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Grants Fund Wide Variety of Climate Change Research Projects

September 25, 2023
UC Merced's Experimental Smart Farm is shown.

UC Merced researchers will tackle climate changes in multiple ways through more than $4 million in grants recently awarded from within the university.

The Office of Research and Economic Development (ORED) issued nine awards totaling $4,096,197 for proposals that range from studying methane gas emissions to making electronic vehicles more accessible to people.

For the initial round of funding, ORED received 23 high-quality proposals that underwent two rounds of review, said Gillian Wilson, the university's vice chancellor for Research, Innovation and Economic Development.

Grant recipients said the funds will help advance their important and timely work.

Mechanical engineering Professor YangQuan Chen was awarded one of two $1 million grants. Chen and his team are putting together the Center for Methane Emission Research and Innovation (CMERI) at UC Merced. Chen's work focuses on measuring methane in the environment, then reducing it by mixing manure with biochar - a charcoal-like material produced by burning organic matter - and applying it to soil. Other researchers are working on altering livestock feed to reduce the number of cow "burps" produced - another source of methane.

The center operates on what Chen called "closed-loop thinking" - measuring methane emissions, reducing them and measuring again.

"We need to do something, but first we need to measure to determine how much methane is produced," Chen said. "Our work is starting to draw national and international attention."

A second $1 million grant was awarded to life and environmental sciences Professor Rebecca Ryals, whose team is examining the use of compost as an equitable climate solution in the San Joaquin Valley.

Computer science and engineering Professor Shijia Pan will use a $648,466 award to develop an artificial intelligence-enabled low-cost and low-power sensor network to monitor multiple types of wildfire emissions that have negative impacts on climate and health.

"Our mission is to enhance the Central Valley's climate resilience against wildfires with the power of the Artificial Intelligence of Things (AIoT) and the collaborative efforts of the community, for a healthier and more sustainable future," Pan said.

In partnership with the Central California Asthma Collaborative (CCAC), SocioEnvironmental and Education Network (SEEN), UC Merced Science & Conservation Field Station (SCICON), and AirGradient, Pan's team will deploy sensor nodes to public sectors and private residences in underserved areas to monitor and mitigate the effects of wildfires on the climate and public health.

Life and environmental sciences Professor Adeyemi Adebiyi is leading a project investigating secondary effects of agricultural land repurposing on climate, air quality and human health in the San Joaquin Valley.

"Land repurposing is one of the strategies to mitigate the overdraft of groundwater compounded by climate change and wholesale agriculture," Adebiyi said. "However, the secondary effects of land repurposing, which include heat and air quality extremes, can have substantial ramifications for the livelihood and health of the vulnerable populations of the San Joaquin Valley."

Adebiyi was awarded a $298,224 grant to examine the unexplored impacts of land-repurposing scenarios on local climates and estimate the extent of health effects associated with exposures to heat and air quality extremes.

"This project is important because it will provide insights for decision-makers to prioritize and develop effective adaptation strategies by incorporating the secondary effects of land repurposing in the most vulnerable communities," Adebiyi said. "Our project will also help raise awareness and educate people on the environmental and health impacts of land repurposing, such as air quality extremes and heat stress."

Mechanical engineering Professor Ricardo Pinto de Castro was awarded $475,386 to promote equitable access to public charging infrastructure, which will increase accessibility for disadvantaged groups to buy and use electronic vehicles (EVs).

"One of the main issues that limits EV adoption in California is the lack of charging infrastructure for people who live in apartments or homes without off-street parking," Pinto de Castro said. "These groups often need to park their cars on public streets with limited or no access to charging, which creates a barrier for accessing clean transportation and environmental benefits such as improved air quality. Our project tackles this barrier by prioritizing access of public

charging infrastructure to disadvantaged users."

Also working on research related to EVs is mechanical engineering Professor Ashlie Martini, who received a $50,000 grant to work on a way to increase the vehicles' range.

"Electric vehicles are the future of California's transportation system, but adoption of these sustainable transportation options has been slow, especially in rural communities in the Central Valley where people tend to drive farther and charging stations are less available," Martini said. "This project is focused on electric vehicle lubricants that directly affect energy efficiency and, therefore, vehicle range. UC Merced students, in partnership with Rtec Instruments in San Jose, will enable advancements in lubricant technologies that will increase the range and facilitate adoption of electric vehicles."

Chemistry and biochemistry Professor Michael Findlater is working on transforming harmful greenhouse gas into polycarbonates.

"Over the past century, the development of plastics has revolutionized our daily life by facilitating the replacement of natural building materials with more durable and flexible synthetic materials," Findlater said. "Although the increasing use of plastics has led to an improvement of our life in many aspects, the environmental stress caused by producing and disposing of plastics is severe and requires immediate attention. In 2006, over 68% of the plastics produced were manufactured from petroleum-derived sources, and the extensive abuse of fossil fuel is significantly increasing the emission amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), resulting in an unstable global climate environment."

Findlater's $50,000 grant will go toward his work to use catalysis to transform carbon dioxide into polymers.

"This work, if successful, delivers an instantaneous and large-scale use of CO 2 as a platform feedstock for the chemical industry," he said. "We really can turn CO 2 into value-added products to directly help our climate."

Molecular and cell biology Professor Mike Cleary's project is aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions by "fly composting."

Cleary and his co-PIs, life and environmental sciences Professor Gordon Bennett and mechanical engineering Professor Gerardo Diaz, were awarded $49,970 to investigate using black soldier flies to reduce gas emissions.

Organic waste in landfills accounts for 20 % of California's methane emissions, Cleary said.

"One solution is to feed food waste to black soldier fly (BSF) larvae - the larvae consume nearly any organic material, in the process limiting methane emissions," Cleary said. "We want to optimize BSF composting by increasing the genetic diversity of domesticated flies and selecting strains with useful traits. We will also study how fly genetics affects microbes living in the larval gut, with the goal of identifying an optimal fly genotype-microbiome combination."

The researchers plan to start BSF-based food-waste composting operation that will allow real-world testing in addition to benefiting the community. And they are partnering with a local 4H group to do educational outreach and encourage youth to explore additional benefits of BSF composting, such as production of high-quality soil amendment.

Said Cleary, "I'm most excited about the multiple scales of this project - from the fine details of fly genetics to the large-scale processing of campus food waste."

Mechanical engineering Professor James Palko was awarded $524,151 to research treatments for drinking water.

"This project is a collaboration between the groups of professors Colleen Naughton and Thomas Harmon in civil and environmental engineering and Min Hwan Lee and myself in mechanical engineering," Palko said. "The aim is to better understand and develop new, more effective treatments for particularly challenging pollutants in drinking water."

Water quality is a serious issue in many communities in the Central Valley, an issue that climate change continues to exacerbate, Palko said. One of the most challenging pollutants is the compound 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (TCP). TCP was a component of soil fumigants that were used throughout California and the world for decades, and it has since migrated into the groundwater in many agricultural communities.

"This project will develop new approaches to eliminate TCP from drinking water that overcome the limitations constraining current treatment methods," Palko said. "We are using electrochemistry, directly adding or removing electrons from TCP or substances that can attack it, to break down the pollutant into harmless byproducts. This approach has the potential to be implemented in simple, robust treatment devices and also holds promise in treating related compounds such as the per/polyfluoroalkyl 'forever chemicals' that have recently become a significant concern."

Money for the grants came from the State of California, which designated $18 million to UC Merced, per AB 179, for climate action research and innovation to address critical needs of the state. ORED was designated to administer these funds.

The focus for these funds is on applied research and development projects that will build capacity for climate resilience, adaptation and mitigation across the state.

In keeping with UC Merced's commitment to community and to serving the state's diverse population, awarded projects explicitly consider the disparate impact of climate change/action on vulnerable communities and incorporate the perspectives of partners/investigators from diverse disciplines, backgrounds, genders, race/ethnicities and lived experiences, administrators said.

A second and final seed fund competition this fall awarded the remaining roughly $5 million.