MSU gets grant to research biofuel, carbon capture technologies for Upper Missouri River Basin
A regional interdisciplinary team led by Montana State University has received $6 million to develop new innovations at the intersection of food, energy and water systems while training the next generation of scientists.
The four-year grant from the National Science Foundation will allow MSU, the University of Wyoming and the University of South Dakota to coordinate a massive effort to address questions about whether biofuels and carbon capture technologies can be sustainably introduced into the Upper Missouri River Basin, said Paul Stoy, principal investigator and associate professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in MSU’s College of Agriculture.
The main project goal is to develop a framework for evaluating proposals to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations — the leading contributor to climate change — while maintaining food security, water quality, biodiversity and other benefits, Stoy said.
The researchers could find unexpected social and environmental conflicts when biofuels are used to generate energy and carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in geological formations or in ecosystems, Stoy explained.
The Upper Missouri River Basin refers to the Missouri River and all its tributaries upstream of Sioux City, Iowa. The basin contains parts or most of five states — Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska — and more than 20 Indian reservations. It represents 30 percent of the wheat produced in the United States, 13 percent of the soybeans, 11 percent of the cattle and 9 percent of the corn, according to the Upper Missouri River Basin Association.
The Upper Missouri River Basin also contains the Colstrip power plant in eastern Montana — the second largest coal-fired generating facility west of the Mississippi — and the Bakken shale formation.
Thirty-one private, state and federal institutions and more than 50 people, including 18 MSU faculty and 13 MSU graduate students, will be involved in the project that will run into 2020, Stoy said. MSU will take the lead on research related to agriculture and biofertilizers, food security, clean energy, and water supply and quality. Researchers at USD will focus on land use, biodiversity and ecosystem services assessment. UW will take the lead on issues related to agricultural economics, economic modeling and land use. Importantly for the integrated award, all institutions will have the opportunity to collaborate on all aspects of the project.
Montana partners in the project will include Little Big Horn College on the Crow Indian Reservation, Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Indian Reservation and the Montana Institute on Ecosystems. Among the federal participants are the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Brad Bauer, natural resource agent for Gallatin County Extension, said he looks forward to lending his expertise to the project on behalf of MSU Extension.
“MSU Extension is excited to be part of an important project that will help us to provide communities with the information they need to make wise decisions to feed the world while developing solutions to increased atmospheric CO2 levels.”
Each of the three coordinating universities will receive $2 million to pursue its portion of the project. On the whole, Stoy said, the grant “emphasizes interdisciplinary student training.”
Benjamin Poulter, an MSU ecologist now at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who collaboratively initiated the project with researchers from MSU, USD and UWY, said the project is complex and is necessary to evaluate the regional consequences of global climate change policies that aim to achieve “negative carbon dioxide emissions.” The term refers to the withdrawal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing biofuels to produce energy and “capturing” carbon dioxide emissions to store in geologic formations or in soils and vegetation.
“For the first time in millions of years, atmospheric CO2 concentrations will remain above 400 parts per million for the entirety of 2016,” Poulter said. “Negative CO2 policies are needed to help make CO2 reductions and to steer society away from a 2-degree Celsius warming (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), but these policies must be implemented without harming local livelihoods, as well as food production, water quality and biodiversity.”
The interdisciplinary team is well prepared for the challenge, Poulter said.
He added that the involvement of professors and students from the MSU Departments of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, Ecology, Earth Sciences, Health and Human Development, the Center for Biofilm Engineering, and the Energy Research Institute, draws on the strengths of MSU across a range of environmental science, energy-related, and food and agricultural disciplines.
For example, project investigator Julia Haggerty is an assistant professor of geography in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Letters and Science.
“This work is closely aligned with my ongoing interests in the nexus of energy policy, resource management and rural economies,” Haggerty said. “It is very exciting to think we can conduct cutting-edge, integrated modeling science using the model available in our own backyard.”
The $6 million grant was one of 11 grants recently awarded through the NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).
“This four-year grant is important to Montana,” said MSU Vice President for Research and Economic Development Renee Reijo Pera. “It will allow us to address fundamental questions in the energy sector and enables us to partner with our neighboring scientists in Wyoming and South Dakota. These grants are highly competitive and so we are proud of the accomplishments of our scientists.”
Denise Barnes, head of NSF EPSCoR, added, “These awards represent a tremendous value for the scientific community, as they foster research into some of the most pressing issues facing U.S. society, while simultaneously supporting collaborative research programs and workforce development. Whether by expanding our knowledge of the brain or by improving how our water, food and energy systems work efficiently together, these projects hold the promise of transforming our daily lives.”
MSU’s new grant is part of EPSCoR’s Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-2 Investment strategy, which builds national research strength by initiating collaborations across institutions in two or more EPSCoR jurisdictions. The awards support research while requiring the development of a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce, particularly faculty researchers early in their careers.
The work that the new EPSCoR Track-2 team will carry out over the next five years will provide much-needed insight toward developing greenhouse gas mitigation scenarios and designing management strategies without compromising food security and clean energy. At the regional level, results and broader impacts of this work are essential for raising awareness among stakeholders to minimize impacts on food production systems, livelihoods and benefits provided by the ecosystem.
EPSCoR was established in 1979 to expand and enhance the research capability of scientists in states that traditionally have lacked strong university-based research efforts. The program was designed to help researchers compete more successfully for a portion of the current federal academic research and development budget.
Montana was one of the original five states to be involved in the EPSCoR program. In 1990, Congress began expanding the program beyond the NSF. Today, EPSCoR is available through seven federal research and development agencies.