Tackling Three Grand Challenges

Grand Challenge #1

Building resilience for a sustainable future

Many solutions to climate change — among them solar panels, storage batteries, and electric vehicles — are technologies. They will play a vital role in driving down global carbon emissions.

But like most technologies, they also have the potential to create unintended consequences. For example, storage batteries are vulnerable to thermal runaway and fire; they also currently require metals like lithium and cobalt, which are often extracted through dangerous mining practices.

Left alone, these and other problems will undermine the world’s transition to a clean energy future.

That is why we are working to build safety into the design, development, and deployment of renewable energy technologies.


Teaching the public to escape a home fire

Residents have less time than ever before to escape a home fire — potentially just three minutes or even less. FSRI in 2022 expanded its Close Before You Doze® public safety campaign to stress the importance of planning ahead to save lives during a fire. New messaging and materials educate the public on three lifesaving actions: installing smoke alarms properly throughout the home, creating and practicing an escape plan, and closing doors as a protective barrier to stop the spread of smoke and flames.

Mitigating the risks of lithium-ion battery fires

FSRI has expanded its research scope to quantify the hazards associated with lithium-ion battery-powered devices and develop strategies to mitigate the risk battery fires pose for firefighters and occupants. As this safety science research progresses, FSRI is working to deepen public and firefighter understanding of the science of lithium-ion battery fire and explosion hazards through an introductory e-book and detailed online firefighter training on the topic.

Deepening our understanding of WUI fires

About one-third of U.S. homes are situated in what is known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where human development mixes with undeveloped wildland. As WUI fires become more frequent, FSRI is leveraging its expertise in built environment fire dynamics to examine building-to-building heat transfer, a key contributor to conflagration in WUI fires.

Pursuing safe and efficient recycling of lithium-ion batteries

ESRI is working with Rice University in Houston to develop and optimize battery recycling to supplement our limited supply of raw materials and alleviate related economic, environmental, and ethical concerns. In 2022, the ESRI-Rice University collaboration optimized two main approaches. ESRI and Rice University will next expand the project’s scope, focusing on the scalability of these recycling processes, optimization of the metal recovery processes, and the characterization and optimization of regenerated batteries.

Paving the way for green hydrogen energy

In an effort to realize the promise of green hydrogen technology, ESRI and the University of Houston launched a collaborative research project in 2022 that aims to develop new materials and methods for producing hydrogen. The project also calls for characterizing the safety of hydrogen energy at all stages of production and while it is stored, transported, and used.

Developing new materials to address global safety challenges

The Materials Discovery Research Institute (MDRI) was founded in 2022 to create innovative materials for renewable energy and environmental sustainability. Led by newly appointed Dr. Stuart R. Miller, MDRI is establishing advanced computational capabilities to accelerate the targeted discovery of materials that will reduce the harmful impacts of humanity’s reliance upon fossil fuel resources and enable a transition to renewable energy sources.

Cultivating the next generation of safety scientists

Building on a platform designed to counter a loss of engagement in science common to middle school students, OREE has redesigned its Xplorlabs learning module on electrical power to produce the new “Science of Thermal Runaway: Engineering Solutions.” The redesign, which incorporated educator feedback, reflects contemporary best practices in science and engineering education. OREE held 10 half- and full-day workshops on using Xplorlabs in the classroom for more than 200 educators.

Building STEM career pathways

OREE has established a series of initiatives to support equity and access for post-secondary students through relevant, meaningful education and career opportunities. Among them is the Future of Safety Science webinar series, which translates ULRI research outcomes into an educational resource geared toward university students. OREE also held a series of focus group sessions on student perceptions of research experiences with college students and graduates from groups who have historically been excluded from STEM professions. OREE will continue the study throughout 2023.

Collaborating with partners to support STEM education

Several education collaborations extended OREE’s reach in 2022. For example, the Interactive Research Methods Lab (IRML) at Kennesaw State University in Georgia is collaborating with OREE to evaluate the outcomes and impacts of Xplorlabs implementation in Georgia’s Cobb County and Cherokee County middle schools in collaboration with area fire service and fire protection engineers. OREE also partnered with the GEM Consortium to establish ULRI as an employer partner.

Grand Challenge #2

Advancing individual and societal health in the 21st century

New manufactured products and chemicals play an important role in societal progress: They make crops more productive, medicines more effective, and structures more durable, to name just a few benefits. But in most cases, the long-term impact of these chemicals on people, other species, and ecosystems is poorly understood.

What we can say with certainty is that synthetic chemicals are ubiquitous in the world, from the ocean floor to the human bloodstream. Many persist and accumulate in living things, and some can inflict harm in subtle ways over long periods of time.

We are working to bring these chemical concerns to light — focusing in particular on air pollution, electronic cigarettes, 3D printer emissions, and flame retardants, which pose global risks to health.


Examining the health implications of emissions when lithium-ion batteries fail

With the use of lithium-ion batteries on the rise, ESRI is working with Texas-based Southwest Research Institute to study the particulates emitted when those batteries fail catastrophically and enter an uncontrollable, self-heating state known as thermal runaway. The goal of the project is to measure the concentration, size, and mass of particulate components at both the single-cell and module levels, adding depth to research literature that lacks data on the particulates released during thermal runaway.

Understanding and reducing the health risks of chemicals

Today, there are more than 140,000 specific chemicals used to make products utilized daily, though the health impacts of only about 5% are understood. In 2022, CIRI studied the chemicals emitted by 3D printers and worked to characterize particle and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from electronic cigarettes. CIRI also launched a study into the ways in which people are exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever” chemicals because they do not break down in the environment or in our bodies.

CIRI research aims to identify climate change-related health risks

Some effects of climate change are closer to home than commonly believed. Seeking to close scientific knowledge gaps, CIRI is researching health risks associated with climate change-related indoor chemical pollution exposure and emissions from fires in areas where human development and undeveloped wildland meet, called the wildland-urban interface.

Grand Challenge #3

Promoting safety at the human-digital interface

We are right now in the early stages of a technological revolution powered by digital intelligence. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have already begun to transform our understanding of disease and human biology; they help fly our planes, staff our companies, and enforce our laws; and experts say there is still more change to come.

We are also becoming familiar with problems in the digital ecosystem, from the erosion of privacy and the misuse of data to black box algorithms that quietly reinforce human biases. It is critical that we solve these problems while the technologies driving them are still nascent.

We aim to do just that, by developing new frameworks for digital safety in partnership with experts worldwide.


Protecting consumers from emerging digital threats

The Digital Safety Research Institute (DSRI) was launched in 2022 to address an array of safety risks and emerging threats in the digital ecosystem. Led by newly appointed Dr. Jill Crisman, DSRI aims to offer extensive outreach and education to help support safer digital environments for people everywhere. Because the creation of a safer digital ecosystem is a task too massive and complex for a single research group, DSRI also is committed to partnering with other organizations focused on digital safety — such as Northwestern University in Illinois, which collaborated with DSRI in 2022 to form the Center for Advancing Safety of Machine Intelligence (CASMI) research hub.