Energy

Greensboro, NC – Drs. Uchenna Anele, Omon Isikhuemhen, Felicia Anike and Obed Quaicoe are researchers in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences who are working on integrating mushroom and cattle production.  The team recently received a three-year, $500k grant from the United States Department of Agriculture through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) as part of its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program.

The AFRI program is the nation’s leading competitive grants program for agricultural sciences. The team is using its AFRI grant to explore how the use of a mushroom-based feed supplement might improve how U.S. farmers feed their cattle.

As the leading beef producer in the world with annual output of 25-27 billion pounds, the U.S. beef cattle production system begins with cow/calf operations that typically occur on pastures and rangelands, all the way to cattle feedlots that focus on finishing cattle on grain before slaughter. During the early stages of cow/calf operations, production costs increase remarkably during the winter months when pastures are less productive. As a result, cattle farmers use supplemental feeding of previously-harvested and stored forages (hay and straw for example) and other agro-industrial byproducts.

For small-to-medium sized cattle farmers, the winter season poses major challenges to sustainability and profitability. The cost of feed during the winter season is especially high, hence farmers must choose between using their land for crops or livestock production. These farmers also lack the ability to create short-term, regular income flow throughout the year.

Corn stover is the dried, decayed leaf and stem matter left on the field (and spit out of a harvester) after cobs are picked and shelled. While stover is America’s most plentiful crop residue after harvest, it’s not very appealing as a livestock feed. Even after you process it into bite-sized pellets (not an inexpensive process) it just isn’t nutritious. It contains a lot of tough plant fiber (called lignin) and if you were a cow, you probably wouldn’t enjoy chewing stover. After all, the corn plant has done its work growing nutritious corn kernels; the stover represents spent scraps.

What if there was an affordable way to fortify corn stover and make it easier for cattle to eat? And, beyond that, what if there were additional economic benefits to farmers using that fortification process?

ENTER THE MUSHROOM.

It’s probably been awhile since you thought about fungi and their benefits if any, so let’s review. Mushrooms are organisms that grow from spores, not seeds, which means they grow in a very different way from plants. Mushrooms grow into extremely nutritious, vitamin-filled edibles by feasting on substances such as sawdust, grain, wood plugs, straw, wood chips, plus liquid for nourishment.

Are you wondering if mushrooms will grow on corn stover? Dr. Isikhuemhen’s previous work in Germany and recent work with Dr. Anike here at N.C. A&T already established the possibility! Now it’s time to test the concept at small farmer sites and see how the science and economics add up.

There is a possibility that the production of mushrooms and the simultaneous utilization of abundant, low-cost corn stover could really improve the financial landscape for farmers, while resulting in happier, healthier cattle. The team believes that cultivating mushrooms on corn stover will:

  • Alleviate financial challenges for farmers by utilizing cheap and plentiful corn stover especially for winter feeding of cows
  • Break down the lignin in the corn stover making it appealing and easy to digest
  • Release nutrients and bioactive compounds into the stover which makes it more nutritious
  • Improve the gut microbiome in cattle
  • Produce mushrooms, a tasty, nutritious, high-margin, year-round crop for farmers to sell

This research project is a win, win, win, win, win: for science, for farmers, for cattle, for the environment and for consumers. This research project will be executed by a team comprised of an animal scientist, a mushroom scientist, a biotechnologist, an economist and a group of small farmers of cattle and mushrooms in North Carolina. The project is a model for transdisciplinary research in agriculture today, and here’s how we expect it will work:

Participating mushroom substrate producers will make and deliver ready-to-fruit substrates to cattle farmers who will “fruit” (produce) and sell the mushrooms on a weekly or biweekly basis.

Spent mushroom substrate (left over after fruiting) will be used for feeding trials in cattle. Data such as animal growth parameters, changes in gut microbiome as health indicators, blood parameters, quantity/value of mushroom yield and changes in farm profitability will be evaluated.

Dr. Anele believes the integration of exotic mushroom and cattle production can be of immense advantage in a small farm environment because mushrooms can act as a continuous source of income to farmers (daily-weekly sales) while generating bio-fortified biomass as a cheap source of animal feed, especially during the winter months when grazing is not possible in many U.S. states.

