Guest Post by Aaron Johnson from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

Because bikers are tougher than meteorologists. Just kidding! Read on…

Phoro: Brent Moore

Photo: Brent Moore

Turn on the news when a hurricane makes landfall and there’s a good chance you’ll see a brave (or foolish) meteorologist reporting live from the scene of the storm. He or she is probably yelling into the microphone about how the wind’s so strong that he or she has to hold onto a tree, traffic sign, or telephone pole to keep from blowing away. But attention-seeking meteorologists are not the only people who have to hang on during very high winds—motorcyclists are, too, every day. They’re also fully exposed, but they can zoom along at very high speeds and not fly off the back of their motorcycles? Why not?

It all comes down to a force called drag, says Richard Perdichizzi, a technical instructor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics who operates the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel.“Drag is the force a body produces as the air moves around it,” he explains. The amount of force is a function of two factors—the body’s cross-sectional area, and its shape. The cross-sectional area is simply the size of the object facing the wind. According to Perdichizzi, “the average person presents approximately eight square feet of blockage.” But that’s only if you’re standing perfectly upright. If you stand sideways and suck in your stomach, or if you roll up into a ball, your cross-sectional area decreases and you’ll experience less drag force. This is essentially what a lot of motorcyclists do when they’re zipping down the highway. They put their heads and shoulders down and pull their knees up, minimizing their cross-sectional area.

Motorcyclists need to be able to see and steer their bikes, so there’s a limit to how small they can make their cross-sectional areas. This is where the shape of the motorcycle becomes important. The fairing—the contoured piece of metal or plastic covering the front of the motorcycle—and the windshield are specially designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. They smoothly deflect the air instead of stopping it or creating turbulence like a flat, boxy surface would. Stopped and turbulent air lead to more drag. Read more

Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.


Guest blogger: Zach Church, MIT Sloan

The NHL last month named energy company Constellation the official preferred energy provider of the league, a deal that will find Constellation providing energy efficiency analysis for the league and offsetting the carbon footprint of its 2014-2015 season.

The 2014 NHL Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich. Photo: Dave Sanford, Getty Images

The 2014 NHL Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich. Photo: Dave Sanford, Getty Images

The Dec. 18 announcement was a big one for the hockey league, which since 2010 has been touting its NHL Green initiative and which in July released a massive sustainability report chronicling the environmental impact of its games, its arenas, its corporate partners, and even the travel of its fans.

The report is the work of Omar Mitchell MBA ’12, who joined the NHL in 2012 as director of sustainability. Add in accompanying projects like a push to introduce energy- and heat-saving LED lighting in hockey arenas, and Mitchell has had a busy three years.

The sustainability report—a “tome,” Mitchell only half-jokes—was never a given. Though all of North America’s major sports leagues have some type of sustainability initiative, none has taken on such a hefty task, especially one not required of them. By voluntarily reporting its carbon footprint, the NHL is putting a stake in the ground and publically challenging itself to improve, Mitchell said.

For a sport whose greatest players learned the game on frozen ponds, there is an existential element to the threat of climate change. The report notes that NHL fans are more likely to recycle, support environmental causes, and buy eco-friendly products than the average U.S. adult….

Producing such an extensive report and using it to identify and drive sustainability initiatives required significant buy-in and partnership not only at the league offices in New York City, but among its 30 teams. Mitchell gained that support with the help of only one full-time staffer and an intern. To develop the report, he worked with the National Resources Defense Council, a climate change advocacy group and NHL Green’s primary advisor….

“We think of the report as ‘This is where we are,’” Mitchell said. “And then, once we know where we are, both quantitatively and qualitatively, where do we want to go?”

Jason Jay, a senior lecturer and the director of the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, said corporate sustainability leaders like Mitchell must demonstrate the value of sustainability work to the business at large.

“The biggest challenge is one of translation of sustainability into the language, values, and goals of the people you need to engage,” Jay said. “People don’t understand terms like C02e or disability-adjusted life years, and they certainly haven’t been incentivized to improve them.”

Read the complete story for details.


