Innovative research projects at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to focus on water-related issues
- June 7, 2023
- Posted by: Sinead Sprigg
- Category: Case Studies, Engineering, Environmental, Research Papers, Water Issues, North America
The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) has announced its ninth round of seed grants to support innovative research projects at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Fifteen principal investigators from across MIT will conduct early work to solve issues ranging from water contamination to aquaculture monitoring and management.
The grants are designed to fund research efforts that tackle challenges related to water and food for human use, with the goal of creating meaningful impact as the world population continues to grow and the planet undergoes significant climate and environmental changes.
Ten new projects led by 15 researchers from seven different departments will be supported this year. The projects address a range of challenges by employing advanced materials, technology innovations, and new approaches to resource management. The new projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop monitoring and other systems to help manage various aquaculture industries, optimize water purification materials, and more.
J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins commented: “The seed grant program is J-WAFS’ flagship grant initiative. “The funding is intended to spur ground-breaking MIT research addressing complex issues that are challenging our water and food systems. The 10 projects selected this year show great promise, and we look forward to the progress and accomplishments these talented researchers will make.”
The 2023 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects include:
Fish population monitoring
Sara Beery, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), is building the first completely automated system to estimate the size of salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest (PNW).
Salmon are a keystone species in the PNW, feeding human populations for the last 7,500 years at least. However, overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change threaten extinction of salmon populations across the region. Accurate salmon counts during their seasonal migration to their natal river to spawn are essential for fisheries’ regulation and management but are limited by human capacity.
Fish population monitoring is a widespread challenge in the United States and worldwide. Beery and her team are working to build a system that will provide a detailed picture of the state of salmon populations in unprecedented, spatial, and temporal resolution by combining sonar sensors and computer vision and machine learning (CVML) techniques. The sonar will capture individual fish as they swim upstream and CVML will train accurate algorithms to interpret the sonar video for detecting, tracking, and counting fish automatically while adapting to changing river conditions and fish densities.
Aquaculture algae feed production
Michael Triantafyllou, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Robert Vincent, the assistant director at MIT’s Sea Grant Program. They are working with Otto Cordero, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, to control harmful bacteria blooms in aquaculture algae feed production.
Aquaculture in the United States represents a $1.5 billion industry annually and helps support 1.7 million jobs, yet many American hatcheries are not able to keep up with demand. One barrier to aquaculture production is the high degree of variability in survival rates, most likely caused by a poorly controlled microbiome that leads to bacterial infections and sub-optimal feed efficiency. Triantafyllou, Vincent, and Cordero plan to monitor the microbiome composition of a shellfish hatchery in order to identify possible causing agents of mortality, as well as beneficial microbes. They hope to pair microbe data with detail phenotypic information about the animal population to generate rapid diagnostic tests and explore the potential for microbiome therapies to protect larvae and prevent future outbreaks. The researchers plan to transfer their findings and technology to the local and regional aquaculture community to ensure healthy aquaculture production that will support the expansion of the U.S. aquaculture industry.
Bioavailability of mineral-associated phosphorus
Darcy McRose, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is researching whether a combination of plant metabolites and soil bacteria can be used to make mineral-associated phosphorus more bioavailable.
The nutrient phosphorus is essential for agricultural plant growth, but when added as a fertilizer, phosphorus sticks to the surface of soil minerals, decreasing bioavailability, limiting plant growth, and accumulating residual phosphorus. Heavily fertilized agricultural soils often harbor large reservoirs of this type of mineral-associated “legacy” phosphorus.
Redox transformations are one chemical process that can liberate mineral-associated phosphorus. However, this needs to be carefully controlled, as overly mobile phosphorus can lead to runoff and pollution of natural waters. Ideally, phosphorus would be made bioavailable when plants need it and immobile when they don’t.
Removal of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) forever chemicals from water
Two of the new projects address the problem of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), human-made chemicals that have recently emerged as a global health threat. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are used in many manufacturing processes. The chemicals are known to cause significant health issues including cancer, and they have become pervasive in soil, dust, air, groundwater, and drinking water. Unfortunately, the physical and chemical properties of PFAS render them difficult to detect and remove.
Carlos Portela, the Brit (1961) and Alex (1949) d’Arbeloff Career Development Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Ariel Furst, the Cook Career Development Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, are building novel architected materials to act as filters for the removal of PFAS from water.
