William Anderegg Receives Blavatnik Award

William Anderegg RECEIVES Blavatnik Award

On July 26, the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences announced that Dr. William Anderegg is one of three national laureates to receive the 2023 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. A video announcing Anderegg’s selection for the Blavatnik Award  is available here.

Dr. Anderegg is an associate professor of Biological Sciences at the U and director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy. As the 2023 Laureate in Life Sciences, he is being awarded $250,000 for his work on “revealing how trees absorb and release carbon dioxide amidst a changing climate.” This is the largest unrestricted scientific award for America’s most innovative, faculty-ranked scientists and engineers who are under the age of 42.

Anderegg’s recent publications have examined the interaction of plant ecology and climate change, from the scale of cells to forest ecosystems. Specifically, he addresses how drought and climate change affect Earth’s forests and the manifold benefits they bring to society. His work overturns a 50-year foundational theory on how stomata—pores on leaves that facilitate photosynthesis—behave in order to improve carbon gain and minimize water loss, and in turn, how this affects global forests’ response to climate change.

 As a leading voice in the field of climate change, Anderegg’s discoveries are already informing climate solutions, global policies, and public health. He is the first ever winner of the Blavatnik Regional Awards to be awarded the Blavatnik National Award Laureate. 

 “I am thrilled that our important work continues to be recognized,” said Anderegg. “I hope that our contributions to this field of research can help illuminate the future of Earth’s forests and provide urgently-needed tools to tackle climate change and increase resilience in ecosystems and communities in the US and across the globe.”

 The 2023 Blavatnik National Awards received 267 nominations from 134 institutions in 38 U.S. states. Nominees must be faculty-level scientific researchers, 42 years of age or younger. Three independent juries —one each for life sciences, chemistry, and physical sciences and engineering —were composed of some of America’s most distinguished scientists. The juries selected three winning laureates and 28 finalists.  

The Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists will celebrated the 2023 laureates and finalists in a ceremony on September 19 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (See banner photo above: William Anderegg with Sir Leonard Valentinovich Blavatnik)

In April, Anderegg was one of three 2023 recipients of the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award for his contributions to ecosystem and climate change science.



An Unexpected Climate Solution

The Wilkes Center Student Innovation Prize

Nicholas Witham is the first-place winner of the Wilkes Center Student Innovation Prize, awarded earlier this month at the University of Utah. The competition invited students to propose creative solutions for tackling the climate crisis, along with presentations that detail their potential impact, benefits, and practicality. Three other prizes, one for second place and two for third place, were also given during the inaugural Wilkes Climate Summit at the University of Utah, May 17-18.

A graduate student at the U, Witham is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, as well as running his company Gaia Technologies which makes prosthetic components. For the Wilkes Center Prize, he designed an innovative renewable electric generator that relies on natural fluctuations in the Earth’s temperature. “The type of generator I’ve designed works with thermo-motive artificial muscles,” he says. “That means that they contract when you heat them. Every day the Earth gets hotter and colder which will make them move, and they can pull on a turbine, generating power. The great thing about this is that cooling also generates power, so you can make energy day and night.” This potential for around-the-clock power generation could help to bridge the energy gap that is common with renewable energy sources. 

One of the first places Witham hopes to put his generators is in Southern Utah where the day-to-night temperature change is ideal for this technology 10 months out of the year. And although natural temperature fluctuations may not always be enough to run the generators, Witham believes that they could be used to complement existing renewables such as solar and geothermal energy: “You can use highly efficient geothermal heat pumps to actuate them without needing to have a temperature change caused by the environment. The excess heat that they are wasting, not spinning a turbine, just cooling down before they pump it back into the Earth–we could use that to increase the energy output of our generators tenfold,” he says. 

In fact, installing these generators at pre-existing geothermal plants or solar farms may be the most ideal option to maximize the efficiency and cost of these sites. “I ran the numbers, and I believe that this could be a solution that could cost less than solar, and you can scale it vertically,” explains Witham. “So you could use existing solar infrastructure, place the solar panels on top, and any time you want to reinvest in the site without having to run new electric lines to it, you could just stack them higher.” 

Not only is the generator a potentially powerful form of renewable energy, but it also incorporates carbon capture into its design. “These are polymer textiles. So they’re made out of a plastic called linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), which is a type of plastic that can be bio-derived. That means you can use corn husks to make this plastic as an indirect form of carbon capture. Every kilogram of LLDPE sequesters 3 kilograms of carbon.” 

Witham carefully considered the environmental impact of these generators, ensuring that they contribute to carbon sequestering efforts instead of creating more waste: “In the decommissioning of solar panels, for example, you generate quite a lot of e-waste. This system is designed to be recycled and decommissioned in an environmentally safe practice.” 

Witham plans to house the entire generator inside a shipping container, and he estimates that one of these generators could be expected to last over 25 years with very minimal maintenance. Due to their self-contained nature, the impact and effect of these units on the surrounding environment is very minimal. “It’s essentially a big black box that we plan to put in the middle of the desert. I contacted the local EPA office about this to see if there was anything I was missing, and they had no real concerns. Because we’re putting it in a box, any microplastics that might be generated by the textiles shearing or breaking catastrophically would be contained,” he states.

The capacity for incorporating these devices in urban areas, according to Witham, may be limited to apartment buildings or skyscrapers. “I don’t think anybody really wants to use a shipping-container-sized portion of their yard to make power,” he jokes. The weight of these containers also limits their ability to be placed on top of roofs, or buildings, as each unit weighs roughly 18 metric tons. However, there is potential for them to be incorporated underneath buildings. “You can absolutely put it underground if you have a heat pump HVAC system to regulate it, but that would be a bit less efficient.” Though the generators wouldn’t function as well as in the remote desert environment Witham has planned, there is still a possibility for urban incorporation. 

