Technology: Preconstruction intelligence for architects and manufacturers
People: Founded by Dries Carmeliet, graduate student in the MIT Department of Architecture
Buildings are responsible for almost 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, including emissions generated by building operations and those produced by the creation of construction materials. Acelab, cofounded by architect and MIT graduate student Dries Carmeliet, recipient of the MIT NuVu Prize in 2020, is helping to tackle this through an information marketplace that connects architects and manufacturers.
According to Carmeliet, architects have increasingly become aware of their responsibility in choosing building materials that both perform well and are sustainably created. However, they must often rely on outdated sources of information such as trade shows, brochures, and word-of-mouth to learn about new materials; there is a surprising lack of digital resources, he notes.
Acelab’s online marketplace uses an advanced algorithm to enable architects to explore an extensive product database; it also provides access to third-party testing results to find more sustainable options for their construction projects. “Our mission is to make construction workflows easy and efficient, from design to execution,” says Carmeliet. “We are excited by the potential for architects to have complete ownership over their materials sourcing while contributing to a more sustainable industry.”
Acelab, which is currently building out its operations, was a 2020 finalist in MIT’s $100K Accelerate competition, which helps early-stage teams develop their ideas with the support of industry experts and experienced entrepreneurs, and was a winner of the Harvard Real Estate Venture Competition. The company received funding from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program and is a member of the MITdesignX 2020 cohort, a venture incubator in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.
Cambridge Electronics, Inc.
Technology: Gallium nitride technology for more efficient 5G mobile devices, data centers, and electric cars
People: Founded by Bin Lu SM ’07, PhD ’13 and Tomás Palacios, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
The poor energy efficiency of silicon (Si) semiconductor chips is the most critical barrier to the wide adoption of 5G broadband services. These Si chips not only quickly deplete the life of phone batteries but also output such weak microwave signals that users have to be very close to a 5G cell tower to be able to connect to the 5G network. The performance of the Si power management chips also limits power delivery to data center microprocessors, not only by constraining performance per server but also by wasting about 15% of the electricity. Even electric cars have their range limited by the inefficiencies of today’s Si electronics. Cambridge Electronics is working to overcome these constraints by developing a new generation of semiconductor devices and chips based on a revolutionary gallium nitride (GaN) technology. Using a novel three-dimensional structure, Cambridge Electronics’ GaN chips promise significant performance improvements in both 5G radios and the power electronics in data centers and electric cars.
“Our goal is to accelerate the deployment of 5G millimeter-wave broadband and to make data centers and electric cars much more efficient,” Palacios says. “The products currently being developed by Cambridge Electronics will make the promises of 5G communications a reality while enabling more sustainable and affordable cloud computing and mobility.”
Cambridge Electronics plans to release the first generation of its 5G products in 2022. It was recently awarded the Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential program by the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy to mass produce its chips. “Our plan is to leverage large-scale Si chip manufacturing and take advantage of Moore’s law to produce the most advanced GaN chips,” Lu says. “It’s a game-changing step that redefines GaN electronics and is critical to realizing our mission.”
Commonwealth Fusion Systems
Technology: The world’s first net-energy-producing fusion machine
People: Dan Brunner PhD ’13, chief technology officer; Brandon Sorbom PhD ’17, chief science officer; Robert Mumgaard SM ’15, PhD ’15, CEO
Safe, limitless, and commercially available carbon-free energy is the mission of Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), which is collaborating with MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) to build SPARC, the world’s first fusion device that produces plasmas that generate more energy than they consume.
The SPARC project was conceived by researchers including Brunner, Mumgaard, and Sorbom as well as Zach Hartwig PhD ’14, assistant professor in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering; Dennis Whyte, PSFC director and the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering; and Martin Greenwald ’72, senior research scientist and deputy director of PSFC. It involves a broad MIT team spanning disciplines ranging from engineering to physics and from architecture to economics. SPARC is being designed using well-established plasma physics as well as cutting-edge tools that include advanced simulations, data analysis, and science from existing machines. The key technology for SPARC is new, high-temperature superconducting magnets that enable tokamaks (devices used to contain plasmas) to be built much smaller and at lower cost than ever before. CFS has received support in its mission from MIT’s venture firm The Engine.
“As a mission-driven company, CFS is working to get clean fusion energy on the grid as fast as possible to combat climate change. SPARC is an important and historic milestone in our mission as it will demonstrate for the first time in history that fusion can work as a power source,” says Sorbom. “Our next big milestone is happening this spring when we will demonstrate our key magnet technology. If these magnets work, we know SPARC and our approach to commercial fusion will work.”
The company recently announced plans for a 47-acre research and manufacturing campus in Devens, Massachusetts.
