UB RENEW Institute awards seed grants to five projects related to energy, environment and water sustainability

UB Solar Strand.

University at Buffalo Solar Strand. Credit: Douglas Levere.

Researchers will tackle solar power, climate change in WNY, e-waste, pollution at Lake Erie’s Woodlawn Beach

Release Date: May 27, 2016

Amit Goyal.
“This second round of RENEW seed projects addresses exciting new areas of investigation for interdisciplinary teams of UB investigators working across decanal units. ”
Amit Goyal, director
UB RENEW Institute

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Five research projects have been selected to receive funding from the University at Buffalo’s RENEW Institute, an interdisciplinary institute dedicated to solving complex environmental problems.

“This second round of RENEW seed projects addresses exciting new areas of investigation for interdisciplinary teams of UB investigators working across decanal units,” said Amit Goyal, PhD, director of RENEW, which stands for Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water. “We anticipate that each of these projects will lay the foundation for successful grant applications in the areas of energy, environment and water sustainability.”

Led by UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, the RENEW Institute seeks to promote interdisciplinary research activities to position UB as a global leader in select areas of energy, environment and water.

The institute’s interdisciplinary focus — involving the faculties of the School of Architecture and Planning, College of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Law School, School of Management, School of Public Health and Health Professions and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences — is designed to foster new collaborations and produce new ideas.

The initiative, which taps the leadership and vision of deans and over 100 faculty at these seven UB schools and colleges, plans to welcome 15-20 new faculty members over the next five years.

The research projects will share $165,000 in glue funding, which is funding designed to bring together interdisciplinary teams of investigators to tackle complex issues. The funding, which comes in response to the institute’s strategic investment initiative, will support the following efforts:

Microbial Pollution in Lake Erie: Using Next-Generation Sequencing to Examine Microbial Community Interactions and their Relationship to Flow Patterns

Lake Erie provides drinking water to the region, habitat for wildlife, and it’s a mecca for fishing and recreation. However, microbial pollution in the lake threatens human and ecosystem health, as well as local economies and future economic development. Key to mitigating this problem is identifying the sources, transport and fate of microbial pollutants. The project will investigate microbial pollution at Woodlawn Beach, a popular spot on Lake Erie that was closed roughly half of the 2015 summer due to microbial pollution. The goals of the research are to:

  • Characterize the bacterial and protist communities in sand, surface water, groundwater and wastewater effluent using next generation sequencing (NGS).
  • Quantify the fluxes, flow patterns and connectivity between surface and groundwater flows.
  • Identify potential sources or processes contributing to microbial pollution.

    The proposed research will provide a model for using interdisciplinary tools and next generation technologies to investigate microbial pollution issues in the Great Lakes region and ultimately protect freshwater coastal ecosystems and human health.

The project’s principal investigator is Lauren Sassoubre, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. Co-principal investigators are Gerald Koudelka, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences; and Christopher Lowry, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Geology.

Combining High-Resolution Airmass Trajectory Modeling and Climate Data to Generate Precipitation Predictions that are useful for Policymakers

Accurate projections and accessible information about the impacts of climate change on water resources are critical for planning and adaptation. Yet, precipitation is difficult to predict even with advanced climate models. This collaboration brings together a team of geologists, engineers and policy experts to address how the changing climate will influence water resources in Western New York. Specifically, this project will:

  • Use state-of-the-art climate models to determine precipitation amount, sources and seasonality in Western New York under past, present and future climate scenarios.
  • Develop and compile precipitation records for present and 6,000 years ago, a period that was warmer than today.
  • Ground-truth model performance by comparing model results under past and present climate scenarios with precipitation records.
  • Articulate results and uncertainties to policymakers in Western New York.
  • Develop a tool set that the team will apply to other sensitive and/or highly populated regions in the United States, the Arctic, Asia and elsewhere.

