By Leah Burrows, SEAS Communications
After years of making progress on an organic aqueous flow battery, Harvard University researchers ran into a problem: the organic anthraquinone molecules that powered their ground-breaking battery were slowly decomposing over time, reducing the long-term usefulness of the battery.
Now, the researchers — led by Michael Aziz, the Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Roy Gordon, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science — have figured out not only how the molecules decompose, but also how to mitigate and even reverse the decomposition.
The death-defying molecule, named DHAQ in their paper but dubbed the “zombie quinone” in the lab, is among the cheapest to produce at large scale. The team’s rejuvenation method cuts the capacity fade rate of the battery at least a factor of 40, while enabling the battery to be composed entirely of low-cost chemicals.
The research was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
“Low mass-production cost is really important if organic flow batteries are going to gain wide market penetration," said Aziz. “So, if we can use these techniques to extend the DHAQ lifetime to decades, then we have a winning chemistry.”
“This is a major step forward in enabling us to replace fossil fuels with intermittent renewable electricity,” said Gordon.
Since 2014, Aziz, Gordon and their team have been pioneering the development of safe and cost-effective organic aqueous flow batteries for storing electricity from intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar and delivering it when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Their batteries use molecules known as anthraquinones, which are composed of naturally abundant elements such as carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, to store and release energy.
At first, the researchers thought that the lifetime of the molecules depended on how many times the battery was charged and discharged, like in solid-electrode batteries such as lithium ion. However, in reconciling inconsistent results, the researchers discovered that these anthraquinones are decomposing slowly over the course of time, regardless of how many times the battery has been used. They found that the amount of decomposition was based on the calendar age of the molecules, not how often they’ve been charged and discharged.
That discovery led the researchers to study the mechanisms by which the molecules were decomposing.
“We found that these anthraquinone molecules, which have two oxygen atoms built into a carbon ring, have a slight tendency to lose one of their oxygen atoms when they’re charged up, becoming a different molecule,” said Gordon. “Once that happens, it starts of a chain reaction of events that leads to irreversible loss of energy storage material.”
The researchers found two techniques to avoid that chain reaction. The first: expose the molecule to oxygen. The team found that if the molecule is exposed to air at just the right part of its charge-discharge cycle, it grabs the oxygen from the air and turns back into the original anthraquinone molecule — as if returning from the dead. A single experiment recovered 70 percent of the lost capacity this way.
Second, the team found that overcharging the battery creates conditions that accelerate decomposition. Avoiding overcharging extends the lifetime by a factor of 40.
“In future work, we need to determine just how much the combination of these approaches can extend the lifetime of the battery if we engineer them right,” said Aziz.
“The decomposition and rebirth mechanisms are likely to be relevant for all anthraquinones, and anthraquinones have been the best-recognized and most promising organic molecules for flow batteries,” said Gordon.
“This important work represents a significant advance toward low-cost, long-life flow batteries,” said Imre Gyuk, Director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Storage program. “Such devices are needed to allow the electric grid to absorb increasing amounts of green but variable renewable generation.”
This research was co-authored by Marc-Antoni Goulet, Liuchuan Tong, Daniel A. Pollack, Daniel P. Tabor, and Eugene E. Kwan, all from Harvard; and Susan A. Odom of the University of Kentucky; and Alán Aspuru-Guzik of the University of Toronto.
The research was supported by the Energy Storage program of the U.S. Department of Energy, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, the Innovation Fund Denmark, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Technology Center, and Harvard SEAS.
With assistance from Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD), the researchers are seeking commercial partners to scale up the technology for industrial applications. Harvard OTD has filed a portfolio of pending patents on innovations in flow battery technology.
Introducing the 2019-2021 Environmental Fellows
The Harvard University Center for the Environment extends a warm welcome to the newest class of Environmental Fellows: Alyssa Battistoni, Marissa Elizabeth Grunes, Paul Ohno, Jon Proctor, and Adam Slavney. These fellows will join a group of remarkable scholars who will be beginning the second year of their fellowships. Together, the Environmental Fellows at Harvard will form a community of researchers with diverse backgrounds united by intellectual curiosity, top-quality scholarship, and a drive to understand some of the most important environmental challenges facing society.
Faculty Advisor: Katrina Forrester
PhD: Political Science, Yale University
Alyssa Battistoni is a political theorist working at the intersection between environmental politics, political economy, and feminist thought.
Alyssa earned a BA in Political Science from Stanford University, a MSc in Nature, Society, and Environmental Policy from the University of Oxford, and a PhD in Political Science from Yale University, where she studied political theory. Her dissertation examined the history of the economic approach to environmental problems in the twentieth century and its implications for politics. Her academic work has been published in Political Theory and Contemporary Political Theory, and her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Jacobin, where she is a member of the editorial board. She is an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
As an Environmental Fellow, Alyssa will work with Professor Katrina Forrester of the Department of Government to theorize new approaches to the challenges of climate politics, with particular attention to the role of the state and interaction between state and economy.
MARISSA ELIZABETH GRUNES
MARISSA ELIZABETH GRUNES
Faculty Advisor: James Engell
PhD: English, Harvard University
Marissa Grunes is a scholar of American literature whose dissertation examines the intersection of architecture and environmentalism in nineteenth-century American culture. She will earn her PhD from the English Department at Harvard University in the Spring of 2019. Marissa’s doctoral work brought together architectural history, aesthetic theory, and environmental history to consider the productive relation between the arts and early environmental thought in the nineteenth-century United States. Marissa’s interdisciplinary research has also led her into the medical humanities and the history of science, with work on the emergence of the hospice movement and the cultural history of the Antarctic.
As an Environmental Fellow, Marissa will work under the guidance of Professor James Engell in the English Department on a book about Antarctica for the general reader. Incognita: A Portrait of Antarctica will combine historical research with a synthesis of current ecological, atmospheric, and geophysical findings to offer a journey across the continent. Marissa’s goal is to produce a rigorously-researched book that will capture the imagination of curious readers, drawing them into the threatened world of the Antarctic and its power to transform our planet.
Dept/School: Earth and Planetary Sciences & John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Faculty Advisor: Scot Martin
PhD: Chemistry, Northwestern University
Paul Ohno is a physical chemist studying the physical and chemical properties of secondary organic aerosol particles and the implications of these properties for the climate system.
Paul earned his AB in Chemistry from Princeton University in 2014 and his PhD in Chemistry from Northwestern University in 2019. During his PhD studies, he used laser spectroscopy to measure fundamental properties of aqueous interfaces so as to better understand, predict, and control chemical processes that occur there, like groundwater pollutant capture at the mineral/water interface.
As an Environmental Fellow, Paul will work with Professor Scot Martin of the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Their work will focus on developing and applying spectroscopic techniques to directly determine physical and chemical properties, such as viscosity and diffusivity, of secondary organic aerosol particles while they remain in suspension. Paul is also a 2019 Schmidt Science Fellow.
Dept/School: Earth and Planetary Sciences & John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Faculty Advisor(s): Peter Huybers, Jim Stock, and others
PhD: Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Berkeley
Jon Proctor develops and pairs methods in econometrics, spatial statistics and machine learning with global socio-environmental datasets to empirically estimate the relationships that govern our climate and agricultural systems. For example, in recent work Jon uses volcanic eruptions as natural experiments to provide the first empirically-based estimates of how solar geoengineering might impact agricultural yields. In a second strand of research he develops, characterizes and democratizes new algorithms for planetary-scale monitoring using satellite imagery. Jon graduated from Stanford University in 2014 where he studied Earth Systems; he will earn his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from the University of California, Berkeley in August, 2019.
