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Robotic interiors

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 09:00 PM PST

Imagine living in a cramped studio apartment in a large city — but being able to summon your bed or closet through a mobile app, call forth your desk using voice command, or have everything retract at the push of a button.

MIT Media Lab spinout Ori aims to make that type of robotic living a reality. The Boston-based startup is selling smart robotic furniture that transforms into a bedroom, working or storage area, or large closet — or slides back against the wall — to optimize space in small apartments.

Based on years of Media Lab work, Ori's system is an L-shaped unit installed on a track along a wall, so can slide back and forth. One side features a closet, a small fold-out desk, and several drawers and large cubbies. At the bottom is a pull-out bed. The other side of the unit includes a horizontal surface that can open out to form a table. The vertical surface above that features a large nook where a television can be placed, and additional drawers and cubbies. The third side, opposite the wall, contains still more shelving, and pegs to hang coats and other items.

Users control the unit through a control hub plugged into a wall, or through Ori's mobile app or a smart home system, such as Amazon's Echo.

Essentially, a small studio can at any time become a bedroom, lounge, walk-in closet, or living and working area, says Ori founder and CEO Hasier Larrea SM '15. "We use robotics to … make small spaces act like they were two or three times bigger," he says. "Around 200 square feet seems too small [total area] to live in, but a 200-square-foot bedroom or living room doesn't seem so small." Larrea was named to Forbes' 2017 30 Under 30 list for his work with Ori.

The first commercial line of the systems, which goes for about $10,000, is now being sold to real estate developers in Boston and other major cities across the U.S. and Canada, for newly built or available apartments. In Boston, partners include Skanska, which has apartments in the Seaport; Samuels and Associates, with buildings around Harvard Square; and Hines for its Marina Bay units. Someday, Larrea says, the system could be bought directly by consumers.

Once the system catches on and the technology evolves, Larrea imagines future apartments could be furnished entirely with robotic furniture from Ori and other companies.

"These technologies can evolve for kitchens, bathrooms, and general partition walls. At some point, a two-bedroom apartment could turn into a large studio, transform into three rooms for your startup, or go into 'party mode,' where it all opens up again," Larrea says. "Spaces will adapt to us, instead of us adapting to spaces, which is what we've been doing for so many years."

Architectural robotics

In 2011, Larrea joined the Media Lab's City Science research group, directed by Principal Research Scientist Kent Larson, which included his three co-founders: Chad Bean '14, Carlos Rubio '14, and Ivan Fernandez de Casadevante, who was a visiting researcher.

The group's primary focus was tackling challenges of mass urbanization, as cities are becoming increasingly popular living destinations. "Data tells us that, in places like China and India, 600 million people will move from towns to cities in the next 15 years," Larrea says. "Not only is the way we move through cities and feed people going to need to evolve, but so will the way people live and work in spaces."

A second emerging phenomenon was the Internet of Things, which saw an influx of smart gadgets, including household items and furniture, designed to connect to the Internet. "Those two megatrends were bound to converge," Larrea says.

The group started a project called CityHome, creating what it called "architectural robotics," which integrated robotics, architecture, computer science, and engineering to design smart, modular furniture. The group prototyped a moveable wall that could be controlled via gesture control — which looked similar to today's Ori system — and constructed a mock 200-square-foot studio apartment on the fifth floor of the Media Lab to test it out. Within the group, the unit was called "furniture with superpowers," Larrea says, as it made small spaces seem bigger.

After they had constructed their working prototype, in early 2015 the researchers wanted to scale up. Inspiration came from the Media Lab-LEGO MindStorms collaboration from the late 1990s, where researchers created kits that incorporated sensors and motors inside traditional LEGO bricks so kids could build robots and researchers could prototype.

Drawing from that concept, the group built standardized components that could be assembled into a larger piece of modular furniture — what Ori now calls the robotic "muscle," "skeleton," "brains," and the furniture "skins." Specifically, the muscle consists of the track, motors, and electronics that actuate the system. The skeleton is the frame and the wheels that give the unit structure and movement. The brain is the microcomputer that controls all the safety features and connects the device to the Internet. And the skin is the various pieces of furniture that can be integrated, using the same robotic architecture.

Today, units fit full- or queen-size mattresses and come in different colors. In the future, however, any type of furniture could be integrated, creating units of various shapes, sizes, uses, and price. "The robotics will keep evolving but stay standardized … so, by adding different skins, you can really create anything you can imagine," Larrea says.

Kickstarting Ori

Going through the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship's summer accelerator delta V (then called the Global Founders Skills Accelerator) in 2015 "kickstarted" the startup, Larrea says. One lesson that particularly stood out: the importance of conducting market research. "At MIT, sometimes we assume, because we have such a cool technology, marketing it will be easy. … But we forget to talk to people," he says.

In the early days, the co-founders put tech development aside to speak with owners of studios, offices, and hotels, as well as tenants. In doing so, they learned studio renters in particular had three major complaints: Couples wanted separate living areas, and everyone wanted walk-in closets and space to host parties. The startup then focused on developing a furniture unit that addressed those issues.

After earning one of its first investors in the Media Lab's E14 Fund in fall 2015, the startup installed an early version of its system in several Boston apartments for renters to test and provide feedback. Soon after, the system hit apartments in 10 major cities across the U.S. and Canada, including San Francisco, Vancouver, Chicago, Miami, and New York. Over the past two years, the startup has used feedback from those pilots to refine the system into today's commercial model.

Ori will ship an initial production run of 500 units for apartments over the next few months. Soon, Larrea says, the startup also aims to penetrate adjacent markets, such as hotels, dormitories, and offices. "The idea is to prove this isn't a one-trick pony," Larrea says. "It's part of a more comprehensive strategy to unlock the potential of space."

Microfluidics from LEGO bricks

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 08:59 PM PST

MIT engineers have just introduced an element of fun into microfluidics.

The field of microfluidics involves minute devices that precisely manipulate fluids at  submillimeter scales. Such devices typically take the form of flat, two-dimensional chips, etched with tiny channels and ports that are arranged to perform various operations, such as mixing, sorting, pumping, and storing fluids as they flow.

Now the MIT team, looking beyond such lab-on-a-chip designs, has found an alternative microfluidics platform in "interlocking, injection-molded blocks" — or, as most of us know them, LEGO bricks.

"LEGOs are fascinating examples of precision and modularity in everyday manufactured objects," says Anastasios John Hart, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.

Indeed, LEGO bricks are manufactured so consistently that no matter where in the world they are found, any two bricks are guaranteed to line up and snap securely in place. Given this high degree of precision and consistency, the MIT researchers chose LEGO bricks as the basis for a new modular microfluidic design.

In a paper published in the journal Lab on a Chip, the team describes micromilling small channels into LEGOs and positioning the outlet of each "fluidic brick" to line up precisely with the inlet of another brick. The researchers then sealed the walls of each modified brick with an adhesive, enabling modular devices to be easily assembled and reconfigured.

Each brick can be designed with a particular pattern of channels to perform a specific task. The researchers have so far engineered bricks as fluid resistors and mixers, as well as droplet generators. Their fluidic bricks can be snapped together or taken apart, to form modular microfluidic devices that perform various biological operations, such as sorting cells, mixing fluids, and filtering out molecules of interest.  

"You could then build a microfluidic system similarly to how you would build a LEGO castle — brick by brick," says lead author Crystal Owens, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "We hope in the future, others might use LEGO bricks to make a kit of microfluidic tools."

Modular mechanics

Hart, who is also director of MIT's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity and the Mechanosynthesis Group, primarily focuses his research on new manufacturing processes, with applications ranging from nanomaterials to large-scale 3-D printing.  

"Over the years, I've had peripheral exposure to the field of microfluidics and the fact that prototyping microfluidic devices is often a difficult, time-consuming, resource-intensive process," Hart says.

Owens, who worked in a microfluidics lab as an undergraduate, had seen firsthand the painstaking efforts that went into engineering a lab on a chip. After joining Hart's group, she was eager to find a way to simplify the design process.

Most microfluidic devices contain all the necessary channels and ports to perform multiple operations on one chip. Owens and Hart looked for ways to, in essence, explode this one-chip platform and make microfluidics modular, assigning a single operation to a single module or unit. A researcher could then mix and match microfluidic modules to perform various combinations and sequences of operations.

