energy and sustainability

OSU to harness the power of its students – literally

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Every day, thousands of college students determinedly hit the cardio machines, lowering their stress after a tough exam, getting in shape for spring, or working off those chocolate chip cookies that showed up in a care package from home.

But now Oregon State University and a private firm are teaming up to harness the fruits of this student labor by capturing the energy from their workouts – literally.

OSU will become one of the first universities in the country to tap the kinetic energy generated by people involved in daily workout routines and turn it into a form of renewable energy. Using a new technology developed by a company in St. Petersburg, Fla., called ReRev.com, LLC, OSU has retrofitted 22 elliptical exercise machines in its student fee-funded Dixon Recreation Center and already is collecting the power produced by students and feeding it back into the power grid.

The effort will produce an estimated 3,500 kilowatt hours of electricity in a year, according to Brandon Trelstad, the university’s sustainability coordinator.

“Its output could be equivalent to what is needed to power a small, very efficient house,” Trelstad said. “Our ultimate goal is to maximize both the real power output of the system and the learning opportunities gained by having it at OSU, where our students clearly care about renewable energy.”

In 2007, OSU students voted to impose upon themselves an $8.50 per student per term fee to purchase renewable energy for the campus. Since then, about three-quarters of the university’s electricity has come from renewable production.

“OSU students have demonstrated how big student power can be on campus,” said Matthew Pennington, chief of staff for the Associated Students of Oregon State University. “It was a grassroots movement that helped OSU turn green – and this project moves it forward even farther.”

The ReRev technology features a system that has a patent pending called ReCardio that captures and converts the otherwise counter-productive heat energy from exercise machines. Though some businesses or individuals have dabbled with this type of energy conversion, a program on this scale is unusual, Trelstad pointed out.

“A battery-free system like this, tied to the grid, is quite rare,” Trelstad said. “In fact, we’re informed by ReRev – which has done extensive market research – that this is the largest installation of its kind in the world.”

The project, coordinated by OSU’s Sustainability Office and Recreational Sports Department, was supported by OSU students through their student incidental fees committee and by the Energy Trust of Oregon.

“Capturing electricity from exercise machines represents a small, but potentially widely replicable source of energy,” said Jan Schaeffer, special projects manager, Energy Trust. “We’re happy to support OSU in demonstrating the capabilities of this technology. And it’s a perfect capstone for the Corvallis Energy Challenge we’ve promoted over the past year.”

Trelstad said the 22-unit installation just came online and will be officially launched during OSU’s Campus Wellness Week, Feb. 16-21 (info at oregonstate.edu/recsports/cww). The potential is there for future expansion of up to 40 machines with some additional hardware.

OSU’s popular Dixon Recreation Center is the ideal facility for the system, Pennington said, because of the existing number of machines and high usage rates per machine.

“The center’s workout volume, combined with the large amount of equipment, could eventually produce the same amount of electricity as a small solar photovoltaic system, placing students directly in the renewable energy production chain.”

When students are pedaling for power on these elliptical machines, a real-time display screen shows momentary power production, production to date, production peaks, and other information.

Trelstad said additional energy savings will be realized through lower summer cooling needs for the building. Instead of creating heat as most exercise machines are set up to do, usable electricity will be generated. The power generation will slightly reduce the electrical consumption of the building, much like how a small solar electric system operates, he pointed out.

More important, however, the project has the power – no pun intended – to bring sustainability and renewable energy awareness to students who may never have thought about it in such direct ways.

“This type of involved, hands on learning can be invaluable for students,” said Pennington. “This project will put green power, and new technology directly in contact with students that may have never seen it before. This type of project is one of those that students look at and it just makes sense.

“It has no learning curve, and is easy for anyone to comprehend.”

Editor’s Note: Here is the video of the celebration that OSU hosted on February 18th: http://oregonstate.edu/media/zqxqrl.

