The green frontier: pioneering sustainability research at Pritzker Molecular Engineering

Renewable energy and sustainable manufacturing have emerged as some of the most critical objectives in the coming decade. But transitioning global economies to net-zero carbon emissions in the near term will require a revolutionary approach across scientific research, education, and entrepreneurship.  

The Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago was created to meet that need.

Modeled on a new vision of engineering education, Pritzker Molecular Engineering brings together experts from across disciplines to address humanity’s most pressing challenges.

PME is driving transformative efforts in energy storage, water treatment, materials design, and sustainability education. Read about this critical research below:

Renewable energy

Year over year, the push to capture renewable energy has grown at a record pace, but one critical aspect prevents many from making the full switch—energy storage. While renewables such as wind and solar present an ideal source of electricity, they cannot operate 24/7 without sunlight. Likewise, electric vehicles are limited in how far they can drive by the capacity and weight of their batteries. To address these issues, PME researchers are working at the forefront of energy storage to design, manufacture, and deploy next-gen batteries.

A pioneer in energy storage

Headshot of Shirley Meng
Prof. Y. Shirley Meng

Y. Shirley Meng, professor of molecular engineering, is PME’s newest faculty member focused on enabling renewable energy. An internationally recognized leader in energy storage, Meng’s work centers on developing new methods to measure, control, and manipulate fundamental energy storage devices, which has led to more powerful, safer, and longer-lasting batteries.

Meng’s research has produced more than 260 publications as well as four issued and six pending patents. One startup that spun out of Meng’s lab, South 8 Technologies, is commercializing her team’s research into lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries that work at extremely cold temperatures.

Since joining PME in January 2022, Meng has spoken about her hope to build an innovation ecosystem to train a next-generation workforce, foster meaningful relations with industry, both domestic and international, and make breakthroughs in energy storage technologies in the decade to come.

She also serves as chief scientist for the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS).

Rethinking next-gen battery design

Chibueze Amanchukwu, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Molecular Engineering at PME, calls batteries the “kingmaker” of the energy challenge.

“Solving the battery challenge can solve many of the other challenges related to climate change,” he said. “Not only can they power electric vehicles, but they can also fill the void to store and provide excess energy when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, to power our homes or power manufacturing plants 24/7.”

Amanchukwu’s research is focused on developing better electrolytes to harness the power of next-generation batteries such as lithium metal and dual-ion. He and his lab are using AI and machine learning to assist in the search for novel electrolyte compounds as well as developing a modular system for electrolyte development, dramatically accelerating next-gen battery design.

He and his team are also engaged in CO2 capture and conversion technology, investigating new electrolytes that enable selective and efficient CO2 capture and conversion to desired chemical products.   

Tapping earth’s largest source of lithium

It’s estimated that electric vehicle sales will drive lithium demand to five times its current level by the end of the decade. That sudden increase has companies looking for new sources of lithium and other valuable metals, like cobalt and uranium. Chong Liu, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor at PME, is leading research in material design that could unlock a wholly untapped source of these valuable metals—seawater.

Chong’s group is developing electrochemical and optical tools to extract critical metals from seawater or underground salt brines, creating a fast, low-energy alternative to modern acid-reliant methods. If successful, her research would also provide new tools to purify drinking water.

Simulating materials that generate “solar fuel”

Computer simulations can help us better understand and model complex materials used across all facets of sustainable engineering, from solar cells to water treatment systems.

Giulia Galli, Liew Family Professor of Molecular Engineering at Pritzker Molecular Engineering and professor of chemistry, is a leader in material simulations, and her research has led to numerous insights into materials for sustainable technology, including photoabsorbers for photoelectrochemical cells and nanoparticles for colloidal solar cells. It was Galli’s work, reported in Nature Energy in 2021, that, together with experimental collaborators, demonstrated how modifying the topmost layer of atoms on the surface of photoelectrodes could significantly boost their performance when splitting hydrogen from water—creating a “solar fuel.”

More broadly, Galli’s group investigates the fundamental interactions between constituent atoms in materials and between light and matter, ultimately leading to predictions of materials for sustainable technologies, thus paving the way for renewable energy.

Galli is a senior scientist in Argonne’s Materials Science Division, deputy director for strategy at Argonne’s Advanced Materials for Energy-Water Systems (AMEWS) Center, and the director of the Midwest Integrated Center for Computational Materials (MICCoM) headquartered at Argonne.

Water scarcity

As the climate crisis continues to mount, the importance of water has become increasingly clear. Perhaps our most important resource, water not only sustains life, but it is also essential for economic prosperity, touching everything from manufacturing to energy production. PME and its partner, Argonne National Laboratory, recognize the growing concern over reliable, clean water, and are pioneering new methods for better testing, treatment, and recapture of this vital resource.

