Research for a sustainable future

Author: Dana Bakirtjy

Sustainability is often thought about strictly as an environmental issue: recycling, limiting emissions, protecting wildlife. But sustainability is more than just planting trees and driving hybrid cars. 

More than 140 faculty members in 36 departments at Notre Dame currently conducting sustainability research on topics ranging from corporate social responsibiltiy to the use of quantum dots in solar cells. 

Dr. Debra Javeline- Political Science

As climate change progresses, it will touch every human being on Earth in one way or another. How effectively we adapt to these changes depends entirely on the choices we make and the actions we take. Dr. Debra Javeline, associate professor of political science, and her interdisciplinary team are taking on the challenge of how to influence sustainable behavior change in the most at risk coastal communities across the United States.

The Storm Hazard and Risk Model (StHaRM), currently under review for a grant from the National Science Foundation, is a collaboration between Notre Dame engineers, social scientists, computer scientists, and geoscientists that aims to analyze coastal communities and provide individualized risk assessments to property owners to help them adapt to climate change.

“The idea of the project is to combine hard science, social science, and the public good into an easy to use educational tool for the consumer” says Javeline. “Although FEMA provides documents with recommendations for certain areas, the documents are often complicated and it’s easy for the average consumer to get overwhelmed and do nothing.” The goal is to find ways to target individual property owners with very specific recommendations--helping them adapt their property to climate change, and in the process helping both themselves and public good.

Dr. Jennifer Tank-Biology

Invasive species and access to fresh water are environmental, economic, and personal challenges to countless people across the world and in our own backyards, says Jennifer Tank, interim director of the Environmental Change Initiative, Director of ND-LEEF (the Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility), and Galla professor of Biological Sciences. Tank hopes that her research at ND-LEEF, located in St. Patrick’s County Park, can be a piece of the puzzle to solving these all too common problems.

Through a collaboration with Notre Dame hydrologists, Dr. Tank’s first project aims to figure out how the size of the substrate on the bottom of a stream affects the biology of that stream. “Since streams influenced by agriculture or urban impacts often are filled with very fine sediments, we’re interested in seeing how coarsening the substrates will influence stream function and if it will help restore damaged streams to their original function” she says.

Expanding upon Notre Dame’s famous eDNA research, her second project examines how this material flows through water. A crucial component to understanding the spread of invasive species--understanding the factors that influence how quickly eDNA degrades and is absorbed by a stream--may allow researchers to provide ecosystem managers an indication of where to explore further for a particular species.

ND-LEEF also incorporates sustainability in a more concrete sense with the recent completion of the Morrison Family Education and Outreach Pavillion. In collaboration with Aimee Buccellato, assistant professor of architecture, the pavilion was sustainably designed and built. 

Through state-of-the-art video displays donated by Corning and the Martin Curran Family, the pavilion shows not only what's going on in the experiments but also the entire life cycle analysis of the materials used to construct it. 

Dr. Prashant Kamat-Chemistry

Worldwide energy demand increases about 2 percent a year. This means that in the next 35 years the demand for energy is going to double. In order to keep up with the quickly increasing demand, alternative and sustainable energy sources such as solar power need to be developed and utilized.

On the forefront of solar cell material development for over 30 years, Dr. Prashant Kamat leads the Kamat Lab, a research lab in the Notre Dame Radiation Laboratory. The lab currently includes about 20 undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral researchers working on nanostructure architectures and energy conversion processes. 

With support from the Department of Energy, NDEnergy and the Strategic Research Initiative, Dr. Kamat’s lab is trying to find new materials that both improve solar cell efficiency and can be recreated everywhere at a low cost and small environmental footprint.

Focusing on equipment utilizing earth-abundant materials, low temperatures and "low-tech" fabrication techniques which allow for greater market scalability and lower end costs to users, his lab concentrates on developing two different types of materials: nano materials--materials 10 to 20 times thinner than a human hair, and perskovites--a broad class of materials that are the source of the fastest advancing solar technology to date, with an increase in efficiency from 3.9 percent in 2009 to 20.1 percent in 2014. 

Dr. Patrick E. Murphy- Business

Sustainability isn’t just limited to science applications. Because of demand from consumers, it is increasingly being incorporated into the business plans of corporations around the world. From sustainability reports to supply chain transparency, momentum is building to embrace sustainability as an assumed business practice.

Patrick Murphy, professor of marketing has watched this trend develop since the 1970s. A participant in the first ever Earth Day in 1970, Murphy has since become a leading scholar in corporate sustainability and ethics. By comparing historical environmental interests from the 1970’s with those of today, Dr. Murphy has produced a body of knowledge that explains how changes in corporate sustainability have developed and affect business today. 

“Things like climate change and endangered species, these are some of the topics that we really didn’t see 30 years ago that are much more in evidence now,” says Murphy. “Levi Strauss is now putting washing instructions in their jeans because they realize that once they sell the product, that’s where a lot of energy use falls out of their hands. That wasn’t even a consideration ten years ago.”

From his perspective, the only way to go is up. “I think all of these things fit together in a mosaic, and to me the good news is that there’s a lot more attention and focus on them in the second decade of the 21st century, certainly more than when I started, and more than even ten years ago.“