Story By: 

Brandon Trelstad,
OSU Sustainability Coordinator,

Tsunami simulations featured during National Engineers Week

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Next week students from Sweet Home, Ore., to Washington, D.C., not to mention program managers from the National Science Foundation, will all be building small, tsunami-resistance structures – only to knock them over with waves and see which ones survive.

In the process, they will all learn a little about construction, a fair amount about the power of tsunami wave forces, and a better appreciation of the skills of engineering, all as one way to celebrate National Engineers Week.

“These miniature structures and waves we use to simulate a tsunami have turned into very powerful learning tools,” said Alicia Lyman-Holt, education and outreach coordinator for the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University. “It’s simple, it’s interesting, it’s educational and it helps people see the problem-solving skills and creativity of engineers.”

For those reasons, Lyman-Holt said, the National Science Foundation asked half a dozen OSU students and staff to travel to Washington, D.C., and set up a portable demonstration of this exercise at the National Building Museum for its annual Discover Engineering Family Day.

For that event, which will be next Saturday, Feb. 21, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., museum visitors and their children will be able to use building blocks to set up little structures in OSU’s portable wave flume, about 15 feet long, to see what would happen if a tsunami wave hits them. OSU undergraduate and graduate students will also make public presentations about tsunami issues.

Earlier in the week, about 100 undergraduate students from OSU and another 25-30 mathematics students from Sweet Home, Ore., will do similar experiments in the Tsunami Wave Basin at OSU, the most sophisticated facility of its type in the world. And to join in that venture, two structures built by program managers of the National Science Foundation will also be tested, while the managers watch.

Anyone can watch the OSU event, which will be broadcast live on the web at wave.oregonstate.edu. Tsunami simulations will be on Tuesday, Feb. 17, at about 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., PST.

“Usually about 20 percent of the structures survive the waves in these tests,” Lyman-Holt said. “It’s always interesting to see which ones do best, and at this point we don’t know whether that will be from a National Science Foundation manager, OSU undergraduates who are part of a hydraulic engineering course, or a student from Sweet Home High School.”

Events such as this are proving to be such a successful learning experience, OSU officials say, that the live/remote tsunami structure activity will also be done this spring with rural Oregon schools and undergraduate students at the University of Hawaii, and with high school groups in Thailand this summer.

Story By: 

Alicia Lyman-Holt,

Report: OSU reduced net greenhouse emissions 30 percent in 2007-08

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Large purchases of renewable energy – funded by a fee that Oregon State University students imposed upon themselves – helped OSU reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent during the 2007-08 fiscal year, according to a new report.

Conducted by the university’s Sustainability Office, the second annual inventory measured the university’s greenhouse gas emissions across the state, according to Brandon Trelstad, who coordinates OSU’s sustainability efforts.

The inventory includes not just the university’s main campus, but its Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, the OSU-Cascades Campus in Bend, OSU Extension Service offices in most Oregon counties, and various facilities operated by Forest Research Laboratory and Agricultural Experiment Station.

Overall, the university had a 2 percent increase in gross emissions, which Trelstad attributes primarily to increased consumption of natural gas. “Some of that could have been weather-related,” he said. “We’ll have to check the weather data.”

The university also experienced small increases in electricity consumption and air miles flown. All of those increases, however, were more than offset by purchases of renewable energy funded primarily by student fees. In 2007, OSU students overwhelmingly voted to assess themselves a fee of up to $8.50 per student each term to pay for “green” energy. The proposal passed by a margin of 71 percent to 29 percent, making OSU one of the first universities in the country to adopt such a measure.

“It has made a significant difference,” Trelstad said. “Those funds have boosted our ability to purchase renewable energy certificates from off-site sources, including wind energy, biogas and biomass.”

Earlier this year, OSU students gained national attention for their energy generation. Oregon State became one of the first universities in the country to tap the kinetic energy generated by students working out on cardio machines and turning it into a form of renewable energy. OSU retrofitted 22 elliptical exercise machines in its student fee-funded Dixon Recreation Center and is collecting the power produced by students and feeding it back into the power grid.

