Resnick Institute

Resnick Institute News

Julia A. Kornfield

The Dow Chemical Company and the Resnick Institute Partner to Solve Sustainability Challenges

Fall 2016

What if we could make LEDs brighter, cooler and longer lived? Or reduce the energy required to make seawater drinkable? Or design new materials to improve the energy efficiency of buildings? Through a partnership between the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech and The Dow Chemical Company, we are working to make the next generation of materials and systems for a more sustainable future.

Started in 2012, and building on the long relationship in research and development between Dow and Caltech, the partnership with the Resnick Institute is designed to give the creative academic research teams at Caltech general sustainability challenge areas and allow them to develop science and technology to address those challenges in new ways.

According to Jonas Peters, Bren Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Resnick Institute, "The partnership with Dow has accelerated our ability to innovate in key areas that may directly impact humanity’s progress towards a sustainable planet. It’s encouraging to see the research progressing and we’re grateful for Dow’s leadership and commitment to science and sustainability"

Since the program began, it has supported research into IR reflecting materials, new solar module materials and system designs, as well as new materials for fuel cells and thermoelectric generation devices. More recently there has been a strong focus on reducing temperature and increasing lifetimes in LEDs, and in materials for water treatment. Current projects are focused on reducing energy costs and increasing lifetimes for water purification membranes, new sustainable biosynthesis techniques for hard to access chemicals, and benign additives for safer cleaner fuels.

In a project based on her pioneering work in directed evolution, Frances Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry and postdoctoral researcher Stephan Hammer are developing enzymes that can directly and with high efficiency and selectivity convert terminal olefins into aldehydes and primary alcohols, a challenging chemical transformation that can only be achieved in processes that are energy intensive or produce large amounts of toxic byproducts. This also paves the way for the production of large-scale commodity materials in an entirely renewable way, using bio-derived precursors and catalysts rather than petro-chemicals.

Building on her work developing very large polymeric additives for fuels, Julia Kornfield, professor of chemical engineering and her team are investigating the energetics and fluid dynamics properties of fuels with these additives included. The project has started a new collaboration on campus, as Beverley Mckeon, professor of aeronautics and her students have begun to work with the Kornfield group to more accurately model and measure the fluid flows.

In addition, there are two projects being supported that focus on water treatment. Michael Hoffmann, the Theodore Y. Wu Professor of Environmental Science and postdoctoral researcher Leda Katebian are working on coatings to suppress the formation of biofilm on reverse osmosis membranes. The biofilm formation adds cost as it reduces the efficiency of the system, and is costly to clean off. Konstantinos Giapis, professor of chemical engineering and graduate student Ben Kanevsky are developing novel nanostructured materials to reduce the energy cost and increase the throughput for water purification systems.

“Caltech’s science and engineering talent is eager to solve today’s complex global challenges. This program has allowed us to connect that talent and energy with Dow’s industry-specific expertise, raising the bar for innovation in sustainable technology” said Steve Hahn, Research Fellow in Dow’s Ventures and Business Development group.

In addition to the support and collaboration on these cutting edge research challenges, this partnership with Dow also provides Caltech students, postdocs and faculty with a chance to think about the industrial applications for cutting edge science and technology, and to learn more about the challenges with implementing sustainability solutions on a large scale.

“This sort of collaboration is essential for the researchers here at Caltech, to give them a sense of the scale and impact that is possible if and when their research can be applied at the industrial level,” according to Neil Fromer, the executive director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech. “The interactions are really eye-opening on both sides and helps to create new solutions that really can change the future balance of sustainability.”