Institute on the Environment Discovering solutions to Earth's most pressing environmental challenges Wed, 17 Dec 2014 17:47:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Featured Fellow: Computer scientist Shashi Shekhar Wed, 17 Dec 2014 16:52:23 +0000 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 Shashi Shekhar, McKnight Distinguished University Professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

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

It is hard to believe that paper maps were used for routing and navigation until the early 1990s, when we worked on research projects exploring spatial computational questions underlying envisaged handheld and in-vehicle GPS-based navigation devices. It was challenging since large road maps challenged the conventional wisdom that “640K (bytes of computer memory) ought to be enough for anyone.” Today, GPS-based navigation apps are commonplace and have transformed our society. They have also reduced fuel waste — and related greenhouse gas emissions — due to fewer drivers getting lost in unfamiliar areas.

This experience has strengthened my interest in potentially transformative research by envisioning better futures for our society and taking the first steps toward that by exploring promising approaches.

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Shashi Shekhar, McKnight Distinguished University Professor in the College of Science & Engineering and IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of S. Shekhar

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

The water, energy and food security nexus in face of climate change and population growth.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

What was so special about early the 1990s to trigger our journey towards ubiquitous navigation apps like Google Maps? I believe that it was a confluence of critical disruptive technologies. Spatial data — GPS signals and accurate digital road maps — became available to the public. Popular computers grew powerful enough to crunch large (gigabyte) national road maps to find the shortest paths in a few seconds. The Internet and World Wide Web allowed aggregation of large audiences even for niche services such as routing and navigation.

Recently, I co-organized a workshop titled “From GPS and Virtual Globes to Spatial Computing 2020″ at the National Academies to catalyze community research visions. Listening to the industry, government and academic leaders at the workshop, I had a moment of sudden insight. As Yogi Berra would said, “Deja vu all over again.”

I felt that we are witnessing another crucial confluence of disruptive technologies, such as Uber, WAZE, smart cities, and connected and automated vehicles. These technologies provide spatial big data describing our movements in unprecedented detail and can provide fundamental new insights towards shaping the future. For example, it may reshape our aging cities and transportation services to not only reduce our carbon footprints but also improve our mobility and quality of life. It may even change our social and economic life by providing new ways to connect mobile people to other people, goods and services during commute and travel.

 What is your current favorite project?

With NSF support, we are investigating spatial big data toward next-generation navigation services such as eco-routing. Imagine the next version of a navigation app (successors of Siri or Google Maps) that recommends routes to minimize fuel consumption or greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding engine idling at left turns, unnecessary elevation changes, etc. We are also investigating data-driven approaches to understand climate change and starting a collaboration with a major automobile company to reimagine mobility services in our increasingly urbanized future.

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

Philip Andrews-Speed and Raimund Bleischwitz, Want, Waste or War?: The Global Resource Nexus and the Struggle for Land, Energy, Food, Water and Minerals, Routledge, 2014.

Banner photo: iStock © elenaleonova 

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Clean fuel, cleaner air Mon, 15 Dec 2014 15:49:59 +0000 Cars powered by wind-, water- or solar-generated electricity reduce air quality–related health impacts by up to 70 percent compared with gasoline, according to a life-cycle analysis of conventional and alternative vehicles and their fuels.

The findings were published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study authors are Christopher W. Tessum and Julian D. Marshall, College of Science and Engineering; and Jason D. Hill, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Marshall and Hill are also Institute on the Environment resident fellows.

Using state-of-the-science modeling, the University of Minnesota team compared annual-average concentrations of particulate matter and ground-level ozone emissions from the total life cycle — production to consumption — of 10 different types of fuels burned in 11 types of passenger cars, including those fueled by liquid biofuels, diesel, compressed natural gas, and electricity from a range of conventional and renewable sources.

The study found that vehicles powered by corn ethanol, coal-based or “grid average” electricity generate 80 percent greater air quality–related health impacts than cars that use conventional, petroleum-based gasoline.

Air pollution–related health impacts range from 230 deaths per year from wind-, water- or solar-powered vehicles to 3,200 per year from cars burning conventional gasoline. The research revealed that, relative to gasoline, health impacts:

  • decrease in gasoline hybrids (30 percent), electric vehicles powered by natural gas (50 percent) and wind-, water- or solar-generated electricity (70 percent)
  • increase in cars fueled by corn ethanol (80 percent) and electric vehicles powered by grid average (200 percent) or coal (300 percent).

This short video explains the findings.

Read the full news release.

Banner photo © wodeweitu

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Featured Fellow: Engineer Matteo Convertino Wed, 10 Dec 2014 17:32:20 +0000 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 Matteo Convertino, assistant professor in the School of Public Health. Let the conversation begin!

What is your current favorite project?

I would say that the food system project I am involved in is very interesting because it integrates agriculture, public health, veterinary medicine and ecology via engineering models for understanding how foodborne outbreaks and other food-related emerging infectious diseases arise globally. The ultimate goal is to provide a tool for the food industry and public health authorities for designing food supply chains that diminish the risk of foodborne outbreaks, and for building surveillance systems that detect early signs of contamination and enable more rapid response to incipient outbreaks.

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Matteo Convertino, assistant professor in the School of Public Health and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of M. Convertino.

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

I am currently reading Consilience by E.O. Wilson. The book is tremendously interesting because it clearly shows the unity of knowledge though a variety of examples in which common concepts and methods are shared by different disciplines. The book emphasizes that evidence should come from a systemic view of problems versus piecemeal approaches, integrates art and science, and puts human development into an evolutionary perspective at multiple scales. In some ways, the book is IonE to the third power!

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

Any time I figure out a cool application applying a mathematical model to a new problem and field where that model was never applied before! Any time I read something new that uses the combination of knowledge I have already. Ah-ha moments are at the interface of knowledge!

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

Things that I dream at night; those are really the most interesting, strange and creative things [that] can happen to me. I am a dreamer, I dream a lot, and you have no idea about how much creativity there is in my dream. I have used them as sources of inspiration, too. The brain is really the most fantastic computer!

What’s the oddest thing in your briefcase?

The most curious thing I have in my briefcase is a little golden ball that was part of my Master of Science laurel wreath at the University of Padova. In most Italian universities a laurel wreath with golden balls and red bows is given as a gift and worn the day of graduation, resembling the festivities of high-profile people of the Roman Empire. The golden balls are donated by graduates to young kids as a sign of perseverance and luck and to stimulate them to pursue the same. I guess that ball is still inspiring me and bringing me luck!

Banner photo by Michael Foley (Flickr/Creative Commons) 

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Project to create sustainable magnets wins $10K prize Mon, 08 Dec 2014 18:45:52 +0000 A project aimed at developing magnets that don’t require the use of rare earth elements captured the $10,000 top prize in a Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) competition held Dec. 4 at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in St. Paul.

  • The winning project, “Rare Earth–Free Permanent Magnets,” was presented by Md Al Mehedi, a doctoral student of chemical engineering and material science in the College of Science and Engineering. The project described a new process for making magnets out of iron and nitrogen that obviates the need to use rare earth elements that are integral to standard magnets used for applications such as motors and generators, but that depend upon extraction processes that are energy intensive, technologically challenging, environmentally hazardous and threatening to human health and agriculture.
  • The Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) is a program of the Institute on the Environment and the Dow Chemical Company. SISCA recognizes and rewards students and universities for innovation and research that encourages and promotes sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing social, economic and environmental problems. The competition is open to full-time graduate and professional students enrolled at all campuses of the University of Minnesota.
  • The objective of the challenge is to develop practical and innovative solutions that address global environmental challenges. It encourages action from students — action to reach out and understand how to apply their knowledge to solve important problems in the world. This means identifying and understanding a real problem. It means developing not only a solution but also a plan for implementing that solution.
  • The winning project was one of 12 submitted to the Dow SISCA challenge at the University of Minnesota, one of 17 colleges around the world participating in the competition.
  • Runner-up recipients Christoph Krumm and Katherine Vinter (chemical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) received $2,500 to pursue the application of a novel dehydration technique to improve the sustainability of production of industrial chemicals from biomass.
  • Judges were from Dow Chemical, 3M, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services and the University of Minnesota. The awards are financial scholarships to the students to allow them to further develop their ideas.
  • Other finalists were:

Dustin Johnson (mechanical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) – A Compact, Portable Compressed Air Power Supply for Human Assistive Devices

Daniel Nigon (mechanical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) – Reducing Fossil Fuel Use in Water and Space Heating: Thermotropic Materials for Low-Cost Solar Thermal Collectors

Georgiy V. Vozhdayev (microbial engineering, College of Biological Sciences) – Large Scale Cultivation of Phytoplankton via Novel Photo-Bioreactor Technology

Chao Zhang (mechanical engineering, College of Science and Engineering) – Novel Thermal Energy Storage Approach with Application to Solar Energy and Waste Heat Recovery

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 on IonE, visit For more information on the Dow SISCA program, see

Photo courtesy of Todd Reubold.