The effort will produce an estimated 3,500 kilowatt hours of electricity in a year, said Trelstad, enough to power a “small, very efficient house.”

“The amount of power generated isn’t overwhelming,” he said, “but it really helps students think about issues relating to energy production and consumption and encourages their activity in other areas. OSU students are quite energy-conscious – and becoming more so every day.”

The university’s ability to use renewable power should get a boost later this year when the new $55 million energy center becomes fully operational, replacing a decades-old steam heating plant. The new center will allow OSU to produce about half of its electricity through co-generation.

OSU’s comprehensive inventory, which is available online at http://oregonstate.edu/sustainability/energy/climate.html, tracks the university’s carbon footprint by measuring not just energy consumption, but commuting miles logged by faculty, staff and students; air miles traveled during the year; solid waste taken to local landfills; refrigerants used in dining halls, restaurants and research; and even fertilizer and animal waste from the university’s agricultural programs.

“Every year we get a little bit better in our calculations and analysis,” said Greg Smith, who helped Trelstad conduct the inventory. “There is a lot of interest on campus – from faculty, staff and administration, as well as students – in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions as much as we can.”

Story By: 

Brandon Trelstad,

Advance made in turning water, sunlight into fuel

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Simply split H2O into H2 and O. And just like that, the energy crisis is solved.

That may sound too easy to be true. Actually, it’s not all that easy, but it could be true. According to engineers at Oregon State University, it should be possible to meet much of the world’s energy needs with nothing more than the combination of water, sunlight and cyanobacteria. And an important advance has just been made toward that goal.

OSU researchers successfully got one type of cyanobacteria – more commonly known as blue-green algae – to live, grow and produce hydrogen while the cells were “encapsulated” in a solid state system, an important preliminary step to controlling this interaction of water, light and bacteria for practical use.

Significant progress still needs to be made in making the process more efficient and using light energy more effectively, but the advance demonstrates the feasibility of using these biological processes to produce hydrogen – which could be used directly as a fuel, or in hydrogen fuel cells to power the electric automobiles of the future.

In one context, this would become a different form of solar energy.

The recent findings were published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. Based on this and other progress, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research also recently awarded a grant of $938,000 to OSU, the University of Oregon and Indiana University to continue research.

“Cyanobacteria have been using water and sunlight to produce hydrogen and oxygen for billions of years, it’s why we have oxygen in our atmosphere,” said Roger Ely, an associate professor of biological and ecological engineering at OSU. “The process is natural and it isn’t new.

“But what we need to do is control and improve this process in a practical, efficient and inexpensive way to produce hydrogen that we could use for fuel,” Ely said. “Being able to get cyanobacteria cells to produce hydrogen while they are encapsulated is an important step toward that.”

Existing fuel cell technology that produces electricity is already very efficient, scientists say – more so than the internal combustion engines now fueled by gasoline. Such forms of power are also attractive because they would be environmentally benign, producing only water as a by-product. To use fuel cells to power automobiles, advances will need to be made in storage technology. And the hydrogen itself will have to be abundant and inexpensive, which is what many researchers are now working toward with differing approaches.

The biological approach, Ely said, is one of the most promising.

“Cyanobacteria use water and light in the process of photosynthesis, and try to grow by producing carbohydrates,” Ely said. “They also produce some hydrogen, though. We want them to use less energy making carbohydrates and channel more into hydrogen production, and do it in such a way that we can control the process and use it to our advantage.”

In recent research, the OSU engineers accomplished part of that with the encapsulation approach – kind of like little cells being held in a glass sponge – that keeps the bacteria isolated from the environment, resistant to contamination, and able to live longer and to produce larger amounts of hydrogen. The glass sponge material creates a solid framework that provides structural, thermal and chemical stability to encapsulated cells.

Such solid state devices could potentially be encased in treated glass or another suitable material and engineered as biocassettes in a variety of configurations, such as sheets, thin films, or designed layers that could be versatile, portable, contained, stable, efficient and inexpensive, Ely said.

