Biofuels Guru Now on BoardBiofuels Guru Now on Board

Noted biofuels expert John Sheehan has joined the Institute on the Environment. As the scientific program coordinator for biofuels and the global environment, he’ll pay special attention to the direct and indirect consequences of biofuels production on land use around the world. Sheehan will work closely with two of the Institute’s programs: the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment and the Global Landscapes Initiative.

Most recently, Sheehan served as vice president of strategy and sustainable development at LiveFuels Inc., a venture capital-funded startup that focuses on algal fuels technology. Prior to that, he spent nearly two decades with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where he conducted pioneering research on system dynamic models for policy-related decision making.

“The high points of my career have been when I’ve been able to tackle some of the thorniest questions about the sustainability of biofuels—and I love the interdisciplinary nature of these questions,” says Sheehan. “Coming to Minnesota is the ultimate opportunity for me to work with a talented and interdisciplinary team on the most urgent questions facing biofuels.”

The Lay of the LandThe Lay of the Land

The need to provide food, fiber, water and shelter for billions of people is driving changes to the world’s forests, farmlands, waterways and atmosphere. Such changes have enabled humans to utilize a greater share of the planet’s resources, but they have the potential to weaken the capacity of ecosystems needed to sustain a healthy environment.

In response, the Institute on the Environment’s new Global Landscapes Initiative is utilizing satellite-based remote sensing, combined with sophisticated computer models and ground-based observations, to document and understand the changing nature of Earth’s landscapes from local to global scales. Working with colleagues at McGill University and the University of Wisconsin, with support from NASA and the National Science Foundation, the GLI researchers are addressing the challenges of land use, agricultural practices and food production worldwide.

Along with distinguished scientists from across the University of Minnesota, a group of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars will lend their expertise to the initiative. The GLI team is currently looking for students, postdocs and partners who are interested in the connections among land use, agricultural systems and the environment.

Polar QuestPolar Quest

In early January, researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Antarctic Geospatial Information Center and the Science Museum of Minnesota headed to our southernmost continent to participate in a landmark mapping survey. The six-person team is collecting GPS measurements to create three-dimensional maps of the Dry Valleys, an area of desert-like terrain within the Transantarctic Mountains. Scientists have always been intrigued by Antarctica, but there’s a lot more urgency behind their research these days—and for good reason: Antarctica has about 90 percent of the world’s ice, which amounts to about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water. If all of this ice melted, sea levels would rise roughly 200 feet. Through ambitious treks like the AGIC’s, scientists will better understand how Antarctica and its vast ice fields are responding to climate change.

Critical Biomass

It’s been another cold winter in the Gopher State, but homegrown heat is keeping the University of Minnesota, Morris community warm and cozy. In October, the Morris campus unveiled its new biomass gasification plant—a model, community-based energy system that will use some 9,000 tons of biomass per year to offset about 80 percent of the campus’ fossil fuel consumption. Energy sources like corn stover and prairie grasses, purchased from area farmers and producers, will bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the region’s economy, creating new employment opportunities for west central Minnesota. The biomass facility will move the campus one step closer to energy self-sufficiency and carbon neutrality by 2010. To learn more about the campus’ sustainability initiatives, visit

Sound Research, Sound AdviceSound Research, Sound Advice

The University of Minnesota’s Deborah Swackhamer, a world-renowned expert on toxic chemicals in fresh water lakes and rivers, was appointed chair of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board this past fall. A professor of environmental health sciences and co-director of the Water Resources Center, Swackhamer’s research focuses on chemical and biological processes affecting the behavior and fate of toxic organic contaminants such as PCBs, dioxins and pesticides in the aquatic environment.

The Science Advisory Board is an independently chartered, federal committee of external scientists and engineers. The board’s mission includes reviewing the quality and relevance of the scientific and technical information used or proposed as the basis for EPA regulations.

Now five months into her two-year term, Swackhamer says it’s an exciting time to be heading the board. “The new administration has expressed a strong commitment to reinvigorating the use of science in decision and policymaking at the EPA, so our advice will be used more than it has been in the last several years. In particular, it will be important to consider climate change in all aspects of agency policy, something that hasn’t been done under the Bush administration.”