Imperial and MIT researchers join forces to tackle pollution and climate change

The winners of the latest Imperial-MIT seed fund have been announced at a virtual reception hosted at the British Consulate in Boston.

The researchers from Imperial College London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will collaborate to pursue ideas focused on climate solutions and the transition to zero pollution.

A total of seven projects have been funded – including several investigating new approaches to measuring and modelling atmospheric air pollution; one project developing a green chemistry alternative to making nitrate fertiliser; and another looking at nature-based solutions to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The initiative builds on decades of strong connections between Imperial and MIT, including thousands of top-tier journal papers, hundreds of student exchanges and scores of academic partnerships. These include an Africa-focused seed fund, a Global Fellows Programme that brings together some of the most promising PhD students from both universities, an undergraduate summer exchange scheme, and many research collaborations (see side bar).

Consulate hosts leading speakers

We are pleased to share this ethos of internationalism, innovation and impact with MIT Professor Maggie Dallman Vice President (International)

The reception featured presentations from researchers involved in all the seed fund projects, as well as speeches by academic leaders from MIT and Imperial and the British Consul General in Boston, Peter Abbott.

Imperial’s Vice-President (International) Professor Maggie Dallman noted that the College’s research is defined by its internationalism, innovation and impact – with two-thirds of Imperial research involving an international collaborator.

“We are pleased to share this ethos of internationalism, innovation and impact with MIT,” she said. “Our partnership offers a transatlantic platform for like-minded scientists to come together to deliver creative research, life-changing education and transformative innovation, and for bold action. Our joint seed fund has been a keystone of our partnership, and this year it has been very exciting to have a thematic focus linked to our parallel initiatives focused on climate and pollution.”

Innovative projects awarded

Both Imperial and MIT have recently announced ambitious initiatives in the climate change and pollution space – Imperial’s Transition to Zero Pollution and Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade.

These initiatives call for the rapid development of innovative solutions, which makes the Imperial-MIT seed fund all the more timely. The seven projects awarded include two from Imperial’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, three from Engineering and two from Medicine. They are listed below, with the respective PIs from MIT and Imperial:

Discussing potential impact

Members from each team gave fascinating presentations about their projects, including some of the aims and future outcomes. Notably, three projects were focused on investigating new approaches to measuring and modelling atmospheric air pollution, including Individual Pollution Exposure Doses (IPEDs), which Andrew Grieve from the School of Public Health discussed: “Traditionally, air quality monitoring is done using static monitors that stay in place for long periods of time,” he said. “That’s still very important, but what’s been happening over recent years is that air quality sensors have been getting smaller and we at Imperial and the team at SCL have been putting these sensors on people and vehicles to get a new view of where and when people are exposed to pollution.

“This gives us a really rich dataset of personal exposure to air pollution plus location and activity. Through our collaboration we’re going to explore new ways of visualising these datasets which should unlock an entirely new way for us, our participants and city planners to understand where, when and how most exposure is occurring.”

Dr Bonnie Waring from Imperial’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment also gave an insightful introduction to the Nature-Based Solutions For Accelerating Climate Action (NASCA) project.

“All viable pathways to net zero rely not only on a sustained decrease in emissions from land use change and fossil fuels, but also uptake of already emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There are a variety of so-called negative emissions technologies that can remove carbon, but to date only one is feasible for scaling up to the entire globe and that is so-called nature-based solutions – including seagrass beds, mangroves and forests.

“We’re going to reach out to ecologists, economists, and sociologists and generate some holistic criteria to compare different nature-based climate solutions, and leverage this knowledge to inform policy.”

Decarbonising nitrate fertiliser

Haldrian Iriawan, an exchange student from Imperial at MIT, then talked about their project’s ambitious goal of decarbonising the industrial production of nitrate fertiliser, which alone represents around 1% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions – a sizeable chunk given that the entire aviation industry contributes around 2%.

“The way we make fertiliser at the moment involves multiple steps. It requires natural gas reforming to make ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process, and ammonia is then converted to nitrates which are an important fertiliser component we use today. Also, because the process is highly centralised, the fertilisers need to be transported to agricultural fields.

“Instead of this multiple step process, which is also extremely carbon intensive, why don’t we do it in a single step, where we use nitrogen from the air, in addition to water, using local electrolysers powered by renewable electricity, to make nitrates at point-of-consumption? In this case the catalyst is key to make the technology viable, and this is what we are investigating.”

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