The Johns Hopkins University’s Discovery Awards provide grant awards to cross-divisional teams, comprised of faculty and/or non-faculty members from at least two schools or affiliates of the university, who are poised to arrive at important discoveries or creative works. The expectation is that these awards will spark new, synergistic interactions between investigators across the institution and lead to work of the highest quality and impact.

The Ralph O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute (ROSEI) has partnered with the Provost’s Office to expand the existing JHU Discovery research program and is offering an additional $50,000 on top of the conventional awards for impactful work aligned with ROSEI’s research.

Three Discovery Awards are being co-funded by ROSEI this year, the same number as in 2023. Investigators in ROSEI’s co-funded projects belong to three different JHU schools: the Whiting School of Engineering (WSE), Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) and Krieger School of Arts & Sciences (KSAS).

See below for the titles, principal investigators and brief summaries for this year’s awardees.

Title: Infrastructure Climate Adaptation/Resiliency in the US (ICARUS)

Top Row L to R: Marisel Villafañe-Delgado, Rebecca Eager, Krista Rand, Jared Markowitz. Bottom Row L to R: Valerie Washington, Yury Dvorkin, Dennice Gayme, Enrique Mallada

Principal Investigators: From APL: Marisel Villafañe-Delgado, Rebecca Eager, Krista Rand, Jared Markowitz, Valerie Washington. From WSE: Yury Dvorkin, Dennice Gayme, Enrique Mallada

Summary: Global Climate Models (GCMs) are crucial for analyzing various climate variables but are limited by their coarse spatial resolutions, making them unreliable for regional and smaller scale climate modeling. This impairs accurate predictions of climate change impacts on critical infrastructure systems. Downscaling techniques, including dynamical and statistical methods, address these limitations but have their own challenges, particularly in coastal and urban regions. The ICARUS project proposes enhancing ML-based downscaling by integrating physics-based constraints and additional, infrastrucutre-relevant features relevant to coastal terrains, such as elevation and distance from the coastline, to improve resolution and accuracy. These enhanced models will be validated using high-resolution data and integrated into infrastructure models for regions like the Baltimore-Washington area, aiming to improve climate resilience and infrastructure performance under various climate scenarios.

Title: Harnessing Single-Atom Plasmonic Catalysis for High-Efficiency Energy Transformations

A. Shoji Hall (Left) and Thomas Kempa (Right)

Principal Investigators: A. Shoji Hall (WSE), and Thomas Kempa (KSAS)

Summary: Reducing the energy intensity of industrial chemical processes is a vital component of accomplishing broader sustainability goals. This Discovery Award studies the photo-electrochemical production and decomposition of carbon-free hydrogen carriers, aiming to surpass the efficiency of current thermal processes. We hypothesize that plasmons (collective oscillations of mobile electrons) can guide reactions towards more efficient and desirable pathways, enhancing catalytic performance. Our approach has two main objectives: first, using 2D structures to study the impact of single-atom sites on catalytic performance without plasmonic effects; second, combining these structures with light to explore how surface plasmons influence energy transfer and catalytic activity. Using advanced electro-analytical techniques, we aim to uncover the mechanisms of single-atom catalysis and develop guidelines for designing better catalysts. Our work could lead to significant advancements in renewable energy technologies.

Title: NanoPorous Catalysts and Adsorbents for a Circular, Energy-Efficient, and Sustainable Silicone Economy

Michael Tsapatsis (Left), Rebekka Clausen (Top Right) and Brandon Bukowski (Bottom Right)

Principal Investigators: Michael Tsapatsis (WSE), Rebekka Klausen (KSAS), and Brandon Bukowski (WSE)

Summary: Polysiloxanes (more commonly called silicones) have characteristics that make them a compelling alternative to carbon-based plastics. While commodity plastics like polyethylene are derived from petroleum, polysiloxanes are derived from earth-abundant silica (SiO2, sand) by carbothermal reduction to silicon (Si) followed by chemical functionalization. Even the carbon-based side chain in PDMS is sourced from wood alcohol and is orthogonal to the petroleum industry. Due to their distinct architecture compared to carbon-based polymers, polysiloxanes can degrade naturally in the environment back to silica, as well as CO2, water, making polysiloxanes inherently more amenable to a “circular” economy than polyolefins. However, few recycling facilities accept silicones and their mechanical recycling rates approach 0%. This creates enormous potential for chemical recycling strategies, in which polymer strands are converted into monomers that are suitable for repolymerization (“circularity”). Returning post-consumer silicone waste to repolymerizable monomers, rather than silica, will result in enormous energy savings by avoiding repetition of the costly carbothermal reduction of silica to silicon.