May 19, 2014, BY Molly O'Brien-Foelsch

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Municipal solid waste could power 1.3 million U.S. homes and save 146 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. The catch is that the trash needs to be managed in specially engineered anaerobic digestion facilities, which use biotechnology to harness the chemical energy in the trash, and not in landfills. And there are no full-scale systems operating in this country.

Bucknell University Professor Tom DiStefano wants to change that.

The professor of civil & environmental engineering conducts research that may lead to the design and construction of anaerobic reactors, and he now has additional resources to support his work. In April, Provost Mick Smyer announced that the University selected DiStefano as the inaugural Heinemann Family Professor in Engineering.

Bucknell's newest endowed professorship was funded by a gift to the WE DO Campaign from trustee Kirsten Heinemann '81, P'12, P'15 and her husband, Steven P'12, P'15. They created the fund to develop and advance faculty scholarship and student learning opportunities in priorities areas of the College of Engineering.

"Steve and I wanted to fund a campaign gift with the most impact possible," says Heinemann. "Very few schools combine engineering education with liberal arts. We wanted to strengthen this strategic advantage even more."

For its first term, the professorship supports the area of sustainability, a field in which DiStefano has been a champion across campus since he joined Bucknell in 1995. He recently led a collaborative effort to introduce a degree program in environmental engineering that launched in fall 2013. The Heinemann Professorship will support DiStefano's experimental research, with a focus on using anaerobic biotechnology to recover valuable resources from wastewater and using municipal solid waste to power homes.

"The support from this fund will enable me to advance collaborative research with Bucknell students in employing microbes to convert waste materials into useful forms of energy," said DiStefano.

All of DiStefano's published scholarship includes student co-authors, and he provides hands-on collaborative learning opportunities to even more students through coursework and research mentoring.

"It has been a privilege to work with Prof. DiStefano and experience the passion he has for both his research and teaching," said DJ Wacker, a graduate environmental engineering student who has worked for two years with DiStefano on converting the chemical energy in wastewater to methane. "His knowledge and experience have helped me develop as an engineer and professionally."

"Endowed academic positions like this provide our faculty with valuable opportunities to pursue intensive scholarship, mentor students and enhance their teaching," said Smyer. 

DiStefano will begin his three-year appointment as Heinemann Family Professor in fall 2014.