CGRER Looks Forward: Chemist Betsy Stone


Julia Poska| April 19, 2019

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Betsy Stone, contributed photo.

Betsy Stone looks at the very air she breathes every day on a microscopic level.

“Since I started my career here at the University of Iowa, I’ve been amazed at the very interesting air quality events that we’ve been able to study here locally,” the associated professor of chemistry and chemical engineering said.

Her group has researched the environmental impact of a massive tire fire at the Iowa City landfill in 2012 and the ongoing impact of biomass incineration at the University of Iowa Power Plant. Earlier this month, they embarked on a new project to study pollen fragmentation in the local atmosphere.

Listen to learn about Stone’s findings on the air quality impacts of the university’s Biomass Project. 

Stone explained that pollens are fairly large particles and tend to settle out of air quickly. If humans inhale them, they immediately get stuck in the nostrils. Rain events often wash pollen out of air, but in 2013 Stone observed an unusual phenomenon; after thunderstorms, pollens fragmented into much smaller particles and their concentration in the air greatly increased.

Other researchers had observed this phenomenon elsewhere, but never in the Midwest.

“We’re able to follow up with a very heavily instrumented field campaign that we think is going to answer a lot of the burning questions that we have about this type of event,” Stone said.

She’s hoping to learn more about the conditions for fragmentation, the species of pollens present and how they fragment. To do so, the group will use a large suite of equipment—including a meteorological station, an aerosol biosensor, particulate matter monitors and particle samplers—stationed at the university’s cross country course.

Stone said this research has implications for understanding the effects of climate change.

Stone studies air quality variation across space. Hear her speak on some key differences between rural and urban areas.

“Part of the reason this research is so important to do right now is that we’re starting to observe changes in our seasons as well as increases in the intensity of thunderstorms,” she explained.

Pollen season is starting earlier, and increased storms mean fragmentation could happen more frequently. Higher temperatures increase pollen loads, too. That’s bad news for people with allergies or asthma, especially since small fragments can travel deeper into the respiratory tract.

Particulate matter can impact the temperature, too. Atmospheric particles can scatter incoming sunlight, creating a cooling effect, but can also absorb energy like greenhouse gases do. Cloud droplets form around particulates, and the quality of the particles impacts the longevity and precipitation cycles of the clouds.

Stone’s group researches more distant phenomena as well, mainly sea spray aerosol collected at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

Chemical reactions in the atmosphere can create new particles. Hear Stone talk about Secondary Organic Aerosols.

Ocean bubbles release particles into the air when they burst, which contain both salt and organic matter. Stone’s lab seeks to understand what type of organic matter is present and how it chemically transforms in the sky. This too has implications for understanding climate.

“It’s really important to understand a natural source of particles like the ocean because we have a lot of uncertainty associated with aerosol loadings and composition in preindustrial times,” she said. Thus, our estimates of past climates are not especially accurate.

Understanding natural sources of particulate matter, like pollen and sea spray aerosols, helps provide a baseline to measure climate variation over time. Data on particulate matter can provide a baseline for measuring the success of emission reduction plans and other policies as well, she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Anthropologist Matt Hill


Julia Poska | March 8, 2019

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Matt Hill, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

In their relatively short residence on Earth, humans have survived several dramatic climate change events, albeit with more natural causes than at present. They have endured man-made environmental challenges, like deforestation, as well.

So could the key to modern climate adaptation lie in the triumphs and mistakes of ancient civilizations? Matthew Hill, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, sees potential.

“I think that you can use the past—carefully—to see patterns, see how certain strategies were attempted to deal with these environmental changes and see whether they have failed or succeeded,” Hill said. “I see it as one helpful guidepost to how people have responded to similar changes.”

Anthropology, broadly, is the study of human cultures. Hill primarily focuses on human interactions with the environment. As an archaeologist, he spends a lot of time studying ancient peoples and their technologies—specifically, how indigenous hunters interacted with animal populations in North America.

Hill describes his research on ancient North American peoples and animals. 

One of his earliest studies involved North American bison. They sustained native populations in the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years but declined rapidly once Europeans joined the hunt. Hill sought to understand the differences in strategy and mindset that led to dramatically different outcomes for bison before and after colonization.

About half of Hill’s recent research focuses on modern humans, too. With an interdisciplinary team of Iowa researchers, he is studying the social and environmental positions of wood-burning stove users in rural India.

“We’re trying to understand how these women are coping and adapting to a changing environment, one in which there’s deforestation and one in which governments and international organizations are targeting their way of life for change,” he said.

Hill discusses his research on biomass burning in rural India. 

Adaptation is the common thread throughout Hill’s projects. In both past and present peoples, he has examined a number of successful and failed strategies for dealing with all sorts of environmental problems.

