An investment in energy and sustainability ‘for the survival of humanity’

Significant new support for research and hires will bolster Penn’s existing strengths in developing the energy and sustainability solutions of the future.

Illustration of scientists building a glowing structure collaboratively.
The Energy and Sustainability Initiative will support collaborative, cross-disciplinary work on one of the most urgent issues facing society today: breaking our dependence on non-renewable energy sources and promoting a cleaner environment. (Image: Sam Falconer)

A quick look at data-backed projections of energy usage tells an alarming tale: Renewable energy sources aren’t keeping pace to meet society’s growing needs, and a continued dependence on fossil fuels will only increase the severity of climate change.

With a significant new investment in research targeting exactly these challenges, Penn’s transformative Energy and Sustainability Initiative aims to invent solutions in energy and sustainability and develop ways to roll them out for the betterment of the entire planet. The Initiative is one of four priority areas being funded by $750 million devoted to scientific, engineering, and medical research around the University.

“We emphasize through our most recent investment in energy and sustainability research that Penn is here to innovate and to make a real impact on society, both today and deep into the future,” says President Amy Gutmann. “The School of Arts & Sciences is uniquely well-positioned to lead these game-changing, interdisciplinary efforts, which will permeate across the entire University.”

Chart with years 1990 to 2050 on the x axis and quadrillion British thermal units on the y axis titled Energy consumption by fuel AEO2021 Reference case. It shows how the use different fuel sources--petroleum, natural gas, coal, renewable energy, nuclear, hydro, and liquid fuels--have changed over time and are projected to change in the future, with fossil fuels dominating both past and present.
Without transformative change, fossil fuel use is projected to continue to be the largest source of energy in the United States, even out to 2050. The new Energy and Sustainability Initiative is poised to innovate to find paradigm-shifting solutions that will change this outlook. (Image: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

With Penn Arts & Sciences at the helm, and with involvement from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and other partners, this effort will involve cross-disciplinary collaborations on a variety of scientific topics aimed at rethinking energy generation, storage, and use.

Steven J. Fluharty, dean of Penn Arts & Sciences and Thomas S. Gates Jr. Professor of Psychology, Pharmacology, and Neuroscience, says, “Energy research is at once a priority for the School and the world at large. This new investment allows us to advance the groundbreaking work already being done by our scientists and to grow our collaborative, forward-looking team of researchers. I am eager to see the discoveries that this tremendous opportunity will make possible.”

A planetary priority

According to Karen Goldberg, the Vagelos Professor in Energy Research in Penn Arts & Sciences’ Department of Chemistry, a focus on energy and sustainability is a natural priority for Penn because “it’s important for the survival of humanity.”

The damaging effects of climate change—from stronger storms to extreme heat—are already here, and dependence on oil and gas is a difficult one to shake. Despite advancements in solar, wind, and other renewables, projections that factor in current laws and policies and incremental technological advances suggest that these fossil fuels will remain the leading energy sources decades into the future.

“That’s really dangerous as we move forward,” Goldberg says, “because if we’re still digging petroleum out of the ground and burning it, we’re putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Karen Goldberg in her lab
Karen Goldberg, a chemist in the School of Arts & Sciences and the inaugural director of the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology, is leading research aimed at developing new fuel sources from sunlight. (Image: OMNIA)

As the inaugural director of the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology, established in 2016, Goldberg and her colleagues are already deeply invested in projects focused on righting the ship on energy. “A lot of faculty have already started collaborations through the Institute on problems such as converting carbon dioxide to fuels and developing materials that will improve energy storage,” she says.

This infusion of new funding, Goldberg says, “is going to allow us to bring in some star players in the field to build on our current efforts at Penn.” And she says those new hires can, in turn, provide additional opportunities for current faculty and trainees to take their work in new directions and identify novel applications for their insights. The new building set to house many of these efforts, the Vagelos Laboratory for Energy Science and Technology, will provide a space for fostering discussion and synergy around these topics.

Multipronged approach

The Initiative is catalyzing work in three core areas: diversifying energy sources and storage; energy efficiency and sustainability; and monitoring, capturing, transforming, and sequestering climate-changing pollutants.

1. Diversifying energy sources and storage

Together with several Penn colleagues, Goldberg herself is working on making new fuels from sunlight, part of the multi-institutional Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels (CHASE), one of the ways Penn is charting a path forward for renewable energy.

“I work with Thomas Mallouk, Eric Stach, Zahra Fakhraai, and Jessica Anna as part of this DOE supported Solar Hub,” Goldberg says. “Essentially we’re working to take small molecules in the air, plus sunlight, and convert them to liquid fuels.” Penn is one of six partner institutions that are part of CHASE, with each member contributing specialized technical expertise. Goldberg’s lab, for example, focuses on the catalyst that converts carbon dioxide into liquid fuels, while Mallouk’s team is using electrochemistry to discern strategies for long-term storage of solar energy.

