Five researchers join the Institutes of Energy and the Environment

September 14, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Five Penn State researchers have joined the Institutes of Energy and the Environment. This includes faculty members from the colleges of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Architecture, the Liberal Arts and Penn State Law. More than 60 cofunded faculty members work to positively impact important energy and environmental challenges through interdisciplinary scholarship and collaboration.

Emily Pakhtigian

Emily Pakhtigian is an assistant professor and the Jeffrey L. and Sharon D. Hyde-McCourtney Career Development Professor in the College of the Liberal Arts’ School of Public Policy. She is also a part of the recent water faculty cluster hiring effort. Her research focuses on the intersection of environmental and development economics. In her role, Pakhtigian’s work includes investigating how individuals interact with their natural environments with an emphasis on environmental health, valuing environmental risk reductions and studying how environmental resources can be used to foster economic development with a particular focus on water-resource management.

“Taken together, my research identifies demand for and impacts of environmental health technologies and addresses policy-relevant questions using tools from applied microeconomics, econometrics and natural resource-systems modeling,” Pakhtigian said.

As an applied economist and public policy scholar, Pakhtigian pursues research that can be applied in the communities where she works. She has also been involved in many projects that include policy-specific outputs in addition to academic work.

“I seek to examine questions and topics that directly relate to pressing policy concerns — the answers to which can inform policy design,” she said.

Pakhtigian often works in interdisciplinary spaces or across environmental risk topics.

“My work requires consideration of how lessons from one domain or discipline can inform the research design in another,” she said. “Context is extremely important for my research applications, which is dependent on a thorough understanding of the contexts and policy environments of the areas where I work. Thus, I try to balance the potential for generalizability with the need for localized and context-specific interventions.”

Rui Shi

Rui Shi is an assistant professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical Engineering. Her research interests lie primarily at the interface between basic research and the sustainability of engineered and natural systems.

“In particular, my research focuses on prioritizing research and development pathways of transportation fuels, bioproducts, agricultural systems and food-energy-water systems by linking the traditional engineering metrics with sustainability analyses,” Shi said.

According to Shi, research must align with solving problems, such as climate change. Her work leads to the development of a sustainable-design platform and system-level environmental-impact analysis frameworks. These frameworks navigate trade-offs across technical, environmental and economic dimensions.

“We need to take urgent action to combat climate change and to secure the future of food, energy and water systems,” Shi said. “Innovation priorities should be connected to improvement goals with critical design decisions, technology improvements and policies that can govern systems-scale sustainability. I develop decision-making tools and technologies that will enable engineers to design for sustainability as we transition to a circular economy through technology innovation.”

Peter Stempel

Peter Stempel is an associate professor of landscape architecture in the College of Arts and Architecture. His focus is water resilience, and he is also a part of the recent water faculty cluster hiring effort. His research has three thrusts: developing tools to create model-driven, realistic 3D visualizations of climate impacts, measuring the effect of those tools of perceptions of risk and legitimacy, and developing ethical frameworks for the use of realistic visualizations.

“The work I do helps people imagine and prepare for seemingly unimaginable futures that physical and statistical models tell us are increasingly likely,” Stempel said.

Stempel has worked at both the community scale and at the state and regional scale. For the latter, he has developed tools that connect local-scale information about consequences of extreme events to high-resolution ocean and wind models. These allow for rapid real-time evaluation of storm-consequence data and is designed to provide actionable information for emergency managers in advance of storm landfall.

“The bulk of my research uses the tools of social science to understand how modeling and representational choices shape perceptions of risk and legitimacy,” he said. “For instance, connecting future projections of sea level to real observed events in a community such as ‘sunny day flooding’ and septic system failures makes changing conditions salient and may increase the effectiveness of visualizations.”

Stempel said understanding these effects is an essential step to creating systems that scale and can be confidently applied by scientists and designers.

“Although visualization is often thought of as something that happens after the science is done, the types of models and visualizations that I create are highly integrated with physical models created by scientists and reflect continual input from extension and community partners.”

Hannah Wiseman

Hannah Wiseman is a professor of law in Penn State Law and a Wilson Faculty Fellow in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Her research primarily focuses on the mechanics of the regulation of energy development, including oil and gas and renewable energy.

“My research explores the governance levels at which this regulation occurs and should occur within local, state, regional and/or federal jurisdiction,” she said. “It also investigates the methods by which impacts can be controlled, such as through direct prohibition of externalities or taxes, as well as creative, underexplored methods of encouraging innovative and cleaner energy development.”

One line of Wiseman’s research highlights the inadequacy of regulation in certain areas, including oil and gas development.

“A few state regulators and groups pushing for policy changes have used my comparisons of the regulation of oil and gas development in different states to identify regulations that might be the best fit for their state,” Wiseman said. “I hope that my research provides policymakers and judges with new ways of looking at governance levels, making them reconsider broad stereotypes about the superiority of state or federal control.”

Wiseman said she also endeavors, through her research, to offer regulators creative ideas for addressing the externalities of energy development in ways that are viewed as less burdensome than traditional command-and-control regulation.

“My research does not suggest that there is a silver bullet in energy. It acknowledges that there are risks and negative effects associated with all forms of energy development, including renewable energy development,” she said. “My research attempts to identify effective, realistic ways of addressing these negative effects while allowing society to transition to more sustainable energy forms.”

Linxiao Zhu

Linxiao Zhu is an assistant professor and the John J. and Jean M. Brennan Clean Energy Early Career Professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. His research involves understanding the fundamentals of how light and heat can be controlled using nanostructured materials, as well as using the knowledge to advance energy efficiency and develop clean energy.

“I work on controlling thermal radiation by taking advantage of the strong light-material interaction at the nanoscale,” he said. “Thermal radiation, which is part of the warmth one feels from the stove and what one sees in a thermal camera, is infrared light. By using nanostructures with feature sizes comparable to the wavelength of this light, various properties of heat and light, such as spectrum, direction, intensity and many others, can be designed and tailored, leading to great opportunities for energy and thermal applications.”

His research led to the realization of laser-free, solid-state refrigeration.

“The working medium that carries energy in this type of refrigeration is light, and it does not involve any moving fluids or gases,” Zhu said. “There will be zero emission of greenhouse or ozone-depletion gases. This refrigeration technology has potential in a wide range of applications, such as thermal management for wearable devices, aerospace, and cooling for integrated circuits.”

Zhu also designed a new type of thermal photovoltaic cell that increased electricity generation rate by 40 times.

“Thermal radiation is everywhere in our life,” Zhu said. “For any object at a finite temperature, that is, higher than the absolute zero temperature, it constantly emits thermal radiation. For example, the human body continuously emits thermal radiation in the form of infrared light. The capability of tailoring the various properties of thermal radiation using principles of photonics and novel materials holds the key to developing new energy and thermal applications.”

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Last Updated September 14, 2020