Aer E researchers receive $2.4 million grant to improve decision making with food, energy and water systems

Iowa State University researchers have received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to analyze food, energy and water (FEW) interdependencies and create a simulator that will assist in better decision making with FEW systems.

Christina Bloebaum

Led by Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Interim Department Chair, Christina Bloebaum, researchers will examine how decisions made by individual stakeholders within the FEW system can have an impact on everything else in the system. Further, the team will investigate how incentive and policy structures can be developed to achieve balance across stakeholders to avoid unintended consequences.

The researchers received a $2.4 million continuous grant from the NSF as a part of the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program. Bloebaum and her team were awarded $1.1 million this year and will receive the remaining $1.3 million next year. The grant is part of a $36 million initiative from the NSF and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to research how best to provide food, energy and water throughout the world as Earth’s population continues to rise.

As decisions about food, energy and water are made at a federal level, unintended consequences can occur at a local level that have disastrous outcomes.

“Because this is a coupled system, decision outcomes propagate throughout the entire system,” Bloebaum said. “With food, energy, and water, people have been making decisions in one subsystem without having any responsibility for the impact on the rest.”

The Aerospace Engineering Connection

Although it might seem like an odd pairing, Bloebaum and aerospace engineering colleague, Peng Wei, are bringing their aerospace engineering research to FEW systems because of the similarities of the two complex systems.

“My research is in the field of multidisciplinary design optimization,” Bloebaum said. “In MDO, we want to know things like, how do you best design a complex system such as an airplane or spacecraft system? How do you rigorously model the interactions in the complex system? With this project, we’re bringing our aerospace engineering systems knowledge to the world of food, energy and water, which is another complex system, to understand the inherent couplings and to investigate the best means of supporting decisions to achieve consensus across the FEW system.”

That complex push and pull is something aerospace engineers know well. The strategies involved in designing a complex aerospace system can translate well to other situations.

“I have been developing decision support tools and automation for the aviation community for years,” Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering Peng Wei said. “This is a new challenge and I am excited to bring my work to the food, energy and water problem setting to make my contribution to this community.”

FEW in Iowa

This is intake for water drain off from a field of soybean and, in the background, corn. The water drainage often has excess nitrates. Des Moines Water Works spends more than any other water works to remove the nitrates from the drinking water in Des Moines.

Food, energy and water resources play an especially important role in Iowa with the agriculture industry. An example of the impact that changes can have on coupled systems occurred recently with Iowa at the center.

Government subsidies for biofuels caused many Iowa farmers to switch from selling their corn as food to selling it for biofuel. As enough farmers made the switch, that set off food shortages in other parts of the world  because of the lack of corn being sold as food.

Another Iowa-centric issue pertains to the unanticipated high nitrate levels in drainage groundwater from excess fertilization of farm fields. The water then flows into the Racoon and Des Moines Rivers, and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. The excess nitrogen has been responsible for significant environmental impacts as well as high tax rates for Des Moines residents, given the need to remove the nitrates from their drinking water.

These domino effects are what the multidisciplinary team of researchers are trying to prevent by looking at large scale systems and understanding the couplings and the impact of them.

Simulating reality

One of the tools that the research team plans on creating to improve decision making is a simulator called IFEWS (Iowa Food Energy Water Simulator). Jim Oliver, Director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University will create the interactive visualization-based environment with the cyber-based simulator embedded within.

“Jim will create an environment that allows us to visualize the environment and then use our design and decision making strategies so that you can see how a decision will propagate throughout the system and the degree to which it impacts everything else,” Bloebaum said.

The simulator, which will match reality, gives researchers an opportunity to test different incentive and policy strategies to understand what the trades are.

Due to the large scope, the project will pull researchers from many disciplines to contribute.

“We’ve got people from agriculture and biosystems engineering, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, and philosophy,” Bloebaum said. “We’re bringing all sorts of people together so that’s a challenge, but it’s also exciting so we think that it will be fun.”

The ISU team also includes Clark Wolf, Director and Professor of Philosophy, and Amy Kaleita, Associate Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering. Wolf is the Director of the Bioethics Program at ISU and performs research in sustainable agriculture, amongst other topics. Kaleita’s primary focus is on technology for precision conservation, with expertise in crop and hydrological modeling. The team will collaborate with with Ali Abbas, Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Public Policy at the University of Southern California, Director of the Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making (DECIDE).

Christina Bloebaum named interim department chair

College of Engineering Dean Sarah Rajala has named Christina Bloebaum, Dennis and Rebecca Muilenburg Professor of Aerospace Engineering, interim chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Bloebaum will succeed Rich Wlezien on August 1, 2017. Wlezien accepted a position as Vice Provost and Dean of Engineering and Computing at Missouri S&T.

