How 2022 seed grant projects are catalyzing change in healthcare, housing, and industry

October 17, 2023

Drought, flooding, wildfires and extinctions are reminders of a rapidly changing planet and the need for bold and urgent action. In 2022, Yale Planetary Solutions made its first annual round of seed grants to 21 innovative, interdisciplinary projects from research teams in a wide range of disciplines across campus aimed at addressing some of the greatest and most urgent challenges our society and environment face. The awards are funded by the donor-supported $15 million Climate Impact Innovation Fund and other generous external supporters.

These winning projects include a bird-friendly building initiative, a free public energy-literacy curriculum, and a lickable saliva sampler for studies of zoonotic disease in wild mammals. Others take a fresh approach to problems like clean energy technology, the health care and building industries’ carbon footprints, and energy efficiency in low-income rentals. The seed grants offer researchers the freedom to pursue bold and leading-edge ideas that might otherwise be difficult to fund, but that have the potential to be transformative.  

Here are five of those bold ideas.

Economical, Clean Liquid Fuels

Electric cars, geothermal heating, and wind and solar power generation can all reduce carbon emissions. But these technologies have important limits. Batteries, for example, due to their low energy density, are not practical to power long-haul aircraft and container ships, which will continue to burn liquid fuels for the foreseeable future.

However, there are alternatives to fossil-based liquid fuels. Udo Schwarz, PhD, is part of a team studying the process of combining carbon dioxide and hydrogen to produce methanol employing a catalyst; the methanol can then be converted to other liquid fuels as needed.

Water, split using electrochemical energy, provides the hydrogen.

“The vision is that you use ‘surplus’ renewable energy [to make methanol] when there’s too much sun or wind and you can’t use it all up,” said Schwarz, who is Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering. “Once you burn the fuel, you only generate as much CO2 as you took from the atmosphere before, so ideally, the entire process would be net zero.”

There are exciting developments taking place with the development of liquid fuels, with some shipping companies being early adopters of methanol as an alternative to diesel fuels. But costs remain high. The team is using advanced scanning probe microscopy to investigate how to best tune the adsorption properties of a process intermediary, carbon monoxide, onto a highly efficient cobalt-based molecular catalyst. Such knowledge is essential to minimize the energy input needed to drive the reaction, which is a stumbling block to making such conversion more cost-competitive.

Learning to optimize a cobalt catalyst for this reaction might also allow the development of other novel catalysts based on cheaper, more abundant metals, like iron. “The vision is you’ll find something you can upscale to be fairly economical,” Schwarz said. “If you need fuel, then, in theory, all you need is water and carbon dioxide.”

Replacing Carbon-Intensive Building Materials

The building sector is a major carbon emitter, in part due to the energy needed to generate steel and cement.  Cement product alone accounts for ~8% of total global carbon dioxide emissions. An emerging mass-timber product called cross-laminated timber (CLT) can replace such carbon- intensive materials in buildings, but some wonder about the effects on global forest carbon dynamics if this product takes off.

“The common public perception is that we need to protect trees, not cut them down” to make innovative wood products, said Yuan Yao, Assistant Professor of Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Systems at the School of the Environment.

Also unclear is how future widespread CLT adoption might affect timber markets and industrial supply chains. Life-cycle assessment tools like carbon footprint accounting may not capture the effects of market feedback.

In collaboration with Robert Mendelsohn, the Edwin Weyerhaeuser Davis Professor of Forest Policy; Professor of Economics; and Professor, School of Management, Yao developed a model of carbon emissions and carbon sequestration across CLT’s life cycle that also estimated market responses and the resulting effects on CLT’s carbon footprint. This collaborative team also includes Alice Favero, the Senior Environmental Economist from RTI International, as well as Kai Lan and Hannah Wang who work in Yao’s research lab as a postdoctoral scholar and Ph.D. student, respectively.

The model predicted that a global increase in CLT demand would render forests and wood more valuable, incentivizing landowners to grow more trees and invest more in forest management. That, in turn, will boost forest-based carbon storage. Yao and Mendelsohn predict widespread adoption could save tens of gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents this century.

More Accurate Economic Models

Policymakers depend on accurate economic models to inform actions to advance solutions to climate change. These models help them make decisions about climate policies affecting transportation, trade, land use, and more. Yet many were originally built on shaky assumptions and haven’t been updated since the 1970s. Relying on them to analyze today’s world could lead to policies that undercut climate progress.

Economics professors Costas Arkolakis, PhD, and Steve Berry, PhD, are working on a project to improve the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of these models. The updates will take into account the vast changes in economics and climate policy that have transformed the world since the models’ inception. The researchers are also extending the models to study how widespread adoption of renewable energy could affect economic growth, taking into account factors like power transmission line capacity, solar panel efficiency, and the costs of oil extraction.

