Every year MIT has a Technology Day on its alumni reunion weekend where faculty discuss what they’re working on. These are consistently interesting, and I’ve written about them before: The Oceans Are Dissolved Information and Print Your House and The Engineering of Biology at MIT.
This year the topic was climate change. There were five speakers in total: two analysts (Valerie Karplus and Janelle Knox-Hayes), one researcher (Noelle Eckley-Selin), one policy maker (John Holdren, co-chair of Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) and one inventor (Don Sadoway). The moderator was Maria Zuber, an astronomer who manages Lincoln Labs and MIT’s own Climate Initiative.
You can watch the whole session here: Tech Day 2019 Live Webcast: MIT on Climate Change. Sorry about the Facebook link, but that’s where it’s posted. Let me say something brief about each, but then concentrate on Sadoway, who was much the most fun. Here are the panelists:
Valerie Karplus (the 30:20 mark in the video): China now emits 1/3 of the world’s CO2, largely because they had a huge burst in coal usage in the last 15 years. Only 50% is for power, though. Yes, they have also built more renewable capacity than anyone else, but coal is very much a government policy. Their wind turbines are actually idle 10-15% of the time because the coal operators have to meet quotas. It is literally killing them – there are something like a million deaths a year in China due to smog.
Janelle Knox-Hayes (52:00): Has been looking at who is actually adopting carbon pricing and whether it has had any effect. Her slides, sadly, were unread-ably detailed in that large auditorium.
Noelle Eckley-Selin (2:04:40): Had a nice way of expressing what’s happening to the planet: “Those of you here for your 50th reunion are from class of 325 ppm CO2, as measured by the Keeling Curve on Mauna Loa. The 30th reunion is the class of 353 ppm, the 20th is 387 ppm and the newly graduated are at 410.” Her angle on increasing action w.r.t. climate is to note that emissions have directly horrible health effects. Coal and diesel emit a lot of tiny particulates, ones less then 2.5 um across (1/10000 of an inch), which which cause lung cancer and heart disease. Burning coal also emits mercury, so much that it can be seen rising in the 20th century in the geological record. These kill millions. Rising temperatures make this worse, as it accelerates chemical reactions in smog. Oddly enough, the reduction of sulfur in ship fuel may have increased warming by reducing cloud cover, since clouds condense on the sulfur particles. Heat stroke is now a major issue in India and the Persian Gulf in the summer time.
John Holdren (2:24:50): Actually teaches at that liberal arts school up the river, but is an MIT alum. He has been in the halls of power for decades and so was much the best speaker. He noted that climate change makes extreme events worse, even lightning storms. Wildfires burn four times the area that they did just ten years ago. Hurricanes used to be cooled down when their waves brought cold water to the surface, but now even the deeper water is warm, so the hurricanes last longer. Sea level rise has accelerated from 1 mm/year in the 1900s to 5 mm/year today.
He actually had recommendations. We’ve got to put a price on carbon immediately, and raise it to $100 per tonne by 2030. The US ought to be spending five times what it currently does on research and mitigation. As academics, our main contribution is to teach the next generation of leaders – Eckley-Selin was actually a student of his. He found that for faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School, 50% of their personal CO2 emission came from travel. Do more video-conferencing! He recommended that people tithe 10% of their time to climate issues.
Don Sadoway (1:48:10) – Talked about two of his startups, Ambri (molten metal batteries) and Boston Metal (making steel with electrolysis instead of coke). He noted that electricity equals modernity, which this EE readily agrees with, but that means we use enormous amounts of it and need it all the time. We need batteries that store gigawatt-hours, and complex Li-ion ones are never going to get there for reasonable cost. It’s got to use dead simple chemistry with dead cheap materials – “If you want to make something dirt-cheap, make it out of dirt, and local dirt at that.” Don’t replace a dependence on foreign oil with one on foreign neodymium. He’s thinking of something enormous, like a modern aluminum smelter. He showed a hall of smelter cells a hundred feet wide and a mile long. It sucked 500,000 A at 4V, which would be the entire output of a large nuclear reactor. That’s the scale we need.
He’s a senior professor, but teaches the intro to solid-state chemistry course 3.091. His lectures were put up on Open CourseWare, and Bill Gates happened to watch them. His assistant then wrote to Sadoway asking if he could spare 90 minutes to meet with Gates. He ignored it. He figured that one of his students had hacked his account. The assistant wrote again, wondering if he had seen the earlier email. He then decided it was real, agreed to meet, and they had a good discussion about distance learning. At the end Gates asked him what he was working on. He sketched his idea for a battery made of liquid metals, and Gates said “That’s interesting. If you decide to spin that out let me know and I’ll put some money into it.” So Ambri got Round A funding from Bill Gates because Sadoway taught intro chemistry! Keeping the attention of undergraduates is good training for keeping the attention of VCs.
He originally called his startup Liquid Metal Batteries, but that was clunky. He learned that the network giant Cisco was named after San Francisco, so he pulled the middle out of Cambridge to get Ambri. That was in 2010, and they’ve had a lot of trouble since then. They got close to release in 2015, but found that their seals failed at high temperatures and they nearly went under. They have a different chemistry now and hope to release their first product next year in 2020.
Sadoway himself is on to something new – steel-making. This involves reducing iron ore, Fe2O3, into pure iron. In the normal process the ore is heated up with coke, processed coal, to pull away the oxygen with carbon to produce CO2. Steel-making actually accounts for 9% of world emissions! That’s over 3 billion tonnes a year. His approach is to use electrolysis instead. Heat up the ore to liquefy it and then break off the oxygen with huge currents.
The key is getting an anode that doesn’t melt away and is cheap. There’s a good discussion of the whole scheme at Technology Review: A New Way To Make Steel Could Cut 5% of Emissions At a Stroke. Boston Metals started in 2013 with with DOE and NSF money, and now have demos and just got Round A funding.
So Sadoway is taking the traditional technical route to solving a problem – find a better, cheaper way to do it. That seems much more satisfying than the analysis and advocacy of the other speakers. Trying to persuade corrupt Trumpists and those whose regions and livelihoods depend on fossil fuels is a way to ruin your blood pressure and waste your career. Crush them in the marketplace, say I.
Maria Zuber: But what about MIT itself? In 2015 they set up a A Plan For Action on Climate Change – Summary Details, which Zuber is running. Most of it is organizational – trying to coordinate the efforts across the vast range of activities that happen at the Institute. That’s fine, but they were also pressured to reduce MIT’s own emissions. With great reluctance they committed to a 32% reduction from 2014 emissions by 2030. 32% is weak. Obama wanted the whole US to reduce by 30% by then, and the entire planet actually needs to do at least that much. MIT has already gotten 20% of that by funding a solar farm in North Carolina, and will get another 10% by upgrading the co-generation plant that supplies most of the campus power and heat. In 4 years they’re almost at their 15-year goal.
Worse still, they officially refused to divest from fossil fuel companies, and actually committed to working with them. The fossileers have not acted in good faith. They’ve funded smear campaigns and outright lies against anything that threatened their revenue. Including them in your plans could well be giving them inside info to use against you. That may sound paranoid, but as we’ve recently seen, kompromat has become a standard tactic.
Overall, though, it was encouraging to see good efforts coming out of my alma mater. That’s what these Technology Days are supposed to do! Remind alums of their bright college days, and tell them that things are still going well. Well, not going well in terms of climate change, but at least they’re on the job.