The Kentucky NSF EPSCoR Program has recently made 14 awards through its annual academic year programs, aimed at bolstering Kentucky’s burgeoning research infrastructure. For more information on each of the awarded projects, please read below.

After School STEM Program for Girls

Principal Investigator: Leonard Demoranville
Institution: Centre College

EOC Award

Multiple studies report that women are among those underrepresented in the STEM fields. Even though girls and boys demonstrate the same interest and aptitude in math and science during their elementary years, the interest and performance of girls begins to wane during middle and high school. Helping young girls to tap into and retain their natural abilities during the middle and high school years is critical to achieving a diverse and trained STEM workforce.

 

Girls in Engineering Math and Science (GEMS) has a mission to encourage school age girls in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, provide them with positive female role models, and increase their confidence in themselves and their abilities. A partnership between Centre College and Boyle County Middle School, GEMS is led by female volunteer student mentors from Centre.

Modeling of Kesterite Solar Cell Devices with Analytical Calculations

Principal Investigator: Sanghyun Lee
Institution: Morehead State University

REG Award

The goal of this proposal is to develop theoretical models for intrinsic and grainboundary defect state in (Cu, Zn, Sn, Se, S) based Kesterite solar cells coupled with and semi-empirical confirmation. The electronic band structure will be analytically calculated for device models and simulations based on preliminary results of thin film solar cells.

Electrochemical Applications of Ionomer Membranes

Principal Investigator: R. Daniel Johnson
Institution: Murray State University

REG Award

Ion-selective electrodes and electroosmotic microfluidic devices based on polymerizable ionic liquids (PILs), specifically cross-linked ionic polyester networks, will be developed and characterized. An array of such polymers will be synthesized that differ both in the types of ionic monomers and the ionic-to-nonionic monomer ratios employed. Subsequently, the polymers’ thermomechanical behaviors and conductivities will be analyzed, and polymer structure/activity relationships for such properties will be established. The polymers will then be used to construct membrane-based ion-selective electrodes and cast into microfluidic devices. With the electrodes prepared from PILs, responses toward a range of analytes will be measured and modeled versus prevailing electrode theory. Drawing comparisons between measurement and theory in light of PILs structures and properties will facilitate an understanding of ion uptake/transport and related phase-boundary phenomena, which are crucial in various other applications.

Enhancement of Solar Fuel Productivity and Energy Consumption Saving

Principal Investigator: Yan Cao
Institution: Western Kentucky University

REG Award

Renewable solar energy is an abundant and ideal supplement for our decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. However, renewable solar energy is feasibly inexpensive only if its utilization efficiency is sufficiently high. Solar fuels are competitive in concept because they do not require large-scale energy storage, but are currently not practical because of their very low energy conversion efficiency. We have successfully developed a ternary structure photocatalyst to convert CO2 into solar-fueled methanol in H2O. Its quantum conversion efficiency is competitive in open published literature. It is a TiO2nanotube array matrix, interfaced to cuprous oxide nanoparticles using reduced graphene oxide (rGO) nanosheets. The rGO is a conducting medium to prevent photoinduced electron accumulation and photo degradation, providing highly specific surface area active sites for CO2 reduction.

 

For further improvement of conversion efficiencies, we have identified issues in the regular setup of photo-reactors, including solar energy loss, limited access of solar radiation by the photocatalysts in a H2O medium, difficulties of quick turn-around regeneration of photocatalysts, and far less acceptable methanol concentrations for methanol recovery. All these issues become even more serious in the scaled-up photo-reactor. Inspired by the natural process, we propose a new strategy to manipulate the H2O medium interfaced to photocatalysts, which could greatly enhance the solar reception by photocatalyts and quickly renew photocatalyst surfaces and further concentrate methanol production. This new solution is to create a micro-scale environment by decreasing the thickness of the water layer on photocatalysts and creating a wave-like surface. The micro-scale environment is created by the wavelike tiny dropstep mode of water condensation on hydrophobic surfaces of photocatalysts. The new approach will manipulate the photocatalyst on an interface of vapor/liquid/solid using a naturally-inspired hydrophobic interface.

Cluster-Weighted Modeling Approach to Potential Energy Surface Fitting

Principal Investigator: Jeremy B. Maddox
Institution: Western Kentucky University

REG Award

The Maddox group at Western Kentucky University is developing a new methodology for the construction of accurate molecular potential energy surfaces. This method is based upon a cluster-weighted modeling scheme that uses an expectation-maximization algorithm to represent a potential energy data set in terms of adaptively parameterized Gaussian clusters and local basis functions. Benchmark studies for simple 1-D potential curves and 2-D/3-D surfaces for triatomic systems are being carried out by undergraduate student investigators. Analysis of these calculations will determine a set of robust protocols for tackling complex chemical systems.

Mechanistic and Synthetic Investigations on the Biomimetic Metal-Catalyzed Sulfoxidations

Principal Investigator: Rui Zhang
Institution: Western Kentucky University

REG Award

The selective oxidation of sulfides to sulfoxides (sulfoxidation) is of significant importance because organic sulfoxides are valuable synthetic and biologically active molecules, including therapeutic agents such as antibacterial, antifungal, antihypertensive, and cardiotonic agents. The major focus of the proposed research work is to better understand the sulfoxidation transformations and develop selective catalysts in general. The inspiration is to investigate metalloporphyrins and metallocorroles as biomimetic models of the cytochrome P450 enzymes in catalytic sulfoxidation reactions. This project aims to carry out the “proof of principle” experiments and generate significant results for future external grant applications and peer-reviewed publications.