Portela and Furst will design and fabricate nanoscale materials that use activated carbon and porous polymers to create a physical adsorption system. They will engineer the materials to have tunable porosities and morphologies that can maximize interactions between contaminated water and functionalized surfaces, while providing a mechanically robust system.
Water pollution from both biological and chemical contaminants
Rohit Karnik is a Tata Professor and interim co-department head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is working on another technology, his based on microbead sensors, to rapidly measure and monitor trace contaminants in water.
Water pollution from both biological and chemical contaminants contributes to an estimated 1.36 million deaths annually. Chemical contaminants include pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals like lead, and compounds used in manufacturing. These emerging contaminants can be found throughout the environment, including in water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States sets recommended water quality standards, but states are responsible for developing their own monitoring criteria and systems, which must be approved by the EPA every three years.
However, the availability of data on regulated chemicals and on candidate pollutants is limited by current testing methods that are either insensitive or expensive and laboratory-based, requiring trained scientists and technicians. Karnik’s project proposes a simple, self-contained, portable system for monitoring trace and emerging pollutants in water, making it suitable for field studies.
The concept is based on multiplexed microbead-based sensors that use thermal or gravitational actuation to generate a signal. His proposed sandwich assay, a testing format that is appealing for environmental sensing, will enable both single-use and continuous monitoring. The hope is that the bead-based assays will increase the ease and reach of detecting and quantifying trace contaminants in water for both personal and industrial scale applications.
On-site arsenic detection in water
Alexander Radosevich, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, are teaming up to create rapid, cost-effective, and reliable techniques for on-site arsenic detection in water.
Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a problem that affects as many as 500 million people worldwide. Arsenic poisoning can lead to a range of severe health problems from cancer to cardiovascular and neurological impacts. Both the EPA and the World Health Organization have established that 10 parts per billion is a practical threshold for arsenic in drinking water but measuring arsenic in water at such low levels is challenging, especially in resource-limited environments where access to sensitive laboratory equipment may not be readily accessible.
Radosevich and Swager plan to develop reaction-based chemical sensors that bind and extract electrons from aqueous arsenic. In this way, they will exploit the inherent reactivity of aqueous arsenic to selectively detect and quantify it. This work will establish the chemical basis for a new method of detecting trace arsenic in drinking water.
Monitoring nitrogen-containing pollutants
Rajeev Ram is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. His J-WAFS research will advance a robust technology for monitoring nitrogen-containing pollutants, which threaten over 15,000 bodies of water in the United States alone.
Nitrogen in the form of nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and urea can run off from agricultural fertilizer and lead to harmful algal blooms that jeopardize human health. Unfortunately, monitoring these contaminants in the environment is challenging, as sensors are difficult to maintain and expensive to deploy.
Ram and his students will work to establish limits of detection for nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and urea in environmental, industrial, and agricultural samples using swept-source Raman spectroscopy. Swept-source Raman spectroscopy is a method of detecting the presence of a chemical by using a tunable, single mode laser that illuminates a sample. This method does not require costly, high-power lasers or a spectrometer. Ram will then develop and demonstrate a portable system that is capable of achieving chemical specificity in complex, natural environments. Data generated by such a system should help regulate polluters and guide remediation.
Affordable water disinfection technology
Kripa Varanasi, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Angela Belcher, the James Mason Crafts Professor and head of the Department of Biological Engineering, will join forces to develop an affordable water disinfection technology that selectively identifies, adsorbs, and kills “superbugs” in domestic and industrial wastewater.
Recent research predicts that antibiotic-resistance bacteria (superbugs) will result in $100 trillion in health care expenses and 10 million deaths annually by 2050. The prevalence of superbugs in our water systems has increased due to corroded pipes, contamination, and climate change. Current drinking water disinfection technologies are designed to kill all types of bacteria before human consumption.
However, for certain domestic and industrial applications there is a need to protect the good bacteria required for ecological processes that contribute to soil and plant health. Varanasi and Belcher will combine material, biological, process, and system engineering principles to design a sponge-based water disinfection technology that can identify and destroy harmful bacteria while leaving the good bacteria unharmed.
By modifying the sponge surface with specialized nanomaterials, their approach will be able to kill superbugs faster and more efficiently. The sponge filters can be deployed under very low pressure, making them an affordable technology, especially in resource-constrained communities.
Many of the 2023 seed grants will support innovative technologies to monitor, quantify, and remediate various kinds of pollutants found in water.