Researching Fresh Solutions to the Energy/Water/Food Challenge in Resource Constrained Environments

img_TCI_fish-farm_1320Seventeen researchers at U-M are combining their considerable resources, talent and experience to find solutions to major global problems. The team’s project, led by U-M professor Johannes Schwank, is titled REFRESCH, short for “Researching Fresh Solutions to the Energy/Water/Food Challenge in Resource-Constrained Environments.”


While the developed world relies on massive, interconnected energy systems and takes access to clean water and sufficient food for granted, this is not the case in many other parts of the world. In this project, an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students conducts case studies of microenvironments representative of developing world settings where a better synergy between energy, water, and food is needed. First, technology gaps will be identified that prevent off-grid communities from functioning at the level they would like. Then, appropriate low-cost, sustainable solutions will be explored to fill these gaps and the impact of these solutions on the balance between distributed energy, food, and water will be modeled and validated experimentally.

The faculty team, along with undergraduate and graduate students, will focus on addressing three key issues present throughout the world at different degrees based on resource limitations and especially acute in less developed countries: exploring the concept of a “water neutral community” and the resulting impact on energy and food production; developing local, community-based “cottage industries for energy;” and investigating secure food production and its intersection with energy and water.

This project is also expected to foster opportunities for reverse innovation, possibly creating spin-offs and startups that could be incubated in repurposed industrial facilities, leading to local employment opportunities and economic development in Michigan. The partners envision opportunities, in collaboration with local developers, to utilize repurposed, shuttered facilities.

Project Goals

In Phase 1, the team looked at real-world cases of environments characterized by a variety of interrelated limitations involving energy, food, and water.

The REFRESCH team received requests from the ambassadors of several nations to be considered for REFRESCH’s global case studies. Based on the arguments and needs outlined, Gabon and Kazakhstan were chosen to be two of REFRESCH’s case studies. In both of these nations and in the city of Highland Park, the third case study location chosen, the team identified a set of relevant problems.

The major goal of the project’s Phase 2 is to focus on promoting the multidirectional application of ideas and technology solutions to and from local and global settings. Education is a major part of this process, both in the involvement of U-M students at all levels and in the development of a best-practices method of interacting with communities to achieve sustainable designs to meet human needs. The ideal situation would be to have a presence in Highland Park, in which case the hub could also serve as a hands-on forum for education, information dissemination, and community engagement; and as a test bed to develop sustainability solutions at home and abroad. Real-world exploration of solutions to complex energy/water/food problems in different combinations and on different scales will take place, leveraging and integrating existing research efforts and spawning new ones.

Work with ambassadors and representatives of Gabon and Kazakhstan will continue. Specific goals include bringing faculty and student groups to interface with the people in the communities for the purpose of framing their resource-related problems and outlining possible solutions that would be both culturally acceptable and sustainable. The next step would be to develop a best-practice design process for the technology, involving U of M students and perhaps the end-users abroad as well. Finally, REFRESCH would undertake implementation of the products developed.

Specific areas of interest may include fish farms, hydroponic gardens, algae plantations, and solar greenhouses. Several energy inputs and feedstocks will be considered, including solar energy, wind energy, biomass conversion, natural gas, propane gas, waste to energy, and low-temperature waste heat recovery. Case studies also may consider the use of solar/wind energy for water pumping and disinfection utilizing UV-LED lights, various energy storage technologies, and the potential use of direct rather than alternating current.

$3M global sustainability grant to fund projects on three continents
The University Record, July 17, 2014

Project Team:

Johannes Schwank, College of Engineering
Peter Adriaens, College of Engineering, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, Ross School of Business
Mark Barteau, College of Engineering
John Callewaert, Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute
Roy Clarke, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
James Stephen Diana, School of Natural Resources and the Environment
Galen Fisher, College of Engineering
Eric Hill, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Andrew Hoffman, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, Ross School of Business
Aileen Huang-Saad, College of Engineering
Nancy G. Love, College of Engineering
Shelie Miller, School of Natural Resources and the Environment
Lutgarde Raskin, College of Engineering
Steve Skerlos, College of Engineering
Andrew Tadd, College of Engineering
Joseph Trumpey, Stamps School of Art and Design, School of Natural Resources and the Environment
Krista Wigginton, College of Engineering