OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

energy and sustainability

SUN GRANT PROGRAM TO BEGIN NEW "BIOENERGY" ERA

CORVALLIS - Oregon State University will help lead a major national effort to reduce America's reliance upon imported fossil fuels, enhance our energy security and revitalize rural economies as part of the new Sun Grant Initiative that was just passed by Congress.

In the legislation, OSU was named one of five centers of excellence that will conduct research, education and outreach programs in the evolving field of "bioenergy," which uses sustainable and renewable agricultural products based on energy from the sun - instead of petroleum - for the direct production of fuels and a myriad of consumer products.

By 2007, plans call for up to $75 million a year to fund this ambitious new program.

The legislation was developed as an amendment, promoted by Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, to a general agricultural appropriations bill, and the effort also gained the support of Sen. Ron Wyden and Oregon's congressional delegation. Under the new plan, five land-grant universities and two national laboratories will split $25 million in 2005, $50 million in 2006 and $75 million in years 2007 through 2010, pending approval by Congress in releasing these funds.

The initiative taps into the existing scientific expertise and outreach concepts pioneered by the nation's land grant college system, and organizers say the new Sun Grant program can make a significant contribution towards America's energy crisis while providing a beacon of hope to farm families across the country who face sagging prices, uncertain demand for their crops and economic hardships.

"This is a major opportunity for OSU and our colleagues at other western universities to help solve some fairly serious energy problems and address the crisis in the agricultural sector at the same time," said Thayne Dutson, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU. "There's a lot we can contribute in this area with both research and outreach programs, and we're looking forward to working closely with our friends in agriculture, private industry, and the academic community to get the program moving as quickly as possible."

OSU will be the sole university representing a nine-state Western Region, which is to receive 20 percent of the funding. Other participants are Oklahoma State University, South Dakota State University, Cornell University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

OSU's leadership in this program will make it one of only two universities in the nation, along with Cornell University, that will now be designated as land, sea, space and sun grant institutions.

Oregon State University was built upon the foundation of the Morrill Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, which revolutionized higher education in the United States when it created the land grant college system. In 1868, the institution then known as Corvallis College was designated as "the agricultural college of the state of Oregon," and the same act ultimately spawned many of the nation's great public research universities.

Following in those historic footsteps, the Sun Grant initiative is designed to bring leadership, structure and new funding to the use of agricultural products for much more than just human or animal food.

With existing and newly created types of processing, various agricultural products have the potential to become fuels like ethanol or biodiesel. They can be used in the production of electrical power, lubricants, plastics, solvents, adhesives, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, building materials and many other products.

In a multitude of ways, it should be possible to reduce the nation's need for fossil fuels - primarily petroleum - that now serve these functions. Ultimately, the program should also help address shortages of electrical power and record high prices for gasoline and natural gas. And in related fashion, the new ways to use and process agricultural products should provide additional markets and diversity of income for beleaguered farm families and rural communities across the nation, officials say.

According to Dutson, OSU's research strengths in genetic engineering, cropping systems and innovative technologies to optimize agricultural production should be an excellent fit with the goals of the new initiative.

"There's no doubt that our scientists at OSU can help this program capitalize on some of the opportunities in bioenergy," Dutson said. "We're ideally suited to help lead this initiative."

There should also be local benefits to Oregon agriculture, university officials said.

"In Oregon, for instance, there's probably more we could be doing with the straw that's a byproduct of the grass seed industry," said C.Y. Hu, assistant director of OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. "It contains a lot of cellulose, and there may be technologies we can develop to produce energy, maybe even useful chemicals from this material. And part of the challenge will be to create systems that can function economically on a smaller, localized scale to help boost the local farm economy."

Under the terms of the new legislation, OSU would be the hub for research and Extension Sun Grant activities in the West, and would make at least 75 percent of the funding it receives available for competitive research grants across the region. But a significant amount of the research - and the educational opportunities it opens for both undergraduate and graduate students - would remain at OSU and often be applied to issues of importance to Oregon, officials say.

