Engineering Sustainable Cities

By Amber Aumiller, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

More and more we are recognizing that everything in our world is interconnected.  Even our cities are increasingly managed as a network of interdependent systems that can be optimized to waste fewer of our world’s valuable resources.  Considering the prediction that places 70% of the world’s population – an estimate of around 6.7 billion people[1] –  in urban areas by 2050, making our cities more efficient and thus environmentally sustainable has never been more crucial.

Dr. Masood Parvania has spent much of his career researching electricity innovation, using mathematical optimization, calculus of variations, and scientific computing to create and enhance smart grid integrations. On Tuesday, September 17 at 4-5 p.m. in ASB 210, join him for a talk on “Sustainability at the Intersection of Power and Water Infrastructure: An Engineering Perspective” as part of the GCSC seminar lecture series where he will be exploring these themes. 

His lecture will examine how cities are moving away from designing and operating water and power infrastructure as separate systems and are acknowledging that electricity is a critical component of water treatment and distribution. Cities are recognizing that the power grid relies on water for things like mining, fuel production, hydropower and power-plant cooling, so it makes sense to begin connecting the infrastructure in order to conserve water and use energy efficiently.  By connecting cyber-technology to the infrastructure we are able to gather and translate data from these integrated systems for real-time adjustments in dispatching just the right amount of whatever resource is needed at any given moment in time. Eventually the algorithms can begin to learn and self-adjust through feedback loops, which is the basis for designing what we now call “smart cities.” 

Creating and testing these cyber-physical models of unified power systems for their hardiness to cyber-attack and physical failures, as well as their overall efficacy, is at the heart of Dr. Parvania’s work.  His current research, funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Office of Naval Research, and power industry, looks at enhancing sustainability and cyber-physical resilience of power, water and electrified transportation infrastructure. The idea ultimately is that a more efficiently running city is a more sustainable city, and mathematical algorithms and cyber-technology can help get us there.

Assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, Dr. Parvania is also director of the Utah Smart Energy Lab (U-Smart) here at the University of Utah.  He received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and was a postdoctoral scholar at both the University of California Davis and Arizona State University. He serves as Associate Editor for the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers’ (IEEE) Transactions on Smart Grid, the IEEE Power Engineering Letters, the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s Renewable Power Generation, and is the Chair of the IEEE Utah Power and Energy Society Chapter. In 2018, he received the Engineering Educator of the Year Award from the Utah Engineers Council, and in 2019 the Faculty Recognition Award from the University of Utah.

If you are interested in learning how we can enhance our cities’ sustainability through interconnected power, water and electrified transportation systems, join us for Dr. Parvania’s talk “Sustainability at the Intersection of Power and Water Infrastructure: An Engineering Perspective” on Tuesday, September 17 at 4 p.m. in ASB 210.  As usual, there will be coffee and treats, so bring your own mug and enjoy!

[1] National Geographic, April 2019

Science, Policy and Jell-O in our Nation’s Capitol

By Nic Apodaca, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

At the end of March, four University of Utah graduate students spent three days in Washington D.C. for the Catalyzing Advocacy for Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At a time when the value of education and scientific research is increasingly being questioned by federal lawmakers, encouraging a new generation of policy-makers in academia is vital. The CASE workshop is designed to address exactly this need, introducing graduate students in STEM fields from across the country to the nuts and bolts of science policy and advocacy in the advancement of STEM nationwide.

The four students were Kendall FitzGerald from Geology, Rebecca Hardenbrook from Mathematics, Kaden Plewe from Mechanical Engineering, and Jewell Lund from Geography.  Their participation was made possible by the generous support of the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC).

In Washington, the group met with 300 other students from across the United States from a diverse range of STEM disciplines. All were united by common interests in making their research relevant to policy and society, improving communication between the laboratory and the capital, and seeking opportunities for interdisciplinary research and communication. As Geography student Jewell Lund reported, “this is becoming ever more important to address the complex challenges society faces today.”

The workshop was quick to dive into the hard questions science policy and communication face today. Lund recounts how the CEO of the AAAS, Rush Holt, discussed how ambiguous the term “science policy” was. “There is a stark difference between policy for science, and science for policy,” Lund explained. While both are important, they mean different things. Policy for science dictates the terms under which research is performed nationwide. Yet science for policy is the specific research used to inform policy-making, and is where scientists have an important responsibility in influencing the policy landscape. Lund cites the impact of biologist Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring to show how science can deeply affect policy decisions.

