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Got Gas?: The transformation of an idea into applied research


At last spring’s national IGERT meeting, Trainee Steve Plachinksi’s poster “Got Gas? Dairy Farm Manure Digestion as a Sustainable Development Strategy in Wisconsin” was one of the Trainee Poster Challenge winners. That poster was the start of a year-long process of research, exploration, and refinement that led to a pair of reports that were submitted to the Wisconsin Bioenergy Institute, and to a finalist entry in the privately-sponsored Climate Leadership Challenge. As is common with a truly interdisciplinary, collaborative project, the cast of participants and the project emphasis shifted over time. The story of this project’s successes is an important window into the unexpected creativity that arises from interdisciplinary collaborations. The team’s research on biogas ranged from technical analyses of various digester substrates, to interviews with farmers in Germany and Wisconsin, to evaluations of various economic policy options, and finally to the development of a social entrepreneur effort in Uganda. With each new version of the project, participants discovered new opportunities to apply academic research insights to the problems of climate, energy, environment, and sustainable development.

Steve Plachinksi’s winning poster described a project that he and other trainees and associates were developing for their capstone project in the Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment (CHANGE). CHANGE is a graduate certificate program offered through UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies that was developed to serve as the interdisciplinary training component of our IGERT, and now enrolls 10-15 students per year. The project, developed in collaboration with Gary Radloff, the Policy Director for the Wisconsin Bioenergy Institute (WBI), revolved around a simple question: why does Germany produce and use so much more biogas through its dairy industry than a state like Wisconsin, which has a long-established dairy industry and a significant dairy support infrastructure?

The prize for Steve’s winning poster was supplemental travel funding for our IGERT. Steve (who works primarily on air pollution modeling) and another trainee (Aleia McCord, who works on the links between climate change and tropical disease vectors) received IGERT travel funding to visit Germany with a delegation of researchers, policymakers, and other officials from Wisconsin. This intense information gathering activity served as a start for an analysis of German efforts to promote biogas development in its agricultural sector. Using this information, and conducting similar reviews and interviews back in Wisconsin, McCord, Aleia, and their other project team members (now including Trainee Sarah Stefanos, a sociologist), produced a report for the WBI that showed how the widespread adoption of biogas digesters in various agricultural settings could provide a wide range of environmental benefits. These include greenhouse gas reduction, waste management improvements, energy independence, and some cost reductions at various facilities. The conclusions of their report were incorporated in the WBI’s report on “The Biogas Opportunity in Wisconsin,” available at:

This was not the end of the collaboration, however. Both Trainee McCord and Trainee Stefanos plan to conduct their dissertation research in Uganda. After completing their capstone project in December 2010, both Trainees were more familiar with the waste management and energy implications of low-tech biogas development, and began asking questions about biogas use in Africa, particularly in Uganda. They discovered that biogas was somewhat widespread in Zimbabwe, but that neighboring Uganda had relatively poor diffusion of the technology, apparently because of communication and social networking problems in that country. McCord and Stefanos, working with CHANGE-IGERT Associate Jeff Starke (an environmental engineering PhD candidate), began to examine what it would take to expand biogas use in Uganda. They decided to use the upcoming 2011 Climate Leadership Challenge competition to develop a proposal for collaborating with Ugandan biogas entrepreneurs to expand adoption of the technology. The resulting project proposal, BioGRASP: Biogas Growth: Regional and Sustainable Partnerships was among 4 first-round winners of the 2011 Climate Leadership Challenge competition and received a $2,000 award. Although they did not win the CLC grand prize, the experience has led them to consider alternate ways to fund and promote their proposal. They have also discussed the possibility of collaborating on future projects when they move into tenure-track academic positions.

The ongoing, dynamic collaboration between these young scholars is a wonderful example of how interdisciplinary projects often work. An initial problem was roughly characterized and described by Trainee Plachinski and others. The elaboration of the problem and possible solutions during the CHANGE capstone course by Plachniski, McCord, Starke, and Stefanos led to a more nuanced understanding of the promise of Biogas use in Wisconsin. The success of that project led some of the participants to consider further collaborations, applying their knowledge of biogas to the area of international sustainable development. With each step of this project, the problems being addressed, and the research expertise and techniques needed to answer those questions changed. Because of the CHANGE team’s training in collaboration and team processes, they were able to shift their focus and techniques as they progressed.

Address Goals

This activity addresses NSF’s “Learning” goal because it shows students from several different disciplines (Atmospheric Modeling, Sociology, Environmental Engineering, and Environmental Health) working together for a full year and shaping research projects for several different clients and outcomes. These students, and the domestic and international collaborators they worked with, developed a strong respect for one another’s areas of expertise as well as a collective strategy for tackling complex research problems.

The year-long “Got Gas” project addresses the goal of “Discovery” because the students developed new understandings of the science and policy behind Biogas use in multiple contexts. The projects they worked on changed over the course of the year in ways that emphasized different types of science, and therefore required different expertise. The shifting projects also required the team to apply their knowledge and experience to unique situations (for example, adapting Germany’s policy insights to a Wisconsin context, or understanding the social conditions in Uganda that would lead to the successful dissemination of biogas technology). The team’s ability so share its knowledge broadly, and to continually adapt to new information, demonstrated a strong enthusiasm for adaptability, learning, and science communication, all of which expand the frontiers of knowledge.