In casting around for ways to physically realize their modular design, Owens and Hart found the perfect template in LEGO bricks, which are about as long as a typical microfluidic chip.  

"Because LEGOs are so inexpensive, widely accessible, and consistent in their size and repeatability of mounting, disassembly, and assembly, we asked whether LEGO bricks could be a way to create a toolkit of microfluidic or fluidic bricks," Hart says.

Building from an idea

To answer this question, the team purchased a set of standard, off-the-shelf LEGO bricks and tried various ways to introduce microfluidic channels into each brick. The most successful method turned out to be micromilling, a well-established technique commonly used to drill extremely fine, submillimeter features into metals and other materials.

Owens used a desktop micromill to first mill a simple, 500-micron-wide channel into the side wall of a standard LEGO brick. She then taped a clear film over the wall to seal it and pumped fluid through the brick's newly milled channel. She observed that the fluid successfully flowed through the channel, demonstrating the brick functioned as a flow resistor — a device that allows very small amounts of fluid to flow through.

Using this same technique, she fabricated a fluid mixer by milling a horizontal, Y-shaped channel, and sending a different fluid through each arm of the Y. Where the two arms met, the fluids successfully mixed. Owens also turned a LEGO brick into a drop generator by milling a T-shaped pattern into its wall. As she pumped fluid through one end of the T, she found that some of the liquid dropped down through the middle, forming a droplet as it exited the brick.

To demonstrate modularity, Owens built a prototype onto a standard LEGO baseplate consisting of several bricks, each designed to perform a different operation as fluid is pumped through. In addition to making the fluid mixer and droplet generator, she also outfitted a LEGO brick with a light sensor, precisely positioning the sensor to measure light as fluid passed through a channel at the same location.

Owens says the hardest part of the project was figuring out how to connect the bricks together, without fluid leaking out. While LEGO bricks are designed to snap securely in place, there is nevertheless a small gap between bricks, measuring between 100 and 500 microns. To seal this gap, Owens fabricated a small O-ring around each inlet and outlet in a brick.

"The O-ring fits into a small circle milled into the brick surface. It's designed to stick out a certain amount, so when another brick is placed beside it, it compresses and creates a reliable fluid seal between the bricks. This works simply by placing one brick next to another," Owens says. "My goal was to make it straightforward to use."

"An easy way to build"

The researchers note just a couple drawbacks to their method. At the moment, they are able to fabricate channels that are tens of microns wide. However, some microfluidic operations require much smaller channels, which cannot be made using micromilling techniques. Also, as LEGO bricks are made from thermoplastics, they likely cannot withstand exposure to certain chemicals that are sometimes used in microfluidic systems.

"We've been experimenting with different coatings we could put on the surface to make LEGO bricks, as they are, compatible with different fluids," Owens says. "LEGO-like bricks could also be made out of other materials, such as polymers with high temperature stability and chemical resistance."

For now, a LEGO-based microfluidic device could be used to manipulate biological fluids and perform tasks such as sorting cells, filtering fluids, and encapsulating molecules in individual droplets. The team is currently designing a website that will contain information on how others can design their own fluidic bricks using standard LEGO pieces.

"Our method provides an accessible platform for prototyping microfluidic devices," Hart says. "If the kind of device you want to make, and the materials you work with, are suitable for this kind of modular design, this is an easy way to build a microfluidic device for lab research."

This research was supported in part by a National Science Foundation Graduate

Research Fellowship, the MIT Mechanical Engineering Department Ascher H. Shapiro Fellowship, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory Advanced Concepts Committee, a 3M Faculty Award, and the National Science Foundation EAGER/Cybermanufacturing Program.

Is Massachusetts ready for carbon pricing?

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 11:15 AM PST

Many economists across the political spectrum agree that carbon pricing could provide a cost-effective strategy to accelerate a transition to a low-carbon economy and reduce carbon emissions that play a key role in global climate change. Drawing on their research, legislators in several states are now working to enact bills that impose a per-ton fee on carbon emitters, but it's no easy task to win political support for such measures.

