The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has awarded eight MIT Principal Investigators with J-WAFS 2022 Seed Grants. The grants support innovative MIT research that has the potential to make an impact meaningful on water and food challenges.
The only MIT program dedicated to water and food research, J-WAFS has offered seed grants to MIT Principal Investigators and their teams for the past eight years. The grants provide up to $75,000 per year, at no overhead, for two years to support new, early-stage research in areas such as water and food safety, security, supply and durability. Past projects have spanned many diverse disciplines, including engineering, science, technology and business innovation, as well as social sciences and economics, architecture and urban planning.
Seven new projects led by eight researchers will be supported this year. With funding going to four different MIT departments, the projects address a range of challenges using advanced materials, technological innovations, and new approaches to resource management. New projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop drought monitoring systems for farmers, improve shellfish industry management, optimize water purification materials , etc.
“Climate change, the pandemic, and more recently, the war in Ukraine have exacerbated and brought to light the serious challenges facing the world’s water and food systems,” said John H. Lienhard, director of J-WAFS. He adds: “The proposals chosen this year have the potential to create measurable concrete impacts in the water and food sectors.
The 2022 J-WAFS Seed Grant researchers and their projects are:
Gang Chen, Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Electrical Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, uses sunlight to desalinate water. Using solar energy for desalination is not a new idea, especially solar thermal evaporation methods. However, the solar thermal evaporation process has low overall efficiency because it relies on the breaking of hydrogen bonds between individual water molecules, which is very energy intensive. Chen and his lab recently discovered a photomolecular effect that dramatically reduces the energy required for desalination.
The bonds between water molecules inside a water cluster in liquid water are mostly hydrogen bonds. Chen found that a photon with an energy higher than the binding energy between the water cluster and the remaining water liquids can cleave the water cluster at the water-air interface, collide with air molecules and disintegrate into 60 or even more individual water molecules. This effect has the potential to dramatically increase clean water production through new desalination technology that produces a rate of photomolecular evaporation that exceeds pure solar thermal evaporation by at least ten times.
John E. Fernández is the director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and a professor in the Department of Architecture, and also affiliated with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Fernández is working with Scott D. Odell, a post-doctoral fellow at ESI, to better understand the impacts of mining and climate change in water-stressed regions of Chile.
The country of Chile is one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural and mineral products; however, little research has been conducted on the effects of climate change at the intersection of these two sectors. Fernández and Odell will explore how desalination is being deployed by the mining industry to relieve pressure on inland water supplies in Chile, and to what effect. They will also investigate how climate change and mining intersect to affect Andean glaciers and the farming communities that depend on them. The researchers intend this work to inform policies aimed at reducing the social and environmental harms of mining, desalination and climate change.
Ariel L. Furst is the Raymond (1921) and Helen St. Laurent Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. Its 2022 J-WAFS seed grant project aims to effectively remove hazardous and long-lasting chemicals from water supplies and other environmental areas.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a component of Teflon, is one of a group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These man-made chemicals have been widely used in consumer products like non-stick cookware. Exceptionally high levels of PFOA have been measured in water sources near manufacturing sites, which is problematic because these chemicals do not break down easily in our bodies or in the environment. The majority of humans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, which can lead to significant health issues, including cancer, liver damage, and effects on the thyroid, as well as effects on infant development. Current remediation methods are limited to inefficient capture and remain mostly limited to a laboratory environment. The method proposed by Furst uses low-energy scaffolded enzyme materials to go beyond simply capturing and degrading these dangerous pollutants.
Heather J. Kulik is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She is developing new computational strategies to identify the optimal materials for purifying water. Water treatment requires purification by selectively separating small ions from water. However, scalable man-made materials for water purification and desalination are often not stable under typical operating conditions and lack precision pores for good separation.
Metalorganic frameworks (MOFs) are promising materials for water purification because their pores can be tailored to have precise shapes and chemical composition for selective ion affinity. Yet, few MOFs have been evaluated for their properties relevant to water purification. Kulik plans to use high-throughput virtual screening accelerated by machine learning models and molecular simulation to accelerate the discovery of MOFs. Specifically, Kulik will be looking for MOFs with ultra-stable structures in water that do not break down at certain temperatures.
Gregory C. Rutledge is the Lammot du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. He is leading a project that will explore how to better separate oils from water. This is an important issue to address as oil contaminated water generated by industry is a major source of environmental pollution.
Emulsified oils are particularly difficult to remove from water due to their small droplet size and long sedimentation times. Microfiltration is an attractive technology for the removal of emulsified oils, but its major drawback is clogging or the accumulation of unwanted materials on solid surfaces. Rutledge will examine the separation mechanism behind liquid-infused membranes (LIMs) in which an infused liquid coats the surface and pores of the membrane, preventing fouling. The robustness of LIM technology for the removal of different types of emulsified oils and oil blends will be evaluated.
César Terrer is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering whose J-WAFS project seeks to answer the question: How can satellite images be used to provide a high-resolution drought monitoring system to farmers?
Drought is recognized as one of the world’s most pressing problems, with direct impacts on vegetation threatening water resources and food production globally. However, assessing and monitoring the impact of droughts on vegetation is extremely difficult because the sensitivity of plants to lack of water varies between species and ecosystems. Terrer will leverage a new generation of remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution assessments of plant water stress at regional to global scales. The goal is to provide a plant drought monitoring product with farmland-specific services for water management and socio-economics.
Michael Triantafyllou holds the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Chair in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is developing a web-based system for natural resource management that will deploy geospatial analysis, visualization and reporting to better manage and facilitate aquaculture data. By bringing value to commercial fishing license holders who employ significant numbers of people and also to recreational shellfish fishing license holders who contribute to local economies, the project has attracted support from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries as well as a number of local resource management departments. .
The Massachusetts shellfish fishery generated an estimated $339 million in 2020, or 17% of US East Coast production. Managing such a large industry is a time-consuming process, given that there are thousands of acres of coastal areas grouped into more than 800 classified growing areas. Extreme weather events present additional challenges. Triantafyllou’s research will contribute to efforts to enforce environmental regulations, support habitat restoration efforts, and prevent shellfish-related food safety issues.