From methane to microbes: 2030 project arranges first funding

To mitigate climate change, physicist David Specht, MS ’18, Ph.D. ’21, powers microbes.

In turn, the voracious Vibrio natriegens bacterium — the fastest multiplying organism on earth, capable of doubling in about 10 minutes — devours a sizzling feast, but then the microbe can help scientists and farmers free up farmland, feed livestock, and livestock to feed fish.

The project by V. natriegens is one of the first “Moving Research to Impact” fast-track grants to be funded by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability as part of the 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative, mobilizing faculty to develop and accelerate concrete solutions for a warming world.

Grants have been awarded for a range of climate solutions including the development of advanced materials for carbon capture and solar panels, tools to help New York City communities reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, recommendations for auto workers to guide the workforce’s transition to electric vehicles, practices for reducing gas emissions in the dairy industry and creating new textiles for refrigeration and energy efficiency.

“Climate change is an urgent challenge and we don’t have a moment to lose,” said Ben Furnas, executive director of the 2030 project. “These grants are designed to quickly provide Cornell’s world-class researchers with resources and help them launch projects that make a difference. It’s just one way the 2030 Project is mobilizing to do what’s best for climate action in this crucial decade.”

The 2030 project is Acceptance of Grant Applications for the first round until Sept. 19

In their V. natriegens project, Specht; Buz Barstow, Assistant Professor of Bio- and Environmental Engineering; and Sijin LiAssistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, will construct a bioreactor device – they call it OgRE, On-the-fly Guide RNA-directed Evolution – that will affect the rapid evolution of V. natriegens in its electrically assisted growth.

Such a microbial chassis, Specht said, will enable a variety of applications that address climate change, including replacing agricultural inputs to produce carbon-neutral biofuels or animal feed.

“We can use Vibrio natriegens in many ways,” says Specht. “Using renewable electricity to feed these microbes will help ease the pressure on farmland to keep people fed protein. We don’t need to cut down rainforests to feed the growing population.”

For this round, the remaining quick grants are:

  • Robert Howardthe David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, and Roxanne MarinoSenior Research Fellow in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), will develop tools to assist New York City governments in consistently estimating greenhouse gas emissions under the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019.
  • Poppy McLeodKenneth J. Bissett ’89 Senior Professor and Chair of the Department of Communications; Tina PhillipsAssociate Director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Becca Rodomsky-Bish, Project Leader, Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CALS) will study the climate impact of lawn care. Recent research suggests that talking to neighbors, friends and family members can increase pro-environmental attitudes and influence better lawn care practices.
  • Chuan LiaoAssistant Professor of Global Development and Rebekah NelsonProfessor of Plant Pathology and Global Development (CALS), will explore the potential for using organic underutilized resources to drive the circular economy with bionutrients and support the transition to zero-carbon agriculture.
  • Jonathan Russell-Anelli, Lecturer in Soil and Plant Sciences (CALS) and Nelson will engage teams working on urban and suburban horticulture in New York City and Ithaca to advance the circular bionutrient economy. The grant will allow farmers, researchers and consultants to visit demonstration sites related to soil health innovations.
  • Michael van Amburgh, Professor of Animal Sciences; and David Barbano, Professor of Food Science (CALS), will study the climate impact of the dairy industry, which focuses on methane reduction. Nitrous oxide, which results from overfeeding protein to cattle, is a potent greenhouse gas; The proposed research aims to reduce protein intake.
  • Ian GreerResearch Professor and Director of the ILR Ithaca Co-Lab and Virginia Dollgast, Professor of International and Comparative Work (ILR School), will examine the manufacturing future of electric vehicles. As automakers phase out internal combustion engines and ramp up production of electric vehicles, the team will examine union, managerial and political approaches to mitigate disruption to workers.
  • Margaret Freythe Vincent VC Woo Professor of Fiber Science and Garment Design, and Heeju Park, Associate Professor of Human Centered Design (College of Human Ecology), will create a textile that incorporates micro- and nano-scale structures to control energy transfer in the infrared spectrum. This textile could be incorporated as a very thin layer on exterior surfaces, windows or clothing.
  • Andrew Musser and Phillip Milnerboth assistant professors of chemistry and chemical biology (College of Arts and Sciences), will develop a simple, scalable coating that can improve the efficiency of silicon solar cells by using molecular material – crystalline nanocolloids – to capture energy, which is generally dissipated as heat is wasted.
  • Brett Forsassociate professor of chemistry and chemical biology; Hector Abruna, the Emile M. Chamot Professor of Chemistry; and Milner (A&S) will develop new materials for carbon capture from point sources to help combat climate change. One of the major limitations of current technologies is the high energy cost required for carbon dioxide desorption. Here the group proposes to develop a new class of adsorbents that can use electricity – rather than heat or vacuum – to recover carbon dioxide.
  • Tristan Lambert, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (A&S), and Milner will develop new, highly reactive carbon-based molecules that, for the first time, can capture carbon dioxide directly from the air. The project will expand the scope of carbon capture systems that can achieve negative emissions.

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