Oregon State University is pursuing multiple sources for sustainable, reliable energy. in collaboration with other universities, national labs and private industry, Oregon State engineers and scientists conduct basic research, develop new technologies and test potential solutions, moving ideas forward from concept to commercialization.

Energy and clean tech success stories

Moving wave energy closer to reality

Wave energy — using large buoys that move up and down in ocean swells to generate electricity — is still a developing technology, and Oregon State University is leading that development with two major test operations off the Oregon coast near Newport.

The Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC), a partnership between Oregon State and the University of Washington, deployed the Ocean Sentinel in the summer of 2012. The mobile instrumentation buoy allows private industry and academic researchers to test wave energy devices in real-world conditions. In a six-week test of the WET-NZ device for Wave Energy Technology – New Zealand, the Ocean Sentinel collected extensive performance data over a wide range of wave and electrical loading conditions.

NNMREC has also chosen Newport as the site for the Pacific Marine Energy Center (PMEC), the first utility-scale, grid-connected wave energy test site in the U.S. PMEC will test energy-generation potential and the environmental impacts of wave energy devices at an ocean site about five miles from shore. Subsea cables will transmit electricity to the local power grid and operating data to scientists and engineers.

Funding for the projects comes from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Oregon Department of Energy and the Oregon Wave Energy Trust.

Growing biofuel options to replace coal
Oregon State is working with Portland General Electric to test a potential crop for biofuel that literally grows like a weed.

Arundo donax — also known as giant cane grass — is considered a weed, but Don Horneck, an agronomist at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, says the fast-growing woody grass plant could produce 20 tons of biomass an acre. Horneck and PGE are testing its potential at about 200 experimental acres in Eastern Oregon.

PGE has agreed to phase out the use of coal at its Boardman power plant by 2020. Giant cane grass, along with wheat straw or other agricultural wastes, is being considered for converting Boardman to a biomass facility. The utility expects to have enough biomass materials for a test burn in 2014.

Turning wastewater into watts
Extracting energy from wastewater is no pipe dream for Hong Liu. An assistant professor in the Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering, Liu is developing a microbial fuel cell that can convert biodegradable materials into electricity using bacteria. As the bacteria consume pollutants, they shed excess electrons, which flow through a circuit and generate electricity. In the process, pollutants are broken down, resulting in clean water.

Historically, microbial fuel cells have not produced enough power to be viable sources of electricity, but Liu has successfully modified the fuel cell structure to produce from 10 to 100 times more electricity than other designs. Waste treatment facilities could be powered by the waste they process, especially valuable in remote areas of developing countries, where waste treatment is often precluded by lack of available energy supplies.

Liu collaborated on the research with Bruce Logan of Penn State University and Stephen Grot of Ion Power, Inc. The work has received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), including an NSF I-Corps award in 2012.

Using ice slush to store energy
Industrial sites, computer server farms and conventional power stations release waste heat into the atmosphere or water. Now, a College of Engineering research team and a spinoff company, Applied Exergy, Inc., have developed technology that captures and stores energy as an icy slush, then uses waste heat to release the stored energy when needed.

The patent-pending technology uses a microchannel heat exchanger developed at Oregon State to chill water into a pumpable ice slurry, then taps low-grade waste heat from industry or geothermal wells, using the temperature difference between the slurry and heat source to generate electricity. The technology, which has received a commercialization grant from the Oregon Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies Center (Oregon BEST) and support from the OSU Venture Development Fund, would allow utilities to release stored energy during periods of peak demand as well as simplify integration of variable energy sources like wind and solar into the power grid.