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Faculty Affiliate Funding Recipients

The Paula M. Trienens Institute for Energy and Sustainability accepts applications semiannually for research seed grants and equipment funding. The first round of funding was announced in the fall of 2023.

Seed Funding

Fall 2023

Investigator(s): Ludmilla Aristilde, civil and environmental engineering

Project Title: Probing bacterial platforms with natural metabolic versatility for processing plastics derivatives

Description: Biological conversion of plastics into valuable products represents an important component of a sustainable energy portfolio towards decreasing our reliance on petroleum-based chemical production. Critical to this effort is the valorization of waste streams containing diverse breakdown products from plastics polymers. The Aristilde group seeks to identify non-model microbial hosts that naturally possess the metabolic capabilities for coupling utilization of mixed plastics derivatives to the biosynthesis of valuable products.

Investigator(s): Julia Behrman, sociology

Project Title: Climate change, school attendance and learning in sub-saharan Africa

Description: The project advances conceptual and empirical understandings of the short- and long-term linkages between climate shocks and schooling outcomes by combining georeferenced climate data with cross sectional and panel data on school attendance and learning in Sub-Saharan Africa. A central focus of the project is to explore how shocks exacerbate inequalities in schooling and learning by key axis of stratification including socioeconomic status, gender, and urban residence. The project will also illuminate the pathways (both social and biosocial) through which shocks impact schooling outcomes.

Investigator(s): Marco Gallio, neurobiology; Alessia Para, neurobiology; Yarrow Axford, Earth and planetary sciences

Project Title: Looking into the past to anticipate the future: using ancient DNA from arctic lakes to uncover genomic changes that predict vulnerability of insect communities to ongoing climate change

Description: Using ancient DNA from Arctic lakes to uncover genomic changes that predict vulnerability of insect communities to ongoing climate change.

Investigator(s): Bryan Hunter, chemistry

Project Title: Nanostructured Mg-doped tetrahedrites for reversible CO2 capture

Description: The industrial-scale transport of CO2 from locations of unwanted emission to sites for intentional use is of great importance for human health and national security. We propose the development of a thermoelectric, nanoparticulate material with a high (however non-covalent) affinity for carbon dioxide. Release of the stored CO2 would be affected by applying a bias potential to the conductive material or by irradiation with light.

Investigator(s): Niall Mangan, engineering sciences and applied mathematics; Linsey Seitz, chemical and biological engineering

Project Title: Enabling sustainable chemistry through multi-scale experimental and modeling analyses of electrocatalytic reactors

Description: Widespread adoption of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, coupled with electrocatalysis have the potential to transform our vast chemical industry into a sustainable, non-toxic process. Electrocatalytic production of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) represents a simple reaction for case study and is an environmentally friendly oxidant. Our goal is to develop and experimentally validate a mathematical model to disentangle the complex underlying relationships. In this work we propose to perform the necessary experimental measurements to validate the model, and incorporate and test two additional physical mechanisms This seed work will pave the way for expanded studies of more complex systems such as CO2 conversion and production of sustainable chemicals and fuels.

Investigator(s): Justin Notestein, chemical and biological engineering

Project Title: Tandem CO2 utilization with novel tandem catalysts

Description: Ethylene and propylene (collectively known as olefins) are the backbone of the global chemicals industry, but they are also the 2nd and 3rd most energy-intensive chemical products to manufacture due to the high temperatures required. In this work, we are designing novel catalytic materials that will accomplish two goals simultaneously: the catalysts will decrease the temperatures and thus the energy needed to produce olefins, and they will do so by simultaneously utilizing and reacting away carbon dioxide. An important part of this project will be to understand the fate of the converted carbon dioxide, whether it becomes part of the useful mixture known as ‘synthesis gas’ or if it is directly incorporated into other commodity chemicals in novel one-step routes.

Investigator(s): Dane Swearer, chemistry; Sossina Haile, materials science and engineering

Project Title: Electrifying commodity chemical production with engineered plasma-surface interactions

Description: It is imperative to decarbonize critical industrial processes in order to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. This goal is particularly important for the production of chemical commodities which utilize 23% of global energy use and is dominated by legacy technologies that depend on fossil energy. In this effort, we will explore the opportunities presented by the highly reactive chemical environments found in low temperature plasmas to reduce energy barriers associated with nitrogen dissociation and enable electrochemical synthesis of ammonia. Our multidisciplinary collaboration will investigate the chemistry, materials science, and engineering potential of integrating N2 plasmas with solid-state electrochemical cells built upon proton conducting solid-acid membranes.

