The Science of Sustainability

The University of Arkansas is an international leader in exploring and developing the science of sustainability. Interdisciplinary research teams across campus conduct research to better understand and solve complex problems at the interface of food, water, and energy systems.  The complexity of sustainability problems in the 21st century demand the combined wisdom and knowledge of the sciences, arts, humanities, and design disciplines in order to identify opportunities for innovative solutions.  These questions include:

How do we produce enough food for the 9.5 billion people coming to dinner in 2050 without using more land, water, or energy? 

✓ How do we intensify agricultural production on existing agricultural lands without increasing pollution from those lands? 

✓ How do we improve water quality while producing biofuels?

✓ How do we design power grids that connect 21st century distributed power sources while maintaining the resiliency of the 20th century system?

More than 35 percent of all research conducted at the University of Arkansas supports sustainability initiatives.  The annual expenditure for sustainability research exceeds $20 million, making sustainability the largest research category on campus.  Notable accomplishments in the nexus of Food, Water and Energy systems include:

Sustainable Food Systems

Measuring what matters is the first step in sustainable agriculture. A team of scientists from across the University of Arkansas worked with multiple sectors of agriculture to develop and improve the metrics of sustainability for the global food value chain.  Dr. Greg Thoma led the Life Cycle Assessment research team that completed assessments of the impacts of US pork production on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water resources.  Dr. Marty Matlock serves on the Board of Directors of Field to Market: the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, where he developed a sustainability framework that drives continuous improvement from the farm to the plate.  The UA team leads programmatic adoption of this framework for national producer groups for soybeans, cotton, peanuts, rice, poultry, pork, dairy, beef, and fish.  The sustainability framework was adopted as a draft ANSI standard in 2014.

Curt Rom working on organic farm

When California runs out of water, where are we going to get our strawberries? In 2014 the Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability (CARS), an education, innovation, and outreach center for the UA System Division of Agriculture, moved into year two of a two-year, $4.5 million research program to improve strawberry production across the US.  This project, led by Dr. Curt Rom (pictured left) funded by a grant from the Walmart Foundation and administered by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability, engaged more than 20 university research teams across the US to increase the sustainability of strawberry production.  The goals of the project were to expand the regional diversity of US strawberry production, reduce chemical and energy inputs, conserving water and improve soil health in production, and reduce post-harvest losses. (strawberry.uark.edu)

Sustainable Water Systems

Improving water quality by producing biofuels is a double win. A multi-disciplinary team of investigators is turning swine waste into biofuels by cultivating microalgae for the production of biodiesel and butanol.  Led by Dr. Jamie Hestekin, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, students are making the microalgae production process more economically viable by capturing nutrients from local waste streams, including wastewater from the U of A swine farm in Savoy, AR.  They use ultrafiltration technology to remove biological contaminants from the wastewater in order to capture and utilize the large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus that are present in the waste in the cultivation of microalgae. They have also developed a method for the extraction of oils and carbohydrates from algae in order to produce high value biofuels.

GHG Emissions from Life Cycle Stages of US Pork Production

GHG Emissions from Life Cycle Stages of US Pork Production

Sustainable Energy Systems

The National Center for Reliable Power Transmission (NCREPT), led by Dr. Alan Mantooth, a professor in Electrical Engineering, celebrated its five-year anniversary in 2014.  NCREPT was established for the purpose of investigating solid-state solutions for high voltage applications such as the electric power grid including both protection devices as well as energy storage applications. NCREPT’s state-of-the-art facility, the most comprehensive university facility of its kind in the US, provides a platform for testing advanced power electronic circuit and package designs for distribution-level voltages (15 kV-class) and high currents (3000 A at 480 V AC 3-phase). NCREPT partners with two dozen industry leaders, including manufacturers, power utility companies, national research laboratories, and others, as well as eleven US and international academic research partners. (ncrept.uark.edu)

REU students working on energy conservation technology for NCREPT