ESE’s Coronell and Noble receive $1.68M in UNC system grants related to water

Feb. 13, 2015

The University of North Carolina General Administration has awarded six three-year grants totaling nearly $9 million to support game-changing faculty research in areas of strategic importance to the state. Each of the funded projects involves partners from two or more UNC campuses.

Dr. Orlando Coronell

Dr. Orlando Coronell

Dr. Rachel Noble

Dr. Rachel Noble

Orlando Coronell, PhD, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, is co-principal investigator of a team awarded $997,996 to study “Salinity Gradient Energy – An Inexhaustible Clean Energy Resource for North Carolina.” He will co-lead the project with principal investigator Douglas F. Call, PhD, N.C. State University assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering.

Rachel T. Noble, PhD, joint professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School, at the UNC Institute for the Environment at UNC-Chapel Hill and of marine sciences at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, N.C., was selected for a $684,805 grant for “Revolutionizing and Commercializing Rapid Molecular Diagnostics for Viral and Bacterial Pathogen Quantification in marine Waters and Seafood.”

Faculty teams from N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, North Carolina Central University and East Carolina University will use the first UNC Research Opportunities Initiative (ROI) awards to advance collaborative research projects that range from developing new carbon electronics to supporting big-data science analytics to engineering new drug-delivery technologies to speeding the large-scale manufacturing of vaccines against deadly viruses such as Ebola.

UNC ROI is funded by a recurring $3 million annual appropriation from the 2014 General Assembly, representing North Carolina’s first financial investment in the UNC system’s five-year strategic plan. Priority research areas eligible for ROI funding include advanced manufacturing; marine and coastal science; defense, military and security; pharmacoengineering; energy; and data sciences.

“The ROI provides targeted funding for innovative and potentially game-changing projects,” said Christopher Brown, PhD, UNC vice president for research and graduate education. “These awards, which will advance cutting-edge research at UNC institutions, also demonstrate legislators’ growing appreciation of the role university research can play in supporting economic development across our state.”

Following a competitive process that began with 74 pre-proposals seeking $105 million in total funding, the six winning proposals were selected through a rigorous review process led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Coronell’s project, on which he partners with N.C. State University, the UNC Coastal Studies Institute and East Carolina University, will advance a cutting-edge technology that can harness natural salinity gradients along the North Carolina coast for electricity generation, energy storage and wastewater treatment.

The team, which also includes local start-up companies, consultants and coastal utilities, will conduct a comprehensive technical, economic and environmental assessment of this technology and its impact on North Carolina. The findings will help expand the state’s clean energy sector, attract industrial investment and provide foundational research for future funding opportunities in coastal energy technology development.

Noble’s project, on which she and her team partner with UNC-Charlotte, aims to develop validated, user-friendly diagnostic kits for rapid (less than two hours, compared to current time of 24 hours) determination of dangerous bacteria and viruses that can be present in marine water and seafood. The effort will position North Carolina as a leader in the development of rapid molecular diagnostics for the economically valuable marine waters, shellfish, and aquaculture sectors.

Her team notes that in the coming decade, three major industries – clinical diagnostics, water quality and food security – will be revolutionized by rapid “molecular diagnostics,” or the ability to quickly and definitively identify contaminants. Armed with this nearly real-time information, public health officials and medical professionals will be better able to prevent and stop outbreaks of disease.

Others UNC ROIs awarded include:

  • “N.C. Carbon Materials Initiative: Materials Design, Processing and Manufacturing for Defense and Energy Needs,” N.C. State University: $2,829,994. Partnering institutions include North Carolina Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill. Led by Harald Ade, N.C. State University distinguished professor of physics.
  • “North Carolina Data Science and Analytics Initiative,” UNC-Charlotte: $2,168,379. Partnering institutions include N.C. State University and the UNC-Chapel Hill Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI). Led by Mirsad Hadzikadic, director of UNC-Charlotte’s Complex Systems Institute.
  • “Pharmacoengineering: Integrating Engineering with Pharmaceutical Sciences to Improve the Delivery of Therapeutic and Diagnostic Agents,” UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University: $1,830,000. Led by Michael Jay, UNC-Chapel Hill distinguished professor and chair of molecular pharmaceutics, and Frances Ligler, distinguished professor of biomedical engineering.
  • “Bioengineering Microalgae for Large-Scale Production of Therapeutic Antibodies Against Ebola, West Nile Virus and Rabies,” North Carolina Central University: $600,000. Partnering Institutions include UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. Led by TinChung Leung, NCCU assistant professor of biology.

Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu.