Powering the Digital Transformation: Lithium Brines

Written by: Amanda Campbell, Courtney Nichols, Julianne Sweeney

Many of our modern handheld devices such as cell phones and laptop computers are powered by lithium batteries. Since they are easily recharged, lithium batteries are useful in the growing electric and hybrid vehicle market as well as for storing energy from solar panels. Most of the lithium we use comes from concentrated brines (salt water) and chances are high that it comes from a single source – the Salar de Atacama. This basin in the Andes Mountains has average lithium concentrations of 1,400 mg/L, ~14 times higher than Clayton Valley, Nevada, where the only U.S.-based lithium extraction operation exists. Scientists have found that lithium-rich brines only form in places that meet certain criteria: arid climate, a closed basin with a salt crust (salar) or lake, igneous or geothermal activity, tectonically driven subsidence, a lithium source, and time to concentrate the brine. These conditions allow lithium levels to rise several orders of magnitude higher than the amount of lithium in precipitation or rivers in the area. Yet, much remains to be learned about the mechanisms behind lithium brine formation.

Dr. David Boutt, from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is at the forefront of research on lithium brines. On September 20, 2018 he delivered the SU Earth Science Department’s Nelson seminar as the Geological Society of America (GSA) Birdsall-Dreiss Distinguished Lecturer. Dr. Boutt studies the conditions that make the Salar de Atacama the single largest source of lithium. As a hydrologist, he is especially interested in how much groundwater from outside the basin contributes to the lithium brine and where that water is coming from. In his talk, he discussed the lithium sources and how much of it is transported into the basin through groundwater. Although precipitation over the salar is low, it is much greater over the surrounding mountains and this water can carry the necessary amount of lithium to the salar, where it is concentrated by the very high evaporation rate. The naturally-occurring high concentration of lithium in this basin decreases the amount of time required by mining companies during the extraction and concentrating process, making it a valuable lithium source.

Despite increasing demand, current lithium resources are expected to meet future demand for many years, allowing the global population to continue transitioning towards renewable energy sources and a lower carbon footprint.


EMPOWER Trainees consider “The Shift”

Written By: Darci Pauser and Riley Sessanna

As global population grows and energy needs increase it is important to question where our energy comes from and at what cost.

In preparation to discuss these topics, EMPOWER students attended a screening of the documentary Switch, a 2012 film which explores how much energy an average person consumes and from where that energy is sourced. Following the screening, students had the opportunity to voice their opinions of the film and discuss the means of producing and consuming energy.  Discussions led to topics on renewable versus non-renewable energy, what countries are doing to produce “clean energy,” and the most important sources of energy for various consumers.

The film prompted students to consider what it will take for humankind to make “the switch” to cleaner and more efficient energy production—a transformation that will allow us to power a world with a growing population, in addition to growing energy needs. Not only has gross energy consumption increased, but much of this consumption has shifted to developing nations, bringing to bear questions of equity for economic development and its necessary energy needs. Energy trade balances (exports minus imports of energy products), as well as energy intensity (the amount of energy used per unit of GDP) problematizes state-centric notions of energy production and consumption. In short, Switch made students think about the complexity involved in energy issues.

EMPOWER students then participated in a game of jeopardy, highlighting key points made in the movie and discussed in the seminar.  Teams of students and professors worked to gain the highest score – the fastest buzzer reactions and the strongest knowledge on energy sources and consumption receiving top scores.  Winners of the game each received the grand prize of an EMPOWER laser pointer, along with bragging rights until the next edition of Energy Jeopardy.

Urban Water Supply Reinvention: A Sustainable Water Future

Written by: Madhuri Dinakar, Changcheng Pu and Joseph Wasswa

Although fresh water is a critical resource to our society, there is growing scarcity for this resource globally. The distribution of fresh water on the Earth’s surface is extremely uneven, where some parts of the world have abundant freshwater resources while others struggle to meet demand. Water supply crises are exacerbated by human population growth and climate change, which render the traditional freshwater supplies inadequate to sustain the growing water demand. In the United States, the west coast in particular faces increasing water stress, which causes overdraft of groundwater and stream depletion. Even if the drought were to stop today, it would take decades to restore the depleted ground water resources in the western US. Currently, the water supplies of Southern California and some other western states largely rely on imports from the Northern California and the Colorado River. These sources are under threat due to increasing population, particularly in Southern California, and growing conflicts between agricultural and urban demand for water, which have escalated as the water supply has dried up. Thus, this necessitates the exploration of alternative to combat the growing concern of water shortage. Suggested solutions to this challenge are composed of a combination of multiple strategies: desalination, storm water capture, water recycling and reuse, and water banking. These newly developed “taps” of urban water will help dry cities in California and other places achieve “more sustainable and resilient water futures.”

On April 6th, Dr. Richard Luthy, the Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering of Stanford University, was invited to Syracuse University to give a seminar titled “Urban Water Supply Reinvention for Dry Cities.” Dr. Luthy started with a portfolio approach to the water stress, and how diversified techniques are applied to manage risks in water systems. Wastewater reuse, including potable and non-potable reuse, is one of the most appealing options to augment the water supply. For non-potable water reuse, one major challenge is the vast upfront cost, primarily for separate pipelines. The implementation of decentralized water reclaimation facilities is a potential solution for this issue. For potable water reuse, regulators and researchers are working together to promulgate regulations to address the health concerned caused by micropollutants. In addition, the public perception and acceptability of recycled water is still an impediment for successful implementation of water recycling and reuse. In California, the other technical approach is storm water capture, with a co-benefit of protecting beaches since it reduces the amount of pollutants carried to the beaches by urban runoff. Storm water collected by green Infrastructure and dry wells can be used to recharge groundwater. Dr. Luthy also stressed that all water problems and solutions are regional. Since the climate conditions, existing infrastructure and political environment vary largely from region to region, there is no universal solution to all local water problems. However, a comparison of water supply strategies implemented by driest parts of the region like Israel and California shows that the water stress in California can be reduced if the suggested options are successfully evaluated and implemented.

Big Data, Bigger Management: Learning to Improve Our Data Life Cycle

Story written by: Quercus Florence Hamlin

In a world of ever-growing data and computing resources, understanding and practicing good data management strategies is critical to scientists of all kinds.

In order facilitate better data management strategies, EMPOWER students attended a workshop led by CUAHSI’s (The Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science) Liza Brazil. Brazil walked through basics of the data life cycle and metadata before doing an in-depth demo of CUAHSI’s data repository Hydroshare (https://www.hydroshare.org/). Hydroshare allows hydrologists to store and discover hydrologic data of all kinds by browsing spatially and with tags. Faculty in the workshop were excited to find Hydroshare had a private lab data sharing feature and created groups for their labs on the spot.

After Brazil’s presentations, EMPOWER students hosted a discussion on data management. During the discussion, students analyzed their current data life cycle and, after being presented with new ideas, were asked how they would improve it. Many ideas were considered, like working as labs to establish group practices and expectations but perhaps the best advice? Just do it. We have the tools: we just need to commit to data management.

The Rocky History of Lake Kivu: Volcanos, Methane and Active Tectonics

Story written by:  J.R. Slosson, Lucie Worthen & Yige Yang

In June 2018, twelve EMPOWER students will journey to Rwanda on a field course to learn about the history, culture, and potential energy source of Lake Kivu. In preparation for that field course, EMPOWER trainees are preparing by expanding their knowledge of the lake geology during weekly seminar.

Located on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lake Kivu is one of the African Great Lakes located in the Great Rift Valley. Students discussed the journal article Stratigraphic framework and lake level history of Lake Kivu, East African Rift by Douglas Wood and Christopher Scholz. The paper shed light on the geologic history of the lake, from ancient deltas to former lake drainage patterns. The students conversed about volcanic eruptions of prehistoric times and analyzed the history told by the sediment core data. Dr. Scholz will be one of the professors leading the EMPOWER field course in Rwanda.  While Lake Kivu is most well-known for the methane produced from the sediment floor as a potential source of power for the Rwandan people, Scholz shed light on alternative reasons for studying the rift valley. The African Rift valley is very similar to an ancient series of rifts here in the eastern United States called the Eastern North America Rift Basins. By studying an active rift valley in Africa, we can better understand how the ancient rift basins of the northeast U.S. were formed, says Scholz. The EMPOWER trainees will continue their education on Lake Kivu next week with background on the lake chemistry related to methane.

Avoiding Catastrophe: How Methane in Lake Kivu Poses a Threat to Rwandan Communities

Story written by Alaina Hickey, Nick Zaremba, Amanda Campbell & Laura Markley

On Friday, February 23rd, a group of EMPOWER students led the class with a presentation focused on the existence of methane in Lake Kivu, continuing the discussion from the previous week on the geological processes controlling the evolution of the East African Rift and the Great Lakes of East Africa. These two student-led discussions were scheduled in preparation for an EMPOWER field course that will be taking place in Rwanda on Lake Kivu in June, which will focus on scientific issues pertaining to water resources and power generation in Rwanda. Professor Chris Junium, an organic geochemist who will also be taking part in the field course, joined the class to aid in the discussion on the complex biogeochemical cycling and water column chemistry of the lake.

