NSF-funded projects aim to create economic shift

Two multi-institutional teams involving East Carolina University faculty members have been awarded $1 million each from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines, or NSF Engines, program to create economic, societal and technological opportunities in their regions.

Reide Corbett, dean of Integrated Coastal Programs at ECU and executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute, and LaKesha Alston Forbes, chief diversity officer and associate provost for equity and diversity, are co-principal investigators on the North Carolina Ecosystem Technology (NCET) project. Tarek Abdel-Salam, engineering professor and director of ECU’s Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering and Technology, is the co-principal investigator on the Clean Carolinas initiative.


Launched by NSF’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships and authorized by the “CHIPS and Science Act of 2022,” the NSF Engines program uniquely harnesses the nation’s science and technology research and development enterprise and regional-level resources. NSF Engines aspire to catalyze robust partnerships to positively impact regional economies, accelerate technology development, address societal challenges, advance national competitiveness and create local, high-wage jobs. Learn more on the NSF Engines website.

The two projects are among more than 40 teams to receive one of the first NSF Engines Development Awards.


The North Carolina Ecosystem Technology project aims to develop an economic engine that could rapidly improve the quality of life in rural coastal communities using ecosystem technology, or ecotech, an emerging branch of applied science. The NCET team consists of 11 researchers who are experts across disciplines from seven institutions: the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Cape Fear Community College, Carteret Community College, Duke University, ECU, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and RTI International. Using the coastal city of Wilmington as its hub, NCET will focus on three key areas: coastal infrastructure, aquaculture and renewable energy ancillary services.

“These are three areas where we think the east is ripe for growth, and we have the expertise to help push that forward,” Corbett said.

The NCET project will improve the infrastructure of North Carolina’s coastal region and solve problems.

According to Ken Halanych, executive director of UNCW’s Center for Marine Science and lead investigator on the project, NCET has the potential to turn North Carolina into a national, and eventually, global hub of ecotech innovation that will integrate economic, community and ecological sustainability. Currently, NCET has nearly 40 supporting partners from a variety of sectors statewide.

Within the three key areas, five emerging subfields of focus include:

  • engineering with nature
  • environmental sensing and signaling
  • ecosystem-inspired materials
  • ecosystem genetic engineering
  • ecosystem service measuring and modeling.

Some examples of innovative research and development in these areas include:

  • 3D printing living shoreline implants
  • designing green roofs to harness energy for heating and cooling buildings
  • automating deployable drones that can measure storm aftermath and flood surges
  • using genomic tools to improve aquaculture
  • developing pharmaceuticals using marine toxins and chemicals with antibacterial properties.

Clean Carolinas

The Clean Carolinas initiative is designed to support the economy and growth of the Carolinas through clean energy technology, including innovations in offshore wind, solar, clean hydrogen and marine energy, meeting the challenges of achieving a net-carbon-neutral electric grid by 2050. Activities will lay a pathway for clean energy innovation leadership through a focus on technology acceleration, research and development.

It targets North and South Carolina, a region that has already made significant investments in clean and renewable energy, Abdel-Salam said.

“We’re building on what we already have in the region. We are not starting from scratch,” he said.

Michael Mazzola, executive director, UNC Charlotte Energy Production and Infrastructure Center and lead principal investigator for the award, will serve as the project director, leading a group of 24 participating organizations that includes other universities, state and regional agencies in North and South Carolina, and energy companies.

“I’m very excited to be part of this team,” Abdel-Salam said. “… The collaboration to try to reach this goal is really one of the big things about this project, the collaborators and the partners, and ECU is playing a leadership role in that.”

Abdel-Salam said workforce development is a key component of the plan. The goal is to achieve upward economic mobility through clean energy transformation with a focus on diversity, equity, inclusiveness and accessibility (DEIA) that will recognize community priorities for energy economic development.

He said the project matches ECU’s commitment to regional transformation and public service.

“We can have a big impact here in eastern North Carolina and South Carolina,” Abdel-Salam said. “And since DEIA is such a big component, we’re engaging everyone in the community. We can create jobs, workforce training and education, so we are trying to change the whole region. That’s part of our mission at ECU, and that’s why it’s important to us.”

The NSF Developing Engines awardees span a broad range of states and regions, reaching geographic areas that have not fully benefited from the technology boom of the past decades. The awards will help organizations create connections and develop their local innovation ecosystems within two years to prepare strong proposals for becoming future NSF Engines, which will each have the opportunity to receive up to $160 million.

“These NSF Engines development awards lay the foundation for emerging hubs of innovation and potential future NSF Engines,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These awardees are part of the fabric of NSF’s vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere. They will build robust regional partnerships rooted in scientific and technological innovation in every part of our nation. Through these planning awards, NSF is seeding the future for in-place innovation in communities and to grow their regional economies through research and partnerships. This will unleash ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation.”

Related content
Map of the NSF Engines Development Awards
NSF Engines program website
NCET website
Clean Carolinas website