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N.C. A&T Launches Southeast Urban Sustainability Summit Event

Dr. Vicki Foust at N.C. A&T has received a $50K NSF grant to fund an upcoming event to advance research in urban sustainability. The Southeast Urban Sustainability Summit (SEUSS) will develop a research network comprised of academics, municipalities, industries, and advocacy groups with the vision of advancing research in urban sustainability in the state of North Carolina. SEUSS will be held August 14-15, 2019 on the campus of N.C. A&T in Greensboro.

SEUSS will convene a diverse network of stakeholders from across the state committed to identifying and addressing North Carolina’s most pressing sustainability and resilience issues related to energy, water, waste, transportation, housing, health/safety and food/agriculture. The collaborations formed at SEUSS will seek additional funding to conduct the research needs identified at the conference. The resulting research agenda will have implications for the entire southeastern U.S.

SEUSS is led by Principal Investigator Dr. Vicki Foust with the Center for Energy Research and Technology at N.C. A&T, in collaboration with leadership from N.C. A&T, UNC Greensboro, Appalachian State University, NC State University, the Southeast Sustainability Director’s Network, the Environmental Defense Fund and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

For more information about SEUSS and to register for the event, please contact Dr. Vicki Foust at vafoust@ncat.edu, 336-285-4738.

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Dr. Sung-Jin Cho Receives Grant to Advance Solid State Battery Technology

Dr. Sung-Jin Cho, an assistant professor in the Department of Nanoengineering at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN), has received a $240,000 research award. Cho’s research supports the needs of today’s automakers, all of whom are interested in the commercial opportunities related to Cho’s solid state battery system research. Funding from this grant will explore two specific topics: high performance hetero-structured cathode material, and the fundamental study of rotating molecules for polymer electrolytes.

Solid state lithium batteries such as the ones Cho is pioneering hold great promise for automakers as they pursue stored energy solutions for their vehicles versus gas-powered engines. Cho’s battery research aims to do more with less, powering electric vehicles that can travel greater distances on a single charge while adding less weight than the batteries currently available to manufacturers.

Cho and his team showcase their scientific achievements in a state-of-the-art battery laboratory at JSNN. His testing environment here in Greensboro rivals what automakers can duplicate at their own laboratories, which is why they are enthusiastically supporting this research.

Cho’s research around nano-architected energy storage encompasses a wide variety of applications. In addition to the active projects with world-renowned automotive manufacturers, an apparel manufacturer has tasked Cho’s team with pioneering advanced flexible, wearable, high energy lithium batteries which can be integrated into garments. Cho’s research also supports BioSolar, Incorporated which is developing a breakthrough technology to double the storage capacity, lower the cost and extend the life of lithium-ion batteries. The company funds Cho’s research, and currently licenses one of his inventions for nano material based super- cathode technology. Cho also does research for the Air Force and other government agencies.

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CERT Emerges as STEM Leader in Guilford County

The Center for Energy Research and Technology (CERT) at North Carolina A&T State University has been awarded a $300k National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to create a pathway to the STEM workforce for minorities and women. The NSF funding is for a CERT-created program called EMERGE in STEM, which stands for Education for Minorities to Effectively Raise Graduation and Employment in STEM. It will offer STEM-related career exposure to Guilford County students in grades 4-12.

Through EMERGE in STEM, CERT will work closely with Guilford County schools and a large network of private, governmental and educational institutions to meet the objectives of the program. An EMERGE in STEM website (www.EMERGEinSTEM.org) will serve as the hub to provide information and a calendar of events throughout the year, both in and out-of-school, to parents, children, educators, public and private entities about STEM opportunities. The expectation is to have hundreds of organizations linked to the network, with volunteers from most STEM-oriented industry and entrepreneurial partners in Guilford County.

Learning Blade, a game-based software, will be one mechanism to provide both STEM science/technology/engineering/math lessons to students, as well as knowledge of exciting and fulfilling jobs in the STEM workforce. The EMERGE in STEM funding will provide the Learning Blade software to Guilford County schools at no cost, having been shown to significantly improve student interest in STEM careers in other school systems.

The EMERGE in STEM program will be led by Dr. Greg Monty, Director of CERT.  It aspires to be the go-to STEM program and website for Guilford County by the end of the pilot in December 2019.

