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Innovating Across Boundaries: Announcing our 2023 Grant Awardees

Environmental Venture and Realizing Environmental Innovation grants foster interdisciplinary solutions.

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment is awarding more than $3.75 million to fund interdisciplinary research and translation of discoveries needed to solve major environmental challenges. As part of its 2023 Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) and Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP) grants, Woods will support 16 innovative projects. This year's awards will bring together political scientists, physicists, engineers, physicians, and others to collaborate on research with the potential to convert plastic into food, grow self-fertilizing crops, empower youth as environmental changemakers, equip law enforcement to stop human trafficking and illegal deforestation, and more.

EVP provides up to $250,000 per research team, and REIP provides up to $500,000. Since EVP began in 2004 and REIP began in 2015, Woods has awarded more than $23 million in grants to 148 research teams representing all seven of Stanford’s schools and working in 37 different countries. These projects have gone on to receive more than $50 million in additional funding from other sources.

2023 Environmental Venture Projects awards

Disease early warning: A rapid approach for wastewater-based epidemiology

Wastewater-based epidemiology can monitor population-level infection, provide early warnings about outbreaks, and help control disease spread. However, current methods to identify bacteria are slow, costly, and not suitable for high-throughput screening of diverse bacterial species. This project will develop a new platform combined with machine learning models to detect a wide range of pathogenic bacteria in wastewater and identify their antibiotic susceptibility. The approach could be expanded to correlate bacterial pathogens with other infectious diseases and environmental contaminants, and scaled to detect bacterial pathogens in a broader range of environmental samples.

Jennifer Dionne (Material Sciences and Engineering)
Ali Boehm (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Plastic to food: Converting polyethylene into palm oil

Less than 5% of all U.S. plastic waste generated is recycled. Meanwhile, as the demand for palm oil grows, rainforests are being cleared for new oil palm crops. This project will address both environmental challenges simultaneously by developing a new technology to convert polyethylene — by far the most discarded plastic — into palm oil. The approach could add value to the plastic waste management chain while sourcing palm oil through a less destructive, route.

Matteo Cargnello (Chemical Engineering)
Jennifer Cochran (Bioengineering)

Cost-effective methane monitoring

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas emitted by natural resources, such as wetlands, and human sources, such as landfills and agriculture. The extent of the problem is not well understood because of a lack of effective monitoring. This project will develop low-cost sensors that can monitor methane emissions across wide spatial scales in less than a second.

Leo Hollberg (Physics)
Alison Hoyt (Earth System Science)

Empowering youth in frontline communities through climate data

While data on environmental conditions, such as air quality, temperature and traffic patterns can provide insight on how communities experience climate change, frontline communities often lack access to such data. In partnership with Climate Resilient Communities, a community-based organization, this project will conduct out-of-school learning experiences to equip cohorts of youth with the skills to map environmental impacts and disseminate these maps, fostering collective awareness and advocacy. The researchers also aim to design a toolkit with curriculum, technology, and social support to position youth as changemakers who can leverage environmental data to inform their communities.

Victor Lee (Education)
Nicole Ardoin (Social Sciences)
Jenny Suckale (Geophysics)

Adaptive drought management in a changing climate

In many water-stressed regions, water security is simultaneously threatened by increased drought frequency, long-term drying trends, and increasing water demand. As climate and demographic conditions change, droughts will have changing impacts on water security. This project will develop a new approach to drought management that accounts for long-term socio-environmental change. It will help planners identify when to adapt hydrological indicators most useful for drought management, enact short-term drought responses, and invest in long-term water supply infrastructure. It will provide guidance on the water governance reform needed to support adaptive management and the impacts of political feasibility on the effectiveness of drought management options. The team will partner with local researchers, water managers, and policymakers in Chile to apply the approach to the Maipo river basin, which supplies water to the city of Santiago and is facing its fourteenth consecutive year of drought.

Sarah Fletcher (Civil and Environmental Engineering)
Alexandra Konings (Earth System Science)
Bruce Cain (Political Science)

Strengthening community advocacy for natural flood solutions

As cities expand and the effects of climate change intensify, urban flooding is a growing concern. The impact of Hurricane Harvey on Houston – especially low-income communities of color – was a stark reminder of the inadequate protection that current urban flood control and mitigation provide. As the city re-evaluates its flood control and mitigation plans, this project will provide insight into the utility and public demand for nature-based solutions. The researchers will work with a community-based organization to quantify the value of restoring and conserving wetlands hydrologically connected to marginalized communities. Surveys of marginalized communities will assess knowledge and support of such natural flood solutions. Communities will be able to use the project’s results to advocate for green alternatives to address urban flooding.

Elliot White (Earth System Science)
Khalid Osman (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Investigating environmental connections to high levels of kidney disease in California's Central Valley

California’s Central Valley has one of the highest rates of end-stage kidney disease in the US. This project focuses on young to middle-aged people undergoing dialysis in the region to ascertain occupation, residence, and health care access history. The survey data will be linked to existing state resources on pesticide use and water quality. The researchers plan to investigate whether agriculture work or groundwater contamination increase risk for undefined end-stage kidney disease.

Shuchi Anand (Medicine)
Manjula Tamura (Medicine)

Understanding ocean production of an important greenhouse gas

Microbial processes in oxygen-deficient ocean zones produce large amounts of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Existing measurements and models suggest that the eastern tropical south Pacific Ocean is an important region for nitrous oxide flux, and may increase its output of the gas in the future as a result of global change, including ocean deoxygenation. To better predict the future trajectory of nitrous oxide emissions, this project will conduct experiments at sea to characterize the effects of oxygen manipulation on microbial nitrous oxide production rates and mechanisms.

