Materials Needs for Energy Sustainability by 2050: Enabling a Circular Polymer Bioeconomy: Panel Discussion

Moderator: Ashley White, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory


  • Jill Martin, The Dow Chemical Company
  • Megan Robertson, University of Houston
  • Rachel Meidl, Rice University
  • Andreas Lendlein, Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon, University of Potsdam

Did you know that the Materials Research Society has a subcommittee for sustainability and that we have been having a sustainability panel for the past six years? Yes! At every MRS meeting, we gather around to discuss different aspects related to sustainability and how it connects to us materials researchers and the broader society. This is one of the most dynamic sessions of the conference with audience members from all around the globe representing academia, national laboratories, and industry.

This time around, our focus was plastics (scientifically, human-made polymers) and how circularity and bioeconomy can help create a more sustainable world of plastics. While we have utilized millions of tons of plastic ever since its invention, we are still very much in a linear economy where plastics are manufactured, used, and discarded with only a small fraction being recycled. We really need to transform such an economy to be more sustainable. The goal of this panel discussion was to discuss where we stand and how we can tackle such a grand and complex problem.

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After Ashley White set the context for the discussion, each of the panelists gave a one-slide pitch about their thoughts on the subject. Rachel Meidl emphasized that beyond the buzzword, sustainability draws from three important pillars—environment, society, and economics—and we cannot optimize individual parts to be more sustainable. Additionally, she advocated that we have to couple sustainability with circular economy and bioeconomy and the three are not necessarily the same. Building on that discussion, Jill Martin pointed out that beyond the materials themselves (plastics in this context), we also have to think about how they are manufactured, processed, and recycled and how polluting is each of those steps. Megan Robertson outlined various chemical engineering-focused research opportunities to enhance plastic sustainability (e.g., catalysis for depolymerization), while Andreas Lendlein sketched the bio angle in this context ranging from biological materials to bio-inspired materials processing.

Following these presentations, the panelists engaged in various interrelated discussions such as “Should we pursue green preparation of materials or green materials or materials with longer lives to curb waste and improve sustainability?”, “Is recycling everything or do we explore multipronged approaches about reduce, reuse, recycle, etc.?” and “What do we do with the existing landfills and other waste sites?”

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The panelists pointed out various common misconceptions and offered scientifically more accurate perspectives, for example,

  • recycling is not a silver bullet;
  • bio does not necessarily mean better;
  • recycling is not the same as circularity, etc.

Multiple disconnects between science and policy were also debated such as “reducing cobalt in lithium-ion batteries disincentivizes recyclers since cobalt is the key economic benefit of battery recycling.” It was surprising to find that across the globe there are more than a hundred active definitions of “circular economy” which not only leads to confusion translating good practices across different societies but often also ends up promoting a practice badly suited to a new community. Moreover, the lack of reliable data or suitable metrics tracking progress toward sustainability adds to the complexity.

When prompted for “what’s the most important thing materials scientists can do differently in their research?”, each of the panelists offered actionable suggestion like getting inspired by nature (Andreas), designing new materials for end-of-life and not just the performance (Megan), focusing on scalable solutions (Jill), and thinking bigger including the societal aspects (Rachel).

This discussion was followed by a number of questions from the audience. The most inspiring part of the entire session was that the panelists constantly offered a positive outlook and emphasized that sustainability is a solvable problem.

Jill concluded the session on a high note saying that “This is one of the best times to be thinking about sustainability. We can’t give up on innovation, especially now!”

Blogger: Aashutosh Mistry

Materials Science Research in the Space & Microgravity Environment to Benefit Life on Earth

Sierra Space

Representatives from Sierra Space gave an excellent, eye-opening talk on the benefits of conducting materials research in space. They touted the benefits of low-Earth-orbit (LEO) environments for materials research goals including microgravity, extreme conditions testing, and a high-altitude vantage point. The talk then segued into the benefits of materials formulation in zero-gravity (zero-g) environments, including the absence of gravitational forces that typically mire materials synthesis here on Earth, including buoyancy, convection, and sedimentation problems. Instead, materials synthesis in a zero-g environment would allow scientists to focus on other forces influencing materials synthesis, such as diffusion, surface tension, and conduction. Such a paradigm would enable materials researchers to understand what drives unfavorable defect formation in materials as well as providing a better understanding of microstructure development of complex materials by virtue of investigation of their formation in zero-g. The zero-g environment of space was also touted as an excellent platform to explore both flow and batch processes where gravity may be in issue. The talk then shifted to the numerous companies that are now advocating for, as well as executing, LEO manufacturing platforms including Eli Lilly, Goodyear, LambdaVision and P&G.

Blogger: Mohamed Atwa

Breaking the Bias Habit Workshop

Anne Lynn Gillian-Daniel, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Anne Lynn Gillian-Daniel gave a comprehensive three-hour workshop on overcoming implicit bias in academia and beyond. The workshop began with Anne Lynn breaking down three types of implicit bias. Expectancy bias, she said, is when individuals are expected to act a certain way on the basis of stereotypes about their social category. Competency bias is the presumption of members of a lower economic group being less competent than other groups who have historically held positions of higher authority. Incongruency bias is understood as the lack of “fit” of an individual between one or multiple stereotypes or workplace roles. Anne Lynn challenged us to find ways to address these biases using research-proven methods that included recognizing, labelling, and challenging the stereotypes that lead to biases, for example by informing that “some members of social group ‘X’ may be so-and-so, but that isn’t necessarily true of all members of this social group.” She also encouraged us to foster evaluation techniques that are less susceptible to biases, such as the avoidance of abstract descriptors in a job call that may lead to bias. One example was that instead of looking for candidates who are “excellent in research” to use more specific criteria such as “a certain track record of primary authorship.” She concluded the workshop with a description of what microaggressions are: repeated seemingly innocuous comments from the offender that are perceived negatively by the recipient, as well as a number of methods of dealing with them. Overall, it was an incredibly effective and animated discussion of how we can all do better at addressing our implicit biases.

