Researchers at Virginia Tech focus year-round on ways to allay the climate crisis and embed environmentally friendly processes into agricultural production, commercial industry, and the development of new technologies. Scientists at the university also work to raise awareness of accelerating problems and ways to fix them. Founded in 1970 as an opportunity to address environmental problems on this planet we all share, Earth Day provides an occasion to spotlight this ongoing research.

These forward-thinking projects represent a small sampling of the projects Virginia Tech faculty members have launched in pursuit of a sustainable future.

Cows in a pasture. Photo courtesy Pexels
Photo courtesy of Pexels.

Climate-smart farms

Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will be paying producers on farms of all sizes to adopt climate-smart practices in a program supported by a recent $80 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The RIPE (Rural Investment to Protect our Environment) Partnership will conduct three-year pilot programs in Virginia, Arkansas, Minnesota, and North Dakota.

Should RIPE roll out nationally, it could help reduce agricultural emissions by 55 percent and total emissions in the U.S. by 8 percent after 10 years. “This is a watershed program that helps the agricultural industry be a leader in addressing climate change and achieving sustainable productivity growth,” said Tom Thompson, principal investigator on the project, associate dean of the college, and director of CALS Global. 

View of a circuit board. Photo courtesy Pexels/Pixabay
Photo courtesy of Pexels/Pixabay.

Green energy to power AIs

The rapid growth of artificial intelligence (AI) has led to high profile advancements such as autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, and ChatGPT, but much less attention has been paid to the huge amounts of energy required for processing as AI programs learn — enough to raise long term environmental concerns.   

Walid Saad, a professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech and the Next-G Faculty Lead for Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, is collaborating with Amazon on a new method of learning, called green federated learning, or Green FL, that will make AI programs more sustainable and energy efficient.  

Image of the sun setting behind power lines. Photo courtesy Pexels/Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pexels/Pixabay.

Streamlining the power grid

With power outages becoming more and more common — the average person living in the United States in 2020 spent a record-breaking eight-plus hours without electricity, according to a U.S. Energy Information administration reportChristina DiMarino, an assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, hopes to create a more streamlined and effective grid to replace the replace bulky power substations we use now.  

“The power grid technology in the United States is more than 100 years old. Because of this outdated grid technology, it’s more susceptible to power outages — especially as we experience more and more extreme weather,” she said. A new $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will help her team pursue better power grid sustainability. 

A view of a sunlit street. Photo courtesy Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Beating neighborhood heat

Heat waves are the deadliest of all natural disasters in the U.S., but often those who live in neighborhoods susceptible to the hottest temperatures are unaware of the danger. Theodore Lim, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs, wants to build community awareness and solutions for addressing extreme heat.  

His project involves more than a dozen partners in Roanoke, encompassing the city government, libraries, public schools, faculty from Virginia Tech, Carilion ClinicVirginia Clinicians for Climate Action, as well as arts, faith-based, and service organizations, and mental and behavioral health providers. The partners have been working together to relate the issue of heat more generally to overall neighborhood improvement, and they hope in the future to incorporate workforce development and youth-based programming. 

To read more about these projects and many others related to environmental concerns and ecological improvements, have a look at this list and join us in celebrating Earth Day.

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