HomeNews2024 IonE Impact Goal grants award nearly $2 million for high-impact sustainability projects

2024 IonE Impact Goal grants award nearly $2 million for high-impact sustainability projects

According to a 2021 comparison, if the U.S. Midwest were a country, it would be the fifth highest carbon emitter in the world. This means the region has an important role to play in advancing climate and broader sustainability solutions – and Minnesota-grown innovation is crucial.  

The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) is a connector and catalyst for projects that do just that: in Minnesota, the Midwest, and around the world. Through its Impact Goals grantmaking program, IonE has supported dozens of high-impact projects that combine the expertise of UMN faculty, researchers, staff, and community partners – distributing more than $2.2 million in funding to 30 projects since launching the grants in 2019.

This year, the Institute is excited to announce the awarding of another $1.9 million to 12 new projects, with community partners representing nearly 30 organizations, on topics ranging from the combination of solar and agriculture to maximize social benefit to survey methods to build public trust and understanding for the management of some of Minnesota’s most culturally significant wildlife. Additional projects include innovative applications of biochar to extract heavy metals from polluted waterways, and advancing the use of robots to monitor and inform strategies for the management of aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes.

This diversity of projects is the result of an expanded call for proposals. In line with its new strategic plan, IonE broadened its investment areas beginning with this grant cycle – from three goal areas to ten topical domains, including biodiversity, adaptation, and environmental justice. This expansion allows for a more dynamic, diversified portfolio of work, and better reflects the range and depth of knowledge among the University community and project partners. Each team must include significant community partnerships, and core to IonE’s evolved grantmaking philosophy is having the project teams – those who are closest to the challenges at hand – be the ones who define meaningful impact.

Funding for Impact Goals grants come from a variety of sources, including IonE’s resources; investments in sustainability via the University’s strategic plan (Mpact 2025, MNtersections); and the MnDRIVE Environment initiative. This year’s disbursement of over $1.9 million is the largest granting cycle to date.

We are excited to present this year’s twelve IonE Impact Goals funded projects, which include partnerships across two University of Minnesota campuses, as well as system-wide Extension units. Project teams include community partners spanning from Tribal, state, and federal agencies, to nonprofits. We invite you to explore brief project overviews of IonE’s 2024 Impact Goal grant recipients below. 

2024 IonE Impact Goal grant recipients

The following project descriptions are based on information provided by project teams and edited for consistency and brevity. Projects are presented in alphabetical order.

Agrivoltaics to Generate Clean Electricity and Provide Land Access for Emerging and BIPOC farmers

Domains: Clean Energy, Food Systems, Environmental Justice

To achieve the State’s renewable energy goals, Minnesota utilities will add several gigawatts of solar photovoltaics, which will require thousands of acres of land and create land use competition between clean energy generation, agriculture, and urban development.

Agrivoltaics, the dual use of land for agriculture and photovoltaics, can alleviate this competition and increase overall land use efficiency. Moreover, developing agrivoltaic solar farms opens up new opportunities for providing land access to emerging, immigrant, and BIPOC farmers from underserved communities. This project will establish best practices for utility-scale agrivoltaic solar farms that provide land access to farmers from underserved communities to enhance equity and food security.

Project team

Principal Investigator:

Uwe Kortshagen; Professor, Mechanical Engineering, UMN-Twin Cities


  • Vivian Ferry (Co-PI); Associate Professor, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Nathan Eylands (Co-PI); Assistant Professor, Horticulture, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Aaron Hanson; Energy Program Specialist, Institute on the Environment

  • KaZoua Berry; Program Director, Big River Farms

  • Sarah Woutat; Lead Farmer, Big River Farms

  • Peter Schmitt; Director, Project Development, US Solar

  • Rob Davis; Public Affairs, Programs, and Media Relations, Connexus Energy

  • Jordan Macknick; Lead Energy-Water-Land Analyst, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Bacteria-Coated Corncob Bioreactors to Mitigate Nitrate Pollution from Agricultural Drainage and Urban Stormwater

Domains: Mitigation, Water and Land, Planetary Health

Nutrient pollution caused by agricultural drainage and urban stormwater is of serious concern for human and ecosystem health. End-of-the-pipe bioreactors are a promising approach to improving water quality, although current bioreactor technologies have major limitations.

