Institute on the Environment Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Sat, 18 Apr 2015 15:26:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Frontiers April 22: How can we better anticipate adverse environmental impacts? Thu, 16 Apr 2015 17:36:16 +0000 Photo by Bert van Dijk (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Environmental Educator Patrick Hamilton Thu, 16 Apr 2015 17:35:29 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Environmental Educator Patrick Hamilton ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Patrick Hamilton, program director of Global Change Initiatives at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Let the conversation begin!

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

The realization a number of years ago than humanity now dominates many of the chemical, physical and biological processes that make this world habitable, while at the same time the planet is now home to the healthiest, wealthiest, best educated, and most innovative, creative and connected populace in history. The future of Earth will be determined by human decision making, either by default or by design, by accident or by intention.

Hamilton head shot 3
Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and program director for the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives. Photo courtesy of P. Hamilton.

What is your current favorite project?

I am passionate about several new projects that I am pursuing. The Observatory will be a new exhibit for long-term display at the Science Museum of Minnesota that will provide visitors with novel opportunities by which to examine the world around them and in so doing collect scientific observations that help protect and enhance Minnesota’s environment. The Exergy Project seeks to use the museum itself as a model of advanced building energy efficiency to demonstrate how large commercial, institutional and industrial buildings could cost-effectively and substantially reduce their energy consumption. The Great Cities Initiative seeks to develop a major new exhibit for tour around the U.S. about the past, present and future of cities.

What gives you hope?

The accelerating pace of innovation of all kinds, which defies the contention by skeptics that addressing humanity’s many global environmental challenges are beyond our collective wherewithal.

What’s the strangest thing that has happened to you?  

I had the opportunity in January 2009 to be a member of a University of Minnesota research expedition to the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica — one of the coldest, driest, windiest places on the planet. Camping for nearly two weeks in a landscape completely devoid of visible life was a daily poignant reminder of how verdant and precious the rest of our planet is. Earth is an oasis in space.

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often? 


Banner photo: Arend (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Frontiers April 15: How do we manage emerging pandemic threats? Tue, 14 Apr 2015 14:57:22 +0000 Flickr: Photo by Matthew Anderson (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Bacteria tapped for water clean-up Tue, 14 Apr 2015 14:56:30 +0000 Continue reading Bacteria tapped for water clean-up ]]> This article was written by Kevin Coss and originally published in Inquiry.

Water plays a crucial role in industry. It helps us generate electricity and mine for precious minerals, and supports numerous other functions that fuel the economy and provide society with the products and services essential to everyday life.

During industrial use, however, water is sometimes contaminated by one of over 100,000 chemicals used commercially. If these chemicals are untreated, they can pollute the environment and create health risks for humans and animals. Industry leaders are continually seeking smart, cost-efficient ways to clean up after themselves and minimize their company’s environmental impact.

Now, a collection of scientists and business experts at the University of Minnesota are developing new methods of remediation — the act of removing pollutants from the environment. The researchers are developing software that models how enzymes break down chemicals at the microscopic level to optimize the selection of bacteria that biodegrade those chemicals. Meanwhile, business experts are conducting market research to discover the best ways to apply this new knowledge and learn how it can lead to viable industrial processes and products.

The project is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.

“Predicting how bacteria and chemicals will interact has historically been very challenging,” says Larry Wackett, professor with the U’s BioTechnology Institute, Institute on the Environment resident fellow and lead researcher on the project. “For the first time, RAPID, a novel software program, will use established biological principles to generate models that show how millions of chemicals can be optimally biodegraded. This idea has enormous potential for the world of bioremediation.”

Scientists have long known that microbes naturally found in water and soil will “eat” certain chemicals. Some companies place water that has been used in industrial processes into manmade ponds or large metal tanks which contain the appropriate type of bacteria to eat the contaminants in the water. But in many cases, the natural biodegradation processes do not work or they work too slowly.

That’s where Wackett and his team come in. Wackett and coworkers are developing an algorithm he calls the “Google of bioremediation.” RAPID, short for Reactive Activity Product IDentification, is designed to allow users, such as chemical developers or companies that produce industrial waste, to type in a particular chemical and quickly receive information on which species of bacteria are likely to break down that chemical. The system stems from the established U of M–designed Biocatalysis/Biodegradation Database, which shows the stages molecules go through as they break down.

Using the bacteria recommended by the system, scientists will be able to develop tests that quickly and accurately detect harmful chemicals, along with treatments that remove those chemicals from water. They will also be able to run a new chemical product through the system to see what bacteria and enzymes biodegrade it, allowing industry to develop safer, more environmentally friendly products. A chemical company could run a new herbicide through the system, for example, to see if it leaves behind any byproducts that are hazardous to humans or animals.

One example of bacterial remediation that has been successful is a process called “activated sludge,” used in municipal water treatment plants to clean up water that eventually will be processed for drinking. The procedure uses a collection of bacteria to filter out a wide range of impurities, including agricultural runoff, chemicals from personal care products like shampoo and organic matter from plants and animals to make the water safe for consumption. Outside of engineered water treatment systems, bacteria are also helping to retroactively clean up chemicals previously thought innocuous that now threaten to contaminate groundwater.

Finding the Niche for Breakthrough Treatments

While Wackett works on refining the hard science behind the RAPID system, a business team is exploring different approaches to marketing that knowledge.

Tobin Nord, professional director of the Ventures Enterprise at the Carlson School of Management, guides MBA students as they work with departments across the University to figure out how to commercialize new knowledge. Working with the scientific groups headed by professors Wackett, Alptekin Aksan, Mikael Elias, Carl Rosen and Carrie Wilmot, Nord’s team is pinpointing the remediation solutions most likely to succeed in the market and developing plans to launch technology based on them.

“Even the most innovative technology can’t reach its full potential if there isn’t someone willing to pay for it,” Nord says. “Our goal is to understand where environmental conservation and business needs intersect, and cater to those opportunities with research-based solutions.”

To find the best opportunities for commercialization, Nord’s team is assessing which individual chemicals hold the largest market potential. Their process for evaluating chemicals — both those known and those as-of-yet undiscovered — takes into account how widespread a problem it is, the effectiveness of any treatment methods that already exist and who would be likely to invest in cleaning it up. Each chemical is different; in some cases, an existing method can remove it at a reasonable cost, while in others, current industry practices are expensive and inefficient.

As an alternative, Nord’s team will also examine whether the RAPID technology would be best used as a consulting service for industry. Under that model, companies would come to the university with a specific chemical they want to treat, and the RAPID system would help researchers determine what type of bacteria and treatment system is optimum for their purposes.

Collaborating on Conservation

To take on a problem as complex as chemical contamination, Wackett and Nord are working with researchers from across academic disciplines. Aleptekin Aksan, Ph.D., mechanical engineering professor with the College of Science and Engineering and the BioTechnology Institute, is researching ways to scale up production of silica spheres — a sponge-like type of sand that can trap bacteria in place while contaminated water flows through, helping ensure bacteria evenly remove chemicals from the water.

Also working on the project are Mikael Elias and Carrie Wilmot both professors in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics in the College of Biological Sciences and members of the BioTechnology Institute. Elias is studying how bacteria evolve to eat certain chemicals, while Wilmot is using X-ray crystallography to study the structure and function of the enzymes that bacteria use to break down industrial chemicals.

Meanwhile, Carl Rosen, professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate in the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, will identify which chemicals are most likely to contaminate the food supply. Through his research, Rosen will help researchers develop products that food producers and consumers alike can use to test food, which can help cut down on foodborne illness and eliminate the need to discard healthy food out of precaution.

“This is the spirit of MnDRIVE,” Wackett says. “We are connecting researchers from across the University and forming new partnerships with industry to tackle a host of real-world problems.”

This project is supported by MnDRIVE, a landmark partnership between the University and the state of Minnesota that aligns areas of University strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to advance new discoveries that address grand challenges.

Photo © BartCo (iStock)

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Energy Transition Lab promotes 21st century upgrades Mon, 13 Apr 2015 16:05:05 +0000 Continue reading Energy Transition Lab promotes 21st century upgrades ]]> The Energy Transition Lab, supported by the Institute on the Environment, the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Law School, brings together leaders in government, business and nonprofit organizations to develop new energy policy pathways, institutions and regulations.

In this audio clip, Hari Osofsky, ETL’s faculty director, Law School professor and IonE resident fellow, discusses the lab’s goals and what communities and business and utility partners are doing to bring the energy system into the 21st century with WTIP North Shore Community Radio.

Photo by mwwile (Flickr Creative Commons)

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RCP recognized for excellence, innovation Wed, 08 Apr 2015 15:42:29 +0000 Continue reading RCP recognized for excellence, innovation ]]> The Resilient Communities Project has been selected as the 2015 recipient of the MAGS/ETS Excellence and Innovation in Graduate Education Award. Jointly sponsored by the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) and Educational Testing Service (ETS), this annual award is given to a MAGS member institution in recognition of outstanding contributions to domestic and international graduate education at both the graduate school and program level.

RCP, an initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota with funding and administrative support provided by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the Institute on the Environment, organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities.

RCP was nominated for the award by Henning Schroeder, dean of the University’s Graduate School. Schroeder commended the program as “a shining example of the great things our faculty, students and staff can achieve when disciplinary boundaries disappear” and possibly “the gold standard for advancing community sustainability practices while incorporating community engagement into the fabric of any university.”

“The Resilient Communities Project is a model for promoting greater collaboration and engagement across disciplines,” added Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Karen Hanson in a letter supporting the nomination. “[RCP’s] innovative approach not only provides sustainability solutions for our partner communities but also enhances our curriculum with interdisciplinary methods that are helping our students to develop the knowledge, skills and agility that they will need as tomorrow’s innovators, lifelong learners and global citizens.”

RCP will receive the award at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools on April 16 in St. Louis. The award includes a certificate and a $2,500 prize that will be used to support the RCP program.

Past recipients of the MAGS/ETS Excellence and Innovation in Graduate Education Award include Miami University’s Dublin School Leadership Program (2014), Loyola University Chicago’s Mastering The Humanities: Growing, Diversifying, and Sustaining Humanities Education program (2013), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Transforming the Illinois Graduate Education Pathway program (2012).

Photo by Patrick O’Leary (U of M Photo Library)

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8 things we learned about health and wildlife trade Wed, 08 Apr 2015 15:40:58 +0000 Continue reading 8 things we learned about health and wildlife trade ]]> Combine cutting-edge University of Minnesota research and heightened interest in infectious disease due to recent ebola outbreaks, and you get a fascinating discussion on wildlife and the ways it may influence global health. At this week’s Frontiers in the Environment, Dominic Travis, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; Shaun Kennedy, director of the Food Systems Institute and adjunct professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; and Kristine Smith, associate director of health and policy with EcoHealth Alliance explored the health risks associated with the global wildlife trade. Here are eight things we learned:

1. The world is a system. While this discussion focused on health, wildlife trade carries environmental and economic considerations as well. One Health is a concept based on the understanding that human health, animal health and ecosystem health are intrinsically linked. It forms the framework for Travis and Kennedy as they explore connections between human health and wildlife trade.

2. Don’t underestimate the global wildlife trade. Wildlife is constantly traded to provide food, pets, trophies, medicine and even religious symbols to people around the world. Wildlife trade in and of itself is not bad; in fact, the legal industry is valued at $320 billion per year. Problems arise, however, with illegal trade. Valued very roughly at $20 billion per year, illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest global illegal trade behind drugs, human trafficking and trade armaments.

3. Wildlife trade poses health risks. Wildlife is one part of a global One Health system, and as such, it has the ability to impact other parts of the system, including human health. In their talk, Travis and Kennedy specifically focus on illegal wildlife trade’s potential to introduce diseases into our food system. Many animals — especially rodents, bats and primates — carry viruses and diseases that can be passed to humans.

4. Variables abound. Studying pathways between wildlife and disease is not easy. Illegal trade can only be roughly estimated based on limited data. Even when source data are available, it can be hard to trace disease pathways. Furthermore, taking proactive steps to improve the system requires understanding the cultural norms of the different regions around the world.

5. Balancing bushmeat. Meat from undomesticated animals in the “bush” forested region of Africa, bushmeat is one of the major sources of protein across the continent. However, the continued consumption of wild animals, though economically beneficial, raises conservation questions and poses considerable biodiversity threats.

6. Research is just starting. A number of high-profile cases of disease transmission over the past several years, including monkeypox, HIV, and avian influenza, have drawn attention to One Health. Studies such as recent attempts to track and test bush meat confiscated at a major airport are just starting to provide a clearer picture of the current status of wildlife trade and make us more prepared to reduce the spread of infectious disease.

7. Beyond disease. The impacts of the global wildlife trade aren’t limited to disease. The industry, both legal and illegal, also raises important questions of land distribution and food security. Many of the main importers to the United States are nations that have historically struggled with their own food security. Nations must figure out how to balance meeting their own food needs, economic development and conservation. Legal trade poses potential issues for conservation and sustainability; illegal trade increases the uncertainty.

8. The “so what.” A number of political actions in the United States over the past few years have attempted to combat wildlife trafficking, yet they have not sufficiently included specific references on the connection to human health. Building a strong and resilient system means including these concerns in future discussions and continuing to learn about the intersection of wildlife and our own health.

Photo by Craig ONeal (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Civil engineer John Gulliver Mon, 06 Apr 2015 14:49:25 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Civil engineer John Gulliver ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow John Gulliver, civil engineer at St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Population control. We are overpopulating and exploiting the Earth and these are at the root of all environmental problems. I do not know how many people a sustainable world can support, but I suspect that it is less than a population of 9 billion.

John Gulliver, College of Science and Engineering professor and IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of J. Gulliver.
John Gulliver, College of Science and Engineering professor and IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of J. Gulliver.

Who was your most influential mentor?

Heinz Stefan, a professor emeritus in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering.  He is the quintessential engineering professor, covering applied research to the most theoretical, and he spends a great deal of time helping his students write succinctly.

What is your current favorite project?

It varies among three of them: Determining the infiltration capacity of roadside drainage ditches (with John Nieber) using a new infiltration measurement device, the MPD infiltrometer; developing a technology to remove nitrates from runoff (with Bill Arnold); and developing a better method to estimate the effective connected impervious area of a watershed (with Bruce Wilson). My current research has, in a short time, brought me closer to practitioners who are interested in immediate field applications of our research. To see useful applications come out of this research has been rewarding.

What makes you happy?

I like to go to commencement and see my students graduate. It is a time of passage and one that we will both remember.

What’s the most useful thing in your backpack?

My laptop computer.  It is like an office that I carry around with me wherever I go.

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often?

Perseverence. When I believe that something is going to work out I stick through to the end. One never can be sure about what will come out of the final results.

Photo by Chris Lester (Flickr Creative Commons)

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7 things we learned about social media & environment Wed, 01 Apr 2015 06:45:39 +0000 Continue reading 7 things we learned about social media & environment ]]> This week Brent Hecht, an assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering, and Spencer Wood, senior scientist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, joined Frontiers in the Environment to discuss how social media can be used to inform the causes and consequences of environmental change. Here are seven things we learned:

1. We’ve entered a new era of data. The explosion of social media has created an abundance of data not previously available. Geotagged information (the inclusion of geographical information on forms media, such as marking your location in a Tweet) from social media is one way to harness these data in a useful way. Using the combination of location information in conjunction with the information included in the post, researchers can gleam new insights.

2. We can use the data in new and exciting ways. With information from tweets able to travel faster than an earthquake, social media has already been known to change disaster response. But researchers see even more potential with this technology. Spencer Wood’s team with the Natural Capital Project has been using geocoded Flickr images to learn about the ways people value the environment for recreation and how far people are willing to travel in order to experience natural areas. This is just one example of the way researchers can use social media data to make connections between people and the ways they interact with the world.

3. Geotagged social media is both accessible and inaccessible. Social media has provided thousands of new datasets and information about social behavior. In a sense, all of this information is easy to access, yet at the same time it is restricted by the companies that operate it. Social media companies are generally not obligated to release all of their data to the public. In the case of Twitter, only a 1 percent sample of the data is available free of charge, and some information is still not available to purchase.

4. We need to be conscious of bias and imprecision. When they use information from social media, researchers only include people who use this type of technology, and thus probably not getting a sample representative of a large and diverse population. Additionally, only 1–3 percent of tweets included geotagged location information, and many of these will be inaccurate. This bias and imprecision presents serious challenges and requires creative and thoughtful experiment design.

5. The “platial” effect. One of the most exciting features about social media data is the emergence of a new type of understanding. We used to be restricted to thinking spatially, but social media has allowed us to see place — the lived experience within spatial areas. We’re moving beyond simply knowing where people are spending their time to understanding what draws them to a place and how they experience it.

