Mechanical engineer and entrepreneur Melinda Hale, SM ’09, PhD ’13, is putting a modern spin on the old saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Her startup, Loci Controls, is using automation to help landfills generate more energy and, ultimately, more profit from the gas produced by decomposing trash.
Landfill gas (or LFG) is a greenhouse gas that’s composed primarily of methane and carbon dioxide; it’s also highly flammable and can displace oxygen in nearby buildings. “And on a practical note, it stinks,” Hale says. Many large landfills are required by law to extract this gas before it escapes into the atmosphere. Most burn it off, but an increasing number are implementing landfill-gas-to-energy (LFGTE) systems that suck up the gas and convert it to energy to sell to the electric grid. Monitoring and adjusting these manually operated systems, however, is a laborious and complicated process, so, Hale says, landfills often end up missing out on profits from leaked LFG—and contending with leaks, fines, and fires.
As an MIT grad student, Hale engineered an automated solution as a side project to her PhD work. In 2012, she started Loci (pronounced low-sigh) to commercialize her invention: a solar-powered wireless sensor network whose algorithms optimize removal of landfill gas.
Loci—which Hale, now 26, cofounded with Sloan students Andrew Campanella ’05, SM ’13, and Lesley Yu, SM ’14—is piloting its product at two landfills in Massachusetts and one in Vermont. The aim, Hale says, is to help landfills more effectively manage their LFG and turn it into a useful product while gathering potentially valuable data on landfill management. “Why not get the most from your trash?” Hale says. “It’s not going anywhere, so we may as well use it to the max.”
Over Loci’s first year, Hale and her colleagues participated in MIT’s Founders’ Skills Accelerator program and reached the finals in MIT’s $100K Accelerate competition and other local business competitions. In January 2013, Loci set up shop in the Industry Lab in Cambridge to build a prototype because, Hale says, “it was a fire hazard to keep my welding gear in my dorm.” Last July, the startup entered the inaugural class of Bolt, Boston’s new six-month accelerator that provides office space, funding, mentors, and engineering staff to hardware startups.
Bolt also has a machine shop—but Hale can’t let it distract her from her entrepreneurial duties. “I’d like to spend all my time building things,” she says. “But that’s not how you build a business.”
Hale is officially Loci’s chief technology officer. But as a founder, she’s also handling accounting, calculating payroll, interviewing potential employees, hashing out legal issues, and collaborating on business strategy.
She’s found it challenging to shift her focus from product design to customer needs—what she calls “learning to see engineering problems from a business perspective.” “In engineering it is common to try and put as many exciting features in a product as possible,” she says. “In business, however, new features are only useful if the customer explicitly needs them.”
Loci’s potential customers include the roughly 600 LFGTE landfills in the United States. These landfills use centralized vacuums to suck LFG through a network of underground pipes into a compression system. There the gas is filtered and passed through a series of heating and cooling processes, which turn it into a fuel that can be used to produce electricity.
Dozens of LFG collection points are located throughout a landfill, and a technician must monitor and tweak them individually. That’s tricky as well as time-consuming, since LFG production varies greatly and the vacuum’s power must constantly be adjusted. Set it too high and the suction can pull oxygen into the trash, causing underground fires or killing anaerobic bacteria needed for decomposition. Too weak and the leftover gas leaks, leading to lost profits and fines from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Loci uses wireless sensor networks that measure the amount of LFG produced at these gas collection points. Then a custom algorithm figures out what adjustments will result in optimal LFG removal. Users can access detailed information about the system using a Web-based interface.
“We optimize for maximum methane percentage, constant flow rate, lowest odor risk, or any other desired outcome depending on the needs of the site,” Hale says. Tom Yeransian, co-owner of the landfill-gas-to-energy plant CommonWealth Resource Management, which is piloting the technology at the Crapo Hill Landfill in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, calls it a “unique and useful tool.”
Loci also plans to amass data on LFG and landfill operations to stimulate further research. “Data is king,” says Hale. “Having as much data as possible gives you an understanding of the processes in the world. Once you understand how a process works, you can control it.”
For Hale, launching a startup is the culmination of a lifelong love affair with engineering. At age six, she was already tinkering away in her family’s two-story garage in New York, which had a machine shop and the inventory her family had bought from an out-of-business hardware store. “I never lacked the right size screw for any project,” she says.
Hale studied mechanical engineering at Oklahoma State University, but for grad school, the only choice was MIT: alma mater of her mechanical engineer father, Michael Hale, SM ’85, PhD ’89. At the Institute, she quickly gravitated to MIT’s Lab for Manufacturing and Productivity, which she describes as “the closest you can come to industry in academia.”
Under the tutelage of her father’s academic advisor, mechanical engineering professor David Hardt, Hale developed a low-cost method for rapidly manufacturing micrometer-size microfluidic chips, which are etched with interconnected channels and often used to detect signs of disease in a drop of blood.
Existing methods to manufacture these “labs on a chip” produce either a few at a time out of silicone or tens of thousands through costly injection molding. But Hale uses “hot embossing,” pressing a chip pattern onto a heated polymer to produce hundreds to thousands of accurate chips cheaply and rapidly. Her method requires only desktop-size equipment that could be made for roughly $10,000, and it produces a chip every two minutes. Hardt says her work “potentially opens up an entirely new route for product development and to scale up to mass production.”
As a PhD student, Hale developed an inexpensive way to add tiny wires that could control electronic components on the chip. A rubber-stamp-like device rolls strips of silver-laced ink onto the chips; when dried, the strips are conductive and act as wires.
Theoretically, Hale says, this method holds promise for creating a wide range of devices on the cheap. For example, printing the wires on a flexible substrate, such as plastic, could lead to “a phone that you could roll up and put in your pocket.”
Intrigued by the commercial possibilities of her inventions, Hale enrolled in entrepreneurship classes at Sloan and helped organize the MIT Global Startup Workshop. But when her father told her about the problems with LFGTE systems, she couldn’t resist a more immediate opportunity to take the startup route, where she could have control over business growth and product design. So for now, she’s forgoing further work on microfluidic chips to concentrate on getting Loci off the ground—and, she hopes, selling its product commercially this spring. “It’s a high-risk, high-reward environment,” she says. “But MIT is inspiring in that way.”