Spring 2024

Investigator(s): Cecile Chazot, materials science and engineering; Jeffrey Richards, engineering

Project Title: Fiber spinning of ethyl cellulose cholesteric mesophases: towards structurally colored textiles

Description: This proposal will enable the development of sustainable textiles using biologically derived polymers. These textiles will replace the unsustainable use of azo dyes which account for 20% of water pollution worldwide.

Investigator(s): Jennifer Dunn, chemical biological engineering; Kim Suiseeya, political science; Daniel Posen and Heather MacLean of the University of Toronto

Project Title: Energy systems modeling of US-Canada demand and sourcing of critical minerals

Description: Description to come. 

Investigator(s): Klaus Weber, management and organizations

Project Title: Developing a text-analytic measure of organizational sustainability culture​

Description: This research develops a text-analytic tool to measure the extent to which the core principles of sustainability are embedded in the cultural belief systems of organizations. Treating sustainability as a cultural belief system offers a forward-looking and comprehensive assessment of organizations’ ability to contribute to global sustainability challenges. This assessment of sustainability in organizational culture enables comparative analyses, tracking progress in beliefs and behaviors that enable sustainability transitions, and diagnostics for effective interventions to integrate sustainability thinking in organizations. 

Investigator(s): George Wells, civil and environmental engineering; William Dichtel, chemistry; Joerg Drewes of the Technical University of Munich [TUM]

Project Title: Flotation-enhanced ultrasonication (“UltraFloat”) to combine PFAS separation and destruction in a unit operation process for sustainable water treatment and reuse

Description: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their ubiquitous presence in the environment endanger ecosystems and drinking water supplies worldwide. To mitigate impacts of such “forever chemicals”, the objective of this project is to develop a novel approach that synergistically combines flotation and ultrasound for combined separation and destruction of PFAS in a single, easy-to-operate system. By being fully electric, we anticipate that the approach will enable chemical-free and carbon-neutral operation with potential transformational impact on contaminant mitigation in a wide variety of PFAS-impacted waters, including groundwater, surface water, reverse osmosis concentrates from drinking water production, and industrial or municipal wastewaters. 

Investigator(s): Sera Young, anthropology

Project Title: Geospatial insights into how climate change impacts global water insecurity and health

Description: Climate change can erode water availability and quality. However, we have not been able to quantify how climate change-related events impact water insecurity, and how that, in turn, shapes food insecurity and health. The aim of the suite of the proposed interdisciplinary analyses is to open up a new avenue of research on climate, water insecurity, and health using geotagged data that have recently been made available from 40+ countries. The result will be estimates of the burden of climate events on water and health, and insights into best practices for supporting activities to promote climate resilience, water security, and health. 

Lab Instrumentation Awards

Fall 2023

Investigator(s): Aaron Packman, civil and environmental engineering; William Miller, chemical and biological engineering

Project Title: Utilities support for CROCUS climate instrumentation on Scott Hall roof

Description: Funding from the Trienens Institute supported the installation of a SAGE node on the roof of Scott Hall. The SAGE Node is a suite of wireless sensors with edge computing capabilities. It collects atmospheric data like temperature, relative humidity and rainfall as well as air quality measurements. It is part of a larger deployment of sensors across the Chicago area through the CROCUS project which looks at urban climate change and its implications for environmental justice in the Chicago region.

Investigator(s): Neil Schweitzer, chemical and biological engineering; Justin Notestein, chemical and biological engineering

Project Title: Vapourtec robotic, modular flow chemistry system

Description: The Vapourtech system consists of liquid flow reactor equipment capable of synthesizing large batches of chemical or material feedstocks, optimizing chemical synthesis routes through the generation of product libraries, and testing catalytic materials. This equipment holds the potential to help researchers scale-up discoveries made at the bench-scale to larger scale, commercially applicable processes. 

