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Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment: A decade of seeding success

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    ISC 3:  One of William & Mary’s many research facilities, site of many of the interdisciplinary projects funded by the Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment. The CCEE has been seeding work that has prospects for attracting external funding.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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William & Mary’s Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment had its genesis about a decade ago after members of the university’s Board of Visitors expressed interest in encouraging new research, especially interdisciplinary initiatives.

Dennis Taylor, professor emeritus of marine science, has served as the CCEE acting director since its inception. Working out of the VP for Research Dennis Manos’ office, he began by seeking out new research emphasizing interdisciplinary groups.

“Some of the goals of the CCEE were to try and leverage relatively small sums of money to entice faculty from various disciplines to come together around a problem,” Taylor explained.

The idea was to seed developing research programs that showed promise of attracting external grants, to become self-sustaining over time. Taylor said the CCEE had a success story early on, with a group that included some faculty in the W&M School of Law, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and the university’s program in environmental studies.

“We initiated that with about a $10,000 to $15,000 grant,” he said. “And eventually, over the next two or three cycles, we added some additional money to that group, and it expanded. And now it's the Coastal Policy Center at the Law School. That also spawned another permanent group over at VIMS, the Center for Coastal Resource Management. Both of these have been wildly successful in terms of getting extramural funding over the years.”

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

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

“And my answer has been that, you know, if it was baseball, we're probably batting around .383-.390. Okay?” Taylor said. “And that ain't bad. In addition, over time the proposals we see are more innovative, ambitious and rigorous, suggesting we are viewed as a quality source of funding”

The CCEE solicits proposals for funding each semester. Synopses of currently funded projects are below:

Diatom-based functional materials with a negative carbon footprint

Hannes C. Schniepp, Department of Applied Science

Diatoms are teeny single-cell algae that produce about 20 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere and leave behind a biomineralized silica shell. The project aims to leverage the sophisticated properties of the diatom exoskeleton, particularly the glass-like component of the shell known as the frustule, in order to pursue development of a new class of environmentally sustainable materials.

Frustules boast a long list of desirable material properties: durability, chemical inertness and the ability to remain stable at high temperatures. The project aims to use the CCEE support to advance plans to breed diatoms species selected for their potential contributions to advanced materials. The living algae produce oxygen, while the harvested frustules can be used for as fillers to add strength to polymer-mix materials.

Developing Diatoms as a New Carbon Neutral/Negative Synthetic Biology Chassis for Novel Materials Development and Bioremediation

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

In collaboration with the Hannes Schniepp carbon-negative diatom project, above, this project complements the material science aspect with a synthetic-biology approach. The first goal is to characterize especially interesting diatoms, using RNA-Seq to identify the species and strains with the most desirable characteristics for development.

Using 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 range of useful enzymes.

Advanced Teaching and Research Directions in 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 component of atmospheric chemistry, enhancing light absorption and warming cloud-forming water droplets. The relationship of clouds and aerosols remains a major source of uncertainty in models of atmospheric chemistry and global climate.

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

Unrealized Radon Hazards in Eastern Virginia: Characterizing Threats & Increasing Public Awareness

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

Radon is an odorless gas, produced by the natural radioactive decay in rocks and sediments. Radon gas infiltration of structures is dangerous and is cited as the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Federal agencies have created radon-risk maps for the U.S., but the maps miss small- scale variations in geology and soil chemistry.

The result is that federal maps place areas east of I-95 in “low” radon hazard area, but localized geologic formations create conditions of much higher radon risk in certain areas of Williamsburg/James City County. Students and faculty in William & Mary’s Department of Geology have compiled indoor radon readings above the EPA’s action limit.

The collaborators are using the CCEE support to build a publicly available radon-hazard map for Williamsburg and continue sampling.

Exploring the Impacts of Accessible Geospatial Data

Seth Goodman and Ariel BenYishay, AidData, Global Research Initiative

A product of GRI’s AidData, GeoQuery allows users with limited geospatial-data skills a simple way to access the vast and growing compendiums of data collected from satellites and sensors. Researchers across the world are parsing such datasets to assess a wide variety of conditions. For instance, satellite imagery of nighttime lights is being used to assess development and economic activity.

The CCEE support will allow AidData researchers to better assess the diverse GeoQuery user community to review and revise the data types it offers.

Evaluating food system adaptation 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 which engages students with early-career faculty. This project does so by facilitating students with early-career faculty to study various aspects of food system sustainability through the Nutritional Epidemiology and Food Systems Laboratory at William & Mary.

The CCEE funding will support students working in Conrad’s Nutritional Epidemiology and Food Systems Lab. Experiences also include invited speakers, capstone projects and external internship opportunities.

Interdisciplinary Approaches to Energy, Politics, and Culture in Virginia

Andrea Wright, Department of Anthropology, Asian & Middle Eastern Studies program

Energy policies continue their rapid change across the U.S., and Virginia is no exception. Recent legislation committed the commonwealth to implementation of carbon-free energy sources by 2045. In pursuit of that goal, large-scale solar projects are popping up across the state.

This energy-source pivot brings a number of implications, bringing potential changes in work skills, corporate and governmental policy and land use. The CCEE support broadens this project’s investigation of how communities respond to the new green energy initiatives, to incorporate the roles of historic inequalities and of the retraining programs necessary to support Virginia’s changing energy grid.