(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — It helps to have a little foresight — a family visits Erie and they take a trip to the Bicentennial Tower on the Bayfront. When they’re done exploring the tower, they don’t immediately pack into their cars and head back to the Interstate; instead, they walk over to the Great Lakes Research and Education Center on the marina. Inside, they get to see local fish in aquarium tanks, they get a tour of the facility and learn about how Gannon University is working to protect the water quality of Lake Erie.
When they’re done at the research and education center, the family walks a couple of blocks through Gannon’s campus to get a tour of greenhouses that are growing native species to replace invasive plants on Presque Isle, and plants and vegetables for the Erie Community.
Then, they walk to the I-HACK building, up to the sixth floor, where machinery is whirring and 3-D printers are creating equipment that’s used to test and clean Lake Erie. Between the Bicentennial Tower and the three tours, maybe it’s about lunch time and they stop into a local restaurant for some food. Then they’re off to Presque Isle State Park to enjoy a hike, or just a calm afternoon on the beach.
It might seem like a distant plan, but it’s already underway. Gannon University has signed a lease for the Historic Union Fish Company Building. In two weeks, manufacturing will begin on the sixth floor of the I-HACK building. The university has entered a partnership with the Regional Science Consortium for greenhouses, and those will be built in the spring when the ground thaws.
The plans have been in the works for about two years.
“This isn’t theoretical — it’s going. Some of the dominoes needed to fall before we announced the project,” said Dr. Walter Iwanenko, provost and vice president for student experience at Gannon University.
Project NePTWNE (pronounced like the Roman god, Neptune, who reigned over the sea) is a $24-million project that will be completed in phases. The unconventional spelling is a acronym for “Nano & Polymer Technology for Water and Neural-Networks in Erie.” The university follows the Neptune theme and has created a logo for the project featuring a Trident. The trident represents a three-tiered goal for the project which aims to “measure, mitigate and manufacture.” Essentially, the university hopes the project will put it at the forefront of freshwater research, and with it, elevate the city of Erie and the region with it.
“Fresh water is such an important resource, especially as certain areas are losing freshwater around the world. We want to make sure we’re protecting the resource in our own backyard,” Iwanenko said. “This is an environmental sustainability program. We hope to address water quality, climate change, economic development, and the overall quality of life in Erie.”
Gannon is no stranger to freshwater research. The Environaut is a 47-foot research vessel owned by the university. It collects samples from Presque Isle Bay and compiles the data to determine the health of the bay and monitor any developing trends.
“Not a lot of schools are positioned on the water like we are. This is a unique situation. We can be a leader in this field,” Iwanenko said. “With the water crisis happening in the world right now, more institutions are taking notice of water sustainability research. That’s good for all of us.”
While the Environaut has been a useful vessel during its tenure with the university, she’s still more than 70 years old. Her age limits what she can do. Researchers focus mostly on the bay due to the vessel’s limitations. Drones can be deployed over the big water of Lake Erie and measure air quality to help to determine water quality. But overall, Project NePTWNE includes the purchase of a new Environaut vessel (a cost of $3 million) that can confidently navigate the open water and carry all of the equipment researchers need to deploy.
The Historic Union Fish Company Building at 116 W. Front St. is on the Marina. The new Environaut will dock directly off the end of the pier. The building will be redesigned as the Great Lakes Research and Education Center. Samples can be carried directly from the vessel to the lab for testing. There will be fish and turtle tanks and aquaponics units on site. Redesigning the building into a research and education center will cost some $3 million.
The biggest threat to Lake Erie is pollution. Presque Isle attracts more than 4 million visitors each year, and those visitors spend an average of more than $80 per trip. And pollution is costly — impacting tourism, home values along the lakeshore, the cost of cleanup, and causing health and well-being costs to rise. The water quality in Lake Erie has come a long way in recent years, but the overall health of the lake still is considered “poor” according to the 2020 State of the Great Lakes Report, and it has the worst water quality of the Great Lakes.
Monitoring the pollution and the overall health of the lake takes equipment. The equipment for an advanced polymer science lab at the research and education center will cost some $10 million.
In 2020, Gannon University deployed a special buoy. The buoy was designed to pull plastic particles out of the water. It was equipped with a solar panel that powered a water pump. Lake water was pumped through a specially designed mesh. The mesh collected nanoplastics (plastic particles that are created when manufactured plastic degrades).
Through Project NePTWNE, a new manufacturing arm will begin producing equipment in about two weeks at I-HACK (the Institute for Health and Cyber Knowledge at Gannon University). The nanoplastic collecting buoys will be manufactured in the facility. The facility costs about $5 million.
Neural Networks will be put to work through Project NePTWNE for mitigation. Neural networks can be simply explained as artificial intelligence.
Using neural networks, Project NePTWNE will predict weather and tide patterns. It will analyze data and help to determine where buoys should be placed to be most effective.
The greenhouses, as stated above, will grow the native plants to replace invasive plants on Presque Isle State Park. The greenhouses cost $2 million and have received grant funding.
Further, Gannon University is hoping Project NePTWNE will help to develop environmental and health policies and programs. Iwanenko said further down the line, that could result in new courses and curriculums to offer majors focused on environmental sustainability. That development could come with a $1-million price tag.
“Being a catholic organization, we have an obligation to look out for Mother Earth and our environment. And that influences the people who live in the region,” Iwanenko said. “An unhealthy Lake Erie leads to unhealthy people.”
Will families come to Erie specifically to tour the research and education center? Maybe. But students will come to Gannon University to take part in the research. It already has strengthened partnerships between the university and the Regional Science Consortium and Penn State Behrend. It could create relationships with other universities studying freshwater who could send researchers to Erie for collaboration.
“This is a very high priority for the institution, that this project is helping Erie be a destination,” Iwanenko said.
The manufacturing arm won’t always be churning out buoys. When it’s not, local businesses could bring in their designs so they can be manufactured at I-HACK. And Gannon plans to bring in local manufacturers to train them on the state of the art 3-D printing equipment.
When looked at as a whole, Iwanenko said Project NePTWNE has the potential to create jobs. It has the potential to feed people and fill the void of the local “food desert.” It has the potential to attract people to Erie.
“What we recognize is that Erie is only as strong as its community partners, and Gannon is one of those partners,” Iwanenko said. “As a good neighbor, how do we treat the ecosystem around us? And not just the environmental ecosystem, but also the economic ecosystem. With any project, we look at what jobs it will create, and we hope to not just bring talent, but to keep talent. We want to figure out how to get them to call Erie home, and to stay here, to work here, to learn here, to live here, and to make Erie their home.”