A Solar Solution for the Developing World by Brittany Ilardi

Today, nearly 1.6 billion people, or roughly one quarter of the world’s population, live without electricity. Of those, approximately 547 million reside in Sub-Saharan Africa. In remote villages throughout this region, access to reliable power sources is hard to come by. That’s why Tanzania-based startup Devergy is setting out to bring solar micro-grids to rural communities.

Devergy in Melela (Morogoro region)

Devergy in Melela (Morogoro region)

After traveling throughout South America following graduate studies, founders Fabio De Pascale and Gianluca Cescon were struck by the serious lack in adequate power equipment in remote villages. “A number of villages had solar panels,” De Pascale explains, “but very often they were nonfunctional due to relatively minor reasons. That made us think ‘How can we do something that doesn’t break so easily?’” The pair decided to start Devergy, an energy utility company for the developing world. “We set out to provide electricity to low income populations in rural villages in places like Tanzania, where we are active today.”

Devergy’s first pilot project in Matipwili showed great success, with a high reception rate from local adopters. The company’s unique feature is their prepaid electrical meter system. After a solar microgrid is installed in a village, every house is provided with their own personal meter. Residents can purchase electricity through a mobile money system on an as needed basis. Credit is purchased similarly to mobile phone credit and at a price that is much lower than kerosene or dry-cell battery alternatives. Electricity can be used for everything, from something as simple as turning on a light bulb, to something as complex as powering a refrigerator. The team back at Devergy can then regulate energy input. “We have found a way to provide energy in a very scalable and modular approach,” says De Pascale. “We can continuously increase the energy capacity of the grids based on the demand that we measure in the village. Considering energy is a very asset-intensive sector, this is a key factor in making our system sustainable.”

So what’s next for Devergy? De Pascale point out three options. On the one hand, they can continue to operate as a utilities company where they have a direct relationship with customers. They would continue to own grids and sell electricity in places like Tanzania and beyond. Another option is becoming an infrastructure provider for those who want to run similar grids. “We would set up and run the grids for utilities and let them do the sales and marketing work where they may be more specialized,” explains De Pascale. The final option is licensing the technology to others and providing them services. In this way, Devergy’s impact could expand to many other countries that would otherwise remain unreachable. “We have to keep several options open because we don’t really know where the market is going yet and that is something that is very exciting.”

To learn more about how microgrids are helping the developing world, check out Devergy.

The Push for Open Source Science by Brittany Ilardi

Today’s scientists at universities are working on incredible cutting-edge research all across the globe, from self-healing materials that mimic biological processes to drone technology for agricultural monitoring. Unfortunately, apart from the periodic breaking headline, much of this research goes unnoticed. Even if research publications were readily available, much valuable data is still under study and not yet available in scientific papers. The bottom line is clear: academic research must become more open and publically accessible if we are to solve today’s most pressing global issues. An even bigger challenge lies to developing tools to accomplish this and creating incentives for increased global collaboration.

As the world population continues to skyrocket, our impacts are increasingly being seen on a global level. Our actions affect natural resources, climate, water cycles, and even our own health. These effects are not restricted to national boundaries, but the methods currently used to disseminate scientific data on these issues are.  Sir Mark Walport, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, is part of a growing trend to solve this issue by pushing for more openness between scientists and policymakers. He explains,

“As our economies, our societies, our health and wellbeing become increasingly globalized, science advice needs to become much more international in its outlook.”

This is especially relevant when it comes to global environmental issues, most notably sustainable energy sourcing and agricultural biotechnology.

Many organizations today are seeking to bridge the daunting gap between academia and the public. Discussions are being held to uncover ways to increase the accessibility of research, especially in the European Union as part of the Horizon 2020.  Other initiatives, like the Open Source Science Project, provide a space for academic researchers to propose and conduct research projects with funding support from a global online community. The recently launched OpenAG Project, run by MIT CityFARM, intends to be the first open source research collective for agricultural technology. The project seeks to make agricultural information more accessible by providing a global platform for researchers to share data and discuss findings. Ijad Madisch, founder of ResearchGate, is taking a broader approach for all disciplines. Currently boasting over 2.5 million users, the site offers a network for researchers to share scientific publications and source questions to collaborate with others across the globe.