6. There are barriers to this technology. While social media presents exciting opportunities, there are some concerns about relying on it as a data source. Social media sites are designed for the user experience and were not intentionally built for scientific purposes. Because of this, scientists are not able to control the experiments and are subject to the changing nature of the media. Additionally, there are restrictions on what information is accessible, including legal barriers that can cause problems in reproducing experiments.

7. Applying the information. Despite its limitations, this new technology holds opportunity for environmental protection. Social media research can be used alongside traditional methods to help answer difficult questions, and it can help inform policy decisions by offering otherwise unattainable qualitative predictions.

Photo by Bryan Kennedy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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We need system change, not regulation Tue, 31 Mar 2015 19:55:03 +0000 Continue reading We need system change, not regulation ]]> This article was originally published in The Conversation.

The higher levels of heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels are one feature of what many call the Anthropocene, a new geological era dominated by humans.

Yet regulatory approaches to managing carbon in the Earth system are doomed to fail. This is because the rise of carbon dioxide levels — what I call the CO Catastrophe — is taking place at the scale of the Earth system itself. Humans are inside of that system, COemissions are coupled to energy use, and increasing energy use is central to economic advancement. I have become convinced that it is simply not possible to manage energy usage from the scale of households to that of the planet itself using regulatory methods.

This became clear to me one afternoon as I once again stared at the Keeling curve, a graph that has plotted the concentration of COin the atmosphere since 1958. Its unrelenting climb baffled me. There is absolutely no evidence of a reversal in COconcentrations from existing regulatory programs, including the United Nations’ Kyoto process, the implementation of the European Trading System or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in Northeast U.S. states. Hence, there is no evidence of human intentionality in the primary record of the COstate on Earth.

What does this say about our humans and CO2? Since 1958, the Keeling Curve has plotted the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from Hawaii. ScrippsMedia, CC BY-SA

On the other hand, what if the Keeling curve is a record of human intentionality in the aggregate? In this frame, the evolution of atmospheric COreflects the aggregate of human will: In the whole and in some sense, humans want COto increase in the atmosphere. If that is the case, then we need to rethink how we approach how society can limit the rise of COand the related changes throughout the Earth system.

Human intentionality

The COCatastrophe is not the first atmospheric composition catastrophe. The Oxygen Catastrophe at the end of the Proterozoic was brought on when cyanobacteria exhausted the oxygen-buffering capacity of the Earth system and the waste from their growth shifted Earth’s atmosphere from an anoxic state into one where free oxygen was prevalent. In so doing, they brought on a major extinction and changed the trajectory of Earth’s evolution. In the same sense that I suggest humans want to change levels of atmospheric CO2, one could argue that cyanobacteria wanted to change levels of atmospheric oxygen.

Humans are in charge. How best do we manage the Earth’s natural systems? Earth in hands via

The problem with this is that it would be really tough to attribute intentionality to cyanobacteria in the same way one attributes it to humans. With this in mind, we can now see the COCatastrophe not as an intentional act but as an emergent property of the current state of the Earth system. If this is the case, then we are looking under the street light in our current efforts to control CO — that is, we are looking for answers in the wrong place.

Decoupling CO from economic growth

Rather than attempting to manage carbon through brute force at scales never achieved (managing carbon is completely different from managing ozone-destroying substances), we need to shift our focus to the system itself. In particular, we need to affect a system change that is comparable to the change brought on by improvements in the steam engine and the associated business models. The core of that change is that it shifted energy-expenditure limits on Earth from those dictated by the metabolic process of animals to those dictated by human capacity to harness energy released from breaking the molecular bonds in fossil fuels. A corollary to that change is that the energy system that evolved has CO2 as a waste product.

We need to shift the Earth system into a state in which human development is decoupled from COemissions. The change we need will not simply be a technology; it will be a fundamental shift in how we think about, deploy and manage energy on the scale of the planet. Just as milk is reliable, safe and reasonably cheap in New York City, a new energy infrastructure will emerge in the context of markets and human intentionality at the individual and small group scale. The daunting element here is that we need something, but we do not know what it is. But I cannot imagine it being planned in detail in a top-down fashion.

Systems thinking

All of this calls for a policy framework that focuses more on innovation and social processes surrounding change than on regulation of carbon itself. Regulatory and policy frameworks are going to be very important but they need to shift from direct emphasis on carbon to emphasis on system change.

We need something that is highly disruptive and that will allow the poorest of Earth’s inhabitants to improve their quality of life, because as they improve their quality of life they will consume markedly more energy. Rooftop solar may be part of that but, in order to address the energy challenges in the poorest parts of our planet, we will need to invent new economic and infrastructural models to support deployment in those parts of the world.

Muscles are still the limiting factor of energy expenditure in many parts of the world. Wikimedia, CC BY

We have reached a point where humans are dominant. Up to now we have crashed around with little attention to the fact that we are pushing up against the buffering capacity of our planet; but we differ from cyanobacteria in that we can imagine the future.

Our challenge now is to recognize that, as much as we enjoy the illusion of command and control, we are inside a very complex system that will respond in unforeseen ways. We need to shift our approach from reductionist management of our impact inside of that system to a stance that recognizes the need to change the system itself.

Photo © franckreporter (iStock)

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Carver County is new RCP partner Mon, 30 Mar 2015 17:20:50 +0000 Continue reading Carver County is new RCP partner ]]> Carver County, one of seven counties in the Twin Cities metro, has been chosen as the 2015–16 Resilient Communities Project partner. Enhancing bike and pedestrian facilities near park-and-ride locations, evaluating stormwater reuse opportunities, crafting an ecotourism marketing plan and exploring opportunities for preservation of a historic farmstead are among the 34 projects the county will tackle with help from University of Minnesota sustainability expertise.

RCP organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities. The partnership will bring the expertise of hundreds of graduate students to sustainability-related projects identified by Carver County staff and community partners.

“We’re very excited about our upcoming partnership with Carver County,” said RCP director and Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor Carissa Schively Slotterback in a press release. “The enthusiasm of staff from the county and its partner cities and organizations as well as their clear commitment to advancing sustainability and resilience will ensure a productive and enjoyable collaboration that will benefit Carver County and provide community-engaged learning opportunities for University of Minnesota students.”

Carver County will be the fourth RCP partner in as many years. Previous partners have been the City of Minnetonka, North St. Paul and Rosemount.

The Resilient Communities Project is an initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota, with funding and administrative support provided by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the Institute on the Environment.

Read the full press release

Photo by Ann Wiechmann (Flickr Creative Commons)

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5 things we learned about advanced heat recovery Wed, 25 Mar 2015 18:11:26 +0000 Continue reading 5 things we learned about advanced heat recovery ]]> Buildings are huge parts of our lives, yet we rarely think about what it takes to keep them running. This week, Frontiers took a look at advanced heat recovery, one a way to improve building energy efficiency. Leading the discussion was Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives. Panelists were Scott Getty, energy project manager for Metropolitan Council Environmental Services; Katie Gulley, regional program manager with the BlueGreen Alliance; and Peter Klein, vice president of finance for the Saint Paul Port Authority. Here are five things we learned:

1. We have a problem and a solution. Buildings, particularly large industrial, institutional and commercial buildings, use huge amounts of electricity, which eventually degrades into heat. This heat is often treated as a waste product and expelled from the buildings, but it is actually a huge resource that can be utilized. Advanced heat recovery systems transport the head to different parts of the building where it can be used. These systems not only can be implemented in new construction projects, they also can be retrofitted into existing buildings.

2. Win-win-win. The problem with many new ideas is that they’re often not practical or financially feasible. Advanced heat recovery systems, on the other hand, have shown their potential. These systems not only reduce the amount of wasted energy going into the environment, but also provide economic benefits. Taking advantage of an otherwise lost resource can save companies thousands of dollars each year and can provide jobs, particularly when constructing a new system.

3. It’s happening here in Minnesota. How do we know that advanced heat recovery systems are all they’re cracked up to be? Following precedents set by Cypress Semiconductor and Faribault Foods, the Science Museum of Minnesota tried it out. Over the course of several years, the museum secured funding and put in place its own system. The museum expects to see overall energy use reductions of 40 percent, to save more than $200,000 annually, and to pay back its investment within four and a half years.

4. Finances are still an issue. Like most projects, installing an advanced heat recovery system comes with a cost. SMM was able to secure funding from numerous sources, including the St. Paul Port Authority’s Trillion BTU energy efficiency program. However, there is always competition for limited resources. While the system ultimately pays for itself in the long term, some industries may have a hard time justifying the expense in the short term.

