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Enabling Innovation: Grants nurture interdisciplinary environmental solutions

Stanford marine biologists, epidemiologists, geneticists, engineers, and others soon will collaborate to develop new water purification technology, build healthier homes, make electric vehicle battery recycling safer, create ocean-friendly sunscreens, and more.

A large open-top water tank.

Stanford marine biologists, epidemiologists, geneticists, engineers, and others soon will collaborate to develop new water purification technology, build healthier homes, make electric vehicle battery recycling safer, create ocean-friendly sunscreens, and more.

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment is awarding $1.65 million to 10 innovative projects as part of its 2022 Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) and Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP) grants. Both programs provide up to $200,000 per project for interdisciplinary research needed to solve major environmental challenges too complex for any one discipline alone to tackle. EVP grants support high-risk research projects that identify and develop real-world solutions. REIP grants are intended to forward solution-based projects from the discovery phase of research to the validation phase and adoption by end users.

Since EVP began in 2004 and REIP began in 2015, the Stanford Woods Institute has awarded more than $20 million in grants to 132 research teams representing all seven of Stanford’s schools and working in 36 different countries. These projects have gone on to receive more than $50 million in additional funding from other sources.

2022 Environmental Venture Projects awards

Developing new water purification technology

Water scarcity is one of the most rapidly intensifying environmental challenges. At current levels of consumption, potable water demand is expected to exceed supply by 40% in 2030. While water reuse is a potential solution, current approaches, such as reverse osmosis or thermal distillation, are either cost-prohibitive or require large energy inputs. This project aims to develop novel resin technologies for the removal and recovery of critical contaminants from wastewaters. The researchers will leverage a platform for high-throughput synthesis and micro-scale screening of large libraries of unique resin materials. Results will help decipher design considerations for selective binding of critical contaminants, generate novel resin technologies with unprecedented efficacy, and yield novel methods for resin development and screening. 

Eric Appel (Material Sciences and Engineering), Polly Fordyce (Medicine-Genetics), William Tarpeh (Chemical Engineering) 

Upgrading housing infrastructure to improve health and minimize emissions 

In low-income countries, housing improvements are linked to improved health. Yet, the production and transport of building materials are major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers will test whether “green” concrete floors made with an alternative cement mix can improve child health while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions in rural Bangladesh. They will also develop guidelines for green concrete floor installation in rural, low-income settings and model greenhouse gas emissions under scaled up implementation scenarios. The team will engage with nongovernmental organizations in Bangladesh to investigate opportunities to install green concrete floors at scale. 

Jade Benjamin-Chung (Medicine-Health Research and Policy), Sarah Billington (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Ali Boehm (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Mike Lepech (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Understanding the threat of wildfire smoke-borne metals

Wildfires are contributing a rapidly increasing proportion of key air pollutants across the U.S., but their health effects remain poorly understood. Altered by fire, naturally occurring soil- and plant-borne metals, such as chromium, are transformed into a toxic state associated with deleterious health effects. Little is known about how fire intensity and soil type affect this process. Researchers will develop a set of geospatial tools that predicts the threat of toxic chromium generation and downstream exposure, and will determine solutions through mitigation strategies that limit exposure risk to first responders and local communities. 

Marshall Burke (Environmental Earth System Science), Scott Fendorf (Environmental Earth System Science), Kari Nadeau (Medicine-Pediatrics)

Informing open ocean restoration through historical reconstruction

Restoring degraded ecosystems requires a comprehensive understanding of their pre- disturbance state. Ecosystem restoration on the open ocean has yet to be attempted. This project will combine biogeochemical, eDNA, and microscopic analyses of sediment cores to quantify the ecological regime shifts in the Southern Ocean, with a focus on the impact of Antarctic whaling – one of the greatest removals of animal biomass ever. The approach will quantify the pre-disturbance state of one of the most important open ocean ecosystems in the world, and provide a framework for restoration targets in similar ecosystems worldwide. 

Jeremy Goldbogen (Biology), Rob Dunbar (Environmental Earth System Science), Liz Hadly (Biology)

Accounting for wetland greenhouse gas emissions

Methane emissions from natural wetlands account for up to a third of global methane emissions, yet they remain poorly understood in part because current measurement technology is prohibitively expensive, limited in where it can be deployed and limited in how much spatial and temporal variability it can characterize. With recalibration, low-cost natural gas sensors can provide an accurate alternative. Using this approach, the researchers aim to develop an unprecedented network of 1,000 low-cost autonomous sensors for deployment in the tropics.

Alison Hoyt (Environmental Earth System Science), Debbie Senesky (Aeronautics and Astronautics)

Capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide in soils 

Soils contain the largest reservoir of carbon at the Earth’s surface. Soil respiration, or decomposition of soil carbon by microorganisms and respiration by roots, releases carbon dioxide at a rate about 7-8 times greater than fossil fuel burning. Soil-based carbon mitigation strategies have focused on reducing rates of decomposition or increasing soil acidity or alkalinity. However, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in soil pores is typically 45-50 times greater than atmospheric levels. This project aims to design a strategy for soil carbon dioxide capture using low-cost, environmentally friendly sorbent materials. The researchers will assess common sorbent materials for carbon dioxide sorption under typical soil gas mixtures, determine long-term stability of sorbed carbon dioxide, and develop a model framework for assessment and verification. 

Kate Maher (Environmental Earth System Science), Zhenan Bao (Chemical Engineering)

Mitigating water pollution

Water contaminants damage aquatic ecosystems and threaten human health. Nitrogen pollution affects over 70% of U.S. freshwater and coastal marine ecosystems, costing $2.2 billion each year in lost livelihoods, recreation, and remediation. Without accurate, localized measurements, we cannot adequately evaluate interventions or progress. However, current measurement techniques restrict remediation efforts to reactive, general responses rather than proactive, site-specific interventions. This project aims to advance remediation efforts by integrating newly developed nitrogen sensors with machine learning for adaptive sensor control and data analysis on the site, watershed, and eventually regional and national scales. 

William Tarpeh (Chemical Engineering), Kate Maher (Environmental Earth System Science), Fio Micheli (Biology), Debbie Senesky (Aeronautics and Astronautics)

Monitoring urban neighborhoods to reduce inequities in wellbeing 

Neighborhood environments play a significant role in shaping the wellbeing of individuals and communities, but empirical evidence is limited by a lack of data collecting across neighborhoods, cities, and time. Drawing on innovations for monitoring urban environments, applying computer vision to identifying visible neighborhood conditions in imagery, and survey methods to assess wellbeing, the researchers will pilot a data infrastructure to monitor multiple features of urban environments. If successful, it will collect real-time data in a major city, and examine connections between the natural and visible attributes of urban environments and wellbeing. Based on these analyses, the researchers hope to work with local stakeholders to develop and test interventions that alter different features of the environment aimed at reducing inequality in wellbeing within cities. Interventions that stem from this research can inform solutions to reduce environmental inequities locally and in other cities. 

Jackelyn Hwang (Sociology), Hae Young Noh (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Sarah Billington (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

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