ECU students, businesses to benefit from pollution prevention efforts

The East Carolina University Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering has received three grants from the Environmental Protection Agency totaling more than $740,000.

The center, which is part of the College of Engineering and Technology, aims to partner with industry and businesses on sustainability issues that include energy and cost savings, lean and green manufacturing, and pollution prevention.

Engineering students Michael Trapani, left, and Kenneth Weddle look at thermal readings during an energy audit last year for the Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering. (Photo by Ken Buday)

“It’s very exciting because ECU is leading these efforts,” said Dr. Tarek Abdel-Salam, the center’s director as well as an engineering professor and associate dean for research in the college. “We have a unique area of pollution prevention. We are growing it and getting more and more awards from the EPA to do these pollution prevention activities. I think the only one doing this type of thing was the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, but now ECU is in a position to serve the region. It’s unique. No one else is doing this type of activity with pollution prevention in North Carolina.”

One grant is designed to foster student success. Twelve students over two years will be paid for 12-week internships to conduct environmental pollution prevention assessments at companies that are looking to cut costs and help the environment.

“We’ll send them to work in industry,” Abdel-Salam said. “Each student will stay in the industrial facility and help alter the facility and compile a technical report about savings. Before sending the students in, they will be trained in calculating the cost benefit, calculating the energy and pollution prevention.”

Abdel-Salam said such work would set up the students for successful careers upon graduation.

“When these students go do these energy assessments involving environmental pollution prevention — which includes energy, water and waste reduction — this will help them to get better jobs,” he said. “It’s really contributing to student success and them being able to get good jobs.”

Another EPA grant is a collaborative effort to help manufacturing facilities in the state prevent pollution, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and conserve water and energy, all of which could save businesses money.

“This will have a big impact on industry in North Carolina,” Abdel-Salam said. “We’ll have roundtable discussions and technical workshops and training courses. We’ll do energy assessments, water assessments and pollution prevention.”

The College of Business will be involved to conduct economic analysis, and the Department of Engineering is on board to help through the EPA Safer Choice program in which alternatives to certain chemicals in products or the manufacturing process are provided to businesses.

As part of the grant, ECU will place emphasis on addressing environmental justice in underserved communities through engaging local governments and industries. The team will also identify and develop best practices so that other businesses and manufacturers can replicate the successful outcomes.

“It’s collaborations with a lot of entities here at ECU, and that contributes to student success and helping industry, reducing pollution and reducing energy in North Carolina,” Abdel-Salam said.

As part of the final grant, the center is supporting UNC Chapel Hill’s Environmental Finance Center in efforts to improve environmental performance measures in the state’s craft beverage industry.

“This is probably the first collaboration between the engineering department here and the center at Chapel Hill. That is definitely something,” Abdel-Salam said.

ECU faculty involved in supporting the center through the grants include Drs. Nehad Elsawaf, Faete “JT” Filho, and Jinkun Lee. Abdel-Salam said plenty of state and industry advocacy organizations, as well as some city managers and economic development commissions, are involved as well.

“We’re focused on student success, student engagement and the region, and these grants follow the mission of the college and the mission of the university,” Abdel-Salam said. “We’re a research center, but we need to have that impact on the students and the region. We’re excited about the opportunity for our students and for these industries.”