In continuing research Ely said, scientists hope to find ways to make the bacteria use more of the sunlight that is available to them – to “harvest” the light energy more efficiently. And it’s also necessary for them to continue their work with variable levels and lower intensities of light.

“We believe all of these steps are possible,” Ely said. “If adequate support is directed to research programs in this area, we think it is possible to have working technologies in five to seven years. Our ultimate goal is to be able to create simple, environmentally safe processes that make a great deal of hydrogen at very low cost.”

Such hydrogen production systems might be built as central facilities, he said, or even incorporated into homes – a window could someday become a hydrogen production device, for example. And such decentralized energy production systems could help reduce the huge amounts of energy lost by transporting it long distances.

“We have a nuclear fusion reactor conveniently located 93 million miles away, and it bathes us with a constant flow of light and energy,” Ely said.

“The solar energy that strikes the Earth in just one hour is sufficient to meet global energy needs for an entire year,” he said. “An hour’s worth of that power, if it could be turned into $3 a gallon gasoline, would be worth $10.4 trillion. We just need to convert a small part of that free energy into a form we can use, and nature offers us examples of systems that do that every day.”

Story By: 

Roger Ely,

Lincoln City seminar promotes local self-reliance

LINCOLN CITY, Ore. – A seminar that promotes local self-reliance through three cornerstones of energy, community and economy will be held Wednesday, March 25, beginning at 10 a.m. at Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City.

The four-hour workshop is the second offered by the Oregon State University Extension office in Lincoln County and the Oregon Coast Community College Small Business Development Center.

A variety of resources for local self-reliance will be addressed, including solar energy, wave energy, bio diesel, living off the grid, sustaining local business, recycling, growing your own food and others, according to Sam Angima, chair of the Lincoln County Extension office.

"People have called our office asking what they can do to start local efforts to use alternative energy and become more self-reliant in their own communities," Angima said. "We realized local issues can be solved best by local people, and we've invited community professionals and college faculty to discuss past, present and future methods."

Cost of the seminar is $20, which includes lunch. Registration is required and can be done online at: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/lincoln/agriculture/self-local-reliance, at the OSU Extension Office at 29 S.E. 2nd St., in Newport, or by calling 541-574-6534. The seminar will be at the Chinook Winds Casino, 1501 NW 40th Place, Lincoln City.

Another seminar on local self-reliance is planned for May 6 in Newport.


Sam Angima,

National Geographic Channel Film on blue whales features OSU’s Mate, Pacific storm

NEWPORT, Ore. – A National Geographic Channel film, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale, premiers on Sunday, March 8, and offers some of the most revealing views of the largest animal on the planet through the work of Oregon State University’s Bruce Mate and colleague John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Cooperative.

“Kingdom of the Blue Whale” airs at 8 p.m. (ET/PT) on the National Geographic Channel and is narrated by popular awarding-winning actor Tom Selleck.

Much of the activity takes place from aboard the R/V Pacific Storm, an OSU research vessel operated through the university’s Marine Mammal Institute, which Mate directs. Filming took place off the coasts of California and Costa Rica, following 15 blue whales that Mate tagged and followed via satellite – a technology that he helped pioneer during his 33-year career at Oregon State.

“It was quite an adventure,” Mate said of the project, “but the more we learn about these great animals the better chance we have to protect them.”

An adult blue whale can grow to the length of a basketball court and weigh as much as 25 large elephants combined. Its mouth could hold 100 people, though its diet is primarily krill; its heart is the size of a small automobile. Scientists say the blue whale is the largest creature to ever inhabit the Earth – and it is one of the loudest animals in the sea, capable of making sounds equivalent to those of a jet engine, though at frequencies below human hearing.

