NASA is one of the organizations providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding to help South Dakota School of Mines & Technology researchers pursue their projects over the next three years. The Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration Inc. (SME) is also offering financial support to get an associate professor of mining on track for tenure.

Professor Venkataramana Gadhamshetty’s earlier research into the use of tomato waste as a source of electrical energy attracted the attention of NASA, which would like to apply the concept to generating power from human waste in manned space missions.

To develop the idea into a workable model, Gadhamshetty received $750,000 from NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). Gadhamshetty’s project was selected from more than 20 others submitted from across the state, according to Dr. Edward Duke, director of the South Dakota NASA EPSCoR Program.

 “We’re not trying to find one star researcher and give them lots of money, but to identify an area or research that can be developed over time,” Duke said.

Crew members in space missions typically produce about 3.5 pounds of waste a day. This accumulates over time, which inevitably leads to increased fuel consumption and health concerns as the mission progresses.

Gadhamshetty plans to use unique microorganisms found in the deep levels of the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead to break down human waste products and generate electrical energy in single step.  The SURF microbes are ideal for the process, Gadhamshetty said, because they are able to survive in the harsh vacuum of space.

“Using organisms that adapted to survive in one of the more extreme environments on earth to advance science for space travel is a novel concept. I’m glad NASA is interested and willing to support this work,” School of Mines President Heather Wilson said in a prepared statement.

The microbes and waste products will be placed inside an electro-chemical fuel cell capable of producing 1.1 volt, or about a single double A battery worth of power. The fuel cells could then be stacked to generate more electricity.

The project will require collaboration from researchers in various fields across several institutions, including the Argonne National Laboratory and the Navy Research Laboratory. For example, Gadhamshetty is teaming with engineers versed in nanotechnology to develop an ultra-light construction material for his electro-chemical cells.   

“Hopefully they’ll contribute to something that no one of them could do by themselves,” Duke said.

Another significant grant is going to associate professor of mining Andrea Brickey, who has been awarded $300,000 by the SME. Brickey is the recipient of the 2016 Freeport McMorRan Career Development Grant, which aims to get associate and assistant professors on track for tenure by providing them financial support for research, publications, and other professional activities necessary for achieving promotion.

“It’s a great honor and it’s humbling,” Brickey said. “It’s a pleasure to be able to do this. It’s great to have the support of the industry and my colleagues.”

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The grant is part of an academic career development program administered by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration Inc. (SME).

“Dr. Brickey has been a tremendous addition to our faculty, and we very much appreciate the support of SME to help develop the next generation of top notch faculty in mining,” Wilson said.

The grant will come in annual $100,000 installments for three years, allowing Brickey to fund two graduate students and several undergraduate students to assist in her research. The focus of Brickey’s research is on the planning of underground mines.

“With a computer mathematical model, we can look at optimal ways to get multiple things done in an underground mining operation,” Brickey said.

Brickey is a rare breed in the eyes of SME Executive Director David L. Kanagy. Kanagy's organization maintains that tenure-track instructors in Brickey’s field are on the decline, something the grant is intended to remedy.

“The challenges associated with faculty scarcity extend from the ability of students with industry experience to successfully complete a Ph.D. degree to newly employed faculty who are facing the difficult process of achieving tenure,” Kanagy said in a release.

Brickey has a bachelor’s degree from South Dakota School of Mines and a doctorate from the Colorado School of Mines. She joined the S.D. School of Mines faculty last fall. Much of her experience in the field has been with precious metal mining operations and consulting projects in Africa and North and South America. 

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Education/County Reporter

Education/county reporter for the Rapid City Journal.