Sustainability-focused philanthropy recognizes student innovations, local leaders

Students from the 2023 cohort of The Energy Project showcased their innovations at the Puranik Foundation Lotus Innovation Awards. Photo courtesy of Jacob Power Photography

From the moment of arrival at the Puranik Foundation Lotus Innovation Awards, attendees engaged in an experience that stimulated the senses and excited the mind – a precise reflection of the foundation’s approach to a holistic education for future innovators.

The event, held last week at the Post Oak Hotel in Uptown, honored Houston leaders supporting the next generation of aspiring entrepreneurs and celebrated the dedication of high school students dreaming sustainability solutions into reality.

“[These students] have the potential to reach innovative places that none of us can think of because we are so set in our ways,“ says Bhakti Puranik, executive director of Puranik Foundation, just steps from where the students showcased their prototypes to secure the gala’s Fan Favorite award. “They are open-minded and creative and constantly inspired by the community that surrounds us.”

The Energy Project, launched in 2020 by the foundation, supports young minds tackling environmental challenges for sustainable development across five sectors: alternative power generation, sustainable consumption, waste management, urban design, and water sustainability.

Multiple small student teams from across the country met for design thinking lessons before creating prototypes of their own solutions at TXRX Labs. The foundation’s primary sponsor, Worldwide Oilfield Machine, provided mentors and resources to the 25 students in this year’s cohort alongside Rice University.

For the winning team, Refoam Maine, the application of mushroom mycelium in lieu of plastic for floating buoys came from the optimistic minds of Maggie Blood, Olivia Huard, Tula Bradley Prindiville, and Laura Riordan, students of Camden Hills Regional High School near Rockport, Maine.

A close-knit community, Camden Hills has collectively seen thousands of orphaned buoys pile up against their docks and beaches for years. The team plans to use their Lotus Innovation Award grant of $15,000 to get their floats in the water, and is actively working with boatyards, aquaculture farmers, and others to bring that vision to reality this summer.

Cyrus Golshan, Nathaniel Lemon, and Alexander Kristof took home the Fan Favorite Award for their solution Piezot, which harnesses energy from revolutionary piezoelectric tiles that convert pressure into energy and electricity.

The team studies at the Energy Institute High School in Houston and envisions an energy ecosystem that doesn’t rely so heavily on natural forces, but rather on human movement as a means to generate power. Placement of the tiles in high-traffic areas like airports, schools, and shopping centers could mean an exponential growth in power supply created simply by the many feet that pass through these areas every day.

Bobby Tudor, CEO and founder of Artemis Energy Partners, and recipient of the Sustainability Lotus Award from Puranik Foundation, attributes the success of the program to the convergence of expertise, a collaborative ecosystem, and global connectivity available from Houston as part of the burgeoning Energy Transition industry.

“We are the energy capital of the world because we are the intellectual capital of energy,“ says Tudor. “The knowledge, the engineering, the expertise, sits here in a more concentrated way than it sits anywhere else in the world. It is that intellectual capital that will pave the way for us to continue to be the energy capital of the world a decade from now, two decades from now, and five decades from now.”

Additionally, Paula Harris, senior vice president of the Houston Astros Community Affairs and Executive Director for the Astros Foundation, accepted the Education Lotus Award for her continued commitment to advancing STEM education across underserved communities.

For his positive impact on the mental well-being of students, Bradley H. Smith, Ph.D., Professor of Psychological, Health, and Learning Services at the University of Houston School of Psychology, Puranik Foundation honored him with Mindfulness Lotus Award.

Applications for The Energy Project are due by 1 November each fall. In addition to the team competition, next year’s cohort includes an immersive experience in India for holistic learning and leadership development.

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A View From HETI

A View From UH

A Rice University professor studied the Earth's carbon cycle in the Rio Madre de Dios to shed light on current climate conditions. Photo courtesy of Mark Torres/Rice University

Carbon cycles through Earth, its inhabitants, and its atmosphere on a regular basis, but not much research has been done on that process and qualifying it — until now.

In a recent study of a river system extending from the Peruvian Andes to the Amazon floodplains, Rice University’s Mark Torres and collaborators from five institutions proved that that high rates of carbon breakdown persist from mountaintop to floodplain.

“The purpose of this research was to quantify the rate at which Earth naturally releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and find out whether this process varies across different geographic locations,” Torres says in a news release.

Torres published his findings in a study published in PNAS, explaining how they used rhenium — a silvery-gray, heavy transition metal — as a proxy for carbon. The research into the Earth’s natural, pre-anthropogenic carbon cycle stands to benefit humanity by providing valuable insight to current climate challenges.

“This research used a newly-developed technique pioneered by Robert Hilton and Mathieu Dellinger that relies on a trace element — rhenium — that’s incorporated in fossil organic matter,” Torres says. “As plankton die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, that dead carbon becomes chemically reactive in a way that adds rhenium to it.”

The research was done in the Rio Madre de Dios basin and supported by funding from a European Research Council Starting Grant, the European Union COFUND/Durham Junior Research Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation.

“I’m very excited about this tool,” Torres said. “Rice students have deployed this same method in our lab here, so now we can make this kind of measurement and apply it at other sites. In fact, as part of current research funded by the National Science Foundation, we are applying this technique in Southern California to learn how tectonics and climate influence the breakdown of fossil carbon.”

Torres also received a three-year grant from the Department of Energy to study soil for carbon storage earlier this year.

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