All posts by lakshmichandrasekaran2017

Taking a tip from the plants: Mimicking photosynthesis to produce fuels

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

Nathan La Porte dreams of a field full of solar panels leading to a pump in the corner fueling station. The sun shines down on the panels collecting enough energy to power a process that produces a liquid fuel to fill up the gas tank of a car.

If you think this falls in the realms of science fiction, think again. La Porte, a post-doctoral scientist with Michael Wasielewski’s chemistry lab at Northwestern University, is working to convert the concept into reality. And the inspiration for this comes from the billion-year-old phenomenon perfected by plants to produce their food – photosynthesis.

Wasielewski, director of the Institute of Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern is developing artificial photosynthesis as a way to harness solar energy and produce different types of fuels while tapping atmospheric carbon dioxide as a resource for the process. Carbon dioxide is the driving force of climate change and a key ingredient of photosynthesis.

“We are running the most dangerous experiment in history right now, which is to see how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere can handle before there is an environmental catastrophe,” said Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, in an interview with USA Today.

Artificial photosynthesis for solar liquid fuels of the future. (Animation scripted and reported by Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL; produced by Next Media Animations)

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Exelon and Northwestern partner to kick up the energy from solar cells

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

A Chinese solar energy company captured the imagination of the world and a younger generation of consumers by building a solar farm in the shape of a giant panda. That adds a bit of whimsy to China’s growing reputation as a world leader in solar energy production.  But the hottest competition is in the race for new solar technology

In the quest to limit carbon emissions, more countries are harvesting energy from the sun, with the focus on research to create better solar cells and batteries to store it.  And this is not surprising when you consider a few facts about solar power. The Earth receives 173,000 terawatts (or 173 trillion kilowatts) of solar energy all the time.

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NU climate change symposium stresses urgency and solutions

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

Excuses that exonerate business-as-usual emission scenarios are not a luxury we can afford as climate change heats up the globe, said Chad Frischmann, vice president and research director of Project Drawdown, a climate change mitigation project envisioned by renowned environmentalist Paul Hawken.

But do not despair, since opportunities and optimism can convert all of us into agents of change, said Frischmann, a plenary speaker at Northwestern University’s two-day climate change symposium this November.

Frischmann laid out several economically viable solutions for a packed audience in a talk based on the New York Times bestseller – “Drawdown – The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.” The book lists 100 solutions based on maximum and immediate impact. As expected, investing in wind turbines and solar farms fall within the top 10 solutions. Some simple, common sense approaches included reducing food waste.

“I can’t believe we already produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet,” said Frischmann, lamenting the fact that nearly a billion people on the planet go hungry while one-third of food raised or prepared is wasted – contributing to 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent or nearly 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change. He highlighted these areas where technology could make a significant difference.

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Northwestern’s solar-powered house heads to the Solar Decathlon in Denver

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

The house came down piece by numbered piece. In mid-September, the House by Northwestern (HBN) team dismantled the entire home they built over the summer, and FedEx-ed it off to Denver.

The solar-powered sustainable house, Enable is an official entry in the eighth Solar Decathlon competition, sponsored by the United States Department of Energy. Northwestern University will be participating for the first time.

The Solar Decathlon features a total of 11 collegiate teams that includes European teams from Switzerland and Netherlands. The teams compete for a total of $2 million in prize money with the first place team receiving $300,000.

The NU team geared up to the challenge and designed a 994-square-foot house entirely powered by solar energy for the showcase this October in Denver. The competition started in 2002 and is held once every two years. Some of the teams this year are veterans of multiple competitions. And the houses will be open for public tours, showcasing each team’s vision in bringing to life their fully functional solar-powered houses, over two long weekends from October 5- October 9, 2017, and October 12- October 15, 2017.

“This is expected to attract tens of thousands of visitors,” says Manasi Kaushik, a member of the Communications team at HBN and a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.

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NU symposium honors chemist Vladimir Nikolayevich Ipatieff who helped win World War II

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

Chemists Vladimir Nikolayevich Ipatieff and Herman Pines, both immigrants to America, put their brilliant minds to work creating a special aviation fuel, a closely guarded secret that helped the Allied forces win World War II.

Ipatieff developed the field of surface catalysis used extensively in refining petroleum by-products into fuel components. Ipatieff is regarded as one of the fathers of catalysis – a means to accelerate chemical reactions by adding an additional substance called a catalyst.

The Center for Catalysis and Surface Science (CCSS) and Institute of Sustainability and Energy (ISEN) at Northwestern hosted a symposium honoring Ipatieff on Sept. 7 as part of his 150th birthday celebrations, and focused on his pioneering scientific contributions.

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Build a better planet one photo at a time – Add yours to the global view

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

“Think of how it wraps completely around our planet, connecting us all as one global family – living and breathing under one shared sky,” says Wilmette artist and environmental activist Ben Whitehouse of the sky. “It only stands to reason we should take great care of it for each other,” he adds.

And Whitehouse hopes to bring people together across cultures to reflect on the beauty of the sky with his latest citizen art event – the Sky Day project.

