In the News

Spinning their wheels

Cambridge Day - 3 hours 48 min ago
Americans with disabilities and their families have much to fear from the GOP’s tax plan in Congress, but the scares pale before the quotidian frustrations of caring for a disabled child in a bureaucratic society where school officials can resent their legal obligations.
Categories: In the News

One planet, many climate plans. Why?

MIT News - Sun, 12/17/2017 - 23:59

We have one planet, and many plans to keep it from getting too hot. Consider: There are more than 60 different greenhouse gas emissions pricing systems being used by countries and regions around the world, all intended to reduce the climate impact of burning fossil fuels.

In the abstract, it might be simpler to have a more unified set of policies in place, imposing costs on those producing emissions. But, as MIT Associate Professor Janelle Knox-Hayes has made a career observing, climate regulations are not developed in the abstract. The specific policies that countries adopt stem from the particular conditions they face.

So in the U.S., potential emissions-trading proposals were developed in concert with its huge financial sector; traders were even experimenting with collateralized securities based on carbon obligations (akin to mortgage-backed bonds) before the market crash of 2008. In Japan, by contrast, with less financialization and a greater emphasis on exporting material goods, the country’s emissions markets count clean-energy exports as an offset against domestic carbon emissions.

“I think for most people emissions markets are an abstract concept,” Knox-Hayes says. Thus much of her work involves “understanding the cultural dimensions of markets,” as she puts it.

That includes a 2016 book on the subject, many published research articles, and a new research project that has taken her to Iceland, where Knox-Hayes is studying social values as they relate to climate issues. In the future, she hopes to map the attitudes and values among residents in other parts of the Arctic Circle, an area targeted for more oil exploration.

“I think there can be more comprehensive ways of understanding the makeup of social values,” Knox-Hayes says, adding that we need to relate policy discussions to  “all the reasons people care about the environment in the first place.”

For this kind of innovative research and for her teaching, Knox-Hayes was awarded tenure by MIT earlier this year. She is currently the Lister Brothers Associate Professor of Economic Geography and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and co-head of the Environmental and Policy Planning Group.

Surrounded by landscape

Knox-Hayes grew up in Cortez, Colorado, a relatively isolated town in the state’s Four Corners area.

“It’s a remote place, but it’s also very beautiful,” Knox-Hayes says. “You’re just surrounded by the natural landscape out there, and I think that’s where my interest in the natural environment and environmental policy and conservation came from.”

As an undergraduate, Knox-Hayes attended the University of Colorado and graduated with a triple major, studying ecology, Japanese languages and civilization, and international relations.

“I wanted a bit of an interdisciplinary focus,” explains Knox-Hayes, in a bit of an understatement.

She was awarded a graduate scholarship at Oxford University in England, where, working with advisor Gordon Clark, she began “trying to understand the intersection of finance and environmental conservation.” That became the subject of her dissertation and then her book, “The Cultures of Markets,” published by Oxford University Press in 2016.

The book looked closely at six countries or regions with emissions markets: the U.S., Europe, Australia, South Korea, Japan, and China. Having an Asian focus in the book became a necessity after the economic recession and financial-market crisis of 2007–2009, which Knox-Hayes regards as an important reason why no federal emissions policy was adopted in the U.S.

“The momentum just shifted East [to Asia],” Knox-Hayes says. “So I was really interested in this phenomenon. I wanted to study what it means to transfer an institution to different cultural contexts.”

To be clear, Knox-Hayes does not regard emissions markets as the most powerful tool we have for building a sustainable energy future. If somehow countries could quickly switch to an all-renewables future by fiat, well, that would be more effective in a shorter time. But emissions markets are a popular option given the highly developed structures of finance. 

“Emissions markets have been the most viable political reality,” Knox-Hayes says. “The reason it is a catchy idea is because of the allure that markets promise: You can conserve the natural environment and have as much growth as you like.”

Icelandic saga

Beyond her first book, Knox-Hayes has begun research, sponsored by the Icelandic Fulbright Commission, on a new project that looks more principally at the core social values underpinning policy initiatives in the Arctic — something that has taken her to Iceland on multiple occasions, including once on a Fulbright scholarship.

Knox-Hayes is attempting to chart, in granular detail, both the climate-related values people hold in Iceland and the geographical distribution of those values.

“It’s not just what the values are, but where the values are,” Knox-Hayes says. “It would be fantastic to go around the Arctic mapping values as a way to say, these are the things people care about. Iceland is a pilot project. … I think it’s a nice way to develop the methodology.”

Precisely because the Arctic is contested terrain — an oil-rich area where multiple countries are trying to develop drilling, but where some indigenous peoples are wary of changes to their habitat — it might be a particularly apt place to explore how people form their views about nature, and for what reasons.

Sometimes in policy discussions, Knox-Hayes observes, “We talk about climate change in terms of technocratic governance and scientific norms [and] there’s no emotional connection, no cognitive association. It’s difficult to then try to relate [climate] to other things that are emotionally connected to it.”

She adds: “Arguments vested in emotion carry a lot more weight. That may be a necessary component of building policy for the public.”

Categories: In the News

Holiday season, weather affects scheduling for city services such as trash, tree pickup

Cambridge Day - Sun, 12/17/2017 - 18:23
Trash and recycling collection, Recycling Drop-Off Center and Cambridge Cemetery hours, curbside collection of bare holiday trees, street cleaning operations and parking meter payments are all affected by holiday hours and possible bad weather.
Categories: In the News

‘Linkage’ from two projects at new rates nearly matches fees from past 29 years

Cambridge Day - Sun, 12/17/2017 - 17:23
After nearly three decades between setting the “linkage” rate developers pay to help build affordable housing, city staff and officials are already preparing for the next potential increase in 2019.
Categories: In the News

Community Electricity program cheaper than Eversource, uses renewable sources

Cambridge Day - Sat, 12/16/2017 - 20:54
The Cambridge Community Electricity program remains open for residents and businesses who want to save money on electricity and boost renewable sources of power.
Categories: In the News

CEOC gets $40,000 health care aid grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation

Cambridge Day - Sat, 12/16/2017 - 20:31
More than $1.5 million in grants has been awarded to 31 community organizations by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation to support promotion of accessible health care and coverage for vulnerable and low-income residents across the state.
Categories: In the News

CRLS adds $7,000 to Puerto Rico funds with ‘West Side Story’ as crisis continues

Cambridge Day - Sat, 12/16/2017 - 16:50
Cambridge Rindge and Latin School’s recent production of “West Side Story” not only wowed packed audiences for its five performances, it also helped to raise more than $7,000 to help support Puerto Rico.
Categories: In the News

Tackling student food insecurity with SwipeShare

MIT News - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 18:15

In its first full week of operation, SwipeShare — a new program that allows students who are on a meal plan to donate their guest swipes to other students struggling with food insecurity — garnered 673 donated meals. The program was launched on Dec. 4 as a partnership between the Division of Student Life (DSL), Undergraduate Association (UA), and Graduate Student Council (GSC), and is one part of an ongoing, multi-pronged approach to tackling challenges students can face getting enough to eat.

