Cornell Atkinson awards $1.4 million to new sustainability projects

Improving indoor air quality, supporting equitable and sustainable development, and advancing offshore wind energy — those are some of the projects being supported by this year’s round of Academic Venture Fund (AVF) seed grants for research from Cornell Atkinson.

Nine projects were chosen for the 15th year of AVF grants, the center’s research incubator for innovative, interdisciplinary, sustainable solutions. The awards total nearly $1.4 million.

“AVF projects are often the beginning of an innovation pipeline that justifies optimism in the face of urgent sustainability challenges,” said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo director of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. “They provide the seed money to bring faculty together to establish new high-risk collaborations.  They often lead to substantial external funding once ideas and early results show promise.  When all works well, and often several years later, new scalable technologies, practices, and policies emerge that sequester more carbon, produce more nutritious food with a lower carbon footprint, or increase environmental justice in communities subject to pollution.”

AVF grants bridge an important gap for preliminary data collection, which lays the foundation for subsequent federal grants, said Rong Yang, assistant professor in the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and principal investigator of one of this year’s AVF grants. 

“AVF grants enable radical collaborations that have great potential for solving the most critical issues of our time but are too high-risk for federal grants,” Yang said. “This program is unique and invaluable.”

The awards total almost $1.4 million and support collaborations among 32 Cornell faculty from eight colleges and schools.

The 2022 awards are:

Engineered Living Materials for Indoor Air Quality Control

Concentrations of certain pollutants indoors are frequently two to five times higher than outdoors, causing human health problems ranging from headaches and respiratory disease to heart disease and cancer, according to the EPA. Researchers aim to develop a fundamentally new approach to managing indoor air quality by creating a class of programmable, yeast-based living materials that can achieve real-time diagnosis and improve ambient air quality. Novel materials and devices, such as self-healing tiles that break down toxic chemicals in indoor environments, are expected to support sustainability and human health by enabling low-cost indoor air quality control that does not require electricity.
Researchers: Rong Yang (ENG: Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering), Sijin Li (ENG: Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering), Meredith Silberstein (ENG: Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), Sarah Kreps (A&S: Government), and Jenny Sabin (AAP: Architecture).

Measuring Emissions of Methane and Ammonia Gas from NY Dairy Farms

Methane is a critically important greenhouse gas, and reducing methane emissions from agriculture is a major goal of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of New York. Recent research suggests that dairy farms may also be a significant source of atmospheric ammonia pollution in the Finger Lakes region, which may input nitrogen directly into the Finger Lakes, perhaps contributing to the toxicity of harmful algal blooms. Researchers seek to develop and test a new method for measuring emissions from New York State dairy farm operations. In addition to measuring whole-farm gas fluxes, they will attempt to measure emissions from particular components of NYS dairy farm operations, such as manure lagoons and milking barns.
Researchers: Robert Howarth (CALS: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), Lauren Ray (CALS: Animal Science), Xiangtao Xu (CALS: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), Tom Overton (CALS: Animal Science), and Peter Wright (CALS: Animal Science).

Mapping Poverty, Natural Hazards, and Critical Ecosystem Services for Equitable and Sustainable Development

Populations of low- and middle-income countries are growing faster than in high-income countries, and this growth requires support to ensure that new development is sustainable. Researchers will harness big data, machine learning, and advances in poverty measurement to inform policy and investment agendas supporting equitable and sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, and environmental conservation. The findings will inform the work of partners Conservation International, the Natural Capital Project, SPRING, and the World Wildlife Fund.
Researchers: Chris Barrett (Dyson School: Applied Economics and Management), David Matteson (CIS and ILR: Statistics and Data Science and Social Statistics), and Stephan Schmidt (AAP: City and Regional Planning).

