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WSU Research Sustainable Resources

Sustainable resources

Supplying food, energy, and water for future generations

The challenge

By the year 2050, the world population will hit a staggering 9 billion people—2 billion higher than the current count. Between now and then, farmers will need to grow more food than has been produced in the previous 10,000-year history of agriculture. People will need fresh water for farming, as well as drinking and other uses. They will also need more energy.

In order to provide sufficient high-quality food and fresh water for future generations, our society must create renewable energy systems that safeguard the environment. Most current energy production systems release greenhouse gases that intensify climatic changes. The shifting climate threatens the ability to grow food and access water.

Reliable production, storage, and transmission of clean energy will be fundamental to sustaining the way of life that you—and everyone around you—has come to expect.

WSU’s role in the solution

When it comes to tackling the nation’s looming natural resource issues, Washington State University has a unique advantage: location. From vantage points in every county in the state, WSU scholars use the natural environment as their laboratory. They leverage the region’s diversity of renewable resources to optimize practices for agriculture, water management, and energy production.

The University has exceptional expertise in the following areas:

  • Fundamental genetics
  • Metabolism
  • Physiology
  • Pathology of plant and animal systems
  • Next generation energy production and storage technologies
  • Renewable energy materials development and process management
  • Water science, management, and utilization

To ensure a secure energy future, WSU scientists have pioneered programs in biologically inspired storage strategies, advanced battery materials, and alternative fuels. Discoveries and innovations of WSU scientists help communities in Washington and around the world live more sustainably.

Within this Grand Challenge, scholars address several research themes, touching on issues like these:

Food production

  • Optimized agricultural practices
  • Available and affordable food
  • Nutritious and safe foods

More about food production

  • 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 … » More …

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  • Managing nitrogen to save money and the environment

    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 …

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Water: Safety and sustainability

  • Safe and abundant water supply
  • Effective water management
  • Water use and healthy environments
  • Aquatic ecosystems

More about water

  • 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 … » More …

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  • 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 … » More …

    Read Story

Energy: Meeting needs while protecting the environment

  • Efficient and sustainable energy production
  • Available and affordable energy
  • Development of renewable sources of energy
  • Healthy environments and energy production

More about energy

  • 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 … » More …

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  • 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 … » More …

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Perspectives and policy

  • Political engagement and public policy development
  • Effective communication and education
  • Production incentives and stewardship
  • Rational economic approaches to sustainability

More about perspectives and policy

  • 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 … » More …

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  • 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 … » More …

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Partnerships

The University collaborates with top-level scientists nationwide to advance food, energy, and water research initiatives. In addition, WSU forges strong relationships with public and private organizations to support studies related to resource sustainability.

A sampling of WSU’s valued partners at the federal level includes:

WSU also partners extensively with the state of Washington. Among the University’s many state-level collaborators are the Department of Agriculture, the state’s Commodity Commissions, and the Department of Ecology.

Additional partners

Avista

The utility giant teams with WSU’s Energy Systems Innovation Center to advance Smart Grid technology.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology  (MIT)

The Federal Aviation Administration Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels and the Environment is co-led by Washington State University and MIT.

National Institutes for Water Resources (NIWR)

The State of Washington Water Resource Center, a member of the NIWR, conducts and facilitates applied water-related research, educates future water professionals, and disseminates research results to water managers and the public. WSU faculty collaborate with the Center’s experts in water science and management.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)

University energy researchers accelerate discovery through collaboration with scientists at PNNL and utility companies throughout the region.

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS)

One of the nation’s largest concentrations of USDA ARS scientists is headquartered on the Pullman campus. These experts serve as an integral part of the WSU faculty.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Program

The program seeks out and tests plants and plant technologies that restore and sustain healthy natural ecosystems, conserve and enhance critical wildlife habitat, mitigate diverse environmental and natural resource concerns, provide economic and socially acceptable solutions, and support a safer human environment.

