Resnick Institute

Caltech's SISCA Winners

2016 Caltech SISCA Banner Images


2016 Grand Prize Winners

Jennifer Kan, Rusty Lewis and Kai Chen

Jennifer Kan, Russell D. Lewis and Kai Chen
Sustainable BioCatalytic Carbon-Silicon Bond Formation

Our winning team is comprised of Russell (Rusty) Lewis, a graduate student in bioengineering, Kai Chen, a graduate student in chemistry, and Jenny Kan PhD a postdoctoral scholar in chemistry & chemical engineering–All members of Frances Arnold’s diverse and highly collaborative research group.

Drawing on their expertise in chemistry, biology and engineering, the team developed a biocatalyst capable of carbon-silicon bond formation. Specifically, they discovered that heme proteins could produce organosilicons via carbene insertion into silicon-hydrogen bonds, a transformation that has no precedent in natural biological systems.

Conventional methods for the synthesis of organosilicon compounds are limited in their efficiency, selectivity, and sustainability. As these materials have wide use in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, medical diagnostics, coatings and paints, organic LEDS, and more, this new biocatalytic approach to organosilicon chemistry offers powerful new solutions to the global challenge of sustainable chemistry.

The team’s iron-based biocatalyst is renewable, biodegradable and non-toxic. It can also be produced very cheaply by fermentation using well-established recombinant protein expression technology. It functions in water, at ambient temperature and at neutral pH, both in vitro and in whole E. coli cells, making it the first biocatalyst capable of carbon-silicon bond formation and the first iron-based catalyst ever reported for this transformation.

Furthermore, the biocatalyst outcompetes the best synthetic catalysts known for this class of reaction in terms of cost, operational ease, catalyst efficiency and environmental impact. And, since the engineered enzymes are fully genetically-encoded, assemble and function in cells, the new chemistry can be integrated with metabolic pathways to utilize renewable resources such as biomass for creating new organosilicon products.

To learn more see Caltech's news feature "Bringing Silicon to Life".
This innovation has also gone on to be featured by C&EN as one of 2016’s top research highlights -scroll down to biocatalysis.

2016 Runner Ups

Jinglin Huang and Cong Wang

Jinglin Huang and Cong Wang
Superhydrophobic Material for Sustainable Seawater Desalination

Jinglin Huang is a graduate student in medical engineering and Cong Wang is a graduate student in aerospace engineering. Both work in Dr. Gharib’s lab and together they have been developing enhanced superhydrophobic materials made from Carbon Nanotubes (CNT) for applications in solar seawater desalinization systems.

Solar-driven seawater desalination or solar distillation is a promising water treatment technology that is currently prohibitively expensive. During this process, seawater flows through a series of channels and is evaporated, captured and condensed into fresh water. Over time, salts build up in the channels requiring that the system be shut down and the channels flushed out using expensive energy and clean water inputs.

Huang & Wang’s custom CNT superhydrophobic materials aim to eliminate the salt build up altogether, which would allow for continuous and cost-effective distillation. CNT also has fantastic light and heat-absorbing properties that can assist the distillation process and improve water evaporation efficiency. The materials repel salt and prevent corrosion by creating a layer of air between the surface and flow. By modifying the material’s surface geometry, the team has improved the surface performance and stability of the critical air layer.

2015 Caltech SISCA Banner Images


2015 Grand Prize Winners

Trevor Del Castillo and Niklas Thompson

Trevor J. Del Castillo and Niklas B. Thompson
Toward Sustainable Nitrogen Fixation: Developing Fe-catalysts for Direct N2 to NH3 Conversion

Trevor Del Castillo and Niklas Thompson are graduate students in chemistry advised by Professor Jonas C. Peters. Their research focuses on the mechanism of the fixation of dinitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) catalyzed by iron (Fe) complexes.

Although N2 constitutes 80% of the Earth’s atmosphere, this inert gas must be reduced –or “fixed” –into reactive forms such as NH3 before the element can be incorporated into fertilizers and commodity chemicals. Currently, the industrial synthesis of NH3 comes from N2 and H2 via the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process.

Haber-Bosch is performed on a staggering scale –annually consuming ~2% of the global energy supply and ~4% of the global natural gas supply in order to produce over 120 million metric tons of reduced nitrogen. Unfortunately, due to the intense reaction conditions and high associated overhead cost, this process is not practiced in a fashion that can be sustained moving forward. Understanding how to catalyze this reaction under mild conditions with earth-abundant materials is an important step in developing a sustainable method for the synthesis of NH3.

