Sumanjeet Kaur, a dark-haired person wearing a red sweater, poses for a headshot.

New polymers and systems modeling

Decarbonized industrial heat

Electrochemical refinery

Energy management and efficiency

Two scientists hold samples of PDK plastics. Group of scientists using a Hot Disk for Thermal Measuring. Artistic photoshop composition of a machine arm and background equations. Exterior view of a factory. Person holding a laptop in a boiler room. Interior view of an energy management laboratory with yellow and grey machinery. Exterior view of a glowing energy industrial factory at sunset. Water dam in front of lit cityscape. Vi Rapp, a person with medium-length brown hair wearing a navy blue and white polka-dotted top, photographed against a white background.

Vi Rapp leads research on zero and low-carbon heat and power generation technologies. Her current projects include leveraging machine learning to identify bio-derived molecules to improve air quality and public health; developing novel technologies for CO2 free hydrogen production; and advancing heat and power technologies for the industrial and developing world.

Sarah Smith, a person with medium-length brown hair wearing a light collared top, photographed against a gray backdrop.

Sarah Smith is a research scientist in the Energy Analysis & Environmental Impacts Division's Sustainable Energy Systems group. Her current research includes organic waste management and nutrient recovery cost and emissions modeling, end-use load shape modeling for demand response potential estimation, and battery cost, manufacturing, and supply chain analyses.

Prakash Rao, a person with short dark hair wearing a light blue collared shirt, photographed against a white wall.

Prakash Rao heads the Buildings and Industrial Applications Department. He researches the potential for reducing the energy consumption and water use impacts of the U.S. manufacturing sector while maintaining its productivity. This work includes developing tools, resources, and roadmaps for determining decarbonization pathways for industry.

Collage of biotal, a hand holding a plant, and a researcher holding up a recyclable plastic Corinne Scown, a person with shoulder-length brown hair wearing red and black glasses and a teal cardigan over a blue top.

Scientists engineered microbes to make the ingredients for recyclable plastics – replacing finite, polluting petrochemicals with sustainable alternatives. The new approach shows that renewable, recyclable plastics are not only possible, but also outperform those from petrochemicals.

This episode features three scientists working to manage the planet’s plastic addiction by developing smarter materials that avoid the pitfalls of 20th century plastics. We talk about the challenges of the current recycling and composting systems, philosophies of materials design, why trying to recycle some things is just “wishcycling,” why consumer preferences matter, and why we can allow ourselves to feel a little optimism — even though the news paints a pretty bleak picture sometimes.

Artist’s rendering of a copper nanoparticle as it evolves during CO2 electrolysis: Copper nanoparticles (left) combine into larger metallic copper “nanograins” (right) White strands extend from the left side of the photo all the way to the right against a black background, with figures of molecules overlaid on top. Composite image of two people in circles in front of an illustration of H2 molecules. View of the blue sky from above the clouds. Scientist in a blue lab coat conducting experiments in a large open machine. Evening traffic in downtown Los Angeles.