Q&A: Climate Grand Challenges finalists on new pathways to decarbonizing industry

Faculty leaders detail promising technologies, materials, and methods that could help unlock a low-carbon future in sectors where emissions are hardest to cut.

MIT News Office
March 28, 2022

Note: This is the third article in a four-part interview series highlighting the work of the 27 MIT Climate Grand Challenges finalist teams, which received a total of $2.7 million in startup funding to advance their projects. In April, the Institute will name a subset of the finalists as multiyear flagship projects.

The industrial sector is the backbone of today’s global economy, yet its activities are among the most energy-intensive and the toughest to decarbonize. Efforts to reach net-zero targets and avert runaway climate change will not succeed without new solutions for replacing sources of carbon emissions with low-carbon alternatives and developing scalable nonemitting applications of hydrocarbons.

MIT CGC QA Industry 01 0MIT Climate Grand Challenges finalists are working with promising technologies, materials, and methods that could help unlock a low-carbon future in sectors where emissions are hardest to cut. Credits: Image: stock photo

In conversations prepared for MIT News, faculty from three of the teams with projects in the competition’s “Decarbonizing complex industries and processes” category discuss strategies for achieving impact in hard-to-abate sectors, from long-distance transportation and building construction to textile manufacturing and chemical refining. The other Climate Grand Challenges research themes include using data and science to forecast climate-related risk, building equity and fairness into climate solutions, and removing, managing, and storing greenhouse gases. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Moving toward an all-carbon material approach to building

Faced with the prospect of building stock doubling globally by 2050, there is a great need for sustainable alternatives to conventional mineral- and metal-based construction materials. Mark Goulthorpe, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, explains the methods behind Carbon>Building, an initiative to develop energy-efficient building materials by reorienting hydrocarbons from current use as fuels to environmentally benign products, creating an entirely new genre of lightweight, all-carbon buildings that could actually drive decarbonization.

Q: What are all-carbon buildings and how can they help mitigate climate change?

A: Instead of burning hydrocarbons as fuel, which releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to atmospheric pollution, we seek to pioneer a process that uses carbon materially to build at macro scale. New forms of carbon — carbon nanotube, carbon foam, etc. — offer salient properties for building that might effectively displace the current material paradigm. Only hydrocarbons offer sufficient scale to beat out the billion-ton mineral and metal markets, and their perilous impact. Carbon nanotube from methane pyrolysis is of special interest, as it offers hydrogen as a byproduct.

Q: How will society benefit from the widespread use of all-carbon buildings?

A: We anticipate reducing costs and timelines in carbon composite buildings, while increasing quality, longevity, and performance, and diminishing environmental impact. Affordability of buildings is a growing problem in all global markets as the cost of labor and logistics in multimaterial assemblies creates a burden that is very detrimental to economic growth and results in overcrowding and urban blight.

Alleviating these challenges would have huge societal benefits, especially for those in lower income brackets who cannot afford housing, but the biggest benefit would be in drastically reducing the environmental footprint of typical buildings, which account for nearly 40 percent of global energy consumption.

An all-carbon building sector will not only reduce hydrocarbon extraction, but can produce higher value materials for building. We are looking to rethink the building industry by greatly streamlining global production and learning from the low-labor methods pioneered by composite manufacturing such as wind turbine blades, which are quick and cheap to produce. This technology can improve the sustainability and affordability of buildings — and holds the promise of faster, cheaper, greener, and more resilient modes of dwelling.

Emissions reduction through innovation in the textile industry

Collectively, the textile industry is responsible for over 4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, or 5 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than aviation and maritime shipping combined. And the problem is only getting worse with the industry’s rapid growth. Under the current trajectory, consumption is projected to increase 30 percent by 2030, reaching 102 million tons. A diverse group of faculty and researchers led by Gregory Rutledge, the Lammot du Pont Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Yuly Fuentes-Medel, project manager for fiber technologies and research advisor to the MIT Innovation Initiative, is developing groundbreaking innovations to reshape how textiles are selected, sourced, designed, manufactured, and used, and to create the structural changes required for sustained reductions in emissions by this industry.

Q: Why has the textile industry been difficult to decarbonize?

