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    Q&A: Exploring ethnic dynamics and climate change in Africa

    Evan Lieberman is the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at MIT, and is also director of the Center for International Studies. During a semester-long sabbatical, he’s currently based at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town.In this Q&A, Lieberman discusses several climate-related research projects he’s pursuing in South Africa and surrounding countries. This is part of an ongoing series exploring how the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is addressing the climate crisis.Q: South Africa is a nation whose political and economic development you have long studied and written about. Do you see this visit as an extension of the kind of research you have been pursuing, or a departure from it?A: Much of my previous work has been animated by the question of understanding the causes and consequences of group-based disparities, whether due to AIDS or Covid. These are problems that know no geographic boundaries, and where ethnic and racial minorities are often hardest hit. Climate change is an analogous problem, with these minority populations living in places where they are most vulnerable, in heat islands in cities, and in coastal areas where they are not protected. The reality is they might get hit much harder by longer-term trends and immediate shocks.In one line of research, I seek to understand how people in different African countries, in different ethnic groups, perceive the problems of climate change and their governments’ response to it. There are ethnic divisions of labor in terms of what people do — whether they are farmers or pastoralists, or live in cities. So some ethnic groups are simply more affected by drought or extreme weather than others, and this can be a basis for conflict, especially when competing for often limited government resources.In this area, just like in my previous research, learning what shapes ordinary citizen perspectives is really important, because these views affect people’s everyday practices, and the extent to which they support certain kinds of policies and investments their government makes in response to climate-related challenges. But I will also try to learn more about the perspectives of policymakers and various development partners who seek to balance climate-related challenges against a host of other problems and priorities.Q: You recently published “Until We Have Won Our Liberty,” which examines the difficult transition of South Africa from apartheid to a democratic government, scrutinizing in particular whether the quality of life for citizens has improved in terms of housing, employment, discrimination, and ethnic conflicts. How do climate change-linked issues fit into your scholarship?A: I never saw myself as a climate researcher, but a number of years ago, heavily influenced by what I was learning at MIT, I began to recognize more and more how important the issue of climate change is. And I realized there were lots of ways in which the climate problem resonated with other kinds of problems I had tackled in earlier parts of my work.There was once a time when climate and the environment was the purview primarily of white progressives: the “tree huggers.” And that’s really changed in recent decades as it has become evident that the people who’ve been most affected by the climate emergency are ethnic and racial minorities. We saw with Hurricane Katrina and other places [that] if you are Black, you’re more likely to live in a vulnerable area and to just generally experience more environmental harms, from pollution and emissions, leaving these communities much less resilient than white communities. Government has largely not addressed this inequity. When you look at American survey data in terms of who’s concerned about climate change, Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans are more unified in their worries than are white Americans.There are analogous problems in Africa, my career research focus. Governments there have long responded in different ways to different ethnic groups. The research I am starting looks at the extent to which there are disparities in how governments try to solve climate-related challenges.Q: It’s difficult enough in the United States taking the measure of different groups’ perceptions of the impact of climate change and government’s effectiveness in contending with it. How do you go about this in Africa?A: Surprisingly, there’s only been a little bit of work done so far on how ordinary African citizens, who are ostensibly being hit the hardest in the world by the climate emergency, are thinking about this problem. Climate change has not been politicized there in a very big way. In fact, only 50 percent of Africans in one poll had heard of the term.In one of my new projects, with political science faculty colleague Devin Caughey and political science doctoral student Preston Johnston, we are analyzing social and climate survey data [generated by the Afrobarometer research network] from over 30 African countries to understand within and across countries the ways in which ethnic identities structure people’s perception of the climate crisis, and their beliefs in what government ought to be doing. In largely agricultural African societies, people routinely experience drought, extreme rain, and heat. They also lack the infrastructure that can shield them from the intense variability of weather patterns. But we’re adding a lens, which is looking at sources of inequality, especially ethnic differences.I will also be investigating specific sectors. Africa is a continent where in most places people cannot take for granted universal, piped access to clean water. In Cape Town, several years ago, the combination of failure to replace infrastructure and lack of rain caused such extreme conditions that one of the world’s most important cities almost ran out of water.While these studies are in progress, it is clear that in many countries, there are substantively large differences in perceptions of the severity of climate change, and attitudes about who should be doing what, and who’s capable of doing what. In several countries, both perceptions and policy preferences are differentiated along ethnic lines, more so than with respect to generational or class differences within societies.This is interesting as a phenomenon, but substantively, I think it’s important in that it may provide the basis for how politicians and government actors decide to move on allocating resources and implementing climate-protection policies. We see this kind of political calculation in the U.S. and we shouldn’t be surprised that it happens in Africa as well.That’s ultimately one of the challenges from the perch of MIT, where we’re really interested in understanding climate change, and creating technological tools and policies for mitigating the problem or adapting to it. The reality is frustrating. The political world — those who make decisions about whether to acknowledge the problem and whether to implement resources in the best technical way — are playing a whole other game. That game is about rewarding key supporters and being reelected.Q: So how do you go from measuring perceptions and beliefs among citizens about climate change and government responsiveness to those problems, to policies and actions that might actually reduce disparities in the way climate-vulnerable African groups receive support?A: Some of the work I have been doing involves understanding what local and national governments across Africa are actually doing to address these problems. We will have to drill down into government budgets to determine the actual resources devoted to addressing a challenge, what sorts of practices the government follows, and the political ramifications for governments that act aggressively versus those that don’t. With the Cape Town water crisis, for example, the government dramatically changed residents’ water usage through naming and shaming, and transformed institutional practices of water collection. They made it through a major drought by using much less water, and doing it with greater energy efficiency. Through the government’s strong policy and implementation, and citizens’ active responses, an entire city, with all its disparate groups, gained resilience. Maybe we can highlight creative solutions to major climate-related problems and use them as prods to push more effective policies and solutions in other places.In the MIT Global Diversity Lab, along with political science faculty colleague Volha Charnysh, political science doctoral student Jared Kalow, and Institute for Data, Systems and Society doctoral student Erin Walk, we are exploring American perspectives on climate-related foreign aid, asking survey respondents whether the U.S. should be giving more to people in the global South who didn’t cause the problems of climate change but have to suffer the externalities. We are particularly interested in whether people’s desire to help vulnerable communities rests on the racial or national identity of those communities.From my new seat as director of the Center for International Studies (CIS), I hope to do more and more to connect social science findings to relevant policymakers, whether in the U.S. or in other places. CIS is making climate one of our thematic priority areas, directing hundreds of thousands of dollars for MIT faculty to spark climate collaborations with researchers worldwide through the Global Seed Fund program. COP 28 (the U.N. Climate Change Conference), which I attended in December in Dubai, really drove home the importance of people coming together from around the world to exchange ideas and form networks. It was unbelievably large, with 85,000 people. But so many of us shared the belief that we are not doing enough. We need enforceable global solutions and innovation. We need ways of financing. We need to provide opportunities for journalists to broadcast the importance of this problem. And we need to understand the incentives that different actors have and what sorts of messages and strategies will resonate with them, and inspire those who have resources to be more generous. More

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    Q&A: Claire Walsh on how J-PAL’s King Climate Action Initiative tackles the twin climate and poverty crises

    The King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI) is the flagship climate change program of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which innovates, tests, and scales solutions at the nexus of climate change and poverty alleviation, together with policy partners worldwide.

    Claire Walsh is the associate director of policy at J-PAL Global at MIT. She is also the project director of K-CAI. Here, Walsh talks about the work of K-CAI since its launch in 2020, and describes the ways its projects are making a difference. This is part of an ongoing series exploring how the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is addressing the climate crisis.

    Q: According to the King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI), any attempt to address poverty effectively must also simultaneously address climate change. Why is that?

    A: Climate change will disproportionately harm people in poverty, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, because they tend to live in places that are more exposed to climate risk. These are nations in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia where low-income communities rely heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods, so extreme weather — heat, droughts, and flooding — can be devastating for people’s jobs and food security. In fact, the World Bank estimates that up to 130 million more people may be pushed into poverty by climate change by 2030.

    This is unjust because these countries have historically emitted the least; their people didn’t cause the climate crisis. At the same time, they are trying to improve their economies and improve people’s welfare, so their energy demands are increasing, and they are emitting more. But they don’t have the same resources as wealthy nations for mitigation or adaptation, and many developing countries understandably don’t feel eager to put solving a problem they didn’t create at the top of their priority list. This makes finding paths forward to cutting emissions on a global scale politically challenging.

    For these reasons, the problems of enhancing the well-being of people experiencing poverty, addressing inequality, and reducing pollution and greenhouse gases are inextricably linked.

    Q: So how does K-CAI tackle this hybrid challenge?

    A: Our initiative is pretty unique. We are a competitive, policy-based research and development fund that focuses on innovating, testing, and scaling solutions. We support researchers from MIT and other universities, and their collaborators, who are actually implementing programs, whether NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], government, or the private sector. We fund pilots of small-scale ideas in a real-world setting to determine if they hold promise, followed by larger randomized, controlled trials of promising solutions in climate change mitigation, adaptation, pollution reduction, and energy access. Our goal is to determine, through rigorous research, if these solutions are actually working — for example, in cutting emissions or protecting forests or helping vulnerable communities adapt to climate change. And finally, we offer path-to-scale grants which enable governments and NGOs to expand access to programs that have been tested and have strong evidence of impact.

    We think this model is really powerful. Since we launched in 2020, we have built a portfolio of over 30 randomized evaluations and 13 scaling projects in more than 35 countries. And to date, these projects have informed the scale ups of evidence-based climate policies that have reached over 15 million people.

    Q: It seems like K-CAI is advancing a kind of policy science, demanding proof of a program’s capacity to deliver results at each stage. 

    A: This is one of the factors that drew me to J-PAL back in 2012. I majored in anthropology and studied abroad in Uganda. From those experiences I became very passionate about pursuing a career focused on poverty reduction. To me, it is unfair that in a world full of so much wealth and so much opportunity there exists so much extreme poverty. I wanted to dedicate my career to that, but I’m also a very detail-oriented nerd who really cares about whether a program that claims to be doing something for people is accomplishing what it claims.

    It’s been really rewarding to see demand from governments and NGOs for evidence-informed policymaking grow over my 12 years at J-PAL. This policy science approach holds exciting promise to help transform public policy and climate policy in the coming decades.  

    Q: Can you point to K-CAI-funded projects that meet this high bar and are now making a significant impact?

    A: Several examples jump to mind. In the state of Gujarat, India, pollution regulators are trying to cut particulate matter air pollution, which is devastating to human health. The region is home to many major industries whose emissions negatively affect most of the state’s 70 million residents.

    We partnered with state pollution regulators — kind of a regional EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] — to test an emissions trading scheme that is used widely in the U.S. and Europe but not in low- and middle-income countries. The government monitors pollution levels using technology installed at factories that sends data in real time, so the regulator knows exactly what their emissions look like. The regulator sets a cap on the overall level of pollution, allocates permits to pollute, and industries can trade emissions permits.

    In 2019, researchers in the J-PAL network conducted the world’s first randomized, controlled trial of this emissions trading scheme and found that it cut pollution by 20 to 30 percent — a surprising reduction. It also reduced firms’ costs, on average, because the costs of compliance went down. The state government was eager to scale up the pilot, and in the past two years, two other cities, including Ahmedabad, the biggest city in the state, have adopted the concept.

    We are also supporting a project in Niger, whose economy is hugely dependent on rain-fed agriculture but with climate change is experiencing rapid desertification. Researchers in the J-PAL network have been testing training farmers in a simple, inexpensive rainwater harvesting technique, where farmers dig a half-moon-shaped hole called a demi-lune right before the rainy season. This demi-lune feeds crops that are grown directly on top of it, and helps return land that resembled flat desert to arable production.

    Researchers found that training farmers in this simple technology increased adoption from 4 percent to 94 percent and that demi-lunes increased agricultural output and revenue for farmers from the first year. K-CAI is funding a path-to-scale grant so local implementers can teach this technique to over 8,000 farmers and build a more cost-effective program model. If this takes hold, the team will work with local partners to scale the training to other relevant regions of the country and potentially other countries in the Sahel.

    One final example that we are really proud of, because we first funded it as a pilot and now it’s in the path to scale phase: We supported a team of researchers working with partners in Bangladesh trying to reduce carbon emissions and other pollution from brick manufacturing, an industry that generates 17 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. The scale of manufacturing is so great that at some times of year, Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) looks like Mordor.

    Workers form these bricks and stack hundreds of thousands of them, which they then fire by burning coal. A team of local researchers and collaborators from our J-PAL network found that you can reduce the amount of coal needed for the kilns by making some low-cost changes to the manufacturing process, including stacking the bricks in a way that increases airflow in the kiln and feeding the coal fires more frequently in smaller rather than larger batches.

