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CESR Seed Grants

Applications for CESR's 2022 Seed Grants are now open!  

Deadline: December 16th, 2022

Read the full Call for Proposals

Apply for a Seed Grant


CESR awards support for 18-month collaborative research projects in sustainability approximately annually.  Funding levels range from $65 to 80k.  Supported by funding from Leslie and Mac McQuown, the CESR Seed Funding program fosters innovative, high-risk research that fosters new faculty collaborations, and provides support for graduate student(s) and/or postdoctoral fellow(s). Results from these projects aim to provide preliminary data to support proposals for funding from federal agencies, foundations, and/or industry.  Funded teams present their results annually at a spring poster session.

2021 Awarded Teams

Oluwaseyi Balogun and G Jeffrey Snyder

Towards Engineering Metamaterials for Sustainable Energy Solutions: Local Thermal Properties of Grain Boundaries in Polycrystalline Materials
Oluwaseyi Balogun and G Jeffrey Snyder

Lead-PI: Oluwaseyi Balogun, Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering

Co-PI: G Jeffrey Snyder, Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Grain boundaries (GBs) and interfaces are critical microstructural components that control the performance of electronic and energy materials. In particular, GBs are exploited in thermoelectric materials to promote the scattering of microscopic energy carriers like phonons, leading to reduced bulk thermal conductivity and enhanced energy harvesting performance. While reduced thermal conductivity in bulk thermoelectric materials has been widely reported, there is limited knowledge about the microscopic effects of GBs on heat flow, particularly at micro- and nanoscale distances on the order of the phonon mean free path (MFP). At these length scales, the impact of the GB structure, strain, and chemical composition on heat flow is expected to be significant. Using polycrystalline silicon as a testbed, the investigation team will (i) characterize the local thermal conductivity in the vicinity of individual GBs with a lateral spatial resolution of 10 nm; (ii) quantity the spatial extent of GBs influence on heat flow within each grain; and (iii) develop a modeling framework to facilitate rationale design of thermal metamaterials with tailored GBs for applications in heat management and thermoelectric energy harvesting. New insights on phonon-GB interaction gained in this project will impact the optimal design of thermal metamaterials with tailored nanostructures for broad applications, including sustainable thermoelectric energy harvesting. 

Vinayak P. Dravid and Jean-François Gaillard

Towards Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Recovery of Critical Metals from Waste
Vinayak P. Dravid and Jean-François Gaillard

Lead-PI: Vinayak P. Dravid, Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Co-PI: Jean-François Gaillard, Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Metals are essential for powering the future of renewable energy in a sustainable manner. They are critical components for the development of essential technologies, such as solar panels, permanent magnets for wind turbines, batteries for electric vehicles, all of which are important pieces in minimizing the impact of industrialized society on climate. However, strategic metals for these new technologies are still mostly mined from the Earth at environmental and human costs. It is remarkable that a lot of industrial wastes that have been disposed/discarded in tailing and landfills contain significant concentrations of these metals and are not recovered. However, given the yearly exponential growth in mining some key metals, it is clear that sooner or later we will have to recycle 100% of the metals that we have extracted. Developing environmentally benign and eco-friendly approaches for metal recovery will therefore promote a circular materials economy when one would not rely anymore from extractive - i.e., mining of the Earth materials – processes that contaminate the environment and affect human health.

We plan to address the recovery of Cobalt and Nickel from waste, which are key metals for important segments of the energy future. We plan to develop novel sponge-based reusable sorbent materials for concentrating and then releasing metal species through an eco-friendly, low temperature, hydrometallurgy approach. We believe our innovations has the potential to be applied to other metals/contaminants and contribute to broader social benefit beyond economics.

Matthew Grayson and John Torkelson

Stress Relaxation in Reprocessable Covalent Adaptable Networks
Matthew Grayson and John Torkelson

Lead-PI: Matthew Grayson. Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Co-PI: John Torkelson, Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Some of the strongest and most useful plastics are not recyclable because they contain permanently cross-linked covalent bonds which cannot be undone without breaking down the entire material, e.g., rubber tires. At end use, these thermoset plastics are typically burned for energy or else populate landfills or contaminate oceans. However, covalent adaptable networks (CANs), such as those developed by Prof. John Torkelson in Chemical and Biological Engineering and in Materials Science and Engineering, contain dynamic covalent bonds that can be disconnected and reconnected by heating and cooling, respectively, allowing recyclable and reusable polymers to replace single-use plastics. However, this advantage of reuse comes with a price – these CAN polymers tend to also be more susceptible to deform under stress and elevated temperatures. Fortunately, the exact way these deformations arise should hold clues to developing stronger CAN polymers.  By teaming up with Prof. Matthew Grayson in Electrical and Computer Engineering, a newly developed mathematical description of relaxation processes designed to model electronic behavior in flat panel displays can be applied to the mechanical relaxation of these CAN polymers. Initial tests of Grayson’s mathematical fits to Torkelson’s data look promising and suggest that systematic studies will reveal relationships between microscopic chemical bond dynamics and macroscopic mechanical performance that had previously been hidden, leading to stronger, more environmentally friendly plastics.

Alessandro Rotta Loria and Steven D. Jacobsen

SEACRET: Strengthening Electrochemically Any Coastal Region without Environmental Threats
Alessandro Rotta Loria and Steven D. Jacobsen

Lead-PI: Alessandro Rotta Loria, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Co-PI: Steven D. Jacobsen, Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

More than half of the world’s population lives in coastal areas and is daily affected by the detrimental effects of coastal erosion, which include coastal property loss, damage to structures, and loss of land. Currently, various approaches are available to control coastal erosion, but none of them are both effective and environmentally friendly. The research goal and intellectual merit of this project is to investigate a new, effective, and sustainable approach to strengthen marine soils and limit coastal erosion, with the ultimate aim to enhance the resilience of coastal areas against local sea level rise, strong wave action, coastal flooding, and other processes exacerbated by human-induced climate change. Specifically, this project will investigate the uncharted and potentially revolutionary path of using low-voltage electric current to strengthen marine sands via the precipitation of binding mineral crystals in the pore network of such materials. The efficacy and effects of this process, called electrodeposition, will be studied via advanced laboratory tests and theoretical analyses. By establishing a new and multidisciplinary collaboration between two research laboratories at Northwestern University, this project will develop fundamental scientific knowledge that has the potential to pave the way for a new research field at the intersection of geomechanics and electrochemistry. This research endeavor also has the promise to develop new techniques and technologies to strengthen marine soils in effective and sustainable manners. Applications of these novel techniques and technologies include the prevention of natural hazards (e.g., erosion and flooding control, slope stabilization, and liquefaction potential reduction) and the protection of marine infrastructure against coastal threats (e.g., foundation and roadbed strengthening against diffused and localized settlements).

2020 Awarded Teams

Giuseppe Buscarnera and Petia Vlahovska

Physics-based assessment of societal risks due to the collapse of mining waste disposal facilities
Giuseppe Buscarnera and Petia Vlahovska

Lead-PI: Giuseppe Buscarnera, Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Co-PI: Petia Vlahovska, Professor, Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics

Unsustainable mining produces vast amounts of residues and the proliferation of waste disposal facilities, such as tailing dams. Due to their high toxicity and marked vulnerability to rainfall, such earthen structures constitute a major risk for the environment. Evidence from recent failures shows that tailing dams may suffer fluidization after long periods of apparent inactivity, which culminate in high velocity, long runout and loss of human life. The pervasive distribution of tailing dams around the world, combined with well-known trends of population growth and increasingly severe weather, give compelling arguments to address this problem with rigorous scientific tools. For this purpose, this project aims to formulate an innovative conceptual model bridging the pre-failure regime of tailing dams with their post-failure dynamics. By doing so, it will develop physics-based indicators of impending instability to monitor and retrofit waste disposal facilities. The outcomes of this project can therefore inspire the formulation of the next-generation of risk assessment tools to decommission facilities with intolerable hazard levels, as well as to design early warning systems increasing the resilience of communities and ecosystems to climate-induced geohazards.

Jeffrey J. Richards and Michelle Driscoll

ViSER (VIsualizing Suspension Electro-Rheology): a new tool for interrogating microstructure in fast-flowing suspensions
Jeffrey J. Richards and Michelle Driscoll

Lead-PI: Jeffrey J Richards, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Co-PI: Michelle Driscoll, Assistant Professor, Department of Physics

In this seed proposal the co-PI’s, Michelle Driscoll and Jeff Richards, seek to develop a new apparatus (ViSER) to image particle-laden, high-velocity flows. Such flows are encountered in emerging electrochemical technologies and existing battery technologies that seek to reduce the cost of renewable electricity. In this seed proposal, the PI’s will focus their efforts on the development of the apparatus and obtaining experimental data from suspensions that are subjected to complex deformation that mimics realistic operating conditions. By visualizing the particles within the suspension under these conditions, the PI’s seek to bridge a gap in knowledge between predicting performance and measuring material properties in idealized laboratory settings. Successful completion of the seed proposal will pave the way to new scientific discoveries and accelerate the transition to a sustainable energy economy.

