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REFRESCH: Researching Fresh Solutions to the Energy/Water/Food Challenge in Resource-Constrained Environments


Background of U-M Third Century Initiative

As the University prepares to celebrate its bicentennial in 2017, the President and Provost have established the Third Century Initiative (TCI), a $50 million/five-year initiative to develop innovative, multi-disciplinary approaches to teaching and to address global challenges at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. The overall goal is to stimulate creative thinking about how to intensify learning experiences in and beyond the classroom and how to approach some of the foremost challenges facing our world.

The Third Century Initiative has two components: (1) creating innovative student learning experiences and (2) developing creative approaches to the world’s greatest challenges and opportunities. Global Challenges for a Third Century (GCTC) represents a funding mechanism associated with the second component of the Third Century Initiative.

The purpose of the GCTC grant program is to inspire and cultivate transformative ideas about how to address some of the greatest challenges facing the world today.The program is open to faculty in all units and disciplines—and seeks a broad array of proposals.

Global Challenges for a Third Century has two grant programs:

  • Team Development will fund small-scale proposals for activities that help develop multi-disciplinary teams across the campus in order to address major global challenges. Team Development will provide up to $15,000 on a one-time basis.
  • Global Challenges is a two-phase program that aims to fund the most innovative and creative ideas from across the campus to address some of the world's greatest challenges. The program embraces risk taking, multi-disciplinary approaches, and engagement with the internal and external community (including students). Projects are encouraged that have potential impact that is scalable and transferable (e.g., local to global). The single most important criterion in evaluating proposals will be the potential for transformative impact on any of the world's greatest challenges.

Proposals for Phase 1 seed funding ($10K to $300K, one-time) are based on a clear explanation of the transformative idea as well as defined milestones that can be achieved after one year. If successful, the outcomes from Phase 1 will form the basis of a proposal submitted to the Phase 2 full funding program ($100K to $3 million). It is expected that only a small minority of proposals funded in Phase 1 will receive full funding in Phase 2.

REFRESCH (Phase 1) Project Description:
While the developed world relies on massive, interconnected energy systems and takes access to clean water and sufficient food for granted, this is not the case in many other parts of the world. In this project, an interdiscipinary team of faculty and students will conduct case studies of microenvironments representative of developing world settings where a better synergy between energy, water, and food supplies is needed. First, technology gaps will be identified that prevent off-grid communities from properly functioning. Then appropriate low-cost, sustainable solutions will be explored to fill these gaps and the impact of these solutions on the balance between distributed energy, food, and water will be modeled and validated experimentally.

A number of energy inputs and feedstocks will be considered. The project will not only explore the high-tech alternative energy solutions, but more importantly focus on simple, low-cost solutions that can function reliably in third-world communities. This project will also foster opportunities for inverse innovation, creating spin-offs and start-ups that can be incubated in repurposed industrial facilities, leading to local employment opportunities and economic development in Michigan.

REFRESCH (Phase 2) Project Description:
Focus on promoting the multidirectional application of ideas and technology solutions to and from local and global settings. Education is a major part of this process, both in the involvement of U-M students at all levels and in the development of a best-practices method of interacting with communities to achieve sustainable designs to meet human needs. The ideal situation would be to have a presence in Highland Park, in which case the hub could also serve as a hands-on forum for education, information dissemination, and community engagement; and as a test bed to develop sustainability solutions at home and abroad. Real-world exploration of solutions to complex energy/water/food problems in different combinations and on different scales will take place, leveraging and integrating existing research efforts and spawning new ones.

Work with ambassadors and representatives of Gabon and Kazakhstan will continue. Specific goals include bringing faculty and student groups to interface with the people in the communities for the purpose of framing their resource-related problems and outlining possible solutions that would be both culturally acceptable and sustainable. The next step would be to develop a best-practice design process for the technology, involving U of M students and perhaps the end-users abroad as well. Finally, REFRESCH would undertake implementation of the products developed.

Specific areas of interest may include fish farms, hydroponic gardens, algae plantations, and solar greenhouses. Several energy inputs and feedstocks will be considered, including solar energy, wind energy, biomass conversion, natural gas, propane gas, waste to energy, and low-temperature waste heat recovery. Case studies also may consider the use of solar/wind energy for water pumping and disinfection utilizing UV-LED lights, various energy storage technologies, and the potential use of direct rather than alternating current.


University of Michigan - Office of Provost
Research Areas
Energy Systems