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WSU Research Smart & Sustainable Systems

Designing cities for the future

Power workers up on a light pole

Measuring urban air quality is one step towards healthier, more sustainable cities

By 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas. Growing cities strain food, water and energy systems, which in turn has a negative impact on economic, social and environmental sustainability and wellbeing.

To address these challenges, regional governments, companies and universities are coming together to develop the technology and proposed system changes needed for “smarter” cities. An initiative in Spokane called Urbanova is one of the innovators in this movement, and Washington State University is a founding partner.

Urbanova is a living laboratory in Spokane’s University District founded by Avista, the City of Spokane, Itron, McKinstry, the University District Development Association, and WSU. The focus of the lab is to harness data to gain insights, empower people and solve urban challenges in new ways. WSU’s research expertise in smart power grids and the food-water-energy nexus make it a natural innovation partner in this group.

The first project: Tracking air quality through connected sensors

WSU researcher Von Walden is involved in Smart and Connected Streetlights, Urbanova’s pilot project, which is installing sensors and collecting data to improve understanding of pollution and health in the community.

Walden, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is leading the air quality aspects of the project along with other researchers in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. Working with Avista and Itron, the WSU team installed three air quality sensors on streetlights in the district.

The data will provide insights into energy savings and efficiency and will be used with advanced weather and air quality models to improve understanding of micro-climates in urban areas. It will also provide unique and valuable information about how forest fires – which are common in the region – affect air quality and pollution in urban environments.

The project is important because Spokane is one of hundreds of similar mid-sized cities in the U.S. that have rarely been studied for air pollution, Walden said.

The researchers will install several more sensors later this year, and researchers from the WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are developing a software platform to integrate, store, and analyze the air quality data as well as data from the power grid. They will also be making the real-time data on pollution levels publicly available.

Harnessing technology to improve quality of life

New promise for solar energy

A breakthrough by WSU researcher Kelvin Lynn could help solar energy compete with fossil fuels for generating electricity.

Commercial success of solar technology has been constrained by the cells’ performance and cost. Key to addressing both concerns are the materials from which solar cells are made.

Seeking an alternative to silicon

Silicon solar cells represent 90 percent of the solar cell market. Because silicon is a costly material to use in manufacturing, it keeps the price of solar cells high. A low-cost alternative is cadmium telluride (CdTe), which outperforms silicon in real-world conditions, such as low light and hot, humid weather. CdTe also boasts a lower carbon footprint. The downside: Its performance is limited.

For decades, the maximum voltage available from a CdTe solar cell was fixed, making it less energy efficient than silicon-based cells. This practical limit was imposed by the quality of CdTe materials.

Breaking a longstanding barrier

Working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Dr. Lynn’s team discovered a way to grow CdTe crystals that enabled precise control over purity and composition. His approach enabled fabrication of CdTe solar cells that made them nearly as efficient as silicon-based cells. The innovation establishes new research paths for developing solar cells that are more efficient and provide electricity at lower cost than fossil fuels.

Dr. Lynn’s research was funded through the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which aims to strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the solar industry and make solar energy cost-competitive with traditional energy sources.

Transforming the U.S. power grid

Automating electricity transfer across the state based on need

To harness renewable resources and mitigate power outages, America needs to evolve the “Smart Grid,” the computer-automated network that distributes electricity nationwide. WSU’s Energy System Innovation Center is answering the challenge.

The Center is part of the first regional effort to collect renewable energy and share it among buildings across the state. Development of energy-sharing capability will make power distribution more flexible and cost effective.

Smart distribution of electricity

The regional initiative demonstrates “transactive technology,” which uses a network of sensors, battery systems, and software to automatically adjust energy loads. Decisions to adjust are based on pre-determined criteria such as energy prices, essential services, comfort levels, time of day, electricity available, and more.

WSU’s collaborators in the project include Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and University of Washington (UW). The project will pilot transactive energy management across their three campus locations. For example, if the equipment that turns energy into electricity for UW were to become overloaded, Seattle City Light could signal UW to reduce its power consumption momentarily.

Storing renewably generated energy for use in outages

Transactive technology also optimizes use of renewable energy sources. WSU will integrate solar panels into Pullman’s “Smart City” test bed, a living laboratory for automating electricity distribution. The solar panels will also become part of WSU’s microgrid system, a locally based, electricity producing power grid that can communicate with the power company.

The newly added solar panels will communicate automatically with generators at WSU, as well as with a unique, one megawatt energy storage battery in Pullman. The campus system will communicate automatically with electric meters at both PNNL and UW campuses. Researchers aim to store solar energy in the battery, so that it can be put to use automatically in the event of a power outage at any of the three campuses.

The U.S. Department of Energy and Washington State Department of Commerce are supporting the demonstration project.

The haptic touch

Two new patented inventions by Hakan Gurocak can help advance the digital experience.

One difference between hands-on experiences and digital experiences is the sense of touch. When you shop at a retail store, for example, you can handle an item before you buy it. But when you shop online, you only see a picture of it.

Technology that conveys a sense of touch—called haptics—currently is used in the automotive industry, in medical training, in videogames and even on your smartphone’s keypad. But it has not spread to everyday use.

Hakan Gurocak, director of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University Vancouver, is out to change that.

