Features, Science

‘Preventing a Mad Max Future’ presenter discusses new clean water technology

Dr. Ljiljana Rajic speaks at the event “Preventing A Mad Max Future” at the Boston Public Library on March 20. Her talk discussed the global effects of pollution. PHOTO BY HANNAH ROGERS/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Environmental dystopias of the variety presented in the 2015 blockbuster “Mad Max: Fury Road” — a desert-like world wherein oil is scarce and water is scarcer — are often seen as overly dramatized renderings of climate change, manufactured by Hollywood to promote ticket sales.

But environmental and civil engineer Dr. Ljiljana Rajic thinks Mad Max’s reality might be closer to our own than it appears at first glance.

In her presentation, “Preventing a Mad Max Future: How Green Electricity Could Fix Our Water Pollution Problem,” Rajic spoke to CafeSci Boston at WGBH’s Boston Public Library Studio on March 20 about new technology she is researching that provides an environmentally friendly solution to cleaning water of contaminants.

“Almost every part of mobile phones uses water in its production. So, if you think about it, there’s large amounts of water for the amount of technology that we use these days … as all these things happen,” Rajic said. “Water, after being used in any way … changes its quality. Usually, unfortunately that means contamination.”

As a professor at Northeastern University, Rajic utilizes their research space to advance her water treatment technology, which utilizes uses electrochemistry. Conductive and non-toxic, Rajic said, electrodes degrade chemicals present in reduced quality water. Rajic’s technology can use alternative power sources, making it more sustainable than other water treatment methods.

She also discussed the importance making clean water technology, which she hopes might eventually be installed in American homes of different income levels as well as in less economically prosperous countries, affordable.

“Affordability means anyone can access it, and we even have the great saying ‘clean water is the right of everybody,’” Rajic said. “But when it comes to actually having that, it’s not as accessible to everybody.”

Currently, Rajic’s technology is being tested at Northeastern University’s federally funded Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats, or PROTECT. The center heads the project to examine contaminants in the ground water in Puerto Rico and its effects inhabitants.

Dana Munzner, an environmental and civil engineer who worked with Rajic on the program, said Puerto Rico was chosen for the variety of challenges its ecosystem faces.

“Puerto Rico had [a combination of] environmental issues on top of some systemic issues. This center is looking at their really high preterm birth rates in correlation to these contaminants.”

Munzner explained that PROTECT is working with community members and pregnant women who “have had preterm births to make sure they’re getting the medical care they need as well as trying to find long term solutions like remediation for the water.”

Rajic, who is originally from Serbia, said her experience working with STEM colleagues in the United States has vastly differed from her experience working in Serbia.

“Back home, I didn’t really sense much of that division. It isn’t even a division. It just wasn’t as noticeable,” Rajic said. “But maybe here because departments are more specific, you really notice it. And behavior towards women is a little bit different, and it’s not as welcoming.”

Linda Polach,  executive managing director of WGBH News, helps welcome presentations such as Rajic’s. Bringing culture to Boston’s community for free through this kind of programming, Polach said, is important for promoting engagement with the general public.

“In a lot of ways, we talk to the public instead of just listening to the public,” Polach said. “My thought was, in this space we could invite people in to come and talk with us about topics.”

In an interview with The Daily Free Press, Rajic said thinking about the sheer amount water waste that humans produce every day sometimes overwhelms her.

“All of us here are [wasting water],” she said. “Then everyone in Copley square. And everyone in Boston, in Massachusetts, in the U.S. … For me, that sometimes makes me feel anxious and depressed. But I channel that into a question of what can I do about it and use that to motivate what I actually do.”

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