scientific research and advances

Discovery about new battery overturns decades of false assumptions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – New findings at Oregon State University have overturned a scientific dogma that stood for decades, by showing that potassium can work with graphite in a potassium-ion battery – a discovery that could pose a challenge and sustainable alternative to the widely-used lithium-ion battery.

Lithium-ion batteries are ubiquitous in devices all over the world, ranging from cell phones to laptop computers and electric cars. But there may soon be a new type of battery based on materials that are far more abundant and less costly.

A potassium-ion battery has been shown to be possible. And the last time this possibility was explored was when Herbert Hoover was president, the Great Depression was in full swing and the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping was the big news story of the year – 1932.

“For decades, people have assumed that potassium couldn’t work with graphite or other bulk carbon anodes in a battery,” said Xiulei (David) Ji, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of chemistry in the College of Science at Oregon State University.

“That assumption is incorrect,” Ji said. “It’s really shocking that no one ever reported on this issue for 83 years.”

The Journal of the American Chemical Society published the findings from this discovery, which was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and done in collaboration with OSU researchers Zelang Jian and Wei Luo. A patent is also pending on the new technology.

The findings are of considerable importance, researchers say, because they open some new alternatives to batteries that can work with well-established and inexpensive graphite as the anode, or high-energy reservoir of electrons. Lithium can do that, as the charge carrier whose ions migrate into the graphite and create an electrical current.

Aside from its ability to work well with a carbon anode, however, lithium is quite rare, found in only 0.0017 percent, by weight, of the Earth’s crust. Because of that it’s comparatively expensive, and it’s difficult to recycle. Researchers have yet to duplicate its performance with less costly and more readily available materials, such as sodium, magnesium, or potassium.

“The cost-related problems with lithium are sufficient that you won’t really gain much with economies of scale,” Ji said. “With most products, as you make more of them, the cost goes down. With lithium the reverse may be true in the near future. So we have to find alternatives.”

That alternative, he said, may be potassium, which is 880 times more abundant in the Earth’s crust than lithium. The new findings show that it can work effectively with graphite or soft carbon in the anode of an electrochemical battery. Right now, batteries based on this approach don’t have performance that equals those of lithium-ion batteries, but improvements in technology should narrow the gap, he said.

“It’s safe to say that the energy density of a potassium-ion battery may never exceed that of lithium-ion batteries,” he said. “But they may provide a long cycling life, a high power density, a lot lower cost, and be ready to take the advantage of the existing manufacturing processes of carbon anode materials.”

Electrical energy storage in batteries is essential not only for consumer products such as cell phones and computers, but also in transportation, industry power backup, micro-grid storage, and for the wider use of renewable energy.

OSU officials say they are seeking support for further research and to help commercialize the new technology, through the OSU Office of Commercialization and Corporate Development.


Media Contact: 

Xiulei (David) Ji, 541-737-6798

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Potassium-ion battery

Battery characteristics

System may offer new hope for personalized treatment of eczema

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Pharmaceutical researchers at Oregon State University have developed a new approach to treat eczema and other inflammatory skin disorders that would use individual tests and advanced science to create personalized treatments based on each person’s lipid deficiencies.

A patent has been applied for on this system, which could revolutionize the treatment of eczema if it works as scientists believe it will.

By identifying the specific problems each person has, moisturizers, skin protectants or other products or therapies could be created to address those specific problems.

Aside from powerful steroid treatments that have a wide range of unwanted side effects, the primary existing treatments for eczema are “one size fits all” moisturizing or protective products, with little basis for understanding whether or not that’s what an individual needs. Sometimes such products help, and often they are inadequate.

In 2012 in the United States, about 15 million Americans struggled with eczema, or atopic dermatitis, accounting for about $1 billion in health care costs and 10-20 percent of all visits to a dermatologist.

Eczema and some other skin disorders can be caused by a deficiency in lipids, which are various types of fat in the skin such as ceramides, cholesterol and free fatty acids, according to Arup Indra, an associate professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy and an expert on inflammatory skin disease.

“Lipids in our skin help retain moisture, they act like a blanket that protects against irritation and infection,” Indra said. “You could think of skin cells as the bricks of a wall, but lipids are the mortar that prevent things from getting through the cracks. When they are deficient, problems can develop.”

Part of what makes eczema so difficult to treat, however, is that there are hundreds of lipids, serving various functions as a skin protector, barrier or antimicrobial agent – and every individual has a slightly different lipid composition. Most of the moisturizers now available are just random compositions of lipids that may or may not help address what is missing in a given individual.

The new system created at OSU starts with surprising simplicity. A piece of tape is stuck to the skin and then pulled off, removing with it some skin cells. The painless procedure is totally noninvasive and could be used on anyone from infants to the elderly.

Those skin and lipid samples are then analyzed with sophisticated mass spectrometry in a process created at OSU that literally produces a “lipid fingerprint” – a measurement of that person’s skin and lipid profile. This profile can then be compared against those of healthy individuals, to help identify missing or deficient lipids that may be an underlying cause of the skin disorder.

From that, various products or other therapies can be developed that would help replace or increase the lipids that are deficient in a person. They could be used topically like conventional moisturizers.

OSU’s research, the first of its type, has already shown that the lipid profiles of people with healthy skin often differ markedly from those with eczema or other inflammatory skin disorders. This offers further evidence that altered lipid composition in the skin of eczema patients may be a determinant of disease onset, progression and severity, the researchers said.

“We believe it’s likely that supplementation with the lipids a person specifically needs will help address their skin problems and improve epidermal barrier function, and we plan to test that in continued research,” Indra said.

Findings in this area could also be used in veterinary medicine, the researchers said, since many pets such as cats and dogs also have skin disorders.

Further collaboration and support from private industry is being sought by OSU to help bring these systems more rapidly to availability, through its Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development.

This research has been supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Media Contact: 

Arup Indra, 541-737-5775

Bacteria in ancient flea may be ancestor of the Black Death

CORVALLIS, Ore. – About 20 million years ago a single flea became entombed in amber with tiny bacteria attached to it, providing what researchers believe may be the oldest evidence on Earth of a dreaded and historic killer – an ancient strain of the bubonic plague.

If indeed the fossil bacteria are related to plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, the discovery would show that this scourge, which killed more than half the population of Europe in the 14th century, actually had been around for millions of years before that, traveled around much of the world, and predates the human race.

Findings on this extraordinary amber fossil have been published in the Journal of Medical Entomology by George Poinar, Jr., an entomology researcher in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and a leading expert on plant and animal life forms found preserved in this semi-precious stone.

It can’t be determined with certainty that these bacteria, which were attached to the flea’s proboscis in a dried droplet and compacted in its rectum, are related to Yersinia pestis, scientists say. But their size, shape and characteristics are consistent with modern forms of those bacteria. They are a coccobacillus bacteria; they are seen in both rod and nearly spherical shapes; and are similar to those of Yersinia pestis. Of the pathogenic bacteria transmitted by fleas today, only Yersinia has such shapes.

“Aside from physical characteristics of the fossil bacteria that are similar to plague bacteria, their location in the rectum of the flea is known to occur in modern plague bacteria,” Poinar said. “And in this fossil, the presence of similar bacteria in a dried droplet on the proboscis of the flea is consistent with the method of transmission of plague bacteria by modern fleas.”

These findings are in conflict with modern genomic studies indicating that the flea-plague-vertebrate cycle evolved only in the past 20,000 years, rather than 20 million. However, today there are several strains of Yersinia pestis, and there is evidence that past outbreaks of this disease were caused by still different strains, some of which are extinct today.

While human strains of Yersinia could well have evolved some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, Poinar said, ancient Yersinia strains that evolved as rodent parasites could have appeared long before humans existed. These ancient strains would certainly be extinct by now, he said.  

The complex mode of transmission of plague is also reflected in the flea seen in this fossil.

When a flea feeds on a plague-infected animal, the Yersinia pestis bacteria taken up with the blood often form a viscous mass in the flea’s proventriculus, located between the stomach and esophagus. When this happens, the fleas can’t obtain enough blood, and as they attempt to feed again, bacteria are often forced back out through the proboscis and into the wound.

This blockage is in part what makes them effective vectors of the plague, and the dried droplets on the proboscis of the fossil flea could represent a sample of the sticky bacterial mass that was regurgitated.

“If this is an ancient strain of Yersinia, it would be extraordinary,” Poinar said. “It would show that plague is actually an ancient disease that no doubt was infecting and possibly causing some extinction of animals long before any humans existed. Plague may have played a larger role in the past than we imagined.”

The fossil flea originated from amber mines in what is now the Dominican Republic, between Puerto Plata and Santiago. Millions of years ago the area was a tropical moist forest.

Very few fleas of any type have been found preserved in amber, Poinar said, and none have been reported with associated microorganisms, as in this case. This specimen had some other unique morphological features that indicate it’s a species that long ago went extinct.

But it was the associated bacteria that fascinated the researchers.

“Since the dried droplet with bacteria is still attached to the tip of the proboscis, the flea may have become entrapped in resin shortly after it had fed on an infected animal,” Poinar said. “This might have been one of the rodents that occurred in the Dominican amber forest. Rodent hair has been recovered from that amber source.”

Flea-like creatures found in conventional stone fossils date back to the time of the dinosaurs, Poinar said, and the role of insects in general, and as carriers of disease, may have played a role in the demise of the ancient reptiles.

In 2008, Poinar and his wife, Roberta Poinar, wrote a book “What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease and Death in the Cretaceous.” It explored the evolutionary rise of insects around the same time that dinosaurs went extinct. The thesis developed in the book added insect-borne diseases as a likely component, that, along with other biotic and abiotic factors such as climate change, asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions, led to  the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some modern diseases such as leishmaniasis and malaria clearly date to those times.

Bubonic plague in modern times can infect and kill a wide range of animals, in addition to humans. It is still endemic in many countries, including the United States where it’s been found in prairie dogs and some other animals. Even though today it is treatable with antibiotics, in the U.S. four people have died from plague so far this year.

During the Middle Ages, however, three phases of the disease – bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic plague - earned a feared reputation. Periodic waves of what was called the Black Death, for the gruesome condition in which it left its victims, swept through Europe and Asia, altogether killing an estimated 75 to 200 million people.

Scholars say that religious, social and economic changes caused by the plague altered the course of world history.

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Flea in amber

Flea in amber

Bacteria on proboscis
Bacteria on proboscis

Study finds valley sites lost – and gained – about half of their bird diversity in 60 years

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study comparing bird communities six decades apart at five sites in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has documented the loss of roughly 50 percent of the bird species – yet at the same time, recorded almost the same number of new species.

The bottom line is that there has been little change in the number of species or diversity over 60 years, but a great deal of change in the specific bird species occupying the sites.

“Bird communities change naturally as the habitat changes,” noted Jenna Curtis, a doctoral student in fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences and lead author on the study. “Some of the change is natural, as plants grow, while in other instances the habitat is altered through agriculture, urbanization or other human activities.”

Birds increasing in association with human activity and favorable conditions include Anna’s hummingbird, European starling, brown-headed cowbird, and house finch.

Some of the birds that appear to be decreasing because of regional environmental changes include Nashville warbler, chipping sparrow, and the northern rough-winged swallow.

Some species have experienced little change in numbers from one master’s study to another over 60 years, including killdeer, several woodpecker species, American robins, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, Steller’s jays, American crows, and others.

Results of the research have been published in the journal, PeerJ.

The study is unusual because there are few highly detailed, historic surveys of bird communities on a local level – especially ones that looked at multiple habitats, including coniferous forest, oak woodland, marsh, mixed deciduous, riverine/riparian and brushy. But in 1953, Richard Eddy completed and published a master’s thesis at Oregon State in which he surveyed and documented bird species at six sites within 50 kilometers of Corvallis.

As part of her own master’s study, Curtis located five of Eddy’s original six sites and conducted a new survey, comparing the richness and diversity of bird species – during many of the same times of year as Eddy.

“Quite a bit has changed in six decades,” Curtis said. “One site, which used to be known as Murphy’s Beach, is now a sports recreation facility at Crystal Lake Park near Corvallis. It used to be very barren, with old roads and chest-high grass until a flood in the 1960s completely altered the landscape. Now there are large cottonwood trees and soccer fields. Bird populations change accordingly.”

