other elements impurities that come with the copper, allowing for separation of multiple elements at high purity from the same production process. “Therefore, we can rethink the manufacturing process of copper wires,” Allanore says.

“The essential part is about providing the sector — mining companies, existing smelting companies and existing copper producers — some data that show what happens on longer operations and at a larger scale,” Allanore says.

The International Copper Association conducted a Life Cycle Assessment that identified several areas where the copper industry can improve its environmental footprint. The study indicates the industry needs to continue reducing on-site sulfur dioxide emissions and to get its electricity from sources that are more environmentally friendly. Allanore’s project is relevant to both these issues. “If developed and deployed, it has the potential to decrease energy demand, operate entirely on renewable energy, and reduce sulfur dioxide emissions,” ICA technology director Stillman says. “In addition, it can separate unwanted impurities and recover valuable by-products from the concentrate. Right now, the technical evidence that is creating excitement is a small-scale proof-of-principle demonstration. It’s great that EERE has provided the needed initial funding to explore the potential. If the process works at larger scale, it could be the type of revolutionary approach that the industry is seeking.”

Allanore’s award is one of 24 early-stage, innovative technology projects receiving up to $35 million in support. It was announced this year by the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Advanced Manufacturing Office earlier this year.

Report outlines keys to election security

Mon, 09/24/2018 - 11:59pm

The most secure form of voting technology remains the familiar, durable innovation known as paper, according to a report authored by a group of election experts, including two prominent scholars from MIT.

The report, issued by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, is a response to the emerging threat of hackers targeting computerized voting systems, and it comes as concerns continue to be aired over the security of the U.S. midterm elections of 2018.

The U.S. has a decentralized voting system, with roughly 9,000 political jurisdictions bearing some responsibility for administering elections. However, for all that variation, and while many questions are swirling around election security, the report identifies some main themes on the topic.

“There are two really important avenues that are emerging,” says Charles Stewart, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science and founder of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. “One is just securing the election, and the other is building in resilience and fail-safe mechanisms.”

In this context, “securing the election” means keeping voting systems safe from hackers in the first place; fail-safe mechanisms include paper ballots that can be used for audits and recounts.

The other MIT co-author of the report is Ronald L. Rivest, a computer encryption pioneer and Institute Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Given the distinct challenges of combining anonymity at the ballot box with verification of voting, Rivest notes, a paper trail remains a necessary component of secure voting systems.

“I think that the three most important recommendations of the report, at least from a security perspective, are probably: (a) use paper ballots, (b) check the reported election outcomes by performing ‘risk-limiting audits’ of the cast paper ballots, and (c) don’t transmit cast votes over the internet,” Rivest says.

The report, “Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy,” was released this month by the National Academies. The co-chairs of the committee releasing the report are Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, and Michael A. McRobbie, president of Indiana University.

Rivest and Stewart are two of the 12 co-authors of the high-level report, which examines a range of voting issues and contains a series of recommendations. In addition to having a paper trail, the recommendations include securing and updating voter registration databases, robust checks on the security of voting by mail, Congressional funding for security standards developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and robust auditing of elections to make sure systems are working.

Stewart and Rivest both acknowledge that they are often asked why internet voting is not a reality, given that we conduct other kinds of sensitive activities online, including banking.

“Probably the most common question that I get when I talk to the public about these issues,” Stewart says, “is, ‘Why can’t we vote on the internet?’”

Systems with the right combination of verification and anonymity are hard to develop, however, and as both scholars point out, other online activities such as banking are hardly foolproof. And while banks have systems to compensate customers should fraud occur, a one-time event like an election does not provide the same opportunities for remedies.

The good news, Stewart suggests, is that election officials themselves tend to have a keen awareness of the best practices in their field.

“From my experience I know that every state election official and just about every local election official that I’ve talked to is aware that cybersecurity is a top priority,” Stewart says. However, he adds, election officials do not necessarily control the purse strings and often cannot fund the security measures they value: “Often times, election officials don’t have control over their own destiny.”