Former MIT Energy Initiative researcher Ian Miller SM ’19, along with Evan Platt SM ’20, is funneling aid and expertise to the front line.
Deborah Halber | MIT Energy Initiative
Within 72 hours of the first Russian missiles striking Kyiv, Ukraine, in February 2022, Ian Miller SM ’19 boarded a flight for Poland.
Later, he’d say he felt motivated by Kyiv’s “tragic ocean of suffering” and Ukrainian President Zelensky’s pleas for help. But he arrived with little notion of what to do.
As he’d anticipated, his hotel in Rzeszów turned out to be a hub for aid workers and journalists. Miller was on his laptop, using the lobby Wi-Fi to work remotely as an MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) project manager, when he overheard a reporter interviewing a Finnish man about his efforts to get bulletproof vests and helmets to the front lines.
Miller soon found himself loading supplies onto trains that had brought huge numbers of refugees — mostly women, children, and the elderly — to the station in Rzeszów. The trains ran back at night, their empty seats filled with medical supplies, generators, and baby food, their lights dimmed to reduce the chances of attack.
In April 2022, Miller and volunteers from a half-dozen countries planned and drove a convoy of trucks packed with tourniquets, bandages, and bulletproof vests across the border, arriving at the site of the Bucha massacre soon after the Russians retreated.
Miller peered into a mass grave. “They were still excavating it, and those weren’t soldiers, you know?” he says. “I try to avoid looking at things like that too often, because it doesn’t help us save lives to be horrified all the time.” He downplays any potential danger to himself, telling his family he’s safer where he is than in parts of the United States.
Soon after his first trip across the border, Miller convinced his former MIT roommate, Evan Platt SM ’20, to come help. “Just for a week,” he told Platt.
Inspired by energy
Miller and Platt met in 2008 in Washington, where Platt was interning at the White House and Miller was about to start his senior year at Georgetown University.
Miller majored in government, but his interest in energy policy and technology grew during the years after graduation he spent teaching science to primary and secondary school students in New York, where he’d grown up; in Boston; and in Kampala, Uganda. “Some of the most fun, inspiring, engaging lessons and modules I did with the kids were focused on energy,” he recalls.
While pursuing an MIT master of science in chemical engineering from 2016 to 2018, he started researching photovoltaics and wind power. He held leadership positions with the MIT Energy Conference and the MIT Energy Club.
After joining MITEI, Miller worked on electric vehicles (EVs), EV charging patterns, and other applications. He became project manager and research specialist for the Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME), which models the levels of greenhouse gas emissions from multiple energy sectors in future scenarios.
Miller and Platt reconnected and shared an apartment for three years. Platt studied systems design and management through a joint MIT School of Engineering and Sloan School of Management program, then stayed on to work for the MIT Technology Licensing Office.
Platt left MIT to pursue other interests in 2020. The next time the two would see each other would be in Poland.
“It’s not easy living and working in an active combat zone,” Platt says. “There is nobody on Earth I would rather be navigating this environment with than Ian.”
Navigating the last mile
In Rzeszów and Ukraine, Miller and U.S. Air Force veteran Mark Lindquist oversaw fulfillment for the new team. With the help of Google Translate, their phones lit up with encrypted texts to and from Polish customs agents and Ukrainian warehouse operators.
Platt and two Ukrainian team members took the lead on a needs analysis of what was most in demand at the front. Another team member led procurement. Their efforts crystallized in the creation of Zero Line, a tax-exempt nonprofit that works closely with the Ukrainian government at the front line (a.k.a. “the zero line”).
With Platt on board, “we got more rigorous and quantitative in terms of lives-saved-per-dollar,” Miller says. A hundred dollars buys four tourniquets. A thousand dollars adds crude steel armor to a Jeep. Two thousand dollars provides a small observation drone or a satellite phone, equipment that locates Russian artillery and detects Russian attacks.
“Russian artillery shells are the No. 1 killer of Ukrainians, causing around 80 percent of casualties,” he says. “Tourniquets save people injured by Russian shells, vehicles help evacuate them, and communications equipment prevents deadly injuries from occurring in the first place.”
Miller’s skills in transportation and power system modeling, developed at MITEI under Principal Research Scientist Emre Gençer, helped the team transport more than 150 used vehicles — Nissan Pathfinders and vans for moving civilians away from the front, Ford pickups for transporting anti-missile defense systems — and hundreds of batteries, generators, drones, bulletproof vests, and helmets to the front through nightmarish logistical bottlenecks.
Typically, supplies from the United States, Asia, and elsewhere in Europe move through Gdansk and Warsaw, then proceed via train or vehicle to warehouses in Lviv, around 70 kilometers east of the border. Next is the seven-hour trip to Kyiv or the 12-hour drive to Dnipro (the current southern edge of the safe “green zone”) and the final 200 kilometers to the front. Here, says Miller, drivers with training and protective gear, often members of the Ukrainian military, take vehicles and supplies to front-line end users.
“From day one, we asked our Ukrainian members and partners for introductions, and we’re constantly looking for more,” Miller says. “When our vehicles reach the front lines, Evan’s team always does interviews about needs, and what’s working, what’s not. What’s saving the most lives.”
“From my early days with Ian, it’s clear he was always looking for ways to help people. Connections were really important to him,” says MITEI Director Robert C. Armstrong. “When war broke out, he found the call to answer human need irresistible. I think many of us think of doing that, but we get bogged down in the mechanics of everyday life. He just picked up and went.
“Ian is just a terrific person and a great role model,” Armstrong says.
From the time Miller arrived in late February through October 2022, he continued working remotely for MITEI. He now works full time as co-director of Zero Line. For the foreseeable future, Miller will remain in Ukraine and Poland.
He wants to see Ukrainians “follow in the happy, free, prospering footsteps of other ex-Soviet states, like the Baltics,” he says. He’d like to see the supply-chain innovations he and Platt achieved applied to humanitarian crises elsewhere.
To date, Zero Line has raised more than $5 million in donations and delivered hundreds of tons of high-impact aid. “A key part of our approach has always been to support Ukrainians who excel in saving lives,” Miller says. To that end, the group works with Ukrainian software programmers and military units to create digital maps and processes to replace paper maps and operations “reminiscent of World War II,” Platt says. “Modernizing the intelligence infrastructure to facilitate better military operations is an important part of how a smaller military can beat a larger, more powerful military.”
The fact that energy underlies so many aspects of the war is never far from Miller’s mind. Russia cut off energy supplies to Europe, then targeted Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. On one hand, he understands that billions of people in developing countries such as India need and deserve affordable energy. On the other hand, he says, oil and gas purchases by those countries are directly funding Russia’s war machine.
“Everyone wants cheap renewables and we’re getting there, but it’s taking time. Lowering the costs of renewables and energy storage and supporting nascent commercial fusion — that’s a very important focus of MITEI. In the long run, that’ll help us reach a more peaceful world, without a doubt.”
Work at MITEI and at Zero Line, Miller says, “truly could accelerate peace.”