As a joint Data Science and Environmental Fellow, Jon will continue to explore 1) how human activity alters the transfer of sunlight through the atmosphere, and in turn, how these changes in radiation impact crop productivity and 2) how remote sensing measurements can be efficiently made and appropriately applied to quantify relationships in socio-environmental systems. He is excited to pursue these questions with Peter Huybers, Jim Stock, and others. When he’s not at his desk, you can find Jon backpacking, rock climbing, or teaching and performing improvisational theater.
Department: Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Faculty Advisor: Jarad Mason
PhD: Chemistry, Standford University
Adam Slavney is a chemist and materials scientist who makes and studies porous materials for the capture, storage, and chemical transformation of environmentally important gases.
Adam earned his PhD in chemistry from Stanford University in 2019. His doctoral work focused on the development of halide double perovskites as optoelectronic materials, particularly in the realm of photovoltaics. Adam discovered several new double perovskite phases, extensively studied their promising optical absorption, carrier transport, and defect properties, and outlined simple rules to accurately predict and describe the electronic structures of all halide double perovskites. While at Stanford he held a Stanford Graduate Fellowship and the Franklin Veatch Memorial Fellowship. Prior to Stanford, Adam received his BA in chemistry in 2014 from Washington University in St. Louis.
As an Environmental Fellow, Adam will work with Jarad Mason from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. His research will focus on the synthesis of novel porous materials such as nanocrystal frameworks and intrinsically-porous liquids. These materials will be used to separate and store technologically important gases such as hydrogen and oxygen as well as to capture and remediate environmental pollutants such as carbon monoxide and the nitrogen oxides. Adam’s work will be supported by the Arnold O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Chemical Sciences.
By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
About one fourth of the Northern Hemisphere is covered in permafrost. Now, these permanently frozen beds of soil, rock, and sediment are actually not so permanent: They’re thawing at an increasing rate.
Human-induced climate change is warming these lands, melting the ice, and loosening the soil. This may sound like any benign Spring thaw, but the floundering permafrost can cause severe damage: Forests are falling; roads are collapsing; and, in an ironic twist, the warmer soil is releasing even more greenhouse gases, which could exacerbate the effects of climate change.
From the first signs of thaw, scientists rushed to monitor emissions of the two most influential anthropogenic (human-generated) greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane). But until recently, the threat of the third largest (nitrous oxide) has largely been ignored.
In the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most recent report (from 2010), the agency rates these emissions as “negligible.” Perhaps because the gas is hard to measure, few studies counter this claim.
Now, a recent paper shows that nitrous oxide emissions from thawing Alaskan permafrost are about twelve times higher than previously assumed.
“Much smaller increases in nitrous oxide would entail the same kind of climate change that a large plume of CO2 would cause” says Jordan Wilkerson, first author and graduate student in the lab of James G. Anderson, the Philip S. Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Since nitrous oxide is about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, this revelation could mean that the Arctic—and our global climate—are in more danger than we thought.
In August 2013, members of the Anderson lab (pre-Wilkerson) and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) traveled to the North Slope of Alaska. They brought along a plane just big enough for one (small) pilot.
Flying low, no higher than 50 meters above the ground, the plane collected data on four different greenhouse gases over about 310 square kilometers, an area 90 times larger than Central Park. Using the eddy-covariance technique—which measures vertical windspeed and the concentration of trace gases in the atmosphere—the team could determine whether more gas went up than down.
In this case, what goes up, does not always come down: Greenhouse gases rise into the atmosphere where they trap heat and warm the planet. And, nitrous oxide poses a second, special threat: Up in the stratosphere, sunlight and oxygen team up to convert the gas into nitrogen oxides, which eat at the ozone. According to the EPA, atmospheric levels of the gas are rising, and the molecules can stay in the atmosphere for up to 114 years.
When Wilkerson joined the lab in 2013, the nitrous oxide data was still raw, untouched. So, he asked if he could analyze the numbers as a side-project. Sure, Anderson said, go right ahead. Both of them expected the data to confirm what everyone already seemed to know: Nitrous oxide is not a credible threat from permafrost.
Wilkerson ran the calculations. He checked his data. He sent it to Ronald Dobosy, the paper’s second author, an Atmospheric Scientist and eddy-covariance expert at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), working at NOAA. “I was skeptical that anything would come of it,” Dobosy says.
After triple checks, Wilkerson had to admit: “This is widespread, pretty high emissions.” In just one month, the plane recorded enough nitrous oxide to fulfill the expected cap for an entire year.
Still, the study only collected data on emissions during August. And, even though their plane covered more ground than any previous study, the data represents just 310 of the 14.5 million square kilometers in the Arctic, like using a Rhode Island-sized plot to represent the entire United States.
Even so, a few recent studies corroborate Wilkerson’s findings. Other researchers have used chambers—covered, pie plate-sized containers planted into tundra—to monitor gas emissions over months and even years.
Other studies extract cylindrical “cores” from the permafrost. Back in a lab, the researchers warm the cores inside a controlled environment and measure how much gas the peat releases. The more they heated the soil, the more nitrous oxide leaked out.
Both chambers and cores cover even less ground (no more than 50 square meters) than Anderson’s airborne system. But together, all three point to the same conclusion: Permafrost is emitting far more nitrous oxide than previously expected. “It makes those findings quite a bit more serious,” Wilkerson says.
Wilkerson hopes this new data will inspire further research. “We don’t know how much more it’s going to increase,” he says, “and we didn’t know it was significant at all until this study came out.”
Right now, eddy-covariance towers—the same technology the Anderson crew used in their plane—monitor both carbon dioxide and methane emissions across the Arctic. Anderson was the first to use airborne eddy-covariance to collect data on the region’s nitrous oxide levels. And, apart from the small-scale but significant chamber and core studies, no one is watching for the most potent greenhouse gas.
Since the Arctic is warming at almost twice the rate of the rest of the planet, the permafrost is predicted to thaw at an ever-increasing rate. These warm temperatures could also bring more vegetation to the region. Since plants eat nitrogen, they could help decrease future nitrous oxide levels. But, to understand how plants might mitigate the risk, researchers need more data on the risk itself.
In his place, Wilkerson hopes researchers hurry up and collect this data, whether by plane, tower, chamber, or core. Or better yet, all four. “This needs to be taken more seriously than it is right now,” he says.
The permafrost may be stuck in a perpetual climate change cycle: As the planet warms, permafrost melts, warming the planet, melting the frost, and on and on. To figure out how to slow the cycle, we first need to know just how bad the situation is.
Image: David S. Sayres
The Center for the Environment is delighted to congratulate three of its longtime affiliated faculty—Joyce Chaplin, Jody Freeman, and Daniel Schrag—on their recent election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies and a leading center for independent policy research. Joyce Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History in the Department of History, where she teaches the histories of science, climate, colonialism, and environment. She is currently working on a history of resource conservation, climate change, and settler colonialism, for which she received a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship. Chaplin is also the faculty organizer of the HUCE Environmental History Working Group. Jody Freeman is Archibald Cox Professor of Law and the founding director of the Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program. A leading scholar of both administrative law and environmental law, Freeman served as counselor for Energy and Climate Change during the Obama Administration, where she was the architect of the president’s historic agreement with the auto industry to double fuel efficiency standard. Daniel Schrag is the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, co-director of the Program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and director of the Center for the Environment. Schrag studies climate change over the broadest range of Earth’s history, including how climate change and the chemical evolution of the atmosphere influenced the evolution of life in the past, and what steps might be taken to prepare for impacts of climate change in the future. He served from 2009 to 2017 on President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST), contributing to many reports to the President including energy technology and national energy policy, agricultural preparedness, climate change, and STEM education.
