Earth Day 2023: Virginia Tech experts available to discuss environmental issues, research
April 7, 2023
The Virginia Tech media relations office has the following experts available for interviews surrounding the environment, energy, and sustainability. To schedule an interview, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rising seas threatens U.S. coastlines and cities
A recently released report from the U.N. on climate change found that rising sea levels are "unavoidable for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean warming and ice sheet melt, and sea levels will remain elevated for thousands of years."
Virginia Tech environmental security expert Manoochehr Shirzaei says beginning in the 21st century, the average rate of sea level rise and land subsidence nearly doubled per year, due to warming temperatures. “Sea level rise and land subsidence increase the hazards associated with hurricanes, storm surges, shoreline erosion, and inundation of low-lying coastal areas where the high density of population and assets amplifies the regions exposure to hazards.”. He explains that land subsidence can also affect coastal structures' integrity and increase the likelihood of failure.
Shirzaei says the solution varies from place to place based on the individual situation. It may involve upgrading protection facilities (i.e. dams), raising lands, maintaining and restoring nature-based protection (i.e. wetlands), controlling subsidence, improving flood resiliency, selective relocation of important infrastructure, or installing flood warning systems.
Environmental impact of AI and its sustainability
Artificial intelligence’s rapid growth has led to advancements like autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, and ChatGPT. But AI technologies and the training of AI models require a lot of energy, increasing concerns about the environmental impact of AI and its sustainability.
To put AI’s energy usage into perspective: it took nine days to train one of OpenAI’s early model chatbots known as MegatronLM. According to TechTarget, during those nine days, 27,648 kilowatt hours of energy was used. That’s about the same amount of energy used by three U.S. homes over the course of an entire year.
In an effort to make AI more sustainable, Walid Saad, a professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech and the Next-G Faculty Lead for Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, is exploring the concept of green federated learning, or green FL in partnership with Amazon. Federated learning is a distributed machine learning technique that enables the deployment of collaborative AI algorithms.
Saad and his team want to make federated learning systems, and more generally distributed AI systems, more sustainable and energy-efficient during both the training phase and inference phase, when algorithms are used to execute real-world AI tasks.
Greenwashing leaves false impressions of sustainable economic practices
Do you pick companies, for instance, banks, based on their green initiatives – promises of carbon reduction or the planting of trees? You may need to rethink and research the company to see if it’s being true to its word. Promises of going green more likely than not result in companies raking in more green, money that is, than tending to Mother Nature.
Jadrian Wooten, an economist with the Virginia Tech College of Science, points to the practice of “greenwashing” – where companies drop false impressions – be it photographs or video -- and/or misleading information on just how environmentally friendly their products are.
“The main issue with greenwashing is whether consumers are actually getting the product that they believe they are paying for. If your goal is to really have a more sustainable impact, it likely means that it will become increasingly important for independent research to prevail," Wooten explains.
Climate-smart farming practices
Adopting climate-smart practices could play a big role in the success of farming and curbing climate-changing gasses in the future. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences recently received an $80 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to pilot a program that will pay producers to implement climate-smart practices on farms of all sizes. The RIPE (Rural Investment to Protect our Environment) Partnership will implement three-year pilot programs in Virginia, Arkansas, Minnesota and North Dakota. If rolled out nationally, RIPE could help producers reduce agricultural emissions by 55% and total emissions in the United States by 8% after 10 years.
“We are proud to lead this effort that gives agricultural producers incentives to enact climate-smart practices and the financial means to do so,” says Tom Thompson, principal investigator on the project, associate dean of the college, and director of CALS Global. “This is a watershed program that helps the agricultural industry be a leader in addressing climate change and achieving sustainable productivity growth.” Thompson is available to talk about the RIPE Partnership, the climate-smart practices that will be put in place, and why this is essential to lowering emissions. More here.
Optimizing electric vehicle energy use and reducing train carbon emissions
Battery life becomes a great concern for those driving or contemplating the purchase of an electric vehicle. Hesham Rakha, director of the Center for Sustainable Mobility at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, pursues research into optimizing routes for electric vehicles to travel, and highway speeds for electric vehicles to maintain, that minimize their energy consumption. Building these methods of optimizing electric vehicle travel can even involve exchanges of data between your car and the stoplights encountered along the roads.
Even beyond electric vehicles, the Center for Sustainable Mobility is exploring how to reduce carbon emissions of freight rail services throughout the United States. “In this work we are looking at numerous options including diesel hybrid, biodiesels, biodiesel hybrid, battery electric trains, catenary electrification of trains, and hydrogen fuel cells,” he says.
Helping companies afford recycling and reduce energy costs
Industries that want to be good stewards of the environment may find the cost of recycling prohibitive because they lack technology to convert old plastic into the feedstock that can be used to make new plastics. Jennifer Russell, an assistant professor for the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, has been at work building “circular economies” that make recycling an embedded part of the supply chain that already includes manufacturers, retailers and consumers — thus making that supply chain “circular.” Russell’s work has especially focused on polyurethane foam, a substance used in running shoes, vehicle interiors and many other products.
Russell and her students have also engaged with Virginia companies to help them reduce operating costs by increasing recycling and decreasing energy use. “This is increasingly important for companies as they make sustainability commitments but do not necessarily have the internal resources, capabilities or tools to get started,” she says.
Conserving energy and building a more sustainable power grid
In recent years, power outages have become more and more common. According to a report published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average person living in the United States in 2020 spent a record-breaking eight-plus hours without electricity that year.
To tackle power grid sustainability, innovative approaches to power conversion, and related technologies, Virginia Tech expert Christina DiMarino hopes to find a more sustainable and efficient grid soon thanks to a new $2.9 million grant recently received from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“The power grid technology in the United States is more than 100 years old. Because of this outdated grid technology, it’s more susceptible to power outages – especially as we experience more and more extreme weather,” said DiMarino. “When you add in the increased penetration of renewable energy sources and charging capabilities, it's putting significant demand on our grid, which it was not originally designed to fulfill.”
DiMarino’s team is looking to create a more streamlined structure that combines the functionality of power electronics and the power density benefits of high-voltage cables to replace bulky power substations in the electrical grid we use today.
Building community awareness for addressing extreme heat and its impacts
Working to build community awareness and solutions for addressing extreme heat. That’s Theodore Lim’s goal along with more than a dozen partners in the City of Roanoke. The city government, libraries, public schools, faculty from Virginia Tech, Carilion Clinic, Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, numerous arts, faith-based, and service organizations, as well as mental and behavioral health providers are all taking part in the study.
Heat waves are the deadliest of all natural disasters in the U.S. But as Lim, an assistant professor of Urban Affairs and Planning in the School of Public and International Affairs explains, residents don’t often think about how their neighborhoods could be at risk during a heat wave. “The neighborhoods that have the hottest temperatures are also the ones that are suffering from high levels of gun violence, eviction and lack of affordable housing, systemic racism, and mass incarceration,” says Lim.
The partners have been working together to relate the issue of heat more generally to overall neighborhood improvement, community, and the best outcomes for these residents. So far this has included integration of STEM curricula about urban heat into K12 classes, activities with youth, collaborative planning workshops, and physician and community health worker training. The team currently hopes to expand the programs to include workforce development and more youth-based programming.
Societal impact of natural & environmental disasters
Concerns remain after the February train derailment in East Palestine, OH. Chemicals contaminated the creeks and rivers nearby. It’s a disaster that could have major societal impacts for years to come.
As a disaster resilience expert, it is Liesel Ritchie’s job to take a sociological approach. Ritchie, a professor of sociology and associate director of the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech, has examined devastating events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, and various earthquakes across the globe. She travels to disaster sites all over the world to work with communities with the goal of influencing government and industry policy. “Even after a natural disaster has ended people are going to need help; they’re going to need financial support and they’re going to need social support,” says Ritchie.