Global Research Partnerships Key to New Sustainable Solutions across Industries

According to the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, global automobile production will increase three percent this year – an industry growth trend with potential environmental impacts. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions notes that in the U.S., transportation accounts for 27 percent of the U.S. economy’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These emissions are expected to grow by about 10 percent by 2025, underscoring the importance of making transportation more sustainable.

Improving the sustainability of transportation means addressing the environmental impact of the vehicles we use, their associated life cycles, and the behaviors and infrastructure that constitute the larger transportation system.  These elements together influence how we get from door-to-door, and ultimately dictate how sustainably we are able to do so.

Alcoa, one of the world’s largest aluminum producers, is taking a convening role to increase understanding of this and many other sustainability challenges. Last year, Alcoa Foundation launched theAdvancing Sustainability Research: Innovative Partnerships for Actionable Solutions (ASR) initiative. The Foundation invested US $4 million to support non-proprietary research across five continents, engaging universities, NGOs and research institutions to increase knowledge and develop actionable solutions. Areas of focus for ASR include: transportation, conservation, life cycle assessment, climate change, energy efficiency and water management. The research, which is being conducted throughout 2012 and 2013 is widely shared to spur development and adoption of best practices.

North America is home to three of ASR’s 10 initiatives. Alcoa Foundation’s partnership with The Ohio State University Institute for Materials Research is leveraging research to design vehicle structures with reduced weight and increased recyclability. The program focuses on new methods for joining metals and rearranging components to enable mass customization at a lower cost. These new designs will increase mileage, passenger safety, vehicle handling and longevity; ultimately developing a new class of economically competitive light vehicles with short logistic chains that can be manufactured in the markets where they are used.

In February, Alcoa Foundation announced an additional $50,000 grant to expand the University of Michigan’s SMART (Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation) program. SMART catalyzes diverse partnerships between business, government, civil society, NGOs and academia to increase urban mobility by building new regional technical, behavioral, economic and policy solutions.  SMART’s research leverages New Mobility (integrated, multi-modal, IT-enhanced and sustainable systems of transportation), allowing individuals to move seamlessly from door-to-door throughout a region.

ASR’s work with The Ohio State University and University of Michigan was recently featured as part of a dialogue on urban mobility and sustainable transportation at the VERGE DC conference. To view video of the discussion, visit the virtual conference site.

ASR is also supporting research to improve on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools through a partnership with the École Polytechnique de Montréal. Better modeling of the links between production, consumption, emissions and potential environmental impacts will lead to a more thorough understanding of the relationships between human activities and the environment. Research includes leading the development of a novel Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) methodology called IMPACT WORLD+, which will allow LCAs to be conducted on a global level.

These North American ASR programs are part of a broader effort to address sustainability challenges globally, including:

  • Emissions Reduction – Research conducted by the China Center for International Economic Exchanges and Tsinghua University focuses on how NGOs in China are supporting climate change policy.
  • Wetlands Conservation –This sustainable land use research initiative in Australia, conducted by Greening Australia and the University of Western Australia, investigates ways to reduce fertilizer run-off through the innovative use of vegetation to absorb excess nutrients.
  • Biochar and Energy from Trees – Conducted by Greening Australia, The University of Adelaide, CSIRO Ecosystem Services and other partners, this project aims to re-vegetate one of Australia's 15 biodiversity hotspots and leverage new energy-generation opportunities provided by emerging carbon markets.
  • Low-Carbon Development – The China Center for International Economic Exchanges is focusing on developing and promoting a national low-carbon economic growth model in China.
  • Environmental Economics – The University of Vigo in Spain and the Economics for Energy private research center are improving information available about the economics of energy production and consumption.
  • Water Management – This program focuses on research and education regarding responsible industrial wastewater management in Samara, Russia. The goal of the project is to deliver new approaches for improved water management and polluted water-cleaning techniques.

For more information, visit For the latest on the Alcoa Foundation Advancing Sustainability Research Initiative, sign up for the Quarterly Newsletter here.

About the Authors

Matthew Brest is director of marketing for Alcoa Wheel & Transportation Products.

Scott Hudson is principal manager at the Alcoa Foundation.

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