NCET image via East Carolina University

NC - Combining economic development & climate resilience? That's goal of multi NC university-led initiative

DURHAM — Researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Pratt School of Engineering are co-leading a new National Science Foundation-funded project that aims to boost economic development and climate resilience in coastal North Carolina through nature-based scientific and technological innovations.

The North Carolina Ecosystem Technology (NCET) project will tap the expertise of faculty at Duke and six other North Carolina institutions, along with leaders from nearly 40 local governments and businesses.

Supported with a $1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Engines Development Award, NCET’s partners will work to create new science- and technology-based economic opportunities for coastal communities in three core areas: sustainable aquaculture; climate-resilient infrastructure; and renewable energy ancillary services.

“The goal is to create a research innovation hub based on ecosystem technology that will be an economic engine for coastal North Carolina the way Research Triangle Park has been for the Raleigh-Durham area,” said Brian Silliman, Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor of Marine Conservation Biology, who is deputy director of NCET.

“The NSF Award provides the essential funding we need to lay the foundation for this hub over the next two years by connecting to the coastal NC community. We will listen to the community’s concerns and ideas, identify promising technologies to address challenges and opportunities, and recruit an even broader regionwide network of community partners,” Silliman said

The University of North Carolina Wilmington will lead NCET, which includes Cape Fear Community College, Carteret Community College, East Carolina University, North Carolina A&T State University, and RTI International.

Other Duke faculty members who will lend their expertise to the project are Mark Borsuk, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and David Johnston, director of the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab.


Ecosystem technology is a new field of applied science in which researchers harness the power of natural processes, augmented by human technologies, to help solve a wide array of problems.

“With ecosystem technology, you work with nature, not against it, to create solutions that benefit people and the planet,” said Silliman, who coined the name to describe the approach he and his lab members take to restore degraded coastal wetlands.

“It’s a new phrase, but it turns out that quite a few scientists and engineers at Duke and our NCET partner institutions were already doing it, we just didn’t know about each other,” he said. “Once we did know, it seemed obvious that we should leverage this growing expertise to benefit our home state.”

Living shoreline in Beaufort, N.C.
A living shoreline in Beaufort, N.C., helps protect the coast from erosion.

Using his expertise in data analysis and modeling, Borsuk will work with a wide range of groups to identify opportunities to further reduce the environmental impact of renewable energy systems through novel approaches such as coupling solar power grids with restored wetlands to act as their carbon sinks.

He’ll also collaborate on efforts to develop sensor systems that can identify spatial and temporal variations in renewable energy generation, and support efforts to turn offshore wind turbine platforms into artificial reefs that help boost marine biodiversity.

Johnston and his lab will employ their expertise in drone technology, marine robotics, and environmental sensing and signaling to develop next-generation sensor and robotic platforms that can be used to assess the performance of experimental technologies and new approaches being tested in the field, including hybrid coastal infrastructures, novel aquaculture operations, and emerging renewable energy sites.

Read more.