Brown launches new initiative to galvanize research in sustainable energy technology

The newly launched Initiative for Sustainable Energy will serve as a campus hub for driving technological advances in sustainable energy and preparing the next-generation of leaders in net-zero-carbon energy solutions.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A new initiative at Brown University will convene researchers from multiple fields of study with the goal of developing solutions in three areas of sustainable energy that are critical for mitigating climate change and its dire consequences.

Building on years of work at Brown in sustainable energy systems, the new Initiative for Sustainable Energy will focus on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable fuels and materials — research areas expected to grow rapidly in the coming decades as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to rise.

The initiative’s mission is to propel breakthrough technological innovations — in sustainable battery systems, wind and water turbines, zero-carbon fuels and energy-efficient materials, for example — toward a secure, equitable and net-zero-carbon energy future, while also preparing the next-generation of sustainable energy leaders.

“The launch of this initiative comes at a critical juncture in the fight against climate change as its impacts become even more readily apparent in everyday life, heightening the urgent demand for solutions,” said Larry Larson, interim provost at Brown and emeritus dean of the University’s School of Engineering. “Our goal is to spur increased technological research on sustainability across campus in a way that leads to positive change at local, national and global levels.”

As the University works to implement a plan to propel research across all fields of study to new levels of excellence, the new initiative will help advance Brown's interdisciplinary research portfolio in a critical area of focus, Sustaining Life on Earth, outlined in the University's Building on Distinction strategic plan. The collaborative initiative will serve as a hub for existing climate-related technology efforts across Brown, pulling together researchers from the School of Engineering, Department of Physics, Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, Department of Chemistry, and Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, among others.

Brown engineering professor Nitin Padture will serve as founding director, 20 faculty members will serve as core members of the initiative, and approximately 60 others will be affiliate members.

Brown has critical mass in these areas that are primed for growth to the next level. We’re launching the Initiative for Sustainable Energy to expand this research which can be translated into practice, and to create an ecosystem for researchers from across different fields to collaborate for an even bigger impact.

Nitin Padture Otis E. Randall University Professor of Engineering and founding director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy
Profile shot of Padture

Padture says the initiative complements the University’s growing array of efforts to confront global climate and capitalizes on Brown’s reputation for high-impact climate research. Specifically, it will establish at Brown the third leg of a proverbial three-legged stool needed to avert catastrophic consequences of climate change.

“Brown helps address the latter two — public climate policy and climate science — through the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and other units,” Padture said. “The unique synergy provided by new partnerships among these units and the initiative will make Brown a powerhouse for addressing the global crisis of our time — climate change.”

In recent years, Brown faculty have led innovations in each of the initiative’s three focus areas: renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable fuels and materials.

Researchers studying an emerging clean energy technology based on high-efficiency perovskite solar cells, for example, found a way to strengthen a key weak point in the cells, dramatically increasing their functional life. The relative ease of the manufacturing process and the use of much less material means that perovskite solar cells can be potentially made at a fraction of the cost of current silicon cells, offering the potential for major steps forward in renewable energy. Recently, Padture’s research group won a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to expand on their research.

Separately, a team of engineers, including Brown professor Yue Qi, working to replace the liquids commonly used in today’s lithium-ion batteries with solid materials developed a new material made from wood. The material marks a step toward bringing solid state battery technology to the mass market and could one day help produce batteries that deliver more power and operate more safely than today’s lithium-ion batteries. These solid-state batteries present a way to get around number of limitations and risk factors from lithium-ion batteries, such as being able to be made flame retardant.

And Brown biophysics professor Derek Stein was part of an award-winning collaboration to design a house that uses 90% less energy than a typical house. The environmentally friendly “Techstyle Haus” was a joint project between researchers at Brown, Rhode Island School of Design and Erfurt University of Technology in Germany. The self-sustaining house made of innovative materials produces 50% more energy than it consumes and has architectural curvature designed for optimal solar energy usage. The house was constructed in Providence and eventually made its way to Domaine de Boisbuchet in France where it served as a living laboratory and teaching tool for students.

“These research thrusts are key to achieving future ‘net-zero carbon’ where significantly less carbon dioxide — a potent greenhouse gas that lingers in the atmosphere for a millennia — is emitted and the existing CO2 in the atmosphere is removed,” Padture said. “Brown has critical mass in these areas that are primed for growth to the next level. We’re launching the initiative to expand this research which can be translated into practice, and to create an ecosystem for researchers from across different fields to collaborate for an even bigger impact.”

Over the next few years, key educational components of the new initiative will be stimulating new ways of thinking about energy across different fields of study at Brown through campus-wide sustainable energy seminars, workshops and events. Later this spring, for instance, a Sustainable Energy symposium will take place, and the initiative has already released a call for proposals as part of a new seed funding program to launch new faculty-led projects in sustainable energy.

Another key goal is establishing new Brown courses that complement existing curricular offerings focused on sustainable energy topics. Courses currently being evaluated include ones centering on sustainable energy systems and another on the physics of climate and energy.

Padture not only envisions increased collaborations among scientists and educators at Brown, but that the initiative will also host distinguished visitors that complement expertise on campus. He also sees opportunities for partnership with national laboratories and with other institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

“There is a sense of urgency for providing these technological solutions to achieve net-zero carbon over the next few decades, thereby averting disastrous global consequences of climate change,” Padture said.