Scientist works in a ventilated hood in a chemistry lab with chemical formulas written on the plastic covering.
In chemist Daniel Mindiola’s lab, researchers like former doctoral student Lauren Grant pursue fundamental chemical studies that could help turn polluting compounds into value-added materials. (Image: Eric Sucar)

“When it comes to climate change and transforming our energy systems, these are not things that a single investigator can do on their own,” Goldberg says. “It’s going to require a synergistic effort of teams of scientists and engineers all working together.”

2. Energy efficiency and sustainability

In a parallel fashion, a number of collaborative Penn-led projects on energy efficiency and sustainability will benefit from further investment. The Center for Sustainable Separations of Metals, for example, directed by chemist Eric Schelter, will aim to speed the development of strategies to reduce waste and tamp down on environmentally destructive extraction of precious metals for applications in consumer electronics.

Penn Engineering will also be central in energy-efficiency projects. Shu Yang, the Joseph Bordogna Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is herself a leader in efforts to enhance building efficiency from the outside in.

“Buildings contribute 40% of total energy use,” Yang says. “And given climate change, with temperatures getting higher and buildings needing cooling, how do you save energy? As engineers, we look for an integrative solution.”

That integrative solution, envisioned by Yang along with colleagues such as Paolo Arratia, Jennifer Lukes, and Liang Feng, is to reconsider the building envelope, “the interface between the environment and the internal components of the building,” she says. Using dynamic technologies and cutting-edge materials to retrofit existing buildings, Penn researchers are developing dynamic building materials that can open and close to provide shading, reflect sunlight, passively emit heat, and dehumidify the air that enters to cut down on cooling costs and energy. They’re also partnering with faculty in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design like Dorit Aviv, William Braham, and Masoud Akbarzadeh to consider how to enact these designs and with the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy to think through how to adapt zoning and building codes to accommodate them, while using sustainable materials.

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation-supported Internet of Things for Precision Agriculture (IoT4Ag), headquartered at Penn and directed by Engineering’s Cherie Kagan, is addressing societal-scale problems related to food production using soil-based sensors, robot swarms, and new approaches to digital networking to make farming as energy efficient as possible, while also conserving water and nutrients and maximizing yields.

3. Monitoring, capturing, transforming, and sequestering climate-changing pollutants

A system like that the IoT4Ag is developing could also contribute to better modeling the environment, understanding the inputs that contribute to climate change. And to modify those inputs, research from scholars like Penn’s Jennifer Wilcox, the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and Energy Policy, currently on leave serving in the Department of Energy, are needed. Wilcox is at the forefront of carbon capture and other carbon-management strategies that could stop greenhouse gases from reaching the atmosphere, or go so far in some cases as to actively remove it, then possibly divert it for other uses.

Architectural rendering of high-tech building.
The new Vagelos Laboratory for Energy Science and Technology, anticipated to be completed in 2024, will consolidate existing and emerging energy research programs in energy and sustainability. (Image: Behnisch Architekten)

In a similar vein, chemists like Schelter and colleagues are also considering how to modify would-be pollutants, for example, methane, to convert them into value-added materials. Chemist Daniel Mindiola has already uncovered some of the fundamental chemistry needed to do so, laying the groundwork for new uses of a potent greenhouse gas.

And looking to the atmosphere and beyond, research in the lab of Joseph S. Francisco, a faculty member in the departments of Earth and Environmental Science and of Chemistry, is considering the chemistry underlying global warming and geoengineering efforts to mitigate its effects.

Yang notes that deepening the University’s commitment to energy and sustainability will also attract notice from government and industry, enabling greater partnerships and collaborations that will speed the translation of scientific innovations into applied technologies. “We are seeking grants from the Department of Energy currently that aim to test our concepts in residential homes in Year 3 or Year 4,” she says. “We don’t want to just study these issues; we want to see whether we can eventually translate them and see them used.”

To imagine the possible outcomes of this 21st century investment, Goldberg points to one of the most impactful breakthroughs of the 20th century: the Haber-Bosch process. A chemical reaction involving converting hydrogen and nitrogen to ammonia, developed in the early 1900s, the process enabled the production of affordable fertilizers that today feed the world.

“You needed a chemist (Haber) and you needed an engineer (Bosch) to develop that process,” Goldberg says.

To solve this century’s problems, she says, such a collaborative, big-picture approach is essential. “Energy is of critical importance to how society functions, and we need to make sure that it is sustainable. Penn has been building an impressive research portfolio in sustainable energy solutions, and now we’re going to be able to expand on those earlier efforts and catalyze the technological breakthroughs that are needed. When you look out to 2050, we need the energy source plots to look different than they do today.”

Student performs chemical research in lab, framed by computer screens and other equipment.
Doctoral student Stephen Meloni, a member of Jessica Anna’s lab, conducts physical chemistry research as part of the Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels (CHASE). (Image: Eric Sucar)