Despite these initiatives, open source still has a long way to go. We not only need to greatly increase the quantity of what is published, but the quality. We must develop a way to sort through this surplus of information to find relevant and beneficial information. However, a large portion of valuable data is not yet published, but still contained within the research process. Scientists will also need incentives to collaborate with others and broadcast their ideas and data. As MIT Professor Donald Sadoway advocates, researchers today need to focus on "science as a service to society as oppose to career building.” The solution to today’s most pressing issues will require the collaboration of all, including scientists, policymakers, and the world’s citizens. Only when the disjuncture between academia and the public is closed can we begin to truly tackle today’s major global challenges. 

Beyond Silicon Valley: AgTech Across the Globe by Brittany Ilardi

Agriculture is arguably one of the most important industries in the world today. From pollination technology in California, to farming management tools in Serbia and Brazil, to agrochemical breakthroughs in Israel, innovation is occurring in every corner of the world.  According to the World Bank’s estimates, the food and agriculture sector totals up to 10% of our global gross domestic product, or roughly $4.8 trillion based on 2006 estimates. Despite this, we don’t often hear about exciting new innovations in the field. There is plenty of news about the latest app from Silicon Valley, but not quite the same hype for upcoming agricultural technology. Innovations on the farm are just as cutting-edge and impressive, so what’s the hold up?

motionry agriculuture

Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that technology in the agricultural sector is just more widely distributed than others. This is especially tough on startups and researchers that don’t always have the necessary resources to scale these innovations. Agriculture is not as concentrated as cleantech, which resides in major hubs like Boston and Silicon Valley (although this too is changing as cleantech becomes more dispersed, with innovators from Canada all the way to Hong Kong).

The fact is, agricultural innovations are everywhere, but the resources to connect these technologies globally are not. If we can’t get connected, today’s agriculture and food systems will never be able to keep up with the rapidly growing demand.

The future depends on connecting the remarkable technologies that are springing up all across the globe. That’s why we launched Motionry, to get the world connected when it comes to agricultural science. We’re even connecting researchers working on crop genetics and more. Along the way, we have uncovered some truly amazing technological innovations.

Take Catalyst AgTech, for example, an Israeli startup focused on reducing soil and groundwater contamination due to agrochemicals. Their patented catalyst solution features a “self destruct” mechanism, allowing agrochemicals to break down after use. Or check out AgSquared in the U.S., a record keeping software that allows small farmers to easily track harvests, manage supplies, and review their practices. Looking southward to Brazil, there’s Strider, a mobile application that reduces pesticide use by determining when, where, and how much to spray for maximum efficiency. 

More innovation can be found in the United States, where Pollen-Tech’s proprietary pollen-slurry mixture gives growers direct control over pollination practices. The slurry is applied with an electrostatic charge, attracting the pollen to the flower stigma for more accurate pollination. Or take a look to Serbia, where innovators are working on Farmia, an online livestock exchange network that allows farmers to easily advertise their animals to a wide range of potential buyers. More and more technologies like these are rising up every day. They only need the proper resources to tap into their potential.

Farmers around the world are reaping the benefits of the vital and profitable sector of agriculture. But they aren’t the only ones who will gain from innovations in this field. Keeping in mind that we will need to feed nine billion mouths by the year 2050, agricultural technology could not be coming at a better time. By getting connected, the world’s startups, researchers, and farmers can sustainably feed the generations of the future. 

Making Agriculture Sustainable with Blue River's Advanced Robotics by Brittany Ilardi

Blue River Technology's solution combines advanced robotics and machine learning algorithms to visually characterize each lettuce plant.  Photo courtesy of Blue River Technology.  

Blue River Technology's solution combines advanced robotics and machine learning algorithms to visually characterize each lettuce plant.  Photo courtesy of Blue River Technology.  

With global population and environmental stressors increasing, agriculture can be summed up in one word: unsustainable.  To affordably produce enough food to feed the world, today’s farms require significant quantities of basic inputs, crop protectants, capital, and labor.  What if we could reduce the need for each of these? That’s where Blue River Technology comes in. This California-based startup currently provides cutting-edge lettuce thinning technology, and is expanding to plant phenotyping for crop breeders.

Blue River Technology wants to revolutionize the agriculture industry by “making every plant count.” 

Let’s take lettuce.  Not all lettuce seeds germinate after planting.  To overcome this, farmers plant 5 seeds for every plant they plan to harvest, and then wait to see which seeds germinate. Manual laborers are then brought in to remove excess plants by hand. This process is inefficient and also expensive, given recent declines in farm labor availability. 

