A Brief Introduction to Westlake’s Sustainable Research: Earth Is Our Final Frontier

10, 2022

Email: zhangchi@westlake.edu.cn
Phone: +86-(0)571-86886861
Office of Public Affairs

We live in a world where dwindling natural resources are overexploited to meet increasing demands for water, food and energy by a growing human population. This cannot be sustained and the challenges are further exacerbated by global climate change.

At Westlake's School of Engineering, a group of environmental scientists and engineers combine fundamental research and technological innovation to explore answers to a sustainable future of the Earth and humanity.

They compete with invisible rivals --- the methane they trace in the air, pollutants they try to degrade in the water, pores in extreme environments that they research...

They seek to understand the mysterious and complex relationships in nature between climate and crops, cities and oceans, carbon footprints and human activities, microbes and healthy life...

They emulate species with almost unimaginable creativity, making submersibles as nimble as fish...

Their cutting-edge research aims to advance our understanding of the Earth's terrestrial, oceanic and atmospheric systems, and explore how to achieve balanced interrelationships and sustainable development among the environment, resources, and human beings. Such understanding underpins their efforts to address major environmental issues and solve the problems currently facing humanity.

They believe, “If we do not fail nature, nature shall never fail us.”

Weicheng Cui: Deep Sea Technology Research Laboratory

Our goal is to develop a submersible that can swim flexibly in the ocean like a manta ray. Towards this goal, we have two research directions.

The first is the research on multidisciplinary design optimization methods. The design of submersible involves many disciplines such as materials, structure, hydrodynamic, machinery, control, communication, energy, sensors and subsystems. How to comprehensively consider the coupling between various subsystems and optimize the comprehensive performance of submersible system is a very challenging problem.

The second is the study for a unified theory for the analysis and design of multi-scale complex systems. In the past, only macro variables were considered in submersible design. Entering the era of nano sensors, software materials and 3D printing manufacturing, both macro and micro variables need to be considered for submersible design. In addition, information has a greater and greater impact on life. At present, it is urgent to establish a generalized system theory that can cross macro and micro barriers and consider the impact of information as the basic theory of multidisciplinary design optimization.

Dixia FAN: Intelligent and Informational Fluid Mechanics Laboratory

Our research goal is to use new theoretical, numerical and experimental methods to better understand, sense and control complex fluid-structure interaction phenomenon, which paves a way for next-generation aerial and aquatic vehicles capable of efficient and agile flying and swimming like animals.

In specific, we envision a research paradigm shift in fluid mechanics to a physics-informed (and -informative) probabilistic learning framework that combines domain expertise (fluid mechanics, robotics, and control) and proper machine learning tools to address the inherent spatial and temporal non-linearity and multiscality of fluid-related problems at a greater scale and a broader scope. Such an establishment of framework will lead to disruptive technology transform in the aerospace and marine industry to a more efficient, safe, and eco-friendly future.

Feng Ju: Environmental Microbiome and Biotechnology Laboratory (EMBLab)

Microorganisms are the most abundant and ancient form of life on Earth. Our laboratory studies the environmental microbiome, which includes all microorganisms in a given environment and their genetic information such as DNA. The microbiome is critical to the planet's environment and human health. We hope to "seek advantages and avoid disadvantages" by decoding the mysteries of the microbiome, and protect the Earth's environment and human health. The key technical issue of environmental microbiome research is "how to efficiently, accurately and comprehensively identify the structure and function of the microbiome". We integrate cutting-edge technologies in the fields of metagenomics, bioinformatics, biostatistics, and big data mining to establish an advanced quantitative microbiome technology platform, which is applied to environmental microbiome engineering and biotechnology research. We anticipated to promote theoretical breakthroughs and technological innovations in the research directions of "sewage treatment and recycling", "plastic biodegradation and reuse", and "environmental antibiotic resistance group" via technology advance in Microbiome Engineering.

Liang Lei: Digital Porous Media Laboratory

Porous media is present everywhere in our daily life. Examples include soil and rock, coral and diatoms, cloth, sponge, lithium battery, etc. We often can only observe the surface phenomena but have little knowledge of what happens within the pores, especially when the porous media is under extreme conditions such as seen in outer space, deep earth, deep ocean, and polar region.

Our lab emulates natural and man-made extreme conditions in the laboratory, digitally visualize processes in pores in 3D aided by in-situ testing with high-resolution X-ray CT. We focus on scientific problems such as the deformation of porous media under external disturbance, phase transformation in pores and multiphase flow. Applications spread in frozen ground, gas hydrate, lunar soil and Mars soil, deep ocean energy and resources exploration, CO2 geologic sequestration, etc.

Ling Li: Eco-Environmental Research Laboratory

We explore mechanisms underlying complex interactions between hydrological and ecological processes across different scales, and associated impacts on the environment and ecosystems. A particular focus of our research is on surface water and groundwater interactions at the ocean-land interface. This is a critical zone of the Earth system and plays an important role in moderating greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the coastal zone from the sea level rise. Our research contributes to better understanding of the complexity of this critical zone.

In our lab, you will find out how carbon sequestration in salt marshes takes place through not only burial in the marsh soil but also export to the ocean. You will be surprised to know that natural lakes and cities share commonality in their statistical distributions and underlying driving mechanisms, and terrestrial freshwater discharges to the ocean through an invisible passage (groundwater) as well as rivers. Moreover, you will be amazed how simulations of water molecules’ motion help us to quantify water movement in permafrost.