To overcome these technical barriers, this project will immobilize cold-adapted microbes capable of nitrate and N2O reduction and lignin degradation on the surface of corncobs, a more readily available and sustainable bedding material for bioreactors. Through extensive laboratory experiments, the team aims to establish stable and efficient nitrate-removing and N2O-reducing bioreactors that are applicable for field implementation. The goal of this research is to reduce nutrient pollution in both urban and agricultural settings while minimizing the emission of greenhouse gasses, thereby contributing to healthier water and land ecosystems.

Project team

Principal Investigator:

Dr. Satoshi Ishii; Associate Professor, BioTechnology Institute, College of Biological Sciences, UMN-Twin Cities

Project team:

  • Dr. Paige Novak; Professor and Head, Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, College of Science and Engineering, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Dr. Laura Christianson; Researcher 7, Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Dr. Nigel Pickering; Senior Water Resources Engineer, Geosyntec Consultants, Inc.

  • Dr. Niranga Wickramarathne; Postdoctoral Research Associate, BioTechnology Institute, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Mr. Hao Wang; Ph.D. candidate, Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Mr. John Bilotta (collaborator); Senior Research and Extension Coordinator, Water Resource Center, UMN-Twin Cities

Biochar-Based Bricks to Reduce Carbon Intensity of the Built Environment

Domain: Mitigation, Planetary Health

Buildings contribute over a third of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Progress on reducing building emissions have primary focused on heating, cooling, and lighting, and efforts to reduce the impact of building materials themselves are lacking. 

The goal of this project is to reduce the embodied carbon of our built environment and upcycle waste biomass by evaluating the mechanical, physical, and environmental performance of innovative biochar-containing bricks used in construction applications. Biochar, a solid material made from thermally-decomposed biomass, can adsorb more than twice its own weight in CO2. Biochar also shows promise for absorbing other GHGs and pollutants. If successful, these new building materials could decrease the carbon intensity of the built environment, help achieve global goals for net-zero emissions from the built environment by 2050, and align with the state of Minnesota’s goal to equitably decarbonize all sectors of the economy by 2050.

Project team

Principal Investigator:

Matthew Aro; Research Program Manager; Natural Resources Research Institute, UMN-Duluth

Project Team:

  • Dr. Malini Srivastava (Co-PI); Associate Professor, Architecture; Associate Dean for Research, Creative Scholarship, and Engagement; College of Design, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Dr. Emilie Snell-Rood (Co-PI); Professor and Associate Head, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior; College of Biological Sciences, UMN-Twin Cities

  • José Luis Villasenor; Founder, Tamales y Bicicletas

  • Dr. SunMin May Hwang; Assistant Professor, Architecture, Landscape, and Interior Design; Design Justice Collective; College of Design, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Lindsey Kemmerling; Postdoc, Department Ecology, Evolution and Behavior; College of Biological Sciences, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Jim Doten; City of Minneapolis Carbon Sequestration Program Manager

  • Scott Johnson; Research Scientist; Natural Resources Research Institute, UMN-Duluth

Building a Platform for Tribally Driven Research at UMD

Domains: Environmental Justice, Decision Support

The University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) campus sits within the 1854 Treaty’s ceded territory. Until the 1854 Treaty, this northeast region of Minnesota was subject to the exclusive governance and jurisdiction of the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, and Grand Portage bands of Ojibwe. The negotiation, signing, and ratification of the treaty established a shared governance arrangement, layering U.S. jurisdiction across the region. A vital way that UMD can mind its treaty obligations is by making its research capacity readily available for tribally directed programs and projects.

This project entails engagement with leadership and staff of three regional Native nations. The tribal directives that emerge from this engagement will guide development of a training program for University of Minnesota Duluth researchers that is centered around tribal voices, knowledge, and perspectives that will help us co-create research projects in ways that prioritize Indigenous needs and respect tribal sovereignty. 