The funding on this program will be channeled through the Cooperative States Research, Education and Extension Service.

According to Dutson, OSU will soon form three standing committees to help organize the university's work under the new initiative. These will include a "technical" committee to help determine research needs and criteria for competitive grants, a "stakeholder" committee to gain input from the agricultural and industrial communities about the most pressing concerns, and an administrative committee to help manage the program.

The program will begin operation in 2005, officials say.

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C.Y. Hu, 541-737-1915

PHYTOPLANKTON STIMULATE UPTAKE OF ATMOSPHERIC CO2

CORVALLIS - New research has revealed that phytoplankton may be one of the main historic controls on global warming, and that fertilizing the oceans with iron results in increased phytoplankton productivity - a hypothetical way to offset the effects of global warming.

Through photosynthesis, these tiny, free-floating aquatic plants can convert carbon dioxide to organic carbon, and there appears to be a prehistoric relationship between iron in the ocean and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.

Burke Hales, an assistant professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, is one of a number of scientists who collaborated on a new study that involved field research in the ocean near Antartica. The study will be published Friday in the journal Science.

He described the research as "tremendously successful" because it clearly shows an induced biological response in the oceans to fertilization with iron.

"During the glacial periods, atmospheric carbon dioxide, or CO2 levels decrease substantially, while during interglacial periods, such as we are now in, those levels increase," said Hales. "There is also a striking inverse relationship between implied, historical iron fluxes to the ocean and atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

These relationships suggest some sort of feedback system between iron and CO2 levels during glacial periods that keep the temperature low."

The carbon cycle is a complicated system of causes and effects that are not completely understood, but researchers have long suspected that the oceans are the main regulator of the Earth's atmosphere, said Hales. For example, during the ice ages more of the Earth's water is locked up in glaciers, creating arid, windy conditions and a lot of dust. This iron-rich dust is blown out to sea, stimulating productivity of phytoplankton throughout the world's oceans and reducing CO2 levels.

"In order for the phytoplankton to be a long-term sink for carbon, they somehow have to get deposited in the deep ocean, and that doesn't always happen," said Hales. "If the phytoplankton are just eaten at the surface, or don't sink to any great depth then the carbon is eventually released back into the atmosphere." Another complication in phytoplankton production is the availability of silicate, which is potentially a limiting factor in the growth of certain types of phytoplankton.

Diatoms are a large type of phytoplankton that have siliceous shells, and because of their relative bulkiness have a higher probability of sinking into the deep ocean for longer periods of time.

So it seems logical that iron-fertilized, low silicate waters might not be as efficient carbon sinks as iron-fertilized high silica waters, but the results of this study disproved that idea for the first time.

"This was the first experiment of this nature in low silicate waters where it didn't seem as though there would be enough silica for the diatoms to grow," Hales said. "However, our results showed an enhanced uptake of atmospheric CO2 in the fertilized region despite the low availability of silicate."

Since humans starting burning fossils fuels, CO2 levels have skyrocketed and there has been increasing concern over the role that has played in global warming. "The difference between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere today and during pre-industrial times is about the same as the difference between interglacial and glacial periods," said Hales. "There is definitely a correlation between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and global warming, but the relationship is hard to define."

Hales' role in the study involved developing apparatus to sample the ocean water and measure the concentrations of various chemicals, such as nitrate, phosphate, silicates and dissolved CO2 in order to determine the impact on levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

"We needed very high spatial resolution measurements of chemicals in the fertilized regions, so the technology we used allowed us to take fairly continuous samples," said Hales. "The sampler was something like a little underwater airplane that continuously pumped water up to the ship while soaring up and down in the water as we towed it."

Although Hales is excited about the scientific implications of the research, such as the insight it provides into the relationship between the glacial and interglacial cycles with the CO2 record, he is reluctant to make any claims that fertilizing the ocean with iron would realistically help control global warming.

