Engineering Environmental Solutions

Problems that seem too daunting in complexity to many people are apparently not beyond tackling by MIT Professor Desiree Plata, the Gilbert W. Winslow Professor in Civil Engineering. Taking a positive approach to difficult challenges, she works on devising innovative solutions to engineering problems that include environmental objectives. Speaking on May 3, 2022, Dr. Plata gave the sixth Bendheim Lecture, a speaker series established by a Middlesex parent in 2015 to bring inspiring experts in STEM fields to campus to share their professional experience.

A self-described “free-range kid” who grew up in Portland, Maine, Professor Plata remembered being concerned about the environment early on, even entering (and winning) an Earth Day Pledge Contest at age eight. Remarkably, she also noticed that a pattern of illnesses – cancer and neurological disorders – was occurring around her grandmother’s neighborhood in nearby Gray, Maine, and felt that something in the vicinity must be causing it.

She was right. A seven-acre property in town was a Superfund site, a location where buried industrial chemical waste had leached into residents’ private wells, contaminating their drinking water. Her aunt was among those whose life was cut short by cancer. “Things like this just shouldn’t happen,” Professor Plata stated. “When I stay up late working, it’s for her and people like her. We have to help manufacturers do the right thing from the start and find a solution that is environmentally responsible and economically viable. We need people working hard to find solutions.”

If it seemed that her journey from Maine to MIT must have been a straightforward one, Professor Plata showed that this was not so, sharing a list of her college acceptances and rejections, which had upset her back then. From it, however, she learned, “There is always a path forward, though it might be a little different than you thought it would be.” As it turned out, Union College was a great place for her; the personalized attention there and access to labs and equipment launched her on a course toward a meaningful career, one that combines both research and teaching.

And when difficult times arise – as they certainly will – Professor Plata recommended three approaches that have sustained her: Think positive, be forgiving, and focus on problems that are bigger than you.

In the Plata Lab at MIT, she takes on formidable problems with a focus on energy. Briefly reviewing the “changing energy landscape,” she noted that while the use of coal is shrinking, the growth of renewable sources, like solar and natural gas, has been massive. But to continue in this direction, away from fossil fuels, a better electrical grid is needed for power distribution, along with batteries made of materials that are less environmentally damaging.

The challenges in this area may be significant, yet she advised, “Don’t get depressed. Think how you might solve this.”

With this mindset, Professor Plata has explored problems related to natural gas production, looking to minimize its environmental impacts. Since increased hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – has raised concerns that the liquids injected into bedrock formations might contaminate private wells, she waded into this familiar territory. After analyzing both groundwater and samples from homes in the Appalachian area, Professor Plata found that chemical contamination was quite uncommon.

Unfortunately, what is common in fracking is the release of large quantities of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. In thinking about how this might be counteracted, Professor Plata wondered, “Could we pull methane out of the air?” By combining zeolite and copper in the lab, she has indeed found a way to trap and destroy methane. She is now trying to scale this technology out of the lab, seeing it as one potential way to help reduce global warming.

“You can all make a difference,” Professor Plata stressed. “You’ve just got to map onto something you love.” Given all the world’s problems to be addressed, she concluded, “You are needed.”