Gurocak recently received his first two U.S. patents, both designed to overcome some longstanding technical challenges and make haptics technology more practical. The patents are a step toward haptic interfaces—possibly something wearable, like a type of glove—that will expand applications of the technology.

Haptics has great potential to improve our quality of life. For instance, while robotic surgery is already in use, it is limited by the lack of what’s called “force feedback” to the surgeon. Haptic technology can provide that feedback, ultimately enabling the surgeon to “feel” inside the patient’s body as he interacts with tissue while operating the surgical robot.

The future of haptic technology depends on continuing training of new inventors with new ideas, and that is happening at WSU Vancouver. Gurocak’s former graduate students are listed as co-inventors on the patents. He is delighted about the beneficial “side effect” of his patents—“not only developing the technology but in the process developing a highly skilled technology workforce who got to work on these things and contributed,” Gurocak said. “Regardless of the patents, that’s what universities do.”

Aerial technology takes to the fields

Many roles emerge for unmanned aerial vehicles in agriculture

As the global population rises, farmers will be expected to produce more food with less water, fewer fertilizers and pesticides, and a dwindling workforce. WSU researchers see part of the solution in the sky: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Widely known for their defense applications, UAVs could be a boon to agriculture. Lav Khot, assistant professor in precision agriculture at the Center for Precision and Automated Agriculture Systems in Prosser, works with colleagues to lay the groundwork for widespread use of UAVs in the fields.

Dr. Khot has partnered with Digital Harvest, a developer of crop-management technology, and vehicle manufacturer Yamaha Motor Corp. Together they are testing the ability of Yamaha’s mid-sized unmanned helicopter to blow rainwater from Washington cherry orchards. Rainwater cracks the fruit and can devastate up to 90 percent of a cherry crop. Current methods of removing rainwater with manned helicopters are dangerous and expensive.

Next season, the team will also test surgical spraying capabilities of the unmanned helicopter. The technology could help growers save resources by more precisely applying chemicals and nutrients.

In addition, Dr. Khot and colleague Sindhuja Sankaran, also an expert in agricultural automation engineering, will test the performance of UAVs outfitted with sensors. Sensors could play many roles in agriculture: monitoring the health of crops, assessing water use and irrigation scheduling, and optimizing nutrient applications. The tests will also help crop breeders to quickly determine the success of a new cultivar bred for diverse conditions such as drought.

The FAA is cautiously approving use of commercial drones in farming. In the meantime, WSU researchers can responsibly and independently test UAVs and sensors. Once the technology passes the tests, we may see its wider adoption by the farming community.

Answering the toughest transportation questions

Research helps public agencies plan and prioritize road maintenance projects

The nation’s social and economic lifeblood rumbles along on 2.6 million miles of paved roads.1 Yet the economic importance of any given highway is difficult to quantify. If a snowstorm socks the region, does it cost more to keep a highway clear or shut it down for a day? Is a damaged road really worth repairing?

Kenneth Casavant, professor of economics at WSU Pullman, knows how to find the answers.

His current research aims to put these answers right at the fingertips of the decision-makers who need them.

Dr. Casavant is the director of the federally funded Freight Policy Transportation Institute (FPTI) and the University’s transportation research group. With a team of co-researchers, he is developing a web-based tool that will quantify and visualize such transportation factors as day-to-day vehicle volumes, loading trends, bottlenecks, total cargo value, and even truck reliability.

Using that information, planners and public agencies can estimate the economic impact of improvement on a given roadway and provide for future growth.

Strategically planning and prioritizing repairs, upgrades, and maintenance can pay big dividends. For example, the FPTI’s recent study of 2 weather-caused temporary highway closures in Washington state revealed losses of economic output, employment, state tax revenue, and personal income totaling millions of dollars.

Dr. Casavant’s work could turn those lost millions into dollars saved.


1. American Road and Transportation Builders Association

Testing next-generation energy technologies

Smart grid lab seeks ways to thwart blackouts, save energy, and deliver on customer preferences

Washington State University researchers are building the most comprehensive “smart city” laboratory in the U.S. to test smart grid technologies and address the critical national need for a reliable and secure electric power grid. Working with a $500,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, they are building a model city of the future with simulated windmills, solar panels, fuel cells, power substations and smart meters.

Leading the effort is Chen-Ching Liu, director of WSU’s Energy Systems Innovation Center. Working closely with Battelle/Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, Avista, and other partners, the center recently helped complete the $178M Northwest Smart Grid demonstration project, which included making Pullman one of the nation’s only smart grid cities. Other center activities include a National Science Foundation-funded study to build resiliency against coordinated cyber-attacks, and a smart distribution system for the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington.

Cities of the future will use more renewable energy to meet power needs, creating technical issues and requiring more flexibility from the power grid. Meanwhile, the power grid’s complexity is only growing with the addition of information-age technologies.

WSU researchers expect the test lab will help utilities answer questions such as how to better prevent and stop blackouts, save energy and incorporate smart meters, which provide feedback to utilities about customer choices and desires. The test bed will have comprehensive, advanced facilities for studying the power grid at the systems level and for including complex interactions between subsystems and components. Ultimately, the test bed will surmount many of the difficulties of real-life testing, speeding up the adoption of smart grid technologies.

Washington State University