UNT professor earns $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant to help tackle food insecurity

Monday, August 12, 2019 - 13:52

University of North Texas College of Engineering Regents Professor Miguel Acevedo now has $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation over five years to dig deep in tackling the growing global problem of food insecurity. 

Specifically, Acevedo, who is also a scientist with the Advanced Environmental Research Institute, seeks to find solutions for the high amount of salt in agricultural soil and irrigation water in regions where water is limited or traditional fertilizer and irrigation management have altered water and soil quality. It’s a problem that affects crops in those areas, leading to a decrease in food production and long-term degradation of soil and water.

“I’ve long been a proponent of using interdisciplinary research to find ways to increase food security all while preserving environmental quality,” said Acevedo. “The main feature of this research is its integrative approach to food, energy and water systems. We want to increase crop yield sustainably in these regions by improving irrigation water quality, restoring soil fertility, and saving energy. The idea is by using the soils own microbes, we can reduce fertilizer applications and trap carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. Ultimately, this integrative method leads to a combined increase in food production and environmental quality, and a reduction of global warming.”

With 800 million undernourished people in the world, and increasing risks of global food insecurity and climate change, Acevedo’s work is critical. Worldwide, there is limited opportunity to increase cultivation areas without risking environmental quality; even areas with previously good soil see its agricultural quality decline over time with inadequate practices. Acevedo and his interdisciplinary team of researchers hope to approach the problem with an exemplary FEW (Food-Energy-Water) system that will integrate food production, soil nutrients and water quality, along with desalination and renewable energy.

The UNT team, including electrical engineering staff researchers Breana Smithers and Keith Mallory and Ph.D. student Sanjaya Gurung, plan to use a method powered by renewable energy to draw salt from brackish groundwater. This off-the-grid system is a process the team is using at the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in New Mexico to produce quality irrigation water. 

With a start date of Aug. 1, the project will focus on experiments in two areas:  the Tularosa Basin in southeastern New Mexico, where the water is limited to brackish groundwater, and the Lower Arkansas River Valley in Southeastern Colorado, which is affected by increasing soil and water salinization problems.

In addition to the UNT electrical engineering researchers, the team includes a hydrological and crop modeler, an agricultural and resource economist, a water treatment and desalination engineer, and a soil microbiology expert. For this purpose, the grant includes sub-awards to researchers with New Mexico State University and Colorado State University.

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