energy and sustainability

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.

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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


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


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."


Burke Hales, 541-737-8121


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.


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


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


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

Multimedia Downloads

Prototype plankton fuel cells


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


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