MIT’s Langer, Renowned for Inventing Solutions to Medical Problems, Strives to Do the Same for Hurricanes

10/10/08

When renowned MIT professor (and Xconomist) Bob Langer spoke last month at our Xconomy Forum on building life sciences companies—a task at which he has been exceedingly successful—we weren’t expecting him to mention that he has struggled for some eight years to raise money to study “hurricane mitigation.”

It turns out that Langer—a chemical engineer whose inventions primarily in the realm of drug delivery and medical devices have led to more than 600 issued or pending patents and over 200 licenses to companies—has been involved in the field of weather modification since the late 1990s. And though he acknowledges that this hasn’t been one of his main focuses, he has contributed ideas about how to weaken the destructive force of hurricanes and even has spent his own money to fund research on the problem at MIT.

“Any idea that I feel will improve peoples’ lives is something I want to do,” Langer says. “It’s hard for me to understand why more people don’t work in this area, not that I’m any expert.”

Langer says he believes hurricane mitigation is a chemical engineering problem. Hurricanes draw energy from the heat of evaporated seawater, gaining power as they move over tropical oceans, often not slowing down until they hit land—and devastate populated coastal areas in the process. Langer is thinking about ways to interfere with the energy transferred from the ocean up to the hurricane. It’s a tough nut to crack, however.

His initial idea was to spread a biodegradable substance over the ocean and in front of hurricanes, hypothesizing that the substance would limit the energy transfer from the water to the storm. Indeed, the Boston Globe in 1999 chronicled how Langer and the late famed cancer researcher Judah Folkman first discussed this idea after the two collaborated to solve a routine clinical problem: how to cool the uncomfortable heat that casts generate as they harden on patients. They fixed that problem by adding a chemical called urea, according to the Globe article, and the solution prompted the pair of biomedical research luminaries to discuss how much of the chemical would be needed to weaken a hurricane.

A few weeks ago Langer put me in touch with Moshe Alamaro, an MIT engineer who has led the hurricane-modification research that Langer has supported financially and scientifically. In a wind-wave tank that simulates hurricane environments, Alamaro has tested the use of a substance such as Langer proposed to prevent the evaporation that feeds the storms, but he discovered several years ago that typical wind near the storm would mix the substance into the water and limit its utility, according to a paper he co-wrote in the Journal of Weather Modification in 2006. (Alamaro’s personal Web site includes links to several papers and articles about the 60-odd-year effort of scientists to reduce the impact of hurricanes.)

Alamaro says that he has submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to continue his hurricane research. (He and atmospheric scientist Ross Hoffman have proposed to drop carbon particles from cargo planes onto the top of hurricanes’ cool ceilings, with the intent of the particles heating up under the sun and interrupting the normal flow of energy in the storms.) Langer says that his past efforts to raise money from the government for hurricane mitigation research have been unsuccessful, and Alamaro notes that there are still public perception hurdles to gaining federal dollars for this work.

To hear Alamaro talk about it, the field of weather modification has plenty of detractors. He notes that changing the course of hurricanes can cause the storms to hit areas that would have been otherwise left unaffected by them, and such actions come with obvious legal ramifications. He says he has also received death threats. “You must understand something about weather modification: one man’s blessing is another man’s curse,” Alamaro says.

Still, Langer and Alamaro believe that the overall impact of reducing the ferocity of hurricanes would have a net benefit for humanity. Langer equates the mitigation of hurricanes to treating diseases. “If you catch cancer early enough you may be able to stop it, and I think that is true with a lot of diseases,” he says. “I think the same thing is probably true with hurricanes.”

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