Kai Liu: Water-Energy Resilience Research Lab

We focus on the topic of Water-Energy Nexus by developing climate-friendly, energy-optimized solutions to achieve water resilience. To this end, we target-synthesize nanomaterials to mineralize persistent organic chemicals such as perfluorinated compounds, completely recover inorganic and organic resources from the wastewater, while these are all achieved using ultra-high solar efficiency (98%) without additional energy input. In addition, we convert greenhouse gases generated from the wastewater treatment process into high value products using electrochemical approach.

We are actively reaching out to achieve greater impacts. Our machine learning-based water quality sensor and algorisms are being used by international water service provider and municipal government. We also carry out nationwide survey of emerging contaminants to provide data support for environmental decision making.

Sergio Andres Galindo Torres: Multi-scale Multi-physics Modelling (M3) Laboratory

Nowadays we have at our disposal enough computational power to create virtual worlds running inside computers. Such worlds are governed by physical rules that have been studied for centuries, but just now we can use their full power. Problems that were impossible to consider just a few decades ago can now be fully simulated and studied in detail.

Challenging issues in environmental engineering fall within this category. These issues usually deal with several physical layers. The same problem can simultaneously deal with the physics of fluids, pollutants and chemicals, and solids at very different lengths and time scales (from nanometres to kilometers and from femtoseconds to decades). Our laboratory focus is to develop state-of-the-art simulation techniques to tackle these complex problems to gain both scientific understanding and predictability for engineering applications. We have experience in computational methods for fluid and solid mechanics, solute and suspension transport, chemistry and many other fields. Our main objective is to be the go-to lab when the society, industry or government wishes to understand and predict a relevant phenomenon.

Lei Wang: Biomass Energy and Materials Lab (BEM Lab)

The global population and the demand for food and energy are growing rapidly, however, with the constraints in natural resources. The establishment of a circular economy system via reutilization of waste, for example, lignocellulosic biomass is important for achieving global sustainable development and in line with China's carbon neutral policy. The use of lignocellulosic biomass in the field of energy could provide renewable and low-carbon energy on the supply side, and its use as materials could reduce the burden on demand side through the recycling of resources. Focusing on these goals, our laboratory carry out multidisciplinary research in the fields of chemistry, chemical engineering and environmental system engineering. Our research includes three fields: 1. Develop efficient pretreatment technology to provide a basis for the full utilization of lignocellulosic biomass; 2. Explore new opportunities for biomass utilization as renewable materials or precursors as chemicals; 3. Establish a multi-scale sustainability analysis framework and develop a multi-objectives evaluation system incorporating carbon footprint, water quality and ecotoxicity, in order to promote a sustainable development of lignocellulosic biomass utilization technologies.

Thomas Cherico Wanger: Sustainable Agricultural Systems & Engineering Laboratory

The key challenge for humanity is the role of agriculture to produce sufficient food, fiber and energy for an increasing human population. Current agricultural production systems are simplified ecosystems, rely strongly on chemical inputs to maintain crop yields, and are responsible for one quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

In our lab (https://www.tomcwanger.com), we work on the global food systems transformation through agricultural diversification to reduce environmental impacts, increase resilience against climate change and maintain crop yields. We build global research networks (https://www.chinaricenetwork.org & https://www.globalagroforestrynetwork.org) to measure the benefits of diversification in cocoa, coffee, rubber and rice systems. We also develop AI-based ecosystem monitoring technology to understand how biodiversity can help to achieve sustainable production in data-driven agricultural systems. Lastly, we are focusing on high-tech indoor farming as an opportunity to reduce GHG emissions and produce healthy foods near the consumer. Overall, we work to change the status quo in agriculture and enhance environmental awareness in China and globally.

Xiao Yang: Research Group of Extractive Metallurgy

Chemical elements shape everything of human civilization. We are devising novel processes to extract pure elements from natural minerals or human wastes, to gain insight into the nature of material transformation.

Yanyan Zhang: Environmental Fate and Degradation of Organic Contaminants Lab

We are exposed to environmental contaminants every day in multiple ways, such as eating food, drinking water, breathe, as well as unintentional soil ingestion. We cannot see these contaminants because they actually occur at very trace levels, but when we are exposed to them every day, they will affect our health and result in toxic outcomes such as cancer. These contaminants are produced in various industries and are essential in many consumer products. In other words, we have to deal with them now and in the long run. To have an idea on how we are exposed to these contaminants and their potential risk, we need research on their occurrence in the environment and how they behave and transform under natural processes. To have clean water to drink and safe food to eat, we need to find ways to degrade these chemicals and remediate the contaminated sites, especially groundwater with little mobility. Also, by understanding the reaction mechanisms and pathways, we can establish and improve the degradation techniques. So, that’s what we do in our environmental fate and degradation of organic contaminants lab.

Yuzhong Zhang: Atmospheric Environment Research Lab

Methane is an important greenhouse gas. The last decade has seen accelerated increases in global atmospheric methane concentrations, posing additional challenges to holding climate change in check. A good knowledge of methane sources and their spatial temporal changes is necessary to inform climate action and policy making. To address this issue, we develop numerical and mathematical methods to analyze atmospheric measurements from satellite, aircraft, and global observation network across cities, mountains, and oceans. We try to see through this massive dataset and track down to where methane gases come from. Our mathematical model allows us to accurately quantify the intensity of these methane sources and track their changes over time. In the end, we will produce a dynamic map of methane emissions for our city, our country, and for the world. This map will provide the information we need to plan, implement, and evaluate our climate actions on methane.