Investigator(s): Cecile Chazot, materials science; Ryan Truby, materials science; Nathan Gianneschi, chemistry

Project Title: Biopolymer characterization through ionic liquid-based gel permeation chromatography

Description: While biopolymers have been proposed as sustainable alternatives to petroleum-derived commodity polymers, their widespread adoption is still hindered by their narrow range of properties and challenging processability at scale. To engineer biopolymers as high-performance alternatives to today’s leading synthetic polymers, elucidating the structure-property-processing relationships that govern biopolymer performance, end-of-life biodegradability, and their manufacturability at-scale is paramount. Chain length, captured by molecular weight measurements, greatly influences the processing parameters, final attainable properties, and biodegradability of biopolymer-based materials. Gel Permeation Chromatography (GPC) is the gold standard for accurately characterizing the molecular weight distribution of polymers. However, GPC is notoriously challenging to conduct on most biopolymers due to their limited solubility in common organic phase eluents, their tendency to adsorb to GPC columns, and the unavailability of their refractive index increment. Here, we propose to acquire a custom GPC system specifically tailored for biopolymer analyses with ionic liquids (ILs), a common class of environmentally friendly biopolymer solvents. This instrument will enable the accurate determination of the molecular weight of polysaccharides and melanins, bringing us a step closer to high-performance biopolymers with tunable properties and compatibility with scalable processing methods. This equipment acquisition would therefore represent a critical step in boosting collaborative research efforts in biopolymer development and characterization across the Trienens Institute and NU.

Investigator(s): William Dichtel, chemistry 

Project Title: UV/vis/NIR spectrophotometer for PFAS destruction and low energy separations

Description: Support from the Trienens Institute Equipment Funding Program was used to purchase a Cary 5000 UV/vis/NIR spectrophotometer to enable absorbance measuremenets of solutions with simultaneous temperature control, powders, and thin films. Absorbance measurements are heavily used in chemistry and materials research to characterize the electronic properties of molecules and materials, monitor chemical reactions, and evaluate the quality and thickness of polymer films, among other uses. The instrument will support projects in the Dichtel group that are at the frontiers of important sustainability challenges. Two of these projects are to develop new methods to destroy per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS, or “forever chemicals”) and to prepare precise membranes for energy-efficient chemical separations.

Investigator(s): Linsey Seitz , chemical and biological engineering; Justin Notestein, chemical and biological engineering

Project Title: Quantifying core elements in a material using inductively coupled plasma - optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES)

Description: Funds from this Trienens Institute Seed Project have supported purchase of a new Agilent 7850 inductively coupled plasma - mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) that will be the centerpiece of a custom experimental platform to assess the durability of material components in sustainable energy storage and conversion technologies. The instrument installation is currently proceeding smoothly with the assistance of Rebecca Sponenburg, who will be co-managing the instrument with the Seitz Lab in the IMSERC shared user facility at Northwestern. This ICP-MS will be uniquely outfitted with a front-end online flow sampling system, enabling real-time analysis of elements lost from catalyst materials and reactor components, or from any liquid samples in support of environmental/agricultural monitoring, geochemical analysis, pharmaceutical screening, and metallurgy. These capabilities will enable novel insights in support of enhanced performance and extended lifetime of emergent technologies that are poised to drive a paradigm shift in our massive global fuels and chemicals industries to achieve deep decarbonization and a green energy revolution.

Investigator(s): Magdalena Osburn, Earth and planetary sciences; Yarrow Axford, Earth and planetary sciences; Bradley Stevenson, Earth and planetary sciences; George Wells, civil and environmental engineering; Amy Rosenzweig, molecular biosciences

Project Title: Towards the measurement of trace greenhouse gas isotopes: purchase of a trace gas pre-concentration device for multidisciplinary C cycle research at NU

Description: Greenhouse gases are key drivers of anthropogenic climate change and studying the dynamics of their production and consumption in the geological past, present, and future is of urgent scientific and societal concern. Isotope geochemistry is an ideal tool for revealing sources and mechanistic dynamics of elements, but measurement of trace gas isotopes is analytically challenging. The PreCon Trace Gas Pre-Concentration Device funded by this grant from the Trienens Institute will allow the Northwestern University Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry Laboratory (NU-SIBL) to perform this difficult task, and thereby more thoroughly investigate sources and sinks of greenhouse gases, especially methane.


Spring 2024

Investigator(s): Songi Han, chemistry; Jinlei Cui, chemistry; Benjamin Owen, chemistry

Project Title: Advancing environmental science, enhancing sustainability and energy efficiency by dynamic nuclear polarization (DNP) and quantum information amplified nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR)-enhanced molecular analysis of materials chemistry

Description: We are seeking the acquisition of an HX, double resonance, ultra-low temperature (ULT, 25 K) dynamic nuclear polarization (DNP) nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) probe and microwave frequency measurement system. This equipment would enable the existing, DNP instrument at NU to be optimally configured for characterization of materials that advance sustainable chemistry, impact environmental science and render earth-abundant metals as active catalyst materials. 

