Campus as a Living Laboratory

Turning campus into a test bed for solutions to real-world problems

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iSEE Work



iSEE Work



iSEE Work



Sustainability isn’t just happening “out there;” it’s a consideration every day right here on our campus. By using our own facilities and community as a miniature model of the world at large, we can learn things that will make this campus — and the world — better.

Launched in February 2018, iSEE’s Campus as a Living Lab program is designed to link campus sustainability targets to national and global sustainability, energy, and environment challenges. Each year, iSEE calls for proposals to provide quick seed money for promising faculty-led teams that will engage with interdisciplinary sustainability issues on campus or in neighborhood communities in their proposal development. Specifically, iSEE wants to leverage this seed money to attract external funds for research relevant to achieve Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) objectives.


         Current and Past Projects (newest to oldest)       


Using Computer Vision to Classify Waste

Funded in early 2023, this project aims to develop an automated waste characterization system that uses recent advances in computer vision to detect and classify waste more efficiently for recycling. It will also create a dashboard with live data on the nature and extent of waste generated at the U of I to motivate the campus community to follow best practices for waste disposal and recycling and to help meet zero-waste goals in the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP).

Click here to learn more

The campus generates nearly 5,000 tons of waste per year, and the recycling stream is manually sorted by five to seven individuals. Using cameras installed at the university’s Waste Transfer Station, the research team will develop a machine-learning model to classify waste on a moving conveyer belt into six categories — paper, plastic, food, metal, glass, and yard waste — then feed that data into the live dashboard. The project will also determine the best pathways for converting the diverse components of municipal solid waste into biofuels and bioproducts.


Purpose of the Work: Turning Waste Into Treasure

Waste management is a pervasive problem that is growing continuously with the spread of urbanization. The U.S. EPA estimates that half of municipal solid waste (MSW) ends up in landfills, contributing to significant methane emissions. There is a need for new and refined resource recovery methods that have minimal impact on climate, and the global recycling industry is demanding higher quality inputs before it will accept recycled goods. Robotic control systems with mechanical arms and machine learning for identification can sort waste more efficiently, reducing processing time and turning waste into valuable resources.


The Project Team

    • Nishant Garg, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Daphne Hulse, Zero Waste Coordinator, Facilities & Services
    • Joy Scrogum, Assistant Scientist, Sustainability, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center
    • Lav R. Varshney, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Automating High Tunnel Farming with Robotics to Improve Yields, Lower Costs

Funded in early 2023, this project seeks to demonstrate that AI-powered robotics can automate labor-intensive operations for high tunnels — low-cost structures ideal for growing plants on small urban farms — leading to improved crop yields, reduced manual labor, and higher profits. It will also evaluate the profitability and socio-economic implications of Robot Integrated High Tunnels (RobInHighTs) and identify barriers to their use by urban and minority farmers.

Click here to learn more

High tunnels — curved metal frames covered with greenhouse plastic — are popular in urban settings due to their cost-effectiveness and adaptability, but they require an extra layer of management to ensure quality crops. They can extend the growing season, protect against severe weather, increase crop yields, and improve the quality of fruits, vegetables, and cut flowers. They require less land than open-field production and less capital than greenhouse systems, but labor costs per square foot can be significantly higher than in open fields, especially for harvesting and safe indoor pest management.

The team will integrate its recent AI advances in vision-based perception, autonomous navigation, and dexterous manipulation with novel robot hardware to prune, harvest, and monitor pests and diseases in crops grown in high tunnels at the Sustainable Student Farm (SSF). The emphasis will be primarily on tomato vines and greens, the most commonly grown crops in urban high tunnels.


Purpose of the Work: Support for Sustainable Urban Farming

RobInHighTs can be a significant economic driver for successful urban farming, and ultimately help transition amateur urban gardeners and growers into profitable long-term farmers. Urban farms enable efficient and fresh local food production, avoiding the energy costs of transporting produce hundreds of miles to consumers, and open up new income streams for minorities and small communities. This project will lay the groundwork for sustainably intensifying high tunnel farming, increasing yield and crop quality while minimizing energy use. Autonomous monitoring and harvesting by robots can also reduce the carbon footprint of food produced at the SSF by increasing yield and reducing waste, and showcase sustainable practices to a wide variety of students.         

Spring 2023 Update

To supplement the iSEE seed funding, the Center for Digital Agriculture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign received a $975,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture for Robotics Integrated High Tunnels (RobInHighTs) to create profitable food oases in urban ecosystems.

The project will use AI-powered robotics to automate operations for high tunnels at the Sustainable Student Farm — leading to improved crop yields, reduced manual labor costs and higher profits. These curved metal structures are covered with greenhouse plastic and are ideal for growing plants on small urban farms. 

Read the full news release >>>

The Project Team

    • Naveen Kumar Uppalapati, Research Scientist at NCSA

    • Girish Krishnan, Associate Professor of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering and Carle-Illinois College of Medicine

    • Kacie J. Athey, Assistant Professor of Crop Sciences

    • Girish Chowdhary, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Computer Science

    • Shadi S. Atallah, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics

Addressing Community Health Disparities from Hazardous Waste

Funded in early 2022, this project seeks to develop a network of academic researchers and social justice organizers to empower communities of color to address health disparities rooted in systemic racism. It will target communities affected by hazardous waste from former manufactured gas plants (MGPs), using a neighborhood in Champaign, Ill., as a living lab.

Click here to learn more

MGPs converted coal and oil to gaseous fuel used for cooking and lighting in the 19th and early 20th centuries but also generated large quantities of coal tar and toxic wastewater — which eventually seep into groundwater. Further, MGPs commonly emitted harmful gases into the homes of nearby residents.

Researchers will develop low-cost sampling devices to monitor ambient and indoor air, water, and soil quality and build the capacity in communities to use them — thus developing a model to crowdsource environmental monitoring data that can be used at the national level.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

An interdisciplinary team from community health, environmental engineering, and epidemiology will work with the nonprofit Champaign County Health Care Consumers and residents of Champaign’s 5th & Hill neighborhood, involving the community in all stages of the research process from design to implementation — and sharing the risk assessment findings.

The project will support local environmental justice efforts and promote long-term community health benefits while creating a blueprint for community-academic partnerships to address environmental racism.


The Project Team

    • Vishal Verma, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Roland D. Cusick, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Sarah Geiger, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Community Health



Students from the CEE 449: Environmental Engineering Lab course taught by Verma and Cusick conducted environmental sampling of water and soil at the Boneyard Creek in Champaign, then performed lab analyses on the samples to check for contaminants.



Early on in this project, the team has made air quality measurements in one of the homes near 5th and Hill, and it has begun measurements in a neighborhood church as well. Verma says the samples collected will be analyzed for chemical composition.



Illinois Precision Livestock and Cover Crop Environmental Sustainability (I-PLACES) Living Laboratory

Funded in Spring 2021, this project seeks to implement an on-campus living laboratory to study a sustainable agricultural system that integrates three elements: a traditional corn/soybean rotation, cover crop seeding, and cattle grazing. 

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Cover crops are traditionally planted late in the season, after the cash-crop has been harvested; however, this model is not conducive to a typical fall/spring cattle grazing rotation. Previous research conducted by this team established the feasibility of early-season, under-canopy cover crop planting; building upon these studies, the next step is adding the animals. Integrating strategic cover crop management with cattle grazing has the potential to reduce nitrogen use, increase carbon sequestration, and mitigate weed proliferation in agricultural settings.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

With iSEE seed-funding, the team will create and manage a 160-acre living laboratory on the University of Illinois animal farm fields adjacent to Curtis Road. This site will house multiple 40-acre plots to sustain the corn/soybean rotation and cover crop plantings. Cover crops used in the study will be robotically planted, and include cereal rye and hairy vetch, both considered top-tier in Illinois due to their cold-weather hardiness and nutrient-rich makeup (which is ideal for the team’s proposed fall/spring cattle grazing schedule).

Ultimately, the team will use this model to research agricultural sustainability, farmer profitability, and cattle health and nutrition as a result of grazing on cover crops, setting a precedent for sustainable land stewardship in the Midwest and beyond.


The Project Team

    • Girish Chowdhary, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Computer Science
    • Isabella Condotta, Assistant Professor of Animal Sciences
    • D.K. Lee, Professor of Crop Sciences
    • Joshua McCann, Assistant Professor of Animal Sciences
    • Dan Shike, Associate Professor of Animal Sciences
    • Andres Baquero, Postdoctoral Researcher
    • Chunhwa Jang, Postdoctoral Researcher


The cover crop robot manufactured by EarthSense.


Team members were part of the lone winner of the U.S. Department Agriculture’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) “Farm of the Future” request for proposals, earning a three-year, $3.9M grant. All future updates can be found on the I-FARM page >>>



Chowdhary reports the following progress: 

  • The cover crop planting robot is now complete, and five prototypes are being manufactured.
  • The I-PLACES field is planted, and the team expects cover crop planting with robots to begin in mid-August.
  • The rotations for different grazing experiments is planned for Fall 2021and Spring 2022.
  • The autonomy software for the cover crop robot is ready and being thoroughly tested.
  • The team will present the cover crop robot at Agronomy Day on campus, as well as at the Farm Progress Show, and Chowdhary will present at iSEE’s Congress on Oct. 27.

Adaptive Aluminum Tensegrity Structure as a Bike Parking Canopy

Funded in Summer 2020, this project seeks to expand the sustainability and longevity of structural engineering by installing an aluminum bicycle canopy on the Engineering Quad.

Click here to learn more

The field of adaptive structures is emerging as a sustainable alternative to current inflexible designs. Tensegrity structures, skeletal constructions of bars and cables held together when the cables are in tension, are highly adaptive and have a high strength-to-weight ratio. A primary challenge with large-scale tensegrity structures that has hindered their implementation in structural engineering is building robust joints that are both strong and flexible. Aluminum is a lightweight material that not only complements the lightweight structural design, but also provides corrosion resistance and infinite recyclability.

An on-campus aluminum tensegrity structure will provide the research team with critical insight to inform larger-scale applications of the design (e.g., performance of aluminum alloys, response to environmental stimuli, maintenance costs, etc.). Potential applications include emergency response infrastructure and extra-terrestrial construction.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

With iSEE seed funding and support from Facilities & Services (F&S), researchers will design and analyze an aluminum bicycle parking canopy on the south face of the Newmark Civil Engineering Building, 205 N. Mathews Ave., Urbana.