5. Growth will take energy. If advanced heat recovery systems are so great, why aren’t they everywhere? One problem is a lack of awareness. Hamilton says that the solution here is to invest in education and make sure that engineers and architects understand the potential of this technology. Additionally, industries and companies may choose to not invest in this technology because of the opportunity cost associated with it. Investing in a new piece of equipment might be more alluring than the potential savings from energy efficiency. Despite these hurdles, the potential of advanced heat recovery systems is promising because of its economic, employment and environmental benefits.

Photo by Bryan Kennedy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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March 25 Frontiers: How do we make advanced heat recovery in buildings commonplace? Mon, 23 Mar 2015 15:50:26 +0000 Flickr: Photo by Bryan Kennedy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Uncovering the impacts of oil palm Tue, 17 Mar 2015 15:27:28 +0000 Continue reading Uncovering the impacts of oil palm ]]> This profile originally appeared in the Union of Concerned Scientists Science Network.

While studying oil palm plantation expansion in Indonesian Borneo as part of her Ph.D. work at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Institute on the Environment postdoctoral scholar Kimberly Carlson witnessed how growing global demand, coupled with poor forest governance, resulted in rapid loss of tropical forests. Led by her adviser Lisa Curran and collaborating with the Indonesian non-governmental organization Living Landscapes Indonesia, Carlson has helped uncover the impacts of oil palm development on forest loss, carbon emissions and stream water quality. She finished her Ph.D. wishing not only to document the dynamics and effects of agricultural land use change, but also to design studies that directly inform tropical land use policy.

IonE postdoctoral scholar Kimberly Carlson. Photo courtesy of K. Carlson.
IonE postdoctoral scholar Kimberly Carlson. Photo courtesy of K. Carlson.

Carlson’s current research aims to inform policies that influence agriculture’s effects on forests and greenhouse gas emissions. In partnership with scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists, she recently completed a review of greenhouse gas emissions factors from peatland draining; these data will help the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil quantify greenhouse gas emissions from certified oil palm plantations. Carlson is collaborating with NGOs and other academics to study how sustainability certification affects environmental outcomes such as deforestation. She is also expanding her research to a global scale. Carlson is beginning to examine trade-offs between global crop production and greenhouse gas emissions, and identify strategies to mitigate these emissions. Along with colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Carlson recently founded the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network to raise awareness of tropical regions in the decidedly temperate Minneapolis–St. Paul area. Next year, Carlson will start a position at the University of Hawai’i, where she looks forward to continuing her solutions-oriented research on the human dimensions of tropical agriculture and land use change.

Banner photo by CIFOR (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Dendrochronologist Scott St. George Tue, 10 Mar 2015 21:30:03 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Dendrochronologist Scott St. George ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Scott St. George, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Let the conversation begin!

What is your current favorite project?

I’m working with colleagues at Cornell University to understand how and why the environmental “stories” recorded by trees differ from place to place. Every year, trees in Minnesota and other parts of the world with strongly seasonal climates form a new layer of wood around their stem. That layer of wood — a tree ring — is very clear evidence of the passing of time and records, indirectly, the immediate environment of that tree. Over the last several decades scientists have collected tree-ring records from hundreds of thousands of trees around the planet. A tree ring may be a very simple thing, but reading millions of them at the same time might tell us a great deal about the environmental past (and perhaps future) of our planet.

Scott St. George, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy S. St. George.
Scott St. George, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy S. St. George.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

I was born and raised in the Red River Valley, which is one of the absolutely flattest places on the Earth’s surface. The valley is so flat that, as the saying goes, on a clear day you can see three days into the future! After I graduated from college, I was desperate to experience a different kind of landscape. So I signed up as a field assistant on a research project studying long-term environmental change in the Canadian Rockies. Most of the job consisted of long hikes up and down rough terrain in glacier-covered valleys and I had never so much as walked up a hill before. I spend most of my first two weeks falling down and getting back up again. But even though I was slow, I loved the chance to work in some awe-inspiring places that most people never get to visit.

Who was your most influential mentor?

I’ve been lucky to have had so many senior scientists act as mentors through my career. Dr. Brian Luckman at the University of Western Ontario introduced me to dendrochronology and took me into the field (via helicopter) for the very first time. Dr. Erik Nielsen at the Manitoba Geological Survey gave me the chance to lead my first project and take ownership of its research products. Dr. Harvey Thorleifson (previously at the Geological Survey of Canada, now the state geologist of Minnesota) taught me that science not communicated is science not done. And Dr. Dave Meko at the University of Arizona showed me it’s possible to be an outstanding scientist while staying humble, open-minded and generous to others.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

In my first job as a research scientist, I was hired by the Geological Survey of Canada on a project studying flood risks along the Red River of the North. I was asked to find evidence of past floods preserved within the rings of trees growing along the river. I remember telling my supervisor that I would try my best but, because no one had ever been able to identify floods within tree rings, it probably wouldn’t work. After a couple of months staring down a microscope, I finally realized the weird-looking ring I kept seeing in tree after tree was very clear evidence of the biggest flood of the last two hundred years. I’ve never been so happy to be so completely wrong!

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

The last book I read for pleasure was The Spanish Frontier in North America by David Weber. Because I grew up in Canada, I don’t know as much about American history as I’d like. I enjoyed learning more about Spain’s tenure as a colonial power in North America, and the relations between its relatively isolated “northern” outposts in Florida, Arizona and Texas and its larger, more prosperous colonies in Mexico and Central America.

Photo by Landahlauts (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Spring 2015 Mini Grants: Apply Now Tue, 10 Mar 2015 17:17:08 +0000 Continue reading Spring 2015 Mini Grants: Apply Now ]]> Do you have an idea for a project that could use a little funding to get off the ground?

The Institute on the Environment is please to announce the Spring 2015 IonE Mini Grant Competition. IonE Mini Grants are intended to spur new collaborative efforts by providing small amounts of funding, administrative and logistical support and space to interdisciplinary groups of faculty, staff and students from across the University system.

Past Mini Grant projects have included establishing a rooftop garden, assessing the causes of bee colony collapse, improving the environmental friendliness of snowmobiles and creating a bicycle repair station in a campus neighborhood. Read about past projects on the IonE Fellowships and Grants page.

Proposals are due March 22, 2015, and should include information on:

  • project lead
  • others involved
  • project details
  • expected benefits and outcomes
  • budget.

Download the RFP and the proposal template.

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7 things we learned about government & environment Tue, 10 Mar 2015 16:16:51 +0000 Continue reading 7 things we learned about government & environment ]]> Passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the early 1970s were clear public policy wins for the environmental movement. But are we still able to make progress through government action in the same way we did 40 years ago? Eric Lind, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences, was curious about what “successful” government action on the environment looks like today, so he asked three professionals to share their experience in this week’s Frontiers on the Environment. Kate Knuth, Boreas Leadership Program director, spoke of her experience as a Minnesota state representative, followed by Julia Frost Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, and Jessica Tritsch, senior organizing representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign. Here are seven things we learned:

1. We can measure success in different ways. Our instinct is to measure success in concrete terms, like the passage of a new bill, but indicators like the quality of our air or access to clean water may say just as much as the number of new environmental laws. Perhaps success might even be measured in terms of public engagement — as in the case of the proposed PolyMet mine in northern Minnesota, which has motivated hundreds of people to attend public forums and voice their opinion.

2. Engagement is key. No matter what measure of success you use, panelists agreed that the best way to achieve positive outcomes is by having strong community engagement. Decisions are being made now that can affect our environment for years to come. There are many ways to become involved in a project. For some this may mean running for office, while others might prefer to find a local organization that they support and work through grassroots channels.

3. Don’t underestimate social norms. People are creatures of social interaction and as such, tend to be naturally driven to actions that are perceived as “normal.” If nobody is talking about climate change people will tend to remain quiet — but if we open up the dialogue, climate change can become a common topic of conversation.

4. The messenger matters. It’s important for organizations to realize the limits of their audience. When trying to reach across political barriers, the tense political climate we face can mean that each side is quick to discredit the other. In these cases, it’s important to have a diversity of allies to reach a broader audience and a “big choir” to make sure your message is heard.

5. Don’t forget about framing. No matter what part of the process you are involved in, the way you frame your story is crucial to its potential success. In the case of Minnesota’s Toxic Free Kids Act, framing the issue around providing a healthy environment for children was central to its success. Similarly, when activists took to the streets of New York City, members of Minnesota’s Interfaith Power and Light were careful to change the narrative from one of negativity and hopelessness to remembering the love people have for the environment around them.

