UI Researchers Develop a New Model to Measure Air Pollution from Soil By Using Satellites


Elizabeth Miglin | June 9, 2021

Researchers at the University of Iowa Technology Institute (ITI) have developed a new model to measure air pollution from soil using satellite data. 

Led by visiting ITI scholar Tong Sha, the study focused on nitrogen oxides (NOx) derived from soil (SNOx). Traditionally, NOx are thought of as emissions from combustion of fossil fuels however, scientists suspect SNOx may be increasingly responsible for poor ozone air quality, especially in agricultural areas. Although existing data to support this belief is lacking, the research started at the University of Iowa has led to a new assessment model which may yield more accurate estimates of SNOx. 

The new model updated the Weather Research and Forecasting simulator and chemistry, known as WRF-Chem, in order to improve an SNOx estimate scheme. With this, the researchers used an array of satellite sensors including the Global Precipitation Measurement to measure precipitation, Soil Moisture Active Passive to measure soil moisture and temperature, and others to show for the first time from space the increase of SNOx right after the fall of rain on dry soil. 

Although the research focused on rural California, its findings apply to rural cropland areas in Iowa and elsewhere. The study found around 40% of California’s NOx emissions are from soil and in the cropland areas SNOx emissions exceeded human-source emissions. Furthermore, the team found SNOx emissions are responsible for an additional 23% surface ozone concentration in California as a whole. 

The study was published on May 18th in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology. 

Climate Change Predictions from the Past are Coming True


Via Flickr

Josie Taylor | May 17, 2021

For many years climate scientists have been warning us about climate change and more specifically, global warming. Were they right? To simply put it, yes. 

In 2012, a 108 page study was released written by scientists all around the world, including the US. They have so many predictions about what the next 20 years will hold for the environment. One section predicted more intense storms over the next two decades. Although it has only been nine years, that can already be seen. 2020 had a record number of severe storms, one of them being the derecho that hurt so many in Iowa.

In that same study, scientists predicted extreme changes in water cycles. They said that can mean that some places will have extreme increases in precipitation, where in other places will see an extreme decrease. That is already being seen here in Iowa. In 2020 there were floods, and in 2021 there is a drought.

Going back further, in 1973 climate scientists almost perfectly predicted the increase in overall global temperature by the year 2000. They were only off by about 0.4ºC. This same model did overestimate the amount of carbon concentration however. 

Climate scientists have been studying and adjusting their predictions for decades, and so far their predictions are fairly accurate. This makes climate projections happening right now seem more likely to be true. Right now climate scientists are predicting a much warmer world overall by 2050, and are expecting to see even more intense and deadly storms. In the US alone, it is predicted to hurt places that count on tourism from skiing to have warmer weather, and places like Florida may have more hurricanes. It is time to take projections seriously. 

Pioneer of Sustainable Aquatic Foods Wins Des Moines-based World Food Prize


Via Finn Thilsted

Elizabeth Miglin May 13, 2021

Researcher Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted became the first woman of Asian heritage to win the $250,000 World Food Prize on Tuesday. Her research established the nutritional importance of commonly found fish and has improved the diets, health, and sustainable farming practices of millions across the Global South according to the Des Moines-based World Food Prize Foundation

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and United Nations Nutrition Chairwoman Naoko Yamamoto were all present at the virtual announcement. “As our global population grows, we will need diverse sources of low-emission, high-nutrition foods like aquaculture,” said Secretary Vilsack. “It is going to be crucial in feeding the world while reducing our impact on the climate…”  

Thilsted’s work resulted in breakthroughs in raising nutrient-rich small fish in an inexpensive and local way. By farming small and large fish species together in rice fields, fish consumption and production was able to be increased by as much as five times. This approach has helped Bangladesh become the fifth-largest aquaculture producer in the world and has supported 18 million people according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Her findings are helping lead the United Nations’ work to build equitable and sustainable food systems in order to address food security and nutrition. 

University of Iowa engineers receive $1 million to turn wastepaper into plastic


Folded paper
Via Flickr

Elizabeth Miglin | March 25, 2021

Earlier this month, University of Iowa engineers Xuan Song, Chao Wang, and H.S. Udaykumar, in partnership with Impossible Objects, Inc., received nearly $1 million from the REMADE Institute for their project to improve the speed and reduce the labor costs of remanufacturing recycled wastepaper. 

The project aims to use artificial intelligence (AI) and smart additive manufacturing (AM) technology to turn recycled paper and cardboard into high-value fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) composites. Aerospace, automotive, marine and construction industries use FRPs in most advanced engineering structures. Increasingly, FRPs have replaced heavier and more expensive infrastructure materials and systems, such as steel and concrete. 