    In the randomized, controlled trial K-CAI supported, researchers found that this cut carbon and pollution emissions significantly, and now the government has invited the team to train 1,000 brick manufacturers in Dhaka in these techniques.

    Q: These are all fascinating and powerful instances of implementing ideas that address a range of problems in different parts of the world. But can K-CAI go big enough and fast enough to take a real bite out of the twin poverty and climate crisis?

    A: We’re not trying to find silver bullets. We are trying to build a large playbook of real solutions that work to solve specific problems in specific contexts. As you build those up in the hundreds, you have a deep bench of effective approaches to solve problems that can add up in a meaningful way. And because J-PAL works with governments and NGOs that have the capacity to take the research into action, since 2003, over 600 million people around the world have been reached by policies and programs that are informed by evidence that J-PAL-affiliated researchers produced. While global challenges seem daunting, J-PAL has shown that in 20 years we can achieve a great deal, and there is huge potential for future impact.

    But unfortunately, globally, there is an underinvestment in policy innovation to combat climate change that may generate quicker, lower-cost returns at a large scale — especially in policies that determine which technologies get adopted or commercialized. For example, a lot of the huge fall in prices of renewable energy was enabled by early European government investments in solar and wind, and then continuing support for innovation in renewable energy.

    That’s why I think social sciences have so much to offer in the fight against climate change and poverty; we are working where technology meets policy and where technology meets real people, which often determines their success or failure. The world should be investing in policy, economic, and social innovation just as much as it is investing in technological innovation.

    Q: Do you need to be an optimist in your job?

    A: I am half-optimist, half-pragmatist. I have no control over the climate change outcome for the world. And regardless of whether we can successfully avoid most of the potential damages of climate change, when I look back, I’m going to ask myself, “Did I fight or not?” The only choice I have is whether or not I fought, and I want to be a fighter. More

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    Q&A: A blueprint for sustainable innovation

    Atacama Biomaterials is a startup combining architecture, machine learning, and chemical engineering to create eco-friendly materials with multiple applications. Passionate about sustainable innovation, its co-founder Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas SM ’15, PhD ’21 highlights here how MIT has supported the project through several of its entrepreneurship initiatives, and reflects on the role of design in building a holistic vision for an expanding business.

    Q: What role do you see your startup playing in the sustainable materials space?

    A: Atacama Biomaterials is a venture dedicated to advancing sustainable materials through state-of-the-art technology. With my co-founder Jose Tomas Dominguez, we have been working on developing our technology since 2019. We initially started the company in 2020 under another name and received Sandbox funds the next year. In 2021, we went through The Engine’s accelerator, Blueprint, and changed our name to Atacama Biomaterials in 2022 during the MITdesignX program. 

    This technology we have developed allows us to create our own data and material library using artificial intelligence and machine learning, and serves as a platform applicable to various industries horizontally — biofuels, biological drugs, and even mining. Vertically, we produce inexpensive, regionally sourced, and environmentally friendly bio-based polymers and packaging — that is, naturally compostable plastics as a flagship product, along with AI products.

    Q: What motivated you to venture into biomaterials and found Atacama?

    A: I’m from Chile, a country with a beautiful, rich geography and nature where we can see all the problems stemming from industry, waste management, and pollution. We named our company Atacama Biomaterials because the Atacama Desert in Chile — one of the places where you can best see the stars in the world — is becoming a plastic dump, as many other places on Earth. I care deeply about sustainability, and I have an emotional attachment to stop these problems. Considering that manufacturing accounts for 29 percent of global carbon emissions, it is clear that sustainability has a role in how we define technology and entrepreneurship, as well as a socio-economic dimension.

    When I first came to MIT, it was to develop software in the Department of Architecture’s Design and Computation Group, with MIT professors Svafa Gronfeldt as co-advisor and Regina Barzilay as committee member. During my PhD, I studied machine-learning methods simulating pedestrian motion to understand how people move in space. In my work, I would use lots of plastics for 3D printing and I couldn’t stop thinking about sustainability and climate change, so I reached out to material science and mechanical engineering professors to look into biopolymers and degradable bio-based materials. This is how I met my co-founder, as we were both working with MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld. Together, we were part of one of the first teams in the world to 3D print wood fibers, which is difficult — it’s slow and expensive — and quickly pivoted to sustainable packaging. 

    I then won a fellowship from MCSC [the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium], which gave me freedom to explore further, and I eventually got a postdoc in MIT chemical engineering, guided by MIT Professor Gregory Rutledge, a polymer physicist. This was unexpected in my career path. Winning Nucleate Eco Track 2022 and the MITdesignX Innovation Award in 2022 profiled Atacama Biomaterials as one of the rising startups in Boston’s biotechnology and climate-tech scene.

    Q: What is your process to develop new biomaterials?

    A: My PhD research, coupled with my background in material development and molecular dynamics, sparked the realization that principles I studied simulating pedestrian motion could also apply to molecular engineering. This connection may seem unconventional, but for me, it was a natural progression. Early in my career, I developed an intuition for materials, understanding their mechanics and physics.

    Using my experience and skills, and leveraging machine learning as a technology jump, I applied a similar conceptual framework to simulate the trajectories of molecules and find potential applications in biomaterials. Making that parallel and shift was amazing. It allowed me to optimize a state-of-the-art molecular dynamic software to run twice as fast as more traditional technologies through my algorithm presented at the International Conference of Machine Learning this year. This is very important, because this kind of simulation usually takes a week, so narrowing it down to two days has major implications for scientists and industry, in material science, chemical engineering, computer science and related fields. Such work greatly influenced the foundation of Atacama Biomaterials, where we developed our own AI to deploy our materials. In an effort to mitigate the environmental impact of manufacturing, Atacama is targeting a 16.7 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions associated with the manufacturing process of its polymers, through the use of renewable energy. 

    Another thing is that I was trained as an architect in Chile, and my degree had a design component. I think design allows me to understand problems at a very high level, and how things interconnect. It contributed to developing a holistic vision for Atacama, because it allowed me to jump from one technology or discipline to another and understand broader applications on a conceptual level. Our design approach also meant that sustainability came to the center of our work from the very beginning, not just a plus or an added cost.

    Q: What was the role of MITdesignX in Atacama’s development?