For more information on the 12 Harvard faculty elected to the Academy, please see the Harvard Gazette story here.
Twelve Harvard faculty are among the more than 200 individuals elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced today.
Chosen for their compelling achievements in academia, business, government, and public affairs, the Harvard inductees are Joyce E. Chaplin, Jody Freeman, Peter A. Hall, Mark D. Jordan, Barbara B. Kahn, Ronald C. Kessler, Danesh Moazed, Carol J. Oja, Subir Sachdev, Daniel P. Schrag, Tommie Shelby, and Jeremy M. Wolfe.
“One of the reasons to honor extraordinary achievement is because the pursuit of excellence is so often accompanied by disappointment and self-doubt,” said David W. Oxtoby 72, the president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “We are pleased to recognize the excellence of our new members, celebrate their compelling accomplishments, and invite them to join the academy and contribute to its work.”
The academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, and others who believed the new republic should honor exceptionally accomplished individuals and engage them in advancing the public good. The academy’s dual mission remains essentially the same 239 years later, with honorees from increasingly diverse fields and with the work now focused on the arts, democracy, education, global affairs, and science.
“With the election of these members, the academy upholds the ideals of research and scholarship, creativity and imagination, intellectual exchange and civil discourse, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge in all its forms,” said Oxtoby.
“While the work of this class includes work never imagined in 1780 — such as cultural studies, cybersecurity, disease ecology, nanotechnology, paleoclimatology, and superconductivity — these members embody the founders’ vision of cultivating knowledge that advances, in their words, a ‘free, virtuous, and independent people,’” said Nancy C. Andrews, board chair of the American Academy.
The new class will be inducted at a ceremony in October in Cambridge and join the academy members who came before them, including Benjamin Franklin (elected 1781) and Alexander Hamilton (1791); Ralph Waldo Emerson (1864), Maria Mitchell (1848), and Charles Darwin (1874); Albert Einstein (1924), Robert Frost (1931), Margaret Mead (1948), Milton Friedman (1959), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1966); and more recently Antonin Scalia (2003), Michael Bloomberg (2007), John Lithgow ’67 (2010), Judy Woodruff (2012), Bryan Stevenson (2014), and former President Barack Obama, J.D. ’91 (2018).
For the complete list of the 239th class of new members, visit the website.
By Kendra Pierre-Louis
Image: Tim Gruber for The New York Times
DULUTH, Minn. — As the West burns, the South swelters and the East floods, some Americans are starting to reconsider where they choose to live.
For advice, a few of them are turning to Jesse Keenan, a lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. At least once a day, Dr. Keenan, who studies urban development and climate adaptation, gets an email from someone asking where to move to be safe from climate change. The messages come from people who are thinking about moving not because they have already been hit by catastrophe, but because they see the writing on the wall.
So, what does Dr. Keenan suggest to these advance planners? Maybe climate-proof Duluth.
That’s a slogan that he created as part of an economic development and marketing package commissioned by the University of Minnesota Duluth. Some community leaders think they can spur growth by bringing in more people, and they sense an opportunity in climate change. And Duluth isn’t the only urban area that has climate migration on their radar. In a February speech, the mayor of Buffalo, Byron W. Brown, declared his city a “climate refuge.”
Dr. Keenan emphasized one day in mid-March as we stood on the ice of Lake Superior that the Duluth slogan was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. The science behind it, though, is no joke.
Nowhere in the world is immune from climate change, including Duluth. “We’re getting more precipitation in bigger amounts than we ever really observed,” said Kenneth Blumenfeld, a senior climatologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“But when you stand back and look around, it’s almost like, ‘But we’ve got it good.’”
Climate projections suggest that, because of geographic factors, the region around Duluth, the Great Lakes area, will be one of the few places in America where the effects of climate change may be more easily managed.
First, it’s cool to begin with. That means, as temperatures increase, it will remain mild in relative terms. By 2080, even under relatively high concentrations of carbon dioxide emissions, Duluth’s climate is expected to shift to something like that of Toledo, Ohio, with summer highs maxing out in the mid-80s Fahrenheit.
“We’re not seeing worse heat waves or longer heat waves or more of those long nights that don’t fall below 75 degrees,” Dr. Blumenfeld said. “Instead, what we’re seeing is warmer winters, fewer days during winter where we get to negative 30 Fahrenheit.”
Because the region will remain relatively cool, it will have a lower wildfire risk than the West or the Southeast. Wildfires thrive in hotter temperatures, which dry out plants and make them easier to ignite.
And, because Duluth is inland, it’s mostly protected from the effects of sea level rise.
Duluth, which sits at the western end of Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes by volume, also has fresh water. A lot of it. Superior is so voluminous that, if poured out, it would submerge North and South America under a foot of water.
“At the end of the day, it’s really about fresh water,” Dr. Keenan said. “It’s that simple. You’ve got to have fresh water.”
You’ve got to have quite a bit, in fact. To meet our minimum needs, from drinking to cooking and cleaning, the World Health Organization says we need 13 to 26 gallons of water a day, or about 50 to 100 liters. The average American uses 80 to 100 gallons.
The city hasn’t formally adopted Dr. Keenan’s climate refuge plan so far, but it has the attention of the mayor, Emily Larson. “This idea that we have this national researcher who has identified Duluth as a place that has kind of a secret sauce when it comes to being a place for refuge and sustainability and resiliency, that is something you want to be a part of,” she said.
For the plan to work, people would need to actually move to Duluth. The city’s infrastructure can accommodate 150,000 people, but the current population is just 86,000. From 2010 to 2016, though, the city added only 56 people.
Presented to the public at the end of a two-day conference focused on understanding Duluth’s future in a warming world, Dr. Keenan’s research, which partly aims to predict which states are likely to see more people leaving because of climate change, suggested that present-day Texans and Floridians might make excellent futureDuluthians.
“What do people from Florida really want?” said Dr. Keenan, himself a former Floridian who still keeps a residence in the state. “They want the infinite horizon of the ocean.”
This may be why one of Dr. Keenan’s sample advertisements, “Duluth, it’s not as cold as you think,” featured an image of a surfer in a wet suit.
That appeared to be tongue-in-cheek, too. When he showed the photo during his presentation, the audience laughed. Duluth does have a surf season. But the proposed ad glides past the fact that it’s in winter. Surfers head out into the lake in temperatures as low as minus 15 Fahrenheit, or minus 26 Celsius.
“We had one week in particular that it was negative 60 almost every day with wind chill,” said Kyle Skarp, an electrician, as he watched friends play board games in the back room of Blacklist Artisan Ales, a brew pub in Duluth. “You didn’t want to go outside. And not because it was uncomfortable, but because it’s unsafe.”
Mr. Skarp said he liked the idea of more people coming to Duluth. He said it would mean more jobs.
But not everyone agrees with Dr. Keenan’s plan. Because it favors those who are financially able to move, it selects for the affluent and, he acknowledged, raises questions of gentrification.
After the presentation, Karen Diver, a faculty fellow at the College of Saint Scholastica who served as special assistant to the president for Native American affairs during the Obama administration, cautioned that the city had an uneven track record when it comes to embracing diversity.
“From my perspective we haven’t even figured out how to interact in a positive way with our indigenous people,” said Ms. Diver, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who lives near Duluth on her tribe’s reservation.
Mayor Larson seemed to acknowledge that. “I think we have a tremendous amount of work to do as a community to truly be a place where migration and immigration are seen as being strength and vitality and growth,” she said.