Yet despite its enormity and vocal strengths, the blue whale remains one of the most mysterious animals in the sea. It is rare, it spends most of its time beneath the water, and its dives are deep. There once were nearly 10,000 blues along the Pacific coastline, but a century of whaling took its toll and that number has been reduced by some 75 percent. Though daunting, that pales in comparison to the Antarctic, where the population is less than 1 percent of what it was a century ago, when 250,000 blue whales populated its waters.

The research trip documented by the National Geographic Channel crew began in September of 2007, when Mate and his colleagues first tagged the blue whales off the coast of California and tracked them by satellite. Three months later, they journeyed to the Costa Rica Dome to relocate them.

Their goals were to discover whether this area – which actually is closer to Acapulco, Mexico, than Costa Rica – served as a feeding, breeding and/or calving area, and whether the whales that congregate there come exclusively from the California population.

“We discovered that the Costa Rica Dome is a key location for calving, breeding and feeding,” Mate said. “Based on John Calambokidis’ photo identification studies, the whales that congregate there probably didn’t all come from California. That suggests that some migrate there from elsewhere and we would like to know where that is. These are incredibly important finds about blue whales, which we know so little about. As best we know, feeding during the winter is quite unusual for baleen whales.

“The technology is improving every year and the tags we have developed at Oregon State have been critical to our success in tracking these animals over great distances and long periods of time,” he added. “They have allowed us to describe their seasonal distributions and define their critical habitat.”

The documentary features captivating underwater video of blue whales feeding, diving and interacting, as well as computer-generated graphics that illustrate the whales’ biology, communication and migration. The special also employs the National Geographic “Crittercam,” an integrated video recorder and data logging system deployed by Calambokidas and his associate, Erin Oleson of Scripps, that offers a whale’s-eye view of their life, including rare footage of a blue whale gulping krill.



Story By: 

Bruce Mate,

Dry Lands, Turmoil Provide Perfect Forum for Student Venture

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A group of students from Oregon State University who want to learn how to balance water management with conflicting interest groups are headed to one of the most arid, conflict-riddled regions of the world to see what lessons it can offer.

In March, 19 undergraduate and graduate students from varying disciplines will travel to Israel and Palestine for two weeks to see how water conflicts have been dealt with in a very dry region that has experienced one conflict or war after another for generations. Leaders of the expedition, which is being organized by two OSU student organizations, say it may be the perfect place for what they need.

“We’re going to see the geology, meet the people, and see what’s working in one of the driest parts of the world,” said Elina Lin, an OSU masters student in the Water Resources Policy and Management program. “It’s somewhat amazing that Israel and Palestine have found ways to cooperate on water issues when they can’t seem to get along on almost anything else.”

Most of the students, Lin said, have interests in science, policy development and conflict resolution. The group leader will be Aaron Wolf, an OSU professor of geosciences and an international leader in water resource management and conflicts. In studies of water conflicts through history and all over the world, Wolf has found that the very severity of water issues can bring conflicting sides and interest groups together – the issues are so serious that they simply demand cooperation.

In the region, the student group will be hosted by both Israeli and Palestinian institutions – the geography department at Hebrew University, and the geology program at Al-Quds University. The group will travel to several sites in the country to examine water use and management programs that are among the most effective in the world – despite the profound political, legal and cultural differences of the area.

“We want to see what we can learn in Israel, and then bring it back to Oregon and the United States and see how it might be applied here,” Lin said.

The group will explore saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers, visit the headwaters of the Jordan River, examine wetland draining and refilling, study ancient water management strategies, learn about the restoration of the Dead Sea ecosystem, and many other issues.

Students are also engaged in a variety of fund-raising activities to help support their trip, all of which are open to the public. These include:

• “A Middle Eastern Valentine’s,” a dinner with traditional Middle Eastern foods, music and poetry, at the Corvallis Senior Center on Feb. 14;

• A series of films from Israel and Palestine that explore culture, history, politics and art, on Monday’s at 7:30 p.m. in Owen Hall Room 103 on the OSU campus;

More details on these events and the project can be obtained by e-mail from Lin at line@geo.oregonstate.edu. Other donations to the project are also welcome, organizers say, and can be made by contacting the OSU Foundation at 541-737-4218.

