2021 Impact Grants
The Caltech Critical Zone Initiative
Earth's near surface environment—the top few meters of soil, rock and organic material—is known as the critical zone because it supports life. It is a complex system that is changing in known and unknown ways due to climate and anthropogenic influences. We will develop, test and apply a new state-of-the-art, multi-scale numerical model—the Critical Zone Model (CZM)— that will bridge the gap between process-based land-surface models at local scales and the Earth system models used to predict climate change at the global scale. We will predict and measure the transport, storage, and cycling of water, carbon and sediment, and model their coupling to predict the impact of anthropogenic and climate change on landscape sustainability, the carbon cycle, and the surface energy balance that feeds back to the global climate. Field measurements will focus on two critical environments at the frontline of climate change: permafrost floodplains of Arctic Alaska and a conservation laboratory in a last remaining stronghold of coastal California wilderness. We will integrate social science data and modeling to predict how social systems impact and are impacted by the critical zone under a changing climate, with a focus on understanding stakeholder perceptions and the opportunities for persuasion to take specific actions that work toward sustainability.
The outcome of this effort will be new measurement and modeling capabilities, including novel datasets from field observations, which are needed for government and non-profit groups to monitor and predict human impacts on the environment, and implement strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change in coastal California and in Native Alaskan communities within the next 10-50 years.
This is an annual, three-week intensive summer school teaching Computer Vision Methods for Ecology, seeking to empower ecologists to accurately and efficiently analyze large image, audio, or video datasets using computer vision.
Hosted at Caltech and supported by the Resnick Sustainability Institute in partnership with the Caltech AI4Science Initiative, and co-sponsored by Microsoft AI for Earth and Amazon AWS.
Our mission is to:
- Teach applied computer vision as a tool for ecological research
- Empower ecologists to build their own computer vision systems
- Grow the interdisciplinary computer vision for ecology community
- Provide access to computational resources
Visit the Summer school website to learn more or to find out how to participate.
2021 Explorer Grants
Earth's oceans serve as massive sinks for carbon dioxide, CO2. The reaction of CO2 with marine carbonates is the main natural buffering process in the climate system that modulates CO2 concentrations on a timescale of thousands of years. This project will undertake comparative studies of the dissolution of limestone in fresh- and seawater. The lessons learned about the dissolution mechanisms will be used to optimize the performance of a prototype reactor that will utilize water and limestone to efficiently trap carbon dioxide.
Lowering the energy needed for direct-air capture of carbon dioxide is one of the key requirements to make carbon removal from the atmosphere cost-effective. This project will develop a carbon dioxide desorption cycle for a solvent-based direct air capture system for carbon dioxide, based on the pH-swing of an electrochemical cell operating at room temperature, which completely eliminates heating requirements and significantly reduces the energy consumption for direct air capture solvent regeneration.
The volume of optical images available to monitor Earth Surface changes due to climate change has grown exponentially, in particular thanks to the launch of constellations of nano-satellites, but the ability to use these data is challenging due to imprecision in the current way these images are represented. Working with images delivered by our partner Planet Labs, we will develop a method to refine the standard representation scheme and to implement it in an open source software package.
This project investigates changes in the water cycle in rapidly growing and extremely susceptible monsoon regions, focusing not only on intensity but also on onset timing and season length changes in response to year-to-year variability and global warming.
Efficient conversion of solar energy, water, and carbon dioxide into renewable fuels, requires detailed understanding of complex multi-element systems and microenvironments. The funds will be used to purchase equipment to develop a new x-ray spectrometer to enable characterization of these complex systems under realistic conditions.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report, one of the questions raised was the role dust mineralogy plays on the atmosphere. The sign of the radiative forcing effect on the climate is poorly understood and is one of the five largest uncertainties in climate models. This work will focus on study of the contribution of dust aerosols to radiative forcing and geochemistry in Earth's system models by developing a new approach to determine the mineralogy of dust source regions from remote sensing data.
Methane emissions are rising globally and are now approximately double pre-industrial levels. Biogenic and atmospheric methane can be oxidized in soils by microorganisms - aerobic methanotrophs. The understanding of aerobic methanotrophy is important to the past, present, and the future carbon and greenhouse budgets. This work will focus the impacts that regenerative agriculture practices have on soil-based methane sinks in California.
As the global temperatures rise, the majority of Earth's frozen freshwater is now subject to an uncertain future. This proposal will develop a new model of meltwater transport within snowpack that will advance the understanding of how our frozen water reserve would respond to climate change.
