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Named professor is a key figure in the future of coal


BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 23, 2007 – The Sago disaster, which killed 12 miners in West Virginia last year, illustrated the need for a wireless communication system to improve safety and make it easier to locate trapped workers.

But developing a network that is practical to deploy deep underground is not easy. Phones that work on the surface get no signal in mine shafts. Mines are damp, dirty places. Equipment has to stand up to those conditions. Should part of the mine collapse, the system must keep working.

Through his work with the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER), Michael Karmis, the Stonie Barker Professor of Mining and Minerals Engineering at Virginia Tech, is helping to make wireless a reality in the type of deep mines that characterize Appalachia’s coalfields.

VCCER, with offices at the main Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., in the National Capital Region Operations Office in Alexandria, Va., and at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va., is involved in a project to develop a communication system to meet federal specifications at a cost that companies can realistically absorb. It’s just one challenge related to coal mining on which Karmis is working.

He is studying how the ground above coal mines is likely to subside, with an eye towards improving how mines are planned and reducing problems with ground stability in mining regions. He is working to create virtual environments to improve miner training.

And, perhaps most significantly, Karmis is wrestling with one of today’s most far-reaching problems, global warming. He is leading work on project in Southwest Virginia to test whether carbon dioxide can be stored in old coal seams. Coal provides half the nation’s electricity, but it is a major source of greenhouse gases. Finding feasible ways to capture and store the carbon dioxide that coal-fired power plants now emit is a significant part of the federal government’s efforts on climate change.

Karmis is one of many Virginia Tech professors who are making the most of the additional freedom to conduct valuable research they have because their faculty positions are supported by donors. There are many other examples of academic excellence by Virginia Tech’s named professors. Here are a few:

  • Marc Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was named a MacArthur Fellow, which comes with a $500,000 award often called “the genius grant,” for his research exposing deteriorating water supply systems in America’s largest cities.
  • R.B. Pamplin Professor of Management Richard Wokutch has studied efforts by major companies to ensure fair working conditions for people who make their products abroad. His work offers valuable reference material to other firms that may be considering taking similar steps.
  • Harold Bailey Professor Jeff Walters’ work protecting rare and endangered species of birds is so renowned that he was among the few people contacted to review the evidence of a reported sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was thought to be extinct.
  • Clifton C. Garvin Professor Romesh Batra’s study of how materials fail in the wake of extreme impacts has added to our understanding of how to design buildings to withstand natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

The examples could go on and on. To ensure that remains the case, university officials are working to add more privately supported positions for faculty and graduate students as part of The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future, a $1 billion fundraising initiative launched Oct. 20.

At the launch ceremony, university President Charles W. Steger outlined several priorities for the campaign, including strengthening and pursuing the university’s vision of academic excellence. Within the campaign, Virginia Tech has set a $182 million goal for that particular priority.

"We must create and sustain endowed chairs and professorships in order to help us attract and retain world-class faculty and researchers," Steger says. "And we must provide faculty fellowships to give these remarkable educators the intellectual breathing room to develop innovative classroom and research techniques. We must bolster our graduate programs in order to educate and recruit the nation’s top researchers and teachers. And we must invigorate our libraries, bringing both print and electronic resources to a level befitting our university of the future."

With a total goal of $1 billion, The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future marks a new era in private fundraising for the most comprehensive university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The campaign’s funding priorities target five goals: academic excellence, the undergraduate experience, research facilities, Virginia Tech in the community, and the President’s Discovery Fund, a pool of unrestricted funds.