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NSF Supports Global Research to Advance Science and Engineering for Sustainability

NSF's PIRE program enables international collaborations in research and education to advance scientific solutions to daunting global challenges.

by National Science Foundation
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NSF's PIRE program enables international collaborations in research and education to advance scientific solutions to daunting global challenges

The National Science Foundation (NSF) today (Jan. 15) announced the 12 projects funded in a fourth round of Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) awards. Many of these projects engage scientists in research to develop clean, safe, reliable, affordable energy alternatives, as the need for solutions challenges societies across the globe.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) today also announced two awards totaling $500,000 through its Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) Science program that will support two NSF PIRE research projects, one in India and one in Mexico.

NSF's PIRE program, instituted in 2005, supports innovative, international research and education collaborations that advance three goals:

  1. Facilitating new knowledge and discoveries at the frontiers of science and engineering;
  2. Developing a diverse, globally-engaged, U.S. scientific and engineering workforce and
  3. Building institutional capacity at U.S. universities to engage in productive international collaborations.

PIRE supports bold, forward-looking research whose successful outcomes result from all partners--U.S. and foreign--providing unique contributions to the research endeavor.

Crossing a storm-swollen river in Gabon as part of a project to develop an integrated framework for conserving central African biodiversity under climate change. Photo credit: Nicola Anthony, University of New Orleans

"The PIRE projects exemplify how the U.S. receives a 'collaborative advantage' from international cooperation in science and engineering," said NSF PIRE program manager John Tsapogas. "Scientific, educational and institutional outcomes are made much stronger by the collaboration than either side could achieve alone. Many of the mature PIRE projects have lived up that promise and the new awards are also expected to do so."

In addition to its partnership with USAID, the PIRE program in this latest round of awards established agreements with other domestic and foreign counterpart agencies to provide support for the foreign collaborators of the PIRE projects. The partners were: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Japan Science and Technology Agency, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, United Kingdom Economic and Social Research Council, and United Kingdom Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.

The depth and diversity of the projects aim to tackle global energy challenges the world over; in particular, they address timely topics such as:

  • Establishing a winning formula for clean water, environmental sustainability and commerce
  • Advancing low energy options for making water from wastewater
  • Developing and assessing the impact of biofuels
  • Refining materials and applications for safe, reliable and sound nuclear energy
  • Designing and constructing community-scale renewable energy micro-grids
  • Developing materials for renewable energy
  • Producing and economically managing wind energy
  • Establishing synergistic water-energy systems
  • Improving earth dam and levee sustainability
  • Promoting low-carbon cities
  • Sustaining marine biodiversity
  • Exploring evolutionary processes in the face of climate change

A more detailed list of the dozen, newly-funded PIRE programs and their lead U.S. institutions follow.

Sustainability, ecosystem services, and bioenergy development across the Americas - Michigan Technological University

This project, led by Michigan Technological University scientists in partnership with nine U.S. institutions, three Brazilian institutions, four Mexican institutions, and two Argentine universities, as well as public and private research labs, addresses the question: How will biofuel development impact socio-ecological systems and associated ecosystem services, and how can those impacts best be measured, modeled and mitigated? Society faces difficult challenges in preventing climate change and reducing dependence on foreign energy supplies that can come from politically unstable regions. In response, the United States, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina have moved toward encouraging the development of new energy forms, including biofuels made from plants such as corn, sugarcane, soybeans and palm tree nuts that can be domestically produced with fewer environmental impacts than traditional energy from petroleum, coal or natural gas.

A team of foreign collaborators in this project from the National Autonomous University of Mexico are receiving support from USAID. Together, this international team of social, natural and engineering scientists will work together to collect data about these impacts, translate findings into new ways to measure and reduce those impacts, while increasing understanding of how public policies can help maximize biofuel benefits while minimizing costs.

Developing lowcCarbon cities in the U.S., China, and India through integration across engineering, environmental sciences, social sciences, and public health - University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

This PIRE award supports a five-year project that assembles researchers and students from six U.S. institutions together with five partner institutions in India and three in China to conduct transformative research that will contribute to the development of low-carbon, sustainable cities in the U.S., India and China. This answers a need for cities to have science-based tools to model present-day greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with cities, and to project future GHG emissions reductions resulting from a combination of technology and policy strategies. This two-pronged research effort focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in selected cities, as well as addressing broader sustainability goals such as economic development, water scarcity, environmental pollution, climate change and public health. The research explores transformations needed in coupled technological, infrastructural and social sub-systems that can help urban areas realize low-carbon, resource-efficient outcomes leading to sustainable cities. By examining so called "Asian cities in transition"--defined as small, rapidly industrializing cities with populations less than 1 million that are expected to dominate future urbanization--researchers will compare development trajectories with those of megacities having populations greater than 10 million and smaller service-economy cities in the U.S., thus providing a road-map for sustainable development in different city types worldwide.

USAID is complementing this investment with PEER Science grants to collaborating partners at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, ICLEI-South Asia and the Resource Optimization Initiative-India with international researchers from Tongji and Tsinghua Universities in China and the Chinese Academy of Sciences-Institute for the Urban Environment.

Water and commerce-technologies to enable environmental sustainability in global markets - Duke University

This project will address critical elements of energy transport and production including treatment of ballast water, methods for diagnosing and fingerprinting contamination, and advanced technologies for oil-water separations. This research responds to a need for new materials and creative technological solutions to enable environmentally sustainable energy production and commerce for international maritime trade. With foreign research partners from Turkey, Singapore and France, the team aims to perform innovative research to develop new technologies and methods that enable the sustainability of water resources and to carry out life cycle assessments of various energy/technology mixes. Life cycle assessments will produce a multi-level analysis of impacts and trade-offs resulting from energy production and transport scenarios and from the technological innovations developed by the PIRE team. In the process, the project will educate students to work within and manage projects executed by international teams, develop the awareness of global issues and sustainability and increase the number and diversity of students entering careers in science and engineering.

Low energy options for making water from wastewater - University of California, Irvine

Climate change and global population growth demand creative, low-energy, multi-disciplinary and multi-benefit approaches to sustaining water resources. This PIRE seeks to answer that call. It will catalyze, through research and education, the development and deployment of low-energy options for improving water productivity while protecting human and ecosystem health. The project links five different universities in two water-stressed regions of the world (southwest U.S. and southeast Australia) with unique and complementary expertise in the development and deployment of rainwater tanks, bio-filters and waste stabilization ponds for potable substitution and watershed protection. Specifically the research will:

  1. Improve the removal of pathogens and micro-pollutants in storm water runoff by harnessing solar energy and incorporating into bio-filter design the plant and animal communities native to local seasonal wetlands;
  2. Investigate the risks and benefits of distributed adoption of these technologies on public health, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions;
  3. Identify social, economic, and policy barriers to their adoption, quantify their un-priced benefits and propose economic instruments, regulations, and public education measures to foster their adoption and
  4. Quantify the impact of distributed adoption of these technologies on urban stream hydrology, water quality and ecology.

Nuclear energy systems and materials under extreme conditions - Purdue University

This PIRE project brings together key partners and research facilities in Japan, Russia, Germany and Ireland to focus on nuclear energy/fusion, lithography and high energy and nuclear physics applications. The development and refinement of advanced materials for nuclear and cutting-edge applications will allow energy systems to operate with increased reliability, safety and economy while increasing sustainability and limiting negative environmental impacts. This research will significantly reduce the principal bottleneck for developing future energy technologies, the lack of reliable damage-resistant materials for use under extreme environments. The research will critically advance knowledge about the interaction of particle and plasma beams with various materials under extreme irradiation conditions. These scientific outcomes have related policy impacts for systems modeling and energy planning in both the near and long term for both developed and developing countries as global appetites for energy continue to increase. The goal for this project is to provide robust computer resources and experimental validation to minimize irradiation-based design constraints of materials performance while situating this research within a larger context of sustainability, resource management and global energy policy.

Foreign collaborators in this project are receiving support from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the Russian Federation Ministry of Education and Science.

U.S.-Denmark cooperative research and education in community-scale renewable energy micro-grids - University of California, Santa Cruz

Uncertain resource supplies, global change and energy market volatility call for strategies directed at developing alternative energy solutions. The need to reduce fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions from large-scale centralized power generation point to the need for fundamentally sound ways to increase renewable energy sources, as well as facilities for energy delivery and distribution. This PIRE project, which includes one other institution in the United States and two institutions in Denmark, addresses the technical, social and economic aspects of community-scale renewable energy micro-grids. The partnership will serve as a cooperative, virtual research, development and education center. Technically, the core efforts of this PIRE focus on integrating engineering design and deployment principles with sociological elements of energy user behavior. This will be achieved through a collaborative research framework that collects supply and demand data in both countries, models micro-grid-user operation, and analyzes the effects of intermittency and variable demand. In doing this, the U.S.-Danish team will focus on system optimization based on site-specific solar, wind, heat pumps, cogeneration and storage and intelligent agents for load managing. Overall, the anticipated broader impacts include the practical refinement of an innovative approach to power generation that takes into account local and regional variations, while complementing the existing power grid. If successful, future applications could lead to a measurable increase in carbon-free energy capacity with potentially lower environmental and regulatory requirements.

Materials for Renewable Energy NaturE's Way (RENEW) - Case Western Reserve University

This PIRE project, which includes three U.S. institutions and universities in the U.K., Brazil, Belgium and Italy, will address the global challenge associated with clean energy technologies often coming from unsustainable sources. While often thought of as only substitutes for liquid fossil fuels, biomass substances can serve as replacements for non-sustainable building blocks in many applications. PIRE: RENEW will use biological-based materials to create sustainable replacements and improve material performance in high value-added, high performance applications, beginning with solar and wind energy devices. The research seeks to propose replacements that improve function, provide renewable sources and mitigate environmental impact in production and disposal. Case Western Reserve University and the Polytechnic Institute of New York will lead the international research nexus necessary to provide these ongoing material solutions and to educate future materials scientists and engineers. Together the researchers from all the institutions provide expertise in synthesis, processing, characterization, theory and lifecycle analysis needed for this global problem. Broader impacts will include materials innovations with broader applicable shared via a sustainable materials website.

