J-WAFS awards commercialization grants to develop technologies for water and food solutions

The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) has announced three new recipients of J-WAFS Solutions grants, as well as the award of a second year of funding to two current projects.

Together, the funded projects demonstrate MIT’s application of innovative technologies to food and water challenges such as improving irrigation, reducing pesticide use, and improving water filtration and monitoring. The financial support and mentorship from industry partners facilitated by the Solutions program helps move these water and food technologies from labs at MIT into commercial use, where they can improve the productivity, accessibility, and sustainability of water and food systems.    

D-Lab research associate Megha Hegde and two local students from India conduct a hands-on workshop on water filters with the women of Mujholi village in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, India, for the new xylem filter technology, funded by J-WAFS Solutions.

“MIT was created to move innovative research into the real world, including a distinguished legacy of solutions for critical needs in the water and food sectors,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard V, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food. “Today, with the impact of climate change, urbanization, and rising population, water and food security is of even greater global importance. This program serves as a catalyst for entrepreneurial faculty and students to develop and commercialize technologies that can have a positive impact on the world.”

Technologies that monitor food quality and safety

Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma, the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, has been awarded a commercialization grant to develop a handheld device that can inexpensively test the quality of milk by measuring milk fat and protein. His goal is to ensure real-time control across the dairy industry supply chain — from farmers to collection centers to processing plants. Sarma and his team are motivated by challenging issues prevalent in the dairy industry in India: Milk procurement is complicated and uncontrolled, the system is vulnerable to tampering, and consistency in the safety and quality of milk products is difficult to manage. During the grant period, the team will develop and test the image processing system that is the foundation of their technology.  Once refined, they will turn it into a sensor scaled for handheld devices, and conduct pilot studies in select regions in India.  

Timothy Swager, the John D. McArthur Professor of Chemistry, and postdoc Myles Herbert will follow up on prior J-WAFS Solutions funding to further refine a technology that exploits the chemistry of Janus emulsions. Janus emulsions are special droplets on the nano scale that have two or more distinct physical properties. Swager and Herbert have developed a process in which Janus particles to interact with bacteria in order to detect foodborne pathogens and the interaction between the liquid droplets and bacterial proteins can be detected by a smartphone or even the naked eye. This device could reduce the cost and accessibility of food safety testing across the supply chain which, as a result, could reduce foodborne illnesses and reduce costs.  During this grant year, Swager's his group will further refine the sensitivity and selectivity of the sensor and explore different detection modalities that provide rapid robust and detection. 

Improving agricultural practices for increased yield and reduced environmental impact

Kripa Varanasi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, is developing novel spray formulations comprising charged molecules to improve the application of agricultural pesticides. These new formulations enable the pesticide drops to adhere better to leaf and fruit surfaces without bouncing or rolling off, thereby decreasing the volume of pesticide application and limiting pollution of soils, surface water, and groundwater. Lab-scale results have demonstrated that the technology can reduce the amount of pesticide sprayed by a factor of 10. Varanasi and his team will conduct field studies on pesticide sprays tailored for a range of plants and field conditions. Once commercialized, the enhanced spray solutions could have a game-changing impact on pesticide application practices, improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of pesticide applications and significantly reducing runoff pollution. 

J-WAFS Director John Lienhard and PhD candidate Kishor G. Nayar have received a Solutions grant for a new project that seeks to improve agricultural practices and crop yield, especially for hydroponic growers. The team is developing a system called Intelligent Selective Electrodialysis (ISED) for reducing water salinity that is superior to existing reverse osmosis desalination processes. ISED selectively removes ions harmful to crops and retains those that are beneficial, resulting in improved yield with less water and fertilizer use. The team plans on using their grant to test the prototype, design the first field pilot, and conduct end-user interviews in the US and Mexico.  

Developing affordable water filtration systems from trees

A 2016 Solutions project lead by Rohit Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and co-PI Amy Smith, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and co-director of the D-Lab, received a renewal grant that will allow them to further develop a plant-based water purification device. Along with PhD candidates Krithika Ramchander, Kendra Leith, Megha Hegde, Luda Wang, and Anish Antony, Karnik and Smith have developed low-cost water filters that exploit the natural filtration capabilities of xylem tissue in wood. Designed for communities that lack access to piped water supply systems, the filter reduces the microbial contamination that is a threat to health in developing regions. This year’s grant will support continued field tests for the filtration system in India, product design and prototyping, exploration of opportunities for increasing awareness and adoption, and the development of a strategy for manufacturing and commercialization by and for the people in regions who most need them. 

Transforming promising ideas into commercialized breakthroughs 

The J-WAFS Solutions program aims to help MIT faculty and students commercialize breakthrough technologies and inventions by transforming promising ideas at MIT into innovative products and cutting-edge spin-off companies. 

Funded through a research partnership with Community Jameel (the social enterprise arm of Abdul Latif Jameel Enterprises) and administered in partnership with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the program’s mission is to help bring to market products and services that have a transformational effect on water and food systems worldwide. The program supports projects that bring tangible economic and societal benefits to the communities where they are deployed.

“From using wood to provide clean drinking water, being able to easily test the quality of milk in rural communities, and reducing the amount of pesticides being sprayed on crops, the research we are supporting at MIT has the potential to make a real difference to some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” says Fady Mohammed Jameel, president of Community Jameel International. “With rising populations, climate change and urbanization, we need to start taking action now to meet the world’s future needs for food and water. Community Jameel is proud to be a key partner of MIT in tackling some of the most pressing issues related to food and water safety and security in the Middle East and around the world.”

The three new 2017 J-WAFS Solutions grant recipients and their projects are:

In-situ Particle Characterization in Emulsions for Field-scale Quality Assurance in the Dairy Industry
PI: Sanjay Sarma, Vice President for Open Learning and Fred Fort Flowers (1941) and Daniel Fort Flowers (1941) Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Reducing Runoff and Environmental Impact of Agricultural Sprays
PI: Kripa Varanasi, associate professor of mechanical engineering

Developing Intelligent Selective Electrodialysis for 21st century Agriculture
PI: John H. Lienhard V, Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food, and director, Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab

The two renewal projects, which will receive a second year of funding, are:

Development of Low-Cost Water Filter Using Sapwood Xylem
PIs: Rohit Karnik, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Amy Smith, senior lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering and co-director, D-Lab 

Detection of Pathogens Using Dynamically Reconfigurable Liquid Colloid Particles
PIs: Timothy Swager, John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry; Alexander M. Klibanov, Novartis Professor, Chemistry and Bioengineering