A way with water

Story of Meghna Babbar-Sebens

When asked why she has focused her career on water, Meghna Babbar-Sebens has a simple answer: “Water is life.”

Clean water is precious in India, where she grew up. According to a recent report by the World Bank, India contains 18% of the world’s population, but just 4% of the world’s water resources.

“Water scarcity was in my face every day,” said Babbar-Sebens, associate professor of water resources engineering. “It’s really important to find better ways of managing water, because what we were doing in the past is not working for our current needs.”

She points out the Colorado River Basin as an example where previous efforts to allocate and manage water are unable to narrow the widening gap between demand and supply, as populations increase and megadroughts chronically restrict supplies.

Too little water is not the only problem. Severe weather events in the past year have caused flooding in places like Iran, Florida, Texas, Pakistan, and Puerto Rico.

Profile of Meghna Babbar-Sebens
Babbar-Sebens and Ph.D. student
Justine Obiazi discuss their “interactive optimization”
platform for soliciting stakeholder input about
computer-generated solutions for re-naturalizing
degraded watersheds.

Babbar-Sebens’s approach is to look to nature for solutions by re-naturalizing degraded watersheds, including restoration of natural areas like wetlands. At the OSU Benton County Green Stormwater Infrastructure Research Facility, her collaborative research group tests green infrastructure options such as raingardens and bioswales — shallow, vegetated Channels — for removing water contaminants. But, as a systems engineer, she looks beyond specific techniques.

“To implement a re-naturalizing approach, you have to look at the entire watershed as a system,” she said. “We ask: ‘Where can we implement these practices across the landscape in a way that is distributed and networked?’”

In developing solutions, she says, it’s critical to include the perspectives of many stakeholders such as landowners, planners, water managers, tribes, and state and federal agencies. A solution is only viable if it is acceptable to all decision-makers.

To include stakeholder input in the evaluation of water management options, Babbar-Sebens has collaborated with computer scientists and social scientists to create a system that integrates the power of computing with human evaluation.

Through a process called interactive optimization, computers perform the numerical evaluation (costs and benefits) of thousands of different design options, and people rate the best designs selected by the algorithm. Babbar-Sebens and her collaborators developed web-based tools that help stakeholders visualize possible solutions with maps and graphs. The interface collects responses to simple questions like, “Is this plan acceptable to you?” or “How does plan A compare to plan B?” Machine learning can then identify features of the plans that are more acceptable to people, and narrow down thousands of options to a select few that the community agrees on.

Babbar-Sebens has tested her method in places like the Eagle Creek watershed in Indiana and with rural communities in India. The data she has collected is helping her to refine the system. She says that tackling complicated problems like water management requires connections with community, collaborations across disciplines, and courage.

“When you think about adapting to climate change, it’s going to require courage from all of us to think differently,” she said. “Not just courage from engineering disciplines, but courage from communities to invest in ways to solve these problems.”

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Feb. 3, 2023

Crops and killowatts: Agrivoltaics project will harvest solar energy from farmland

Sheep in front of solar panels.

Careful consideration of solar power placement on agricultural land can improve yield, reduce water use, generate more electricity, and make room for grazing animals.

Photos courtesy of Chad Higgins.

Water, energy, and agriculture form the bedrock of civilization. While many technologies have advanced these components separately, few have aimed to address all three simultaneously.

Agrivoltaic technology promises to improve food production and reduce water use, while also generating energy. The idea is to place solar panels on land where crops are grown, allowing farmers to harvest the power of the sun twice.

Solar panels can be positioned to allow plants just the right amount of sunlight throughout the day, so the excess can be harvested for electricity. Metering sunlight also reduces the plants’ need for water. The plants, in turn, help keep the solar panels cool, enabling them to produce up to 10% more electricity.

This electricity can be used to power electric tractors and other equipment, as well as precision agriculture technology that helps further reduce water usage. Surplus energy can be stored in battery banks or sent to the grid for consumer use.

Chad Higgins standing next to solar panels.
Chad Higgins is leading the construction of an agrivoltaics project on a 5-acre
farm outside of Portland.

A recent study led by Chad Higgins, associate professor of biological and ecological engineering, estimates that converting just 1% of American farmland to agrivoltaics could meet the nation’s renewable energy targets. Making this transition could create new revenue opportunities for family farms facing steep economic challenges — evidenced by a 23% increase in bankruptcy filings over the past year.

