Revised January 30, 2021
How many green solutions lie hidden near you? If you live near a university, you live near academic research. Some of it is developing ideas that can become product that will contribute to sustainability. But first, more people need to know about it.
For example, 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 almost anyone more than about a hundred miles away.
What is academic research?
Academic research, or scholarly research, takes place mostly at universities or other educational institutions. It systematically collects, analyzes, and interprets data to solve a problem that the researcher of research team has decided to study.
The problem tends to have a mostly theoretical and conceptual focus. Academic research seeks, therefore, to add to the general body of knowledge. Academic researchers normally make their findings public both through publication in refereed journals and on the university’s website.
In contrast, corporate research tends to study practical problems with an eye to product development. Its focus is on advancing corporate goals, and especially in making a profit for the business. It normally remains proprietary and does not become public.
Academic research can become the basis for commercial products through a mechanism called technology transfer. That is, universities can patent their research and license it to corporations. Or they can create start-up companies to commercialize faculty discoveries.
Clearly, large, well known universities will have an easier time with technology transfer than smaller, less well-known universities that might produce equally valuable research.
Coal ash research at North Carolina A&T University
NCAT’s team, led by Kunigal Shivakumar, invented an amazing heatproof material in 2003. It’s 95% coal ash. Shivakumar points out that coal ash is not a waste. It’s a valuable resource. So is everything else we let go to waste.
In 2014, a major coal ash spill occurred in nearby Eden, less than 30 miles from campus. A pond at a coal-fired power plant owned by Duke Energy ruptured.
NCAT announced its new method of storing coal ash in 2016.
Neither of these products will be on the market as solutions to an environmental headache any time soon. Most universities don’t hire science and engineering faculty for their marketing or manufacturing abilities. Someone else has to take university research from the laboratory to the market place. Most universities’ technology transfer programs seem not up to the job.
At the time of the spill, no one working for Duke Energy knew anything about NCAT’s research. Duke is based in North Carolina, by the way. It’s Charlotte headquarters is less than 100 miles from the NCAT campus. I link above to a story that appeared on UNCTV in Chapel Hill. My search found nothing else online except for stories by GoDanRiver.com and the Navy Times that appeared after the spill.
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. It remains very small.
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 ideas 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.
Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily make their pages easy to search. If you know the name of a faculty member, you can find it. If you want to find if anyone at the university is working on asphalt adhesives, microbial fuel cells, or anything else in particular, good luck.
Penn State’s web page, for example, provides no way to learn about Dr. Logan’s work. Here are a few exceptions:
Some specific examples
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 its faculty’s work, but it links only to the members’ departments.
Two chemistry professors’ work might aim toward some kind of environmental product:
Ted Pappenfus researches thin-film solar cells. Nancy Carpenter works with algal research. that can lead to biofuels.
At Binghamton State University, 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 academic research: how to use it to solve problems
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. Using knowledge gained from academic research to solve practical problems, therefore, requires 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. They don’t find each other often enough. 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.
UCSD Jacobs College of Engineering. Some rights reserved by University of California at San Diego
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