Infrastructure, Sustainability, Resilience

Environmental technology concept. Sustainable development goals.

How can we design processes, systems, and materials to provide greater adaptability to a rapidly changing world? This research area is an expansive exploration into ideas for building more resilience into important human infrastructures, from power grids to financial and economic systems, from materials to how we manufacture, store, and transport them. The array of initiatives in this new thrust will grow quickly, as more and more initiatives focus on building a more resilient world.

Current Research

Kathy High, Professor of Video and New Media, HASS

Professor High is an interdisciplinary artist working in the area of technology, science and art. She produces videos, photographs, writings, performances and installations about gender and technology, empathy, and animal sentience. In the last ten years she has become interested in working with living systems, animals and art, considering the social, political and ethical dilemmas of biotechnology and surrounding industries. Her most recent art works include a video documentary about green or natural burials, entitled Death Down Under; and a performance/visual arts project called Blood Wars that uses white blood cells to test an individual’s strengths (see These projects have allowed High to investigate areas such as decomposition and the immune system.

Rick Relyea, Professor of Biological Sciences and David M. Darrin ’40 Senior Endowed Chair, Director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute

The Darrin Center is conducting foundational and translational research in environmental problems such as ecology, disease ecology, ecotoxicology, evolution, animal behavior science and engineering, with a goal of better understanding the natural world and help solve real-world challenges.

Mattheos Koffas, Dorothy and Fred Chau ʼ71 Career Development Constellation Professor in Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, Chemical and Biological Engineering

Helen Zha, Assistant Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering, Materials Science & Engineering

The overwhelming majority of plastics used today are derived from petrochemical feedstocks. Even with ideal application of conventional recycling strategies, these plastics can only be recycled a limited number of times before end-of-life disposal by incineration or dumping in landfills, leading ultimately to greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and disruption of natural ecosystems, and loss of feedstock material. For the sustainability of mankind’s endeavors, future manufacturing will need to focus on materials with closed-loop lifecycles rather than the traditional linear extract-process-consume-dispose paradigm. The collaborative research of Professors Zha and Koffas aims to develop new technologies and conceptual frameworks that enable a regenerative circular economy for the plastics industry that utilizes protein-based polymers. By leveraging the diversity of amino acid building blocks and the synthetic precision afforded by genetic templates, these polymers can potentially exhibit tunable properties targeted for a broad range of applications. The goals of this work are multi-faceted, including engineering new microorganisms that can upcycle recalcitrant plastic into high value protein-based bioplastics and using computational and experimental methods to understand the relationship between protein sequence and material structure and properties across hierarchical length scales. Ultimately, this research works to transform the non-degradable plastic waste generated by our current economy into robust biobased materials for use in the renewable, waste-free economy of the future.

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