All posts by Campus Talk

Science-fiction thriller comes alive in Manoa

A newly published novel by the late best-selling writer and filmmaker Michael Crichton titled Micro was inspired in large part by his visit to the lush forests of UH Mānoa’s Harold L. Lyon Arboretum.

The author-screenwriter of Jurassic Park and other blockbusters visited the Arboretum in May 2008 with his wife, Sherri, to get acquainted with the vast and varied landscape of the nation’s only university botanical garden located in a tropical rainforest. He died later that year while still working on Micro.

“Some of the Arboretum’s history and gardens, including the bromeliad garden, are depicted very well,” said Christopher Dunn, director of the Lyon Arboretum. “Several chapters focus on action and suspense in the arboretum. Great stuff! I’m delighted with it!”

This isn’t the first time that Lyon Arboretum’s tropical setting has inspired creative minds. It was also filmed in the movies Jurassic Park III and Tears of the Sun – and it’s been a setting for television’s Hawaii Five-0.

According to former staff Alice Katajima, Crichton was a quiet man, but asked a multitude of questions, particularly of the bromeliad garden and talipot palm.  Katajima gave the first-time visitors, the Crichtons, something to take home with them as a memento: a bag of jaboticaba (Brazilian grapes). “They also picked some skeletonized leaves from underneath the bodi tree,” she said.

Just like his other science-fiction books and true to Crichton fashion, Micro pits nature against technology. Based in Honolulu, the Lyon Arboretum is portrayed as the “Waipaka” Arboretum. Staff who took Crichton and his wife on a tour of the arboretum are depicted as characters in the book, including Katajima (as Alyson Bender) and Raymond Baker (as Vin Drake), who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the grounds and was an employee for 38-years before he passed in 2010.

The overview on Crichton’s official website states that Micro is about groundbreaking technology that has ushered in a revolutionary era of biological prospecting. Graduate students from Cambridge, Massachusetts are sent to the arboretum where they are promised access to tools that will open a whole new scientific frontier. Once they arrive, they are thrust into a hostile wilderness that reveals profound and surprising dangers at every turn, and find themselves prey to a technology of radical and unbridled power.

Crichton’s fascination with the Lyon Arboretum has obviously made a lasting impression. The book was completed by science writer Richard Preston after Crichton passed away to cancer in November 2008.

For more information about the Micro, visit

As a branch of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, the arboretum serves as a center for educational activities on plants, arts, culture, geography and a range of other sciences. Approximately 34,000 visitors each year participate in classes, research projects other community activities or enjoy the beautiful plant and displays on the 200-acre grounds. The Arboretum is responsible for developing a major resource center for tropical plants with Hawaii-, Pacific Basin-, and Asian-focus, by enhancing its living plant collection and establishing an appropriate reference library and herbarium. For more information about the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, visit

Top photo: The Bromeliad Garden at UH Mānoa’s Harold L. Lyon Arboretum is depicted in Crichton’s posthumously published book, Micro.

The Staff of LIFE

On-farm interaction is key to the program’s success. (Photo courtesy of Jari Sugano)

By Frederika Bain

Could you grow a papala? A pipicha? A bitter ball? Maybe not, but you might be able to find one in your local farmers market, thanks to a growing population of immigrant farmers bringing the techniques and products of their native lands to Hawai‘i. But while there’s much that these growers know, there are aspects of starting to farm in a different country, climate and economy that can be confusing and even daunting.

This is where LIFE comes in. The Local Immigrant Farmer Education Program, out of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, serves Southeast Asian farmers in Hawai‘i whose small acreage, remote locations and limited English language skills may make it difficult for them to connect with local growers. LIFE also serves other socially disadvantaged, limited-resource producers, including women and Native Hawaiians. The program is headed by extension agent Jari Sugano; she and Randall Hamasaki, Maria Diaz-Lyke, Robin Shimabuku and Glenn Sako are the training members of the group. Recently retired agent Steve Fukuda helped to make the program what it is today; project founder Sabina Swift stays involved, as does Stuart Nakamoto. And, in 2010, Ming Yi-Chou and Elsie Burbano joined the team.

The hands-on aspect of the program is one that farmers appreciate the most. Trainers and growers get out into the fields and prune, spray and build. At a recent “field day” event, participants were able to take part in building aquaculture grow tanks, while other workshops have shown how to deal with small business taxes, ways to combat insecticide resistance, and the proper care and handling of papayas for shipping to the Mainland. Many of the program’s materials and workshops are translated into the languages of their intended readers, something that has been lacking in previous training programs.

At LIFE’s core is the one-on-one interaction provided by the “Farm Doctor” visits, where an agent meets with individual farmers on their land to “diagnose” any problems with the crops or soil. It’s the interaction, the mutual teaching and learning, that’s important. Clients can participate in the program by conducting “Cooperator-Inspired Field Trials” to investigate planting or agribusiness techniques and share their findings with LIFE, while program coordinators act as resources and aid in collecting and summarizing the data. And one of the program’s stated measures of its own success is the number of participants who are able to start helping others in their community. What better way to reap the bounty of what different cultures can bring to the table?

For more stories on the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, visit

Top photo: LIFE project founder Sabina Swift (at right) with a coffee farmer on the Big Island. (Photo courtesy of Jari Sugano)

Lights, camera, international action!

Producer Pan Zhengyu (Shanghai University) with actress Zhang Beiqin of BLIND LUCK, which is one of three film chapters in DESTINY, FORTUNE, LOVE shot in Shanghai, China June 2011.