    A: I have known Svafa Grönfeldt, MITdesignX’s faculty director, for almost six years. She was the co-advisor of my PhD, and we had a mentor-mentee relationship. I admire the fact that she created a space for people interested in business and entrepreneurship to grow within the Department of Architecture. She and Executive Director Gilad Rosenzweig gave us fantastic advice, and we received significant support from mentors. For example, Daniel Tsai helped us with intellectual property, including a crucial patent for Atacama. And we’re still in touch with the rest of the cohort. I really like this “design your company” approach, which I find quite unique, because it gives us the opportunity to reflect on who we want to be as designers, technologists, and entrepreneurs. Studying user insights also allowed us to understand the broad applicability of our research, and align our vision with market demands, ultimately shaping Atacama into a company with a holistic perspective on sustainable material development.

    Q: How does Atacama approach scaling, and what are the immediate next steps for the company?

    A: When I think about accomplishing our vision, I feel really inspired by my 3-year-old daughter. I want her to experience a world with trees and wildlife when she’s 100 years old, and I hope Atacama will contribute to such a future.

    Going back to the designer’s perspective, we designed the whole process holistically, from feedstock to material development, incorporating AI and advanced manufacturing. Having proved that there is a demand for the materials we are developing, and having tested our products, manufacturing process, and technology in critical environments, we are now ready to scale. Our level of technology-readiness is comparable to the one used by NASA (level 4).

    We have proof of concept: a biodegradable and recyclable packaging material which is cost- and energy-efficient as a clean energy enabler in large-scale manufacturing. We have received pre-seed funding, and are sustainably scaling by taking advantage of available resources around the world, like repurposing machinery from the paper industry. As presented in the MIT Industrial Liaison and STEX Program’s recent Sustainability Conference, unlike our competitors, we have cost-parity with current packaging materials, as well as low-energy processes. And we also proved the demand for our products, which was an important milestone. Our next steps involve strategically expanding our manufacturing capabilities and research facilities and we are currently evaluating building a factory in Chile and establishing an R&D lab plus a manufacturing plant in the U.S. More

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    3 Questions: What should scientists and the public know about nuclear waste?

    Many researchers see an expansion of nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse gas emissions from its power generation, as an essential component of strategies to combat global climate change. Yet there is still strong resistance to such expansion, and much of that is based on the issue of how to safely dispose of the resulting radioactive waste material. MIT recently convened a workshop to help nuclear engineers, policymakers, and academics learn about approaches to communicating accurate information about the management of nuclear waste to students and the public, in hopes of allaying fears and encouraging support for the development of new, safer nuclear power plants around the world.

    Organized by Haruko Wainwright, an MIT assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering and of civil and environmental engineering, the workshop included professors, researchers, industry representatives, and government officials, and was designed to emphasize the multidisciplinary nature of the issue. MIT News asked Wainwright to describe the workshop and its conclusions, which she reported on in a paper just published in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity.

    Q: What was the main objective of the this workshop?

    A: There is a growing concern that, in spite of much excitement about new nuclear reactor deployment and nuclear energy for tackling climate change, relatively less attention is being paid to the thorny question of long-term management of the spent fuel (waste) from these reactors. The government and industry have embraced consent-based siting approaches — that is, finding sites to store and dispose nuclear waste through broad community participation with equity and environmental justice considered. However, many of us in academia feel that those in the industry are missing key facts to communicate to the public.

    Understanding and managing nuclear waste requires a multidisciplinary expertise in nuclear, civil, and chemical engineering as well as environmental and earth sciences. For example, the amount of waste per se, which is always very small for nuclear systems, is not the only factor determining the environmental impacts because some radionuclides in the waste are vastly more mobile than others, and thus can spread farther and more quickly. Nuclear engineers, environmental scientists, and others need to work together to predict the environmental impacts of radionuclides in the waste generated by the new reactors, and to develop waste isolation strategies for an extended time.

    We organized this workshop to ensure this collaborative approach is mastered from the start. A second objective was to develop a blueprint for educating next-generation engineers and scientists about nuclear waste and shaping a more broadly educated group of nuclear and general engineers.

    Q: What kinds of innovative teaching practices were discussed and recommended, and are there examples of these practices in action?

     A: Some participants teach project-based or simulation-based courses of real-world situations. For example, students are divided into several groups representing various stakeholders — such as the public, policymakers, scientists, and governments — and discuss the potential siting of a nuclear waste repository in a community. Such a course helps the students to consider the perspectives of different groups, understand a plurality of points of view, and learn how to communicate their ideas and concerns effectively. Other courses may ask students to synthesize key technical facts and numbers, and to develop a Congressional testimony statement or an opinion article for newspapers. 

    Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about nuclear waste, and how do you think these misconceptions can be addressed?

    A: The workshop participants agreed that the broader and life-cycle perspectives are important. Within the nuclear energy life cycle, for example, people focus disproportionally on high-level radioactive waste or spent fuel, which has been highly regulated and well managed. Nuclear systems also produce secondary waste, including low-level waste and uranium mining waste, which gets less attention.

    The participants also believe that the nuclear industry has been exemplary in leading the environmental and waste isolation science and technologies. Nuclear waste disposal strategies were developed in the 1950s, much earlier than other hazardous waste which began to receive serious regulation only in the 1970s. In addition, current nuclear waste disposal practices consider the compliance periods of isolation for thousands of years, while other hazardous waste disposal is not required to consider beyond 30 years, although some waste has an essentially infinite longevity, for example, mercury or lead. Finally, there is relatively unregulated waste — such as CO2 from fossil energy, agricultural effluents and other sources — that is released freely into the biosphere and is already impacting our environment. Yet, many people remain more concerned about the relatively well-regulated nuclear waste than about all these unregulated sources.

    Interestingly, many engineers — even nuclear engineers — do not know these facts. We believe that we need to teach students not just cutting-edge technologies, but also broader perspectives, including the history of industries and regulations, as well as environmental science.

    At the same time, we need to move the nuclear community to think more holistically about waste and its environmental impacts from the early stages of design of nuclear systems. We should design new reactors from the “waste up.”  We believe that the nuclear industry should continue to lead waste-management technologies and strategies, and also encourage other industries to adopt lifecycle approaches about their own waste to improve the overall sustainability. More

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    3 Questions: How are cities managing record-setting temperatures?