This project aims to optimize the synthesis of activated carbon derived from pistachio shells for use in the capture and storage of carbon dioxide and methane, for sustainable stewardship of greenhouse gases.
To address climate change, new efficient energy storage technologies, including portable energy storage for electric vehicles (EVs), are needed. This work aims to fundamentally re-design the construct of rechargeable batteries for EVs by incorporating 3D, all-solid-state battery design that will enable increase in energy and power capabilities at low weight, cost, and mechanical resilience, that are not attainable in conventional battery architectures.
With the increase in the ease of global travel and trade, some agricultural pests are no longer contained to their native habitats. Drosophila suzukii, a pest native to Southeast Asia, that attacks soft fruit, arrived in North America and Europe in 2008, and can now be found in South America and Africa. The goal of this proposal is to develop a transgene method for suppressing populations of Drosophila suzukii.
Capturing CO2 from point sources of emission, like power plants or cement manufacturing facilities, can help slow catastrophic global warming. We will develop a fluidized bed reactor system for point source capture of CO2, using powdered or porous granular calcium carbonate as the single-ingredient solid adsorbent via the CaCO3 + CO2 + H2O ↔ Ca(HCO3)2 cycle.
This new research study focuses on cement production, a leading contributor of global CO2 emissions, and the development of modeling tools to calculate, and to look for levers to increase, the uptake of CO2 during cement mixing and curing.
In the changing climate, the higher temperatures are causing some permanently frozen subsoils in the Arctic floodplains to thaw, which could result in destabilization of riverbanks and acceleration of the rates of river lateral migration. As a result, critical infrastructure and communities are now threatened. This work aims to conduct lab experiments to test permafrost riverbank erosion models that are needed for climate-change adaptation plans in Arctic Alaska.
Photovoltaic generation is creating more frequent and severe voltage instability in the grid. Traditional solutions are costly and ineffective. We will develop a new solution: algorithms for optimal placement, sizing, and operation of batteries for voltage stabilization, and work with Pasadena Water and Power to deploy them in their grid.
Soils store large quantities of carbon. Knowledge of the chemical, physical, as well as biological characteristics of the soils is needed to fully understand the carbon-storage capacity. The proposal aims to create a public database of quantitative information on soils.
Accurate biodiversity monitoring is essential for the development of new sustainability policies, guidelines, and strategies, and requires automation of the analysis of large image and sound data sets. This proposal aims to develop new machine learning frameworks from multiple data streams, and will help to improve accuracy, spatial, and temporal resolution of the biodiversity monitoring projects.
Plant growth is supported in many ways by the microbial communities. Redox active metabolites (RAMs), e.g., phenazines, are important signaling molecules and redox regulator in these microbial consortia. This work will focus on the development of the robust and flexible RAMs synthesis to support studies of how these compounds influence microbial consortia, with the goal to advance human efforts of mitigating climate change and food security.
Single-use plastics generate an alarming amount of waste that currently finds its way into the environment. This work aims to develop a new class of materials that can be chemically programmed to depolymerize at the end of their lifetime to yield useful chemical feedstocks.
Magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca) based batteries have the potential to store large amounts of electricity, without some of the safety or materials availability issues of current lithium-ion based systems. Leveraging the synthetic expertise of the Agapie group and the battery expertise of the See group, we will synthesize, characterize, and measure new noncorrosive anions as supporting electrolytes in Mg and Ca batteries to enable the development of full cells.
Developing the nematode Steinernema hermaphroditum as a delivery vector for engineered microbes into soil environments
Working to engineer the rhizosphere (the soil's microbiome) by adding beneficial microbe strains holds promise for developing more sustainable ecosystems. However, there is no well established mechanism to ensure the introduced microbes will take hold. This project aims to genetically engineer a nematode-bacteria symbiotic system to deliver these beneficial microbes to the soil environment.
We propose designing polymer membranes with optimized permeability and selectivity for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through machine-learning assisted polymer engineering and high throughput screening. These polymer membranes can be optimized for performance separating CO2 from flue gas for more efficient capture.
Understanding the effect of microfauna bioturbation on the rhizosphere and carbon sequestration requires novel imaging strategies. The goal of this work is to investigate and evaluate a new technology that will be used as part of a new ‘rhizosphere camera' to measure the long-term impact of bioturbation on the rhizosphere carbon sequestration rate.