In addition to the low-waste and low-energy qualities inherent to the dynamic tensegrity design, the bicycle canopy will support sustainable, low-emission transportation. The accessibility of weather-resistant and safe bicycle storage on the North Quad will provide an incentive for students, staff, and faculty members who frequent that area to opt for bike travel year-round, even and especially in inclement weather.


The Project Team

    • Ann Sychterz, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Nishant Garg, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Pictured: Large-scale adaptive tensegrity structure. Image captured at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL).



Sychterz reports that the team has created a full structural design of the aluminum bike parking canopy, and that “component testing (joints and cables) are complete.” The materials for the full structure have been ordered and delivered. Construction of full bike parking canopy is underway near Newmark Laboratory (pictured). The team continues to test materials for aluminum coatings and for better roof drainage.

Integrating Groundwater Resources and Geothermal Energy for Water-Energy Security and Resilience

Funded in Spring 2020, this project aims to enhance water and energy security and resilience in urban systems, agricultural applications, and military bases by using groundwater resources and geothermal energy as an integrated system. Potential applications will improve military readiness and urban resilience to climate change by providing reliable indoor climate control and uninterrupted access to water.

Click here to learn more

Contingency military bases will benefit from a rapidly deployable system and a reduced logistics burden. This development will provide climate resilience under extreme weather conditions by using advanced storage technologies for water and energy as a sustainable infrastructure.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

A major drawback of current practice is that there are very limited tools to provide powerful simulations of surface and groundwater interactions coupled with heat transfer. Existing tools typically require a long and exhaustive learning processOn the contrary, MODFLOW — a groundwater flow model — is a free, widely used program developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 1988. MODFLOW has been well managed and consistently updated over the years to incorporate the most advanced coding capacity.

Using iSEE seed funding, researchers will initiate the development of a heat transport model in MODFLOW to integrate groundwater flow with geothermal exchange, enabling a much larger working force to contribute to the research and development of integrating groundwater resources and geothermal energy as an innovative sustainable infrastructure.  Moreover, this development would enhance current U of I research and education activities on groundwater/geothermal integrations and the dynamic water cycle of groundwater, surface water, and the atmosphere.

The team will use abundant campus geothermal projects funded by the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) and iSEE and a geothermal deep direct-use feasibility study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and ISGS, then will expand on these projects by preparing proposals to three potential federal agencies — DOE, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Geological Survey, based on current collaborations with these three agencies. 


The Geothermal Coalition Team and all future updates may be found at >>>



The Prairie Research Institute (PRI), Student Sustainability Committee (SSC), Facilities & Services (F&S), Illinois Water Resources Center (IWRC), iSEE, the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES), and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) gathered on Feb. 27, 2023, to break ground on installing an underground thermal battery (UTB) at the Energy Farm in Urbana, IL.

“This is an essential step toward implementing and demonstrating an innovative, lower-cost geothermal energy technology at scale,” said Andrew Stumpf, a principal research scientist and geologist at the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) at PRI, “We’ll be involved in the data collection and analysis with ORNL and provide the geological framework for the project.”

Read the full story >>>



Funding: The team put received nearly $600k in three separate grants from the U.S. Geological Survey and more than $740,000 of a $6M U.S. Department of Energy grant for a study led by Oak Ridge National Lab.

Progress: The team is developing a technical data portal for the geothermal industry and stakeholders, as well as suitability make for geothermal energy in Illinois. Additionally, it recruited new members to the coalition (full list — Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE); College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES); School of Architecture; Illinois Water Resources Center (IWRC); Geothermal Alliance of Illinois (GAOI); International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA); GeoExchange Organization; City of Urbana; Midwest Renewable Energy Association; 2010 Engineering Group LLC; Prairie Rivers Network; Citizens Utility Board; Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition; Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition (MBDC))

Publications: In addition to several media articles, in-person presentations, and circular chapters, team members published journal papers in Renewable Energy, Applied Thermal Engineering, and two in Groundwater.



Funding: The team put forth an $8 million proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy in 2020 that was rejected, but it did receive a $59,543 grant from the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation and a $12,593 grant from F&S to continue operations.

Progress: The team has worked to develop the Illinois Geothermal Coalition (IGC; see Fall 2020 update below) and in concert with that is working on a technical data portal for geothermal industry partners and stakeholders as well as suitability maps for geothermal in Illinois

In addition, the team has:

  • Successfully requested access to Zillow’s Assessor and Real Estate Database (ZTRAX);
  • Performed preliminary analyses of ZTRAX; and
  • Supported a research assistant for two semesters through the F&S grant.

Publications/presentations: The Extension Local Government Education Program has hosted a series of three Illinois Geothermal Coalition webinars in July and August 2021. In addition, a white paper on geothermal applications is in preparation based on the original IGC meetings in Fall 2020. 



The Illinois Geothermal Coalition is working to direct future geothermal energy research and applications on the University of Illinois campus. Led by Yu-Feng Forrest Lin and supported by the Illinois Water Resources Center and iSEE, the Coalition will be specifically exploring the future of low-temperature geothermal. Visit the website >>>

City Traffic as a Reservoir System

Funded in Spring 2020, this project will introduce and test a method of inferring traffic accumulation (number of vehicles circulating in an area) from the measured flow of traffic in, out, and around major parking facilities.

