Research Spotlight: NU Professor Fights Climate Issues from Every Angle


[twitter style="horizontal" float="left"] [fbshare type="button"] Chair of Northwestern’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Kimberly Gray fights climate issues from almost every angle, including research, teaching, and consulting for the Chicago Legal Clinic. Her focus in these areas ranges from photoactive materials to algal biofilms and bioaccumulation, to nano-titania contamination, to sustainable cities, and more. Gray gave In Our Nature an exclusive interview on her research and work at the university. KG 1


In Our Nature: What made you interested in these varied areas of research?

Kimberly Gray: I don’t think that I do that many different things. Any research project I work on starts with an environmental problem, and to that problem I will bring chemistry. Sometimes my approach is a technology, and other times my approach is a little bit more environmental chemistry – what’s going on in the natural system so that we can figure out where a contaminant may go or how a contaminant might be naturally attenuated in some fashion.

My research is divided into two areas. One – and the area in which I’m probably the most widely published and support the most PhD students – is in the area of photoactive materials. We use TiO2-based nanocomposites, which is the nanomaterial used in the highest amount on a mass basis. With those materials we try to reduce CO2 into a fuel and also to drive other kinds of chemical reactions that have application to enhancing air quality or improving water quality or driving disinfection. So it’s the same material, but because of its attributes you can drive reduction or oxidation reactions with the input of light.

ION: So not just applied to solar cells?

KG: Oh I never do solar cells, I never do any of that. I’m looking at the conversion of light or radiant energy into chemical energy. When I say “solar fuels,” it’s artificial photosynthesis. It’s a form of solar energy, but it goes directly to storage as a fuel. Half my work is related to energy, but sometimes driven by high intensity light that is stronger than solar energy. Ideally I would like to drive things with sunlight, and that’s part of the set of goals.

The other big area I work on is more traditional engineering, or environmental chemistry. That might be, what happens when a contaminant is released? How can we develop technologies that would either restore the quality of the system or prevent degradation or release of contaminants in the first place? So I know a lot about drinking water treatment, I know a fair amount about applied technologies.

I talked about how we developed different nano-scale semiconductors for harvesting light. That’s nanotechnology. We also work on what are the unintended consequences of releasing nanomaterial into the environment. There is a prior conviction that nanomaterials are non-toxic, or environmentally benign, so we’ve been showing that that’s not the case.

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Image of Titanium Nanotubes

ION: Is that changing how you make your own fuels?

KG: Oh gosh no. The kind of work that we’re doing in trying to generate solar fuels is really fundamental – it’s years away. We use TiO2, but it’s also used for a lot of things that are pretty frivolous, as is nano-silver. It’s in Oreo cookies, it’s in toothpaste, it’s in everything that’s white. Our work on what are the unintended consequences of nanomaterials goes towards informing meaningful policy. There are no laws, there is no framework for the regulation or control or environmental protection of nanomaterials anywhere. Our work goes into providing the scientific basis on which you might develop the standards or policy that might be protective. There are 80,000 chemicals in common use, and this isn’t even looking at the nanomaterials. Very few of them have any sort of regulation, there aren’t even data informing us about potential hazards.

KG 3

ION: Does your environmental policy work with the Chicago Legal Clinic and the Institute for Policy Research affect your research?

KG: It doesn’t really affect my research.

 It affects teaching, it affects the way I think about things, but the work we do with the Chicago Legal Clinic starts with problems that are faced by low income communities, and a lot of them have to do with legacy contamination. The lion’s share are public health problems, and we just provide them with technical assistance. I use it as a teaching tool. Those projects inform my general knowledge base, but in research you’re trying to look at a frontier, you’re trying to look at areas where you don’t quite have a ready answer. You’re trying to anticipate what might happen in the future.

Sometimes I might be informed by what might be a very persistent problem. For instance, one thing we work on is how contaminants are mobilized out of sediments, and can contaminate the food we eat. Sometimes I think about how we can oxidatively depolymerize lignin, a waste product, and make it into a product. That fits into sustainability—remaking materials through the flow of cities. Oftentimes I think and write about it in a broader sense. But as for my research—academic research is usually very narrow and deep. Some of my time is spent teaching and providing community services, and then there’s the scholar, how I just think about things.

KG 4


ION: Do broader environmental politics, like the Paris climate talks, affect the direction of your research?

KG: Probably not the direction per se, only in a very broad sense. What does COP21 tell us? It tells us that we need to reduce massively our use of carbon. I think we need to move our society off fossil fuels in a near term way. [Environmental politics] definitely influence my teaching.

COP21—I think that that would inform my research in the sense that we do need to make fuller use of solar energy. But in a very broad way, not a specific way. I give a lot of talks on environmental issues to general public. It excites students when you can bring their learning right to the cusp of pressing social questions, but it doesn’t specifically affect my research. It provides a context.

ION: In terms of implementation of your research, it seems like it’s more long term and theoretical at the moment. Do you think there will be a point when it’s going to be more applied, and if so are there governmental or societal barriers to applying it?

KG: I have a number of patents, but if any of them were licensed a company would still have to do 10 years of work. They would take my idea that probably took five years, and then it would take them another 10 years to bring it to the marketplace. I think academics tend to provide the foundation, and when it comes to really engineering something that’s going to work every single day at a particular scale, I would never do that. I have my role in this chain of events, and it’s more at the beginning.

KG 5

One of the things we do—as I said, we look at how contaminants might be moved out of sediments. One of the payoffs of that is to lift fish consumption advisories. All throughout the Great Lakes there are fish consumption advisories, which say basically “Don’t eat the fish.” It seems to me a wasteful thing—why are we not making fuller use of our resources? Not if they’re going to cause health effects. One of the things we’re trying to do by understanding how a contaminant moves through a food web and then to humans is that we can better target cleanup.

You acquire this understanding, but then for it to actually be deployed, in this political climate, I wouldn’t hold my breath. There’s so little appetite for anything environmental. Look at the attitudes about climate change, and the consequences of that are devastating. I’ve already said to you that there are 80,000 chemicals with almost no health data. Society puts a greater emphasis on the benefits, and chooses to ignore the unintended effects. We don’t practice the precautionary principle in this society, we don’t practice prevention in any meaningful way. Usually if you’re wealthy and white and privileged you’re somewhat protected, not completely, from some of these consequences.

ION: That’s all the questions I have, is there anything else you want the student community to know about your research?

KG: Well I always start with an environmental problem, and I work from pretty fundamental to pretty applied. I guess as it gets more and more applied I don’t call that research any more, I use those as projects for teaching, but there is that continuum of work.