energy and sustainability

Pass the salt: Common condiment could enable new high-tech industry

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Chemists at Oregon State University have identified a compound that could significantly reduce the cost and potentially enable the mass commercial production of silicon nanostructures – materials that have huge potential in everything from electronics to biomedicine and energy storage.

This extraordinary compound is called table salt.

Simple sodium chloride, most frequently found in a salt shaker, has the ability to solve a key problem in the production of silicon nanostructures, researchers just announced in Scientific Reports, a professional journal.

By melting and absorbing heat at a critical moment during a “magnesiothermic reaction,” the salt prevents the collapse of the valuable nanostructures that researchers are trying to create. The molten salt can then be washed away by dissolving it in water, and it can be recycled and used again.

The concept, surprising in its simplicity, should open the door to wider use of these remarkable materials that have stimulated scientific research all over the world.

“This could be what it takes to open up an important new industry,” said David Xiulei Ji, an assistant professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science. “There are methods now to create silicon nanostructures, but they are very costly and can only produce tiny amounts.

“The use of salt as a heat scavenger in this process should allow the production of high-quality silicon nanostructures in large quantities at low cost,” he said. “If we can get the cost low enough many new applications may emerge.”

Silicon, the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, has already created a revolution in electronics. But silicon nanostructures, which are complex structures much smaller than a speck of dust, have potential that goes far beyond the element itself.

Uses are envisioned in photonics, biological imaging, sensors, drug delivery, thermoelectric materials that can convert heat into electricity, and energy storage.

Batteries are one of the most obvious and possibly first applications that may emerge from this field, Ji said. It should be possible with silicon nanostructures to create batteries – for anything from a cell phone to an electric car – that last nearly twice as long before they need recharging.

Existing technologies to make silicon nanostructures are costly, and simpler technologies in the past would not work because they required such high temperatures. Ji developed a methodology that mixed sodium chloride and magnesium with diatomaceous earth, a cheap and abundant form of silicon.

When the temperature reached 801 degrees centigrade, the salt melted and absorbed heat in the process. This basic chemical concept – a solid melting into a liquid absorbs heat – kept the nanostructure from collapsing.

The sodium chloride did not contaminate or otherwise affect the reaction, researchers said. Scaling reactions such as this up to larger commercial levels should be feasible, they said.

The study also created, for the first time with this process, nanoporous composite materials of silicon and germanium. These could have wide applications in semiconductors, thermoelectric materials and electrochemical energy devices.

Funding for the research was provided by OSU. Six other researchers from the Department of Chemistry and the OSU Department of Chemical Engineering also collaborated on the work.

Story By: 

David Xiulei Ji, 541-737-6798

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Silicon nanostructure

Silicon nanostructures

Table salt

Table salt

Global warming to cut snow water storage 56 percent in Oregon watershed

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/13ZLzl1

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new report projects that by the middle of this century there will be an average 56 percent drop in the amount of water stored in peak snowpack in the McKenzie River watershed of the Oregon Cascade Range -  and that similar impacts may be found on low-elevation maritime snow packs around the world.

The findings by scientists at Oregon State University, which are based on a projected 3.6 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase, highlight the special risks facing many low-elevation, mountainous regions where snow often falls near the freezing point. In such areas, changing from snow to rain only requires a very modest rise in temperature.

As in Oregon, which depends on Cascade Range winter snowpack for much of the water in the populous Willamette Valley, there may be significant impacts on ecosystems, agriculture, hydropower, industry, municipalities and recreation, especially in summer when water demands peak.

The latest study was one of the most precise of its type done on an entire watershed, and was just published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, with support from the National Science Foundation. It makes it clear that new choices are coming for western Oregon and other regions like it.

“In Oregon we have a water-rich environment, but even here we will have to manage our water resources differently in the future,” said Eric Sproles, who led this study as a doctoral student at OSU.

“In the Willamette River, for instance, between 60-80 percent of summer stream flow comes from seasonal snow above 4,000 feet,” he said. “As more precipitation falls as rain, there will more chance of winter flooding as well as summer drought in the same season. More than 70 percent of Oregon’s population lives in the Willamette Valley, with the economy and ecosystems depending heavily on this river.”

Annual precipitation in the future may be either higher or lower, the OSU researchers said. They did calculations for precipitation changes that could range 10 percent in either direction, although change of that magnitude is not anticipated by most climate models.

The study made clear, so far as snowpack goes, that temperature is the driving force, far more than precipitation. Even the highest levels of anticipated precipitation had almost no impact on snow-water storage, they said.

