4 ways USC Dornsife researchers are working to reduce waste
USC Dornsife’s Megan Fieser (center) leads a group of volunteers in cleaning Hermosa Beach several times a semester, ridding the beach of thousands of pieces of trash. (Photo: Maurice Roper.)

4 ways USC Dornsife researchers are working to reduce waste

University scientists and engineers aim to replace plastics and batteries with more sustainable, degradable resources for the future.
Paul McQuiston

Scientists at USC Dornsife are confronting pollution with innovation, concerned about the accumulating waste — much of it not biodegradable. The researchers are developing biodegradable replacement materials to end global dependency on plastic and come up with better, more sustainable alternatives for fuel sources and solar cells.

1. Make solar energy storage more efficient

For skyscrapers in the urban core, achieving zero carbon is a nearly impossible task with current silicon solar technology. The limited footprint atop these structures doesn’t offer enough room to put on solar panels that will generate sufficient power.

According to Mark E. Thompson, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering and materials science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, covering the sides of the buildings could produce enough electricity, but silicon has a major drawback: It can’t be made transparent and would prevent natural light from entering. However, Thompson, who holds a joint appointment at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, is working on a cutting-edge organic-based solar cell that might solve the problem.

“A good silicon solar cell is 20% efficient — 20% of the light hitting it is converted to electrical energy,” said Thompson. “It also absorbs visible light, but it doesn’t absorb much infrared. With organic-based solar cells, we can design them to absorb strongly in the near infrared where there’s plenty of light that you can’t see.”

Thompson, holder of the Ray R. Irani, Chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Chair in Chemistry, and his group design organic molecules for this application, and they’re working with collaborators at the University of Michigan who have developed a solar cell window coating that is 50% transparent and is still 10% efficient. “It is a promising solution to achieve zero carbon,” he said.

2. Fuel the ‘hydrogen highway’

The promise of cars fueled by hydrogen is enticing: zero greenhouse emissions with water as the sole byproduct. However, a lack of infrastructure has limited wide-scale adoption of this alternative fuel source.

One major challenge in California is the lack of hydrogen available between Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to Travis Williams, professor of chemistry. He is developing new technology to store hydrogen that might overcome this barrier.

“In California, we’ve talked about the ‘hydrogen highway’ — what if you wanted to drive your car from L.A. to San Francisco in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle … could you fill it?” Williams asked. “There’s hydrogen in Bakersfield, but there’s a dead zone all the way from there to the South Bay.”

Williams says the key to storing hydrogen in a liquid carrier, and then releasing hydrogen on-site, might be catalysis.

“Researchers at the Department of Energy think what we can do is take some liquid, hydrogenate it catalytically somewhere that’s hydrogen-rich, and then dehydrogenate it later where you need it, like a remote filling station,” he said. “We’ve got a demo fuel unit which we are developing — you could probably fill a little golf cart with it, but the proof of concept is there.”

3. Make processing for plastics safer to eliminate toxic byproducts

Creating new plastics — and destroying old ones — drives the research of Megan Fieser, Gabilan Assistant Professor of Chemistry. She is unlocking safe, environmentally friendly ways to break down plastics and other non-biodegradable materials using catalysts. Motivated by the destructive accumulation of plastics in the oceans, she is seeking ways to reduce their harmful impact.

“Plastics are very difficult to degrade,” Fieser said. “PVC, in particular, tends to release hydrochloric acid and other toxic products, whether it’s in the landfill or people try to recycle it. There are also a lot of plastics that have things that stay inside. For instance, BPA in polycarbonate plastics was a big craze a few years ago where everybody was very worried. That’s an example of a building block of plastic being left behind in those plastics.”

Fieser’s research group seeks to make processing of PVC in recycling centers more environmentally friendly. “Utilizing catalysis, we chop up those plastics into small molecules or new plastics,” she said.  “Not only can we successfully recycle these plastics, but we can potentially create the plastic into a higher value product.”

4. How you can help: Reduce your use of plastics

Microplastics have emerged as a concerning pollutant of coastal California waters. Jill Sohm, associate professor (teaching) of environmental studies, said plastics less than 5 millimeters in size are ubiquitous — particles from tires, microfibers from synthetic fabrics and breakdown products from larger plastic litter are a few examples. We’re beginning to understand their impacts, but research is still in the early stages. While the research matures, Sohm noted that reducing the amount of plastic products you purchase will make an immediate impact.

“The best way to reduce the impact of plastics in L.A.’s waters is to prevent the use of plastics in the first place,” she said. “Choose non-plastic alternatives like aluminum cans or bring your own utensils instead of taking single-use options at restaurants. … Choose clothing made with natural fibers when possible. This problem will also require larger scale changes only possible through new policies and regulations, so lobbying your representatives to support plastic source reduction legislation is key.”

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