Evolving engineering for a better world


October 14, 2021

Investigating how engineers can define a new engineering paradigm that values social and environmental justice is what motivates Darshan Karwat.

As an assistant professor at both The Polytechnic School, one of the seven Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Karwat is dedicated to shifting the focus of engineering design and practice through research, policy impact and advocacy. re-Engineered Lab From left: Darshan Karwat, assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; Madison Macias, urban and environmental planning master’s student in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning; Eddie Schmitt, postdoctoral fellow in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; Jorge Morales Guerrero and Mokshda Kaul, sustainable energy doctoral students in ASU’s School of Sustainability; and Eric Stribling, innovation in global development doctoral student in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Not pictured: David Oonk, postdoctoral fellow in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

Karwat’s path started in Mumbai, India, where he grew up and frequently confronted a range of environmental and social issues. Breathing the city’s polluted air and witnessing poverty shaped his outlook into adulthood and led him to become an environmental activist as an undergraduate studying aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.

After earning his doctoral degree in aerospace engineering and environmental ethics, Karwat designed programs for low-cost air pollution sensors and climate resilience as an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. He also helped design and run the Wave Energy Prize, a design-build-test competition, and advanced desalination research efforts at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Merging his educational background with his concerns for social justice, peace and environmental protection has given Karwat a platform to develop his own unique research and impact niche dedicated to these interests.

re-Engineered

In Karwat’s interdisciplinary lab, re-Engineered, students and researchers have experience in anthropology, urban planning, science and technology policy, mechanical and chemical engineering, and community development.

Some of the questions at the heart of re-Engineered are: Why are we engineers? For whose benefit do we work? What is the full measure of our moral and social responsibility?

“Without clear answers to these questions, many engineering solutions end up doing just as much harm as they do good because we are engrossed with making something efficient and affordable rather than making something equitable or sustainable,” says re-Engineered lab student Madison Macias, an ASU mechanical engineering alumna earning her master’s degree in urban and environmental planning in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Prior to joining re-Engineered, Macias says she likely would’ve gone through her entire academic career feeling like her work wasn’t true to her initial intent — “to better the world through engineering.”

Exploring the engineering mindset

Karwat believes “the mindsets of engineers and the political economy of the engineering industry can unknowingly hinder progress in helping build a more peaceful world, further contributing to a lack of resources available in communities that are underserved.”

The re-Engineered lab recently surveyed engineers to gain a better understanding of why this is the case. They found that along with less time and money, many engineers don’t feel equipped to take on work that directly addresses issues of environmental or social concern and “the ‘undone’ technical work in sectors that are not currently economically valued,” Karwat says.

Engineers also may not be connected to the communities they serve, making it difficult to fully understand the challenges they face and to collaborate to address those challenges.

“Many engineering students choose to study engineering because they feel like engineering can help make a positive contribution in the world, but when they join the workforce and job opportunities are limited or their income becomes a priority, they might lose their passion, become distracted and stray from their original goals and intentions,” Karwat says. “This is in line with growing research that shows current modes of engineering education and professionalization strip concerns for public welfare from engineers.”

His research team recently completed a pilot project funded by the Engineering Change Lab-USA to understand environmental protections, social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion values among practicing engineers.

The project uncovers a generational divide — that younger engineers are coming into the workforce with stronger environmental and social values and there are political factors at play that affect the kind of engineering people want to pursue.

“While we need to continue to study and affect change among engineering students, most engineers are not in school. They are out in the working world, living their lives, earning money to pay bills and supporting their families,” Karwat says. “To see the change we want in the world, we need to focus on understanding practicing engineers and changing their practice. Unfortunately, there is very little to no research on them, and this project is an attempt to begin to address that gap.”

Fusing engineering with social science

Karwat’s latest research project, funded by the National Science Foundation, explores collaborations between academic and community groups that are addressing engineering and scientific questions at the heart of environmental, climate and energy challenges — a project he describes as “an expression of the ASU Charter.”

Four teams of nonprofit leaders and ASU-affiliated faculty and staff are combining their skills to develop engineering and scientific road maps to address issues like water resiliency, urban heat, tree health monitoring and injustices on the lands of Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada.

