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Solving Engineering Grand Challenges with NSF Support

By Rebecca Nagy


From harmful algal blooms to protecting infrastructure with mussels, BAE research is leading the way in critical issues facing both North Carolina and the world. With recently announced funding from the National Science Foundation, four BAE faculty can conduct research to better understand and address these critical problems. With an annual budget of $7.5 billion, the National Science Foundation is the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.

Changing Oxygen Availability in Freshwater Ecosystems

The amount of oxygen in many lakes and reservoirs is changing globally. These changes may threaten ecosystem services provided by lakes. In addition to degrading drinking water and fisheries, changes in oxygen can change how much carbon is buried in lake bottoms. Since human-made reservoirs store more carbon annually than the ocean, these changes may have a major impact on global carbon cycling. The magnitude of changes in oxygen, and consequences for water quality, are unknown. François Birgand will take advantage of an unprecedented opportunity to switch an entire reservoir from low to high oxygen. The study includes several experiments that involve changing oxygen levels, and examining the impacts on carbon cycling. This research will improve predictions of how environmental changes will affect carbon burial in lakes and the results will help managers meet goals to improve reservoir water quality. It will also contribute to understanding long-term effects of management on carbon burial in lakes. This project will produce educational tools and lesson plans for undergraduate courses on reservoir ecology. Project scientists will work with water utilities and the broader research community to share knowledge to improve policy.

Addressing Algal Blooms

Several hundred tons of marine life have died along the Gulf shores of Florida since October 2017 from exposure to algal blooms known as a “red tide”. The intensity of these blooms is believed to be related to nutrients in freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee, a large inland lake in south-central Florida that is managed for flood prevention. However, strong scientific evidence to support the connection between the red tide and Lake Okeechobee water releases is lacking. With funding from the National Science Foundation, assistant professor Natalie Nelson will lead an effort with colleagues Edward Phlips of the University of Florida and Eric Milbrandt of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation to collect, analyze, and model water quality data prior to and throughout major freshwater releases. This specific grant, the NSF RAPID, funds research to address existing, on-the-ground needs. Data collected will provide insight into cause-and-effect relationships between freshwater releases and algal blooms. Findings from this study will directly inform management of one of the nation’s most elaborate freshwater flood prevention systems, and support efforts to address the ecological emergency caused by red tide.

Can Bivalves Protect Infrastructure?

Scour, or the removal of sediment by flowing water, is a one of the most common causes for bridge failures in the U.S. Previous studies have suggested that bivalve colonies can reduce local erosion. However, there is a gap in knowledge to assess and develop bivalve farms as a potentially self-sustaining scour mitigation method.

Assistant professor Celso Castro-Bolinaga and associate professor Steven Hall will seek to understand if bivalve colonies reduce scour and erosion and if the adhesive proteins used by bivalves increase sediment strength and reduce erodibility. The NC State team will work with a research team at Virginia Tech. The project will also seek to increase diversity in the field of geotechnical engineering by emphasizing the recruitment of female students and students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Better Understanding Ammonia Emissions

Animal feeding operations (AFOs) contribute to 85% of total ammonia emissions in the U.S., emitting approximately 2.5 million tons of ammonia each year. Ammonia is associated with negative effects on air and water quality, soil health and ecosystem health.

With this NSF funding, professor Ling Wang Li hopes to advance the understanding of ammonia emissions and better understand the ecological and environmental impacts of ammonia emissions from AFOs. Findings will be transferred to students, industries, regulators, and the public through education and outreach programs to increase the understanding of environmental impacts of ammonia released from AFOs and inform policy makers to better protect human and ecological health.