Irving Institute Awards Almost $500k to Faculty Energy and Climate Research

The Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society is pleased to announce that it has awarded nearly $500,000 in faculty seed grant awards to six energy- and climate-related Dartmouth research projects through the Institute's Faculty Seed Grant Program. The program, which re-launched in fall 2023 with a call for proposals from Dartmouth faculty and staff, is aimed at supporting and catalyzing research and education that will have a near-term impact (5-10 years) on climate and energy challenges faced by society. 

The six projects embody the grant program's mission to foster interdisciplinary collaboration among Dartmouth researchers and span a range of disciplines and topics, from researching new high-performing, non-rare-earth magnets to applying neuroscience to climate communications. 

"The Institute is proud to seed new initiatives in a wide array of energy, climate, sustainability, health, and society-related topic areas — including projects that challenge traditional ways of thinking and modes of inquiry across disciplinary boundaries," said Institute Associate Director Dr. Angelika Hofmann  "All of the awarded projects have demonstrated a clear vision for impact."

The Institute anticipates issuing a new call for proposals in fall 2024. 

An overview of funded projects and teams follows:

Searching for New Rare-Earth-Free High-Performance Permanent Magnets
Project Leadership Team: Ian Baker, Sherman Fairchild Professor of Engineering, Thayer School of Engineering; Sarah Slotznick, Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences; Geoffroy Hautier, Hogdson Family Associate Professor of Engineering, Thayer School of Engineering 

The electrification of global energy systems is an essential component of the clean energy transition. Yet the high-performance electric motors and generators that power things like wind turbines and electric vehicles currently rely on magnets made of critical rare-earth materials that are challenging to obtain, costly, and environmentally damaging to extract. Thus, there is an urgent need to find new permanent rare-earth free magnets to power the carbon-free energy transition. 

Historically, identifying new materials has been slow because of the time-consuming experiments needed to identify and characterize thousands of potential candidates. The project team was recently awarded an Irving Institute seed grant to support new work that will combine a theory-driven computational screening with experimental synthesis and characterization to accelerate the search for new rare-earth-free permanent magnets. "Such a new magnet will be a game-changer to our transition towards a society relying less on fossil fuels," explains the team in the project proposal. If successful, the team envisions the potential of this project to lead to the commercialization of a new low-cost, rare-earth-free permanent magnet within 5 to 10 years.

Towards Accurate Carbon Accounting in Soils
Project leadership team: Joshua D. Landis, Senior Research Scientist, Dept. Earth Sciences; Carl E. Renshaw, Professor, Dept. Earth Sciences; Caitlin Hicks Pries, Associate Professor, Dept. Biological Sciences;  Sophie von Fromme, Neukom Postdoctoral Fellow, Dept. Biological Sciences; Mukul Sharma, Professor, Dept. Earth Sciences.

Leveraging natural systems to remove carbon dioxide is a promising tool for greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Soils, in particular, are able to store more than two times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, despite having lost 20% of their carbon storage potential due to degradation from contemporary deforestation, agriculture, and grazing practices. Restoring the carbon-storage potential of soil through targeted management practices could lead to greatly enhanced carbon sequestration — but only when combined with precise and accurate measurement, which has been difficult to date. 

This challenge led the team to develop a new approach to measuring the sequestration of new carbon in soil that couples measurements of carbon content with carbon age, i.e., "carbon chronometry," thereby allowing researchers to directly measure the age of soil organic matter and confirm that new carbon is being pulled from the atmosphere, beyond what would have already been stored. The team has already tested and verified this approach in northeastern forested and arctic tundra landscapes. The Institute grant will now enable the team to demonstrate to funding and research communities that it is possible to accurately determine soil carbon sequestration across global biomes.

3D Printing Enhanced Catalysis for Energy Conversion and Production
Project team: Yan Li, Assistant Professor of Engineering; Abhishek Singh, Postdoc; Ya Tang, Graduate Student; Andrew Kim and Jace Henry, Undergraduate Students

Catalysts are substances that can accelerate chemical reactions without consuming themselves. They play a crucial role in various industrial processes, including petrochemical refining, chemical synthesis, wastewater treatment, and CO2 capture and removal. Traditional catalysts (e.g., pellets) typically have mass and heat transfer limitations due to their inherent geometric constraints and material properties. While 3D printing of catalysts can address geometric constraints, it still requires optimization to ensure uniformity of material composition and structural integrity throughout the printed catalysts. 

