Skip to main content

Directory

Ben McCall

Professor of Physics and Chemistry; Executive Director of Hanley Sustainability Institute

Full-Time Faculty

Contact

Email: Ben McCall
Phone: 937-229-3295
http://go.udayton.edu/hsi
Fitz Hall 665

Profile

Ben McCall began his faculty career at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, working at the intersection of chemistry, physics, and astronomy to understand the detailed quantum mechanical characteristics of small molecular ions and the role these ions play in the rich chemical processes that occur in the clouds of gas and dust between the stars. He and his students developed new techniques for high-sensitivity, high-precision laser spectroscopy of molecular ions, and also used spectrographs on telescopes around the world to probe interstellar chemistry.

In the mid-2000s, Ben became increasingly aware of the profound challenges facing humanity, especially in the intertwined areas of climate change and fossil fuel consumption. He first converted his rural Champaign homestead to net-zero energy, using a combination of solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, and a European-style masonry heater fueled by sustainably harvested firewood. He then worked to improve the sustainability of the UIUC campus, serving as Associate Director for Campus Sustainability at the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment.

In 2018, Ben moved to the University of Dayton to serve as the inaugural Executive Director of the Hanley Sustainability Institute. His work at HSI includes improving the sustainability of campus operations (in collaboration with Facilities Management), advancing sustainability education (in collaboration with the Sustainability Program), promoting sustainability research and scholarship, and engaging the broader Dayton community in conversations about sustainability and resilience planning.

Degrees

  • Ph.D., Chemistry and Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Chicago, 2001
  • M.S., Chemistry, University of Chicago, 1996
  • B.S., Chemistry, California Institute of Technology, 1995

Research Interests

Our current energy and economic systems, which have led to tremendous human advancement over the past century, are now running into planetary boundaries and are leading us down a path of increasing inequity and ecological destruction. There is little reason to believe that even the boldest changes to “business as usual” proposed in mainstream political discourse will avert catastrophic climate change, and our current trajectory will lead to profoundly unpleasant changes to our global industrialized civilization.

My research interests stem from a deceptively simple question: How can we build a future that is sustainable and resilient? Put another way, what changes can we make at the household, organizational, and societal levels in order to live in a way that can be sustained and that will be resilient to the increasingly severe impacts of climate change?

Household Scale:

A household could be considered sustainable, from an energy perspective, if all of its energy comes from renewable sources, such as solar and wind. One way to achieve this is to centralize renewable energy production and rely on the grid to distribute it to customers. While this might be the most economically efficient solution, it leaves the end user vulnerable to grid outages due to heat waves and other extreme weather events, which will become more frequent as our climate changes. A more resilient approach would be for individual households to generate their own renewable electricity, for example with rooftop solar panels. The intermittency of renewables can be overcome with the use of batteries, both in grid-tied and off-grid applications.

Significant R&D work is now being done on advanced batteries in an effort to increase their energy density and drive down their cost, but all of these modern batteries have life spans of less than a decade and are easily damaged by over-charging or over-discharging. A more resilient option is the nickel-iron (NiFe) battery invented by Thomas Edison in 1901. These batteries are long-lived (some of the original Edison cells are still in use!), contain environmentally benign materials, and will tolerate overcharging and even complete discharge.

In my laboratory, we are working to quantify the dependence of the charge/discharge cycle of NiFe batteries on the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed (as carbonate) by the alkaline electrolyte. We are also working to develop an easy way for NiFe battery users to determine when the electrolyte needs to be changed. Our hope is that this work will facilitate wider adoption of this resilient, sustainable technology.

Organizational Scale:

Motivated by a sense of responsibility to do their part to prevent catastrophic climate change, many organizations are looking to eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions. Hundreds of colleges and universities have committed to become carbon neutral through the Presidents’ Climate Commitment organized by Second Nature, and hundreds of companies have established emission reduction targets through the Science Based Targets initiative.

As part of my work with the Hanley Sustainability Institute, I led a team of faculty, students, and staff that conducted a techno-economic analysis of a scenario that would lead to carbon neutrality for the University of Dayton campus in less than a decade. We are now engaged in both action (working towards a renewable power purchase agreement for the entirety of our purchased electricity) and further study (particularly on approaches to thermal energy) to enable the university to meet its carbon neutrality commitment.

In addition to the technical and economic aspects of achieving carbon neutrality, I am interested in the question of how an organization can be sure that its actions actually lead to additional reductions in global emissions, as opposed to simply trading emissions reductions with other entities. I am concerned that, in many cases, organizations may be investing valuable resources in a well-intentioned effort to become carbon neutral (according to generally accepted emissions accounting procedures), but not making a real impact on the climate system. I am therefore working to develop clear distinctions between the different uses of the term “additionality,” and considering the question of whether a higher standard beyond carbon neutrality should be pursued.

Societal Scale:

Understanding the predicament that human civilization faces – in terms of energy, ecology, economics, and equity – poses a significant challenge to the reductionist and siloed approach that has been long been pursued in the academy. If we hope to intentionally craft a new future that advances both human and non-human well-being while respecting planetary boundaries, we must integrate knowledge from across the disciplines: from the natural sciences and engineering to the social sciences, humanities, arts, and the many professional disciplines.

Toward this end, I am working with a group of colleagues around the country to launch a new network of scholars who will collaborate across the traditional disciplines to better understand our current predicament and to develop effective responses that can lead us towards a sustainable and resilient future.