Sustainability Research is a Campus-Wide Effort
The way humans perceive their relationship to their environment and their communities is changing. Climate change, threats to food and energy supplies, and dwindling water reserves have forced us to reexamine the resources we’ve taken for granted. And as we take a closer look at our place in the world, we are learning valuable things about our planet and ourselves.
We call this process sustainability.
“The beauty and the curse of the term sustainability is in its ambiguity,” said Myria Allen, professor of communication.
The challenges are pressing, but sustainability promises more than just a solution to these problems. It promises a better future, one in which our relationships with the planet and each other are based on resilience and responsibility.
“Everything is connected, everything is changing and we are all in this together,” said Marty Matlock, executive director of the University of Arkansas Office for Sustainability and professor of biological and agricultural engineering.
University of Arkansas scientists and designers are working to find the answers to these problems on every level, from the molecules that make up water pollutants to technology that will help businesses take responsibility for their impact on the world.
Sustainability as Science
Sustainability research at the U of A encompasses many disciplines, including agriculture, architecture, business, communication, engineering, law and natural sciences. These researchers are working to solve different problems in different ways, but they have one thing in common: they all take a pragmatic and scientific approach.
While they are inspired by the big ideas of sustainability, researchers emphasize the need for concrete science and lots of data. For example, in his approach to measuring sustainability in the agriculture industry, Matlock focuses on performance indicators that are “outcome based, science driven, technology neutral and transparent.” This emphasis on gathering data and testing outcomes is echoed across campus.
Another important aspect of sustainability research on campus is the way it translates into practical and effective tools that communities can use.
“This campus is unique in its ability to cut across different disciplines, but also to conduct research that is informed by the concerns of communities,” said Janie Hipp, director of the U of A Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative. “A lot of our professors work to come up with practical solutions.”
Gathering data and testing outcomes transforms abstract ideas into demonstrable progress. Matlock, Jennie Popp, professor of agricultural economics and agricultural business, and Greg Thoma, professor of chemical engineering, among others, are using and refining a tool called Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, which can turn data into valuable insights about the sustainability of a product.
In an article for Resource, a publication of the American Society of Biological and Agricultural Engineers, Matlock explained that LCA looks at the process by which we produce goods as a system of inputs and outputs. For example, producing a hamburger requires more than just beef. The process involves inputs of land, water and fertilizer to grow the grain that feeds the cattle, all the way up to the energy that keeps the hamburger cold in the grocery store. Outputs of this process include chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus, which can pollute water and methane, a greenhouse gas.
“This campus is unique in its ability to cut across different disciplines, but also to conduct research that is informed by the concerns of communities”Janie Hipp
By carefully calculating the expected inputs and outputs for a product, researchers can tweak different variables to see what has the greatest environmental impact. For example, how might a new method of growing crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions or water pollution resulting from the process?
Matlock, Popp, Thoma and others have used the LCA approach, to study the swine, beef, poultry and dairy industries. Along the way, they have refined the process. Thoma learned that simply asking farmers about their use of resources and production of waste was not enough.
“There is almost never enough data to do the LCA that you’d like to do,” he said. “For example, most livestock producers manage manure. But how much? They don’t measure it.”
Thoma has worked with several different sectors of the agriculture industry to gather data and build computational models. Users can enter the number of animals they have and what they feed them, which can provide an estimate of the amount of manure, nitrogen, greenhouse gases and other waste products the farm produces. By augmenting these results with survey-based demographic data, Thoma can produce detailed sets of data that can be used to assess the impacts of producing certain types of food and measure the effectiveness of different sustainability interventions.
Alternative Energy is the Future
Researchers across the university are looking for ways to improve energy, food and water use. They examine everything from huge power grids and water treatment systems down to the molecules and electrons that make these systems operate.
“I think we can invoke technology to solve a significant portion of these problems, now that we have the data,” said Ralph Davis, professor of geosciences.
Finding alternative sources of energy is vital to our sustainable future. The scientific community agrees that a reliance on fossil fuels contributes to climate change and that these fuels are a finite resource that won’t work as permanent solution for energy needs. Researchers in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, physics and other departments are working together to change the way we produce and use energy.
Several centers in the Department of Electrical Engineering promote the use of renewable energy. GRid-Connected Advanced Power Electronics Systems, or GRAPES, a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center, connects members of industry directly to university research.
At GRAPES, representatives from utility companies, defense contractors, equipment manufacturers and electric component suppliers work with researchers at the U of A and the University of South Carolina to identify projects that will be the most beneficial to their industry.
Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and executive director of GRAPES, said energy “micro- grids” promote the use of alternative energies such as solar and wind power.
“Because micro-grids promote renewables and energy storage at the smaller scale, not every solar power plant and wind power plant has to be at the tens of megawatt scale. It
brings it down to the level of communities,” Mantooth said.