    July 2023 was the hottest month globally since humans began keeping records. People all over the U.S. experienced punishingly high temperatures this summer. In Phoenix, there were a record-setting 31 consecutive days with a high temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit or more. July was the hottest month on record in Miami. A scan of high temperatures around the country often yielded some startlingly high numbers: Dallas, 110 F; Reno, 108 F; Salt Lake City, 106 F; Portland, 105 F.

    Climate change is a global and national crisis that cannot be solved by city governments alone, but cities suffering from it can try to enact new policies reducing emissions and adapting its effects. MIT’s David Hsu, an associate professor of urban and environmental planning, is an expert on metropolitan and regional climate policy. In one 2017 paper, Hsu and some colleagues estimated how 11 major U.S. cities could best reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, through energy-efficient home construction and retrofitting, improvements in vehicle gas mileage, more housing density, robust transit systems, and more. As we near the end of this historically hot summer, MIT News talked to Hsu about what cities are now doing in response to record heat, and the possibilities for new policy measures.

    Q: We’ve had record-setting temperatures in many cities across the U.S. this summer. Dealing with climate change certainly isn’t just the responsibility of those cities, but what have they been doing to make a difference, to the extent they can?

    A: I think this is a very top-of-mind question because even 10 or 15 years ago, we talked about adapting to a changed climate future, which seemed further off. But literally every week this summer we can refer to [dramatic] things that are already happening, clearly linked to climate change, and are going to get worse. We had wildfire smoke in the Northeast and throughout the Eastern Seaboard in June, this tragic wildfire in Hawaii that led to more deaths than any other wildfire in the U.S., [plus record high temperatures]. A lot of city leaders face climate challenges they thought were maybe 20 or 30 years in the future, and didn’t expect to see happen with this severity and intensity.

    One thing you’re seeing is changes in governance. A lot of cities have recently appointed a chief heat officer. Miami and Phoenix have them now, and this is someone responsible for coordinating response to heat waves, which turn out to be one of the biggest killers among climatological effects. There is an increasing realization not only among local governments, but insurance companies and the building industry, that flooding is going to affect many places. We have already seen flooding in the seaport area in Boston, the most recently built part of our city. In some sense just the realization among local governments, insurers, building owners, and residents, that some risks are here and now, already is changing how people think about those risks.

    Q: To what extent does a city being active about climate change at least signal to everyone, at the state or national level, that we have to do more? At the same time, some states are reacting against cities that are trying to institute climate initiatives and trying to prevent clean energy advances. What is possible at this point?

    A: We have this very large, heterogeneous and polarized country, and we have differences between states and within states in how they’re approaching climate change. You’ve got some cities trying to enact things like natural gas bans, or trying to limit greenhouse gas emissions, with some state governments trying to preempt them entirely. I think cities have a role in showing leadership. But one thing I harp on, having worked in city government myself, is that sometimes in cities we can be complacent. While we pride ourselves on being centers of innovation and less per-capita emissions — we’re using less than rural areas, and you’ll see people celebrating New York City as the greenest in the world — cities are responsible for consumption that produces a majority of emissions in most countries. If we’re going to decarbonize society, we have to get to zero altogether, and that requires cities to act much more aggressively.

    There is not only a pessimistic narrative. With the Inflation Reduction Act, which is rapidly accelerating the production of renewable energy, you see many of those subsidies going to build new manufacturing in red states. There’s a possibility people will see there are plenty of better paying, less dangerous jobs in [clean energy]. People don’t like monopolies wherever they live, so even places people consider fairly conservative would like local control [of energy], and that might mean greener jobs and lower prices. Yes, there is a doomscrolling loop of thinking polarization is insurmountable, but I feel surprisingly optimistic sometimes.

    Large parts of the Midwest, even in places people think of as being more conservative, have chosen to build a lot of wind energy, partly because it’s profitable. Historically, some farmers were self-reliant and had wind power before the electrical grid came. Even now in some places where people don’t want to address climate change, they’re more than happy to have wind power.

    Q: You’ve published work on which cities can pursue which policies to reduce emissions the most: better housing construction, more transit, more fuel-efficient vehicles, possibly higher housing density, and more. The exact recipe varies from place to place. But what are the common threads people can think about?

    A: It’s important to think about what the status quo is, and what we should be preparing for. The status quo simply doesn’t serve large parts of the population right now. Heat risk, flooding, and wildfires all disproportionately affect populations that are already vulnerable. If you’re elderly, or lack access to mobility, information, or warnings, you probably have a lower risk of surviving a wildfire. Many people do not have high-quality housing, and may be more exposed to heat or smoke. We know the climate has already changed, and is going to change more, but we have failed to prepare for foreseeable changes that already here. Lots of things that are climate-related but not only about climate change, like affordable housing, transportation, energy access for everyone so they can have services like cooking and the internet — those are things that we can change going forward. The hopeful message is: Cities are always changing and being built, so we should make them better. The urgent message is: We shouldn’t accept the status quo. More

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    Q&A: Three Tata Fellows on the program’s impact on themselves and the world

    The Tata Fellowship at MIT gives graduate students the opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary research and work with real-world applications in developing countries. Part of the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, this fellowship contributes to the center’s goal of designing appropriate, practical solutions for resource-constrained communities. Three Tata Fellows — Serena Patel, Rameen Hayat Malik, and Ethan Harrison — discuss the impact of this program on their research, perspectives, and time at MIT.

    Serena Patel

    Serena Patel graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in energy engineering and a minor in energy and resources. She is currently pursuing her SM in technology and policy at MIT and is a Tata Fellow focusing on decarbonization in India using techno-economic modeling. Her interest in the intersection of technology, policy, economics, and social justice led her to attend COP27, where she experienced decision-maker and activist interactions firsthand.

    Q: How did you become interested in the Tata Fellowship, and how has it influenced your time at MIT?

    A: The Tata Center appealed to my interest in searching for creative, sustainable energy technologies that center collaboration with local-leading organizations. It has also shaped my understanding of the role of technology in sustainable development planning. Our current energy system disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, and new energy systems have the potential to perpetuate and/or create inequities. I am broadly interested in how we can put people at the core of our technological solutions and support equitable energy transitions. I specifically work on techno-economic modeling to analyze the potential for an early retirement of India’s large coal fleet and conversion to long-duration thermal energy storage. This could mitigate job losses from rapid transitions, support India’s energy system decarbonization plan, and provide a cost-effective way to retire stranded assets.

    Q: Why is interdisciplinary study important to real-world solutions for global communities, and how has working at the intersection of technology and policy influenced your research?