Technology: System that captures and recycles vaporized water from thermoelectric power plants
People: Founded by Maher Damak SM ’15, PhD ’18; Karim Khalil SM ’14, PhD ’18; and Kripa Varanasi SM ’02, PhD ’04, professor of mechanical engineering
Worldwide, roughly three trillion gallons of fresh water are consumed every year to serve the needs of power plants. A typical 600 megawatt combined cycle plant consumes about 1 billion gallons a year—which is about as much water as 100,000 people consume in a year. Much of that power plant water is used for cooling and ends up as vapor. The MIT spinoff Infinite Cooling has developed a patented system that uses electric fields to recover water from the evaporative losses of cooling towers so the H20 can be reused by the power plants, yielding cost savings and potentially a whole new source of drinking water.
Created by Damak, Khalil, and Varanasi with initial support from the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, Infinite Cooling’s technology was successfully piloted at the Central Utility Plant—with funding from the MIT Office of Sustainability—and the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory on MIT’s campus. The startup has won several awards during its short life, including the grand prize at the 2018 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, the diamond prize at the 2018 MassChallenge Awards, and the US Department of Energy’s 2017 National Cleantech University Prize Competition.
“I am excited about the tremendous interest we generated among potential customers in power, chemicals, data centers, and other fields,” says Damak. “A lot of people are interested in water-conservation options, and we are happy to offer a solution to realize massive savings while creating a positive impact on the environment.”
Varanasi adds, “A broader vision is to apply this for desalination. Hence we can turn power plants into water plants, too.”
Infinite Cooling is now based in the cleantech incubator Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts. Multiple additional deployments of its technology are planned around the country in 2021.
Technology: An alternate path to lime making that enables next-generation, low-carbon cements
People: Founded by Leah Ellis, Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, and Yet-Ming Chiang ’80, ScD ’85, the Kyocera Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE)
Cement is the most massively consumed human-made material and the single biggest industrial emitter of CO2: each kilogram of cement made produces 1 kilogram of CO2, and overall, cement production is responsible for 8% of global CO2 emissions. Seventy-five percent of these emissions derive from calcination, thermally decomposing limestone to get reactive lime. Sublime Systems hopes to replace current processes—which rely on high heat produced by burning coal—with an electrochemical process.
The Sublime Systems process, which centers on the use of an electrolyzer, employs renewable electricity to produce the same cement product as traditional methods while eliminating and capturing CO2 from existing cement operations.
Sublime Systems spun out of DMSE in March 2020 and was cofounded by Ellis and Chiang. The company, which is a member of Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts, recently achieved semi-continuous kilogram-per-hour scale and is currently building its team and identifying its first industrial partners.
“Everyone who comes to MIT dreams of developing a new technology that changes the world for the better,” says Ellis. “I am living that dream, which is as exciting as it is scary. I am grateful for the entrepreneurial spirit at MIT that taught me how to think big and brave.”
Technology: Green roofs for urban areas
People: Founded by Eytan Levi MArch ’21, MSRED ’21, Tim Cousin MArch ’23, and Olivier Faber MArch ’23, graduate students in the MIT Department of Architecture and at the MIT Center for Real Estate.
The concentration of buildings, roads, and other human-made structures traps heat in urban areas, creating a heat island effect with consequences for both the environment and human health. Roofscapes works to combat the climate impacts of heat islands by transforming rooftops into urban oases, providing new outdoor spaces in cities while supporting urban farming and biodiversity.
Whereas planting systems have already sprung up on many flat city roofs, Roofscapes plans to greatly expand the space available for such “green roofs” by deploying lightweight wooden structures on pitched roofs. In the company’s first target city, Paris, two-thirds of buildings have a pitched roof, representing more than 2,000 hectares of untapped surfaces. In addition, such urban farming promises to reduce the transportation and packaging needed for foods grown elsewhere, as well as enabling access to new places in cities.
MIT architecture students Levi, Cousin, and Faber launched Roofscapes in 2020 at MITdesignX, a venture incubator focused on the built environment. The company received a 2020 Judge’s Choice Award for “visualizing solutions” from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab at MIT and is a finalist for the 2021 Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize.
In the fall of 2020, Roofscapes was selected by the City of Paris’s Urban Lab to deploy and monitor a pilot project in Paris during 2021 and 2022. Roofscapes was also picked to build a pavilion at the 2021 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism to display its broader vision for urban resilience at the roof level.
“Issues of urban resilience constantly surround us. Roofscapes is a thrilling opportunity for us to unveil the potential of untapped pitched rooftops in climate-change mitigation, while working with brilliant people at MIT and in Europe,” Levi says.