6. Engaging with government requires both impatience and patience. Getting involved in the political process requires a certain level of impatience in order to inspire people to action. However, government is designed to work slowly, so being engaged in the process also requires patience. Successfully balancing patience and impatience requires being knowledgeable about the political process and knowing the avenues available.

7. We’re dealing with new challenges. Never before have we faced the challenge of providing food, energy and other resources for 9 billion people while dealing with the uncertainties of a changing climate. As new challenges arise, we need to consider the tools we have and think about how we can best use them.

Flickr: Photo by Mahinda Rajapaksa (Flickr/Creative Commons)


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5 things we learned about groundwater Thu, 05 Mar 2015 19:21:02 +0000 Continue reading 5 things we learned about groundwater ]]> This week’s Frontiers talk featured Kate Brauman, lead scientist with IonE’s Global Water Initiative, and a panel of experts providing perspectives on the current state of groundwater resources. Joining her was Perry Jones, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, The Natural Capital Project lead, and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Sherry Enzler, general counsel for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Here are five things we learned:

1. Water is essential. This certainly isn’t a new idea, but its always good to have a reminder. The reason water use is such a big issue is that we rely on water so heavily for multiple purposes, including hydration, agricultural irrigation and even power generation. In Minnesota, we traditionally have relied on surface water and operated from a paradigm of abundance. A growing dependence on groundwater in recent years has brought new questions and conflicts.

2. We don’t really know where we are. Surface water is visible, but groundwater has the extra challenge of being out of sight. Despite impressive improvements in monitoring technology, we still don’t have a very clear idea about the current state of groundwater, including the size of the total groundwater supply. And, although we know groundwater and surface water are interconnected, we don’t always know how, so sometimes using one can have unexpected consequences for the other.

3. There is a disconnect between use and best use. Groundwater issues should really be categorized into two separate questions: “How are we using our groundwater?” and “How should we be using it?” While the answers to these two questions are ideally the same, we know this is probably not the case. Moving forward, we need to think about how to bridge this gap.

4. Minnesota has taken steps, but the system is still imperfect. The state’s water sustainability guidelines include preventing harm to ecosystems, not degrading water quality and making sure future generations are able to meet their own needs. Within the DNR, the department responsible for permitting groundwater use processes have switched to looking at the cumulative impacts against groundwater, a promising step for promoting sustainability.

5. We may or may not be having a water crisis. This brings us back to the big question posed at the beginning of the talk: Is drawing down our aquifers really so bad? Well, that depends. Just as Minnesota’s water challenges are not the same as those facing California, there is no unified water crisis. Some places face tensions between supply and demand, while others have lots of water but lack appropriate quality. Our job is to keep monitoring our systems and make the most informed decisions possible.

Photo by Benjamin Jakabek (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Student start-ups win 2015 Acara Challenge Wed, 04 Mar 2015 18:52:26 +0000 Continue reading Student start-ups win 2015 Acara Challenge ]]> Student-run impact ventures focused on solar-powered microgrids for rural India and environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products have been selected Gold Level winners of the 2015 Acara Challenge, a competition held by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in partnership with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management. The top-level teams and other awardees will have the opportunity and resources to further develop their innovative business solutions for environmental and social challenges.

The challenge was divided into a domestic and an international division, each with gold, silver, and bronze levels. Gold Level winners will receive $1,000 toward pilot expenses. Silver Level honorees will receive $750 and Bronze Level recipients get $500. Winning teams on all three levels also receive individual scholarships to the Acara Spring Institute in St. Paul or Summer Institute in Bangalore, India. Select ventures are also invited to receive up to $5,000 in additional funding to pilot their idea.

“We are very impressed with the creativity and commitment to change embodied in these projects and glad to have the opportunity with the help of our generous funders to incubate the winning start-ups over the coming year as they develop their venture plans into operational social enterprises, generating revenue and impact in Minnesota and abroad,” said Acara co-director Fred Rose of the Institute on the Environment.

Domestic Division Gold award winner Ova Woman sells environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products. Photo by  Brittney LaFond.
Domestic Division Gold award winner Ova Woman sells environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products. Photo by Brittney LaFond.

“These students are passionate about launching new ideas to have a positive impact on the world; we are pleased to be able to recognize and support their ideas,” said Acara co-director Julian Marshall, a professor in the College of Science and Engineering.

The Acara Challenge, which began in 2009, spurs start-ups with creative, sustainable solutions that can have an impact in the real world.

The 2015 Acara Challenge winners are:

Domestic Division


Ova Woman

This online retail and marketing company sells menstrual cups and fashionable absorbent underwear, helping to reduce the burden of feminine hygiene products on landfills. The initiative is led by Elise Maxwell, a student in the Carlson School of Management.


City Compost MN*

This Minneapolis waste processing company cuts trash volume and creates a valuable end product that is missed by current systems. The team is led by Peter Schmitt, a student pursuing a dual degree from the Carlson School of Management and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and Katie Schmitt.

*Crowd Favorite – Domestic Division

Domestic Division Bronze award winner Autonomee provides work experience for marginalized job seekers. Photo by  Brittney LaFond.
Domestic Division Bronze award winner Autonomee provides work experience for marginalized job seekers. Photo by Brittney LaFond.



For marginalized job seekers who need career experience, Autonomee is TaskRabbit for software development. The initiative is led by Steven Bruce, a student in the Carlson School of Management.

InCOLOR Magazine

This online multimedia magazine is designed to serve as a voice for the various multicultural and inner-city communities. The initiative is led by Tiffany Trawick, a student from the College of Liberal Arts.

Minnetonka Local

This venture offers business development and retail support to encourage lower-income entrepreneurs, increasing local products and services while building community engagement. The team is led by Alana Buckner, a student in the Carlson School of Management.

Honorable Mentions

The BDW Blog

With an aim to close the gap between public option and scientific consensus, the BDW Blog provides a neutral, impartial voice. The team includes students Adam Woodruff (College of Science and Engineering), Yogesh Dhande (College of Science and Engineering), Josh Magnuson (Carlson School of Management), Joanna Mooney (College of Biological Sciences) and Thomas Harris (Bowling Green State University).


Knack is a Web-based business that seeks to tap the potential of young adults to address social issues affecting the Midwest through local artisan product sales. The team includes students Taisha Bauer, Francesca Berarducci and Megan Zimmerman from the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

International Division

Acara co-director Julian Marshall presents the International Division Gold award to members of the Stimulight team. Photo by  Brittney LaFond.
Acara co-director Julian Marshall presents the International Division Gold award to members of the Stimulight team. Photo by Brittney LaFond.



Stimulight seeks to improve the quality of life in rural India through the use of clean and reliable LED lights driven by solar-powered microgrids in place of kerosene lamps. The team includes students Robin Walz and Vicky Ong from the College of Science and Engineering.



Apis Krishi*

This venture aims to help rural Indian farmers leave the cycle of poverty by promoting beekeeping education and removing the financial risk of beekeeping. The team is led by student Erin Kayser from the College of Science and Engineering.

*Crowd favorite – International Division


This business created an accessible collection service to help citizens of Bangalore responsibly recycle e-waste. The team includes students Claire Warren (College of Science and Engineering), Aika Mengi (Humphrey School of Public Affairs), Joshua Auerbach (Carlson School of Management) and Malcolm Smith (College of Science and Engineering).



Ripple helps water purification and testing companies connect their products and services with rural markets to improve health in rural communities. The team is composed of students Anna Schulte (Carlson School of Management), Emma Volbrecht (College of Science and Engineering) and Adam Iversen (College of Science and Engineering).

Main image of Domestic Division Gold award winner Ova Woman courtesy of Brittney LaFond.

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March 4 Frontiers: Is drawing down aquifers really so bad? Mon, 02 Mar 2015 14:48:35 +0000 0 10 things we learned about sustainability & happiness Mon, 02 Mar 2015 10:39:05 +0000 Continue reading 10 things we learned about sustainability & happiness ]]> Along with being one of the happiest nations in the world, Denmark is known for being one of the most environmentally friendly. Which raises the question: Is a happy society a more sustainable one? After spending time in the country for a course last summer, Sustainability Education coordinator Beth Mercer-Taylor; Mallory Thomas, an evolution and behavior student in the College of Biological Sciences; and Stephanie Claybrook, an art student in the College of Liberal Arts, put together 10 pillars of Danish happiness. Can we use these tools to work towards sustainability at home?

