Iowa State researchers receive $2.4 million grant to improve decision making with food, energy and water systems

Iowa State University researchers have received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to analyze food, energy and water (FEW) interdependencies and create a simulator that will assist in better decision making with FEW systems.

Christina Bloebaum

Led by Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Interim Department Chair, Christina Bloebaum, researchers will examine how decisions made by individual stakeholders within the FEW system can have an impact on everything else in the system. Further, the team will investigate how incentive and policy structures can be developed to achieve balance across stakeholders to avoid unintended consequences.

The researchers received a $2.4 million continuous grant from the NSF as a part of the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program. Bloebaum and her team were awarded $1.1 million this year and will receive the remaining $1.3 million next year. The grant is part of a $36 million initiative from the NSF and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to research how best to provide food, energy and water throughout the world as Earth’s population continues to rise.

As decisions about food, energy and water are made at a federal level, unintended consequences can occur at a local level that have disastrous outcomes.

“Because this is a coupled system, decision outcomes propagate throughout the entire system,” Bloebaum said. “With food, energy, and water, people have been making decisions in one subsystem without having any responsibility for the impact on the rest.”

The Aerospace Engineering Connection

Although it might seem like an odd pairing, Bloebaum and aerospace engineering colleague, Peng Wei, are bringing their aerospace engineering research to FEW systems because of the similarities of the two complex systems.

“My research is in the field of multidisciplinary design optimization,” Bloebaum said. “In MDO, we want to know things like, how do you best design a complex system such as an airplane or spacecraft system? How do you rigorously model the interactions in the complex system? With this project, we’re bringing our aerospace engineering systems knowledge to the world of food, energy and water, which is another complex system, to understand the inherent couplings and to investigate the best means of supporting decisions to achieve consensus across the FEW system.”

That complex push and pull is something aerospace engineers know well. The strategies involved in designing a complex aerospace system can translate well to other situations.

“I have been developing decision support tools and automation for the aviation community for years,” Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering Peng Wei said. “This is a new challenge and I am excited to bring my work to the food, energy and water problem setting to make my contribution to this community.”

FEW in Iowa

This is intake for water drain off from a field of soybean and, in the background, corn. The water drainage often has excess nitrates. Des Moines Water Works spends more than any other water works to remove the nitrates from the drinking water in Des Moines.

Food, energy and water resources play an especially important role in Iowa with the agriculture industry. An example of the impact that changes can have on coupled systems occurred recently with Iowa at the center.

Government subsidies for biofuels caused many Iowa farmers to switch from selling their corn as food to selling it for biofuel. As enough farmers made the switch, that set off food shortages in other parts of the world  because of the lack of corn being sold as food.

Another Iowa-centric issue pertains to the unanticipated high nitrate levels in drainage groundwater from excess fertilization of farm fields. The water then flows into the Racoon and Des Moines Rivers, and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. The excess nitrogen has been responsible for significant environmental impacts as well as high tax rates for Des Moines residents, given the need to remove the nitrates from their drinking water.

These domino effects are what the multidisciplinary team of researchers are trying to prevent by looking at large scale systems and understanding the couplings and the impact of them.

Simulating reality

One of the tools that the research team plans on creating to improve decision making is a simulator called IFEWS (Iowa Food Energy Water Simulator). Jim Oliver, Director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University will create the interactive visualization-based environment with the cyber-based simulator embedded within.

“Jim will create an environment that allows us to visualize the environment and then use our design and decision making strategies so that you can see how a decision will propagate throughout the system and the degree to which it impacts everything else,” Bloebaum said.

The simulator, which will match reality, gives researchers an opportunity to test different incentive and policy strategies to understand what the trades are.

Due to the large scope, the project will pull researchers from many disciplines to contribute.

“We’ve got people from agriculture and biosystems engineering, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, and philosophy,” Bloebaum said. “We’re bringing all sorts of people together so that’s a challenge, but it’s also exciting so we think that it will be fun.”

The ISU team also includes Clark Wolf, Director and Professor of Philosophy, and Amy Kaleita, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering. Wolf is the Director of the Bioethics Program at ISU and performs research in sustainable agriculture, amongst other topics. Kaleita’s primary focus is on technology for precision conservation, with expertise in crop and hydrological modeling. The team will collaborate with with Ali Abbas, Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, Director of the Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making (DECIDE).