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Washington State University
WSU Research Sustainable Resources

Developing new sources of transportation fuel

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Scientists seek chemical-free ways to convert waste into biofuel

Tomorrow’s airplanes and automobiles may be fueled by today’s waste. An abundance of waste material known as cellulosic biomass could supply 27 percent of the world’s transportation fuels in the years ahead, according to the International Energy Agency.

Cellulosic biomass, which is organic material not suitable for use as food, includes forest underbrush, perennial grasses, sawdust, paper pulp, and industrial and municipal waste. Washington State University scientists are working to overcome the barriers to transforming this renewable biomass into biofuel for transportation.

Conversion processes must be efficient, ecofriendly, and affordable. That’s why

Shulin Chen, director of … » More …

Making clean energy viable

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To make biofuel production cost-effective, scientists seek profit-generating byproducts

Can the ubiquitous evergreen trees and abundant crops of the Pacific Northwest cut the United States’ reliance on petroleum? Maybe—if questions of economic viability can be answered. Xiao Zhang, a chemical engineer at WSU Tri-Cities, aims to answer those questions with a “yes.”

While converting lignocellulosic biomass (that is, woody plant matter) to biofuel is a promising concept, commercial implementation on a large scale isn’t yet economically viable. To drive down costs, lignocellulosic biomass must be used in multiple products. Biofuel alone isn’t enough.

Dr. Zhang seeks chemical pathways to generate value-added byproducts in the … » More …

Planning to meet tomorrow’s needs for water

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Research supports management of water supplies statewide

In 15 years, where will additional water supply be most critically needed in the state of Washington?

The State of Washington Water Research Center, led by WSU economics professor Jonathon Yoder, sought to find out. It forecast water supply and demand in the 258,000 square-mile Columbia River Basin, anticipating changes triggered by future environmental and economic conditions. It also conducted a cost-benefit analysis of an integrated water resource management plan for the Yakima River Basin, home to a growing population and a $3 billion agricultural industry.

Its findings help focus the state’s conservation and management projects. Ultimately, … » More …

Removing pollutants from urban runoff

A photo of a urban runoff under a bridge

Researchers seek ways to trap toxins and improve water quality

Paved surfaces cover tens of thousands of square miles in the United States. Almost all are impervious, collecting pesticides, fertilizers, oil, metals and other pollutants. The resulting runoff is one of the biggest threats to water quality.

On the west side of Washington State, abundant rain and a surging urban population create an ideal observatory for the problem. Working south of Seattle at Washington State University’s Research and Extension Center in Puyallup, researchers at the Washington Stormwater Center are working to address water-quality issues and develop effective, evidence-based management practices and principles.

Permeable … » More …

Managing nitrogen to save money and the environment

A photo of a wheat field

Researchers seek ways to precisely target fertilizer application

Nitrogen is a nutrient required for crops to grow. When soils lack a natural supply, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers provide a quick fix, boosting nitrogen to the levels needed. Since World War II, these fertilizers have played a vital role in increasing grain production.

But synthetic fertilizers have a dark side. Nitrogen that isn’t absorbed in the soil leaches into the water supply. It feeds the growth of algae, which can threaten aquatic life. Synthetic fertilizers emit nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. They’re made from a dwindling resource that’s not renewable: fossil fuels. On … » More …

Creating long-lasting, healthful food oils

A closeup of John Browse working with plants

New soybean oils omit dangerous trans fats

For more than a century, food manufacturers have preserved unstable food oils by converting them into shortenings and margarines through the Nobel Prize-winning process of partial hydrogenation. The problem is, the process also creates trans fats, which researchers and regulators have come to link with heart disease.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Washington State University molecular biochemist John Browse found a way to use modern breeding techniques to stop soybean plants from producing unstable fatty acids. Dupont and Monsanto are now developing “next-generation” soybeans whose oils can have a long shelf life but not contain dangerous … » More …

Improving fruit cultivars online

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Database houses genomic, genetic, and breeding information to help tree fruit growers

Washington, of course, is famous for its apples. Together with citrus, apples and related tree fruits comprise a $12.7 billion industry in the U.S. Staying ahead of diseases and pests, not to mention the search for the perfect combination of productivity and flavor, makes constant improvement a necessity.

WSU researcher Doreen Main, along with a team of fellow horticulture scientists, has created an online database to help growers around the world address these challenges.

The tree fruit Genome Database Resource is the world’s first central repository for citrus genomics and genetics … » More …

Fueling the future

A photo of a man inspecting a plant's leaves with a student

Drought-tolerant plants could supply fuel in the wake of climate change

Why do some plants tolerate drought better than others? The answer could help ensure adequate supplies of food and fuel as climate change pushes weather to extremes.

In the School of Biological Sciences, plant biologist Asaph Cousins probes the complex relationship between plants and climate. By monitoring plants’ responses to drought, he amasses enough data to predict how plants will withstand future shifts in climatic conditions. This allows him to identify traits and pathways for improving plant productivity and drought resistance, particularly in bioenergy grasses.

Dr. Cousins is part of a nationwide team … » More …