1. Social security. Compared to the United States, the wealth gap of Denmark is very small. This may be due to the fact that Denmark boasts one of the highest income taxes in world, about 60 percent. In return, its residents receive security, flexibility and unemployment benefits.

2. Trust. You might not realize how untrusting we are until you take a look at Denmark. It’s common for bikes to remain unlocked, violent crime rates are very low, and parents tend to give young children more freedom than is common in other countries.

3. Wealth. We all know money can’t buy happiness, but as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the people of Denmark have some peace of mind.

4. Civil society. Civil society is highly valued in Denmark. Roughly 35 percent of Danes preform unpaid voluntary work.

5. Freedom. Where words fail, unconventional entertainment might succeed. Nothing says freedom and fun more than small trampolines in the sidewalk.

6. Work. While many Americans operate on a 40-hour work week, the Danes generally work 33 hours. Even though most don’t work on farms, Danes feel connected to rural life because 60 percent of Danish land is agricultural.

7. Democracy. With numerous political parties, Denmark isn’t a replica of our system in the United States, but democracy is important to Danes.

8. Balance. A shorter work week gives Danes more free time. While hard work is important, they also value a healthy balance between work and life. For many, this may mean taking advantage of the long summer days by relaxing at a local park.

9. Hygge. Hygge is a Danish word that might be translated as a state of being cozy and comfortable. Although hard to describe, this is a huge part of how Danes see themselves and it helps to inform the decisions they make.

10. Design. From creatively shaped buildings to foosball tables in the streets, Denmark has a look all its own. The Danes have already start to recognize the opportunity to use design to promote environmentally conscious behavior.

So what does happiness have to do with sustainability? Do the Danes have something figured out? It’s hard to say for sure, but they do seem to be onto something. As a small nation of 5 million, translation of Denmark’s successes into a U.S. context won’t be easy. In addition to being vastly different sizes, each nation comes with their own culture and history. In Denmark, sustainability has become a way of life instead of a concept or vocabulary word. Creating this cultural shift of our perception of sustainability might be key if we want to follow their lead.

Photo by: Andreas Klinke Johannsen (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares Fri, 27 Feb 2015 16:46:45 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Jeannine Cavender-Bares, associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

How does your work align with the mission of IonE?

All of my projects focus on various aspects of biodiversity — origins, monitoring biodiversity remotely, links in biodiversity between trophic levels, patterns of biodiversity in urban areas, the value of biodiversity to humans. Most relevant to IonE’s mission, perhaps, is the SESYNC (Socio Environmental SYNthesis Center) working group I am leading with Steve Polasky on the ecosystem services that plant species around the globe provide. A component of this project involves putting a partial monetary value on a species, which is obviously very controversial.

Jeannine Cavender-Bares, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Photo courtesy of JC Bares.
Jeannine Cavender-Bares, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Photo courtesy of J. Cavender-Bares.

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Of the many environmental challenges facing us today, I am most concerned about species extinction. The confluence of many anthropogenically caused global changes has led us to the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, as explained to popular audiences by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014) and Richard Leakey/Roger Lewin (1995) before her. The tragedy of irreversibly losing biological creations that took millions of years to evolve is leading us to an ethical crisis we are unlikely to fully appreciate until after it is too late.

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

I enjoyed reading Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World. In addition to her amazing life story and all she had to overcome to get an education and eventually become a Supreme Court justice, I particularly appreciated her explaining how she was not afraid to ask other people how they learned things. She also described how, when she takes on a new and major challenge in life, she spends a year learning the ropes before diving into action.

I am currently reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I put off reading it for a long time because of all of the controversy surrounding the book, but now I see that she speaks very articulately about the challenges faced by women of my generation who have pursued careers. In particular, I appreciate her perspective that it is important to be authentic in the workplace rather than dividing ourselves into professional and personal selves. Given how much of our lives are devoted to the career work we do, it is important to feel and act fully human both at work and at home. It also makes life more meaningful for those around us.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

I have been concerned and passionate about the natural world and environmental issues my entire life. A focus on biodiversity follows naturally from my interests at the intersection between ecology and evolution.

What or who inspires you?

On the human front, I am inspired by the Dalai Lama. His book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World explains the importance of working toward human well-being in many dimensions, starting with our own minds.

Banner photo by Nate Hughes (Flickr Creative Commons)

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4 things we learned about the human–environment bond Thu, 19 Feb 2015 19:45:55 +0000 Continue reading 4 things we learned about the human–environment bond ]]> In the second of this semester’s Frontiers in the Environment talks, IonE resident fellow Jonee Kulman Brigham, a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development and Sustainable Design Program faculty member in the College of Design, taught us to question our relationship with natural resources and suggested ways we could rebuild our bond with the environment. Here are four things we learned:

1. There is a disconnect between humans and the environment. Instead of going out to a stream, we get our water simply by turning on our faucet. The impressive infrastructure of pipes that brings our water straight to us creates a system of convenience, but also allows us to forget where our resources really come from. This disconnect can be problematic because it causes us to forget how dependent we are on nature.

2. Shift our system by shifting our thinking. Remembering this interdependence is crucial to addressing the sustainability challenge, which requires more than a new technological innovation; it requires a culture shift in our thinking toward natural resources.

3. Stories and art are powerful tools. While rethinking our systems may be the solution to solving our disconnect, we need tools that allow us to do this. Through a number of programs, Brigham has been using art and storytelling to help people reconnect their everyday lives with the natural world. Specifically, she has been working with youth of all ages to trace the story of their water. In one pilot program, a group of 39 preschoolers and kindergarteners spent two weeks following their water from its source at the Mississippi River to their school faucet and then downstream to the wastewater treatment plant that returns it to the river again. Whenever possible, the kids were taken out of the classroom and into the field, getting hands-on experience and rebuilding their understanding of the ways water works in their life. Through Brigham’s current fellowship project, charter environmental high school students are taking a similar water journey as they look at the value of the Mississippi River along the way.

4. This strategy is replicable and flexible. While Brigham’s research has thus far focused on our relationship with water, she sees the potential for similar learning experiences with energy, food, or even everyday materials. The exercise doesn’t have to be limited to children, either: Adults have a lot to learn about natural resources too, and similar programs could be developed for them. In addition to developing more programs, Brigham and her colleagues are also working on creating a guide for teachers to use to do similar explorations on their own.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation here:

Photo of students at River’s Edge Academy collecting water samples as part of the River Journey project courtesy of Jonee Kulman Brigham



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Featured Fellow: Disease ecologist Meggan Craft Thu, 19 Feb 2015 15:02:23 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Disease ecologist Meggan Craft ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Meggan Craft, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Let the conversation begin!

What pivotal moment led you to the work you’re doing today?

A study abroad experience my junior year of college. I spent a semester in Kenya studying wildlife management at The School for Field Studies. I was a biology major trying to decide between becoming a doctor or a vet. That experience made me realize that wildlife research was another option. And my current job is awesome ‘cause I get to work with vets!

College of Veterinary Medicine assistant professor and IonE resident fellow Meggan Craft. Photo courtesy of M. Craft.
Meggan Craft, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine  and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of M. Craft.

What is your current favorite project?

It’s a project examining disease transmission in pumas and how human actions impact those disease dynamics. The cool thing about the puma project is its application to wildlife conservation. If we can learn how and where transmission occurs, maybe we can better control negative effects of disease. Our study sites are in Florida, Colorado and California. The cats face a variety of pressures that can be different in each location, from habitat fragmentation to being hunted to potentially getting hit by a car on an L.A. freeway. In Florida, pumas are being introduced from other locations to diversify the gene pool.

What strength do you rely on most often?

I work really well on teams. I enjoy working with other people and find it more fulfilling and impactful than working alone. On a team, there’s usually an idea person and a doer. I’m the person who helps make projects happen.

What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you?

I was a guide for photographic safaris in Tanzania in my 20s and we sometimes got some very famous people on these game drives.  On one trip, there was a world leader/diplomat type who asked, “How often do gazelles eat wildebeest?” while watching these two herbivores grazing side by side. Gazelles are smaller than wildebeest but the salient point I found myself having to explain tactfully was the difference between herbivores and carnivores. The answer, of course, was “never!”

What makes you happy?

I’m happiest when I’m outdoors being active . . . and playing with my new miniature schnauzer puppy, Cooper.