Blue River provides an alternative to this practice.  Their solution combines advanced robotics and machine learning algorithms to visually characterize each lettuce plant. Their robot is pulled along the lettuce bed by a tractor, treating each row individually with a dedicated robotic module.  Each module contains a camera that images the lettuce and an on-board computer that decides within a tenth of a second whether to remove an unwanted plant. The robot leaves the remaining plants consistently spaced and sized according to the farmer’s needs (typically around 10 inches apart), maximizing the field’s yield potential. As compared to traditional methods, Blue River’s solution has proven to increase yields by 10% per acre.

So what’s the next step for Blue River? Right now, they are developing prototypes for high-throughput, field-based phenotyping for crop breeders, particularly for commodity row crops like corn. As Matt Thompson, Senior Product Manager at Blue River, suggests, “We think there is a tremendous amount of untapped value in simply collecting data about how plants look in the field during breeding trials.” Ultimately, as Blue River proves the feasibility and value of generating and processing massive amounts of field-based, plant-by-plant phenotypic data, they believe that it will become technically much easier to develop sustainable seed products that can be tailored to specific regions and crop needs. “For now, we are actively engaging with major seed companies to make our case for the value of what we’re doing. We’re already getting good traction with that.”

Blue River believes that every plant is different and needs different care and treatment. According to Thompson, “If you don’t treat plants individually, then you’re wasting an opportunity for efficiency.” Blue River started with lettuce, has expanded to corn for phenotyping, and will eventually expand to other specialty and commodity crops. “We want to transform the way agriculture is done and we think the way to do that is one plant at a time.”

To learn more, check out Blue River Technology

Princeton Professor Uses Biomimicry to Make Buildings More Efficient by Brittany Ilardi

Professor Adriaenssens' shading shell modules attach to a building's facade, opening and closing to allow more or less light to enter.  

Professor Adriaenssens' shading shell modules attach to a building's facade, opening and closing to allow more or less light to enter.  

According to the USDOE, over half of the energy expended in typical U.S. buildings is used for heating and cooling. The main problem isn’t the high cost of electricity; it’s the inefficient and unsustainable designs of today’s structures. Professor Sigrid Adriaenssens of Princeton University is looking for ways to reduce this energy expense. She believes that today’s engineers must stray from typical design models, instead using inspiration from nature and biology to design more efficient buildings.  

Through biomimicry, Adriaenssens and her research team at Princeton’s Form-Finding Lab have designed what she calls “shading shell modules.” These modules, inspired by the carnivorous waterwheel plant, consist of a central beam connected to two rounded shells and are designed to attach to the outside walls of a structure. Like a flower in the sun, these shells open and close to vary the amount of light and heat entering a building. As Adriaenssens explains, “The idea is to see if we can do something at the façade level, which is a filter between indoors and outdoors.”

Adriaenssens’ team is currently researching ways in which to automate the movement of these shells. One solution is to use a heat-sensitive material in the central beam, causing it to bend with exposure to sunlight and, therefore, force the shells to open and close accordingly. The design might also be regulated individually so that each user throughout a building could adjust the shell based on personal heating and lighting preferences.

Currently, Adriaenssens’ team is building a large-scale prototype in France. Based off of previous small-scale and finite element models, the design will be completed by the end of the summer and installed on a building façade in order to measure performance. Numerical studies of such a design suggest energy savings between twenty and forty percent, depending on weather and location factors. If put into production, these shells could easily be retrofitted to existing glass facades in order to reduce high energy expenditures due to air conditioning and heating. 

Adriaenssens’ work largely focuses on minimizing materials and integrating systems in order to foster sustainability.

“My idea it to use form rather than mass and material to do the things we want to do. What I find very interesting is to look at more integrated systems that do more than one thing or even adapt themselves, for example, to climatic changes.”

As opposed to typical manmade systems that consider structure and kinematics separately, Adriaenssens’ shading shells mimic nature by combining these two to create true efficiency. “That is the future of my lab, to not just stay in my structural niche, but to look outside and see how we can get parameters or design criteria from other fields and bring that to the structure.”

Today’s methods of building maintenance are inefficient and expensive. In order to generate true change, we need to better utilize heating and cooling by allowing ourselves to be inspired by the sustainable designs found in nature. As Adriaenssens suggests, “If we can reduce the amount of energy that buildings use in their operation, I think we can really make a contribution toward making society more sustainable.”

