Has the ‘great resignation’ hit academia?

Read the full story in Nature.

A wave of departures, many of them by mid-career scientists, calls attention to widespread discontent in universities.

Farmers can save water with wireless technologies, but there are challenges – like transmitting data through mud

Wireless sensors and data systems can help farmers use water much more efficiently by monitoring soil conditions. Lance Cheung/USDA via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

by Abdul Salam, Purdue University

Water is the most essential resource for life, for both humans and the crops we consume. Around the world, agriculture accounts for 70% of all freshwater use.

I study computers and information technology in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute and direct Purdue’s Environmental Networking Technology (ENT) Laboratory, where we tackle sustainability and environmental challenges with interdisciplinary research into the Agricultural Internet of Things, or Ag-IoT.

The Internet of Things is a network of objects equipped with sensors so they can receive and transmit data via the internet. Examples include wearable fitness devices, smart home thermostats and self-driving cars.

In agriculture, it involves technologies such as wireless underground communications, subsurface sensing and antennas in soil. These systems help farmers track conditions on their land in real time, and apply water and other inputs such as fertilizer exactly when and where they are needed.

White sticks embedded in soil among corn stalks
Sensors installed in a corn field. Abdul Salam, CC BY-ND

In particular, monitoring conditions in the soil has great promise for helping farmers use water more efficiently. Sensors can now be wirelessly integrated into irrigation systems to provide real-time awareness of soil moisture levels. Studies suggest that this strategy can reduce water demand for irrigation by anywhere from 20% to 72% without hampering daily operations on crop fields.

What is the Agricultural Internet of Things?

Even in dry places such as the Middle East and North Africa, farming is possible with efficient water management. But extreme weather events driven by climate change are making that harder. Recurrent droughts in the western U.S. over the past 20 years, along with other disasters like wildfires, have caused billions of dollars in crop losses.

Water experts have measured soil moisture to inform water management and irrigation decisions for decades. Automated technologies have largely replaced hand-held soil moisture tools because it is hard to take manual soil moisture readings in production fields in remote locations.

In the past decade, wireless data harvesting technologies have begun to provide real-time access to soil moisture data, which makes for better water management decisions. These technologies could also have many advanced IoT applications in public safety, urban infrastructure monitoring and food safety.

The Agricultural Internet of Things is a network of radios, antennas and sensors that gather real-time crop and soil information in the field. To facilitate data collection, these sensors and antennas are interconnected wirelessly with farm equipment. The Ag-IoT is a complete framework that can detect conditions on farmland, suggest actions in response and send commands to farm machinery.

Graphic showing satellites, drones, wireless underground communications systems and other digital components collecting and sharing signals around a farm
Technologies that together comprise the Agricultural Internet of Things. Abdul Salam/Purdue University, CC BY-ND

Interconnecting devices such as soil moisture and temperature sensors in the field makes it possible to control irrigation systems and conserve water autonomously. The system can schedule irrigation, monitor environmental conditions and control farm machines, such as seed planters and fertilizer applicators. Other applications include estimating soil nutrient levels and identifying pests.

The challenges of putting networks underground

Wireless data collection has the potential to help farmers use water much more efficiently, but putting these components in the ground creates challenges. For example, at the Purdue ENT Lab, we have found that when the antennas that transmit sensor data are buried in soil, their operating characteristics change drastically depending on how moist the soil is. My new book, “Signals in the Soil,” explains how this happens.

A scientist stands next to a wood-framed test bed containing equipment embedded in soil
Abdul Salam takes measurements in a test bed at Purdue University to determine the optimum operating frequency for underground antennas. Abdul Salam, CC BY-ND

Farmers use heavy equipment in fields, so antennas must be buried deep enough to avoid damage. As soil becomes wet, the moisture affects communication between the sensor network and the control system. Water in the soil absorbs signal energy, which weakens the signals that the system sends. Denser soil also blocks signal transmission.

We have developed a theoretical model and an antenna that reduces the soil’s impact on underground communications by changing the operation frequency and system bandwidth. With this antenna, sensors placed in top layers of soil can provide real-time soil condition information to irrigation systems at distances up to 650 feet (200 meters) – longer than two football fields.

Another solution I have developed for improving wireless communication in soil is to use directional antennas to focus signal energy in a desired direction. Antennas that direct energy toward air can also be used for long-range wireless underground communications.

Two metal radios on the ground
Using software-defined radios to detect soil measurement signals. These radios can adjust their operating frequencies in response to soil moisture changes. In actual operation, the radios are buried in the soil. Abdul Salam, CC BY-ND

What’s next for the Ag-IoT

Cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important for the Ag-IoT as it matures. Networks on farms need advanced security systems to protect the information that they transfer. There’s also a need for solutions that enable researchers and agricultural extension agents to merge information from multiple farms. Aggregating data this way will produce more accurate decisions about issues like water use, while preserving growers’ privacy.