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Featured Fellow: Architect/artist Jonee Kulman Brigham Wed, 03 Dec 2014 18:06:29 +0000 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 Jonee Kulman Brigham, a sustainable design program faculty member in the College of  Design and visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development. Let the conversation begin!

Which of your projects relates to the transdisciplinary mission of IonE?

Through my fellowship at IonE, I’m working on a project called “River Journey: Exploring the Value of the Mississippi.” This project is taking place at River’s Edge Academy Charter Environmental High School, where I am collaborating with teachers, staff and students on a yearlong art-led environmental exploration of water through their school, tracing the flows to the Mississippi River both upstream and downstream. With the assistance of project partner U-Spatial, students will use online mapping software (ArcGIS online) to share their learning about the water cycle and increase public awareness. Community contributors include the National Park Service, St. Paul Regional Water Services, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, the Lower Mississippi River Watershed Management Organization and others. You can read more about it on the River Journey blog.

Jonee Kuhlman Brigham
Jonee Kulman Brigham is a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development, a faculty member in the College of Design, and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of JKB.

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

During my architecture school thesis at the U I discovered my deep interest in how we perceive support systems of buildings — things like water pipes, heating registers and storage of supplies. In my Master of Liberal Studies thesis I designed an art-led environmental education model to help kids see and experience their interdependence by exploring the water infrastructure that connects their school to the wider human-engineered and natural surroundings. These academic programs nurtured turning points in my path because they provided transformational combinations of freedom, challenge and intellectual inspiration.

What gives you hope?

The increasing awareness and value placed on our environment from across subcultures.

What makes you happy?

The adventure of imagining/learning/collaborating/creating/faltering-remaking/discovering/realizing/contributing.

What’s the one talent you rely on most often?

I make connections between people, ideas and disciplines.

If you could have a one-on-one conversation with someone you admire but have never met, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I’d choose Donella Meadows because her work, and particularly her article on “Places to Intervene in a System,” inspires and guides me. I’d love to spend hours talking about changing (and transcending) paradigms as a strategy for sustainability.

Banner photo by Teresa Boardman (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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7 things about environmentalist-corporate partnerships Mon, 01 Dec 2014 18:55:37 +0000 In the final Frontiers presentation of the semester, Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, Natural Capital Project lead scientist and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, moderated a discussion on the relationship between environmentalists and corporations. Participants included Amy Skoczlas Cole, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Pentair; J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Fresh Energy; and Chris P. Lambe, managing director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The panel members shared their thoughts on the role of the private sector as stewards of the environment and left us with the understanding that environmentalists and corporations may not be such strange bedfellows after all. Here are seven other things we learned:

Times have changed. A few decades ago, environmental organizations and corporations barely talked to each other and sustainability was a term not often used in corporate vernacular. Now, we see many companies accepting environmental challenges and recognizing the links between themselves and the environment. In some respects, large companies have embraced environmental challenges more than have governments or society as a whole. Don’t get too excited, though — there is still a lot of work to do. Companies have started with the low-hanging fruit, but now they need to amplify their actions and tackle bigger challenges.

It’s the dawn of the collaboration age. Increasingly, environmentalists and corporations are realizing that they want many of the same things. It’s becoming ever more evident that climate change will influence business practices — for example, through energy costs. Born out of necessity, there are more and more examples of these two worlds working together. So far, we’ve only skimmed the surface of what needs to be done, and there will be many opportunities going forward.

Time to scale up. The collaboration between environmentalists and corporations works at more than one level. First, there are the changes that are easier for companies to implement because they present win-win scenarios for themselves and for the environment. These are the types of changes many companies have tackled so far. However, the next level of challenges is more difficult because, while they provide gains in the long term, they are less desirable in the short term. This is especially important for corporate investors to realize because they have a lot of influence over these changes. A third level is made up of challenges that represent questions about the public good. They are not profitable in the traditional sense for companies but they have benefits that go beyond the tangible and should be considered as well.

Profound change has yet to occur. This is not because corporations don’t want to change but because they are restrained in what they are able to do. Our private sector system puts pressure on companies to prioritize quarterly earnings and short-term progress over long-term goals. But there are other challenges as well. Turnover rates in companies can prevent lasting progress. Thus, while one CEO might make significant changes within a company, , old patterns can emerge after he or she leaves.

Sustainability is not a line of work, it’s a way of thinking. All panelists agreed that the time constraints put on middle management at a corporation can be a barrier to sustainability. Employees may be so bogged down in the day-to-day they can only be reactive without enough time to think how sustainability can benefit the company in the long term. Because of this, it can be easy for sustainability goals to stall. Therefore, we need to reframe our sustainability goals to better address business problems. It would behoove businesses to view their needs and solutions through an environmental lens. In this way, sustainability can be used as a tool to solve a problem instead of being viewed as an additional problem.

The message matters. Part of the problem is that the discourse of sustainability is not being presented effectively. We need to frame environmental problems as stories to get the message out to policy makers in effective ways. Great messengers are needed to present the problems to relevant stakeholders and to demonstrate that big things are happening. This could help create a path to scale up action to an effective level.

True change requires a change in our thinking. We have come to understand capitalism as continuous growth. But growth cannot come at the expense of natural resources. To reap the benefits of cooperation between corporations and environmentalists, we will need to rethink our definition of capitalism.

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

Photo by Roy Bisschops (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Featured Fellow: Biochemist Lawrence Wackett Wed, 26 Nov 2014 17:36:47 +0000 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. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Lawrence Wackett, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

What project are you focused on now?

I am working on developing broad-based computer and practical methods for cleaning problem chemicals from the environment and setting up conditions whereby there is a business incentive to use the methods. The latter goal is typically outside the domain of academic research. But to really make an impact on the environment, I have come to believe we must go beyond publishing journal articles and op-ed pieces for people to read. It takes enormous creativity to think of environmental solutions that many people will be incentivized to implement. However, lasting environmental benefits will only accrue when business and the majority of citizens are driven by self-interest to eagerly adopt environmentally responsible practices. The carrot is more powerful than the stick!

Lawrence Wackett, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Biological Sciences and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesty of L.Wackett.

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Maintaining sufficient quantities of clean water for human consumption, ecosystem health, agriculture and industry.

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

“How Pleasure Works” is written by Paul Bloom, a neuropsychologist who asks such questions as, “Why would someone pay millions for an original piece of art and nothing for a copy that is so apparently identical that even an art expert could not discern the copy from the original?” The answer is much deeper than you would expect.

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

Meeting my Ph.D. mentor, David T. Gibson. It also has a special meaning to me that David Gibson did his Ph.D. thesis at Leeds University working with Stanley Dagley, who later became a Regents Professor of biochemistry at Minnesota. So Dagley is, in a sense, my academic grandfather. I now work in Dagley’s former office and laboratory here in Gortner Laboratories at the University. This makes me feel like the research I am doing today is part of an important historical continuum. Even as we seek to do novel and creative things, we need to heed the best lessons of the past and pass them on.

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

When I was a graduate student, I discovered how genetically-engineered bacteria make the blue jean dye indigo, a finding that was highlighted on the cover of the journal Science and developed commercially by the company Genencor International.

Photo by Mickey Zlimen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Energy Transition Lab will be hub of innovation Tue, 25 Nov 2014 02:31:01 +0000 Reprinted by permission from the University of Minnesota Law School.

Our energy system is in the midst of a major transition. Power sources are shifting from coal to more natural gas and renewables. The aging grid needs to adapt, becoming “smarter,” more flexible and resilient. New greenhouse gas emissions regulations and a changing climate add further complexities.

This transition has the potential to spark innovation in business and government, leading to new jobs and a cleaner environment, and the University of Minnesota has launched the Energy Transition Lab to help turn this potential into reality. Ellen Anderson, a former state senator and energy advisor to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, is the ETL’s inaugural executive director; its faculty director is Law School professor Hari Osofsky, an expert in energy law and an IonE resident fellow.

A strategic initiative of IonE with funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research, the ETL will bring together leaders in government, business and nonprofit organizations to develop new energy policy pathways and advance needed reform. Anderson and Osofsky plan to build collaborations and develop the lab into a hub for innovative solutions.

Osofsky says she was thrilled to recruit Anderson to the University as the ETL’s executive director. “Ellen Anderson has been a leader in Minnesota’s energy transition for more than two decades, and I cannot imagine anyone more qualified to help this lab make a major impact,” Osofsky says. “Her experience — as a legislator crafting key renewable energy legislation, as chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission and as a senior energy advisor to Governor Dayton — will be invalu­able. She’s also a U of M Law School graduate who has taught energy policy and sustainability courses at the University.”

“We need the University of Minnesota’s great researchers and thought leaders to help our energy system transition to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Anderson says. “I am excited to lead this critical endeavor, and look forward to working with the public, private, and community sectors to catalyze innovative solutions.”

As faculty director, Osofsky brings a decade and a half of academic research, policy project leadership and litigation experience to the ETL. Before entering academia she litigated environmental justice cases, and she has continued to work with non-governmental organizations and government agencies on energy policy projects throughout her time as a law professor. Her books and articles — more than 40 in all — on energy and climate change issues have received peer awards, and include a new energy law textbook.

The ETL will focus on energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric­ity and transportation systems, and energy and environmental justice. Specific products will include white papers and other policy reports, legislative testimony, model legislation and regulations, conferences and workshops convening key stakehold­ers, and other public events.

The lab will provide valuable learning opportunities for students, who will participate in shaping solutions through their research and course­work. The ETL aims to become the “go-to” place for experts and leaders to work with University faculty, students and staff toward solutions to energy challenges.

The ETL has embarked on a high-impact set of collaborative projects for 2014:

  • develop regional climate mitiga­tion/adaptation and energy strategies and action steps for the entire Twin Cities region, which encompasses 183 cities and more than half the state’s population
  • develop legislative and policy recommendations that will help the state scale up renewable energy and energy efficiency, reduce energy-re­lated emissions, advance energy justice, and plan its energy future
  • collaborate with key corporate and indigenous stakeholders, government leaders, and academics on recommendations for improving regulation of and standard-setting for Arctic offshore energy development as part of the U.S.’s assumption of leadership of the Arctic Council in 2015
  • create a clearinghouse/communi­cation network for energy informa­tion and resources to connect leading researchers, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, and community and civic leaders.

Photo: Hari Osofsky and Ellen Anderson, courtesy of U of M Law School

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Featured Fellow: Computer Scientist Tian He Fri, 21 Nov 2014 15:07:26 +0000 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 Tian He, a McKnight Distinguished Land-Grant professor and associate professor in the College of Science & Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

I am interested in utilizing the latest metropolitan-scale taxi networks for urban pollution monitoring and reduction. Currently, smart vehicles are equipped with sensors such as GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes. This enables crowd-based sensing, a new technique for gathering information that offers unprecedented flexibility, scale and resolution. Crowd-based sensing has the potential to generate a comprehensive view of phenomena such as urban traffic patterns, real-time city pollution maps and the micro-scale monitoring of land use that is difficult or impossible for previous techniques to produce. It also can offer direct benefits to individuals, such as faster and more fuel efficient commuting. 

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

Tian He is a McKnight Distinguished Land-Grant professor, an associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering and an IonE resident fellow. Photo courtesy of Tian He.

Our previous work was focusing on how to improve efficiency and reduce the cost of public transportation systems, especially the taxi network. Now I am also interested in improving bike-sharing networks by utilizing human mobility patterns observed through cellular networks.

What is your current favorite project?

We propose to model behaviors of urban transportation systems with massive multi-modal online feeds and to apply effective local and global cyber-control.  Recently we made some progress in this direction. For example, my group has started investigating the Capital BikeShare system in Washington D.C. With the online data feed provided by Arlington County, we found a few key control issues, such as imbalanced bike usage leading to faster bike deterioration (high maintenance cost) and high overhead in rebalancing bikes with trucks. Through a data-driven approach, we were able to identify issues in existing transportation systems and aim to provide solutions for these systems.

If you could have a one-on-one conversation with someone you admire but have never met, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Albert Einstein. I would like to ask him why he could think dramatically out of the box.

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

It is science fiction, The Three-Body Problem.  It is a sci-fi story grounded with fascinating laws of physics. In my opinion, no other sci-fi book can compare.

Photo by Never House (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Study: Ag production contributes to CO2 spikes Wed, 19 Nov 2014 18:13:06 +0000 MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (11/19/14) The application of a recently developed crop statistics database at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in conjunction with a carbon accounting model developed at Boston University has shown that intensified agricultural production in the northern hemisphere is generating up to a quarter of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide seasonality, reports a paper published in the November 5 issue of the journal Nature.

Deepak Ray, research associate at IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative, who led the development of the dataset and contributed to this study, said, “This is the perfect example of assembling a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional team of experts tackling an intractable problem of why the atmospheric carbon dioxide seasonality is intensifying.”

Each year in the northern hemisphere, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide drop in the summer as plants inhale (absorb it for photosynthesis), and then climb again after their growing season. Over the past 50 years, the size of this seasonal swing has increased by as much as half, for reasons that aren’t fully understood. “Most of the explanations put forward to date involve climate warming, particularly at high latitudes, a longer growing season and enhanced photosynthetic activity, and greater plant productivity due to increasing atmospheric CO2,” says study co-author Steve Frolking of the University of New Hampshire.

The multidisciplinary team of researchers led by Boston University scientists has shown that agricultural production may generate up to a quarter of the increase in this seasonal carbon cycle, with corn playing a leading role. GLI’s crop database allowed the scientists to find that production of four leading crops — corn, wheat, rice and soybeans — that represent about 64 percent of all calories consumed worldwide in the northern hemisphere above the tropics has more than doubled since 1961, and after accounting for the carbon translates to about a billion metric tons of carbon captured and released each year.

These croplands are “ecosystems on steroids,” says Josh Gray, BU research assistant professor and lead author on the paper, noting that they occupy about 6 percent of the vegetative land area in the northern hemisphere but are responsible for up to a quarter of the total increase in seasonal carbon exchange of atmospheric CO2. “The fact that such a small land area can actually affect the composition of the atmosphere is an amazing fingerprint of human activity on the planet,” notes Mark Friedl, a professor in Boston University’s department of Earth and environment and senior author of the paper.

While increased crop production does not have much impact on the long-term increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, understanding the effects of agricultural production, the researchers say, will help to improve models of global climate, which currently do not represent agricultural management very well.

The paper, titled “Direct human influence on atmospheric CO2 seasonality from increased cropland productivity” can be viewed online at the journal Nature.

The research team includes lead authors Mark Friedl and Josh Gray of Boston University; Eric Kort, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; Steve Frolking, University of New Hampshire at Durham; Christopher Kucharik, University of Wisconsin at Madison; Navin Ramankutty, then at McGill University and now at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver; and Deepak Ray of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment.

The research was funded primarily though programs supported by the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Deepak Ray was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and IonE.

Photo by James Clear (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Can computers protect us from swine flu? Tue, 18 Nov 2014 19:59:50 +0000 This article is part of a series of profiles of IonE resident fellows highlighting the value of their collaborations across the U of M, Minnesota and the world.

What can computer models tell us about disease transmission in animals?

A lot, says Meggan Craft, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow and assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine who is working to reduce the toll of animal disease by improving our ability to understand disease transmission.

Craft uses computer modeling as an efficient and ethical tool for figuring out how diseases spread within animal populations — and between animals and humans — and beginning to understand how to control them.

Photo by Liam James Doyle, courtesy of the Minnesota Daily
Photo by Liam James Doyle, courtesy of the Minnesota Daily.

“I am interested in two fundamental questions,” says Craft, who earned an ecology, evolution and behavior Ph.D. at the U of M studying disease dynamics in African lions. “How are pathogens that infect multiple animal species maintained? And how does animal social structure and movement affect the spread of infectious disease?” The movement of animals, their social structure and the diseases transmitted among them is strongly influenced by the environment in which they live. Animal disease in turn can influence the environment as well — not the least by affecting our ability to produce food sustainably.

Take the influenza virus, which can spread between animals such as pigs, evolving into different strains as it gets passed back and forth between pigs, from pigs to people and from people to pigs. All human influenzas in recent history have originated in birds or swine. The swine flu pandemic of 2009 was a wake-up call that heralded the need for closer scrutiny and control of influenza in swine production, says Craft.

In a study supported by IonE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Craft and a University of Minnesota team used mathematical models to explore the dynamics of influenza at the farm level in “the first theoretical description of influenza dynamics in swine at the population level,” according to the study, published last August in PLoS ONE.

“Most swine in farms have the flu,” says Craft. “Pigs are mixing vessels for influenza. It gets mixed up and passed back and forth between pigs and can go back to humans. For pigs it’s not a huge problem, but it’s a public health concern.” Using data from previous experimental studies, the team examined various scenarios in the production process of an average commercial farm, where pigs are routinely vaccinated against influenza. They constructed two models: a breeding farm, where piglets acquire influenza infections and/or immunities from the mothers, and wean-to-finish farms, where pigs of all ages are housed together with varying degrees of immunity and susceptibility to disease.

“We found that vaccination is not as effective as was previously thought,” says Craft, adding that “no matter which type of vaccination strategy we used in the model, we found consistently high levels of infection in the piglet population. We will want to focus future research efforts on reducing infection in the piglets.”

“Working with Dr. Craft we were able to maximize the value of our data obtained under field and experimental conditions,” says Monserrat Torremorel, a co-author of the study. “We were able to build models to test options that will help producers and veterinarians to make better decisions. The study also illustrated gaps in our knowledge of swine influenza and serves as an instigator for new questions to be addressed.”

Throughout her career, Craft has paired knowledge of ecological processes with computer modeling skills to examine the spread and control of infectious diseases in carnivores in the Serengeti, raccoons in the midwestern U.S., and moose in northern Minnesota. She is currently collaborating with scientists on a cross-continental, cross disciplinary study of disease transmission in panthers, which currently receives funding from the National Science Foundation.

As an IonE resident fellow, Craft advances IonE’s mission of cross disciplinary collaboration to address environmental challenges and stresses the importance of research that incorporates mathematical modeling.

“Mathematical models are critical tools in the fight against infectious diseases – they allow for experiments that would otherwise be unethical or unachievable in the real world,” she says. “The Institute on the Environment helps us put ‘health’ into the broader context of the environment. The health of humans, animals and the environment is intricately connected.”

Banner photo by Steven & Claire Farnsworth (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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U of M students attend national sustainability summit Mon, 17 Nov 2014 21:30:51 +0000 Five students represented the University of Minnesota Sustainability Education at the largest conference on campus sustainability in North America last month. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference in Portland attracted sustainability thought leaders from every state and 12 countries to share strategies, research and leadership initiatives, and included a keynote address by Annie Leonard, creator of “The Story of Stuff.” Read the full story.

Photo by David Grant (Flickr /Creative Commons)

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6 things we learned about connecting kids with nature Thu, 13 Nov 2014 18:26:48 +0000 Why should we help children connect to the natural world? And how can we best do so? Cathy Jordan, University of Minnesota Extension specialist and associate professor of pediatrics in the Medical School and Sarah Milligan-Toffler, executive director of the Children and Nature Network, shared their thoughts on the subject at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment talk. Here are six things we learned:

Screen time is full time. Studies suggest that children spend up to 60 hours per week indoors. This mirrors the growing trend of being disconnected from natural world. As technological devices become more prevalent and children are becoming increasingly overscheduled, we’ve reduced the amount of time they’re spending outside.

Nature is important. Nature has been proven to be beneficial for children in almost all parts of their life. Not only does it help prevent obesity, reduce stress and build self-esteem, it can also help increase focus inside of the classroom. Moreover, cognitive functions, social skills, leadership and collaboration can all be improved by spending time outside. But the list doesn’t stop there. These are just some of the many benefits that children can gain by being connected with the natural world around them.

Never underestimate the benefit of a scraped knee. As a society, we’ve shifted our perception of risk. We’ve traded the physical risks of the outdoors in favor of the safety of the indoors. But it is important to recognize that this type of lifestyle carries its own types of risk, such as a reduced sense of community, lowered levels of self-confidence and many other psychological impacts. By spending less time outside, children are losing the opportunity to experience what they’re capable of. Falling and scraping your knee may hurt, but it also plays a fundamental role in childhood development by teaching kids about limits, danger and consequences.

Parental choices matter. Parents can help by getting outside and playing with their children. They can encourage free play and continue to emphasize play as children age. These experiences don’t always have to be adventurous trips to national parks. A trip to a local park or even playing in the backyard can be just as effective. Parents can also make intentional choices in other parts of life, such as where they send their children to school. They can also bond together to create groups that encourage outdoor play, such as the Family Nature Club.

Education and the environment don’t have to be an either-or. Instead of simply teaching about the environment, educators can use the environment to teach about all everything else. Known as the Environment as an Integrating Context model, this approach gets students actively engaged in what they’re learning. Students could read about a park while they’re sitting in it, or they could take inspiration from the outdoors to journal. Using the environment in this way also promotes transdisciplinary work, where teachers can work collaboratively across class boundaries.

It takes a village. True connections between children and nature will need more than individual actions. It will take a community effort. Policy-makers and planners can help by promoting green spaces. For example, Minneapolis has a goal of having every resident live within six blocks, or a 10-minute walk, from a park. This type of thinking and development can help re-create the bond between children and nature.

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

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A healthier diet could save you and the planet Wed, 12 Nov 2014 19:45:55 +0000 Eating less meat and fewer empty calories can help people live longer, healthier lives and also dramatically reduce environmental degradation, according to a new University of Minnesota study.

David Tilman, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow and professor in the College of Biological Sciences, and graduate student Michael Clark synthesized data on environmental costs of food production, diet trends, relationships between diet and health, and population growth. They found that adopting variations on three common diets — Mediterranean, pescatarian and vegetarian — on a global scale would not only boost health, but also reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equal to the current emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships on Earth and prevent the destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannas equivalent to half of the United States. Read the full news release.

Banner photo by Michel Bish (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Plants will soak up less CO2 than expected in the future Mon, 10 Nov 2014 22:00:32 +0000 Scientists have long believed that plants’ ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the air will help mitigate the effects of global warming. But a new a study by Institute on the Environment resident fellows has uncovered limits to that assumption.

IonE resident fellows Peter Reich, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences professor; and Sarah Hobbie, College of Biological Sciences professor, are co-authors with Tali Lee of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire on the study, which was published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience. In a five-year field experiment, the researchers found that plants grown in poor soils and with less-than-average rainfall lost their ability to use extra CO2. Read the full press release.

Photo by Free Photos & Art (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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7 things we learned about the ag transformation Thu, 06 Nov 2014 21:06:14 +0000 What’s happening to agriculture, and how can we make the most of it? That Big Question took center stage at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation by  IonE resident fellow Nick Jordan, a professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, and Carissa Schively Slotterback, an associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Here are seven important things we learned:

Agriculture is in a period of transition. Agriculture has traditionally relied heavily on only a few crops, but now it’s undergoing a shift to growing a greater variety of crops for more purposes, including bioproducts and biofuels. Sustainable intensification — expanding the potential of farmland production while reducing negative effects on the environment — may be a good way to take advantage of this opportunity.

Continuous living cover is the first step. Continuous living cover involves the use of winter crops or coverings so large fields don’t remain barren during winter. Options include cover crops, green manures, agroforestry and polycultures. These crops can produce multiple benefits, such as being turned into biofuels.

Remember the economy. Continuous living cover may sound great, but unless it’s economically competitive it will not succeed. Luckily, new technologies have allowed for an expansion of bioeconomy into new foods, animal feeds and biofuels, and have boosted potential for local markets.

Expect new technology. New advances will be necessary to optimize sustainable intensification and utilize its products. Some are already well on their way to development, including the AFEX method (a biomass treatment process developed at Michigan State University) and advances in genome editing. Technology also has played a crucial role through geodesign technologies.

We’re already on our way. Through a series of workshops over the course of several months, researchers taught residents of the Seven Mile Creek watershed in south-central Minnesota about sustainable intensification and provided them with tools to apply this knowledge through geodesign. The results were positive.

Success involves collaboration. Collaboration played a key role in the workshop process and will be crucial in broader applications of the agricultural transformation. Successful implementation of sustainable intensification will require participation from all relevant stakeholders, including community members, governments, conservation groups and the agricultural industry.

Win + win + win + win. These concepts are especially exciting because they can benefit people across the board. Not only can they increase the productive capacity of agriculture and save money, they also have the potential to reduce environmental wrongs while utilizing local knowledge.

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

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Big opportunity for cereal manufacturers Thu, 06 Nov 2014 07:13:04 +0000 Manufacturers of breakfast cereal have a far greater opportunity to reduce their supply chain carbon footprint than do the farmers who produce the grain, according to a new study by IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise.

Agriculture, a leading emitter of greenhouse gas, is often the main target of carbon reduction strategies, leaving food manufacturers off the hook. But not so fast, says the NiSE study. Examining cereal’s supply chain, NiSE researchers  found that manufacturing has more than six times more opportunity than ag to reduce the carbon footprint of corn cereal products and more than three times the ability for wheat cereal products. Read the full press release

Photo by Daniel Go (Flickr/Creative Commons)


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4 things we learned about the environment and elections Mon, 03 Nov 2014 23:00:09 +0000 Voters don’t always rank the environment high on their list of priorities during elections. With midterms coming up, Frontiers in the Environment took the problem head on and asked some local experts about the role of the environment in this year’s elections in Minnesota. David Gillette, special correspondent for Twin Cities Public Television, moderated a lively debate between Amy Koch, small business owner and former Minnesota Senate Republican majority leader, and Mark Andrew, a Democrat and former Hennepin County commissioner and president of GreenMark. Here are four things we learned.

Don’t underestimate PolyMet. What is the biggest environmental challenge facing Minnesota this year? Koch said it’s the proposed PolyMet mine. Andrew countered that this proposed copper and nickel mine in northern Minnesota promises to bring hundreds of jobs, but at what cost? Toxic waste and pollution from the mine could pose a real threat to the natural areas of northern Minnesota, especially to the watersheds that feed into Lake Superior. This wedge issue could mean a lot for the future of Minnesota and could influence future decisions as well.

Energy is big. In addition to the PolyMet mine, the debate focused heavily on the topic of energy efficiency. Koch said Republicans tend to see the issue through an affordability and reliability lens; Andrew argued that renewables are actually the more economical choice if you take into account the life cycle costs of traditional energy sources. Is solar competitive? Does nuclear have a future in Minnesota? These are among the types of questions that face politicians and the public.

Politics continue to be politics. From energy efficiency to campaign spending, Andrew and Koch didn’t agree on much. Despite the polarization, as the debate shifted to questions about water quantity, both sides agreed that the system was flawed and inefficient, providing a glimmer of hope of possible cooperation in the future.

“Emails, calls, visits to politicians do matter.” These wise words are from the insider’s perspective Koch received during her time in office. If you don’t like how things are being handled, then you have to make your voice heard, she said. That means voting and getting to know your representatives. You can’t complain if you aren’t acting.

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

Photo by Animesh Kumar (Flickr/Creative Commons)


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Pandas and agricultural best practices at IonE Tue, 28 Oct 2014 17:24:38 +0000 There’s a panda at the Institute on the Environment — a World Wildlife Fund “panda,” that is. Derric Pennington, a senior conservation scientist with WWF and part of Natural Capital Project–WWF, has taken up residency here and is collaborating with IonE on several research projects, including one with The Coca-Cola Company and the Luc Hoffman Institute to assess just how effective sustainability certification standards are at improving our environmental footprint.

Sustainability certification of a commodity is like a best-management-practices treaty among stakeholders in the commodity’s supply chain. Take the Bonsucro certification standard, for example. A worldwide sugar cooperative, Bonsucro requires “producers, buyers and others involved in sugar and ethanol businesses to obtain products derived from sugarcane that have been produced according to agreed, credible, transparent and measurable criteria . . .  that promote measurable improvements in the key economic, environmental and social impacts of sugarcane production,” according to its website. 

In the case of sugar, as in most commodities, the environmental impacts include those affecting ecosystem services such as water use, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

This is where WWF comes in. One of the world’s largest conservation groups is expanding their scope to research how ecosystem services can benefit both people and wildlife. Pennington is helping inform the organization about whether certification can help agribusinesses that buy agricultural commodities such as sugar, palm oil, soy and timber influence the sustainability of their production. If so, it could greatly improve conservation outcomes.

“We want to know, what are the environmental implications of adopting commodity certification?” says Pennington. “If we did adopt 100 percent of certification requirements, what are the expected outcomes?” The answer to those questions can help inform the management decisions of the businesses that produce or purchase the commodities or the policy decisions of the governments that regulate them, he says.

Pennington working with Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist of the Natural Capital Project. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Keeler.

To get at these answers, Pennington is teaming up with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative and Natural Capital Project strategic initiatives to develop computer models that will map and quantify the influence of commodity standards on things such as species habitat, water quality and carbon sequestration.

“IonE has the opportunity to distill big questions and illuminate ways going forward. They bring excellence and relevance to scientific study – that’s why you partner with IonE,” says Pennington. His team will apply the models to future land use scenarios (such as alternative climates and differing demand levels for food and fuel) as well as varying adoption rates of commodity standards to predict what the net change in environmental, economic and social outcomes would be in 2050.

How does The Coca-Cola Company fit in? The company purchases commodities for its soft drinks and other products from suppliers all over the world. The company has a goal to source sustainably produced agricultural commodities and actively encourages the adoption of sustainable best practices throughout its supply chain.

Ensuring the sustainable production of corn, which The Coca-Cola Company uses in many of its beverages, is of particular interest. To zoom in on the local impacts of sustainable corn production on ecosystem services and how adoption of best management practices could improve the sustainability of corn’s supply chain, the team will conduct an on-the-ground case study with farmers and others in the supply chain in the Middle Cedar Watershed in Iowa. The Nature Conservancy and DuPont Pioneer are also partners on the project.

“We’ll be looking at spatially explicit practices and measuring things like water quality and carbon sequestration, mapping and assessing a value for those ecosystem services,” says Pennington. He predicts the project will show that incorporating the value of ecosystem services into our food system will likely come with a higher price tag because these values are not currently included in the commodity marketplace.

Pennington says there are several questions to consider. “Are prices too low for commodities? Should consumers or companies pay more for commodities that maintain or improve ecosystem services? Or should incentives to producers come from the federal and local government?”

There are more questions than answers, Pennington admits, but he expects the project to be influential. “Corporations have leverage. If they all made a commitment to only purchase commodities grown with certain BMPs, it could have a major impact on conservation.”

Banner photo: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Acara: from idea to enterprise Mon, 27 Oct 2014 15:38:00 +0000 University of Minnesota students: Do you have an idea for a business that could help solve a social or environmental problem at home or abroad? Whether that idea has been bouncing around in your brain, written on a napkin or is in the planning stages, IonE’s Acara social venture program can help you make it a reality.

Acara guides students through the steps it takes to turn ideas into viable enterprises. Through course work, competition and collaboration Acara prepares the next generation of leaders to develop practical business solutions that address some the world’s most pressing challenges. Here’s what they have in store for spring and summer 2015.

CE 5570 – May-term India course info session
Join us Tuesday, Oct. 28, 12:30-1:30 pm, for an information session on how you can discover INCREDIBLE INDIA with Acara’s May 2015 global seminar to Bangalore. We’ll enjoy tasty Indian food, have a panel discussion involving past participants and review the 2015 program content for CE 5570: Design for Sustainable Development: Discovery.

CE 5570 – May-term India course
Apply now for Acara’s May-term India three-week global seminar. On this journey of discovery to Bangalore, India, we’ll learn about solutions to societal and environmental challenges such as water, energy, waste, health and agriculture through the eyes of entrepreneurs, local leaders and community members. This May-term course is open to undergrad and grad students from all majors. To get an idea of a business experience in India, read “Trash Walking to Trash Talking – Acara Students’ Internship at Waste Ventures India.

CE 5571 – Spring 2015 Acara Global Venture Design: Grand Challenges
The Acara Grand Challenge course is a four-credit impact venture design course in which students create business solutions to address grand social and environmental challenges in Minnesota in cooperation with students and professional mentors from diverse backgrounds. The course will be offered Fridays 9 am–noon in Spring 2015. This course is open to grad students and upper level undergrads from all colleges.

CE 5572 – Acara Social Venture Launchpad course in J-Term
Venture Launchpad is a two-credit impact venture design course in which students develop their ideas for business solutions to address grand social and environmental challenges. It will be offered Jan. 12–16, 2015. This course is open to grad students and upper level undergrads from all colleges.

The annual Acara Challenge competition rewards teams that have impactful, viable business ideas to address broad global challenges. Winners may apply for incubation support and seed funding following the competition. The Acara Challenge competition is open to full-time and part-time undergraduate, graduate and professional students enrolled at all U of M campuses. Applications will open in late 2014 and will be due in late January 2015.

Banner photo by Fred Rose: During the May 2014 global seminar, the Acara team took time to enjoy delicious Indian food and drinks such as fresh coconut water, and to absorb the diverse cultural practices by visiting markets and temples.

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8 things we learned about a clean water future Mon, 27 Oct 2014 13:39:23 +0000 What would a clean water future look like for Minnesota? Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist for the Natural Capital Project at the University of Minnesota; Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner John Linc Stein; and Deborah Swackhamer, a professor in the Humphrey School and School of Public Health, explored answers to that Big Question at last week’s Frontiers in the Environment event. Here are eight things we learned:

Minnesota is the most water-rich state in the U.SDespite this, we still have to careful about our water future. We are currently dealing with high levels of unclean water, a problem that may only be exacerbated by increasing stresses such as population growth. We need to think not just about having enough water for everyone, but also about making sure our water is clean and safe.

“Clean” is relative. The value we place on our water and terms such as “better” and “cleaner” are relative. How do we know what is “clean enough” and when we’ve achieved our clean water goals? While “fishable and swimmable” may be the ultimate target, these two terms can mean different things to different people and may depend on the baseline of the problem.

Minnesota’s Clean Water Roadmap offers a promising path to the future. Thanks to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Minnesota has roughly $2.5 billion to spend on water over the next 20 years. This means Minnesota will invest about $90 million each year on clean water initiatives. Minnesota’s Clean Water Roadmap lays out goals for our state’s water resources in the areas of lake water quality, river and stream quality, groundwater quality, and groundwater quantity.

Economics play a huge role in water quality concerns. Even small steps are expensive, and funding is limited compared to the size of the problem. Over the next 20 years, it will cost $11 billion to $15 billion just to keep up with drinking and water infrastructure. This amount does not even take into account the potential costs from increasing stormwater and unknown costs. Water use fees are insufficient to cover these costs, suggesting that current water pricing doesn’t adequately reflect true costs.

Progress takes time. Minnesota’s goals for 2034 include increasing the percentage of lakes with clean water from 62  to 70, increasing the percentage of streams and rivers in Minnesota with healthy fish communities from 60 to 67, reducing nitrate levels in groundwater by 20 percent, and reducing the percentage of new wells exceeding the arsenic standard by 50 percent. These may seem slow, but they are necessary to achieving a clean water future.

Water resources face present and future pressures. Right now, one of the most pressing problems for Minnesota water quality is nitrate, an expensive public health problem. In the future, demographic changes, land use changes, and climate change will all need to be considered when talking about water quality. Growing populations mean more water use. Climate change raises uncertainty about shifting climates with more extreme weather events and shifting seasons, leading to questions about runoff, floods, and droughts.

The biggest use of water in Minnesota is to cool power plants that make electricity. This disproportional use helps to show how the various policy sectors in Minnesota are not aligned. If we truly want to achieve sustainable water use, policies need to work across sectors and not as separate entities. This means aligning the policies such as water, land, transport and energy.

We need to step up our game. So far, Minnesota is not doing as well as we need to. Despite having a framework to lead clean water efforts, we are not achieving our goals. The longer we wait, the worse problems may get. For example, we’ve put increasing stress on groundwater resources, and to solve this, we need to explore more surface water options.

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


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The Big Boreas Booya bash Wed, 22 Oct 2014 20:57:06 +0000 Traveling around the Twin Cities and Minnesota this time of year, you may have seen a sign for a community event that read something like, “Booya on Saturday.” Earlier this month, folks at the University of Minnesota got to experience a booya right here on campus. The Boreas Leadership Program held a Big Boreas Booya that brought together current and future leaders from across campus and beyond to share stories and ideas.

Why booya?

A booya is an upper midwestern tradition of community stew, generally held in the fall. “Booya” refers to both the stew and the event. Booyas are often held by churches, fire departments and other community groups.

So, why a booya on campus for an environmental leadership development program?

The Big Booya grew out of weekly Boreas events we also call booyas (without the stew). The Boreas Student Advisory Team came up with the idea of weekly booyas because the team wanted a way to build a cross-campus community around Boreas and to delve deeper into important leadership questions. Team members recognized that leadership can be challenging and lonely. Having a community of support is an important part of developing as a leader, and weekly booyas help to provide that.

Boreas Leadership Program booya
IonE interim director Lewis Gilbert stirs the pot at the Big Boreas Booya.

Having an actual booya — with the stew — on campus was a natural extension of this community building around weekly Boreas booyas. And so the idea for a Big Booya, with environmental leadership programming woven in, got started.

The food

Back to the Big Booya. The focus of any community booya is the food itself, and this booya was no exception. Boreas was lucky to find and enlist the expertise of Ron and Marianne Flor to help make the stew and share their 30-gallon cast-iron kettle retrofitted to cook over a wood fire. University Dining Services brought expertise to the cooking, and it became a true collaboration.

The booya got started early in the morning when the Flors arrived on campus with their kettle and got it set up near the LES building. As University folks gathered for coffee and donuts,donated by Peace Coffee and Mojo Monkey Donuts, the first ingredients of the booya were added to the kettle and the fire was lit.

The people

Boreas Leadership Program booya participants
Big Booya participants discuss leadership in a “panel meets campfire conversation” format.

As the smell of booya and wood smoke began mingling, people mingled as well. Climatologist Mark Seeley kicked off a schedule of celebrity stirrers, donning a University of Minnesota apron for the process. The Flors, Humphrey School associate professor Elizabeth Wilson and Might Axe Hops co-founder Eric Sannerud rounded out that celebrity stirrer schedule.

An environmental leadership innovators panel attracted a larger group of students in the middle of the afternoon. Minnesota Pollution Control commissioner John Linc Stine, Aimee Witteman from the McKnight Foundation, and District Energy CEO Ken Smith shared their thoughts on leadership for environmental progress. After a quick introduction, these leaders sat down with groups of students to connect on a more individual level in an “expert panel meets campfire conversation” format.

The connections

Boreas Leadership Program booya
Booya participant Jenny Monson-Miller helps “connect the dots” on an interactive chart showing students’ locations and interests.

The groups were just one of the signs that the Big Booya was ultimately about making connections. Participants took part in a collaborative creative project to map the Boreas network called “how are we going to change the world?” The project layered participants’ location on campus and college affiliation with focus of interest and aspirations for impact. Students got “connection cards,” created especially for the booya, to help them keep track of the people from across campus they connected with at the event.

Finally, in the late afternoon, it was time to eat. After IonE interim director Lewis Gilbert welcomed the crowd, I thanked sponsors, including the Bush Foundation, IonE, University Dining Services, District Energy and Ever-Green Energy, and food sponsor The Wedge Co-op. I then sampled the first bite of booya. Very hot! And delicious.

As the last rays of the late autumn sun warmed the LES patio, groups of students and faculty, staff and alumni, and community leaders connected over bowls of booya. I could see the Boreas community growing and the connections strengthening as a longstanding Minnesota food tradition came to life on campus.

Photos courtesy of the Boreas Leadership Program

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Resilient community on the rise Tue, 21 Oct 2014 21:10:09 +0000 Only one month into the fall semester there is already an unseasonable chill in the air. But things are heating up in classrooms across the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and Duluth campuses as more than 200 students in dozens of classes begin work on an impressive array of projects with the City of Rosemount, this year’s Resilient Communities Project partner community.

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. The partnership is bringing the expertise of hundreds of graduate students to sustainability-related projects identified by Rosemount city staff and community partners.

Today, Rosemount is a rapidly developing outer-ring suburb located 15 miles from the Twin Cities but the city has a long and rich history. Settled by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the early 1850s, Rosemount organized as a township in 1858 and was incorporated as a city in 1974. Rosemount has a land area of nearly 36 square miles and is home to a mix of industry, commerce, agriculture and residential development. With its population expected to double by 2040, Rosemount faces unique challenges and opportunities in the coming decades as it strives to become a more sustainable and resilient community.

This fall semester, RCP has matched 25 community-defined projects in Rosemount with more than 35 University courses. The projects are wide ranging and engage both undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of disciplines. Here are a few highlights:

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Climate Adaptation. As a rapidly growing suburban community, Rosemount is conscious of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare to adapt to a changing climate that is likely to produce more frequent severe rain events and place stress on infrastructure, environmental systems and residents. Working with the city planner, a group of students in SUST 4004: Sustainable Communities will identify the major public and private sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Rosemount, establish a baseline for measuring future emissions in the community, and compile best practices from similar-sized suburban communities for reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, students in LAW 7012: Environmental Sustainability will investigate potential local impacts of climate change in Rosemount, as well as specific regulatory and other strategies to reduce the community’s vulnerability to these impacts.

Daytime Staff at Rosemount Fire Department. Like many smaller and mid-sized communities in Minnesota, Rosemount depends largely on paid on-call volunteers to staff its fire department. Particularly during daytime hours, when volunteers may be at their full-time day jobs and unavailable to respond to a call, the fire department sometimes has to rely on neighboring communities’ fire departments to respond to emergency calls. How can the city attract more volunteers to serve their community during the day? In a project that is likely to be informative for many local communities in Minnesota who rely on volunteer firefighters, students in HRIR 6301: Staffing, Training, and Development and PSY 5707: Personnel Psychology will work with the Rosemount fire chief to identify strategies to recruit and retain more on-call fire fighters during daytime hours.

Water Reuse and Conservation. Dwindling water resources are a concern not just in the western United States but in Minnesota and much of the upper Midwest as well. To conserve water, Rosemount would like to learn about possible uses for stormwater and treated wastewater for industry, irrigation and other applications. Students in PUBH 6132: Air, Water, and Health will visit the Empire Wastewater Treatment Plant (which serves Rosemount and much of the south metro) and work with the city engineer and public works director to develop with practical ideas for water reuse and conservation. Meanwhile, students in LAW 7012: Environmental Sustainability will investigate regulatory and other legal barriers to municipal water reuse and offer recommendations for how to address these obstacles.

Recreational Programming for Children’s Interaction with Nature. Recent studies by Richard Louv (author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder) and others have shown the beneficial effects of nature-based play for children, including improved social skills, problem-solving abilities and interpersonal relationships, as well as reduced incidence of childhood obesity. Students in REC 3281: Research and Evaluation in Recreation, Park, and Leisure Studies will work with the Rosemount parks supervisor to evaluate Rosemount’s current parks and recreation facilities with respect to the tenets of nature-based play. Participants in another course at the University of Minnesota Duluth, ENED 4315: Operations & Management, will recommend how Rosemount can integrate nature-based play and environmental education into the parks and recreation system. In addition, students in LS 5100: Revitalizing Environmental Reform: Re-Imagining the Arts for Public Parks will investigate opportunities for public art in Rosemount to inspire nature-based play and an appreciation for the natural world.

Cultural Integration. Like many suburban communities in Minnesota, Rosemount has a small but growing population of foreign-born residents from Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Russian republics and the Middle East. City staff and elected officials recognize that current programs and services may not address the needs and interests of these new residents, and they would like to determine what can be done to make the community more inclusive. Working with the community development director and the recreation supervisor, students in PA 5281: Immigrants, Urban Planning, and Policymaking will interview and survey local service providers and foreign-born residents to determine what programs, services and activities are currently available in the Rosemount area to meet their specific needs and interests, as well as where gaps in services exist. Meanwhile, students in another course, PA 5253: Planning and Participation Processes, will develop a proposed community engagement initiative to engage a diverse range of residents and build awareness of key city processes and functions.

Descriptions of all of Rosemount’s projects are available on the RCP website. We’re excited to be working with the City of Rosemount, community partners, and students and faculty at the U of M and look forward to a productive and rewarding partnership!

Applications are now being accepted for the 2015-16 partnership.

Mike Greco, AICP, is program manager of the Resilient Communities Project. To learn more, visit Banner photo courtesy of City of Rosemount


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6 things we learned about valuing nature Thu, 16 Oct 2014 11:13:51 +0000 Should we put a price tag on nature? IonE resident fellow Steve Polasky, Regent’s Professor of Applied Economics, Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior, and Fesler-Lampert Chair in Ecological/Environmental Economics at the University of Minnesota, explored that Big Question at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment event. Following the talk, attendees participated in a lively Q&A session. Here are six things we learned:

  1. Vocabulary matters. There is a difference between valuing nature and putting a price tag on nature. Should ecosystem services be moved into the market? It may be too soon to tell. Should we accurately value nature? Absolutely.
  2. There has been a shift from old conservation to new conservation. Nature used to be appreciated based on its intrinsic value, but now it is often looked at with regard to the interaction it has with people. The current debate about ecosystems services tends to follow this same tension. Conservationist may agree about general goals, but they disagree about the emphasis and tactics.
  3. What’s good for nature is good for us. If we don’t factor in the full cost — including ecosystem impacts — when deciding whether to pursue a specific course of action, Polasky said, “we’re robbing nature, but we’re also robbing people.”
  4. There are valid arguments on each side. Some studies have shown that people are more likely to protect something when it is seen as a commodity, and that including ecosystem services in market calculations help to show how much we truly value them. However, others argue that there are moral limits to markets and that putting things into market terms removes them from the personal realm, thus changing the way we think about them. The way we use the environment to advance human benefit may not be in line with what is best for the environment.
  5. There are a lot of unknowns. Is there a way to objectively value nature, or does it all depend on the frames we use? Is it a balanced system? Will this be useful in the long term? These questions and more represent real discussions within this debate.
  6. It’s beyond economics. Economic valuation is only part of the story. Politics, individual decisions, and actions by firms and institutions all play a role in the debate over the value of ecosystem services. Just because something has economic value does not mean it makes sense politically or socially.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.


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Earth science for your viewing pleasure Sun, 12 Oct 2014 17:15:07 +0000 Did you know that humans eat more water than we drink? That tidbit is explained in “Eating Water,” one of four three-minute films that use data and imagery to explain scientific concepts. The films were created by the Science Museum of Minnesota as part of Science on Sphere, a project of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that aims to explain complex environmental concepts in easy-to-digest portions.

The films feature three Institute on the Environment scientists discussing their research. Kate Brauman, lead scientist for the Global Water Initiative, explains that water used to produce our food far outweighs how much we drink in “Eating Water: Agriculture and Climate Change.” Tracy Twine, co-leader of Islands in the Sun, a collaboration of IonE and the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences that monitors the Twin Cities heat island, reveals that the last time CO2 levels were as concentrated as they are now, humans didn’t exist on the planet in “Hot Air: Atmosphere and Climate Change.” And Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of SMM’s Global Change Initiatives, talks about how humans are facing the greatest challenges while also possessing the greatest capacity for connection and innovation to solve those challenges in “The Human Era: A World of Changes.”

As you watch the videos, imagine they are being screened on a 68-inch globe — about the diameter of a compact car — hanging above your head. That’s how they are presented at SMM and more than 100 museums, zoos, universities and research institutions around the world.

Banner photo by Will von Dauste, courtesy of NOAA

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5 things we learned about urban development Tue, 07 Oct 2014 10:10:09 +0000 Frontiers in the Environment sat down with Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiative, Wednesday for a lively panel discussion on urban development featuring Anne Hunt, the environmental policy director for the City of Saint Paul; Peter Frosch, director of strategic partnerships for Greater MSP; and Mike Greco, program director for the Resilient Communities Project at the University of Minnesota. Here are the five key things we learned:

  1. Cities are significant. With more than 50 percent of the global population now living in urban areas, creating a sustainable planet will require creating sustainable cities. While cities only constitute a small proportion of land on the globe, their impact on the land and on resources is significant. Moving forward, we must be intentional about our actions as we work to accommodate growing urban populations.
  2. We need to shift our thinking from “good enough” to “great.” Instead of comparing our cities with ones of similar size and status, we should look at how we are stacking up against the best. Thoughtful comparisons of the Twin Cities with global leaders such as Shanghai and Stockholm will reveal the places where we are lacking and will provide motivation to become great. We should be pushing ourselves to think bigger and strive for the best, rather than being comfortable with “good enough.”
  3. Opportunities are abundant. The Twin Cities are poised to have a big impact in urban innovations. With an extensive park system and the expansion of regional transit opportunities, Minneapolis and St. Paul already have made a name for themselves in urban development. However there is a lot more that can be done. Luckily, opportunities are everywhere, from expanding bikeways to reclaiming abandoned lots.
  4. Collaboration is crucial. Significant change will not happen without collaboration of relevant parties. Cities and governments should work with academia, private businesses, non-governmental organizations and foundations to share perspectives and build ideas.
  5. Look beyond the environment. Sustainability is typically associated with environmental quality, but it is fundamental that social and economic sustainability are included in future thinking as well. In the long run, this will help to create stronger and more resilient cities.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.