"There are so many repercussions that we can't foresee," said Hales. "This is a very expensive and uncertain way of going after an issue that is not fully understood. For example, in the process of gathering up iron and steaming out to sea, you would burn up more fossil fuel than you would compensate for in the result. Besides that, there's also the issue of shifting an ecosystem structure that the food web is based upon by adding iron. We really have no idea what sort of positive or negative effects that would have."

Another huge unknown in the experiment are the effects of time, cautioned Hales. The time scale of the experiment, 42 days, is not at all comparable to the time scale of the glacial/interglacial cycle, which is thousands of years.

"We weren't even out there long enough to observe the season-to-season changes, so we don't know if the carbon was really being exported to the deep oceans or not," Hales said. "A longer term study would be necessary to draw more concrete conclusions."

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Burke Hales, 541-737-8121

OSU HOSTS SUSTAINABLE ENGINEERING EXPO

CORVALLIS - Researchers and students at Oregon State University will display a wide range of projects that involve sustainable technology engineering at the first annual Sustainable Engineering Expo on Monday, May 3.

Among the projects featured at the expo will be "green" clean-burning fuel biodiesel, wind power generation, fuel cells powered by landfill emissions, harnessing energy from ocean waves, and other OSU-based sustainable technology research. The event is free and open to the public and takes place at LaSells Stewart Center from 1 to 4:30 p.m.

"The objective is to recognize the existing sustainable engineering research projects and expertise here at OSU, and to explore new opportunities for OSU faculty and students to collaborate and make additional contributions in this rapidly growing field," said Ken Williamson, co-director of the Center for Water and Environmental Sustainability and head of the OSU Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering.

OSU is uniquely positioned to become a national leader in sustainable engineering for several reasons, Williamson said.

"We have world-class programs in agriculture, oceanography, engineering, forestry, and other fields, we're located in the heart of the environmentally-aware Pacific Northwest, and our reputation for highly collaborative research is gaining national attention," Williamson said. "OSU has the opportunity to become the go-to place for people interested in studying sustainability and sustainable engineering."

Recently, OSU engineering students have developed a wide range of sustainable technology, from manufacturing biodiesel from waste cooking oil to harnessing electricity from streams and creeks using submersible micro-hydro turbines the size of house fans.

Oregon's first signature research center, the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, will open on the Hewlett-Packard campus in late May. ONAMI technologies should provide even more opportunities for developing sustainable engineering products, Williamson said.

The event is sponsored by the OSU College of Engineering and the Center for Water and Environmental Sustainability. Prizes will be awarded to the students with the most innovative and sustainable ideas.

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Stephanie Sanford, 541-737-5861

OSU receives computer system for coal energy research

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Oregon State University has received a $260,000 parallel computer system from the National Energy Technology Laboratory to conduct research on power generation and new coal energy technology.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory, with one research site in Albany, Ore., is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratory system. In addition to research conducted onsite, the laboratory forms partnerships, cooperative research and development agreements, financial assistance, and contractual arrangements with universities and the private sector. Paul King and Cynthia Powell are two of the NETL researchers who have been instrumental in helping to develop the current collaboration.

These initiatives work toward viable solutions to national energy and environmental problems. The equipment being installed at OSU is a step toward establishing a long-term partnership with the university, officials said.

The computer cluster will be used in the Computational Flow Physics Laboratory to conduct simulations on multi-phase flow in oxy-fired combustion systems, to better understand how they can be integrated into advanced power generation. This technology allows coal to be burned in an oxygen-rich environment that produces a concentrated stream of carbon dioxide which can more easily be captured and sequestered, facilitating clean power generation.

This emerging field of simulation-based engineering is perhaps the only approach to obtain detailed data on complex flow field and combustion processes occurring inside the coal-fired systems, researchers say. The facility will also be shared with several other OSU researchers in science and engineering, and provide unique opportunities to conduct research on fundamental and applied problems in energy and power generation systems.

