Rice’s Shell Center awards grants for sustainable development research
Three grants announced this spring by Rice University’s Shell Center for Sustainability will allow Rice faculty and students to research ways to enhance agricultural productivity, improve water and air quality and make Houston more environmentally sustainable and resilient.
“With this 2014-16 selection of projects, the Shell Center for Sustainability is looking to continue to build on the synergy of the ‘Stress Nexus’ theme of sustainable development and resilience at the urban and coastal levels,” said John Anderson, academic director of the Shell Center. (The Stress Nexus theme projects emphasize the connections among food, water and energy in 2050 if social, environmental and economic conditions remain unchanged – for example, having enough water to generate food and energy, enough energy to generate food and water and enough food to generate energy and water.) “These projects expand on previously funded research, introduce new areas that fit within the criteria and begin to look deeper into the combined impact of these multidisciplinary and collaborative efforts.”
Studying biochar and its economic benefits
Collaborators on the “Dynamic Modeling of the Nitrogen Cycle of Biochar-Amended Soils” and “Economic Assessment of Biochar Benefits” studies include Caroline Masiello, associate professor of Earth science and chemistry; Kyriacos Zygourakis, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Kenneth Medlock, senior director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy; Christian Davies, adjunct associate professor of Earth science; and Ghasideh Pourhashem, a postdoctoral fellow at the Baker Institute.
The first project will focus on how biochar (a derivative of trees that can be added to soil to improve its quality and growing potential) retains nitrogen in different soil types and climates. The second project will be a first-of-its-kind effort to determine the cost-benefit analysis of biochar production and application. It will include analysis of factors that affect the price of biochar production, including effective water retention, nutrient pollution reduction, air pollution reduction, fertilizer cost reduction and improved crop performance, and additional benefits, such as energy use of products made from decomposing organic material, heat integration and co-production of electricity.
“To meet the world’s demand from a growing population, we need to produce more food, but more intense agriculture not only can result in environmental problems but can incur costs as well,” Pourhashem said. “For example, runoff from fertilized lands can result in huge problems such as algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico that is toxic to animals and people and can hurt industries. It is crucial to identify the feasibility of technologies that could prevent damages and save costs in a way that we could continue food production while not jeopardizing our most precious resources. Technologies like biochar might be one of the many approaches that should be taken in saving our water and keeping it clean.”
“Technologies like biochar might be one of the many approaches that should be taken in saving our water and keeping it clean.”
– Ghasideh Pourhashem
Risk and resilience along Houston’s Ship Channel
“Risk and Resilience Along Houston’s Ship Channel: Uncovering Links Between Vital Social, Environmental and Physical Systems” will be led by Jamie Padgett, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Collaborators include James Elliott, associate professor of sociology; Philip Bedient, the Herman and George R. Brown Professor of Civil Engineering; and Regina M. Buono, the Baker Botts Fellow in Energy and Environmental Regulatory Affairs at the Baker Institute’s Center for Energy Studies.
The project’s objective is to investigate the engineering and societal implications of natural hazard risks in coastal communities that are home not only to people but also industrial and energy infrastructure of national importance. The researchers will seek to develop integrated models of built, human and natural systems and will use the Ship Channel region as a case study. The goal is to advance understanding of the factors and conditions that affect storm-surge risks, both current and future, including energy/industrial infrastructure and community impacts. The project will also shed light on viable structural, natural and policy-based solutions that improve surge resiliency and offer interdisciplinary analysis framework that can be applied to other parts of the Gulf Coast and the nation.
“We are particularly interested in studying the complex dynamics of storm risk to coastal regions such as the Houston Ship Channel where there is a unique confluence of residents and industry.”
– Rice researchers
“We are particularly interested in studying the complex dynamics of storm risk to coastal regions such as the Houston Ship Channel where there is a unique confluence of residents and industry,” the researchers wrote in their proposal. “There is a traditional disconnect between our understanding of effective risk mitigation strategies from an engineering perspective and the societal implications, community perceptions and regulatory policy context for such solutions. This project aims to bridge that gap.”
Studying natural gas leakage in Houston
“An Observational and Modeling Study of Natural Gas Leakage in Urban Houston” will be conducted by Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Robert Griffin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Frank Tittel, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
The team will measure methane and ethane concentrations with a laser instrument developed by Tittel to characterize how rates of natural-gas leakage vary by location. The study is motivated by the surge in natural-gas consumption made possible by such technologies as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Leaks of methane, the primary constituent of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas that also contributes to background ozone pollution, can curtail the environmental benefits of substituting natural gas for coal or oil. While studies have sought to quantify methane leaks from natural-gas production, the leakage rates from consumption and distribution in urban areas remain highly uncertain.
“This study gives us the opportunity to explore how neighborhood-scale conditions affect emission rates. We’re hoping to be able to highlight where efforts could be targeted to reduce environmentally damaging waste of a valuable fuel.” – Daniel Cohan
“This study gives us the opportunity to explore how neighborhood-scale conditions affect emission rates,” Cohan said. “We’re hoping to be able to highlight where efforts could be targeted to reduce environmentally damaging waste of a valuable fuel.”
“We are very pleased about the quality of submissions we received this year,” Anderson said. “It makes it more difficult for the selection committee but it also shows that researchers are clearly understanding what we are trying to achieve. We thank them for allowing us to consider their proposals for research.”
The projects will begin this summer and continue over the next two years. Project details will be posted at http://shellcenter.rice.edu, under the Research link.