National Geographic Society Newsroom

Sustainable bricks, metals from mine waste, and carbon capture innovations at MIT

As part of my role on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Advanced Materials, I invited a contribution from MIT’s Metals & Minerals for the Environment Initiative.  Article by Suzanne Greene  Metals and minerals are at the core of mankind’s existence — vital for infrastructure, transportation and consumer goods. They are also identified...

Mining trucks at a mine in Armenia near the border with Georgia, Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

As part of my role on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Advanced Materials, I invited a contribution from MIT’s Metals & Minerals for the Environment Initiative. 

Article by Suzanne Greene 

Metals and minerals are at the core of mankind’s existence — vital for infrastructure, transportation and consumer goods. They are also identified as key materials for meeting sustainable development and renewable energy goals. Paradoxically, intense demand has led to the acceleration of negative environmental impacts from extraction, processing, manufacturing and waste storage.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been involved in the metals and minerals research for over 150 years; in fact, the Department of Materials Science & Engineering was founded in 1865 as the Department of Mining. Since then MIT has put forth technological developments and research methods that are transforming numerous sectors, e.g. energy, IT, healthcare. It is proposed to replicate such effort to support the sustainability of the metal and mineral industries, enabling higher productivity, less waste, safer operations, lower energy use, supply chain traceability and community engagement.

To trigger this collective effort, Professors Antoine Allanore and Alan Hatton founded the Metals and Minerals for the Environment (MME) in 2015 with funding from MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. Through its membership model, the MME provides a pathway to engage stakeholders of the metals and minerals sector with MIT faculty and students. In addition, MME proposes to reach externally to citizens, governments, policymakers and media, enhancing the visibility of the sector’s efforts toward sustainability.

The MME team is comprised of world-class researchers that cover the full spectrum of the metal and mineral industry: mine establishment, beneficiation, metals extraction and processing, product manufacturing, transportation, recycling and beyond. We are designing new processes and technologies, adapting proven technologies to the industry, and developing a holistic approach to the value chain. The following projects highlight a few of the many promising research projects in line with MME’s goals.

Novel Technique for Extracting Value from Oxide Wastes: Professor Antoine Allanore, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

There is a significant value within materials treated as waste by industry, such as fine particles and dust. These hazardous or environmentally harmful materials are often stored in tailing ponds or outsourced for treatment and disposal. The Allanore Research Group has developed several new methods to transform metal-containing waste to metal through a high efficiency process. The approach has a high potential for application to metals, such as cobalt, manganese, zinc, iron, or even metal recycling. With the potential to convert hazardous or environmentally harmful wastes into valuable materials, this approach demonstrates a win-win for industry and environment. Read more here:

New Technologies for Carbon Capture and Storage: Professor T. Alan Hatton, Department of Chemical Engineering

A number of solutions have been promoted as a way to capture carbon dioxide in gas emissions from power plants, metals processing operations, cement production, etc. Yet, even the most well-established of these solutions — thermal amine scrubbing — is inefficient, capitally expensive, and requires significant heat integration facilities. The Hatton Research Group has developed an alternative called Electrochemically Mediated Amine Regeneration (EMAR). EMAR offers several advantages including isothermal desorption of CO2 at elevated pressures, increased efficiency, reduced absorber size, and improved utilization of the amine per cycle with no need for complex heat integration strategies. The technology has the potential for widespread application for capture from large and small CO2 sources, from power plants to trucks. Of special interest to the MME community are potential applications for greenhouse gas mitigation in metals production such as aluminum smelters, blast furnaces, etc.  Read more here:

Circular economy: Boiler Ash in Brick Production: Professor Elsa Olivetti, Department of Materials Science and Engineering 

In India, as with much of the developing world, standard industrial practice is to produce electricity locally due to unreliability of the electric grid. While large plants primarily burn coal, small and medium-sized paper, rice, and sugar mills burn the cheapest agricultural wastes available to them, producing upwards of 20 tons of ash per day, which typically ends up in landfills. Alkali-activation—the reaction of aluminosilicate precursors, such as ash and clay, with alkali hydroxides—affords us the opportunity not only to divert ash from landfills, but also to reduce India’s reliance on red bricks as a building material. Alkali activated materials and geopolymers achieve appreciable strength after only days of curing at room temperature, illustrating their promise as an alternative to many current building technologies, red bricks included. Read more here:

The MME is now open to new members. For more information, please visit .


About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.