This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Winter - 2016


by Alan Rudolph

CSU RESEARCHERS have a long history as interventionists, placing themselves in the thick of global issues to present solutions.

The Office of the Vice President for Research recognizes this recurring role and in 2015 initiated the Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships (CIP) program, which seeks to build, fund, and support multidisciplinary teams to pursue global grand challenges.

Seven CIP teams now work toward innovative solutions for their respective challenges, maintaining CSU’s land-grant tradition of global impact. Here we look at just three, but you can learn more about all of them at:



Wild res in the West have a profound effect on air quality and health, and their frequency and severity are a effected by climate change. In 2012, the High Park Fire 15 miles west of Fort Collins burned almost 90,000 acres and clouded the northern Front Range with heavy smoke. The devastating losses of life and property were compounded by concern over the health impacts of exposure to smoke and what mitigation steps should be taken by the public.


The PACH team was formed to harness the expertise of CSU faculty in the interlinked topics of air quality, climate, and health. The team initially targeted three areas of study: wildland res that impact air quality and health of citizens; cook stoves that emit harmful smoke; and oil and gas extraction activities that can, depending on approach, impact air quality, health, and even climate. Significant research on these topics has been conducted, at CSU and worldwide; information based on this work needs to be synthesized and provided to academia, government, and the private sector. PACH’s first venture into the realm of science-for-stakeholders has focused on wild re – a specter that has impacted the arid West for decades.


“In less than a year since its inception, PACH has already fostered a number of strong new collaborations and multidisciplinary research projects between faculty members across five colleges at CSU,” said Sonia Kreidenweis, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science and associate dean for research in the College of Engineering. Kreidenweis’ research interests center on atmospheric particulate matter and its role in air quality and climate, including how particles interact with and affect cloud properties and precipitation development.

The PACH team will soon be adding new members with expertise in environmental biostatistics, energy economics, and environmental engineering with a focus on air quality. Additional faculty hires are planned throughout 2016.

“This cluster-hire initiative will attract faculty with expertise in physical and social science disciplines relevant to the mission of PACH to complement the University’s considerable existing expertise in these areas,” Kreidenweis explained.

“This expansion will create capacity for tackling grand challenges at the nexus of air quality, climate, and health via projects that are large in scope.”

Kreidenweis said the team’s global focus doesn’t overlook students; there are research opportunities that will make a difference in students’ lives as well. “Our students will also bene t greatly not only from opportunities to contribute to cutting-edge research but also from the educational opportunities that these new hires will o er in areas that were not previously covered at CSU,” she added.



In the face of increasing climate variability, global food production will need to roughly double by 2050 to meet the projected needs of 9.7 billion people. But how can we achieve this goal without converting substantial amounts of the earth’s remaining forests and grasslands to agricultural fields? Those seeking solutions also must consider other environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, fertilizer runoff, and aquifer depletion that have accompanied previous agricultural expansion.

The first green revolution, while successful in increasing agricultural productivity, largely replaced natural soil biological processes that cycle nutrients, prevent pathogens, and support healthy plants with chemistry — fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides.

ICSA sees an opportunity to reintroduce these natural biological processes back into industrial agriculture through new technologies, including biological products, soil and plant sensors, data analytics, and precision agriculture to accelerate scalable agricultural innovation for improved human and environmental well-being. The ICSA team decided to focus on soil health because it is where they see the most potential for rapid improvement in agricultural practices.


ICSA is pioneering a new model for academic engagement working with stakeholders in the private sector, nonprofits, and farmers to identify specific challenges related to soil health. The team have adopted tools from the business startup world to identify the value they can provide to these stakeholders and deliver solutions to those that can use it. In less than one year, they have made substantial progress in building partnerships with Field to Market and several large agricultural companies. The team is also initiating new interdisciplinary research in soil health through innovation in data-driven and systems-based approaches.