On Jan. 25, a panel at MIT explored the benefits, costs, and political challenges involved in translating carbon pricing from concept into law in Massachusetts and beyond. Hosted by the student-led MIT Climate Action Team and held at the MIT Stata Center, the panel disucssion included Massachusetts state Sen. Michael Barrett and state Rep. Jennifer Benson, authors of two different carbon-pricing bills; Marc Breslow, research and policy director of the carbon-pricing research and advocacy group Climate XChange; and three experts on the topic who are affiliated with the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change — Department of Urban Studies and Planning Associate Professor Janelle Knox-Hayes, Joint Program Co-director and Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer John Reilly, and Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research Director and MIT Sloan Professor Christopher Knittel. The panelists weighed advantages and disadvantages of carbon pricing as a climate-change solution, clarified differences between the two pending bills, and discussed political challenges faced by these bills.

Both bills would ultimately impose a $40 per-ton fee on carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions. Barrett's bill is revenue neutral, returning 100 percent of revenue to state taxpayers and businesses; Benson's bill, which is revenue positive, would return 80 percent of revenue to these constituents while applying the other 20 percent to clean energy projects. The intent of these rebates would be to compensate consumers for the higher prices they would pay under either bill for carbon-intensive products.

Barrett predicted that putting a price on carbon would lead to lower consumption of such products while reducing the "social cost of carbon" — what society must pay to meet the added health care, water infrastructure, emergency management, and other expenses associated with carbon emissions. Benson maintained that it's critical to divert a portion of revenue raised by statewide carbon pricing to fund energy efficiency, renewable energy, and climate adaptation infrastructure.

Preferring the passage of either bill to the status quo, MIT panelists viewed carbon pricing as an optimal way to lower carbon emissions.

"At this point, any carbon-pricing bill is a positive move, and both of yours sound strong," said Reilly, who nonetheless noted some challenges that carbon pricing cannot solve on its own. "We also face a big challenge in adapting infrastructure to climate change; one way or another we're going to have to come up with funds to do that. Then there's the issue of public infrastructure that affects fossil emissions. If you raise the price of gasoline, you can buy a more efficient vehicle, but if there's not an effective subway system near you, you can't use that. So I think some of those sorts of actions [would make] a stronger case."

Knittel favored subsidizing solar panels and electric vehicles through a progressive income tax rather than via a carbon pricing scheme. "But at the end of the day, we'd be more than happy to have either one of these bills, and a price on carbon is by far the most efficient way to reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions," said Knittel.

One key concern among members of the audience was the potential adverse effects of a carbon-pricing bill on low-income citizens.

"The most progressive thing to do if you care about working people is to have absolute revenue neutrality," said Barrett, who, like Knittel, argued that solar and other renewable energy programs could best be funded through a progressive income tax. "I want to make sure that 100 percent of a carbon fee goes back to working people." Concerned that a revenue-positive carbon pricing bill would be framed by opponents as a tax, he cautioned that such a bill would be politically unviable for fellow legislators.

Benson countered that anyone opposed to a carbon-pricing bill would still call it a tax, and that Massachusetts state polling shows that over 70 percent of people polled say they are willing to pay more for energy if they know the money is going toward environmental protection or improvement. "We don't currently have such a revenue source to go toward these areas," said Benson, noting that less than 1 percent of the state budget addresses environmental concerns. "If we really care about the environment, we have to be willing to put money into it at the state level."

To overcome political resistance to carbon pricing, Knox-Hayes urged legislators to consider the cultural framing of proposed bills. "What's really important when putting together policies is to connect the language of the policy to what the local polity cares about," said Knox-Hayes, suggesting that the carbon-pricing bills avoid the use of the word "tax," focus on benefits, and show how these bills can generate positive outcomes that address local concerns.

The panel also explored how Massachusetts could serve as a pilot project for additional statewide, national, and international carbon-pricing measures.

"In my optimal scenario, a state like Massachusetts passes a carbon tax, which shows the rest of the country that the economy hasn't gone into the tank," said Knittel. "British Columbia has served as a demonstration project for Senator Barrett and Representative Benson. In 2020, the [U.S.] Congress can use either bill as a poster child to show that carbon pricing actually works."

