MESSAGE FROM THE CHAIR
The semester is off to a great start – in fact, we’re already facing midterms – and the Civil Engineering Department would like to let you know about the exciting things our faculty and students are doing. Faculty members are engaged in research that will have a tremendous impact on Idaho and the nation, students have been traveling abroad, sharing their expertise and learning important lessons, and alumni have made a lasting impact on the profession. Please read on, and please feel free to send feedback and suggestions for future newsletters.
Richard Nielsen, Department Chairman
DR. ERIK COATS: RESOURCE RECOVERY FROM DAIRY MANURE
Dairy manure is an untapped biomass resource in Idaho. According to the United Dairymen of Idaho, there are approximately 550,000 milking cows in Idaho; each animal excretes 100-150 lbs of wet manure daily. A current emphasis for manure resource recovery involves anaerobic digestion to produce methane-rich biogas, which can be combusted to produce electricity. Converting all that manure to electricity could power over 10% of Idaho households. A manure-to-energy industry in Idaho has several advantages: distributed power generation; supply of a reliable, base-load source of electricity (after all, manure is generated constantly at a dairy); and the ability to store biogas and generate power with demand. Just as important are the environmental and economic benefits to Idaho dairies – using waste in a beneficial manner to generate revenue.
So how has the manure-to-energy industry progressed in Idaho? Currently six dairy anaerobic digesters (ADs) are operating in Idaho, processing manure from approximately 51,000 dairy cows to electricity. Considering the much larger Idaho dairy cow population, it is reasonable to ask “Why are there so few dairy ADs in Idaho?” The central challenge to broad-scale AD deployment is the low cost of electricity. At current rates it is difficult to operate a profitable dairy manure AD. To overcome this financial hurdle, we need to broaden our approach to manure resource recovery.
Dr. Erik R. Coats, a civil engineering professor at UI, is developing another potential solution to the manure resource recovery challenge. Specifically, Dr. Coats’ research team is developing a technology to produce a biodegradable plastic from manure. The process uses the unique capabilities of naturally occurring bacteria to ferment manure and then convert the fermentation products to a plastic known as polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). PHA is similar to conventional petroleum-based plastics including polyethylene and polypropylene. However, in contrast to these petro-plastics, PHA is biodegradable and can be produced from otherwise unwanted organic waste. As one might imagine, there are a number of uses for a biodegradable, bio-renewable plastic, such as single use packaging materials, planting pots for the nursery industry, and plastic bottles. Moreover, with PHA selling at a premium, significant economic return could be generated from dairy manure (beyond electricity). Just as importantly, Dr. Coats’ research has demonstrated that technology integrates with AD. In fact, his research indicates that AD is more stable when integrated with the PHA technology.
So how close are they to deploying this PHA technology? Dr. Coats’ research team has constructed a mobile pilot-scale system, with system analysis and testing ongoing; full-scale technology deployment is planned in 3-5 years.
Dr. Coats is currently supporting two Ph.D. and four Masters of Science students focused on the PHA and AD technologies. Progress on this resource recovery research could not have been realized without the critical support of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association; the Idaho National Lab (through a grant provided to the Center for Advanced Energy Studies); the National Science Foundation; and the Idaho SBOE Higher Education Research Council.
ENGINEERS WITHOUT BORDERS: CHALLENGES IN BOLIVIA
Faculty adviser, Fritz Fiedler, along with Riannon Heighes, Kelby Sommers and several Civil Engineering students participated in the Engineers Without Borders project in Chiripati, Bolivia where they learned that non-engineering challenges can trump technical readiness. Dr. Fiedler reported:
“After a long trip, the team rolled into the community at dusk, road-weary but excited to finally begin implementation, assured by our in-country NGO that all materials had been delivered, that the community and our team were in agreement on the approach, and that arrangements had been made with the local government. In-country NGOs serve as necessary links to local cultures, languages, politics and regulations, as these arrangements are nearly impossible to make from a distance in developing nations. Upon arrival, instead the community told us that maybe we shouldn’t even be allowed stay, thinking we might be with a U.S Federal Agency (the Bolivian government expelled USAID, which colors perceptions). Eventually, our NGO project manager and guide convinced them otherwise, and we were finally provided access to the community center to sleep cold, hungry and wondering what was to come next.
