Globally recognized expert in environmental engineering joins UH Hilo faculty

Shihwu Sung left the comfort of his well-established and funded research program at Iowa State to move to Hilo to explore emerging alternative energy opportunities that he says will benefit the people of Hawai‘i and be sufficiently scalable to have a positive global impact.

By Susan Enright.

Shihwu Sung
Shihwu Sung

Shihwu Sung joined the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo faculty in August after he and his family made the move from Iowa State University where he excelled in his field of environmental engineering and became well-respected globally for his expertise. At Iowa State, he served as the environmental engineering and water resource division coordinator and professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering. His research interests include pollution prevention and waste treatment technologies with an emphasis on waste-to-energy recovery and production of valuable byproducts.

Sung left the comfort of his well-established and funded research program at Iowa State to move to Hilo to explore emerging alternative energy opportunities that he says will benefit the people of Hawai‘i and be sufficiently scalable to have a positive global impact.

“Hawai‘i is thirsty for all forms of energy,” Sung says. “I look forward to continuing my research in the field of developing biomass based energy and bio-derivative conversion technologies. I am committed to exploring research topics that will improve environmental quality and biomass-based economics of Hawai‘i with focus on production of renewable energy and high-value byproducts.”

Sung says Hawai‘i Island is unique with all different geological formations and climate zones, which is an excellent testing ground for any type of biomass based industry. Within that context, he is teaching a new course in engineering at UH Hilo this fall for students who want to gain a greater appreciation of how engineering impacts the island’s people and future (ENGR 102, Engineering our Future, College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management).

The course is designed for students who want to become professional engineers as well students who simply want to gain a practical understanding of engineering to make better choices in the future. Students enrolled in the course will gain an understanding of the impact, extent and breadth of the engineering profession and engineering activities in their daily lives. The course description states, “Engineers play a vital role in the design and development of a wide range of useful devices, critical infrastructure, and technical services which maintain and improve the quality of life for the people of Hawai‘i, and make it possible to quickly respond to emerging problems, such as recovering from natural disasters.”

Sung also will be teaching “Aquatic and Soil Pollution,” an experimental course to introduce water and soil pollution control technologies (no assigned course number yet), and “Farm Power,” a course with focus on alternative energy options at a farm setting (AGEN 301).

Students enrolled in these courses will have as their professor one of the country’s foremost experts on the topic. Sung has developed four patented technologies, all of which have been licensed to the private sector for commercial applications. Sung says individual researchers often conduct fundamental research with little opportunity to put the findings into practice; research papers and reports are generated, but applications are often undeveloped. That is not the case with Sung’s research team.

“The research efforts are directed towards certain goals and the findings in the research laboratories are taken directly to the field for trials,” he says. “As an example, more than 20 cities nationwide have rapidly adopted our patented 1998 energy recovery waste treatment technology called the Temperature-Phased Anaerobic Digestion or TPAD process.”

Sung says a surprising find in his research is the energy shift in the wastewater industry from a mega-consumer to an energy-gain enterprise.

“Wastewater treatment presently uses more than three percent of annual electricity demand in the U.S.,” he says. “This largely ignored problem stems from the unfortunate fact that aerobic waste processing, the conventional gold standard for wastewater treatment, requires intensive and highly inefficient aeration to supply aerobic bacteria with oxygen so that they might then oxidatively convert organic and inorganic wastewater contaminants.”

Sung discovered a paradigm-shifting strategy by which the energy-efficiency of wastewater treatment could be dramatically improved by advancing the roles of novel anaerobic and anoxic bio-based mechanisms in lieu of heavily relying on aerobic treatment.

“Indeed, this new sustainable approach is that switching away from predominantly aerobic wastewater treatment could transformatively reduce energy consumption while at the same time remarkably recovering the bio-energy embedded in the wastewater to achieve a net energy-gain,” he says.

Looking to the future, Sung sees great potential for Hawai‘i Island to become a model of renewable energy.

“With the new Energy Engineering program in place (at UH Hilo), I would like to transform the Big Island into an energy independent showcase with the demonstration of all sources of renewable energy, for example geothermal, solar, wind, tidal, hydro, biomass, etcetera, to serve as an energy model for the rest of the world,” he says.

Sung received his bachelor of science in civil engineering from Tam Kang University, Taiwan, his master of science in environmental engineering from Auburn University, Alabama, and his doctor of philosophy in environmental engineering from Iowa State University.

Contact Shihwu Sung.


About the author of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist in the Office of the Chancellor. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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