These networks also need to adapt to changing local conditions, such as temperature, rainfall and wind. Seasonal changes and crop growth cycles can temporarily alter operating conditions for Ag-IoT equipment. By using cloud computing and machine learning, scientists can help the Ag-IoT respond to shifts in the environment around it.

Finally, lack of high-speed internet access is still an issue in many rural communities. For example, many researchers have integrated wireless underground sensors with Ag-IoT in center pivot irrigation systems, but farmers without high-speed internet access can’t install this kind of technology.

Integrating satellite-based network connectivity with the Ag-IoT can assist nonconnected farms where broadband connectivity is still unavailable. Researchers are also developing vehicle-mounted and mobile Ag-IoT platforms that use drones. Systems like these can provide continuous connectivity in the field, making digital technologies accessible for more farmers in more places.

Abdul Salam, Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Technology, Purdue University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is sustainability the future of the restaurant supply chain?

Read the full story at QSR Magazine.

Recent bottlenecks and shortages have restaurants reevaluating their supply chains—and sustainability might just be part of the solution.

Supply chain emissions are top of mind for food and ag

Read the full story at GreenBiz.

Today, I’m turning my attention to larger players in food and agriculture. What were their noteworthy accomplishments in the second quarter of this year?

What stands out is their continuing focus on supply chain work. This makes sense as most emissions in the food and agriculture industry occur at the farm level. Besides managing emissions, companies have also worked to improve socioeconomic outcomes in the food system and integrate new technologies into their manufacturing and retail operations. 

Governing the sustainability commons

Read the full story at GreenBiz.

The Supreme Court’s West Virginia decision puts the ball of developing rules for business to contribute meaningfully to sustainability squarely in the private sector’s court. When, as Joel Makower’s disturbing article in these pages points out, there has been little progress in meeting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, U.S. leadership is sorely needed.

But as I argued in a previous article, to make real progress in attaining sustainability we need a substructure of rules that creates a level playing field and prevents “free riders” from taking advantage of their rivals’ responsible actions.

The West Virginia ruling will undermine U.S. government regulatory action to do this.

We do, however, have a guide for action in Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-prize winning work summarized in “Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action” as well as in academic research on voluntary environmental programs. Below I briefly summarize and extend Ostrom’s work with the results of academic research and my own experience.

Meet the ESG software startup prioritizing SMBs

Read the full story at GreenBiz.

There is no shortage of enterprise software firms vying to meet the needs of large companies seeking to calculate and manage carbon emissions information in a more automated, verifiable fashion. There are far fewer tools catering to small and midsize businesses — ironic when you consider that these enterprises account for at least some of the Scope 3 impact of bigger corporations.

New York-based startup Sustain.Life, launched in 2021 by a group that includes three former Walmart and Jet.com executives, aims to fill that void. In May, the company raised $16 million in seed funding — led by its co-founder Mike Hanrahan along with early-stage Tapestry VC. 

Landsat turns 50: How satellites revolutionized the way we see – and protect – the natural world

The Yellow River in China winds past aquaculture and an oil and gas field on its way to a newly formed channel. NASA

by Stacy Morford, The Conversation

Fifty years ago, U.S. scientists launched a satellite that dramatically changed how we see the world.

It captured images of Earth’s surface in minute detail, showing how wildfires burned landscapes, how farms erased forests, and many other ways humans were changing the face of the planet.

The first satellite in the Landsat series launched on July 23, 1972. Eight others followed, providing the same views so changes could be tracked over time, but with increasingly powerful instruments. Landsat 8 and Landsat 9 are orbiting the planet today, and NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey are planning a new Landsat mission.

The images and data from these satellites are used to track deforestation and changing landscapes around the world, locate urban heat islands, and understand the impact of new river dams, among many other projects. Often, the results help communities respond to risks that may not be obvious from the ground.

Here are three examples of Landsat in action, from The Conversation’s archive.

Tracking changes in the Amazon

Wide aerial view of Amazon rainforest and the dam under construction.
The Belo Monte Dam’s construction, shown here in 2012, flooded land and changed the river. Mario Tama/Getty Images

When work began on the Belo Monte Dam project in the Brazilian Amazon in 2015, Indigenous tribes living along the Big Bend of the Xingu River started noticing changes in the river’s flow. The water they relied on for food and transportation was disappearing.

Upstream, a new channel would eventually divert as much as 80% of the water to the hydroelectric dam, bypassing the bend.

The consortium that runs the dam argued that there was no scientific proof that the change in water flow harmed fish.

But there is clear proof of the Belo Monte Dam project’s impact – from above, write Pritam Das, Faisal Hossain, Hörður Helgason and Shahzaib Khan at the University of Washington. Using satellite data from the Landsat program, the team showed how the dam dramatically altered the hydrology of the river.

“As scientists who work with remote sensing, we believe satellite observations can empower populations around the world who face threats to their resources,” Das and his colleagues write.