Amanda Stathopoulos and Emőke-Ágnes Horvát

Community Vulnerability Index: Examining resilience to overlapping hazards
Amanda Stathopoulos and Emőke-Ágnes Horvát

Lead-PI: Amanda Stathopoulos, William Patterson Junior Professor, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Co-PI: Emőke-Ágnes Horvát, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, (by courtesy) the Computer Science Department of the McCormick School of Engineering, and (also by courtesy) the Department of Management and Organizations of the Kellogg School of Management

It is well known that socially vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted when disasters strike. Specifically, social vulnerability factors such as lacking social capital, or neighborhood cohesion, cause households to have less resources to deal with emergencies like tornadoes, flooding or heat waves. The COVID-19 pandemic adds a new layer of vulnerability to communities coping with hazards due to devastating health impacts and risk of contagion. Existing agency emergency management plans designed for a ‘general population’ of people who can access resources, comply with directions, and move out of harm’s way rapidly are not prepared for this new reality. Notably, disasters and emergencies occurring in tandem with the COVID-19 crisis generate new challenges for evacuation communication, transportation and logistics.

Research is needed to define community vulnerability and examine how households behave when a public health crises overlaps with acute emergencies. Our team brings together transportation engineering, social science theories and network analysis to provide a leap forward in our understanding of community resilience to simultaneous crises. We use detailed surveys coupled with crowd-sourced data to tackle three research objectives: 1) define a community resilience index accounting for social embeddedness of decision makers, 2) examine the impact of overlapping hazards, and 3) study the effect of overlapping pandemic and emergency hazards on critical decisions to comply with official guidance, timing and mode of evacuation. This proof-of-concept research promises new insight to help agencies ensure social equity in mitigation, response, and recovery from emergencies by highlighting the crucial role played by the social fabric of American communities.

Amanda Stathopoulos, lead PI on “Community Vulnerability Index: Examining resilience to overlapping hazards” has published the first paper associated with this interdisciplinary project funded by CESR:

Title: “Dueling emergencies: Flood evacuation ridesharing during the COVID-19 pandemic”

Authors: Elisa Borowski, Victor Limontitla Cedillo, Amanda Stathopoulos

Publication: Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Volume 10, 2021

Muzhou Wang, Julia A. Kalow, and Jeffrey J. Richards

Connecting microscopic reprocessing to macroscopic properties for a circular plastics economy
Muzhou Wang, Julia A. Kalow, and Jeffrey J. Richards

Lead-PI: Muzhou Wang, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Co-PI: Julia A. Kalow, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry

Co-PI: Jeffrey J. Richards, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Thermosetting plastics represent a $92.4B market, but since these materials are largely landfilled or downcycled at end of use, they impose a >50 megaton environmental burden. Within the past decade, many compelling solutions to the plastics pollution crisis have emerged based on materials that can be recycled by reconfiguring their chemical bonds. In principle, these dynamic bonds allow repair and reprocessing of used or damaged material, greatly extending the overall service life. However, the most fundamental steps of reprocessing remain invisible to standard experimental techniques, and the integrity of recycled materials is not tested under realistic conditions. Identifying highly recyclable elastomers and efficient reprocessing conditions requires insight that bridges disparate length scales. This project combines innovative materials design, next-generation microscopy, and advanced mechanical characterization to address this gap. For example, what engineering parameters during the recycling process determine whether the recycled and re-formed material has the same overall properties? What is happening at the molecular length scale to enable this recovery in macroscopic properties? This project will directly observe the recycling process at the unprecedented nanoscale, and correlate this to bulk mechanical properties. By visualizing the motion of individual polymers in real time, we can understand the underlying dynamic mechanisms near the interface between re-forming pieces, and how mechanical properties recover to their original state. This fundamental knowledge will help us understand which elastomers can be rendered recyclable and why, minimize the energy required to reprocess them, and maximize the retention of properties after recycling.


2019 Awarded Teams

James Hambleton and Simge Küçükyavuz

Sensing Material Properties as Nature Intends
James Hambleton and Simge Küçükyavuz

Lead-PI: James Hambleton, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Co-PI: Simge Küçükyavuz, Professor, Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences

This exploratory project imagines a highly non-traditional approach to devise novel test methods for characterizing the properties of natural and manufactured materials that are essential to the design of sustainable and resilient infrastructure. The central idea is that the material itself should inform the test method that most effectively reveals the material’s properties, a concept that will be explored by forging a new collaboration between researchers in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences (IEMS). Existing methods for inferring the mechanical properties of materials through lab experiments or field tests have evolved largely by trial and error, and there is no general, systematic approach for evaluating one possible approach against another. Moreover, existing characterization techniques are inadequate for determining all parameters required to define the material’s behavior, particularly when the number of parameters is large. Advances in this project will enable the discovery of new devices and testing protocols that will potentially revolutionize the way material properties are measured, both in the lab and in the field.

