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2024 College of Science Awards

 

2024 College of Science AWARDS


The College of Science is committed to recognizing excellence in education, research, and service. Congratulations to all our 2024 College of Science award recipients!

 

Student Recognition


Research Scholar:
Leo Bloxham, BS Chemistry


Outstanding Undergraduate Student:
Muskan Walia, BS Mathematics


Outstanding Graduate Student:
Santiago Rabade, Geology & Geophysics

Faculty Recognition

Excellence in Research: Zhaoxia Pu, Professor, Department of Atmospheric Sciences

Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring: James Gagnon, Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences


Distinguished Educator:
Diego Fernandez, Research Professor, Geology & Geophysics


Distinguished Service:
Marjorie Chan, Distinguished Professor, Geology & Geophysics


Postdoc Recognition


Outstanding Postdoctoral Researcher:
Rodolfo Probst, Science Research Initiative

Staff Recognition


Staff Excellence Award:
Maddy Montgomery, Sr. Academic Advisor, College of Science


Staff Excellence:
Bryce Nelson, Administrative Manager, Physics & Astronomy


Safety Recognition


Excellence in Safety:
Wil Mace, Research Manager, Geology & Geophysics


Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award


Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher (College of Science):
Dua Azhar, Biological Sciences


Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher (College of Mines & Earth Sciences):
Autumn Hartley, Geology & Geophysics


Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award


Office for Undergraduate Research Mentor (College of Science):
Sophie Caron, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences


Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor (College of Mines & Earth Sciences):
Sarah Lambart, Assistant Professor, Geology & Geophysics


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Spectrum 2023

Spectrum 2023


Common Ground 2023

The official magazine of the U Department of Mining Engineering.

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Down to Earth 2023

The official magazine of the U Department of Geology & Geophysics.

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Our DNA 2023

The official magazine of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah.

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Catalyst 2023

The official magazine of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah.

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Synthesis 2023

Wilkes Center, Applied Science Project and stories from throughout the merged College.

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Aftermath Summer 2023

Anna Tang Fulbright Scholar, Tommaso de Fernex new chair, Goldwater Scholars, and more.

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Air Currents 2023

Celebrating 75 Years, The Great Salt Lake, Alumni Profiles, and more.

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Spectrum 2022

Explosive neutron stars, Utah meteor, fellows of APS, and more.

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Aftermath 2022

Arctic adventures, moiré magic, Christopher Hacon, and more.

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Our DNA 2022

Chan Yul Yoo, Sarmishta Diraviam Kannan, and more.

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Spectrum 2022

Black Holes, Student Awards, Research Awards, LGBT+ physicists, and more.

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Aftermath 2022

Student awards, Faculty Awards, Fellowships, and more.

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Our DNA 2022

Erik Jorgensen, Mark Nielsen, alumni George Seifert, new faculty, and more.

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Notebook 2022

Student stories, NAS members, alumni George Seifert, and Convocation 2022.

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Discover 2021

Biology, Chemistry, Math, and Physics Research, SRI Update, New Construction.

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Our DNA 2021

Multi-disciplinary research, graduate student success, and more.

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Aftermath 2021

Sound waves, student awards, distinguished alumni, convocation, and more.

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Spectrum 2021

New science building, faculty awards, distinguished alumni, and more.

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Notebook 2021

Student awards, distinguished alumni, convocation, and more.

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Spectrum 2021

Student awards, distinguished alumni, convocation, and more.

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Aftermath 2021

Sound waves, student awards, distinguished alumni, convocation, and more.

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Our DNA 2021

Plant pandemics, birdsong, retiring faculty, and more.

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Discover 2020

Biology, Chemistry, Math, and Physics Research, Overcoming Covid, Lab Safety.

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AfterMath 2020

50 Years of Math, Sea Ice, and Faculty and Staff recognition.

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Our DNA 2020

E-birders, retiring faculty, remote learning, and more.