“The idea of sustainable agriculture and healthy soil is not new — it is ingrained in CSU’s land-grant mission from its very beginning. Even Congressman Morrill, trying to gain support for the Morrill Act [in the late 1880s], which ultimately gave rise to large public land-grant universities like CSU, spoke of the importance of maintaining soil on the House floor,” said Courtney Jahn, assistant professor in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management and associate director of the Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Colorado State. Jahn also explores how plant growth and development above and below the soil are affected by environmental stresses like drought.

“Sorghum is considered the ‘camel of the crop world.’ It’s grown for food, forage, and fuel, and it requires very little water compared to its nearest crop cousins such as corn,” Jahn said. “But our biggest scientific question is, ‘Why?’

Why does sorghum need so little water, and can we exploit those mechanisms to improve all bioenergy crops for more sustainable production?”

Her research has shown that total plant yield and yield quality in the bioenergy crop sorghum can be affected not only by visible changes in the plant structure, but all chemical responses that can only be detected using advanced technology. Plants can respond to the environment by changing the way they use nutrients and sunlight for energy, which affects how they grow.

By studying these plant responses, Jahn can uncover potential breeding targets to improve crops for multiple uses in both benign and stressful environments. Understanding how this whole-plant response is changing or being changed by its local growing environment may also lead to management strategies to make agriculture more sustainable and increase food and energy security.



The African country of Rwanda holds a population of 12 million people. Currently, the electrification rate of Rwanda is 17 percent, leaving approximately 10 million people in darkness. Access to energy can increase livelihood of villagers, notably through improved lighting, food and crop preservation, pumping water, and similar activities. Village electrification is of increasing interest to international and national entities alike in the fight to improve rural development and strengthen community capacity.

The Smart Village Microgrid laboratory at CSU’s Powerhouse Energy Campus is beginning to look less like a pile of mechanical, electrical, and foundational parts and more like a space for innovative energy research for Rwandan villages. Pilot villages have been selected and agreements are being drafted between CSU, the SVM team, and the government of Rwanda.


With the support of the Rwandan government, the SVM team of interdisciplinary researchers – including Rwandan students – is designing, building, and installing Smart Village Microgrids in the rural communities that need it most. Peter Means, a graduate student in the School of Global Environmental Sustainability with extensive experience in Africa, has been coordinating efforts on this project since its inception.

Alongside Means is Dale Manning, assistant professor in Agriculture and Resource Economics, who is leading the interdisciplinary Village Assessment Survey to further understand electricity desires and needs as well as overall electrification impacts. Also contributing to this project are faculty members Eric Aoki of communication studies, Juyeon Park of the Human Factors/Product Innovation lab in the Department of Design and Merchandising, and Alison Anson, graduate student of sociology.

Additionally, this team is striving for holistic rural development that includes not only a partnership between the University of Rwanda and CSU for a joint-degree program, but also technical training and further development programs to facilitate this growth.


“There are roughly 1 billion people worldwide without access to electricity. One way or another, these people will get access to energy. We therefore have a unique opportunity to influence how that will happen — more dependence on limited fossil fuel or a leap frog to sustainable energy,” said Daniel Zimmerle, senior research associate and director of the Electric Power System Laboratory in the Energy Institute at CSU and team lead for the SVM project.

After observing that electrification for small communities often failed, Zimmerle felt that a truly cross-discipline approach was required to find a solution. “We needed to couple economic development, usability, business, and cultural awareness together. That led to assembling a team from a wide cross-section of CSU,” said Zimmerle.

Zimmerle has worked extensively with off-grid power systems, particularly where generation and load are highly variable and uncertain, and he leads several projects doing statistical modeling of methane emissions from the natural gas industry. He has worked in microgrids on military bases, in expeditionary power systems, Alaskan villages, electric vehicles, and even in parts of Fort Collins.

Prior to joining CSU, Zimmerle served as the Chief Operating Officer at Spirae Inc., which is working on the FortZED zero energy district.