Outlook 2023: UAlbany researcher is also founder and CEO of Regenerative Solutions Inc.

A woman stands in front of a man in a lab coat
Inside the newly remodeled CEAS Lab at the University at Albany with Department Chair Dr. Yanna Liang. (photo by Patrick Dodson)
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ALBANY – Yanna Liang is passionate about sustainability and the environment — in fact, that has been the driving force of not only her research but her life’s work.

Liang is chair of the Department of Environmental and Sustainable Engineering at the University at Albany, where she is also a professor, and she is also the founder and chief executive officer of Regenerative Solutions Inc., an offshoot of UAlbany established in 2021.

Environmental engineering is different from other engineering sciences, such as chemical and mechanical, as it encompasses broad topics like chemistry, biology, ecology and math to create solutions for things such as wastewater treatment, waste management and ecological issues like global warming and acid rain.

Liang says she is proud of what she has accomplished so far — the UAlbany department she chairs is “the No. 1 program in the United States that has both ‘Environmental’ and ‘Sustainable’ in its name.” But she didn’t always know she wanted to go into environmental engineering.

When she was a high school student in China, Liang said, she didn’t know a great deal about environmental science.

“It was very new in the 1990s in China,” she said. “But after talking to some teachers about what it was and what it involved, it seemed like a good fit for me.”

Liang attended Sozhou University of Science and Technology in China and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science in 1992. She worked for the next eight years for the Chinese Environmental Agency. It was, she said, a comfortable, well-paying job. But something was missing.

“I was not happy. I was not challenged. I needed to go back to school,” she said.

Liang ended up at Utah State University and earned her master’s in 2003 and her Ph.D. in 2006, both in environmental engineering. She started her academic and teaching career in 2007 at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC).

Additionally, she is a registered professional engineer, a board-certified environmental engineer and has won various awards from organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Water Resources Association and the Air & Waste Management Association.

In 2017, when the University at Albany began looking for a chair for a brand-new environmental sciences department, they recruited Liang to create the department from scratch — and to teach environmental engineering in a unique way.

“Traditional environmental science teaches students how to be responsive to urgency of certain issues,” Liang explained. “I wanted to teach sustainability to students — a mindset to do this in a way that takes a sustainable and green approach, which is different from a traditional program.

“If you look at the history of environmental science, it has always been reactive,” Liang said, using the example of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane — better known as DDT pesticides. “In the 1940s the use of DDT was widespread. Then it was found out that chemicals can cause environmental and health issues — and Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’ and revealed it to the world. The use of DDT was terminated soon after.

“My point is that it has always been reactive — there is a fire and we put out the fire. We are trying to be proactive, and we have to remediate and undo damage that was done,” she continued. “I wanted to create an idea lab to solve issues — organic waste conversion and working on problems to find the best solution that is both environmentally sustainable and economically viable.”

When Regenerative Solutions Inc. (known more commonly as simply Regen) was launched in 2021, Liang began working alongside Tao Jiang, chief technology officer, and Mark Sperry, commercialization adviser. According to the corporation’s website, Regen “offers a variety of green technologies that sustain the planet for the next generation.”

“The mission of Regen is to help sustain our society and environment through a regenerative approach,” the website reads. “This approach is rooted in our deep understanding of interactions between human beings and the ecosystem. To ensure that our future generations can still enjoy this beautiful planet, we must replace the linear economy with a circular one and expand our creativity toward identifying, developing, and implementing sustainable and regenerative solutions.”

Said Liang: “Our job is to treat environmental waste — wastewater solid waste, contamination and pollution — in a proactive way. Before the contamination, we want to get ahead and provide solutions to be proactive with problem-solving.”

Regen provides two types of solutions: converting organic waste, such as food waste, sewage sludge and animal manure, into high-value products and fuels; and taking innovative approaches for remediating polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

PFAS are a toxic class of chemicals that can cause serious health problems such as birth defects and cancer. Scientists have been working to reduce exposure and researching new methods to eliminate PFAS so that they won’t compromise the environment.

That’s where Regen and the work Liang is doing in her lab at UAlbany come into play.

Regen has been developing green, environmentally sustainable and low-cost sorbents that remove PFAS from water. Once the newly synthesized sorbents are tested and certified by the National Sanitation Foundation, a product can go to market for treating water at both small and large scales.

“The goal is to then commercialize it and be able to work in local communities — or anywhere there is a need — and make things better,” Liang said. “We can patent the technologies and license them, and get them to local communities or places that need them.”

Regen was recently awarded $50,000 from the Jeff Lawrence Innovation Fund as part of the the first New York State Advanced Materials Innovation Challenge. The fund supports “cutting-edge developments in materials science, while raising the bar for ecofriendly manufacturing.”

Patty Rechberger, Innovation Fund manager at FuzeHub, who coordinates and administers activities under the Jeff Lawrence Innovation Fund, praises Regen and Liang for their expertise and innovation.

“We asked companies for their best ideas on how an advanced material can solve an environmental issue,” Rechberger said in an email. “When we’re reviewing applications for funding, the biggest question becomes, ‘Can this team deliver on what they’re proposing?’ And it was clear that Regenerative Solutions has the expertise to introduce a new, better way to remove PFAS chemicals from water.”

She said the strength of Regenerative Solutions’ team was one of its strongest aspects.

“They are well-rounded, and Dr. Liang’s credentials are impressive,” Rechberger added. “She has published several peer-reviewed articles that apply directly to this project.

“It’s also worth mentioning that Dr. Liang’s application told a compelling story,” Rechberger said. “I learned something new, which isn’t easy in a heavily researched area like PFAS. Making people understand the problem, and articulating the solution you’re bringing to the market, is important to any startup’s success,” she said. “Dr. Liang and her team at Regenerative Solutions checked every box. We were impressed all around.”

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