$3M global sustainability grant to fund projects on three continents


Electricity for rainforest villages in Gabon. Tent fabric that harvests solar energy for nomadic people in Kazakhstan. A modular greenhouse and fish farm in an unused industrial building in Highland Park, Michigan.

These are some of the goals and possibilities a team of 17 researchers will pursue with a new $3 million U-M Third Century Initiative Global Challenges grant.

The Third Century Initiative is a $50 million, five-year program that leverages the university’s interdisciplinary expertise to tackle some of society’s most pressing problems while creating learning opportunities for students.

The REFRESCH project, which is short for Researching Fresh Solutions to the Energy/ Water/Food Challenge in Resource-Constrained Environments, involves researchers from across campus. The project is based out of the U-M Energy Institute.

The team aims to develop and apply thoughtful solutions to problems involving access to clean water, reliable energy and fresh food in both developing and developed nations. It will begin in Gabon, Kazakhstan and Michigan.

“We have all this wonderful technology, but we can’t just rely on that,” said Johannes Schwank, a professor of chemical engineering who leads the project.

“This is going to be a very different process of interacting very carefully with the communities, learning from them what already works, and figuring out how we can improve things that are already working, without disrupting the core experience of what it means to live in that place.”

In Gabon, for example, a rainy and dry season make consistent, large-scale hydropower unrealistic for villages, and rainforest canopy would be sacrificed to build transmission lines. However, a simpler, more easily modifiable system could prove transformative for small villages.

In Kazakhstan, traditional power sources would deal a fatal blow to some residents’ nomadic way of life, but a yurt made of photovoltaic fabric could allow access to electricity virtually anywhere.

In Detroit, unused factory spaces could not be repurposed in the traditional sense without investing millions in refurbishment costs. But using the space for simple shelter from the elements, a fish-farming pod could produce both fish and nutrient-rich water, which could in turn be used to nurture a separate pod housing an indoor hydroponic vegetable farm.

REFRESCH aims to catalyze good ideas to travel not just faster, but smarter. A particularly unique aspect of the project is that researchers envision that approaches developed for one setting can be tweaked and applied to other places in what they call “reverse innovation.”

A Detroiter out hiking on a long weekend could one day fire up a portable, biomass-powered cookstove invented for Gabon, for example. A Gabonese villager could drape the roof of her hut with a photovoltaic fabric invented for use on yurts in Kazakhstan. And a Kazakh businessman might tend his fish farm in an abandoned cannery near the shore of the Aral Sea, using modular pod technology developed for a disused factory space in Detroit.

“You’re taking a creative engineering approach to resource constraints in three places, but you’re also finding a dialogue between each of the three,” Schwank said. “The idea is to have this multidirectional flow of information.”

Schwank emphasizes that although the Gabon project is moving forward rapidly, many of the project’s interconnected aims are still in the idea stage — right where they should be.

“The REFRESCH project is a perfect example of what we were looking for in Third Century Initiative proposals,” said Provost Martha Pollack. “It is bold, innovative, and brings together a broad range of disciplinary perspectives to address an important constellation of problems.”  

The REFRESCH team will serve in an advisory role for the community leaders of Highland Park and the Michigan government as they develop a workspace for what Schwank calls “multidirectional innovation.” This site will become the focal point for the conceptual design and prototype demonstration of a “water-neutral community.”

Administered by the Energy Institute, the REFRESCH group includes investigators from the College of Engineering, LSA, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, the Graham Sustainability Institute, and the Erb Institute.


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