Investigator(s): Omar K. Farha, chemistry; Chris Malliakas, chemistry

Project Title: High throughput X-ray diffraction upgrades

Description: High throughput instrumentation for the characterization of functional materials. 

Investigator(s): Mercouri Kanatzidis, chemistry

Project Title: Purchase of a Magnetic Property Measurement System from Quantum Design Inc 

Description: Description to come.

Demonstration Project Awards

Fall 2023

Investigator(s): Andrew Jacobson, Earth and planetary sciences; Bradley Sageman, Earth and planetary sciences; Patrick Giavelli, Earth and planetary sciences; Nyree Zerega, plant biology and conservation; Louise Egerton-Warburton, plant biology and conservation

Project Title: Experimental and Numerical Development of Protocols for Enhanced Rock Weathering: Verifying Carbon Capture Criteria and Biological Impacts

Description: To address the anthropogenic climate crisis, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report highlights an urgent need for a multifaceted approach that encompasses carbon dioxide (CO2) emission reductions, as well as CO2 removal (CDR) strategies. The CDR industry is rapidly expanding, due to an influx of capital from financial institutions and major corporations seeking to minimize their carbon (C) footprints by purchasing offset credits. Among various CDR technologies, Enhanced Rock Weathering (ERW) stands out as particularly promising. ERW is a geoengineering strategy that involves the intentional pulverization and application of certain types of rock materials to agricultural soils. It is primarily aimed at mitigating climate change by sequestering CO2 in dissolved form, as bicarbonate (HCO3-). ERW has additional benefits, such as enhancing soil fertility, increasing crop yields, and providing a novel revenue stream for farmers. The process of ERW operates at the intersection of geology, geochemistry, geomicrobiology, and agronomy. A multidisciplinary approach is crucial for successfully implementing ERW, but ERW remains in its infancy. Basic science investigations are needed to develop robust, transparent, and reliable protocols for verifying CDR rates by ERW, to ensure that offset credits have the highest integrity and quality, and to understand impacts on food and ecosystem functioning. The Midwest, with its vast agricultural sector, presents a unique opportunity for ERW research. Northwestern University (NU), located at the heart of this region, is strategically positioned to lead this research frontier. The Midwest’s diverse agricultural systems, from corn and soybean monocultures to integrated agroforestry systems, offer a rich tapestry for studying the efficacy and impacts of ERW across different settings. Furthermore, with its abundant sources of suitable rock types, the Midwest’s geology can potentially reduce the costs and emissions associated with ERW implementation. By devoting research to this domain, NU can contribute to decarbonization efforts and support resilience and productivity in regional agriculture systems. In this proposal we outline a plan for collaboration between researchers and students in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS), the Plant Biology and Conservation Program (PBC), the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG), and the Segal Design Institute (SDI) to design, refine, and implement empirical testing procedures for ERW. The results of these experiments will guide a numerical modeling effort for optimizing and predicting ERW CDR rates. In addition, the nascent but rapidly expanding decarbonization sector has outlined numerical modeling of ERW as an essential component of measurement, reporting, and verification criteria for accessing voluntary carbon markets.

Spring 2024

Investigator(s): Vinayak Dravid, Materials Science and Engineering

Project Title: Assessing the Commercial Viability of PEARL Media in Stormwater Treatment: Translating Promises to Prospects 

Description: The project will undertake practical deployment and assess potential commercial viability of “PEARL” technology developed in the Dravid group at NU, for repetitive recovery of phosphate (from agriculture runoff) and toxic metal (industrial effluents) from storm/wastewater streams. Current methods for environmental remediation are costly, inefficient and unsustainable. They are often single-use, less selective and of low capacity for pollutants, which requires high inventory and generates considerable hazardous waste. This project uses a sponge-based nanocomposite which interacts selectively with pollutants and reusable after regeneration; providing the foundation for the development of large-scale deployment for sustainable recovery of aqueous pollutants. 

Funding Projects in the News

Read stories and news coverage of Faculty Affiliate projects funded by the Trienens Institute.