Students and Researchers in the Modi Research Group Share their Groundbreaking Work in Energy Technologies and Sustainable Infrastructure

Students and Researchers in the Modi Research Group Share their Groundbreaking Work in Energy Technologies and Sustainable Infrastructure

The Modi Research Group (, headed by Earth Institute faculty member Professor Vijay Modi, has become a leader in the engineering community in energy technologies for sustainable development.  Modi’s team of staff researchers and graduate and undergraduate students specialize in “grassroots engineering” with a particular focus on India and Africa. Professor Modi recently organized a poster session where his team gave presentations to highlight some of their recent project advancements and teach the Columbia community about the important engineering projects that they are undertaking around the world. Links to presentations and posters can be found below.

Topics covered by the students and staff researchers at the event spanned across multiple sectors relating to sustainable development, including innovative ways to approach “energy technologies for sustainable development; energy infrastructure, design and planning; solar energy; energy, food and water nexus; technology and intervention, adoption, diffusion and impact assessment.” The Research Group frequently collaborates with the Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages Project (MVP) and the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) on projects related to energy choices, infrastructure planning, and the use of digital communications tools in improving policy.

One project highlighted by a presentation at the event was on the use of real time digital maps of population, infrastructure demand and current infrastructure locations in Uganda. This project is headed by Modi, Sahil Shah, a SEAS undergraduate student in the Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics Department, Ayse Selin Kocaman, a graduate student in the Earth and Environmental Engineering Department at SEAS, and Roy Hyunjin Han, Energy & Data Analyst with the Modi Research Group, who explored how such digital information could be used by policy makers to inform and optimize future infrastructure investments.

Another current project is that of Anna Tompsett, a PhD student in the Sustainable Development program ( at the Columbia University School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA), who is working on creating spatial models of temporal variation in water availability in desert environments. She has found that local people have an understanding of the flood patterns that ought to be studied and integrated into scientific data models, input that scientific models often overlook. She works on this project with Dr. Chris Small, a Doherty Senior Research Scientist in the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lecturer in Earth and Environmental Science.

Urban energy efficiency in New York City is the research topic of Hildigunnur Jonsdottir, a graduate student in the Mechanical Engineering Department at SEAS. Jonsdottir’s research explores methods for storing heat waste during the summer months to be used for winter heating needs, an area that could dramatically improve energy efficiency in regions with seasonal high temperature variations.

Several current and recent projects of the Modi Research Group are based on work in Millennium Village Project sites in sub-Saharan Africa, including research by Kevin Rehak, a graduate student at Columbia Business School ( Rehak traveled to Bonsaaso, Ghana to study the use of short message service (SMS) text messages to facilitate and coordinate the activities of field-based health care providers, such as community health care workers in Africa.

Undergraduate student Jin Wang in the Applied Physics & Applied Mathematics Department at SEAS also traveled to a Millennium Village (Mbola, Tanzania) in 2009 to research improved efficiency of household cookstoves through the use of biomass based fuels. Tests of improved metal and clay-based stoves in 30 households showed a 30% increase in fuel savings over stone fire pots using wood fuel. These stoves also can reduce harmful particulate levels in and around cooking areas, a major cause of illness for many women and children in developing countries.

Frances Jeffrey-Coker, a SEAS undergraduate student in the Mechanical Engineering Department, worked in Mali this summer on “Adoption and Cost-benefits of Agroforestry.” She looked into biofuel feasibility of the jatropha plant, which is well adapted to the drier soils of sub-Saharan Africa and produces non-edible oils.

Another Sustainable Development PhD student works with the Modi Research Group – Ram Fishman. Ram researches irrigation in Gujarat, India, which is currently struggling with groundwater depletion that is outpacing natural groundwater replenishment. This is projected by many to be a major problem in coming decades for the region and is an extremely unfortunate effect of India’s Green Revolution.

Presentations and Posters:

Matt Basinger: Straight Plant Oil Fueling of Diesel Engines:  Short-run and Longevity Impacts

Chang: Portable Method of Measuring Thermal Properties of Ceramics