Joint MIT / University of Stuttgart research projects

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Global Seed Fund Program supports collaborations between MIT faculties and researchers, and their international colleagues.
[Photo: Christopher Harting, courtesy of MIT Image Library]

The goal of the MIT Seed Fund for the University of Stuttgart is to set up and develop joint research projects. The fund is open to all disciplines; it is particularly aimed at young academics and is also intended to include students. The maximum grant available is 25,000 US dollars, and is intended to cover travel expenses and the costs of organizing workshops and symposiums.

Three research teams from the University of Stuttgart are receiving support from this program during the current grant period.

Research teams led by Prof. Alan Hatton, MIT Low Carbon Energy Center on Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage, and by Nelson Felipe Rincon Soto and Marc Oliver Schmid of the Institute of Combustion and Power Plant Technology (IFK)

Achieving dual goals: Processing biogas into extremely pure bio-methane and capturing CO2

Marc Oliver Schmid, head of department for fuel and gas purification at the Institute of Combustion and Power Plant Technology (IFK), is working on methods of processing biogas into bio-methane. After the fermentation process, biogas is initially composed of CO2 and methane in roughly equal parts. In order to improve the composition, and therefore the uses, of biogas, the CO2 is separated out in an adsorber. The researchers are able to achieve dual goals with this process: highly purified bio-methane and CO2. Bio-methane can be stored in the gas network as a substitute for natural gas, or used as a fuel or a raw material in the chemical industry. However, there are very few suppliers manufacturing suitable adsorbents that can be regenerated in an energy efficient manner. Marc Oliver Schmid had discovered that MIT is currently conducting research in precisely this area. The American team are developing mineral-based adsorbents which can chemically bond selectively to CO2. “MIT can produce new kinds of sorbent that are highly suited to the biogas processing technique that we have developed. Thanks to the MIT Seed Fund, we have an outstanding opportunity to exchange expertise with our colleagues at MIT,” says Marc Oliver Schmid.

The IFK has set up a laboratory for testing the adsorbents. In the spring, Schmid and Soto will fly from Stuttgart to the USA with a number of their students to collect samples of the adsorbent for analysis in Stuttgart. The researchers in Stuttgart will then send their test results back to MIT. MIT researchers will then be able to produce and make further improvements to sorbents in accordance with the specified requirements. The USA team will also pay a return visit to Stuttgart. “In addition, this year we want to set up a pilot plant at a biogas plant in Schönbuch under real-life conditions,” says Schmid. “We can then test various adsorbents from MIT at the plant.” Schmid is confident that both teams will benefit from this venture. “We can learn a great deal from one another. I hope that this project will be the start of further joint initiatives.”

Research teams led by Prof. Robert Griffin at the Francis Bitter Magnet Lab at MIT, and by Prof. Jens Anders at the Institute of Smart Sensors (IIS) at the University of Stuttgart.

Improving insights into cell metabolism with new nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy technology

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy enables highly accurate identification of the molecules of a substance under analysis (eg, the metabolic products of individual biological cells). It uses the magnetic resonance of the nuclei of various atoms in a process similar to the more well-known magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Researchers can use it to analyze the precise chemical composition of a substance, and draw conclusions regarding its quality, for example, explains Prof. Jens Anders, head of the Institute of Smart Sensors.

Making measurement up to a million times faster

However, the signals are very weak when using conventional methods. The magnetic field used for measuring the signals could be increased to boost them, but this is a very cost-intensive option, and is bound by technical limitations. Another possibility is dynamic nuclear polarization (DNP). This makes use of the fact that electron spins align themselves much better in an applied magnetic field due to their much higher magnetic moment, ie they achieve a much higher degree of polarization. If electron and nuclear spins are now brought together in a sample to be examined, and a time-varying magnetic field with a suitable frequency is applied, the degree of polarization of the electron spins is transferred to the nuclear spins. One of the practical difficulties of this is the fact that the magnetic fields required can reach frequencies of over 100 GHz, which can often only be generated conventionally by using extremely large - and expensive - gyrotrons. The alignment of the nuclear spins increases by two to three orders of magnitude due to the DNP effect, making measurement up to a million times faster! This introduces completely new opportunities for NMR: For example, if a pharmaceutical company wishes to test the change in cell metabolism after administration of a substance, this can be investigated quickly and cost-effectively using the new method. A larger number of substances can be tested in a shorter period of time. In addition, it increases understanding of cell metabolism function, and of how it alters, for example, if the cells are attacked by a virus.

The researchers in Stuttgart are working on ways to place the entire DNP technology, complete with the required microwave sources, onto a single microchip. “It's smaller, more cost-effective, and better than previous approaches, and offers the possibility of utilizing DNP methods in portable NMR spectrometers, for example in general medical practice in doctors’ surgeries,” says Prof. Jens Anders. The MIT team brings to the project its understanding of the optimal polarization transfer from the electron spins to the nuclear spins. Both teams now aim to develop the technique to pave the way for comprehensive utilizations of DNP.

Prof. Robert Griffin initially plans to travel to Stuttgart with four or five doctoral students for around three weeks in the spring. “I know Griffin from attending conferences together. I’m tremendously pleased that we can now intensify our contact with MIT and exchange ideas; it will be a very fruitful collaboration. We will each have the opportunity to get to know the other team's philosophy and approach,” says Jens Anders, describing the opportunities offered by the MIT Seed Fund.

MIT researchers led by Assistant Prof. Stefanie Mueller (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory/HCI Engineering) and a team led by Prof. Achim Menges and Dylan Wood of the Institute for Computational Design and Construction (ICD).

Smarter Smart Materials: Integrating human interaction with environmentally responsive material systems.

There are currently a variety of shape-changing material systems which react to environmental conditions such as temperature or humidity. The change of shape is an integrated function of the material; it does not require electronic control, making it cost-effective to implement. However, this function is directly related to environmental conditions; no additional human control is possible. A building envelope which opens and closes in response to changes in the weather, for example, cannot be opened by a person wishing to look out of the window.

Both teams of researchers now wish to develop methods of integrating additional human interaction into environmental controls - enabling a user to interact with the material system to control the change of shape - by adding a control system compatible with the additive manufacturing of shape-changing materials. The advantage of this approach lies in its addition of new functionality to the highly efficient movements of a shape-changing material system.

Two visits are planned for researchers and participating students: one to the construction laboratory at the ICD, and the other to the laboratory at MIT. The year-long project will close with a symposium, says Dylan Wood of the ICD. 

The program is administered by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI).


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