Adilson E. Motter, Daniel M. Abrams, and Daniel E. Horton

What is the Air Quality and CO2 Impact of an Electric Vehicle Transition?
Adilson E. Motter, Daniel M. Abrams, and Daniel E. Horton

Lead-PI: Adilson E. Motter, Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Co-PI: Daniel M. Abrams, Professor, Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics

Co-PI: Daniel E. Horton, Assistant Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

This project will quantify the precise impact of the electrification of the transportation sector on the emission of greenhouse gases. Current estimates are ad hoc and rather crude due to difficulties in predicting the battery-charging power source and attendant emissions as well as the efficiency of vehicles in a post-electrification world. This pilot project will circumvent these limitations by combining multiple types of data and computational models with calculations to identify which power plants will power electric vehicles across the country. The work will use data on the actual design of the U.S. power system planned for the next several years. The expected results have the potential to inform best practices with regard to electric vehicle adoption, power generation, and greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Kyoo Chul Park and George Wells

Nature-Inspired Enhanced Microplastics Digestion-Capture and Biodegradation by Flexible Fibers with Attached Microorganisms
Kyoo Chul Park and George Wells

Lead-PI: Kyoo Chul Park, Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering

Co-PI: George Wells, Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

The overarching goal of the proposed research is to engineer flexible fibers with attached
microorganisms for the energy-efficient capture and biodegradation of unwanted waterborne
microplastic particles. The proposed functional surface design approach is inspired by (i) baleen
whales that capture microscale planktons using the flexible fiber structures and (ii) mealworms that
eat plastics using the plastics-degrading microorganisms in their gut. We envision that understanding the science behind the physico-chemical and biological interaction between the microorganism enhanced flexible fibers and microplastics would lead to the development of sustainable solutions to the urgent challenge of plastic pollution.

Linsey Seitz and Niall Mangan

Multi-Scale Analysis of Electrocatalytic Reactor Processes using a Combined Experimental and Modeling Approach
Linsey Seitz and Niall Mangan

Lead-PI: Linsey Seitz, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Co-PI: Niall Mangan, Assistant Professor, Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics

Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, contribute a growing fraction of our global energy supply, largely due to technology advances that have improved capture efficiencies and reduced costs, even compared to fossil-based electricity. By developing sustainable processes to use the electricity from these intermittent sources to produce liquid fuels and chemical products, we can store the energy in a transportable form and buffer from their inherent intermittency. Electrocatalytic processes are a promising route to accomplish this task as they enable production of myriad fuels and chemicals, which may allow us to augment or even replace current commercial processes and significantly reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Since electrocatalytic processes can operate at room temperature and pressure, they also open opportunities for distributed manufacturing of high-value products. Unfortunately, exciting opportunities for electrocatalytic technologies are limited by our understanding of the complex relationships between bulk reactor properties in operational devices and the local catalyst environment which influences reaction efficiency and selectivity towards desired products. Using a combination of fundamental experiments and multi-scale modeling, we will investigate the coupling between these bulk and local scales to bridge the gap between carefully controlled laboratory catalyst environments and operational electrocatalytic reactors. Our initial study will 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 necessary to develop technologies for effective coupling of renewable electricity from wind and solar to sustainable production of fuels and chemicals.

George Wells and Keith Tyo

Towards a Circular Bioeconomy: Recovery of Nitrogen as a Value-Added Product from Farm Animal Manure
George Wells and Keith Tyo

Lead-PI: George Wells, Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Co-PI: Keith Tyo, Associate Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Wet wastes, including manure, municipal wastewater, and food waste, contain valuable nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus that could be used to make fertilizers, biofuels, and bio-based chemicals in order to offset current non-sustainable production of these important goods from fossil fuels. Instead, these wastes currently require additional energy for treatment and disposal, or at worst are released, causing harm to ecological systems. We propose to develop technology to enable recovery of valuable products from wet wastes, resulting in a significant step toward a more circular bioeconomy. Support from CESR will allow us to demonstrate baseline feasibility for low-cost preparation of manure for bioprocessing and recovering waste nitrogen, a key technical challenge requiring outside the box solutions. The innovation of the proposed approach lies in recovery of waste nitrogen in a form that can be reused. The proposed work would also lay the groundwork for development of integrated technologies for recovery of carbon as a feedstock for biofuels or bioproducts, and phosphorus as a fertilizer.

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