Methane, light and river trade: 2017 Walbridge Fund empowers innovative environmental graduate research

Morgan Kelly ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

Five Princeton University graduate students have been selected to receive Walbridge Fund Graduate Awards from the Princeton Environmental Institute to support their doctoral research. Established in 2009, the Walbridge Fund provides up to $10,000 to Princeton graduate students pursuing innovative projects in the fields of energy technology, carbon policy and climate science. The grants fund fieldwork, travel, conference participation, the purchase of equipment, costs associated with data analysis and facility use.

The 2017 recipients are Yifeng Chen, Vinicius de Aguiar Furuie, Bryan Kudisch, Kaia Tombak and Evan Zhao. Their research addresses important issues in climate change, including detecting methane leaks in the natural-gas supply chain; examining Amazonian river economies; developing more efficient solar-power technology; studying the effect of parasites on zebra populations; and demonstrating how light can be used to produce chemicals and biofuels on an industrial scale.

Brief descriptions of each recipient’s research proposal are below.

Yifeng Chen, Electrical Engineering

Adviser: Gerard Wysocki, associate professor of electrical engineering
“Remote Natural Gas Emission Detection Using Novel Balanced Heterodyne-Enhanced Chirped Laser Dispersion Spectroscopy

Chen will work to develop an enhanced method employing two lasers to remotely detect methane leaks in the natural-gas supply chain, such as pipelines and storage units. Methane is a greenhouse gas several times more potent than carbon dioxide. Containing leaks to less than 1 percent of total natural-gas production is essential to realizing any climatic benefits from drawing energy from natural
gas instead of from fossil fuels.

Vinicius de Aguiar Furuie, Anthropology

Adviser: João Biehl, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology
“Assessing Climate Change Impact on an Amazonian River Economy”

de Aguiar Furuie will spend a year in the Brazilian Amazon studying the economies of upriver communities in the Xingu River basin, particularly the river-trade network used by residents in these densely forested areas to exchange local goods for supplies and fuel from the urban center of Altamira. The network is being altered by climate change through diminished rainfall and by large-scale projects such as the Belo Monte dam.

Bryan Kudisch, Chemistry

Adviser: Greg Scholes, the William S. Tod Professor of Chemistry
“Ultrafast Spectroscopy at 25 Tesla Disentagles Coherent Electron Transfer in P3HT:PCBM Nanoparticles

Kudisch plans to explore organic photovoltaics — which create energy from sunlight — constructed with a P3HT:PCBM blend that has exhibited high light absorption and efficient electron transfer. His work could be important to the development of more efficient, stable and productive solar-energy technology.

Kaia Tombak, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Adviser: Dan Rubenstein, Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology
“Parasite-Exposure Dynamics and Their Impacts on Zebra Populations in a Landscape with Changing Water Distribution

Working in Kenya, Tombak will examine how the increased concentration of zebra dung in areas surrounding watering holes during periods of low rainfall — which could be exacerbated by climate change — affect parasite infection. She will study the environmental circumstances that influence infection and — through a non-invasive analysis of individual animal’s immune function — the repercussions of parasites on the overall populations of zebras, particularly the endangered Grévy’s zebra.

Evan Zhao, Chemical and Biological Engineering

Adviser: José Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment
“Optogenetic Regulation for Metabolic Engineering

Through the Walbridge Fund, Zhao will use a large bioreactor to demonstrate the feasibility of producing chemicals through light-induced fermentation, or optogenetics, on an industrial scale. Optogenetics could reduce the environmental hazards of chemical production and bolster the production of biofuels.