The project is one of only 24 chosen in the latest round of funding by the REMADE Institute, a public-private partnership created by the United States Department of Energy. The institute provided a total of $43 million in research funding to support the development of new waste technologies in order to encourage a transition towards a circular economy.

Manufacturing currently makes up 22% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. Song, Wang and Udaykumar hope to address this and that their research will encourage widespread adoption of recycling wastepaper into FRP plastic. 

Climate Change Could Lead to Six-Month Summers by the Year 2100


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Nicole Welle | March 22, 2021

A new study found that summers in the Northern Hemisphere could last up to six months by the end of the 21st century if global warming continues at its current pace.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, found that climate change is causing summers to increase in length over time. Researchers analyzed daily climate data from 1952 to 2011 to find the start and end of each season, and they discovered that global warming caused summers to increase from 78 to 95 days over the 60-year period. They then used the data to create a model to predict the length of future seasons, according to an NBC News article.

Climate scientists found that if global warming continues at the current rate, summers will last for six months by 2100, while winters will only last for two. This shift would negatively impact a wide range of areas, including human health, the environment and agricultural production. Scott Sheridan, a climate scientist at Kent State University, warned that shifting seasons would impact many plants’ and animals’ life cycles.

“If seasons start changing, everything isn’t going to change perfectly in sync,” Sheridan said in a statement to NBC. “If we take an example of flowers coming out of the ground, those flowers could come out but bees aren’t there to pollinate yet or they’re already past their peak.”

Plants coming out of the ground earlier than normal could have serious implications for farmers who rely on a regular planting season. In fact, a “false spring” in March of 2014 caused peach and cherry crops to spring from the ground early, only to be destroyed when temperatures plummeted again in April. Events like this will become more common as climate change continues to alter Earth’s seasons, and they may force us to rethink our methods of food production in the near future.

Vitamin B1 Deficiency May Be Linked To The Decline Of Multiple Animal Species


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Thomas Robinson | February 2nd, 2021

Scientists are concerned that a Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) deficiency is contributing to the decline of wildlife populations across multiple ecosystems in the northern hemisphere.

In 2016, scientists hypothesized that the decline of animal populations across multiple ecosystems may be linked to thiamine deficiency since the declines are occurring faster than expected, and thiamine deficiencies have been measured around the world. Thiamine deficiency has been known to negatively influence fish populations since 1995, and bird populations have been shown to be similarly affected.  Scientists in the 2016 study highlighted a staggering decline in animal populations such as the global decline of seabird populations by 70% from 1950 to 2010, and the decline of marine vertebrates by 50% from 1970 to 2012.

Unfortunately, it seems that humans are likely to blame as climate change is thought to have made thiamine less available to animals higher up on the trophic level. The current hypothesis is that warming oceans have negatively influenced the populations of both microorganisms and smaller fish that either produce or are rich in the vitamin making them less available to animals higher up on the food chain. Not only is less thiamine likely to reach the top of the trophic level, more thiaminase, the enzyme used to consume thiamine, is likely being transferred from the populations of fish or microorganisms that take over from older populations. Thiaminase is a concern because when predators eat prey high in thiaminase, they can experience similar thiamine deficiencies as the enzyme breaks down thiamine in their bodies.

Thiamine is an essential nutrient for life as it is responsible for cellular energy production and cellular development.  Our supply of the vitamin comes from our diet and deficiencies in thiamine can result in weight loss, muscle weakness, and wasting.  For many animals, deficiency results in sublethal effects, however, these sublethal effects can be just as devastating as lethal effects on the population, especially since they are easily missed over long periods of time.

Our unknowing changes to the environment have severe consequences for global ecosystems that we still don’t fully understand.  While we work to gain a better understanding of how our decisions influence global populations, an emphasis must be placed on what implications future development and technology may have on already stressed ecosystems.

Electronic Waste Generation is Shrinking Despite Growing Dependence on Technology


Pile of discarded smartphone and tablet screens.
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | January 4, 2021

A new study revealed a 10% decline in electronic waste (e-waste) generated in the United States since 2015 despite increasing dependence on smartphones and other technology.

The study, published in The Journal of Industrial Ecology, also found that the total number of electronic devices entering the waste stream is leveling off or declining due to the versatility of modern devices. Many devices, like gaming consoles and smartphones, now have multiple uses and features, so people only need one device to meet their needs rather than two or three. For example, individuals no longer need a separate camera, camcorder and cellphone now that smartphones have quality cameras built in. The decline in e-waste can also be attributed to the phasing out of bigger, older products like computer monitors and cathode-ray televisions, according to a Yale E360 article.

