Faculty honorees pose in rows

Bose Grants for 2017 reward bold and unconventional research visions 

Categories: Awards, Faculty, MIT News

Six potentially paradigm-shifting research projects will make strides with funding from Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grants.

Since 2014, the Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grant has supported MIT faculty with innovative and potentially paradigm-shifting research ideas, and this year is no exception: With Bose funding, six research teams composed of nine MIT faculty members will pursue projects ranging from nanoengineering a light-emitting plant to developing solid-state atmospheric propulsion technology for aircraft.

Steven Barrett, John Hart, Dina Katabi, Timothy Swager, Michael Strano, Sheila Kennedy, Evelyn Wang, Justin Solomon, and Or Hen were recognized at a reception on Monday, Nov. 20, hosted by MIT President L. Rafael Reif and attended by past awardees. To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Bose Grants, MIT also held a colloquium that included a panel discussion about the importance of philanthropic support for basic science research.

The grant program is named for the late Amar Bose ’51, SM ’52, ScD ’56, a longtime MIT faculty member and the founder of the Bose Corporation. This year’s reception also honored his son, Vanu Bose ’87, SM ’94, PhD ’99, who passed away last month. In his opening remarks, President Reif called Vanu the “heart and soul of the Bose program.” “For now, the best way to honor our friend is to appreciate together the wonderful gift that is the Bose research fellowship,” he said.

Vanu’s wife, Judith, spoke to the newest class of fellows about his boundless enthusiasm for the Bose Grants: “Vanu loved this moment. He loved it for the way that it so beautifully and perfectly celebrated the intellectual curiosity of his father, and of Bose Corporation. And he loved it because it was the moment he got to celebrate all of you.”

The grants support unconventional, ahead-of-the-curve, and often interdisciplinary research endeavors that are unlikely to be funded through traditional avenues, yet have the potential to lead to big breakthroughs. Bose Fellows, chosen this year from a pool of more than 100 applicants, receive up to $500,000 over three years of research.

“That is the promise of the Bose Fellowship, to help bold new ideas become realities, and I’m deeply grateful to the Bose family for making all of it possible,” Reif concluded.

Reinventing propulsion for aircraft

Is it possible to develop a propulsion system for drones and airplanes that involves no moving parts? That is the question that Steven Barrett will explore with his Bose Grant as he works on developing solid-state atmospheric propulsion technology.

“If you think about the history of aviation at a sort of fundamental level, the way in which aircraft are being propelled, the source of thrust, hasn’t changed for over 100 years. It still needs a propeller or a turbine,” he explains.

Barrett’s research will employ a principle that involves ionizing air and accelerating the ionized air in an electrostatic field. As the accelerated ions collide with air molecules, they transfer momentum, creating a propulsive force.

“We have experiments that characterize the physics, efficiency, and effectiveness of creating this sort of propulsive force, and we’ve created simple prototypes as well,” Barrett says. “The next stage will be to try and make propulsion systems that are solid state that have the potential to be practically useful.”

For example, Barrett would like to integrate a solid-state propulsion system into the skin of an aircraft, eliminating the need for external engines or propellers. “The aircraft would pull itself through the air by ionizing air over its surface and then accelerating that air electrostatically,” Barrett explains.

Barrett is excited to use his Bose Grant to see how far forward he can push solid-state propulsion technology. “I think this project fits into the spirit of Bose, which is to do things that are clearly unconventional, high risk, and where you don’t really know if it’s going to work or not, but you think it’s worth taking a risk,” he says.

Building a more informative barcode

John Hart, Dina Katabi, and Tim Swager are developing a high-tech version of the barcodes used to identify everyday retail products. Their technology will combine a radio-frequency antenna with sensors to store and communicate detailed information about a product.

“Basically, you want to have a way of encoding what the product is, where was it born, when was it born, and what’s its current state,” Swager explains. “And you’d like to have all of that [built] into something that’s going to cost a penny or less.”

The researchers are working on building a radio-frequency antenna embedded with chemical sensors that change their electrical properties in response to chemical stimuli such as carbon dioxide or microbial activity. To keep costs down while scaling up, they will use fast, high- precision printing techniques.

“The goal is to come up with next generation types of resonant, radio-frequency circuits that are coupled into our chemistry, that then can be printed with great precision at high rates for all sorts of packaging applications,” Swager says.

The team hopes their next-generation barcode will help retailers, consumers, and distributors better understand product quality, and while they aren’t sure what the exact outcome will be, the researchers are confident that their cross-disciplinary efforts will produce something useful.

“This was a refreshingly interesting intersection of our areas of expertise, and it’s a way to push the boundaries of each of our own research areas as the collective product,” Hart says, adding that Bose funding provides a unique chance for exploration. “The Bose Grant was an opportunity to ask the most open-ended question that we could, and to dream big,” he says.

Seeking light from an unexpected source

Engineer Michael Strano and architect Sheila Kennedy are combining their expertise to develop the ultimate “green” energy technology: They are using nanotechnology to build plants that can provide lighting for buildings and cities.

“Plants are already well adapted for the outdoor environment. They self-repair, they already exist in the places where we would like lamps to function, they live and persist through weather events, they access their own water, and they do all of this autonomously. They’re not on a power grid and produce and store their own fuel,” Strano explains. “In my laboratory, we’ve been asking the question of whether living plants could be the starting point of advanced technology.”

