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Office of Sustainability names 2018 grant winners

Campus sustainability incubator grants provide funding for innovative projects that bring together faculty, staff, and students and use MIT as a test bed for innovation.
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The Campus Sustainability Incubator Fund is supporting new projects exploring on-site renewable energy storage systems and prototyping carbon-neutral cooling systems.
The Campus Sustainability Incubator Fund is supporting new projects exploring on-site renewable energy storage systems and prototyping carbon-neutral cooling systems.
Photo: Christopher Harting

This October, the MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS) announced the winners of the 2018 Campus Sustainability Incubator Fund grants. With the Incubator Fund, MITOS supports research that utilizes MIT’s campus and its facilities as a test bed for new, sustainable solutions.

Now in its second year of awards, the Incubator Fund is supporting two new projects: Professor Jessika Trancik, in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and Professor Douglas Hart, in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.  The Trancik team seeks to study on-site renewable energy storage systems and the Hart team will be engaging in a two-semester class to prototype carbon-neutral cooling systems. In both cases, the research will be managed in collaboration with operational staff within the Department of Facilities and the Central Utilities Plant (CUP).

The Incubator Fund was established in summer 2017 thanks to a donation from Malcolm Strandberg to support projects that bring students, faculty, and staff together to apply sustainability research and innovation on campus.

“The MIT campus provides a unique opportunity for researchers to work with staff and students to prove the feasibility of sustainable solutions on the individual and campus scale, with an eye on how they can be scaled up to cities and beyond,” says Julie Newman, director of MITOS and convener of the fund’s Advisory Committee. "It has been exciting to watch the first cohort's progress, and we are thrilled to support these two projects this year."

Calm, cool, and carbon-neutral

This year, undergraduate students taking 2.013 (Engineering Systems Design) and 2.014 (Engineering Systems Development) with Hart have been tasked with creating a high efficiency, carbon-neutral cooling system that can be tested directly with MIT’s existing infrastructure.

The challenge is imminent: As climate change continues to increase average temperatures particularly in highly populated parts of the globe, systems for cooling buildings will be necessary for human health. But in the case of current technologies, those cooling systems feed heat and carbon back into the environment and exacerbate the problem.

As a first step, the classes will design carbon-neutral cooling systems that could be integrated into MIT’s buildings. To ensure their design will be compatible with campus facilities, the class is working directly with staff at the MIT Central Utilities Plant (CUP), the on-campus power plant. Given the plant’s convenient location to campus, engineers from the CUP can visit the class to work with students on a regular basis.

“2.013 and 2.014 immerse students in a real-world design environment in which they are accountable to a sponsor, where their work has significant impact, and success or failure means more than a grade,” says Hart. “Working closely with the staff of CUP inherently raises the level of professionalism in the class while providing students with knowledgeable mentors that can guide them through the transition from student to professional engineer.”

The fall semester will be spent in design, and in the spring, students will develop their carbon-neutral solutions. Finally, a smaller group of students may stay on for the summer to test and apply the project on campus.

“Working with researchers and students is refreshing,” says Seth Kinderman, plant engineering manager at CUP. “Typically, we support the campus and students by making steam, electricity, and chilled water. Other times, we can support students and research directly.”

Saving (energy) for a rainy day

A look at Boston’s weather forecast reveals the necessity of Trancik’s research. Solar energy is not available all the time, and this can be a challenge for renewable energy installations in regions like the Northeast where overcast skies and precipitation happen frequently and can last for days.

One potential solution is to improve upon energy storage systems, but there are still limited data available about such systems, and much of what has been collected are proprietary. Trancik’s team plans to work with MIT Facilities to explore the installation of lithium-ion batteries.

"We are trying to understand how to optimize energy storage systems used in conjunction with sources of renewable energy,” says Micah Ziegler, a postdoc in the Trancik Lab. “The opportunity to collaborate with the MIT Department of Facilities to collect relevant data will be invaluable for our research and for the design and operation of these energy systems."

Once the batteries are in place, the researchers can test different strategies for redistributing the electricity they store. Innovations may come from facilities management, electrical engineering, or chemical engineering of the battery systems. And the data they gather could identify, for example, which strategies are most effective for reducing emissions or optimizing energy efficiency.

As the first project of its kind to plan to make the data available through the Sustainability DataPool, Trancik’s work will be a lasting contribution to energy storage system technology.

From 2017 seed funds, projects continue to grow

Work continues on the diverse projects that were awarded the inaugural Campus Sustainability Incubator Fund grants last year. This October, the team led by Professor Kripa Varanasi from the Department of Mechanical Engineering installed an electrified, water-catching dome structure over the steam plumes of MIT’s CUP, which could drastically reduce the water lost as steam.

Another project, initially led by Lisa Anderson in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and now overseen by MIT Research Scientist Jeremy Gregory, found last year that MIT orders three million lab gloves annually, and as of right now, it’s not clear where they are all going once they are used. That’s the next question, which this research team will begin tackling this year by conducting waste assessments in laboratories.

Meanwhile, Randy Kirchain in the Materials Research Laboratory has been leading an incubator project to support sustainable building design on campus. Kirchain’s team has been developing quantitative tools that factor sustainability into the design process while also consulting designers, to ensure the tool’s usefulness.

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