Characterization of Gene Expression during Lipid Induction in the Microalga Chlorella protothecoides

Principal Investigator: Rebekah Waikel
Institution: Eastern Kentucky University

RSP Award

Microalgae are a promising source for sustainable biofuel production, but large-scale production is cost-prohibitive. In order to implement biotechnology and makeproduction more cost-effective, however, we must first understand the genome and metabolic pathways of relevant microalgae. We will examine the connection between gene expression and lipid induction in a commercially relevant strain of microalgae (Chlorella protothecoides).

Before Europeans: Paleoecology of Surficial Units in Rowan County

Principal Investigator: Jennifer M.K. O’Keefe
Institution: Morehead State University

RSP Award

Before Europeans: Paleoecology of Surficial Units in Rowan County (BEPSUR) represents an undergraduate-led, faculty-mentored palynological and paleobotanical examination of sedimentary units deposited at some time prior to European settlers’ migration into Kentucky. The objectives are to: 1) provide initial information about ancient plant communities in eastern Kentucky, 2) provide a paleoclimatic record for this time period in Kentucky, and 3) generate necessary data to inform post-energy utilization reclamation efforts.

Kinetic Study of the Catalytic Upgrading of Model and Algal Lipids to Fuels

Principal Investigator: Mark Crocker
Institution: University of Kentucky

RSP Award

Microalgae representsan important topic of research because these organisms can be used to capture and convert the emissions of coal-fired power plants into fuels. However, algae oil, a mixture of lipid compounds that can be converted to carbon-neutral and renewable fuels, isunderutilized because the catalytic upgrading of lipids to hydrocarbons –a pivotal step in the conversion of algal lipids to fuels–presents many challenges. Decarboxylation/decarbonylation (deCOx)appears a promising alternative to hydrotreating, the problematic approach currently used to effect this transformation. The proposed workis designed to advance the catalytic upgrading of algal lipids to drop-in hydrocarbon fuels by way of deCOxbyestablishing the kinetic parameters that govern this reaction.

Phytoremediation Strategy Utilizing Transgenic Stone Pine to Dispose Salt Wastewater and Crude Oil Contaminants from Oil Field Sites

Principal Investigator: Chandrakanth Emani
Institution: Western Kentucky University

RSP Award

Thisproposal aims at employing phytoremediation (‘phyto’-plants; ‘remedium’-restoring balance) using stone pine genetically engineered with a single gene for conferring enhanced salt, drought and freezing tolerance to remove oil field saltwater contamination, a significant environmental problem in many oil-production areas. The approach is an environmental friendly approach that utilizes the natural process of transpiration and further examines the efficacy of pine to degrade oil contaminants.

 

This provides the oil industry with a feasible plant remediation approach for effectively disposing salt wastewater and oil contaminants instead of relying on expensive options such as hauling and ground injection.

Fabrication of Small Molecular Donor-Acceptor Dyads –Based Organic Photovoltaics

Principal Investigator: Hemali Rathnayake
Institution: Western Kentucky University

RSP Award

The proposed project will develop small molecular-based solar cell devices for green energy technology. The objective of the proposed project is to evaluate electrical parameters of novel small molecular systems derived from fused-arenes as additives for polymer-based solar cells. We will investigate experimentally whether these small molecular systems can effectively be used to overcome challenges associated with current polymer-based organic solar cells (OSCs).

A Secondary Screen for Basement Membrane Degraders in Drosophila melanogaster

Principal Investigator: Ajay Srivastava
Institution: Western Kentucky University

RSP Award

In this RSP proposal, a set of experiments are proposed that will help confirm whether putative basement membrane (BM) degraders isolated from a primary screen in the PIs laboratory indeed degrade BM. Utilizing collagenase/gelatinase in-situ assay and confocal microscopy the underrepresented minority student will perform experiments that will help confirm the ability of the candidate genes to degrade the BM.

Glutathione as a Protectant Against Oxidation During Beer, Wine, and Biofuel Production

Principal Investigator: Christian M. Paumi
Institution: Eastern Kentucky University

RSS Award

The goal of this Research Startup Support (RSS) proposal is to determine if increased cellular GSH synthesis and recycling decreases oxidative stress in yeast during cellular expansion and fermentation of beer worts, wine musts, and production of bioethanol from lignocellulose and increases yeast fermentation efficiency.

Pulsed Laser Deposition System at Western Kentucky University

Principal Investigator: Ali Oguz Er
Institution: Western Kentucky University

RSS Award

The purpose of the proposed work is to build a pulsed laser deposition (PLD) system integrated with reflection of high electron energy diffraction (RHEED) at WKU. PLD is a high performance versatile thin film deposition technique which allows efficient deposition of complex materials. The proposed system will be used to study thin film deposition of complex material, heat transportation of nanoscale thin films by time resolved x-ray diffraction, surface modification of semiconductors, laser imprinting, and optical dynamical discrimination experiments.

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