One year ago, the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy’s founders pledged to bring together students and researchers, policymakers and entrepreneurs to find solutions to combat the cascading impacts of climate change.
On May 16 and 17, the center’s inaugural climate summit at the University of Utah did just that—convening scientists, inventors, business and government leaders in a collective effort to explore the best solutions for a warming planet.
“Our goals are to build bridges, think broadly, spark innovation, and find ways to accelerate climate solutions,” said William Anderegg, director of the Wilkes Center.
Discussion and presentations at the two-day climate summit ranged from the wonders of cultivating perennial, protein-rich Baki beans and planting restorative Inga trees in decimated tropical rainforest clear-cuts, to the power of the Great Salt Lake’s shrinking shoreline to bridge Utah’s political divides and bring real change to the state’s intransigent water policy debates.
Created in August of last year with a $20 million gift from Clay and Marie Wilkes, the purpose of the center is to provide cutting-edge solutions to tackle climate change not only in Utah but across the globe.
“There is an opportunity here for the Wilkes Center to be the role model for how academia works with the other stakeholders in climate science and technology,” Clay Wilkes said.
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson reiterated this need for collaboration. In a keynote address on Wednesday, Wilson noted that in a time of political divisiveness, the effort to save the lake has been different.
“This has been one of those issues that regardless of political ideology has brought people together,” Wilson said. “And it's been really amazing and rewarding to watch people link arms and commit to do the right thing. And we have made great progress.”
As of Wednesday, Wilson said the lake has risen 4.6 feet since November. While the main driver of that was snowfall, Wilson said conservation efforts are also part of the increase. Though this progress is significant, there is still more work to do including fighting the public apathy that could develop after such a wet winter.
“Meaningful systemic changes to the way we think about water in the state of Utah and the Great Salt Lake are still very important,” he said.
Wilkes Center Climate Prize at the University of Utah
A key initiative of the center is the historic $1.5 million Wilkes Center Climate Prize at the University of Utah, the largest university-affiliated climate prize in the world. Five finalist teams were selected from 77 proposals and presented their projects for consideration.
“The Utah Climate Prize brought together a coalition of industry leaders and philanthropists to create one of the largest climate prizes in the world with the goal to galvanize workable, innovative solutions to solve climate change,” Anderegg said. “This attracted submissions from all sectors of the economy and corners of the globe.”
The winner of the Wilkes Center Climate Prize at the University of Utah will be announced in the fall.
Read more about the five finalists for the prize below:
Dr. Brandon Schlautman, lead scientist of perennial legumes, The Land Institute
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 first finalist to present said. Schlautman and 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.
Schlautman led the effort to breed a perennial bean, called the Baki bean, which means “eternal” in Turkish. The high protein, high fiber food has similar nutrient content of 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 go 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 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 closing his presentation.
Dr. Tim Mundon, CTO, Oscilla Power
By 2050, it’s estimated that 44% of our electricity will be produced with fossil fuels, nowhere near the 100% renewable energy target. This is mostly due to addressing the variability of the time of day and year when 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 increases 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 Mundon. 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 the 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 using far less area and almost zero visibility. The high-efficiency wave energy capture system generates power using relative motion 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 it 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 at the University of Utah 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.
Dr. Jim Roberts, co-founder and CSO, Lumen Bioscience, Mark Heinnickel, principle scientist, Lumen Biosciences
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 expels as farts.
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.
They engineer it using bacteriophage, which are viruses that are high specialized to infect one type of bacteria using proteins called lysin. Like 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 of 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’d need 1,540,000 tons a year of spirulina, 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 Climate Prize at the University of Utah 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.
Dr. Tamal Roy, Swiss Institute of Technology, Constantine Megaridis, director, Micro/Nanoscale Fluid Transport Laboratory, University of Illinois, Chicago
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. They estimate that energy used in buildings will triple by 2050.
During the winter, you want sunlight to come through the window to heat the room. In the summertime, you’d like the light to come 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 like this: 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 and 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,” Roy said during his presentation.
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 Climate Prize at the University of Utah would help the team to establish the proof-of-concept, prototype the technology with small-scale demonstrations, and implement at larger scales.
Slash-and-burn is a subsistence farming method where trees are cut down and burned to clear land for crops. 300 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 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 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 in 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 as to restore life to the soil. And the trees are retaining retrieving recycling essential plant nutrients, particularly the phosphorus,” said Mike 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 rain forests across the world.”
Wilkes Student Innovation Prize
The Wilkes Student Innovation Prize provided a unique opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students at the U to pitch their innovative climate solutions and win thousands of dollars, Anderegg said.
“One of the most impactful ways the Wilkes Center is integrating into our campus is the inclusion of our students in its programs and initiatives,” he added. “Students are gaining valuable experiential learning opportunities.”
Read more about the four student teams that won the Student Innovation Prize below:
This project proposes a novel renewable energy system that generates power via the daily heating and nightly cooling of the earth, known as the diurnal temperature variation. This can be accomplished using a type of artificial muscle known as a twisted coiled polymer actuator, which can be designed to either contract or expand when heated
Samantha Eddy and Xiang Huo
This project aims at building a self-sustained and eco-friendly living prototype that ensures passive survivability for the Diné residents by taking a Dennehotso, a Navajo chapter, as a pilot site to illustrate the design. It proposes to develop a holistic solution that incorporates modularized components to decarbonize the tribal land. Serving as a template project for decarbonizing rural communities, this project strives to improve the well-being of the Diné community by offering a holistic infrastructural and cultural solution that ensures net-zero carbon emissions.
Audri Yasmin Dara
This project proposes the University of Utah reduce the need for students to commute by car to campus by investing in the Utah Transit Authority in order to improve bus service to the campus. The proposal also includes incentivizing students to use public transit by creating some type of rewards system.
Steven Tran and Md. Rabiul Hasan
This project proposes a new method for more accurately and efficiently measuring soil organic carbon content by using a UV-based, in-situ sensor network. These sensors can by used to more effectively track soil organic carbon content over time, which is necessary to understand trends.