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Take a Step Back

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BY JUSTIN MILLER

Whether you're an environmental scientist working to restore biodiversity in the Amazon or just someone practicing an eco-friendly lifestyle to the best of your abilities, you know the little things are important. However, the day-to-day routine can give you tunnel vision. At some point we all need to step back and refocus on the global picture.

Can We Make Plastics Sustainable?

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Plastics are a vital part of our lives, but they also are rife with adverse environmental impacts. What to do? In this fast-paced three-minute video, IonE and the Center for Sustainable Polymers explore how we can enjoy the benefits of plastics and keep our planet healthy, too.

Have another three minutes? Check out these Big Question videos exploring solutions to other top environmental issues of our time:
 
Big Question: Feast or Famine? 
Big Question: What is Nature Worth?
Big Question: Is Earth Past the Tipping Point? 

A Design Concept Whose Time Has Come?

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green_leaves.jpgManufacturing is often perceived as a downward-spiraling one-way street: Choose raw materials with little or no consideration of the environmental or health impacts; use energy to make products from them; use more energy to distribute, market and use the products; then throw everything - whether packaging or product - away when it's outlasted its usefulness.

Wrong, Chuck Bennett told a full house at this week's Frontiers in the Environment event: "We have a system problem - the cradle-to-grave industrial paradigm."

Vice president of Earth and community care at Aveda, an international personal care products company, Bennett believes in - and pursues - a better way, based on the principles and practices made famous a decade ago by Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things.

The Cradle to Cradle approach, Bennett told his audience, is built on three premises:

Waste = Food

Use Current Solar Energy

Celebrate Diversity

Waste = food, Bennett said, is a matter of mimicking nature, where the products of one activity become the inputs for another. In nature's economy, he said, materials are continuously recycled; Cradle to Cradle brings this thinking to the industrial economy as well.
Using current solar energy is a matter of tapping the sun's resources now rather than relying on the limited supplies of fossil fuels. Celebrating diversity - a concept Bennett said is central to the Aveda brand - means valuing the richness inherent in biological, cultural and conceptual systems.

"All of this translates to a bigger vision for the company," Bennett said.  

Like to learn more? Check out the video of Bennett's talk, "Cradle-to-Cradle: A Design Concept Whose Time Has Come?" here.

Outburst! Meets Twitter

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"Fill your brain for free," the advance publicity said. And that's just what folks did last week as 22 Institute on the Environment resident fellows made lively five-minute "Outburst!" presentations on the Big Question they're addressing, how they're doing it, and what it means for the rest of us.

Watch the archived presentation here - or, for just a taste of the talks and the variety of topics covered, check out this sample of live-tweets from attendees:

Partying with the Institute on the Environment #Outburst!

Jon Foley introducing Outburst! now. Why are we here at Institute on the Environment? To have an impact in the world.

I love how people in computer science are interested in real problems, and want to study / save the planet!

Okediji: the right regulatory framework allows us to capture the value of climate change technology

Now at Outburst! Volkan Isler on robotic systems for collecting data, starting with carp (yes, fish)

New concept - "Environmental nutrition" or environmental science merged with nutrition and health

"2 Billion More Coming to Dinner" film coming soon out of Institute on the Environment and Sci Museum collaboration

Robotic data mules replace graduate students... at least for tedious tasks

At Outburst! James Forester on how movement ecology interacts w/ disease

Costs and time for patenting green technology create imperative for a fast-track system

How can our developing world technology be made available for the "bottom billion" to survive, thrive?

In response to climate change, can we create fast track licensing mechanism for green technology for global south?

Klass: federal laws and state laws need to be harmonized to get our national energy infrastructure in shape.

Banerjee says twitter helps researchers understand public sentiment, find new stories... so I will tweet EVEN MORE

Geoengineering governance? We HAVE NOT thought through the law. At all.

Make law work better for environment and justice? Crazy!

Computer science can help us understand abrupt changes in climate, can help complete large forest ecology database

Household flux calculator - measure your impact on the flux of nutrients in the environment!

Outburst! Is perfect for those of us who are ADD and love learning about everything. AKA most environmental people I know.

We lack mechanisms for cost sharing for smart grid transmission - resulting in our current clunky system

An application of Shekhar's research? Evacuation route planning so transportation plans are sustainable

In Haiti, neighborhoods must be self sufficient, of necessity, and community approach fits culture

How can Midwestern agriculture create new prosperity and public goods by producing more from the same land base?

Spatial Data Mining - great potential for advancing climate science

Membrane filtration or reverse osmosis, important mechanism to get clean water

Neighborhood scale district energy systems part of the sustainability plans at UMore Park

In India, hydrological change, agriculture and the economy are linked, and dramatically impact food security

All water on northern plains (Canada) goes through Lake Winnipeg, a resource shared by 4 provinces, 2 states

Osofsky tells how multidimensional environment and energy governance and justice could be our path for better future

More from Osofsky - environmental justice and the BP oil spill shows we need better legal/ governance structures

Household flux calculator - measure your own flux!