Agrivoltaic principles will be put to the test for the first time on a 5-acre working farm at Oregon State’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora, 20 miles south of Portland. The $2 million project is funded by grants and donations from the Roundhouse Foundation, Oregon Clean Power Cooperative, and Portland General Electric.

The problem with agrivoltaics research to date, Higgins said, is that it has relied on solar arrays that were not designed for use in combination with agricultural activity, such as growing crops or grazing animals. The solar array at the extension center is designed specifically for agrivoltaics research, with its panels more spread out and able to rotate to a near-vertical position to allow farm equipment to pass through.

“There has been a huge increase in interest in agrivoltaics just in the past few years,” said Higgins, who is leading the effort. “It’s clear that agrivoltaic projects are going to happen, but people want to know where to build these projects and how to design the systems to get the greatest return. Those are types of questions we will address with this project.”

Feb. 2, 2023

New 30-year climate normals

Map of 30-year normal average annual precipitation from 1991-2020.

Oregon State University’s new maps of 30-year U.S. climate “normals” show the area east of the Rockies is getting wetter, the Southwest is getting drier, and temperatures are inching upward – with daily lows rising faster than daily highs.

“When we publish the new normals every 10 years, we’re taking away one decade from a 30- year period and adding another, which means the changes we see are subtle,” said Chris Daly, professor of geospatial climatology and the founding director of Oregon State’s PRISM Climate Group.

PRISM, which stands for Parameter-elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model, was developed by Daly in 1991 when he was a Ph.D. student at Oregon State. The 30-year normals are the climate group’s signature product, with thousands of downloads each day from around the globe. “PRISM data sets are used by many government agencies including NOAA, the EPA, NASA, and the departments of Defense, Energy, and the Interior.” Daly said. “The private sector relies on PRISM data, too, with applications including agriculture, hydrology, engineering, ecology, and economics.”

For this latest update of the normals, Daly and colleagues made a big push to add new data sources from new weather station networks. PRISM added 9,000 precipitation stations, for a total of 26,600; 3,000 temperature stations, bringing the total to 19,500; 2,400 dew point stations, for a total of 6,400; and 2,800 vapor pressure deficit stations, increasing that total to 6,400.

Solar radiation was added for the first time, thanks to a three-year collaboration with David Rupp of Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

While PRISM uses many data sources, Daly points out that one of the beauties of the state-of- the-art algorithm is that it allows for filling in information gaps.

“We can interpolate where we have no weather stations; PRISM accounts for how the Earth’s features affect the spatial patterns of climate on the landscape,” he said. “We have programmed in mountains, valleys, rain shadows, coastlines, and water body sources, so we can make pretty accurate estimates on what average conditions are like across the lower 48. Our maps feature tens of millions of grid cells-half-mile by half-mile squares.”

While the 30-year-normals are PRISM’s trademark product, the group also has monthly climate maps of the same resolution back to 1895 and daily maps dating to 1981; those maps incorporate the same variables as the normals, whose information is ubiquitous in climate science.

“Anytime you see a detailed map showing percentage of average or deviation from average, most likely PRISM normals are underlying that calculation,” Daly said.

Feb. 2, 2023

Wave Power: The Other Sustainable Energy

Graduate student Courtney Beringer makes adjustments to LUPA, a prototype wave energy converter tested at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab.

Graduate student Courtney Beringer makes adjustments to LUPA, a prototype wave energy converter tested at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab.

Photos by Johanna Carson and Chance Saechao.

What images pop up when you hear someone mention wind power and solar power? It’s a safe bet you’ll picture towering three bladed turbines, photovoltaic panels, or perhaps vast mirror arrays. But what do you see when you imagine the machinery used to harvest wave energy?

“We all know what wind and solar technologies look like, but there are five or six leading concepts for wave energy converters, and individual WEC designs vary dramatically,” said Bryson Robertson, associate professor of coastal and ocean engineering at Oregon State University and director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center, a consortium of universities dedicated to exploring the potential of marine energy.

Compared with wind and solar — by far the leading sustainable energy sources — wave energy barely registers, but it’s well positioned to become an important factor in the green energy equation. “Wave energy is very young, and wind and solar will continue to dominate future renewable energy systems,” Robertson said. “But at a certain point, adding more doesn’t provide additional value. We need new sources that are reliable at different times of the year; that’s where wave energy comes in.”

In western Oregon, for instance, energy demand peaks in winter when solar power is at its low ebb, while winds at land-based wind farms are fickle throughout the year. But the surging waves and currents of the North Pacific embody inexhaustible and immense coils of power that offer energy densities significantly greater than any form of green energy on the planet. And it’s there for the taking.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the wave energy within 10 nautical miles of Oregon’s coastline that can be practicably recovered annually totals 68 terawatt-hours — enough to power 6.4 million homes, far more than even exist in the state.

Among the WEC archetypes vying for attention and funding in the budding industry are floating circular buoys that rise and fall with ocean swells; enormous, hinged flaps mounted on the sea floor like giant horizontal swinging doors; and barges whose oscillations compress air that turns turbines. “Because the range is so wide, it makes things really interesting as a researcher,” Robertson said.

Robertson and his team are currently testing a lab-scale WEC prototype called LUPA, for Laboratory Upgrade Point Absorber. The work, funded by the Water Power Technologies Office of the DOE, is being conducted at Oregon State’s O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory wave flume, the largest such testing facility in North America. The LUPA prototype, which uses a two-body point absorber design, consists of a 1-meterwide floating ring that houses the motor/ generator assembly and electronics. A stationary heave plate is suspended a couple meters below the surface by a metal spar. The entire unit weighs more than 400 kilograms. LUPA produces electricity when the ring’s up and-down motion relative to the heave plate turns the generator. The prototype can produce 40 watts of power in 0.16-meter waves that pass every 2 seconds.

Bryson Robertson is developing LUPA as an opensource tool meant to spur progress in the marine energy sector.
Bryson Robertson is developing LUPA as an
​​​​​​opensource tool meant to spur progress in the marine
energy sector.

A full-scale LUPA would measure 20 meters across and weigh a little over 2,000 kg. Deployed in about 50 meters of water and moored to the seabed, its potential output is estimated at 350 kilowatts in 2-meter waves with a 9-second period. But the primary goal of the project isn’t to build a scaled-up LUPA; it’s to develop a completely open-source, fully validated, numerical and physical WEC model. All LUPA data will be available to any group that wants it — commercial or educational — to use any way they like. The intent is to help the entire marine energy sector progress faster, according to Robertson.

Wave lab testing is crucial for understanding the nuances of WEC designs before building full- size versions. “It may cost tens of thousands of dollars in the lab, but once you build a full-scale unit and deploy it, you’re at tens of millions of dollars, so you have to get it right,” Robertson said. “Lab testing allows us to fail quickly and cheaply and move on to the next iteration before scaling up.”

Adding to the myriad challenges inherent in building commercially viable WECs has been a dearth of open-ocean test facilities. That will soon change when Oregon State’s PacWave South becomes fully operational in 2024. PacWave South, located a few miles off Newport, Oregon, will be the first grid-connected, commercial-scale, open-ocean wave energy test facility in the continental U.S. Covering more than 2.5 square miles, it will accommodate up to 20 WECs. The DOE recently announced $25 million in funding for eight groups planning to deploy and test WECs at the site.

Robertson expects the first full-size WECs to start operating at PacWave South in just a few years, and he predicts that a handful of units will be generating power commercially along the West Coast in about a decade.

“Wave energy will add to the diversity of options for weaning ourselves from fossil fuels,” Robertson said. “This is an opportunity for the U.S. to become a global leader in the technology. Everything is looking pretty bright for significant progress in the coming years.”

Feb. 1, 2023

Realistic virtual labs are key to expanding online engineering degree programs

Jeff Nason and engineering student in lab uniform observing.

Photos by Johanna Carson.

Jeff Nason, professor of environmental engineering and associate head for graduate programs in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering, has been awarded a two- year, $200,000 National Science Foundation grant to gauge differences in how physical and virtual laboratories prepare students for an engineering career. In particular, he and co-principal investigator Milo Koretsky — an emeritus professor of chemical engineering at Oregon State University who now has a joint appointment in engineering and education at Tufts University — intend to determine if the two modes of learning foster the development of different but complementary skills.

The knowledge gained will better position engineering educators to design and establish virtual and physical laboratories, including labs for situations where students are place-bound and may not have access to physical equipment, according to Nason.

“As more engineering classes and degree programs move online, we need ways to ensure that virtual labs can accomplish the same goals as their physical counterparts,” Nason said.

