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Northwestern Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience faculty are developing new technologies that will enhance societal sustainability.  In this blog, they, along with the students and post-docs within their groups, will describe these advances in the context of current events, societal trends, and technology developments at NU and around the world.

Please send all blog entries for posting to Tara Sadera, tara.sadera@northwestern.edu

CESR Seed funding supports new collaboration to study sustainable chemistry in electrocatalytic reactors

Posted; December 2,  2019

Niall Mangan (Northwestern, Applied Mathamatics) and
Linsey Seitz (Northwestern, Chemical & Biological Engineering)

We are excited about our new collaborative project, which will be supported by the first round of CESR seed funding this year. As new faculty, we were both looking to develop our research programs into new areas which could make a difference in sustainability. Even as renewable energy sources for electricity, such as wind and solar, have expanded, areas of industry such as industrial chemical production still rely on carbon-intensive processes for most products. Our collaboration seeks to improve our understanding of electrocatalytic processes so that we can engineer new devices for sustainable chemistry. Electrocatalytic processes can produce liquid fuels and chemical products from sustainable feedstocks and electricity. This could allow us to capitalize on the gains in renewable electricity penetration to drive the sustainable production of a large variety of chemical products. Such technologies would also enable electricity providers to buffer their intermittent energy production by producing chemicals or storable fuels during periods when electricity supply from wind or solar sources exceeds direct electricity demands, and then using these fuels when energy demand exceeds supply. Such flexibility can improve the financial incentives to install more photovoltaics and wind turbines for capture of these renewable energy sources.  

Many researchers are working on electrocatalysis for these reasons. Unfortunately, exciting opportunities for electrocatalytic technologies are limited by our understanding of the complex relationships between bulk reactor properties and the local catalyst environment which influences reaction efficiency and selectivity towards desired products. These problems are challenging because there is a complex interaction between the bulk transport or flow in the device, the chemical reactions, small charged species, and the electrical field near the catalyst surface. These processes happen on length scales of millimeters to nanometers, so it can be difficult to capture all the effects and the coupling between them in one model. We will use multi-scale modeling in Niall’s group and controlled experiments in Linsey’s group to study the coupling and behavior of the system.  By understanding how the effects influence each other, we will be able to design robust chemical reactors and bridge the gap between carefully controlled laboratory catalyst environments and operational electrocatalytic reactors. CESR seed funding will enable us to investigate electrocatalytic production of hydrogen peroxide, as a sustainable alternative to the current industrial process, which is energy intensive and produces significant waste. Hydrogen peroxide is an environmentally friendly oxidant that is used in large quantities for a variety of industries, including water treatment. Through this work, we will build fundamental understanding of electrocatalytic reactors that can be extended to other reactions and develop technologies for effective coupling of renewable electricity from wind and solar to sustainable production of fuels and chemicals.

CESR convenes sustainability research and education in McCormick and beyond

Posted; November 11, 2019
Jennifer Dunn, CESR Associate Director

Undoubtedly, engineering is a foundational discipline in advancing society towards sustainability and increasing its resilience.  Within the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern, several research groups and centers target these aims and many individual faculty members conduct research in areas essential to sustainability.  Northwestern’s Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience (CESR) was established in early 2019 to connect these efforts that involve faculty, staff, and students to strengthen and amplify them.  CESR will serve as a convener and a central resource for information on sustainability-related courses, seminars, outreach, degree programs, and activities. 

As CESR has taken flight, Bill and I have met with an ever-growing list of faculty, students, staff, and external partners who want to build this community.  As an example, we recently met Greg Kozak, the Director of Northwestern’s Office of Sustainability who spearheads efforts to increase energy efficiency at the University and reduce campus waste, among many other initiatives.  We talked about ways CESR and his organization, sustainNU, can collaborate so NU engineering students and faculty can apply their know-how to addressing sustainability challenges in our back yard.  Additionally, this summer we hosted 150 people from community groups, industry, government and academia to discuss sustainable urban systems and develop a research agenda to advance them.  This NSF-funded event, Sustainable Urban Systems: Predictive, Integrated, Resilient, and Evolving (SUSPIRE) was a collaboration among CESR, Illinois CURES, Argonne National Laboratory, and the University of Chicago.  Furthermore, we’ve talked with faculty in our seven focus areas to identify where research interests lie.  We’re compiling a list of sustainability-related course work for students so they can have a one-stop shop for this information.  We talked with faculty about their “dream” seminar invitees in sustainability and resilience so we can learn from these experts while familiarizing them with expertise at Northwestern.  Bill and I enjoy making connections among people and charting paths to impactful action.  We will continue to convene many conversations and build this center for increasing impact in the years to come.

We started this blog as part of our website to offer more details on CESR events and accomplishments, to host guest blog posts by CESR-affiliated faculty about their research, and to serve as a platform for CESR faculty to offer insights into trends and current events related to engineering sustainability and resilience.  CESR will post to Twitter to announce blog posts and other CESR news.  Please follow us at @CesrNu on Twitter.

     
Figures: Convening discussion about sustainable urban systems at SUSPIRE, July 2019

Transforming built environments through structures that provide renewable and waste thermal energy from the building to the city scale

Posted; November 13, 2019   
Alessandro Rotta Loria, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

As the Director of the Mechanics and Energy Laboratory within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University, I’ve co-authored a new book entitled “Analysis and Design of Energy Geostructures.”  Briefly, transforming all structures in contact with the ground to provide structural support and thermal energy is the cutting-edge role of energy geostructures. A lot of renewable geothermal energy and waste thermal energy is readily available below the earth’s surface. Typically made of reinforced concrete with embedded plastic pipes with circulating water, energy geostructures allow the transfer of the previous thermal energy sources from subsurface environments to buildings and infrastructures. In this way, the very foundations of constructions such as piles, retaining and diaphragm walls, slabs and barrettes, as well as other underground structures such as tunnels, are transformed into so-called energy piles, energy walls, energy slabs, energy barrettes and energy tunnels. The renewable geothermal energy and waste thermal energy that is captured from energy geostructures can be used from the building- to the city-scale for a variety of purposes. These include space heating and cooling as well as hot water production.  Meeting such considerable energy requirements of buildings and infrastructures through the harvesting of renewable and waste thermal energy sources, while providing structural support, makes energy geostructures a powerful technology to sustainably revolutionize the built environment.

 This new book describing the science and engineering of energy geostructures is the first of its kind. My co-author is Professor Lyesse Laloui, Director of the Laboratory of Soil Mechanics of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). He is widely considered to be a pioneer in the research and development of energy geostructures. We have designed this book with several important features. First, the book crosses disciplines so that readers can analyze and design energy geostructures from energy, geotechnical and structural perspectives.  Second, it serves as a source of broad theoretical and experimental competences pertinent to civil, environmental and energy engineering, geology, architecture, and urban project management. Finally, the book provides various resolved application exercises to test the understanding of the covered subjects.

Evolving and building globally for approximately twenty years, the science and engineering of energy geostructures has been continuously and increasingly in the spotlight across the fields of Geomechanics, Structural Mechanics and Energy.  Our new book aims to provide critical competences that present and future generations of scientists and engineers need to acquire for resolving urgent environmental and societal challenges associated with the built world. It represents an example of the efforts pushing the current knowledge boundaries in the fields of environmental sustainability that are undertaken within the Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience at Northwestern University.

References

Lyesse Laloui, Alessandro F. Rotta Loria, “Analysis and Design of Energy Geostructures, Theoretical Essentials and Practical Application,” Elsevier, ISBN: 9780128206232, 2019, p. 1098.

 

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