    A: Technology and policy work together in mediating and regulating the world around us. Technological solutions can be disruptive in all the good ways, but they can also do a lot of harm and perpetuate existing inequities. Interdisciplinary studies are important to mitigate these interrelated issues so innovative ideas in the ivory towers of Western academia do not negatively impact marginalized communities. For real-world solutions to positively impact individuals, marginalized communities need to be centered within the research design process. I think the research community’s perspective on real-world, global solutions is shifting to achieve these goals, but much work remains for resources to reach the right communities.

    The energy space is especially fascinating because it impacts everyone’s quality of life in overt or nuanced ways. I’ve had the privilege of taking classes that sit at the intersection of energy technology and policy, involving land-use law, geographic representation, energy regulation, and technology policy. In general, working at the intersection of technology and policy has shaped my perspective on how regulation influences widespread technology adoption and the overall research directions and assumptions in our energy models.

    Q: How has your experience at COP27 influenced your approach to your research?

    A: Attending COP27 at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, last November influenced my understanding of the role of science, research, and activism in climate negotiations and action. Science and research are often promoted as necessary for sharing knowledge at the higher levels, but they were also used as a delay tactic by negotiators. I heard how institutional bodies meant to support fair science and research often did not reach intended stakeholders. Lofty goals or financial commitments to ensure global climate stability and resilience still lacked implementation and coordination with deep technology transfer and support. On the face of it, these agreements have impact and influence, but I heard many frustrations over the lack of tangible, local support. This has driven my research to be as context-specific as possible, to provide actionable insights and leverage different disciplines.

    I also observed the role of activism in the negotiations. Decision-makers are accountable to their country, and activists are spreading awareness and bringing transparency to the COP process. As a U.S. citizen, I suddenly became more aware of how political engagement and awareness in the country could push the boundaries of international climate agreements if the government were more aligned on climate action.

    Rameen Hayat Malik

    Rameen Hayat Malik graduated from the University of Sydney with a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering and a Bachelor of Laws. She is currently pursuing her SM in technology and policy and is a Tata Fellow researching the impacts of electric vehicle (EV) battery production in Indonesia. Originally from Australia, she first became interested in the geopolitical landscape of resources trade and its implications for the clean energy transition while working in her native country’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

    Q: How did you become interested in the Tata Fellowship, and how has it influenced your time at MIT?

    A: I came across the Tata Fellowship while looking for research opportunities that aligned with my interest in understanding how a just energy transition will occur in a global context, with a particular focus on emerging economies. My research explores the techno-economic, social, and environmental impacts of nickel mining in Indonesia as it seeks to establish itself as a major producer of EV batteries. The fellowship’s focus on community-driven research has given me the freedom to guide the scope of my research. It has allowed me to integrate a community voice into my work that seeks to understand the impact of this mining on forest-dependent communities, Indigenous communities, and workforce development.

    Q: Battery technology and production are highly discussed in the energy sector. How does your research on Indonesia’s battery production contribute to the current discussion around batteries, and what drew you to this topic?

    A: Indonesia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal, while also having one of the largest nickel reserves in the world — a key mineral for EV battery production. This presents an exciting opportunity for Indonesia to be a leader in the energy transition, as it both seeks to phase out coal production and establish itself as a key supplier of critical minerals. It is also an opportunity to actually apply principles of a just transition to the region, which seeks to repurpose and re-skill existing coal workforces, to bring Indigenous communities into the conversation around the future of their lands, and to explore whether it is actually possible to sustainably and ethically produce nickel for EV battery production.

    I’ve always seen battery technologies and EVs as products that, at least today, are accessible to a small, privileged customer base that can afford such technologies. I’m interested in understanding how we can make such products more widely affordable and provide our lowest-income communities with the opportunities to actively participate in the transition — especially since access to transportation is a key driver of social mobility. With nickel prices impacting EV prices in such a dramatic way, unlocking more nickel supply chains presents an opportunity to make EV batteries more accessible and affordable.

    Q: What advice would you give to new students who want to be a part of real-world solutions to the climate crisis?

    A: Bring your whole self with you when engaging these issues. Quite often we get caught up with the technology or modeling aspect of addressing the climate crisis and forget to bring people and their experiences into our work. Think about your positionality: Who is your community, what are the avenues you have to bring that community along, and what privileges do you hold to empower and amplify voices that need to be heard? Find a piece of this complex puzzle that excites you, and find opportunities to talk and listen to people who are directly impacted by the solutions you are looking to explore. It can get quite overwhelming working in this space, which carries a sense of urgency, politicization, and polarization with it. Stay optimistic, keep advocating, and remember to take care of yourself while doing this important work.

    Ethan Harrison

    After earning his degree in economics and applied science from the College of William and Mary, Ethan Harrison worked at the United Nations Development Program in its Crisis Bureau as a research officer focused on conflict prevention and predictive analysis. He is currently pursuing his SM in technology and policy at MIT. In his Tata Fellowship, he focuses on the impacts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on global vulnerability and the global energy market.

    Q: How did you become interested in the Tata Fellowship, and how has it influenced your time at MIT?

    A: Coming to MIT, one of my chief interests was figuring out how we can leverage gains from technology to improve outcomes and build pro-poor solutions in developing and crisis contexts. The Tata Fellowship aligned with many of the conclusions I drew while working in crisis contexts and some of the outstanding questions that I was hoping to answer during my time at MIT, specifically: How can we leverage technology to build sustainable, participatory, and ethically grounded interventions in these contexts?

    My research currently examines the secondary impacts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on low- and middle-income countries — especially fragile states — with a focus on shocks in the global energy market. This includes the development of a novel framework that systematically identifies factors of vulnerability — such as in energy, food systems, and trade dependence — and quantitatively ranks countries by their level of vulnerability. By identifying the specific mechanisms by which these countries are vulnerable, we can develop a map of global vulnerability and identify key policy solutions that can insulate countries from current and future shocks.

    Q: I understand that your research deals with the relationship between oil and gas price fluctuation and political stability. What has been the most surprising aspect of this relationship, and what are its implications for global decarbonization?

    A: One surprising aspect is the degree to which citizen grievances regarding price fluctuations can quickly expand to broader democratic demands and destabilization. In Sri Lanka last year and in Egypt during the Arab spring, initial protests around fuel prices and power outages eventually led to broader demands and the loss of power by heads of state. Another surprising aspect is the popularity of fuel subsidies despite the fact that they are economically regressive: They often comprise a large proportion of GDP in poor countries, disproportionately benefit higher-income populations, and leave countries vulnerable to fiscal stress during price spikes.