With a purse of $20,000 from the Wilkes Center Prize, Witham is one step closer to getting his design up and running at full scale. His lab already has the capability to mass-produce the necessary artificial muscle technology, so a prototype will soon follow. “The assumption is that we can make a nine-megawatt-hour generator at scale to test it in the field. From there we could make a generator field just like you would see for a solar field. And then with a 2.4-year doubling period – which is typical for renewables in this area – that would mean that by 2050 we would have sequestered and offset a total of 15 million tons of CO2.” Witham’s consideration of sustainability, feasible scaling, and collaboration with other renewables make his design both practical and effective as a climate solution.  

Textile artificial muscle in thermo-mechanical testing set-up. Photo credit: Nick Witham

Clearly, the judges of the Wilkes Center Prize thought so as well. Witham’s design is a unique and impressive fusion of renewable energy with pre-existing biomedical technologies, showcasing that the nature of climate solutions will likely be interdisciplinary. Witham jokes that a sleepless night at work is to thank for his idea to incorporate his biomedical work into a renewable energy source: “I was having a sleep-deprived night in the lab, as you do as a graduate student,” says Nicholas Witham, “and I crunched the numbers because I thought, ‘hey, the Earth heats up!’ I connected all the dots because we use a type of plastic that is a lot more energy efficient and is not typically used for these artificial muscles. And that energy efficiency really allowed this idea to have merit.” 

Witham’s creative application of biomedical engineering shows that the most powerful climate solutions may come from unexpected places and that no branch of knowledge is too isolated to make an impact. His impressive design stands alongside dozens of other projects from creative and dedicated students that rose to meet this innovation challenge. With prizes such as this, the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy is leading the way toward creating a powerful forum for interdisciplinary climate solutions and collaboration, essential for tackling a multifaceted issue like climate change.  


By Julia St. Andre
Intern Science Writer


Tim Hawkes named College of Science senior fellow

Great Salt Lake advocate and former Utah lawmaker Tim Hawkes joins College of Science Leadership Team as Senior Fellow

The University of Utah College of Science announced the selection of attorney and former Utah legislator Tim Hawkes as Senior Fellow. In addition to advising college leadership, Hawkes will also serve on the executive advisory board for the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy.

Hawkes currently serves as General Counsel and Vice-Chair of the Board for the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, where he handles a wide variety of legal and regulatory issues, as well as business strategy, strategic communications, and governmental affairs, particularly on issues that relate to the Great Salt Lake. Tim has nearly two decades’ worth of experience in water law and policy and advocating for Utah’s natural resources.

During his eight years in the State Legislature, Hawkes served in House Leadership as Rules Chair, and on the Business & Labor and Natural Resource Committees. He also sponsored many important pieces of water legislation. A trained mediator and outdoor enthusiast, Hawkes served for ten years as Utah Director for Trout Unlimited. From 2014-2017, he co-chaired Utah’s Recommended State Water Strategy Team. Hawkes holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Brigham Young University and a Juris Doctor from Columbia University School of Law.

“I am delighted to serve as an inaugural Senior Fellow of the College of Science,” said Hawkes. “I look forward to working with Dean Trapa and the exceptional staff and faculty of the College to help address critical environmental challenges facing Utah. Both the College and the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy can shape and support policy decisions at all levels.”

Hawkes is the first fellow selected by the College of Science. The College of Science Fellows Program will expand in the future to include other experts and leaders in strategic areas of opportunity.

“I am excited to have Tim Hawkes join us as Senior Fellow and advisor to the College of Science,” said Dean Peter Trapa. “Tim’s policy acumen and understanding of environmental issues fit perfectly with President Randall’s vision to enhance the U’s unsurpassed societal impact.”

William Anderegg Receives NSF Waterman Award

William Anderegg and National Science Foundation Dir. Sethuraman Panchanathan at Waterman Award Ceremonies, May 9, 2023. Photo provided by NSF.

William Anderegg RECEIVES Waterman Award

Associate professor of Biology William Anderegg is a 2023 recipient of the National Science Foundation‘s Alan T. Waterman Award. Anderegg, who is also Director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy, is one of three awardees each of whom receive a medal and $1 million over five years for research in their chosen field of science. The nation’s highest honor for early-career scientists and engineers, The Waterman Award was presented to all recipients at a ceremony during the National Science Board meeting, held in Washington, D.C., on May 9. The award, established by Congress in 1975, is named for Alan T. Waterman, NSF’s first director.

“Receiving the Waterman Award is incredibly meaningful. It’s an amazing honor and I’m still stunned,” said Anderegg. “It will allow us to take on some really aspirational, creative and high-risk projects that we’ve thought about for a while but can now actually tackle. I’m immensely grateful to the wonderful mentors I’ve had throughout my career who played a huge role in my path as a scientist. I feel lucky to be surrounded by such generous and brilliant scientists, and this award has really made me reflect on how important these people have been and still are in my career.”

This is the second year the National Science Foundation has chosen to honor three researchers with the award, which recognizes outstanding early-career U.S. science or engineering researchers who demonstrate exceptional individual achievements in NSF-supported fields.


Read the full story by Ross Chambless in @TheU.
Listen to the National Science Foundation’s recent podcast with Bill Anderegg here.