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Sourabh Apte, 541-737-7335

RESEARCH TO ADVANCE FOREST MONITORING, CLIMATE STUDIES

CORVALLIS - Two studies by a forest scientist at Oregon State University have received $2.4 million in funding to learn more about the effects of climate, logging, wildfire and other changes on the carbon balance of Oregon and northern California, and explore the role of forests, grasslands, crops and shrub lands in global climate change.

Beverly Law, a professor of forest science at OSU and science chair of the large Ameriflux network of research sites across North America and South America, is the principal investigator on both of these projects.

Law is an international expert on the potential consequences of changing climate patterns and land management on the function of forests and other vegetation.

She was the primary ecologist on a recent report issued by the National Research Council, which concluded that the regulatory structure of the Clean Air Act could be more coherent, and that global warming should be considered when examining restrictions on various pollutants and assessing how bad various pollution problems in forests and agricultural crops may be in coming years.

As part of this work, one of Law's projects with the Ameriflux network received $1.1 million to lead the research direction and produce network-wide evaluations of responses of vegetation and soils to climate variation and human-induced disturbances.

Another $1.3 million grant will try to quantify the carbon stocks and annual carbon uptake by forests, shrub and crop lands in Oregon and California, and determine the effects of different management practices and land use in this region that is influenced by wildfire, logging, and urbanization. It will also study the effects of interannual climate variation on carbon and water cycling across this seasonally drought affected region.

The study uses state-of-the-art micrometeorological tools, satellite remote sensing of vegetation characteristics, and models to map the carbon balance of the region.

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Beverly Law, 541-737-6111

OSU SCIENTISTS ABLE TO HARNESS "PLANKTON POWER"

NEWPORT, Ore. - During the past two years, scientists have successfully tapped the chemical reactions from decomposing organic matter on the ocean floor to create fuel cells that can provide low levels of electrical power for many months.

This week, Oregon State University researchers announced that they have taken that development one step farther by harnessing the same power-producing decomposition activity from plankton taken from the upper water column.

"We've only had the experiments running for about four weeks," said Clare E. Reimers, a professor in the College of Oceanographic and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU, "but it is clear that we can use plankton as a fuel source and that the water column is rich in microorganisms adept at shuttling electrons to fuel cell electrodes. The seafloor fuel cells that we've developed in the past are stationary and designed to provide power for equipment that doesn't move - like the hydrophones used by the U.S. Navy or by OSU researchers for listening for earthquakes.

"But by harnessing plankton power, we potentially could fuel autonomous, mobile instruments that would glide through the water scooping up plankton like a basking shark, and converting that to electricity," she added. "Such instruments carry sensors and are used today to map the changing chemical and physical properties of the ocean."

Reimers is director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies, a program designed to foster collaborative research between OSU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 2001, she was the lead author of a publication in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that outlined some of the pioneering work that has led to the harnessing of microbially generated power from the seafloor and further publications.

In three seafloor experiments to date, researchers from OSU, the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have tested prototype fuel cells in Newport's Yaquina Bay, in a salt marsh in Tuckerton, N.J., and at chemical seeps in a deep-sea canyon off Monterey, Calif. These devices consisted of graphite anodes shallowly imbedded in marine sediments connected to graphite cathodes in the overlying seawater.

They found that power was generated both by the direct oxidation of dissolved sulfide - which is a byproduct of microbial decomposition - and by the respiration processes of microorganisms that attached themselves to the anode.

"Once we realized we could harness power from the microbes that grow on the anode surface, we began asking ourselves if certain microbes were better at shuttling electrons than others," Reimers said. "The next step was to see what electricity-loving microbes might be enriched from plankton and if we could get to the energy in plankton before it degrades.

"The plankton detritus that reaches the seafloor is usually only the dregs of material made energy-rich because of sunlight and photosynthesis." In March, Reimers and her colleagues received funding from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, administered by the Department of Defense, to try harnessing power from plankton.

