Projects make inroads on global food and water challenges
With goals that include finding better ways to purify and desalinate water, improving fertilizer production, and preventing food contamination, nearly two dozen research teams presented updates on their work at a day-long event on Sept. 15. The workshop featured the recipients of grants from the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) program at MIT.
John H. Lienhard V, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food and the director of J-WAFS, introduced the workshop by reporting that the program has received and funded grant proposals from all five of MIT’s schools, provided 24 seed grants and nine “Solutions” commercialization grants, and attracted industrial partners including the $4 billion water technology company Xylem.
J-WAFS has been awarding seed grants since its founding in 2014. The reports at the workshop included presentations on work that is just getting started under the latest grants, as well as progress reports from grants awarded over the past three years.
Among the newly awarded grants, three relate to improving water supplies for drinking and irrigation. Two others involve ways of providing low-cost, locally sourced fertilizers for crop production, and one is for a method to grow algae in bioreactors for use as animal feed or feedstock for biofuels.
Among the new water sector projects is one by Gail E. Kendall Professor of Mechanical Engineering Evelyn Wang and chemistry professor Mircea Dinca, who are developing a practical, low-cost device to extract potable water directly from the air, even in low-humidity regions. This project builds on technology previously developed in Wang’s lab and potentially could triple or quadruple the water output of the previous version, Wang said.
Another, led by Stephen Graves, the Abraham J. Siegel Professor of Management Science at the Sloan School of Management, and Bish Sanyal, the Ford International Professor of Urban Development in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, will focus on agricultural extension services in Senegal and why the current services do not reach small farmers. This research will probe to what extent private firms with knowledge of irrigation technology can supplement public efforts. In particular, the research will analyze the current barriers to privately provided irrigation and identify ways in which the benefits of such irrigation practices can be channeled toward small firms.
The fertilizer projects included a concept for deriving potassium fertilizer from feldspar, a mineral that is abundant in Africa and other regions, instead of importing such fertilizers at high cost. The idea is being developed by Associate Professor Antoine Allanore of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
Another project, led by Karthish Manthiram, the Warren K. Lewis Assistant Professor in Chemical Engineering, seeks to develop an electrochemical method for producing nitrogen fertilizer using smaller, lower-cost systems than the huge industrial facilities currently used for such production.
“In sub-Saharan Africa, one of the major factors holding back a ‘green revolution’ is a lack of fertilizer use,” said Davide Ciceri, a research scientist on Allanore’s research team. These projects could help to address that lack and increase productivity on farms in Africa, which presently lag far behind those of other continents. “Africa has the lowest yields in the world and the lowest nitrogen fertilizer use,” Manthiram said.
Among the projects nearing the end of their two-year grant term was one that aims to entirely eliminate the need for nitrogen fertilizers, in this case by using biological engineering to create cereal grain species capable of producing their own fertilizer, as some leguminous plants already do. This project, led by professor of biological engineering Christopher Voigt, received a second J-WAFS seed grant this year to further develop the work.
Another concluding project, led by professors Noelle Selin of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Valerie Karplus, the Class of 1943 Career Development Assistant Professor of Global Economics and Management, examined the prevalence of mercury pollution of rice in China and its correlation with emissions from potential contributing sources such as coal plants. These results could help bring about policy changes that focus on both legacy soil contamination and future emissions from the power sector.
Other projects studied ways of using climate change projections to help guide water and agriculture policy in the developing world, and opportunities for increasing food production in these areas. J-WAFS-supported researchers are also studying water systems, including how water percolates into the soil under different conditions — a crucial factor for the recharging of aquifers. Others are investigating how to detect and remediate various sources of pollution in water systems, and ways of detecting specific kinds of pathogens in food, fish, and aquaculture systems, and throughout global food supply chains.
Principal investigators of concluding projects reported that their seed grants have helped them to secure substantial follow-on funding, including a multimillion dollar award for a project on food safety and supply chains, led by MIT Sloan School of Management professors Retsef Levi, Tauhid Zaman, and Yanchong Zheng.
The J-WAFS program funds work in both the developing and developed worlds, Lienhard said. Its researchers have been studying not just new technologies but also the social, economic, and political factors needed to allow such improvements to move toward widespread implementation. “It isn’t enough to have a great invention that works in a lab here in Cambridge. It has to work on site,” he said.
The program was “formed to catalyze research around MIT in the areas of water and food,” Lienhard said. “We’re really interested to see how we can bring the unique strengths of the Institute, in technology and science and business innovation and urban planning and social science, to bear on the urgent challenges that we face around water and food, going into the future.”
“We’ve gotten a lot of great proposals, and we don’t have enough money to fund them all,” he said. “But we’re doing our best to make the money go as far as we can.” J-WAFS will issue a new call for seed research proposals to the MIT community this fall.