Karen Casciotti (Earth System Science)
Christopher Francis (Earth System Science)

Harnessing plant-microbial partnerships to address major sustainability challenges

Partnerships between plant roots and fungi play a key role in the photosynthetic capacity, carbon budget and environmental tolerances of plant communities. These partnerships could be harnessed to address major challenges, such as climate mitigation and food security, but technical barriers limit the realization of this potential. This project will develop an open-access toolkit to enable researchers to identify and manipulate fungal genes that underpin key ecosystem functions. Resulting investigations could have wide reaching implications for the sustainability of natural and managed plant systems.

Kabir Peay (Biology)
Jennifer Brophy (Bioengineering)

Self-fertilizing plants: Toward a new era in agriculture and ecosystem management

Nitrogen fertilizer is essential for a robust crop yield, but its production, use and cost drives massive amounts of carbon emissions, die offs in lakes and ponds, and other challenges. This project will build a platform to enable the rapid development and study of enzymes that fix atmospheric nitrogen (nitrogenases). These enzymes will be optimized to enable different types of algae or plants to produce their own nitrogen fertilizer. With this technology, crops could be grown with less energy and minimal leaching of nitrogen into waterways and oceans. Self-fertilizing plants would also address global inequality by enabling more robust yields in locations where it is difficult or prohibitively expensive to use chemical fertilizers.

Jennifer Brophy (Bioengineering)
Ellen Yeh (Pathology)

Disrupting hospital waste streams: Redirecting used fabric from landfills

In Brazil, most hospital textiles are incinerated or sent to landfill. This project will engineer a traceable, data-driven system to identify and predict waste patterns and adequately and efficiently redirect hospitals' textile waste to upcycling in a decentralized network. A new interactive digital tool that leverages modeling software will allow users to visualize and map the value provided by upcycling ecosystem services, combining sustainable waste interventions and economic welfare for vulnerable communities.

Robson Capasso (Medicine)
Tulio Valdez (Medicine)

2023 Realizing Environmental Innovation Program awards

Combating Deforestation Linked to Human Trafficking

In the Brazilian Amazon, forced labor drives some illegal deforestation. This project will expand a remote detection model developed in collaboration with Brazilian law enforcement to find illegal labor camps suspected of human trafficking. The researchers will leverage powerful new data streams reporting environmental law violations and monitoring deforestation, land development, and road construction. The project, a partnership with the Brazilian Federal Labor Prosecution Office, has the potential to profoundly enhance the capabilities of front-line law enforcement to stop human trafficking and illegal deforestation in the Amazon.

Michael Baiocchi (Medicine)
Grant Miller (Medicine)

Improving Nutrition, Food Security, and Livelihoods with Blue Foods

Indonesia is a major producer of blue foods — animals, plants, and algae harvested from freshwater and marine environments — and has one of the largest populations of people dependent on blue foods. This project will collaborate with key ministries of the the Indonesian government, civil society organizations, and businesses to co-design research and solutions that can help Indonesia capitalize on the potential of blue foods to meet pressing food system priorities to improve nutrition, food security, and livelihoods, including for populations that have historically been marginalized. These analyses can provide new and powerful tools to help civil society organizations and government create policies that are truly transformative.

Jim Leape (Center for Ocean Solutions)
David Cohen (Center for Human Rights and International Justice)

Carbon- and energy-efficient water reuse for irrigation

Domestic wastewater can be a resource for water, energy, and nutrients. Conventional wastewater treatment systems incorporate aerobic biological processes and rely upon aeration to oxidize organic matter and ammonium. The result is high energy consumption and a large carbon footprint, primarily due to nitrous oxide emissions. By contrast, strictly anaerobic processes produce methane, a valuable energy resource, which avoids energy-intensive aeration and formation of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. It also produces a nutrient-rich effluent that can offset the need for imported water and fertilizer for irrigation. Through a pilot-scale demonstration, this project will show proof-of-concept for efficient and sustainable water reuse through anaerobic treatment with ultrafine membranes. In time, the technology could provide carbon- and energy- efficient water reuse to meet irrigation needs, decrease the need for imported water, and point the way for local water reuse in small communities.

Craig Criddle (Civil and Environmental Engineering)
Richard Luthy (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Recovering resources from wastewater affordably and sustainably

Re-envisioning wastewater facilities as resource recovery facilities is critical to decarbonizing our water supply and supporting a circular water and nutrient economy. But recovering biogas, potable water, and nutrients from traditional treatment processes is expected to increase electricity requirements of the plant by four times, and has been shown to increase emissions. A promising alternative lies in coordinated operation of battery, wastewater, and compressed biogas storage via an “integrated energy management system” which can reduce electricity costs by 17% and minimize harmful biogas flaring. Through demonstration studies, this project will extend the approach to account for potable water reuse, air stripping for ammonia recovery, and compressed air storage.

Meagan Mauter (Civil and Environmental Engineering)
Will Tarpeh (Chemical Engineering)
Inês Azevedo (Energy Science Engineering)

Using social input to identify carbon reduction pathways

This project aims to scale a program for optimizing the identification of realistic scenarios for rewiring diagrams that describe energy flow in the U.S. and the associated carbon dioxide emissions to achieve a 50% global warming gas reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. The researchers will analyze  how changes in components of the system affect each other, and include in their model different categories of social input – assessments and opinions provided by experts, lay persons, government, and other stakeholders. The result is a ranked order of potential pathways for achieving the desired global warming gas reduction. The optimization program will be publicly available online.

Lambertus Hesselink (Electrical Engineering)
Hamdi Tchelepi (Energy Science Engineering)

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