MIT’s National Science Foundation grant will advance “socioresilient materials design”

Categories: Research

Too often society understands the unintended negative consequences long after the materials that make up our homes and cities and systems have been in production and use for many years. Examples include disparate and negative public health impacts due to industrial scale manufacturing of materials, water and air contamination with harmful materials, and increased risk of fire in lower-income housing buildings due to flawed materials usage and design.      

Adverse climate events including drought, flood, extreme temperatures, and hurricanes have accelerated materials degradation, for example in critical infrastructure, leading to amplified environmental damage and social injustice. While classical materials design and selection approaches are insufficient to address these challenges, a new research project aims to do just that. 

Researchers in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) at MIT have been awarded a $750,000 research grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a multi-institutional research project—a cross-disciplinary effort that aims to fundamentally redirect materials research and development toward more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable materials. This “socioresilient materials design” (SMD) will serve as the foundation for a new research and development framework that takes into account technical, environmental, and social factors from the beginning of the materials design and development process.
Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Ellan Spero PhD ’14, an instructor in DMSE, are leading this research effort, which includes Cornell University, University of Swansea, Citrine Informatics, Station1, and 14 other organizations in academia, industry, venture capital, the social sector, government, and philanthropy.

The team’s project plan, “Mind Over Matter: Socioresilient Materials Design,” emphasizes that circular design approaches—that is, those which aim to minimize waste and maximize the reuse, repair, and recycling of materials—are often insufficient to address negative repercussions for the planet and for human health and safety.

“The imagination and technical expertise that goes into materials design is too often separated from the environmental and social realities of extraction, manufacturing, and end-of-life for materials,” said Ortiz. 
“Whether it is the harmful health impacts on communities and ecosystems proximate to production, or the repercussions that come with using or dismantling components that we grow to learn are hazardous, the impacts of these terrible circumstances are often too distant      geographically, temporally and intellectually from materials researchers,” Spero adds.

Drawing on materials science and engineering, chemistry, and computer science, the SMD project will develop a framework for materials design and development. It will incorporate powerful computational capabilities—artificial intelligence and machine learning with physics-based materials models—plus rigorous methodologies from the social sciences and the humanities to understand what impacts any new material put into production could have on society.
“The initial work is expected to focus on the development of social metrics related to far upstream materials sourcing and extraction and understanding their downstream environmental and social impacts for certain biomass-derived polymeric and plastic model systems,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz and Spero have a long-standing collaboration in materials science and engineering research and education, focusing on materials for water infrastructure and systems, bio-inspired and biological materials, sustainable advanced manufacturing, and material culture. Their interdisciplinary research, which forms the basis for the NSF grant, has been developed into DMSE’s curriculum, as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. 

The DMSE team was selected as part of Phase 1 of NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program, Track I, “Sustainable Materials for Global Challenges.” Launched in 2019, the Convergence Accelerator aims to tackle societal or scientific challenges by accelerating multidisciplinary research into practical application.     

Two other MIT teams have received NSF Convergence Accelerator grants for sustainable materials. One, led by Materials Research Laboratory’s Anuradha Murthy Agarwal and DMSE’s Juejun Hu and Lionel Kimerling, aims to make the manufacturing of computer chips more sustainable. The other explores a new class of materials called topological quantum materials for use in energy-efficient technologies and is led by Mingda Li in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.