Ultimately, if Duluth decides to invest in attracting climate migrants, whether voluntary or displaced, the city may face competition.
At least one other Great Lakes city, Buffalo, 700 miles away on the eastern tip of Lake Erie, has the same kind of winter cold, and all the geographic blessings, that Duluth has. It’s predicted to have fresh water even as the climate warms, and its summers will remain relatively cool.
“We’ve never had a 100 degree day,” said Stephen J. Vermette, a professor of geography at Buffalo State.
But Buffalo has already received what could be described as a wave of climate migrants, after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in the autumn of 2017.
They came partly because Buffalo has an established Puerto Rican population, which meant that many prospective migrants had friends and relatives in the city.
At the same time, Buffalo had advertised itself on Puerto Rican television in search of Spanish language teachers. They came because they had connections and knew that there was a chance they could make a life there.
“About 10,000 people came here after the hurricane in Puerto Rico,” said George Besch, chairman of the board of directors at Designing to Live Sustainably, a nonprofit group working to help the Buffalo-Niagara region adapt to climate change.
According to Matthew Hauer, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University, people who migrate, whether by choice or not, still like to stick close to home, moving just far enough to get out of harm’s way but often remaining within the same state or region.
When people do go far away, he said, they either move for higher paying jobs, or they “tend to follow kin networks and friend networks.”
Seven research projects in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities will share about $1 million in the fifth round of grants awarded by the Climate Change Solutions Fund (CCSF), an initiative encouraging multidisciplinary research projects that seek creative solutions to climate change.
“Harvard has a responsibility to create knowledge and advance research on the pressing issue of climate change,” said President Larry Bacow. “Since its inception, the Climate Change Solutions Fund has supported groundbreaking work across the University, and this year’s cohort represents the complex, multidisciplinary work required to address profound environmental changes that affect all of us.”
“The CCSF Review Committee and I are delighted with this year’s awards,” said vice provost for research Richard McCullough, whose office administers the fund. “The combination of the varied research in which our faculty and students engage — projects in chemistry, economics, anthropology, architecture, and more — and the support shown by University leadership through CCSF ensures the kind of innovative problem-solving we require around climate change.”
In 2014, President Emerita Drew Faust announced the creation of the fund to accelerate the transition from carbon-based energy systems to renewable ones to create a greener world. To date, more than 40 CCSF projects have received more than $5 million. They have included a wide range of topics, including the creation of a new electrochemical method of capturing carbon dioxide to reduce overall levels in the atmosphere, technological advances to lower the cost of solar energy, partnering with local government agencies to address air pollution in India, modeling local economic impacts of extreme weather events, and targeting the emissions associated with food waste.
The fund’s evaluation committee targets projects representing the range of academic disciplines and research interests across Harvard’s 12 Schools. Special consideration is given to projects seeking to use the campus as a living laboratory to test ideas or produce new insights through the lens of nontraditional disciplines, including the arts and humanities. The fund is supported by the president’s office and the generosity of alumni and others.
Here are this year’s seven projects.
Heat Stress, Labor Fatalities, and Adaptation Policy
Patrick Behrer, Harvard Environmental Economics Program Pre-Doctoral Fellow, Ph.D. candidate, Harvard Kennedy School, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Exposure to extreme heat has substantial adverse consequences for workers, from acute health conditions to impaired cognitive function. Despite its significance to the U.S. workforce, only a few studies examine the impact of heat on workplace injuries and fatalities, and they all look only at injuries directly attributed to heat, overlooking its indirect effects and underestimating its true impact. This project will assess exposure to extreme heat and how it relates to workplace injuries and fatalities, and will seek to understand how the effects of heat exposure vary by workers’ occupation, race, and socioeconomic status. By measuring the effectiveness of an existing policy to protect workers from extreme heat, this project aims to inspire new legislation to mitigate the impact of heat on the U.S. workforce.
Behrer will be joined by R. Jisung Park in this project. Park earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 2017 and was an inaugural CCSF awardee for his research project, “The Critical Moment: Climate Means Versus Extremes in the Economics of Climate Change.”
Pleistocene Park: Mitigating the Effects of Climate Change in the Russian Arctic
Anya Bernstein, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
This project will advance a climate change mitigation experiment in Pleistocene Park, a unique nature reserve in Arctic Siberia that sits on permafrost, which has a considerable impact on climate change due to the high levels of carbon trapped in the frozen soil. By combining ethnographic and archival methods, the investigator will examine the complex historical, sociopolitical, and cultural contexts that shape interactions between humans, animals, and the environment in Pleistocene Park. The project will also investigate the development of biotechnologies in climate engineering while promoting Russian-American cooperation in counteracting the effects of climate change through permafrost preservation.
Measuring the Gains From Trade in a Market for Decentralized Renewable Energy
Shefali Khanna, Harvard Environmental Economics Program Pre-Doctoral Fellow, Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Decentralized solar energy technologies have significant potential for increasing energy access while achieving climate change mitigation goals, particularly in the developing world. Yet the intermittency of solar energy may affect not only the adoption of these technologies but also consumers’ decisions to choose less-sustainable energy sources. One way to address this potential drawback is through peer-to-peer trading of surplus electricity via community microgrids. Trading energy can improve the quality of electricity supply, repurpose excess solar electricity, and allocate electricity to its highest marginal use. This project will test the potential of this technological solution by estimating the gains from trading decentralized renewable energy in rural Bangladesh.
Metal-Organic Phase-Change Materials for Thermal Energy Storage
Jarad A. Mason, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
More than 90 percent of energy production and consumption in the world involves the generation of heat, and more than half of home energy use goes to heating and cooling. Despite the tremendous importance of managing thermal energy efficiently, storing thermal energy for later use has received significantly less attention than storing electrical and chemical energy. In a phase-change thermal energy storage system, thermal energy can be transferred into a material and stored as the energy of a phase transition. Importantly, phase-change materials can store large amounts of thermal energy with minimal temperature changes, opening opportunities for efficient energy storage and temperature regulation without external energy input. This project will investigate how the structural and chemical features of metal-organic phase-change materials contribute to their thermodynamic properties, helping design improved solid-solid and solid-liquid phase-change materials for next-generation heat storage systems.
Catching Sunlight with Quantum Mechanics: A Materials-by-Design Approach to Designing New Photovoltaic Materials
Julia A. Mundy, assistant professor of physics, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Solar energy is recognized as a critical component in achieving a global energy system free of fossil fuels. This project hopes to construct novel materials that can be used in even more efficient and scalable solar-energy harvesting. Ultimately, this high-risk, high-reward research could help us move closer to a more sustainable energy system by identifying new material properties that could give rise to highly efficient photovoltaic cells, to generate electricity directly from sunlight via a naturally occurring electronic process.
Daniel G. Nocera, Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
The bionic leaf system Nocera co-created with Harvard Medical School Professor Pamela Silver in 2016 uses a combination of hydrogen and specialized bacteria to produce an internal cellular fuel to power the creation of a strong, living fertilizer. The goal of this new project is to advance the bionic leaf in order to examine its effectiveness at establishing carbon and nitrogen cycles and increasing large-scale food production. Studies show that the process by which the leaf powers the fertilization cycle makes it ultimately carbon-negative. Using this biofertilization on a worldwide scale could significantly impact mitigating the effects of climate change. Furthermore, this study hopes to look at how the bionic leaf can be used in a way that is beneficial to people living in environments where large infrastructures for fuel and food production are not available.
