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In October 2019, Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) announced that the Center for Energy and Environmental Sustainability (CEES) had been awarded $5 million in Phase II funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This brought the total funding for the center to $10 million, including $3.7 million from competitive grants from the NSF, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and Shell, a global oil and gas company.

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The funding aims to address global energy issues, improve PVAMU’s infrastructure, promote sustainability, and encourage underrepresented science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students to pursue energy engineering.

The CEES team, led by Dr. Raghava R. Kommalapati, a Honeywell Endowed Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is comprised of faculty from the Roy G. Perry College of Engineering, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of Agriculture and Human Sciences.

The grant allows the team to expand the research scope of PVAMU’s Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) program, which supports enhancing the research capabilities of minority-serving institutions.

In Phase I, CEES researchers focused on biofuels, wind energy, and energy and environmental sustainability. Phase II aims to achieve scientific and technological breakthroughs in energy engineering, building on the Phase I results and expanding the research scope.

The team comprises several co-principal investigators from various departments, a technical coordinator, and an Education and Outreach Coordinator.

The CEES research program has employed 9 post-doctoral graduate students and provided energy-related courses to over 1,000 PVAMU students, including 350 graduate students who completed twenty-three graduate-level energy-related courses.

Additionally, 176 students worked on the CEES research program as student or graduate assistants and received scholarships. The program also offered 36 energy-related courses, including 19 new courses, which were taken up by seven hundred undergraduate students.

The new courses cover topics such as Energy Sustainability, Global Warming and Climate Change, Nuclear Energy, Bio Energy, and Wind Energy.

Dr. Kommalapati said that the Phase II award required the PVAMU team to compete with other teams in the NSF CREST program. The team chose areas with similar broader themes as phase I, such as bioenergy, where they grow energy crops using water from fracking operations that have been treated. The biomass from these energy crops produces hydrocarbon fuels directly, which can go directly into a gas tank.

In a conversation with Dr. Kommalapati in 2021, USBE learned that the center is dedicated to promoting sustainable energy generation and wastewater treatment processes.

Hydraulic fracking operations in Texas, a major source of oil and gas, require large amounts of water daily, resulting in contaminated water that cannot be reused and leads to deep well injection, which causes increased seismic activity in the region.

To combat this, CEES researchers are using membrane processes to clean the water and make it usable for agriculture or other purposes, including fracking.

They are also treating wastewater from poultry meat processing to be reused instead of using fresh water each time. CEES is also examining the safety and reliability of offshore wind turbines, using sensors and machine learning techniques to enhance their reliability.

The center plans to establish a new Master of Science with Energy Concentration in Phase II and expand research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students.

They also aim to strengthen their partnerships with different industries to become a national resource. The center has collaborated with oil and gas companies on carbon capture and sequestration and is currently negotiating with another company to do research work for them.

Prairie View A&M is part of the TEES initiative, a $40 million consortium started about a year and a half ago called the Ocean Energy Safety Institute, funded by the nation’s energy and interior departments.

The center offers comprehensive energy courses, scholarships, and visits to high schools in the local area. They have participated in the Energy Day event in Houston for four consecutive years, educating families on energy, STEM, and careers.

The cutoff date for Phase II is 2024, but the end date may be extended due to the pandemic. Before Phase II cuts off, the CEES will collect data on where their students are now, at least tracking those that received financial support from the center.

Dr. Kommalapati reflected on the high points of Phase I and II, stating that the center has created a dedicated research culture within the organization, allowing many students to work in labs and learn from each other.

This culture of belonging and learning from one another has been the most satisfying thing for him, creating a beautiful learning environment reminiscent of his own grad school experience.

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