American households collectively generate about 400 million tons of waste on an annual basis, most of it landfilled, and the rest recycled or composted. Elsa Olivetti PhD ’07 feels compelled to address this vast and growing mountain of rubbish. Her research spans the design and manufacturing phases of materials through their final disposition.
“I’ve found waste and inefficiency abhorrent as long as I can remember,” says Olivetti, who became MIT’s Thomas Lord Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in January 2014. “All this stuff around that we’re not handling intelligently drives me crazy.” In elementary school, Olivetti urged her best friends to use recyclable paper bags rather than plastic wrap as schoolbook covers. Today, she leverages a multidisciplinary skill set in systems engineering, chemistry, and policy to attack the waste problem.
“I’m interested in more resource-effective materials design and recovery,” says Olivetti, “and I want to reduce the ultimate impact on the environment of new materials we create.”
Olivetti credits a course she took at the University of Virginia with architect William McDonough for providing her with both inspiration and a robust research methodology.
“I was looking for a vehicle by which to solve problems, especially the management of waste,” says Olivetti. “After I learned about McDonough’s ‘cradle-to-cradle’ paradigm, which promotes thinking about a product’s end of life when designing it, I decided to go after material science in a focused way.”
This meant, says Olivetti, “understanding how the atomistic behavior of materials translates to properties at a macroscopic level.” She created compounds in the laboratory, and studied manufacturing processes at scale. Her MIT doctoral research combined polymer science and electrochemistry to find ways to improve cathode materials for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Postdoctoral research at MIT’s Materials Systems Lab focused on developing tools for understanding recycling in geographic and regulatory contexts.
“After building up all these years,” says Olivetti, “I finally have all the pieces together for my own research platform.” With her broad foundation in the micro- and macro-study of materials, Olivetti is pursuing multiple projects. But she finds two research threads particularly exciting.
The first involves a large-scale analysis of US paper recycling and the development of tools to help the forest and paper industry make a more efficient business of recovering and reusing wood fiber from products such as recycled cardboard, paperboard, and copy paper. Assessing the overall supply and demand of fiber, as well as manufacturing constraints involving recycled and virgin wood fiber, Olivetti visits dozens of mills. “It’s one of the reasons I love this job,” she says.
Her goal is a simulation tool that consolidates and captures the overall flow of fiber, from tree to product, to recovered material and reuse, within the complex web of manufacturers, markets, recovery technologies, and regulatory schemes. This kind of analytical model “has implications across all materials systems, such as aluminum alloys and battery recycling,” says Olivetti. “If we can understand what’s driving the environmental cost in systems we can direct fundamental research or policy to making more resource-effective decisions.”
In Olivetti’s second research thrust, she is helping to build a computational model to accelerate evaluation of the economic feasibility of new compounds with desirable properties for use in energy and other applications. In addition to evaluating costs of parts, materials, labor, and manufacturing processes, Olivetti wants “to understand environmental impacts as well.”
The end goal of Olivetti’s research: reducing what must be recycled, reusing recycled materials more efficiently, and influencing “as early as possible what folks are thinking at the lab bench to improve society’s footprint on resource use.”