Karen Kho MCP '95

Karen Kho MCP ’95

Over the past decade, Karen Kho MCP ’95 has helped make tens of thousands of homes in the San Francisco Bay Area more energy- and resource-efficient. And her green building programs and strategies are spreading across California.

In 2003, after trying policy-oriented work at federal agencies, Kho joined StopWaste, a public agency that develops and manages resource conservation programs for Alameda County and its 14 municipalities. She’s now a senior program manager, a role that suits her hands-on orientation and strategic goals.

“We’re a public agency, but we incubate projects like a nonprofit foundation,” explains Kho, who holds a bachelor’s degree in development studies from the University of California, Berkeley, in addition to her Institute master’s in city planning. “We look for strategic opportunities and develop tools and resources that can move stakeholders.”

Those stakeholders include architects, developers, contractors, city building officials, landlords, real estate agents, and residents—all of whom have different agendas. The fragmented economics of property development, ownership, and management mean that matters like energy efficiency and water usage are often low priorities. “Nobody has ownership of the big considerations,” she says.

Hoping to address this situation, Kho was one of the moving forces behind StopWaste’s 2005 launch of the GreenPoint Rated home certification system, which has now assessed more than 40,000 homes statewide for energy and resource conservation, indoor air quality, and other factors, much as LEED certification does for commercial projects. It’s now administered by a dedicated nonprofit, and a recent study found that green-labeled homes in California command a 6 percent price premium, which has boosted acceptance among skeptical developers and agents.

“I was proud of that, not just because of the study results, but because of having helped develop a credible and accessible standard for green homes,” says Kho, adding that the proliferation of local ordinances helped prompt California to adopt the nation’s first statewide green building code in 2010.

Last July, her team worked with property owners, managers, and contractors to launch a rebate program for resource-conserving upgrades to multifamily homes. “Within six months we were over-enrolled, and now over 32,000 units have been or will be upgraded,” she says.

Kho, husband Robert Schorlemmer, and their two children often visit family in Spain and Germany. She sings mezzo-soprano in small choral and a cappella groups but says her real passion is for “shaping the built environment.” She adds, “That’s what led me into green building.”


Guest Post by Sarah Jensen from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

Because magnets do not contain energy—but they can help control it…

Photo: Bob Mical

Photo: Bob Mical

In 1841, German physician and physicist Julius von Mayer coined what was to become known as a first law of thermodynamics: “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed,” he wrote. It can, however, be converted from one kind to another—by solar panels that turn sunlight to electricity, or in the transformation of natural gas molecules to the heat that cooks our dinner and heats our homes.

“Magnetism is a force, but it has no energy of its own,” says David Cohen-Tanugi SM ’12. Still, he adds, “magnetism is extremely useful for converting energy from one form to another. About 99 percent of the power generated from fossil fuels, nuclear and hydroelectric energy, and wind comes from systems that use magnetism in the conversion process.”

Every energy generation technology—with the exception of photovoltaics—relies on spinning turbines that put electrons in motion and push them through circuits and generators. “As these charged particles move past magnets inside the turbines, they create a field around them that affects other charged particles,” says Cohen-Tanugi. “This is the magnetic force that converts the energy of wind and coal and nuclear fuel to the electricity that’s sent out into the power grid.” Read more

Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.


Grove Labs Towers

Grove Lab hopes its towers with become home centerpieces.

Every Thursday, the team at Grove Labs eats the fruits of their labor. They call it a Grove-grown lunch.

“From some of our prototypes, we’ve harvested a huge bowl of salad for our weekly team meetings,” said co-founder and CEO Gabe Blanchet ’13 of his company’s indoor aquaponic gardens, which grow fruits and vegetables and raise fish.

He and co-founder Jamie Byron ’13 launched Grove Labs over a year ago, but the idea really started  when they roomed together in the MIT chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity. Byron built an aquaponics prototype in their room, and the pair started harvesting lettuce, peas, and kale.

“I think we inspired people even with that janckety first fraternity room prototype that growing your own food and maintaining your own ecosystem where you live is really cool,” said Blanchet.

