ARPA-E launches SMARTFARM program with $16.5M in investments for 6 projects aimed at low-carbon feedstocks

September 8, 2020 |

In Washington, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy announced $16.5 million in funding for six projects as part of the Systems for Monitoring and Analytics for Renewable Transportation Fuels from Agricultural Resources and Management (SMARTFARM) program. These projects will develop technologies that bridge the data gap in the biofuel supply chain by quantifying feedstock-related GHG 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.

What does SMARTFARM decode as?

ARPA-E’s acronyms are always amusing. SMARTFARM decodes as: Systems for Monitoring and Analytics for Renewable Transportation Fuels from Agricultural Resources and Management

The backstory

As ARPA-E program manager David Babson observed recently:

Biofuels are, by far, the largest product in the bioeconomy. Their benefit to the broader economy and environment could be substantially improved by making them carbon negative. An obstacle to that vision is that growing biofuel feedstocks is not easy, and the profit margins are small. High-volume, low-cost biomass is key to market viability, and thus yield is essentially the only driver for on-farm optimization. However, the value of the finished biofuel is dependent on its lifecycle GHG emissions on a per-energy basis. This metric, expressed in grams of CO2 equivalent per megajoule is the fuel’s carbon intensity. ARPA-E’s SMARTFARM will fill a data and technology gap to connect feedstock production to biofuel carbon markets.

The gain?

“Established low-carbon fuel markets can confer nearly $200 per ton of carbon reduced to the product. At this level of carbon pricing, implementing strategies to reduce farm-level CI by as few as 10 grams per mega joule of biofuel energy could provide farmers with an additional $100 per acre,” Babson observed.

POET and Farmers Business Network have also been at work

Last week, POET and Farmers Business Network partnered up to promote sustainable agricultural practices through the new GRO Network. The GRO Network creates environmental transparency and matches farmers who use environmentally friendly practices with buyers who pay a premium for low-carbon corn.

The GRO Network connects farmers who utilize measurable sustainable practices with buyers who are willing to pay for verifiable low-carbon grain. The program is groundbreaking in its focus on abatement and using proven science to measure the benefits of conservation practices used by farmers on their land. These measurements result in a farm-level carbon-intensity score that can be used by policymakers to more accurately assess the greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction for low-carbon fuel policies and make smart decisions to meet their sustainability goals.

POET began working with FBN two years ago on a pilot project that demonstrated the viability of the GRO Network approach. Compared with other programs that face challenges with testing and marketplace development, abatement alone has been proven to reduce agricultural emissions by up to 50% while also increasing farm incomes.

The ARPA-E program aims

SMARTFARM teams will work to design and develop systems to quantify feedstock production life cycle GHG emissions at the field level reliably, accurately, and cost-effectively. Selected projects are capable of delivering a positive return on investment when field-level carbon emissions reductions are connected to associated biofuel carbon markets. The program also focuses on potential economic benefits to feedstock producers and future carbon management markets, potentially complementing yield-based revenues with incentives for input efficiency and restorative practices. This focus will also help to lay the groundwork for market structures to shift away from national averages and toward lower uncertainty field-based estimates for incentivizing efficiency and other services.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“Biofuel production is a growing asset to many aspects of the American energy generation landscape,” said ARPA-E Director Lane Genatowski. “SMARTFARM teams will work to further develop the core technologies for our nation’s agricultural community to more efficiently support the biofuels supply chain, while enabling carbon markets to incentivize greater feedstock production efficiency and carbon management opportunities for producers.”

The Projects Selected

University of Illinois – Urbana, IL

The “System of Systems” Solutions for Commercial Field-Level Quantification of Soil Organic Carbon and Nitrous Oxide Emission for Scalable Applications (SYMFONI) – $4,500,000

Accurate and rapid field-level quantification of carbon intensity at a regional scale is critical to facilitate adoption of new technologies to increase the bioeconomy’s feedstock productivity and reduce its carbon footprint. The University of Illinois will develop a commercial solution, SYMFONI, to estimate soil organic carbon and the dynamics of nitrous oxide emissions at an individual field level. The solution can be scaled up to perform per-field estimates for an entire region. SYMFONI is a “system of systems” solution that integrates airborne-satellite remote sensing, process-based modeling, deep learning, atmospheric inversion, field-level sensing, and high-performance computing.