The team is developing a technique that uses four nanoparticles — tiny particles the size of the natural building blocks of a plant — to intercept a chemical pathway the plant uses to make adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, and divert some of this fuel to make the plant luminesce. “These plants are not going to be searchlights or floodlights, but we’ve calculated that they can have a level of brightness and duration that will serve many important applications,” Strano says.

“Really what we’re talking about is a new form of living illumination infrastructure, which could involve many different species of wild-growing plants: single plants, plants aggregated, plants delivered and integrated into the built environment in new ways that are entirely different from the electrical grid paradigm,” Kennedy adds.

Realizing that it would be difficult to secure traditional funding for a project that combines nanotechnology, plant biology, architecture and urban design in such an unprecedented way, Strano and Kennedy looked to Bose. “The Bose is a unique and rare opportunity that MIT has for impactful thinking and the development of new ideas that are both completely logical and mind-blowing at the same time,” Kennedy says.

Designing wires to transport heat

With her Bose research grant, Evelyn Wang will attempt to design thermal wires that can efficiently transport heat long distances.

“We daily use electrical wires everywhere, we transfer electricity through the grid using these various cables around cities, and certainly that becomes a very powerful way for us to think about how we distribute electricity,” Wang explains. “However, it is very difficult to transfer thermal energy around the same types of distances, say on the order of hundreds of meters to kilometers.”

Wang is proposing a system that looks like an electrical wire, but takes advantage of the latent heat in liquid to vapor phase change. The wire will have an evaporator at one end that uses heat to vaporize liquid inside a pipe. The vapor will then travel to the other end of the wire, where a condenser will turn it back into a liquid, releasing heat in the process.

Wang is designing a new kind of evaporator that relies on surface tension forces, and she is building a condenser that uses mesh structures to facilitate the condensation process.

“It’s kind of like a closed-loop system that looks almost like a solid material,” says Wang, “but there’s actually something passive that’s working inside that allows us to be able to facilitate the effective thermal conductivity that you need to be able to now transfer across these length scales that we want.”

A Bose Grant has given Wang the flexibility to pursue what she calls “a little bit of a blue-sky project [that is] really highly exploratory.” “In some ways, the philosophy of what we want to do is quite different. It’s something that I don’t think people will believe until they see that it actually works.”

A better way of drawing voting districts

Justin Solomon is using a computer science approach to tackle gerrymandering, a centuries-old political issue that could easily affect the redrawing of voting districts after the 2020 census.

“There are a lot of cases where people engineer the vote that they receive by drawing the lines in a particular way. And it’s a really critical issue for our democracy,” Solomon says. “This is one of the great problems at the intersection of mathematics, computation, and society.”

With funding from Bose, Solomon and his team, along with collaborators from the joint Tufts-MIT Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, plan to develop computational tools that will help state lawmakers draw fair districts and help courts objectively assess whether existing districts have been drawn equitably.

One promising approach involves developing a computer program that can generate millions of different political redistricting plans for a given district. Lawmakers could then compare a newly drawn district to the computer-generated versions.

“If it turns out that among the millions and millions of plans that you generated, few if any share fairness properties with the plan drawn by a legislature, then you have a pretty strong argument that something went wrong,” Solomon says.

The team will also use their funding to turn what is currently a volunteer-based research effort into an academic discipline with full-time researchers.

Solomon is especially grateful for his Bose Grant because it is allowing his team to pursue research that could not be funded through traditional avenues. “I think especially in the mathematical and computational community, people are averse to funding what they perceive as politically risky, which is really a shame,” Solomon says. “I view this as a problem with our democracy regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on.”

A new approach to particle physics experiments

Or Hen is proposing a bold new approach to particle physics experiments: He will replace traditional long-term experiments involving thousands of researchers and large-scale accelerators with a simple tabletop beta-decay experiment called OLIVIA that can be repeated over and over again in the lab.

“Particle physics is one of the most fundamental aspects of science, where we try to understand what are the building blocks of the universe: the fundamental particles that we’re all built of and their interactions,” Hen explains. “And now we’re at a point where we know that there’s new physics, in the sense that there are features of the universe that we can’t explain using the current particles and interactions that we know of, but so far we did not find any new ones in accelerators.”

Hen’s OLIVIA approach, which he calls “small and broad” involves analyzing nuclear beta decay of a radioactive isotope called lithium-8. To capture what happens during the beta decay process, he will use a new type of beta detector that is essentially a vessel full of gas. He will pump in gas containing lithium-8 nuclei, let it decay, and measure the resulting ionization, which is indicative of the decay process.

“The advantage of doing low-energy experiments is that I can actually do particle physics experiments in my lab at MIT, literally on a tabletop. This means looking for new physics in an indirect way, which also makes the search very broad,” Hen says. “By measuring the full kinematical distribution of the nuclear decay products, it’s been shown that we can get great sensitivity to new physics.”

Hen’s innovative approach to particle physics experiments captures the essence of the Bose Grants. “Bose is an amazing opportunity that really allows me to add a new direction to my research,” Hen says. “Bose basically gives you the freedom to go out on a limb.”