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


Via Flickr

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


Via Flickr

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


Via Flickr

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


Via Flickr

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.

City dwellers rejoice: spring greening comes earlier for urban plants


121408752_62912bef79_b
The first signs of spring occur earlier in cities than surrounding rural areas, new research found (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | February 27, 2020

Vegetation starts turning green earlier in cities than surrounding rural areas, but urban plants are less sensitive to unseasonable warmth, new Iowa State University-led research found. The authors attribute the difference to the urban “heat island” effect.

Cities typically have somewhat higher temperatures than surrounding rural areas because materials like asphalt and brick absorb heat more readily than natural landscapes. For example, New York City is about 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than surrounding areas in summer, according to NASA’s Climate Kids site.

Researchers found this “heat island” phenomenon causes urban vegetation to perceive the start of spring and begin greening an average of six days earlier than surrounding rural plants.

As climate change progresses, however, plants in both rural and urban areas are responding to unseasonably warm temperatures by beginning growth earlier and earlier over time. Pollinators and last frosts have failed to keep up, which has damaged the early bloomers’ ability to survive and reproduce.

The study found that rural vegetation is more sensitive to early spring weather than urban vegetation, perhaps due to the urban heat island effect as well.

ISU Ph.D. student Ling Meng led the research team, which included CGRER member Yuyu Zhou, an ISU geological and atmospheric scientist, among others. The study, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was based on satellite images from 85 large U.S. cities from 2001 to 2014.

Zhou told the Iowa State News Service that this sort of research can help predict how plants will respond to climate change and urbanization.

EnvIowa Podcast Revived: Talking human/environment systems with Silvia Secchi


IMG_6994
Dr. Secchi in the CGRER offices. Photo by Julia Poska, Jan. 2020. 

Julia Poska| February 3, 2019

The UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research is excited to announce the revival and reimagination of our EnvIowa podcast. This weekly podcast will feature 10- to 20-minute interviews with Iowa environmental experts, mainly our own member scientists.

While these researchers are certainly well versed in the complicated jargon of their disciplines, our interviews aim to make their ideas accessible to a general audience. Questions focus not only on the research itself, but how the experts believe it can be applied to solve environmental challenges.

Today’s installment features an interview recorded January 28 with Dr. Silvia Secchi, an interdisciplinary economist and geographer at the University of Iowa. Listen to learn more about Dr. Secchi’s fascinating research on human/environmental interactions in the Mississippi River watershed and how agriculture in particular plays a role within the larger system.

Listen here!

 

 

Iowa American Water disputing forever chemicals found in Iowa water


 

thumbnail_AW+Quad+Cities+PFAS+Results+-+v2FINAL.png
The company provided this graphic to prove their results.

 

Kasey Dresser| January 29, 2019

Last week, a study by the Environmental Working Group, found PFAS in more than 40 locations in 31 states. One of those places being the Iowa Quad Cities. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they never biodegrade. They are a man-made substance, used in products like nonstick cookware and other food packaging. Nearly 5,000 different chemicals are associated with the PFAS family but only a few have been studied. Researchers do not know the health effects of drinking water with contamination but they have been linked to certain cancers, liver damage, and low birth weight according to Reuters.

Iowa American Water is currently disputing report’s findings from a drinking sample taken in August in Davenport that revealed high levels of toxic chemicals.

“We want our customers to know that we are doing our job for them and that we are meeting all federal, us, EPA and state standards related to water quality. So they can be confident when they take that tap water and give it to a child or a family member that it is safe,” Lisa Raisen, External Affairs Manager for Iowa American Water, said to KWQC staff.