The grant proposal emerged from the inaugural cohort of projects funded by the Center for Research in Engineering Education Online, or CREEdO — a collaboration between the College of Engineering and Oregon State Ecampus. The other projects from this cohort focused on making online courses more inclusive and incorporating extended-reality simulations and learning tools into online classes.

Nason explains that laboratory work provides an important opportunity for engineering students to form skills that will be essential in their profession, such as working effectively in teams, considering problems in context, making evidence-based decisions, and persisting and learning in the face of failure.

“Engineering is about solving problems, but we’d like to know if students approach problems differently depending on whether the lab is virtual or physical,” he said. “Does one environment lead to a high number of evidence-based decisions while the other promotes decisions based more on the quality of the team’s social interactions? How do students in each type of lab respond to being stuck? Does one foster more tolerance for failure more than the other?”

The CREEdO study protocol calls for four teams of three students each to conduct jar testing in both physical and virtual labs. Jar testing is a laboratory procedure commonly used by design engineers and drinking water treatment plant operators to optimize physical and chemical conditions for the effective coagulation, flocculation, and settling of particulate contaminants from water. The first round of lab work has been completed, and the NSF funding will allow the researchers to conduct a second round of observation and analysis.

Based on their lab results, the students, acting as teams of engineers, must deliver a recommendation by the end of the day. Virtual experiments can take just minutes to run, so each team is given a realistic time budget that adjusts for the length of time it would take to complete a set of jar tests in the real world.

“That means that students in the virtual lab can’t just endlessly or mindlessly repeat tests if things aren’t working out,” Nason said. “We want them to face the same realistic constraints they would encounter in a lab where they might work one day. Thus, students need to use data from their prior runs with first-principles knowledge and engineering judgment to converge on a process recommendation.”

Study data will come from three primary sources: video records and researcher observations of the teams as they complete their assignments, semistructured stimulated recall interviews of the students and laboratory instructors, and the students’ experimental results.

Though the study focuses on a process that is specific to environmental engineering, the results should be applicable to teaching and learning practices across other engineering and science disciplines that incorporate lab work, according to the researchers.

“If we’re going to be effective at offering online courses and degrees in these disciplines, we have to figure out a way to design effective virtual laboratories,” Nason said. “So, we need to offer the best possible simulation-based lab experiences, no matter where students are located.”

Sept. 14, 2022

We're teaming up to advance bioengineering

Advance bioengineering.

The Oregon Bioengineering Symposium — jointly organized by Oregon State, Oregon Health & Science University, and the University of Oregon — was established in 2019 to promote collaboration and exchange of ideas between students, researchers and practitioners in Oregon and the surrounding region. This year the meeting will take place on Oct. 6 at the LaSells Stewart Center at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. There will also be a virtual poster session on Oct. 5. The meeting will cover all areas of biomedical engineering, highlighting innovations in methods, materials and models.

Visit the official site for the 2022 Oregon Bioengineering Symposium for more information about how to submit an abstract and register for the meeting.

The Oregon Bioengineering Symposium builds on the combined strengths within the region in biomedical engineering research and technology development. The meeting typically draws hundreds of participants from universities and industry, providing a forum for exchange of ideas and establishment of new collaborations. Previous meetings: 2019 Oregon Bioengineering Symposium, 2021 Oregon Bioengineering Symposium.

The symposium also provides an opportunity for prospective students and post-docs to learn about research opportunities in Oregon. Oregon State University and University of Oregon offer joint MS and PhD degrees in bioengineering. Oregon Health and Science University offers graduate degrees in Biomedical Engineering.

Aug. 8, 2022

First the Ph.D., then it’s all downhill

A picture of Amy Glen and Stephen Ramsey talking.

Amy Glen loves skiing, so much that it factored into her decision to attend the University of Vermont, where the Alaska native majored in biology and competed with the university’s ski team.

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Glen worked at a lab that conducted analytical chemistry studies for pharmaceutical companies, where she worked with a lot of Excel spreadsheets. She realized that automating the manual data entry tasks would help her become more efficient in her job, but she didn’t have any programming background.

“I learned enough Visual Basic for Applications to write a macro and I thought, wow, this is awesome,” Glen said. “So I started learning more programming from there, a little bit at a time.”

That small taste sparked Glen’s interest in computer science, and she decided to enroll in Oregon State University’s online postbaccalaureate program in computer science in 2017.

