New sustainability projects at Western get seed money

Nina Zitani, curator of Western’s Zoological Collections, is excited to be
Nina Zitani, curator of Western’s Zoological Collections, is excited to begin digitizing records for tens of thousands of insect specimens housed at the university, thanks to a grant from the Western Sustainable Impact Fund. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications photo)
Western Sustainable Impact Fund supports first cohort of projects led by faculty, staff and students Nina Zitani opens a nondescript grey locker to reveal tightly packed drawers. Inside are tens of thousands of bees, butterflies, beetles and insects of all types. Zitani is the curator of Western’s Zoological Collections. She’s the keeper of an incredible animal history contained in the university collection, reflecting species found in Ontario - and farther afield, in locations around the world - for more than one hundred years.

There’s the rare beetle collected on Western’s campus. The tropical cricket that’s more common to rainforests than Southwestern Ontario. The stick-mimicking bug Zitani found in her backyard, just by chance. Each tiny specimen is carefully pinned with a hand-written label bearing the date, location and the name of the scientist or citizen who collected it.

Rows and rows of bugs of all species are preserved in the glass-front boxes that fill the lockers on every wall. One box can contain more than a dozen species. Soon, some of those valuable collections will be digitized, thanks to $30,000 in new funding to start that long-awaited process.

Nina Zitani, curator of Western’s Zoological Collections, holds two Bombus affinis specimens, also known as the rusty-coloured bumblebee, collected in London in 1967. The native species is now at risk in Ontario. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications photo) "We’ve got to study biodiversity past and present so we can understand and solve the problem of biodiversity loss. We’ve got to face it. We know that habitats have declined significantly as London has just grown and grown," said Zitani, an entomologist.

"The primary goal is to learn about the species that historically occurred in London and on campus. Are they still here? That’s fundamental in the context of a global biodiversity crisis."

The digitization project is one of 30 new sustainability efforts recently awarded funding through a new Western program. The Western Sustainable Impact Fund has granted $406,000 this year to initiatives run by faculty, staff and students.

The funding was allocated by the President’s Advisory Committee on the Environment and Sustainability (PACES) to a vast range of projects, from a tree festival to rebuilding bird habitats to art workshops focused on environmental issues. All are led by Western researchers, clubs or students.

"We congratulate all’of the inaugural grant recipients of the Sustainable Impact Fund. These motivated individuals and teams have brought forward bold, innovative and attainable projects that we are confident will propel Western forward in our sustainability objectives," said Lynn Logan, PACES co-chair and vice-president of operations and finance.

Sustainability is a top priority for Western, a pillar of its strategic plan, Towards Western at 150 . The university has frequently been recognized for its sustainability efforts in global rankings. Campus projects are also a focus area, including the initiative to encourage environmental research right on the university grounds.

For Zitani, the new Western Sustainable Impact funding will give life to a project her colleagues and she have hoped to tackle for years.

Biology professor and curator Greg Thorn and curatorial assistant Kris Mendola, in charge of the Dr. Laurie L Consaul Herbarium , and biology professor Tim Hain are all partners on the digitization project.

Not only will moving to a digital format change the game for efficient storage, searching the records, and the longevity of the collections, but it also means the data can be shared online and used by other researchers all’over the world.

Zitani plans to hire for a new part-time position to begin the digitization work, which will involve photographing the specimens and entering data from their labels into spreadsheets. The sustainability funding will give the project a jump-start, beginning with bird, insect and plant families.

Organizers hope it will lead to further digitization of the entire collection, eventually.

"We need to know as much as we can - these collections are part of our understanding of local biodiversity, which is declining rapidly as natural habitat is lost," Zitani said.

Student club for innovative carbon capture

For engineering students Liam Israels and Ethan Milroy, only one project was the right fit for their capstone. They wanted to build a direct air capture device to remove carbon dioxide from the air. So, they created their own club to make it happen.

Co-founders of the Western Engineering Green Technology Club , Israels and Milroy hope to create a prototype they can use in an international carbon removal competition. They’re already in the thick of designing and building the 3D-printed device. They hope the club will continue in future years , tackling new environmental challenges.

Club co-founders (L-R) Ethan Milroy and Liam Israels. (Western Engineering Green Technology Club/Instagram photo) " We’re both quite passionate about sustainable and green technologies," said Israels, a mechanical engineering student in his final year.

" In future years, the goal is to add other green technology projects. We’ve been throwing around ideas such as a wind turbine project or a solar project."

A grant of $6,800 from the Western Sustainable Impact Fund will help build the direct air capture prototype.

"Th e biggest cost is the zeolite material - that’s the actual sorbent material (to absorb carbon) we’re using, because it’s not something you can just run out and get at your local hardware store," Israels said.

The captured carbon can be used to make fuels or chemical products or even sold, such as to a carbonated drink company.

Right now, the club is focused on removing carbon, not its next use.

"That’s not part of the scope of our project - we would have bitten off a little bit more than we could chew," said Milroy, a dual degree student in mechanical engineering and at Ivey Business School.

Eventually, they’d even like to see the prototype or a similar device, improved in future years, used on campus. Those interested in joining the club can reach out through the Western Engineering Green Technology Club Instagram page.

" Direct air capture has been gaining a lot of popularity because of its potential as a tool to help fight climate change. More than anything, we hope our club will create a space for students to learn, develop and work on green technologies, which are so important," Israels said.

Insulation from renewable sources for a circular economy

Apurv Gaidhani, a PhD candidate in engineering, received funding for his work creating a new type of insulation from renewable sources of carbon.

"This is similar to Styrofoam. T he limitations we have with the products available on the market is they’re not recyclable," Gaidhani said.

Working with Western engineering professors Paul Charpentier and Lauren Tribe, Gaidhani is u sing a widely available renewable source of carbon called biochar - made by heating forest or agricultural waste called biomass - to build a product that will be recyclable at the end of its life.

A start-up company, ShivGreen Foam Insulations, is also involved with research and commercialization of a fire-retardant, recyclable polystyrene carbon composite foam.

Gaidhani said his goals for the product are three-fold: it will be cheaper, insulate more effectively - to reduce the energy use of buildings where it is used - and be more fire retardant.

" About 60 per cent of our energy in our houses goes into temperature control. I have some proof of concept that the thermal insulation value will be increased by at least 20 per cent when using my product, which means the energy usage will be decreased. In terms of lower energy bills, lower energy usage, and consuming fossil fuel resources like natural gas, this is directly applicable to citizens," Gaidhani said.

He also hopes to increase fire retardancy by 10 to 20 per cent over typical insulation products to increase safety for homes or buildings where the insulation is used.

Gaidhani is working now on testing and evaluating the performance of the foam and hopes to pilot the product by mid-2025.