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WSU Research Sustainable Resources

Multimillion dollar grant to support nuclear waste cleanup

waste barrels

Research probes how radiation changes nuclear waste over time

Safe management of nuclear waste is vital to national security and a primary mission of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Approximately 300 million liters of highly radioactive wastes are stored in underground tanks at the Hanford Site in Washington and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Wastes stored in tanks at Hanford have been there for decades. Radiation present in the wastes drives chemical changes that are neither well understood nor predictable. DOE estimates it will take at least 50 years and $300 billion to process the wastes into forms fit for disposal using currently available methods.

To gather knowledge needed to find new methods for safely disposing radioactive wastes, the DOE is tapping the expertise of radiochemists at Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

Co-leading a collaborative research effort

The DOE awarded $12 million to establish an Energy Frontier Research Center at PNNL. It is one of 36 such centers nationwide that conduct fundamental research to build a scientific foundation for energy technologies of the future—and one of four centers established in 2016. Called the Interfacial Dynamics in Radioactive Environments and Materials (IDREAM), the PNNL center is led by WSU Regents professor and PNNL scientist Sue Clark.

PNNL leads IDREAM in partnership with WSU, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and three other universities. The team collaborates to study chemical reactions in radiation environments and other extreme conditions that cause nuclear waste to change over time.

Examining molecular interactions in extreme conditions

IDREAM aims to provide new knowledge about molecular interactions caused by radiation in extreme environments. This knowledge will enable development of waste management technologies, as well as ways to predict how wastes will behave decades from now.

WSU chemistry professor Aurora Clark is an expert in simulating complex chemical solutions like those found in Hanford. As deputy director of IDREAM, Dr. Clark will work with theorists at PNNL and other research institutions, including the University of Washington, to create realistic simulations of interactions that occur among chemical species in the highly radioactive waste environment.

The simulations will provide the roadmap for investigations by experimentalists like Sue Clark—work that will aid in the design of new waste collection, processing, and storage methods.

Building the workforce

In addition to addressing pressing issues surrounding radioactive waste management, IDREAM will provide invaluable graduate and postdoctoral opportunities for a new generation of scientists.

There is a near-critical shortage of highly trained chemists in the nation’s nuclear industry. WSU is home to one of the nation’s premier radiochemistry research programs. Its work with PNNL to advance nuclear science attracts grants to the region and helps train tomorrow’s radiochemists.

Supplying food, energy, and water for future generations

Helping the Columbia Basin withstand climate change

In Washington’s Columbia River basin, climate change has diminished snow storage, a significant source of summer water for the region. At the same time, population growth is escalating demand for water.

The basin is home to farms and ranches that feed the state. Hydropower generates more than half of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity, most coming from the Columbia River.1 Resources must be deftly managed to develop the region’s resilience to climate change.

Population growth and climate change strain interdependent food, energy and water systems. WSU researchers have long studied each of these systems alone. A recent $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture unites the researchers’ efforts.

Exploring connections among food, energy, and water

Jennifer Adam and Julie Padowski are co-leading an interdisciplinary team that explores how food, energy, and water systems interact. Dr. Adam is associate director of the State of Washington Water Research Center, where Dr. Padowski is a clinical assistant professor. Dr. Padowski is also affiliated with WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach.

Creating a roadmap for an uncertain future

Researchers will identify ways to optimize resource management under rapidly changing conditions. They will integrate existing models to better understand complex interactions throughout the basin. They also plan to evaluate how technological innovations, such as precision agriculture or energy storage batteries, might help mitigate effects of the shifting climate.

The team spans the WSU Pullman and Vancouver campuses, as well as University of Idaho, University of Utah, Utah State University, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Faculty from WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources also participate.

1. Bonneville Power Administration,

Innovation for Washington’s signature industry

WSU created a brand new apple variety called Cosmic Crisp, known for its excellent flavor, good texture, and superior storage. Cosmic Crisp is a cross between Enterprise and Honeycrisp.

More than 600,000 trees are expected to be planted this spring, and growers have ordered over 5 million trees for 2018. First harvest will be in 2019. Fruit will become widely available to consumers in 2020.

Cosmic Crisp is the latest example of WSU’s world-class tree fruit breeding program and the University’s commitment to the state’s tree-fruit industry.

Growing cyberforests to predict the impacts of climate change

Hardwood forrest at sunrise

Realistic 3-D simulation helps forest managers anticipate disturbances

Drought, heat, and other irregular conditions spawned by climate change take a toll on tree ecosystems. How, exactly, will those stressors affect forests in the future? Predictions have been difficult—until now.

WSU Vancouver mathematicians Nikolay Strigul and Jean Lienard have created a 3-D computer simulation to visualize how tree ecosystems can be altered by factors such as carbon dioxide levels, wildfires, and drought. The simulator lets forest managers predict wildfires and other disturbances. If a forest is destroyed, the tool can help determine the species of trees and ecological factors necessary to reestablish it.

The computer model already enabled the research team to predict increases in fire rates and plant growth in Quebec hardwood forests—changes caused by rising CO2 levels and warmer temperatures.

Simulating forests with extensive detail

Recent advances in computing power allow the simulator to “grow” 100×100-meter stands of drought- and shade-tolerant trees. The researchers’ model is so realistic and detailed, it even represents individual trees’ branches, leaves, and roots. Simulated trees can be scaled up to actual forest size. The model can project the impact of climatic change on forests over thousands of years.

“It is a tool that forest managers can use to create 3D representations of their own forests and simulate what will happen to them in the future,” Dr. Strigul said.

To build models that match selected North American forests, the researchers gather data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program and other forestry databases. They also use information gleaned through reconnaissance from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Next on Drs. Strigul and Lienard’s docket: Modeling forest data from Europe and Asia.

Wood-based biofuel powers cross-country flight

WSU-led coalition partners with Alaska Airlines for the world’s first commercial flight using fuel made from forest residuals.

In November 2016 a commercial airplane powered by jet fuel made from woody biomass took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The historic Alaska Airlines flight to Washington, D.C. marked the culmination of five years of collaborative research exploring renewable, alternative jet fuel. Led by Washington State University, the research initiative laid the groundwork for development of an aviation biofuels industry in the Pacific Northwest.

As the world’s finite supply of fossil fuels dwindles, availability of renewable sources of jet fuel will become increasingly important. Woody biomass is a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based fuel. It is made primarily from limbs and branches that remain after a forest is logged. These residues are currently burned in the forest as waste products.

Fueling aircraft as well as the economy

Of the many types of feedstocks, or raw materials, that could be used to develop aviation fuel, woody biomass holds many advantages. It is readily available, and its harvesting helps manage Northwest forests. Unlike some other feedstocks, woody biomass can be used for fuel without compromising food production. Its harvesting may create jobs that revitalize rural economies.

The Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA)—a coalition of 32 organizations in industry, academia, and government laboratories—produced 1,080 gallons of alternative jet fuel for the Alaska Airlines flight. NARA is building the foundation for a renewable jet fuel industry in the Pacific Northwest. Led by Washington State University since its inception in 2011, NARA evaluates the economic, environmental, and societal benefits and impacts associated with harvesting unused forest residuals for alternative jet fuel production. Its work is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Biomass-based jet fuel could be a boon for the environment. The November flight used a 20 percent blend of jet biofuel. If Alaska Airlines were to replace 20 percent of its fuel supply at Sea-Tac Airport with NARA’s alternative, it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 142,000 metric tons. That reduction is equivalent to what would be achieved by taking some 30,000 passenger vehicles off the road for one year.

Uniting minds across the University

WSU researchers and students were heavily involved in all aspects of the research initiative. Students worked across disciplines to evaluate supply chains. WSU Extension specialists directed community outreach. Chemical engineers developed new uses for lignin, an abundant byproduct of biofuel production, to help the biorefineries that covert woody biomass into jet fuel generate more profit.

Although the project is coming to a close, many researchers are continuing their work to propel the aviation biofuels industry to new heights.

Managing reservoirs for the health of the environment

Water bodies produce more methane than landfills

Reservoirs dot the Pacific Northwest, providing water for irrigation, fish conservation, hydropower and recreation. Yet these freshwater bodies also contribute to climate change by releasing methane—a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide—into the air.

The use of fertilizers, fossil fuels and other practices common to industrial civilizations increases the discharge of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous into lakes, streams and coastal areas, causing algae growth, depleting oxygen and posing a hazard to human health. By slowing the flow of water through watersheds, thereby providing favorable conditions for algal growth and sediment trapping, reservoirs can greatly alter the flow of nutrients from uplands to the sea.

The same characteristics that make reservoirs good at trapping and removing nutrients also make them potent sources of methane. Yet we have only a limited understanding of the relationship between reservoirs and greenhouse gas emissions.

John HarrisonWater scientist John Harrison at WSU Vancouver is out to change that. While synthesizing global data on excess nutrients in freshwater systems, his team noticed the importance of reservoirs. On average, reservoirs trap and remove nutrients from water much faster than natural lakes do. Collectively, they also produce a lot of methane, about as much as other important sources such as biomass burning, landfills and rice cultivation globally.

With nearly $1 million in recent grants from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Harrison is studying reservoirs throughout the Pacific Northwest, seeking ways to enhance water quality while minimizing their release of methane. “The results we’ve seen so far suggest that better managing nutrients within a watershed could reduce methane releases,” Harrison said.

Altering the timing of drawdowns—when dam operators lower the level of the reservoir by releasing water—may be especially important.

Ultimately Harrison hopes to bring lessons learned in the Pacific Northwest to reservoir managing agencies throughout the country.

Conserving water, improving Washington’s white wine

WSU researchers inform irrigation strategies

Washington is a leading producer of Riesling and Chardonnay wine grapes. In fact, these two grapes account for 75 percent of the white wine grape production in the state.