Project team

Principal Investigator:

Dr. Joseph Bauerkemper; Professor, Department of American Indian Studies, College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, UMN-Duluth; Director, Tribal Sovereignty Institute


  • Holly Rosendahl; Associate Director, Tribal Sovereignty Institute, College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, UMN-Duluth 

  • Dr. Julie Etterson; Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Department of Biology, Swenson College of Science and Engineering (SCSE), UMN-Duluth; Director, Institute on the Environment – Duluth;

  • Darren Vogt; Resource Management, Division Director, 1854 Treaty Authority

  • Marne Kaeske; Cultural Preservation Specialist and Director of Education & Outreach, 1854 Treaty Authority

Contaminants in Tribal Waters: Implications for water policy and tribal resource management

Domains: Water and Land, Food Systems, Environmental Justice, Decision Support

Tribal communities face unique threats from environmental contaminants due to high reliance on subsistence foods and cultural uses. Tribes seeking to protect their lands and waters from contamination can seek federal authority to establish and enforce water quality standards. However, the process of asserting tribal authority to regulate surface waters requires expensive biophysical data and documentation. 

This project will leverage decades of experience represented in tribal natural resource managers to address two tribally-articulated research needs; 

  1. Expanded data on the occurrence of mercury, polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS/PFOS), and pharmaceuticals in tribal lands and ceded territories.
  2. Analysis of the policy implications of tribal authority over water quality regulations and enforcement through historical case studies and contemporary policy review.

The project aims to understand the link between land use, water quality, and public health, empowering tribes to protect their environment and cultural practices while asserting tribal sovereignty through delegated clean water authorities.

Project team

Principal Investigator: 

Bonnie Keeler; Associate Professor and Co-Director, Center for Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, UMN-Twin Cities


  • Erin Niehoff; Environmental Policy Analyst, Humphrey School, Center for Science, Technology, & Environmental Policy, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Rachel Nichols; Graduate Research Assistant, Humphrey School, Center for Science, Technology, & Environmental Policy, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Carl Isaacson; Professor and Chair of the Center for Sustainability Studies, Bemidji State University

  • Andrew Hafs; Professor of Biology, Bemidji State University

  • Shane Bowe; Director of Water Resources, Red Lake Department of Natural Resources

  • Tyler Orgon; Biologist, Red Lake Department of Natural Resources

  • Nancy Schuldt; Water Projects Coordinator, Fond du Lac Band Environmental Program

  • Seth Moore; Director of Natural Resources, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

  • Mark Ferrey; Senior Environmental Research Scientist, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

  • Mark Jankowski; Senior Risk Assessment Advisor and Ecotoxicologist, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

  • Jessica Deere; Postdoctoral Fellow, Emory University

  • Emily Onello MD; Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health, University of Minnesota Medical School, UMN-Duluth

Environmental Impact of African Swine Fever Outbreaks in the Philippines

Domains: Food Systems, Water and Land, Planetary Health, Decision Support

High-impact infectious diseases – like High Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) and African Swine Fever (ASF) – are significant animal diseases that cause severe illness and high mortality in poultry and swine respectively, resulting in animal health disasters. Because ASF is highly relevant to Minnesota but not present in the U.S., partnerships with affected countries are needed to understand its environmental impacts.

This project will evaluate ASF’s environmental impacts in the Philippines and make this information available to U.S. decision-makers. The project will use social sciences methodology to assess impacts and community capacity, then organize a workshop with U.S. and international partners to raise awareness and build long-lasting relationships between academia, industry, and government for sustained work and change. This interdisciplinary project will influence policy and practice regarding mitigation of high-impact animal diseases like ASF.

Project team

Principal Investigator:

Andres Perez, DVM PhD; Director, Center for Animal Health and Food Safety, Professor, Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, UMN-Twin Cities


  • Amy Kinsley, DVM PhD (Co-PI); Assistant Professor, Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Amit Pradhananga, PhD (Co-PI); Research Associate, Department of Forest Resources/Center for Changing Landscapes, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Shailey Prasad, MD MPH; Associate Vice President of Global & Rural Health, OACA, Executive Director & Carlson Chair of Global Health, Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Jeff Bender, DVM, MS DACVPM; Professor and Hospital Epidemiologist Director, Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH), Director, Public Health Practice Program, School of Public Health / Environmental Health Sciences, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Ruth Miclat-Sonaco, DVSM; Director, International Training Center on Pig Husbandry Philippines Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Training Institute

Investigating the Potential Demand for Distributed Rooftop Solar Energy Production on Commercial Properties in the Greater Duluth, Minnesota, Area

Domains: Clean Energy, Adaptation, Decision Support

With the rapidly declining price of solar and numerous incentive and support programs available for businesses, it is notable that solar capacity from commercial sources statewide was only about 150 of the 1,500 megawatts of total solar capacity in Minnesota in 2022 (Minnesota Department of Commerce, 2024). Yet, according to the Regional Indicators Initiative, heating and powering commercial buildings was the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in many cities including Duluth, Rochester, St. Paul and Minneapolis.

