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Earth Day at 50: The past, present, and future of sustainability

Wyss Institute projects offer solutions to longstanding environmental problems to create a sustainable future

By Lindsay Brownell

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, when 20 million Americans protested in response to an environment in crisis: repeated oil spills were poisoning coastlines, heavy smog choked major cities, and some rivers were so polluted they literally caught fire. The first Earth Day of 1970 is credited with launching a wave of groundbreaking environmental laws in the United States, including The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many other countries soon adopted similar laws.

At the Wyss Institute, we look to Nature for solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems, and we believe that humans have a responsibility to help preserve and protect the natural world. To celebrate the progress that has been made since the first Earth Day and that which is still to come, we’re featuring stories about three projects that have the potential to disrupt the current status quo of their respective industries and create a healthier planet for ourselves and for future generations:

Biodegradable plastics without the plants

The Circe project is using engineered microbes to produce biodegradable polyesters that are cheaper and more sustainable than plant-derived bioplastics, and could one day help humans survive on other planets.

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Earth Day at 50: The past, present, and future of sustainability

Air conditioning that cools people and the planet

The cold-SNAP project is developing a cooling system that can effectively remove heat from the air using up to 75% less energy than conventional air conditioners, and without harmful chemical refrigerants.

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Earth Day at 50: The past, present, and future of sustainability

Cooler catalytic converters make clean air available to all

This project is working to bring down the cost of air purification systems by creating more efficient and dynamic catalytic converters, making clean air more affordable and reducing the health impacts of air pollution.

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Earth Day at 50: The past, present, and future of sustainability

 

These projects represent the confluence of people with different areas of expertise to create completely novel approaches to solving these problems rather than simply making incremental changes to existing technologies, which are often the source of the problems themselves.

Donald Ingber

“These projects represent the confluence of people with different areas of expertise to create completely novel approaches to solving these problems rather than simply making incremental changes to existing technologies, which are often the source of the problems themselves,” said the Wyss Institute’s Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D. “All of them have been named either Validation or Institute Projects by the Wyss Institute, which is our way of saying we believe in their potential and are committed to giving them the best possible chance at successfully making the transition from an academic project to a commercial product that can change the world.” Ingber is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

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