Society's grand challenges of climate, water, and energy will not be solved using the same type of thinking that created them. The Plata Lab at MIT seeks to change the approach to innovation globally, where engineered solutions of the future will incorporate environmental objectives early in the design process to ensure sustainable technologies in a resource-limited world.
In particular, the group focuses on unlocking the potential of carbon-based nanomaterials for energy storage and water treatment by enabling scalable, tunable, environmentally sustainable nanomanufacturing. To do so, we use trace organic chemical analysis to interrogate emissions formed during lab-scale representations of industrial synthetic methods. The analytical tools we have developed rely on pre-concentration methods that offer 6-order-of magnitude improvements over typical emissions testing approaches. This detailed chemical information sheds light on bond-building steps in nanocarbon formation, illuminating routes to reduce unwanted byproducts and improve the material and energy budget during nanomaterial fabrication. The preferred route for carbon nanomaterial synthesis at scale is catalytic chemical vapor deposition, which has a complex gas mixture and gas-catalyst interactions that are difficult to study in situ. The Plata lab houses a unique device that enables us to simulate the complex reaction atmosphere molecule-by-molecule, probing different reaction intermediates and pathways, and monitor nanocarbon formation during nanotube growth via a variety of spectroscopic methods. Finally, nano-enabled devices in our lab are being developed to demonstrate that material performance is not sacrificed using sustainable synthetic routes. In this way, our work spans all the way from fundamental chemical mechanisms to providing applied solutions to pressing real-world problems.