Click here to learn more

Researchers will combine traffic theory, traffic detection, data science, and statistics to reduce the amount of time cars spend idling — and thus transportation-related emissions. The team will use uncertainty quantification methods in its modeling to help more accurately count vehicles in one of three “reservoirs”: outside the zone, parked, and circulating on streets near the parking facility.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

Using iSEE seed funding, the team is working with Facilities & Services (F&S) to select a major parking facility zone on the U of I campus, place traffic detectors (cameras) along its periphery and at its entrances and exits, and feed the data into computer vision algorithms to measure traffic accumulation (number of vehicles circulating) and flow. This accumulation and flow data can be used for transportation planning and interventions to traffic signals that reduce time idling, thus reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to driving.

The team expects to attract external funding through the National Science Foundation Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) program.


The Project Team

    • PI: Lewis Lehe, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Co-PI: Alireza Talebpour, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Co-PI: Hadi Meidani, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering


SUMMER 2021 and ’22 UPDATES

Lehe reports that the project was originallydelayed because of lack of traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he has begun a lengthy process of seeking approval from several university entities to install and deploy the purchased cameras for car-counting. The team submitted a data management plan in 2020-21.

Wind Turbine/Pavilion Integration for Electricity Generation

This project, funded in late Fall 2019, aims to demonstrate a new way in which a pavilion can achieve sustainability by installing an on-site wind turbine as an energy-generating system.

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An innovative, aerodynamic design will enable micro-wind turbines to fit within an organic sculpture in the built environment with aesthetic integrity. The outcome of the project is a parking pavilion that can also work as a charging station for electric cars, bikes, or scooters.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

Using iSEE seed funding, researchers expect their findings to be used as a testbed to discuss the basic physics as well as a hypothesis of the proposed system. Further application of its materiality and structural integrity at the building scale can be tested as well.

The PI is working with Facilities & Services (F&S) to find a suitable site to construct and test the project, possibly the Illinois Energy Farm.

The team expects to attract external funding to explore the novel use of wind energy.


The Project Team

    • PI: Yun Kyu Yi, Assistant Professor of Architecture and member of the Energy Sustainability Working Advisory Team
    • Bhujon Kang, Principal, Bhujon Kang Architects PLLC
    • Manal Anis, Ph.D. student, Architecture
    • Keunhyuk Jang, Ph.D. student, Architecture
    • Nick Oyasu, graduate student, Architecture
    • Olivia Smith, undergraduate student, Architecture

Former project member

    • Andrew Chun-An Wei, graduate student, Architecture
    • Yadi Xie, M.S. student, Architecture



Yi says the initial test build has been completed, and “currently, the team is cutting all required panels for fabrication with the CNC machine.” 

The team also recently published a paper:



Yi reports that the team is cutting panels for fabrication with a CNC machine (fabrication process pictured). Additionally, the researchers are preparing a survey for the community and then will analyze the responses.

The team has published a paper:

    • Yi, Y.K., Kang, B. “Integrating a Wind Turbine into a Parking Pavilion for Generating Electricity.” Journal of Building Engineering. 32, 101471 (November 2020)  

And it presented at a virtual conference:

    • Yi, Y.K., Jang, K., Wei, A.C., Kang, B., Anis, M. “Integrating Parametric Design and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to Maximize Electricity Generation from Pavilion,” ARCC (Architectural Research Centers Consortium) 2021 International Conference, April 7-10, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz.

View an animated video of the potential pavilion installation >>>

Faculty/Staff Crowdsourced Community Program

This project, funded in late Fall 2019, targets reducing single-occupancy vehicle usage via a Crowdsourced Commuting (CC) Program, a ridesharing system that provides user-oriented service to travelers — especially commuters — by aggregating similar travel demands through online platforms such as smartphone apps.

Click here to learn more

CC may help participants substantially reduce travel costs while maintaining a high level of ride experience. But a holistic approach is needed to jointly determine passenger-to-driver matchings, routes, timetables, and trip fares based on relatively restrictive travel requests.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

Using iSEE seed funding, researchers will conduct a survey of campus employees who would be potential CC participants to examine the key factors influencing the faculty/staff’s decision to participate and potential policy recommendations and incentive mechanisms.

After the survey, the PI plans to develop a modeling framework that can support the design and operations of the CC system (such as pricing, service period, frequency), and implement a pilot program to investigate the feasibility of a CC service on campus and collect necessary information for expanding the service to a larger group of users. The CC program, if implemented, can be complementary to the University Car Pool program.


The Project Team

    • PI: Yanfeng Ouyang, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and member of the Transportation Sustainability Working Advisory Team



The COVID-19 pandemic continued to delay this project in 2020-21 with the “work-at-home” order that would have produced atypical results for campus commuting habits. Ouyang hopes to put a survey out in early Fall 2021.



Ouyang reports several delays due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, especially with employees off campus for most of the Spring 2020 semester. The hope is to use iSEE funding to develop a proposal after campus activities normalize.


Geothermal: Thermo-Hydraulic Properties of Glacial Tills

Geothermal energy is stored in the Earth that humans can extract, process and then use. It is cost-effective, reliable, and sustainable. Capturing heat from the Earth to run a college campus would lower the U of I’s reliance on fossil fuels and help the university meet the goals set out in the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP).

