Home Refugee shelters to batteries: New grants advance promising research

Refugee shelters to batteries: New grants advance promising research


university of virginiaUniversity of Virginia associate architecture professor Earl Mark was disheartened by the magnitude of Europe’s refugee crisis, which he witnessed firsthand when traveling by rail from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna, Austria for a fall conference. Now, thanks to UVA’s participation in a statewide research partnership, Mark is doing something about it.

Mark is one of six UVA faculty members receiving grants from the 4-VA program, a partnership between UVA, George Mason University, James Madison University, Virginia Tech and Old Dominion University. Funded by the state legislature, 4-VA promotes inter-university collaboration to improve research, teaching and job opportunities in the commonwealth, with a focus on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – efforts. Many research projects funded by 4-VA involve graduate and undergraduate students, providing experiential learning opportunities valuable in the job market.

Mark and UVA engineering professor Hilary Bart-Smith are partnering with Virginia Tech engineering professor Tom Martin to develop emergency shelters using tension membrane fabric. The fabric – similar to that used in stadium roofing – is lightweight enough to easily transport and assemble, but durable enough to provide better insulation and weather protection than the nylon tents used in many migrant camps.

“In Europe, seeing families and kids huddled together in train stations, corridors and any available shelter was just overwhelming, and I became much more engaged in thinking about how my work with tension membrane fabric could impact emergency relief housing,” Mark said.

The team combines Mark’s long-standing work designing environmentally responsive, small-scale tension membrane fabric lodging and labs, Bart-Smith’s experience with tension structures and Martin’s work on fabrics that have electronics woven into them. They are also partnering with Lisa Packard, director of the outdoor classroom program at the Chewonki Foundation in Maine, where the structures will be field-tested, and with Rubb Building Systems, which manufactures tension membrane fabric. Additionally, both Bart-Smith and Martin will engage with Mark’s students, enrolled in an undergraduate design studio on emergency shelter solutions that he is teaching during the first phase of research this spring.

Together, the faculty team hopes to guide the studio in piloting ideas to launch a longer-term effort to develop structures that can be manufactured cost-effectively, airdropped and assembled quickly, endure variable weather and provide real-time environmental data to relief agencies. They also hope to compete for major national grants, a focal point in 4-VA’s efforts to bring additional research dollars to the commonwealth.

“The whole idea of 4-VA is to help institutions in the commonwealth leverage their strengths,” said Vice Provost for Educational Innovation and Interdisciplinary Studies Archie Holmes, who oversaw UVA’s participation this year. “One of the strengths that UVA provides, as a large research university, is the ability to build the research capacity of the commonwealth.”

The applicants for each project funded this year outlined possibilities for national recognition. For example, Gary Koenig, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at UVA, and Dipankar Ghosh, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Old Dominion University, hope to submit their project to the Department of Energy or the Department of Defense. Along with their graduate students, the pair are working to improve energy storage in batteries, combining Koenig’s expertise in battery material design with a new freeze-casting technique developed in Ghosh’s lab to create high-power solid-state batteries.

Numerous past projects funded by 4-VA have enjoyed success at the national level. For example, Patrick Hopkins, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UVA, and Costel Constantin, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at James Madison University, used specialized equipment in Hopkins’ lab to study heat transfer at the nano scale, with the goal of improving the functionality of nanodevices. After the 4-VA grant, their project was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation, one of the country’s top research organizations.

“We are taking fundamentally good ideas and giving them a boost to get to the next stage of research, so that they can be competitive for national awards,” Holmes said.

Though UVA has participated in the 4-VA program since its founding six years ago, this is the first year that the University administered its own grant competition. Proposals were solicited and reviewed by the Office of the Vice President for Research, and about $300,000 in funding was awarded.

Collaborations that received grants from UVA include:

  • “Teen Driver Safety” – Dr. Daniel Cox, professor of psychiatric and internal medicine, collaborating with colleagues at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute
  • “High-Density Li Battery Cathodes via Freeze-Casting” – Gary Koenig, assistant professor of chemical engineering, collaborating with colleagues at Old Dominion University
  • “Shelter-in-Place Structures” – Earl Mark, associate professor of architecture, collaborating with colleagues at UVA and Virginia Tech
  • “Gel Materials for Pelvic Brachytherapy” – Dr. Timothy Showalter, associate professor of radiation oncology, collaborating with colleagues at Virginia Tech
  • “History of Nursing in Alaska” – Arlene Keeling, Centennial Distinguished Professor of Nursing, collaborating with colleagues at James Madison University
  • “Pathogenic Bacteria in a Pristine Ecosystem” – Michael Pace, professor of environmental science, collaborating with colleagues at James Madison University



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