Once the models are updated, Arkolakis and Berry will work on outreach with the Tobin Center at Yale to ensure policymakers can access and use them–allowing them to make climate-smart decisions about everything from forest management to energy policy to agriculture.

Lower costs and recent policy changes will lead to a speedy uptake of electricity from renewable sources, they found, and could account for 75% or more of US energy use by 2040.

A Better Healthcare Accounting System

Decarbonizing the healthcare industry is a crucial part of mitigating climate change. But for healthcare organizations, cutting back on emissions depends heavily on being able to accurately track those emissions in the first place–a massive undertaking in systems this complex.

“A major barrier is lacking the tools for doing carbon accounting that are specific to health care—especially the supply chain, which is the hardest thing to measure,” said Jodi Sherman, MD, Associate Professor of Anesthesiology at the Yale School of Medicine, and Associate Professor of Epidemiology in Environmental Health Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health. She also serves as Medical Director of Sustainability for Yale New Haven Health Center for Sustainable Healthcare.

Sherman and her colleagues are developing software to allow hospital systems to track emissions and target pollution, waste, and inefficiency. The tool computes and tracks the greenhouse gas footprint associated with a health system’s supply chain.

Faced with thousands of products in that supply chain, the researchers could not take a bottom- up approach of quantifying emissions for the components of each. Instead, they looked at emissions of the various sectors involved in manufacturing a good or service.

“Until manufacturers provide standardized, transparent information, this is the accepted approach to dealing with large systems,” Sherman explained.

This information will eventually tie emissions from the clinical supply chain to patients’ outcomes, allowing health care organizations to study in granular detail how clinical services might best be decarbonized while maintaining well-being, safety and quality.

After developing the tool using data from Yale New Haven Health, the team is working to validate it in other health systems and to make the software more user-friendly. They will also ensure that the data it provides is in line with widely used corporate carbon reporting standards so organizations can meet forthcoming reporting standards. It can also eventually enable health care organizations to make comparisons to help identify best practices that can then be shared and scaled up.

Climate Advocacy and Housing Justice Must Go Hand in Hand

Climate-change activists and people who advocate for housing justice have more in common than they realize, according to Annie Harper, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.

“These are two very related issues that clearly aren’t really talking to each other,” Harper said. “Anything to do with housing is a housing-justice issue.”

Poor people are among the hardest hit by climate change. Their neighborhoods are often hotter than others in the city because they have less tree cover and fewer green spaces. Each summer that is the hottest on record leads to higher utility bills, yet low-income tenants often have lower discretionary income to pay these bills. Meanwhile, landlords lack an incentive to install more energy-efficient appliances.

Using community-based participatory research techniques, Harper and co-investigators studied how to engage low-income renters around residential energy efficiency. They assembled a community advisory board and conducted paid focus groups and interviews with tenants, organizers, and landlords.

For these tenants, barriers to organizing pushes for energy upgrades include having to focus first on basic needs, not knowing how long they will live in the same place, fear of landlord reprisal, and fragmented social structures. Potential solutions include elevating advocacy for basic needs and teaming with housing-justice activists and tenants’ unions.

That will require awareness, solidarity, and courage, something the research methods themselves may help foster.

“For us, ideally, research leads to action,” Harper said. “The very act of collecting the data, sharing the data with the community, and then going back and doing the next round is hopefully sparking people’s interest in and willingness to be involved in organizing around this issue.”

Introducing people to one another and illuminating how their concerns are connected is also a powerful tool for change.

“People in the climate-change movement need to know that if they care about energy efficiency, they will have more success if they take tenants’ concerns into consideration. Tenant power matters. And if they want tenants to be involved, they have to look beyond emissions at affordability,” she said. “On the housing-justice side, it’s not just rent that’s the problem, it’s energy bills. If you want a world where people in rental units can afford both, those units need to be as energy efficient as possible.”

Along The Path to a Sustainable Future

The 21 projects that were funded take us further along the path to a sustainable future, by producing knowledge, and then implementing and scaling practical and bold solutions to our biggest challenges.

Sustainable carbon capture—for which innovative wood products hold promise–and energy alternatives such as might be achieved by cobalt catalyst-assisted fuel production are essential for meeting emissions reduction goals. Bird-friendly buildings are among the projects that have become a model for other buildings and institutions across the country can stem ecosystem degradation. Projects that take a systemic approach, providing reliable clean-energy economic forecasts, and a proactive approach to human health climate impacts, including emerging infectious diseases are important first steps to informing policy on national and global scales. Disseminating energy literacy engages people and promotes environmental justice for vulnerable people.

All these solutions aim to have an impact beyond the academy from rethinking communications to curtailing human-caused environmental changes to building resilient systems. Each holds promise to become part of the solution.

Learn more about the innovative solutions of the inaugural class of seed grant recipients here.

By Jenny Blair