“It doesn’t matter who you are. Any student can face food insecurity, so any student who expresses they’re facing this difficulty can get the meal swipes,” says Alexa Martin, the UA's vice president.

GSC President Sarah Goodman says financial insecurity in general “is a significant problem for many graduate students, particularly those with families.”

“Among other programs that provide assistance to grad students in need, we hope that SwipeShare will provide another avenue for students to get support in a way that works best for them," Goodman says.

Accessing the program — either by donating guest swipes or requesting a meal — is designed to be simple. Students who wish to donate their swipes can go to studentlife.mit.edu/swipeshare (certificate required) to see how many guest swipes they have for the semester and then select how many they would like to donate. Undergraduates who wish to receive the swipes can contact a dean in Student Support Services, and graduate students who need meals can reach out to Naomi Carton, the associate dean for Residential Life and Dining.

There is no application or qualification process, and all requests will be handled discreetly.

“We want the bar to be low so there’s no paperwork, and it doesn’t matter if students are receiving financial aid or not,” says DSL Senior Associate Dean David Randall. “Students only need to come in and tell us what their need is so that we can figure out a way to help.”

Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson calls SwipeShare a “creative and caring program” and “a solid first step in the right direction” to address food insecurity among students. DSL, in collaboration with students, staff, and faculty, is also focused on developing and implementing other strategies.

For instance, DSL has issued a request for proposal for a new dining contract that aims to create a “food secure” campus and promote the availability of economically-priced, healthful food across campus. The DSL will also implement a new residential meal plan program that permits roll-over meals, a change that would allow the SwipeShare program to expand beyond collecting just guest swipe donations. Under the current meal plan, regular meal swipes expire at the end of each week, while guest swipes accumulate throughout the semester, allowing students to donate unused meals.

Meanwhile, the Food Insecurity Solutions Committee, chaired by Randall, has been meeting throughout the fall semester. The group, which consists of students, faculty, and staff, is responsible for reviewing survey data, consulting with members of the MIT community, examining how peer institutions address food insecurity, and exploring the feasibility of implementing similar models at the Institute. The committee’s report is due to be released at the start of the spring semester. Also, an emergency grant fund was recently established to help students who are struggling to afford necessities — such as food and winter clothing — or to cover unforeseen, essential expenses. Undergraduates are encouraged to contatct Student Support Services for more information, while graduate students can reach out to Naomi Carton.

Finally, a new coalition called Accessing Resources MIT (ARM) is also in its early stages. The coalition responds to work done by the student organization, Class Awareness Support and Equality (CASE), and is in the process of completing an inventory of how MIT supports students in high economic need; assessing how those resources and services are advertised to students; and identifying any gaps and potential solutions for raising awareness about the resources that can help, especially among incoming students and their families.

Categories: In the News

Bridging the gap between citizens and scientists

MIT News - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 17:40

Known worldwide as a center of leading science and engineering research, MIT also boasts an influential program whose graduates advance scientific knowledge in another way — as science writers working for a broad spectrum of news outlets ranging from the online Atlas Obscura to National Geographic and The Washington Post.

Staffed by leaders in the field that include bestselling authors Seth Mnookin ("Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy") and Alan Lightman ("Einstein’s Dreams"), as well as award-winning documentary filmmaker Thomas Levenson (NOVA's "Einstein Revealed"), the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing (GPSW) prepares students to inform the public about critical issues ranging from medical breakthroughs to climate change. Graduates of the one-year master's program have earned some of the top awards in journalism, including the Pulitzer Prize.

GPSW graduate Lisa Song '09 was on the team at Inside Climate News, a web-based nonprofit covering energy and environmental science, that won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its seven-month investigation of a million-gallon tar sands oil spill in the Kalamazoo River. Song was also on a reporting team named a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Today she writes for ProPublica, an nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism.

Phil McKenna SM ’07, who has written for Smithsonian and National Geographic, won the 2013 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award and the 2014 NASW Science in Society Award for a feature written for the online magazine Matter on gas leaks under U.S. cities.

“These are the kind of investigative stories that might be key to changing policy,” McKenna says.

New platforms and formats

As a group, MIT's GPSW graduates demonstrate that it’s possible to flourish in journalism despite the current turmoil in the industry.

“Virtually every metropolitan daily newspaper has eliminated its dedicated science section, which means a loss of many staff jobs,” says Mnookin, director of the program and the Ford Career Development Associate Professor in Comparative Media Studies/Writing.

Yet even as traditional journalism platforms collapse, Mnookin says “we are seeing the creation of new outlets that are doing incredible work and that fill a void.” These include not-for-profit websites and subscription models for old and new publications. Here, many of the GPSW graduates find positions where they thrive producing works that shine light on the exciting, complex, and challenging issues that emerge at the forefront of science and technology.

Carolyn Johnson SM ’04, former lead science writer for The Boston Globe who now covers health care issues and policy for The Washington Post, says “people are reading/watching/consuming more than ever before. The value of explaining things about how the world works remains despite the uncertainty about the future."

Inside Climate News reporter Zahra Hirji SM ’13 agrees. That's one reason she made switched to science writing from geology, her undergraduate major at Brown University. Hirji realized during a summer internship tracking lava flows that she would rather write about earth science than conduct scientific research in a lab. When she determined to make a career in science journalism, she chose GPSW because of its support for long-form writing.

“I had a story kicking around in my head tied to the risk of a future volcanic eruption and its impact on Hawaii,” she says. “I knew I’d need resources and editorial help for my story, and it was obvious MIT’s program was the one.”

With instruction from such GPSW professors as Marcia Bartusiak, a physicist and journalist, Hirji learned how to research and dig deep into her topic. “Sinking my teeth into different areas, my writing dramatically improved,” she says. With the program’s assistance, she visited Hawaiian archives so she could re-construct what happened in a 1984 volcanic eruption.

A passion for facts and truth 

The passion for relating important stories is central to the program, Mnookin says. “I tell all our students that unless you’re in love with journalism, it’s not something you should do."

For those who do love the field, GPSW is a special place, graduates say, one that provides them with both the means and the methods to expand public understanding of science, technology, and medicine.

“It was like the Camelot of science writing, where you could work one-on-one with top people in the field, which was both amazing and terrifying,” McKenna says. “There were so many opportunities in and out of the classroom; it was drinking from the proverbial MIT fire hose."