“I was really grateful that the program existed,” Glen said. “I considered doing a master’s program in computer information systems at another university, but that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do, and I didn’t have the necessary prereqs for a computer science program.”

She also didn’t want to go back to school full-time to get another bachelor’s degree, and Oregon State’s online program allowed her to set her own pace while continuing to work full-time. The flexibility of the program also allowed Glen to take a break in 2018 to help set a startup company on its feet, which required her full attention for a year.

An undergraduate research experience changes everything

She resumed online classes in 2019. Knowing that she eventually wanted to get an advanced degree with the goal of conducting research in academia or industry, Glen applied for a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program in Associate Professor Stephen Ramsey’s lab.

Ramsey, who holds a joint appointment in computer science and biomedical sciences, applies bioinformatics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and systems biology to the identification and treatment of diseases.

Glen worked on one of Ramsey’s research projects, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, to integrate large volumes of data from myriad sources in biomedicine to help health professionals find possible solutions to treat rare diseases.

Glen’s background in biology is a great match for this research area, providing her a different perspective from that of most computer scientists.

“At first I was a little bit sad that I missed out on an undergraduate computer science experience,” Glen said. “But as I got up to speed and I didn’t feel behind my peers, I realized that it’s totally an asset coming from a different background like I do.”

Her previous career is giving her an advantage as well.

“Her experiences working at a lab in industry and as a startup founder give her really great instincts for working on a software team,” Ramsey said.

Glen thought she would wait about a year before attempting an advanced degree, but Ramsey encouraged her to apply for computer science doctoral programs right away.

“She has a knack for solving technical problems quickly and decisively,” he said. “On her own initiative, she solved a key challenge for our research that I had shied away from working on because I thought it would be too hard — this before she even started on her Ph.D.!”

Amy Glen skiing
Amy Glen loves skiing and takes the opportunity to hit the slopes on the mountains in nearby central Oregon.
Taking the leap to graduate school

Though she wasn’t sure she had the qualifications to get accepted to a graduate program, Glen applied at six schools in fall 2019 and was accepted at four universities, including Oregon State.

She decided to continue her studies at Oregon State because she enjoyed the research she was working on. Making her decision a bit easier, the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science offered her a fellowship in the Outstanding Scholars Program. Glen is also an ARCS scholar.

Though she didn’t finish the postbacc degree in computer science, Glen jumped right into her Ph.D. program and continued to work with Ramsey on the same research project she had started as an undergraduate.

Glen and Ramsey are working with the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle and Penn State to integrate large amounts of information in disparate and heterogeneous databases.

“For instance, there are databases that connect genes with diseases, or proteins and their mechanism of interaction with drugs,” Glen said. “There are so many databases, but they’re all in different formats and are so disjointed that it’s difficult to piece together all that information to allow reasoning across the whole dataset.”

The goal is to integrate all those sources and make them speak a common format so they can create a querying system that health professionals can use to help find possible answers for rare diseases.

Glen still loves skiing. Since moving to Corvallis, she’s been able to take advantage of the town’s proximity to the mountains. She also enjoys mountain biking and rock climbing. After she graduates, Glen plans to work for a nonprofit research institute or in academia. Wherever it is, it will likely be where she can hit the slopes often.


June 15, 2022

Student thrives at nexus of art and engineering

A picture of Paris Myers.

Paris Myers’ time at Oregon State University took the shape of a collage with a bit of everything in the mix.

An Honors College student graduating this spring with bachelor’s degrees in bioengineering and fine arts and minors in art history and popular music, Myers has been, among other things, an undergraduate researcher at Oregon State’s Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems  Institute, a visiting research intern at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, an intern for, and co-leader of Oregon State’s 2021 Marine Energy Collegiate Competition team that placed in a national competition.

It’s no wonder, then, that she was recently awarded the Joe Hendricks Scholarship for Academic Excellence and will be honored with a video highlighting her accomplishments at Oregon State’s 2022 Commencement.

“I’m extremely grateful to be awarded the Joe Hendricks scholarship,” Myers said. “There are hundreds of excellent graduating students at OSU, including 36 other nominees for this honor. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Myers was nominated by her Honors thesis co-chair, Skip Rochefort, associate professor of chemical engineering, who describes her as a thinker, learner, and maker to the highest degree.

“Paris will change the world, sooner rather than later,” Rochefort said.