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BioSolar Extends Research Program with N.C. A&T

BioSolar, Inc. has extended the funding of a sponsored research program at N.C. A&T to support the next phase of its silicon anode material technology development. BioSolar’s research program with N.C. A&T initially began in September 2016 with a focus on low cost and high performance materials for next generation lithium-ion batteries. Dr. Sung-Jin Cho, assistant professor in the Department of Nanoengineering is internationally recognized in the field of lithium-ion battery development, will continue to be the lead investigator of the sponsored research. Dr. Cho also serves as Director of the Nano Energy Laboratory, a role he has held since August 2014. This BioSolar extension funds the research program for another 12 months, until September 2018.

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Finding the Sweet Spot Where Reliable Energy, Lower Cost and Reduced Emissions Meet in North Carolina

As consumers of electricity and gas in our homes, North Carolinians know that personal habits and decisions impact energy usage. It’s hard to be in the dark with so many tools available to help households understand and manage consumption: programmable thermostats and myriad “smart home” devices. It’s easy to see why these devices have taken hold, because with better information, consumers use less energy, and ultimately pay less in their monthly bill. Better energy management at home has a direct correlation to energy savings and cost savings, but there is another correlation that researchers at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University are trying to shed light on: smarter choices in power generation.

Consumers have little control where their energy comes from- that is a decision left up to the power companies who manage the grid. It stands to reason that the cheaper a power company can produce and distribute power, the lower energy costs would be. In addition, actual power generation data could be used to improve plant performance and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So what kind of information is available to help a power company make smart decisions?

Dr. Greg Monty, director of the Center for Energy Research and Technology and Dr. Marwan Bikdash, chair of the Department of Computational Engineering at N.C. A&T are trying to help North Carolina’s power companies understand their options. Since January 2016, Monty and Bikdash have been modeling the state’s energy usage to determine the best recipe for power generation. Grad student Aditi Bhalerao has been assisting their efforts.

“In the summer of 2015, President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the Clean Power Plan,” explains Dr. Monty. “It called for a 30% reduction in power plant carbon emissions by the year 2030. The CPP gives states a lot of flexibility in how to go about achieving the reduction, which is why we started thinking about modeling different scenarios to help North Carolina achieve an optimum result.”

The state’s power data is publicly-available information, and by using actual energy generation and emissions data from the Energy Information Administration, the N.C. A&T researchers can look at every possible scenario. By inputting data for all plants in North Carolina (nuclear, coal, natural gas, hydro, solar, and wind) into their modeling resources, the team hopes to identify trends which will help power companies reduce costs, raise plant efficiencies and lower carbon emissions. The model will incorporate fluctuations in the prices of oil, natural gas, and other resources, and recommend the best mix of power generation under a variety of scenarios.

“No matter what the present administration’s opinion of climate change might be, or the immediate fate of the Clean Power Plan, it is just a matter of time before our state faces pressure to examine its practices or a different approach becomes economically more attractive”, says Dr. Marwan Bikdash. “In a way, this is the perfect time to address this! Without a high pressure mandate, North Carolina can carefully examine all the information, formulate a game plan and get a head start on creating cheaper, lower-polluting energy for the state.”

Data is being loaded into Matlab, a technical computing environment used by engineers and scientists. Gurobi Optimizer software is used to model the emissions. Monte Carlo simulations (computerized mathematical techniques that allow the researchers to account for risk in quantitative analysis and decision making) are used to generate thousands of power generation scenarios that can meet North Carolina’s energy demands. Finally, big data analytics are used to understand those promising scenarios that (1) meet the energy demand in the state, (2) would produce 30% reductions in carbon emissions by 2030, (3) while keeping the price of electricity low or very close to the 2017 cost of electricity in North Carolina.

“If we can provide modeling data that allows North Carolina to reduce its carbon emissions while still providing the energy needs of the state, at less cost, that would be a big win for all,” says Monty.

The university will complete its power generation modeling research this spring, with final results expected in June 2017. The researchers will make their findings available to the public, the North Carolina Utilities Commission, the state legislature and every North Carolina power company interested in lowering costs and reducing carbon emissions for the Tarheel state. The intent is to help leaders craft policy and practice that puts North Carolina in an energy leadership position in the nation.”