Banner photo © twildlife (iStock)

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Earth as art Tue, 17 Feb 2015 18:19:34 +0000 Continue reading Earth as art ]]> Artist Marjorie Schalles had a case of cabin fever and needed an escape from the house in the winter of 2010. She and her husband decided to take a walk around the Mall of America, where they stumbled upon an exhibit of images of Earth captured by NASA satellites, sponsored by the U.S. Geological Service. The shapes, colors and textures of deltas, mountain ridges and other geographical features so excited her that she decided to use them as subjects for her paintings.

The result is an ever-expanding collection called earth, currently on display in the Institute on the Environment’s Commons Meeting & Art Space.

“I love re-creating the textures,” says Schalles, who came to Minnesota in 1991 and started painting a few years later.

Schalles paints with acrylic paints and uses paper, glue, string, packing material, the fake grass from a serving of sushi — any found object to represent the landscapes of Earth. “If you look down, there’s always something to use. I find stuff that’s been flattened by traffic. I’ve made a canyon out of a broken radio knob.”

An employee of the University since 2000, Schalles has created pieces that have been exhibited at Boynton Health Service, Coffman Union and various galleries in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Her favorite installation was a demonstration for a group of 5th and 6th graders at a Shakopee Public Schools art and science fair, where she brought a white-painted canvas and demonstrated how she created the textures and colors for earth. “They were really fascinated with how a white canvas could be transformed,” she says. “They especially enjoyed the tactile aspect of the process.”

“This project has increased my awareness of how small we are in the universe,” says Schalles. “No matter where you look on the globe, if you zoom in, it’s beautiful and fascinating.”

An opening reception for earth is being planned for later this spring; the exhibit will run through May 2015.

Photo of painting by Marjorie Schalles: Lena Delta, Siberia

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6 things we learned about cities and climate change Thu, 12 Feb 2015 14:10:27 +0000 Continue reading 6 things we learned about cities and climate change ]]> What better way to kick off the new round of Frontiers than by crossing national boundaries? In the first talk of 2015, Frontiers was joined by Martin Bigg, professor at the University of West England; Gayle Prest, sustainability manager for the City of Minneapolis; and Simon Sharpe, head of climate risk for the UK Foreign Office. This international panel provided information and inspiration on the ways in which cities matter for climate change. With case studies from Bristol to Minneapolis, here are six things we learned:

  1. The many lessons of Bristol. Located in the western UK, Bristol is not just any city — it’s the 2015 European Green Capital. After beating out serious competition, such as Brussels and Glasgow, the city does not take this title lightly. Now ranking with the likes of Copenhagen and Stockholm, Bristol has a commitment to reduce emissions and promote public transportation. To do this, it has reduced speed limits inside the city, added hybrid buses and invested in “poo-buses” (yes, really) powered by biomethane made from human and food waste.

  1. Cities have potential. With over half of the world’s population now living in urban areas, cities will be vastly important for creating resilience against climate change. As economic hubs and home to millions of people, cities are also centers of innovation. Within cities, panelists from both Minneapolis and the UK identified transportation and energy as two key sectors that have some of the biggest potential to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change.
  1. You’ve heard it before: Collaboration is key. The best way to get things done is to work together. There are many benefits of collaboration, including allowing people to share ideas and provide inspiration. To be most effective, collaboration needs to happen across all scales. International governments can learn from each other, and local communities can empower their members and engage with area businesses. Progress is slow if you’re working alone, but as everyone works together, it becomes much easier.
  1. Minneapolis is off to a good start. In a city that just crossed the 400,000 population mark, Minneapolis is taking some large strides when it comes to sustainability. In 2014, public transportation ridership at the University of Minnesota rose by an impressive 10 percent, and the White House named the city one of 16 “Climate Action Champions.” Proactive dialog with energy companies holds promise, but it’s important not to get complacent. While Minneapolis has been a leader within the U.S., there is still a long way to go.
  1. Change requires investment. If we want to see real improvement, we need to invest in making it a priority. Such investments will not only protect the environment, but they will ultimately build a more resilient system all around. Reducing emissions will result in cleaner air and thus healthier people. Building vibrant and resilient communities can attract businesses and promote economic stability. For example, sustainability doesn’t just mean making the physical characteristics of a school environmentally friendly, but also investing in the curriculum so students understand how their actions affect the world around them. According to Bigg, 98 percent of students at the University of the West of England, Bristol, across all disciplines, receive sustainability training as part of their learning.
  1. When it comes to politics, use your voice. If we’re going to tackle climate change, we need to set targets, or we’ll end up standing still. While elected officials, who set the official goals, may know this, they might not act unless they understand the extent to which their constituency wants it. This is where you come in. Voice your views and opinions to help create change.

Like to learn more? Watch the video of the presentation here:

Photo by Photo Phiend (Flickr Creative Commons)

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Unraveling the complex web of global food trade Wed, 11 Feb 2015 18:05:12 +0000 Continue reading Unraveling the complex web of global food trade ]]> Growing global trade is critically important for providing food when and where it’s needed — but it makes it harder to link the benefits of food and the environmental burden of its production. A study published this week in the journal BioScience by an interdisciplinary team of researchers at IonE proposes to extend the way we characterize global food trade to include nutritional value and resource consumption alongside more conventional measures of trade’s value.

“Trade is usually described in terms of the value or weight of the goods being exchanged,” said study lead Graham MacDonald, a postdoctoral research scholar with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative. “But these don’t necessarily capture other important aspects of food production and distribution. Accounting for food’s nutritional value and the land and water resources needed to produce exports offers a more holistic view of how trade affects global food security and the environment. Our study uniquely juxtaposes these perspectives.”

“Economic, nutritional and environmental metrics all tell different stories of the geography of global trade, so it’s important to include a range of metrics to get a complete picture,” said co-author and GLI co-director Paul West.  “Our food system is increasingly globalized. The patterns we uncovered can help to assess how current and future policies affect the complex links between food and the environment.”

The new study uncovers enlightening patterns in global food trade. For instance, China leads when it comes to relatively land-intensive soybean imports (top map), while the hidden flows of irrigation water underlying rice and other cereal crop exports (bottom map) paints a much more complex picture that reflects the environmental context of production in different regions. Source: BioScience.

The researchers compiled millions of global food trade statistics for the 2000s from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to calculate the monetary value, calories, land use and irrigation water consumption associated with 390 traded food commodities derived from 139 crops and 10 domesticated animals. Traded goods were tracked back to which nations actually grew the underlying crops using cross-national data on agricultural production. They discovered that each of the four metrics — money, calories, land use and irrigation water use — revealed a distinct set of nations and commodities that shaped global totals, underscoring the importance of considering all of them when characterizing and making policy decisions related to global food trade. Among the findings:

  • Global exports of food commodities were worth about US$522 billion per year in the period 2000 to 2009.
  • More than one-fifth of the calories grown in farm fields are ultimately traded, which also required about 20 percent of the world’s croplands (~245 million hectares).
  • Over 70 percent of the global trade according to all metrics is concentrated in only 20 exporting and 33 importing countries.
  • Animal products comprised more than one quarter of the value of trade but only 5 percent of the calories traded. In total, exports of meat and other animal products use at least 8 percent of the global agricultural land base.
  • The bulk of monetary value of food trade is concentrated in trades among European Union countries, but these trade relationships are often facilitated by land use in other regions where the crops behind those products are grown. These ‘re-exports’ from European Union countries require over 9 million hectares of cropland in other regions.
  • Interestingly, whether a country is a net importer or net exporter varied, depending on the metric considered. “For example, China exports apples and other fruits that are fairly high value, while it mostly imports land-intensive but much lower-value soybean. Kenya exports high value tea and coffee, but imports wheat grown on foreign cropland that is an important food staple,” said MacDonald.
  • A handful of trade paths stood out as particularly prominent, especially the cropland area embodied in soybean exports from the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina to China. “In other words, we identified really land-intensive and water-intensive ‘megatrades’ that disproportionately contribute to global trade,” MacDonald said. “Such trades are a reflection of highly specialized and export-oriented agricultural systems that manifested in rapid globalization.”

MacDonald said the findings underscore the importance of choosing the right yardstick when analyzing the global trade network. He said that the study raises new questions about what other metrics could be used to evaluate the broader implications of international supply chains or interdependencies among countries in terms of food and resources.

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment seeks lasting solutions to Earth’s biggest challenges through research, partnerships and leadership development. For more information, visit

Photo by Louis Vest (Flickr Creative Commons)

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A course of a different color Tue, 10 Feb 2015 22:09:44 +0000 Continue reading A course of a different color ]]> Each spring semester since 2011, scholars from places as diverse as Mexico, Brazil, Arizona and Minnesota have met in a virtual classroom. They hail from many disciplines and represent diverse cultural perspectives. Despite their differences, they convene under a common goal: the study of sustainability science.