A: The industry currently operates under a linear model that relies heavily on virgin feedstock, at roughly 97 percent, yet recycles or downcycles less than 15 percent. Furthermore, recent trends in “fast fashion” have led to massive underutilization of apparel, such that products are discarded on average after only seven to 10 uses. In an industry with high volume and low margins, replacement technologies must achieve emissions reduction at scale while maintaining performance and economic efficiency.

There are also technical barriers to adopting circular business models, from the challenge of dealing with products comprising fiber blends and chemical additives to the low maturity of recycling technologies. The environmental impacts of textiles and apparel have been estimated using life cycle analysis, and industry-standard indexes are under development to assess sustainability throughout the life cycle of a product, but information and tools are needed to model how new solutions will alter those impacts and include the consumer as an active player to keep our planet safe. This project seeks to deliver both the new solutions and the tools to evaluate their potential for impact.

Q: Describe the five components of your program. What is the anticipated timeline for implementing these solutions?

A: Our plan comprises five programmatic sections, which include (1) enabling a paradigm shift to sustainable materials using nontraditional, carbon-negative polymers derived from biomass and additives that facilitate recycling; (2) rethinking manufacturing with processes to structure fibers and fabrics for performance, waste reduction, and increased material efficiency; (3) designing textiles for value by developing products that are customized, adaptable, and multifunctional, and that interact with their environment to reduce energy consumption; (4) exploring consumer behavior change through human interventions that reduce emissions by encouraging the adoption of new technologies, increased utilization of products, and circularity; and (5) establishing carbon transparency with systems-level analyses that measure the impact of these strategies and guide decision making.

We have proposed a five-year timeline with annual targets for each project. Conservatively, we estimate our program could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the industry by 25 percent by 2030, with further significant reductions to follow.

Tough-to-decarbonize transportation

Airplanes, transoceanic ships, and freight trucks are critical to transporting people and delivering goods, and the cornerstone of global commerce, manufacturing, and tourism. But these vehicles also emit 3.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually and, left unchecked, they could take up a quarter of the remaining carbon budget by 2050. William Green, the Hoyt C. Hottel Professor in the Department Chemical Engineering, co-leads a multidisciplinary team with Steven Barrett, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and director of the MIT Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment, that is working to identify and advance economically viable technologies and policies for decarbonizing heavy duty trucking, shipping, and aviation. The Tough to Decarbonize Transportation research program aims to design and optimize fuel chemistry and production, vehicles, operations, and policies to chart the course to net-zero emissions by midcentury.

Q: What are the highest priority focus areas of your research program?

A: Hydrocarbon fuels made from biomass are the least expensive option, but it seems impractical, and probably damaging to the environment, to harvest the huge amount of biomass that would be needed to meet the massive and growing energy demands from these sectors using today’s biomass-to-fuel technology. We are exploring strategies to increase the amount of useful fuel made per ton of biomass harvested, other methods to make low-climate-impact hydrocarbon fuels, such as from carbon dioxide, and ways to make fuels that do not contain carbon at all, such as with hydrogen, ammonia, and other hydrogen carriers.

These latter zero-carbon options free us from the need for biomass or to capture gigatons of carbon dioxide, so they could be a very good long-term solution, but they would require changing the vehicles significantly, and the construction of new refueling infrastructure, with high capital costs.

Q: What are the scientific, technological, and regulatory barriers to scaling and implementing potential solutions?

A: Reimagining an aviation, trucking, and shipping sector that connects the world and increases equity without creating more environmental damage is challenging because these vehicles must operate disconnected from the electrical grid and have energy requirements that cannot be met by batteries alone. Some of the concepts do not even exist in prototype yet, and none of the appealing options have been implemented at anywhere near the scale required.

In most cases, we do not know the best way to make the fuel, and for new fuels the vehicles and refueling systems all need to be developed. Also, new fuels, or large-scale use of biomass, will introduce new environmental problems that need to be carefully considered, to ensure that decarbonization solutions do not introduce big new problems.

Perhaps most difficult are the policy, economic, and equity issues. A new long-haul transportation system will be expensive, and everyone will be affected by the increased cost of shipping freight. To have the desired climate impact, the transport system must change in almost every country. During the transition period, we will need both the existing vehicle and fuel system to keep running smoothly, even as a new low-greenhouse system is introduced. We will also examine what policies could make that work and how we can get countries around the world to agree to implement them.

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