Technology

Two Latin Americans are on MIT's annual list of 35 innovators under 35

Brazilian Adriana Schulz and Venezuelan Miguel Modestino are 34 years old and revolutionizing tech industry

Adriana Schulz and Miguel Modestino. Photo: MIT Technology Review
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  • Adriana Schulz developed tools that let anyone design products without having to understand materials science or engineering;
  • Miguel Modestino is reducing the chemical industry’s carbon footprint by using AI to optimize reactions with electricity instead of heat.

MIT Technology Review published its annual list of 35 innovators under 35. Among them, two Latin American: Brazilian Adriana Schulz and Venezuelan Miguel Modestino.

Brazilian Adriana Schulz and Venezuelan Miguel Modestino. Photo: MIT Technology Review

MIT’s list of innovators under 35 has been presented for 20 years. “We do it to highlight the things young innovators are working on, to show at least some of the possible directions that technology will take in the coming decade”, says MIT.

Adriana Schulz is 34 and graduated from University of Washington. According to MIT, she developed computer-based design tools that let average users and engineers alike use graphical drag-and-drop interfaces to create functional, complex objects as diverse as robots and birdhouses without having to understand their underlying mechanics, geometries, or materials.

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“What excites me is that we’re about to enter the next phase in manufacturing—a new manufacturing revolution,” she said. MIT also reports that one of her creations is Interactive Robogami, a tool she built to let anyone design rudimentary robots. A user designs the shape and trajectory of a ground-based robot on the screen.

Schulz’s system automatically translates the raw design into a schematic that can be built from standard or 3D-printed parts. Another of the tools she and her collaborators built lets users design drones to meet their chosen requirements for payload, battery life, and cost. The algorithms in her system incorporate materials science and control systems, and they automatically output a fabrication plan and control software. 

Schulz is now helping start the University of Washington Center for Digital Fabrication, which she will co-direct. She will work with local technology and manufacturing companies to move her tools out of the lab.

Miguel Modestino is also 34. According to MIT, he has cleared a major hurdle in electrifying the chemical industry, which produces compounds used in everything from plastics to fertilizer.

His AI-based system teaches itself how to optimize the reactions for making various chemicals by zapping them with pulses of electricity instead of the conventional approach of heating them, which typically involves burning fossil fuels. And since electricity can come from renewable sources like wind or solar, electrifying chemical plants could greatly reduce emissions. 

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MIT also reports that in an early lab project, Modestino’s team achieved more than a 30% boost in the production rate of adiponitrile (which is used in making nylon, among numerous other industrial processes)a greater improvement than any other method has shown in the last 50 years.

The key was using complex pulses of electrical current at constantly varying rates to optimize yields. Figuring out what patterns of pulses to use required machine learning. Modestino ran a few experiments making adiponitrile under different electrical conditions and then let his AI analyze the data to figure out how to make the compound with less energy, better yields, and less waste. 

Modestino and two former students recently founded Sunthetics to apply the AI system to other chemical processes, like those involved in generating hydrogen fuel and making polymers. The company is also working to scale up the adiponitrile process for a full pilot reactor and to extend the approach to other processes.