McKenna’s initial journalistic interest was conservation biology, from condor rehabilitation to whooping crane migration. But at GPSW, he says, “I was pressed to write outside my comfort zone and to learn about fields like physics and astronomy, so I could write on a range of topics.”

For her part, Johnson credits the 15-year-old program's supportive faculty with kick-starting her successful writing career. She joined The Boston Globe soon after graduating, became the newspaper's lead science writer in 2008, and launched the paper’s “Science in Mind” blog in November 2012. “I had never even done an interview prior to the program,” she says.

Similarly, Cara Giaimo SM '15, a staff writer for the online Atlas Obscura, says, “I came in without a lot of newswriting experience, and with only a cursory understanding of the contemporary media landscape. But over the course of the program, I learned what I had to do to understand a topic, write a story, and build my career as a writer.”

With a background in field biology, Giaimo wrote her MIT thesis about two members of the urban wildlife in Austin, Texas — a bat population the public rallied around, and a salamander species that was less beloved. Today, she produces three pieces each week for Atlas Obscura, often exploring the theme of human impact on nature.

She's also learning on the job about the business of a media startup with investors and advertisers — broadening her skills in a way Mnookin says is key to succeeding as a journalist today.

“We emphasize students’ ability to work as independent operators, creating viable employment not through one but a handful of different employers,” he says. “We’d love it if they were entrepreneurial and started their own outlets.”
 
Tools and skills for viable careers

GPSW works hard to make a journalism career viable for its students, he notes. “We view finding ways to support our students financially as a moral issue.”

Beyond providing rigorous training, professional contacts, and placement opportunities, the program has been revamping its curriculum and bringing on faculty to teach data analysis, and skills for generating websites, podcasts, and videos — ensuring graduates have every tool they need for a successful career path.

This support has been critical for Hirji, who got assistance from GPSW to land an internship at ICN the summer after graduation. She began at ICN by “helping out with the website, social media, and business things.” Today, she reports news and contributes to investigative pieces, including articles on dangerous pollutants in fracking waste streams, and on the history of ExxonMobil’s company research on climate change.

“Reporting can change the world,” she says.

Categories: In the News

Open for Comments - CCJ Forum

Cambridge Civic Journal - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 17:06

2017 City Council Campaign Receipts, Expenditures, and $/Vote (posted Dec 13, 2017, updated frequently)

A Quick One – Featured Items on the Dec 11, 2017 Cambridge City Council Agenda (Dec 11, 2017)

Running Down the Clock – Dec 4, 2017 City Council Agenda Highlights (Dec 3, 2017)

2017 Cambridge City Council Campaign Bank Reports (updated Nov 18, 2017)

The Shifting Demographic (Nov 23, 2017)

Featured Items on the Nov 13, 2017 City Council Agenda (Nov 13, 2017)

2017 Cambridge Election Results – Bar Graphs (Nov 13, 2013 - Unofficial Results)

Cambridge School Committee 2017 Campaign Finance Summaries and $/Vote (posted Nov 5, 2017)

Current City of Cambridge Board and Commission Vacancies (Nov 5, 2017)

Age and Turnout: comparing the 2015 and 2017 Cambridge elections (Nov 4, 2017)

Cambridge Candidate Pages – 2017 (Nov 4, 2017)

Wishin’ & Hopin’ & Thinkin’ & Prayin’ – Oct 30, 2017 City Council meeting agenda (Oct 30, 2017)

Cambridge City Council and School Committee Candidates – 2017 (posted July 24, 2017, updated July 31, 2017)

The Sanders Backlash (Oct 23, 2017)

Countdown – Preview of Oct 23, 2017 Cambridge City Council Meeting (Oct 22, 2017)

Notable Items on the Oct 16, 2017 City Council Agenda (Oct 16, 2017)

Preview of Oct 2, 2017 Cambridge City Council meeting (posted Oct 1, 2017)

Preview of Sept 25, 2017 Cambridge City Council meeting (posted Sept 25, 2017)

Not left, Felton (by John Allen, posted Sept 24, 2017)

Topics for Candidates for Cambridge School Committee – 2017 (posted Sept 4, 2017)

Topics for Candidates for Cambridge City Council – 2017 (posted Sept 4, 2017)

Women Candidates in Cambridge Municipal Elections: 1941-2017 (Aug 14, 2017)

Number of candidates in Cambridge municipal elections: 1941-present (posted July 25, 2017)

Sheet of ice draws praise from bicycle advocates (posted Apr 20, 2017 by John Allen)

All the News That’s Printed to Fit – April 1, 2017 (the April Fools edition)

Black ice blindness (Feb 21, 2017 by John Allen)

Central Square is a Grandma (Dec 17, 2016)

The Municipal Situation in Cambridge (1904) – by Henry N. Wheeler (Nov 6, 2016)

Catching Up on the Cambridge News – April 1, 2016 (April Fools Edition)

Sunday Morning Statistics – Who Voted in the Cambridge Presidential primary (by age) (posted Mar 20, 2016)

A Conversation with Tip O’Neill (1992) on Cambridge Inside Out (Jan 17, 2016)

Who Voted in the 2015 Cambridge Municipal Election? (Dec 6, 2015)

Final Official Election Results – Cambridge 2015 Municipal Election (Nov 13, 2015)

Flashback to March 1998 (Oct 12, 2015)

Who Votes in Cambridge? (July 9, 2015)

April 1 Cambridge News (Apr 1, 2015) - the April Fool's Day edition

Brian Murphy, 1964-2015 (Feb 5, 2015)

Age Distribution of Voters in Cambridge Elections: 2007-2014 (Jan 4, 2015)

MBTA Role in Cambridge Center Project – Kendall Station Urban Initiatives Project, 1979-1989 (Feb 13, 2014)

The Advent of PR in Cambridge (Nov 10, 2013)

Completing the Square (June 11, 2013)

Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project: Six Pivotal Episodes (June 8, 2013)

April 1 Cambridge News (Apr 1, 2013) - the April Fool's Day edition

On becoming a True Cantabrigian (Dec 29, 2012)

Kendall Square Urban Renewal Project, Initial Years, 1963 to 1982 (July 12, 2012)

Kendall Square Urban Renewal Area – Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (Apr 5, 2012)

“Cycle track”: a sidewalk by another name (posted Aug 11, 2010, letter of Paul Schimek)

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Categories: In the News

MyGoodness: Making charitable giving more effective

MIT News - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 16:30

It’s the holiday season, which to many people means a season of giving — to loved ones, colleagues, public radio and television, or to any number of the countless charities seeking support. Nearly a third of all annual charitable giving occurs in December, and many nonprofits raise as much as half of their annual funds from this year-end burst of giving.

With so many charities relying on these donations to achieve their goals, how do we choose between them? How do we know how much impact our dollars actually have?

Enter MyGoodness: an online game that aims to maximize the impact of charitable donations. Created by Iyad Rahwan and Edmond Awad of the MIT Media Lab’s Scalable Cooperation group, MyGoodness presents each player with a hypothetical $1,000 to spend on donations to various causes. Players are then faced with a series of 10 sets of choices between different charities, giving away $100 at each turn. By choosing between numbers and characteristics of people, geographic location, and types of aid, players are invited to better understand the effectiveness of their donation choices.

The MyGoodness team collaborated on the game with The Life You Can Save (TLYCS), a nonprofit organization founded by Peter Singer that identifies charities that deliver maximum impact. TLYCS helped with the design and advised the researchers on the magnitude of the different tradeoffs between charities. TLYCS is also helping MyGoodness back up its goals with real money: Two players will be randomly selected to receive $1,000 in real money to put toward their actual decisions in the game.

“We’re trying to promote a specific idea, which is that goodness is doing the best thing for the greatest number of people,” says Rawan, head of the Scalable Cooperation group. “This game is about life-saving charities, through different means: clean water, nutritious meals, medication, assault victim support. We take the position that saving the greatest number of lives is the right thing to do, regardless of where they are or how you’re saving them. Every life is the same and saving more lives is the ideal.”

MyGoodness takes players to some uncomfortable places, sharply underscoring certain biases and preferences. Like a charity-based trolley problem, the game asks us to choose, for example, between providing nutritious meals to 10 children in North America, or clean water to 25 people in northern Africa.

“Currently, only 6 percent of U.S. charitable donations go toward international causes, where you can get the most bang for your buck,” explains Charlie Besler, executive director of The Life You Can Save. “Meanwhile, every day, over 7,500 children die from preventable causes. We're trying to get people to reconsider the notion that all donations should go to domestic causes, and to give in a thoughtful way.”

It’s easy to let our own experiences and biases dictate our decisions. It’s also easy to choose a charity that looks good, based on little or no information (only about 35 percent of people do any research before giving to a charity). MyGoodness seeks to promote a more objective, efficacy-based process, even if it means overcoming an impulse to favor one type of person over another.

“We want people to reflect on the values they use when they decide how to give to charity. The game presents different merits to them, they confront the discomfort that comes with choosing, and in the process learn something about themselves,” says Rahwan.  

By offering the real cash incentive in selecting two random players to receive $1,000 (one on Christmas, the other on New Year’s day), the team hopes MyGoodness will make people feel that they have a real stake in the game. This is doubly true since the game does offer the option to keep some money or give it to a relative, which means that if either of the two players who wins the real money has made those choices in the game, that’s what will happen.

But the MyGoodness team is confident that players will embrace the opportunity to reflect on effective giving, as well as choose more effectively.

 “We know that people are good. We want to help them be better,” Rahwan says.

MyGoodness can be played at mygoodness.mit.edu.

Categories: In the News

MIT conference seeks solutions for reconstruction in devastated Caribbean

MIT News - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 13:30

This fall’s record-breaking hurricanes Maria and Irma left a swath of devastation across the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Granada, Dominica, and others. Photos of severely damaged or demolished houses, and statistics about the scale of the destruction and the slow pace of recovery efforts, reveal a tragic level of suffering in an already economically ravaged region.

In a two-day conference at MIT on Dec. 12-13, leaders from the region brainstormed with researchers from MIT and elsewhere to develop strategies for not just rebuilding the islands’ ruined infrastructure, but making it better and more resilient to the ever-growing threat of powerful hurricanes. The conference was co-hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative and Environmental Solutions Initiative.

Ricardo Rosselló ’01, the governor of Puerto Rico and an MIT alumnus with a degree in chemical engineering, cast the terrible damage suffered by his and neighboring islands as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to rebuild in a way that would be significantly more resilient in the face of future natural disasters. That could include, he suggested, creating a less-centralized electric grid and building housing according to stronger codes for withstanding high winds and flooding.

Already, before the hurricanes struck, his administration had proposed a 15-year vision for a new, more resilient electrical grid. “Now, we can think about rebuilding it in three years, in a much bolder and more modern way,” he said, “and make sure we use this crisis as an opportunity” to achieve lasting improvements. “We may use this to make Puerto Rico a model for the Caribbean.” Similarly, he said, instead of just rebuilding the 10 schools that were destroyed, given that the school population has declined by half, they may build “three that are new and modern and resilient,” making better use of limited resources.

As an example of the innovative possibilities, he cited an ongoing dialog he has been having with Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SolarCity, who has offered to create a model solar-based power system for Puerto Rico. Rosselló says he has been in communication with Musk and others at Tesla, including several representatives of the company who have come to the island to work on a detailed proposal for a grid largely based on solar panels and battery storage systems.

In an interview with MIT News, Rosselló described his response to a tweet from Musk: “I sent a tweet out challenging him, saying ‘you want to show your model is scalable, and Puerto Rico offers you a platform to do it.’ And then the conversation started. I spoke to him a few times, and yesterday [Dec. 11] we just announced a public-private partnership model. We received an unsolicited proposal from Tesla, which includes at least the first phase, of 600 megawatts of generation using solar and batteries.” If the proposal gets accepted, then it will be opened up as a formal request for proposals to see if anyone else could match the offer. “We’re very excited about Tesla’s involvement,” he said.

At this point, he said, about 63 percent of Puerto Rico’s power grid has been brought back online, and 95 percent of residents now have access to potable water. Still, about half a million homes were severely damaged or destroyed, he said, so the rebuilding effort will go on for a very long time. And all of this has happened on an island that was already battered by what Rosselló called a “hurricane of the manmade kind,” namely the territory’s $70-plus billion debt.

Potentially making things even worse, he said, would be passage of the tax bill now before Congress, which he said would unfairly punish Puerto Rico with the burden of extra tariffs, at the worst possible time. “It is weird that we have to go to Congress and ask them to treat us the same as everyone else,” he said. “The tax reform act levies a severe tax on Puerto Rico, by treating us as a foreign country.”

The two-day conference also featured Keith Mitchell, the prime minister of Grenada, which was also battered by the back-to-back hurricanes. Mitchell also emphasized the importance of not just restoring but revamping the electrical systems. “Electricity is such a critical factor in reconstruction,” he said. “Without it, it’s going to be impossible to recover.” On the nearby island nation of Dominica, which he toured recently, he said “every electric pole is on the ground. It was one of the most painful scenes I’ve ever had to witness.”