To learn more about Professor Adriaenssens’ work, check out the Form-Finding Lab

Falkonry and the Smarter Industrial System Revolution by Brittany Ilardi

Our world is dominated by industrial systems. From transportation and energy, to power and agriculture, we need big data systems to make our world go round. These systems are highly expensive to operate, and yet they don’t work as efficiently or reliably as they should. Existing industrial analytics software is not predictive, unable to scale to modern data sets, and requires months to include new information, all leading to great financial losses. According to the California-based startup Falkonry, $50 billion are annually allotted for maintenance costs in the $650 billion airline industry. However, it still loses $16 billion in revenue on unplanned outages and other maintenance issues. Falkonry hopes to make this industry and others more productive by better managing their availability and maintenance.

Falkonry is involved in the coming era of smarter industrial systems.  Their Industrial Insight® technology detects, diagnoses, and predicts the health of systems in order to optimize for cost and productivity. Their condition-aware solution is ready for use right out of the box, learning instantaneously without additional programming. Their techniques also work rapidly and pinpoint, prioritize, and explain specific problems in complex data sets. Falkonry’s technology can find problems in any part of a system and has designed it to address the problems in individual sensors, parts, as well as a network of systems. As stated by CEO Nikunj Mehta, “Our technology helps owners and operators to understand the state of their equipment individually so that they can improve equipment usage and maintenance to produce the return that the owner wants and expects.”

Typically, data-driven solutions like Falkonry’s are not as widely used as traditional physics model-based systems. As Mehta explains, “These solutions are very quickly put into the dust bin because the operators and engineers who could benefit from them do not trust them.  We have been able to come up with a physics-influenced data-driven solution that creates a more scalable and reliable approach for understanding the condition of equipment and for using that knowledge to manage operations better.”

Industrial systems will never be faultless. As Mehta explains, “The reality is that we live in a very imperfect world. Even the most advanced equipment that is so heavily monitored can fail.” In the future, smarter systems must be capable of an extended run life, be less expensive to own, and work more reliably and efficiently. Falkonry hopes to lead this revolution in smarter systems. “We don’t want to be known as a big data company, but as a company that is helping industrial and manufacturing institutions become more effective and efficient at their business. Instead of offering tools and utilities that were ideal when new systems were installed, our focus has been on creating a solution that actually solves an end user’s problem throughout the life of the system. From that perspective, ours is a unique analytic solution that is able to make a difference.”

To learn more about the future of smarter systems, check out Falkonry

Building Microbial Fuel Cells for Energy-Positive Wastewater Treatment by Brittany Ilardi

The Arbsource team, Mark Sholin (left), Prasad Shetty (middle), and Matthew Dion (right). Photo courtesy of Arbsource. 

The Arbsource team, Mark Sholin (left), Prasad Shetty (middle), and Matthew Dion (right). Photo courtesy of Arbsource. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it costs approximately $2 per 1000 gallons to supply fresh water to homes and businesses in the United States. However, once contaminated with organic materials like carbohydrates, that same water costs many companies upwards of $10 per 1000 gallons to send down the drain for municipal treatment. Wastewater startup Arbsource is looking to resolve this price discrepancy. By commercializing microbial fuel cell technology, they are hoping to cut the water and power costs associated with wastewater treatment for major industries across the globe.

Arbsource’s technology, which is being developed in partnership with Dow Chemical and the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, targets the removal of pollutants referred to as Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD). This class of pollutants includes sugars, starches, proteins, and other carbon-rich contaminants. By utilizing Anode Respiring Bacteria, the company’s microbial fuel cells consume COD that would otherwise contribute to a higher water bill charged by the city.

 

This surcharge is based upon the cost for municipal treatment equipment and operations, which is then passed along to the company generating the wastewater in the first place. Not only does Arbsource’s technology consume pollutants in wastewater, but it also generates electricity simultaneously. The bacteria are able to harvest electrons from the chemical bonds in COD, which are then collected and used to produce external power in a single step. As Mark Sholin, CEO at Arbsource, explains, “Wastewater currently represents an energy liability and cost for companies. We are turning it into a resource that they can monetize, allowing them to defer that cost without having to put in any additional work.”

