Shielding ice sheets
These days, the to-do list of Leslie Field (M.S.’88, Ph.D.’91 EECS) is dominated by one major item: “I wrote ‘habitable planet’ on my task list,” she says. “Otherwise, my kids are doomed.”
Last winter, according to NASA, the area covered by Arctic ice hit a record low since scientists first started tracking ice-cap movements by satellite in 1979.
“I thought if I could do something about this, it would be huge,” Field says. “I realized that replacing the layer of reflective ice that is being lost could be approached as a materials challenge.”
So she founded Ice911, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing systems to be deployed on the planet’s receding ice sheets.
Ice911’s technology consists of salt-grain sized hollow glass spheres that boost the reflectivity of existing low-albedo ice (albedo is a measure of how much radiation is reflected). The material is sprinkled on vulnerable ice, and is essentially made of silica, the main component in sand. “It’s embarrassingly simple as a concept,” Field says. “Hollow glass spheres are everywhere — in paints and building materials, basically wherever there’s a need to make things lightweight and not thermally conductive. Some of them are even bright white.”
“This is just to buy time until we adopt new energy technologies and become more energy-efficient. If you are going to build a band-aid, then you have to make sure it’s not going to do any harm, and be able to undo it in case there is some kind of unintended side effect,” Field says.
And, given the substantial data showing that Arctic ice is hitting record lows, Field is motivated by a sense of urgency. “Our growing team is working on this as fast as we can, and with hope that this is just in time,” she says.