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Sustaining our mission, shaping the conversation

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Looking back to the start of the pandemic, I am struck by our community’s formidable strength. In March 2020, we did not know what it would take to sustain MIT’s great mission through this crisis. Since then, we have found a way together, and we have made it work. That accomplishment belongs to every member of our community—and thanks to our immense shared effort, MIT is still MIT. We forge ahead with the same passion for the Institute’s mission, the same distinctive practical optimism, the same gaze toward the future. And many members of our community, including our alumni, are actively pursuing research and innovation to better understand the virus and help humanity contain it.

As the United States strives to respond to complex crises from covid-19 to climate change, I believe that the perspective of our community—analytical, hands-on, grounded in facts and science, attuned to complex systems, and undaunted by hard problems—should be very well represented in the national conversation.

One way each of us can help bring that about is through voting. So I am delighted to highlight the ongoing work of MITvote, a student-run, nonpartisan organization focused exclusively on encouraging MIT students to register and vote and to become civically engaged. Thanks to MITvote, from 2014 to 2018, voter turnout among our students more than tripled. And this past fall, MITvote volunteers personally emailed 7,502 MIT students who are US citizens, to help each of them form a voting plan.

MITvote’s results would be impressive on any campus. But I especially admire its success because I have been at MIT long enough to know that sometimes people who are deeply focused on science and engineering feel that politics is not for them. They may believe that it is irrational or even irrelevant, or that one vote cannot make a difference. 

For those who feel that way, I would like to reframe the issue. When we listen to a symphony orchestra, amid all that sound, the addition of any single instrument may be hard to hear. But when the whole brass section starts playing, it changes everything. So I hope that each of us can think of voting in this way:  Not as a “solo” gesture. Not as the act of a single individual that may or may not be noticed. But as a great shared civic act that we all perform together, in concert.

As individuals, we naturally disagree on many questions. But I am convinced that through active civic engagement, including voting at the local, state, and federal levels and extending far beyond that, too, the people of MIT can be profoundly useful to their communities and to society as a whole.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

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Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million toward a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.” It’s unclear if this is a contribution to another organization that is putting together a prize such as the Xprize or if this is another Musk-led production.

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible products such as converting ethanol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks. Carbon Engineering is a Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

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Chinese esports player VSPN closes $60M Series B+ round to boost its international strategy

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eSports “total solutions provider” VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has closed a $60 million Series B+ funding round, joined by Prospect Avenue Capital (PAC), Guotai Junan International, and Nan Fung Group.

VSPN facilitates esports competitions in China, which is a massive industry and has expanded into related areas such as esports venues. It is the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for a number of top competitions, partnering with more than 70% of China’s eSports tournaments.

The “B+” funding round comes only three months after the company raised around $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings.

This funding round will, among other things, be used to branch out VSPN’s overseas esports services.

Dino Ying, Founder, and CEO of VSPN said in a statement: “The esports industry is through its nascent phase and is entering a new era. In this coming year, we at VSPN look forward to showcasing diversified esports products and content… and we are counting the days until the pandemic is over.”

Ming Liao, the co-founder of PAC, commented: “As a one-of-its-kind company in the capital market, VSPN is renowned for its financial management; these credentials will be strong foundations for VSPN’s future development.”

Xuan Zhao, Head of Private Equity at Guotai Junan International said: “We at Guotai Junan International are very optimistic of VSPN’s sharp market insight as well as their team’s exceptional business model.”

Meng Gao, Managing Director at Nan Fung Group’s CEO’s Office said: “Nan Fung is honored to be a part of this round of investment for VSPN in strengthening their current business model and promoting the rapid development of emerging services and the esports streaming ecosystem.”

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Google’s parent firm is shutting down Loon connectivity project

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Google’s parent firm Alphabet is done exploring with the idea of using giant balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.

The firm said on Thursday evening that it was winding down Loon after failing to find a sustainable business model and willing partners. The demise of Loon comes a year after Android-maker ended Google Station, its other major connectivity effort. Through Station, Google provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India and sought to replicate the model in other public places in more nations.

That said, Alphabet’s move is still surprising. Just last year, Loon had secured approval from the government of Kenya to launch first balloons to provide commercial connectivity services in Kenya — something it did successfully achieve months later, giving an impression that things were moving in the right direction.

Perhaps the growing interest of SpaceX and Amazon in this space influenced Alphabet’s decision — otherwise, the two firms are going to have to answer some difficult feasibility questions of their own in the future.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.

“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The blog post, which makes no mention of what will happen to Loon’s existing operations in Kenya, characterised Loon’s connectivity effort as successful. “The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere. The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem. In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions,” wrote Westgarth.

More to follow…

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