Storing Renewable Energy with Seawater
Kelsey Stoerzinger, assistant professor of chemical engineering, was awarded a Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award from the National Science Foundation for her proposal to study how to safely split seawater into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Seawater is an abundant natural resource, but electrochemical hydrogen generation from seawater can result in harmful byproducts from salts that pose environmental and safety concerns. Hydrogen has many scientific, industrial, and energy-related roles, including in the synthesis of fertilizers.
Stoerzinger will use her $550,000 award to search for metal oxide catalysts and evaluate electrochemical reaction processes that selectively promote hydrogen generation while avoiding undesirable chloride-containing byproducts.
To narrow the search for promising catalysts, her research group will target compounds based on a fundamental understanding of how their surfaces drive reactions with water and chloride. The trick is to find materials that oxidize water but don’t oxidize chloride. Therein lies one of the major challenges, because materials that oxidize water usually oxidize chloride as well, Stoerzinger explained.
“We focus on the interface between the catalyst surface and the water, and we study it in a very well-defined way,” she said. “That allows us to understand the mechanism of how the reaction takes place.”
The project will hopefully result in the ability to store electrical energy in a chemical fuel that can be easily transported and used on demand.
“Renewable electricity can drive chemical reactions, including the generation of hydrogen from water,” Stoerzinger said. “We will focus on designing catalysts that selectively facilitate the generation of benign oxygen gas as a preferred byproduct in systems containing chloride salts. Our work will aid the development of improved energy storage and chemical manufacturing strategies that reduce our nation’s reliance on nonrenewable resources.
Leading the Charge in Clean Energy
In the span of a single year, Zhenxing Feng, assistant professor of chemical engineering, co-authored and published a trio of major papers.
The first one, appearing in the August 2020 issue of Nature Energy, covers advances in converting carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into reusable forms of carbon via electrochemical reduction.
“The reduction of carbon dioxide is beneficial for a clean environment and sustainable development,” said Feng, who joined the Oregon State faculty in 2016. “Traditional CO2 reduction uses chemical methods at high temperatures and requires large amounts of energy, but electrochemical CO2 reduction reactions can be performed at room temperature, with minimal energy expenditure.”
The second paper, published in January 2021 in Science Advances, describes how the efficient mass production of hydrogen from water is closer to becoming a reality. The research team, led by Feng, used advanced tools to forge a clearer understanding of a cleaner, more sustainable electrocatalytic process than deriving hydrogen from natural gas.
“Hydrogen is important for many aspects of our life, such as powering fuel cells in cars, manufacturing important chemicals, refining metals, and producing synthetic materials,” Feng said.
In the third paper, which appeared in Nature Communications, also in January 2021, Feng details the development of a battery anode built upon a zinc- and manganese-based nanostructured alloy. The science opens the door to replacing the organic solvents commonly used in lithium-ion battery electrolytes with seawater — a safer, less expensive, and abundant resource.
“The world’s energy needs are increasing, and aqueous batteries, which use water-based conducting solutions as the electrolytes, are an emerging and much safer alternative to lithium-ion batteries,” Feng said.
OSU, UO Launch Joint Bioengineering Program
Oregon State’s College of Engineering has joined forces with the University of Oregon’s Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact on a bioengineering doctoral program that provides students access to courses, facilities, and faculty at both institutions.
Students in the joint program have full access to research facilities, collaborations, coursework, training workshops, and student groups in Corvallis and in Eugene. The new program builds on UO strengths in biology, biochemistry, and human physiology and OSU strengths in microfluidics, diagnostics, cryopreservation, and biomaterials development and characterization.
“Combining the expertise between faculty at the Knight campus and Oregon State’s bioengineering faculty elevates the stature and impact of the joint program,” said Gregory Herman, head of the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering. “Over the past decade, Oregon State has made significant investments in bioengineering, including faculty hires and new research capabilities to make impacts on the health of Oregonians.