In arid eastern Washington, where most of the state’s wine grapes are grown, efficient irrigation is the name of the game. But it can be particularly challenging for white wine grapes. If a grower anticipates a heat wave, he or she can have a hard time figuring out how much to irrigate. Overwatering could result in too much canopy growth at the expense of berry production, and not enough water could mean lower yields.

When it comes to determining the best irrigation strategies for white wine grapes, growers don’t have a lot to go on. That’s why WSU viticulturists Yun Zhang and Markus Keller are evaluating methods to conserve water and improve the productivity and quality of chardonnay and Riesling grapes.

They’re discovering promising strategies that growers can use to make sure water is delivered when and where it is most needed.
One strategy is called “partial rootzone drying.” A grower applies water to one part of the vine’s root zone while letting the other part dry out. In effect, the vine is tricked into thinking it is water stressed when it isn’t. Canopy growth stays under control without sacrificing berry size or crop yield. Plus, it takes the guesswork out of irrigation scheduling.

In partnership with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the irrigation study takes place at their Columbia Crest trial vineyards in Paterson, Washington. To evaluate the finished product, WSU enologist Jim Harbertson produces wine from the grapes in the study at WSU’s Wine Science Center in Richland. Support for the research is provided by the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and the Washington Wine Commission.

Organic farming: A fruitful alternative

Study compares profitability of organic and conventional agriculture

To be sustainable, organic agriculture must be profitable. How lucrative is organic farming relative to conventional methods? The answer may surprise you.

Soil sciences professor John Reganold teamed with WSU entomologist David Crowder to compare the financial performance of organic and conventional farming. The pair synthesized data across studies spanning a 40-year period. They compared costs, gross returns, cost/benefit ratios, and net present values—a measure that accounts for inflation.

Their study heralds organic farming as the clear profitability frontrunner. The authors consulted with 3 agricultural economists to confirm their findings, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While organic farms have lower crop yields, their crops command prices that are roughly a third higher than those of conventional crops. Those price premiums have held steady for 4 decades. Higher prices translate into sizable profit margins.

Organic farming currently accounts for only 1 percent of agriculture worldwide. While price premiums give farmers a strong incentive to go organic, converting a conventional farm is financially risky. A chemical-free transitional period, often 3 years, is required before foods can wear the “certified organic” label. During this time, crop yields drop, but farmers can’t raise prices to make up the difference.

Government policies must shift to help would-be organic farmers over the hump, the authors say. If that happens, organic agriculture could expand to feed a larger share of the world sustainably.

Putting a price on nature’s services to agriculture

Scientists calculate the economic value of organic farming processes

On organic farms, nature does a lot of the heavy lifting. Earthworms turn the soil. Insects prey on pests. Cover crops supply organic matter to the soil and make nitrogen available to plants. Farmers who take advantage of these natural processes can sidestep expenditures on costly and less eco-friendly alternatives.

In dollars and cents, exactly how much is Mother Nature’s labor worth?

Washington State University soil scientist John Reganold was part of an international team of scholars that put a sticker price on the benefits that nature provides agriculture. In a study funded by the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, scientists calculated economic values of two organic farming processes: pest control and fertilization. They compared the numbers to values of conventional, fossil fuel-based alternatives.

Determinants of value included factors such as market prices of crops, size of crop yields, costs of fertilizers and pesticides, predation rates of pests like aphids, and the rate of mineralization, or return of nitrogen to the soil by decay.

The difference was clear: Organic agricultural services deliver more than twice value of their conventional counterparts.

As the population surges in the decades ahead, farmers will need to produce greater quantities of food. In the face of climate change, they will be challenged to maintain yields under increasingly unstable conditions. Dr. Reganold hopes that the lure of greater value will spur a shift toward sustainable farming methods that protect future generations.

Ensuring a reliable power supply

WSU teams with the U.S. Department of Energy in “smart grid” research and education

On a hot August day in 2003, a falling tree branch in Ohio triggered a power outage that rippled across 8 U.S. states and into Canada, cutting power to 50 million people. As transportation ground to a halt, food spoiled, and indoor heat soared to intolerable highs, the critical need for a reliable energy supply became irrefutably clear. Today, the electrical grid has the smarts to avert such a disaster, in part because of research conducted at Washington State University.

WSU leads the nation’s efforts to increase the reliability and efficiency of the “smart grid,” the computer-automated network that distributes electricity nationwide. In partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, WSU scholars explore new technologies to advance power grid operation and control, dependability, and security. They seek ways to automate power distribution, integrate renewably generated power, and prevent blackouts.

Anjan Bose, distinguished professor in power engineering and National Academy member, works to develop a software platform for testing the smart grid. Dr. Bose served as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy, where he led an effort to coordinate research on electric power grid technologies. His work is part of a greater body of research conducted at the University’s Energy Systems Innovation Center. The Center’s multidisciplinary studies on electric energy and its social and economic impacts support development of public policy at the state and federal levels.

Educating tomorrow’s power engineers is a top University priority. Backed by a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), scholars in the University’s Smart Grid Demonstration and Research Investigation Laboratory are developing a workforce training program. Its goal: to prepare the clean energy and smart grid engineers of tomorrow.

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