Couple Donates $750 Million to Caltech to Support Environmental Sustainability Research

Commitment will bring together experts across campus, and provide shared facilities with unparalleled instrumentation, to advance bold new solutions to energy and sustainability challenges

Published : Thursday, September 26, 2019 | 5:09 AM

Pictured left to right: Lynda Resnick, Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, and Stewart Resnick in the surface science lab at Caltech’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP). / CREDIT: The Wonderful Company

Philanthropists and entrepreneurs Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of The Wonderful Company, have announced an unprecedented $750 million pledge to Caltech to support cutting-edge research into the most pressing challenges in environmental sustainability.

The commitment, part of Caltech’s Break Through campaign, is the largest ever for environmental sustainability research, the largest in Caltech’s history, and the second-largest gift to a U.S. academic institution.

“In order to comprehensively manage the climate crisis, we need breakthrough innovations, the kind that will only be possible through significant investment in university research,” says Stewart Resnick, chairman and president of The Wonderful Company and a senior member of the Caltech Board of Trustees. “Science and bold creativity must unite to address the most pressing challenges facing energy, water, and sustainability.”

This transformative commitment will support Caltech’s investigators as they pursue research in solar science, climate science, energy, biofuels, decomposable plastics, water and environmental resources, and ecology and biosphere engineering. Ultimately, this initiative will bring together experts from across the physical sciences, life sciences, and engineering. Working in shared facilities with access to unparalleled instrumentation, Institute scientists and engineers will advance novel solutions to problems that extend beyond a single discipline. To ensure uninterrupted support for this critical area of research and for the development of breakthrough technologies, a permanent endowment will be established to fund the work of researchers across Caltech’s academic divisions and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Caltech manages for NASA.

“Sustainability is the challenge of our times,” says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum. “Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s generosity and vision will permit Caltech to tackle issues of water, energy, food, and waste in a world confronting rapid climate change. The Resnick Sustainability Institute will now be able to mount efforts at scale, letting researchers across campus follow their imaginations and translate fundamental discovery into technologies that dramatically advance solutions to society’s most pressing problems.”

“The risks we face due to climate change present daunting challenges. The discoveries, inventions and innovations that will be spanned by this incredible gift will be transformative,” notes Steven Chu, co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics and former Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama. “The generosity of Lynda and Stewart Resnick is a lasting commitment for the future well-being of our children, our grandchildren, and our planet.”

In recognition of the investment, Caltech will construct a new 75,000-square-foot building, to be named the Resnick Sustainability Resource Center. The center, which will serve as the hub for energy and sustainability research on campus as well as the home of state-of-the-art undergraduate teaching laboratories, will amplify and expand the work of the Resnick Sustainability Institute (RSI). The RSI was established at Caltech a decade ago with a $30 million contribution from the Resnicks and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. An additional pledge by the Resnicks in 2014 created both the Resnick Institute Innovation Fund, which provides support for new ideas in clean-energy and sustainability science that have the potential for rapid impact, and the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Matching Program, which provides a one-to-one match for contributions that create new endowed funds within the RSI.

“It is essential to have hope. More than anything, this commitment from Lynda and Stewart places hope in science and technology, and also in Caltech, to help chart a more sustainable future for all of us” says RSI director Jonas C. Peters, Bren Professor of Chemistry.

These investments follow in the strong tradition of philanthropy in environmental and sustainability research at Caltech. For example, senior trustee Ron Linde’s (MS ’62, PhD ’64) and Maxine Linde’s support of the Institute helped establish the cross-divisional Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science and aided in refurbishing its campus home, the Linde + Robinson Laboratory. Life Members Gordon Moore (PhD ’54) and Betty Moore, along with their foundation, also gave the Institute in 2001 two unrestricted gifts totaling $600 million, until now the largest donation in Caltech history, which helped advance research efforts across the Institute, including in sustainability.

“Lynda and Stewart Resnick have made extraordinary investments in Caltech,” says David A. Tirrell, the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair, Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and Caltech provost, whose office will oversee the administration of the RSI. “Their support of our research has already enabled important advances in sustainable technologies and in the fundamental science that underlies them. Now we look forward to integrating our sustainability efforts even more deeply into the fabric of the Institute and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and to building a one-of-a-kind center for sustainability research.”

Since its founding in 2009, the RSI has supported researchers who develop ways to convert sunlight to renewable hydrogen and carbon-based fuels, and new technologies for generating ammonia and other commodity chemicals; RSI support has also led to the discovery of best-in-class catalysts using abundant, non-toxic materials. Caltech researchers have pushed the efficiency limits of solar photovoltaics and wind systems and developed new materials and designs that increase power output and/or lower costs. They have helped to modernize the electricity grid, with RSI-funded research guiding state policy for planning and implementing changes to the electricity infrastructure, and have advanced research into green chemistry.

RSI-supported research has also provided unprecedented insights into carbon-dioxide sequestration in the ocean, opening up a number of possible applications for removing carbon in the atmosphere; led to the discovery of novel processes to reduce the carbon footprint of materials such as cement; and created new techniques for treating wastewater and desalinating saltwater through solar-driven heating, electrochemistry, and the use of nanostructured materials.

During its first decade, the RSI provided seed funds to researchers throughout Caltech’s divisions and funded 96 Resnick fellows (graduate students and postdoctoral scholars). Resnick fellows or fellow alums have founded a number of sustainability-focused companies or had projects licensed by existing startups.

This new pledge by the Resnicks will support four core research initiatives:

  • Sunlight to Everything, which will focus on building smarter electricity infrastructure and converting the sun’s energy into fuels and other chemicals;
  • Climate Science, which will advance efforts in measurement and modeling meant to identify the largest effects of climate change, and efforts in mitigation and adaptation to offset some of the impact of carbon emissions;
  • Water Resources, which will ensure that this vital resource is managed most effectively through the mapping and monitoring of surface and sub-surface water, together with improvements in water treatment and reuse; and
  • Global Ecology and Biosphere Engineering, which will consider the biosphere and its response to climate change, engineering ways in which microbes may help plants adapt to the changing climate and how best to use biological tools to improve water and nutrient use.

Facilities at the Resnick Sustainability Resource Center will include laboratories focused on ecology and biosphere engineering and translational science and engineering, as well as a solar science and catalysis center, a high-performance computing center, a water and environment lab, and a remote sensing center. The Resnick Sustainability Resource Center will also feature lecture and interaction spaces as well as new state-of-the-art undergraduate teaching labs. Every first-year undergraduate student will rotate through these labs in conjunction with redesigned core educational courses that incorporate sustainability science and engineering.

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