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The Shell Center for Sustainability's mission is to foster an interdisciplinary program of research, outreach, and education to address actions that can be taken to ensure the sustainable development of communities' living standards, interpreted broadly, to encompass all factors affecting the overall quality of life.

Water, Nutrients and Sustainability

Effects of excess fertilizer and wastewater


Caroline Masiello, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Science, Rice University

Evan Siemann, Ph.D., Professor and Department Chair, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Rice University

Andrea Ballestero, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Anthropology Department, Rice University

Kenneth Medlock, Ph.D., Senior Director, Center for Energy Studies; James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow in Energy and Resource Economics, Rice University  

Christian Davies, Ph.D., Shell

Ghasideh Pourhasthem, Ph.D., Postdoctoral research fellow, Baker Institute Center for Energy Studies, Rice University

MasielloCarriepicsm13 SiemannEvanpicsm13 Ballestero Andrea pic sm
Caroline Masiello Evan Siemann Andrea Ballestero
MedlockKenpicsm13 Davies-Christian med13 Ghasideh Purhasthem
Ken Medlock Christian Davies Ghasideh Purhasthem

 Project Background

2014 Project Update Video

HandsWaterwRiver water quality is a major challenge in virtually all urban watersheds where fertilizer use and wastewater act as unwanted nutrient sources, triggering algae in surface waters that, if allowed to grow, can cause problems in the coastal ocean like dead zones and harmful algal blooms.  These events can have negative environmental and economic consequences for coastal communities.  Simultaneously, ineffective retention of fertilizer and water where they are needed on the land surface, such as in crops and urban trees, can lead to wasteful urban use of water and fertilizers, further contaminating watersheds.  While technologies exist to manage these problems, implementation hinges on their cost-effectiveness and cultural acceptance.  Here we propose a suite of low-cost, high yield social science-natural science collaborative projects focused on one nutrient- and water-management technique, biochar.  Biochar is charcoal produced intentionally for environmental uses like carbon sequestration and water purification.

This project will help support a postdoctoral researcher who will determine the economic conditions under which biochar improves nutrient and water management sufficiently to be profitable.  Because the specific area of valuing biochar ecosystem services is of interest to researchers at Shell, this postdoc will be co-mentored by Dr. Christian Davies at Shell as well as by Ken Medlock and Carrie Masiello at Rice.  Besides addressing a significant problem in ecosystem water and nutrient management, the creation of this postdoctoral fellowship would jump-start a new natural science-social science collaboration, expand the currently science-only biochar group into the social sciences, and formalize a nascent relationship between Shell and Rice in the area of sustainable water management.

We also propose three other high-impact, low cost projects related specifically to biochar, water, and nutrient management.  Undergraduate researchers and staff would be focused on these areas of research: 

1. Determining the water management benefits of biochar produced from sewage sludge (Masiello/Gao). 

2. Documenting the ability of biochar and mycorrhizae to immobilize metals in contaminated soils (Siemann). 

3. Conducting an ethnographic study of biochar-producing communities to better understand how they perceive the hydrologic cycle benefits of their work (Ballestero).

Each PI will be individually responsible for delivering updates to Masiello twice a year.  Masiello will produce reports based on these updates.

2014 Project Update Video

Research Final Report


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