Powering the future in Mongolia

Through coursework, intercollegiate collaboration, and a site visit, MIT students fuse engineering and anthropology to propose innovative energy solutions.

Nestled within the Tuul River valley and embraced by the southern Khentii Mountain Range, Ulaanbaatar (UB), Mongolia’s largest city, presents itself as an arena where nature’s forces wage an unrelenting battle against human resilience. The capital city is an icy crucible, with bone-chilling winters that plummet temperatures to an astonishing -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius). Mongolia, often hailed with the celestial moniker of “The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,” paradoxically succumbs to a veil of pollution and energy struggles during the winter months, obscuring the true shade of the cherished vista.

To understand the root of these issues, MIT students from classes 22.S094 (Climate and Sustainability Systems: Decarbonizing Ulaanbaatar at Scale) and 21A.S01 (Anthro-Engineering: Decarbonization at the Million-Person Scale) visited Mongolia to conduct on-site surveys, diving into the diverse tapestry of local life as they gleaned insight from various stakeholder groups. Setting foot on Mongolian soil on a crisp day in January, they wasted no time in shaking off the weariness of their arduous 17-hour flight, promptly embarking on a waiting bus. As they traversed the vast expanse of the countryside, their eyes were captivated by snow-laden terrain.

That is, until a disconcerting sight unfolded — thick smog, akin to ethereal pillars, permeated the cityscape ahead. These imposing plumes emanated from the colossal smokestacks of Ulaanbaatar’s coal-fired power plants, steadfastly churning electricity and heat to fuel Mongolia’s central and district energy systems. Over 93 percent of the nation’s energy comes from coal-fired power plants, where the most considerable load is caused by household consumption. Nevertheless, with nearly half of Ulaanbaatar’s population disconnected from the central heating networks, one of Mongolia’s most significant sources of pollution comes from coal-burning stoves in the residential settlements known as the ger districts. Over the past three decades, since the democratic revolution in 1990, Mongolians have grappled with escalating concerns surrounding energy provision, accessibility, and sustainability.

Engineers who think like anthropologists

“We find ourselves compelled to venture on-site, engaging in direct conversations with the locals, and immersing ourselves in the fabric of daily life to uncover what we don’t know,” emphasized Michael Short, professor in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and faculty lead of MIT’s NEET Climate and Sustainability Systems thread, shortly before heading to Mongolia.

The Ulaanbaatar Project sprang from a multiyear collaboration between MIT and the National University of Mongolia (NUM). Shedding light on the matter, Professor Munkhbat Byambajav of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at NUM underscored the paramount importance of mitigating environmental pollution at an economic scale to alleviate the heavy burden borne by the people.

Class 22.S094 is offered through MIT’s New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET) program, which allows students with multidisciplinary interests to collaborate across departments within four different subject areas, or threads. In this capstone project, students consider ways to decarbonize a city like Ulaanbaatar, transitioning from burning coal briquettes to a more sustainable, energy-efficient solution, given several parameters and constraints set by the local context.

One of the ideas students have recently explored is a thermal battery made with molten salt that can store enough energy to heat a ger for up to 12 hours with added insulation for cooling curve regulation. The Mongolian ger, meaning home, is a dome-like portable dwelling covered in felt and canvas, held together by ropes traditionally crafted of animal hair or wool. Over several semesters, students have been testing a version of their proposed idea on campus, working with a prototype that weighs around 35 pounds.

Nathan Melenbrink, the lead instructor of NEET’s Climate and Sustainability Systems (CSS) thread, believes that the complexity of the Ulaanbaatar capstone project allows students to reject the one-way solution approach and instead consider challenges with a nonprescriptive mindset. The uniqueness of the CSS thread is that students are asked to build on the previous findings from the past cohort and iterate on their designs each year. This workflow has allowed the project to mature and advance in ways that may not be feasible within a semester schedule. When asked how the recent trip impacted the ongoing research back on campus, Melenbrink states, “In light of the recent trip to Mongolia, students are beginning to see the impact of cultural immersion and social awareness leveraging the technical scope and rigor of their work.”

Course 21A.S01, taught by Professor Manduhai Buyandelger of the MIT Anthropology Section, proved instrumental in deepening students’ understanding of the intricate dynamics at play. She asks, “The prototype works in the lab, but does it work in real life once you factor in the challenges in the larger structures of delivery, production, and implementation in Mongolia?”