Lake Kivu is located on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and lies along the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East African Rift. The lake is estimated to hold 55 billion cubic meters of methane (CH4) and 250 billion cubic meters of carbon dioxide (CO2), which are normally held at depth due to the meromictic nature of the lake. Similar to Fayetteville Green Lake, Lake Kivu is a meromictic lake, meaning that it does not normally overturn. As long as the lake remains stratified, the methane and carbon dioxide are not released into the atmosphere. However, this lake, along with Cameroonian Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun, are three known lakes to undergo limnic eruptions. Limnic eruptions are rare natural disaster cases in which the dissolved carbon dioxide and/or methane suddenly erupts from deep waters, forming a gas cloud that can asphyxiate wildlife and human populations. Methane and carbon dioxide are expected to reach saturated levels in the lake in 50 to 200 years, which poses a gas eruption threat to more than two million people along its shores. Geologic evidence in the lake’s surrounding region suggests mass biological extinctions have taken place in the past, which is likely a result of outgassing events triggered by volcanic activity. Understanding the unique geologic and chemical processes of the lake can help predict and potentially prevent future catastrophes.

In an effort to control methane levels in the lake, ContourGlobal, a U.S. based energy company, acquired project funding in 2011 to begin a large-scale methane extraction project, which now operates through a local Rwandan entity named KivuWatt. This is the only gas/water extraction project operating in the world. An offshore platform is used to extract, separate, and clean the gasses obtained from the deep waters before pumping purified methane through an underwater pipeline to on-shore gas engines. This exploitation of methane aids in maintaining permanent stratification of the lake and mitigating the dangers associated with the release of CH4 and CO2. The project also provides an environment-friendly and sustainable source of power generation, decreases the country’s use of diesel to generate electricity, and reduces electricity costs for consumers. Extraction is reported as cost-effective and relatively simple – once the gas-rich water is pumped to the surface, the dissolved gases (CO2 and CH4) begin to bubble out as water pressure decreases. This project is expected to increase Rwanda’s energy generation capability by as much as 20 times, and will enable Rwanda to sell electricity to neighboring African countries.



A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Understanding Effective Data Visualization

Story written by Quercus Hamlin and Changcheng Pu

Scientists are always looking for ways to better express information to both the public and peers. In a world of “big data,” complex theories, and short attention spans, visualization is a key tool to understanding data and to expressing findings. However, not all figures are created equal. EMPOWER students sought to improve their understanding of data visualization through a student-led discussion and visit from Dr. Christa Kelleher. Dr. Kelleher presents ten guidelines to create effective, comprehensive data visualization in “Ten guidelines for effective visualization in scientific publications” (2010). These guidelines synthesize design elements that improve comprehension and tips to avoid misleading figures.

Before Dr. Kelleher’s visit, EMPOWER students participated in a student-led discussion analyzing different figures from peer reviewed papers. Students pointed out positive and negative design decisions in figures and discussed strategies for improvement. Analyzing and critiquing other figures can help scientists develop better understanding of what to do and what to avoid in their own figures.

For example, different color schemes facilitate different types of data. In her discussion with EMPOWER students, Dr. Kelleher pointed out that a rainbow color scheme creates false difference in perceived values and can be hard to interpret. Consider the two maps of population density in Syracuse, NY census tracks: most would find the grey scale map easier to find a pattern in.  The dark values are centered around the city center and densities become lower as they get farther away.  In the rainbow map, the values (lightness or darkness) of the colors do not gradually get darker, so it is harder to quickly interpret the middle values, specifically blue and green. While the rainbow and legend gives us the “order” to figure this out, it is generally less intuitive. Figures using various hues (the “color” of a color – green, red, blue) better represent qualitative or categorical data, like land use. Differences in lightness and darkness better represent changes in intensity of numerical quantities.

Overall, data visualization is a key part of a modern science: our design choices influence how others understand our science. Scientists must aim to understand design and utilize it to further both public and peer understanding – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words!

(images – data from US Census Bureau, maps prepared by Quercus Hamlin)


Trainees are featured guests on Orange STEM podcast

In the most recent episode of Syracuse University’s Daily Orange biweekly STEM podcast, EMPOWER trainees Geoff Millard and Changcheng Pu discuss their research and their perspectives on Syracuse area water concerns.

To hear the full podcast, please click here: Orange STEM podcast.