The findings contradict the widely-held belief that e-waste is a rapidly growing waste stream. While a decline in waste generation is positive, it does raise concerns over the way current e-waste recycling regulations in the U.S. are structured. Currently, only half of U.S. states have e-waste recycling laws, and most set their targets based on mass, according to the Yale E360 article. Because the total mass of e-waste output is declining, meeting those targets could become more complicated.

Shahana Althaf, the lead author of the study, said that laws should shift their focus from simply keeping electronics with high lead and mercury levels out of landfills to finding ways to recover useful elements from these devices and reuse them. Elements like cobalt and indium are relatively rare and are commonly used in electronic devices, so making the effort to recover and recycle them would serve as a positive first step toward transforming e-waste into a resource and ensure a domestic supply in the U.S. It would also reduce the need for mining operations that cause devastating environmental destruction.

Alissia Milani and Dr. Betsy Stone Discuss Exciting New Research


Nicole Welle | November 30, 2020

University of Iowa undergraduate Alissia Milani recently led a group of researchers in discovering a new compound in the atmosphere that can help track the effects of personal care products (PCPs) on air quality.

Common PCPs, like antiperspirants, shampoos and hairspray, contain colorless and odorless chemicals called cyclic volatile methyl siloxanes. These chemicals can quickly evaporate into the atmosphere after they are applied, and Milani’s group worked on identifying a secondary aerosol tracer called D4TOH in urban environments like Houston and Atlanta to better understand the impact of pollution from PCPs. D4TOH is the oxidation product of D5, one of the most prominent methyl siloxanes found in PCPs, according to the group’s new article.

Graphical Abstract from ScienceDirect article

The health and environmental impacts of PCP use are not yet fully understood, but this work will help provide a new way for researchers to begin tracing and assessing those impacts. Milani hopes that her work will allow researchers across the globe to begin detecting this compound and use it to better understand how PCPs can affect air quality in both urban and rural environments.

This crucial work is only the first step toward better understanding the health and environmental implications of PCP use, but there are steps the public can take in the meantime. Milani says that people should look into the chemicals that make up the products they use and think about what they might be exposing themselves and others to. Some potentially harmful chemicals found in PCPs are not currently regulated, so it is important for people to learn about those chemicals and seek out alternatives that work best for them.

Milani received support from the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates and was joined in her work by Dr. Betsy Stone, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Iowa. The article outlining their work was accepted on November 11, 2020.

UI Chemists Study Nanomaterials in Batteries and their Effects on Plant Health


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Nicole Welle | September 28, 2020

The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) recently received new funding to continue studying how some nanomaterials in rechargeable batteries and phones can harm the environment and now other nanoparticles can improve soybean plant health.

The CSN is a multi-institutional venture and includes the University of Iowa where Sara E. Mason, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, led a group that determined how toxic metal ions released by batteries dissolve in water. The sophisticated models used in her studies can be used in designing rechargeable batteries with fewer negative effects on the environment in the future, according to an Iowa Now article.

The CSN received an initial grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2012. The new round of funding will last through 2025 and allow Mason’s group to work with a new partner, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, to expand their research. At the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, researchers recently discovered that copper oxide nanomaterials can help soybean plants with fungal infections recover and return to a healthy growth cycle. Mason’s team was able to combine their modeling system with this new information to discover which class of nanomaterials worked best to improve the plants’ health. The journal Nature Nanotechnology has accepted the results of their research.

The team will continue to learn more about nanomaterials in batteries and their effects on plant health, and they are currently searching for undergraduates to join in on their efforts.

Scientists Discover a New Method to Make Wheat More Climate Resilient


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Thomas Robinson | May 5th, 2020

Researchers have recently been able to develop a more heat resistant bread wheat through amino acid substitution. 

In a recent study, a single amino acid associated with Rubisco, an essential plant enzyme involved in photosynthesis, was substituted and was able to extend the temperature optimum for wheat by 5˚C.  The researchers suggest that their technique could be used to adapt crops to improve their resilience in a changing climate.

Rubisco is an energy producing enzyme plants use to collect carbon from the atmosphere, which is then used to create organic sugars.  It is thought that Rubisco is the most abundant enzyme on earth as it is found in most plants that use photosynthesis.  Previous work has shown that these enzymes are susceptible to climate change and could be negatively influenced as temperatures increase. 

In Iowa, climate change is projected to increase high heat events which will increase heat stress on agricultural crops such as wheat. By exploring methods for reducing heat stress, researchers are able to provide novel solutions for mitigating the adverse effects climate change may have on agriculture.