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Our Philosophy

The central question of our time is how to satisfy energy needs without continuing the massive degradation of our environment.

Developing solutions requires the confluence of thinking that can only be achieved when diverse viewpoints converge in a space where ideas are discussed without preconceptions. This is the objective of the Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience at Northwestern, a center that connects across the University, connected with the Institute of Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).

The task is far from easy. There is an abundance of apocalyptic news. Sea levels are rising at an increasing rate, glaciers are melting, coral reefs disappearing, plastics are polluting the oceans and affecting our oceanic food webs, and animal extinctions are taking place in human scale times. Meanwhile the accumulation of atmospheric CO2 from burning fossil fuels continues to increase.

Energy efficiency has increased substantially over the last decades, but worldwide energy consumption will not decrease. It has never gone down in modern history. Emissions and energy consumption come from broad categories: transportation, powering cities, manufacturing products, and producing food. The best way to prevent accumulation of CO2 is to stop emitting CO2, but that is not enough. The life of CO2 in the atmosphere is measured in centuries.

Another avenue is to take CO2 out of the atmosphere via direct air capture and negative emission technologies, but the numbers are daunting. Atmospheric CO2 has risen from 280ppm to 410ppm after the industrial revolution. A reduction of 130ppm of CO2 corresponds 1x1012 tons. By comparison the amount of oil extracted by humanity is 0.2x1012 tons.

There are many technologies in the works, but there is no silver bullet. One example, Switzerland-based Climeworks, has developed technology to capture CO2 through an adsorption-desorption process. The cost is unclear, but in the best scenario could be as low as about $100 per metric ton. Yet even without considering cost, to capture just 1% of the carbon emissions projected to take place between now and 2025 would require 250,000 Climeworks units.

The scale of the problem facing humanity requires new ways of thinking and working across disciplines. The challenges are daunting, but we welcome the challenge.

The Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience will convene diverse thinkers across Northwestern and beyond to accelerate the development of ideas, technologies, and people to attack the massive challenge of environmental degradation.


CESR aims to:

  • Connect faculty, staff, and students with related research interests to each other, as well as with partners within and outside Northwestern.
  • Facilitate the development of collaborative research projects, sponsor visits, and responses to funding opportunities.
  • Serve as a central resource for information on seminars, courses, and degree programs – especially within Northwestern Engineering – related to sustainability and resilience.
  • Increase the awareness, visibility, and impact of sustainability and resilience activities by organizing workshops and symposia, co-sponsoring seminars with departments, and helping to recruit graduate students and faculty.
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