Affiliated institutes, centers, and programs

Bioproducts Sciences and Engineering Laboratory (BSEL)

Investigating biofuels, biochemical, biomaterials, and bioprocesses, working jointly with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)

Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites

Promoting industry-wide acceptance of bioplastics and increase the use of sustainable materials

Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO)

Academic and industry leaders applying innovative technologies and management tools to the challenges of global climate change and environmental sustainability

Center for Non-Thermal Processing of Food

Exploring new methods in nonthermal food processing (processing methods that do not use heat)

Center for Reproductive Biology

Providing opportunities for reproductive biologists across the Pacific Northwest to collaborate and learn from one another

Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources

Conducting research and providing education on critical issues facing agriculture, such as climate change, energy and water security, and ways to make agricultural production systems more sustainable

Composite Materials & Engineering Center

Develops new building materials from recycled and virgin resources, as well as innovative structural systems

Energy Systems Innovation Center

Uniting research faculty, business leaders, and governmental organizations to address the demand for clean, reliable energy, including using Smart Grid technology to make the power system more efficient, responsive, and secure

IMPACT Center

Addressing economic, social, political, and technical problems that affect the competitiveness of Washington’s agricultural and related sectors

Institute of Biological Chemistry

Pursuing fundamental research in the molecular biology and biochemistry of plants

Institute for Shock Physics Applied Sciences Laboratory

Focusing on solving problems for industry and government agencies in areas that include energy, national security, advanced materials, and sensors applications

Institute for Sustainable Design

Uniting faculty, students, design professionals, manufacturers, and suppliers to solve societal problems of sustainability

Integrated Pest Management Program

Communicating the latest in crop protection and sustainable pest management tactics to our state’s agricultural producers, pest control operators, landscape professionals, educators, and homeowners

Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, Prosser

Focusing on innovative developments in irrigated agriculture, which accounts for an estimated two-thirds of agricultural production in the state

Laboratory for Atmospheric Research

Conducting air quality research, emphasizing biosphere/atmosphere interactions and regional air quality measurements and modeling

Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center

Conducting small-crop and weed research, looking for specific benefits to local small and mid-sized farms

Nuclear Radiation Center

The only research reactor in the state of Washington

Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health

Experts in infectious disease research whose extensive global health outreach safeguards animal health (with an emphasis on livestock), protects food supplies, creates more economically secure families and communities, and advances public health across continents

Puyallup Research and Extension Center

Housing the University’s avian (bird) health and food safety laboratories and a plant and insect diagnostic lab

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center

Addressing the challenges and opportunities faced by Pacific Northwest grape growers and winemakers

School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering

A research leader in developing, testing, and using catalysts (which accelerate chemical reactions) to increase energy efficiency and pursue a sustainable energy future

State of Washington Water Research Center

Conducting and facilitating applied water-related research, educating future water professionals, and connecting the academic community, water resource managers, and water stakeholders

Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service

Supporting public affairs education, engaging students in public service, and supporting academic research on public policy and democratic institutions

Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, Wenatchee

Housing the F. L. Overley Laboratory (horticulture, plant physiology, soil sciences, entomology, and plant pathology) and the USDA Tree Fruit Research Laboratory, among other laboratories and facilities, on 200 acres

Washington Center for Asphalt Technology

Developing innovative, economical, and reliable technologies for highway and airport pavements

Washington Stormwater Center

A collaboration between WSU and the University of Washington to provide tools for stormwater management and world-class stormwater research, including an extensive low-impact development research facility

WSU Energy Program

Providing energy services, products, education, and information to advance environmental and economic well-being

WSU Master Gardener Program

Providing public education in gardening and environmental stewardship

WSU Research and Extension Centers

Conducting research to sustain crop health and Washington growers’ productivity

Further information

Find out more about the University’s research pertaining to sustainable resources.

Sustainable Resources (pdf)

Washington State University