Nicely done, Geoff and Changcheng!

Going with the Flow: Water as a Critical Driver of Urbanization

Story written by Crystal Burgess, Lucie Worthen, and Joseph Wasswa

In light of the Syracuse Center of Excellence (CoE) Symposium on October 4th, EMPOWER trainees set the tone by discussing urban hydrology and related innovative research. Urbanization is not only growing worldwide, it is also adapting and changing to new environmental pressures as drinking water supplies and urban ecosystems are being affected. Students talked about the concept of urban evolution introduced in a review paper titled Urban Evolution: The Role of Water by Kaushal et al. The authors placed emphasis on how our relationships and interactions with water have changed, though water remains a foundation of civilization. Kaushal et al. created a model identifying the hydrological and social consequences over time from the industrial period to present day. With each period, we have adapted and redefined our relationship with water. The authors emphasize these responses are reflective of multiple perspectives. Biologist, geologists, engineers, government officials, business sectors, and the public all influence urban adaptations. Many EMPOWER trainees were curious about the interdisciplinary aspects of urban land management. Ph.D. student Darci Pauser stated that she was intrigued by how water acts as a constraint that can “shape urban development and all socio-economic development.”

Trainees also reviewed two case studies by Lauren McPhillips and Sarah Ledford. The two researchers presented their projects relating to water in urban environments at the CoE symposium. Sarah Ledford studies nitrogen cycling in Meadowbrook Creek in Syracuse. Nitrate is one of the main water pollutants sourced from fertilizers and wastewater systems. In her paper she recommends that stream managers take a mindful approach to removing nitrate as it relates to their restoration goals. Lauren McPhillips also focused on nutrient cycles across lawns and ditches within residential neighborhoods. During her presentation, McPhillips mentioned residents approached her in the field and was curious about her work. She went on to stress the importance of communication and community engagement. As urban environments continue to change our concerns for better water management calls everyone to the conversation.

To learn more about the Syracuse Center of Excellence (CoE) Symposium, please go to http://syracusecoe.syr.edu/2017-syracusecoe-symposium/

Challenges of Climate Change in National Parks

Story written by Riley Sessanna, Nick Zaremba, and Rose Louk

Climate change may result in broad effects to our most treasured scenic getaways, the National Parks. Initial reactions may be to consider how warmer temperatures will impact wildlife or other natural beauties such as glaciers. However, it is also important for park management to better understand how climate change will affect park attendance, so that resources can be focused in areas that will be impacted the most. Attendance is generally dependent on the mean monthly temperatures of a park; more people visit parks when temperatures are favorable. Parks such as Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, which has a pleasant temperature year-round, has consistent attendance throughout the year; while parks located in colder climates tend to have higher attendance in the warm summer months and few visitors in the winter. An interesting case study by Albano et al. (2013) examined climate change’s impact on attendance in three National Parks in Alaska. This study predicted an increase in park attendance in the coming years, based on a growing “peak season,” which follows a longer period of favorable climate.

With climate change impacting the National Parks in a diverse number of ways, there will be a need for more research and employees in the parks. A survey of professionals and students found that experience, social connectivity, character, focused education, and having a foot in the door are essential for success in the career sector (Browning et al. 2017). There are also a number of funding opportunities for those interested in doing research in the parks. Grants are available through the National Park Foundation and internships are offered by the Geoscientists in the Park Program. Both opportunities can provide the experience and social connectivity necessary for a career in the National Parks. Water-Energy Seminar students had a roundtable discussion about the various impacts of climate change on parks, how our research can be applied to parks, and how to get an internship or job in the National Parks.

On November 9th, Ed Harvey spoke to EMPOWER students about water resource stewardship in the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). In this talk, he explained that National Parks are set aside for the enjoyment of the public and conserved with the goal of leaving them unimpaired for future generations. With this balance of conservation and enjoyment, there are “inherited” challenges of managing old infrastructure like dams and gas stations, mining operations that are contaminating the land, and people living in the parks (“inholdings”) who require a source of water in a place where the water is protected. There is also the issue of changing climate conditions bringing about disasters like floods and landslides that damage the parks and can endanger visitors. Furthermore, Ed Harvey explained that the allocation of the NPS budget and employee distribution is geared more towards public enjoyment of the parks than conservation. He closed with an explanation of how park decisions extend beyond science alone to include cultural resource considerations, socio-economic impacts, politics, and public opinion. Overall, stewardship must respond to dynamic changes in the environment while including the diverse interests of everyone involved.


Photographs from https://nature.nps.gov/geology/education/images.cfm