He said that during the recent international climate conference in Paris, he was able to secure commitments for $4 billion in reconstruction aid, and billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson has offered to help in mobilizing the private sector to provide more aid. But that is still far short of what the Caribbean region will need to rebuild, he said.

And, echoing Rosselló’s vision of the need for creating an improved electrical system, he said that “affordable clean energy provides the greatest potential for economic revitalization of the region.” It’s also vital, he said, because the global warming produced by greenhouse gas emissions poses “an existential threat for all Caribbean nations” due to the potential for extreme sea level rise and more powerful hurricanes.

In deciding on appropriate methods of reconstruction, “there is a tension, by default, in acting quickly while bearing in mind the long term,” said John Fernández, director of MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative. While there is great urgency in restoring the basic services of water, power, and roads that people depend on, he said, it’s also important at every step to ask: “How do you rebuild in a way such that what you end up with is better” than what was there before?

Overall, the conference was intended to be the first step in an ongoing process of involving MIT in the planning and execution of innovative reconstruction for the region, rather than simply aiming to rebuild things as they were, said Robert Stoner, director of MIT’s Tata Center for Technology and Design.

For example, it turns out that of the solar panels that did exist on the islands, home-based rooftop panels in general survived better than large solar installations. But even among the large arrays, some were completely destroyed, while others suffered relatively minor damage, so studying the details of what worked and what didn’t could provide important lessons for future construction. Similarly, studying which buildings stood up to the winds and which were flattened by them could lead to important changes in building codes to foster greater resilience.

The conference looked at three broad areas of reconstruction, and how to achieve improvements in each of them: the electrical system; settlements (not just individual buildings, but also the roads and delivery systems that make them function); and the water, sewage, and other key infrastructure systems needed for survival.

The next step of MIT’s participation in the rebuilding will include several teams of students who will be spending January’s Independent Activities Period in the region, assessing damage and working with local people to develop appropriate solutions. Then, through further meetings, the Institute will try to figure out how best to continue the efforts at working together to develop and implement innovative solutions, Stoner said. “We have an opportunity to use planning and computational tools that didn’t exist” when most of the region’s present structures were built, he said.

“I hope this can be the start of a great collaboration,” Rosselló said.

Categories: In the News

MIT conference seeks solutions for reconstruction in devastated Caribbean

MIT Events - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 13:30

This fall’s record-breaking hurricanes Maria and Irma left a swath of devastation across the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Granada, Dominica, and others. Photos of severely damaged or demolished houses, and statistics about the scale of the destruction and the slow pace of recovery efforts, reveal a tragic level of suffering in an already economically ravaged region.

In a two-day conference at MIT on Dec. 12-13, leaders from the region brainstormed with researchers from MIT and elsewhere to develop strategies for not just rebuilding the islands’ ruined infrastructure, but making it better and more resilient to the ever-growing threat of powerful hurricanes. The conference was co-hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative and Environmental Solutions Initiative.

Ricardo Rosselló ’01, the governor of Puerto Rico and an MIT alumnus with a degree in chemical engineering, cast the terrible damage suffered by his and neighboring islands as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to rebuild in a way that would be significantly more resilient in the face of future natural disasters. That could include, he suggested, creating a less-centralized electric grid and building housing according to stronger codes for withstanding high winds and flooding.

Already, before the hurricanes struck, his administration had proposed a 15-year vision for a new, more resilient electrical grid. “Now, we can think about rebuilding it in three years, in a much bolder and more modern way,” he said, “and make sure we use this crisis as an opportunity” to achieve lasting improvements. “We may use this to make Puerto Rico a model for the Caribbean.” Similarly, he said, instead of just rebuilding the 10 schools that were destroyed, given that the school population has declined by half, they may build “three that are new and modern and resilient,” making better use of limited resources.

As an example of the innovative possibilities, he cited an ongoing dialog he has been having with Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SolarCity, who has offered to create a model solar-based power system for Puerto Rico. Rosselló says he has been in communication with Musk and others at Tesla, including several representatives of the company who have come to the island to work on a detailed proposal for a grid largely based on solar panels and battery storage systems.

In an interview with MIT News, Rosselló described his response to a tweet from Musk: “I sent a tweet out challenging him, saying ‘you want to show your model is scalable, and Puerto Rico offers you a platform to do it.’ And then the conversation started. I spoke to him a few times, and yesterday [Dec. 11] we just announced a public-private partnership model. We received an unsolicited proposal from Tesla, which includes at least the first phase, of 600 megawatts of generation using solar and batteries.” If the proposal gets accepted, then it will be opened up as a formal request for proposals to see if anyone else could match the offer. “We’re very excited about Tesla’s involvement,” he said.

At this point, he said, about 63 percent of Puerto Rico’s power grid has been brought back online, and 95 percent of residents now have access to potable water. Still, about half a million homes were severely damaged or destroyed, he said, so the rebuilding effort will go on for a very long time. And all of this has happened on an island that was already battered by what Rosselló called a “hurricane of the manmade kind,” namely the territory’s $70-plus billion debt.

Potentially making things even worse, he said, would be passage of the tax bill now before Congress, which he said would unfairly punish Puerto Rico with the burden of extra tariffs, at the worst possible time. “It is weird that we have to go to Congress and ask them to treat us the same as everyone else,” he said. “The tax reform act levies a severe tax on Puerto Rico, by treating us as a foreign country.”

The two-day conference also featured Keith Mitchell, the prime minister of Grenada, which was also battered by the back-to-back hurricanes. Mitchell also emphasized the importance of not just restoring but revamping the electrical systems. “Electricity is such a critical factor in reconstruction,” he said. “Without it, it’s going to be impossible to recover.” On the nearby island nation of Dominica, which he toured recently, he said “every electric pole is on the ground. It was one of the most painful scenes I’ve ever had to witness.”

He said that during the recent international climate conference in Paris, he was able to secure commitments for $4 billion in reconstruction aid, and billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson has offered to help in mobilizing the private sector to provide more aid. But that is still far short of what the Caribbean region will need to rebuild, he said.

And, echoing Rosselló’s vision of the need for creating an improved electrical system, he said that “affordable clean energy provides the greatest potential for economic revitalization of the region.” It’s also vital, he said, because the global warming produced by greenhouse gas emissions poses “an existential threat for all Caribbean nations” due to the potential for extreme sea level rise and more powerful hurricanes.

In deciding on appropriate methods of reconstruction, “there is a tension, by default, in acting quickly while bearing in mind the long term,” said John Fernández, director of MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative. While there is great urgency in restoring the basic services of water, power, and roads that people depend on, he said, it’s also important at every step to ask: “How do you rebuild in a way such that what you end up with is better” than what was there before?

