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 laureateRobert 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.
James J. (Jamie) Bock, professor of physics at Caltech and senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the 2014 recipient of the George W. Goddard Award from SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.