Myers was shown the value in blending art and science via hands-on learning early on by her parents. Once she started Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, she took a course called Introduction to Art and Engineering taught by Adam Kirsch. 

“In that class, I realized combining art and engineering empowered me to engineer in a way that put humanity first and created scalable impact,” Myers said. “I had an intrinsic curiosity.”

Paris Myers
Graduating from high school at 16, Myers committed to cultivating her dual art and engineering interests. Trusting her intuition about where she would best thrive, she contacted both Oregon State and the University of Oregon. Immediately and enthusiastically, Toni Doolen, dean of the Honors College and professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, responded to her.

“It was just a match,” explained Myers. “A special shoutout to Dean Toni Doolen. I did things differently, and the Honors College supported me and stood behind my interdisciplinary approach to my education and research.”

While at Oregon State, Myers has engaged in research, internships, and other professional and charitable opportunities. Last summer, she received funding from Doolen and the Honors College and Larry Rodgers, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, to intern with the Harvard Biorobotics Laboratory. There, she co-created a study that combined haptics and soft robotics, visual art, and curatorial studies. Myers’ own curatorial experience began while interning with Oregon State’s Kirsi Peltomäki, professor of art and contemporary art historian.

“Dr. Peltomäki was my main advisor for my art history minor. I loved every second of it, and I’m honored to have her on Honors thesis committee” Myers said. “I also loved my experience doing a minor in popular music. I’m thankful and lucky to have earned the graduating senior music award.”

Inspired by Solomon Yim, professor of coastal and ocean engineering and structural engineering, who serves at her other Honors thesis co-chair, Myers will continue her passion for sustainable engineering by collaborating with interdisciplinary teams to promote renewable, innovative solutions.

Myers also serves her community through her art. When the pandemic struck in 2020, she launched her fundraising campaign, Paintings for Produce, working with Gathering Together Farm in Philomath to raise $10,000 for food donations to Benton County families through the commission of custom paintings. She also advocates for accessible education; in 2021, she interned for, a startup from the co-founder of Master Class that designs courses filling baccalaureate core credit requirements for all learners at a low cost.

Days after she graduates, Myers will join the MIT Media Lab’s biomechatronics team as a full-time researcher working with famed scientist Hugh Herr

“I’m thrilled to combine art and engineering — function and form — to create solutions that integrate the human body, design, and robotic systems,” Myers said.

As she reflects on her undergraduate career, Myers wishes success to current and prospective Oregon State engineering and arts students. She suggests it is OK not to know what they want at first, but they should “never take themselves out of a room” and trust their capacity to learn, even if nontraditionally.

“There are many different ways to be excellent,” Myers said. “How you create artwork, engineer systems, or solve problems might differ from how your peers do it. And that’s absolutely OK.”

June 7, 2022

Kelsey Stoerzinger earns Department of Energy early career award

Kelsey Stoerzinger, assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Kelsey Stoerzinger, assistant professor of chemical engineering, has been granted an award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Early Career Research Program. She will use the five-year, $750,000 prize to develop a deeper understanding of electrochemical processes used to convert nitrate into ammonia, and to design and test catalysts that target this reaction.

Ammonia is among the most widely used chemicals in the world. But industrial-scale ammonia production relies on the Haber-Bosch process, in which hydrogen and nitrogen are combined at high temperatures and pressures. The practice requires enormous amounts of energy and produces huge volumes of carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, nitrate from untreated wastewater and agricultural runoff overwhelms streams, rivers, and groundwater in many areas of the country. Ingesting excessive nitrate has been linked to a number of serious health risks in humans, while an overabundance in aquatic ecosystems can devastate plant and animal life.

Stoerzinger, who won an early career award from the National Science Foundation in 2021, will investigate an electrochemical option for ammonia synthesis in which an electric current is passed through a device containing nitrate-contaminated water. “We want to take this waste nitrate and transform it into a usable form, ammonia, and we’ll do that by applying electricity from renewable energy sources,” she said.

However, widespread implementation of an electrochemical approach will be feasible only with catalysts that select for, or favor, the reaction that produces ammonia rather than a competing reaction that produces hydrogen from the water molecules. Competing reactions can occur when the same starting materials combine to create undesired products.

