Washington University in St. Louis to invest $55 million in renewable energy research initiative

Washington University in St. Louis is creating a new International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) to encourage and coordinate university-wide and external collaborative research in the areas of renewable energy and sustainability — including biofuels, CO2 mitigation and coal-related issues. The university will invest more than $55 million in the initiative, according to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

A key goal of I-CARES is to foster institutional, regional and international research on the development and production of biofuels from plant and microbial systems and the exploration of sustainable alternative energy and environmental systems and practices. Research at the center will also focus on the region’s important coal resources and efforts to mitigate carbon dioxide accumulation, improve combustion processes and reduce emissions. I-CARES will operate under the direction of Himadri B. Pakrasi, Ph.D., the George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, and professor of energy in the School of Engineering.

I-CARES will be a part of the office of the vice chancellor for research, headed by Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D., professor of medicine and of molecular microbiology at the School of Medicine. An external advisory committee will provide guidance to the I-CARES director, and an internal steering committee will work closely with the director to set programmatic priorities and attract new faculty to the center.

I-CARES will foster collaborative and cooperative research, both within the university and externally between Washington University and other regional research institutions, such as the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Brady Deaton, chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia, said: “We applaud the initiative and leadership of Washington University in St. Louis to address research and educational needs for renewable energy and sustainability. This is an outstanding example of research that will result in applications to improve the lives of all people around the world. I know that many members of our faculty will want to strengthen their collaboration with colleagues at Washington University. We will actively pursue joint initiatives that enlist key research strengths and international program support.”

Roger N. Beachy, Danforth Center president, said: “The I-CARES initiative is an outstanding commitment by Washington University to seek solutions for a critical factor that faces the world this century, namely creating abundant and environmentally sustainable energy sources. It also adds an important component to the regional initiative to establish St. Louis as a leader in the development of renewable energy. The Danforth Center looks forward to being an enthusiastic partner and expanding research collaborations with the university and other regional institutions in this effort.”

Himadri Pakrasi holds a collection of *Cyanothece*, a one-celled marine cyanobacteria.
Himadri Pakrasi holds a collection of *Cyanothece*, one-celled marine cyanobacteria, which have the uncanny ability to produce oxygen and assimilate carbon through photosynthesis during the day, while fixing nitrogen through the night, all within the same cell. The goal is to put the cyanobacteria to work as viable, alternate producers of renewable energy.

Research activities at I-CARES also will include international partner universities, which recently agreed to a “call to action” on energy and sustainability at a WUSTL symposium hosted by the McDonnell International Scholars Academy. Sponsorships will be developed with energy and technology companies and other corporate supporters, as well.

“I-CARES is the foundation on which we will build expanded funding for research on issues related to energy, environment and sustainability with both domestic and international partners,” Wrighton said. “We are investing in the infrastructure needed for a world-class research effort to meet the grand challenges of the 21st century. We are planning to partner with other institutions, and we will work on Washington University-based proposals, as well as joint proposals, to seek funding.”

According to Wrighton, I-CARES will coordinate research efforts at the university and work with other organizations in the greater St. Louis region to explore alternative energy sources, such as biofuels, to meet energy challenges. It will build on expertise in genomics, microbiology, plant science, materials, environmental engineering, systems science, computer science, economics, political science, architecture and social work to develop novel products, applications and sustainability practices.

Washington University is creating five new endowed professorships in the fields of energy, environment and sustainability. These researchers will be a part of the community of scholars engaged in the work at I-CARES, and the university also will provide financial resources to help seed research in areas vital to the goals of the center.

The center will facilitate the development of major initiatives relevant to its mission. For instance, Pakrasi has an exceptional track record of achievement and currently oversees a $9.6 million initiative focused on photosynthetic bacteria. He and a team of biologists, chemists, engineers and mathematicians at Washington University in St. Louis and six other institutions are examining the potential of photosynthetic bacteria as one of the next great sources of biofuel that can run vehicles and heat houses. These cyanobacteria represent power potential because they capture sunlight and then carry out a variety of biochemical processes. One metabolic process — the clean production of biodiesel and liquid alcohol — is a high priority for alternative fuels. Cyanobacteria also have the potential to produce cheap and plentiful hydrogen for hydrogen fuel cell use.

I-CARES will engage Washington University researchers in science, engineering, architecture, social science and policy, and medicine. Bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and other educational programs related to energy, environment and sustainability will be offered by the Environmental Studies Program in Arts & Sciences, the Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering in Engineering, the College and Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design, and the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic and the Environmental Clearinghouse — both in the School of Law.

The university aspires to pursue and to demonstrate best practices with respect to its facilities design and development, and its use of energy and other resources. The university will appoint a sustainability officer who will work closely with the administration and with the research community to implement green technologies as they develop.

More than $55 million will be invested

Washington University will commit more than $55 million to:

* Develop a building on the northeast corner of the Danforth Campus for the Washington University Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering in the School of Engineering at a cost of $40 million. When completed, it will house I-CARES and related research projects. In the meantime, I-CARES will be located in Wilson Hall on the Danforth Campus.

* Fund five new endowed professorships in science, engineering, architecture, social science or medicine to attract research leaders in energy, environment and sustainability. This represents at least $12.5 million of endowment and start-up costs.

* Award at least $2.5 million over five years to the center to seed and develop collaborative research within the university and with its regional partners through I-CARES.

* Provide an additional $500,000 to support the development of collaborative projects with its McDonnell Academy international partner universities.

* Support a sustainability officer and provide the capital needed to apply green technology to improve efficiency of energy systems and other university operations.

Wrighton said: “The key objective of I-CARES is to foster research on energy, environment and sustainability that cannot be done by single investigators alone. I-CARES will nurture collaboration within Washington University and with regional and international partners and contribute to more rapid progress in addressing great challenges facing our world.”

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