Another site was off Bruce Road on Highway 99 between Corvallis and Monroe. When Eddy did his survey, much of the marsh was grazed by cattle. With new water management protocols, this area within Finley Wildlife Refuge is now a haven for waterbirds.

W. Douglas Robinson, the Mace Professor for Watchable Wildlife at OSU, has been conducting bird surveys in each county in Oregon to begin establishing new baselines for species diversity throughout Oregon by the year 2020. Human activities throughout western Oregon can influence bird populations at local sites, he said.

“There have been massive changes in agriculture resulting in larger fields and fewer pastures,” Robinson said. “As a result, species like pheasant, bobwhite, chipping sparrows and common nighthawks largely have disappeared throughout the valley. This study is wonderful because it is so rare to find such detailed information from 60 years ago and compare it to what is happening today. It helps us to better understand how birds respond to changes in landscape – both natural and human-caused.”

Curtis and Robinson say it isn’t clear whether climate change and drought have had a significant impact on bird species in western Oregon.

“That’s why we need to gather more baseline data,” Robinson said, “so that we know what is ‘normal’ and can identify deviations. There are some signals, for example, that there may be changes in the insect populations, which would affect a number of bird species. But we need more data there, too.”

Persons interested in volunteering for the Oregon 2020 project can find more information at: http://oregon2020.com/

The Curtis-led study was supported by OSU through the Bob and Phyllis Mace Watchable Wildlife Professorship and a scholarship from the Santiam Fish and Game Association.

Media Contact: 


Jenna Curtis, 503-559-6094, jenna.curtis@oregonstate.edu;

Doug Robinson, 541-737-9501, douglas.robinson@oregonstate.edu 

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Photo at left: A Nashville warbler (photo by Frank Lospalluto). Photo link: https://flic.kr/p/yFrKg9








  A chipping sparrow (photo by Frank Lospalluto)




Anna's hummingbird (photo by Frank Lospalluto)

Earth science offers key to many United Nations “Sustainable Development Goals”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A group of ecologists at Oregon State University argue that scientific “business as usual” will fall far short of what is needed to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that are expected to be adopted by the United Nations General Assembly this month.

In a commentary published today in Nature Geoscience, the researchers suggest that these goals, which are designed to guide national and international actions for the next 15 years, can only be met if the Earth science community becomes more engaged and begins to “deliver on its social contract with society.”

“The world’s current approach to dealing with its multiple demands and needs is not adequately based in science, and it’s unsustainable,” said Jane Lubchenco, lead author, and the OSU University Distinguished Professor and Adviser in Marine Studies, former NOAA administrator and U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean.

“Our international leaders are now committing themselves to alleviating poverty, enabling smart development, and ensuring opportunity for all,” said Lubchenco, an environmental scientist in the OSU College of Science, “while at the same time, tackling climate change, protecting biodiversity, achieving food and water security and stopping pollution.

“These are enormous, difficult, but not impossible challenges,” said Lubchenco, who also serves on the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network Leadership Council. “Earth scientists are needed if the goals are to be met.

The OSU researchers said that the goals being considered by the United Nations contain a solid balance of environmental, social and economic issues, and in this paper they made a number of recommendations to help best achieve them.

“The golden opportunity for scientists is to focus research efforts on real-world problems,” she said, “to create new knowledge that is useable and responsive to society’s needs, to share knowledge widely, and demonstrate how sustainability based on science will ultimately benefit everyone.

“With this approach, seemingly intractable problems may actually be solvable,” she said. “Scientists are good at problem-solving, so we hope they will become more engaged.” 

The recommendations in the analysis include:

·         Consideration of the environment must not be delayed while more socially urgent goals demand attention.

·         Earth scientists could produce more useful and relevant science, and also share it more broadly with non-scientists.

·         Science that addresses issues ranging from water management to resource extraction and disaster mitigation needs to be made more accessible and understandable to potential users – policy makers, resource managers and the general public.

·         Scientists should not assume they know what users want and need, but rather must listen and work closely with civil society, industry, business and political leaders to create relationships built on trust, and devise solutions to big challenges.

·         The academic structure, which now often acts as an impediment to scientists engaging with society, must create systems that recognize, enable and reward such engagement.

The best place to start with many of these efforts, the researchers said, is with cutting-edge research that can help address needs relevant to the development goals, and identify practical solutions.

In their commentary, the scientists cited examples where such successes have occurred in the field of marine sciences.

One success focused on reforming small-scale fisheries in developing countries. These fisheries are a key to achieving multiple sustainable development goals such as food security and poverty alleviation. Yet they are notoriously difficult to reform, the researchers said, threatening the livelihood, health and well-being of millions of small-scale fishers and their communities.

Recently, researchers from ecology, economics, sociology and anthropology collaborated with each other and with local communities to devise solutions that ended overfishing, rebuilt depleted stocks and protected key habitats and biodiversity. Community and local fishers are now continuing to use the approaches that brought these social, economic and environmental benefits.

Engagement of scientists was key, but so too was their engagement with local communities to co-define problems and solutions, the researchers said. More cooperative solutions like these that are grounded in science, but owned by communities and that can be replicated elsewhere are urgently needed.

The development goals being considered by the United Nations, if properly executed, could help meet needs of people around the world and enable development while safeguarding Earth’s life support systems on which humanity depends, the researchers said, and good science is critical to this mission.

“The challenge is how to use the planet’s resources fairly without using them up,” they wrote in the commentary.

Media Contact: 

Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-3360

Ban on microbeads offers best chance to protect oceans, aquatic species

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An outright ban on the common use of plastic “microbeads” from products that enter wastewater is the best way to protect water quality, wildlife, and resources used by people, a group of conservation scientists suggest in a new analysis.

These microbeads are one part of the microplastic problem in oceans, freshwater lakes and rivers, but are a special concern because in many products they are literally designed to be flushed down the drain. And even at conservative estimates, the collective total of microbeads being produced today is enormous.

In an article just published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, scientists from seven institutions say that nontoxic and biodegradable alternatives exist for microbeads, which are used in hundreds of products as abrasive scrubbers, ranging from face washes to toothpaste. Around the size of a grain of sand, they can provide a gritty texture to products where that is needed.

“We’re facing a plastic crisis and don’t even know it,” said Stephanie Green, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and co-author of this report.

“Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning,” she said. “Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable.”

In this analysis, and using conservative methodology, the researchers estimated that 8 billion microbeads per day are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the United States – about 2.9 trillion beads per year, enough to wrap around the Earth more than seven times if lined up end to end.

The other 99 percent of the microbeads – another 800 billion – end up in sludge from sewage plants, which is often spread over areas of land. Many of those microbeads can then make their way into streams and oceans through runoff.

“Microbeads are just one of many types of microplastic found in aquatic habitats and in the gut content of wildlife,” said Chelsea Rochman, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California/Davis, and lead author on the analysis.

“We’ve demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects,” Rochman said. “We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products.”

Even though microbeads are just one part of the larger concern about plastic debris that end up in oceans and other aquatic habitat, they are also one of the most controllable. With growing awareness of this problem, a number of companies have committed to stop using microbeads in their “rinse off” personal care products, and several states have already regulated or banned the products.

The researchers point out in their analysis, however, that some bans have included loopholes using strategic wording. Many microbeads are used in personal care products that are not “rinse off,” such as deodorants and cleaners. And some regulations use the term “biodegradable” to specify what products are allowed – but some microbeads can biodegrade just slightly, which may allow their continued use.

If legislation is sought, “new wording should ensure that a material that is persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic is not added to products designed to go down the drain,” the researchers wrote in their report.

“The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high, while the solution to this problem is simple,” they concluded.

All the authors on this study were funded by the David H. Smith Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program, which works to develop science-based policy options for conservation and environmental issues. Other collaborators were from the University of Wyoming, University of California/Berkeley, Wildlife Conservation Society, College of William and Mary, and Georgia State University.


(Editor's Note: A data error was printed in the sixth paragraph of an earlier version of this story that was publicly released. That error has been fixed and this version of the story is now accurate. OSU News and Research Communications regrets the error.)

Media Contact: 

Stephanie Green, 778-808-0758

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Tiny beads


Hospice patients, practitioners face quandary about antibiotic use

PORTLAND, Ore. – A survey of hospice programs in Oregon found that only 31 percent had policies for initiating the use of antibiotics, and only 17 percent a policy for when to discontinue them – pointing to a continued uncertainty about the use of such medications in this select group of terminal patients.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, are among the first to quantify policies for antibiotic use in hospice, where the primary goal is to promote patient comfort and quality of remaining life, but not to prolong it.

A concern highlighted in the research is that antibiotics may have unwanted side effects that can decrease a patient’s comfort, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or yeast infection. It found that such symptoms were observed “sometimes or often” by about half or more of responding hospice programs.

Respondents to the survey did say that they rarely or never use antibiotics to prolong patient’s lives – but 14 percent of programs also reported that this sometimes occurs.

“The lack of specific policies and guidelines about antibiotic use in hospice care reflects the difficulty and uncertainty that still exists in how to manage end-of-life care, even among this group of people who have chosen not to prolong their life,” said Jon Furuno, an associate professor in the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy, and lead author on the study.

“There may be situations where antibiotic use does improve symptoms and patient comfort,” Furuno said. “On the other hand, antibiotic use is not always benign. They can have adverse events associated with their use, such as gastrointestinal problems. These are difficult decisions in a situation where we’re trying to reduce the number of medications taken at the end of life.”

The development of policies is also complicated by medical uncertainty over exactly how a patient may respond to antibiotic use, Furuno said, and by a paucity of scientific evidence over how well they may work to reduce symptoms in patients who are already terminally ill and often have compromised immune systems.

“The goals of hospice, in general, are fairly well understood by the parties involved, but the application in the field is much more variable,” Furuno said. “There will always be, and should be, flexibility in decisions that vary from patient to patient, and even if we did develop policies they could not be too rigid. But it would help if we could develop some better guidelines to help inform these decisions.”

According to Barbara Hansen, CEO of the Oregon Hospice Association, this study is an important first step toward quantifying the issues related to antibiotic use in hospice patients, and understanding current practices.

“This issue is challenging and problematic, but we all face it, and this research has now laid the groundwork to know what is happening in the field,” Hansen said. “We do need to be more systematic in our approaches, and give hospice practitioners more support in how to talk with patients and their families about antibiotic use.”

A step toward policies, Hansen said, might be guidance about determining whether an infection is actually causing a patient significant discomfort – if not, some may be better left untreated, rather than risk the additional complications that could ensue from treatment. And there may be communication that could be developed earlier to help family members understand the wishes of the patient being care for, she said.

Complicating the problem, the researchers said, is that antibiotic use is so ingrained in contemporary medicine. Previous studies at OSU have shown that 27 percent of hospice patients are still taking antibiotics in the final week of their life. This is a special concern for people who have specifically chosen an end-of-life approach that is focused on protecting the remaining quality of life without aggressively continuing medical treatment.

Hospice is covered by Medicare for people with a life expectancy of less than six months. It often allows people to die in their own homes, helps to reduce medical costs and hospital stays, and its services are now used by more than one third of dying Americans.

Collaborators on this study were from the OSU/OHSU College of Pharmacy and the Oregon Health & Science University. It was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Media Contact: 

Jon Furuno, 503-418-9361

Survey: Oyster industry more sold on ocean acidification impacts than public

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Although some people in the general public remain skeptical about the impacts of ocean acidification, a growing number of professionals who make their living off the ocean have become believers.

A newly published survey found that more than 80 percent of respondents from the United States shellfish industry on the West Coast are convinced that acidification is having consequences – a figure more than four times higher than that of public perception, researchers say. About half of the people in the industry report having already experienced some impact from acidification.

Results of the study, led by researchers at Oregon State University, are being published this week in the Journal of Shellfish Research. It was funded by Oregon Sea Grant.

“The shellfish industry recognizes the consequences of ocean acidification for people today, people in this lifetime, and for future generations – to a far greater extent than the U.S. public,” said Rebecca Mabardy, a former OSU graduate student and lead author on the study. “The good news is that more than half of the respondents expressed optimism – at least, guarded optimism – for the industry’s ability to adapt to acidification.”

The mechanisms causing ocean acidification are complex and few in the shellfish industry initially understood the science behind the issue, noted George Waldbusser, an OSU marine ecologist who has worked with Northwest oyster growers on mitigating the effects of ocean acidification. However, he added, many have developed a rather sophisticated understanding of the basic concepts of carbon dioxide impacts on the ocean and understand the risks to their enterprise.

“Many have seen the negative effects of acidified water on the survival of their juvenile oysters – and those who have experienced a direct impact obviously have a higher degree of concern about the issue,” Waldbusser pointed out. “Others are anticipating the effects of acidification and want to know just what will happen, and how long the impacts may last.”

“Because of some of the success we’ve had in helping some hatcheries adapt to changing conditions, there is a degree of optimism that the industry can adapt,” added Waldbusser, who was Mabardy’s mentor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU.

Waldbusser’s colleague Burke Hales has worked with the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery and others to create a chemical monitoring and treatment regimen for seawater. Waldbusser’s research has shown there is a fine line in how quickly larval oysters must develop their shell at a stage when they are most vulnerable to the corrosiveness of acidified water.

Shellfish industry leaders were asked who should take the lead in responding to the challenges of acidification and their strong preference was the shellfish industry itself, followed by academic researchers. A majority said that any governmental regulations should be led by federal agencies, followed by the state and then local government.

“As a whole, the industry felt that they should be working closely with the academic community on acidification issues,” Waldbusser said. “In the spirit of full disclosure, there were some people who reported a distrust of academics – though without any specifics – so we clearly have some work to do to establish credibility with that subset of the industry.”

Among the other findings:

  • Of those respondents who said they have been affected by ocean acidification, 97 percent reported financial damage, while 68 percent cited emotional stress.
  • The level of concern reported by industry was: 36 percent, extremely concerned; 39 percent, very concerned; 20 percent, somewhat concerned; 4 percent, not too concerned; and 1 percent, not at all concerned.
  • Most respondents felt that ocean acidification was happening globally (85 percent), along the U.S. West Coast (86 percent), and in their local estuary (84 percent).

“One thing that came out of this survey is that we learned that not only is the shellfish industry experiencing and acknowledging ocean acidification,” Mabardy said, “they are committed to learning about the issue and its implications for their business. They want to share their insights as they are forced into action.”

“The next step is to continue shifting conversations about ocean acidification from acknowledgement of the problem, toward solution-oriented strategies,” she added.

Since graduating from OSU, Mabardy has worked at Taylor Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Washington and is now beginning a position as the outreach and project coordinator for the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

Media Contact: 

George Waldbusser, 541-737-8964, waldbuss@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Becky Mabardy, beckymabardy@gmail.com

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George Waldbusser (near) and Burke Hales of OSU work with the oyster industry on acidification monitoring and mitigation. Photo link: https://flic.kr/p/xn83LK









George Waldbusser (left) and Burke Hales.



Industry leaders are concerned about the impact of ocean acidification on oysters.

Greenhouse gases caused glacial retreat during last Ice Age

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A recalculation of the dates at which boulders were uncovered by melting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age has conclusively shown that the glacial retreat was due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as opposed to other types of forces.

Carbon dioxide levels are now significantly higher than they were at that time, as a result of the Industrial Revolution and other human activities since then. Because of that, the study confirms predictions of future glacial retreat, and that most of the world’s glaciers may disappear in the next few centuries.

The findings were published today in Nature Communications by researchers from Oregon State University, Boston College and other institutions. They erase some of the uncertainties about glacial melting that had been due to a misinterpretation of data from some of these boulders, which were exposed to the atmosphere more than 11,500 years ago.

“This shows that at the end of the last Ice Age, it was only the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that could have caused the loss of glaciers around the world at the same time,” said Peter Clark, a professor in the OSU College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, and co-author on the study.

“This study validates predictions that future glacial loss will occur due to the ongoing increase in greenhouse gas levels from human activities,” Clark said. “We could lose 80-90 percent of the world’s glaciers in the next several centuries if greenhouse gases continue to rise at the current rate.”

Glacial loss in the future will contribute to rising sea levels and, in some cases, have impacts on local water supplies.

As the last Ice Age ended during a period of about 7,000 years, starting around 19,000 years ago, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased from 180 parts per million to 280 parts per million. But just in the past 150 years, they have surged from 280 to about 400 parts per million, far higher than what was required to put an end to the last Ice Age.