The project’s principal investigator is Elizabeth K. Thomas, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Geology. Co-principal investigators are Marcus I. Bursik, PhD, professor in the Department of Geology; Matthew Jones, PhD, associate director and lead computational scientist in UB’s Center for Computational Research; Jessica Owley, JD, associate professor in the Law School; and Abani Patra, PhD, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Emerging Ultra-Wide Bandgap Semiconductors for Clean Energy and Water

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are expected to be integrated into the future electric grid for economic, energy and environmental security. Improved power electronics, which are systems that control power, is needed to seamlessly integrate these different sources to the future grid. At the heart of power electronics is a transistor, which is a switch that regulates the power flow. Energy is lost during this process. The power transistor needs to be efficient. The present technology based on silicon has reached its limits. Emerging ultra-wide bandgap semiconductor gallium oxide (Ga2O3) is predicted to significantly increase the efficiency of power electronics beyond the capability of silicon. This program aims to achieve this by:

  • Investigating the fundamental materials properties of the Ga2O3 semiconductor and developing doping technologies.
  • Carrying out theoretical studies of the physics of doping.
  • Building upon the knowledge and understanding gained from these studies, next generation power transistors will be fabricated.

The project’s principal investigator is Uttam Singisetti, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Co-principal investigators are Joseph A. Gardella, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry at UB, and Peihong Zhang, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Physics.

Designing Sustainability: Integrating Consumer Behavior and Product Design to Minimize Electronic Waste

The project will focus on mitigating electronic waste (e-waste) through design engineering and market promotion-based solutions that induce “green” behavior from consumers. Specifically, the main objective of the first project is to investigate how consumers’ waste generation and product discarding behaviors are affected by product design features as well as by regulatory policies, social norms and practices. To meet this objective, a set of pilot studies will be conducted over the next 9-10 months to yield key insights into the effect of design features on consumers’ sustainability-related behavior.

Six faculty members from four UB schools will integrate relevant expertise in consumer behavior, business strategy and market governance through regulations with product and systems design in industrial and mechanical engineering. The long-term goal of this project is to forge a strong and thriving multidisciplinary faculty group at UB to conduct research on issues of design, development and marketing of “green products.”

The project’s principal investigator is Sara Behdad, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Co-principal investigators are Kathryn Bryk Friedman, PhD, director of international research at UB’s Regional Institute and a research associate professor of law and policy in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning; Arun Lakshmanan, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Marketing; Kemper Lewis, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Errol Meidinger, PhD, Margaret W. Wong Professor and director of the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy; and Debabrata Talukdar, PhD, professor in Department of Marketing.

Toward Rational Design of Next-Generation Renewable Energy Materials: Photovoltaics from Materials to Device Model

Materials design and discovery hold a critical place in the 21st century economy, with broad impact that spans the transportation, health, microelectronic and renewable energy industries. Creating novel materials with specific combinations of properties that meet specific functional needs is a multidisciplinary challenge that requires rational design, development and application of computational tools, validation of theories through materials synthesis, characterization, device-like measurements, and theory-driven discovery of tailored materials. The interdisciplinary team of researchers will:

  • Develop and apply multiscale multiphysics theoretical and computational models to predict how light absorption, carrier generation, life time, recombination, transport, and space-charge distribution in thin films and across material interfaces contribute to solar conversion efficiency.
  • Synthesize new materials based on earth-abundant chalcogenide semiconductors and characterize their optical and electrical properties, including time-resolved photoluminescence, charge transport, and device-level efficiency.
  • Validate theories with the experimental data and utilize theoretical and computational models to drive the rational discovery of novel chalcogenide-based solar energy materials.

The project’s principal investigator is Alexey Akimov, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry. Co-principal investigators are Michel Dupuis, research professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Computational and Data-Enabled Science and Engineering program; Edward Furlani, PhD, professor in the departments of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Electrical Engineering; Hao Zeng, PhD, professor in the Department of Physics; Athos Petrou, PhD, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Physics; Vladimir Mitin, PhD, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering.

Look to RENEW’s website for additional details on the projects.

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