“This is not an issue that will just affect Oregon,” said Anne Nolin, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and co-author of the study. “You may see similar impacts almost anywhere around the world that has low-elevation snow in mountains, such as in Japan, New Zealand, Northern California, the Andes Mountains, a lot of Eastern Europe and the lower-elevation Alps.”

The focus of this study was the McKenzie River, a beautiful, clear mountain river that rises in the high Cascade Range near the Three Sisters volcanoes, and supplies about 25 percent of the late summer discharge of the Willamette River. Researchers said this is one of the most detailed studies of its type done on a large watershed.

Among the findings of the study:

  • The average date of peak snowpack in the spring on this watershed will be about 12 days earlier by the middle of this century.
  • The elevation zone from 1,000 to 1,500 meters will lose the greatest volume of stored water, and some locations at that elevation could lose more than 80 days of snow cover in an average year.
  • Changes in dam operations in the McKenzie River watershed will be needed, but will not be able to make up for the vast capability of water storage in snow.
  • Summer water flows will be going down even as Oregon’s population surges by about 400,000 people from 2010 to 2020.
  • Globally, maritime snow comprises about 10 percent of the Earth’s seasonal snow cover.
  • Snowmelt is a source of water for more than one billion people.
  • Precipitation is highly sensitive to temperature and can fall as rain, snow, or a rain-snow mix.

The model developed for this research, scientists said, could be readily adapted to help other regions in similar situations determine their future loss of snow water in the future.

Story By: 

Eric Sproles, 541-729-1377

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McKenzie River watershed

McKenzie River watershed

McKenzie River

McKenzie River

Earth Week at OSU offers sustainable events, opportunities

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University is promoting sustainability and awareness with an array of events during Earth Week, which begins Saturday, April 20.

Several new events this year include Campus Creature Census, in which community members are invited to contribute a creative work inspired by the various plants and animals that inhabit OSU. Participants may submit an entry in prose, field guide, artistic, or poetry form, which may be added to a compilation.

Returning events include the Hoo-Haa Earth Day Celebration, hosted by the Organic Grower’s Club at their farm on April 22. From 3-7 p.m., guests may enjoy free food and live music, watch a bubble artist in action, learn about soil, and discover how chickens may be used to till the earth. A shuttle bus will leave campus every 15 minutes from outside the OSU Beaver Store.

The 13th annual Earth Week Community Fair will be April 23. About 50 groups, both on and off of campus, will offer activities and environmental information. Students may also bring styrofoam for free recycling. Acceptable items include foam sheets and wraps, as well as bendable and rigid blocks. However, food packaging and expanding foam will not be accepted.

OSU Surplus Property will host the OSUsed Store Earth Week sale on April 24. Furniture, computers, electronics, housewares, and more will be on sale to students and community members from noon to 3 p.m.

This year also marks the 100-year anniversary of the planting of the elm trees that stand in the library quad.  A celebration will be held from noon to 1 p.m. on April 26, as an additional tree is planted to commemorate the next 100 years.

A more detailed list of events may be found at:  (http://tiny.cc/earth-calendar).

Story By: 

Andrea Norris, 541-737-5398

Oregon State University featured in The Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University received 98 points out of a possible 99 as a ‘green’ school in the latest edition of “The Princeton Review’s Guide to 322 Green Colleges: 2013 Edition.” The schools are chosen based on a 50-question survey conducted at hundreds of four-year colleges.

The Princeton Review analyzes data from the survey about the schools' course offerings, campus infrastructure, activities and career preparation to measure their commitment to the environment and to sustainability.

“The OSU community has once again demonstrated a high level of interest in and competency around sustainability,” said Brandon Trelstad, OSU’s sustainability coordinator. 

The 215-page guide is the only free comprehensive resource of its kind. It can be downloaded at www.princetonreview.com/green-guide and www.centerforgreenschools.org/greenguide.  It does not rank schools hierarchically, but each school’s green score can be found in their school profile on the main site (http://www.princetonreview.com/).

The 322 school profiles in the guide feature essential information for applicants – facts and stats on school demographics, admission, financial aid – plus write-ups on the schools' specific sustainability initiatives.  A "Green Facts" sidebar reports on a wide range of topics from the school's use of renewable energy sources, recycling and conservation programs to the availability of environmental studies and career guidance for green jobs.

“The volume and breadth of sustainability related work at this institution is amazing, and fascinatingly diverse,” Trelstad said. “I think what continually sets OSU apart is its broad spectrum of sustainability expertise. This is supported by students who care about global issues and come to OSU to build on that interest.”