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Spectrum 2020

3D maps of the Universe, Perovskite Photovoltaics, and Dynamic Structure in HIV.

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Notebook 2020

Convocation, Alumni, Student Success, and Rapid Response Research.

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Our DNA 2020

Stories on Fruit Flies, Forest Futures and Student Success.

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Catalyst 2020

Transition to Virtual, 2020 Convocation, Graduate Spotlights, and Awards.

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Spectrum 2020

Nuclear Medicine, PER Programs, and NSF grant for Quantum Idea Incubator.

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Discover 2019

Science Research Initiative, College Rankings, Commutative Algebra, and more.

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Spectrum 2019

Nuclear Medicine, PER Programs, and NSF grant for Quantum Idea Incubator.

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Notebook 2019

The New Faces of Utah Science, Churchill Scholars, and Convocation 2019.

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Catalyst 2019

Endowed Chairs of Chemistry, Curie Club, and alumnus: Victor Cee.

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Our DNA 2019

Ants of the World, CRISPR Scissors, and Alumni Profile - Nikhil Bhayani.

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Catalyst 2019

Methane-Eating Bacteria, Distinguished Alumni, Student and Alumni profiles.

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Spectrum 2019

Featured: Molecular Motors, Churchill Scholar, Dark Matter, and Black Holes.

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Our DNA 2019

Featured: The Startup Life, Monica Gandhi, Genomic Conflicts, and alumna Jeanne Novak.

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AfterMath 2018

Featured: A Love for Puzzles, Math & Neuroscience, Number Theory, and AMS Fellows.

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Discover 2018

The 2018 Research Report for the College of Science.

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Spectrum 2018

Featured: Dark Matter, Spintronics, Gamma Rays and Improving Physics Teaching.

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Catalyst 2018

Featured: Ming Hammond, Jack & Peg Simons Endowed Professors, Martha Hughes Cannon.

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Sizing Up Courthouse Crack

Sizing Up Courthouse Crack


February 29, 2024

Geohazards, due to the way they constantly change, are a source of useful research into landslides and how they happen.

 

^ Erin Jensen at the Courthouse Mesa. Credit: courtesy of Erin Jensen. ^^ Banner Photo: Erin Jensen in Courthouse Crack. Credit: Jeff Moore.

When landslides and slope failures occur in our built and natural environments, damaging property and threatening life, there’s a scramble to secure reliable assessments to prevent further damage. But what if there were ways to measure the character and instability of rock and soil beforehand and to predict potential disasters?

Recently, PhD student Erin Jensen used seismic resonance measurements to characterize the Courthouse Crack, a potentially hazardous rock slope near Moab, Utah that is part of the Courthouse Mesa. “It’s important to be able to see a site like this in person,” Jensen says, “and really appreciate the size and scale. I get to experience firsthand all the different mechanisms and influences that are happening at a particular site.”

Seismic resonance is an emerging technique within the field of geohazards and has allowed Jensen to collect more data on the Courthouse Mesa instability than can be obtained with traditional approaches.

Perhaps surprising to the uninitiated, structures like buildings, bridges, as well as natural rock formations like arches have natural vibration modes and are constantly in motion at their resonance frequencies. The new technique can help detect and characterize rock slope instabilities. Using sensitive seismic instruments has changed how researchers detect changes in slope stability and what those changes look like.

“Traditional techniques are easy to implement, and fairly inexpensive,” Jensen says. “But the main limitation is that they’re really only measuring the surface of an instability. They aren’t providing much information about the internal structure, or what’s going on at depth.”

Seismic monitoring not only bridges the gap between surface and subsurface techniques but does so without being structurally invasive, though it can be costly. In the end, Jensen used a combination of new and traditional techniques to create a clearer picture of the instability of Courthouse Crack as a whole.

