How the University of Chicago is Innovating for a Sustainable Future

The Polsky Center manages the IP portfolio for all University of Chicago innovations and technologies and works to foster collaboration between laboratory scientists, engineers, students, and researchers by connecting them with one another as well as with industry partners.

World IP Day 2024 is focused on exploring how IP encourages and can amplify solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges.

Specifically, the event – celebrated globally every year on April 26 – is bringing attention to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 and lays out a plan of action for “people, planet, and prosperity.”

The agenda outlines 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to address economic, societal, and environmental issues, from responsible consumption to affordable and clean energy.

At the University of Chicago, industry-leading researchers are addressing these challenges in myriad ways, including the development of new materials for improved energy storage, water filtration, and biodegradable packaging.

Explore some of these solutions below >>


SDG Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

// Functionalized Molybdenum Disulfide Membranes for Water Filtration

Reverse osmosis membranes are undergoing widespread adoption in desalination applications as global water supplies are becoming increasingly stressed, forcing consumers to turn to more challenged water sources — brackish and seawaters, for example — to meet demand. However, these membranes require significant energy inputs to remove the salt entrained in these source waters.

The invention is a method to fabricate membranes for improved separation performance and membrane stability. By increasing membrane water permeability, the new method reduces the energy requirements for filtration of seawater and brackish water by approximately 15% and 50%, respectively.

// Improved Electrochemical Li Extraction from Seawater and Other Dilute Li Sources Using Mixed Li An Na Layered Oxides

Use of Li in electric vehicle batteries, portable electronic devices, and stationary energy storage applications has expanded significantly in recent years, and this growth is expected to continue to increase. The primary commercial technology used to recover Li is its extraction from concentrated brine water. The multi-step process is time-consuming and has limited commercial application.

To address this challenge, researchers have demonstrated how the use of a new material can deliver highly selective Li extraction through material structural design. Learn more in the video below:


SDG Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all

// Lamellar Iron Sulfides with Embedded Cations for Electrical Energy Storage

Electrodes in supercapacitor devices and electrodes in lithium and sodium batteries can all benefit from improvements in their ability to store and produce energy in a more efficient and sustainable manner. And researchers have developed a new lamellar iron sulfide material to do just that.

// Co-intercalation-free Ether Solvent for Lithium Ion Batteries

Lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized portable electronics, but there remains room for improvement in energy density, electrochemical stability, and usable temperature window. An improvement in electrolytes can further such needs for the next-generation Li-ion battery.

Here, the inventor has identified a substitute for carbonate-based electrolytes – a class of compounds called fluorinated ethers, which can support reversible lithium-ion intercalation and deintercalation within graphite. This is the first time that such compounds have been found to show this mechanism – and it will enable the extension of battery performance with higher energy densities and across a wider temperate range.

// Improved Photovoltaic Materials Based on Alpha-Substituted Perylene Diimide

As compared to silicon solar cells, organic photovoltaic (OPV) solar cells weigh less, cost less to manufacture, and exhibit a higher degree of versatility. But they face limitations.

To develop solutions to current OPV solar cell limitations inventors have synthesized small electron-deficient molecular compounds and polymers that can act as electron acceptors in bulk heterojunction-type OPV solar cells. This leads to increased photovoltaic performance, enhanced power conversion efficiencies, and will help realize cost efficiencies in OPV manufacturing – resulting in wider commercial use.

// Functionalized Metal Carbides for Energy Storage

The invention is a novel synthetic approach for surface modification of 2D metal carbides (MXenes) using molten inorganic salts. Surface modification of MXenes has been hypothesized to affect material aspects ranging from structural properties to electron transport but — prior to this invention — no experimental method existed to modify surface functionalization of MXenes in a controlled manner.

This invention enables unprecedented atomic‐level control over the surface-group functionalization of MXenes with demonstrated synthesis of more than twenty new materials.

// A Controllable Synthesis Method of Layered Oxides by Electrochemical-Assisted Ion-Exchange

Lithium-rich layered oxides are promising cathode materials with remarkable electrochemical performance that will revolutionize the electronics, transportation, battery, and grid energy storage industries.

The faculty inventor has found a way to controllably synthesize layered oxides in chemical composition and in spatial distribution via electrochemical-assisted ion exchange in a Li, Na mixture solution. This novel method will enlarge the layered oxides library available in battery materials and ultimately promote the development of the energy battery field.


SDG Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

// A Biodegradable Packaging Material Made From Hybrid Hydrogel of Starch, Granular, Chitosan Fiber, and Polyacrylamide

The invention is a new composite hybrid hydrogel material that has improved mechanical properties compared to starch or chitosan alone. The method of dispersing chitosan in starch is low cost and simple, while preserving chitosan’s intrinsic functionality.

In comparison to petrochemical-based plastic – which does not degrade biologically – this new material is biodegradable and, importantly, does not contribute to the problem of plastic pollution.

// Process for the Low Cost and Non-Toxic Isolation of Cellulose Nanofibers from Grass Biomass

A potentially significant source of sustainable raw materials, cellulose has desirable chemical, mechanical, and environmental properties.

However, the isolation of these materials from biomass remains a challenge because of the toxic chemicals and high-energy specialized machines required.

The invention is a process for isolating cellulose nanofibers from grass biomass requiring uses far cheaper and less toxic treatment chemicals in addition to less specialized equipment than current methods.

INTERESTED IN THESE TECHNOLOGIES? Contact Harrison Paul, Associate Manager, Technology Marketing, who can provide more detail about this technology, discuss the licensing process, and connect you with the inventor. View all available technologies >>

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