A protein-rich bean that evades agricultural emissions? Pepto for cows? Connect the ocean to the power grid? Smart windows on every building? Trees that reduce poverty and save the rainforest?
We need bold thinkers with audacious ideas to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Often, the most unconventional projects have the hardest time getting funding. At $1.5 million, the Wilkes Center Climate Prizeat the University of Utah is one of the largest university-affiliate climate awards in the world. The Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy in the U’s College of Science will administer the prize, funded by a cross-section of Utah-based organizations and industries. A panel of respected climate leaders reviewed 77 international proposals and identified five projects representing the most innovative ideas to address the impacts of climate change. The winner of the historic prize will be announced on Sept. 22, 2023.
“I applaud the inspiring and innovative ideas of all five finalists,” said Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “This out-of-the-box, entrepreneurial thinking is precisely what the Wilkes Center is designed to foster. I am excited for the winning organization to use the prize funds to advance meaningful solutions to the problems posed by a changing climate.”
Learn more about the Wilkes Climate Prize finalists! Note that all assertions are from presentations made at the Wilkes Climate Summit in May 2023.
Which project would you vote for?
Agriculture contributes 4.266 gigatons of annual carbon emissions each year, which results from the 1.1 billion hectares of annual grain crops grown around the world. The Land Institute’s goal is to create perennial grain crops that mimic the carbon and nutrient cycles of natural ecosystems, such as grass prairies, that they estimate would reduce total global carbon emissions by 15-30% per year.
Brandon Schlautman, lead scientist of perennial legumes at The Land Institute, led the effort to breed a perennial bean, called the Baki bean, which means “eternal” in Turkish. The high protein, high fiber food has a similar nutrient content to a garbanzo bean and could serve as a competitive plant-based protein source. Typical annual crops die after harvest and require farmers to replant every year. The atmospheric carbon dioxide stored in the crop’s plant tissues goes back into the atmosphere as they decompose. In contrast, perennial crops maintain a live, large root system that remains undisturbed from plowing, continues to store carbon dioxide and other nutrients in the soil and reduces the amount of water needed.
Schlautman said that the Wilkes Climate Prize funding would allow his team to increase the Baki bean’s market presence, expand its acreage in the U.S. and understand and scale its carbon-saving potential.
“By sequestering carbon with this new hardware, improving soil structure and requiring fewer resources, [the Perennial Baki Bean] has the potential to transform agriculture,” Schlautman said.
Visit The Land Institute to learn more.
By 2050, it’s estimated that 44% of our electricity will be produced with fossil fuels, nowhere near the 100% renewable energy targets. This is mostly due to addressing the variability of the time of day and year that solar and wind generate the most electricity. While energy storage solutions can smooth out the transitions between energy production and usage, storage units don’t produce power and only increase the cost of energy.
“Ideally what we need is another renewable resource that can fill in the gaps when solar and wind are just not generating. We believe that resource is ocean waves. Seasonally, waves are an outstanding complement to solar and wind,” said Tim Mundon, CTO of Oscilla Power. He gives the example for California energy production of seasonal solar, wind and waves. “Solar and wind peaks in the summer, while wave peaks during the winter … and don’t forget that waves are also more consistent on a daily basis than both solar or wind.”
Ocean wave energy has potential to rise to 50% of global electricity demand, but efficiency, survivability and cost are the main reasons why it hasn’t been adopted. Oscilla Power has developed the Triton, a one-megawatt wave energy converter that would be installed in an array, similar to wind turbines but using far less area with almost zero visibility. The high efficiency wave energy capture system generates power using the relative motion of two bodies—the different motion between a floating hull and a suspended underwater ring. It’s unique three-tendon architecture translates every wave motion into mechanical energy used to generate electricity. They’ve shown that the converter can survive the most extreme ocean conditions. Their testing and design addresses each of the three barriers to wave energy that they say can ultimately be competitive with most solar and wind energy.
The Wilkes Climate Prize will help bring the wave power to 80% of the world’s coastal population by improving the Triton’s ability to generate electricity efficiently in moderate wave conditions, in addition to the strongest wave climates.
Visit Oscilla Power to learn more.
At least 25% of today’s global warming is driven by methane from human actions. Methane is 80 times more potent than CO2, and reducing methane emissions would have an immediate impact on warming. The single largest source of methane is livestock — their digestive systems produce methane due to a type of archaea called methanogens. These microorganisms produce methane that livestock expel as burps.
