Expanding Our Energy Portfolio

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Generating power from waves took a big surge forward this year as OSU researchers evaluated a number of "direct drive" technologies, successfully testing one design in the ocean off Newport in September. (Photo courtesy of the OSU Department of Marketing)

December 17, 2008

OSU researchers are broadening the nation's energy choices

By Nick Houtman

Last September, as night fell on the gently rocking Pacific near Newport, Oregon, a pulsing white light marked the presence of a newcomer to the ocean. Oregon State University researchers were testing a new wave-energy generating buoy, and the beacon flashed intermittently as power surged through the device.

The successful test of energy from ocean waves was a milestone for OSU engineers whose work over the past three years has generated $13.5 million in state and federal support for a Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center in Newport. It was also another demonstration of promising new technologies under development at OSU to diversify the nation's energy supply. Spurred by the state's new signature research initiative, the Oregon Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies Center or BEST, OSU researchers are pursuing sources that we recognize - solar, ethanol and nuclear - and ones that we might not, such as hydrogen from sewage. Here are recent highlights of their work.

Solar

As Oregon becomes a hot spot for solar cell manufacturing, related OSU research is proceeding on several fronts.

solarTransparent transistors and optoelectronics created by OSU and HP have found their first key industrial application in a new type of solar energy system. The promise: solar collectors that are four times more cost-efficient than existing technologies. Xtreme Energetics, Inc., of Livermore, California, is using the OSU inventions, on which HP holds the exclusive licensing rights, to develop an optical approach to track and focus sunlight.

HP has funded some of OSU's research in advanced materials, collaborated with OSU to invent transparent transistor technology and is now making this technology available worldwide through its intellectual property licensing group.

In separate projects, OSU researchers are using microchannel, inkjet printing and nanomanufacturing techniques to develop more efficient methods for making solar cells and applying solar energy to the production of hydrogen and biofuels.

  • With support from the Venture Development Fund of the Oregon State University Foundation, a student-led team is commercializing a solar cell manufacturing technique using an inkjet printing process patented by OSU chemical engineering professor Chih-hung Chang.
  • Chang and OSU Professor Brian Paul are developing a nanomanufacturing process to reduce the energy, environmental discharge and production costs associated with current nanoscale thin-film photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing. Their work is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.
  • Oregon BEST has funded a team of researchers to design a microchannel-based solar receiver and a catalytic microchannel reactor to process biofuels.
  • OSU chemical engineer Alex Yokochi is investigating the use of solar energy to produce hydrogen through the sulfur-iodine chemical cycle.

Ethanol

poplar treeTwo OSU scientists are conducting genomic research in cellulosic biofuel feedstock crops, which may be the future of ethanol and an alternative to food-based biofuels. Grants totaling $2.4 million, from the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture were received by Todd Mockler, an assistant professor of botany, and by Steve Strauss, professor of forestry.

"These projects will all lay the groundwork for applied studies in this field, and give us the fundamental knowledge we need to make cellulosic ethanol more efficiently and help it become a working reality," says Mockler. He will lead a team to make a DNA microarray (a "microscope" for genomics) for brachypodium, a small plant that is a model for genetic research in grasses with potential for cellulosic biofuel.

Strauss will lead a study of the role of epigenetics in the development of poplar trees. Fast-growing poplar may be another potential cellulosic biofuel feedstock.

Nuclear

nuclearThe future of safe, environmentally benign nuclear power will fit on top of a railroad car, be hauled to wherever it is needed and be cost-effectively manufactured in a factory setting, according to the vision of a new spinout company that has evolved from research in the OSU College of Engineering. NuScale Power announced its plan last summer at the annual meeting of the American Nuclear Society in Anaheim, California.

The key to the new approach is a "modular" nuclear reactor core that would produce 45 megawatts of power, enough for about 45,000 homes. "There will still be a significant role for larger nuclear power plants, but modular designs such as this will be ideal to address many of the smaller power markets," says Jose Reyes, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at OSU, and chief technical officer of NuScale Power.

The design will incorporate the latest "passive safety" reactor concepts that, in any malfunction, would allow a reactor to shut down and cool automatically through natural forces such as gravity or convection. It has applications in domestic and foreign markets and includes advanced safeguards against nuclear proliferation.

Hydrogen

microbesA newly developed technology for producing hydrogen gas from biowaste could provide plenty of energy if we can just solve the stubborn shortage of sewage. Using several types of biowaste, including ordinary municipal sewage, Assistant Professor Hong Liu can make hydrogen at a much lower cost than through traditional "electrolysis" technology. The process would also be more viable for use in the hydrogen fuel cells that could power automobiles in the future.

Liu's studies suggest that this approach could reduce the amount of energy needed to produce hydrogen by as much as 75 percent, compared with the cost of hydrogen made by water electrolysis. More work needs to be done to reduce the cost of electrode materials, and more advances in efficiency are possible, she says.

"In the laboratory we're already quite close to the Department of Energy hydrogen cost goal of $2 to $3 per gasoline gallon equivalent," adds Liu. "And with some additional research it should be possible to scale these systems up to levels needed for commercial use."

Ocean Waves

wave energy buoyIn a $1 million research effort during the past year, OSU researchers have evaluated 18 different "direct drive" wave energy technologies. One approach was tested in the ocean last September. The work has been a collaboration of OSU, Columbia Power Technologies and the Facilities Engineering Command of the U.S. Navy.

"Our latest test went exceedingly well," says Ted Brekken, an OSU assistant professor of electrical engineering. "The buoy produced significant power, the hydrodynamic behavior fit our expectations and design, the placement and deployment went smoothly, and we got a large amount of data to further evaluate."

Officials also announced a total of $13.5 million in funding for a new Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center last summer. Support comes from the U.S. Department of Energy, Oregon legislature, OSU, the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, the University of Washington and other sources. The center will be based at the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. Plans call for creation of a test facility near Newport that would be available to academic researchers as well as to private industry.

Experts have estimated that the electrical power available in the U.S. from wave energy might be similar to that of hydroelectric energy. In Oregon, based on the amount of ocean space that is being considered for use in wave energy "parks," it could supply as much as 10 percent of the state's energy needs, Brekken says.