A new sustainable-energy research initiative brings together strong energy research programs at Virginia Tech and creates a new funding model for  center-level projects.

The Energy and Materials Initiative will include the expertise and resources of nearly 30 Virginia Tech faculty members from four colleges, who will collaborate in clusters on promising, innovative projects including smart buildings and a smart city; the food, energy and water nexus; safe, secure and sustainable nuclear power; electrochemical energy conversion and storage; and bioinspired aerodynamic and aeroacoustic control.

The initiative is spearheaded by Shashank Priya, the Robert E. Hord Jr. Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering and the faculty director for materials and sustainable energy at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

“Four to seven faculty will work together on a center-level topical area that combines their own individual research,” Priya explained. “The goal is to form a cohesive and structured partnership within materials and energy research at Virginia Tech, which will position us to apply for larger external grants and create high-impact technologies. The research conducted under the initiative will be at technology readiness level three and higher.”

The Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science will provide seed funding for research in targeted clusters; that investment will support a graduate student in each cluster co-advised by the cluster’s faculty members.

Priya explains that working together to direct the doctoral research of a single graduate student will require deep collaboration among the faculty in each cluster — and that collaboration will encourage truly interdisciplinary innovation.

“Because of that student, faculty will have to work together to formulate the research problem in a simple manner,” he said.

“We believe that a distributed, large-scale effort like this has a larger chance of success in a shorter time,” Priya said. “It also has the potential to attract support at the state level. The results generated by this initiative will make Virginia Tech a destination university for energy research.”

The first round of research projects funded by the initiative fall into five clusters, selected for their demonstrated sustainability and potential impact on society and education.

The cluster on electrochemical energy conversion and storage will be led jointly by Michael Ellis, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Robert Moore, a professor of chemistry. Their team will develop electrochemical materials, devices, and production processes to improve conversion efficiency, reduce cost, and expand the use of electrochemical systems like fuel cells and batteries.

Jason He, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, will oversee projects exploring how to productively manage the interaction between food, water, and energy systems, including developing technologies for recovering energy and nutrients from food, beverage, and agricultural waste.

Professor of electrical and computer engineering Saifur Raman will direct the effort on “smart” buildings and cities that are interconnected and safe, drawing on research in smart grids, information and communication systems, multisource energy harvesting, and smart urban infrastructure.

Alireza Haghighat, a professor of mechanical engineering, will head the “Safe, Secure, and Sustainable Nuclear power” cluster. Research will focus on the design and analysis of a reactor based on molten salt fuel, which could improve the availability of clean, safe, affordable energy.

And Michael Philen, an associate professor of aerospace and ocean engineering, will lead research on bioinspired aerodynamic and aeroacoustic control. That team will use bioinspired technologies like flexible matrix composites and 3-D printed “finlets” to tackle challenges in wave and wind energy.

“This is a faculty-centric model,” Priya said. “The cluster leads are basically entrepreneurs.”

In order to remain part of the Energy and Materials Initiative beyond the first year, each cluster must more-than-double its seed funding in external investment. Successful clusters will eventually become self-sustaining.

One vehicle for that is the initiative’s built-in industry membership structure, which allows companies interested in energy research to invest in these projects with a very low indirect cost.

Roop Mahajan, the executive director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, praised the new initiative.

“This effort brings together exceptionally talented faculty members to collaborate on a wide spectrum of sustainable energy technologies with far-reaching impact,” he said “We are proud to nurture this initiative.”    

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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