This project team seeks to estimate the conditions necessary to incentivize commercial property owners in Duluth, Minnesota to install distributed rooftop solar. The project will use voluntary survey methods to:

  1. Identify the barriers and economic preferences of commercial property owners as they relate to commercial rooftop solar installations.
  2. Determine whether renters in commercial buildings consider renewable energy production as a factor in determining their business’s location and their total willingness to pay on rental expenses.

Commercial property owners that complete the survey, and opt-in, will be provided with a customized portfolio that will evaluate their rooftop solar potential using a combination of energy consumption/benchmarking data, survey responses, and a solar suitability assessment. Additionally, the project team will widely disseminate its processes and results, benefiting multiple stakeholders.

Project team

Principal investigator: 

Monica Haynes, M.S.; Director, Bureau of Business and Economic Research, UMN-Duluth


  • Chris McIntosh, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of Economics, Department of Economics and Health Care Management, UMN-Duluth

  • Neil A. Wilmot, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of Economics, Department of Economics and Health Care Management, UMN-Duluth

  • Alison Hoxie, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, UMN-Duluth

  • Mindy Granley; Sustainability Officer, City of Duluth

  • Brett Crecelius; Community Resilience Project Coordinator, City of Duluth

  • Katie Frye; Supervisor, Customer Programs and Services, Minnesota Power

Magnetic Biochar from Minnesota Invasives: Sequestration of metals and phthalates from contaminated stormwater

Domain: Water and Land

Exposure to toxic metals and organic pollutants disproportionately affects low-income and communities of color. Pollutants, such as lead, zinc, and phthalates are commonly found in stormwater and pose significant health risks. The remediation of these metals and other pollutants from stormwater is crucial for protecting surrounding people, water, and ecosystems. 

This project will pilot the use of biochar (a charcoal-like material) made from invasive species, impregnated with iron-bearing phases, for the remediation of two categories of pollutants: dissolved metals and organic contaminants. The goal is to develop a fundamental understanding of what biochar properties lead to the greatest pollutant uptake and test a pilot scale system at Pig’s Eye Regional park, in collaboration with St. Paul Parks and the Great River Passage Conservancy. Results will be used to inform future collaborations, strengthen relationships with community partners, and prepare proposals for external funding.

Project team

Principal Investigator: 

Professor R. Lee Penn; Professor of Chemistry, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Chemistry, College of Science and Engineering, UMN-Twin Cities


  • Emilie Snell-Rood; Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior; Associate Head, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, College of Biological Sciences, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Dr. Brian Barry; Chemistry and Materials Science Program Leader – Materials and Bioeconomy Materials & Bioeconomy Research Group, Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI)

  • Joshua M. Feinberg; Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, College of Science and Engineering, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Alex Castillo; (Penn Group), Department of Chemistry, UMN-Twin Cities

  • St. Paul Parks 

  • Great River Passage Conservancy (GRPC)

Mapping and Reforming Land-Use Zoning in Minnesota

Domain: Adaptation, Planetary Health, Environmental Justice

Land-use zoning determines where people can live and work, structure transportation options, and are a critical influence on carbon emissions. However, zoning rules are opaque and hard to study comparatively.

A federated effort to create a National Zoning Atlas is standardizing zoning rules nationally. This project team will contribute a public-use Minnesota Zoning Atlas to the national project, significantly improving our understanding of land-use law in Minnesota. Additionally, the team will produce a report identifying where changed zoning could support significant reductions in driving and carbon emissions, and a comprehensive manual for cities on how to enable adaptive urban infill housing to help support a transition to denser cities with reduced carbon emissions. 

