Earth Day 2023: Building a sustainable future through next-generation technology

Researchers at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) are taking action to address a range of pressing sustainability issues.

As part of an interdisciplinary approach to research and technology, Pritzker Molecular Engineering scientists and engineers are driving critical advancements in energy storage, water treatment, sensing applications, and materials design, among other applications.

Read more about the latest advancements in sustainability at PME:

Temperature-sensing building material changes color to save energy

According to some estimates, buildings account for 30 percent of global energy consumption and emit 10 percent of all global greenhouse gas. About half of this energy footprint is attributed to the heating and cooling of interior spaces.

Researchers at Pritzker Molecular Engineering have designed a chameleon-like building material that changes its infrared color—and how much heat it absorbs or emits—based on the outside temperature. On hot days, the material can emit up to 92 percent of the infrared heat it contains, helping cool the inside of a building. On colder days, however, the material emits just 7 percent of its infrared, helping keep a building warm.

“We’ve essentially figured out a low-energy way to treat a building like a person; you add a layer when you’re cold and take off a layer when you’re hot,” said Asst. Prof. Po-Chun Hsu, who led the research published in Nature Sustainability. “This kind of smart material lets us maintain the temperature in a building without huge amounts of energy.”

Optimized material extracts 50% more water from air than previous version

Chemists and engineers find innovative ways to access water—including by pulling it out of thin air. Now, University of Chicago researchers found a way to extract even more water.

In 2021, Prof. Laura Gagliardi of Pritzker Molecular Engineering was part of a cross-institutional team developing a new device to extract water from air. The key innovation was a designed material called a metal-organic framework (MOF), a hybrid structure of metal ions and organic linkers that can be tuned at the molecular level. MOFs have a structure of empty pores that adsorb water molecules from air. Gagliardi and her team used theoretical and computational methods to better understand how the material worked at the atomic level.

Now, Gagliardi’s team has helped guide the design of an optimized MOF that adsorbs 50 percent more water from the air than the previous version. The material will ultimately be incorporated into a device built to demonstrate this potentially game-changing technology. Ultimately, the device could be used to help people in water-scare regions.

To predict environmental changes, researchers create a new generation of wireless sensor networks

The “internet of things,” a growing web of interconnected devices—comprised of everything from smart bulbs to warehouse robots—is posited as a central pillar of the “fourth industrial revolution” because of how drastically it improves connectivity and information sharing.

Now imagine that web expanding beyond buildings and into the landscape, forming a sensory network that monitors the air, soil, and water for pollution and nutrient content. Such a network is the goal of Prof. Supratik Guha at Pritzker Molecular Engineering and senior advisor at Argonne National Laboratory.

He and his team are developing “wireless sensor networks”—sensor arrays that surveil acre-wide swathes of land and water to track pollution, moisture levels, and chemical composition. These systems, Guha believes, will unlock sorely needed data on the planet’s rapidly shifting composition.

“These sensor networks will provide real-time, high-density data that are essential to creating an accurate picture of an ecosystem,” said Guha. “We want to see how rivers are being polluted, how much fertilizer is washing out of the soil. With better data, terrestrial ecologists can develop better nitrogen and carbon dioxide cycling models; farmers can use exactly the right amount of water at exactly the right time.”

Researchers create essential text on next-generation water technology

Water is everything—essential to industry, agriculture, and life itself. In our age, however, this critical and once ubiquitous resource has become progressively more sparse and more contaminated.

To address the mounting crisis, leading researchers from around the planet are forging new technologies for water treatment, sensing, reclamation, and management. Now, their work is compiled into a single text, establishing the scientific scaffold for a water-secure future and a guide to those passionate about water research.

The World Scientific Reference of Water Science
The World Scientific Reference of Water Science (Courtesy of World Scientific)

The World Scientific Reference of Water Science broaches a broad spectrum of topics such as state-of-the-art water sensing, surface acoustic-wave technologies, emerging nanotechnology-based water treatment research, and recent advances in water desalination.

“Many places around the world are experiencing water scarcity,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean of Pritzker Molecular Engineering and editor-in-chief of the multi-volume work. “Climate change combined with our growing global economy are key drivers responsible for expanding the water crisis to many parts of our world. We need cost-effective sensors and energy-efficient water treatment technologies to enable a higher rate of water reuse, more intelligent fit-for-purpose water systems, and thus a more sustainable future."