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PEI Walbridge Fund Awards Three Graduate Research Grants

Three graduate students were awarded the 2010 PEI Walbridge Fund Graduate Award in Energy and Environmental Research. The recipients include: Kevin Loutherback, Electrical Engineering; Dalin Shi, Geosciences; and Ann Carla Staver, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The PEI Walbridge Fund Graduate Award in Energy and Environmental Research provides funding to Princeton University graduate students pursuing innovative research on climate change, climate policy, energy, or related topics.

Kevin Louderback
Kevin Loutherback prepares microfluidic devices for an experiment to increase separation throughput. (Photo: Kevin Loutherback)

Kevin Loutherback

Loutherback was awarded for his project entitled "Reducing Biofuel Algae Costs with High Throughput Microfluidic Separations." The current challenge in algael biofuel production is to reduce the cost so that it is competitive with petroleum-based fuels. A significant portion (20-40%) in the traditional processing cost comes from concentrating (dewatering) the algae from the dilute concentrations at which they are cultured to levels necessary for oil extraction.

In his research, Loutherback seeks to greatly reduce this (dewatering) component by scaling up a microfluidic separation technology developed at Princeton. This work could lead to biofuels that compete with or displace petroleum-based fuels with a renewable resource that fixes C02, does not compete with food crops, and can be produced in a broad range of environments.

Dalin Shi
Dalin Shi harvesting phytoplankton cells to determine the expression of iron-containing photosynthetic proteins. (Photo: Dalin Shi)

Dalin Shi

Shi was chosen for his proposal, "Effect of Ocean Acidification on Iron Availability and Requirements in Marine Phytoplankton." For the past three years Shi has studied the effect of increasing CO2 on iron availability and requirements in marine phytoplankton. In roughly one third of the ocean, iron is a limiting nutrient for phytoplankton, the photosynthetic organisms responsible for about half of the contemporary global primary production.

As the chemistry of iron is most sensitive to pH, the ongoing acidification of seawater caused by the dissolution of anthropogenic CO2 in the ocean will alter its availability to phytoplankton. His data suggest that ocean acidification is likely to increase the iron-stress of phytoplankton populations in many areas of the ocean. The results of his research could shed more light on how the ongoing increase in atmospheric CO2 will affect marine ecosystems, in this case, though changes in availability of key nutrients.

Ann Carola Staver
Carla Staver sampling vegetation structure (tree and grass composition) in Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, South Africa. (Photo: Ann Carla Staver)

Ann Carla Staver

Savannas are known as ecosystems with tree cover below their climate-defined equilibrium. They are widespread world-wide, especially in Africa where they cover as much as 50% of the continent. Through this funded research, Staver hopes to increase an understanding of the drivers that facilitate tree-grass coexistence and that determine tree cover, and create a predictive framework for understanding constraints on tree cover. This work will help move forward the ability to predict responses of savanna distribution to climate change and even the contributions of savanna vegetation dynamics to global change.

About the Awards

Each student will receive $6,600 grants in support of their graduate research, including fieldwork support, travel, conference participation, the purchase of equipment and costs associated with data analysis and facilities use.