“Along with developing plans and strategies to tackle these important issues, we are studying the dynamics of the collaboration process and trying to understand how that changes perceptions of what constitutes meaningful engineering and science,” Karwat says. “One of the goals is to better understand the currencies of collaboration such that we might create a new field of collaboration for engineers that is economically, socially, culturally and symbolically valued.”

Influencing existing policies

Along with research, Karwat is committed to bringing change to the institutions that shape engineering. He was recently elected from a group of nearly 300 applicants to the New Voices program, an initiative launched in 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The cohort of early career leaders from academia, industry, government and nonprofit organizations will engage in relevant dialogue about how science, engineering and medicine are shaping the global future.

“The New Voices cohort will help inform the efforts of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as they consider the role of engineering and science in addressing major global challenges,” Karwat says.

Karwat and his lab team are also working with program managers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy to offer insights and practical recommendations on processes, metrics and outcomes that can shape their technology research and development portfolios to promote environmental and energy justice.

“With questions of environmental and energy justice becoming more salient, it behooves the research and development enterprise to think about the ways in which technological design is informed by values of justice,” Karwat says. “Are we sure the technologies being researched are of public value and address injustices in society? And if not, in what ways might we change what is researched and what is developed?”

A constellation of changemakers

In 2019, Karwat came up with an idea to recognize people and collaborative efforts that are redesigning engineering to elevate the values of environmental protection, social justice, human rights and peace — the Constellation Prize. A committee of educators, students and peace-builders who feel that there is important and boundary-pushing engineering work that should be celebrated to inspire others are moving the prize forward.

Last year’s inaugural cohort of Constellation Prize winners were awarded for their achievements in advancing Indigenous rights, biodiversity, engineering education, community collaboration and policy impact.

Many other winners are doing equally impactful work, and Karwat hopes to expand the reach of the Constellation Prize as the endeavor grows and becomes more widely recognized.

The final frontier

Along with several projects in the works, Karwat also wants to merge his background in aerospace engineering, space systems and environmental protection to craft new kinds of engineering questions and explore projects aimed at better protecting the sanctity and beauty of space as we continue to explore it.

“The momentum to envision the idea of humans as an interplanetary species continues to build,” Karwat says. “I wonder if we can create this future through engineered systems in a way that not only avoids the environmental and justice challenges we’ve been left to deal with on Earth but also inspires engineering design that reflects a new ethos of care for the places we go.”

Sona Patel Srinarayana

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-1590

New theories and materials aid the transition to clean energy

ASU researchers explore different approaches to catalysis


October 14, 2021

With each passing day, the dark side of our dependence to fossil fuels becomes more apparent. In addition to slashing emissions of carbon dioxide, society must find sustainable alternatives to power the modern world.

In a new study, Gary Moore and his research group explore different approaches to catalysis, a chemical process that plays an essential role in biological reactions, as well as many industrial applications. Illustration highlighting the three forms of catalysis described in the new study. Graphic by Jason Drees Download Full Image

Catalysts are substances that speed up the rates of chemical reactions, without being consumed during the reaction process. Enzyme catalysts are so important in nature that life would be impossible without them, as conditions within living cells are not conducive to many vital chemical processes. Chemical reactions that would otherwise require hours or even days to occur can unfold in under a second with the help of enzyme catalysts.

Chemical catalysts have been used in a variety of human applications, ranging from pharmaceutical development to biodegradable plastics and environmentally safe fertilizers. They may also advance the development of green energy solutions to address the climate crisis, an area Moore’s group has actively pursued.

Headshot of ASU researcher

Gary Moore

Moore is a researcher in Arizona State University's Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and an associate professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. He is joined by Daiki Nishiori, a graduate student in the School of Molecular Sciences and lead author of the new study, as well as Brian Wadsworth, a former graduate student in the school who is now employed at Intel Corporation.

The study findings appear in the current issue of the journal Chem Catalysis.

Catalysts up close

The new study draws on investigations into the behavior of catalysts by Moore and his ASU colleagues as well as other researchers in the field. The current perspective article describes three forms of catalysis — enzymatic, electrocatalytic and photoelectrosynthetic — outlining progress to date and highlighting some of the remaining challenges faced by scientists seeking a comprehensive understanding of these important phenomena.

While a great deal has been learned through the study of enzyme catalysis in living organisms, researchers hope to develop synthetic alternatives that can improve on nature’s designs.

Daiki Nishiori

“It’s challenging to mimic biological enzymes for catalysis,” Nishiori says. “Biological enzymes have complex, three-dimensional protein structures” and operate under quite different conditions than most human-engineered catalysts.

Instead, researchers hope to produce a new range of synthetic catalysts to drive chemical reactions with high efficiency. Successful results could greatly improve the industrial production of many products of benefit to society. These include new types of carbon-neutral or carbon-free fuels.

“We cover a fair amount of material space in this article, including traditional chemical catalysis by enzymes, as well as electrocatalytic processes mediated by biological and/or synthetic complexes,” Moore says.

The study then moves on to describe hybrid systems that capture radiant light energy and use it to drive charge transfer reactions. The obvious parallel in nature is with photosynthetic processes carried out by plants.

But artificial photosynthetic technologies can’t simply replicate nature’s blueprint. In addition to a limited understanding of the structure-function relationships governing their performance, photosynthetic plants convert and store barely 1% of the incident sunlight gathered by their leaves in the form of chemical bonds. These bonds ultimately make up the foods we eat and, on longer geological time scales, the carbon-based fossil fuels our modern societies rely on. This is all a healthy plant needs to develop and reproduce but is insufficient for human applications.

Illuminating research

Designing new photoelectrosynthetic devices involves using light-gathering technology, similar to current photovoltaic cells, and coupling it to a thin layer of catalytic material. In this scheme, charge carriers are transferred from a semiconductor surface to catalytic sites. Once a catalyst has accumulated enough charge carriers, it enters a so-called activated state, allowing catalysis to proceed. The process can be used to produce hydrogen from water or to produce reduced forms of carbon dioxideincluding methane, carbon monoxide, liquid fuels and other industrially useful products. 

“In the case of a more traditional solar cell, your ultimate target is converting sunlight into electrical power. The systems we're developing use solar energy to power energetically uphill chemical transformations,” Moore says.

Instead of producing electricity, the impinging sunlight leads to catalyzed chemical reactions, ultimately generating fuels.

“Here, the fuels we are describing are not tied to fossil carbon sources. We can develop chemistry that's either carbon free, including the transformation of water into hydrogen gas, which could serve as a fuel, or we can use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to generate carbon-containing fuels,” Moore says. “In this latter example, although the resulting fuels are carbon-based, no new sources of carbon dioxide are liberated into the atmosphere.” The process is a form of carbon recycling.

Moore refers to such technologies as photoelectrosynthetic. While they hold significant promise for producing clean energy and cleaner generation of useful industrial products, understanding the chemistry at both a theoretical and practical level is challenging. The photons of light and charge carriers used to jump-start catalysis are quantum entities, with particularly subtle properties that researchers are still struggling to accurately model. 

Producing effective technologies to address future energy challenges will require a more thorough mathematical understanding of light-harvesting dynamics as well as catalytic processes and charge movement. The current study provides a tentative step in this direction.

Alongside these advances, researchers in materials science will need to design materials better able to exploit these processes, fabricated from durable and affordable materials.

New paths through the energy labyrinth

In addition to the purely scientific hurdles to be addressed, Moore states that changes in public policy will be critical drivers if greener energy technologies are to succeed.

“It's daunting to compete with an existing technology that involves simply drilling a hole in the ground to extract a source of energy that's already there,” Moore says.

A scientifically educated public, able to make informed voting choices that impact how society invests in future infrastructure will also be vital.

“Do we want to choose to make investments in technologies that minimize the impact of climate change, or do we continue making use of an energy infrastructure with components and processes that are over a hundred years old?” he says.

Moore is hopeful that advances in enzymatic, electrocatalytic and photoelectrosynthetic technologies will play important roles in a more sustainable, less destructive energy future.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU

480-727-0378