In her lab at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Reimers has spent the last four weeks testing the fuel capacity of plankton strained out of the nearby ocean. Using the same principal as the seafloor fuel cells, the researchers thus far are able to direct about 10 percent of the energy associated with plankton decomposition into a usable power source.

The power generated is not large-scale, Reimers quickly points out. But if a free-gliding ocean instrument strained out plankton in its path, it could extend its survey mission for a period of months - or eventually, years - without having to replace a battery. Though it sounds modest, in terms of energy production, the ocean does have a very large capacity for fuel generation.

"Organic matter is the basic fuel of the ocean," Reimers said. "Plankton debris is raining down to the seafloor constantly. Quickly most is degraded naturally, producing carbon dioxide, and a small amount eventually becomes petroleum, natural gas, methane chunks or some other source of fuel. The fuel is there - in the mud, or in the plankton. Our focus is on developing power for oceanographic equipment. Who knows what spin-offs will develop beyond that?"

Reimers did say that the same technology could work if fed other organic substrates, such as sewage sludge.

"You are simply extracting energy by accelerating decomposition," she said.

The process isn't yet perfected. The researchers have to deal with the corrosive nature of seawater on electrical contacts and in the case of the plankton fuel cell, develop an energy efficient means of collection and concentration.

During the next several months, Reimer and her research team will continue to work with their plankton fuel cells in an effort to boost their efficiency.

This October, Reimers will lead a cruise off the Oregon coast where the researchers will deploy eight of the seafloor fuel cell prototypes along the Oregon shelf. These instrumentation packages will be imbedded into the sediment about 20 kilometers offshore for a year and then recovered.

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Clare Reimers, 541-867-0220

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Prototype plankton fuel cells

OSU RECEIVES GRANT TO DESIGN GREEN BUILDING

CORVALLIS - Oregon State University and the Portland architectural firm Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership have been awarded a $100,000 planning grant from the Kresge Foundation of Troy, Mich., to develop an environmentally sensitive design for a new Earth Systems Science Center building.

The proposed 115,000-square foot building would be constructed on the Corvallis campus and designed to house the research and educational activities of OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and the Geosciences Department of the College of Science.

This pre-design effort will set the stage for the fund-raising portion of the project. The cost of the building - an estimated $70 million - would be funded through a combination of private gifts, bonds and some federal support.

As a model of sustainability, the building will serve as a teaching tool that incorporates green building functions such as water conservation, landscaping, solar design, and building materials, while providing "an inspiring, productive research and learning environment," said Mark Abbott, dean of OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

"The Kresge Foundation's generous planning support will make possible a new Earth Systems Science Center building that will be a national showcase and model for environmentally sustainable laboratory building design," Abbott said. "The building itself will become part of the university's educational mission."

The new building's design, construction, and operation will use high performance systems to reduce its impact on the environment, and the facility will include exhibits highlighting the unique features of the building.

Scientific investigations to understand the origin, dynamics, and sustainability of the Earth and its resources will be conducted by university researchers and students in the Earth Systems Science Center's advanced laboratories. The building will also include classroom and display spaces that promote environmental education and awareness for students and the general public.

When completed, the Earth Systems Science Center will be a signature building reflecting the oceanographic, meteorological, climate, and geosciences missions of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and the College of Science.

The Kresge Foundation's Green Building Initiative brings national attention to the importance of environmental sustainability through the development of sensitive building designs by nonprofit organizations. The grant will support integrated design workshops, energy analysis and modeling to minimize the building's energy use and evaluate the feasibility of solar, wind, and other advanced technologies, and ecological site planning for environmentally sustainable water management and landscaping approaches.

Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership is a leader in the adoption of environmentally responsible building standards, practices, and technologies, and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the Oregon Natural Step Network, and the Sustainable Products Purchasers Coalition.

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Mike Freilich, 541-737-3504

STUDY INDICATES WOOD IS MOST "GREEN" BUILDING MATERIAL

CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new report concludes that wood is one of the most environmentally sensitive building materials for home construction - it uses less overall energy than other products, causes fewer air and water impacts and does a better job of the carbon "sequestration" that can help address global warming.

