All posts by lakshmichandrasekaran2017

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 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 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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Our thirst for energy – driving innovation and mitigating water risks

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

“Green city planning to create green roofs, green parks and deployment of green assets in places where we are worried about heat effects is necessary,” said Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute on Environment from the University of Minnesota to keep climate change at controllable levels.

Jessica Hellmann, gave a talk about the ecology of climate change adaptation at symposium. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)
Jessica Hellmann called for more parks, roof gardens and green space to pull down temperatures in urban areas. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)

She stressed in no uncertain terms the need to uphold the international Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade  (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). “We just wrote a paper recently about using weather models in the Chicago land area and what would happen if you could turn 25 percent to even 100 percent of all roofs and make them green. How much would it reduce downtown temperatures in the event of extreme temperature scenario?” said Hellmann, adding that their study revealed how temperature plummeted by several degrees Fahrenheit.

Hellmann and other climate experts addressed local, national and global impacts of the “Water-Energy-Climate Nexus” at Northwestern University’s recent Climate Change Symposium. The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern anchored the symposium to water and energy resources, keys to climate change solutions.

A meeting of minds

ISEN Executive Director Michael Wasielewski said in an interview that this symposium brought together policy-makers and students as well as scientists and so it serves to benefit researchers both from Northwestern University and other institutions tremendously. Wasielewski said he hopes that the conference is a conversation starter that allows individual researchers to get together and make connections. “This will ultimately lead to new projects and new solutions to address these problems,” he remarked, highlighting the fact that technology curbing climate change may come from seemingly unrelated areas of science and engineering.

The event hosted multiple speakers from universities and agencies across the country. Diana Bauer, director of the Office of Energy Systems Analysis, at the Department of Energy (DOE) said water is essential for power generation and advocated accurate power/water models as critical to energy policy and decision-making. “The DOE has about 18 departments that focus on water and so we are focused on energy and it’s connection to water, “ said Bauer.

Mark Johnson, director of the Office of Advanced Manufacturing of the Department of Energy said,” What our department focuses on is that if the scientists develop new technologies such as applications for clean energy, how do we get them out of the labs to the marketplaces?” He spoke about DOE initiatives, to support partnerships between universities and industries, emphasizing the need for basic and applied sciences to collaborate and come up with energy efficiency solutions.

Lowering our carbon footprint

Energy efficiency and alternative energy are part of the quest by scientists worldwide to lower fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming our planet.  As a chemistry professor, Wasielewski and his research group explore producing renewable energy sources such as solar fuels. In particular, his research focuses on artificial photosynthesis that  uses solar energy directly to produce solar fuel.

“The way we do that is by targeting solar energy to catalytically split water to generate oxygen and hydrogen,” he said. Wasielewski’s team also experiments with the use of solar energy to catalytically reduce carbon dioxide to liquid fuels, which could be easily stored. “It is an instance of worldwide effort in that area because the idea of directly using solar energy to drive carbon dioxide reduction to liquid fuel that can be used for transportation is a long-term goal of many researchers,” he said.

Fracking and the risks of water contamination

The symposium featured talks on essential policies and reforms to target energy challenges. “Hydraulic fracturing is one energy field that requires more regulation,” said Joseph Ryan, a professor of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Joe Ryan talked about the problems that arise from hydraulic fracturing in the state of Colorado. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)
Joe Ryan’s research in Colorado shows the need to control toxic chemicals in fracking fluids that could contaminate groundwater. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)

Ryan’s research, funded by the National Science Foundation, is studying the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water pollution locally in Colorado. He said he believes that regulators can use this information as a decision analysis tool since water pollution isn’t the only problem related to fracking as climate change threatens increased water shortages in parts of the U.S.

Ryan’s research team looked at water acquisition practices for oil and gas fracking in two Colorado counties – Weld and Garfield. He showed that at least in Weld County, not all of the hydraulic fracturing fluid injected to drill oil and release hydrocarbons, flowed back up and continued to stay underground.

But why would this be a problem? Ryan and his team analyzed the chemical compounds used in the fracturing fluid at high pressure to break up or “fracture” rock and extract oil. They focused on organic compounds in the fluid and found a large number of them –  a total of 659 including guar gum, methanol, ethylene glycol among others. Many are toxic and some are also mobile and persistent, a subset of the 659 compounds that do pose a risk if they are released, Ryan said.  “We should be worried about those” due to potential contamination of groundwater supplies, he said. The additional risk here is that a few of the compounds are not monitored. As a result, Ryan and his colleagues suggested two major recommendations to  Colorado regulators.

First, monitor these compounds that are not commonly measured and “could be regarded as smoking guns that could implicate some contamination episodes,” said Ryan. Second, remove the hazardous compounds and increase the efficiency of fracking. “Unfortunately the oil and gas companies have not put a lot of effort into making a ‘greener’ fluid since it’s expensive and they do a lot of experimentation on the field. There’s no work on how these compounds might affect things from a laboratory perspective,”  Ryan said.

From local to global

Acknowledging the limitations of his study, Ryan said that not all geological considerations are transferable. However, the work on improving air quality and the treatment of wastewater coming out of these oil and gas wells are widely applicable, said Ryan – adding that each state is better off forming their own regulations.

A controversial EPA report released in 2015 on the assessment of potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas concluded: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” Scientific studies, such as the one from the University of Colorado, albeit alarming, are limited to a local scale affecting a smaller percentage of people. Should government regulatory agencies take action or dismiss local studies for not being  ‘widespread’ and ‘systemic’ enough? Is there a magic number of people impacted that should prompt us to take action? “This is something we as a society and regulators have to decide,” said Ryan.

As for instituting climate change regulations, Chicago Congressman Michael Quigley (D-5th), the keynote speaker at the symposium, enumerated some of the hurdles he faces. “I serve with [some] people who don’t believe in climate change and evolution,” he said, citing his lack of a necessary quorum at times to carry out policy reforms.

Congressman Mike Quigley gave the keynote speech at the symposium. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)
“I serve with [some] people who don’t believe in climate change and evolution,” said Chicago Congressman Mike Quigley in his keynote speech at the symposium. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)
In the face of this opposition, Quigley lamented that despite being served by one of the most progressive presidents on environmental issues, not much has been accomplished in addressing the problems. “The frustrating part is that you are not even seeing climate change issues being addressed in the debates at all, since debates have become reality TV,” he commented.

As a ranking member of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC) at the House of Representatives, he strongly advocates policies for regulating environmental issues, limiting the threat to our climate.

Quigley urged the scientists to synthesize their results and communicate to lay audience in an accessible manner so that it could be translated through our political system back through an active Congress.

”Change comes when the base core of the constituency say otherwise,” remarked Quigley, as part of his closing statements.

Photo at top: Lights across the U.S. at night as viewed by satellite. (