“The next morning began with a meeting announced by the community leader calling from a hill top around sunrise. Approximately 20 community members joined us outside the community center, initiating intense discussions. It was immediately apparent that the community was not happy with our NGO, that there were strong disagreements within the community itself, and that all arrangements were not properly made. For the next four days, EWB-UIdaho adapted to ever-changing community desires, negotiated with the local municipality for promised equipment, and attempted to make progress. Finally, the local mayor ended all hope by not lending us promised heavy equipment necessary to install wells.
In Bolivia, it is the culture to non-violently demonstrate, strike, and blockade to make demands. When the community started talking about these acts because they wanted to keep some of the equipment we brought, the team decided to cut our trip short and hurriedly left the community in the evening (taking with us our donor-funded equipment).”
In Riannon’s words: “Rather than be discouraged, EWB-UIdaho is now considering other projects, and while still in country visited a potential new community to conduct a preliminary assessment. Much wiser, we are looking forward to forming new partnerships in Bolivia.”
THE UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO INCLUDED IN SUCCESSFUL NASA FUNDING FOR $30 MILLION SPACE STATION SENSOR (ECOSTRESS)
NASA has announced the successful award of approximately $30 million to fund the launch of a relatively high resolution thermal imager on-board the International Space Station (ISS). The research mission surrounding the launch is named "ECOSTRESS" and includes the development and demonstration of algorithms to transform thermal signals into images of evapotranspiration over large areas of Earth.
The University of Idaho is a member of the development team and Civil Engineering faculty member Rick Allen is listed as a co-PI. His role in this mission is due to U Idaho’s track record on developing widely used software and approaches to determine evapotranspiration (i.e., water consumption) from large areas of vegetation using the USGS Landsat and NASA MODIS satellites. This software is now used in nearly every western state to settle water litigation issues and to improve water management and water transfer needs.
The equatorial orbit of the ISS results in an overpass time varying throughout the day, which provides new opportunities to better understand and to monitor vegetation water stress that often varies through the day. The varying overpass time also provides new challenges to calibration of the thermal images for transformation to evapotranspiration, where a new 'moving' calibration system will need to be developed for the University of Idaho METRIC process.
DISTINGUISHED ALUMNUS: MARK F. LINDGREN
Mark F. Lindgren graduated from the University of Idaho with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering in 1974. He went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering at the U of I in 1978, with an emphasis in Hydraulics and Hydrology.
While completing his Master’s degree, in 1976 Mark went to work for the Walla Walla District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he stayed for a long and successful career of 37 years before retiring in 2013. At the time of his retirement, he was the Chief of the Hydrology and Hydraulics Branch.
Throughout his career, utilizing both his personal technical expertise and leadership skills, Mark was instrumental in developing many cutting-edge designs to enhance adult and juvenile fish passage and survival, especially at mainstem dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Examples include innovations in fish hatchery design, turbine intake screening systems, juvenile fish bypass, sampling, and transportation facilities, surface bypass weirs, and turbine design. He also served on the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Inland Waterways Navigation Committee.
Mark’s enthusiasm and drive were well-recognized characteristics throughout his career. He was recognized by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) as the Federal Engineer of the Year in 1997. At the time of his retirement, he was presented with the Commander’s Award for Superior Civilian Service.
Mark kept his ties to the U of I Civil Engineering Department alive as well. He served on the CE Department Advisory Board in the 1990’s. The solid foundation provided by his education at the University of Idaho helped launch and sustain his long and distinguished career.
STAY IN TOUCH
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