Arbsource may hold advantages over traditional wastewater treatment options designed for COD reduction. Many industries and municipal operations today utilize aerobic activated sludge systems, which are relatively cheap to install but are costly to operate due to their energy needs for aeration and sludge disposal. Others take advantage of anaerobic digestion, which requires less external energy to operate and produces methane as a byproduct. However, the cost of these systems is significantly higher than activated sludge, and the treatment process is slow, necessitating large digestion chambers to achieve enough COD removal to be of value to customers. Although methane, or natural gas, can be burned for energy generation, the cost of gas purification and combustion equipment adds significant expense. Microbial fuel cells essentially cut out the methane “middle man” as an energy carrier by harvesting the chemical energy (or electrons) of the pollutants themselves, and doing so without any moving parts. As Sholin explains, “What we’re doing is combining the best of both worlds. We provide the same kind of treatment that you get from activated sludge, but without the energy costs. Our technology also does it with a much lower footprint and cheaper than anaerobic digestion.”

Currently, Arbsource is focusing on the food and beverage industry, but has plans to expand to other markets in the future, including wastewater municipalities. “Any high COD wastewater stream that is going down the drain today is something we have a decent shot at being able to handle,” says Sholin. “Food and beverage, as a whole, will always have that challenge.” That being said, the major blockade to market acceptance of microbial fuel cells lies in customer education. Historically, industrial wastewater generators do not often recognize why their water bill is so high. Even if they do, wastewater treatment is not often the number one operational cost of these facilities and, therefore, many have not prioritized its cost reduction.

With the increasing awareness of water supply and quality issues, many industry leaders and governmental agencies may recognize the value and market opportunity for alternative approaches. Right now, water treatment costs are rising by up to 5% per year due to increasing maintenance needs for aging infrastructure. Combined with recent water scarcity issues and crumbling water infrastructure due to lack of maintenance, those costs will only continue to increase, and quickly at that. Arbsource hopes to be a leader in revolutionizing the wastewater treatment industry, cutting both water and energy costs, while also providing effective wastewater treatment at the same quality and efficiency seen with traditional methods today. As Sholin puts it, “We want to be known for building the best components to make these microbial fuel cells work the right way, and to offer true value for customers who see a potential in this solution.”

To learn more about microbial fuel cells, check out Arbsource.

Making Solar Beautiful with Sistine Solar by Brittany Ilardi

The Sistine Solar team with their prototypes at the 2014 MIT Energy Conference. Image courtesy of Sistine Solar.

The Sistine Solar team with their prototypes at the 2014 MIT Energy Conference. Image courtesy of Sistine Solar.

Solar power is one of the cleanest and most abundant renewable energy resources available. Despite this, only .2% of the electricity generated in the U.S. today comes from solar. While price is somewhat of a factor, it is a diminishing one. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the average price of a solar panel has declined by 60 percent since the beginning of 2011. So what’s the holdup when it comes to solar? Let’s face it: solar panels are just not that attractive. The solution? Sistine Solar.

Senthil Balasubramanian and Ido Salama founded Sistine Solar with the goal of making people “fall in love” with solar. “We’ve come across people who gawk at solar just because of the aesthetics, even with the incentive of generous government subsidies,” claims Balasubramanian, “The one last thing that prevents some people from adopting solar is the look. They’d love to have it in some solar farm, but just not in their backyard. We want to change that.”

After winning the Renewable Energy Track at the 2013 MIT Clean Energy Prize, Sistine Solar, whose team comes from MIT and Harvard, was issued a grant from the Department of Energy to begin working with the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy’s TechBridge Program on a prototype. Like Lego bricks, their modular, interlocking and patent-pending tiles are easily customizable and can be retrofitted into various designs and patterns based on the customer’s needs. These tiles are offered in a multitude of colors in order to maximize the aesthetic appeal of the product.

Currently, Sistine Solar is focusing on the street furniture market, which includes urban installations like bus shelters, bike share stations, information kiosks, and street lights. This highly profitable, $5 billion market is currently lacking aesthetic solar solutions that can be integrated into various shapes and forms. Today’s cities are asking to implement solar that is both sustainable and appealing from a design perspective. As Salama explains, “Just like the iPhone or Tesla have combined form and function to create a compelling product, we want to do the same. We want to get people involved not only rationally, but also emotionally.”

So what’s the next step for Sistine Solar? The company plans to complete pilot demonstrations in the next six months in various cities, like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. They hope to install their product in various street furniture venues and generate enough positive feedback to expand their product to other markets. “Once we get established and have the ability to think about longer term projects, architects and building facades are next on our list,” says Balasubramanian.

