Seven projects to transform future water and food security

The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has announced its third round of seed grant funding.

J‑WAFS, launched in 2014, is MIT’s institute-wide initiative to promote, coordinate, and lead research related to water and food that will have a measurable and international impact as humankind adapts to a rapidly expanding population on a changing planet.

This year, seven new projects will be funded, led by 10 faculty principal investigators across seven MIT departments.  The winning projects include fertilizer technologies, technologies for water supply, and policy-oriented research addressing the uptake of irrigation technologies in Africa.

An ever-increasing number of faculty from across the Institute and beyond are deeply invested in addressing critical global challenges in water and food security, and this is reflected in this year’s batch of successful proposals.  The third J-WAFS call for seed research proposals attracted 38 principal investigators, nearly two-thirds of whom had not submitted proposals to J-WAFS before.

2017 J-WAFS Seed Grant recipients and their projects:

Richer soils from sunlight, air & water

Karthish Manthiram aims to develop a solar-powered device that can convert nitrogen from air, water and sunlight into ammonia – the main constituent of fertilizers – that can be added to soil to promote plant growth and avoid costly fossil fuel based production.
Project Name: Electrochemical Nitrogen Fixation for Distributed Fertilizer Production – Karthish Manthiram, Warren K. Lewis Career Development Prof. Dept. of Chemical Engineering

Making food from algae a commercial scale reality

Mathias aims to create a new class of multifunctional optical fibers that could transform large-scale industrial algae production, making microalgae-produced protein and fuel an economically viable, sustainable, and energy-efficient option in the future.

Project Name: Multifunctional Light-Diffusing Fibers for Simultaneous Light Management and Fluid Transport in Microalgae Bioreactors – Mathias Kolle, assistant Prof. Dept. of Mechanical Engineering.

Harvesting water from the air

Mircea and Evelyn are aiming to develop a new technology that can be used to harvest water in even the most arid regions of the globe with a passive solar device that can extract clean, fresh water from the air at any range of humidity.

Project Name: Distributed Water Harvesting from Air in Water-Stressed and Remote Areas using Metal-Organic Frameworks – Mircea Dinca, Assoc. Prof. Dept. of Chemistry; & Evelyn Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Assoc. Prof. Dept. of Mechanical Engineering

Cheaper fertilizer to boost Southern Hemisphere agriculture

Supplies of potassium chloride (KCI) can be expensive and scarce in the southern hemisphere.  Antoine is working to develop a new potassium fertilizer derived by hydrothermal processing of potassium feldspar to address this issue.

Project Name: Affordable Potassium Fertilizer from K Feldspar for Africa – Antoine Allanore, assistant Prof. Dept. of Materials Science & Engineering

Affordable irrigation for farmers in drought risk areas

Irrigation technologies can help farmers mitigate against a lack of adequate rainfall.  Stephen and Bishwapriya aim to identify the supply chain designs that achieve availability and affordability of these technologies.

Project Name: Characterizing Extension Policy and Private Irrigation Supply Chain Linkages: Lessons from Senegal – Stephen Graves, Abraham J. Siegel Prof. of Management Science, Sloan School of Management; & Bishwapriya Sanyal, Prof. Dept. of Urban Studies & Planning

Bio-engineering food crop plants that need less fertilizer

Building on the success of his previously-funded project, Christopher will look at new designs to enable food crop plants like cereals to fix their own nitrogen from the soil.

Project Name: Evaluation of Fully Synthetic Nitrogen Fixation Pathways, Designed for Plant Mitochondria and Plastids – Christopher Voigt, Prof. Dept. of Biological Engineering

Making desalinated water production more efficient

Xuanhe and John, aim to develop a new, low energy and chemical-free cleaning strategy to efficiently prevent fouling of reverse osmosis membranes often used in desalination.

Project Name: High-efficiency Chemical-Free Backwash Strategy for Reverse Osmosis Membrane Antifouling – Xuanhe Zhao, Noyce Career Development Prof. Dept. of Mechanical Engineering; & John H. Lienhard V, Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food, Dept. of Mechanical Engineering and J-WAFS

In this and subsequent issue of ‘Opening doors’ we’ll be speaking directly to some of these professors about their work and passion to solve mankind’s most pressing problems.

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