The research showed that wood framing used 17 percent less energy than steel construction for a typical house built in Minnesota, and 16 percent less energy than a house using concrete construction in Atlanta. And in these two examples, the use of wood had 26-31 percent less global warming potential.

This $1 million study was prepared by the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials, a non-profit corporation of 15 research universities. It was published in the Journal of Forest Products and is the first major update on this topic since a 1976 report by the National Academy of Science.

The type of information and data provided in this report may be increasingly useful as consumers and government agencies try to identify construction techniques and materials for homes and other structures that minimize environmental impacts, said James Wilson, a professor of wood science and engineering at Oregon State University, and vice president of this research consortium.

"There's a significant consumer movement and even some voluntary standards that are interested in 'green,' or environmentally conscious construction methods," Wilson said. "We need to have a good understanding of the overall effects that different types of construction have in such areas as energy consumption, global warming, air and water impacts, or solid waste disposal."

California and some other states are already moving towards "environmentally preferable purchase" standards that identify the best materials to use for energy conservation, environmental protection and other issues, Wilson said. And it's quite possible that some states or localities may legally require such approaches in the future for construction of public buildings, he said.

After some experimentation with new building approaches such as concrete or steel in recent decades, Wilson said, it appears that for environmental purposes we may return to one of the most ancient, tried-and-true materials of them all - wood.

"We've seen a general substitution for wood in many aspects of home construction for years, using less of it for siding, windows, roofing, other purposes," Wilson said.

"Price and availability of wood were some of the factors involved, along with building codes," he said. "And about five years ago the steel industry began a big push for more use of steel in home construction, which didn't accomplish as much as that industry hoped for, but did have some impact."

The new study that was done looks at the total "life-cycle assessment" of different construction products and techniques, considering such issues as how materials are grown, mined, processed, produced, used and ultimately disposed of, to give a better picture of their overall impact on the environment. It considers effects on energy use, air and water emissions, global warming and other topics.

Although many people are not aware of their overall makeup, houses require a broad range of natural resources, such as limestone, clay, iron ore, sand, gypsum, wood fiber, resins, coal and more. The process of building them uses energy in the form of electricity, diesel fuel, gasoline, wood, coal, or nuclear power. The cumulative impact of using all these natural resources and energy can be significant in ways that are not always apparent - everything from the electricity used in running a steel mill to the mining of raw materials or the diesel fuel that powers a truck hauling logs.

Compiled in a database, this type of information can help consumers, builders, architects, policy makers or government regulators make more informed choices, Wilson said. This particular project examined the implications of a wood frame housing design versus a steel frame design for the cold Minneapolis region, and a wood frame versus concrete design for the hot, humid Atlanta area.

In the Minneapolis example, steel framing, compared to wood, used 17 percent more energy; caused 26 percent more global warming potential; caused a 14 percent higher level of air emissions of concern; more than 300 percent, or triple the level of water emissions of concern; and had about the same solid waste disposal impact.

In the Atlanta example, concrete construction, compared to wood, used 16 percent more energy; caused 31 percent more global warming potential; caused a 23 percent higher level of air emissions of concern; had the same impact on water emissions of concern; and created 51 percent more solid waste. Wood had a particular value in addressing the global warming issue, the data indicate. The growth of wood in renewable forests works to "sequester" and remove carbon from the atmosphere, and fewer carbon emissions are created in the processing needed to produce wood products than their steel and concrete counterparts.

The report also suggested ways to redesign houses to lower fossil fuel use, reduce the use of excessive amounts of materials, recycle demolition wastes and other improvements. In continued research, Wilson said, scientists hope to expand their studies of wood and other types of construction materials as they relate to even more environmental issues. It will consider more housing examples, different regions of forest resources and manufacturing, use of resins and other structural products that play a role in house construction.

The data base created in this study will be freely available to anyone, researchers say. More detail on the study can be found on the Web at www.corrim.org.

