On the Front Lines of Sustainability

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On the Front Lines of Sustainability

The chemical processes used to make products ranging from pharmaceuticals to perfumes can have a harmful impact on the environment. However, Caltech chemist and Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs has spent several decades developing catalysts—compounds that speed up a chemical reaction—that can make the synthesis of these products more efficient and ecologically friendly, ultimately reducing their environmental footprint. Similarly, chemist Brian Stoltz is developing new strategies for the synthesis of compounds needed in the chemical, polymer, and pharmaceutical industries. His new processes rely upon oxygen and organometallic catalysts—greener alternatives to the toxic metals that are normally used to drive such reactions.

Switching from paper files to cloud-based data storage might seem like an obvious choice for sustainability, but can we further reduce the environmental impact of storing data? The theoretical work of engineer and computer scientist Adam Wierman suggests that with the right algorithms, we can. Today, data centers—the physical storage facilities Wierman calls the "SUVs of the Internet"—account for more than 1.5 percent of U.S. electricity usage. And as more data goes online, that number is expected to grow. Wierman's work helps engineers design algorithms that will reroute data, with preference to centers that use renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Energy from the sun—although free and abundant—cannot easily be stored for use on dreary days or transported to cloudy regions. Caltech engineer and materials scientist Sossina Haile hopes to remove that barrier with a specific type of solar reactor she has developed. The reactor is lined with ceramic cerium oxide; when this lining is heated with concentrated sunlight it releases oxygen, priming it to remove oxygen from water molecules or carbon dioxide on cooling, thus creating hydrogen fuel or "syngas"—a precursor to liquid hydrocarbon fuels. This conversion of the sun's light into storable fuel could allow solar-derived power to be available day and night.

Caltech student participants in the Department of Energy's biennial Solar Decathlon competition set out to prove that keeping a house lit up, cooled down, and comfortable for living is possible—even while off the grid. The Techers teamed up with students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture to create CHIP and DALE, their entries in the 2011 and 2013 competitions, respectively. These functional and stylish homes, powered solely by the sun, were engineered with innovative components including a rainwater collection system and moving room modules that optimize heating and cooling efficiency. 

Although many of us take the nearest bathroom for granted, working toilets require resources and infrastructure that may not be available in many parts of the world. Inspired by the "Reinventing the Toilet Challenge" issued by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, environmental scientist and engineer Michael Hoffmann and his team applied his research in hydrogen evolution and water treatment to reengineer the toilet. The Caltech team's design—which won the challenge in 2012—can serve hundreds of people each day, treat its own wastewater, and generate electricity, providing a sustainable and low-cost solution to sanitation and hygiene challenges in the developing world. Prototypes are being tested in India and China for use in urban and remote environments in the developing world.  

Geophysicist Mark Simons studies the mechanics of the Earth—furthering our understanding of what causes our planet to deform over time. His research often involves using satellite data to observe the movement associated with seismic and volcanic activity, but Simons is also interested in changes going on in the icy parts of Earth's surface, especially the dynamics of glaciers. By flying high above Iceland's ice caps, Simons and his colleagues can track the glaciers' melt-and-freeze response in relation to seasonal and long-term variations in temperature—and their potential response to climate change.

The production of industrial nitrogen fertilizer results in 130 million tons of ammonia annually—while also requiring high heat, high pressure, and lots of energy. However, in a process called nitrogen fixation, soil microorganisms that live near the roots of certain plants can produce a similar amount of ammonia each year. The bugs use catalysts called nitrogenases to convert nitrogen from the air into ammonia at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. By mimicking the behavior of these microorganisms, Jonas Peters and his colleagues synthesized an iron-based catalyst that allows for nitrogen fixation under much milder conditions. The catalyst could one day lead to more environmentally friendly methods of ammonia production.