University of Utah – Salt Lake City, UT

Soil Organic Carbon Networked Measurement System (SOCNET) – $1,899,317

The inability to measure on-the-spot underground carbon flux and storage within an economically sensible operation cost limits the accurate quantification of carbon sequestration, capture, loss, and storage necessary to achieve a carbon negative bioeconomy and biofuel supply chain. The University of Utah aims to develop and deploy a distributed carbon sensor system that is buried into the soil, capable of locally stimulating a surrounding volume of soils at multiple depths, and sensing carbon and carbon flux at ultra-low operational cost. The sensor will enable high-accuracy and real-time decision data for cost-effective carbon removal, storage, and management.

Soil Health Institute – Morrisville, NC

A Rapid In-Field System to Measure Deep Soil C Stock and Flux – $3,250,609

The Soil Health Institute aims to develop an integrated soil carbon measurement and monitoring system—the DeepC System—that meets current and future needs for carbon markets in agriculture. The system comprises three main components: in-field measurement hardware, an optimized spatial sampling algorithm to select measurement sites, and machine learning calibrations that leverage the current infrastructure of national soil spectroscopy libraries. As a system, these components synergistically allow a user to obtain rapid, non- destructive measurements of soil carbon stock.

Princeton University – Princeton, NJ

NitroNet: Smart System to Quantify Nitrous Oxide Emissions – $3,004,563

Nitrogen management for agricultural production of crops, the primary source of nitrous oxide (N2O), contributes approximately 4% of all greenhouse gases from the U.S. annually. Quantifying these emissions, which are non-uniform in space and time, is a significant challenge at the field and farm scales. NitroNet is an autonomous sensing system designed to monitor N2O emissions over an entire growing season at high spatial and temporal resolutions. By casting a virtual “net” over an entire field, NitroNet will monitor the non-uniform N2O emissions within the field using atmospheric laser imaging. The total nitrogen loss over a growing season through N2O emissions will be quantified to inform practices that minimize the climate change impacts and environmental harms of agricultural crop production.

Michigan Aerospace Corporation – Ann Arbor, MI

DroN2O: A Drone-Based System for Measuring Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Agricultural Fields – $1,967,446

Michigan Aerospace Corporation proposes to develop an inexpensive system to sense nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from agricultural fields using laser-based sensors mounted on drones. These sensors include an optical absorption cell, a short-range miniature wind LiDAR, and a camera for plant health and ground assessment. The measurements from these sensors will be combined and processed with artificial intelligence-enabled software to accurately measure N2O emissions from a given farm field during the entire growing season. The resulting data will provide farmers of bioeconomy feedstock crops with tangible incentives to alter farming practices in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Dagan, Inc. – Durham, NH

Integrating Sensors, Remote Sensing and DNDC Model for Quantifying GHG Emissions – $1,840,203

Spatial and temporal variability of soil carbon stocks and environmental drivers that cause the production and flux of nitrous oxide (N2O) across agricultural systems create challenges for cost effective quantification of N2O emissions and soil carbon stock changes at scale. Dagan proposes to build, validate, and demonstrate an integrated system for reliable and cost-effective measurement of field-level soil carbon and N2O emissions. This system will consist of the following four components: a field sampling and measurement system; subfield scale process modeling to improve the quantification of soil carbon and greenhouse gas emissions; a detailed model validation system for quantification of model uncertainty; and an operational platform for implementing the system at scale.

The Bottom Line

ARPA-E’s right. A key to driving down carbon intensity is not only to improve fuels, but improve feedstocks, and we can work on crops in a way we can never work on petroleum. One piece of work is the reducing of carbon, another is to better measure and account in a sustainable way all that improvement. In the future, we may need to evolve block-chain technology to track lower-carbon feedstocks through the supply chain, or go with a “book and claim” system to account for the use of lower-carbon crops instead of higher carbon ones. And, we’ll need better rural broadband to enable all these smartfarms to measure themselves and communicate data from seed to the pump. Smart Farms the cause has a ways to go, but SMARTFARM the program is a great start.

More on the story

The complete ARPA-E announce is here.

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