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Ten things we learned about the energy transition Fri, 03 Oct 2014 21:25:27 +0000 This week’s Frontiers in the Environment was presented David Letterman–style by Energy Transition Lab executive director Ellen Anderson and Energy Transition Lab faculty director Hari Osofsky, who is also an IonE resident fellow and Law School professor. The pair explored the “Top 10″ key areas of energy transition and the Energy Transition Lab’s role in them.

  1. Treat energy as a system. Instead of seeing energy as a technological process, we need to view it as an intertwined system involving politics, finance and social innovations.
  2. Bring renewable energy to scale. Given time, technology can improve and prices can drop. We may be underestimating the growth and potential of renewables.
  3. Address the risks of unconventional energy in new energy frontiers. Oil and natural gas in the Arctic could shift the energy focus away from the contiguous United States. With new locations comes new challenges; addressing topics such as risky procurement (for example, hydraulic fracturing and deep-water drilling) will be important to the new energy world.
  4. Create 21st century utility models. Traditional energy systems reward energy companies based on their reliability, stability, rates and capital investment. To create a stronger system, companies need to be given credit for innovation, environmental performance, flexibility and encouraging customers to use less energy.
  5. Stop wasting energy. Conventional energy systems waste a lot of energy, particularly from waste heat. There are a lot of opportunities to improve upon this if we can overcome laws that hamper innovation.
  6. Capture economic opportunity and use market tools. The energy transition represents not only an environmental opportunity, but an economic one as well. For many companies, the cost of continuing with business as usual may be higher than the costs of taking action on climate change.
  7. Think locally and act locally. Since a significant portion of the world population lives in cities, cities must play a crucial role in the energy transition. University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab is working to provide tools to help urban centers make this shift.
  8. Education, collaborate and innovate for impact. Planning for the energy transition now will help guide its future. The Energy Transition Lab is working to help plan Minnesota’s energy future and use this information to understand and shape the energy future on a regional and global level.
  9. Make progress in a partisan political environment. Pairing energy transition goals with economic development goals could help create common ground for progress. Working at a smaller scale where partisanship is less intense than at larger scales may also provide fertile ground for moving forward on needed energy transitions.
  10. Ride the wave: Capitalize on positive trends. Universities value innovation, a vital tool to solving the challenge of an energy transition. Another bonus? Universities are full of members of the Millennial generation, 93 percent of whom believe continued dependence on fossil fuels has weakened the economy and stifled innovation.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.

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New exhibit pays homage to ’60s “Earth art” Thu, 02 Oct 2014 14:18:51 +0000 A new exhibit opening Thursday, Oct. 2, in IonE’s Commons Meeting & Art Space pays homage to the earth art movement of the 1960s. Also called land art and earthworks, the movement, according to Wikipedia, was an “artistic protest against the perceived artificiality, plastic aesthetics and ruthless commercialization of art at the end of the 1960s in America.” The exhibit features four prize-winning artworks created in spring 2014 by student groups from the University of Minnesota Art History course “Art and the Environment” (ArtH3434).

The title of the exhibit, 3434, is both practical and intriguing. “3434 was the course number, but it also characterizes some of the works’ experimental nature. Students from all over the University, including mechanical engineering, IonE, some science disciplines, music and studio art, learned about the history of the earth art movement,” says Jane Blocker, the College of Liberal Arts professor who taught the class. “Then they emulated the collaborative style of earth art groups working around the world today by contributing their distinctive skills and abilities to create art in response to an environmental problem.”

Some projects are art pieces actualized in drawings and photographs. Others are models and representations, such as a proposal to install a micro-greens farm atop the Washington Avenue Bridge, which is depicted in a photo collage.

The goals of the class, says Blocker, were twofold: to teach about what’s going on in contemporary art and in artist collectives, and to show that all skills — engineering, architecture, environmental science — are relevant to the process of creating contemporary art.

“There’s a misconception about contemporary art, that it doesn’t require skill,” says Blocker. “But students face difficult challenges making the art, every decision matters.”

The exhibit, which runs through fall semester, was supported by an IonE Mini Grant.

Banner photo: Jenny Mullen, Joni Christenson, Brittany Forsberg, Amy Poburka and Kia Arendt

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5 things we learned about food safety Tue, 30 Sep 2014 13:06:44 +0000 Our Fall 2014 Frontiers in the Environment event series kicked off last week with a lively discussion about new ways to boost food safety. Here are five things we learned from the presentation by Matteo Convertino, IonE resident fellow and assistant professor, School of Public Health; and Craig Hedberg, Professor, School of Public Health:

  1. Roughly 1 in 5,000 meals results in a foodborne illness. What does this tell us? We may have come a long way in research, but there is still a lot that we don’t know. Foodborne diseases are the result of dynamic interactions between the environment, agents and hosts, and this complexity provides many challenges in studying food safety.
  2. Computer modeling is useful for predicting outbreak sources. Traditional work on foodborne diseases focuses on surveillance, with an attempt to identify a problem and act when possible. Computer modeling may help predict threats earlier and provide a more efficient way to approach threats to food safety.
  3. There may another reason to eat local. Computer modeling has shown that longer supply chains make food more vulnerable to diseases. That means local foods, which rely on shorter supply chains, may be less susceptible to foodborne illness. However, consumer preferences have made changing to a more localized supply chain difficult.
  4. Uncertainty is good. Contrary to popular belief, uncertainty in modeling and research can be beneficial because it allows a critical exploration of the system. Fluctuations in the environment and supply chains show natural system variability. Learning from this variability will allow for better prediction, detection and attribution over time.
  5. Enough is not enough. As global population grows, a looming global concern is finding enough food to feed everyone. While this is critically important, it is equally essential to ensure that the food people have access to is safe from disease.

Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation.


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Making plastic more sustainable Mon, 29 Sep 2014 19:46:57 +0000 Plastic is everywhere. It’s in the clothes we wear and the cars we drive. It holds and protects the food we eat and beverages we drink. We can’t get through a day without using plastic in some way, shape or form. And its ubiquity is part of the problem.

“Many plastics are found in single use items, and there are disposal issues,” says IonE resident fellow Marc Hillmyer, director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers and Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Science & Engineering. Most plastics do not easily degrade and thus “can’t be discharged safely into the environment. Moreover, most plastic is not recycled, and there is serious concern about how much plastic ends up in our oceans,” he says.

sustainable polymers
Professor Hillmyer demonstrates the physical properties of a new sustainable material created at the Center for Sustainable Polymers. Photo by Chuck Olsen, Vidtiger.

CSP, which has received support in the past from IonE’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, was recently awarded a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue its comprehensive work making plastic more sustainable.

Polymers, the molecules of plastics, are long-chain compounds that can readily entangle with one another in the solid state. This entanglement is largely responsible for both the strength and durability of plastics. The mission of CSP is to facilitate the use of waste and other biomass as the feedstocks for polymers that can be fashioned into useful products but that can also be composted or safely incinerated at the end of their lives.

“We want to make polymers with cleavable junctions that still have high performance,” says Hillmyer, whose team is developing bio-based plastics from inexpensive materials like sugar that can be used in, for example, adhesives, shoe soles, car parts, foams for seats and fibers for clothing.

To move these materials from the laboratory into the hands of consumers, CSP partners with more than 30 businesses that can translate the materials into products, including 3M, BASF and Dow. “Working with companies helps the center translate the basic research we carry out into real technologies that can benefit society. Also, many companies are realizing they can be more profitable if they are more sustainable,” notes Hillmyer, calling the relationship between the center and business partners synergistic. “They need us and we need them.”

CSP integrates researchers from diverse backgrounds and multiple disciplines who collaborate on every step of the process, including chemistry, chemical engineering, polymer processing, metabolic engineering and materials science.

CSP also supports outreach and education programs. To reach the next generation of scientists and broaden participation of underrepresented minorities, CSP partners with groups like 4-H, SciGirls and St. Paul Public Schools.

“We want to be the world’s best research outlet on sustainable polymers,” Hillmyer says. “To do that, we have to have the best talent out there. Diversity is important to technology and science.”

Banner photo courtesy of the Center for Sustainable Polymers: Synthetic polymers create many of the plastic products encountered everyday, such as chairs, food containers and clothing fibers.

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