Green Schools

MIT Turns Campus into Green Lab with Sustainability Incubator Fund

MIT's Office of Sustainability (MITOS) has chosen the recipients for the first round of grants from its Campus Sustainability Incubator Fund. Four multi-departmental projects will share in $200,000 as they use the campus as a lab for sustainable design, management and operations.

Teams seeking funding were required to have members of students, faculty and staff, a methodology for measuring outcomes and a timeline by which those outcomes would change on campus as a result of their project.

"We were looking for projects that take advantage of the interactions unique to MIT while making a measurable impact on how our campus runs day to day — those that foster collaborations between diverse stakeholders, including junior researchers, and bridge between MIT's academic and operational departments," said Julie Newman, MITOS director and convener of the fund's advisory committee, in a prepared statement.

Kripa Varanasi, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is leading a team that won funds to use a water recapture device they developed on the school's Central Utilities Plant (CUP) cooling towers. The team's device uses electrical fields to force steam escaping the cooling towers into the device and then adds it back into the cooling cycle to reduce water loss. The team estimates it can save 15 million gallons of water a year

"Power plants consume a large portion of the water used on campus and around the world," said Varanasi, according to information released by MIT. "Testing our device at the CUP provides us with an invaluable pilot opportunity to scale-up, debug and de-risk the technology before launching the product to the broader power plant industry."

Jeremy Gregory and Randy Kirchain, research scientists at MIT's Concrete Sustainability Hub, are leading a team that will attempt to quantitatively evaluate the environmental and economic impacts of proposed buildings on campus over the course of their life cycles.

"While life cycle assessments are already conducted at MIT to calculate buildings' environmental impacts during the design phase, Gregory's research team has developed a new method that can be implemented earlier in building design and planning stages than current analyses," according to a news release. "It can be used to quantify both embodied impacts (building materials and construction) and operational impacts (energy consumption), mitigating the environmental and economic impacts of new construction projects on campus."

Lisa Anderson, a research scientist in the Department of Chemical Engineering, will evaluate the net environmental impact of MIT's lab glove recycling program with an eye toward expanding it.

"Every day when I walk into the lab, I ask myself: How do I balance research with sustainability?" Anderson said in a prepared statement. "I think about all the resources that go into making scientific discoveries and pushing new technologies forward. Over half of a research grant can go towards overhead, such as paying for heating and cooling, that many researchers take for granted. I'm trying to bring sustainable practices into the research lab by repurposing a common consumable, uncontaminated lab gloves."

Danielle Dahan, a graduate research assistant at the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, and her team will examine the effectiveness of the fault detection and diagnostic (FDD) software MIT uses to prevent HVAC energy waste.

"For several years, MIT's FDD system has been collecting data on over 70 campus buildings, alerting staff when an energy-wasting fault is detected," according to information released by MIT. "Dahan will apply machine learning and data analysis techniques to this data in order to understand the actual energy savings associated with correcting different types of system faults. The project will aid MIT Facilities in determining which faults to prioritize and help inform a cost-benefit analysis of installing FDD systems in more campus buildings."

"Traditional laboratories are highly controlled environments. The living laboratory, however, thrives on open systems, uncertainties and diversity, but is still a place for robust science with detailed data collection and measurable outcomes," said Paul Wolff, the living lab project manager at MITOS, in a prepared statement. "The campus becomes a rich environment for learning and discovery under this framework, and we hope to enable more projects to take advantage of this."

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at jbolkan@gmail.com.

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