Reilly pointed out that mechanisms will be needed to enable carbon pricing to work across state and national borders, but ruled out the possibility of any international carbon fee set by the United Nations, replacing those set by member nations.

"From an economic standpoint, we'd like to have the same price across the whole world, so we want to think about how we work toward that," said Reilly. "The challenge there, is that we think that poorer countries must bear the same costs as richer countries, so that's one of the reasons to think about ways we could set up transfers to assist them. It will be an issue to see how we balance things out and get closer to the ideal."

Addressing another audience question of what MIT can do to help support passage of carbon-pricing bills in Massachusetts, Barrett acknowledged Knittel for providing technical and economic advice to him and Benson over the past four years, and MIT for convening forums such as this one.

"Over the last year, I've been at MIT a lot for conferences like this, and these exchanges really help," said Barrett. "Just maintaining the dialogue is critically important." Looking ahead, he added, "I think the Massachusetts State Senate is likely to enact carbon pricing this year. ... We need the critical involvement of university people, regardless of what school you're from, all around Greater Boston, because we're actually on the cusp of doing something."

Jing Li: Applying economics to energy technology

Posted: 30 Jan 2018 07:00 AM PST

For the past four years, Jing Li '11 has been studying energy technologies that could help the world move to a low-carbon future. Her expertise is technology diffusion and adoption. Fresh out of an economics PhD program at Harvard, Li says she "loves thinking about how technological progress comes about, how technology is adopted."

She's returning to MIT to do that and more — first as a postdoc for a year and then as an assistant professor of applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

Her research focuses on the race to introduce better batteries into the marketplace. The availability of low-cost, high-energy-density, scalable, and safe batteries is critical in both transportation and power generation, which are two of the most polluting sectors in the energy ecosystem, Li points out. Better batteries could mean higher efficiency and lower emissions.

"We're not quite there yet in terms of battery technology that checks all the boxes, but why not? There are many patents out there, but when do we expect to see them on the market?" she says.

Li's training in economics allows her to examine each step as a technology progresses from the lab to the marketplace. She hopes her studies will help speed up that process.

"Energy is critical to everyday life, and low-carbon energy is critical to addressing climate change concerns," she says. "At some point, I just started thinking about that, and I couldn't let go."

Li organizes her research on technology adoption around three core questions. First: Why aren't adoption rates as high as we'd like or expect for a promising technology? Cost and pricing are sometimes the impediment, but not always. Sometimes it's a question of infrastructure, as in the example of electric cars, which Li focused on in her dissertation. Electric cars need a reliable network of charging stations before widespread adoption is possible.

Li's second question deals with the mysteries of technological innovation. She asks: "Is technological innovation a black box, and all we need to do is wait? Or is there scope for government policy to accelerate innovation by addressing inefficiencies?" She studies instances in which more funding for basic research could make a difference, or in which the inventions are ready but firms or consumers need a push in the form of measures such as government subsidies for the product to achieve higher levels of adoption.

The final question driving her research is: How can we meet growing energy demand in developing countries while protecting human health and the environment? Over the course of her education and the beginning of her research career, Li has explored fields from development economics to environmental economics and industrial organization.

"If we're going to improve the lives of people in developing countries, energy consumption is going to play a big role," she says. "But at the same time, how do we make things better for human health by alleviating pollution, improving air quality?"

With her fast-approaching professorship very much on her mind, Li has plans to take a close look at the economics curriculum at the Institute to see if there are any gaps in what's being offered.

"There's a history of high-quality energy economics classes at MIT," she says. "I want to learn more about the classes that are being taught currently and bring back some of the really important parts of classes that are no longer around."

She plans to meet with a wide range of students — from Sloan MBAs to undergraduates in engineering, science, and the humanities — to formulate a sense of which energy and economics issues they feel are most important. She's keeping learning outside the classroom in mind, too. As an undergrad, she says she benefited immensely from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) "learning a lot about the grunt work of research." And If the right research opportunity presents itself, she says she plans to create a UROP for undergrads working in energy economics.

Li says she looks forward to the chance to give back to her alma mater.

"MIT just feels special to me in a way that I cannot even articulate," she says. "To me, it's nerds — in the best sense of the word — coming together to celebrate learning and knowledge."

This article appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.