RIT to Study Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Great Lakes Region

Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute funds the yearlong study




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Reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the Great Lakes region due to freight transportation requires a little creativity and a serious look at sustainability—ways of protecting the environment without slowing the economy.

A team of professors at Rochester Institute of Technology recently won a $60,000 grant from the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute to determine whether marine shipping makes more sense from an environmental perspective than alternative modes of moving freight. The study will compare and contrast different modes of transportation in the Great Lakes region—road, rail and shipping—based on cost, energy use, emissions and time-of-delivery.

“We will build a computer model that will allow analysts to evaluate emissions from shipping within the Great Lakes and to compare those emissions with alternative transportation routing in the Great Lakes region,” says James Winebrake, chair of science, technology and society/public policy at RIT.

The study will help identify ways to enhance “sustainable shipping” on the Great Lakes by identifying environmentally friendly shipping alternatives that will likely include marine components, Winebrake says.

The software will assess the carbon footprint of different modes of transportation and allow analysts to explore economic and environmental tradeoffs associated with using one form of transportation instead of another. A mapping component will allow the user to see different routes evolve based on different criteria.

“Our approach is like a MapQuest for freight, but instead of evaluating shortest distance routes, we can also evaluate routes that minimize carbon emissions, regional pollutants, or costs,” says Scott Hawker, assistant professor of software engineering at RIT.

Policy analysts and shippers will benefit from this software, as will planners weighing decisions that will influence freight flow.

Addressing the problems posed by this project requires a multi-college effort and combines an environmental aspect with energy concerns, computer modeling and a user-friendly interface. The study brings together professors and students from RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, College of Science and B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information and Sciences, and draws on the expertise of Karl Korfmacher, associate professor of environmental science, and Steve Zilora, assistant professor of information technology.

Student research assistants will build network models using Geographic Information Systems software. Collecting data on the environmental impact of different modes of transportation and freight flow in the Great Lakes will help them characterize what the freight flow looks like, Winebrake says.

The project marks the first grant received by RIT’s new Laboratory for Environmental Computing and Decision Making. The lab, co-directed by Winebrake and Hawker, focuses on using computers to improve environmental decision-making. The laboratory is housed in the Center for Advancing the Study of Cyberinfrastructure in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information and Sciences.

Ongoing research at the lab includes a U.S. Department of Transportation-funded project to evaluate the energy and environmental impacts of intermodal shipping—moving freight on trucks, trains and ships—and a National Science Foundation-funded project aimed at understanding the impact of greenhouse gas policies on automobile technology and design using computer models.