This unique course, known as the Sustainability Science Distributed Graduate Seminar, focuses on core theories of sustainability science, an emerging field of problem-driven research dealing with interactions between humans and the environment, says Jeannine Cavender-Bares, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. With support from the Institute on the Environment, Cavender-Bares and Steve Polasky, Regents Professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and a director of IonE’s Natural Capital Project, developed the course four years ago when they recognized that a diverse body of research would need to be integrated to meet the challenge of improving the well-being of future generations while conserving the planet’s life support systems over the long term. They have been teaching it ever since, bringing together faculty and graduate students from different disciplines,  universities, and cultures to discuss key concepts and controversies in the field, drawing upon research from earth systems science, resource economics, institutional analysis, ecology, evolutionary biology, geography, development studies and engineering.

“The Sustainability Science seminar is an excellent example of the innovation and integration that the Institute on the Environment was created to support,” says Lewis Gilbert, IonE’s managing director.  “It brings together an international and deeply interdisciplinary group using technology and strong intellectual leadership to lay the ground work for solving sustainability challenges in the light of real world contexts.”

Classes meet twice a week, using online platforms including Moodle and Vidyo to connect across thousands of miles. A typical class session lasts about an hour and half, with lectures delivered by instructors from the participating institutions — Arizona State University, Universidad Autónoma de México, and Universidade de São Paulo along with the U of M, with an average of 10 students participating from each — followed by class discussion.

“One of the coolest things about the class was that it challenged my ethnocentrism,” says Bryan Runck, who attended the spring 2013 class as a graduate student in CFANS. “We got to experience academic literature in other languages. I realized there is some very sophisticated academic work in my field — a huge body of knowledge that, as a non-Spanish speaker, I don’t have access to.”

Jake Grossman, who also attended the 2013 class as a first-year Ph.D. student in CBS, says he appreciated the integration of economics and ecology. “As a biologist, I found it interesting to learn that the mathematical underpinnings of the tools we use in our respective disciplines are very similar,” he says. “The equation used to calculate the discounted value of a natural resource has a similar mathematical structure as the basic equation used to model population growth. When you’re thinking about things in an interdisciplinary way, it’s helpful to learn that we use the same tools to address dynamics of both ecological and social systems.”

The course takes a lot of advance planning, says Cavender-Bares, who made connections with now-fellow instructors in Mexico during a sabbatical in Morelia. “It’s not just ‘let’s get online together.’ It takes effort to make teaching collaborative. We have needed several years of experimentation to figure out the framework,” she says.

Several of the students and faculty from the most recent course contributed papers to a special feature just published in Ecology and Society entitled “Ecosystem Service Trade-offs Across Contexts and Scales.” The special issue, which is sponsored both by IonE and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), grew out of interactions among professors and students in the course. “Having extended dialog across disciplines and universities opened up new perspectives and new ways of thinking about sustainability issues, and it was especially gratifying to have papers contributed by grad students from the course be a central part of the issue,” says Polasky.

Runck says co-writing the paper he was involved in on optimizing nitrogen fertilization rates for multiple ecosystem services was empowering: He has since developed a white paper for the United Nations and gives credit to methodology and confidence he gained in the class. “The course taught us how to be good scientists and engage with society from a firm ethical basis that considers multiple perspectives,” he says.

“The class advances IonE’s goals of building connections internationally and among disciplines,” says Grossman. “It also builds a bridge between fundamental science — research for understanding — and applied science that can have influence over how the environment is managed. The course succeeds in that way.”

Image © wildpixel (iStock)

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Featured Fellow: Environmental engineer William Arnold Mon, 09 Feb 2015 15:10:23 +0000 Continue reading Featured Fellow: Environmental engineer William Arnold ]]> Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow William Arnold, professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What is the current focus of your work?

My team in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo- Engineering is studying how human impacts on the composition of organic matter in natural waters — due to wastewater, stormwater or agricultural runoff — affect the solar-driven reactivity with various contaminants, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals. We are trying to understand how the molecular structure and properties of organic matter influence the production of highly reactive intermediates (such as the hydroxyl radical) that are important in the destruction of contaminants. The ultimate goal is to be able to predict how fast various contaminants will degrade in different impacted waters and to design treatment systems that take advantage of sunlight-driven reaction processes.

William Arnold, IonE resident fellow and professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Photo courtesy of W. Arnold.
William Arnold, IonE resident fellow and professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Photo courtesy of W. Arnold.

What’s the most interesting thing you’re reading now?

Reading is a great chance to relax and explore topics outside of work. I recently finished off two books. The first is Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. The Voyager spacecraft were launched when I was a child, and I’ve always had an interest in (but not a talent for, as my physics classes in college demonstrated) astrophysics. Philosophical explorations tend to grab me as well and this book combined both. The other book just made me laugh: Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan.

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?  

When I entered college, I quickly realized I liked chemistry but I was interested in the environment and in solving problems. It seemed logical to go into “applied chemistry” and, because engineering is applied science, I majored in chemical engineering. My senior year I had one free elective to take and, on a lark, I chose environmental organic chemistry. The class focused on the fate of organic chemicals in aquatic systems. After three and a half years of college I had finally found the “applied chemistry” I was looking for. An almost randomly chosen class led to my entire career, but I use my chemical engineering knowledge every day.

What gives you hope?

Two things today give me hope. The first is that students today (and particularly those who are pre-college) are much more aware of the importance of the environment to our daily life and that humans have impacts (both good and bad) on the environment. When I was a kid, recycling that we now do routinely was strange. Today students have innovative ideas for cleaning water, reducing air pollution and helping those in need. There is awareness that individual actions have a collective effect. The second is the open-mindedness and curiosity of my own children.

What’s the oddest thing in your backpack?

A two-Swiss-franc coin. I spent my sabbatical there in 2006–07. It was a great experience that my family still talks about routinely. We actually just framed and hung some of our best pictures from our time there.

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often?

I am told I have a type-B personality. Academic life is stressful with the constant search for funding, travel and huge array of demands on one’s time. Somehow, I seem to handle the stress well and plow through what needs to be done.

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A ray of sunshine for bioenergy Fri, 06 Feb 2015 15:49:08 +0000 Continue reading A ray of sunshine for bioenergy ]]> Even at historically low natural gas prices, bioenergy may not be out of the running — it just may need a little help from the sun. A new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota examining the financial viability of solar-heated biomass gasification technologies that produce a natural gas substitute product concludes that combining these renewable resources can make economic sense.

In traditional biomass gasification, 20 to 30 percent of the biomass feedstock is burned to produce heat for the process. But if the required thermal energy is supplied from a concentrated solar source, all of the biomass can be converted into useful synthesis gas. The study, published in Biomass and Bioenergy this week, developed a financial feasibility metric to determine the breakeven price of natural gas at which the produced syngas could be sold at a profit. The study suggests that solar-heated biomass gasification systems could break even at natural gas prices of $4.04–$10.90 per gigajoule, depending on configuration.

“While the cost of adding solar energy generation to a biomass gasification facility can approach one-third of a plant’s total capital costs, other equipment required in traditional plants can be avoided and the amount of syngas produced per ton of biomass — a major variable cost of production — increases significantly,” said senior author and former University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences student Tom Nickerson.

“With average U.S. natural gas prices at $4.80 per gigajoule in 2014, two of the four configurations modeled were economically competitive,” said co-author Timothy Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, IonE resident fellow and CFANS faculty member. Though government incentives could significantly reduce the risks associated with volatile energy markets, demonstrating that the gap isn’t insurmountable is an important step toward environmentally preferred energy solutions. “Utilizing solar technologies to get more energy out of each acre of biomass reduces the impacts to the landscapes producing it,” said Smith.

Though no commercial plants currently exist, the technologies modeled in this study are being developed at the Solar Energy Laboratory at the University of Minnesota under the direction of Jane Davidson and lead research scientist Brandon Hathaway of the College of Science and Engineering.

“Our novel approach to gasification has demonstrated its benefits at the bench scale, and testing with our 3 kW prototype is ongoing in the University of Minnesota’s High Flux Solar Simulator,” said Hathaway. “We hope to find industry partners to join us in the next steps as we scale up the process and move towards testing on-sun,” Davidson added.

This work was funded by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment at the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota (RL-0001-09). 

Photo by Green MPs (Creative Commons / Flickr)

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