Stoerzinger’s goal is to identify effective catalytic materials that result in high yields of ammonia. “Ideally, the catalyst should be highly selective for the nitrate-to-ammonia reaction and not for hydrogen production,” she said. “And it should be efficient, so that every electron flowing through the water creates ammonia, not hydrogen, even at low energy input.”

She intends to focus on materials made from abundant elements, like nickel, iron, and cobalt, because precious metal catalysts, while potentially useful, are too expensive for large-scale production. Stoerzinger will combine electrochemical studies, spectroscopy, and microkinetic modeling to gain a better understanding of how the electronic structure of catalysts determines competition between ammonia and hydrogen production under reaction conditions, thereby supporting the design of the most selective and efficient catalysts.

“We want to find sustainable solutions that allow us to recycle nitrate by upgrading it to something valuable,” Stoerzinger said. “Developing the most selective and efficient catalysts is the linchpin that will allow us to move the technology forward.”

June 7, 2022

Pure water from a box is project’s promise

A group of researchers working on a project.

What if you could give millions of people access to safe drinking water and help solve the climate crisis at the same time? As a bonus, you could help your own community prepare for when the Big One comes.

That’s the vision behind a personal-sized water treatment appliance now in development by a team led by two Oregon State engineering alumni.

“For most people around the world, water out of the tap has to be treated, not optionally for better taste but to make it safe to drink,” said Paul Berg, B.S. civil engineering ’78.

Boiling kills bacteria. But there’s a less energy-intensive option. Many municipal utilities treat water using ultraviolet light. Berg wondered: What if you could scale down this technology? A water systems engineer who spent his career with CH2M Hill, Berg knew his family would need dependably clean water while living in Kampala, Uganda, where he would take a sabbatical in 2009-10.

He installed a UV bulb in a rugged container that holds a gallon of water. He plugged it in, and in two minutes, the water was safe to drink. Because electricity can be undependable in many African cities, Berg attached a hand-cranked generator as an alternative power source.

In 2017, Berg talked about his water box at a City Club of Corvallis workshop about how to obtain safe water after an earthquake. In the audience, climate researcher Dave Conklin, Ph.D. biological and ecological engineering ’10, was intrigued. He did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and realized that the water box had the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, given that 600 million people boil water every day to make it safe to drink.

The two men formed a partnership around a shared dream: getting the water box into millions of households worldwide. Today the device is known as the DayZero UV-H 2 O-Box. Its name references a 2018 crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, when city officials counted down the days remaining before the municipal water supply was estimated to run out.

Berg has worked with others to improve the water box from the start. In 2009, a team of Oregon State engineering students — Megan Heinze, Tom Jacroux and Richard Oleksak, all from the class of 2010 — worked on it for their senior capstone project. Eventually, in 2020, a model became available for purchase.

Last year, preparation began for field tests in partnership with nonprofits Engineering Ministries International and Uganda Christian University. The goal is to solicit honest feedback from potential users, information that will inform the final design for successful scale-up.

After consulting with Nordica MacCarty, Richard and Gretchen Evans Scholar of Humanitarian Engineering, Berg went to Kampala to help train two UCU civil engineering graduates who will distribute water boxes to about 20 households and collect data about their use after four weeks.

DayZero’s water boxes are meant to be used in cities, where many people use an electric kettle to boil water for drinking. The DayZero team calculates that the monthly electricity cost for using an electric kettle to boil drinking water (not counting use for tea) is about $1.50. The cost for using a water box: about one half-cent.

Boiling water over a fire — as people do in rural areas worldwide — is even harder on the environment. In energy terms, UV water treatment is 10,000 times more efficient than burning wood to boil water. Reducing wood and charcoal fires would help ease deforestation, as well as health hazards from smoke exposure and burns, especially among children.

Back in Oregon, the DayZero founders recognize that their own communities could someday find themselves at ground zero of a major earthquake — the type of natural disaster in which the water box could be most valuable. Pacific Northwest residents are urged to have supplies on hand for an emergency, but experts warn that it may be months before communities recover. No one can store that much drinking water. DayZero’s water boxes can be purchased for emergency preparedness kits for about $300.

The boxes are made at Conklin’s house in Portland, where volunteers assemble them by hand. Each purchase helps to advance DayZero’s goal of providing a better alternative to people who rely on boiled water every day.

“I would love to have a design team of experienced product engineers take hold of this and develop a product that’s ready to be mass-produced,” Berg said.

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This story originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of the Oregon Stater Magazine.

April 26, 2022
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