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Three-year project is designed to ameliorate urban pollution affecting health and climate change 

September 15, 2022 (CHICAGO) — A multi-institutional and multidisciplinary team led by the Discovery Partners Institute has been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation PIRE program to reduce pollution in South Asian cities and accelerate a transition to clean transportation.

Researchers in the three-year project will employ weather and climate modeling to predict how switching from vehicles that burn fossil fuels to electric vehicles will affect urban air quality. 

The team of physical scientists, engineers, social scientists and educators will also study impacts on human behavior during this changeover, with the hope of encouraging swifter adoption of clean transportation. 

The project’s principal investigator is Ashish Sharma, who recently joined DPI as climate and sustainability lead. Sharma is also an adjunct professor in the department of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Exhaust from internal combustion engines adds to air toxins that worsen health particularly in large, dense cities. The world’s 1.4 billion conventional cars and trucks, which are concentrated in cities, also are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming and climate change. 

“This project is critical and timely as transportation emissions contribute not only to the changing climate but also to extreme events, such as making heatwaves stronger and storms more intense,” Sharma said. 

The work will primarily focus on three Indian cities — Delhi, Pune and Bhubaneswar, with a combined metro population of 36.5 million — with potential to scale to other South Asian cities. This project also could help guide U.S. cities, where pollution from gasoline-powered vehicles remains a major challenge.  

“We would like to learn from this international experience and prepare U.S. cities before these issues worsen,” Sharma continued. “Our U.S. team in Chicago, Colorado and Phoenix will use existing partnerships to establish research and education programs at their home institutions.”

DPI is a public-private R&D center under the University of Illinois System.

“We are excited that DPI will lead this effort to develop research-driven solutions for air quality issues, guide investments in transportation and thus directly impact global economic growth and human health,” said Venkat Venkatakrishnan, director of research at DPI. 

“We are committed to leverage DPI’s in-house knowledge base and connections,” he added, “to develop an international hub for cross-cutting research and education to address climate change and clean energy challenges head on.”

The NSF’s Partnership for International Research and Education program is extremely selective in awarding grants, approving only 10 to 15 a year. The NSF-PIRE program selects visionary, ambitious, interdisciplinary, use-inspired research proposals that address scientific challenges related to climate change and/or clean energy. 

“We look forward to the results and accomplishments of your interesting, interdisciplinary, international work, both for the scientific outcomes and for societal benefits,” said Fahmida Chowdhury, a program director in the NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering.

Along with DPI, this team will include members from the University of Illinois Chicago, the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, the University of Chicago, Arizona State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. International partners include the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology in Bhubaneswar. 


About DPI

The Discovery Partners Institute empowers people to jumpstart their tech careers or companies in Chicago. Led by the University of Illinois System in partnership with top research universities, it does three things: Train people for high-demand tech jobs; conduct applied R&D; and support business building. With state investment and a new innovation district in development, DPI has the resources to attract, develop, and leverage the most ambitious people and companies the region has to offer — and keep them here.