PME researchers receive NSF grant for sustainable future manufacturing

A research team including two faculty members from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop a sustainable manufacturing system for the production of advanced electronic devices.

The NSF research grant will provide $9.15 million in funding over five years, enabling researchers from five institutions to work toward the development of printable biodegradable electronic devices. Participating institutions include UChicago, Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois Chicago, and Iowa State University.

Junhong Chen
Prof. Junhong Chen

Junhong Chen, Crown Family Professor of Molecular Engineering at Pritzker Molecular Engineering and lead water strategist at Argonne National Laboratory, will serve as principal investigator of the eco-manufacturing research project. The full title of the grant supporting the project is "Future Manufacturing Research Grant (FMRG): Manufacturing ADvanced Electronics through Printing Using Bio-based and Locally Identifiable Compounds (MADE-PUBLIC)."

Chen said he wants to help create a sustainable, scalable, and democratized manufacturing system. Through an open-source platform, people could print their own low-cost, biodegradable, and recyclable electronic devices at home.

“The project was partly motivated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as printing of personal protective equipment (PPE) has helped meet the challenges associated with the disruption of supply chains,” said Chen.

Stuart Rowan
Prof. Stuart Rowan

Stuart Rowan, Barry L. MacLean Professor for Molecular Engineering Innovation and Enterprise at PME with a joint appointment at Argonne, serves as a co-principal investigator. For Rowan, the interdisciplinary nature of the project is an important strength. “This is a very diverse team of great researchers, from plant scientists to chemists and materials scientists to machine learning and sustainability experts.”

The research team aims to figure out how to obtain nanomaterials from plants in order to develop bio-based inks, which could be used to manufacture biodegradable batteries and sensors. This would lower device costs and make the supply chain more resilient during disruptions (like a pandemic).

The project could lead to scientific advances in three areas: precision growth of plants, manufacturing of tailored bio-based inks, and sustainable production of printable electronics.

Chen is particularly excited about what he calls the “circular manufacturing” aspect of the project. Sensors printed using the plant-derived inks will be used to monitor the growth of these plants and further optimize the inks.

The research team also aims to educate and excite students and the public about the future of sustainable manufacturing through partnerships and initiatives, such as a cross-institutional certificate program, a printable electronics hackathon, and a citizen science competition.

Chen hopes to see the project have wide-ranging impacts. “Our goal is to provide everyone with the ability to print electronic devices from home or a nearby library to truly empower the Internet of Things,” he said.

Additional co-principal investigators of the project include Mark Hersam, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering; Santanu Chaudhuri, professor of civil, materials, and environmental engineering at University of Illinois Chicago and director of manufacturing science and engineering at Argonne National Laboratory; and Elizabeth Ainsworth, USDA agricultural research service scientist and adjunct professor of plant biology in the School of Integrative Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.