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Campus as a Living Laboratory

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

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 better, but also make the world better.

Launched in February 2018, iSEE’s Living Lab program is designed to link campus sustainability targets to national and global sustainability, energy, and environment challenges.

When a specific call for proposals from a national granting agency on research (and extension) projects is posted, iSEE will provide quick seed money for some promising faculty-led teams that will engage with sustainability issues on campus or in neighborhood communities in their proposal development. Specifically, iSEE wants to leverage this seed money to attract external funds that are relevant to objectives from the Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP).

Read a news release some of the new seed-funded CALL projects in 2020 >>>

Apply for Seed Funding

More Info: Seed Funding Explained

In order to apply for seed funding, a letter of intent (LOI) needs to be submitted to iSEE. LOIs may be submitted at any time, but usually several months or more before the deadline of the proposal for external funding.

A list of national programs and the links between each of the programs and selected iCAP project are provided in the appendix of the Seed Funding Program document. However, the external funding sources are not limited to those in the list.

The LOI is limited to three pages and must use the template. In general, the LOI must address how the criteria listed above are met, as well as s a description of the research for the external proposal and how the seed funding will be used. If the external funding proposal involves collaboration with campus Facilities & Services (F&S) or other administrative staff, the LOI must include an explanation of this collaboration. If the LOI is selected and the expertise and time required in the proposal for external funding are beyond the regular job responsibilities of the related administrative staff, an agreed-upon budget must be reached between the proposal team and the administrative unit (iSEE will assist in the agreement preparation as needed).

The LOI must include a budget not more than $30K and a statement of how the funding will be used to prepare the external funding proposal.

Any questions about the seed funding should be sent to the attention of iSEE Managing Director Jenny Kokini.

Submit Your LOI; Next Steps

A completed LOI should be submitted as an email attachment to Ms. Amy Nichole Rosenbery with a copy to iSEE Associate Director Ximing Cai.

A panel formed by iSEE will review a LOI as soon as it is submitted. Seed funding will be provided to selected teams based on the review. Comments and suggestions from the panel will go along with the review. We expect to seed fund 10-15 projects for proposal development every year.

General Review Criteria

  • Does the LOI meet all of the stated requirements and guidelines?
  • Does the project have the potential to impact one or more of the iCAP objectives, and impact Illinois leadership in campus sustainability in general?
  • Intellectual merit: What is the potential for the proposed activity to advance the field of sustainability? Is the work plan well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale?
  • Is there a strong potential for the target proposal to be funded by the external funding source?

For easier reference, download a file of the Seed Funding Program document.

         Current Projects        


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.

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.

Click here to learn more

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).

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.

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. 

Click here to learn more

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 Project Team

    • PI: Yu-Feng Forrest Lin, Principal Research Hydrogeologist, Illinois State Geological Survey; Director, Illinois Water Resources Center at the Prairie Research Institute.
    • Co-PI: Tugce Baser, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Co-PI: Mohamed Attalla, Executive Director, Facilities & Services
    • Co-PI: Praveen Kumar, Lovell Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering
    • Team member: Franklin Holcomb, Ph.D. Candidate, Civil and Environmental Engineering

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.

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.

Click here to learn more

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

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.

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.

Click here to learn more

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

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.

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.

Click here to learn more

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.



Lead Yanfeng 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.


The Project Team

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

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).

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.

Click here to learn more

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.



Lead Investigator Tugce Basar 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.  



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


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


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.

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.


Click here to learn more

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.  



Lead Julie 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.


The Project Team

    • Julie Cidell, Professor of Geography and Geographic Information Science

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.

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.

Click here to learn more

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.



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.


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, Professor, Plant Biology
    • Kaiyu Guan, Assistant 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

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. 

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. 

Click here to learn more

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
  • Amy LaViers, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Science & Engineering
  • Nidia Bucarelli, Ph.D. Candidate, Civil & Environmental Engineering



  • Lead Nora 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.

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).  

Click here to learn more

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, a Division of the Prairie Research Institute
    • Yu-Feng Forrest Lin, Director of the Illinois Water Resources Center 

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.

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.

Click here to learn more

Purpose of the Work: Campus Connection

The key motivation for the concept 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 initial designs of this project — seed-funded by iSEE in 2018 — look like stackable honeycombs filled with chemical soup that will soak up and store energy from exhaust heat. In the seed-funded phase of the project, graduate student researchers will study the repeatability of charging and discharging energy in the thermochemical battery, keeping detailed notes on how well the battery holds the power and if and when energy leaks occur. This proof-of-concept will be invaluable for refining the system — and for writing proposals for additional funding.

The proposed storage system for Abbott Power Plant on campus needs to be designed for multiple scenarios, several of which arise in power plants. 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 in terms of heat source temperatures, loss quantity, transients, and fluid flow rates associated with the losses. 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.



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.


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

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.

In this Spring 2018 seed-funded project led by Bioengineering 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.”

Click here to learn more

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.



A team led by PI Ximing Cai, Yuanhui 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 EE-FEWS project leader 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 has published four papers and has one in review. The publications:



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 >>>



The Project Team

  • Yuanhui Zhang, Professor, Bioengineering (PI)


  • Paul Davidson, Professor, Bioengineering
  • Brenna Ellison, Assistant Professor, Agricultural and Consumer Economics
  • Jack Juvik, Professor, Crop Sciences
  • Matthew Stasiewicz, Assistant Professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition
  • Lance Schideman, Assistant Professor, ISTC
  • BK Sharma, Senior Research Scientist, ISTC
  • Hong Yang, Professor, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
  • Michael Stablein, Ph.D. Candidate, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
  • Jamison Watson, Ph.D. Candidate, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
  • Camila Bogarin, M.S. Candidate, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
  • Trevor Bultinck, Undergraduate, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
  • Claire Hanrahan, Undergraduate, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Former team members:

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

Program Background

Transforming university campuses into “living laboratories” is a timely, important campaign for sustainability research and education as well as campus sustainability enhancement. This campaign calls for 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 at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) 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; on the other hand, 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.