It’s hot in the city – and even hotter in some neighborhoods

A woman holds a young girl up to a fan in front of a store on a hot day.
A street fan provides relief on a hot summer day in New York City. Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Landsat’s instruments can also measure surface temperatures, allowing scientists to map heat risk street by street within cities as global temperatures rise.

“Cities are generally hotter than surrounding rural areas, but even within cities, some residential neighborhoods get dangerously warmer than others just a few miles away,” writes Daniel P. Johnson, who uses satellites to study the urban heat island effect at Indiana University.

Neighborhoods with more pavement and buildings and fewer trees can be 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.5 C) or more warmer than leafier neighborhoods, Johnson writes. He found that the hottest neighborhoods tend to be low-income, have majority Black or Hispanic residents and had been subjected to redlining, the discriminatory practice once used to deny loans in racial and ethnic minority communities.

Two maps of New York City show how vegetation matches cooler areas by temperature.
Comparing maps of New York City’s vegetation and temperature shows the cooling effect of parks and neighborhoods with more trees. NASA/USGS Landsat

“Within these ‘micro-urban heat islands,’ communities can experience heat wave conditions well before officials declare a heat emergency,” Johnson writes.

Knowing which neighborhoods face the highest risks allows cities to organize cooling centers and other programs to help residents manage the heat.

The making of ghost forests

Dead tree trunks with low ground cover below.
The white trunks of a ghost forest mark a coastal North Carolina landscape. Emily Ury, CC BY-ND

Satellites that scan the same areas year after year can be crucial for spotting changes in hard-to-reach regions. They can monitor snow and ice cover, and, along U.S. Atlantic coast, dying wetland forests.

These eerie landscapes of dead, often bleached-white tree trunks have earned the nickname “ghost forests.”

Emily Ury, an ecologist now at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, used Landsat data to spot wetland changes. She then zoomed in with high-resolution images from Google Earth – which includes Landsat images – to confirm that they were ghost forests.

“The results were shocking. We found that more than 10% of forested wetland within the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge [in North Carolina] was lost over the past 35 years. This is federally protected land, with no other human activity that could be killing off the forest,” Ury writes.

A satellite image of the coast with red spots along a river inlet indicating dead forests
Landsat’s view of the Alligator River and refuge shows signs of ghost forests on the east side of the river. NASA Earth Observatory

As the planet warms and sea levels rise, more salt water is reaching these areas, increasing the amount of salt in the soil of coastal woodlands from Maine to Florida. “Rapid sea level rise seems to be outpacing the ability of these forests to adapt to wetter, saltier conditions,” Ury writes.

Many more stories can be found in Landsat’s images, such as an overview of the war’s effects on Ukraine’s wheat crop, and how algae blooms have spread in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. Countless projects are using Landsat data to track global change and possibly find solutions to problems, from deforestation in the Amazon to the fires that have put Alaska on pace for another historic fire season.

An illustration of a satellite with a large solar panel for power high over a coastal area
An artist’s rendering of Landsat 8. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

Stacy Morford, Environment + Climate Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can solar panels share land with crops? This group says yes

Read the full story at News Nation.

Lower costs and government incentives make harvesting solar energy cheaper than growing crops in some places, but there is a worry that a solar boom would further destabilize the American food system. 

Researchers behind a $10 million project led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign say combining crops and solar power will increase the productivity of both. 

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, university researchers, biologists and mechanical engineers have joined together in Illinois, Arizona and Colorado to show that “agrivoltaics” — growing crops under solar panels — can give farmers the best of both worlds.

NewsNation talked with Nenad Miljkovic, who leads the engineering team for the SCAPES Agrivoltaics Project, about what that could look like. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

DOE awards $39M for tech that would enable buildings to store carbon

Read the full story at Construction Dive.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced $39 million in awards for 18 projects that are developing technologies to transform buildings into net carbon storage structures.

Several of these awards consist of alternative concrete and cement materials, as part of the DOE push to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Marina Sofos, program director at the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

The direct CO2 intensity of cement production increased 1.8% per year during 2015 to 2020, according to an International Energy Agency report, while a 3% yearly decline to 2030 is needed to get on track with its Net Zero Emissions by 2050 goal to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Michigan paper mill finds new solution for residuals

Read the full story at Resource Recycling.

Collaboration between an industry group and several Michigan organizations helped Great Lakes Tissue think outside the carton when it comes to its use of recycled material.

Michigan-based Great Lakes Tissue teamed up with the Carton Council of North America, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to purchase new equipment that cuts down the amount of residuals generated by the toilet paper and tissue manufacturer.

The work also helps boost recycling of all components of recovered food and beverage cartons, which can contain plastic and aluminum along with the fiber that is used to make most of the packaging.

“We don’t want to just say cartons are recyclable, but it’s just the fiber,” said Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling projects for Carton Council of North America. “We want to say the whole thing is.”