As we move deeper into the 21st century, we face environmental challenges that are bigger than ever before: changing weather patterns, invasive species, urbanization. But we also face unprecedented opportunity. With advancements in science and technology, we have the knowledge and ability to engage with the natural environment in a way that is sustainable and promotes a high quality of life.
When we look to the future, our focus tends to rest on technological advancements like automation and AI. But an equally important aspect of the current industrial era, says Andrew Storer, dean of Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science (SFRES), is the sustainable use of renewable natural resources and acknowledging the role of technology and AI in conserving the natural world.
As SFRES is part of a university with large engineering programs, Storer says, its researchers are able to participate in multidisciplinary projects that use the newest technologies and consider their impacts on the natural environment. As the future calls for sustainability, forests and other natural systems can increasingly become sources of renewable materials. SFRES partners with the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, housed at the USDA Forest Service lab in Houghton, to conduct wide-reaching and nationally recognized work that promotes climate change adaptation in forests as a carbon defense.
“Our programs emphasize the sustainability and resilience of natural systems, and explore the interface between natural and engineered systems.”
Much of the work in SFRES relies on data-rich technologies like remote sensing and geographic information systems that collect big data to assess natural systems, and to detect change in them. Genetic techniques allow unprecedented access to apply systems biology approaches, use bioinformatics, and manipulate the genomes of organisms to solve on-the-ground issues relating to adaptation of species to changing environments.
“Automation and AI will change how we manage natural systems in the future,” Storer says. “Our graduates will have the knowledge to feed into these new technologies for sound stewardship and conservation activities.”
What sets Michigan Tech apart from other institutions, Storer asserts, is the draw of our remote location with the forests and water-rich environment of Upper Michigan, the history and identity as Ojibwe homelands, and the diverse relationships connecting humans and the natural world. This provides a unique and elevated opportunity to challenge students with learning goals that incorporate social responsibility, sustainable development and environmental policy, and the latest available technologies.
Spa to Jet Plane
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. That’s the case for the first time in 40 years, according to US Energy Information Administration data, overtaking electricity production.
Getting a plane off the ground takes a lot of power—and, therefore, fuel.
One alternative to using fossil fuels is biofuel. Certain varieties of eucalyptus and tea tree produce great quantities of just the right terpenes, odorous chemicals found in the leaves of plants, which can be used for essential oils or biofuel distillation. Carsten Külheim, plant physiologist and associate professor in Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, analyzed 468 blue mallee eucalyptus varieties to find oil-rich cultivars.
It is said that Australia’s Blue Mountains take their name from the smog-like mist eucalyptus trees emit, particularly on hot days; this mist is composed of terpenes vaporizing in the heat. Külheim and his fellow researchers want to know what, at the genetic level, causes production of about 50 different terpenes so they can crank it up to use the oil as a renewable fuel.
“We hope to provide eucalyptus farmers with genetic marker information to select trees at an earlier stage in their growth for higher terpene production. By choosing to cultivate new trees from power terpene producers, farmers are able to create new generations of the plants that naturally produce more oils.”
The challenge is that eucalyptus trees are wild and highly variable. Some produce a lot of oil and others not so much. Using genome-wide association studies, Külheim has identified promising genes. They looked at 34,110 genes on 11 chromosomes. For terpene biosynthesis, 123 genes are directly involved; at least 89 genes contained the genetic code that Külheim’s team noted as terpene powerhouses.
The data could help lead to technology that helps farmers screen young cultivars for ideal terpene genetics. Another benefit: eucalyptus are drought-hardy and can grow in places that don’t compete with food production.
Sustainability Demonstration House
It’s not your ordinary rental: “5,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, six-bathroom, three-floor home. Tenants responsible for composting, mowing, and cleaning solar panels as needed. Monthly blog posts and two open houses per semester required.”
The net-zero Michigan Tech Sustainability Demonstration House is a flat-roofed, split-level home built in 1953 for prominent Midwest construction contractor Herman “Winks” Gundlach and his family. In 1992, it was donated to Tech and officially dedicated as the President’s Residence. It was home to two presidents, Dale Stein and Curt Tompkins.
The house was renovated in the early 1990s and transformed into a more public space for University-related gatherings; in 2016, Michigan Tech’s Alternative Energy Enterprise (AEE) Team got the green light for the Sustainability Demonstration House project.
The house’s history is interesting; its future, organizers say, has the potential to help improve lives in the western Upper Peninsula, where aging homes, aging population, low median household income, high unemployment, and the highest electric rates in Michigan (.25 per kilowatt hour) place severe burdens on vulnerable citizens.
The student-led project aims to do, show, and share real ways to reduce, save, and generate energy, including retrofitting, recycling, and replacing systems to cost less and reduce carbon impact. Improvements range from small changes, like installing Light Emitting Diode (LED) and Compact Fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs, to a solar array, currently under design, that will bring 10 kilowatts of renewable energy into the house.
The house is overseen by AEE, one of 25 student Enterprise teams at the University that work on real projects with clients and corporations. The students who live in the house don’t have to be Enterprise members. Tenants apply through a competitive process and commit to co-hosting regular open houses with AEE for community education. Tenants handle the day-to-day operations, and the Enterprise spearheads big projects that require long-term planning.
In early 2019, the demonstration house’s five tenants welcomed $13,000 in Whirlpool appliances. The student tenants make good use of the appliances—which include two 27- inch smart ovens, a 4.5 cubic foot front-load 12-cycle washer, and 7.4 cubic foot front-load ventless heat pump dryer with eight cycles and advanced moisture sensing—and track data to help Whirlpool with research and development for appliances of the future.
As residents of one of the few university sustainability demonstration houses in the country, the student tenants hope their lifestyle drives home how simple things make a huge difference.