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UB RENEW awards seed grants to projects related to extreme weather, sustainable energy

By CORY NEALON

Published September 12, 2017

Three research projects have been selected to receive funding from UB’s RENEW Institute, an interdisciplinary institute dedicated to solving complex environmental problems.

“These RENEW seed projects address exciting problems in RENEW focus areas of Sustainable Urban Environments; Environmental Exposures, Genomes and Health; and Next-Generation Materials and Technologies by interdisciplinary teams of UB faculty working across decanal units,” says Amit Goyal, 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 the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, RENEW promotes interdisciplinary research activities to position UB as a global leader in select areas of energy, environment and water. “Through RENEW’s programming, these projects will further our research capacity across energy, environment and water sustainability,” says Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development.

RENEW’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 more than 100 faculty members at these seven UB schools and colleges, plans to hire 15-20 new faculty members. RENEW’s overarching goal is to advance energy, water and environmental sustainability as a foundation for a regenerative economy. The institute will accomplish this goal via research and education in five interdisciplinary scientific and technical focus areas that have emerged from the strategic planning process. Those areas are Next-Generation Materials and Technologies for Energy, Environment and Water; Sustainable Urban Environments; Freshwater Coastal Ecosystems and the Blue Economy; Environmental Exposures, Genomes and Health; and Climate Change and Socioeconomic Impacts.

The research projects will share $102,696 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.

“Developing thermal extreme indicators for vulnerability assessment & climate adaption”

Extreme temperature events — prolonged periods of hot or cold weather — cause greater mortality rates than all other weather-related events combined. Not everyone who lives in a city experiences temperature extremes in the same way. Vulnerability to extreme weather varies significantly across city neighborhoods, partially due to characteristics of the built environment, and partially due to individual and household-level coping capacities, such as economic constraints and personal health conditions. However, indicators commonly used to assess thermal exposure and sensitivity are aggregated over broad geographic areas and do not provide a way for city agencies to target heat reduction, energy affordability and emergency warning programs to those who are most in need. The objective of this research is to improve thermal extreme-related vulnerability metrics that form a basis for socially equitable urban resilience planning. The interdisciplinary team of researchers will:

  • Collaborate with Buffalo residents to develop a pilot thermal-sensing network that will enable them to model microclimate variation as a function of urban landscapes, the built environment, proximity to water and other urban features.
  • Conduct structured interviews with participants that will ascertain thermal comfort, economic constraints related to energy consumption and capacities for coping with extreme heat.
  • Work with local government agencies to identify spatial adaptation strategies for managing thermal extremes.

The project team includes Zoé Hamstead, assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning; Nicholas Rajkovich, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture; Zachary Schlader, assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences; Susan Clark, research scientist at RENEW; and William Siegner, MUP candidate in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

“Atomic-metal-rich carbon electrocatalysts for sustainable energy via CO2 reduction”

The electrocatalytic carbon dioxide reduction (ECO2R) to chemical fuels provides a promising pathway to a carbon-neutral energy cycle. The use of renewable energy to electrochemically convert carbon dioxide from the flue gas/exhaust of fossil-burning or biomass-fired power plants to value-added chemicals is an attractive, sustainable and economical solution toward this objective. Using water as a reductant, ECO2R could produce valuable carbonaceous species such as carbon monoxide, formic acid, methanol and methane, most often accompanied with hydrogen gas as a byproduct. It has been a challenge in carbon dioxide reduction to achieve ultrahigh (more than 95 percent) selectivity of any single product to minimize the separation cost for downstream applications.

The goal of this project is to develop efficient, highly selective, low over-potential, heteroatom-doped, carbon-based catalysts — which are important to both scalability and potential applications. The coordination chemistry and mechanistic aspects of such catalytic transformations at the solid/liquid interface presents fundamental challenges that provide unique opportunities for the discovery of new electrochemical reaction pathways. In the proposed research, leaders of this program will:

  • Develop a multidisciplinary approach, including materials synthesis, small-molecule activation and coordination chemistry, first-principles molecular-level simulations and in-situ nonlinear laser spectroscopy, in order to provide mechanistic insights for the selective production of carbon monoxide over other carbon-containing products. In particular, the team will focus on the structure-function relationships of the active-site and the intermediate species bond formation, charge and energy transfer as a function of the applied potential.
  • Determine the water structure for the charged interface and its role in the catalytic selectivity and efficiency, as well as the pH dependence of the electrochemical reactions.
  • Investigate the electronic properties and geometrical structures of the carbon lattice doped with heteroatoms to generate tunable catalytic properties and opportunities for constructing mesoscale 3-D architectures.

The project’s principal investigator is Luis Velarde, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry. Co-principal investigators are Gang Wu, assistant professor in Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Michel Dupuis, research professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“Traffic air pollution, genetic variation and autism spectrum disorder”

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been increasing in the past few decades. In 2010, 1 out of 68 children in the United States was diagnosed with ASD. Improved diagnosis may partially explain the recent increase, while the complete understanding of ASD development and the reason for the rapid growing prevalence remain unclear.

Air pollution has been associated with various health effects including child development. In urban areas, traffic-related air pollutants (TRP) are the most important contributor to local air pollution and the principal source of intra-urban variation in air pollution concentrations. Many TRPs were found to affect brain function and activity in toxicological studies. TRPs may induce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can result in damage to endothelial cells in the brain and compromise the blood-brain barrier and activate brain microglia.

The Peace Bridge is the highest-volume border crossing in Western New York and Canada. The average number of daily vehicle crossings at the Peace Bridge is 17,920 and approximately 20 percent of these vehicles are heavy-duty trucks. Heavy TRPs around the Peace Bridge has been a major environmental concern for decades from nearby communities in both the U.S. and Canada. Heavy traffic emissions near the Peace Bridge and relative low traffic around Buffalo’s suburbs form large variations in TRP exposure levels, which offers a special opportunity to study the impact of traffic pollution exposure on ASD.

This study aims to conduct a case-control study in Erie County. Researchers will use traffic air pollutant data and participants’ locations to estimate individual TRP exposure from pregnancy to diagnosis. The study aims to examine the relationship between TRP exposure in critical time periods and ASD development, and explore the potential interaction between genetic variation and TRP exposure in ASD development.

To achieve the goal, researchers plan to recruit 30 ASD cases and 60 controls to demonstrate the feasibility of recruiting eligible cases and controls from Women’s and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, where the autism spectrum disorder center is located; construct participants’ early life exposure to TRP; and collect a biospecimen from each participant and run genomic tests.

The project’s principal investigator is Lina Mu, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health. Co-investigators are Michelle Hartley-McAndrew, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Neurology, and medical director of the Children’s Guild Foundation Autism Spectrum Disorder Center; Norma Jean Nowak, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and executive director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences; Matthew Bonner, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health; Zia Ahmed, research scientist at RENEW; Joseph A. Gardella Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry; and Lili Tian, professor in the Department of Biostatistics.

Additional details on the projects will be available on the RENEW website.