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Sea Level Rise Could Be Worse Than Anticipated

CORVALLIS, Ore. – If global warming some day causes the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse, as many experts believe it could, the resulting sea level rise in much of the United States and other parts of the world would be significantly higher than is currently projected, a new study concludes.

The catastrophic increase in sea level, already projected to average between 16 and 17 feet around the world, would be almost 21 feet in such places as Washington, D.C., scientists say, putting it largely underwater. Many coastal areas would be devastated. Much of southern Florida would disappear.

The report will be published Friday in the journal Science, by researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Toronto. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and other agencies from the U.S. and Canada.

“We aren’t suggesting that a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is imminent,” said Peter Clark, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University. “But these findings do suggest that if you are planning for sea level rise, you had better plan a little higher.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that a collapse of this ice sheet would raise sea levels around the world by about 16.5 feet, on average, and that figure is still widely used. However, that theoretical average does not consider several key forces, such as gravity, changes in the Earth’s rotation or a rebound of the land on which the massive glacier now rests, scientists say in the new study.

Right now, this ice sheet has a huge mass, towering more than 6,000 feet above sea level over a large section of Antarctica that’s about the size of Texas. This mass is sufficient to exert a substantial gravitational attraction, researchers say, pulling water toward it – much as the gravitational forces of the sun and moon cause the constant movement of water on Earth commonly known as tides.

“A study was done more than 30 years ago pointing out this gravitational effect, but for some reason it became virtually ignored,” Clark said. “People forgot about it when developing their sea level projections for the future.”

Aside from incorporating the gravitational effect, the new study adds further wrinkles to the calculation – the weight of the ice forcing down the land mass on which it sits, and also affecting the orientation of the Earth’s spin. When the ice is removed, it appears the underlying land would rebound, and the Earth’s axis of rotation defined by the North and South Pole would actually shift about one-third of a mile, also affecting the sea level at various points.

When these forces are all taken into calculation, the sea level anywhere near Antarctica would actually fall, the report concludes, while many other areas, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere, would go up.

If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet completely melted, the East Coast of North America would experience sea levels more than four feet higher than had been previously predicted – almost 21 feet – and the West Coast, as well as Miami, Fla., would be about a foot higher than that. Most of Europe would have seas about 18 feet higher.

“If this did happen, there would also be many other impacts that go far beyond sea level increase, including much higher rates of coastal erosion, greater damage from major storm events, problems with ground water salinization, and other issues,” Clark said. “And there could be correlated impacts on other glaciers and ice sheets in coastal areas that could tend to destabilize them as well.”

It’s still unclear, Clark said, when or if a breakup of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might occur, or how fast it could happen. It may not happen for hundreds of years, he said, and even then it may not melt in its entirety. Research should continue to better understand the forces at work, he said.

“However, these same effects apply to any amount of melting that may occur from West Antarctica,” Clark said. “So many coastal areas need to plan for greater sea level rise than they may have expected.”

A significant part of the concern is that much of the base of this huge ice mass actually sits below sea level, forced down to the bedrock by the sheer weight of the ice above it. Its edges flow out into floating ice shelves, including the huge Ross Ice Shelf and Ronne Ice Shelf. This topography makes it “inherently unstable,” Clark said.

“There is widespread concern that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is characterized by extensive marine-based sectors, may be prone to collapse in a warming world,” the researchers wrote in their report.

Both digital images and video of the impact around the world of sea level increases up six meters can be obtained at this web site: https://www.cresis.ku.edu/research/data/sea_level_rise/index.html

A digital image of what Antarctica would look like if it consisted only of land actually above sea level is also available at this URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oregonstateuniversity/4254316349/

Story By: 

Peter Clark,

Multimedia Downloads

More information and a video interview with the principal investigators can also be obtained from the National Science Foundation