Chang Named NAI Fellow, Invents 'Smart Textiles'
Chih-hung Chang, professor of chemical engineering, has been named to the rank of fellow by the National Academy of Inventors, the highest professional distinction bestowed upon academic inventors. Chang’s work has led to advances in areas such as solar energy, medical imaging, electronic noses, and flexible, wearable electronics.
Recently, Chang and colleagues successfully created electronic inks that can be used to print sensors directly onto fabrics — a major breakthrough in developing “smart textiles.” This technology could help bring about innovations such as electronic shirts that keep the wearer comfortably warm or cool, or fabrics for health care applications, including delivering drugs and monitoring the condition of a wound.
“Much effort has gone into integrating sensors, displays, power sources, and logic circuits into various fabrics for the creation of wearable, electronic textiles,” Chang said. “The simplicity of our ink, its performance, and the scalability of our process are all promising for the future of wearable e-textiles.
Monitoring Sewers for Coronavirus
As part of ongoing efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon State researchers are monitoring sanitary sewer systems statewide for signs of the coronavirus. Led by Tyler Radniecki, associate professor of environmental engineering, and Christine Kelly, professor of bioengineering, the 2 1/2-year project aims to provide the state’s health care providers and decision-makers with an early warning system to spot potential outbreaks.
Supported by a $1.2 million grant from the Oregon Health Authority, the team is testing samples taken weekly from 43 wastewater treatment facilities throughout the state. A key advantage of this type of monitoring is that it can detect prevalence of the virus in a community before individuals start to show symptoms, even in the absence of widespread testing.
“The concept of sewer surveillance is that infected individuals, whether they’re symptomatic or asymptomatic, shed the virus in their waste. And when they use the bathroom, virus particles go into the sewer systems,” Kelly said.
The data show a significant correlation between the amount of virus detected in wastewater and community caseload, Radniecki says.
“The most powerful aspect is the trend data,” Radniecki said. “If you look at it over time, you can see if the signal is getting higher or if it’s getting lower. And if you start to correlate that with changes in policy and practice, that’s a powerful tool.”
Tiny Plastics: a Huge Problem for Oceans
Stacey Harper, professor of toxicology and environmental engineering, is leading efforts to study the impacts of microplastics and nanoplastics — tiny bits of degraded, human-made polymer products — on aquatic life. She is currently heading up a project to study the effects of micro- and nanoplastic ingestion in freshwater, estuarine, and marine life, funded by a $3.3 million National Science Foundation Big Ideas: Growing Convergence Research grant. Harper also leads the Pacific Northwest Consortium on Plastics, which brings together 190 regional scientists, regulators, and community coalitions to compile data on plastics occurrence, transport through the environment, breakdown, and consequential effects on aquatic species.
Pollution from plastics is a huge problem for the world’s oceans, contributing about 11 million metric tons of marine waste per year. In particular, microplastics — pieces small enough to be viewed under a microscope — present a threat to aquatic life, because they are consumed by and accumulate inside organisms and can make their way up the food chain. The environmental fate of even smaller nanoplastics — visible only by electron microscope — has become a growing concern in recent years, but limited data exist on the occurrence or effects of plastics at this scale.
“Plastics play an important role in our society,” said Harper, whose lab has been investigating the toxicity of nanoscale materials for over a decade. “But, as these products break down in the environment, they may pose unforeseen risks to aquatic life. Moreover, we currently have very little information on where they may go and what they might do.”
Heidi Kloefkorn-Adams joined the faculty in fall 2021 as an assistant professor in bioengineering. She earned her doctorate in biomedical engineering from the University of Florida in Gainesville, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Her research will involve the development of translational technology to measure human physiology noninvasively.
Patrick Geoghegan joined the faculty in summer 2020 as the Linus Pauling Chair in Chemical Engineering and professor of practice. He earned his doctorate in chemical engineering from University College in Dublin, Ireland. He then completed a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Sanger Institute through the University of Cambridge, where he worked on computational fluid dynamics, microfluidics, and robotics. He also has considerable professional experience as a research and development staff member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As professor of practice, he will ensure that capstone projects are aligned with and relevant to industry needs.