How many green solutions lie hidden near you? Scientists at a local university unveiled a safe way to store coal ash. Or even reuse it.
When I saw the story in my local paper, I looked to see what else I could find out about it online. Nothing.
Maybe if they worked at a world renowned university, their work would get wider press. They work at North Carolina A&T University.
Hundreds of universities like NCAT conduct excellent research. It goes unnoticed by the press more than about a hundred miles away.
The same team, led by Kunigal Shivakumar, invented an amazing heatproof material in 2003. It’s 95% coal ash. At the time of the Dan River coal ash spill in 2014 in nearby Eden, Duke Energy knew nothing about their research. I link here to a story that appeared on UNCTV in Chapel Hill. I find nothing else online except for stories by GoDanRiver.com and the Navy Times that appeared after the spill.
Shivakumar points out that coal ash is not a waste. It’s a valuable resource. So is everything else we let go to waste.
Neither of these products will be on the market as green solutions any time soon. Most universities don’t hire science and engineering faculty for their marketing or manufacturing abilities. Someone else has to take their research from the laboratory to the market place.
I have earlier reported on other academic research that can lead to products that can use one problem to solve another.
What other academic research explores green solutions?
Dr. Ellie Fini, another NCAT professor, has discovered how to make a superior asphalt adhesive from pig manure.
She has founded a company called BioAdhesive Alliance to make and sell commercial-size batches.
Likewise, Dr. Bruce Logan of Pennsylvania State University has conducted extensive research on microbial fuel cells. They produce electricity from sewage.
Several companies are working to scale the ides up for commercial use.
I searched “university sustainability research” to see what else I could find. Universities’ pages on sustainability tout their commitment to sustainability. They describe overall themes and ideals. They praise the excellence of their faculty.
Most of them do not mention or link to specific projects of individuals on their faculty. Penn State’s, for example, provides no way to learn about Dr. Logan’s work. Here are a few exceptions:
Zachary Holman of Arizona State University is working on redesigning silicon solar cells. The current generation of silicon solar cells has a solar energy conversion efficiency of no more than 24%. Expansion of solar energy depends in part on making more efficient cells. Holman’s team is layering elements from Groups III and V of the periodic table. They can potentially achieve 30% efficiency.
Narayanan Neithalath, Subramaniam Rajam, Kiran Solanki, also ASU faculty, are exploring how to make concrete using waste iron powder. Like coal ash, this powder should be a resource instead of a waste material. The new concrete can potentially keep tens of thousands of tons of iron powder out of landfills. It also provides better electromagnetic shielding and blast and impact resistance than any conventional building material.
The University of Minnesota page touts faculty work on green solutions. But it links only to the members’ departments.
Two chemistry professors’ work might aim toward some kind of product.
Ted Pappenfus researches thin-film solar cells. Nancy Carpenter works with algal research. Carpenter’s research can lead to biofuels.
The Binghamton State University page links to articles about faculty and student energy research.
Bruce White is working on a thermoelectric material that can efficiently turn waste heat to electricity. Seohkeun Choi is exploring biological solar cells. Undergraduate Becky Deng is helping build and test solar capacitors for storing energy.
Beyond research: how to turn it to green solutions
None of this research has any chance of becoming useful products until what works in the lab can be produced at a commercial scale. No one with the necessary manufacturing expertise will work for free. Finished green solutions, therefore, require venture capital and marketing expertise.
Experts in manufacturing, finance, and marketing are on the lookout for good ideas. Academics publish scholarly papers full of good ideas. Meanwhile, the general public can’t find out about this research even on university web sites.
Do you know of research projects that need more than local coverage? Shoot me an email. Point me in the direction of following up. I’ll do what I can go get the word out.
NCAT College of Engineering. Photo by Cewatkin. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Microbial fuel cell. Public domain from National Science Foundation.
Brown seaweed. © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence