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Two environmental advances—a new source of lumber for construction and efficient breakdown of plastic mulch—are closer to becoming reality, thanks to the work of two student-professor teams from UT.

The projects are being funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) Phase I grants. Forty teams of graduate and undergraduate students from across the country are each receiving a $15,000 grant for research proposals that develop solutions to real-world environmental challenges.

The first project, led by a team within the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, aims to ensure the proper breakdown of mulch made from plastic. Plastic mulch is used to enhance water and soil conservation, yet it does not break down efficiently. The team will investigate additives to mulches that will accelerate their biodegradation and allow their biodegradation to be “timed.”

Collaborators include professors Douglas Hayes, Jennifer DeBruyn, Jaehoon Lee, and Larry Wadsworth, and students Xiaoci (Chelsea) Ji of Beijing, China, and Alana Burnham and Austin Shaffer Powell of Oak Ridge.

The second project, led by a team from the School of Architecture and Design; the College of Engineering; and the Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries within the Institute of Agriculture, aims to tap into green oak for use as a construction material. The heart centers of the logs are extremely low-energy and carbon-friendly. Despite being a high-value wood product, they are mostly used in pallets and not building due to defects that limit their usefulness. The team will investigate how to make green oak useable for construction without requiring operational changes for local sawmills.

Collaborators include professors Ted Shelton, Richard Bennett, Robert French, Jennifer Retherford, Tricia Stuth, and Adam Taylor, and students Jason Cole and Geoffrey Hillstead of Knoxville; Natalie Graham of Memphis; Noah Poor of Jonesborough; Bhenjamin Reed of Valparaiso, Indiana; Sergey Shutt of Hendersonville; Sherif Sugiyama of Alexandria, Egypt; Steven Whitmore of Oak Hill, West Virginia; and Miranda Wright of Nashville.

This year’s P3 Phase I teams come from thirty-four universities in twenty-six states. Each team will use the award to develop its projects throughout the academic year. In the spring, the teams will travel to Washington, DC, to participate in the annual National Sustainable Design Expo. While at the Expo, teams will share their designs and compete for EPA’s P3 Award and a Phase II grant of up to $90,000 to further develop their projects. Team projects will be judged by a panel of environmental experts.

More information on the P3 program, visit the website.

C O N T A C T :

Whitney Heins (865-974-5460,