April 2017


Photo: Takashi Kitamura


MIT report: Our brains instantly make two copies of each memory

When we visit a friend or go to the beach, our brain stores a short-term memory of the experience in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Those memories are later “consolidated” — that is, transferred to another part of the brain for longer-term storage. A new MIT study of the neural circuits that underlie this process reveals, for the first time, that memories are actually formed simultaneously in the hippocampus and the long-term storage location in the brain’s cortex. However, the long-term memories remain “silent” for about two weeks before reaching a mature state. These findings challenge the standard model of memory consolidation, and the paper provides a comprehensive circuit mechanism for consolidation of memory.  Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/neuroscientists-identify-brain-circuit-necessary-memory-formation-0406

New technology can detect tiny ovarian tumors

Most ovarian cancer is diagnosed at such late stages that patients’ survival rates are poor. However, if the cancer is detected earlier, five-year survival rates can be greater than 90 percent. Now, MIT engineers have developed a far more sensitive way to reveal ovarian tumors: In tests in mice, they were able to detect tumors composed of nodules smaller than 2 millimeters in diameter. In humans, that could translate to tumor detection about five months earlier than is possible with existing blood tests, the researchers say. The new test makes use of a “synthetic biomarker” — a nanoparticle that interacts with tumor proteins to release fragments that can be detected in a patient’s urine sample. It generates a much clearer signal than natural biomarkers found in very small quantities in the patient’s bloodstream. Furthermore, this approach could also be adapted to work with other cancers.  Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/new-technology-detect-tiny-ovarian-tumors-0410?utm_source=&utm_medium=&utm_campaign

Energy & Environment

Water, water everywhere … even in the air

Severe water shortages already affect many regions around the world, and are expected to get much worse as the population grows and the climate heats up. But a new technology developed by scientists at MIT and the University of California at Berkeley could provide a novel way of obtaining clean, fresh water almost anywhere on Earth, by drawing water directly from moisture in the air even in the driest of locations. Technologies exist for extracting water from very moist air, such as “fog harvesting” systems that have been deployed in a number of coastal locations. And there are very expensive ways of removing moisture from drier air. But the new method is the first that has potential for widespread use in virtually any location, regardless of humidity levels, the researchers say. They have developed a completely passive system that is based on a foam-like material that draws moisture into its pores and is powered entirely by solar heat.

Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/MOF-device-harvests-fresh-water-from-air-0414

Combined energy and water system could provide for millions

Many highly populated coastal regions around the globe suffer from severe drought conditions. In an effort to deliver fresh water to these regions, while also considering how to produce the water efficiently using clean-energy resources, a team of researchers from MIT and the University of Hawaii has created a detailed analysis of a symbiotic system that combines a pumped hydropower energy storage system and reverse osmosis desalination plant that can meet both of these needs in one large-scale engineering project.

Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/system-fresh-water-renewable-energy-storage-drought-stricken-regions-0418

Science & Tech

Researchers design coatings to prevent pipeline clogging

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig suffered a catastrophic explosion and blowout on April 21, 2010, leading to the worst oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, the well’s operators thought they would be able to block the leak within a few weeks. On May 9 they succeeded in lowering a 125-ton containment dome over the broken wellhead. If that measure had worked, it would have funneled the leaking oil into a pipe that carried it to a tanker ship above, preventing the ongoing leakage that made the spill so devastating. Why didn’t the containment work as expected? The culprit was an icy mixture of frozen water and methane, called a methane clathrate. Because of the low temperatures and high pressure near the seafloor, the slushy mix built up inside the containment dome and blocked the outlet pipe, preventing it from redirecting the flow. If it had worked, four months of unabated leakage and widespread ecological devastation might have been prevented.

Now, a team of researchers at MIT has come up with a solution that might prevent such a disastrous outcome in the future. It may also prevent blockages inside oil and gas pipelines that can lead to expensive shutdowns to clear a pipe, or worse, to pipeline rupture from a buildup of pressure. Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/researchers-design-coatings-prevent-pipeline-blowouts-0414

3-D printing offers new approach to making buildings

The list of materials that can be produced by 3-D printing has grown to include not just plastics but also metal, glass, and even food. Now, MIT researchers are expanding the list further, with the design of a system that can 3-D print the basic structure of an entire building. Structures built with this system could be produced faster and less expensively than traditional construction methods allow, the researchers say. A building could also be completely customized to the needs of a particular site and the desires of its maker, even the internal structure.

Ultimately, the researchers say, this approach could enable the design and construction of new kinds of buildings that would not be feasible with traditional building methods.

Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/3-d-printing-buildings-0426

Not stuck on silicon

In 2016, annual global semiconductor sales reached their highest-ever point, at $339 billion worldwide. In that same year, the semiconductor industry spent about $7.2 billion worldwide on wafers that serve as the substrates for microelectronics components, which can be turned into transistors, light-emitting diodes, and other electronic and photonic devices.

A new technique developed by MIT engineers may vastly reduce the overall cost of wafer technology and enable devices made from more exotic, higher-performing semiconductor materials than conventional silicon. The new method uses graphene — single-atom-thin sheets of graphite — as a sort of “copy machine” to transfer intricate crystalline patterns from an underlying semiconductor wafer to a top layer of identical material. Learn more at  http://news.mit.edu/2017/graphene-copy-machine-cheaper-semiconductor-wafers-0419

MIT researchers launch technology evaluations for global development in Mali, India

The Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) at MIT has announced its 2017 product evaluations. CITE, which is based in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, was created in 2012 with support from the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Higher Education Solutions Network. The pioneering program is dedicated to developing methodologies for product evaluation globally.

Over the next year, the interdisciplinary program will bring together faculty, staff, and students from across MIT to evaluate two new product families — vegetable cooling and storage technology, and food packaging — and to kick off a new collaboration to better understand decision support for post-harvest storage technologies.

Learn more at http://news.mit.edu/2017/researchers-launch-technology-evaluations-for-global-development-in-mali-india-0406