Lumen Bioscience discovered a way to destroy the methanogens by genetically engineering another microbe called spirulina. Spirulina is a complete protein and has been grown for centuries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and more recently on a large scale as food for humans and animals. Lumen Bioscience co-founders figured out how to add genes to spirulina that produce proteins to make medicines, using only light as an energy source.
Lumen engineers it by using bacteriophage, which are viruses that attack bacteria. Each bacteriophage is highly specialized to infect one type of bacteria using proteins called lysin. As with all other microorganisms, there are phages that attack methanogens. Lumen Bioscience identified the gene that produces methanogen-killing lysin and inserted it into a strain of spirulina. Because lysin is very specific, it only attacks methanogens, and leaves spirulina and livestock cells alone. Their research shows that one type of methanogen lysin kills nearly all the methanogen in 30 minutes.
Their goal is to dose all dairy cows and beef cattle by 2040, which they estimate would reduce methane emissions from livestock by 40%. To achieve this, they estimate they would need 1,540,000 tons of spirulina per year, which requires a spirulina pond that is 14 x 14 miles in area that would be spread out around the world via local spirulina farms.
The Wilkes Prize would help to build a potent cocktail with the most potent spirulina strains, demonstrate efficacy in dairy and beef cattle, and establish a pathway for large-scale outdoor cultivation of lysin-producing spirulina, said Jim Roberts, co-founder and CSO, Lumen Bioscience.
Visit Lumen Bioscience to learn more.
Residential and commercial buildings use about 30% of the total end-use energy consumption in the U.S. End-use refers to energy in a usable form by the consumer—electricity, gasoline and natural gas. Half of the energy consumption is from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. The contestants estimate that energy used in buildings will triple by 2050.
During the winter, it’s ideal to have sunlight enter through the window to heat the room. In summertime, it’s ideal to have the light enter in, but not the heat. Roy and Megaridis developed a window coating made of nanomaterials based on a smart window approach. The coating on the windows responds to the outside temperature. Existing technology works as follows: On cold days, the window is transparent so that visible and heat-causing infrared solar radiation can pass through. On hot days, the coating blocks infrared radiation and heat, but still allows visible light to pass through. But this selective technology only works at 155°F. Roy and Megaridis developed a new nanomaterial that can block heat close to room temperature. At 72°F light and heat can pass through. At 86°F, the special nanoparticles will activate, absorb the infrared energy and block the heat.
“If you coated 10% of commercial buildings in the U.S., the energy savings by 2050 would be the equivalent of removing six natural gas power plants,” said Tamal Roy of the Swiss Institute of Technology and co-lead of the project.
As climate change will cause temperatures to rise in the U.S., smart glass will be essential to reducing emissions from cooling buildings. The Wilkes Prize would help the team to establish the proof-of-concept, prototype the technology with small-scale demonstrations and implement it at larger scales.
Slash-and-burn is a subsistence farming method where trees are cut down and burned to clear land for crops. Three hundred million farmers worldwide practice it, which releases 2 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year. It devastates rainforest ecosystems and makes the land infertile, but is necessary for these families to produce food.
The Inga Foundation has developed a scientifically proven system called Inga Ally Cropping that creates farms that mimic the natural behavior of the rainforest using a nitrogen-fixing species of tree called the Inga. The program addresses the massive climate issue and creates the opportunity for a dramatic reversal of fortunes for rural farmers struggling in poverty.
Since 2012, the foundation has worked with 450 Honduran families to plant the trees along the contours of land in rows, the roots prevent soil erosion and replenish nutrients. They then plant the crops between the Inga rows. No pesticides, insecticides or chemical fertilizers are needed. Farmers produce organic cash crops to sustain their families and sell them to generate income, and it allows farmers to repeatedly cultivate on the same land without moving and destroying more forest.
In year 11 of the program, the Honduran families have sequestered 700,000 tons of CO2. They project that just this one project in Honduras will sequester nearly 3 million tons on an annual basis by 2030.
Over decades, Mike Hand has systematically isolated the most effective system for regenerating soil nutrients. They’ve proven the method with families in Honduras, which have used it to bring themselves out of poverty. The Wilkes Climate Prize will allow them to scale it up across Honduras, Central America, and then across the world.
“The trees function to restore life to the soil. And the trees are retaining retrieving recycling essential plant nutrients, particularly the phosphorus,” said Hand, tropical ecologist and founder and director of The Inga Foundation. “We’ve proven that we can transform the rural economy of the tropical zone in Honduras. It can be replicated in any of the rainforests across the world.”