Overall, the conference was intended to be the first step in an ongoing process of involving MIT in the planning and execution of innovative reconstruction for the region, rather than simply aiming to rebuild things as they were, said Robert Stoner, director of MIT’s Tata Center for Technology and Design.

For example, it turns out that of the solar panels that did exist on the islands, home-based rooftop panels in general survived better than large solar installations. But even among the large arrays, some were completely destroyed, while others suffered relatively minor damage, so studying the details of what worked and what didn’t could provide important lessons for future construction. Similarly, studying which buildings stood up to the winds and which were flattened by them could lead to important changes in building codes to foster greater resilience.

The conference looked at three broad areas of reconstruction, and how to achieve improvements in each of them: the electrical system; settlements (not just individual buildings, but also the roads and delivery systems that make them function); and the water, sewage, and other key infrastructure systems needed for survival.

The next step of MIT’s participation in the rebuilding will include several teams of students who will be spending January’s Independent Activities Period in the region, assessing damage and working with local people to develop appropriate solutions. Then, through further meetings, the Institute will try to figure out how best to continue the efforts at working together to develop and implement innovative solutions, Stoner said. “We have an opportunity to use planning and computational tools that didn’t exist” when most of the region’s present structures were built, he said.

“I hope this can be the start of a great collaboration,” Rosselló said.

Categories: In the News

Pioneering a health care innovation ecosystem to better serve patients

MIT News - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 08:55

The MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation on Dec. 12 announced its New Drug Development Paradigms (NEWDIGS) initiative to pilot a next-generation health care innovation ecosystem. This pilot is designed to deliver more value from new medicines to patients at a faster pace, in ways best suited for all parties. Current NEWDIGS collaborative members GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, and Sanofi are providing the $500,000 startup funding, with other corporate and nonprofit members contributing in-kind resources.

One component of the NEWDIGS approach is the Learning Ecosystems for Accelerating Patient-Centered and Sustainable Innovation (LEAPS) Project, which focuses on connecting knowledge generation across the silos of drug development and patient care through platform clinical trials linked with a real-world, evidence learning engine — a system for managing and sharing knowledge across stakeholders. The first pilot in LEAPS will leverage Massachusetts as a statewide test bed.

“While pharmaceutical research and development is a global enterprise, the value of new medicines is assessed and driven locally. This has always been true in other countries, but is increasingly the case in the U.S.,” says Gigi Hirsch, executive director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation and of the NEWDIGS initiative. “Our goal is to integrate emerging but fragmented innovations in policy, process, and technology into a system that works better for everyone, and especially for patients.”

LEAPS will leverage NEWDIGS methods and tools for collaborative systems engineering involving patients, providers, payers, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, information technology firms, regulators, payers, public health officials, and academic researchers.

“It is critically important that we align priorities in pharmaceutical drug development with unmet public health needs,” says Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. “By engaging the entire health care system and its key stakeholders, this pilot project has the potential to serve as a model for person-centered health care and break down barriers that currently exist when linking patients with timely, essential treatments.”

The LEAPS project will launch in January 2018. Target diseases under consideration for the pilot are rheumatoid arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and opioid addiction. Objectives, beyond improving patient outcomes, include the following:

  • Enhancing the value of the growing array of disparate data and evidence from electronic medical records and insurance claims to mobile apps and longitudinal patient and disease registries;
  • Accelerating health care insights from data analytics tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain technologies; and
  • Establishing community hospitals and clinics as key elements of the broader innovation ecosystem.

“Massachusetts is uniquely suited to serve as the test bed for this pilot project, which offers an exciting opportunity to better serve patients by connecting the unparalleled strengths of the state’s biocluster, world renowned provider systems, and payers, who play an increasingly important role in access to new products,” says Robert K. Coughlin, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

“We look forward to building on the work we have done with the NEWDIGS collaborative to design and pilot a next-generation biomedical innovation system in Massachusetts. Done well, we believe this effort can help transform the way new therapies are developed and delivered, and serve as a model to replicate in other states, and for other diseases,” says Susan Shiff, senior vice president and head of the Center for Observational and Real-World Evidence at Merck.

Elements of the strategic vision for LEAPS were explored in the Next Wave Forum, hosted by NEWDIGS on Dec. 12-13, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The event included keynote speakers Janet Woodcock (Food and Drug Administration), Hans-Georg Eichler (European Medicines Agency), Trent Haywood (Blue Cross Blue Shield), Donald Berwick (formerly Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, and Institute for Healthcare Improvement), and MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Jonathan Gruber, and Michael Cusumano.

Further details on MIT NEWDIGS LEAPS are available at newdigs.mit.edu.

Categories: In the News

City Council agenda

Cambridge Civic Journal - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 05:06

Dec 18, 2017
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3Q: Institute Professor John Deutch on maintaining US leadership in technological innovation

MIT News - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 00:00

MIT Institute Professor John Deutch, who has been on the MIT faculty since 1970, has served as a department head, dean of the School of Science, and provost, and has published over 160 technical publications as well as numerous publications on technology, energy, international security, and public policy issues. He served in the U.S. government as director of central intelligence from 1995 to 1996, as deputy secretary of defense from 1994 to 1995, and in other posts in the departments of Defense and Energy. He is a member of the nonpartisan Aspen Strategy Group, which is composed of current and former policymakers, academics, journalists, and business leaders whose aim is to explore foreign policy and national security challenges facing the United States. The group has just released its annual report, and it includes a chapter co-written by Deutch and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, about how the U.S. should deal with the risk of losing important intellectual property rights regarding technological innovations, in the face of efforts by China to acquire such technology through underhanded means. MIT News asked Deutch to describe the potential risks and remedies for such actions that he and Rice outlined in their report.

Q: What was the challenge that you and Prof. Rice, now at Stanford Business School, were asked to address in this piece, and what conclusions did you reach?

A: This year the subject [of the Aspen Strategy Group’s annual report] was the future challenges we see for policy. There was a lot of talk about China and what its relationship with the United States is likely to be, and in the course of this there was a lot of discussion about national security and the tremendous emphasis in China's new five-year plan on technology, in key areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. There also was a great deal of discussion about nefarious activities by some in China, including trying to get certain Chinese nationals who live here to provide information to the Chinese government to help them acquire this advanced technology. As a result of that, there's been a hint of a new set of proposals from some elements of the natonal security community to, first, control information in the United States from leaving the country, and, second, restrict Chinese nationals from participating in certain kinds of research projects. Condi and I decided to write a short piece about the danger of these proposals.

Basically our view was, yes, the Chinese are putting a greater emphasis on technology; they are growing very fast and they're increasingly competent, and so we should expect greater competition. And yes, they are performing illegal acts against the U.S., especially theft of intellectual property. The U.S. should do everything it can to push back on that effort and prevent it if possible. But the idea that we should respond to this threat by either restricting access to U.S. universities or keeping our ideas in the United States is completely wrong. We'll lose the tremendous advantage we have of an open university system if we do that. The only answer is for U.S. universities to do even more in pursuing their great record of being innovative and creative.

Q: Do you think it's possible to maintain academic freedom of information in the context of dealing with people who may not share our commitment to protecting intellectual property?

A: In such a situation, we need to recognize that we will have some losses. But there will be more severe effects on our innovative enterprise, which is the best in the world, if we start trying to stop these losses by applying restrictions. Universities aren't very good, first of all, at assessing the nature of the risk [of intellectual-property loss] and, second, at deciding what restrictive measures should be put in place. So, both my co-author Condi and I believe, keep the system open. Recognize that you will have some losses, but do what you do well.

Universities should make sure that our scholarly efforts and our educational efforts permit advances in key areas where fundamental research and practical application come together, in health, energy, and environment, including an emphasis on innovation. And we see that happening. By the way, much as the Chinese universities are improving, they do not have the kind of ecosystem that is so strong here, in terms of promoting innovation, creativity, and getting important things implemented in the private sector.

Q:  So are there specific measures that universities should be taking to address these efforts to exploit U.S. innovations, or is your advice that they should avoid taking any special measures?

A: My answer is no, there are not specific measures they should take, but it is very important that the administrative leadership of the university understands the concerns in Washington, appreciates the risks, and doesn’t enter into joint projects that could really lead to a loss of sensitive technology.

The universities should try and explain to the government that we think the proper response here is better performance by U.S. universities, rather than trying to keep people out or keep our ideas in.

I think one should expect that the technical competence of China will continue to improve, because of the capabilities of its people and the significant amount of resources the Chinese are putting into technology leadership in a variety of fields. We should expect that. How much of an advantage is given to China by their quite sustained illegal efforts to acquire technology from both the United States and Europe? I think it is helpful but by no means the most important or the determining factor in their advance.

This short piece with Condi Rice is not so much directed to U.S. universities; rather it is directed to the government and the national security community, to say to them, be cautious here — don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Categories: In the News

Unlocking marine mysteries with artificial intelligence

MIT News - Thu, 12/14/2017 - 23:59

Each year the melting of the Charles River serves as a harbinger for warmer weather. Shortly thereafter is the return of budding trees, longer days, and flip-flops. For students of class 2.680 (Unmanned Marine Vehicle Autonomy, Sensing and Communications), the newly thawed river means it’s time to put months of hard work into practice.

Aquatic environments like the Charles present challenges for robots because of the severely limited communication capabilities. “In underwater marine robotics, there is a unique need for artificial intelligence — it’s crucial,” says MIT Professor Henrik Schmidt, the course’s co-instructor. “And that is what we focus on in this class.”

The class, which is offered during spring semester, is structured around the presence of ice on the Charles. While the river is covered by a thick sheet of ice in February and into March, students are taught to code and program a remotely-piloted marine vehicle for a given mission. Students program with MOOS-IvP, an autonomy software used widely for industry and naval applications.

“They’re not working with a toy,” says Schmidt’s co-instructor, Research Scientist Michael Benjamin. “We feel it’s important that they learn how to extend the software — write their own sensor processing models and AI behavior. And then we set them loose on the Charles.”

As the students learn basic programming and software skills, they also develop a deeper understanding of ocean engineering. “The way I look at it, we are trying to clone the oceanographer and put our understanding of how the ocean works into the robot,” Schmidt adds. This means students learn the specifics of ocean environments — studying topics like oceanography or underwater acoustics. 

Students develop code for several missions they will conduct on the Charles River by the end of the semester. These missions include finding hazardous objects in the water, receiving simulated temperature and acoustic data along the river, and communicating with other vehicles.

“We learned a lot about the applications of these robots and some of the challenges that are faced in developing for ocean environments,” says Alicia Cabrera-Mino ’17, who took the course last spring.

Augmenting robotic marine vehicles with artificial intelligence is useful in a number of fields. It can help researchers gather data on temperature changes in our ocean, inform strategies to reverse global warming, traverse the 95 percent of our oceans that has yet to be explored, map seabeds, and further our understanding of oceanography.

According to graduate student Gregory Nannig, a former navigator in the U.S. Navy, adding AI capabilities to marine vehicles could also help avoid navigational accidents. “I think that it can really enable better decision making,” Nannig explains. “Just like the advent of radar or going from celestial navigation to GPS, we’ll now have artificial intelligence systems that can monitor things humans can’t.”

Students in 2.680 use their newly acquired coding skills to build such systems. Come spring, armed with the software they’ve spent months working on and a better understanding of ocean environments, they enter the MIT Sailing Pavilion prepared to test their artificial intelligence coding skills on the recently melted Charles River.

As marine vehicles glide along the Charles, executing missions based on the coding students have spent the better part of a semester perfecting, the mood is often one of exhilaration. “I’ve had students have big emotions when they see a bit of AI that they’ve created,” Benjamin recalls. “I’ve seen people call their parents from the dock.”

For this artificial intelligence to be effective in the water, students need to combine software skills with ocean engineering expertise. Schmidt and Benjamin have structured 2.680 to ensure students have a working knowledge of these twin pillars of robotic marine vehicle autonomy.

By combining these two research areas in their own research, Schmidt and Benjamin hope to create underwater robots that can go places humans simply cannot. “There are a lot of applications for better understanding and exploring our ocean if we can do it smartly with robots,” Benjamin adds.

Categories: In the News

Kendall Square will get own grocery store, 19,000-square-foot Brothers Marketplace

Cambridge Day - Thu, 12/14/2017 - 20:26
Kendall Square will finally get its grocery store – a 19,000-square-foot Brothers Marketplace that will open in the summer of 2019 at One Broadway as part of a larger construction project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Categories: In the News

Five things to do this weekend: Dec. 15-17

Cambridge Day - Thu, 12/14/2017 - 18:54
Holiday Open House and Winter Solstice Farewell to Fall; Cirque Us! performance; Beyond Tabletop Game Jam; holiday concerts in brass and strings; and Frozen Chanukah ice skating.
Categories: In the News

Capturing the properties of very hot compounds

MIT News - Thu, 12/14/2017 - 17:50

The thermodynamic properties of compounds such as aluminum oxide, which are known as refractory materials because they melt at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Celsius (3,632 Fahrenheit), have been difficult to study because few vessels can withstand the heat to contain them, and those that do often react with the melt and contaminate it.

Now MIT researchers are showcasing a container-less electrochemical method to study the thermodynamic properties of these hot melts in a paper published in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society.

