As the planet continues to get warmer, any number of actions could reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, but there’s still uncertainty as to which strategies will best help humanity avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Attendees at the fourth annual Nexus event learned about the novel environmental research taking place at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and in collaboration with other Harvard schools. A showcase for the innovative research of SEAS faculty and students, the event focused on sustainability and climate research, as well as translation and commercialization of that research. The program coincided with Harvard Climate Action Week, a celebration of climate research, education, and engagement across Harvard University.
“Harvard has for many years been pushing the envelope in environmental research,” said SEAS Dean Frank Doyle. “We’ve been doing this across the campus, uniting not only engineering and applied sciences, but science, policy, law, business, design, public health and medicine. With the new Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, we now have a more formalized structure for doing that.”
The morning Nexus session focused on five quantitative climate research initiatives currently underway at SEAS. Frank Keutsch, Stonington Professor of Engineering and Atmospheric Science and Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, introduced his novel research into the effects of aerosol emissions into the atmosphere. Aerosols in the atmosphere reflect sunlight, which can have a cooling effect on the planet, but the consequences of employing “solar geoengineering” as a strategy to cool the planet require further study.
“Before you actually consider doing something crazy, I would argue, like intentionally emitting aerosols, we’d better understand the current stratospheric aerosol impact,” Keutsch said. “Another part of research in my group is asking the question, if we were to think about doing this, what material would have the smallest amount of risk? I can throw out, as a slightly provocative statement, that the best material we believe we’ve found so far is diamonds.”
Steven Wofsy, Abbott Lawrence Rotch Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science, focused on methane. His lab is developing new methane spectrometers to provide comprehensive, non-governmental, scientifically rigorous emissions data to better incentivize and track reductions.
“I was here for the whole panel this morning, which I thought was fabulous,” said attendee Suk Han, A.B. ‘91. “The level of pushing the frontiers of knowledge on this stuff is so great. It makes you feel a little bit hopeful that they can come up with something to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.”
Loretta Mickley, Senior Research Fellow in Chemistry-Climate Interactions, focused on the role climate change has played in the increase in forest fires in the western United States. Her research team has shown increased smoke inhalation may have contributed to a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths during the pandemic.
“We’re now reaching out to people in indigenous communities, who have their own practices for dealing with fire that they’ve been using for millennia,” Mickley said. “That takes effort on our part and continued perseverance to find people willing to combine forces with us.”
Kaighin McColl, Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and of Environmental Science and Engineering, reflected on the large amount of uncertainty that exists in current climate science, which leads to high variability in risk models. He encouraged further research to better develop consistent, data-driven models.
Peter Huybers, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and of Environmental Science and Engineering, used southwestern Madagascar, where diminished rainfall during the wet season has caused a famine, as an example of a region already suffering due to climate change. Previous studies had produced conflicting models about the effects of climate change in the region, but his methodology has produced more consistent results.
“The balance of evidence is clearly in favor that we are driving drought in southern Madagascar as a response to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,” Huybers said. “We should do something about it.”
Sustainability isn’t just a research topic at SEAS - it’s literally part of the School’s foundation. The second session of the day focused on the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC), which was designed and built to be one of the most energy-efficient and healthy laboratory buildings in the world. Joseph Allen, Associate Professor of Exposure Assessment Science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Heather Henriksen, Managing Director for the Harvard Office of Sustainability, discussed how many buildings and commercial products use “forever chemicals” and flame retardants, which are linked to a range of health risks including cancer, immune suppression, diabetes, and low infant birth weight.
The SEC was designed to avoid products that contain forever chemicals and flame retardants such as carpeting and furnishings. The building also incorporates sustainability features such as solar shading and stormwater reuse technologies.
“The investment in this building was a game-changer,” Henriksen said. “We want our scientists, our researchers, our staff, to help inform what the standard is for everybody."
The final Nexus session showed off four start-ups spun out of SEAS labs. Michael Aziz, Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies, discussed Quino Energy, which is developing organic flow batteries to store renewable energy, providing a safe solution to intermittent power sources such as sunlight or wind. Na Li, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Mathematics, is a cofounder and scientific advisor for Singularity Energy Inc, providing a platform for monitoring and forecasting the grid carbon emissions data and AI solutions for taking the carbon data into action for grid decarbonization.
“I liked the variety,” said attendee Arthur Berger, S.M. ‘80, Ph.D. ‘83. “It gave me a sense of the breadth of things that are going on, both in research and applications.”
Sidney McLaurin represented Bluetech Robotics, which reduces emissions from shipping vessels by removing biofouling materials such as algae from their hulls, which can increase drag and fuel consumption. The company is a spinout from the lab of Prof. Robert Wood, Harry Lewis and Marlyn McGrath Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Kit Parker, Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics, explained how the technology his lab developed to produce wound dressings for soldiers became Tender Foods, an alternative meat product.
“The people that really move the needle are transdisciplinary,” Parker said. “They understand the science, the manufacturing, the regulatory process, the finance, and the commercialization. The best thing about Harvard is you can build such awesome teams around an idea.”
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Matt Goisman | email@example.com