Grove has transformed that prototype into bookshelf-like wooden towers designed to be home centerpieces. The shelves house an aquarium and gardens capable of growing everything from salad greens to tomatoes at a rate 20-40 percent faster than conventional farming and using 80-90 percent less water.

A piping system allows water to flow from the aquarium to clay pebble grow beds. The beds are home to healthy bacteria that convert ammonia in the fish waste into nitrate, a natural plant fertilizer. As the plant roots absorb these nutrients, they clean the water that flows back to the fish tank. LED lights give plants the light they need and mimic the patterns of the sun—rosy in the morning, blue at noon, and golden at dusk.

Grove mock up

Mock up of how a Grove will look in the home.

The Grove staff, nearly half of whom are recent MIT graduates, are also launching a smart phone app to monitor temperature, water level, power usage, and the livelihood of a customers’ particular plants. Blanchet jokes the app “gives you a green thumb even if your thumb is black.” He adds, “we’re not afraid of using technology to bring people back to their roots.”

Blanchet and Byron’s own roots have been nourished by an entrepreneurial environment. Their fraternity has been home to a number of successful entrepreneurs—Genentech founder Robert Swanson ’69, SM ’70 and 170 Systems co-founder and Grove mentor Karl Buttner ’87 both frequented Sigma Chi. Three other companies have been started by other members of their 2013 class.

“When you have that culture you are bound to have unconstrained thinking about the possibilities,” recalled Blanchet. The pair also graduated from MIT’s Global Founders Skills Accelerator program, learning how to raise money, communicate, and recruit.

What’s next? “We’re taking natural ecosystems and shrinking them…eventually for space travel,” says Blanchet. But in the short term, you can grow your vegetables at home on earth.

Visit the GroveLabs site to learn more about the Boston Early Adopter Program they recently launched. 


How much money can your roof generate? The price tag for solar panels is dropping, but is installing your own solar panel worth the investment?

Mapdwell, founded by J. Alstan Jakubiec PhD ’14, MIT Associate Professor Cristoph Reinhart, and Eduardo Berlin, generates a map of your home’s rooftop with the personalized upfront costs, monthly savings, and reduced carbon footprint you can anticipate from a solar installation.

Mapdwell map of MIT campus.

A rooftop view of MIT campus with solar panels.

“One of the important things is it’s very specific to your rooftop,” said Jakubiec, the company’s CTO about the company’s Solar System software, which recently won a 2014 Fast Company Innovation by Design award in data visualization.

Using Mapdwell’s solar access slider, you can see how costs and benefits adjust based on the size of your solar panel. The software also suggests the best locations on your roof for a solar panel.

For example, if 10 percent of MIT’s original campus was covered in solar panels, Mapdwell reports that MIT would pay off the upfront panel costs of $3.1 million in eight years and receive $30,363 in monthly revenue.

The idea is based on CEO Eduardo Berlin’s vision of using city data to influence sustainability. While at MIT, the founders developed back-end calculations for Mapdwell and their research included three months of evaluating existing solar panels on top of MIT’s Student Center.

The City of Cambridge partnered with them, sharing city data and offering a software sandbox to test mapping calculations. Since launch, four additional US cities and one Chilean city have joined. And future sustainable maps are in the works.

Mapdwell is not the first solar mapping system on the market, but it rolls out some unique features.

The company uses a grid of rooftop sensors that channel data to its ray tracing models. Such models assess what the sun’s rays are doing at specific locations at any point in time during the day and year.

The model identifies where there is lower solar potential in shaded areas produced by trees and other buildings. It also accounts for different types of light and the reflections from neighboring buildings.

According to Alstan, Mapdwell’s mapping is truly three-dimensional. “Other geographic information system models don’t actually produce three dimensionality. They just produce two-dimensional graphics with heights represented as a third variable.”

Jakubiec thinks a personalized map of your own roof and your neighborhood could demystify solar adoption and make it more accessible. “It gets into the mindset of people. You can say look up, look at your city, not just at your rooftop but your neighbors,” he said.

Things may be looking up.


How can MIT make a significant positive contribution to address climate change?

Former Secretary of State George Shultz PhD ’49 is a vocal proponent of action to combat climate change.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz PhD ’49 is a vocal proponent of action to combat climate change.

That’s the kind of chewy, global question MIT people like—and it is being asked by the newly formed Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation in an initiative announced this week. The answers are to come from the MIT campus community and alumni worldwide.

Right away, you can add your ideas to the conversation about what can be done in the areas of research, education, campus operations, finance, and policy. Alumni can log in through their Infinite Connection accounts to read comments already in the Idea Bank. Later in November, you can take part in a Climate Change Survey and the results will help determine a series of public forums in the spring.

Meanwhile, you can keep up with climate news:

Committee chair Roman Stocker, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, says the Institute community is a great source for ideas about new educational initiatives, both at MIT and edX, as well as new opportunities for research and improvements to campus infrastructure and operations.

“The global nature of this problem and the amount of debate and polarization that surround it are daunting, but the premise of the committee is that the complexity of the problem is uniquely suited for MIT, given our strong problem-solving ethos, and that a leading technical institution can have unique roles to play in responding to the climate crisis,” he said in an MIT News office interview.


Pulling off Massachusetts Avenue and into the Edgerton Center’s Fabrication Space in Building N51, Valkyrie turns a lot of heads.

Valkyrie—MIT’s Solar Eclectic Vehicle Team’s (SEVT) current vehicle—is often road tested around MIT’s campus to the delight of onlookers.

Valkyrie. Photo: Michelle Chao '17

Valkyrie. Photo: Michelle Chao ’17

“We see people kind of pace the car and taking videos,” explains Rose Abramson ‘15, SEVT’s Electrical Lead.

SEVT, which was founded in 1985,  has long been supported by the Edgerton Center which provides the team with seed money, safety and administrative oversight,  workspace, equipment, and mentorship.

Valkyrie is the 12th road-ready vehicle to be designed and built by SEVT.  The current model boasts an all-composite chassis, 21 percent efficient solar cells (the ratio of the electrical output of a solar cell to the energy in the form of sunlight), and a top speed of nearly 65 miles per hour. What often turns heads is Valkyrie’s design—it has a flat top covered in solar panels and rides on three wheels—looking more rocket than car.

Vehicles created by SEVT cruise the busy streets of Cambridge to prep for their ultimate test—solar car races. SEVT recently raced Valkyrie at the American Solar Challenge in Austin, TX.

The event featured 20 college teams and several rounds of track races culminating in an open road trek from Austin to Minnesota. Valkyrie advanced through the first round of track races, but was stopped short of the open road race.

“We had a couple parts that had problems at the track and we were trying to debug it, but we just ran out of time. It was disappointing to us because we have been driving around Boston,” say Abramson.

Fortunately this isn’t the only chance SEVT gets to showcase their skills. The team is looking to the World Solar Challenge 2015 in Australia next—though Valkyrie won’t be joining them.

“Every five years or so the World Solar Challenge adds a regulation to make the cars less experimental and more like a real car,” Abramson explains.

The newest regulation change? No more three wheel vehicles.

That means the SEVT team will soon be starting over, but not entirely from scratch.

“We are planning on reusing a substantial portion of the parts from Valkyrie to save on the enormous manufacturing costs,” Abramson explains.

SEVT poses with Valkyrie. Photo: Michelle Chao '17

SEVT poses with Valkyrie. Photo: Michelle Chao ’17

The team of about 20 students makes almost every vehicle part in-house—from building mechanical systems to soldering electrical boards. “It gives you a lot of opportunity to design different things,” says Abramson.

While the team has big plans for their newest car, one major component still needs to be selected: the name. The team is looking for a snappy name to follow up Eleanor, Chopper del Sol, and Valkyrie. Abramson says the team is open to suggestions.



