3 Questions: Designing systems for sustainable materials ecologies

3 Questions: Why Materials? shares stories from our community about their path through academia and their decision to work and research in the discipline. In this issue, Prof. Elsa Olivetti shares about how her early excitement around sustainability issues brought her to study "things" and the systems that move, modify, and proliferate materials around the world.

Prof. Elsa Olivetti interacting with students

Prof. Elsa Olivetti works with students in 3.007 Intro to Materials and Mechanical Design on rapid prototype ideas.

Q: What brought you to the field of Materials Science and Engineering?

"During the first year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia, I was planning to major in environmental science because of my long standing interest in sustainability. (When I was 8 years old, a Greenpeace canvasser came to my parents’ door and I was the one who answered it. The images he shared, the problems he described, and the opportunity to develop solutions was riveting, I was hooked). Fall of my sophomore year at UVA, I took a class called Environmental Choices taught by architect and author, William McDonough. He described case studies he had done in design and thinking from a cradle-to-cradle perspective. His work with Nike to understand the impacts of the materials used in their products and also the processes to make those materials was visionary and inspiring to my 19 year old self: tanning leather without toxins, biological-materials for rubber, etc. He drew examples from Hewlett Packard printer design that led to reusable ink cartridges. To me, he was describing innovations in “stuff” and how they would be linked to a larger system implications. And I learned that the study of stuff was called Materials Science & Engineering. So then I decided I wanted to understand the fundamentals of materials’ abilities to help move us to a more sustainable world. I transferred into the engineering school and studied Materials Science and Engineering."

Q: How does your research fit into the field of Materials Science and Engineering?

"My research focuses on the environmental and economic implications of materials to try to understand how early on in the development of a material we can understand its system-level impact. As a Materials Industrial Ecologist, I’m interested in designing our industrial systems to be more like natural ecosystems (loop closing, efficient, etc.) through looking at the design of materials, processes and systems. We do this using approaches from life cycle assessment, resource economics, data-driven techniques to experimental work in beneficial use of waste materials and recycling. At MIT, the DMSE community address grand societal challenges by thinking at the tiniest and grandest scales--to rethink the molecular structure of new technology while considering the materials systems within cities and industry."

Q: Why does this topic matter? What is the real world impact?

"My research goals are to contribute to a materials supply chain that is much more efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally sustainable than ever before. GHG emissions and solid waste from materials production are volume-dominated by metals, cement, and chemicals , so any strategy to reduce impact, must focus on these materials. Global demand for materials is expected to grow 2- to 4- fold in the coming decades and opportunities to reduce this impact are found both on the supply and demand side of materials production. Within supply, the production impact of materials is driven by the energy use in extraction and refinement processes as well as direct emissions from chemical reactions, so two levers to reduce GHG emissions are to a) produce materials through electricity-driven processes, where the electricity grid is then non-fossil fuel dependent, or b) use alternative feedstocks that alter or reduce direct emissions. On the demand side, strategies increase the resource efficiency of materials use by providing the same service with less primary material."

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