What gives the founders the confidence to pursue their dreams? Swiftly comes their reply, “Our team – we are deeply proud of the talented teammates we have. Between Jonathan, a solar expert pursuing his PhD at MIT’s Photovoltaics Research Lab, Samantha, an award winning artist with exhibitions worldwide, and Jody, a product development and prototyping whiz at MIT, we have a unique combination of design and engineering know-how that you would be hard pressed to find in a traditional solar company. What we have achieved so far is just scratching the surface of what our team is capable of.”

Both founders sum it up, “Our vision is to see solar in every city and on every building. We want to put solar in visible places where people can interact with it and witness its true beauty. Our mission is to use design to capture the world’s imagination and, therefore, get people to fall in love with solar.”

To learn more about the beauty of solar, check out Sistine Solar.

Capturing Atmospheric CO2 with Carbon Engineering by Brittany Ilardi

Carbon Engineering’s patented technology continuously captures CO2 from the atmosphere via two processes: an air contactor and a regeneration cycle. The captured air is then used to produce pure CO2, which can be sold for use in industrial applications or permanently sequestered underground.

Right now, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies focus on industrial point sources, which account for just 40% of total global emissions. But what about the other 60%?  These emissions are the result of diffuse and mobile sources, like cars, home heating, and even land use change; many of these sources can be incredibly difficult and costly to control. With the help of direct air capture (DAC) technology, Carbon Engineering is hoping to change that.

Founded by Professor David Keith of Harvard University, Carbon Engineering aims to do what traditional carbon capture cannot by capturing atmospheric CO2 with DAC technology, in order to reduce emissions from sources that are otherwise hard to manage. “Our goal is to absorb industrially significant quantities of CO2 directly from the air, not from flue stacks,” says Geoffrey Holmes of Carbon Engineering.  CCS captures CO2 from large point sources, like industrial power plants. Direct air capture, however, extracts CO2 directly from the atmosphere, where it is evenly distributed, so that DAC can be performed anywhere with equal environmental benefit. “We don’t view CCS and DAC as competitors, we view them as complements,” stresses Holmes.

Direct air capture does indeed cost more (per ton of CO2 captured) than CCS, since atmospheric CO2 is much more dilute than that from industrial sources. To counter the initial higher cost of capture, Carbon Engineering is focusing on the low carbon transportation fuel industry. Purified atmospheric CO2 can be used to produce liquid fuel that will have a low carbon intensity, and thus a high financial value in these growing markets. This can be accomplished through enhanced oil recovery, algal biofuel production, or even direct fuel synthesis. Despite the higher cost for purified CO2 from DAC, the use of atmospheric CO2  - rather than re-captured fossil CO2 – can produce ultra-low carbon fuels, who’s attributes can offset the high cost of capture.

Using tested, low technical risk equipment, Carbon Engineering plans to launch their first pilot at the end of this year. From there, the company will focus on business development and how to implement full-scale DAC facilities. “Our next roadblock will be market readiness. Surprisingly to some, there are markets today that will provide the revenue we need for business, but they are still evolving and nobody has tested out our specific business model yet,” explains Holmes. Right now, Carbon Engineering is focusing on California, whose Low Carbon Fuel Standard provides a niche market for valuable CO2. “But California is ahead of the pack on this. Further adoption in other markets can only strengthen our business and gives us more space.” Other applications for Carbon Engineering’s purified CO2 include enhanced oil recovery operations or algal biofuel production.

Carbon Engineering’s technology has enormous potential. As Holmes suggests, “This technology could make a huge dent if that’s what people and societies decide they want to do. Theoretically, you could build any number of these facilities to capture gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere, but economies would have to decide that’s the route they want to go. They would have to prioritize how much of our technology to deploy relative to traditional CCS, solar electricity, battery powered vehicles, biofuels and other choices. Even with our self-interest in DAC, all of us at CE would like to see a broad portfolio of these options developed, and each used where it is most suitable. It’s hard for us to predict what capacity we will end up deploying at, but the potential is very large, and we see that as motivation to take DAC seriously.”

To learn more about DAC, check out Carbon Engineering.

Tracking Global Fishing from Space by Brittany Ilardi

By integrating AIS and SAR imagery, SkyTruth identified over 40 suspicious vessels surrounding Easter Island.

