The Graham Sustainability Institute’s Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program has announced a series of projects chosen for an initial round of funding, each with dramatic potential to help reduce net carbon emissions.

The multiyear, multimillion-dollar program was created in 2020 with a $5 million gift from anonymous donors.

“I congratulate the U-M researchers of the CNAP teams whose exciting projects apply multidisciplinary problem-solving to the challenge of climate change,” said President Mark Schlissel. “The CNAP program is a tremendous example of what we can contribute as a comprehensive public research university, with the generosity of our donors supporting efforts that have enormous potential to help address an urgent societal problem.”

In this funding round, seven 1- to 2-year projects totaling $1.75 million were chosen from among 37 proposed projects involving 105 U-M faculty and researchers. The selected projects address energy storage, carbon capture and sequestration, public opinion, behavior and equity.

“We are grateful to the donors and thrilled to be in a position to support faculty across U-M as they blaze much-needed trails to carbon neutrality,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, Graham Family Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute and co-chair of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. “We expect these projects will have a major impact, both on future research and in real-world applications.”

Given the urgency and complexity of reaching carbon neutrality, this funding round leveraged the breadth of expertise across U-M, supporting interdisciplinary projects on a spectrum from technological to social.

“We propose a very bold idea, aiming to couple, in one device, the capture of CO2 and its direct conversion into useful fuels using renewable electricity as the energy driver,” said Suljo Linic, Martin Lewis Perl Collegiate Professor of Chemical Engineering, and professor of chemical engineering and of integrative systems and design. “We need to develop complex materials with multiple functionalities that can accomplish the task.”

Linic is principal investigator on a funded project that also includes researchers from mechanical engineering and chemistry. “We hope that the CNAP grant will provide a foundation for a larger center-level project that would allow us to expand the team and build on the work performed under this initiative,” he said.

Other projects aim to reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, develop cost-effective thermal energy storage, lower the carbon footprint of U-M student diets, promote equitable heat electrification, and influence perceptions around climate change and carbon neutrality-related issues.

“The cascading national crises of the past year will inevitably shift the outlook of major research universities, including the University of Michigan, with respect to myriad forms of community engagement and public service,” said David Porter, professor of English language and literature, and of comparative literature, and principal investigator on a project designed to reimagine community narratives around carbon neutrality that is part of his Detroit River Story Lab.

“I hope that some of (our) experimental approaches … will serve as useful models for expanded academic-community partnerships at U-M in years to come.”

To learn more about the projects and the researchers working on them, visit the project web pages listed below:

• “Evaluating Thermal Energy Storage for Deep Decarbonization” — This emerging energy storage solution could offer the best of both worlds — supporting deep decarbonization and keeping costs in check. $300,000

For the first time in 50 years, low-carbon technologies have overtaken coal globally as the leading source of electricity. With the penetration of renewables continuing to increase, developing cost-effective, scalable, and duration-flexible energy storage is critical to balance energy supply and demand. Enter TES: thermal energy storage.

Rohini Bala Chandran, mechanical engineering, College of Engineering, (PI); Michael Craig, School for Environment and Sustainability; Donald Siegel, mechanical engineering, COE

• “Diversifying Cover Crops to Sequester Carbon in Agricultural Soil” — Could a legume-grass cover crop mixture finally solve the soil-carbon dilemma? $151,000

Agricultural cover crops are non-harvested crops grown in rotation between primary crops. When cover crops decompose, they contribute organic matter that contains important nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and thus lowering the overall carbon-cost of row-crop farming. But is there a way also to conserve that organic matter to sequester carbon in the soil long-term?

Jennifer Blesh, SEAS (PI); Kent Connell, SEAS; Timothy James, ecology and evolutionary biology, LSA; Julie Doll, Michigan State University

“Reshaping Food Choice in U-M Dining Halls to Accelerate Carbon Neutrality” — Small shifts to help students eat less meat could bring big reductions in food-related greenhouse gases. $300,000

Individual diets vary vastly in their carbon footprints, and the disparities are driven largely by the relative proportion of animal-source foods. Beef, for example, is responsible for 50 times the emissions per kilogram of field-grown vegetables. Reducing consumption of carbon-intense foods like beef could have transformative impacts on climate change.

Andrew Jones, School of Public Health (PI); Lesli Hoey, urban and regional planning, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; Alex Bryan, Student Life; Steve Mangan, Keith Soster, Lindsay Haas and Frank Turchan, MDining

• “CO2 to Fuels Through Chemistry and Technology” — Inventing a device to capture, concentrate, and convert CO2 emissions to viable fuels and chemicals. $300,000

The drive to limit the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has spurred widespread efforts to develop technologies that capture and reuse or store carbon. This research team will develop a renewable energy-powered, integrated process for the capture of CO2 and its conversion to useful fuels and chemicals.

Suljo Linic, chemical engineering, CoE (PI); Rohini Bala Chandran, mechanical engineering, and Bryan Goldsmith and Nirala Singh, chemical engineering, CoE; Charles McCrory, chemistry, LSA

• “Detroit River Story Lab’s Carbon Neutrality Narratives Project” — Elevating stories of the river’s past, present, and future to enable effective regional climate action. $270,000

The Detroit River Watershed is one of the nation’s most deeply and visibly implicated in the troubling legacy of the carbon economy. This project aims to partner with these communities as they continue reshaping the shared narratives that will lay the groundwork for a sustainable post-carbon future for the region.

David Porter, English language and literature, and comparative literature, LSA (PI); Maria Arquero de Alarcon, architecture and urban planning, Taubman College; Rebecca Hardin, SEAS; Melissa Duhaime, ecology and evolutionary biology, and Kristin Hass, American culture, LSA

• “The Promise and Risks of Framing Climate Change as a Migration Issue” — Could evoking empathy for the victims of climate change spur Americans across the political spectrum to act to reduce its causes? $137,000

This research team will build upon its past work to explore different framings of climate migration, seeking framings that will translate into support for low-carbon policies. The researchers hope to create a set of best practices for journalists, policymakers, and climate advocates to present this vital aspect of climate change.

Kaitlin Raimi, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy (PI); Julia Lee Cunningham, Steven M. Ross School of Business; Nathaniel Geiger and Melanie Sarge, Indiana University; Ash Gillis, Pennsylvania State University

• “Ensuring Equity in Electrified Space Heating” — As the move to electrified heating stretches the electrical grid, will the poor bear the burdens of discomfort and high cost? $300,000

Each winter, a large proportion of families in the U.S. maintain their homes below the 64 degrees Fahrenheit considered healthy. As home heating moves toward full electrification and utilities require customers to adopt pricing plans designed to reduce peak demand, low-income customers could face a tradeoff between cost and comfort.

Parth Vaishnav, SEAS (PI); Tony Reames, SEAS

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