Serving the nation by saving the Earth

Happy Earth Day
posted: 4/20/2018

listed in Fellows

How Hertz Fellows’ innovations are making the world a better place to live.

When John Hertz founded the Hertz Foundation, it was to train the next generation of America’s scientific and technical leaders. The innovation thus enabled would be Hertz’s thanks to the country that had given him, a Hungarian immigrant, so much success. In the last half-century, the topics Hertz Fellows have studied, and the ways they have thereby benefitted the country are many and varied.

In recognition of Earth Day 2018, celebrated this Sunday April 22, we wanted to share with you some stories of fellows whose work is helping the entire world – not just America – face and solve the environmental challenges we face today. Many Hertz Fellows have applied their creativity to helping solve these environmental challenges, from Alan Miller, whose company Cool it, Earth! is engineering energy solutions to climate change, to Laurel Larsen, whose physical and ecological research is materially improving wetland management. Today, we highlight some other Hertz Fellows, whose forward-thinking solutions are targeting everything from climate change to plastic pollution.

Getting Recycling to Work

This year, Earth Day is dedicated to ending plastic litter and pollution from the products we use and dispose of every day. The very durability and versatility that make plastics so useful and ubiquitous make it all too easy for plastic waste to pollute our environment, littering landscapes and disrupting ecosystems.

Everyone has a part to play in reducing their plastic use, reusing plastic products, and recycling plastic to prevent it from escaping into our environment, but Hertz Fellow Geoffrey Coates hopes to make the third part of that far easier. Right now, only 14% of the world’s plastic is actually recycled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. A major technical obstacle to bringing that number up is that the materials that make up some two thirds of the world’s plastics, polyethylene and polypropylene, cannot efficiently be mixed and recycled together.

In a 2017 paper, Coates, who is Cornell University’s Tisch University Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, showed one way to change that. Coates and his lab developed a “tetrablock” polymer, with alternating polyethylene and polypropylene segments, which could meld together the two plastics to create a strong, rigid material.

“People have done things like this before,” Coates said, “but they’ll typically put 10 percent of a soft material, so you don’t get the nice plastic properties, you get something that’s not quite as good as the original material.”

Coates is also co-founder of Novomer, a company using technology Coates and others have developed to make more sustainable plastics, including a biodegradable plastic and a number of products made from carbon dioxide. He is also a cofounder of Ecolectro, which makes hydroxide exchange membranes for fuel cells that don’t require the use of precious metals.

He credits the Hertz Foundation Fellowship with enabling him to forge his own research direction during his PhD at Stanford. “Since I was not tied to my research advisor’s research funding, I had the freedom to explore ideas outside the existing work in the group. This allowed me to develop problem selection and solving skills that have been invaluable in my independent career.”


Keeping Earth Cool

Coates’ work on fuel cells promises to help reduce the carbon emissions that warm the Earth through the greenhouse effect, but he is far from the only Hertz Fellow to be addressing this important challenge. In addition to Alan Miller, Fellows like Michael MacCracken are hard at work understanding the dynamics of and solutions to these changes.

Michael MacCracken, who has been serving as the chief science scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute in Washington DC since retiring from LLNL in 2002, has been a pioneer in the study of climate change since well before there was confirmation human activities were changing the climate. As a Hertz Fellow at the UC Davis Department of Applied Science at the Livermore Lab, he developed “essentially the first radiative-dynamic climate model in the world,” he says, “there wasn’t anything like it.”

MacCracken’s climate model was based on a shorter-timescale weather model developed by his LLNL advisor, Cecil “Chuck” Leith. "Chuck created a model that included processes that other models in the field didn't include until a decade or more later," recalls MacCracken. But it was Edward Teller who pushed the young Hertz Fellow to convert Leith’s atmospheric model into a climate model and use it to evaluate the range of hypotheses of the cause of glacial-interglacial cycling. MacCracken credits Teller for instilling a thirst for first-principles physical analysis, and for working to make the model as comprehensive as possible. “On reflection it was maybe a jump too far, but Teller was never an incremental person,” he says, “and the leap led to some interesting insights.”

MacCracken’s 35-year career at LLNL touched on a range of atmospheric issues, from developing atmospheric models that led to some of the first emissions regulations in the Bay Area to leading a national laboratory program on acid rain. But he would never stray far from modeling climate, and would eventually contribute to national and international assessments, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that, along with former Vice President Al Gore, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, and at Gore’s invitation, was able to attend the ceremony.

“The amazing thing about the IPCC’s scientific assessment process is it has been able to get essentially all of the world’s countries to unanimously agree on the generated summary of scientific understanding,” says MacCracken.

“There are questions about how confident you have to be on the results to do take various policy actions -- fossil fuels provide about 80% of the world's energy. There are still questions about what the best way to reduce emissions will be. That's a debate society needs to have, but we haven’t done very well at that,” he says. “The science is clear, and it’s too bad the issue has become so politicized.”

Brian von Herzen has a solution to the climate problem – or, more accurately, an entire array of solutions addressing social and ecological challenges. As founder and executive director of The Climate Foundation, Brian has spent more than a decade looking for ways to use engineering and nature’s boundless capacity to grow and self-regulate in responding to climate change challenges.

Von Herzen has worked in climate modeling since his undergraduate years, and as a Hertz Fellow at Caltech studied carbon dynamics in Jupiter’s atmosphere. “Little did I know that it would become a really critical issue for the Earth during our lifetime.” he says.

In 2007, von Herzen founded The Climate Foundation, focused on environmental engineering that scales to tackle problems of climate change. “The Hertz Fellowship gave me the freedom to choose what to work on and how to work on it,” he says. “The combination of planetary science and applied science and engineering gave me both a planetary and entrepreneurial perspective on the problems we face as a civilization today.”

The Climate Foundation addresses the massive scale of the climate change problem by letting nature’s capacity for self-replication, self-assembly, and equilibrium-setting provide the scale. “Why reinvent the wheel?” von Herzen asks. “Just touching enough air molecules to capture all that carbon is too expensive for an artificial system to be practical – but leaves on a tree do it really well, so why not let a forest do it? And there is more than one kind of forest out there.”

In the ocean forest von Herzen is working towards, large-scale seawater pumps powered by wave, solar, and wind energy move water from below the thermocline, restoring overturning circulation from below the mixed layer. This restoration provides essential nutrients for kelp forests and seaweed while cooling the mixed layer enough to prevent coral bleaching near land and create free-floating seaweed forests in the open ocean. Fish and seaweed products harvested from the artificial ecosystems would make the Marine Permaculture Array economically and ecologically sustainable, while unused biomass could sink to the ocean floor, sequestering enough net carbon to eventually help mitigate greenhouse effects.

Other projects to reduce waste – whether CO2 or otherwise – include ventures in cricket farming for sustainable protein and fish feed and using high-heat, low-oxygen pyrolysis to turn waste into high-grade charcoal that can be buried in soil to restore depleted soils by building and sequestering inorganic and later organic carbon. "In all these projects it has been great to have the support and advice of the Hertz Fellows," von Herzen says.

So this Earth Day, we thank the entire Hertz community, and all the scientists working hard to ensure we live in a greener, more sustainable future.