Regional centers put Virginia Tech research to work in communities

   

Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources scientist Chuansheng Mei is studying genetic improvements to adapt switchgrass and other biofuel and bioenergy crops for cultivation in former tobacco fields in Southern Virginia. Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources scientist Chuansheng Mei is studying genetic improvements to adapt switchgrass and other biofuel and bioenergy crops for cultivation in former tobacco fields in Southern Virginia.

The Commonwealth of Virginia boasted an overall unemployment rate of about 6.5 percent for August 2009, one of the lowest rates in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  However, communities in Southern Virginia are not faring so well: Danville’s unemployment rate for August was 12.5 percent and Martinsville’s rate of 20.8 percent was the highest in the state.

Fortunately, groundwork has been laid that can help these localities through economic downturns. In 2000, Southern Virginia community leaders approached Virginia Tech about finding new ways to create jobs and transform the region’s economy, which was already suffering setbacks from the decline of the region’s tobacco, furniture, and textile industries.

A number of economic development innovations came out of the collaboration between the university and people in the region, including the tactic of putting academic research to work.

Leaders in Southern Virginia and Virginia Tech, in partnership with Danville Community College and Averett University and with funding from the Virginia General Assembly and the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, established the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Danville.

   

ISRR graduate assistant Yeun-Kyung Chang studies orchids, an important commercial ornamental plant. ISRR graduate assistant Yeun-Kyung Chang studies orchids, an important commercial ornamental plant.

The IALR opened in 2004 and today offers research programs in horticulture and forestry, polymers, and motorsports and vehicle performance, as well as undergraduate and graduate education programs.

“The IALR has its own faculty, students, and research programs, all of which have led to new sources of revenue for the region,” said Ted Settle, director of the Office of Economic Development in Virginia Tech’s Outreach and International Affairs. Settle and his staff help connect the university to the IALR and also assist other Virginia communities in bolstering their economies by collaborating with Virginia Tech faculty and programs.

With the goal of revitalizing the agricultural segment of Southern Virginia’s economy, traditionally dependent on tobacco farming, IALR and Virginia Tech’s Department of Horiculture and Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation created the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources (ISRR).

“Through our collaborations with the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association and local farmers and entrepreneurs, we’re poised to diversify the traditional tobacco-based economy by providing new marketable products that can be grown in regional green houses and fields,” said ISRR Director Barry Flinn.

   

Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources scientist Yinghui Dan is finding ways to increase production of flowering plants for Virginia’s horticulture industry. Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources scientist Yinghui Dan is finding ways to increase production of flowering plants for Virginia’s horticulture industry.

“The ISRR is playing a vital role in the transformation of the regional tobacco farming industry into one that is producing viable new alternative crops, which can be converted into biofuels,” said Liam Leightley, executive director of IALR. “Today, farmers need to carry out labor-intensive work to propagate these plants, by cutting up and planting the roots. ISRR research has resulted in the development of tissue culture technology that can be used to successfully grow the plants.  This represents a major breakthrough, since farmers will now be able to purchase thousands of tissue-culture-grown plants and avoid the costs and labor associated with current methods of plant propagation.”

Nuclear energy research conducted by College of Engineering faculty for the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research (CAER) in Lynchburg, Va., provides another example of the potential economic benefits of a partnership between Virginia Tech and a community’s assets.

Virginia Tech revived its nuclear engineering program in 2007, offering graduate coursework that leads to a graduate certificate.

CAER was established in 2005 with local funding as part of the strategic plan for the Region 2000 Partnership, a network of organizations providing economic development leadership for the 2,000-square-mile area surrounding the City of Lynchburg. Subsequent funding for the center has come from the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Tobacco Commission.

Lynchburg hosts the headquarters of Babcock & Wilcox Co. and the North American headquarters of Areva NP Inc., both international suppliers of nuclear equipment and services.

Nuclear energy research sponsored by CAER services the needs of these industries and is focused on nuclear facility control room design and security, instrumentation and controls, and inspection and analysis of materials, said Bob Bailey, the center’s executive director. CAER also sponsors wireless communications research.

   

Professor Danesh Tafti (standing) and Ph.D. student Vivek Sethapati are part of a Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineering Department team conducting nuclear energy research for CAER in Lynchburg. Also on the team are professors Eugene Brown, Alan Kornhauser, and Mark Pierson. Professor Danesh Tafti (standing) and Ph.D. student Vivek Sethapati are part of a Virginia Tech Department of Mechanical Engineering team conducting nuclear energy research for the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research in Lynchburg. Also on the team but not pictured are professors Eugene Brown, Alan Kornhauser, and Mark Pierson.

Bailey said faculty in Virginia Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering are conducting nuclear energy research for CAER in two major areas: computational fluid dynamics studies, using computer models to predict how water and steam will react in nuclear reactors; and computer modeling aimed at improving processes for welding together nuclear reactor components.

“The next generation of nuclear facilities will be fundamentally different, especially in the areas of safety and security, including cyber-security,” Bailey said.

CAER, which also has formal research agreements with James Madison University, Liberty University, and the University of Virginia, will soon begin construction of the Region 2000 Research and Education Center. “We hope to establish a facility in which Virginia Tech faculty and others can conduct applied research that will help build the next generation of nuclear plants,” Bailey said.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Liz Crumbley at lcrumb@vt.edu or (540) 231-1419.

Projects at the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources

Agricultural research projects underway at ISRR include: 

  • Propagating daylilies, native azaleas, and other flowering plants;
  • Propagating the Korean fir for use as lowland Christmas trees;
  • Enhancing plant interactions with growth-promoting bacteria;
  • Modifying plant proteins for use as edible and biomedical films;
  • Identifying genes associated with strawberry quality;
  • Modifying soybeans for enhanced composition and use in oral vaccine delivery; and
  • Cultivating agriculture and forestry-based plants as biomass for generating electricity, heat, and bio-diesel fuel.

ISRR and Danville's economic future

In 2010, the IALR will begin construction of the Sustainable Energy Technology Center (SEnTeC), funded by grants from the Tobacco Commission. Work at the new center will build on ISRR biofuels research, with the goal of optimizing the conversion of non-food-based plant materials to biofuels and bio-based products.

“Danville has had a long history of deriving wealth from agriculture, and the ISRR is demonstrable evidence that we are continuing to support this heritage,” said Jeremy Stratton, director of economic development for the City of Danville.

“As SEnTeC becomes more of a reality, we are convinced that it will be a very valuable asset in helping Danville realize its long-range goal of developing a cluster of sustainable energy companies in the region,” Stratton said.

Measuring CAER's impact in Lynchburg

“Each year, CAER asks Region 2000 companies what they need in the way of research – which takes the guesswork out and makes the process simpler,” said Jim Hicks, vice president of business integration for Areva NP Inc. in Lynchburg.  

Because CAER helps develop good relationships between Areva and Virginia Tech faculty, the company doesn’t have to “reinvent the wheel” in areas in which faculty have expertise, Hicks noted. 

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