“We have a new technique which demonstrates that the rules of electrochemistry are followed for these refractory melts,” says senior author Antoine Allanore, an associate professor of metallurgy. “We have now evidence that these melts are very stable at high temperature, they have high conductivity.”

Adapting a thermal imaging (or arc imaging) furnace more commonly used for floating zone crystal growth, MIT graduate student Brad Nakanishi melted an alumina (aluminum oxide) rod and contacted the liquid pendant droplet that it formed with electrodes, creating an electrochemical cell that allowed decomposition of pure, alumina electrolyte to oxygen gas and aluminum alloy by electrolysis for the first time. The aluminum oxide itself serves as the electrolyte in this electrochemical cell, which operates similarly to water electrolysis.

“Decomposition voltage measurements give us direct access to the quintessential thermodynamic property that is chemical potential, also called Gibbs energy,” Nakanishi explains. “We’ve shown we make electrochemical measurements in a new class of electrolytes, the molten refractory oxides.”

The change in this Gibbs energy, or chemical potential, with respect to temperature is known as entropy. “At high temperatures, entropy is really important and very challenging to predict, so having ability to measure entropy in these systems is key,” Nakanishi says.

A hanging droplet

Using this technique, four reflected xenon lamps hone in on the tip of the sample, melting a liquid droplet, which is held to the rod by surface tension and quickly solidifies after the lights are turned off. While the droplet is liquefied, the electrodes are raised into the droplet to complete an electrical circuit, with the liquid alumina itself functioning as the electrolyte.

“That’s something that we have not seen done otherwise, as well, doing electrochemistry in a suspended droplet above 2,000 C,” Nakanishi says.

The hanging droplet has a high surface tension relative to its density.

“The concentration of the light energy, hot zone, and large thermal gradients present, allows us in a very controlled way to create a situation for stable droplet and electrode contact,” Nakanishi says. “It sounds challenging, but the method we’ve refined is straightforward and rapid to operate in practice thanks, in part, to a camera enabling continuous observation of the droplet and electrodes during the experiment.”

Allanore says the stability of the liquid aluminum oxide and a smart choice of electrode materials allow measurement of well-defined energy levels.

“The paper shows that we can now measure fundamental thermodynamic properties of such a melt,” Allanore says. “In the case of molten alumina, we’ve actually been able to study the property of the cathode product. As we decompose aluminum oxide, to oxygen on one side [anode] and aluminum on the other side [cathode], then that liquid aluminum interacts with the electrode, which was iridium in that case,” he says.

Video of the operating cell shows oxygen gas bubbles forming within the cell as the alumina decomposes into aluminum at the cathode (the negatively charged electrode) and pure oxygen at the iridium anode (the positively charged electrode). The aluminum does interact with the iridium cathode, which is confirmed by partial melting and post-experiment images of the microstructure showing an aluminum-iridium alloy deposit.

“We can now calculate the thermodynamic property of that alloy, of that interaction, which is something that was never measured before. It was calculated and predicted. It was never measured. Here in this paper we confirm actually predictions from computation using our method,” Allanore says. 

New predictive powers

For key industrial questions, such as how hot a turbine engine can run, engineers need thermodynamic data on both the solid and liquid states of metal alloys, in particular, the transition zone at which a solid melts. “We’re not so great on the liquid state, and at high temperature we also have a lot of trouble measuring Gibbs energy in the liquid state,” Nakanishi says.

“Here we’re adding experimental data,” he says. “We’ve created a method that you can measure the Gibbs free energy of a liquid, so now combined with our ability in a solid, we can start informing things like these transition temperatures among other thermodynamic questions, which are related to material stability.” 

The melt is ionic, containing a mix of both negatively charged oxygen anions and neutral oxygen atoms as well as positively charged aluminum cations and neutral aluminum atoms.

“The key significance of Bradley Nakanishi and Antoine Allanore’s research findings is the capability to determine thermodynamic parameters [e.g., thermodynamic activity] at temperatures greater than 1,600 C from the electrochemical measurements for molten oxides, as well as the applicability to a broader electrolyte from a molten oxide to a molten salt,” says University of Texas at El Paso Professor of Mechanical Engineering Arturo Bronson, who was not involved in this research. “In addition, a possible relation of the oxygen partial pressure to the doubly-charged, free oxygen ion will characterize its effect on the associated cations and anions within the molten oxide to explain thermodynamic behavior between the liquid metal and liquid oxide.”

“The quality of the research is a world-class approach developed for difficult experimental studies of ultra-high temperature reactions of liquid metals and liquid oxides, especially with inclusion of electrochemical impedance spectroscopy,” Bronson says. However, a limitation of the study is the uncertainty of the temperature measurements within a range of plus or minus 10 degrees C. “The uncertainty of the measured parameters will ultimately depend on the accuracy of the measured temperature [already at plus or minus 10 kelvins], because the electrochemical parameters [i.e., voltage and current] will clearly depend on the temperature uncertainty,” Bronson explains.

More electrolyte possibilities

Allanore notes that electrochemistry is one of the most selective processing technologies, “but to date it was very challenging to study the electrochemistry with these high temperature melts.”

Electrolyte selection is key for designing new processes for the electrochemical extraction of reactive metals, and the new work demonstrates that more electrolytes are available for extracting metals. “We can now study the solubility of ores containing refractory metal oxides in these melts. So we are basically now adding at least three or four candidate electrolytes that could be used for metal extraction, in particular for what we call reactive metals such as aluminum, niobium, titanium, or the rare earths,” Allanore adds. The research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

Future work will focus on applying these high-temperature electrochemical techniques to investigate the potential for selectively separating the rare earth oxides. Though required in only relatively small quantities usually, the individual rare earth elements are essential for high-tech applications, including cell phones and electric vehicles. Well-established methods to concentrate rare earth oxides from their ore produce a mixture of the 14 rare earth oxides, Allanore notes. “If we were using such a rare earth oxide mixture as our electrolyte, we could potentially selectively separate one rare earth metal from the 13 others,” he says.

New, stable materials such as rare earth oxides that can withstand high temperatures are needed for uses as varied as building faster airplanes and extending the lifetime of nuclear power plants. But one country, China, holds a near monopoly over rare earth element production. “The separation of rare earths from each other is the key challenge in making rare earth metals extraction more sustainable and economically feasible,” Nakanishi says.

While the newly published paper examines a single component electrolyte, aluminum oxide by itself, Nakanishi says “our aim is to extend this approach so that we can measure chemical potentials, Gibbs energy, in multi-component electrolytes.”

“This opens up the door to many more candidates for electrolytes that we can use to extract metals, and also make oxygen,” he says.

This ability to exhaust oxygen as a byproduct rather than carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide has potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

Categories: In the News