As he sees it, innovation is not an issue. He said people have always been clever and able to develop new technologies and approaches. The bigger problem seems to be motivating political and economic elites to work towards positive change.

“Even if there’s goodwill, there’s not a single direction that a country or large group moves toward,” Hill said. “It’s often contradictory forces.”

Hear Hill’s thoughts on the political reality of environmental action. 

The masses often have more incentive –they are harmed by environmental isues far more than elites – but the poor and disenfranchised typically lack adequate resources to be a “positive push forward,” he said. It is up to leaders to be proactive and implement solutions that work for everyone.

But still, successful adaptation is possible. Hill pointed to North American big game hunters as evidence. At the end of the paleolithic Ice Age they faced mass extinction of food sources like mammoths and mastodons.

Amazingly, they managed to “not just survive but thrive,” he said. He attributes thoughtful resource management and long-term planning to their success.

“We can only hope that American society can point to these kinds of behaviors,” Hill said. “Not just thinking about next quarter or the next year, but thinking about the next generations, we too can not just survive change, but flourish in the face of change.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

University Sustainability Charter Committee welcomes new members


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In order to reach the goal of 40% renewable energy by 2020 at the University of Iowa, the Office of Sustainability spearheaded many biomass projects. The university has planted 2,500 acres of mescanthus across the state in order to produce about 22,500 tons of renewable biopower feedstock. (USDA/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 21, 2016

The University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability has welcomed new team members with a diverse set of skills and backgrounds to continue working toward the 2020 Sustainability Vision.

The 2020 goals were established by President Sally Mason in 2010 as a means to recognize successful sustainability initiatives and to “expand sustainability efforts in several key areas of operations, research, education, and outreach.” Some of the targets include achieving net-negative energy growth, decreasing waste production, reducing the campus’ carbon impact due to transportation, and to support and expand interdisciplinary sustainability-related research.

The Sustainability Charter Committee, overseen by the Office of Sustainability, is comprised of faculty, staff and students that assist in the implementation of sustainable practices within existing campus systems. Tony Senio, sports turf manager for the University of Iowa recently joined the committee, becoming the first person to represent the Athletics Department in the group. Senio has managed all of the Athletic Department’s plants and turf since 2008. He said, “Sustainability can be a weird thing for people. It almost comes off as a negative word, but it’s about perspective. I feel like it’s more about doing the right thing; it’s about simplicity.”

Amanda Bittorf, marketing specialist for University Housing & Dining, also joined the group, becoming the first housing and dining representative to serve on the committee. Bittorf has worked at the University of Iowa for two years and said that she has led several sustainability initiatives. “With housing about 95 percent of the first-year class, I really do think we play an instrumental role in introducing students to sustainable practices and creating habits,” she said.

To round out this year’s new members, the Office of Sustainability also welcomes a new recycling coordinator, Beth MacKenzie. MacKenzie first began working in the recycling industry in 2006 for the City of St. Louis, where she said that she dramatically increased the waste diversion rate for the city. While MacKenzie’s background is primarily in municipal government and non-profit organizations, she said that she’s excited to join the University’s team. “It just has a more vibrant culture that I think will be a fun opportunity to work in. Just being around young people; young people have really great ideas and a fresh perspective on things,” she said.

On The Radio – UI research examines efficiency of oat hulls as energy source


The University of Iowa’s main power plant has been experimenting with a coal-oat hull mix to generate electricity on campus. (UI Facilities Management)
October 19, 2015

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at CGRER member Betsy Stone and her latest research examining the effectiveness of burning oat hulls to fuel the campus’s power plant.

Transcript: UI Study Examines Impact of Burning Oat Hulls

The burning of a cereal byproduct could be an effective way of reducing fossil carbon emissions in energy production.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Iowa examined the efficiency of burning oat hulls along with coal to produce electricity at the campus’s power plant. The reachers found that, when compared to burning just coal, a 50-50 oat hull-coal mix produced 40 percent fewer fossil carbon emissions and significantly reduced the release of particulate matter, hazardous substances, and heavy metals into the atmosphere.

From UI assistant professor of chemistry and CGRER member Betsy Stone:

BETSY STONE: “When burning 50 percent oat hulls and 50 percent coal  by weight, emissions of particulate natter are reduced by 90 percent. This is attributed to the high efficiency of oat hull combustion leaving behind less unburned carbon as well as reductions to the amount of limestone added to the fluidized bed boiler to control sulfur dioxide.”

The UI partnered with Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids to purchase discarded oat hulls in 2003 and now burns about 40,000 tons of the cereal byproduct annually. Equipment at the power plant was retrofitted to burn the oat hulls in the most efficient way possible.

