Courtesy of Fengchu Liao, Yale Daily News

At its 2021 commencement ceremony, the Yale School of the Environment announced a new award, donated anonymously in honor of Mochen Liao ENV ’25, who died in March.

The $500 award will be given once a year until 2025, the year when Liao would have received his doctorate. Liao’s advisor at the School of the Environment, assistant professor of industrial ecology and sustainable systems Yuan Yao, announced the first winners of the award in May. The winning project was titled “Towards a Sustainable Textile Industry: Carpets as a Start,” and its team members included Claire Goydan ENV ’22, Meghana Kharod ENV ’22 and Shitiz Chaudhary ENV ’22.

“The award was given to the innovative project in the field of industrial ecology judged to best exemplify Mochen’s legacy: innovative modeling research that creates new insights into the environmental implications of industrial activities and new technologies,” said Yao in her commencement announcement.

Yao led the Mochen Liao Award Committee, along with her colleagues Marian Chertow, professor of industrial environmental management and director of the Center for Industrial Ecology, and postdoctoral associate Alessio Miatto. The winning team’s project focused on understanding the environmental impacts of a carpet throughout its life cycle. It also proposed methods by which this cycle could become more sustainable, such as using alternative chemicals, using cleaner energy for carpet recycling and growing recycling facilities.

According to Kharod, she and her team completed the project for a class on life cycle assessment taught by Yao. Carpets particularly interested Kharod because of the enormous  recycling challenges facing the industry.

“For example, currently less than 5 percent of the total disposed carpet in the U.S. is recycled annually, and carpet is used almost everywhere, so imagine the kind of volume that goes to landfills because of carpets,” Kharod told the News.

In their research, however, Kharod and the rest of her team found that recycling alone would not increase the sustainability of a carpet’s life cycle. Instead, the team’s analysis suggested that the energy required to recycle carpets would lead to even worse environmental impacts, since energy in the United States mainly comes from fossil fuels.

“If the carpet industry really wishes to become more sustainable, then their target should not be improving the recycling rates alone,” said Kharod. “They have to work closely with the recyclers to make sure that the energy the recyclers are using is coming from clean sources.”

While Kharod did not personally know Liao, she noted that she had heard “amazing things” about him and was sad that she missed the chance to meet him.

The award’s anonymous donor was, according to Dean of the School of the Environment Indy Burke, an alumnus who shared Mochen’s interest in industrial ecology.

“Often, the donor isn’t looking for attention but wants to support a worthy project,” Burke explained in a joint statement with Assistant Dean of the School of the Environment and Director of Development and Alumni Services Kristin Floyd, when asked why someone might wish to donate anonymously. “In this case, the donor really wanted to keep the entire focus on Mochen.”

They described their first reaction upon learning of the donation as both that of gratitude, but also of renewed sadness at Liao’s death.

Liao’s father, Fengchu Liao, described his son’s spirit as continuing to live through the development of research.

“Mochen is not alone,” he said, as translated by the News from Chinese. “With more colleagues and friends [in his field], he will continue his academic research with joy!”

Liao was born in 1996, in China’s Hunan province. He passed away in March of 2021.

Those who knew him described him as hardworking and passionate about science, even from a young age. In her speech at commencement, Yao described him as an outstanding student, who —  by the time of his death  — had already published three peer-reviewed journal articles.

“Our gratitude to the donor and our thanks to the Yale community,” said Liao’s father. “Because of you, Mochen was happy. Because of your help, he had the opportunity to do the research that he loved. And because of your donation, this field will be even more productive.”

Liao entered the Yale School of the Environment in the fall of 2020.

Isabelle Qian covers Yale's graduate and professional schools. She is a sophomore in Pierson College and comes from Seattle, WA.