The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
Tanya Shirman has always been fascinated by the ability of materials designed on the nanoscale to have an impact on the macroscale. Now, she’s scaling up her project in a big way by taking new catalytic materials out of the lab and putting them to the test in real-world air purification applications. Read more about Tanya and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What are you working on?
I’ve been working in Joanna Aizenberg’s lab as part of the Adaptive Materials Platform on developing advanced nanostructured catalytic materials for air purification applications. These materials can be used in catalytic converters. A catalytic converter purifies toxic gas by subjecting the gas to a catalyst, which causes it to break into more benign chemicals before the exhaust is released. Our new material provides improved control over catalyst composition and geometry through rational design of their 3D structure. These materials are inspired by the porous, honeycomb-like architecture of butterfly wings. Precious metal nanoparticles are needed to purify air in these systems, because they act as the catalysts, but typically a lot goes to waste. We’ve designed our materials to be more efficient by putting the precious metal nanoparticles precisely at the interface of the pore where they are more accessible to the exhaust gas, which results in less waste.
What real-world problem does this solve?
Air pollution is a global problem that affects human health, the environment, and the global economy. Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year on emission control activities, yet air pollution costs the global economy over $5 trillion annually in welfare costs. One in every eight deaths is the result of air pollution.
The design and performance of current industrial catalytic air purification technologies is insufficient to treat the growing number of airborne pollutants. This is because these systems make poor use of costly precious metal catalysts due to suboptimal legacy designs and manufacturing techniques. Our novel material addresses this problem by reducing the amount of precious metal nanoparticles wasted by catalytic converters, which in turn also reduce costs. This solution also decreases operating temperatures, therefore reducing associated energy consumption. It significantly enhances catalytic activity and maintains an exceptional level of catalyst stability even under harsh reaction conditions.
How has your work been translated?
We started from scratch with an idea that turned into a platform technology. We had experience in making these materials, but on a small scale. At some point, we realized that there was commercial potential. We applied for the President’s Innovation Challenge through the Harvard Innovation Lab and came in second place. This gave us the confidence to continue. We applied to be a Validation Project at the Wyss and we got accepted. I think that was a big deal. It’s quite competitive. The goal of the Validation Project was really to scale up the approach, because you can have a really cool material in the lab but if you cannot find ways to produce it on a larger scale and apply it to specific applications, you will not be successful. The cross-disciplinary nature of the Wyss Institute enabled us to work with amazing team members that had complimentary skillsets and came from very different backgrounds, which contributed to the success of the project. There is no way one person could do this type of project by themselves. To make it real you need a team.
The main application we focused on was industrial and car emission control. By the end of our second year as a Validation Project, we demonstrated that we could apply our material as a coating for catalytic converters, which could significantly reduce the amount of precious metals used, while achieving the same performance as a typical commercial catalyst. The Wyss Institute’s Validation Project program helped us with business development support, which enabled us to better understand the potential markets in which our technology could be applied. We intend to spin out of the Wyss Institute as a startup to commercialize this technology for air purification.
What inspired you to get into this field?
I was always really fascinated by the capabilities of materials designed on a molecular scale or a nanoscale to have an impact on a macroscale. In nature, there are many examples where manipulating components on the nanoscale results in such variety in the world around us. For example, in butterfly wings we get color, mechanical stability, the ability to repel water, and a thermodynamic structure using simple components built into a beautiful architecture on the nano and micro scale.
What continues to motivate you?
I think that there is nothing more motivating for a scientist than the possibility of taking your invention from the lab and making it work to solve a real-world problem. Of course, there is satisfaction in deepening basic understanding of natural phenomena and answering scientific questions, but at the same time I am truly motivated by the fact that I can apply what I do to something that will benefit the next generation, including my own children. Air quality is a huge problem today already and is growing. Knowing that I can somehow contribute to a solution is amazing.
What excites you about your work?
I think I have the best job that anyone could dream of having. I just love it. Every day at the Wyss you meet amazing and talented humans, learn something new, and find new ways to solve scientific problems. There’s always some sort of surprise waiting for me every day.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
A huge challenge in implementing novel materials is developing approaches to produce them on a mass scale while still preserving their function. In the lab, we worked with a sample of maybe 50mg of powder and showed that it is a super active and very stable catalyst, in which the amount of precious metals can be significantly reduced without compromising the performance. The challenge comes when we have to drastically increase this volume and make it work in a giant power plant to purify air.
Most of the materials developed in academia don’t make it to market because they cannot get scaled up. First and foremost, it’s expensive. Also, you don’t want your synthetic strategies to be completely disruptive and introduce too many changes to existing manufacturing processes. The manufacturing industries are very established and conservative, so it’s best to create a “plug and play” system rather than require alterations to fit your new system.
There are also small problems that need to be addressed along the way. For example, you want to reduce waste production. Usually in the lab you don’t think about how much waste you produce, you’re more focused on results. For someone coming from academia, things like minimizing byproducts, safety, accountability, and starting material costs are all new considerations. But if you want to translate your work into a commercial process that will make an impact in the real world, these are important things to take into account. This was really challenging but also really rewarding. I like looking at these new questions and solving new problems.
How have your previous professional experiences shaped your approach to your work today?
I was lucky to always be involved in highly multidisciplinary research projects and work with people from different fields of science. This has made a significant impact on the way I approach complex problems, analyze them from different perspectives and do not hesitate to jump in and try to find original solutions. It has also taught me to be focused on a target but at the same time understand the importance of flexibility, allowing for creativity and imagination. I learned to use resources and reach out to people around me. When I joined the Wyss, it was a transition process moving from classical academic research into thinking about commercialization, but I think my previous experiences allowed me to be flexible and open to new things.
When you’re not in the lab, how do you like to spend your time?
I spend my time outside the lab with my kids. The younger one is nine and the older one recently turned twelve. They’re great. They are both gymnasts on competitive teams, and the winter is competition season, so I spend my weekends cheering them on. The older one plays piano and the younger one plays violin, so I support them in that as well. I like to be present with them. They’re busy but they have fun.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path what would it be?
I’ve always been interested in psychology and human beings. Sometimes I dream of having a degree in social studies. It tries to understand relationships and how society functions by studying history, government, economics, civics, sociology, geography, and anthropology. All of these aspects of a person’s life are interconnected and interdependent. It’s necessary to understand these things in order to address pressing social, political, and economic problems.
The specific issue I’d want to look at would be how technology is going to affect social structures. New technology is going to have huge social implications for health, wellbeing, and peace in the coming decades, which will lead to dramatic changes in the ways that materials, devices, and systems are understood and created. For example, when you think about a self-driving car, there is more than just the technology to consider, there are also societal impacts. Will taxi drivers have to find another way to make a living? How much can this reduce accidents, pollution, and congestion? You cannot address these issues without thinking about history, culture, and anthropology. It’s going to be a new grand challenge.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
It’s super exciting – very motivating and meaningful. I feel like I’ve been given an important responsibility. I hope that what I’m doing will indeed have a positive impact on us in the future.