5 finalists seeking $1.5M University of Utah prize to help climate change

Sep 21, 2023, 3:45 PM

Five finalists for the Wilkes Climate Prize...

Five finalists for the Wilkes Climate Prize at the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy presented their research in May and will find out who won the prize Friday. (Lisa Potter, University of Utah)

(Lisa Potter, University of Utah)

SALT LAKE CITY — Five finalists are waiting to find out who won a $1.5 million prize offered by the University of Utah, hoping to fund their innovative plans to help the planet — but only one can take home the money.

The prize is a first-time offer from the University of Utah’s relatively new Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy through generous donors; 77 initial applicants applied to win the prize, but the competition was whittled down to just five.

The finalists come from all over the world, offering various climate solutions to counteract climate crises caused by air pollution and food production. The winner of the Wilkes Climate Prize will be announced Friday.

Lumen Bioscience

Spirulina, a type of cyanobacteria, has been touted as a “superfood” used to color smoothies and supplement fruit juices. Lumen has found a way to genetically engineer spirulina to combat methanogens called archaea, where methane comes from — which is what livestock emits through passing gas.

Jim Roberts, Lumen’s co-founder and chief scientific officer, said methane absorbs 10 times more heat than carbon dioxide, which is causing the atmosphere to heat up. “If you have a big impact on the amount of methane that’s being produced, then you’ll have a very immediate impact on global warming,” Roberts said.

Archaea, a type of organism, lives in the first of a cow’s four stomachs. When the food the cows eat enters the first stomach, the food ferments, feeding the archaea energy that turns into methane. Lumen’s strain of spirulina helps produce an enzyme called lysin, which kills the archaea, therefore eliminating methane production.

Roberts said Lumen Bioscience is hoping to use the Wilkes prize to fund experimentation with feeding the spirulina to livestock and then fund the growth of spirulina in ponds across the United States.

Inga Foundation

While a common farming practice in Central America is to cut down trees and burn them to make room for planting crops, the practice releases dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Inga Foundation has developed a way to prevent the need for cutting down and burning trees in order for maximal crop yielding without damaging the land.

The solution Inga Foundation is developing is through a type of tree called the inga, which can be planted in rows along farmland allowing for crops to be planted in between the rows. The inga trees replenish nutrients in the soil so crops can be replanted in the same plots without having to move the farmland and cut down trees to make room.

The Inga Foundation has tested its inga trees in Honduras and hopes to use the Wilkes prize to expand testing the trees in other parts of Central America and eventually throughout the world.

The Land Institute

Plant-based protein comes in many forms — beans, quinoa, soy and nuts. The Land Institute is seeking to add to the list with the Perennial Baki bean, not only providing essential proteins for a diet but also reducing carbon emissions during the growing process.

Baki means “eternal” in Turkish. Brandon Schlautman, the Land Institute’s lead scientist of perennial legumes, said the intention for the perennial Baki bean is that it doesn’t have to be replanted every year as many crops do. As a result, there are no dead plant roots releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Schlautman said the Land Institute hopes to use the Wilkes prize to continue engineering the Baki bean to be bigger and more nutritious and to commercialize it so farmers can start to grow it among their crops.

Oscilla Power

Fossil fuels, wind turbines and solar power are sources of energy for powering up the high-tech world we live in. Oscilla Power — a play on the word “oscillate” — is seeking to add ocean wave energy to the mix.

Ocean waves are one of the most constant sources of energy we have on this planet, Oscilla Power chief technology officer Tim Mundon said. Oscilla is engineering a wave energy converter called Triton that can rest on an ocean surface and use the waves to power electricity.

Mundon said the imbalance of tiers that have prevented wave energy conversion — efficiency, survivability and cost — is why wave energy hasn’t been adopted yet. The Triton is changing that.

Mundon said Oscilla hopes to use the Wilkes prize to manufacture more Triton models to test in “lower energy environments” — climates that don’t produce enough wind or solar power to be an energy source.

Swiss Institute of Technology

With hot summers calling for air conditioning and cold winters calling for heaters, energy consumption in residential and commercial buildings is high and likely to climb higher in coming years. The Swiss Institute of Technology wants to decrease this energy usage by regulating the light and heat coming through the windows.

Postdoctoral researcher Tamal Roy has worked on developing a window coating that responds to outdoor temperature — when it’s cold outside, the sun’s heat comes through the window, and when it’s warm outside, it lets the light in but not the heat.

The Wilkes prize would allow the Swiss Institute of Technology to make larger-scale prototypes of the nanotechnology behind the window coating.

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5 finalists seeking $1.5M University of Utah prize to help climate change