McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University
Energy & Sustainability
Over the past several years, the terms energy and sustainability have risen from buzzwords to vital areas of interest to scientists, politicians, and the general public. Funding for research in this area has swelled, and students especially have become hungry for courses and activities that allow them to be a part of the movement.
While researchers throughout Northwestern have worked on these problems for some time and McCormick has offered courses on the subject, the effort was far from unified. Seeing the need for greater collaboration in this area, Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School, initiated planning for what would in 2008 be launched as the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN). Mark Ratner, Lawrence B. Dumas Distinguished University Professor in chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering, and David Dunand, James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, were tapped to direct the institute.
“We felt it was absolutely necessary for Northwestern as a teaching, training, and research institution to be involved in this area,” says Ratner. “This is perhaps the most important scientifically based topic on society’s agenda. Our responsibility is to champion energy and the environment to make them more prominent at the University and to make the University more prominent in these efforts.” Added Dunand, “I think we’re on the forefront of this broader vision of both energy and sustainability.”
Walking the Talk
ISEN builds on Northwestern’s established strengths in the social sciences, business, law, engineering, and the physical sciences. A recently formed partnership with Argonne National Laboratory has broadened its advantage in advanced research and has created important opportunities for collaboration: ISEN has sponsored two workshops with Argonne on energy supply and demand that mixed researchers from both institutions.
ISEN has also provided booster grants and matching funds for University research, helping to launch two new multimillion-dollar Energy Frontier Research Centers (funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science). One center, led by Bartosz Grzybowski, Kenneth Burgess Professor in chemical and biological engineering and chemistry, strives to synthesize, characterize, and understand new classes of materials under conditions that are relevant to solar energy conversion, catalysis, and storage of electricity and hydrogen. The other, led by Michael Wasielewski, professor of chemistry, will address the basic steps of solar energy conversion — charge photogeneration, separation, and recombination — as well as charge and energy transfer among molecules, across interfaces, and through nanostructured architectures.
ISEN is active in the classroom as well. In 2009 Ratner and Dunand taught an undergraduate course on energy and sustainability in the 21st century, which was taken by students from throughout the University. “We think of ourselves as an entry point,” Ratner says. “We hope that freshman or second-year students will take ISEN courses, find them interesting, and then go on to something more advanced.”
ISEN has also given out grants to students for research and outreach projects and is beginning a specialized interdisciplinary cluster through the Graduate School in which a cohort of selected students will take ISEN courses in addition to their regular course work. ISEN is also heading up this year’s One Book One Northwestern project, which will feature New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America. Other plans — perhaps a green roof on campus or a prize for undergraduate projects — are in the works. “We want this to be a part of the students’ lives because they want it to be part of their lives,” Ratner says. “They really care about this topic.”
Ahead of the Curve
Before ISEN was established, Kimberly Gray, professor of civil and environmental engineering, was one of McCormick’s leaders in the area of sustainability. Gray recently took that role further by creating the Northwestern Institute for Sustainable Practices (ISP) in 2008. “I’ve been doing this for years,” she says. “Everything I do concerns the environment.”
Gray studies solar-fuel generation and the use of ecologically based strategies for water treatment. Her determination to make sustainability a priority at Northwestern was an impetus in creating the institute. “I think it became very clear as oil prices were reaching their pinnacle that energy and its environmental impact and its intersection with sustainability were real issues that needed to be addressed,” she says. “Northwestern needed to approach energy with a different spin.”
Since its founding, ISP has held workshops; hosted the Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge, which recognizes student design projects and research that offer creative solutions to the challenges of sustainability; brought in visiting scholars such as Doug Farr, a well-known architect focused on sustainable architecture and urban planning; and hosted a wide variety of guest speakers to lecture on the issues related to climate, transportation, alternative energy, and resource management. Gray also teaches the courses Sustainable Product Design and Development and Sustainable Solutions Practicum, in which student teams work on sustainability problems from industry. “We’re also changing the engineering curriculum and trying to think about how we can integrate sustainability principles into core courses to teach students how to engineer products completely differently,” Gray says. “I hope we can continue on this highly productive start.”
One aspect of sustainability is creating materials that are more recyclable and biodegradable, and several McCormick professors are working on materials that won’t be clogging future generations’ landfills. John Torkelson, Walter P. Murphy Professor in chemical and biological engineering, is working to create biodegradable blends and nanocomposites with polymers made from renewable resources. Linda Broadbelt, Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor in chemical and biological engineering, is using mechanistic modeling of the decomposition of individual polymers and polymer mixtures during pyrolysis (a set of reactions) to improve polymer recycling procedures.
The SUV in the Room
It is not possible to study energy and sustainability without addressing a major consumer of energy today: transportation. Enter Harold Kung, professor of chemical and biological engineering, who heads the Center for Energy Efficient Transportation.
“Thirty percent of energy use is in transportation,” he says. “If you know how to utilize energy for transportation more efficiently, you can reduce our dependence on energy and lower the rate of carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere.”
The center was created in 2007 to coordinate research and education on energy-efficient transportation, with an emphasis on materials. “We’re capitalizing on the strengths of Northwestern — especially materials research,” Kung says. “We have faculty members making cars more lightweight without sacrificing safety, and we’d like to improve the efficiency of the power train of the car.”
Because McCormick hasn’t focused research on the internal combustion engine, the center focuses many of its efforts on future propulsion systems, like battery-powered vehicles. Kung and others are trying to improve battery efficiency in hopes of creating one that can completely power cars that have attributes (such as safety, range, power, size) that are comparable to conventional vehicles.
The efficiency of converting electricity into motion can be much higher than gasoline, but the most promising current rechargeable batteries — lithium ion batteries — are not competitive in cost, power, or energy densities. Kung is working to develop battery components to improve these. His research involves developing new materials for the battery components that store the charge. “One way to try to improve batteries is to change the components where the lithium goes in and out,” Kung says. “We’re researching those components and making them work in such a way that they can pack in 10 times the energy and run for 10 years without much degradation.” Kung has assembled a team that includes chris Wolverton, Mark Hersam, and Mike Bedzyk, professors of materials science and engineering, that has become part of Argonne National Laboratory’s Energy Frontier Research Center for Electrical Energy Storage: Tailored Interfaces.
The transition to an electric car society will take a few decades of research and infrastructure improvement, but Kung is optimistic that electric cars are the future of transportation — and he’s optimistic that Northwestern and McCormick can do their part in creating this new world. “We have the human resources to tackle this problem,” he says. “We can conduct research and have an education program that will both enhance awareness and reduce our dependencies on limited energy resources. We can capitalize on our strengths to reduce energy consumption in transportation. With good planning and good research and development, we’ll be able to achieve it in 30 or 40 years.”
Director of Research Administration