research news

UB teams receive over $2.6 million in federal funding for environmental research

From left to right, UB researchers Martha Bohm, Diana Aga and Ning Dai.

From left: UB researchers Martha Bohm, Diana Aga and Ning Dai — all part of the UB RENEW Institute — will lead a NSF-funded project to advance “net-zero-water” buildings. Also working on the project, but not included in the photo, is UB researcher Haiqing Lin. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published November 3, 2022

Diana Aga.
“RENEW’s ‘secret sauce’ is the interdisciplinary breadth and disciplinary excellence of our core and affiliated faculty members, many of whom have shared concerns about the justice dimensions of water access, environmental quality and green energy production. ”
Diana Aga, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry and director
UB RENEW Institute

Research teams affiliated with the UB’s RENEW Institute have received three federal grants totaling more than $2.6 million for studies focused on environmental concerns.

The projects are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Topic areas of these funded projects include development of “net-zero-water” buildings with a self-sustaining water supply; in-ground sensors that monitor soil health; and methods for understanding the potential toxicity of mixtures of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of ubiquitous pollutants that are so hard to break down that they’re known as “forever chemicals.”

These awards highlight the UB RENEW Institute’s success in assembling interdisciplinary teams to develop and strengthen project proposals. Researchers receiving the new grants are affiliated with the RENEW Institute and include faculty members from the School of Architecture and Planning, College of Arts and Sciences, and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“Addressing pressing environmental challenges will require the expertise of thinkers across many disciplines,” says Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development. “The new federally funded projects highlight the UB RENEW Institute’s success in doing just that.

“The teams working on these projects include architects, chemists, engineers, computational scientists and more, showcasing how the UB RENEW Institute is successfully serving as an intellectual hub to support our faculty in developing truly interdisciplinary proposals,” Govindaraju says.

“RENEW’s ‘secret sauce’ is the interdisciplinary breadth and disciplinary excellence of our core and affiliated faculty members, many of whom have shared concerns about the justice dimensions of water access, environmental quality and green energy production,” says Diana Aga, director of the UB RENEW and Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences. “My aim is to leverage the expertise of our RENEW core faculty and faculty affiliates, understand subject area complementarity, and convene strong, interdisciplinary groups of scholars who develop competitive, high-impact proposals.

“RENEW supercharges UB’s reputation as a climate and environmental science leader,” Aga adds. “We also strive to utilize research and programs as mechanisms to advance equity and correct historic injustices through strategic partnerships.

“We are happy to connect RENEW researchers to identify collaborators at UB and other institutions, as well as community partners with aligning interests in energy, water and the environment.”

The newly funded studies:

Advancing ‘net-zero-water’ buildings with self-sustaining water supplies

Award amount: $1.5 million
Funding agency: NSF

Bringing together UB chemists, engineers and architects with collaborators in Costa Rica, Egypt, the Philippines, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates, this project’s goal is to advance water quality and sustainability technologies, designs and policies. The team will develop materials and systems to harvest water from the atmosphere and disinfect stormwater, floodwater and “recycled” household water.

Researchers will also create guidance for implementing such technologies in extremely-water-resilient buildings in divergent climates. With extreme weather events like hurricanes expected to increase in intensity due to the changing climate, the importance of buildings equipped to supply clean water independent of external water delivery infrastructure is clear.

To help build a climate-aware workforce, the project will also offer training opportunities to graduate and undergraduate students, provide science outreach to middle and high school students, and increase the science literacy of the public.

The award is one of 13 nationwide recently announced by NSF’s Partnerships for International Research and Education program, which funds “use-inspired” climate change and clean energy research.

“We are thrilled with the quality of submitted proposals and it was a difficult job to select only 13 projects to make awards. We look forward to the great work these project teams will accomplish and expect that they become international hubs for research in clean energy and climate change,” says Fahmida Chowdhury and Maija Kukla, program directors in NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering.

The UB team: Aga, principal investigator; Martha Bohm, associate professor of architecture, co-principal investigator; Ning Dai, associate professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering, co-principal investigator; Haiqing Lin, professor of chemical and biological engineering, co-principal investigator. Bohm is a member of the UB RENEW Institute’s steering committee. Dai is co-lead of RENEW’s Focus Area on Sustainable Water and Engineered Systems, and Lin is co-lead of RENEW’s Focus Area on Environmental Pollution and Human Health Implications.

Developing in-ground sensors that monitor soil health

Award amount: $398,998 to UB
Funding agency: NSF

This collaborative project, led by Tennessee Tech University, includes teams from UB and the University of Tennessee. The goal is to develop a sensor system that can be buried in the soil to monitor the flow of gases such as carbon dioxide, ammonia, oxygen and nitrous oxide within the dirt, providing insights into soil health. Such knowledge would enhance farmers’ ability to make better decisions in the growing cycle of crops.

One major objective is to deliver power to sensors using a through-the-soil (TTS) power transmission technique, where electrical energy is sent through the soil, eliminating the need for wires, surface antennas or embedded batteries that could interfere with farming.

If successful, the research could have a broad impact on improving crop yields, generating greater income for farmers and piloting technologies with relevance in agriculture, renewable energy, power distribution and, ultimately, national security.

Thomas Thundat, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering, who is leading the UB portion of the soil sensor study, notes that the RENEW Institute made crucial contributions in strengthening the multi-institution proposal to the NSF.

“RENEW Institute Director Diana Aga played a key role by leveraging RENEW resources in a seamless fashion to make the proposal a success,” Thundat says. “Professor Aga’s expertise in analytical chemistry and RENEW’s expertise in advanced machine learning, through Dr. Zia Ahmed, and education and outreach, through Dr. Lisa Vahapoğlu, made the proposal highly competitive.”

The UB team: Thundat, a core faculty member in the UB RENEW Institute, principal investigator; Aga, co-principal investigator. Charles Van Neste at Tennessee Tech and Forbes Walker at the University of Tennessee are also principal investigators.

Predicting how mixtures of PFAS and other organic pollutants could impact brain development

Award amount: $750,000
Funding agency: EPA

Assembling a team of researchers with expertise in analytical chemistry, neuroscience, chemical biology and machine learning, this UB-led project will develop techniques that will enable scientists to study the impact on brain development of mixtures of pollutants. PFAS, a class of pollutants that are used in a wide range of household and industrial products, will be a particular focus of this investigation.

Past studies indicate that exposure to high levels of some PFAS may lead to a variety of health problems; however, health effects of PFAS exposure are difficult to parse, in part because there are over 5,000 different PFAS, and exposure to mixtures of different PFAS might amplify toxicity in ways that scientists don’t yet understand.

The new research aims to use high throughput techniques, machine learning and studies on cells and zebrafish models to learn how various mixtures containing PFAS impact neurons, and to develop a system that can make predictions about the potential neurotoxicity of mixtures of PFAS and other pollutants based on chemical structures. The study lays the groundwork for improving public protection of human health and will generate new knowledge that could be used to inform future evidence-based policy.

The UB team: Aga, principal investigator; Ekin Atilla-Gokcumen, professor of chemistry, co-investigator; Krishna Rajan, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Erich Bloch Chair of the Department of Materials Design and Innovation, co-investigator. Rajan is a member of the UB RENEW Institute’s steering committee. Atilla-Gokcumen is a faculty affiliate of UB RENEW Institute. Beate Escher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and Howard Sirotkin at Stony Brook University are also co-investigators.