Novel Materials for Sustainable Technologies

Imagine a world where technology for sustainable energy can help provide clean air, pure water, and adequate food for all

May 03 2019 | By Allison Elliott | Kumar Photo Credit: Jeffrey Schifman | Image credit: Connor Blichak
Columbia Engineering For Sustainable Humanity stamp.


“The energy-air-water-food nexus is the existential question of our times,” says Sanat Kumar, the Bykhovsky Professor of Chemical Engineering.

Recognizing the interdependence of the earth’s resources, Kumar believes developing affordable, sustainable energy solutions will be at the heart of increasing access to pure air, clean water, and food security for developing countries.

Advanced membranes will play a key role in this undertaking. For decades, membrane technology has been driving efficiencies in water purification, gas separation for more sustainable energy production systems, and ion separation for energy storage and batteries. Yet, the separation capabilities of standard polymer-based membranes (plastic films) are limited.

Kumar’s research group focuses on developing novel hybrid materials that combine polymers with nanoparticles to gain desired properties and improve separating abilities while reducing plastics consumption. Membranes perform best when the dispersion of nanoparticle fillers is uniform in the polymer matrix. His team has developed a process to chemically bond polymer chains to the fillers in such a way that they self-assemble into regular arrays, exhibiting the evenness needed for better performance.

To date, Kumar has developed materials that perform two to five times better than existing technologies for gas separation and has ideas for further improvements that could translate these methods for commercial use.

In another research thrust, his group seeks to improve the mechanical or electrical properties of polymeric membranes by drawing inspiration from nature, particularly nacre, commonly known as mother-of-pearl. Further advances in this area could lead to more sustainable, composite materials that are durable enough to replace structural materials in buildings and infrastructure.

With the potential for climate change to exacerbate social inequalities, Kumar feels a sense of urgency in bringing about sustainable technologies that will benefit all.

“It is our responsibility, especially as a school dedicated to engineering for humanity, to focus on the poor and provide them with the means to live their lives with dignity.”