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Sustainability Science and Engineering

Caltech researchers advance humanity's understanding of Earth's systems and develop approaches and technologies to mitigate human impacts on the planet.

Sustainability is an important research emphasis across campus and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which Caltech founded and manages for NASA. Activity has surged since 2019, when Stewart and Lynda Resnick pledged $750 million to support environmental sustainability research at Caltech, building on their investment in the Resnick Sustainability Institute, founded in 2009.

Caltech scientists study Earth's climate, oceans and freshwater, atmosphere and air pollution, landscape dynamics, carbon cycling, biogeochemistry, and microbial ecology. Researchers invent technologies for the smart grid, large-scale vehicle charging, carbon capture, biosphere engineering, space solar power, biofuels, renewable hydrogen and other solar fuels, highly efficient photovoltaics and wind-turbine arrays, nontoxic and abundant materials for catalysts and batteries, zero-impact sanitation, and green methods to make commodity and household chemicals.

Research Ecosystem

The Resnick Sustainability Institute (RSI) advances global sustainability through transformational science, engineering, and education.

Researchers from diverse scientific disciplines build a comprehensive understanding of our global environment and the impacts of human activities on it.

On a quest to understand our home planet, JPL focuses on the dynamics of interconnected components—the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and cryosphere.

ESE investigations of the fundamental physical, chemical, and biological processes that shape Earth's environment inform resilient practices by governments, businesses, and consumers.

This ambitious project aims to develop technology that harvests solar power in space and beams the energy back to Earth.

With climate change poised to reshape our world, CliMA aims to provide the accurate and actionable scientific information needed to face the coming changes—to mitigate what is avoidable, and to adapt to what is not.

CEMI scientists study relationships among microbial communities and their environments. These relationships shape the composition of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere, and sustain diverse forms of life.

LiSA engineers are developing the science principles by which durable coupled microenvironments can be co-designed to efficiently and selectively generate liquid fuels from sunlight, water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen.

We are building an institute that tries to pull, essentially, all of the campus toward problems in sustainability. We need all hands on deck.

Resnick Sustainability Institute Director Jonas Peters
Bren Professor of Chemistry

Decades of Leadership

Caltech researchers have applied interdisciplinary expertise to address environmental challenges and advocate for change since the 1940s. On campus, biochemist Arie Haagen-Smit and geochemist Clair Patterson traced smog and lead pollution, respectively, to vehicle emissions. Geochemist Charles Keeling created the first instrument to precisely measure carbon dioxide levels in air. In the 1970s, chemical engineer John Seinfeld invented the first model of an urban atmosphere. More recently, Nobel laureates Frances Arnold and Robert Grubbs developed molecules and catalysts that enabled greener detergents, medicines, and materials. Microbiologist Dianne Newman and geobiologist Victoria Orphan have illuminated microbes' roles in Earth's evolution and climate.

JPL, the leader in robotic exploration of the solar system and in climate-related studies, has gathered deep and broad data about Earth since the 1970s. More than 20 current missions are mapping and measuring Earth's oceans, fresh water, ice, atmosphere, land, and ecosystems, gathering and making publicly available the data essential for understanding our planet and making sustainable decisions.

Image, top of page: Dianne Newman, the Gordon M. Binder/Amgen Professor of Biology and Geobiology, leads the ecology and biosphere engineering initiative within Caltech's Resnick Sustainability Institute.