Next-generation water sensing and AI

Junhong Chen
Prof. Junhong Chen

Aging water infrastructure impacts communities across the country, exposing many to contaminants like lead and harmful bacteria, but it can be difficult for many to recognize when their drinking water is no longer safe. Junhong Chen, Crown Family Professor of Molecular Engineering at PME and lead water strategist at Argonne, has set out to change that.

Chen and his lab develop nanomaterials and nanodevices that can be used in sustainable water technologies. One such technology is a low-cost, real-time water sensor that measures lead content in water within seconds. His device could have major health impacts, considering that most lead testing costs $30 to $50.

Chen is also applying his machine learning techniques to develop sensors that can monitor for polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are toxic chemicals that may link to serious medical conditions like cancer, and they are now so abundant that CDC scientists believe PFAS can be found in the bloodstreams of all Americans. But dealing with these chemicals is a monumental task, requiring billions of dollars in testing and clean up. Chen and his lab are investigating new, AI-driven methods for sensing and removing PFAS from drinking water, potentially offering a far cheaper and easier solution.

Unlocking the secrets of water harvesters

In October 2021, a team of scientists across multiple institutions developed a device that can extract water out of thin air, even in desert climates. And while this technology was a breakthrough, the exact mechanism behind it was something of a mystery. That is, until Laura Gagliardi, the Richard and Kathy Leventhal Professor of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering and one of the most highly accomplished theoretical and computational chemists in the world, took a crack at it.

Using theoretical and computational methods, Gagliardi and two members of her group discovered exactly how water molecules attached to the device’s molecular framework—allowing researchers to improve future designs. This is one example of Gagliardi’s broader work: to develop novel quantum chemical methods and apply them to “address the most compelling challenges of our planet related to clean energy.”

Drawing resources from wastewater

As global populations continue to grow, so too does the consumption of nonrenewable resources. One of these is phosphate, a vital component in fertilizer that is steadily being lost. But now, research led by graduate student Whitney Fowler in the lab of Prof. Matthew Tirrell has uncovered a new way of sourcing this crucial resource from wastewater.

Fowler has designed a novel synthetic material that can bind to phosphate, capturing it for later extraction. Inspired by a biological process, the technique could open up vast stores of phosphate that are otherwise lost. Her research could transform the state of phosphate recovery and also lead to the development of an entirely new class of capture-and-release materials that can be used to reclaim valuable materials from water.

Training the next generation

Sustainability is of critical importance for everyone on the planet, but future generations will feel its impact the most. PME’s mission is to train that next generation of engineers, equipping them with the skills and expertise necessary to address not only the problems we face today but the problems we will face in the years to come.

Teaching AI for sustainability

The AI-enabled Molecular Engineering of Materials and Systems (AIMEMS) for Sustainability program is one of PME’s most distinctive offerings. The program, funded through the National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship Program (NRT), provides students an opportunity to combine AI with molecular engineering to study complex, multifunctional materials, processes, and systems for sustainability.

The program is offered in conjunction with Argonne National Laboratory and allows students to work both with PME and Argonne scientists. 

Students are taught through core molecular engineering courses and four courses specifically designed to train students how to use Argonne’s world-class facilities, such as their Advanced Photon Sources - Upgrade (APS-U), Aurora exascale supercomputer, and Materials Engineering Research Facility (MERF).

The program also emphasizes teaching students transferable professional skills to meet their diverse career goals.

Quantum education and sustainability

Quantum science and engineering offer enormous possibilities for sustainability efforts, unlocking everything from superfast materials discovery to extremely accurate atmospheric sensing to quantum batteries. But to unlock quantum science’s potential, it’s essential to train the next generation of quantum engineers.

World leaders have repeatedly emphasized that need, most recently the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) when they convened a meeting to outline the nation’s quantum workforce development plan.

PME is one of the nation’s premier institutions offering degrees in quantum science and engineering, training students to work at the field’s forefront. PME offers a range of educational programs for quantum and molecular engineering, from its quantum science and engineering PhD, to its Master’s program, to undergraduate degree tracks offered by the College at the University of Chicago, to its certificate program in quantum engineering and technology.

PME also drives several outreach campaigns designed to connect future generations to quantum education. Chief among them is TeachQuantum, a program that immerses high school teachers in quantum research labs and prepares them to teach quantum-focused STEM concepts in their classrooms. The program connects to a broader effort at UChicago to ensure South Side educators and students are equipped with the knowledge and skills to take part in the quantum revolution.