By Michael Wolcott, Associate Vice President for Research, Office of Clean Technology

Creating a more resilient and sustainable future is one of the biggest challenges facing our society today. It’s important that we ask certain fundamental questions, such as, how can we as a community continue to economically advance while reducing our environmental footprint? What can we change today to ensure the future health of our society and environment?

At Washington State University, an integral part of our mission is to align our resources, including our research, education, and outreach capabilities, to address the most pressing challenges facing our society today. Exploring how we can better conserve resources, adapt energy systems, and change management policies to create a more sustainable future has been a part of the WSU narrative for years and, with the creation of the Office of Clean Technology, we are providing centralized leadership for our research into sustainability and conservation.

The Concept of Clean Tech

In 2011, WSU created the Office of Alternative Energy which, in 2017 was renamed the Office of Clean Technology. Residing within the Office of Research, it strives to highlight WSU’s broad research portfolio that addresses the issues around of air and water quality, biofuel and bioproducts development, advanced materials, sustainable infrastructure design, precision agriculture, and smart grid.

For many people the term clean technology brings to mind things like hybrid cars, solar panels, and wind turbines.  While this type of research happens on the WSU campus, the term clean technology is more than just a type of product. Clean technology is a concept that encapsulates the scientific movement toward a cleaner, more resilient and sustainable future.

Clean technology is a category that includes any research or work with the goal of reducing negative environmental impacts. For example, this year researchers in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences are researching ways to reduce acidification levels in soil, which kills crops. Faced with rising food costs due to lower crop yields, the team comprised of Professors Tim Murray and Arron Carter are exploring the use of ash waste from paper mills to reduce soil acidification. This solution will help protect crops and keep this waste out of landfills.

As you can see, clean technology can be found in every scientific discipline from engineering to political science to sociology.

Our Research Portfolio

Our first challenge was to clearly define what clean technology and sustainability research meant for WSU. After reviewing our current research, we divided our clean technology portfolio into six categories: air and water conservation; precision agriculture; sustainable design; smart grid technology; advanced materials; and biofuels and bioproducts.

These categories not only provided guidance for organizing our future clean tech research endeavors, but also helped in communicating our expertise to a wider audience. For example, projects like the Composite Materials and Engineering Center, the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory, and Center for Materials Research were disconnected from each other, despite their common goal of creating a greener future through Advanced Materials. This isolation is not only inefficient in terms of resources, but also downplays the impact WSU’s sustainable portfolio, limiting our ability to establish new partnerships and secure future funding.

For instance, in 2013 WSU was selected to co-lead the Aviation Sustainability Center (ASCENT), also called the Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels and the Environment, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We were selected after submitting a proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration with sixteen allied universities and multiple industry and government partners. These partnerships were created from previous relationships that WSU built through other research collaborations. Through the centralized support provided by the Office of Clean Technology and the Office of Research, this new team was created and eventually led to the founding of ASCENT.

Sustainability and the Drive to 25  

As part of WSU’s goal of becoming one of the nation’s top 25 public research universities by 2030, we must continue to grow our research portfolio. The federal funding data clearly shows, that to achieve this goal, we must leverage our partnerships with federal agencies and industry members to secure funding and initiate innovative research projects, something WSU is doing through the projects that are part of the Office of Clean Technology.

A major partnership that WSU is now leveraging into a strategic focus is our program with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Starting with the PNNL-WSU Joint Appointment program in 2008, this collaboration has expanded to yield research relationships and hands-on educational experiences that are now formalized in the prestigious PNNL-WSU Distinguished Graduate Program (DGRP). The DGRP selects outstanding grad students pursuing research in a wide variety of disciplines to work collaboratively between WSU and PNNL. Recently, WSU advanced our strategic partnership with PNNL by establishing three joint institutes, focusing on sustainable nuclear science, advanced grid, and bioproducts. For example, through cutting-edge science, engineering and analysis, the WSU-PNNL Advanced Grid Institute will establish a national modeling platform for grid technologies and transactions that will enable elevated levels of renewables on the nation’s power grid and well as a more resilient and secure grid system.

The WSU-PNNL Institutes are another great example of how WSU’s clean technology research is forging a path forward to finding solutions that tackle tough societal issues and helping us grow our research impact. By utilizing our existing strengths as a public research institution, WSU continues to work toward a healthier, sustainable future. Through education, outreach, and interdisciplinary research, our community finds solutions and lays the groundwork for future generations to continue to prosper and advance.

WSU is committed to multidisciplinary research and creative partnerships to discover green, biodegradable, and renewable options for everything from construction of roads and buildings, to how we grow our food. The Office of Clean Technology is providing the support for researchers to partner with industries to develop greener and more sustainable solutions providing future generations with a healthier way to live.