Damak wins World Technology Award for work on pesticide runoff

Tata Fellow beats out actor Leonardo DiCaprio, among others, for the award.

Leonardo DiCaprio began 2016 by capturing his long-awaited Best Actor Oscar, but his year will end in defeat, thanks to Tata Fellow Maher Damak.

Last week in Los Angeles, Damak, a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering, was named the winner of the Environment category at the World Technology Awards. DiCaprio, meanwhile, was a finalist in the same category for his foundation work and had to settle for runner-up.

Damak’s research, supported by the Tata Center, focuses on reducing pesticide runoff by making sprays “stickier.” By introducing a low-cost additive to the pesticide solution, Damak and his advisor, Professor Kripa Varanasi, have demonstrated that they can enhance the efficiency of pesticide application by causing the droplets to better adhere to plants. The objective is to keep toxins out of the soil and water table while making pesticide treatment more economical.

The awards, hosted by the World Technology Network, are decided by a process of anonymous nomination and voting by past winners. Damak will now be a part of the nomination and voting process going forward.

DiCaprio was not the only celebrity in the running. Comedian John Oliver won in the Media & Journalism category, Secretary of State John Kerry won the Policy category, and prominent companies such as SpaceX were also recognized. Another MIT-based winner was Professor Moungi Bawendi of the Department of Chemistry.

As for Damak’s research, he says the next step is to begin large-scale field trials. “We’re talking to partners in Florida, California, and Italy who are interested in using the system.” They expect to begin these trials in the spring.

And with about a year left in his Ph.D. studies at MIT, Damak is looking to the future. “When I graduate, we want to launch a startup to commercialize this product.”

He and Prof. Varanasi see pesticide runoff as a global problem with both business and environmental consequences. While the initial large-scale testing is planned for the U.S. and Europe, Damak says, “India and the developing world is a very important market for us.”

We’re certain that DiCaprio, whose foundation is “dedicated to the long-term health and wellbeing of all Earth’s inhabitants,” has no hard feelings.