The mother of invention
At sites like Courthouse Mesa, traditional methods include expensive means of drilling and field mapping which means measuring the cracks you can see, plotting it out on a map, and viewing the geometry of instability. Alternatively, generating field data with seismic resonance and then coupling the data with numerical models result in an improved picture of crack conditions, which Jensen then uses to describe the instability geometry and how the Courthouse Crack’s stability might fail. “The combination of new and traditional techniques,” Jensen says,  “generates an improved picture of landslide behavior and failure development.”

“We aren’t really concerned about imminent failure or any hazard to the public,” continues Jensen, specifically about Courthouse Mesa. “So it’s a really good spot to use as a field laboratory” and to use different seismic resonance techniques to understand work with rock slope instabilities and how they can be applied to different types of landslides, an obvious application for civil engineers, planners, and builders. Jensen’s work is a reminder that scientific inquiry is not just about discovering unknowns in the natural world but also about developing and refining new tools that have broader implications elsewhere. In this scenario, geological necessity has become the mother of invention.

With friends at Rainbow Bridge, Utah. Credit: courtesy Erin Jensen.

“I came to the U because I was interested in working with Jeff,” she says of Associate Professor Jeff Moore who is her advisor and leads the geohazards research group. His work focuses on the mechanics of processes driving natural hazards and shaping the evolution of bedrock landscapes. Utah is in fact a prime location for research into geohazards and understanding the instability of rock formations because of the abundance of natural rock formations found in places such as Arches National Park.

Jensen received her undergraduate degree in physics and civil engineering. Before coming to the U, she worked on a variety of landslide projects during her master’s degree work in geological engineering and with the US Geological Survey. At the U, she had an opportunity to develop and apply techniques that the geohazards group had been using for a decade. Before this, Moore and his group had used seismic resonance techniques to study natural arches and towers but had not yet applied these methods to large rock slope failures like those at Courthouse Mesa.

Jensen and Moore build on past studies in order to refine and move instrumentation forward by answering basic questions such as how the techniques of seismic resonance measuring can be used at other sites. Seismic resonance methods enable geohazard practitioners to better characterize and monitor potentially hazardous unstable rock slopes, especially those where invasive equipment cannot be installed, and again providing a potential service for developers and engineers.

Another benefit of the instruments Jensen is using is that she can continuously track seismic data to monitor how the site’s instability responds to temperature and rainfall changes. Jensen can use this data to check if the changes are associated with progressive failure of the rock slope. For this project, she used a single seismometer installed on the rock surface for three years and tracked the resonance frequencies of the landslide over time. What she found was that the Courthouse instability is particularly affected by thermal stresses created by heating and cooling, which causes the crack to open and close both daily and on a seasonal cycle. “We see a pretty big seasonal change,” Jensen says. “The Courthouse Crack opens and closes about fifty millimeters annually. It’s very slowly increasing and opening by millimeters per year.”

In the future, characterization measurements repeated in another season at the same site could be useful to observe the changes based on larger swings in temperature and climate. These measurements could also detect a continuing extension and failure of the cracked mesa. Coming back to the site several years later would be useful to observe changes in the overall geometry of the Courthouse Mesa.

Creating another technique in the toolkit of geological engineering is important for Jensen and her group because it helps mitigate outside risks. Her work, which is being published soon,  is instrumental in pushing the new technique for practical implementation and helps show how one can monitor landslide behavior. Conceptually, seismic resonance measuring can anticipate what kinds of other data and observations might be seen in other landslides.

Part of the project was stepping back from the site and doing conceptual and numerical modeling, such as testing out how frequency decreases with slope failure. This helps to predict how resonance frequencies will respond during progressive rock slope failures of different types. These models give new insights where field data does not exist, because instrumented rock slope failures are very rare.

Sometimes complex patterns of resonance frequency change before failure, and the models showed, for the first time, the expected form of resonance frequency change as ultimate slope collapse approaches. Field measurements like those at Courthouse Mesa are invaluable for establishing the new approach and understanding the limitations.

