What’s the science behind a warming climate, and can it be combated? In this All Ears MIT podcast, MIT faculty members discuss the history and science behind Earth’s warming climate, and if anything can be done to mitigate a rising global temperature.

Some public debates on climate change tend be centered on complex numerical models—great for predicting quantitative estimates, not so great for collaborative discussions and brainstorming solutions. During this podcast, listen to four MIT faculty members—supported by historical and scientific data—discuss divergent areas of climate-related research, including coastal flooding, global warming, hurricane activity, and economic policy.

Subscribe to All Ears MIT on iTunes and SoundCloud. Listen to past podcasts with novelists, professors, and entrepreneurs by visiting the Alumni Association’s SoundCloud page.

Associate Professor Dan Cziczo
Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
Cziczo is an atmospheric scientist studying how whose research is analyzing the effects that clouds may have in a increasingly warming climate. His research focuses the effect of atmospheric aerosols on cloud formations, meteoritic debris, and vehicle emissions in the atmosphere.

Kerry Emanuel

Professor Kerry Emanuel ’76, PhD ’78
Dept. of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

Emanuel is a co-founder of the Lorenz Center, MIT’s climate activity think tank. He is the author of What We Know about Climate Change and his research on hurricane activity earned him a place on Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2006.


Professor Christopher Knittel
MIT Sloan School of Management
Knittel co-directs MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research. The first energy chair at MIT, he has studied consumer and company reactions to energy price fluctuations—including rising prices of gasoline—and its implications on effective environmental policies.


Professor Andrew Whittle ScD ’87
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Professor Andrew J. Whittle is a geotechnical engineer who served on the panel reviewing the hurricane protection systems in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s safety review of Boston’s Big Dig tunnel system.


These interviews were culled from the Alumni Association’s Faculty Forum Online series—monthly live webcasts that feature faculty interviews on timely and relevant topics. View the entire archive on the Alumni Association website.

For more information on climate change research, visit  the Climate Change Conversation at MIT website, which is exploring the actions that MIT could take to make a significant positive contribution to confront climate change. MIT alumni can join the Energy, Environment and Sustainability Network, a group of worldwide alumni volunteers who want to share their energy interests with others.


Ben Glass '08, SM '10

Ben Glass ’08, SM ’10

As an aspiring rocket scientist, Ben Glass was thrilled to get a Course 16 undergraduate internship at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s spaceflight company. It was, he says, a fantastic experience at a great organization, but his main lesson was less about technology than about himself.

“I realized I’d be a terrible fit at a big company,” he recalls. That realization, and a longtime interest in clean energy, propelled Glass into his current role as cofounder, CEO, and CTO of Altaeros Energies, a four-year-old startup based in Somerville, Massachusetts, seeking to commercialize airborne wind turbines that can bring steady, economical electricity to remote communities and industrial sites.

Altaeros’s tethered helium-filled balloon, or aerostat, lifts a turbine as high as 600 meters, tapping into high-altitude winds that are more consistent and stronger than ground-level winds.

Video via Altaeros Energy on YouTube

“Remote sites usually depend on diesel generators; the power typically costs 30 to 35 cents per kilowatt-hour, and can go over 50 cents,” compared to an on-grid national average of just under 11 cents, explains Glass. “Our first 30-kilowatt product should be extremely competitive at the most remote sites, and we’ll quickly scale to a 200-kilowatt system that will be the lowest-cost option at almost any site using diesel.” The aerostat can also carry telecom equipment, cameras, and other payloads.

Glass first worked in wind power through MIT’s Energy Club and a senior year turbine array project, and he began mulling the airborne-turbine concept the summer before starting his aero-astro master’s degree program. The idea became a group project in his Sloan School class in energy ventures, where future Altaeros cofounder Adam Rein was a teaching assistant, and their concept went on to win the 2011 ConocoPhillips Energy Prize.

Startup life suits Glass, who juggles engineering, fund-raising, hiring, and dozens of other duties. “Every day is a different job; it’s a blast,” he says. He lives in Somerville and reserves time for cooking, running, and outdoor leisure: “We know Altaeros is a marathon and not a sprint, so we’re pretty good at not burning out.”

Glass draws on his experience on MIT’s Solar Car Team, which allowed participants to “go from conceptualization and design to building, testing, and using what we’d made,” he says. “You learn skills you can’t get in a classroom. I’d encourage everyone to do something like that, and then apply for a job at Altaeros!”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 edition of MIT Technology Review magazine.


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.