The experience ultimately proved fruitful for the students. As Lund said, “my respect for this work has only deepened as I’ve gained a better perspective on the process.” The trip wasn’t all business, however: Utah Senator Mike Lee hosted the students for a Jello hour, where they discovered that Jello is the official favorite snack of Utah. Sharing Jello with Senator Lee and Senator Mitt Romney’s staff was a quirky and fun way to wrap up the trip. Yet reflecting on the trip, Lund doesn’t miss the importance and seriousness of the work these four Utah students have only just begun. As she says, “These interactions are an enlightening starting point for further development and interaction, and we are in the midst of establishing a student group focused on science and policy so that we can continue to explore this interface.”

The Global Change and Sustainability Center offers small grants for travel and research to eligible graduate students whose academic or research mentors are active faculty affiliates of the GCSC. Travel funding supports student participation in professional meetings, where they have the opportunity to present their research and network with peers and professionals in the field. Networking at professional meetings can not only lead to potential collaborations and other professional opportunities, but students are also likely to gain an expanded view of the discipline, its culture, and how their research interests fit into the broader landscape. The next deadline for research and travel grants is Sept. 15.

This article was featured in @theu on August 23, 2019.


Beyond the Aluminum Can

Image credit: Todd Helmenstine /

Why Recycling Across the Periodic Table Matters

By Kate Whitbeck, Sustainability Office

When the average person thinks about metal recycling the image that pops into their head is of an aluminum or tin can – a soda can or the can that beans or corn came in. They aren’t thinking of all of the 62 elements that make up the metals of the periodic table. All of those metals, like fossil fuels, are finite resources that we, as a human population, aren’t managing responsibly. Recycling rates for most metals are well below 50 percent. The challenge is that modern technology is critically dependent on each element of the periodic table. We know that metal recycling is more energy-efficient than mining virgin materials and doesn’t have the same kind of social and environmental implications. So, how efficiently are we using these resources and what happens when metals become scarce?

Professor Barbara Reck is a senior research scientist at Yale University’s Center for Industrial Ecology who studies the role of metals in society, particularly nickel and stainless steel; where they are sourced from, how they are used, disposed of, and recycled, and the implications thereof on their future availability. On August 27th from 4-5 p.m. in ASB 210, join her for her lecture, “Why using metals efficiently matters” as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center seminar series.

Dr. Reck earned her doctorate degree in environmental engineering at  Technische Universitӓt Berlin in Germany. In the early 2000s, she was part of a team of pioneering researchers which mapped out the first global (and national) metal cycles, looking at current and historical flows of specific metals, developing scenarios of possible future metal use, and assessing metal supply and demand. This work was part of the Stocks and Flows (STAF) project conducted at Yale’s Center for Industrial Ecology.

While working on these metal cycles, the research team came to understand that metal recycling rates were not clearly or uniformly defined.  Working in collaboration with many industry associations, academics, and EU representatives through the United Nations’ Environmental Program’s (UNEP) International Resource Panel, they set about establishing a consistent set of recycling metrics and quantifying the recycling rates for the 62 metals and metalloids of the periodic table.

What the results of those metrics indicated was that there was a large discrepancy in the recycling efficiency of major (e.g., steel, aluminum) versus minor (e.g., indium, germanium) metals. The recycling rate of major metals is around 50-60% whereas minor metals hardly get recycled at all. “One of the major challenges,” Dr. Reck explains, “is that low-carbon technologies such as solar, wind or electric vehicles are very dependent on these minor metals. For a low-carbon future, these technologies need to be up-scaled big time, which means that the demand for the minor metals involved would skyrocket in the future.” This finding led to the Criticality Project which looked at whether the future demand for each metal could be met by its supply from primary (i.e., known mines and reserves) and secondary (ie., recycled) sources.

The research that Dr. Reck and her colleagues have been focused on has helped ensure that corporate, national, and global stakeholders have the tools they need to make strategic decisions around metal use. To learn more about the importance of building a circular economy when it comes to using metals in addition to your aluminum and steel cans come to ASB 210 on August 27 at 4 p.m. for Dr. Reck’s GCSC Seminar Series lecture, “Why Using Metals Efficiently Matter.”