Iowa State’s solar car team prepares for 1,800-mile trek across Midwest


Members of Team PrISUm -- from left, Charlotte Brandenburg, Garret Coleman, Philip Gates, Arun Sondhi and Matt Goode -- are preparing their solar racing car for this summer's two races. Larger photo. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)
Members of Team PrISUm — from left, Charlotte Brandenburg, Garret Coleman, Philip Gates, Arun Sondhi and Matt Goode — are preparing their solar racing car for this summer’s two races. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)
Nick Fetty | July 21, 2016

Members of Iowa State University’s solar car team – PrISUm – are preparing for an 1,800-mile trek from Ohio to South Dakota.

Later this month Team PrISUm will compete in the Amesican Solar Challenge road race which will begin at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Brecksville, Ohio and end at Wind Cave National Park in Hot Springs, South Dakota. The race is in collaboration with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and will include stops at national battlefields, monuments and historical parks. The route does not go through Iowa and instead cuts south across Missouri.

Prior to the American Solar Challenge (July 30-August 6), Team PrISUm will compete in a qualifying race at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex July 26-28. The team hopes to use these races to prepare them for the 2017 World Solar Challenge, a 1,900-mile trek across the Australian outback scheduled for next October.

Team PrISUm claimed its first overall victory last year during the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. The team and its car, Phaëton, bested the second place team by more than 31 laps and also recording the fastest lap of any of its competitors by about 14 seconds. The car, Phaëton, is named for the son of Greek sun god, Helios.

The team’s newest model, Phaëton 2, improved upon several aspects from the previous design including a new motor, new batteries, and live telemetry which allows the public to use the internet to track location, speed, and other metrics measured by the car.

PrISUm team members Charlotte Brandenburg, right, and Matt Goode look over the car's batteries and fuses outside the team's Sweeney Hall garage. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)
PrISUm team members Charlotte Brandenburg, right, and Matt Goode look over the car’s batteries and fuses outside the team’s Sweeney Hall garage. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)

July marks peak season for blue-green algal blooms in Iowa


A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 19, 2016

While not expected to be as severe as last summer, Iowa outdoor recreation enthusiasts should be mindful of blue-green algal blooms this time of the year.

Warm July temperatures coupled with excess phosphorus that often runs off of farm fields into lakes and waterways creates the ideal breeding ground for blue-green algae. These conditions lead to the creation of microcystin toxins which can cause skin rashes and asthma-like symptoms for humans and potential fatalities for dogs, livestock, and other animals.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitor state beaches and other waterways to determine if the water is safe for recreational activities. The state’s first instances of blue-green algae were reported at the end of June. Last summer, blue-green algae blooms led to a record closure of Iowa beaches. Iowa DNR officials have also recorded bacteria growth – such as E. coli – at some state beaches this summer.

Earlier this month, Florida governor Rick Scott issued a state of emergency because of harmful algal blooms on bodies of water in the Sunshine State. NASA satellites captured images of algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee in May.

Check out the Iowa DNR website for reports of blue-green algae and other bacteria at state-owned beaches. Mary Skopec with the Iowa DNR advises swimmers, boaters, others to be cautious of water that is green in color or scummy in texture.

“When in doubt, stay out,” Skopec said.

Study finds consumers, retailers waste about half the produce grown in the U.S.


(Nick Saltmarsh/Flickr)
(Nick Saltmarsh/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 15, 2016

New research suggests that as much as half of the food produce in the United States is wasted.

“demand for unattainable perfection” in the appearance of fruits and vegetables is largely to blame for the vast amount of wasted food. Fruits and vegetables are often led in the field to rot, fed to livestock, or shipped directly to landfills when deemed unsellable because of cosmetic imperfections. According to government data, about 60 million tons of produce, worth about $160 billion, is wasted by American retailers and consumers annually. Globally, about 1.6 billion tons, valued at about $1 trillion, is wasted each year.

Despite these findings, researchers recognize that there is currently no clear way to account for food loss in U.S. However, the World Resources Institute and other thinktanks are developing methods to more accurately account for food waste. Wasteful food production practices are detrimental to efforts to fight global hunger and climate change.

Last year U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack called for a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030. However, one expert argues that Vilsack’s goal could have a negative effect on food economics. Roger Gordon – founder of the Food Cowboy – told The Guardian that a 50 percent reduction in food waste could reduce the profit margin of produce at grocery stores by half. He added that fresh produce accounts for about 15 percent of supermarket profits.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Iowa Waste Reduction Center was established in 1988 with the intention of helping businesses reduce food waste in the Hawkeye State. In 2013, the center released a report entitled “Iowa Food Waste Reduction Program Market Analysis.”

CGRER researcher awarded for developing self-cleaning culvert


Dr. Marian Muste with his self-cleaning culvert design. (IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering/University of Iowa)
Dr. Marian Muste with his self-cleaning culvert design to the left. (IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | July 14, 2016

University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research member Marian Muste was recognized earlier this year for his efforts in developing a self-cleaning culvert.

Region 3 of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Research Advisory Council recognized Muste’s project along with three others in the Midwest region. Muste’s project is among 16 nationwide to be dubbed the “‘Sweet Sixteen’ High Value Research Projects” of 2016.

Muste’s research – “Development of Self-Cleaning Box Culvert Design: Phase II” – examines a system that uses the natural power of a stream flow to flush out sediment deposits in culverts. The system does not require intensive maintenance and can be constructed in new culverts or retrofitted for old ones. The design prevents buildup of sedimentation or vegetation in culverts which during rain events can cause culverts to overflow and damage adjacent property.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has implemented Muste’s design in a culvert along Highway 1 in Iowa City. Muste and his research team have monitored the site since the new design was installed in 2013 and he said it has been “working very well.”