Traditionally, the photovoltaic cells in solar panels have been expensive and have had limited efficiency—making them a hard sell in the consumer market. Engineer and applied physicist Harry Atwater's work suggests that there is a thinner and more efficient alternative. Atwater, who is also the director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute, uses thin layers of semiconductors to create photovoltaics that absorb sunlight as efficiently as thick solar cells but can be produced with higher efficiency than conventional cells.

The generation of chemical fuels from sunlight could completely change the way we power the planet. Researchers in the laboratory of Caltech chemist Nate Lewis are working to develop different components of a fuel-producing device that could do just that called a photoelectrochemical cell. The cell would consist of an upper layer that could absorb sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water vapor, a middle layer consisting of light absorbers and catalysts that can produce fuels, which are then released through the device's bottom layer. When such a device is created, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, of which Lewis is the scientific director, aims to ease the transfer of these technologies to the private sector. 

Clean energy from the wind is a promising alternative to fossil fuels, but giant pinwheel-like wind turbines that are common on many wind farms can create dangerous obstacles for birds as well as being an unpleasant addition to a landscape's aesthetic. To combat this problem, Caltech engineer and fluid-mechanics expert John Dabiri is testing a new design for wind turbines, which looks a bit like a spinning eggbeater emerging from the ground. By placing these columnar vertical wind turbines in a careful arrangement—an arrangement inspired by the vortex of water created behind a swimming fish—his smaller vertical turbines create just as much energy as the "pinwheels" and on a much smaller land footprint.

In the early 1990s, Caltech bioengineer Frances Arnold pioneered "directed evolution"—a new method of engineering custom-built enzymes, or activity-boosting proteins. The technique allows mutations to develop in the enzyme's genetic code; these mutations can give the enzyme properties that don't occur in nature but are beneficial for human applications. The selectively enhanced enzymes help microbes turn plant waste and fast-growing grasses into fuels like isobutanol, which could sustainably replace more than half of U.S. oil imports, Arnold says. She's also exploring ways the technique could help factories to make pharmaceuticals and other products in much cleaner and safer ways.

The combined research efforts of Richard Flagan, John Seinfeld, Mitchio Okumura, and Paul Wennberg aim to improve our understanding of various aspects of climate change. Chemical engineer Flagan is pioneering ways to measure the number and sizes of particles in the air down to that of large molecules. Seinfeld studies where particles in the air come from, how they are produced by airborne chemical reactions, and the effect they have on the world's climate. Chemical physicist Okumura studies the chemical reactions that occur when sunlight encounters air pollution and results in smog. Wennberg, an atmospheric chemist, studies the natural and human processes that affect smog formation, the health of the ozone layer, as well as the lifetime of greenhouse gases. Wennberg and his colleagues join a legacy of Caltech researchers who have improved air quality through key discoveries about pollution.

In the past, researchers have discovered materials that can act as reaction catalysts, driving sunlight to split water into hydrogen fuel and an oxygen byproduct. However, these wonder materials are often expensive and in short supply. The research of chemist Harry Gray, who leads the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Chemical Innovation in Solar Fuels program, tests combinations of Earth-abundant metals to search for an inexpensive catalyst that boosts the water-splitting reaction with the sun. Gray also coleads an outreach project in which students in the classroom can participate in the race for solar fuels by testing thousands of materials and reporting their results to Caltech researchers.


Although Earth Week has officially come to a close, Caltech's commitment to sustainability continues. In this feature, you will meet some of the researchers at Caltech whose work is contributing to a greener planet and to the long-term improvement of our global environment.

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An Archimedes Revival in Pasadena

It is a banner spring in Pasadena for the classical Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse. Exhibits at Caltech and the Huntington Library highlight the work of Archimedes, as it has made its way into the modern era. Lectures and conferences will complement the exhibits, helping viewers understand the historical and scientific significance of ancient Greek mathematics to later eras.

"Archimedes and the Recovery of Greek Mathematics," the exhibit at Caltech, begins April 7, 2014, and runs through the end of July. It is located on the second floor of the Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration.