Protecting Health by Building Design Under a Warming Urban Climate
Holly Samuelson, assistant professor of architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Extreme heat exposure has proved more fatal to humans than other types of weather event, and the frequency of extreme heat events has increased in recent years. This project will observe how existing buildings in a range of climates manage without air conditioning during a heat event, identifying areas of increased vulnerability and analyzing the survivability of residential buildings in extreme heat conditions. The research can help provide guidelines for climate adaptation and help develop plans for alleviating the impacts of climate change. Looking forward, a parallel assessment will be conducted using risk estimates from previous studies to gauge the impact on future urban regions. Cost-effective strategies developed through this research will offer scalable systems that can guide how urban policy makers, public health officials, and building energy code developers adapt to the changing climate.
Daniel Schrag is the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and a professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard University. While teaching an undergraduate course he calls “the climate energy challenge,” Schrag also directs the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and co-directs the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Schrag served on former President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) from 2009 to 2016, and has worked on a range of issues in climate science, geochemistry, earth history, and energy technology. Examples of his research include a 2017 study on the potential impacts of solar geoengineering on extreme heat events, as well as a 2016 paper that looks at how policy decisions in the coming years will influence global climate, ecosystems and human societies for thousands of years into the future.
Schrag recently sat down with Journalist’s Resource to offer tips on environmental and science reporting and share his own observations and perspective on the field. We edited or expanded upon some points to make them even more helpful, after consulting with Schrag.
1 – Understand the science
“Environmental journalism and science journalism are not the same thing, but there’s a big overlap,” Schrag said. A reporter doesn’t necessarily need a science degree to cover many aspects of environmental journalism, such as environmental law, policy and regulation, and environmental justice. But a basic understanding of climate science would help eliminate common errors reporters make in their coverage. “The rate of those mistakes would decrease if journalists had a little more training,” he said.
Science journalists, however, need a background in science. “Science journalism in general has suffered for a very long time. Imagine if someone was covering the financial section of a newspaper and had no economics or financial training … It wouldn’t happen,” Schrag said. He said training for science journalists could consist of an undergraduate degree or training in chemistry or physics, or a science fellowship, depending on the journalist and type of reporting he or she does.
2 – Change your focus
“Climate change is here, it’s happening and going to be with us for thousands of years,” said Schrag. Journalists should be thinking more about how humans can manage climate change – not stop it. They also should focus on communicating the realities of a changing climate. “We do ultimately have to stop greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere, but that’s going to take a very long time, a century at best,” he said.
3 – Include the correct context
The goal of environmental journalists should be to communicate to the public about what’s going on in the correct context and timescales of climate change. “That includes natural phenomenon, or unnatural,” said Schrag. For example, when Hurricane Harvey dropped over 50 inches of rain near Houston, Texas in September 2017, it was the first time a single place in the continental U.S. had experienced that amount of rain during one storm system, he said. “You could never say that this particular hurricane was caused by climate change,” Schrag said. “But you can say climate change leads to conditions that make these hurricanes worse, and makes it rain more, makes the water in the ocean warmer for the hurricane to grow faster.”
4 – Tell the human story
The impacts of climate-related events can profoundly touch, or sometimes devastate, people and communities around the globe. According to Schrag, there is a place for both scientifically-trained reporters and journalists capable of capturing the emotional impacts of climate change. “Sometimes I feel environmental journalism has grown so close to science writing, I’m afraid it’s lost that emotion.”
5 – Use research to challenge leaders
Schrag criticized President Donald Trump’s decisions to appoint, or try to appoint, government officials who oppose scientific consensus and to leave key scientific leadership positions vacant. He noted that journalists seem to have backed off environmental coverage lately. “I think we’ve all become a little numb to the Trump phenomenon … I haven’t seen a lot of great journalism lately on the environment, partly because they [journalists] might feel there is no audience.”
Journalists, he said, are a key part of holding agencies and officials accountable. “The idea that he [Trump] would nominate someone with no science background and no understanding of environmental issues and is ideologically opposed to it is typical … So, this is a tough time.”
6 – Acknowledge partisan divides
Managing the effects of climate change and environmental degradation has become a deeply partisan issue. “Your views on climate can be almost perfectly predicted from a handful of other questions that have nothing to do with climate … the way you feel about government, about a variety of other issues not related to the environmental at all are predictive about how you’re going to feel about climate change and that’s unfortunate,” said Schrag. Environmental issues often cut across beats, such as criminal justice, politics and economics. Leaning on experts and credible scientists is essential to providing the public with clear, evidence-based information in all areas of environmental reporting. “Journalists need to be fearless and be bold … there are so many attacks on our environmental regulations and our environmental sense of decency, journalists are a critical part of standing up to that and they need to be honest about what they see.”
By Alvin Powell, Harvard Staff Writer
The keys to feeding the 10 billion people expected on Earth by midcentury read like a thoughtful laundry list that’s both reassuring and daunting: new technology, more seafood, more efficient small farms, less food waste, less red meat, and — perhaps — insects.
Experts gathered at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Friday laid out the extent of the challenge: with just 7.5 billion people today, some 800 million are underfed, 2 billion eat an unhealthy diet that puts them at higher risk for obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases, and many of the rest eat diets dependent upon an inefficient and unsustainable food production system whose reform will be essential in feeding another 2.5 billion mouths.
Though panelists appearing at The Forum at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said the necessary changes, while challenging, are achievable, one of the lowest-hanging fruits has the potential to make a large difference.
A large percentage of the food produced today is lost as waste, and a variety of approaches could make that food available for consumption, according to Gina McCarthy, professor of the practice of public health, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and head of the Chan School’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment.
“We waste 40 percent of the food between the farm and the table,” McCarthy said. “And then we have to think about how we get people engaged in this. We want them to demand healthy food, but we also want them to have a rich sense of where their food comes from. I want them to be engaged in the food process, and I want them to think about how we eliminate that waste by engaging them.”
McCarthy said locating farms closer to where food is purchased will reduce the amount of food lost before it reaches store shelves. Better refrigeration, already being developed, is another strategy to cutting waste in the distribution system. Awareness among consumers is also key, she said, and simple steps can be taken to reduce food waste in cafeterias — don’t use large serving trays that encourage people to take more than they will eat — and in the home, where she counseled to first “shop your own fridge.”
While fighting food waste is a step that can help anywhere, the current food production system is complex and diverse, and will require a variety of approaches to become more efficient, panelists said.
Technology may provide one answer, according to David Bennell, manager of food, land, and water for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a corporate-led organization seeking sustainable business solutions.
The organization, Bennell said, has developed weather forecasting technology — being piloted in the West African nations of Ghana and the Ivory Coast — that can send weather data to the phones of small farmers in the developing world. Armed with that knowledge, farmers can better plan planting and harvesting to boost agricultural yields. In addition to information, though, such small farms will also benefit from fertilizer, according to Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition Walter Willett.
“Many people around the world carry mobile phones,” Bennell said. “The idea is: Could we create a mechanism through the mobile phone network that would enable these farmers to make better predictions about weather.”
Improving yields on small farms in the developing world would put additional food where it is needed most. Bennell said that the people suffering the largest food insecurity today are, ironically, the world’s farmers — about 2 billion people live on the developing world’s 475 million farms, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization — and on those farms women and children are most affected. Another technology-centered strategy, Bennell said, is a plan by Microsoft to use drones and artificial intelligence to survey farmers’ fields from the air and provide data on whether they’re too wet, too dry, or showing signs of insect infestation. Getting that information early will allow farmers to address imbalances before they become problems.
