This project was awarded through the "National Science Foundation (NSF) / National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) Joint Research on Environmental Sustainability Challenges" opportunity. Interconnected food-energy-water (FEW) demands are increasing due to increasing population and economic growth. In the US and China, there is a trend of population concentrated on the coastlines. However, the resilience of coastal ecosystems is weak since the coastal zone, an interface of land, water, and air, is greatly affected by human activities. Coastal lands frequently contain salt-affected soils rendering these lands unsuitable for agriculture. Reclamation of these lands could vastly improve worldwide food production. However, reclamation of salt-affected soils currently requires huge inputs of fresh water and energy. One promising solution is to desalinate seawater in coastal areas, but desalination requires a large amount of energy. This project proposes wave energy as the renewable energy source to desalinate seawater for coastal reclamation. Furthermore, to optimize a reclamation management plan, the demand-supply relationship between FEW Systems will be established through a stronger understanding of how the dynamic coastal soil-water-salt balance is impacted by changes in tidal cycles, society, and the environment.

In this US-China collaborative project, five researchers in multidisciplinary areas from Virginia Tech, Wuhan University of Technology in China, and Nanjing Agricultural University in China will team up to create a self-sustainable FEW System in saline coastal regions. This system will be realized through the integration of three areas of innovation: 1) Wave energy-based seawater desalination systems, 2) sustainable reclamation of saline-sodic-alkaline soils, and 3) a nexus of ocean energy, freshwater, and coastal agriculture. Specific research tasks include: 1) Modeling and design of a novel ocean wave surge energy converter and an ocean wave energy powered desalination system; (2) Modeling of coastal salt-soil-water balance dynamics and optimizing soil reclamation management and agriculture irrigation specific to coastal regions; and (3) Development of a supply-demand model for the FEW System to estimate the optimal operation conditions for each system, followed by conducting field tests and verification. If successful, the proposed research will convert traditional coastal agriculture from a freshwater- and energy-consuming practice into a self-sustainable, environmentally friendly practice that balances ecosystems. Success of the proposed research can potentially convert millions of acres of salt-affected coastal lands in the US into arable lands, with minimal interference on the current roles of these lands to purify water, sequester carbon, provide habitat, and support recreation. Furthermore, this project will involve a collaboration between the US and China and provide unique international education experiences for students. Hence, the proposed self-sustainable FEW System can serve as a demonstration to inspire industry worldwide and provide a new avenue for international collaborations to creatively solve FEW System problems.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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