Technology: Enterprise software platform that helps food and consumer goods brands manage excess and distressed inventory in the grocery supply chain
People: Founded by Ricky Ashenfelter MBA ’15 and Emily Malina MBA ’15
Every year, approximately 133 billion pounds of food goes to waste in the United States, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. This not only contributes to food insecurity but also to methane emissions from landfills.
Spoiler Alert, cofounded by Ashenfelter and Malina, is working to address this problem with a business-to-business software platform. Using data about distressed inventory from disparate sources within food manufacturing and grocery distribution operations, Spoiler Alert helps companies digitize their liquidation and donation processes with a national network of discount retailers and nonprofits. Backed by leading food, technology, and supply chain investors, notably Maersk, the company has attracted customers including Campbell Soup Company, Danone North America, and Kraft Heinz.
“Covid-19 has introduced tremendous volatility into the global food supply chain,” Malina says. “It’s more important than ever to focus on resiliency and getting more affordable nutrition to those hit hardest by the pandemic.”
Technology: Hybrid cooling device that absorbs humidity from the air for more efficient refrigeration
People: Founded by Mircea Dincă, the W. M. Keck Professor of Energy, and Sorin Grama SM ’07
Air conditioning will account for as much as a 0.5-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures by the end of the century, according to the World Economic Forum. As air conditioners become more ubiquitous—especially in hot and humid countries, many with emerging economies— global electricity demand for air conditioning is expected to triple by 2050.
Transaera, founded by Dincă and Grama, D-Lab instructor and former entrepreneur-in-residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, developed a cooling solution to tackle this challenge. The system, attached to a traditional air conditioner, uses a novel, highly porous, sponge-like material discovered at MIT that removes water from the air more efficiently than any other known material. The heat generated by the air conditioner’s compressor then dries the “sponge” for the next cycle, providing cooling and dehumidification while using dramatically less energy than today’s room air conditioners.
“I’m excited about the potential impact of this technology,” says Grama. “Global warming is the defining challenge of our times. As our world gets hotter, cooling will become an essential need, not just for comfort but also for health and survival in many parts of the world.”
In 2019, Transaera, which is a member of Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts, was named one of eight finalists in the $1 million Global Cooling Prize, a competition to design a room air conditioner that produces five times less greenhouse gas over the course of its lifetime than a standard unit.
Technology: A new membrane material to make manufacturing more energy efficient
People: Founded by Shreya Dave ’09, SM ’12, PhD ’16; Brent Keller PhD ’16; and Jeffrey Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and head of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium
According to the US Department of Energy, the separation processes used to recover and purify products account for more than 40% of energy demand in the chemical process industries. That’s because many industries use thermal methods of separation. “It’s like boiling off water to get to pasta rather than straining it off,” says Dave. Together with Keller and Grossman, Dave launched Via Separations in 2017 to provide an energy-efficient alternative: a graphene oxide membrane that filters solutions mechanically. “We make that strainer for a lot of applications,” Dave says.
Via Separations has set a goal to eliminate 100 megatons of CO2 emissions by 2050 with its products. “That’s what gets us excited,” says Dave, who credits MIT with helping the company get off the ground. Via Separations received one of its first investments from MIT’s venture firm The Engine and has received advice and support from the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, and the MIT Technology Licensing Office. The company began a pilot this spring at a US paper factory and plans to have a full commercial system in place by early 2022.
Technology: Trenchless boring technology that reduces the cost of installing, rehabilitating, and replacing underground pipeline infrastructure
People: Founded by Daniel Zillante MBA ’19 and Roberto Zillante
To address the growing need for water pipelines across the globe and the problem of chronically underfunded infrastructure, Zilper Trenchless, born at MIT and based in Bogotá, Colombia, created a technology to install underground utilities without the need for a trench. Zilper’s system minimizes surface disruption and enables city and state governments to execute more water projects, save costs, and minimize environmental impact.
The brainchild of Daniel and Roberto Zillante, brothers who grew up in Venezuela in a family of construction workers, Zilper won the Audience Choice award at the 2018 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, first place at the School of Architecture and Planning’s MITdesignX Demo Day in 2019, and first place at the Urban Water Challenge during 2019 World Water Week in Stockholm. The company was also awarded Best New Trenchless Equipment and Best Trenchless Innovator at the 2019 ICTIS Trenchless International Conference organized by the Colombian Institute for Subterranean Infrastructure Technologies and Techniques in Bogotá, Colombia.
More recently, Zilper piloted its technology in projects across Latin America and celebrated a milestone: over half a kilometer of pipelines installed. The company plans to raise funds to launch its commercial operations in the United States by late 2021.
“What excites me the most is the value that we are creating for all of our stakeholders,” says Daniel Zillante. “Employees, governments, citizens, investors, suppliers, and the environment are all benefiting from the innovations we bring to market. That’s enough to keep us going no matter what challenges we might face.”