Eating habits are going to have to change, according to Willett, who was part of a commission convened by the scientific journal The Lancet that examined how best to feed 10 billion people.
The commission developed a model diet with the goal of being able to provide healthy food in an environmentally sustainable manner.
The diet proposes eating more fish and plant-based foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes — than many in the developed world eat today, Willett said. It would also mean eating far less red meat than is common on many tables — the equivalent of just one hamburger a week or a large steak monthly.
One problem with red meat, Willett said, is that the ratio of grain fed to a cow to get a serving of beef is equal to 20 servings if the grain is eaten directly. In a world struggling for enough to eat, that’s inefficient.
“[The cow] is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases, for all the time it’s living and breathing,” Willett said. “Plus, feeding grain to cattle, in particular, is hugely inefficient — roughly a 20:1 conversion of what we feed cattle to convert it to edible food to humans. [It’s] massively inefficient.”
The “new” diet, Willett said, is actually not that different from the traditional Mediterranean diet as it existed before the advent of modern agricultural practices. Meat was eaten, but sparingly, and rarely as the centerpiece of the meal.
That diet, Willet said, would not just feed a lot of people, but it would also improve health globally, eliminating between 20 percent and a quarter of 11 million diet-related premature deaths annually.
“The good news is it is possible to feed them a sustainable and healthy diet,” Willett said, “but it will require a big change in what we’re doing.”
In response to a question from the audience, Willett said some cultures have long eaten insects and, though dietary studies including insects are rare, researchers should explore whether they deserve a larger role in the future.
Ana Sortun, chef and owner of the Cambridge, Mass., restaurant Oleana and also a panelist, said that a healthful, plant-based diet can be not just sustainable, but also tasty. Cooks, Sortun said, can avoid the “cheap tricks” common in modern processed foods — boosting flavor with fat, salt, and sugar — and still turn out flavorful meals. One key, she said, is to emphasize locally sourced foods, because the fresher the ingredients, the better the flavor.
“There isn’t enough access to really fresh food,” Sortun said. “From a chef’s standpoint, fresh equals flavor.”
Sortun told of a recent trip around the Mediterranean and her exposure to an array of new flavors in Turkey, created not through those fat-salt-sugar tricks, but through careful cooking with chosen spices.
Several panelists pointed to the U.S. Farm Bill as a potential political tool to encourage change in the U.S. industrial agriculture model, which relies heavily on pesticides and fertilizers, the runoff from which chokes waterways. The bill’s incentives, which could be altered, now encourage centralization of agriculture to the detriment of surviving small and medium-sized farms, Willett said. Changing the farm bill, however, would be difficult since the food and agriculture industry is a powerful lobby.
Despite the challenges ahead, McCarthy said that people can be educated and support change with the choices they make every day, reducing waste and building an agricultural system that doesn’t harm the environment.
“I have no doubt we can do it. The question is how to engage enough people … to ensure this is what we deliver to the world,” McCarthy said.
By Alvin Powell, Harvard Staff Writer
Can we eat our way out of some global environmental problems?
That’s a question asked by author Paul Greenberg, who has made his career writing about the problems of the seafood industry and seafood’s potential — with careful management and a shift in consumer practices — to be the foundation of a healthier diet, promote more sustainable use of the environment, and even reduce carbon emissions.
Greenberg, the author of three books on fish, seafood, and the fishing industry, said one health benefit of eating more seafood is consuming more of the omega-3 fatty acids it contains. Those fats, also marketed commercially as supplements, have been long suspected to have heart-healthy effects, and results last fall from the VITAL study, led by JoAnn Manson, the Michael and Lee Bell Professor of Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, showed that taking omega-3 supplements caused large reductions in cardiovascular risk for those who had little fish in their diet.
But “eating seafood” today means something different than it did just a few generations ago, Greenberg said. Instead of diets varying depending on locally available fish, recent decades have seen seafood becoming standardized, with the industrial focus narrowing to four foods: tuna, shrimp, salmon, and several species lumped together as “whitefish.”
Those species can be very energy-intensive to harvest, and rediversifying the diet to increase the consumption of things like mussels and seaweed — which are both high in omega-3s and use much less energy to produce and process — can ease carbon emissions related to seafood harvesting.
Another strategy, Greenberg said, would be to utilize the 20 million to 30 million metric tons of smaller fish — currently ground up to use as fertilizer, for pig and chicken feed, and in aquaculture — for direct human consumption. That would increase the efficiency of a system that currently expends a lot of energy harvesting fish to feed them to something else that humans then eat.
With the planet’s population slated to continue growing, future challenges include not just shifting toward healthier and less-energy-intensive diets, but also simply providing more food. Greenberg said the aquaculture industry has the potential to meet this need and could reduce current problems of near-shore pollution by co-locating its pens at offshore wind farms.
Greenberg, whose talk mirrored the title of his latest book, “The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for Long Life and a Healthier Planet,” spoke at Harvard’s Science Center on Tuesday afternoon. His lecture was followed by a discussion with three Harvard nutrition and seafood experts, including Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition Walter Willett, Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Planetary Health Christopher Golden, and Assistant Professor of Medicine Susan Korrick. The event was presented by the Harvard University Center for the Environment.
Their discussion, Willett said, goes to the heart of what will be one of the major challenges facing humanity over the next century: feeding a growing population in a sustainable way.
While omega-3 fatty acids are an important nutritional component of seafood, Willett said questions remain as to how much is needed for optimum health.
Studies have shown that omega-3 supplements can reduce cardiovascular risk among those whose diets contain little fish, he said, but it’s likely that the effect plateaus and adding more beyond that to the diet would be of little use. At high enough doses, he said, some nutrients become toxic. Salt, for example, is an essential nutrient, but Willett said it’s likely we’ve gone beyond the plateau of beneficial effects and typically eat too much.
“Like many nutrients, there’s not a linear relationship between intake and how healthy we are,” Willett said. “There are many things that are essential, but we don’t need more.”
Resource-poor parts of the world are facing a somewhat different scenario, Golden said. In places where locally caught fish provide important nutrients in the diet, fish populations are expected to shift and body sizes to decline due to climate change, portending difficult times. Fish provide not just calories and protein for more than a billion people, but also micronutrients that are absent from the tubers and grains that are likely to take their place in the diet.
“It’s very troubling, in my opinion, to look at these types of statistics,” Golden said.
In addition to nutrients, seafood also contains pollutants that concentrate as they make their way up the food chain, Korrick said. Those pollutants, such as mercury, have long been known to be a risk of marine foods, but the use of fish meal to feed land animals like pigs and chicken makes that a problem for the terrestrial food chain as well.
“If there’s the political will and the political interest to really rethink and reimagine our food supply, considering contamination is a critical piece of that process,” Korrick said.
Despite the many challenges, Greenberg contended that increasing seafood consumption, heightening use of aquaculture, and shifting toward less-energy-intensive foods point the way toward a sustainable future.
“We could end up with a planet that is more balanced and perhaps a human body that’s more balanced,” he concluded.
By Alexander Gelfand; illustration by Eric Nyquist
Much hope and plenty of money are riding on the idea that battery-powered electric cars will help slow global warming by reducing tailpipe emissions. But when it comes to reducing the greenhouse gases produced by heavy transportation—namely, the trucks, planes, trains, and ships that move large volumes of goods and people long distances—humanity’s best bet might lie with overweight algae. And staving off the climate apocalypse could be just the beginning.