Click here to learn more

A borehole located on the John Bardeen Quad, south of Grainger Library, and monitoring station was constructed in late 2018. It contains fiber-optic cable that will be connected to a distributed system to detect changes in the Earth’s thermal profile. This 450-foot borehole will collect data to determine if geothermal movement is viable in this location.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

Using iSEE seed funding in early 2019, researchers are using the site for investigating the effect of temperature on hydraulic conductivity of glacial tills (heterogeneous subsurface geomaterials). They will collect core samples from the borehole west of the geothermal exchange field on the Bardeen Quad and perform lab tests on the samples under representative field conditions to characterize conductivity and elevated temperatures.

The Project Team

    • PI: Tugce Baser, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Co-PI: Roman Makhnenko, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering 
    • Co-PI: Andrew Stumpf, Geologist, Illinois State Geological Survey



The Illinois Geothermal Coalition is working to direct future geothermal energy research and applications on the University of Illinois campus. Led by Yu-Feng Forrest Lin and supported by the Illinois Water Resources Center and iSEE, the Coalition will be specifically exploring the future of low-temperature geothermal. Visit the website >>>



Baser will receive a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. A Phase II proposal to extend the grant, totaling $1.2 million, will be submitted in Fall 2020.  



Baser submitted a technical paper for review for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ACSE) annual conference GeoCongress 2020 with results from this project. 



Continued Research at Ven Te Chow Lab

In Spring 2019, it was announced that geothermal energy foundations will be installed at the new portion of the Ven Te Chow Hydrosystems Laboratory. The new $240,000 project was funded by the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) and the campus Carbon Credit Sales Fund administered jointly by Facilities & Services (F&S) and iSEE. Baser and F&S Executive Director Mohamed Attalla are the Principal Investigators for this project.

Experiments on this innovative method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions incorporates conventional geothermal heat exchanger loops in foundations under the iconic bridge, to reduce installation costs. These 50-foot-deep drilled shaft foundations will include geothermal heat exchangers, configured to exchange thermal energy with adjacent subsurface soil. During installation, Baser will instrument the drilled shafts with thermistors and strain gauges to measure the axial and radial strains as well as temperature profiles within the piles. The data set from this installation will enable the evaluation of operational thermo-mechanical properties of the piles. Further, the data collected will be used as an input for analyses at the graduate-level CEE 585 Deep Foundations course. 

Lessons learned from this installation will provide an opportunity for researchers to conduct a scalability study — and a basis for fundamental understanding of the operational response of the energy foundations.


Background: Previous Geothermal Efforts

In 2016, funded by the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC), Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS, a Division of the Prairie Research Institute) researchers Yu-Feng Forrest Lin and Andrew Stumpf installed a test geothermal well on the campus south farms to study the potential of using ground source heat pumps at a large scale to meet campus heating needs and reduce campus fossil fuel reliance.

A borehole located on the John Bardeen Quad, south of Grainger Library, and monitoring station was constructed in late 2018. It contains fiber-optic cable that will be connected to a distributed system to detect changes in the Earth’s thermal profile. This 450-foot borehole will collect data to determine if geothermal movement is viable in this location. The 2018 project, also funded by SSC and led by Lin, Stumpf, Baser and CEE Professor Timothy Stark, was an extension of ongoing research into implementing geothermal energy on campus. The monitoring station remained active throughout the time period the geothermal system is used. Temperature data was continually collected from the fiber-optic cable while the geothermal system was in use. Read more on the iCAP Portal >>>

Student Mobility on and around the Illinois campus

As different generations of individuals change and evolve, so may their transportation habits. However, it’s still an open question as to why younger individuals are shifting to driving less and owning fewer cars. On a college campus, students learn how to depend less on cars and more on public transit, bicycles, and walking.

Click here to learn more

This study aims to better understand how students learn to be independently mobile. A pilot study conducted in 2018 found that Illinois students significantly changed their transportation habits while attending college. The surveys and focus groups conducted for this research will contribute to the iCAP goals with regards to reducing carbon emissions through travel on and around campus.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

The University of Illinois’ Transportation SWATeam, in collaboration with iSEE and Facilities & Services, has been working to develop and survey commuter populations on campus. The results of current and future findings of this project — seed-funded by iSEE in early 2019 — will be used to help determine the best future projects for reducing transportation-related carbon emissions on campus.  


The Project Team

    • Julie Cidell, Professor of Geography and Geographic Information Science



Cidell’s work was again delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The project centers on students’ experiences of mobility in and around Champaign-Urbana, and with most classes online and a significant number of students not on campus, it made no sense to try and do the work,” she said. The plan moving forward is to ramp up work in Spring 2022 — and to submit a National Science Foundation grant proposal in Fall 2022 around pre- and post-pandemic student travel experiences.



Cidell reports several delays due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, especially with students off campus for most of the Spring 2020 semester. Prior to the delays, the team submitted a $600,000 proposal to the National Science Foundation’s Geography and Spacial Sciences program under the the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences. The study, titled “Studying Student Mobility: Moving Towards Sustainable Transportation,” was not funded. Pending students returning to campus, another grant proposal is expected during the 2020-21 academic year.

Agrivoltaics: Crop Production and Solar Panels on the Same Land

Global demand for food, energy, and water is increasing, which poses the challenge of how to meet these demands in an environmentally and economically sustainable way. At present, energy production is dominated by carbon-intensive fossil fuels; however, renewable energies are being integrated into the energy sector at an increasing rate. Bioenergy crops reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but the efficiency of crops converting sunlight to stored energy is low — and the water requirements from agronomic and industrial perspectives is high.

Click here to learn more

This study, supported by iSEE’s proposal development team, investigates a strategy called agrivoltaics, by which crop production and photovoltaics can be merged within a landscape to increase the total energy output toward food and energy production and to do so with less water and in an ecologically and environmentally sustainable manner.


Purpose of the work: Campus Connection

Agrivoltaics can increase the food and energy output per land area while reducing demands for water, based on the ability of solar panels to alter the plant growth environment to increase landscape water use efficiency (WUE) while marginally decreasing crop production but significantly increasing renewable fuel production relative to existing land use.

The Agrivoltaics Team, initiated by iSEE in 2018 — proposes to integrate economic models with an ecosystem model altered to include an agrivoltaic ecosystem. These coupled models will be used to investigate the energy output per land area and impacts on water use and water quality, and to spatially analyze agrivoltaics relative to the current ecosystem across the Midwestern U.S. Additionally, we will address social acceptance and create an outreach plan using the most effective strategies to promote K-12 interest in challenges facing the interface of food, energy, and water resources.

The proposed site for an agrivoltaics study would be the 21-acre Illinois Solar Farm, along the south side of Windsor Road between First Street and the railroad tracks. The Farm, which went online in late Fall 2015, is expected to produce an estimated 7.86 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually, or approximately 2% of the FY15 electrical demand for the Urbana campus making this site one of the largest university solar arrays in the country. Research estimates the Solar Farm will generate up to 91% of its original output even in Year 20 of the project.

Solar Farm 2.0 is also expected to be built in the near future on the U of I campus, lending further land for an agrivoltaics study.


The Project Team

    • PI: Madhu Khanna, Professor, Agricultural and Consumer Economics
    • Carl Bernacchi, USDA ARS Adjunct Professor, Plant Biology
    • Bruce Branham, Professor, Crop Sciences
    • Evan H. DeLucia, Arends Professor Emeritus, Plant Biology
    • Kaiyu Guan, Associate Professor, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
    • Praveen Kumar, Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • H. Chad Lane, Associate Professor, Educational Psychology
    • Nenad Miljkovic, Assistant Professor, Mechanical Science and Engineering
    • Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, Visiting Research Specialist, iSEE
    • Bin Peng, Postdoctoral Research Associate, National Center for Supercomputing Applications



The team was awarded a four-year, $10 million grant from the  U.S. Department of Agriculture; all future updates can be found on the Sustainably Colocating Agricultural and Photovoltaic Electricity Systems (SCAPES) website >>>



In March 2021, the team put forth a $10 million grant proposal to the  U.S. Department of Agriculture; that proposal is pending.



After missing out on a $10 million proposal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative under its new Sustainable Agricultural Systems initiative, the team continues to explore its next funding options even as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign prepares for a second solar farm, bringing the number of available acres for potential agrivoltaic exploration to 75.



After missing out on a $2.5 million proposal to the National Science Foundation’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems program in 2018, the team is working with the University of Arizona and Colorado State University on a $10 million funding proposal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative under its new Sustainable Agricultural Systems initiative.

Creating Adaptable Autonomous Systems for Energy-Efficient Buildings

A large body of research exists on robots and autonomous technology, but still little understanding of how to integrate them into everyday life. While people seem relatively comfortable with a Roomba vaccum, a subservient robot, they might be less willing to let technology assist in other areas of their living space. However, adapting technology into the home could have significantly positive benefits for the occupant. 

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The expertise of this research team is uniquely qualified to research and develop a robotic system that is capable of autonomously navigating to collect data on indoor air environment, observe human behaviors, and make recommendations for reducing energy and improving comfort. Campus buildings will be used as living labs. 


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

Once this project — seed-funded by iSEE in early 2019 — is completed, it could have serious implications within residential spaces and the autonoumous tech industry. People spend a majority of their time indoors, and indoor air quality has been attributed to a number of life-quality issues. Additionally, studies have shown that behavioral changes could lead to a 16 to 20 percent savings in energy. 


The Project Team

  • Nora El-Gohary, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Nidia Bucarelli, Ph.D. Candidate, Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Former team member: Amy LaViers, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Science & Engineering


An Arduino used to read room lighting levels, temperature, humidity, and air quality.


  • After an unsuccessful $1 million proposal to the National Science Foundation in 2020, the team plans to revise and resubmit for an NSF grant, likely in February 2022.
  • Said El-Gohary: “We have started the preliminary/initial experimental work on Ccampus this summer, in collaboration with Facilities & Services, until we receive external funding. Though initial experiments on campus were postponed due to COVID-19 we did make use of the time in 2020 to do preparatory/preliminary work for both the experimental and computational tasks until we were able to proceed.”
  • Bucarelli and El-Gohary were invited to present “Non-Intrusive Method for Capturing Occupant Thermal Discomfort Cues and Profiles in Buildings” at the 2022 CI & CRC Joint Conference in Arlington, Va., March 9-12, 2022. Two journal papers are in preparation as well.
  • The project has been covered in the following story and video:



  • El-Gohary and her team submitted a full funding proposal for $1 million to the National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative program (NRI 2.0: Ubiquitous Collaborative Robots) in early 2020. The pending four-year project, titled “Customizable Co-Robots for Energy-Efficient, Comfortable, and Productive Office Environments,” would start in August 2020.
  • Preliminary work was delayed in Spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but El-Gohary said, “Nevertheless, we are trying to do preliminary/preparatory computational work until we can proceed with the planned initial experiments on campus.”



