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Spring 2016

The future is created today. What we’ll eat, what we’ll wear, how we’ll heal, the crises we’ll avert. West Virginia University has already started these improvements to our lives. Now it’s time to count down . . . 5. 4. 3. 2. 1.

Mining Cart

Second Life of Mines

Buried in acid mine drainage are elements that the U.S. is almost exclusively importing. And since these elements are in our cell phones, defense applications, GPS technology, medical equipment, DVDs and rechargeable batteries, demand for them is increasing. The elements that include scandium, yttrium and the 15 types of lanthanides are called rare earth elements. Mining them is labor intensive and expensive. A team of researchers in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources is investigating ways to recover these elements from acid mine drainage sites through nearly $1 million in support from the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory. It’s estimated that acid mine drainage in Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone generates 45,000 tons of rare earth elements — three times the current U.S. demand — per year. 

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute and leader of the project said, “Successful development of this concept will generate an additional revenue stream for the coal industry, create jobs and incentivize acid mining treatment. At the same time, it will reduce U.S. reliance on foreign supplies of rare earth elements.” 


Something More Than Feelings

Megan Byrd’s favorite football player was Chris Henry, the Cincinnati Bengal whose accidental death followed his traumatic brain injury. Byrd, a doctoral sport and exercise psychology student from Florence, Ky., has had a few concussions herself, and she knows what it’s like to question how your own brain chemistry has changed. There’s anger, anxiety, impulsivity. As we see on the news, researchers are trying to prevent concussions, treat brain injuries and get athletes back to their sport. While concussions’ link to depression is often studied, there isn’t as much attention being paid to the general emotions that follow right after a concussion. Byrd, with a grant from the NCAA, is studying the emotional states of athletes 10, 20 and 30 days after their concussions. 

Aid Map

Ethiopia is facing its worst drought in 50 years and needs to feed 18 million people. As the U.S. Agency for International Development decides where to send aid in Ethiopia and countries crushed under the weight of hardship, the agency looks at statistics from age, health, education and environment in a household, among other factors. But the same responses can indicate vulnerability in some places and resilience in others. A new mapping program is better targeting where aid programs can be more effective with the assistance of a $1 million grant from USAID. Brent McCusker, associate professor of geography and associate chair of the WVU Department of Geology and Geography, and teams at WVU, Texas Tech University and George Washington University are working with USAID to use a new geostatistical mapping approach that is already being slated for use in Uganda. One result from the team’s Ethiopia project was determining that the agency’s Feed the Future program is successful in areas where it is deployed as shown through decreases in illness and food shortages. 

Breathing Easy

When healthcare workers in West Africa treated patients for Ebola, they wore big suits with masks that you’ve seen on TV. They were also using powered air purifying respirators designed in the 1960s for industrial workers. These breathing systems are heavy and pump air very fast because they were designed for workers who move quickly and regularly lift heavy machinery. This is inefficient and uncomfortable for health workers as it dries out their skin, and the noise from the large pump interferes with communication. Xinjian “Kevin” He, assistant professor of industrial and management systems engineering, is part of a project with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to improve standards for these respirators. He’ll be measuring breathing flow rates for healthcare workers at Mon General Hospital by attaching mobile measuring devices to them as they walk the halls, treat patients and respond to emergencies. 

Standing up to the Heat

How would you measure environments that can rise to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit? As gas turbines, coal boilers, steel and glass melters, and other energy systems do their blazing-hot daily jobs, it’s more efficient if they’re monitored. But that becomes difficult when you factor in their temperature. Engineering faculty members Edward Sabolsky, Kostantinos Sierros and Daryl Reynolds are using nearly $400,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory to develop a wireless, high-temperature sensor system for monitoring energy system components using conductive ceramic materials. 


The thin slips of plastic that cover our snacks find their way into the islands of plastic scattered in the oceans. A significant part of plastic waste is packaging, which is traditionally made from polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET. Rakesh Gupta, the George and Carolyn Berry Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, and his colleagues have been developing polylactic acid or PLA, made from cornstarch, into a composite with clay to show that PLA can be the next sustainable packaging. So far, researchers have reduced the permeability toward moisture of the natural plastic by 70 percent, bringing it much closer to the properties of PET that keep food dry and airtight. The work is funded by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

T-Minus Archive

Spring 2016

What if we could harvest the elements in our phones from acid mine drainage? What if our snack packaging was made from plants?

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Spring 2017

A robot turns from space mining to pollinating raspberries. Drones work as a team. And students find a way to make medical research run faster.

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