Inspired by the nitrogenase family of enzymes that perform biological nitrogen fixation at ambient pressures and temperature, Del Castillo and Thompson’s research group previously discovered that certain phosphine-supported iron compounds can catalyze the reduction of N2 to NH3 at low temperature and ambient pressure using proton and electron equivalents.

Del Castillo and Thompson have since demonstrated that their most active iron based catalyst is among the most robust molecular N2 to NH3 conversion catalyst known. Looking forward, the team envisions the development of a process coupling artificial photosynthesis to the reduction of N2 to NH3, opening the door for modular, affordable, onsite fertilizer production.

2015 Runner Ups

Cody Finke and Justin Jasper

Cody Finke & Justin Jasper
Electrochemical+UV On-Site Wastewater Treatment

Cody Finke is a PhD student in environmental science and engineering in Professor Michael Hoffmann’s research group. Justin Jasper is a Resnick Sustainability Institute Prize Postdoctoral Scholar also working with the Hoffman team. Together they’ve been enhancing a modular, solar powered, electrochemical, on-site wastewater treatment system created by their group for toilets in the developing and developed world.

The duo incorporated a low-pressure (germicidal) UV lamp that converts free chlorine to the powerful oxidant hydroxyl radical (OH) into the technology. By applying UV irradiation during electrochemical treatment of toilet wastewater, treated water quality is enhanced as compared to electrochemical treatment alone.

With UV added to the electrochemical wastewater treatment process, additional removal of organic carbon and pharmaceuticals, combined with nitrogen and phosphate removal, results in water suitable for agriculture and ecosystem services. Further, a lower formation rate of carcinogenic disinfection by-products provides water that is safe for reuse as flushing and hand-washing water, and potentially as drinking water.

With an operating cost of less than 5 US cents per day, this wastewater treatment technology meets benchmarks for affordability in the developing world. This system has the potential to protect human health and ecosystem well-being in communities most at risk to disease and resource-loss through environmental pollution.

2014 Caltech SISCA Winners


2014 Grand Prize Winner

Anton Toutov

Anton Toutov
Non-Precious Metal Catalysts for a Sustainable Chemistry Industry

Anton is a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry advised by Professor Robert H. Grubbs. His work responds to the challenge of finding alternatives to precious metal catalysts. This is important because currently precious metal catalysts are routinely used on very large scales in the chemical industry to produce everyday items such as medicines, crop protection agents, cosmetics, plastics and electronics. The problem with precious metals is that they are extremely expensive, steadily rarefying and non-renewable. They are also toxic to humans and poisonous to the environment.

Anton’s research led to the discovery that a catalyst based on potassium –potassium tert-butoxide is able promote a fundamental chemical reaction: bond formation between carbon and silicon atoms. Not only does it successfully replace precious metals, but it appears to be a superior catalyst: as bond formation proceeds at ambient temperature; with higher turnover; without solvent, or water; and producing H2 as the only byproduct. Further, the reaction uses commodity chemicals and inexpensive silicon sources as starting materials. The discovered potassium catalyst is orders of magnitude less expensive than the state-of-the-art precious metal catalysts.

The catalyst itself can be simply prepared in a single chemical step from renewable materials: tert-butanol is obtained from lignocellulose and the potassium is obtained from plant matter (potash; produced worldwide at amounts exceeding 30 million tonnes per year for use in fertilizers). This method has been demonstrated to produce hundreds of grams (and appears “indefinitely scalable” without loss of activity) of academically- and industrially useful chemical building blocks at very low cost. The reaction produces no toxic waste streams (heavy metal or otherwise). The reagents and catalyst safely decompose in the environment into benign materials: silicates, and t-BuOH, KOH, and K2CO3 respectively. This discovery has thus far prompted collaborations spanning multiple fields including drug discovery, semiconductor synthesis, and nuclear medicine.

2014 Runner Up

Prineha Narang

Prineha Narang
Light Capture, Conversion & Catalysis Strategies for an Integrated Photosynthetic Solar-Fuels Generator via New Materials Physics

Prineha Narang is a PhD candidate in applied physics, co-advised by Professors Nathan S. Lewis and Harry A. Atwater. Pri's research is aimed at discovery and integration of new components for a prototype solar fuels generator built by the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), where she’s been a researcher since her arrival at Caltech.

A solar fuels generator requires semiconducting materials for light absorption and Pri’s research has revealed a new class of nitride materials, the Zinc-IV-nitrides, with tunable light absorption properties that make them promising candidates for this role. Further, since the materials are abundant, such devices are more likely to be scalable to cost-effective mass production.

In tandem to her semiconductor experiments, Pri has engaged in theoretical work exploring using plasmonic hot carriers to drive photocatalysis in a solar fuels device. Plasmons are collective electron oscillations in a conductive material, with the unique ability to absorb and scatter light at specific wavelengths across a wide region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Plasmon-driven chemistry is a significant departure from traditional catalysis efforts and could couple light energy into chemical reactions in a manner that would greatly reduce the energy input requirements of chemical reactions.

2013 Caltech SISCA Winners


2013 Grand Prize Winners

Zhan Wang & Nicole Peck

Zhan Wang & Nicole Peck
Sustainable Synthesis of Bioactive Cyclopropanes

Nicole Peck is a PhD student in bioengineering in Frances Arnold’s research group and Dr. Zhan Wang is a postdoctoral fellow also working with the group. The two scientists have engineered biocatalysts to develop enzymatic alternatives to traditional transition metal catalysis. Specifically, the team engineered cytochrome P450 enzymes to perform carbene transfer, the carbon analogue of P450’s native monooxygenation chemistry. This transformation has never been seen in nature, and can be used to construct important carbon-carbon bonds. Their biocatalysis method will save energy and lessen the impact on the environment because enzyme reactions take place in water, at room temperature and without toxic organic solvents or difficult purification steps. By expanding the reactions available through biosynthesis the team has opened a pathway for several key pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals to be produced with sustainable synthesis, which will lessen the environmental impact of the chemical industry. The potential applications of this new method are being further developed at Caltech in collaboration with Provivi, a startup formed by recent Caltech graduates. Learn More

2013 Runner Up

Raymond Weitekamp

Raymond Weitekamp
Recycling Catalyst Waste with Light: Towards Cradle-to-Cradle Olefin Metathesis

Raymond is a fourth year graduate student in chemistry. His SISCA project outlines a method for recycling ruthenium-based catalysts that are used in olefin metathesis—an organic reaction routinely used in the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, advanced materials and fine chemicals. In the process of experimenting with making photoresists, Raymond discovered that the supposedly dead catalyst “waste” from these reactions can be reactivated by ultraviolet light. Through experimentation, he developed a waste-free synthesis of a new kind of photoresist with immediate applications in green microfabrication, and also identified how this discovery could be used to close the catalyst waste cycle in olefin metathesis chemistry. Weitekamp has termed the patterning process PhotoLithographic Olefin Metathesis Polymerization (PLOMP). PLOMP resists can be prepared without generating any waste, at ambient temperature. Raymond hopes this invention will improve the energy efficiency of high-tech device manufacture, including integrated circuits, medical devices and MEMs. Learn More

2012 Caltech SISCA Winners


2012 Grand Prize Winner

Prakhar Mehrotra

Prakhar Mehrotra
Micro-Cold Storage

Prakhar Mehrotra is a PhD student in aeronautics. His team’s winning idea “Micro-Cold Storage” was aimed at addressing agricultural supply chain inefficiencies in developing nations. The team’s concept creates a network of low-cost, small-scale cold storage units to mitigate the lack of cold storage infrastructure that in India alone wastes about 30% of all foods.The product they developed is a portable, high efficiency cold storage unit with photovoltaic panels scaled to fit on a standard size U-Haul truck. The PV panels power the cooling system, which is based on an efficient vapor compression cycle. The team has developed thermal storage technology to back up the system and a special control system to keep stored items fresh while reducing the cooling load by 15%. Winning SISCA has motivated the team to accelerate development of the product and has reinforced their vision of creating a clean and sustainable infrastructure for food storage. Learn More

Team members included Devendra Gupta, Prakeek Singhal and Vivek Pandy, students from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur

2012 Runner Up

Kangwoo Cho

Kangwoo Cho
Photovoltaic-powered Wastewater Electrolysis Cell for Water Reuse and Solar Energy Harvesting

Kangwoo is a PhD student in environmental ecience and engineering. His SISCA project showcases technology aimed at creating a technically feasible and economically viable means of sustainably treating human waste. Powered by solar panels, the electrolysis cell uses wastewater as an electrolyte and inexpensive, highly reactive electrodes from bismuth oxide doped titanium dioxide. When activated, chloride in the wastewater is oxidized to the reactive chlorine species, which can degrade environmental pollutants including fine particles, dissolved organics and other aqueous pollutants. Additionally, oxygen and hydrogen are produced making this not only an infrastructure-free approach to sanitation, but also one that can be an energy source, through proper energy conversion practices. The chemistry presented in Kangwoo’s SISCA project is a continuation of research being done by his Caltech research group (the Hoffmann Group) that won the grand prize at the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Learn More

This project is being contributed to by members of Professor Michael Hoffmann’s Group including Yan Qu, Hao Zhang, Daejung Kwon, Clement Cid and Asghar Aryanfa.