EPSCoR seed grants awarded to environmental researchers

With a focus on environmental issues important to the state, the Delaware National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF EPSCoR) office has awarded five seed grants to investigators whose projects aim to solve environmental problems in Delaware.

Recipients include Karl Booksh, professor in the University of Delaware's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Matthew Ginder-Vogel, post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences; Holly Michael, assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences; Thomas McKenna of the Delaware Geological Survey; and John Rabolt, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“All five projects feature multi-disciplinary collaboration,” said Donald L. Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Plant and Soil Sciences and EPSCoR principal investigator. “Several also involve inter-institutional partnerships. All of the projects aim to improve Delaware's environment through discovery research.”

A group of UD faculty reviewed 24 proposals and selected the seed grant recipients. “Awardees were chosen based on the quality of the science being proposed, the applicability of the research to state environmental issues and EPSCoR themes, the strength of the collaborations and whether the grantee was a first-time recipient of EPSCoR funding,” said Amy Broadhurst, EPSCoR project administrator.

Developing a 'lab on a chip'

Booksh and Raul Lobo, professor of chemical engineering, are developing a “lab on a chip” sensor platform to monitor air quality for volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOC) and ammonia vapor. The tool can be used for continuous monitoring outside animal feed lots, power plants and other settings where emissions may impact quality of life for workers or local residents.

“I'm very pleased to be selected,” said Booksh. “What I like about this research project is that the research goes beyond academic investigations. The sensor platform should be beneficial in understanding the local distribution and impact of VOC and ammonia in Delaware.”

Booksh and Lobo hope to eventually expand their collaboration to include people running chicken houses and engineers modeling the fate and distribution of VOC in the environment.

Studying air particulates

Ginder-Vogel, Sparks and Murray Johnston, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, will work with William Ritter, chairperson of the Department of Bioresources Engineering, and Eric Benson, associate professor of bioresources engineering, to study airborne emissions of particulates from confined animal feeding operations, such as poultry houses, which are a major environmental issue facing the animal industry and regulatory agencies in Delaware.

“The heavy metals that may be contained in particulate matter could pose an environmental risk, especially in light of continued residential development in what were once primarily agricultural areas of the state,” said Ginder-Vogel. “The most important thing that we hope to address is determining if there are heavy metals in particulates. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to accurately determine these particulates' threat to human health.”

The team will employ state-of-the-art spectroscopic techniques, including synchrotron-based X-ray absorption spectroscopy, to speciate metals on the particle surfaces.

Ginder-Vogel said the grant will partially fund a graduate student in the chemistry department and a graduate student in plant and soil sciences.

“The research will follow up on a USDA-funded study shared by Drs. Johnston, Ritter and Benson that seeks to intensively sample particulate matter emissions from multiple commercial poultry houses on the Delmarva Peninsula and evaluate the impact of activity in the houses on particulate emissions,” said Ginder-Vogel. “Environmental science has gotten so complex that one person can't be an expert in all the areas required to pursue novel and timely research questions.”

Developing an innovative imaging system

McKenna will work with Jack Puleo and Christopher Meehan, assistant professors in the Department of Civil Engineering, to develop an innovative, ground-based imaging system capable of collecting multi-spectral imagery in intertidal environments.

“The Delaware Estuary's extensive tidal wetlands and mudflats are complex environmental systems that provide critical hydrological, geochemical and ecological functions for the State of Delaware,” said McKenna. “Collecting the data needed to quantify processes in this critical zone while not altering its environment is extremely difficult, due to soft sediment, shallow water and the flooding and ebbing of tides, and we plan to develop a solution.”

The conceptual framework of the study was developed for a Department of Defense (DoD) initiative for remote monitoring of the geotechnical properties of tidal flats, in order to enable vehicles and personnel to traverse muddy intertidal environments. The EPSCoR seed grant will allow the team to test their concepts in the lab.

Our work will catalyze an exciting new multidisciplinary collaboration that takes advantage of our expertise in thermography, ground-based imaging and coastal geology, hydrology and engineering,” said McKenna. “The imaging system and associated analytical techniques could address environmental issues relevant to the state, including water quality, wetland loss, point and nonpoint source pollution, contaminated sites, habitat degradation, coastal erosion, oil spills and deteriorating sewer and water infrastructure.”

“We already use parts of the system in direct support of projects with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control,” McKenna added. “I use thermal imaging to characterize the hydrology of wetlands in New Castle and Kent counties and to identify contaminated groundwater seeps at Superfund sites in New Castle County, and Jack Puleo is quantifying the movement of beach sand using time sequences of images collected with seven visual cameras mounted on the roof of a beach hotel in Sussex County.”


Holly Michael and William Ullman, professor of oceanography in the College of Marine and Earth Studies, will study flow of water and transport of fine particles through the Cape Henlopen beachface. The study will include field and laboratory experiments designed to understand movement of water and fine particles through sands, driven by tide and wave action. The investigation will include high-frequency pressure measurements in the beachface and laboratory columns, porewater sampling, and particle characterization.

“We hope to demonstrate the applicability of new and improved methodologies for the study of fluid and particle flow through beachfaces on the timescale of tides and waves,” said Michael. “This will serve as the basis for further experiments and modeling that will help us understand better the interrelationship between physical and biogeochemical processes in sandy beaches. We hope that this work will allow us to better understand the ecological benefits of sandy beaches and may eventually allow beach managers to maximize these benefits and improve the health of coastal marine ecosystems.”


Rabolt will collaborate with John Xiao, professor of physics and astronomy, and Shouheng Sun of Brown University to develop a new class of environmental sensors. The team will use new and established processing protocols to fabricate nanoparticles and nanofibers, displaying functional groups that interact with environmental contaminants such as arsenic, zinc, chromium and nickel.

These high surface area nanostructures concentrate the toxic atoms/molecules, allowing small concentrations to be analyzed, using spectroscopic techniques such as surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS).

“One of the focus research themes of the Delaware RII-2 proposal is the design and control of nanoscale interactions at surfaces and at interfaces of materials engineered to interact with the soil, water and atmospheric components of the critical zone,” said Rabolt.

Xiao added, “By selecting specific targets, like arsenic, that threaten the environment, we hope to synthesize molecular specific capture sites that can then be spatially concentrated to chemically interact with the target.”

“It will allow Prof. Xiao and myself to do a specific set of experiments on unique nanostructured materials that, if successful, will allow us to pursue a longer term grant with a federal funding agency,” said Rabolt.

“As one of the five co-PIs of the original EPSCoR grant that established the core areas where interdisciplinary research needed to occur on campus and within Delaware, I am pleased to be able to work with Prof. Xiao to carry out some of the fundamental research needed to address environmental issues,” said Rabolt. “John and I collaborated on writing a section of the science on sensors that was incorporated in this EPSCoR grant, so I look forward to working with him on this seed proposal that incorporates both of our expertise.”


Also previously published in UDaily, March 2009

For questions and information, contact DGS at
delgeosurvey@udel.edu, 302-831-2833