That’s the premise underlying a decadelong joint effort to develop algae biofuel by ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI), a private biotech company cofounded by genomics pioneer Craig Venter and Nobel Laureate Hamilton Smith, together with writer and life sciences investor Juan Enriquez (MBA 1986). And it may soon come to fruition: Last March, in the wake of a scientific breakthrough by SGI, the two companies committed to producing 10,000 barrels of algae biofuel a day by 2025.
According to Enriquez, who directed HBS’s Life Sciences Project prior to his current role as managing director of Excel Venture Management, algae biofuels were once the darlings of the alternative energy sector. That’s because the aquatic microorganisms use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize sugar, proteins, and fat—the latter in the form of an oil that can replace fossil fuels in applications where batteries either can’t store enough power or are simply too heavy to lug around, like commercial aviation and maritime shipping.
In addition, algae can grow in salty or brackish water under extremely harsh conditions; so unlike other biofuel feedstocks such as corn and soy, algae don’t need to compete with agricultural crops for fresh water and arable land. And the oil they produce is free from the pollutants that must be removed from fossil crude.
As a result, algae could pull fossil-fuel generated CO2 out of the atmosphere and transform it into nearly carbon-neutral diesel or jet fuel with minimal environmental impact—a handy trick when demand for transportation energy is on the rise, and the need to manage global emissions grows ever more urgent.
The prospect of a clean energy source that could serve double duty as a carbon-capture technology has proven irresistible to investors, who have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into dozens of algae biofuel startups. Unfortunately, says HBS Senior Fellow Joseph Lassiter, whose research focuses on developing carbon-neutral energy supplies, efforts to produce algal crude cheaply and efficiently have met with nothing but failure. The reason: basic biology.
One can easily persuade algae to produce more oil by starving them of nutrients like nitrogen, prompting the single-celled organisms to bulk up on fat like bears preparing for winter. Alas, just like bears, the microscopic butterballs eventually go into hibernation. And once that happens, they stop growing, negating the gains made in oil production.
SGI solved that biological catch-22 by genetically engineering algae to get fat without going comatose. As a result, “You can take the brakes off oil formation without putting the brakes on growth,” says SGI’s CEO, Oliver Fetzer.
In a study published in Nature Biotechnology in 2017, SGI researchers analyzed the genome and metabolism of the marine algae Nannochloropsis gaditana and uncovered a group of genes responsible for regulating oil production. By tweaking one of those genes with the powerful editing tool known as CRISPR, the team ultimately doubled the amount of oil produced by the algae without significantly hindering their growth.
SGI’s breakthrough finally provides a line of sight to a scalable algae biofuel. The company is already growing algae in outdoor ponds at a test facility near California’s Salton Sea, and Fetzer envisions a day when large pools of algae will be located wherever saltwater and consistently warm temperatures are to be found. The ponds could even be parked next to heavy CO2 emitters like cement factories and power plants so that the organisms can suck up excess carbon while churning out clean, renewable biocrude.
Having cracked the problem of boosting oil production, engineering algae to make petrochemicals ranging from fertilizers to plastics ought to be relatively straightforward. What’s more, the knowledge gained from the biofuels project should eventually permit researchers to turn algae into microscopic factories for the manufacture of virtually any organic compound, leading to what Enriquez describes as a full-blown algal revolution. “You can make vaccines in the stuff, you can make medicines in the stuff, you can make food in the stuff,” he says.
Capitalizing on its burgeoning algal expertise, SGI has already bred one strain that can make highquality protein and healthful fatty acids, and it hopes to coax others into producing biological drugs such as the antibodies used to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Right now, however, the biofuel breakthrough is generating the most buzz—and for good reason, given the looming possibility of catastrophic climate change and the desperate need for fossil-fuel substitutes.
Fetzer hopes to have a pilot facility up and running by 2025 that can meet ExxonMobil’s production goals while sucking CO2 from a heavy polluter. He readily admits that challenges remain—like figuring out how best to extract the algae from their ponds and expel their oil—but the goal of producing algae biofuel that can compete with traditional diesel is finally within reach.
By Leah Burrows, SEAS Communications; Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
One of the key misconceptions about solar geoengineering — putting aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and reduce global warming — is that it could be used as a fix-all to reverse global warming trends and bring temperature back to pre-industrial levels.
It can’t. Applying huge doses of solar geoengineering to offset all warming from rising atmospheric C02 levels could worsen the climate problem — particularly rainfall patterns — in certain regions. But could smaller doses work in tandem with emission cuts to lower the risks of a changing climate?
New research from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), in collaboration with MIT and Princeton University, finds that if solar geoengineering is used to cut global temperature increases in half, there could be worldwide benefits without exacerbating change in any large geographic area.
Finding the right "dose" for solar geoengineering
“Some of the problems identified in earlier studies where solar geo-engineering offset all warming are examples of the old adage that the dose makes the poison,” said David Keith, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at SEAS and senior author of the study. “This study takes a big step towards using climate variables most relevant for human impacts and finds that no IPCC-defined region is made worse off in any of the major climate impact indicators. Big uncertainties remain, but climate models suggest that geoengineering could enable surprisingly uniform benefits.”
The research is published in Nature Climate Change.
To better understand what regions could experience worse climatic conditions if solar geoengineering were combined with emissions cuts, the researchers used a state-of-the-art high-resolution model to simulate extreme rainfall and tropical cyclones (a.k.a. hurricanes). It’s the first time such a model has been used to study the potential impact of solar geoengineering.
Researchers looked at temperature and precipitation extremes, water availability, and a measure of the intensity of tropical storms. They found that halving warming with solar geoengineering not only cools the planet everywhere but also moderates changes in water availability and extreme precipitation in many places and offsets more than 85 percent of the increase in the intensity of hurricanes.
Less than 0.5 percent of the land would see the effects of climate change exacerbated, according to the model.
“The places where solar geoengineering exacerbates climate change were those that saw the least climate change to begin with,” said Peter Irvine, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at SEAS and lead author of the study. “Previous work had assumed that solar geo-engineering would inevitably lead to winners and losers with some regions suffering greater harms; our work challenges this assumption. We find a large reduction in climate risk overall without significantly greater risks to any region.”
The researchers are quick to point out that this is a simplified experiment, which assumed doubled CO2 concentrations and represented solar geo-engineering by turning down the sun. However, it is a first step towards understanding how solar geoengineering could be used in tandem with other tools to mitigate some of the worse impacts of climate change.
"For years, geoengineering has focused on compensating for greenhouse gas induced warming without worrying too much about other quantities like rainfall and storms,” said Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil & Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT and co-author of the study. “This study shows that a more modest engineered reduction in global warming can lead to better outcomes for the climate as a whole."
“The analogy is not perfect but solar geoengineering is a little like a drug which treats high-blood pressure,” said Irvine. “An overdose would be harmful, but a well-chosen dose could reduce your risks. Of course, it’s better to not have high-blood pressure in the first place but once you have it, along with making healthier lifestyle choices, it’s worth considering treatments that could lower your risks.”
This research was co-authored by Jie He, Larry W. Horowitz, and Gabriel Vecchi.
By Jill Radsken, Harvard Staff Writer
Bruno Carvalho has published research on topics ranging from environmental justice and race to city planning and literature. His award-winning “Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro” made the case for his native city as a place of cultural history defined by porous spaces and structural inequalities. Carvalho earned his Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures at The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2009. He is co-editor of the book series “Lateral Exchanges,” about architecture and urbanism in a global context.
GAZETTE: Can you talk about your research?
CARVAHLO: My research is a bit wide-ranging, but it broadly focuses on cities as lived and imagined spaces, especially in Brazil. I’m beginning work on a cultural history of futures. We can think of much of modernity in terms of competing visions of what the future ought to be like. In contrast, today, with the realities of climate change and labor precarity setting in, it often seems as if a dreadful future is inevitable. In the 1920s, for example, some vied for car-centric and highly segregated cities, others for mixed-race, multicultural utopias. Urban visions have become in many ways more modest and contingent. Contemporary urbanism absorbed important lessons from the failures of top-down, authoritarian, modernist projects, and though that’s of course a good thing, the daunting scale of our challenges demands that we conceive transformations with imagination and ambition.
Reflecting on how the future was conceived in the past can help to expand the realm of possibilities. Most of my research brings together perspectives from the social sciences, design, and cultural materials. Art, literature, film, and historical knowledge can all push us to confront entrenched intuitions and stretch the limits of the thinkable. We shouldn’t assume that cities are doomed to the levels of segregation so common in the United States today, nor that this will solve itself. The study of the past can act as an antidote to a type of conformity that our dire problems sometimes produce.
A lot of people already get that a certain status quo is untenable, whether it’s fossil-fuel dependency, hyper-concentration of wealth, or the war on drugs. But as I like to remind my students, if the scale of needed changes seem unviable, unforeseen social, political, and technological transformations happen as a norm.
I also have a body of research on the 18th-century period, which includes publications on topics like the emergence of anti-black racism in scientific thought, and on how the circulation of French translations of U.S. constitutional documents played a role in failed independence movements in Brazil. The Enlightenment sometimes appears to nonspecialists as this pivotal, but sort of flattened phenomenon — in some circles tied to progress and freedom, in others to Eurocentrism and exploitation. Rethinking the Enlightenment from the perspective of Brazil helps to foreground some of its tensions and contradictions, and allows us to trace the formation of modern ideas about sovereignty and individual liberty, as well as about race and white supremacy, cities as harbingers of civilization, and nature as a resource rather than something to which we belong.
GAZETTE: Last fall, you taught a seminar called “Writing and Urban Life”; this spring you’ll teach a graduate seminar called “Imagine Futures,” and you have a Gen Ed course debuting in two years. What are they about?
CARVAHLO: The fall seminar was a great welcome to Harvard. It brought together a wonderful group of graduate and undergraduate students. Writing and urbanization have entangled histories, and have become central to the very ways in which we constitute subjecthood in the modern world. Both are relatively recent developments in our history as a species. We discussed some very large questions and reviewed canonical debates, but we also concentrated on a set of authors from the past century or so, mostly from Brazil, who in various ways push us to “denaturalize” a lot of what we tend to take for granted about urban life. Much of the writing we analyzed is attuned to the strangeness in familiar modes of being, as well as to the perils, promises, and potentials of this massive experiment in which urbanites are now engaged: living closely in density among strangers. That’s just not how most humans before us did it.
This spring’s seminar will look at how past ideas of what the future should look like have helped to shape cities in all sorts of material ways — say, for example, associations between order and progress with geometric patterns like the grid. We’ll also try to recover ideas that largely lost out but can resonate today, such as challenges to human exceptionalism that contemplate the place of other life forms in the worlds we’ve built. We will discuss how in the history of planning, the unplanned and even the improbable happen often, and how the future is, by definition, out of reach and, therefore, always in a way imagined. We will focus on Brazil, the country; like the Americas as a whole, it’s a fertile space to generate these reflections because so many futures were projected on it throughout colonial and modern history. Brazil has been alternatively conceived as Edenic and dystopian. We’ll focus on historical turning points in urbanization and culture and try to understand their specificities, but we won’t lose sight of our current predicaments. After all, our collective planetary futures are very much at stake in regions like the Amazon, which is now a contested site for different visions of what the world ought to be like.
Next academic year when Neil Brenner, professor of urban theory at GSD, is back from sabbatical, we will co-teach a Gen Ed course called “Living in an Urban Planet.” So even though it’s already a cliché to say that more than half of the world population lives in cities, we actually tend to underestimate how much of the planet urbanization encompasses. If we think of energy systems and refuse, for example, or even the circulation of urban cultural production, where do our cities end? In this course we will discuss urban transformations at various scales, from the planetary to the sidewalk. It’s been stimulating to work with Neil on this. We share a number of interests, and tend to approach related questions in very different but complementary ways.
GAZETTE: You are leading an effort to create a secondary field in urban studies, something you were involved in at Princeton. Is it meant to be a cross-disciplinary effort, and what kinds of conversations do you hope will come from it?
CARVAHLO: My dream is to build a program in urban studies like our cities at their best: places of intellectual exploration, encounters with difference, lively exchanges. Urban experiences, much like a liberal arts education, can expose us to multiple ways of being and belonging in the world. They can move us to step outside of ourselves, to inhabit multiple perspectives, to exceed our assigned roles. Because there are already so many wonderful urban-related courses, and because there is no formal urban studies curriculum outside of the professional schools, we have the opportunity to build something really special. An urban studies curriculum can bring together students and faculty with mutual interests, but whose paths might not cross otherwise. At Princeton, we built a thriving program, and saw how it had transformative potential, especially for undergrads. Urban studies can introduce students to very basic facts about the world around them that they might not otherwise learn, like the role of segregatory housing in the U.S. wealth gap. It can introduce issues like inequality in resonant ways. Urban studies presents opportunities for poets and engineers to discuss different standards for value, or for anthropologists and computer scientists to rigorously debate the blind spots and uses of big data or GIS.
An institutional space around the urban could help us to break down siloes, building links across disciplinary and geographic boundaries. Neil, Eve Blau (GSD), and I are working with several colleagues on addressing some of these issues by reviving the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative, which Eve and Julie Buckler, Samuel Hazzard Cross Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature, created as part of a grant funded by the Mellon Foundation.
GAZETTE: There has been so much challenging news coming out of Brazil, from the devastating National Museum fire to the recent presidential election. What are your thoughts about the cultural future of your homeland?
CARVAHLO: Brazil’s cultural landscapes are full of dynamism and utopian yearnings that have worked to destabilize structures of inequality, broadening the horizons of possibility. As elsewhere, we have recently seen extremist political movements take advantage of a very understandable sense of disillusionment and frustrations with futures that never arrived. Early in Brazil’s election, when not many expected surprises, I wrote a long essay on the appeal of politicians positioning themselves as anti-establishment, promising a return to a fantasy-based past, and of groups that have turned digital tools like YouTube and WhatsApp into engines for far-right radicalization and for the spread of misinformation. I think we cannot underestimate the grave threats to the environment, to a free press, to research and education and to vulnerable populations in Brazil, including indigenous groups. But there are many people fighting for democracy too.
The least important thing is setting ourselves up to say “I told you so.” We have to continue standing up for evidence-based approaches to our problems, but that won’t be enough. We also need to nurture alternative, inclusive visions for the future. One person who did that brilliantly was Marielle Franco, a young, Afro-Brazilian native of a Rio de Janeiro favela who was elected to the city council and was assassinated last year. Sidney Chalhoub (professor of history and African and African American studies) and I are planning an event here at Harvard with feminist leaders and former colleagues to celebrate her legacy. We do not yet know for certain who was behind her murder, but we know that the last electoral cycle empowered some individuals who mocked or made light of her death.
There are also renewed threats to the Amazon in growing deforestation and attacks on indigenous people. Brian Farrell, director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Monique and Philip Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America, and professor of biology; postdoc Bruno de Medeiros; and I are collaborating on a conference called “Amazonia and Our Planetary Futures.” We are assembling specialists from government, the private sector (including biodiversity economies), scientists, and indigenous leaders. It’s all hands on deck to avert catastrophe and create better futures!