Project team

Project lead:

Evan Roberts; Assistant Professor, History of Medicine (Graduate Faculty affiliate in Sociology and Population Studies), UMN-Twin Cities


  • Ryan Allen; Professor and Associate Dean for Research, Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Minnesota Extension, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Michael Esposito; Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Andrew Fenelon; Associate Professor, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Nick Graetz; (incoming) Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Katherine Knowles; GIS analyst, IPUMS, Institute for Social Research and Data Innovation

  • Eric Lind; Director, Accessibility Observatory, Center for Transportation Studies

  • Anne Mavity; Executive Director, Minnesota Housing Partnership

Public Opinion and Agency Trust Towards Wolf and Cervid Management in Minnesota

Domain: Biodiversity

The management of wolves and cervids (white-tailed deer, elk, and moose) in Minnesota poses a wicked problem: maximizing the benefits that may flow from any single species necessarily reduces those that may flow from others, and myriad stakeholders have conflicting preferences for the allocation of those benefits. The management of cervids is complicated by multiple stakeholders and tribal partners bringing differing values and goals to the decision-making process. Moreover, uncertainty in causality makes it difficult to provide definitive scientific answers about changes in cervid populations. These challenges are layered atop underlying identities that stakeholders have and varying levels of trust in management agencies.

This project will use survey methods to access public attitudes towards and beliefs about moose, elk, and white-tailed deer, and their relationship with wolves. It will further examine public trust in agency decisions about the tradeoffs between management of these three animals. The results of this project will inform the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) management of cervids in Minnesota, as well as the MNDNR’s strategy for communicating with the public about cervid and wolf management in Minnesota. As such, this research will benefit not only the MNDNR, but also stakeholders in wildlife management and conservation in Minnesota.

Project team

Project Lead: 

Kathryn Haglin; Assistant Professor of Political Science, Department of History, Political Science and International Studies, College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, UMN-Duluth


  • Afton Clarke-Sather (Co-PI); Department Head and Geography Chair, Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Philosophy; College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, UMN-Duluth

  • Adam Landon; Conservation Social Scientist in Fish and Wildlife, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 

Scalability, Sustainability, and Economic Feasibility of a Green Process for Co-Extraction of Protein and Oil from Sustainable Sources

Domain: Food Systems

Increasing consumer desire for plant-based food products is driving a surge in the demand for novel protein sources. Plant-based products have human health and animal welfare benefits, and can be produced with less water and lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to animal products.

The goal of this project is to assess the scalability, sustainability, and economic feasibility of a novel green, flammable solvent-free process for co-extracting protein and oil from an oilseed, namely hemp. The project team believes the evaluation of the proposed process will demonstrate its environmental and economic impact within and outside Minnesota while incentivizing the scaling of hemp production on the land. The team will develop strategies for disseminating the knowledge and provide the basis for commercializing this technology with the support of its community partner, ultimately providing stakeholders with sustainable solutions for food ingredient production.

Project team

Principal Investigator: 

Fernanda F. G. Dias; Assistant Professor, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, UMN-Twin Cities


  • B. Pam Ismail (Co-PI); Professor, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Rylie Pelton (Collaborator); Research Scientist in Industrial Ecology, Institute on Environment

  • Luca Zullo; Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI)

Technology and Education to Address Natural Resource Management Challenges: Phase 2

Domains: Biodiversity, Water and Land, Planetary Health

Minnesota is part of the Great Lakes region, which contains almost 85% of the freshwater resources in North America (Great Lakes Commission, 2024). These water resources supply drinking water for millions and also carry immense environmental, cultural, and economic importance. However, the region faces threats to water quality and ecosystem functioning from contamination and invasive species (NOAA, 2024). Because of the scope and complexity of water quality monitoring and aquatic invasive species surveillance, there is currently an absence of real-time, dependable data which impedes effective management of the state’s water resources.

The use of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) present opportunities for advancing and improving water quality management. Building from work in phase one of their project, this team seeks to develop and apply tools to manage impaired water quality and aquatic invasive species. To achieve this goal, the team aims to establish long-lasting working connections with stakeholders and increase managers’ capacity to use data collected from robots when making public water management decisions.

Project team

Principal Investigator:

Amy Kinsley DVM, PhD; Assistant Professor, Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, UMN-Twin Cities


  • Junaed Sattar, PhD (Co-PI); Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Ingrid Schneider, PhD (Co-PI);  Professor, Department of Forest Resources, UMN-Twin Cities

  • Tony Brough; AIS Prevention Program Coordinator, Hennepin County

  • Alan Robbins; Planning and Land Use Specialist, and Allison Holdhusen, Biological Science Technician, National Park Service

  • Matthew Thompson; Executive Director, Wayzata Sailing

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