    Regarding implications for global decarbonization, one project we are pursuing examines the implications of directing financing from fuel subsidies toward investments in renewable energy. Countries that rely on fossil fuels for electricity have been hit especially hard 
by price spikes from the Ukraine-Russia conflict, especially since many were carrying costly fuel subsidies to keep the price of fuel and energy artificially low. Much of the international community is advocating for low-income countries to invest in renewables and reduce their fossil fuel burden, but it’s important to explore how global decarbonization can align with efforts to end energy poverty and other Sustainable Development Goals.

    Q: How does your research impact the Tata Center’s goal of transforming policy research into real-world solutions, and why is this important?

    A: The crisis in Ukraine has shifted the international community’s focus away from other countries in crisis, such as Yemen and Lebanon. By developing a global map of vulnerability, we’re building a large evidence base on which countries have been most impacted by this crisis. Most importantly, by identifying individual channels of vulnerability for each country, we can also identify the most effective policy solutions to insulate vulnerable populations from shocks. Whether that’s advocating for short-term social protection programs or identifying more medium-term policy solutions — like fuel banks or investment in renewables — we hope providing a detailed map of sources of vulnerability can help inform the global response to shocks imposed by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and post-Covid recovery. More

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    Q&A: Steven Gonzalez on Indigenous futurist science fiction

    Steven Gonzalez is a PhD candidate in the MIT Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS), where he researches the environmental impacts of cloud computing and data centers in the United States, Iceland, and Puerto Rico. He is also an author. Writing under the name E.G. Condé, he recently published his first book, “Sordidez.” It’s described as an “Indigenous futurist science fiction novella set in Puerto Rico and the Yucatán.” Set in the near future, it follows the survivors of civil war and climate disaster led by protagonist Vero Diaz, as they reclaim their Indigenous heritage and heal their lands.

    In this Q&A, Gonzalez describes the book’s themes, its inspirations, and its connection to research, people, and classes at MIT.

    Q: Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

    A: I actually began my time at MIT in September of 2017 when Hurricane María struck. It was a really difficult time for me at the Institute, starting a PhD program. And it’s MIT, so there’s a lot of pressure. I was still kind of navigating the new institutional space and trying to understand my place in it. But I had a lot of people at the Institute who were extremely supportive during that time. I had family members in Puerto Rico who were stranded as a result of the hurricane, who I didn’t hear from for a very long time — who I feared dead. It was a very, very chaotic, confusing, and emotionally turbulent time for me, and also incredibly difficult to be trying to be present in a PhD program for the first semester. Karen Gardner, our administrator, was really incredibly supportive in that. Also the folks at the MIT Association of Puerto Ricans, who hosted fundraisers and linked students with counseling resources. But that trauma of the hurricane and the images that I saw of the aftermath of the hurricane, specifically in the town where my grandmother’s house was where I spent time living as a child during the summers, and to me, it was the greenest place that I have ever known. It looked like somebody had torched the entire landscape. It was traumatizing to see that image. But that kind of seeded the idea of, is there a way to burn without fire? There’s climate change, but there’s also climate terror. And so that was sort of one of the premises of the book explores, geoengineering, but also the flip side of geoengineering and terraforming is, of course, climate terror. And in a way, we could frame what’s been happening with the fossil fuel industry as a form of climate terror, as well. So for me, this all began right when I started at MIT, these dual tracks of thought.

    Q: What do you see as the core themes of your novella?

    A: One major theme is rebuilding. As I said, this story was very influenced by the trauma of Hurricane María and the incredibly inspiring accounts from family members, from people in Puerto Rico that I know, of regular people stepping up when the government — both federal and local — essentially abandoned them. There were so many failures of governance. But people stepped up and did what they could to help each other, to help neighbors. Neighbors cleared trees from roads. They banded together to do this. They pooled resources, to run generators so that everyone in the same street could have food that day. They would share medical supplies like insulin and things that were scarce. This was incredibly inspiring for me. And a huge theme of the book is rebuilding in the aftermath of a fictive hurricane, which I call Teddy, named after President Theodore Roosevelt, where Puerto Rico’s journey began as a U.S. commonwealth or a colony.

    Healing is also a huge theme. Healing in the sense of this story was also somewhat critical of Puerto Rican culture. And it’s refracted through my own experience as a queer person navigating the space of Puerto Rico as a very kind of religious and traditional place and a very complex place at that. The main character, Vero, is a trans man. This is a person who’s transitioned and has felt a lot of alienation and as a result of his gender transition, a lot of people don’t accept him and don’t accept his identity or who he is even though he’s incredibly helpful in this rebuilding effort to the point where he’s, in some ways, a leader, if not the leader. And it becomes, in a way, about healing from the trauma of rejection too. And of course, Vero, but other characters who have gone through various traumas that I think are very much shared across Latin America, the Latin American experiences of assimilation, for instance. Latin America is a very complex place. We have Spanish as our language, that is our kind of lingua franca. But there are many Indigenous languages that people speak that have been not valued or people who speak them or use them are actively punished. And there’s this deep trauma of losing language. And in the case of Puerto Rico, the Indigenous language of the Taínos has been destroyed by colonialism. The story is about rebuilding that language and healing and “becoming.” In some ways, it’s about re-indigenization. And then the last part, as I said, healing, reconstruction, but also transformation and metamorphosis. And becoming Taíno. Again, what does that mean? What does it mean to be an Indigenous Caribbean in the future? And so that’s one of the central themes of the story.

    Q: How does the novella intersect with the work you’re doing as a PhD candidate in HASTS?

    A: My research on cloud computing is very much about climate change. It’s pitched within the context of climate change and understanding how our digital ecosystem contributes to not only global warming, but things like desertification. As a social scientist, that’s what I study. My studies of infrastructure are also directly referenced in the book in a lot of ways. For instance, the now collapsed Arecibo Ionosphere Observatory, where some of my pandemic fieldwork occurred, is a setting in the book. And also, I am an anthropologist. I am Puerto Rican. I draw both from my personal experience and my anthropological lens to make a story that I think is very multicultural and multilingual. It’s set in Puerto Rico, but the other half is set in the Yucatán Peninsula in what we’ll call the former Maya world. And there’s a lot of intersections between the two settings. And that goes back to the deeper Indigenous history. Some people are calling this Indigenous futurism because it references the Taínos, who are the Indigenous people of Puerto Rico, but also the Mayas, and many different Maya groups that are throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, but also present-day Guatemala and Honduras. And the story is about exchange between these two worlds. As someone trained as an anthropologist, it’s a really difficult task to kind of pull that off. And I think that my training has really, really helped me achieve that.