Blogger: Mohamed Atwa   

Networking: An opportunity?

N.png 300 mNetworking is a great opportunity to meet new people, learn more about them and even more. How is it an opportunity? And what can it offer?

Today, I had an opportunity to be at the publication's reception, where even the MRS journal editors were present, thanks to Judy and MRS Fall 2022. She introduced me to some of the important members, and it was very fascinating to shake hands with them. This helped me learn about them a bit more, their career path, their style of work and also about the organisation. This interaction also helped me exchange ideas, some of which could be essential in forging a career path. Not only that, you feel more confident being in the company of like-minded people. In conclusion, it's a two-way process of giving and taking, which could open doors for firmer relationships and maybe help achieve some career-related goals.

Guidance: It's importance

Today, I met with one of the professors I admire for their work in mechanics, thanks to the physical meeting in MRS Fall 2022 for this opportunity. I've been following his work for quite a long time. We sat for a discussion regarding my work for around 2 hours or more. I was pretty transparent and detailed with him regarding my work. This provided me with a lot of insights and some more understanding. Here are a few key takeaways for every researcher which I think are important.

1.  External expert opinion is essential and might add more value to your work.

2. Some details you might miss, but experts can catch. (It helps, trust me).

3. There can be an easy way to a solution than you thought to be and it comes with experience

4.  Detailed and in-depth discussion helps clear a lot of doubts. (I was lucky because he had a lot of patience)

5. Multiple reasons for the hypothesis to be true (listen carefully)

6. Accept, adapt and learn  (it helps)

7. Communicate and ask. Share your thoughts. It boosts discussion and is insightful.

8. Last but not the least, be honest with your work and details. It helps be the better version of you. 


P.S: Don't miss such opportunities in the big conferences like the MRS.

Competition: A healthy way of distinction?

IMG_8756 300 mI've been attending the MRS poster session every day. Among around 500 posters, a few posters are chosen for the best poster awards. Seeing this, I came up with a question: Is it an excellent way to separate the best posters based on certain criteria from the rest? In fact, this is the case in general for our everyday lives; starting from footwear to healthcare, we have certain criteria from which we decide what's best, which can vary from person to person. So, in general, is it the right way of distinction or just some conditional and perspective thing? even though a group of people might be involved in decision-making.

To answer this, at least from my point of view, there has to be a way of encouragement. And this best poster award in the MRS Fall 2022 exactly did that for the winners. A group of experts are likely to make the right decision. However, this does not mean that others who did not win are bad. What it means is what you interpret. I would say that for the rest, it's a way to get better and a chance to improve before something bigger than this. There are a lot of examples of people who failed initially but later succeeded is well recorded (hint: tech giants). 

In conclusion, it's a matter of what you interpret. It's definitely not a smarter way for distinction, but it's not the final distinction either. So, a wise person would know the takeaway and utilise it for self-development. That's the learning curve.

P.S: Welcome to MRS! A platform to grow and learn. 

Vendor Exhibit Hall Shopping

It's afternoon at a conference and your mind wanders to the huge display of shiny, new equipment that's being exhibited at the Vendor Exhibit Hall... you think of the week you invented a new screw in order to fix a machine that you badly needed for your experiments. But in this Exhibit Hall, you saw a whole machine, screwless, sitting peacefully on a table. 


You enter the Exhibit Hall again to check out the machine's price tag, but then get sidetracked by the iridescence of a table full of none other than tweezers. They tell you: there are thousands of models. Suddenly, you can barely stand.

It might have been Black Friday last week, but this is the real deal. Except for the savings. Things displayed here are measured in thousands of dollars, but the vendors don't even bother saying the "k" after the number on the price tag. You're supposed to know.

So you keep browsing. Machines upon machines upon machines. It's like Home Depot for scientists.

Maybe next year you'll have enough grant money to purchase the screwless fluorescent tape measurer. For now, it'll have to settle as your dream catalogue to mentally browse during sessions.


Music (from materials scientists) for your ears

Researchers spend a lot of time in the lab or writing - a lot of time with ears open to listening to some bops.

What are people at MRS listening to? Here's a sampling of artists that MRS participants responded about and recommend:

  • london elektricity 
  • fox stevenson 
  • pendulum 
  • chase & status
  • andy c
  • wilkinson
  • infected mushroom 
  • craig david (uk car park sounds)
  • rich brian
  • childish gambino
  • video game soundtracks (legend of zelda)
  • beethoven 
  • hans zimmer 
  • esp man of steel
  • frozen soundtrack
  • the killers 
  • queen of disaster - sir lofi 
  • qatar airways boarding music ("the 2022 version was pretty great") 


Birds, bacteria, (water) bears, oh my....

Nature is a treasure trove of inspiration for designing materials, with organisms possessing a wide expanse of dazzling properties, appearances, and functionalities. Most of the talks in today's SB08 session each revolved around studying a different natural organism. Here are some from today and other fascinating organisms in general to stoke your imagination / derive your own inspiration:

  • Birds (of all brilliant colors, especially for studying structural color)
  • Octopi (for mechanical properties, shape-changing, color-changing, the list goes on)
  • Algae
  • Newts (tissue regeneration)
  • Leaves (surfaces)
  • Sharks (skin, anti-fouling)
  • Whales (fins)
  • Tardigrades (aka "water bears" and imaged below - just read about them, you won't be disappointed)