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Students dive into research with the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium

Through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, students explore research topics relevant to their own interests, the MCSC, and member companies.
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Grid of nine portrait photos plus the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium logo
MIT undergraduates who participated in MCSC UROPs last fall include: (top row, left to right) Hannah Spilman, Claire Kim, Alfonso Restrepo, Cameron Dougal, and James Santoro; (bottom row, left to right) Tess Buchanan, Kezia Hector, Tamsin Nottage, and Ellie Vaserman.
Photos courtesy of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium.

Throughout the fall 2021 semester, the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC) supported several research projects with a climate-and-sustainability topic related to the consortium, through the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). These students, who represent a range of disciplines, had the opportunity to work with MCSC Impact Fellows on topics related directly to the ongoing work and collaborations with MCSC member companies and the broader MIT community, from carbon capture to value-chain resilience to biodegradables. Many of these students are continuing their work this spring semester.

Hannah Spilman, who is studying chemical engineering, worked with postdoc Glen Junor, an MCSC Impact Fellow, to investigate carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), with the goal of facilitating CCUS on a gigaton scale, a much larger capacity than what currently exists. “Scientists agree CCUS will be an important tool in combating climate change, but the largest CCUS facility only captures CO2 on a megaton scale, and very few facilities are actually operating,” explains Spilman. 

Throughout her UROP, she worked on analyzing the currently deployed technology in the CCUS field, using National Carbon Capture Center post-combustion project reports to synthesize the results and outline those technologies. Examining projects like the RTI-NAS experiment, which showcased innovation with carbon capture technology, was especially helpful. “We must first understand where we are, and as we continue to conduct analyses, we will be able to understand the field’s current state and path forward,” she concludes.

Fellow chemical engineering students Claire Kim and Alfonso Restrepo are working with postdoc and MCSC Impact Fellow Xiangkun (ElvisCao, also on investigating CCUS technology. Kim's focus is on life cycle assessment (LCA), while Restrepo's focus is on techno-economic assessment (TEA). They have been working together to use the two tools to evaluate multiple CCUS technologies. While LCA and TEA are not new tools themselves, their application in CCUS has not been comprehensively defined and described. “CCUS can play an important role in the flexible, low-carbon energy systems,” says Kim, which was part of the motivation behind her project choice.

Through TEA, Restrepo has been investigating how various startups and larger companies are incorporating CCUS technology in their processes. “In order to reduce CO2 emissions before it’s too late to act, there is a strong need for resources that effectively evaluate CCUS technology, to understand the effectiveness and viability of emerging technology for future implementation,” he explains. For their next steps, Kim and Restrepo will apply LCA and TEA to the analysis of a specific capture (for example, direct ocean capture) or conversion (for example, CO2-to-fuel conversion) process​ in CCUS.

Cameron Dougal, a first-year student, and James Santoro, studying management, both worked with postdoc and MCSC Impact Fellow Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas on biodegradable materials. Dougal explored biodegradable packaging film in urban systems. “I have had a longstanding interest in sustainability, with a newer interest in urban planning and design, which motivated me to work on this project,” Dougal says. “Bio-based plastics are a promising step for the future.”

Dougal spent time conducting internet and print research, as well as speaking with faculty on their relevant work. From these efforts, Dougal has identified important historical context for the current recycling landscape — as well as key case studies and cities around the world to explore further. In addition to conducting more research, Dougal plans to create a summary and statistic sheet.

Santoro dove into the production angle, working on evaluating the economic viability of the startups that are creating biodegradable materials. “Non-renewable plastics (created with fossil fuels) continue to pollute and irreparably damage our environment,” he says. “As we look for innovative solutions, a key question to answer is how can we determine a more effective way to evaluate the economic viability and probability of success for new startups and technologies creating biodegradable plastics?” The project aims to develop an effective framework to begin to answer this.

At this point, Santoro has been understanding the overall ecosystem, understanding how these biodegradable materials are developed, and analyzing the economics side of things. He plans to have conversations with company founders, investors, and experts, and identify major challenges for biodegradable technology startups in creating high performance products with attractive unit economics. There is also still a lot to research about new technologies and trends in the industry, the profitability of different products, as well as specific individual companies doing this type of work.

Tess Buchanan, who is studying materials science and engineering, is working with Katharina Fransen and Sarah Av-Ron, MIT graduate students in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and principal investigator Professor Bradley Olsen, to also explore biodegradables by looking into their development from biomass “This is critical work, given the current plastics sustainability crisis, and the potential of bio-based polymers,” Buchanan says.

The objective of the project is to explore new sustainable polymers through a biodegradation assay using clear zone growth analysis to yield degradation rates. For next steps, Buchanan is diving into synthesis expansion and using machine learning to understand the relationship between biodegradation and polymer chemistry.

Kezia Hector, studying chemical engineering, and Tamsin Nottage, a first-year student, working with postdoc and MCSC Impact Fellow Sydney Sroka, explored advancing and establishing sustainable solutions for value chain resilience. Hector’s focus was understanding how wildfires can affect supply chains, specifically identifying sources of economic loss. She reviewed academic literature and news articles, and looked at the Amazon, California, Siberia, and Washington, finding that wildfires cause millions of dollars in damage every year and impact supply chains by cutting off or slowing down freight activity. She will continue to identify ways to make supply chains more resilient and sustainable.

Nottage focused on the economic impact of typhoons, closely studying Typhoon Mangkhut, a powerful and catastrophic tropical cyclone that caused extensive damages of $593 million in Guam, the Philippines, and South China in September 2018. “As a Bahamian, I’ve witnessed the ferocity of hurricanes and challenges of rebuilding after them,” says Nottage. “I used this project to identify the tropical cyclones that caused the most extensive damage for further investigation.”

She compiled the causes of damage and their costs to inform targets of supply chain resiliency reform (shipping, building materials, power supply, etc.). As a next step, Nottage will focus on modeling extreme events like Mangkunt to develop frameworks that companies can learn from and utilize to build more sustainable supply chains in the future.

Ellie Vaserman, a first-year student working with postdoc and MCSC Impact Fellow Poushali Maji, also explored a topic related to value chains: unlocking circularity across the entire value chain through quality improvement, inclusive policy, and behavior to improve materials recovery. Specifically, her objectives have been to learn more about methods of chemolysis and the viability of their products, to compare methods of chemical recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) using quantitative metrics, and to design qualitative visuals to make the steps in PET chemical recycling processes more understandable.

To do so, she conducted a literature review to identify main methods of chemolysis that are utilized in the field (and collect data about these methods) and created graphics for some of the more common processes. Moving forward, she hopes to compare the processes using other metrics and research the energy intensity of the monomer purification processes.

The work of these students, as well as many others, continued over MIT’s Independent Activities Period in January.

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