The collection on display at Caltech comes from the collection of rare books in the Caltech Archives and is curated by Shelley Erwin, head of archives and special collections. The exhibit consists mainly of European editions, dating from the 16th through 18th centuries, of the work of Archimedes and other ancient Greek mathematicians. The first printed edition of the complete known works of Archimedes, released in 1544 in parallel Greek and Latin texts, will be on display, as will the first English translation of Euclid's Elements, published in 1570.

Noel Swerdlow, visiting associate in history at Caltech, will lecture on "The Recovery and Application of Greek Mathematics in the Renaissance and Early Modern Period" at the Beckman Institute auditorium on April 10, 2014, at 4:00 p.m. Swerdlow will select texts from the Caltech exhibit to illustrate how the work of Archimedes and others influenced early modern scientists such as Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler. He will review exhibit texts such as the 16th-century Italian editions of Euclid and Archimedes that Galileo read during his student years, and the 1621 edition of Diophantus's Arithmetica, famous because in his copy of the text, now lost, French mathematician Pierre de Fermat wrote a note that he had "a marvelous proof" that could not be contained in the margin. Known as Fermat's last conjecture, this theorem was supposed to demonstrate that although Diophantus had shown that a square could be divided into two squares, Fermat could prove that a cube, or fourth power, or any power higher than a square cannot be divided into two powers of the same kind. "The consensus," says Swerdlow, "which must be correct, is that there was something wrong with Fermat's proof"—the one he did not write down. Fermat's last conjecture was not in fact proved until 1994 by British mathematician Andrew Wiles, who needed over 100 pages to achieve this feat.

Swerdlow's special interest is in the history of mathematical astronomy, a field that blossomed in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as early modern scientists drew on ancient Greek mathematics to pioneer Copernicus's heliocentric view of the universe. In his lecture, Swerdlow will describe the beginning of the recovery of Greek mathematics, found in an "Oration on the Dignity and Utility of the Mathematical Sciences," delivered by Johannes Regiomontanus in Padua in 1464. Swerdlow will discuss how proofs developed by Euclid were used by Galileo to explain why objects do not fly off the earth as it rotates and by Newton to explain centripetal force, and will show how Kepler used propositions by Archimedes and Apollonius to demonstrate that the orbits of planets are ellipses.

The inspiration for the Archimedes exhibit and Swerdlow's lecture at Caltech is the display of the famous Archimedes palimpsest at the Huntington from March 15 to June 22, 2014. This, the oldest surviving copy of Archimedes's work, contains one treatise not found elsewhere and one previously known only in Latin translation. The text was copied by an anonymous scribe in 10th-century Constantinople. Three hundred years later, a monk washed the ink from the parchment, rotated the sheets 90 degrees, and inked a liturgical text over the faded remnants of Archimedes's text, a common procedure in an era when writing materials were scarce.

The book was used for hundreds of years at the Monastery of Saint Sabas outside Jerusalem, and eventually found its way to the Metochion in Constantinople. There, in the mid 19th century, Archimedes's text, barely visible under the words of the prayer book, was first detected. Fifty years later, Johann Heiberg, a Danish classicist and editor of Greek mathematical texts, examining the text through a magnifying glass, recovered and published the treatises.

During World War I, the palimpsest went missing from its home in Constantinople. It surfaced briefly in the 1930s when a bookseller in Paris attempted unsuccessfully to sell it to various museums and libraries, including the Huntington. For the next 60 years, the palimpsest was treated poorly, for when it surfaced again in the 1990s and was auctioned off by Christie's, it was covered in mold, singed by fire, and had been inexpertly rebound with glue.

The palimpsest was purchased in 1998 by an anonymous American collector who immediately sought help for the text's restoration from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, near where he lived. It took four years to disbind the book and then several more years of imaging processes to reveal the ghostly ink of Archimedes's treatises under the liturgical text. Scientists with the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory used accelerator technology to make visible the text beneath four forged religious paintings that were apparently added in the 20th century in the hopes of increasing the book's market value.

The previously unknown texts discovered in the palimpsest are the Method, in which Archimedes shows how several of his principal discoveries were first investigated before being rigorously proved, and the Greek text of On Floating Bodies, which prior to the discovery of the Archimedes palimpsest was known completely only in a Latin translation from the 13th century. In addition, the Archimedes palimpsest includes a partial description of a puzzle called the Stomachion, also known from Latin and Arabic sources. In the puzzle, a square is cut into 14 pieces that can be reassembled in many different ways (according to a modern solution, the total number of ways is 17,152).

The Huntington is offering a curated tour of the Archimedes exhibit on April 17 at 4:30 p.m., and a lecture on the Archimedes palimpsest and its restoration on May 22 at 7:30 p.m., followed by a one-day symposium on Archimedes on May 23.

Cynthia Eller
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Caltech Appoints Diana Jergovic to Newly Created Position of Vice President for Strategy Implementation

Caltech has named Diana Jergovic as its vice president for strategy implementation. In the newly created position, Jergovic will collaborate closely with the president and provost, and with the division chairs, faculty, and senior leadership on campus and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to execute and integrate Caltech's strategic initiatives and projects and ensure that they complement and support the overall education and research missions of the campus and JPL. This appointment returns the number of vice presidents at the Institute to six.

"Supporting the faculty is Caltech's highest priority," says Edward Stolper, provost and interim president, "and as we pursue complex interdisciplinary and institutional initiatives, we do so with the expectation that they will evolve over a long time horizon. The VP for strategy implementation will help the Institute ensure long-term success for our most important new activities."

In her present role as associate provost for academic and budgetary initiatives at the University of Chicago, Jergovic serves as a liaison between the Office of the Provost and the other academic and administrative offices on campus, and advances campus-wide strategic initiatives. She engages in efforts spanning every university function, including development, major construction, and budgeting, as well as with faculty governance and stewardship matters. Jergovic also serves as chief of staff to University of Chicago provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Caltech's president-elect.

"In order to continue Caltech's leadership role and to define new areas of eminence, we will inevitably have to forge new partnerships and collaborations—some internal, some external, some both," Rosenbaum says. "The VP for strategy implementation is intended to provide support for the faculty and faculty leaders in realizing their goals for the most ambitious projects and collaborations, implementing ideas and helping create the structures that make them possible. I was looking for a person who had experience in delivering large-scale projects, understood deeply the culture of a top-tier research university, and could think creatively about a national treasure like JPL."

"My career has evolved in an environment where faculty governance is paramount," Jergovic says. "Over the years, I have cultivated a collaborative approach working alongside a very dedicated faculty leadership. My hope is to bring this experience to Caltech and to integrate it into the existing leadership team in a manner that simultaneously leverages my strengths and allows us together to ensure that the Institute continues to flourish, to retain its position as the world's leading research university, and to retain its recognition as such."

Prior to her position as associate provost, Jergovic was the University of Chicago's assistant vice president for research and education, responsible for the financial management and oversight of all administrative aspects of the Office of the Vice President for Research and Argonne National Laboratory. She engaged in research-related programmatic planning with a special emphasis on the interface between the university and Argonne National Laboratory. This ranged from the development of the university's Science and Technology Outreach and Mentoring Program (STOMP), a weekly outreach program administered by university faculty, staff, and students in low-income neighborhood schools on the South Side of Chicago, to extensive responsibilities with the university's successful bid to retain management of Argonne National Laboratory.

From 1994 to 2001, Jergovic was a research scientist with the university-affiliated National Opinion Research Center (NORC) and, in 2001, served as project director for NORC's Florida Ballot Project, an initiative that examined, classified, and created an archive of the markings on Florida's 175,000 uncertified ballots from its contested 2000 presidential election.

Jergovic earned a BS in psychology and an MA and PhD in developmental psychology, all from Loyola University Chicago, and an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

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