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OVER THE COLES: University of Illinois awarded $4.5 million from ARPA-E to develop commercial carbon credit tools
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OVER THE COLES: University of Illinois awarded $4.5 million from ARPA-E to develop commercial carbon credit tools


URBANA — The University of Illinois has been awarded $4.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) through its “Systems for Monitoring and Analytics for Renewable Transportation Fuels from Agricultural Resources and Management” (SMARTFARM) program.

The funding will be used to calculate farm-scale carbon credits, allowing individual farmers to understand the value of their land and practices toward carbon trading markets.

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The project, named “SYMFONI,” allows accurate and rapid field-level quantification of carbon intensity for every individual field across the U.S. and can be seamlessly scaled up to the global scale. This is made possible through the integration of field-based observations with satellite and aerial hyperspectral data, physics-guided deep learning, mobile soil sensing, and supercomputing. Guan says the system builds a generic framework that will flexibly integrate newer sensor technologies as they become available, meaning the output will continue to improve over time.

Importantly, the Illinois-led SMARTFARM project is tasked with delivering commercial products that will enable stakeholders to calculate the value of various ecosystem services related to crop and land management decisions. To achieve ARPA-E’s “technology-to-market” goal and commercialize the project’s results, the team has partnered with Aspiring Universe, a tech spin-off from the University of Illinois that aims to de-risk and sustain modern agriculture for humanity.

“We couldn’t be prouder of Kaiyu and his team’s efforts toward a more sustainable future for agriculture and the planet. Innovations from researchers within the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences [ACES], along with our partners across the UIUC campus, have been changing the world for 150 years, and with investments like this from ARPA-E, we’ll continue moving forward to a brighter future,” says Germán Bollero, associate dean for research in the College of ACES at Illinois.

The Illinois team is the only group nationwide to be twice awarded funds in ARPA-E’s SMARTFARM program in its two funding phases. The same team leads a Phase 1 project ($3.3 million) to collect gold-standard carbon emission data at the farm scale and builds the foundation for testing Phase 2 technologies. The Illinois-led project also represents the largest portion of SMARTFARM funding, receiving 27 percent of the total funds distributed in the current round of funding.

“These distinctions position Illinois at center stage nationally as a leader in quantifying ecosystem services for farmland,” says Evan H. DeLucia, G. William Arends professor of biology, founding director of the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) at Illinois, and co-principal investigator of the SYMFONI project. Both Illinois SMARTFARM projects are managed through iSEE.

The project is in line with ARPA-E’s SMARTFARM goals, which include development of technologies to bridge the data gap in the biofuel supply chain by quantifying feedstock-related greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon dynamics at the field level. These technologies will allow for improved efficiency in feedstock production and enable new ag-sector carbon removal and management opportunities.

FARM FOCUS: A look at agriculture in Central Illinois

FARM FOCUS: A look at agriculture in Central Illinois

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