Erin Jensen’s work is taking her far afield from Utah. She is preparing for a postdoctoral fellowship with the US Geological Survey as part of the Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program. Her research will focus broadly on landslides in Alaska, as well as how landslides are affected by glacial retreat and climate change. <

By CJ Siebeneck

You can read the entire Geology & Geophysics Deptartment magazine Down to Earth where this story originally appeared here.

Measuring Black Carbon

Black carbon sensor could fill massive monitoring gaps


February 22, 2024

Black carbon is the most dangerous air pollutant you’ve never heard of. Its two main sources, diesel exhaust and wood smoke from wildfires and household heating, produce ultrafine air particles that are up to 25 times more of a health hazard per unit compared to other types of particulate matter.

 

^ The AethLabs microAeth MA350. ^^ Banner Photo above: Daniel Mendoza

Despite its danger, black carbon is understudied due to a lack of monitoring equipment. Regulatory-standard sensors are wildly expensive to deploy and maintain, resulting in sparse coverage in regions infamous for poor air quality, such as the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan area in Utah.

A University of Utah-led study found that the AethLabs microAeth MA350, a portable, more affordable sensor, recorded black carbon concentrations as accurately as the Aerosol Magee Scientific AE33, the most widely used instrument for monitoring black carbon in real time. Researchers placed the portable technology next to an existing regulatory sensor at the Bountiful Utah Division of Air Quality site from Aug. 30, 2021-Aug. 8, 2022. The AethLabs technology recorded nearly identical quantities of black carbon at the daily, monthly and seasonal timescales. The authors also showed that the microAeth could distinguish between wildfire and traffic sources as well as the AE33 at longer timescales.

Because black carbon stays close to the source, equipment must be localized to yield accurate readings. The microAethsensor’s portability would allow monitoring at remote or inaccessible stationary sites, as well as for mobile use.

“Having a better idea of black carbon exposure across different areas is an environmental justice issue,” said Daniel Mendoza, research assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah and lead author of the study. “The Salt Lake Valley’s westside has some of the region’s worst air quality partly because it’s closest to pollution sources, but we lack the ability to measure black carbon concentrations accurately. Democratizing data with reliable and robust sensors is an important first step to safeguarding all communities from hazardous air pollution.”

 

Read the entire story by Lisa Potter in @TheU

Read the study published on Feb. 1, 2024, in the journal Sensors.

 

Read the full story by Sean Higgins at KUER 90.1.

Utah’s Warm Wet Winter

A warm, wet winter in Utah but don’t blame El Niño


February 22, 2024

For Jackie May, this winter’s rain in the Salt Lake Valley has led to a lot of second-guessing when it comes to taking the ski bus to the mountains.

 

She typically plans her work schedule around making time for snowboarding.

^ Michael Wasserman. ^^ Banner photo above: Fog drapes the Wasatch Mountains near Cottonwood Heights as valley rain and mountain snow have been the standard storm pattern for much of Utah this winter, Feb. 20, 2024. Credit: Sean Higgins/KUER.

“Being down here, I'm like, ‘what am I doing? Should I go back to work?’” she said while waiting for the Utah Transit Authority ski bus at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. And then when I go up in the mountains, I'm like, OK, no, [winter] is still happening. This is how I want to spend my time.”

Although this winter has not had the same record-setting snowfall as last winter, not everyone is disappointed to see no snowbanks in the valley. I don't like to shovel,” said fellow bus rider Dianne Lanoy. “I do have a good car in the snow, but I don't like to drive in the snow. So, keep [the snow] up in the mountains.”

Even with more rain than snow at the lower elevations and a slow start to the winter, snowpack levels for this time of year are above average statewide. It’s also an El Niño year. That’s when warmer, wetter weather from the Pacific Ocean moves in and usually creates more precipitation.

But don’t go blaming El Niño for this winter’s wacky weather just yet. “El Niño or La Niña really means nothing for snow and precipitation in northern Utah,” says University of Utah atmospheric sciences Ph.D. student Michael Wasserstein. “Prior literature has shown that El Niño can produce lots of precipitation in Utah, or it can produce little precipitation in Utah … I don't think we can draw any conclusions about this winter's weather based on El Niño patterns.”

Wasserstein is the lead author of a new study that dives into why the Wasatch Mountains get so much snow. As it turns out, it’s all about a diversity of storm types and weather patterns.

Read the full story by Sean Higgins at KUER 90.1.

Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats Has Long Been in Flux

Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats has long been in flux


February 21, 2024

Salt crusts began forming long after Lake Bonneville disappeared, according to new U research that relied on pollen to date playa in western Utah.

 

Jeremiah Berneau. Credit: Chevron

It has been long assumed that Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats was formed as its ancient namesake lake dried up 13,000 years ago. But new research from the University of Utah has gutted that narrative, determining these crusts did not form until several thousand years after Lake Bonneville disappeared, which could have important implications for managing this feature that has been shrinking for decades to the dismay of the racing community and others who revere the saline pan 100 miles west of Salt Lake City.

This salt playa, spreading across 40 square miles of the Great Basin Desert, perfectly level and white, has served as a stage for land-speed records and a backdrop for memorable scenes in numerous films, including “Buckaroo Banzai” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Relying on radiocarbon analysis of pollen found in salt cores, the study, published Friday in the journal Quaternary Research, concludes the salt began accumulating between 5,400 and 3,500 years ago, demonstrating how this geological feature is not a permanent fixture on the landscape.

“This now gives us a record of how the Bonneville Salt Flats landscape responds to environmental change. Originally, we thought this salt had formed here right after Lake Bonneville and it was a static landscape in the past 10,000 years,” said the study’s lead author, Jeremiah Bernau, a former U graduate student in geology. “This data shows us that that’s not the case, that during a very dry period in the past 10,000 years, we actually saw a lot of erosion and then the accumulation of gypsum sand. And as the climate was becoming cooler and wetter, then the salt began to accumulate.”

Read the full story by Brian Maffly in @The U

New Tyrannosaurus Species

Scientists Conclude New Mexico Fossil Is New Tyrannosaurus Species


 

 

Scientists reassessing a partial skull first unearthed in 1983 in southeastern New Mexico have concluded that the fossil represents a new species of Tyrannosaurus - the fearsome apex predator from western North America at the twilight of the dinosaur age - that predated the fabulously famous T. rex.

^ Mark Loewen. ^^ Banner image above: An artist's reconstruction of the newly identified dinosaur species Tyrannosaurus mcraeensis, based on a partial skull fossil collected in New Mexico, U.S. Sergei Krasinski/Handout via REUTERS

Subtle differences from Tyrannosaurus rex observed in the skull merit recognizing the dinosaur as a separate species called Tyrannosaurus mcraeensis that lived several million years before T. rex and was comparable in size, the researchers said on Thursday. The skull previously was identified as a T. rex.

Other researchers expressed doubt that it represents a new Tyrannosaurus species, saying differences between it and other T. rex skulls were unremarkable and the study's conclusion that the fossil dated to 71-73 million years ago was problematic.

T. rex has been the sole species of the genus Tyrannosaurus recognized since the dinosaur was first described in 1905. A genus is a broader grouping of related organisms than a species. T. rex fossils date to the couple million years before an asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago, dooming the dinosaurs.

The first parts of the New Mexico skull were found near the base of Kettle Top Butte in 1983, with more later discovered.

Paleontologist Anthony Fiorillo, executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science and one of the authors of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports, said about 25% of the skull has been collected. Most of the braincase and the upper jaws are missing.

"Compared to T. rex, the lower jaw is shallower and more curved towards the back. The blunt hornlets above the eyes are lower than in T. rex," said paleontologist Nick Longrich of the University of Bath in England, another of the researchers.