Did you know that approximately 1 in 5 fish are caught illegally, worth up to $23.5 billion every year? What if we could use satellites to illuminate these unsustainable fishing practices and reduce their environmental impact? That’s SkyTruth’s mission. Founded by John Amos in 2002, the nonprofit organization is working to uncover the environmental consequences of damaging human activity through remote sensing and digital mapping. 

SkyTruth had its big break in 2010 when it became the first to challenge estimates regarding the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Through satellite imagery, the organization was able to prove that a much greater volume of oil was spilling into the gulf than officials were reporting. Since then, SkyTruth has applied its expertise to expose the detrimental impacts related to other human activities, including mining, oil and gas drilling, and deforestation.

While their efforts to date mainly focused on energy and geological resources, SkyTruth is now also taking on illegal fishing. The organization seeks to create awareness and transparency about what is happening out in the ocean by tracking vessel activity across the globe.  David Manthos at SkyTruth explains, "Normally, if you’re out on the open ocean, you’re going in a straight line as fast as possible from Point A to Point B. If you see a vessel like a refrigerated cargo ship suddenly stop especially on the edge of a marine protected area, you start to have questions about what they are doing and who they might be meeting.”

In January 2013, SkyTruth partnered with the Global Ocean Legacy project, through the generous support of the Bertarelli Foundation, and the Ending Illegal Fishing project of The Pew Charitable Trusts in order to track illegal fishing around Easter Island. By integrating the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which allows ships to broadcast their location to avoid collisions, and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), which detects ships even if they are not broadcasting, SkyTruth was able to identify over 40 suspicious vessels within a year. Now, SkyTruth is hoping to tap into Google’s technical resources and partner with additional conservation groups to expand their fishing monitoring efforts to the entire planet.

According to Manthos, “transparency is something we at SkyTruth think is valuable.” By creating more awareness, SkyTruth is making it possible to identify illegal fishers, and they are hard at work building a platform that will allow operators to prove they are practicing sustainable fishing.  

To learn more, check out SkyTruth

MIT Professor Merges Biology and Materials through Biomateriomics by Brittany Ilardi

Buehler’s research, such as that modeled after spider silk, combines biology and materials in order to create greater strength and durability.

Buehler’s research, such as that modeled after spider silk, combines biology and materials in order to create greater strength and durability.

Engineering is complicated. Think about how many different components are needed to create a simple structure. Today’s buildings use multiple stiff materials that are bolted together and require maintenance over time. What if the structures of tomorrow could rely on just one continuous, self-healing material?

Markus Buehler, Professor and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, is trying to bridge the gap between materials and biology through his study of “biomateriomics.” According to Buehler, “advances could enable us to provide engineered materials and structures with properties that resemble those of biological systems, in particular the ability to self-assemble, to self-repair, to adapt and evolve, and to provide multiple functions that can be controlled through external cues.”  Imagine the possibilities for a building wall to heat and cool the surrounding space instead of relying on mechanical systems or a cracked window self-repairing. 

The future of materials will take advantage of diversity in the structure rather than diversity in the building block. Like the human body utilizes the “building block” of the cell to carry out thousands of functions, Buehler’s research aims to support a variety of structural needs using the same basic chemicals.  

Nature tells us that it is entirely possible. Take spider silk, for example. Buehler’s team is exploring how spiders produce protein-based silk that is both strong and stretchable. The way these proteins are assembled in different architectures controls how a spider web forms and how durable it becomes. Unlike human-made structures that have weak points and are discontinuous, spider silk is a flowing material with different properties at different points. The silk is chemically the same throughout, but put together in varying sequences in order to create strength and flexibility where needed.

“The ability to create more function with less is something we’re trying to get to. We’re trying to create a more rational approach to engineering by focusing on nano and microstructure.” Buehler imagines a world where we can one day indicate the need for a material with certain properties, then feed these requirements into a computer modeling software and have it identify the process needed to make this particular material structure.

For Buehler, it’s all about getting more for less. Biomateriomics presents the opportunity to create a more tailored product that can be customized in ways that were previously impossible. Cost is another driving point. If you can reduce the need for various material resources by focusing on changing the internal structure of just one, you can generate huge savings.

“Biology tells us that we can make these flexible structures. I think that the next five to ten years will be about figuring out how.”

To learn more, check out the research led by Professor Buehler at his Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics (LAMM) and the Multiscale Materials design course offered.