The new findings, Clark said, were based on a recalculation of the ages at which more than 1,100 glacial boulders from 159 glacial moraines around the world were exposed to the atmosphere after being buried for thousands of years under ice.

The exposure of the boulders to cosmic rays produced cosmogenic nuclides, which had been previously measured and used to date the event. But advances have been made in how to calibrate ages based on that data. Based on the new calculations, the rise in carbon dioxide levels - determined from ancient ice cores -matches up nicely with the time at which glacial retreat took place.

“There had been a long-standing mystery about why these boulders were uncovered at the time they were, because it didn’t properly match the increase in greenhouse gases,” said Jeremy Shakun, a professor at Boston College and lead author on the study. “We found that the previous ages assigned to this event were inaccurate. The data now show that as soon as the greenhouse gas levels began to rise, the glaciers began to melt and retreat.”

There are other forces that can also cause glacial melting on a local or regional scale, the researchers noted, such as changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, or shifts in ocean heat distribution. These factors probably did have localized effects. But the scientists determined that only the change in greenhouse gas levels could have explained the broader global retreat of glaciers all at the same time.

In the study of climate change, glaciers have always been of considerable interest, because their long-term behavior is a more reliable barometer that helps sort out the ups-and-downs caused by year-to-year weather variability, including short-term shifts in temperature and precipitation.

Other collaborators on this research were from the University of Wisconsin, Purdue University, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The work was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

Media Contact: 

Peter Clark, 541-737-1247

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“Quantum dot” technology may help light the future

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Advances at Oregon State University in manufacturing technology for “quantum dots” may soon lead to a new generation of LED lighting that produces a more user-friendly white light, while using less toxic materials and low-cost manufacturing processes that take advantage of simple microwave heating.

The cost, environmental, and performance improvements could finally produce solid state lighting systems that consumers really like and help the nation cut its lighting bill almost in half, researchers say, compared to the cost of incandescent and fluorescent lighting.

The same technology may also be widely incorporated into improved lighting displays, computer screens, smart phones, televisions and other systems.

A key to the advances, which have been published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, is use of both a “continuous flow” chemical reactor, and microwave heating technology that’s conceptually similar to the ovens that are part of almost every modern kitchen.

The continuous flow system is fast, cheap, energy efficient and will cut manufacturing costs. And the microwave heating technology will address a problem that so far has held back wider use of these systems, which is precise control of heat needed during the process. The microwave approach will translate into development of nanoparticles that are exactly the right size, shape and composition.

“There are a variety of products and technologies that quantum dots can be applied to, but for mass consumer use, possibly the most important is improved LED lighting,” said Greg Herman, an associate professor and chemical engineer in the OSU College of Engineering.

“We may finally be able to produce low cost, energy efficient LED lighting with the soft quality of white light that people really want,” Herman said. “At the same time, this technology will use nontoxic materials and dramatically reduce the waste of the materials that are used, which translates to lower cost and environmental protection.”

Some of the best existing LED lighting now being produced at industrial levels, Herman said, uses cadmium, which is highly toxic. The system currently being tested and developed at OSU is based on copper indium diselenide, a much more benign material with high energy conversion efficiency.

Quantum dots are nanoparticles that can be used to emit light, and by precisely controlling the size of the particle, the color of the light can be controlled. They’ve been used for some time but can be expensive and lack optimal color control. The manufacturing techniques being developed at OSU, which should be able to scale up to large volumes for low-cost commercial applications, will provide new ways to offer the precision needed for better color control.

By comparison, some past systems to create these nanoparticles for uses in optics, electronics or even biomedicine have been slow, expensive, sometimes toxic and often wasteful.

Oher applications of these systems are also possible. Cell phones and portable electronic devices might use less power and last much longer on a charge. “Taggants,” or compounds with specific infrared or visible light emissions, could be used for precise and instant identification, including control of counterfeit bills or products.

OSU is already working with the private sector to help develop some uses of this technology, and more may evolve. The research has been supported by Oregon BEST and the National Science Foundation Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry.


Media Contact: 

Greg Herman, 541-737-2496

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