    Q: Are there any examples of ways being among the MIT community while writing this book influenced and, in some ways, made this project possible?

    A: I relied on many of my colleagues for support. There’s some sign language in the book. In Puerto Rico, there’s a big tradition of sign language. There’s a version of American sign language called LSPR that’s only found in Puerto Rico. And that’s something I’ve been aware of ever since I was a kid. But I’m not fluent in sign language or deaf communities and their culture. I got a lot of help from Timothy Loh, who’s in the HASTS program, who was extremely helpful to steer me towards sensitivity readers in the deaf community in his networks. My advisor, Stefan Helmreich, is very much a science fiction person in a lot of ways. His research is on the ocean waves, the history and anthropology of biology. He’s done ethnography in deep-sea submersibles. He’s always kind of thinking in a science fictional lens. And he allowed me, for one of my qualifying exam lists, to mesh science fiction with social theory. And that was also a way that I felt very supported by the Institute. In my coursework, I also took a few science fiction courses in other departments. I worked with Shariann Lewitt, who actually read the first version of the story. I workshopped it in her 21W.759 (Writing Science Fiction) class, and got some really amazing feedback that led to what is now a publication and a dream fulfilled in so many ways. She took me under her wing and really believed in this book. More

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    3 Questions: Boosting concrete’s ability to serve as a natural “carbon sink”

    Damian Stefaniuk is a postdoc at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub). He works with MIT professors Franz-Josef Ulm and Admir Masic of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) to investigate multifunctional concrete. Here, he provides an overview of carbonation in cement-based products, a brief explanation of why understanding carbonation in the life cycle of cement products is key for assessing their environmental impact, and an update on current research to bolster the process.

    Q: What is carbonation and why is it important for thinking about concrete from a life-cycle perspective?

    A: Carbonation is the reaction between carbon dioxide (CO2) and certain compounds in cement-based products, occurring during their use phase and end of life. It forms calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and has important implications for neutralizing the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and achieving carbon neutrality in the life cycle of concrete.

    Firstly, carbonation causes cement-based products to act as natural carbon sinks, sequestering CO2 from the air and storing it permanently. This helps mitigate the carbon emissions associated with the production of cement, reducing their overall carbon footprint.

    Secondly, carbonation affects concrete properties. Early-stage carbonation may increase the compressive strength of cement-based products, enhancing their durability and structural performance. However, late-stage carbonation can impact corrosion resistance in steel-reinforced concrete due to reduced alkalinity.

    Considering carbonation in the life cycle of cement-based products is crucial for accurately assessing their environmental impact. Understanding and leveraging carbonation can help industry reduce carbon emissions and maximize carbon sequestration potential. Paying close attention to it in the design process aids in creating durable and corrosion-resistant structures, contributing to longevity and overall sustainability.

    Q: What are some ongoing global efforts to force carbonation?

    A: Some ongoing efforts to force carbonation in concrete involve artificially increasing the amount of CO2 gas present during the early-stage hydration of concrete. This process, known as forced carbonation, aims to accelerate the carbonation reaction and its associated benefits.

    Forced carbonation is typically applied to precast concrete elements that are produced in artificially CO2-rich environments. By exposing fresh concrete to higher concentrations of CO2 during curing, the carbonation process can be expedited, resulting in potential improvements in strength, reduced water absorption, improved resistance to chloride permeability, and improved performance during freeze-thaw. At the same time, it can be difficult to quantify how much CO2 is absorbed and released because of the process.

    These efforts to induce early-stage carbonation through forced carbonation represent the industry’s focus on optimizing concrete performance and environmental impacts. By exploring methods to enhance the carbonation process, researchers and practitioners seek to more efficiently harness its benefits, such as increasing strength and sequestering CO2.

    It is important to note that forced carbonation requires careful implementation and monitoring to ensure desired outcomes. The specific procedures and conditions vary based on the application and intended goals, highlighting the need for expertise and controlled environments.

    Overall, ongoing efforts in forced carbonation contribute to the continuous development of concrete technology, aiming to improve its properties and reduce its carbon footprint throughout the life cycle of the material.

    Q: What is chemically-induced pre-cure carbonation, and what implications does it have?

    A: Chemically-induced pre-cure carbonation (CIPCC) is a method developed by the MIT CSHub to mineralize and permanently store CO2 in cement. Unlike traditional forced carbonation methods, CIPCC introduces CO2 into the concrete mix as a solid powder, specifically sodium bicarbonate. This approach addresses some of the limitations of current carbon capture and utilization technologies.

    The implications of CIPCC are significant. Firstly, it offers convenience for cast-in-place applications, making it easier to incorporate CO2 use in concrete projects. Unlike some other approaches, CIPCC allows for precise control over the quantity of CO2 sequestered in the concrete. This ensures accurate carbonation and facilitates better management of the storage process. CIPCC also builds on previous research regarding amorphous hydration phases, providing an additional mechanism for CO2 sequestration in cement-based products. These phases carbonate through CIPCC, contributing to the overall carbon sequestration capacity of the material.

    Furthermore, early-stage pre-cure carbonation shows promise as a pathway for concrete to permanently sequester a controlled and precise quantity of CO2. Our recent paper in PNAS Nexus suggests that it could theoretically offset at least 40 percent of the calcination emissions associated with cement production, when anticipating advances in the lower-emissions production of sodium bicarbonate. We also found that up to 15 percent of cement (by weight) could be substituted with sodium bicarbonate without compromising the mechanical performance of a given mix. Further research is needed to evaluate long-term effects of this process to explore the potential life-cycle savings and impacts of carbonation.

    CIPCC offers not only environmental benefits by reducing carbon emissions, but also practical advantages. The early-stage strength increase observed in real-world applications could expedite construction timelines by allowing concrete to reach its full strength faster.

    Overall, CIPCC demonstrates the potential for more efficient and controlled CO2 sequestration in concrete. It represents an important development in concrete sustainability, emphasizing the need for further research and considering the material’s life-cycle impacts.

    This research was carried out by MIT CSHub, which is sponsored by the Concrete Advancement Foundation and the Portland Cement Association. More