Sustainability YIR | NYU Tandon School of Engineering

Sustainability YIR

We make our planet more sustainable

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Urban Future Lab

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The entrepreneurial hub making climate a priority

NYU Tandon’s Urban Future Lab (UFL), led by Managing Director Pat Sapinsley, is the center of cleantech innovation in New York. It’s leading the way to a more sustainable world by connecting people, capital, and purpose to advance market-ready solutions to address climate change.

They recently launched the Carbon to Value (C2V) Initiative, a unique, multi-year program driving the creation of a thriving innovation ecosystem for the commercialization of carbontech — technologies that capture and convert carbon dioxide (CO₂) into valuable end products or services. The startups in their inaugural cohort include Air Co., which transforms CO₂ into high-purity alcohols that can be used in spirits, sanitizers, and other products; Carbfix, which provides a natural and permanent carbon storage solution by turning CO₂ into stone underground; and Mars Materials, developers of a new pathway for carbon fiber production using CO₂ as a raw material. (C2V has also established an advisory council comprising corporate, academic, and government thought leaders: among them are representatives of ConEdison, the Consulate General of Canada, Mitsubishi, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and Unilever.)

The fledgling companies in the C2V cohort are finding plenty of inspiration at the UFL: This year New York City announced that it would support changes to its building code to include four private companies’ technologies as it rolls out a landmark law limiting greenhouse gases from buildings. Three of the four have ties to the UFL: WexEnergy, developers of a simple, cost-effective window retrofit that improves energy performance, and Zinc8 Energy Solutions, which offers safe, robust, and long-duration energy storage to utilities, commercial and industrial sectors, micro-grids, and renewable energy developers, are current UFL members, and another, Radiator Labs, makers of a smart radiator cover that eliminates overheating, is a graduate.

The UFL is not helping only U.S. startups. This year it joined a collaboration to help electric mobility, climate tech, and distributed energy businesses from the U.K. find a foothold on this side of the pond, providing a landing pad for Innovate UK’s Global Incubator Programme (GIP), which is designed to cultivate and support the launch of innovative cleantech companies with a strong potential to scale internationally to new markets.

The program has provided eight U.K.-based businesses with the opportunity to explore the potential of the U.S. market and access to world-class mentors. The cohort will consist of businesses in electric mobility, distributed energy, and technologies focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or addressing the effects of global warming.

Driving Sustainably

Sustainability, Engineering Opportunity, Urban

This year Forbes, in partnership with Audi of America and NYU Tandon, hosted the fourth annual Forbes Idea Incubator, which challenged Tandon’s female students to brainstorm ways to close the gender gap in EV buyers. That gap has been well-documented: under half of those now purchasing EVs are female, and studies have indicated that many women fear that EVs are more expensive than gas vehicles to purchase and maintain and won’t have enough range before the next charge, potentially leaving them stranded. This year’s winning idea was Electrocar, a product that allows girls from ages six to 10 to build a model electric car and control it with an accompanying app, which also features games, educational information, and more. Coming in at second place was EVX, a social media platform that educates environmentally conscious young drivers, builds community, and gives personalized recommendations. The winners shared in the Audi Drive Progress Grant, a $50,000 fund providing financial assistance for student tuition and related expenses.

We make power sources more efficient and manufacturing more sustainable

Sustainability, Engineering Opportunity

Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering André Taylor was recently honored as one of 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America. Inspiring, however, doesn’t really cover it: several other adjectives also apply, including forward-thinking, pioneering, and world-changing.

Prof. Taylor in the lab
Associate Professor André Taylor

Taylor, who came to NYU Tandon following a tenured professorship at Yale, reaches for the sun: much of his work involves designing revolutionary photovoltaic systems and envisioning new ways to fabricate them at scale, using sustainable, longer lasting, and more durable materials. For example, over the past decade Taylor and researchers in his lab have pioneered a new family of organic solar cells — such as those using natural photoactive materials like perovskite — that could be cheaper to fabricate than silicon-based cells, more efficient to use, durable enough to withstand the ravages of weather, and flexible for applications in everything from electric vehicles to wearable electronics, or even backpacks that charge cell phones.

