Matthias Ruth, professor of public policy and civil and environmental engineering
Ruth, a leader in the emerging field of ecological economics, has shown that adopting proactive “green” policies is the most cost-effective way to sustain coastal cities against the long-term impact of climate change.
In a seminal study, “Climate’s Long-term Impacts on Metro Boston,” Ruth and his team found that the current “Ride-It-Out” approach to the floods, storms, and rising temperatures caused by climate change will cost more over time than implementing measures to reduce greenhouse gases and protect coastal areas from flooding.
The finding runs counter to the popular belief that policies supportive of environmental goals are always more expensive—a notion that has added weight when it comes to protecting complex urban environments.
But according to Ruth, that very complexity is the reason why environmental inaction will be more costly. A city is a system—interconnected networks of people and infrastructure—which multiplies the disruption caused by climate change.
Phil Brown, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences
Brown is a renowned scholar whose work lies at the intersection of social science and environmental health. His studies on people’s exposure to indoor contaminants, such as the flame-retardant chemicals used in household furniture, electronics, and building materials, are a catalyst for environmental policy change—both locally and globally.
Always attuned to the world’s emerging environmental health issues, Brown has examined high-profile cases of contested illnesses, including one that resulted in numerous deaths from leukemia among children in Woburn, Mass.
His research group on environmental health science has been supported by numerous grants from federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
He is currently the director of the Social Science and Environmental Health Research Institute, an interdisciplinary center for research, teaching, community engagement, and policy work.
Mark Patterson, Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Understanding, predicting, and ultimately mitigating the impact of climate change on our urban coastlines requires close, continuous monitoring of earth’s oceans, as well as its atmosphere.
But manned diving expeditions are expensive and limited in the amount of ocean area they can cover. To overcome those constraints, Patterson has developed a line of autonomous, underwater robots known as Fetches.
Equipped with GPS, cameras, and various types of sensors, Fetch bots can collect vast amounts of data over time about water movement and the ocean floor, marine life populations, the condition of coral reefs, and oxygen levels.
“The robot is thinking for itself, executing its mission, dealing with unforeseen circumstances, trying to preserve itself, and reacting to things it sees in the coastal zone,” says Patterson.
By deploying a small army of Fetch bots, scientists gain a more accurate picture of how and where the ocean is changing, and the impact of oceanic change on our climate and coastlines.
Jane Amidon, professor of landscape architecture
Amidon is at the forefront of a growing movement of landscape designers creating more sustainable cities by harnessing nature’s own processes—an approach with very quantifiable benefits when it comes to offsetting urban pollution.
For example, an acre of wetland can store 1 to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater. And in one year an acre of mature trees can absorb the carbon dioxide produced by 26,000 miles of car travel.
Amidon also points to an example of what can happen when we don’t adapt a more environmentally sound approach to urban design: Tropical Storm Sandy, in 2012, during which the East River flooded parts of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, causing serious and widespread structural damage. If the urban coastline had been designed with river dynamics in mind, says Amidon, the city could have absorbed much of the water level rise and perhaps used that water to support oxygen-producing shoreline species.
“It’s about resilience,” says Amidon. “A city should ebb and flow like an ecological system.”
Sanjeev Mukerjee, professor of chemistry and chemical biology
In the quest for a better alternative to the internal combustion engine engine, Mukerjee and his team are solving the primary stumbling block to a practical fuel-cell system that converts hydrogen to energy: cost. Because fuel cells use platinum as a catalyst, the technology would cost an unsustainable $5,000 per kilowatt.
The team is experimenting with materials like iron and cobalt polymer composites that would reduce the energy price tag a thousandfold.
But electric vehicles also need an energy-storage system—and Mukerjee’s team is working on a cheaper, more efficient substitute for lithium-ion batteries. Their patented lithium air battery uses oxygen in the air for its oxygen-reduction reaction. Lithium-ion batteries require a more expensive metal-oxide electrode and need more frequent recharging.
Coupled with inexpensive fuel cells, this novel super-battery technology would power a fully electric car capable of driving all the way from San Diego to San Francisco on a single charge.
Laura Lewis, Cabot Professor of Chemical Engineering
From wind turbines to electric motors, alternative energy solutions need super-strong magnets to function. These magnets, in turn, require rare earth elements—and more than 95 percent of the world’s supply is in China, where prices are kept high.
Lewis has devised a novel approach to creating super-strong magnets. If successful, it will reduce the cost of alternative energy and make us less reliant on rare earth elements present in virtually every modern technological device.
Lewis is devising another method for producing super-strong magnets—inspired by a similar process that meteorites undergo over a few billion years. As a meteorite cools, its nickel and iron atoms arrange themselves into highly ordered structures that have super-magnetic properties.
An expert in nanochemistry, Lewis is using precisely arranged nickel and iron nanoparticles to recreate these alternative magnets— and in a tiny fraction of the time needed by meteorites.
Carolyn Lee-Parsons, associate professor of chemical engineering, chemistry, and chemical biology
Lee-Parsons learned a lot in her quest to increase production of pharmaceutical compounds in plant cells—knowledge she is now using to achieve a potential breakthrough in renewable energy production.
She is applying her arsenal of biochemical and genetic engineering tools to microalgae cells, which naturally produce a biodiesel precursor called triacylglycerol.
Microalgae cells use triacylglycerol molecules to store energy, but it takes several weeks to accumulate levels high enough for practical use.
If we can uncover the nuances of the machinery in microalgae cells, says Lee-Parsons, then we should be able to determine how to speed up triacylglycerol production and “milk” microalgae of triacylglycerol without destroying the cells.
And that would be significant, says Lee-Parsons. Because biodiesel can store more than 10 times the energy of its main competitor among plant-based energy sources, ethanol, her research could make biodiesel a vital source of alternative fuel.