Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment: A Decade of Seeding Success



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    One of William & Mary’s many research facilities, site of many interdisciplinary projects funded by the Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment. The CCEE has launched work likely to attract external funding.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

by Joseph McClain


November 29, 2021

William & Mary’s Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment came into being a decade ago after members of the University’s Visitors Council expressed interest in encouraging new research, especially initiatives. interdisciplinary.

Dennis Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Marine Sciences, has served as the Acting Director of CCEE since its inception. Working in the office of Vice President of Research Dennis Manos, he began by researching new research with a focus on interdisciplinary groups.

“Some of the goals of CCEE were to try to mobilize relatively small amounts of money to get faculty from various disciplines to come together around an issue,” Taylor explained.

The idea was to launch development research programs that promised to attract external grants, to become self-sustaining over time. Taylor said CCEE had been successful early on, with a group that included professors from the W&M School of Law, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the University Environmental Studies program.

“We started this with a grant of around $ 10,000 to $ 15,000,” he said. “And finally, over the next two or three cycles, we added some extra money to that group, and it got bigger. And now it’s the Law School Coastal Policy Center. It also spawned another standing group at VIMS, the Center for Coastal Resource Management. Both of these projects have been very successful in securing extramural funding over the years. “

Another success involved an interdisciplinary investigation into the demographics and population dynamics of tick-borne diseases. It involved professors from the departments of biology and sociology, work that attracted significant federal funding.

Funding for the CCEE comes from the office of Manos, co-founder of the center. Taylor said he believes the Commonwealth Center for Energy and Environment has paid for itself, in terms of projects launched by CCEE attracting external support. He added that he and Manos often discussed how to measure CCEE’s funding success rate.

“And my answer was, you know, if it was baseball, we’re probably playing around .383-0.390. Okay? “Says Taylor.” And that’s not bad. Plus, over time, the proposals we see are more innovative, ambitious and rigorous, suggesting that we are seen as a source of quality funding. .

CCEE solicits funding proposals every semester. Below are summaries of currently funded projects:

Functional materials based on diatoms with a negative carbon footprint

Hannes C. Schniepp, Department of Applied Sciences

Diatoms are tiny, single-celled algae that produce about 20 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere and leave a shell of biomineralized silica. The project aims to take advantage of the sophisticated properties of the diatom exoskeleton, in particular the glass-like component of the shell known as the frustule, to further develop a new class of environmentally friendly materials. .

Frustules have a long list of desirable material properties: durability, chemical inertness, and the ability to remain stable at high temperatures. The project aims to use CCEE support to advance breeding plans for selected diatom species for their potential contributions to advanced materials. Living algae produce oxygen, while the harvested frustules can be used as fillers to strengthen polymer blend materials.

Development of diatoms as a new carbon neutral / negative synthetic biology framework for new material development and bioremediation

Margaret Saha Department of Biology • Dana Willner, Department of Computer Science • Hannes Schniepp and Eric Bradley, Department of Applied Sciences

In collaboration with the Hannes Schniepp Carbon Negative Diatoms Project, above, this project complements the materials science aspect with a synthetic biology approach. The first objective is to characterize diatoms of particular interest, using RNA-Seq to identify species and strains exhibiting the most desirable characteristics for development.

Using the genetic information revealed by sequencing, the lab will apply bioengineering principles and techniques to improve diatoms to commercial standards. Diatoms can be genetically programmed to produce a wide variety of useful enzymes.

Advanced Teaching and Research Directions on Atmospheric Brown Carbon Aerosols

Nathanael M. Kidwell, Department of Chemistry

“Brown carbon” refers to aerosols produced by combustion at relatively low temperatures. They are an important part of atmospheric chemistry, improving light absorption and warming cloud-forming water droplets. The relationship between clouds and aerosols remains a major source of uncertainty in atmospheric chemistry and global climate models.

The study focuses on the chromophores of brown carbon – the part of the molecule that gives color to brown carbon – and their relationship to nitrogenous heterocycles. The lab, which includes graduate students and undergraduates from William & Mary, uses spectroscopy and other methods to update atmospheric aerosol models.

Unrealized Radon Risks in Eastern Virginia: Characterizing Threats and Raising Public Awareness

Jim Kaste, Department of Geology, Environmental Science and Policy Program • C. Rick Berquist, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy • Dorothy Ibes, Environmental Science and Policy Program

Radon is an odorless gas produced by natural radioactive decay in rocks and sediments. The infiltration of radon gas into structures is dangerous and is cited as the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Federal agencies have created radon risk maps for the United States, but the maps do not take into account small-scale variations in soil geology and chemistry.

The result is that federal maps place areas east of I-95 in an area of ​​”low” radon risk, but localized geologic formations create conditions of much higher radon risk in some areas of the country. Williamsburg / James City County. Students and professors in the William & Mary geology department have compiled indoor radon readings above the EPA action limit.

Collaborators are using CCEE support to create a publicly available radon hazard map for Williamsburg and continue sampling.

Explore the impacts of accessible geospatial data

Seth Goodman and Ariel BenYishay, AidData, Global Research Initiative

A product of GRI’s AidData, GeoQuery provides users with limited geospatial data skills an easy way to access the vast and growing collections of data collected from satellites and sensors. Researchers around the world are analyzing such datasets to assess a wide variety of conditions. For example, satellite imagery of nighttime lights is used to assess development and economic activity.

CCEE’s support will allow AidData researchers to better assess GeoQuery’s diverse user community to examine and revise the types of data it offers.

Assess the adaptation of the food system to achieve long-term environmental sustainability through integrated research and teaching

Zach Conrad, Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences

The William & Mary Sustainability Plan for 2019-2024 calls for academic engagement that engages students with early career faculty. To do so, this project enables early career students to study various aspects of food system sustainability through the William & Mary Nutritional Epidemiology and Food Systems Laboratory.

CCEE funding will support students working in Conrad’s Nutritional Epidemiology and Food Systems Laboratory. Experiences also include guest speakers, wrap-up projects and external internship opportunities.

Interdisciplinary Approaches to Energy, Politics, and Culture in Virginia

Andrea Wright, Department of Anthropology, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program

Energy policies continue to change rapidly across the United States, and Virginia is no exception. Recent legislation committed the Commonwealth to implementing carbon-free energy sources by 2045. In pursuit of this goal, large-scale solar projects are popping up statewide.

This fulcrum of energy source has a number of implications, resulting in potential changes in occupational skills, corporate and government policies, and land use. CCEE’s support expands this project’s investigation of how communities are responding to new green energy initiatives, to incorporate the roles of historical inequalities and recycling programs needed to support Virginia’s changing energy grid.



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