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James Wilson, 541-737-4227

Forest fire prevention efforts will lessen carbon sequestration

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Widely sought efforts to reduce fuels that increase catastrophic fire in Pacific Northwest forests will be counterproductive to another important societal goal of sequestering carbon to help offset global warming, forestry researchers at Oregon State University conclude in a new report.

Even if the biofuels were used in an optimal manner to produce electricity or make cellulosic ethanol, there would still be a net loss of carbon sequestration in forests of the Coast Range and the west side of the Cascade Mountains for at least 100 years – and probably much longer, the study showed.

“Fuel reduction treatments should be forgone if forest ecosystems are to provide maximal amelioration of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the next 100 years,” the study authors wrote in their conclusion. “If fuel reduction treatments are effective in reducing fire severities in the western hemlock, Douglas-fir forests of the west Cascades and the western hemlock , Sitka spruce forests of the Coast Range, it will come at the cost of long-term carbon storage, even if harvested material are used as biofuels.”

The study raises serious questions about how to maximize carbon sequestration in these fast-growing forests and at the same time maximize protection against catastrophic fire.

“It had been thought for some time that if you used biofuel treatments to produce energy, you could offset the carbon emissions from this process,” said Mark Harmon, holder of the Richardson Chair in the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “That seems to make common sense and sounds great in theory, but when you actually go through the data it doesn’t work.”

Using biofuels to produce energy does not completely offset the need for other fossil fuels use and completely negate their input to the global carbon budget, the researchers found. At the absolute maximum, you might recover 90 percent of the energy, the study said.

“That figure, however, assumes an optimal production of energy from biofuels that is probably not possible,” Harmon said. “By the time you include transportation, fuel for thinning and other energy expenditures, you are probably looking at a return of more like 60-65 percent. And if you try to produce cellulosic ethanol, the offset is more like 35 percent.”

“If you take old, existing forests from these regions and turn them into almost anything else, you will have a net loss in carbon sequestration,” Harmon said.

That could be significant. Another recent OSU studied concluded that if forests of Oregon and northern California were managed exclusively for carbon sequestration, they could double the amount of sequestration in many areas and triple it in some.

The new study found that, in a Coast Range stand, if you removed solid woody biofuels for reduction of catastrophic fire risks and used those for fuel, it would take 169 years before such usage reached a break-even point in carbon sequestration. The study showed if the same material were used in even less efficient production of cellulosic ethanol, it would take 339 years.

The researchers did not consider in this analysis how global warming in coming years might affect the increase of catastrophic fire, Harmon said. However, “fire severity in many forests may be more a function of severe weather events rather than fuel accumulation,” the report authors wrote, and fuel reduction efforts may be of only limited effectiveness, even in a hotter future.

“Part of what seems increasingly apparent is that we should consider using west side forests for their best role, which is carbon sequestration, and focus what fuel reduction efforts we make to protect people, towns and infrastructure,” Harmon said. “It’s almost impossible anyway to mechanically treat the immense areas that are involved and it’s hugely expensive. As a policy question we have to face issues of what approaches will pay off best and what values are most important.”

The report was just published in Ecological Applications, a professional journal. The lead author was Stephen Mitchell, who conducted the work as part of his doctoral thesis while at OSU, and is now at Duke University. Among the findings:

  • Fuel reduction treatments that have been proposed to reduce wildfire severity also reduce the carbon stored in forests;
  • On west side Cascade Range and Coast Range forests, which are wetter, the catastrophic fire return interval is already very long, and the additional levels of fuel accumulation have not been that unusual;
  • A wide range of fire reduction approaches, such as salvage logging, understory removal, prescribed fire and other techniques, can effectively reduce fire severity if used properly;
  • Such fuel removal almost always reduces carbon storage more than the additional carbon the stand is able to store when made more resistant to wildfire, in part because most of the carbon stored in forest biomass remains unconsumed even by high-severity wildfires;
  • Considerable uncertainty exists in modeling of future fires, and some fuel reduction techniques, especially overstory thinning treatments, could potentially lead to an increase in fire severity.