For more information about this study and other energy initiatives on the UI campus visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus-dot-org

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

http://now.uiowa.edu/2015/09/bravo-biomass

Public tours UI power plant, miscanthus fields


(Clarity R. Guerra/UI Office of Strategic Communications)

Nick Fetty | August 26, 2015

The University of Iowa on Tuesday hosted a field day to allow members of the public to tour the power plant as well as plots of a renewable energy source known as miscanthus.

Tuesday’s event was the third field day the UI has hosted for its Biomass Fuel Project which “aims to assess and improve university power plant facilities, biomass feedstock, and community awareness and education in biomass energy.” The Biomass Fuel Project is one part of the UI’s 2020 Vision which outlines ways for the UI to generate 40 percent of its on-campus energy usage from renewable sources by the 2020.

U.S. Congressman Dave Loebsack spoke at Tuesday’s event and lauded the UI’s efforts on this project.

“It’s about making sure we create energy that is cleaner than what we did traditionally, and what we do to some extent today,” he said. “Economically it’s the right thing to do, and in so many other ways it’s the right thing to do.”

Loebsack also praised the UI for its effort to collaborate with Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa on the project. Emily Heaton is a professor of agronomy at ISU and she also spoke at Tuesday’s event. Heaton studies the science behind miscanthus, a perennial tall grass native to Asia, which the UI hopes to begin using to fuel the power plant. She said miscanthus offers “ecosystem services” not available with other renewable energy sources. Those services include miscanthus’ ability to pull carbon dioxide from the air and return it to the soil. Additionally, miscanthus’ deep root system helps prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff into nearby waterways.

In addition to partnering with the other regent universities, UI has also partnered with landowners and growers in Johnson, Linn, and Muscatine counties to harvest the crop. The project started with a 16-acre plot in 2013 and today the UI maintains approximately 350 acres. Miscanthus’ height (at 10 to 12 feet) allows it to produce a higher yield per acre when compared to other similar biomass options.

Though UI officials are still in the experimental stages for using miscanthus as a fuel source, they hope that it will eventually be able to supply 10 percent of the campus’ energy usage.

VIDEO: KGAN – UI Using More Sustainable Energy

Branstad awards UI for sustainability efforts


Energy conservation measures save the University of Iowa roughly $5.1 million annually, according to UI Facilities Management. (University of Iowa)

Nick Fetty | July 10, 2015

The University of Iowa’s use of miscanthus as a fuel source has gained the attention of Governor Branstad.

On Thursday, the four-term Iowa governor announced that his office was awarding UI Facilities Management the “Governor’s Iowa Environmental Excellence Award” with emphasis on energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Governor’s Iowa Environmental Excellence Award is given annually to a handful of Iowa businesses and governmental institutions for efforts made to adopt environmentally sustainable strategies and preserve the state’s natural resources.

The UI was recognized because of its Biomass Fuel Project which utilizes miscanthus and other renewable fuel sources for the UI’s power plant which provides electricity and steam for the campus. The first miscanthus fields were planted in 2013 and today the UI maintains more than 350 acres of the Asian perennial tall grass. Through the use of miscanthus and other methods, university officials hope to achieve 40 percent renewable energy consumption by 2020.

Other award recipients include the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines and the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield as well as school districts in Cedar Rapids and Guthrie Center.

Branstad will formally present the awards during a ceremony in Des Moines on August 4.

UI partners with North Carolina company for biomass project


Miscanthus is a perennial tall grass grown and burned as an eneergu source on the UI campus. (Wikimedia Commons)
Miscanthus is a perennial tall grass grown and burned as an energy source on the UI campus. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nick Fetty | March 17, 2015

Repreve Renewables, LLC has been selected to provide agricultural and business development services for the University of Iowa’s Biomass Fuel Project.

The Greensboro, North Carolina-based company will employ its Accu Yield™ System, “a proprietary, precision agricultural system, to plant and establish giant miscanthus.” This system is able to reduce the cost of establishing the plant while also increasing yields, making it a more economically-feasible renewable energy option.

“The University of Iowa is a leader in sustainability, just as Repreve Renewables is a trailblazer in biomass production and logistics,” Repreve Renewables CEO Jeff Wheeler said in a press release. “The Biomass Fuel Project provides the opportunity to achieve breakthrough renewable energy solutions. Working as a team with the local community, we can create new revenue sources for farmers and landowners, improve the soil, mitigate erosion and runoff, and increase the use of renewable energy to reduce the carbon footprint. We are honored to be a part of the University’s 2020 Vision.”

Miscanthus is a perennial tall grass that the UI Power Plant has used as a biomass fuel source in recent years as part of the 2020 Vision aimed at reducing the campus’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Repreve Renewables will now begin to procure land commitments for approximately 2,500 acres in the Iowa City area. This includes the Eastern Iowa Airport where the plant will not only be harvested as a renewable energy source but also as way of improving soil and water quality by mitigating the effects of erosion in the area.