Guest Post by Amy Biemiller from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

You don’t. Call a licensed electrician…

Photo: Steve Arnold

Photo: Steve Arnold

 Ben Franklin’s kite-and-key experiment sparked an interest in understanding lightning—and protecting people and buildings from its shocking consequences. Lighting is nature’s way of a correcting an imbalance. Certain weather conditions lead to the buildup of negative charge in the atmosphere and a positive charge on the ground. As those charges grow, they begin to look for a pathway toward each other. When electricity travels that path—in extremely large doses—it’s lightning. Lighting always travels the shortest path it can find, which is why buildings, trees, and other tall objects are its usual contact points. That’s also why we try to protect these things with lightning rods.

Lightning rods provide the atmosphere’s negative charge with a low-resistance path to the positive ions in the ground, says Karl K. Berggren, an associate professor of electrical engineering in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. By directing the electricity safely away from the building, tree, or tower they’re attached to, a lightning rod mitigates the damage likely to happen when millions of volts of electricity pass between the earth and the atmosphere.

The shape, material, and design of a lighting rod matters, Berggren explains. “In the world of lightning rod technology, sharp is better,” he says. Those negatively charged ions want the smoothest possible path to positive ions, so commercial lightning protection technology features pointy rods or radiating metal fingers. As the electrical current begins to flow through the lightning rod, it must be conducted away from the structure on which the rod is installed, usually through a cable terminating in a metal rod sunk into the ground to safely dissipate the electrical charge. “You want a thick, highly conductive metal, like copper, to carry the current so it doesn’t arc to other materials and cause an explosion or fire,” Berggren explains.

The stakes in getting any of these features even slightly wrong are too high for the average homeowner to think about doing this on his or her own, Berggren says. “The concept behind lightning protection is simple, but the requirements for safe installation of a lightning rod are specific and require expertise,” he says. “Work with an electrician. This is a life and death project, not a hobby.”

Thanks to Daniel Rodríguez from Maia, Portugal, for this question. Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.


What if you could join with concerned citizens to collect your own detailed data on radiation, water safety, and oil spills and use that data to help clean up your local environment? At this year’s MIT Center for Civic Media Open Internet conference, several of the Center’s research fellows shared how they are making a better world through data and community activism—and citizen mapping.

SafeCast got its start after the 2011 nuclear plant disaster in Japan.

Sean Bonner began his company, SafeCast, after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011. Worried about the lack of radiation monitoring and the potentially deadly levels of radiation near the plant, Bonner and a group of friends took a bootstrapped approach—duct taping a radiation monitoring Geiger counter to the window of their car and traveling around the country taking geotagged photos with an iPhone.

Their data demonstrated that areas the government evacuated people to were still too high in radiation, ultimately resulting in evacuees being moved to safer areas. SafeCast now houses the largest open set of radiation data, collecting more than 20 million radiation data points in 53 countries.

The Open Water Project, a newly developed project led by MIT Media Lab graduate student Catherine D’Ignazio and a number of academics and hydrologists, equips everyday citizens with affordable and accessible tools to monitor nearby rivers, lakes, ponds, and oceans. The project has developed Riffle, a tool for testing the conductivity, depth, and temperature of water at a fraction of the cost of current water logging tools.

Catherine D'Ignazio discusses how the Riffle can be deployed to test water.

Catherine D’Ignazio discusses how the Riffle can be deployed to test water.

Riffle, which acts like a fever thermometer, can tell if the water is not healthy, but does not perform costly diagnoses of the cause. D’Ignazio envisions people using several Riffles downstream from a factory or farm to test water quality or to assess the health of an entire river network. Development of an open data platform and community education is underway, and the project will launch a pilot at the Mystic River watershed this summer.

Open Water is housed at the Public Lab for Open Technology and Science. The lab’s Research Director Jeff Warren SM ‘10 talked about the lab’s mission to incubate start-ups focused on solving environmental justice and human health challenges through the development of open source tools. Read more about the Public Lab’s participation at the White House Maker Faire.

Other speakers included David Manthos, who highlighted how his company Skytruth allows people to download free satellite images of environmental areas and get geospatial data alerts on the impact of issues like oil spills and fracking.

“People can see what’s happening in the world and have a part in the science of understanding,” said Manthos.

Watch video versions of the Citizen Mapping talks and other panels during the conference.