In an area of heavy commercial forest harvesting sits the Wanang Research Area in Papua New Guinea

Air pollution among top 15 global cuause of mortality, estimated to cause 1M premature deaths annually

At Outburst! Jonathan Schilling asks "How do fungi eat and WHO CARES?" Hmmm.

Schilling: Fungi are gutless, toothless and heartless wonders.

Wood-degrading fungi provide lessons for bioconversion, may capture VOCs, methane

Now at Outburst! Alex Klass from law school on how to build out nation-wide grid for transmission of electricity

Nanotechnology widely used now, in 1000s of products. What is it? Engineered and very small

A Minnesota design team works hand in hand with Guanacaste national park staff in Costa Rica - on a coloring book

Why care about transmission? Current system weighed down by waste and makes incorporating renewables difficult.

Threshold: things flip over into a new state. A key element of human-environment systems.

Manson says if "complex" is too complicated for you - think "black swan" instead

Occupational disease risk high in India due to scarcity of infrastructure for enforcement, weak power of labor

Comparing India and China, lessons for rapid industrial growth and occupational health

Now at Outburst! Gurumurthy Ramachandran says "I win the award for longest name" Guess so.

CO2+ Ingenuity = Renewable Fuel?

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catalyst.jpgAlchemists earned their fame for allegedly turning lead to gold. Real chemist Connie Lu is out to do them one better. She's hot on the trail of a way to turn carbon dioxide - the primary contributor today to global climate change - into a liquid fuel that could be used to power automobiles and more.

A member of the Department of Chemistry faculty in the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering, Lu explores how metals can be used as catalysts to coax molecules into undergoing reactions that wouldn't normally happen in nature. She remembers vividly as a sophomore in college watching a metal-containing molecule split dinitrogen into two nitrogen atoms - a feat not unlike bench-pressing 500 pounds.

"It just really captured my interest that metals could be used to activate small molecules," she said. She's been finding new ways for them them to do that ever since.

With the help of an early career grant from IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, Lu is now applying her interest and expertise to developing metal-containing catalysts that could help convert CO2 into methanol, a building block for biofuels, with a relatively low energy input.

The trick, she believes, is to use two metal atoms bonded together rather than just one as the catalyst. Easier said than done, however.

"Metal-metal bonds are unusual. They don't really exist in nature," Lu says. So she's making her own, by building molecular "scaffolds" - frameworks metals can fit into that juxtapose them closely enough to bond with each other.

Lu and her students have already developed a functional scaffold, and are now using it to make a library of metal-metal pairs, with a focus on abundant (and therefore inexpensive) metals. They'll be looking at the properties of each - and eventually, they hope, find one that  can handle the CO2 - methanol conversion in a relatively energy-efficient way.

Lu loves making new molecules for their own sake. The prospect of a planet-saving application is a big bonus.

"I think it's the act of creation that's ultimately the most fun for me and my students," she says. "[But] we're happy to know we're making them for a good purpose, that they will ultimately be useful."

Image courtesy of Connie Lu

Activation Energy

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hillmyer3.jpgMost plastics are made from nonrenewable fossil fuels, are not biodegradable and in some cases release chemicals that can harm humans. But in recent years, a number of innovators have begun developing more sustainable plastics from renewable, bio-based materials instead. Three years ago, University of Minnesota chemistry professor Marc Hillmyer decided to direct his research down that innovative track.

To pursue his ideas for  making more environmentally friendly plastics, Hillmyer needed financial support. Unfortunately, many funding sources require preliminary evidence that novel ideas have merit - the classical university research Catch-22. Fortunately, Hillmyer was at the U of M. And the U of M has something other universities don't: the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

A signature program of IonE, IREE disburses funds from Xcel Energy's Renewable Development Fund and Conservation Improvement Program to support innovative renewable energy and environmental research and demonstration projects. IREE awarded Hillmyer $800,000 to establish a Center for Sustainable Polymers and pursue his idea of creating plastics from renewable, sustainable resources instead of finite fossil fuels.

This week, thanks to the "activation energy" provided by IREE, the University announced that Hillmyer had received a three-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to continue his work. 

"We are tremendously excited about this new support from the NSF," Hillmyer said. "With Minnesota's leadership in the area of biobased materials and the University's breadth of expertise, we are well positioned to make significant and important research contributions."

A great success story for the value of funding innovation - and just one of many IREE has to tell. Just within the past few weeks, for instance, Stephen Campbell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, received word that he was awarded a U.S. Department of Energy grant to advance the development of more efficient solar cells - thanks in part to preliminary support from IREE. 

All told, since it was founded in 2003, IREE has invested nearly $30.7 million in more than 200 renewable energy and environment research projects. Those funds have helped leverage an additional $63 million in funding from external resources to pursue technologies for a better world. Good for the researcher, good for the U, and good for all of us who stand to benefit from building a more renewable, sustainable world.

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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