For Desirée Plata PhD ’09, the decision to become an environmental chemist was inspired not only by an interest in science but also by her personal experience with the health effects of environmental contamination. Growing up in Maine, Plata noticed a spike in disease among people in a neighboring town—including members of her family. Later she learned the illnesses were linked to water contamination caused by years of improper industrial waste disposal.
“It’s not just an abstract idea that something that we make in industry could someday cause an undesirable health impact. It’s a real manifestation that a lot of people around the country are living with,” Plata says.
“To me, having a clean environment is a basic freedom.” Now the Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, Plata—who describes herself as “famously broad” in her research—is using her knowledge of environmental chemistry to protect the environment and make industrial processes more sustainable.
One of Plata’s ongoing projects focuses on methane, a greenhouse gas up to 86 times more potent than CO2 that is having a major impact on climate. Plata and her team are building a system that uses catalysts to capture ambient methane from the atmosphere and convert it into CO2.
While creating more CO2 may seem counterproductive, the process is chemically simpler than alternatives (such as making methanol fuel) and has major environmental benefits, Plata explains. “If you could convert about half of the atmosphere’s methane into carbon dioxide, you could save about 16 percent of the near-term warming—and that buys us a little more time to respond and adapt to the changing climate,” Plata says.
Plata is also exploring groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing for natural gas extraction. To date, she and her team have collected nearly 500 groundwater samples that they are testing for toxic chemicals that evade traditional water treatment. They are also using sustainable nanomaterials to develop technologies that can purify water after it reaches homes.
“When thinking about sustainability, it’s always best to intervene early, but we have a lot of established technologies where there has already been some environmental damage or the infrastructure is too hard to move,” Plata says. “In those cases, you really need treatment technologies.”
Keeping pace with innovation
A broader focus of Plata’s lab is accelerating the pace of discovery in environmental chemistry by leveraging technologies such as robotics and machine learning. The aim, she says, is to build experimental systems that enable more efficient environmental assessment of chemicals. “Innovation will probably always outpace environmental assessment, so we can’t really do the assessment chemical by chemical,” Plata says. “We have to be faster and smarter.”
Plata first experienced MIT while pursuing her PhD in chemical oceanography in the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science and Engineering, where she worked on developing more sustainable carbon nanotubes. She later joined the faculty at MIT, driven by her desire to make the practice of innovation more sustainable.
“MIT is a really unique place in the world; there’s a lot of innovation going on,” she says.
Plata especially appreciates the Institute’s strong connection to industry, which she has experienced in many ways, including through MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program. In the program, Plata uses her expertise to work with companies on making their industrial processes more sustainable.
As part of Plata’s commitment to teaching innovators how to incorporate sustainability into their designs, she also mentors young engineers at MIT. “I want to make sure that students are armed with the right skills to not just invent great products and technologies, but to do it in a way that doesn’t cause environmental damage,” Plata says.