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Biofuels and the Fiction of the Average Farm

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BY JOHN SHEEHAN

Several years ago, Gevo Inc., which operates a biorefinery in Luverne, Minn., approached the University of Minnesota with what seems like an obvious question: How sustainable is the corn it uses in its southwestern facility?
 
I say "obvious" because almost everyone (experts and nonexperts alike) thinks they already know the answer. It seems like we take it for granted that fuels and chemicals made from corn are a "bad idea" because of corn's apparently large carbon footprint, which Argonne National Lab estimates to be 371 grams CO2 per kilogram of corn harvested on average in the U.S.

Boreas Leadership Alum Gets Earth Day Spotlight

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Plenty of folks were out enjoying the overdue warmth of the spring sunshine on Earth Day yesterday -- appropriate weather and occasion for a TV news spot highlighting an IonE-supported study at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum on how different landscapes affect local temperatures. The study is part of a project on the urban heat island effect, in which buildings and other urban infrastructure absorb and radiate the sun's heat, causing cities to be relatively warmer than their rural neighbors.

Brian Smoliak, a postdoctoral student in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, spoke confidently in front of the WCCO cameras as they tracked him installing temperature sensors at the arboretum. Smoliak credits an IonE Boreas Leadership Program workshop for his confidence in front of the camera.

"I attended the Boreas class called 'Interacting with the Media,' where we got to talk with media from print, TV and radio. It was helpful to get in front of people from media and practice talking about my work," he says. "They also suggested reaching out and pitching stories to the media, so that's what I did."

Smoliak contacted WCCO, suggesting that the project would make a good Earth Day story, and they agreed. "What you saw is what we got," says Smoliak about the news clip, which can viewed on the WCCO website.

The project to install temperature sensors at the arboretum was funded by an IonE Mini Grant. Smoliak's work with Islands in the Sun on the urban heat island effect is also supported by an IonE Discovery Grant.

Can Cleaner Cookstoves Save Lives?

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A global partnership led by Institute on the Environment researcher Jill Baumgartner will investigate the health and climate impacts of advanced cooking and heating stoves as part of a three-year study on clean household energy technology in rural China.

Indoor air pollution contributes to 4 million premature deaths each year and is the single leading environmental health risk factor globally, according to the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study. Half the world's people breathe in the dirty smoke from coal, wood and other solid fuels burned in inefficient cooking and heating stoves. In addition to respiratory health impacts like childhood pneumonia and lung cancer, studies point to indoor smoke as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It is also a major contributor to regional and global climate warming.

Kaler's Spotlight Shines on IonE Projects

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In University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler's year-at-a-glance video on U of M achievements, several IonE-affiliated projects get the spotlight.

A MODEL OF COLLABORATION - The Resilient Communities Project is an initiative of the U's Sustainable Faculty Networkwith funding and administrative support provided by IonE and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. In its second year RCP is partnering with the city of North St. Paul to address community-identified sustainability projects. 

HIGH NOTES -  Daniel Crawford, College of Liberal Arts undergraduate; Scott St. George, IonE resident fellow and professor of geography, College of Liberal Arts; and Todd Reubold, IonE director of communications, put their heads together to develop "A Song of Our Warming Planet," which sets climate change data to music.

ALL THE MORE POWER - The University of Minnesota Morris - West Central Research and Outreach Center project that uses wind energy to produce anhydrous ammonia that can be used as fertilizer was funded through an IonE Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment grant. The project is part of a larger goal to reduce fossil fuel consumption in agriculture. 

Connections not featured in the video but ones of which we are equally proud are UMD's Large Lakes Observatory, which is supported by IonE, and Sarah Hobbie, who is an IonE resident fellow. Both are listed on the president's "2013 A Year to Remember" Web page.

Resonate! Merging Climate Science and Music

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11-20-daniel crawford, scott st george, todd reubold.jpgFor Scott St. George, Institute on the Environment resident fellow and University of Minnesota geography professor, teaching people about climate science is music to his ears, literally.

St. George, College of Liberal Arts undergraduate student Daniel Crawford and IonE director of communications Todd Reubold shared their experience of reaching new audiences by turning climate science data into music in last week's Frontiers in the Environment lecture, "Resonate! How 90 Seconds of Cello Music is Helping People Connect with Climate Science."

Where Art & Science Meet

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Jeff Thornton, Harvest Field sized.jpgWhat happens at the intersection of art and science? Come to IonE's Commons: Meeting & Art Space to see for yourself!

In the commons' new exhibit, "Tales of Environmental Turbulence: The Common Trail of Art and Science," 17 artists explore challenging cultural and scientific concepts. 

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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