Bloebaum, who has been at Iowa State for 5 years, is currently conducting research in the design of large-scale complex engineered systems. Prior to joining Iowa State, Professor Bloebaum was the Program Director for the Engineering and Systems Design and Systems Science programs at the National Science Foundation from 2009-2012.

“Christina has made vital contributions to the department in both her research and leadership since joining in 2012,” said Sarah Rajala, dean of the College of Engineering. “We know she will continue the positive atmosphere and provide our students with the highest quality education.”

Bloebaum is a Fellow of the AIAA and the 2012 recipient of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Multidisciplinary Design Optimization Award. She has graduated 15 Ph.D. students, 76 M.S. students, and has had over $8 million in research funding. During her time at Iowa State, she has served as Director of Graduate Educations as well as Associate Chair for Research.

Bloebaum will lead a department which boasts Iowa State’s 5th most popular major with 761 undergraduate students during the 2017 spring semester. She will continue in this role until a permanent chair has been chosen.

Christina Bloebaum and The Origami Revolution

On February 15, 2017, PBS aired the documentary, The Origami Revolution, which looked at the way engineers use origami to design drugs, micro-robots, and to conduct space missions. This intersection of technology and the arts is made possible in part by Iowa State Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Christina Bloebaum.

While Bloebaum was a program officer with the National Science Foundation (NSF), she proposed a new idea for one of NSF’s more unique programs, EFRI, Emerging Frontiers for Research Innovation. The goal of EFRI is to fund high-risk research that explores the cutting-edge of science and engineering. 

Dr. Christina Bloebaum

Bloebaum’s cutting-edge idea actually involved no cutting at all. Along with Glaucio Paulino and Clark Cooper, Bloebaum’s idea was to explore the folding and unfolding of materials and structures to reduce the amount of parts used during production.  

“What I was looking at was an idea of how we could reduce parts in manufacturing using compliant mechanisms and collapsible folding parts,” Bloebaum said. “When Glaucio and I got together he said, ‘Since we’re focusing on folding and different scales, we ought to specifically think about origami.’”

Origami is the centuries-old tradition of folding two-dimensional paper into three-dimensional shapes. One of the most common origami
structures that people are familiar with is the paper crane, but Bloebaum, Paulino, and Cooper wanted to see if that type of thinking could be applied to engineering, biology, and medicine.

The new program, ODISSEI, Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation, received a majority of the EFRI funding in the first year, despite being one of three programs. The program’s success led to an unprecedented second year of funding

ODISSEI awarded nearly $30 million in 2012 and 2013 to 15 projects that all explored new paths of technology through the eyes of origami.

The PBS documentary profiled a few of the 15 projects that received funding, including self-folding robots, a collapsible solar array, and the folding of proteins to fight disease. In addition to exploring the engineering side of origami, the documentary also showed the advances being made on the biological side, which is something Bloebaum wanted to focus on when creating the program.

A foldable solar array is an example of using origami for engineering purposes.

“We wanted to do something more than just traditional engineering structures,” Bloebaum said. “Before my pitch I talked with Larry Howell, one of the people who was on the documentary that we funded, about the potentials of compliant mechanisms.

The idea behind compliant mechanisms is to use one piece of material that can move and change function as force is applied in one way or another. Hinges and levers aren’t used, thereby reducing the potential for failure. Compliant mechanisms and origami have many similarities, including using one material than can bend and fold as pressure is applied.

The use of origami design in science and engineering is only beginning to grow, and at a rapid pace. Since the creation of the ODISSEI program, scientists have found ways to create an Origami fold pattern from any object, as well as creating a 3D structure with a single sheet of paper.  

Click here to watch the full documentary from PBS which features a number of the research projects funded by ODISSEI.

Christina Bloebaum | National Science Foundation

Christina Bloebaum Grand Header_NSF


Christina Bloebaum


National Science Foundation

Award Title: 

EAGER: Collaborative Research: Lectures for Foundations in Systems Engineering

Award Amount:


Award Period Date: 

August 1, 2016-July 31, 2018

Current Status: 



The objective of the Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) collaborative project is to create a series of educational videos on foundational areas from which systems engineering theory will be able to draw. Dr. Bloebaum, along with Dr. Abbas from the University of Southern California, will promote the use of rigorous foundations in the development of a theory of systems engineering in ways that are accessible to a broad group of educators, researchers and practitioners.

For more information on the award, please visit the NSF website.