USA/Europe partnership for integrated research and education in wind energy intermittency: From wind farm turbulence to economic management - Johns Hopkins University

This U.S.-European PIRE project with researchers from four U.S. universities and international partners in Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain will address pressing research questions that arise when adding the inherently intermittent wind-energy source to our power systems. Overall, the intent is to jointly generate tools to better understand, characterize and manage the consequences of wind power fluctuations. By focusing on statistical tools to examine predictability, multiple time scales and spatial and temporal variability of wind fluctuations, the US-European team expects to gain new and timely knowledge about the physical sources of variability and intermittency and produce results to help define more efficient methods for utilizing wind as a sustainable, cost-effective power source. New grid modeling tools that incorporate improved statistical characterizations of wind-farm output variability should help optimize future resource siting and design. Econometric methods and market data may be used to propose potential, new policy levers and market designs to support practical, cost-effective adoption of renewable, highly intermittent energy sources.

Context-sensitive implementation of synergistic water-energy systems - University of South Florida

This PIRE project with academic partners from Europe (U.K., the Netherlands and the Czech Republic) and the Caribbean Basin (U.S. Virgin Islands, Belize, Mexico) addresses integrated water and energy systems fundamental to social, economic and environmental well-being and prosperity. The project seeks to merge water and energy concerns with appropriate cultural models of local knowledge, institutions and resource limits. Engineering systems will be adapted to environmental and cultural changes associated with growth in human populations, urbanization, and resource consumption. A team of researchers from engineering, anthropology, marine science, and science education will work to develop a model to address the overarching research question: can effective, geographically-appropriate and culturally relevant engineered systems be established that utilize wastewater as a resource for recovery of energy, water and nutrients? Research tasks address advancing the methods and materials involved in the technologies themselves, and steps needed to protect human health and explore these technologies in the context of geographical location and environmental impacts.

Advancing earth dam and levee sustainability through monitoring science and condition assessment - Colorado School of Mines

In this project, researchers from the Colorado School of Mines, Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi are collaborating with Dutch and French researchers to advance education and research in the sustainability of earth dams and levees (EDLs). EDLs represent critical infrastructure that provides flood protection, fresh water storage and renewable energy to developed and developing nations. The science and engineering community knows relatively little about the internal condition of EDLs, their interaction with the natural environment, and how they will perform with climate change.

The research will advance understanding in the following areas:

  1. Passive geophysical imaging to noninvasively assess conditions within EDLs;
  2. Airborne and space borne remote sensing for assessing important surface features of EDLs and surrounding landscape;
  3. Characterization of levee interaction with surrounding natural environment, including the benefit of natural landscapes;
  4. EDL health assessment, early warning of damage and prediction of performance due to climate change;
  5. Social, economic and policy approaches to EDLs and risk tolerance across countries and cultures and
  6. Cost-benefit of incorporating monitoring systems into EDLs and risk tolerance policies.

Assembly of marine biodiversity along geographic and anthropogenic stress gradients - San Diego State University Foundation

Indonesia is in the center of the Coral Triangle, a region that contains the world's most biologically diverse coral reefs. These reefs are an extremely important biological and economic resource locally and globally, but are severely threatened by human impacts and climate change; as such, these reefs are important conservation targets. This project will deploy a novel monitoring tool called Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) to measure marine biodiversity gradients across the Indonesian Archipelago and determine what organisms are present on these reefs and how this biodiversity is impacted by human caused environmental stress. ARMS are particularly good at capturing the hidden biodiversity that comprises the vast majority of marine biodiversity (e.g., viruses, microbes, smaller animals, algae etc). A better understanding of the processes shaping the marine biodiversity in the Coral Triangle will thereby improve the ability of resource managers to develop strategies to promote sustainability of these valuable marine ecosystems.

Mapping evolutionary process in the face of climate change: An integrated approach to education and conservation prioritization in Central Africa - University of California, Los Angeles

The goal of this project is to develop an integrated framework for conserving Central African biodiversity under climate change that is both evolutionarily-informed and grounded in the socioeconomic constraints of the region. Central African rainforests represent one of the most important centers of biological diversity in the world. While efforts have been made to prioritize regions for protection, habitat loss continues at an alarming rate, severely limiting the ability of species to respond to climate change. This project unites researchers and students from the United States, Cameroon, Gabon, United Kingdom, Germany, France and the Netherlands around an innovative research program that seeks to identify meaningful conservation measures to mitigate the effects of habitat loss and climate change. Joint international research and educational efforts will enhance existing collaborations and establish new partnerships that will build a foundation for lasting conservation and sustainability in Central Africa.

Additional details are available in a PIRE4 (2012) Award Information document.