UB’s RENEW Institute lands three federal grants for sustainability research

Buffalo Next

UB RENEW Institute lands three federal grants for sustainability research

In its quest to become a top public research university, the University at Buffalo has been reaching across disciplines and partnering with other institutions to form teams of researchers whose work may combine to solve pressing problems for the future.

One example is UB’s RENEW Institute, which recently received federal grants totaling over $2.6 million for three research projects that hold promise for addressing water shortages, soil health and so-called “forever chemicals” in the environment.

Founded in 2014, it recently announced a “renewed” focus on clean water supply, renewable energy, climate change and environmental pollution.

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The three RENEW projects that just received federal funding are:

Net-zero-water buildings: A team of UB chemists, engineers and architects will collaborate with partners in other climate-challenged places including Egypt, the Philippines, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates. Their aim is to develop “water-resilient” buildings equipped to harvest water from the atmosphere and disinfect stormwater, floodwater and “recycled” household water for use in extreme events like hurricanes or earthquakes.

RENEW Institute Director Diana Aga, a principal investigator on the project, said the team is looking to develop membranes that can concentrate water from the atmosphere to allow only water molecules to penetrate, producing clean water. The same technology could be used to filter and purify water from other sources, like stormwater, Aga said.

“This is a proof-of-concept study, as putting these infrastructures into a building means we would have to redesign the building – that is why there’s an architect on the team,” Aga said. “This infrastructure would not be in use in the building all the time, only during extreme events … We hope to create a model in the lab and our future dream is to construct a pilot building to demonstrate in other countries.”

The proposal received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Sensors in soil: UB researchers are teaming up with investigators from Tennessee Tech University to develop sensors to monitor soil health and allow “smart agriculture” and sustainability measures that would be truly groundbreaking.

Aga said the sensors could tell farmers when certain crops need irrigation, fertilization or other care, down to the specific needs of the plants based on the content of the soil around them.

“We want to avoid pollution and overuse of nutrients, fertilizers and even water,” Aga said. “The sensors could monitor dryness and moisture levels for certain plants and bacteria in the soil that thrive on, for example, nitrogen. So if the sensors tell us that there is not enough nitrogen to support bacteria life, you would need to apply nitrogen – or hydrogen, or whatever is called for.”

Not only that, but the sensors would not need batteries, wires or antennas, which could interfere with farming. Instead, they would use water molecules and ions in the soil to create electricity to power themselves, Aga said.

Part of the project requires that the team demonstrate the feasibility of the technology on different farms with differing weather conditions, so the sensors will be tested at farms in Tennessee and Western New York, Aga said.

The three-year, $400,000 grant is also from the National Science Foundation.

Determining the toxicity of “forever chemicals.” Among Aga’s specialties as a scientist are PFAS, a class of pollutants commonly used in many household and industrial products. PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, do not break down easily and can be found throughout the environment and in the bloodstreams of people and animals around the world.

Scientists have been able to study the toxicity of individual compounds on animal brains, but the problem is that more than 2,000 PFAS exist as mixtures, Aga said.

“The standard now is to expose mice to one compound at a time, but that’s not the real world,” she said. “To determine the toxicity of each individual compound in a mixture would take forever, so we need to find a faster way.”

The faster way will employ artificial intelligence, machine learning and studies of the effect of certain toxins on zebrafish to produce computer models of how animal cells may react to mixtures of compounds, Aga said.

Zebrafish are considered an acceptable model for human brain activity, including behavior, Aga noted. For example, previous studies indicate that exposure to certain PFAS caused zebrafish “to forget how to catch food,” she said.

Feeding such data into computer models may help scientists predict what will happen if a person or animal is exposed to a certain compound or predict the toxicity of another to help governments regulate PFAS, Aga said.

The UB team will work with researchers in Germany and at SUNY Stony Brook on the project.

Their three-year, $750,000 grant is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Want to know more? Three stories to catch you up:

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Catch up on the latest news from the Buffalo Niagara economy:

The John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo won a designation that it believes will play a big part in stabilizing its finances.

The United Way of Buffalo & Erie County is setting up a relief fund to aid nonprofit organizations that help community members impacted by last month’s blizzard.

Spectrum Health and Human Services has a new CEO, and it’s a familiar face.

Efforts to build up the region’s workforce are getting a boost from $1 million in new state funding.

Father Sam’s Bakery is looking to expand its East Buffalo bakery and it wants tax breaks to help pay for it.

A proposed Elmwood Avenue smoke shop across from a new luxury condominium building is running into some stiff opposition.

Across Western New York, health care workers have many stories to tell about how they made it through the blizzard while on the job.

Legal marijuana sales launched in the state Thursday but not in Western New York due to a lawsuit that led to an injunction pausing sales here.

World Central Kitchen is back to help feed Buffalo’s East Side in response to the blizzard that shut down the city for nearly a week.

Wells Enterprises will eliminate 183 jobs at its Dunkirk plant, which is less than the 319 employees the company previously planned to lay off.

A three-year deal reached ensures Highmark members will continue to have in-network access to care at Catholic Health’s facilities.

Athenex is closing its Newstead manufacturing plant and laying off all 92 employees as of March 17.

Preliminary efforts are underway to prepare for the third phase of the project to redevelop the Northland complex in Buffalo.

The state is looking for ideas to redevelop a prison that closed last year in Gowanda.

The federal funding needed to get a tech hub program off the ground has been included in a year-end spending bill before Congress.

Cost vs. Benefits: That’s the trade-off at the center of the state’s proposed climate change plan.

A development agency is hiring a consultant to come up with ways to improve the infrastructure linking Canalside and the redesigned Centennial Park.

The Buffalo Niagara region’s sluggish hiring is being driven by a shortage of workers, and local officials are starting to look for ways to ease the crunch.

Big changes are coming to the state’s energy markets after a plan to reduce harmful emissions was approved by an advisory panel.

Five reads from Buffalo Next:

1. Bounce back for Buffalo Niagara economy: The value of all the goods and services produced in the region, which dropped by 3.4% during the pandemic, came roaring back last year, with a 5.3% gain.

2. The Bills make me want to shop: How Buffalo Bills merchandise is flying off shelves this season.

3. How will Western New York’s higher education institutions recover from Covid-19? Enrollment at some local schools is holding up, but others are struggling to attract students.

4. New life for old stones: How a Buffalo company is finding new uses for old bricks and stones in construction projects.

5. Big changes are being proposed for the state’s energy markets, and it could change the way residents heat their homes and cook their food in the years to come.

The Buffalo Next team gives you the big picture on the region’s economic revitalization. Email tips to buffalonext@buffnews.com or reach Buffalo Next Editor David Robinson at 716-849-4435.

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