El-Gohary and her team intend to submit a full funding proposal to the NSF NRI program in January 2020.


Testing Geopolymer Performance in a Geothermal Exchange System

An Illinois Energy Farm building with a geothermal exchange system will test a new, unique building material in the floor slab. Geopolymers, concrete-like alternatives, are a more eco-friendly building material. This research will assess the geopolymer-based construction materials performance in a structure using geothermal energy.

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A geothermal exchange system heat and cools a structure. Illinois is studying the use of geothermal energy in other areas of campus as a viable power source (see project at top of page).  


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

This specific project — seed-funded by iSEE in early 2019 — will discover the feasibility of using geopolymers with geothermal energy for residential and commercial structures. This study at the Illinois Energy Farm will investigate the suitability of geopolymers for temperature control and foundation support. 


The Project Team

    • Timothy Stark, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Waltraud M. Kriven, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering
    • Mark S. Taylor, Associate Professor of Architecture
    • Yun Kyu Yi, Assistant Professor of Architecture
    • Andrew Stumpf, Associate Geologist at the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), a Division of the Prairie Research Institute
    • Yu-Feng Forrest Lin, Director of the Illinois Water Resources Center 



  • A 450-foot-long horizontal geoexchange loop, installed in 2019 and outfitted with a fiber-optic cable to measure seasonal changes in ground temperature, was donated by Enertech Global.
  • A ClimateMaster Trilogy 45 geothermal heat pump (1-ton) was installed and began operation in February 2021 in the Gable House, a former Solar Decathlon project that is located on campus. The pump will supply additional cooling in the summer and is connected to an iGate® Smart Tank to supply hot water to the house. Both pieces of equipment were donated by ClimateMaster. The system’s performance is monitored remotely using eGauge’s energy software.
  • ISGS installed a groundwater monitoring well, constructed in May 2021, to measure seasonal changes in the surficial water table. The position of the water table above or below the geoexchange loop will impact its performance. Saturated geologic materials have a higher thermal conductivity than dry materials; therefore the geothermal system will perform better when the water table is higher.



The Illinois Geothermal Coalition is working to direct future geothermal energy research and applications on the University of Illinois campus. Led by Yu-Feng Forrest Lin and supported by the Illinois Water Resources Center and iSEE, the Coalition will be specifically exploring the future of low-temperature geothermal. Visit the website >>>   

Thermochemical Batteries: Turning Waste Heat into an Energy Source

In everyday life, we think of heat as a measure of temperature. To engineers, however, heat is actually a signal of energy transfer — the “heat” you feel is energy being transferred from a warmer thing to a cooler one.

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To harness heat energy currently going to waste (just being exhausted into the air) from industrial sources for other purposes like space heating, Illinois researchers from the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) will create a battery pack capable of storing heat through a series of chemical reactions in the project seed-funded in Spring 2018.


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

The key motivation for this project — seed-funded by iSEE in 2018 — is to overcome the outstanding issues with thermal (heat) storage: lack of long-term storage, low energy density, expensive systems and inflexibility of upward/downward scalability in designs.

The team will conceptualize a storage system for Abbott Power Plant on campus. Abbott has multiple waste heat loss points that could benefit from thermal storage. The team will acquire and understand the existing waste heat loss data. They will use the data to identify the components suited for thermal storage systems and explore designs that match the conditions at Abbott.

Broadly, space heating is a large part of the campus’ energy use. In the long term, thermal storage offers the possibility of unique improvements in efficient use and reduced costs for the entire campus.


The Project Team

    • Sanjiv Sinha, Professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering


    • Placid Ferreira, Professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering
    • Nenad Miljkovic, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering
    • Kishore Rajagopalan, Associate Director for Applied Research, ISTC



Between Summer 2018 and Summer ’20, team members put forth two U.S. Department of Energy funding proposals totaling nearly $4.5 million dollars during the past two years (the most recent was $2.7M+ in July 2019); neither was funded. Lead Sanjiv Sinha has plans for more proposal submissions in the future.

Environment-Enhancing Food, Energy, and Water Systems

The world’s food, energy, and water systems are tightly connected. Sometimes, they work seamlessly together, but often they are competing for the same pool of resources, namely fresh water and clean energy.

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In this Spring 2018 seed-funded project led by Agricultural and Biological Engineering Professor Yuanhui Zhang, researchers from across campus will test a processing system that can deliver not only renewable energy, but also clean water and some bonus organic fertilizers for agriculture. Their design is meant to find synergies between water, food, and energy — where one category’s waste product could be another one’s ingredients.

“The U.S. produces an estimated 79 million dry tons of sustainably collectable livestock manure and food processing waste annually,” the researchers wrote. “We will demonstrate that this biowaste stream has the potential to be amplified via multi-cycle nutrient and wastewater reuse to 240-800 million tons of mixed algal-bacteria feedstocks that can be converted into 120-400 million tons of biocrude oil — equivalent to 12-40% of the total petroleum consumed annually in the U.S. — while also cleaning an estimated 7.9 billion tons of wastewater.”


Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

A process called hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) sits at the heart of the project — seed-funded by iSEE in 2018. Biowaste solids like campus food scraps or dried manures are exposed to high heat and pressure, replicating the geological process that created fossil fuels many millennia ago. While the energy-rich molecules of the biowaste become biocrude oil, the other nutrient-rich parts can be used as fertilizers for food production.

Meanwhile, the liquid parts of biowaste can be treated to become clean water. Algae will eat up all the pollutants and leave behind clean water, and they can also be “fed” with the leftover nutrients from the HTL step. At the end of their lifespan, the algae themselves serve as an input for HTL, making sure nothing goes to waste.

Team partners have developed a pilot-sized HTL reactor system that can produce one barrel of biocrude per day, enough to enable additional research on upgrading it to transportation-quality fuel. In fact, the team has already made forays into making bio-sourced forms of diesel, kerosene, and lubricants from the biocrude.

This project is built upon an ongoing, student-led Student Sustainability Committee (SSC)-funded project at the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District to convert food waste on campus to biofuel using the EE-FEWS approach. That project completed the first stage in February 2018 and is ready to move on to the second demonstration stage. The SSC project is led by two graduate and four undergraduate students, with the participation and support of the Algae Club and ABABE (American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers) student club on campus.

The researchers will rely on the E2-Energy Demonstration Lab at the South Farm Swine Research Center, a Department of Crop Sciences greenhouse, HTL reactors built by the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and wastewater treatment operations at Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District.


The Project Team

  • PI: Yuanhui Zhang, Professor, Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE)


  • Paul Davidson, Associate Professor, ABE
  • Brenna Ellison, Associate Professor, Agricultural and Consumer Economics
  • Jack Juvik, Professor, Crop Sciences
  • Matthew Stasiewicz, Assistant Professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition
  • Lance Schideman, Senior Research Engineer, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC)
  • BK Sharma, Senior Research Scientist, ISTC
  • Hong Yang, Professor, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
  • Michael Stablein, Ph.D. Candidate, ABE
  • Sabrina Summers, Ph.D. Candidate, ABE
  • Zixing Wang, Ph.D. Candidate, ABE
  • Jamison Watson, Ph.D. Candidate, ABE
  • Camila Bogarin, M.S. Candidate, ABE
  • Trevor Bultinck, Undergraduate, ABE
  • Claire Hanrahan, Undergraduate, ABE
  • Lane Weber, Undergraduate, ABE
  • Siyu Yang, Undergraduate, Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences
  • Matthew Zhang, Undergraduate, Mechanical Sciences & Engineering

Former team members:

  • Aiersi Aierzhati, Ph.D. Candidate, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
  • Avishek Biswas, Undergraduate, Chemistry
  • Niki Wu, Undergraduate, Chemistry
  • Kang Xu, Undergraduate, ABE



Because this team has successfully received more than $2 million in funding (almost $1M for Illinois researchers), we have devoted a new webpage to the E-E FEWS Project. View it here for all 2021 and future updates >>>



A team led by PI Ximing Cai, Zhang, and Paul Davidson was awarded $500,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems program. The study is titled “An Integrated Technology-Environment-Economic Modeling Platform for FEW Systems in Arid Regions.”

According to Zhang, “We have modified the system and operation parameters to better accommodate specific types of food waste that make the system more manageable and produce more biocrude oil (pictured). A team of engineers will also be consulting on the ongoing work to improve its function and for performing new site visits and waste treatment. We currently also have tangential projects working on sourcing different local food wastes in the community, distillation of biocrude for drop-in fuels, and process wastewater treatment.”



The team applied for a $2.5 million award from the National Science Foundation’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems program, but the proposal was not funded.



The team published a paper in Nature Sustainability on its progress.

Read the U of I News Bureau article on the team’s work >>>

Read the published paper >>>

Program Background

Transforming university campuses into “living laboratories” is a timely, important path for applying sustainability research and education toward enhancing campus sustainability. Using a living lab enables students, faculty, and staff to work together to use campus and the surrounding community as a test bed to pilot promising new solutions to real-world challenges.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has committed to promoting campus sustainability via hundreds of projects on campus under the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP). More than 700 iCAP projects — categorized into energy, water, transportation, building and space, procurement and waste reduction, education, extension, and general research — are online for public assessment. These projects, many based on unique facilities/programs on campus, have great value for developing research and education projects targeting external resources; however, the realization of many campus sustainability objectives will need research support.

Recently, iSEE has mapped the relevance of iCAP projects to a number of national research programs, which allows campus researchers to identify existing and/or ongoing efforts that can be incorporated into their proposal development for a particular national program. A report describing the iCAP projects and the links between those projects to major national research programs can be found at the following link: Overviews of Campus Sustainability Projects at Illinois: Opportunities for Education and Research.

The purpose of this seed funding program is to encourage faculty to use campus sustainability projects as a testbed for research and education and submit proposals for external funding of at least $1M. Nationwide, some universities already have one or more funding sources that are specifically available to provide seed funding for faculty to conduct research projects with the focus of sustainability on campus and/or in the community. These programs regularly call for proposals, provide mentoring and consultation resources to applicants, and encourage involving more academics in campus sustainability projects.  See a report prepared by iSEE, titled “Review of Campus Sustainability Programs: Opportunities for Education and Research.

For examples at Harvard University, go to Campus Sustainability Innovation Fund or Living Lab; at Ohio State University, go to Campus as a Living Laboratory (CALL) and Campus as a Testbed; at the University of Minnesota, go to Living Lab; and at University of Washington, go to Campus Sustainability Fund.