The study authors concluded that fuel reduction may still make more sense in east-side Cascade Range and other similar forests, but that the west-side Cascades and Coast Range have little sensitivity to forest fuel reduction treatments – and might be best utilized for their high carbon sequestration capacities.

“Ultimately, the real problem here is global climate change,” Harmon said. “Insect epidemics are increasing, trees are dying. There are no quick fixes to these issues.”

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Mark Harmon, 541-737-8455

MORE ORGANIC MATTER IN FOREST SOIL MAY UP ATMOSPHERIC CO2

CORVALLIS - A soil scientist at Oregon State University has discovered that adding additional organic matter to Oregon's forest soils may actually increase rather than hinder the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Researcher Elizabeth Sulzman's findings fly in the face of what scientists believe about long-term carbon storage by soils and their potential role in ameliorating global climate change.

Sulzman's work - presented at the recent national Ecological Society of America meeting and soon to be published in the international journal Biogeochemistry - shows that the additional organic matter, in the form of conifer needles, may actually prime soil microorganisms to degrade both the new, as well as older, more stable soil carbon stores.

Working at the National Science Foundation-funded H.J. Andrews Long-Term Ecological Research site, located in Oregon's Central Cascade mountain range, Sulzman has shown that exposing forest soils to twice the normal amount of organic matter increased soil carbon releases by 34 percent more than expected. Rather than storing carbon, the additional material fueled a boom of microbial activity that further decomposed soil carbon reserves - ultimately resulting in a net loss of carbon from the soil, returning it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

From roots to decaying wood, there is a tremendous amount of organic material stored beneath the earth's surface. Depending on the forest, 30-50 percent of tree weight can be below ground. Soil microorganisms work to transform all plant material, both above and below ground, into pools of carbon that can remain in the soil for thousands of years.

As soils warm, microbial activity increases. Therefore, soils typically lose more carbon under warmer conditions. "If climate change leads to even warmer temperatures, we could have even greater carbon loss from these soils," said Sulzman, an assistant professor in OSU's Department of Crop and Soil Science. "This would be a double whammy for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels."

It is well-documented that plants are able to use elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide to enhance their growth, a seemingly fortuitous by-product of pollution. But the work of Sulzman and others is finding that above-ground productivity doesn't necessarily translate into long-term storage of carbon below ground, as has long been assumed.

For the past several years, government policies have promoted land management activities designed to store carbon in the soil, so-called carbon sequestration, as a way to mitigate rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. While attempting to better understand forest carbon dynamics and the potential for carbon sequestration in these lands, Sulzman's work has given scientists grounds to question this logic.

"It goes against conventional wisdom," said Sulzman's East Coast collaborator, Richard Bowden, an associate professor at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. Bowden is a researcher at the Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in Massachusetts.

"If we add more organic matter, soil should store more carbon," he said. "But if we add organic matter and lose it faster for as yet unknown reasons, we need to think seriously about how well soils can store carbon."

Forest management options, such as leaving slash on the ground or removing it through harvests or burns, subsequently have impacts on carbon storage. "When any management alters the forest floor it has implications for carbon storage, which must be considered," said Sulzman.

"We don't know how forests are really working, and we're asking them to clean up our carbon dioxide pollution," pointed out Bowden, adding that a better understanding of both how forests work as well as their limitations is needed to inform forest policy. "These findings are causing us to rethink our understanding of soil biology at this and other forests where we are conducting these experiments," said Kate Lajtha, a professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at OSU and a colleague of Sulzman.

Sulzman, a scientist with OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, is collaborating with scientists all over the world in an attempt to better define below-ground processes that control carbon dynamics. Her work is vital to the debate as it's the only research of its kind being conducted in conifer systems. As such, it will also play a role in future forest management.

Source: 

Elizabeth Sulzman, 541-737-8936