Catalyst grants support key steps towards sustainability and justice

Five catalyst grants newly awarded by the Graham Sustainability Institute will fund projects designed to advance potential infrastructure solutions in the areas of energy, transportation and the built environment. The projects will facilitate adaptation to climate change, test products aimed at reducing carbon emissions and promote equity and justice in sustainable development interventions.

Since 2017, more than 30 projects have received funding through Graham’s Catalyst Grants program, which supports interdisciplinary, collaborative, small-scale sustainability research. The new projects will engage researchers from six units at the University of Michigan, as well as several other academic institutions, who will work alongside industry, government and NGO partners.

“We are especially pleased to have our industry and community partners – Westinghouse’s eVinci Microreactor Design Team and the Energy Communities Alliance – working with us on this project,” said Aditi Verma, Associate Researcher in Nuclear Energy and Radiological Sciences. and principal investigator of the project on participatory design processes in nuclear energy infrastructures. “These partnerships will ensure both that every step of this research project is informed by the practical challenges and open questions faced by designers and communities, and that our research findings are quickly translated into real-world practice.”

Other projects address the social and environmental dimensions of slum upgrading in Brazil; the trade-offs between the use of renewable fuels and the electrification of vehicles; the marketing of an entirely recycled building facade material; and insurance and structural options for responding to Great Lakes shoreline hazards.

“We hope to bridge the gap between academic research and industry knowledge,” said Meredith Miller, associate professor of architecture and principal investigator of the building materials project. “This project will provide essential links as part of a larger effort… Ideally, these links will prove useful to suppliers and others moving towards circular solutions in the region.”

The Graham Sustainability Institute Catalytic Grants are open to all faculty and researchers across UM’s three campuses. Each of the five featured research teams will receive $10,000.

To learn more about the projects, read on and visit the project web pages linked below.

Women, non-binary, black, brown and indigenous residents living in informal and precarious communities on the southern outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil, are extremely vulnerable to climate impacts. Faced with little government investment, poverty, inequality, land tenure uncertainty and marginalization, the inhabitants of the neighborhood have undertaken to modernize their establishments.

This project will bring to the fore the lived experiences of these community stewards, complementing a growing body of research on slum ecology and the environmental dimensions of slum upgrading in Brazil, while identifying transformative strategies to improve settlements. through climate change adaptation and mitigation. The project aims to advance women-led slum upgrading that is climate resilient and sensitive to issues of intersectionality and justice, highlighting the struggles and achievements these invisible climate warriors face as they struggle to transform their settlements into sustainable and resilient communities.

Group project: María Arquero de Alarcón, PI (TCAUP); Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, Co-I (TCAUP); Mieko Yoshihama (SSW); Odessa González Benson (SSW)

waste management truck

Renewable fuels have the potential to quickly deliver dramatic carbon footprint reductions (>70%) without requiring new infrastructure, mineral resource extraction, or carbon-intensive manufacturing. However, a major challenge to implementation is the lack of end-user confidence in these fuels.

To overcome this barrier, this catalyst grant will fund the planning and implementation of a new demonstration that involves running a North Campus garbage truck on 100% renewable fuel, in partnership with UM Transportation and Waste Services. Through side-by-side analyzes of the fuel economy and vehicle performance of a garbage truck running on diesel fuel and an identical garbage truck running on 100% renewable fuel, UM and other fleet will have access to a real comparison of the cost of ownership and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The research team’s goal is to promote widespread conversion of diesel vehicle fleets to run on 100% renewable fuels.

Project team and partners: André L. Boehman, PI (Engineering); Shelie Miller, Co-I (SEAS); William McAllister (Transportation and Waste Services); Scott Guenther (transportation and waste services); Samuel Moran (Transportation and Waste Services); David Slade (Renewable Energy Group, Inc.)


Recycled building materialEncouraging a more circular economy is a key strategy in the fight against climate change. Partnerships between research and siled industries can help connect the dots, identifying new downstream applications that add value to upstream waste and capture carbon in sustainable products. The Post Rock research initiative seeks to do just that by providing circular solutions for waste plastics and other materials through new architectural applications.

Post Rock went through two rigorous customer discovery phases, focusing material research development toward a specific end use. With this Catalyst Grant, the research team can take the critical next step toward commercialization: establishing a regional supply of raw material, which could potentially fully include waste diverted from regional streams. The researchers plan to take advantage of the unique regional context of southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio, which offers a wide range of materials flowing through various industries.

Group project: Meredith Miller, PI (TCAUP); Volker Sick, Co-PI (Engineering); Christopher Humphrey (TCAUP); Thom Moran (TCAUP)

Elk Rapids, MI.  Photo by Elise Cates on Unsplash.
Elk Rapid, MI. Photo by Elise Coates on Unsplash.

Coastal development threatens the shores and beaches of the Great Lakes, increasingly degrading the shoreline and putting developed properties at risk from the impacts of storms, lake level fluctuations, and shoreline retreat. Too often, the human response is to install dikes, revetments and other structures. These attempts to outcompete nature are not ecologically, socially or economically sustainable.

Instead, to inform better management decisions, this project will address specific factors, such as how insurance options might influence individual real estate development decisions, whether structure design in coastal areas to high risk could be improved to reduce vulnerabilities, and whether and how community planning efforts address these interrelated issues. Bringing together four academic disciplines, all actively collaborating with six different end users, the project will produce information materials for end users and their constituents, as well as an action plan for expanding the work and securing additional funding.

Group project: Richard K. Norton, PI (TCAUP); Kyle Logue, Co-I (Law); Steven Mankouche, Co-I (TCAUP); Jono Sturt, Co-I (TCAUP); Erin Bunting (Michigan State University); Ethan Theuerkauf (Michigan State University); Guy Meadows (Michigan Technological University)

A Roadmap for Participatory Design of Nuclear Power InfrastructureUnderstanding that the powerful potential of nuclear power to advance the decarbonization of the energy sector is undermined by a number of legacy issues, many nuclear reactor designers are actively trying to avoid repeating the missteps of history by designing smaller, less complex, potentially factory-manufacturable and safer reactors. However, designers and host communities lack a systematic approach to engaging with each other so that community input can be incorporated into reactor design.

This project will lay the groundwork for the development of a participatory approach to the design of nuclear energy infrastructure. Building on participatory design approaches previously developed in other engineering fields and knowledge gathered through consultations with reactor designers at Westinghouse and members of the host community, the research team aims to achieve long-term funding to produce a methodology that can be used to develop small reactors that serve as community-scale power supplies. This important work will help ensure the fair and just deployment of new nuclear energy.

Project team and partners: Aditi Verma, PI (Engineering); Shanna Daly, Co-PI (Engineering); Michael Craig, co-PI (SEAS); Diane Hirshberg (University of Alaska Anchorage); Tim Kalke (Sustainable Energy for Galena, AK); Joseph Halackna (Westinghouse); Harold Maguire (Westinghouse); Kara Colton (Energy Communities Alliance)

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