Blight2Right: A Novel Community-Based Project Focusing on Eliminating Illegal Dumping in Flint, Michigan

Illegal dumping is a considerable barrier to community health and wellbeing in socioeconomically disadvantaged populations in the U.S. It also lowers neighborhood cohesion and negatively impacts property values and local investments. Researchers will launch Blight2Right to focus on neighborhoods in Flint, Michigan, a community battling high levels of dumping and health disparities potentially associated with this hazardous blight, much of it magnified by the city's ongoing water crisis. The researchers' overarching goal is to improve this population's awareness, capacity, and self-efficacy around illegal dumping and preventing and mitigate it.  
Researchers: Jerel Ezell (A&S: Africana Studies) and Rebecca Brenner (Brooks School: Institute for Public Affairs).

Remote Sensing for Carbon-negative Climate Resilience in the Restored Herring River Estuary at Cape Cod National Seashore 

Invasive marsh grasses have overrun large areas of the Cape Cod National Seashore – one of the most visited US national parks – in part because of restricted tidal inflows. Researchers are collaborating with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service to measure water velocities and methane fluxes (a potent greenhouse gas) as government agencies begin re-opening tidal inflows this year. 
Researchers: Todd Cowen (ENG: Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Jed Sparks (A&S: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology). 

Aedes-borne Virus Control and Insecticide Resistance along the Amazon River: Implications for Sustainability of Vector Control Tools and Health Equity 

In the Peruvian Amazon, transit routes that carry cargo often carry unwanted passengers – Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, an important vector of numerous pathogens, including the dengue virus. Researchers will travel between port cities and remote Amazonian villages to collect Ae. Aegypti mosquitoes, to assess mosquito movement patterns and frequency of insecticide-resistance genes, and to conduct knowledge surveys to determine the impact of health information access on human exposure to mosquitoes.
Researchers: Laura Harrington (CALS: Entomology) and Alex Nading (A&S: Anthropology).

Mineral Resources and Sustainability: Environmental and Social Considerations for Development in Ecuador 

The green energy revolution requires a significant increase in the use of mineral resources for renewable energy technologies. Around the world, global needs for intensified mineral production must be reconciled with local concerns about environmental impact and equitable distribution of economic gains from mineral extraction. Researchers will explore relationships between mining industries and local communities in Ecuador, and implement bio-mining activities with lower life cycle environmental impacts than traditional methods.
Researchers: Matthew Reid (ENG: Civil and Environmental Engineering), Karin Olson Hoal (ENG: Earth and Atmospheric Sciences), Ken Roberts (A&S: Government), and Louisa Smieska (CHESS Research associate). 

Techno-ecological Impacts and Synergies of Floating Solar 

Floating solar can expand solar development from land to water, helping to meet increasing solar energy demand while sparing land for uses such as agriculture and conservation. However, floating solar raises sustainability concerns because it is unclear how floating solar facilities will interact with aquatic ecosystems. In collaboration with solar industry scientists, researchers will examine the ecological and biogeochemical effects of floating solar on aquatic ecosystems and answer industry-specific questions pertinent to low-impact, operational floating solar buildout.
Researchers: Steven Grodsky (CALS: Natural Resources and the Environment), Meredith Holgerson (CALS: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), Marian Schmidt (CALS: Microbiology), and Aaron Rice (CALS: Lab of Ornithology).

Accelerating Offshore Wind Energy

Massive upscaling of offshore wind turbines is critical to achieving global and national goals to decarbonize the electricity supply. Thousands of physically larger and higher-capacity wind turbines will be deployed over areas of unprecedented scale. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers will develop and apply a new model to ensure these new generations of wind farms are optimally designed to harness the offshore wind to maximize electricity production and minimizes the cost of energy. This project will accelerate the energy transition while also training the next generation of engineers, physical scientists, and economists. 
Researchers: Sara Pryor (CALS: Earth and Atmospheric Sciences), Lindsay Anderson (CALS, ENG: Biological and Environmental Engineering), Rebecca Barthelmie (ENG: Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), Maha Haji (ENG: Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), and Bruce Monger (CALS: Earth and Atmospheric Sciences).

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.   

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