Major transformation in industrial materials and processes will be required in order to meet the needs and aspirations of the growing world population while using resources in an environmentally benign manner. Myriad opportunities for chemical and material improvements exist in industry, and Caltech is working on the fundamental science that will lead to clean, scalable, sustainable solutions.
Professor Robert Grubbs is applying his Nobel-Prize-winning “Olefin metathesis“ catalyst technology to design novel types of environmentally friendly plastics, lubricants, biofuels, herbicides, pharmaceuticals and more. Grubb’s catalysts utilize water instead of toxic solvents and the reactions require fewer reagents resulting in fewer byproducts.
The manufacture of industrial chemicals can be complex and polluting. Resnick Fellow Yiyang Liu, working with Professors Robert Grubbs and Brian Stoltz, is studying complex molecule and commodity chemical synthesis from carbon neutral feedstocks such as biomass and atmospheric carbon dioxide. He’s focused on the decarboxylation of fatty acids to form terminal olefins and the reductive carboxylation of terminal olefins by CO2 and H2.
Dow-Resnick Fellow Anton Toutov’s research combines the use of synthetic chemistry and knowledge of fundamental chemical reactivity to develop sustainable protocols for converting lignocellulosic biomass into liquid fuels and/or commodity chemicals. Should this research be successful, it could unlock biomass as an inexpensive, abundant and largely untapped source of renewable energyy.
Professor Frances Arnold is using directed evolution to generate new and useful enzymes and organisms for applications in medicine, chemical synthesis, neurobiology and alternative energy. Her group’s achievements range from enhanced catalysts for carbon fixation and improved sugar release from renewable polymers such as cellulose to advanced biosynthesis of fuels and chemicals.
Professor Julia Greer is developing new approaches to precision materials, such as microtruss technology, which can be used to make durable and ultra-light materials with many applications including the manufacturing of wind turbine blades. She’s also investigating nanopatterns to manage airflow across surfaces, which leads to greater efficiencies. In solar, she’s characterizing the mechanical properties of nanodevice layers, relevant to improving the strength and overall efficiency of photovoltaic devices.