In order to create an awareness about our rapidly changing environment, Whitehouse created an education-focused non-profit organization called Only One Sky. And the Sky Day project is a unique part of this initiative, where 150 organizations from more than 12 nations and photo buffs from across the United States will  take pictures of the sky and tweet them through September 22.  If you’d like to participate in the Sky Day Project,  take a photo of just the sky, and tweet it with the hashtags: #SkyDayProject and #NU_CCRG. You also can go to the Only One Sky website, click on the Sky Day Project to register and obtain a group-specific handle for your tweets. Photo collages of the sky taken from different regions of Earth will appear on the website.

“The art-based initiative provides a launching point for the use and sharing of science and art-based curriculum” through the skydayproject.org website, says Whitehouse’s collaborator, climate scientist Daniel Horton of Northwestern University. In partnership with Horton and “with the input of talented artists, scientists, parents, educators, writers, child development experts and social scientists we are building Only One Sky as an interactive educational platform to offer teachers, parents and kids imaginative lesson plans, inspiring ideas, great articles, innovative projects, forums for discussion and exciting opportunities for international collaboration,” Whitehouse says. Only One Sky is just getting started and has already posted two educational pieces this week.
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Freeze-casting materials in space: Meeting the challenges of vacuums and microgravity

Northwestern University’s SpaceICE team, led by Northwestern Professor David Dunand, is preparing to test freeze-casting of materials in space, in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Bradley University. Fabricating materials is essential for a journey to Mars or for future space colonies. The SpaceICE team is pioneering the freeze-casting instrumentation for the small CubeSat, a cubic satellite that UIUC is building for the 2018 NASA-funded mission. Medill reporter Lakshmi Chandrasekaran is embedding with the researchers as the mission efforts rev up this summer.

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

I was meeting with Krysti Scotti, who kick- started the Northwestern University’s SpaceICE project in the Dunand Lab while she was still an undergraduate. She just finished her bachelor’s degree this spring and is starting work on her Ph.D. as SpaceICE readies for a space launch.

While waiting for Krysti to arrive at the lab, I met with another of Dunand’s first-year Ph.D. students, Stephen Wilke, as he completed freeze-casting experiments with iron oxide nanopowder. We chatted for a bit and I learned that his wife (a fifth year Ph.D. student in environmental sciences at NU) is pursuing a career in science writing in California through a mass communication fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is a small world and I often seem to be running into Ph.D.s, pursuing science communication as a career! That’s what I am doing in graduate school at Medill after working as a science reporter with a Ph.D. in mathematics. The graduate program gives us a chance to embed with science research teams to produce in-depth stories and I am embedding with SpaceICE.

Krysti arrived a bit late for our 11 a.m. meeting and dashed into the lab! “I overslept,” she says. Considering, that she was up until 6 a.m. working on the research, I am not too surprised.

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U.S. innovation at risk: Science funding crunch clashes with a burgeoning Ph.D. workforce

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

“A CR (continuing resolution) Attenuates Progress. That would be C-R-A-P in case you haven’t figured that out,” said National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins last month, talking about how government funding affects research.

Collins, quoted in Science magazine, referred to an amorphous continuing federal funding program that ends this Friday.

Congress passed a CR in September to fund federal government agencies – including research-funding institutions such as the NIH and National Science Foundation (NSF) – through this week. This means the current levels of funding would continue until the ‘artificial deadline’ of December 9th.  Beyond that, there is had been no further funding plan in place. And hence Francis Collins’ colorful lament. Continue reading

Tackling global warming by exploring the ebb and flow of the ice ages

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

“Don’t get old if you can help it,” climatologist George Denton joked at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin this fall. But he must have been proud. As one of the earliest and premiere veterans of climate change research, the University of Maine professor had three generations of students in the room.

Denton has devoted a better part of his life to studying and quantifying ice sheets across the globe. He does this by gleaning the geological history going back across more than 2.5 million years of ice ages. He studies smaller mountain glaciers to understand what causes abrupt ocean and atmospheric changes that lead to the warming spells, changes that our contemporary world may be triggering at an ever faster pace.

Video by Kelly Calagna/MEDILL

“We as humans have reached 7 billion and we are living in a world where the climate is changing rapidly. Understanding how ice age climate works will help us understand what is going on now,” said Denton. Continue reading

It’s complicated: The unpredictability of predictions in elections

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

In the end, it came down to will she or won’t she?

What seemed like a comfortable 81 percent chance of winning the election for Hillary Clinton just a couple of weeks ago, morphed into a tight race to the finish after FBI director James Comey announced a new investigation of a new round of Clinton’s emails. But she was still expected to win the presidency – until the reality of the red wall of electoral votes gave the victory to Donald Trump.

Clearly predicting outcomes of complex events such as election winners using data and statistical calculations is what statistician and journalist Nate Silver does on a regular basis through his news website fivethirtyeight.com. He and his team collate mountains of live polling data and crunch these numbers via different statistical and mathematical models to arrive at these predictions. Trump was stronger wherever the economy was weaker,  with slower job growth and lower wages. And he outperformed Clinton in all those counties, it states on Silver’s website as part of the election analysis.

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