Among OSU’s green highlights were an overall waste diversion rate of 42 percent, its numerous sustainability awards, its annual Nonprofit Career Day, and a building policy that ensures students will typically walk no further than 10 minutes across campus for class.

“OSU has a history of creating innovative projects to reduce energy use and meet its goal of climate neutrality by 2024,” the guide states.

The Princeton Review created its "Guide to 322 Green Colleges" in partnership with the Center for Green Schools (www.usgbc.org) at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)), with generous support from United Technologies Corp. (www.utc.com), founding sponsor of the Center for Green Schools.


Story By: 

Brandon Trelstad, 541-737-3307

Generic OSU

About Oregon State University:  As one of only two universities in the nation designated as a land, sea, space and sun grant, Oregon State serves Oregon and the world by working on today’s most pressing issues. Our more than 31,000 students come from across the globe, and our programs operate in every Oregon county. Oregon State receives more research funding than all of the state’s comprehensive public universities combined. At our campuses in Corvallis, Bend and Newport, and through our award-winning Ecampus, we excel at shaping today’s students into tomorrow’s leaders.

OSU Energy Center first Platinum LEED-certified power facility in nation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University’s new Energy Center has just received Platinum LEED certification, the highest certification possible. Officials say it is the first platinum-rated power facility in the nation, the first Platinum LEED building on campus, and one of only two in the Oregon University System.
LEED is a certification system that ranks a building’s green features on a point system in several areas, including water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality.

The OSU Energy Center, which became fully operational in June 2010, replaced a nearly 90-year-old heat plant with failing boilers and serious seismic issues. The new plant is a cogeneration facility that combines heating and electricity generation, allowing OSU to generate nearly half of its electrical needs on site. That approach is calculated to lower the university’s energy costs by around $650,000 a year, not to mention dramatically reducing its carbon footprint.

Larrie Easterly, the university’s engineering manager, said there is a laundry list of features that helped the building gain Platinum LEED status, including the white reflective roof, water-efficient landscaping, the use of recycled building materials and, in turn, recycling a majority of the project’s construction debris.

Other aspects include a rainwater harvesting system that is used for the boilers, radiant heating, hot water generated by heat recovery from the steam system, natural lighting and ventilation, and building energy use that is 52 percent better than the Oregon building code.

“I’ve worked on this project since day one, which is almost eight years ago,” Easterly said, “and it’s really nice to see something that a lot of people have worked on finally being completed. It’s not often that facilities staff gets to work on a building made for themselves.”

Brandon Trelstad, OSU sustainability coordinator, said the plant uses the waste heat generated when creating electricity at the plant to heat the campus. The plant uses a natural gas-fired turbine and heat recovery steam generator to produce power.

“By co-locating the electricity generation and heat production we gain tremendous efficiencies,” Trelstad said. “And by producing some of our own power we also ease the strain on the Corvallis power grid.”

The plant has a maximum generation capacity of 6.5 megawatts and will produce the equivalent of half the university’s electricity needs annually. It also is expected to reduce CO2 emissions by 38 percent relative to the old plant.

In addition to its heating and energy producing roles, the Energy Center also will be a learning lab for OSU students. Students will be able to mine data from the center and run simulations to learn how energy production works, as well as other projects related to engineering and environmental sciences, including testing alternative bio-energy sources. The plant runs on natural gas with a diesel backup, but it can also run on biodiesel and methane.

Oh Planning + Design and Jacobs Engineering, both of Portland, collaborated on the center. W&H Pacific worked on civil engineering and landscape architecture; PAE Consulting Engineers worked on mechanical, electrical and plumbing; Green Building Services was hired for LEED documentation and certification; Rider, Levett & Bucknall for cost estimating; and Andersen Construction was the construction manager/ general contractor.

The project was funded by a combination of bonds, gifts, grants, energy tax credits and university funds. Some of the bond money will be repaid through energy savings.

Story By: 

Brandon Trelstad, 541-737-3307

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OSU Energy Center

OSU to Host Symposium on Sustainable Rural Communities

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University will host a symposium Nov. 20 that examines the relationships between universities and small towns in developing sustainable rural communities.

The Sustainable Rural Communities Symposium, which is focusing on the theme “The Engaged University: Building University-Community Partnerships,” will run from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the OSU Memorial Union’s Joyce Powell Leadership Center. It is free and open to the public.

A public lecture by Kenneth Reardon, “Rebuilding the Big Easy: The Challenge of Multi-University Partnerships in Post-Disaster New Orleans,” follows at 7:30 p.m. in LaSells Stewart Center. It also is free and open to the public. The events are sponsored by the Rural Studies Program at OSU, with support from the university’s Extension Service and Department of Sociology.

