Over the past month, the UNC Research Opportunities Initiative has awarded a total of $6.2 million in grants to three research teams focusing on hybrid materials, data science and green fuels. The grants stipulate that the projects must be collaborative. Each winning proposal contains scientists from four or more North Carolina universities.
UNC-Chapel Hill is home to two of the three lead professors whose projects won the grants. One focuses on constructing a cost-efficient solar cell and the other on cataloging rare diseases into a data hub. Alexander Tropsha is the lead investigator on the latter, and has been working on collecting data on rare diseases for about two years.
“I was not terribly surprised to receive the grant because I thought this was a highly exciting area of research,” Tropsha said. “There is a lot of focus in North Carolina specifically to the area of rare diseases because of the social responsibility.”
By definition, rare diseases impact fewer than 67 out of 100,000 Americans, so studying and researching them is not particularly lucrative. Large pharmaceutical companies would lose money putting resources towards researching diseases that impact so few patients, so teams like Tropsha’s rely on grants and government funding.
Nearly another $2 million of the grant went to Debasish Kuila’s team, which aims to make fuel out of animal and plant waste. With the use of microreactors, Kuila hopes to transform biogas into liquid fuel on site wherever it will be used. Kuila described this process as interdisciplinary, requiring both chemists and chemical engineers.