Mantooth is also the deputy director of the Power Optimization for Electro-ermal Systems center, or POETS.
This center – a partnership of six universities including the U of A – focuses on another big consumer of energy: the transportation industry. POETS researchers work on ways to make vehicles more fuel efficient, as well as improve electrical vehicle technology.
The transportation industry accounts for 25 percent of U.S. energy use, Mantooth said, so by working to make this industry more efficient, POETS could have a huge impact on sustainability.
Another key sustainability research area is water. As the human population grows and technology evolves, the need for water increases dramatically. But water supply across the world is limited.
“We’re using geologic age water, water that was put in place during the last major glacial episode, 9,000 years ago,” Davis said. “We have extracted and utilized that in a 70 year period. Some places have used over 50 percent of it.”
Several researchers at the U of A are looking at ways to conserve or reclaim water, such as removing pollutants from water supplies, developing new methods of cleaning polluted water and improving the health of natural bodies of water. Water quality researchers have many different tools and approaches. Some research projects use high-tech membranes to clean water, while others use nanoparticles, bacteria or algae.
“There are new [polluting] compounds popping up every day,” said Wen Zhang, assistant professor of civil engineering. She is optimistic that, with the right resources, scientists can stay on top of these challenges.
“We are going to get the water as clean as possible,” Zhang said. “It’s just a question of how much we want to invest.”
Water quality and conservation are connected to the food we eat. Researchers in the College of Engineering, Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture, Food and Life Sciences; and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture are working with national and global agricultural producers to improve the sustainability of our food supply system.
In one project, researchers and local farmers are investigating ways to grow rice with less water. In addition to saving water, this decreases the production of methane, a greenhouse gas that is up to 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane is produced in swampy soil conditions.
Ben Runkle, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, has worked with rice farmers who were able to reduce the amount of methane produced by 50 percent without sacrificing yield. They did this by allowing rice fields to dry out at certain times during the growing cycle.
The university and the U of A Division of Agriculture also led a program investigating sustainable ways to produce strawberries, through the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative, administered by the Division of Agriculture’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability. The strawberry initiative, funded by Walmart, focuses on increasing local strawberry production across viable U.S. locations, while decreasing the chemicals, energy and water used to grow the berries.
Making an Emotional Connection
Steve Luoni, director of the U of A Community Design Center, or UACDC, explained that people are more willing to invest in their communities when they feel a social and emotional connection to them.
“The only things that are sustainable are the things that people love,” he said.
A nationally respected authority in urban design, the UACDC has developed models that demonstrate how architects and city planners can develop places that people love while offering solutions to social, environmental and economic problems.
For example, the Food City project takes on the problem of food insecurity. Arkansas has one of the highest rates of agricultural production in the nation, but more than a quarter of Arkansas children don’t have enough food. In the Food City project, UACDC architects asked the question “What would Fayetteville look like in 2030 if it directs all new growth toward making a local food network?” This model has the potential to help other places become more self-sufficient when it comes to food.
In the Department of Landscape Architecture, Carl Smith, associate professor, and Noah Billig, assistant professor, look at the cultural shifts that would be required for communities to adopt a sustainable approach to development.
In the Department of Civil Engineering, researchers are investigating more sustainable ways to build and maintain roads. New approaches to building materials have the potential to save money, energy and resources, and civil engineering professors are making sure they can be implemented without sacrificing the quality and durability of our infrastructure.
For example, using warm mix asphalt, which is produced at lower temperatures than traditional asphalt, can save energy, and a process called full-depth reclamation, in which special material is used to tear up existing roads, grind the materials and mix them with binder, can increase the structural capacity of roads, without the need to transport materials to the construction site.
A Sustainable Future?
U of A researchers see a more sustainable future, but they agree that time is running out. With climate change, unusual weather patterns threaten food and water supplies in many places, and researchers feel a sense of urgency when it comes to responding to these threats.
Windows of opportunity are closing quickly, said Nicole Civita of the U of A Food Recovery Project, which provides tools to reduce food waste.
“It’s going to take a pretty significant shift away from business as usual,” she said.
Business as usual is also shifting. Consumer pressure and economic concerns are leading many organizations to make sustainability an integral part of their business model.
“We’re at least conscious of the issues around preserving our natural resources and trying to be good stewards,” said Darin Nutter, professor of mechanical engineering. “We’re aware that that’s needed and there’s value there, and awareness is the first step.”
For the past two decades, Nutter has helped manufacturing plants implement strategies and measures to save energy.
The task of sustainability is a daunting one, but researchers at the U of A draw inspiration from each other and from their students, who they say are passionate about the subject. They are working hard to do their part to make the world a better place, because, as Allen put it: “If not us, who? And if not now, when?”