Kate MacTavish, an assistant professor of human development and family sciences at OSU, says the symposium is part of a larger effort to link universities with rural communities. OSU has a Rural Studies Program and long ties to rural communities. Those efforts received a boost in 2000, when the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities issued a report called “Returning to our Roots” that called for greater university-rural community ties. OSU President-emeritus John Byrne was executive director of that commission.

The symposium begins at 1 p.m. with a presentation by Byrne on "The Engaged Land-Grand University." That will be followed by a presentation by John Allen of Utah State University titled, “Leveraging Partnerships: Models of Engagement in the Rural American West.” A panel discussion will follow, led by Kathi Jaworski, of Rural Development Initiatives; Megan Smith, University of Oregon; and Annette Johnson, Eastern Oregon University.

A second talk and panel discussion will follow from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Leading off that session will be a talk by Reardon, who chairs the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. His lecture is titled “Making Waves along the Mississippi: Lessons from an East St. Louis Community-University Partnership.”

Responding panelists include Ethan Seltzer, Portland State University; Tom Gallagher, the Ford Family Foundation; and Marc Braverman, OSU Extension Family and Community Development.

On Nov. 21, a number of OSU faculty will meet with several rural community members to work on developing strategic plans for effective partnerships, MacTavish said.

Story By: 

Kate MacTavish,

Will maraschino cherries power our engines?

CORVALLIS - Would you pump cherry-flavored "gasohol" into your car?

An Oregon State University food scientist is studying the feasibility of turning the salty brine that is used to preserve much of the state's cherry crop into ethanol, often called gasohol when it's used in automobile fuel.

But OSU Experiment Station researcher Alan Bakalinsky says the economics aren't right at the moment.

Oregon produces 30 to 40 percent of all U.S. brined cherries, which include the maraschino cherries used on an ice cream sundae. These cherries bring Oregon "briners" 90 cents to $1 per pound. But the cost of disposing of the brine eats up about three cents for every pound of brined cherries sold.

That adds up quickly.

There are about 10 million gallons of brine left from the process in Oregon each year. Since it can't just be flushed down the drain, the cost of treatment and disposal - primarily in Salem and The Dalles - is about $900,000 per year.

Carl Payne, head of research and development for Oregon Cherry Growers, Inc. , says he started looking for alternative methods of disposal several years ago when he attended a food technology presentation by Bakalinsky. The OSU researcher recommended f ermenting the brine to extract ethanol and designed an experiment to see if it was feasible.

"Just about anything with sugar content can be fermented, but most of the ethanol in the U.S. comes from corn sugar and is produced on a huge scale," said Bakalinsky.

Ethanol is commonly used as a partial gasoline replacement (often called gasohol). Brazil has even tried to convert all its cars to run on pure ethanol.

Small-scale tests have been completed and Bakalinsky estimates Oregon cherry briners could produce 260,000 gallons of pure ethanol from their brine each year.

"This a very small amount and alone would never justify construction of a fuel ethanol plant," Bakalinsky said. "But if combined with other locally generated, sugar-containing food processing wastes, an ethanol distilling business might become a practi cal alternative to disposal in Oregon.

"However," he added, "the economics of trucking food processing waste and the relatively low prices of oil compared to ethanol make this unlikely in the near future."

Bakalinsky says there might be a way to squeeze a few more cents out of the distillation process. There are other recoverable byproducts, such as benzaldehyde, a key cherry flavoring agent, and calcium sulfite, which might have value as a liming agent to reduce the acidity of Oregon's soils.

"We're keeping distilling on our short list of alternatives," Payne said, "but right now it is still cheaper to pay to treat and dispose of the brine than to distill out the ethanol.

"The main economic hitch remains transportation costs," he said. "We would have to either build two distilling operations or truck the brine from The Dalles to Salem or vice versa. The same holds true for using a third-party distiller. Trucking the bri ne, which is 95 percent water, isn't cost effective."

Bakalinsky says the whole economic picture could change rapidly if the price of oil rises, making ethanol more valuable, or if the costs of disposal go up, making distilling more cost effective.


Alan Bakalinsky, 541-737-6510

Old-growth trees still soaking up CO2, study shows

CORVALLIS - New research is finding that old-growth coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest are still vigorously active, may have more ability to "store" carbon than had been appreciated in the past, and are not the idle, decaying ecosystems they have sometimes been portrayed to be.

In pioneering studies done with the huge "canopy crane" that hovers over an old-growth stand northeast of Portland, Ore., researchers from Oregon State University are also discovering that light is the driving force in these processes and that the real action is way up high where the sun shines the brightest.