Most industries are benefiting from rapid advances in battery technology, and Taylor’s work in this area includes innovations in lowcost rechargeable battery designs, including one using electrodes coated with easy-to-obtain asphalt. This research could, for example, make rechargeable sodium-ion batteries based on lowcost, abundant, easily processed, and non-toxic materials a reality — a cost-effective and greener alternative to high-cost lithium-ion batteries.

Taylor’s lab is also addressing the dangers that electromagnetic radiation poses to mobile devices, by developing a cost-effective process for making strong, flexible films that allow light in but keep electromagnetic interference (EMI) out. The novel approach, using a unique family of EMI-blocking materials called MXenes, led to a 38% enhancement of EMI-shielding efficiency over conventional methods. A paper on his lab’s work on MXenes, published in Advanced Functional Materials, was cited as one of the journal’s most downloaded for the year. Better add most-influential to that list of adjectives.

Additionally, this past year Taylor led a team of investigators that created a means of vastly increasing the speed and efficiency of a key doping process for perovskite solar cells, one that also sequesters CO2. Headed by Taylor and Jaemin Kong, a postdoctoral associate, along with Assistant Professor Miguel Modestino — also in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering — the team additionally included researchers from Samsung, Yale University, Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology, the Graduate Center of the City University, Wonkwang University, and the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, making it a truly global effort — as well as one that surmounted the boundaries of academia and the private sector.

solar panels in a field

We make a dirty process cleaner


Taylor is now involved in a collaboration meant to spark — literally — a fundamental change in how the U.S. chemical industry operates. The goal is to address the most daunting task looming over the industry: how to make industrial chemistry — especially petrochemistry — greener and more sustainable, partly to meet the escalating demands of greenhouse emission regulations. The nascent, multi-institutional effort will be called Decarbonizing Chemical Manufacturing Using Sustainable Electrification, or DC-MUSE.

DC-MUSE’s aim is to develop technologies and strategies to help the U.S. chemical industry migrate from thermal-based manufacturing processes to electricity-based ones. A range of government regulations aimed at achieving zero-carbon emissions are driving this migration. These greenhouse emissions regulations will progressively come into effect in the coming decades, culminating, for example, in the European Union’s aim to reduce 95 percent of 1990 level greenhouse emissions by 2050. These and other international regulations on greenhouse emissions could threaten up to 12 percent of all U.S. exports ($220 billion), if the U.S. chemical industry is not able to decarbonize its processes. The task is clearly enormous, not just for the industry itself but for the larger economy. Taylor has explained, “Thirty percent of U.S. industrial CO2 emissions comes from the chemical industry, and 93% of the chemical processes use fossil fuel heat. We’re talking about changing a whole industry that also involves a huge societal impact, encompassing 70,000 products, and 25% of the U.S. gross domestic product.”

Many experts believe that the first step in overhauling the chemical industry will involve moving away from thermally driven chemical reactions and separation processes that require heat from fossil fuels and moving towards reactions that use electricity generated by renewable resources, like wind and solar. While this migration has already started to occur, with penetration of renewable sources into the U.S. electrical grid doubling in the past decade, the technologies for integrating these sources into cost-effective electrified chemical processes has remained practically non-existent.

“After meeting with many chemical industry representatives, we learned that technologies that would enable electrification on the industrial scale don’t exist at this time,” said Yury Dvorkin, who is participating in the project. “The industry needs support to develop these technologies so they can be adopted in a way that’s economically feasible.” One of the areas that Dvorkin and his colleagues believed they needed to focus on was overcoming emerging reliability issues that inhibit and increase the cost of using renewable energy in the electrical grid. In other words, how do you ensure that there are no supply interruptions to the delivery of electricity when energy from the sun and wind can be intermittent? At the moment, energy storage technologies are not entirely up to the task of balancing out the intermittency of renewable electricity. As a result, NYU Tandon researchers have been looking at storing energy in the form of chemical bonds, as opposed to electrons, as a possible solution.

In energy storage approaches like this, energy is stored chemically in the form of hydrogen, and that hydrogen is reused later in a fuel cell. The fuel cells used to capture the energy are referred to as redox-flow batteries (RFBs). RFBs consist of a positive and negative electrolyte stored in two separate tanks. When the liquids are pumped into the battery cell stack situated between the tanks, a redox reaction occurs and generates electricity at the battery’s electrodes.

Several NYU researchers recently published a paper in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science that looks at improving the energy storage capabilities and economics of these RFBs.

The researchers didn’t simply tweak RFB technology to improve its energy density or reduce their costs. Instead of just plugging RFBs into renewable energy sources to store their intermittent energy production, they demonstrated how you could use RFB concepts to completely integrate chemical manufacturing into the whole energy storage process.

Tandon Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Miguel Modestino, a co-author, said, “In principle, you can imagine chemical plants acting as energy storage reservoirs, but at the same time producing chemical products. The storage value it provides lowers the cost for the production of the chemical that you want to make at the end of the day.” Modestino added that this approach also allows the chemical companies to integrate fluctuating sources of electricity, like renewables. You can thus decarbonize the industry in a way that is both economic and functions well with the dynamics of a renewable-driven grid.

The DC-MUSE project has expanded dramatically since its ideas first took root a few months ago. The project has already put together a group of 30 investigators from 11 universities and three National Laboratories that cover a wide spectrum of research areas.

At NYU Tandon, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Ryan Hartman is leading a group to develop plasma catalysis technology for these types of chemical reactions. Taylor’s and Modestino’s groups are working on electrochemical reactors for chemical manufacturing. And Dvorkin has been working on integrating these plants within the grid. Other groups outside of NYU are investigating using membranes for separations and system integration. In addition, the NYU team has been consulting with faculty at the law school and the business school on how to design policies that can enable the economic transition towards renewable energy-driven chemical manufacturing.

As DC-MUSE picks up momentum, its architects at NYU envision the project as a go-to Center for the fundamental engineering research that is needed to enable these technologies. Said Modestino, “The way that we see it is that you do the research in the lab, you develop with lab-scale demonstrations, but then through partnerships with companies you’ll develop them into processes.”

Taylor concluded: “From the applications we’ve seen into our program, we know that people want to pursue things that actually have an impact on changing society and improving the world. People want to discover something fundamental, but if it has a broader societal impact, people can see its importance. This is why I do research in this area.”

We make reducing emissions our mission

Sustainability, Data Science/AI/Robotics, Health, Urban

If you’re looking for a food that strikes a perfect balance between sustainability and nutrition, We Are the New Farmers, an urban farm in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, has just the thing. The company, founded by alumni Jonas Günther, Michael Udovich, and Daniel Bernstein, grows and sells fresh spirulina, a type of microalgae known for its nutritional density and a favorite with smoothie aficionados. In addition to its health-boosting power, spirulina requires 19 times less carbon dioxide to produce the same amount of protein as beef and uses less water and land than tofu, making it one of the most environmentally sustainable crops in the world, as the co-founders discovered while working on a vertical farming project in Tandon’s MakerSpace, where the idea took root.

It’s been a banner year for Sunthetics, a startup founded in 2018 by Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Miguel Modestino and two of his students, Myriam Sbeiti and Daniela Blanco (now alumni). The company — which is cleaning up the chemical manufacturing industry by developing sustainable, electrically driven chemical processes to replace traditional heat-powered ones and is now pairing its reactors with a machine-learning platform for further efficiencies — was admitted to the Heritage Group Accelerator Powered by Techstars, a highly competitive program that allowed them to spend 13 weeks scaling their businesses and go to-market strategies. Additionally, Blanco was named to both Inc. magazine’s “Female Founders 100” and MIT Technology Review’s “Latin American Innovators under 35“ lists. The high-profile icing on the cake: the entire world is now getting to hear about Sunthetics thanks to Own the Room, a National Geographic documentary streaming on Disney+. The filmmakers followed Blanco and her fellow contestants as they competed in the 2019 Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), an annual competition for founders who were launching startups while still in college. And even if you remembered hearing that Blanco had triumphed at the competition, Own the Room provides plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments (along with some that will have viewers reaching for the tissue box).

Sunthetics Team
Assistant Professor Miguel Modestino, Myriam Sbeiti and Daniela Blanco, the braintrust behind Sunthetics