Muste – who also serves on the faculty of the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Geography – concluded his report by outlining the benefits of his design.

“Besides their primary role in sediment mitigation, the designed self-cleaning structure maintains a clean and clear area upstream the culvert, keeps a healthy flow through the central barrel offering hydraulic and aquatic habitat similar with that in the undisturbed stream reaches upstream and downstream the culvert. It can be concluded that the proposed self-cleaning structural solution ‘streamlines’ the area adjacent to the culvert in a way that secures the safety of the culvert structure at high flows while disturbing the stream behavior less compared with the traditional constructive approaches.”

Iowa solar advocate Tim Dwight featured in Sports Illustrated


Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association president Tim Dwight, right, during a CGRER 25th anniversary event presented by WorldCanvass at FilmScene in Iowa City on Tuesday, October 13, 2015. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | July 12, 2016

Former University of Iowa football player Tim Dwight was featured in Sports Illustrated last week as part of the magazine’s “Where Are They Now?” series.

Dwight was born in Iowa City and attended City High where he excelled at track and football. Despite his relatively small 5-foot 8-inch frame, Dwight found a niche as a wide receiver and kick returner for the Iowa Hawkeyes before a decade-long stint in the National Football League.

Dwight attributed his interest in solar energy to his travels to Africa and the Middle East after his football career.

“The world runs on energy everywhere and energy runs everything so I knew that market was not going to go away,” Dwight told Iowa Environmental Focus in 2015.

The recent Sports Illustrated article discusses the ways in which solar has changed since Dwight got into the game, pointing out that solar modules have decreased from $4 per watt in 2008 to about 70 cents per watt today.

The piece also touches on the breadth of Dwight’s knowledge when discussing solar.

It also helps that Dwight can speak flawlessly and passionately about all sides of the industry. As we chat, he riffs on about electricity, amps, volts, wire sizes, how to pinpoint a connection to a grid, how to break down a single-line diagram, and how energy is currently bought, sold and created.

Throughout our conversation, the solar advocacy never slows. Just like his skills as a returner, you think he’s done and then he goes in a new direction, passionately and convincingly adding yet another reason to go solar. “It’s like, guys, you’re living in the 1800s, man. In Iowa we’re 50% coal. We dig from Wyoming, my money is going to Wyoming. With renewables, it’s local job creation, local investment.”

In addition to his role at president of the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association, Dwight is also founder and owner of the California-based Integrated Power Corporation.

UI researchers study mussels to improve water quality


Craig L. Just is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. (University of Iowa)
Craig L. Just is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. (Tim Schoon/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | July 8, 2016

University of Iowa researchers are studying the role freshwater mussels play in the nitrogen cycle as a way to improve water quality in the Hawkeye State.

Craig L. Just – an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering – and Ellen Black – PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering and Science – are studying the potential of using freshwater mussels as a way to remove nitrogen from Iowa waterways. Nitrogen contributes to the growth of algae which serves as a food source for the mussels. Specially, Black is looking at the effect that microbial communities have on native freshwater mussels.

“Mussels filter water and excrete nitrogen into underlying sediment, thus sequestering biologically active nutrients for microorganisms to consume and possibly remove from river systems,” Black told The Daily Iowan.

Through the use of generation sequencing, Black is able to pinpoint all bacteria found in mussel beds which can help researchers to better determine the effect that mussels have on microbial processes.

In addition to his work with mussels, Just has also worked with civil and environmental engineering PhD candidate Hunter Schroer. Just and Schroer are studying ways to make military explosives less prone to self-detonation. The researchers also seek to discover and potentially mitigate the impact that explosives have on the environment by finding organisms that detoxify explosives by converting them into carbon dioxide. They’re also studying ways they can use plants as a cost-effective way to detect explosives in soil.

For more information about Black and Schroer’s research, check out The Daily Iowan.

Manure spill affects nearly two miles of creek in northwest Iowa


A creek that runs through Story County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
A creek that runs through Story County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 7, 2016

Approximately 2,500 fish were killed after a manure spill in northwest Iowa last week.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported that the spill occurred on June 30 when Doug Streit, an O’Brien County hog farmer, was transferring manure from one tank to another. A broken hose led to an estimated 5,000 gallons of manure spilling onto the ground but Streit quickly dammed the area above Barry Creek to prevent further spillage.

The spill contaminated nearly two miles of creek and mostly affected smaller fish like minnows, shiners, stonerollers and chubs. The site was cleaned up the following day using a pump and other equipment. Iowa DNR officials said they do not expect the spill to affect Waterman Creek downstream but will continue to monitor the situation and take appropriate enforcement action as necessary.

Manure spills can cause a slew of public health and environmental concerns. Not only can manure spills contaminate surface waters – such as creeks, rivers, and lakes – but manure can also seep its way into the ground and penetrate aquifers. Increased nitrate levels in waterways caused by manure spills can lead to blue-baby syndrome in infants. Elevated levels of nitrate and other compounds can also lead to fish kills and other ecological impacts.

According to the Iowa DNR’s Hazardous Material Release Database, nearly 350 spills have been reported since the start of the year. Iowa DNR encourages farmers, landowners, and anyone else from the public to report manure spills or suspected spills. Information on how to report spills and other resources are available on the Iowa DNR website.