Studies such as this, the scientists said, may have important implications for forest management policies that seek to use forests as a carbon "sink," lowering the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide and ultimately helping to mitigate the greenhouse effect.

"It appears these older forests are more active and may be stronger carbon sinks than we thought," said Bill Winner, an OSU professor of botany and plant pathology. "There's a huge amount of carbon tied up in old-growth ecosystems and, even at a very old age, they are still capable of absorbing a lot of carbon dioxide."

In preliminary results, Winner and OSU colleagues Sean Thomas and Mark Harmon have found:

- In all seasons, the physiological activity level of conifer needles is higher at the brightly-lit tops of trees than at the bottom or in younger saplings that receive more shade.

- The photosynthetic rate of trees does not decline in summer due to drought and water stress, as had been presumed.

- The biggest constraint on photosynthesis is the lower light levels during the region's eternally-overcast winter days, which can cause up to a 60 percent drop in photosynthesis in some tree species.

- In a system like that studied, Harmon found that about 70 percent of the carbon storage is in live vegetation, 15 percent is in the litter and logs on the forest floor, and 15 percent in the mineral soil.

"The use of this crane has allowed us to make meaningful samples high in the forest canopy for extended periods," Winner said. "We've never really had that capability before, and that's helping to answer some long-standing questions about old-growth ecological processes."

These trees and other vegetation generate energy from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, in the process "storing" some of the carbon in the form of wood and foliage, and releasing oxygen. The woody tissue, soil and decaying matter on the forest floor also "exhale" some carbon dioxide. The key environmental impact, researchers say, comes from the balance of carbon released versus that retained.

For this type of forest, it's now clear that the heaviest rates of photosynthesis and carbon storage happen when the daylight is longest and the light is brightest. Preliminary calculations suggest that during summer months this site "stored" from 2.7 to 14 grams of carbon dioxide per square meter, per day.

According to Harmon, when an old-growth forest is clearcut, it changes from a carbon sink to a carbon source - meaning the same land now gives off more carbon dioxide than it takes in - for a period of at least 30-40 years.

Studies such as these may help provide better ways to determine exactly how much carbon is being released or retained by such forests, Winner said, and provide the basis for better forest management and policy decisions that wish to take carbon cycles and greenhouse concerns into account.

Some efforts are underway in the U.S. and elsewhere to develop systems of carbon "credit trading" where the emitter of certain greenhouse gases may pay other entities, such as the owners of a forest, for activities that result in carbon accumulation and help mitigate the greenhouse effect.

"Looking at an old growth forest, you can imagine that half the dry biomass is the element carbon, and that carbon in the trees originated as carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere," Winner said. "It was acquired by the trees via the process of photosynthesis. Now, for the very first time in the canopy of old growth trees, we're exploring the connection between carbon in forests and the atmosphere."

Understanding those linkages will be essential for managing forest resources and knowing how forests may affect atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and ultimately the Earth's climate, Winner said.

Research on this project at the Wind River Canopy Crane in Washington state is being supported by the Westgec Program of the U.S. Department of Energy, Winner said, which seeks to better understand global change processes.

Story By: 

Bill Winner, 541-737-1749

Energy department to honor Oregon project

PORTLAND - The U.S. Department of Energy will present a special award to Oregon State University during ceremonies honoring Oregon's top high technology companies here Thursday (Dec. 11) night.

Presentation will be made during the 1997 Technology Awards Dinner at the Oregon Convention Center, sponsored by the Cascade Pacific Council of Boy Scouts of America. Deputy Assistant Energy Secretary Denise Swink will present the award to OSU President Paul Risser, honoring the university's contribution to the state's manufacturing community through the OSU Industrial Assessment Center.

Since its establishment in 1976, the OSU center has helped more than 300 manufacturers in the Pacific Northwest. Its teams of faculty and student engineers have recommended annual productivity, waste and energy cost savings of more than $15 million to local firms.

The OSU program also has provided in-depth practical training for scores of new engineering professionals.

George M. "Greg" Wheeler, the director of the center, will be recognized during Thursday's program. Wheeler, an OSU energy extension specialist, established the Northwest Industrial Energy Forum in 1990 and currently is helping two Mexican universities adopt the Industrial Assessment Center program. In August, he was presented the U.S. Energy Department's Outstanding Service Award.

The OSU center is one of 30 nationwide. The centers offer no-cost energy audits and waste reduction analysis to manufacturing plants and utilities. Energy officials estimate that the centers have contributed cost savings of more than $525 million across the nation.


Denise Swink, 202-586-9232