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With RENEW, UB tackling energy, water, and environmental issues

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Students working with environmental engineer Berat Z. Haznedaroglu are studying algae blooms in Lake Erie. Photo: Douglas Levere

Published May 19, 2014

“RENEW is the model for UB’s “Communities of Excellence” initiative — under the UB 2020 strategic plan — which brings together researchers from across the university to address society’s toughest challenges and carry out transformative educational, research, creative and community engagement activities.”

Investigating how latent pesticides affect public health. Creating window coatings that reduce buildings’ heating and cooling costs. Developing policies to promote land conservation. Examining what incentives prompt people to buy hybrid cars.

These seemingly disparate activities are not disparate at all — in fact, they reflect a commitment to comprehensive environmental research at RENEW, UB’s new interdisciplinary research initiative.

RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water) promises to tackle the most difficult and pressing issues that society faces in trying to create a more sustainable world.

The institute is engaging more than 100 faculty members from across six university schools and colleges who specialize in fields like environmental engineering, chemistry, geology, law, architecture, community health and sustainable business practices.

UB has dedicated up to $15 million over the next five years, with a goal to hire 20 new faculty members who have expertise in aquatic ecology, pollution law, renewable energy, behavioral economics, environmental planning, community health and other areas. UB also will create new academic programs and hire a world-class scholar and researcher to direct the institute. A search for the director is underway.

RENEW is the model for UB’s “Communities of Excellence” initiative — under the UB 2020 strategic plan — which brings together researchers from across the university to address society’s toughest challenges and carry out transformative educational, research, creative and community engagement activities.

Here’s a closer look at some of the research happening within RENEW:

Sustainable buildings

Mention the word “architecture” and most people think about how a building looks. Not Martha Bohm. Bohm, assistant professor of architecture, is equally interested in how a building “acts”; for example, how much energy and water it consumes and how it uses materials and creates waste. Bohm’s research and teaching centers on developing buildings and communities that have minimal environmental impacts. She and other faculty members, including some RENEW researchers, are advising a group of students who are building a solar-powered house to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s elite Solar Decathlon competition.

‘Smart’ windows

Nearly 40 percent of the energy consumed in the United States occurs in commercial and residential buildings, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Sarbajit Banerjee, associate professor of chemistry, is working to lower that number by developing a vanadium oxide window coating that reflects the sun’s heat during hot days and lets in the heat during colder weather. The coating also could be useful in computer chips, night-vision instruments and missile-guidance systems.

Pesticides

Pesticides prevent diseases from spreading, protect crops and help control invasive species. But their widespread use causes damage to the environment and human health. James R. Olson, UB Distinguished Professor in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, as well as the School of Public Health and Health Professions, investigates how environmental and occupational exposure to pesticides, especially organophosphate pesticides, affects human health. Supporters of his research include the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Berat Z. Haznedaroglu also is studying the nutritional capacity of certain algae species, as well as their suitability to be used as a biofuel feedstock. Photo: Douglas Levere

Water quality

Massive algae blooms in Lake Erie and elsewhere threaten fisheries, tourism and drinking water. Berat Z. Haznedaroglu, assistant professor of environmental engineering, and his students are working to fix the problem in Lake Erie by developing biological control mechanisms against harmful algae blooms that limit the occurrence of toxic compounds. Additionally, Haznedaroglu studies the nutritional capacity of certain algae species, as well as their suitability to be used as a biofuel feedstock. He also conducts research into food sustainability and safety; for example, he studies how pathogens like salmonella behave in water and soil matrices.

Land conservation

Land conservation agreements generally are written with today’s landscape in mind. But what happens when climate change alters the land? Jessica Owley, associate professor of law, examines these issues and develops plans that help conservationists adapt to change in ways that will continue to yield environmental benefits. Additionally, Owley spearheads a project called Environmental Law Collaborative that has gathered legal academics nationwide to discuss environmental issues, including land conservation.

Consumer behavior

Some consumers buy hybrid cars because of the environmental benefits. Others view it more as an economic decision — improved gas mileage, tax rebates, etc. Debabrata “Debu” Talukdar, professor of marketing, studies these scenarios on micro- and macroeconomic levels. He’s particularly interested in how economic policies help or hinder sustainable economic development through their impacts on consumer and industry behavior. His research has been cited by scholars who work in economics, environmental policy, public health, law, management science and other fields.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that will explore how RENEW researchers are tackling complex environmental issues.