Ten researchers at the University of Michigan are combining their considerable resources, talent and experience to find a solution.
Now they just have to figure out what the problem is.
The group has received a $300,000 Global Challenges grant from the University’s Third Century Initiative, a highly competitive $50 million, five-year funded research program developed by the Office of the Provost. The initiative’s goal is to provide freedom for researchers and students to tackle real problems, to learn immersively and together, and to prepare the University, as it approaches its bicentennial, for a third century of research leadership.
The team’s project, led by the University of Michigan Energy Institute’s Johannes Schwank, is titled REFRESCH, short for “Researching Fresh Solutions to the Energy/ Water/ Food Challenge in Resource-Constrained Environments.” The grant funds the exploratory phase of a grand challenge: engage students and with them, find an energy/ resource problem, figure out how to solve it, and commercialize the result.
“First, we’ll look at real cases of resource-strained environments where a variety of pressures are at work, both in terms of energy supply- access to sufficient energy- access to sufficient food, clean water for drinking and hygiene, water for energy production, too,” explains Schwank.
What works in Peru may not in Timbuktu: resource constraints in a given environment are so different from one another, Schwank emphasizes, that individualized case studies for prospective projects must be developed thoughtfully. Team members and students will explore several Southeast Michigan and international project options before settling on just one or two of each. Schwank’s first charge to the team: just listen.
“Part of what’s important to do in this first phase is to put our listening ears on and to keep our mouths shut, and not be the wise guys from academia who know everything better,” he says. “This is an opportunity to go listen, for each of us so-called experts to become good students again, to identify resource and energy problems in the context of their real settings.”
Once solvable, scalable problems are identified, the team will draw on the University’s rich, multidisciplinary resources and location in the nation’s manufacturing heart to begin exploring solutions. Along with the Energy Institute, the team includes investigators from the College of Engineering, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, the Ross School of Business, and Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
In this second phase, the group will use the gathered research to identify a few appropriate, small-tech, fairly simple technologies that do not exist or are not fully developed, and then as part of phase two students will work to develop these technologies. Schwank sees local organizations, large-scale NGOs, officials from other nations, and U-M students living or working in resource-strained environments as important potential partners.
“This isn’t just a situation where we find a problem, theoretically solve it, build a couple of prototypes and move on,“ Schwank noted. Using the expertise of REFRESCH team member Peter Adrians of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the group plans to apply reverse innovation to their project’s result. Reverse innovation is a product design strategy that integrates learnings from freshly deployed cost, application, and business models in developing and emerging economies- say, a super-efficient toilet or a solar-powered stove- that may open up new American markets.
Ambitious? Sure. But the group is confident that Third Century has funded the beginning of a winning idea.
Says Schwank, “The University is providing the seed corn for real change, and for what could become a much larger project. This grant is not an end in itself. This gives us the resources to get the planning right and the facts right.”
More information about REFRESCH & the Third Century Initiative
-School of Natural Resources and Environment news item viewable here
-Erb Institute news item viewable here
-Learn more about the Third Century Initiative here
-See the complete list of Third Century awardees here
About the University of Michigan Energy Institute
The demand for economically and environmentally sound energy solutions is urgent and global. At the Energy Institute, we build on the University of Michigan’s strong energy research heritage at the heart of the nation’s automotive and manufacturing industries to develop and integrate science, technology and policy solutions to pressing energy challenges.
Complete list of REFRESCH team members:
Professor of Chemical Engineering, College of Engineering
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Director of University of Michigan Energy Institute
Adjunct Professor of Chemical Engineering, College of Engineering
Assistant Professor, School of Natural Resources and Environment
Assistant Director of Academic Programs, College of Engineering
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemical Engineering
Director, Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute
Professor, School of Natural Resources and Environment
Professor, Ross School of Business
Clinical Professor of Architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning