This year, seven new projects led by eleven faculty PIs across six MIT departments will be funded with two-year grants of up to $200,000, overhead free. The winning projects include a silk-based food safety sensor; research into climate vulnerability and resilience in agriculture using biological engineering as well as crop modeling and sensors; an archeological and materials engineering approach to understanding fertile tropical soils; and three different strategies for water purification and management.
A very different approach to improving agricultural productivity involves better understanding and managing soil fertility. In another innovative multidisciplinary project, three PIs whose expertise spans geoscience, archaeology, and materials engineering will collaborate to improve our understanding of extensive deposits of rich soils known as terra preta (“dark earth” in Portuguese) in the Amazon Basin that pre-Columbian societies created and cultivated between 500 and about 8,700 years ago. Many tropical soils are nutrient-poor and contain little organic carbon, but terra preta is so carbon-rich and fertile that it is still farmed (and destructively mined) today. Researchers are now attempting to reproduce terra preta as part of a strategy for sustainable tropical agriculture and carbon sequestration. A team consisting of Taylor Perron, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and Dorothy Hosler and Heather Lechtman, both professors of archaeology and ancient technology in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, aims to inform agricultural practices in tropical developing nations by investigating how the rivers of the Amazon region influenced terra preta formation.
Julia Ortony, the Finmeccanica Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, will be taking a different approach to arsenic contamination. Her lab develops molecular nanomaterials for environmental contaminant remediation. A J-WAFS seed grant will support her development of a robust, high surface-area material made of small molecules that can be designed to sequester arsenic from drinking water.