Tackling climate change will require a widespread transition to renewable energy sources. That transition is driven by science and technology, but it is also intimately tied to people and communities.
“I think engineering and science, as much as it wants to be, is never objective,” says Diego Rivera, who received an engineering degree from Northeastern at this month’s 2021 Commencement after focusing much of his undergraduate work on sustainability—both the technical aspects, as well as the societal considerations.
“We have to think about how to deploy technologies equitably and consider the communities that are most affected as we create solutions,” Rivera says.
This fall, Rivera will begin pursuing a doctoral degree in materials science and engineering at Stanford, after being awarded a highly competitive 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Rivera was immersed in the problem of sustainability in his first co-op, at the mechanical engineering team at Form Energy, a Somerville, Mass.-based company that is developing batteries for long-duration energy storage. This technology will be an essential part of transforming the power grid to renewable energy, Rivera says.
Currently, a major limitation of solar power is the ability to effectively store energy generated on a sunny day and dole it out over time, regardless of the weather.
“Lithium-ion batteries are very popular, but they’re also very expensive. If you try to combine that with renewables, it doesn’t work out economically. That’s a part of the energy puzzle that needs to be filled in,” Rivera says, adding that energy storage is a research area he may focus on for his doctoral studies.
Rivera delved deeper into the problem of energy efficiency in co-ops at Via Separations, a start-up based in Watertown, Mass. He helped develop and improve graphene oxide membranes, which are filters used for industrial separation processes, such as removing impurities from the pulp used to make paper. Currently, these types of filtering procedures are incredibly energy-intensive, relying on thermal separation, Rivera says.
“Imagine you were boiling a pot of pasta, and when the pasta was ready, instead of using a strainer, you boiled all the remaining water off to get to the pasta,” Rivera says. “It’s super inefficient, but it’s what we do in a lot of processes now because the conditions for that process are so intense.”
Rivera worked to scale up existing membranes, and to create new versions that can serve as a strainer for harsh industrial chemicals to make the process more sustainable.
In addition to the research and development experiences Rivera received through his co-ops, he says an equally important part of his growth at Northeastern came from participation in the Alternative Spring Break program. He went on four of the programs, and served as a leader for two of them. The experiences he had during these trips varied tremendously.
For example, Rivera worked with an LGBTQ+ community center in Philadelphia, painted murals at a school in Costa Rica, and assisted an organization in San Francisco addressing family homelessness. But a common theme among both his research and outreach experiences was sustainability.
“You don’t want people relying on spurts of labor coming in, but actually having the tools to do work long-term,” Rivera says. “The ASBs I did emphasized helping the communities in a way that was sustainable, outside this one week in a year.”