"It's the nature of species that the differences tend to be subtle. The key thing is they're consistent. We looked at lots of different T. rex, and our animal was consistently different from every known T. rex, in every bone," Longrich added.

Vertebrate paleontologist Mark Loewen, associate professor lecturer, Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah is a co-author of the paper and Resident Research Associate at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Read the entire story by Will Dunham (Reuters) in USA Today.

Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine

Regional Innovations Engine

University of Utah part of new NSF-funded initiative to ensure regional climate solutions and economic opportunities.


 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) on Monday announced the University of Utah along with six core academic partners will be part of a multi-institutional enterprise to confront the climate challenges facing the desert Southwest and spur economic development in the region.

The effects of climate change are acutely evident in the American Southwest, from the desertification of Utah’s Great Salt Lake to the record-breaking extreme heat in Arizona and the dwindling supply of the Colorado River reaching Nevada.  

NSF Engines: Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine (SWSIE) will use these challenges to catalyze economic opportunity and seeks to establish the Southwest as a leader in carbon capture, water security and renewable energy and bring high-wage industries to the region. Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine unites academic, community, nonprofit and industry partners across Arizona, Nevada and Utah that are committed to this goal.

SWSIE is among the first proposals selected by the NSF to establish a Regional Innovation Engine, a first-of-its-kind NSF program to create focused research and technology transfer hubs. The NSF will fund SWSIE’s initial development and growth with $15 million over the next two years. The engine can be renewed for up to 10 years with $160 million in funding available for each Regional Engine.

The U of U’s core academic partners in SWSIE are Arizona State University, who serve as the lead partner of the project, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the Desert Research Institute, the Water Research Foundation, SciTech Institute and Maricopa Community Colleges. The team includes over 20 senior personnel including faculty from Atmospheric Sciences, Biological Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Communications, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Geography, and Geology and Geophysics.  The College of Science's Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy is also part of the consortium. 

THE U’S LEADERSHIP TEAM

Brenda Bowen.

At the helm of the U leadership team is Brenda Bowen, co-PI on the SWSIE project and co-lead of the community development working group. Bowen is professor of geology and geophysics, chair of department of atmospheric sciences, and director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the U.

“We are so thrilled to have the opportunity to grow academic, industry, and community partnerships that unite Utah, Nevada, and Arizona as we innovate sustainable solutions for water, energy, and carbon,” she says. “This is work that needs to happen, and this award will allow us to align our efforts to maximize the positive impacts across the region.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read the entire story by Xoel Cardenas, Sr. Communications Specialist.,Office of the Vice President for Research here.

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

 

2023 College of Science Awards

 

2023 College of Science AWARDS


 

The College of Science is committed to recognizing excellence in education, research, and service. Congratulations to all our 2023 College of Science award recipients!

 

Student Recognition


Research Scholar:
Alison Wang, BS Chemistry


Research Scholar:
Yexalen Barrera-Casas, BS Chemistry


Outstanding Graduate Student:
Dylan Klure, PhD Biology

Faculty Recognition

Excellence in Research: Gabriel Bowen, Department of Geology and Geophysics

Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring: Sophie Caron, Associate Professor of Biology


Distinguished Educator:
Kevin Davenport, Physics and Astronomy


Distinguished Service:
Selvi Kara, Postdoctoral Scholar, Mathematics

Postdoc Recognition


CoS Outstanding Postdoctoral Researcher:
Effie Symeonidi, Biology

Staff Recognition


CoS Staff Excellence Award:
Karen Zundel, Biology


Excellence in Safety:
Maria Garcia, Atmospheric Sciences

College of Mines and Earth Sciences Awards


Outstanding Research Faculty:
Pratt Rogers, Mining Engineering


Outstanding Teaching Assistant:
John Otero, Materials Science Engineering


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