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Materials Science celebrates Earth Day with sustainable research, education

Everything is made of something. This one simple fact highlights how materials science and engineering is a key component to creating a more sustainable future. From sourcing raw materials to disposal of items at the end of their life cycle, and everything in between, materials scientists and engineers are making decisions, innovating and creating new technology for a more sustainable future.

Research throughout the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering at Boise State connects directly to sustainability. To celebrate Earth Day, the school has shared just a small fraction of the work happening to promote a more sustainable future.

Batteries and solar panels

Since their commercialization in 1991, the demand for lithium-ion batteries has been steadily increasing.  These batteries are found in nearly every piece of modern technology. However, lithium is not an abundant mineral in the Earth’s crust. Sodium-ion batteries have been presented as an alternative to lithium-ion batteries, due to sodium’s relatively high abundance. However, sodium-ion batteries suffer from several short-comings that prevent their entrance into the marketplace. Kincaid Graff, a graduate researcher in Claire Xiong’s Electrochemical Energy Materials Lab is looking to improve on the quality of sodium-ion batteries to promote a more sustainable future.

Solar panels are typically made from silicon, the same materials used for computer chips.  Alternatives to silicon include organic materials which could be simpler and less expensive to process. In the Computational Materials Engineering Lab, Eric Jankowski and his student researchers use computer simulations to identify and understand these organic components. This research informs the engineering of new solar technologies while expanding understanding of organic semiconducting materials more broadly.

Clean energy and water

It is well known that significant climate changes in the world are largely due to carbon-based pollutants that are generated through energy production and industrialization. As the human population continues to increase, energy demand will follow. Nuclear energy is a viable alternative to fossil fuels and requires less land use than any other energy source. In the Advanced Materials Laboratory at Boise State, students and staff focus on the development and understanding of materials for extreme environments; including nuclear reactors. Researchers focus their efforts on developing and understanding advanced nuclear fuels, novel alloy development, advanced manufacturing techniques and radiation tolerant sensors and instrumentation for “in situ” materials monitoring in the nuclear reactor core. Students working in the lab collaborate with leading experts at the Idaho National Laboratory and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to perform critical research projects in support of innovations in nuclear energy. When not in the lab, students are active participants in their community by educating the public on the importance of nuclear energy for a more sustainable future.

Access to clean water and sanitation are recognized as human rights by the United Nations, yet nearly 2.1 billion people worldwide are threatened by water scarcity. The effects of climate change are projected to dry up rivers, lakes and aquifers, requiring an increased number of populations to rely on remediated and recycled water to meet their daily needs. Doctoral student Naqsh Mansoor, part of the Advanced Nanomaterials and Manufacturing Lab, has focused her research on developing a scalable, energy efficient and cost effective solution to the imminent water crisis. Her system “Flow Electrode Capacitive Deionization” is highly adaptable so it can be tuned to suit the remediation needs of an agricultural farm, a university building and even a home kitchen sink. Through her work, Naqsh hopes to make a positive contribution to drought resilience and water conservation efforts.

Boise State is a key partner in the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, a multi-institution research center based in Idaho Falls. The center is a collaboration that inspires innovation and impact by leveraging collective capabilities to empower students, researchers, faculty and industry to accelerate energy solutions.  Associate Professor David Estrada faculty currently serves as the center’s Associate Director, emphasizing how the research conducted at Boise State can advance energy solutions across the state and nation.

Product lifecycles

Almost every plastic item ever created is still in existence. What if anew plastic material could be created that is fully recyclable while still maintaining all of the desirable properties of the plastics used every day? Graduate student Allison Christy has recently published a paper in Science Advances that looks at a new class of closed-loop polymers based on ethyl cyanoacrylate, the main ingredient in Super Glue. This new material is just one of many innovative polymers being developed in the Phillips Macromolecular Sciences research group.

While materials research is a key component of sustainability research and innovation, no solutions will be identified and implemented without community engagement. Professors Peter Mullner and Stephen Crowley have been collaborating on the Materials Resource and Sustainability Nexus which works to consider products along the complete lifecycle of materials: sourcing, processing, use and disposal.

This semester, Mullner and Crowley are teaching a special topics course where graduate and undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines have gathered to hear from individuals and groups, as well as hold open discussions on the global impact of materials and resources. Recorded guest lectures can be viewed on the materials school’s website.