Advances in sensor technologies have the potential to revolutionize the analysis and management of energy and environmental systems, providing opportunities for fine-grained monitoring of these systems across multiple scales. These capabilities can give regulators, policymakers, utility managers, and researchers the capacity to understand how these systems are functioning with a degree of precision and detail never before possible. The new understanding delivered by these sensing technologies can then, in turn, inform the creation of new, targeted, evidence-based policies and priorities that have the potential to make energy systems management more efficient and more effective. What’s needed at this crucial stage is researchers willing to develop and deploy sensors in imaginative, innovative ways that can demonstrate the usefulness of these new sensing capabilities across a range of applications in energy and environmental sectors.
In response to this need, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation fielded a Request for Proposals (RFP) for cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary research projects led by early or mid-career researchers that sought to develop and deploy sensors in novel ways to improve the measurement and management of energy or environmental systems. Nearly 150 submissions were received in response to this open call.
The Foundation is proud to announce that it has made four grants totaling $5.7 million in response to the RFP. Selected projects are led by a diverse array of early-career principal investigators and involve a range of disciplinary approaches, methodological techniques, team compositions, and geographic focus areas. Some projects are likely to generate research results capable of having more direct, near-term impacts, while others are designed to lay the scientific groundwork for longer-term transformations of the energy system.
Oregon State University
Erica Fischer, Oregon State University
Lisa Ellsworth, Oregon State University
Jenna Tilt, Oregon State University
Lauren Linderman, University of Minnesota
Brad Wham, University of Colorado, Boulder
To develop and deploy novel sensor technologies for improved Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) fire resilience
Wildfires, earthquakes, floods, and other natural hazards have the potential to damage or degrade the nation’s energy infrastructure. In particular, damaged pipelines can become susceptible to leaks and bursts, spilling oil, gas, or drinking water into the environment. Frayed electricity wires can spark new fires, resulting in millions in property damage and acres of burned forest. Impaired junction boxes can malfunction, leading to unpredictable blackouts for thousands of consumers. Despite these significant risks, utilities have little ability to detect damage to their energy pipeline distribution networks after such events happen, in part because these disasters are likely to destroy the very sensors needed to detect such damage.
This grant funds a project by a team led by Erica Fischer at Oregon State University to begin to address this problem by starting with the risks posed by wildfires to water pipelines and other forms of energy infrastructure. Fischer has pulled together a multi-university and multi-sectoral team to develop and deploy a suite of robust, affordable sensors capable of withstanding the intense heat of a wildfire, to indicate whether critical temperature thresholds have been surpassed due to the temperature of the fire on the ground surface.
Taken together with information about the plastic or metal used in the pipe network, this data can be used to infer whether the pipe was likely to have sustained damage during the wildfire event and whether it may be leaching contaminates into the water distribution system. These sensors will be integrated with existing sensing technologies to significantly decrease the vulnerability of America’s energy infrastructure and provide local decision-makers with actionable intelligence about response options in the aftermath of disasters.
University of Michigan
Eric Kort, University of Michigan
Angel Adames-Corraliza, University of Michigan
Maggie Allan, University of Michigan
Adam Brandt, Stanford University
Daniel Zavala-Araiza, Environmental Defense Fund
Stefan Schwietzke, Environmental Defense Fund
To use airborne and satellite measurements to monitor offshore energy production and natural gas flaring
Offshore oil and gas facilities—rigs pumping fossil fuels from the ocean floor—account for a quarter of the world’s production, and yet there are few rigorous studies of how these facilities contribute to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially in terms of how much methane gas leaks out during these processes. Their location, sometimes miles offshore, makes them problematic to survey and current satellite technology has difficultly accurately detecting emissions against the deep blue background of the surrounding ocean. These facilities, and other oil and gas production sites located onshore, regularly flare their excess natural gas, lighting it on fire to prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere. Yet again, there are few rigorous studies of how effective this practice is and how much of the excess methane gas is actually consumed in the flare. Without good data on emissions from these sites, regulators and policymakers cannot reliably estimate how much these facilities contribute to climate change and are unable to make informed decisions about how to manage them.
This grant funds a team led by Eric Kort at the University of Michigan to deploy a suite of sophisticated GHG and air quality detecting sensors that can be equipped to small manned aircraft to better monitor methane and air quality emissions. The team will conduct a series of observational flights over offshore production facilities and onshore natural gas flaring sites. They will then synthesize the collected data with satellite measurements of GHG emissions of those same sites, combining top-down and bottom-up measurement techniques that will result in a significant improvement in estimating emissions from these sources. If successful, the project promises to transform our understanding of emissions from offshore rigs and natural gas flaring, and may pave the way to more informed, evidence-based policy.
Debbie Senesky, Stanford University
Pingfeng Wang, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
To conduct research on the data-driven reliability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems via harsh environment sensing
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is an incredibly important tool in the fight against climate change. Though details differ across systems, the basic structure is the same. Carbon dioxide gas is captured following fossil fuel production or other industrial processes, then compressed and pumped underground under extremely high temperatures and pressures, and stored in depleted oil and gas wells or, in some cases, in underground salt caverns or saline aquifers. Yet a key concern is the ability to verify that the carbon dioxide remains in place. If the carbon dioxide leaks from the disposal wellbores, this not only impairs the effectiveness of the sequestration process, but it can contaminate other underground water regions nearby.
These wellbores present harsh environments to monitor, under intensely high pressures and chemically corrosive. Such environments are not friendly to the delicate conditions that most sensors need to operate effectively. This grant will fund work by researchers Debbie Senesky at Stanford University and Pingfeng Wang at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to develop and deploy a novel, durable sensor system capable of operating in the harsh conditions of a CCS wellbore and thus able to monitor whether the carbon dioxide sequestered there is staying put or seeping out. The project, if successful, has the potential to significantly advance our understanding of the effectiveness of CCS sequestration, and thus to help inform the future development of these technologies in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions.
Mark Zondlo, Princeton University
Z. Jason Ren, Princeton University
Francesca Hopkins, University of California, Riverside
To conduct a field study that will quantify greenhouse gas emissions and ammonia from the wastewater and agricultural waste systems
Industrial processes are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but without good evidence on how much different industrial sectors contribute to emissions, policymakers are left without reliable data to help them focus their regulatory efforts. In particular, wastewater management facilities and agricultural waste processing sites generate methane and nitrous oxide, both powerful greenhouse gases, and serve as the source of local air pollutants, such as ammonia. However, information about the magnitude of emissions from these sites, and how emissions differ across sites in different regions, is poorly known. Without baseline information, it is difficult to design even basic greenhouse gas management strategies, like how to quantify emissions reductions from these facilities.
This grant funds a project team led by Mark Zondlo at Princeton University and Francesca Hopkins at the University of California, Riverside to equip and deploy two mobile laboratories—technologically-outfitted cars and vans—that are designed to take precise emissions measurements at multiple scales. By partnering with non-governmental partners, these mobile laboratories will monitor multiple wastewater management and agricultural waste processing sites on both coasts, quantifying emissions in the vicinity of the sites. The compiled data will provide one of the best sources of evidence about the scale of emissions at these kinds of sites and have the potential to inform new modes of management for emissions produced by these industrial processes.
The Sloan Foundation is also pleased to announce the results of another RFP focused on developing and examining net zero energy interventions or negative emissions technologies. More information available at https://sloan.org/programs/research/energy-and-environment/net-zero-grants