In this project, the team will work to optimize the architectural design and processing parameters of 3D printed catalysts, aiming to achieve a balance between efficient thermal transport while ensuring robust mechanical integrity. The team will collaborate with Oak Ridge National Lab (a Department of Energy lab) while leveraging Dartmouth expertise in material design and additive manufacturing to overcome obstacles in renewable energy adoption.

Decarbonization via Microbial Methane Sequestration
Project leadership team: Ekaterina V. Pletneva, Professor Department of Chemistry; William D. Leavitt, Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Sciences

Methane is a major contributor to global warming that has a 28 times greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide. While there are important efforts underway to trap and store methane from landfills, drilling sites, and other sources, wastewater treatment facilities are also a significant source of methane, a problem which has so far been largely unaddressed. The project team will use Irving Institute seed grant funding to focus on the development of microbial strategies to efficiently remove methane from wastewater. 

The team will focus on better understanding the mechanism by which archaea and bacteria consume methane by mapping individual contributions of archaea and bacteria to methane removal, maximizing the efficiency of a sample consortium, and determining properties of an elusive bacterial enzyme that consumes methane. If successful, outcomes from this project will guide engineering strategies to microbial methane removal in wastewater treatment systems and provide recommendations for modifying synergistic consortia.

Effective Messaging for Promoting Actions to Mitigate Climate Change Impacts
Project Leadership Team: Carl Renshaw, Professor, Dartmouth Earth Sciences;  Kimberly Rose Clark, Lecturer, Dartmouth Psychology & Brain Sciences; Erich Osterberg, Professor, Dartmouth Earth Sciences

Effective communication around climate change and around actions needed to avoid its worst impacts is important, but challenging. Research has shown that it is not simply a matter of providing accessible information to people — in fact, it is well documented that there is a limited link between knowledge and attitudes. Nor is there "one" effective way to communicate information about climate change. Instead, for climate change communicators to have a real impact, there is a need to develop and deploy a synergistic and systematic approach to understanding the impacts of different climate messaging strategies on diverse sets of stakeholders and communities. 

The project team will use their award to create a first-of-its-kind research lab dedicated to identifying effective climate messaging strategies using both traditional measures of stated intentions and attitudes as well as novel implicit, nonconscious attitudinal measures garnered from applied affective and consumer neuroscience. The Dartmouth team will collaborate with partners from Tufts and Middle Tennessee State University, leveraging the diverse communities on those campuses, to identify tailored messaging strategies that inform sustainable climate action in specific populations.

An Organo-clay Composite to Remove Atmospheric CO2 and Increase Soil Fertility
Project Leader: Mukul Sharma, Professor of Earth Sciences; Annie Kandel, Project Manager (Sharma Lab); Brin Jaffe, UG Intern (Sharma Lab)

Soil degradation — the loss of critical nutrients and organic matter from poor land management practices like monoculture and overgrazing — poses significant challenges for agricultural productivity and human nutrition across the globe. It also robs soils of the ability to effectively  sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Research shows that in addition to implementing more sustainable land management practices, the application of large-scale, sustainable soil amendments such as biochar – a charcoal-like substance made from burning organic matter in a low-oxygen environment — will not only increase fertility, but maximize the soil's ability to store carbon. 

Earth Science Professor Mukul Sharma and his team have been studying the potential of basalt-fortified biochar to both improve soil health and unlock long-term carbon storage in soil. He projects that each ton of this fortified biochar could store up to 2.2 tons of CO2. In the lab, Professor Sharma has seen extremely promising results on soil health and fertility with the application of fortified biochar. With his Irving Institute award, he will generate larger quantities of biochar on campus and apply it on experimental plots of land at the Dartmouth Organic Farm to determine the effectiveness of this strategy in the field.