This recognition of the social dimensions of engineering permeated the early stages of the UB project, engaging all participants, including students from MIT and NUM, professionals residing in Mongolia, and local nongovernmental organizations, fostering what Buyandelger aptly describes as “a collaboration on multiple scales: trans-disciplinary and transcontinental.” Lauren Bonilla, co-lecturer for the anthropology course, was crucial in devising the first onsite trip to Mongolia. Drawing upon her extensive ethnographic research in Mongolia that spans decades, Bonilla remarks, “To me, engineering is a highly social discipline.” She further stresses how anthro-engineering elevates the social dimensions of engineering by critically questioning the framing of problems and solutions, stating, “It draws on anthropological insights and methods, like ethnography, to bring a human face to the users of a technology and adds complexity and nuance to the social constraints that limit designs.”

Making of khorkhog

Amidst the frigid atmosphere, a traditional Mongolian ger stands in front of the Nuclear Science Laboratory at the National University of Mongolia, emitting warm steam from its roof. The faculty and students of NUM organize a welcoming event inside the ger, inviting everyone to partake in a khorkhog cookout. Earlier that week, a remark from the Mongolian energy representative stood out during one of the presentations: “We need powerful heat. Solar is not enough, and electricity is not enough. Mongolians need fire,” he had emphasized.

Indeed, the culinary delight known as khorkhog demands the relentless embrace of scorching flames. The process involves a large metal jug, stones, fire, and lamb. With skillful precision, the volunteer chef places the fire-heated stones and large pieces of lamb into the cooking container, triggering a cascade of steam that fills the ger, accompanied by the sounds of sizzling and hissing. Everyone waits patiently as the cook carefully inspects the dish, keenly listening for signs of readiness. And when the time comes, a feast is shared among all, complemented by steam-cooked potatoes, freshly sliced onions, and vegetables. In this moment, the presence of fire symbolizes a profound connection with the heart of Mongolian culture, evoking a deep resonance among the gathered crowd as they partake in this cherished staple meal.

The distance between two points

Familiar faces form a grid on the computer screen as the standing meeting between the students in Massachusetts and Ulaanbaatar begins. Sharing the morning (evening in Mongolia) for updates has been a critical effort by both sides to stay engaged and make decisions together. NEET CSS students in Cambridge proceeded to share their latest findings.

Lucy Nester, a nuclear science and engineering major, has been diligently working on developing a high-efficiency electrical heating solution for individual consumers. Her primary focus is leveraging the discounted electricity rates available in the ger districts and utilize existing infrastructure. Recognizing the importance of maximum flexibility in heating the brick, Nester emphasizes the “no one-size-fits-all” solution. She shares the results of her test trials, which involve both inductive and resistive heating methods, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Despite her limited experience in electrical engineering and circuit building, Nester has impressively overcome the steep learning curve. She enthusiastically describes her UB trip as “one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve had during my time at MIT.”

Darshdeep Grewal, a dedicated materials science and engineering major with a strong passion for data science and computation, has been diligently conducting research on convection heating using COMSOL Multiphysics. In his investigation, Grewal explores the correlation between air temperature and heating, investigates the impact of convecting air arrangement on the heating process, and examines the conditions that may contribute to overheating. Leveraging his expertise in computational workflows, Grewal presents an impressive collection of heatmap simulations derived from the extensive data accumulated by his team throughout the project. Recognizing the immense value of these simulations in modeling complex scenarios, he highlights the importance of running experiments concurrently with simulations to ensure accurate calibration of results, stating, “It’s important to stay rooted in reality.”

Arina Khotimsky, another materials science and engineering major, has actively engaged in NEET’s Climate and Sustainability Systems thread since her sophomore year. Balancing the demands of her final semester at MIT and the upcoming review of 22.S094, Khotimsky reveals how she has seamlessly integrated her project involvement into her energy studies minor. Reflecting on her journey, she remarks, “Working on the Ulaanbaatar project has taught me the significance of taking local context into account while suggesting solutions as an engineer.” Khotimsky has been tirelessly iterating and refining the insulation box prototype, which holds the thermal battery and controls the rate at which the battery releases heat. In addition, the on-site observations have unveiled another design challenge — ensuring the insulation box functions as a secure and dependable means of transportation. 

To “engineer” means to contrive through one’s deliberate use of skills. What confronted the UB Project team on site was not the limitations of skill or technology, but the real-world constraints often amiss in the early equation: the people and their everyday lives. With over 6,195 miles of distance between the two groups, it takes more than just dedication to make a collaboration blossom. That may be the desire for a positive impact. Moreover, it may be the goal of cultivating a healthier relationship with energy that spans a million-person scale. No matter where you are, there is no one solution to the complex story of energy. This progressive realization brings the two teams together every two weeks in virtual space, bridging the distance between the two points.