Winter 2011

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Northwestern is the quarterly alumni magazine for Northwestern University.
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Seeking Sustainability

The Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern facilitates innovative solutions to change the future.

There’s a world of good going on in the area of sustainability at Northwestern. Much of that work is happening thanks to the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern.

Established in 2008, ISEN is an umbrella organization that reports to the Office of Research and was created to spur the development of transformational science, technology, education and policy for sustainability and energy.

“Northwestern challenged itself to build a world-class initiative in sustainability and energy,” says Jay Walsh,Northwestern’s vice president for research. “ISEN represents the fruits of that investment. Faculty, postdocs and students are now pursuing novel ideas and demonstrating significant impact in the field.”

ISEN provides booster funding for fundamental scientific discovery — high-risk, high-impact research that’s being done across campus. In its first three years ISEN provided more than $3.5 million in funding for more than 140 projects.

These projects funded by ISEN include:

  • Civil and environmental and mechanical engineering professor Yonggang Huang’s development of a flexible inorganic photovoltaic solar cell capable of bending without any measurable changes in the mechanical or electrical properties, a cell that can be used on buildings or vehicles or incorporated into clothing (see "Stretching Solar to New Limits");
  • Physics professor William Halperin’s basic scientific research on very-high magnetic field applications for superconductors, which can transfer electricity with zero energy loss (see "The Wonder of Superconductors"); 
  • Earth and planetary sciences professor Andy Jacobson’s research on tracking and quantifying the concentration and isotopic concentration of carbon dioxide in Evanston and the Chicago area — updated on his website NUCO2 — in real time. His analysis could allow a user to extrapolate point sources of emissions at various times throughout the day, allowing for better policy making at the local level;
  • Materials science and engineering professor Derk Joester’s research on a type of algae that has the unique ability to isolate and crystallize the element strontium. Joester is looking to replicate the algae’s process or use the algae itself to remove radioactive strontium from nuclear waste.

In addition to support for faculty research, ISEN also funds the purchase of equipment for faculty, undergraduate and graduate research, and outreach projects both on and off campus.

ISEN works closely with the 15 undergraduate and graduate student organizations at Northwestern that address energy and sustainability by funding local and international projects, symposia, speakers and events. Past successes include ISEN’s support of the student-initiated Centennial Solar Panel System, a solar array on the roof of the Ford Engineering Design Center, the University’s first on-site renewable energy generation system.

Six courses have been created through (or are co-listed by) ISEN, including NUvention: Energy, a two-quarter course on cleantech entrepreneurship, developed with the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. In the class, interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate and graduate students explore commercialization of Northwestern- and Argonne-sourced technologies and write business pitches for energy services and projects to an external board representing venture capital, private industry and successful entrepreneurs in the energy and sustainability space.

An example of a NUvention: Energy project slated for the winter 2012 course is Argonne National Laboratory’s patent-pending process to convert plastic grocery bags into carbon nanotubes, a material that has many potential commercial uses, including as a component in advanced batteries.