College students at UH Mānoa’s Academy for Creative Media (ACM) and across the Pacific Ocean at Shanghai University’s School of Film and Television Arts have discovered that filmmaking is truly an international art.

In June and October for the past five years, student filmmakers from both universities have traveled to and from Shanghai and Honolulu as guests of each other’s campuses. In Mānoa, participants in the Student Media Art (SMART) Exchange Program have had their films shown at either the Shanghai International Film Festival or the Hawai‘i International Film Festival, further enriching their experiences as the next generation of career professionals behind the camera.

“This is the only program internationally where students from both programs make films together in China and Hawai‘i,” said ACM Chair Tom Brislin. “Just as important is the fact that both film festivals have a dedicated program for student films.”

For senior Lana Dang, one of six ACM students who participated in the program this past summer, the exchange program experience was life-changing. On first enrolling at UH Mānoa, Dang thought she’d follow in her father’s footsteps as an engineer, since she was particularly strong in math and science and her reasoning skills were impeccable. After her fifth semester, however, Dang had a change of heart and enrolled in ACM.

For three weeks, Dang and her classmates worked alongside counterparts from Shanghai University to produce three short films. “The exchange program forces participants to stretch personal boundaries and, in many cases, opens a student’s eyes as an artist,” she said.  “Shooting a film is a very stressful yet invigorating experience. Now add the element of filming in a different country where the majority of the crew speaks a different language and you can multiply that experience by ten.”

During their stay in China, the Hawai‘i students also learned that “filmmaking in Hawaii is not that different from filmmaking in China—especially when it comes to working on a student film.  Everything is so chaotic and disorganized, but at the same time very freeing and liberating,” added Dang.

ACM Professor Anne Misawa glows with pride at her students’ progress in 21 short days.  “These are transformative experiences for the students,” said Misawa.  “I have seen them blossom, not only as filmmakers, but as individuals who gain greater confidence and self-knowledge about what they want to do with their talents and how they want to contribute and interact with their global community.”

For more information, visit the ACM website at or contact ACM Assistant Professor Anne Misawa at 956-0752 or

Top photo:On the set of BLIND LUCK–Zhengyu Pan and actor Dongqing Su from Shanghai University from check out the video with director Laurie Arakaki (center)  and cinematographer Reynolds Barney, both from ACM.

Public Health collaboration

Officials from UH Manoa and Wuhan University are all smiles after signing an agreement initiating student and faculty exchanges.

A unique exchange program between the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Office of Public Health Studies (OPHS) and Wuhan and Fudan Universities – two of the most prestigious Schools of Public Health in China—is helping to foster groundbreaking research on a variety of topics covering public health and environmental sciences.

The program, which started in 2007, provides an opportunity for graduate students from the three institutions to perform research either in Hawai‘i or China two or three times a year.  More than 50 percent of faculty members from OPHS have also gone to teach or perform research in China.

Yuanan Lu, a professor of environmental health, and Jay Maddock, director of OPHS, co-founded the expanding program, which now has a long waiting list of high-caliber candidates eager to participate.

Patent-worthy research such as genetic analysis techniques used to perform quick spot checks on water supplies to detect disease causing pathogens, which came out of Lu’s lab last summer, contributed to the eight peer-reviewed articles that have been published or pushed into pre-press since the program began four years ago. Other published papers include the impact of the Three Gorges Dam, sexual behavior in Chinese college students, stress in the workplace and environmental health.

Students spend four to six weeks at the respective universities conducting research that includes laboratory and data analysis, study design and gathering results. “The UH-China Public Health Partnerships program has had a positive impact on all three schools increasing the ability of faculty and students to work in multi-country settings to address global health issues,” said Maddock.

Maddock and Lu expect the thriving program to produce more promising research that will benefit and enhance the Hawaii-China connection.

For more information, visit the Office of Public Health Studies website at

Top photo: Exchange students from Wuhan and Fuhan Universities in China visit the State Capital.

Unparalleled views

Ask most people about Hawai‘i, and sun, surf and beaches may readily come to mind.  But ask individuals who are fascinated by the field of astronomy about the islands, and their eyes will light up for an entirely different reason.

Over the past four decades, the Aloha State has become the world’s most sought-after location for the construction of large ground-based telescopes. The arrival of these telescopes was strongly promoted by the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and, as a result, the IfA has become one of the leading astronomical research centers on the planet, with offices and laboratories on O‘ahu, Maui and Hawai‘i Island.

Within the next seven years, Hawai‘i will welcome four new telescopes that will be constructed at two superb observatory sites: the 3,000-meter peak of Haleakalā on Maui and the 4,200-meter peak of Mauna Kea on the biggest island of Hawai‘i.  Both high-altitude sites are known for their remarkable clarity, dryness and lack of atmospheric turbulence.

“With the excellent facilities already existing on Mauna Kea and Haleakalā, and with the next generation of the world’s most powerful telescopes expected to arrive soon, Hawai‘i will maintain an international leadership role in astronomy with its central position in the Pacific,” said IfA Director Günther Hasinger.

The first to arrive will be an addition to the existing Pan-STARRS telescope, PS1, which has been conducting survey operations since December 2009. PS1 is the most powerful survey system yet built with a 1.8-m primary mirror and an optical design that provides sharp images over an exceptionally large field of view.

In early 2013, a second Pan-STARRS telescope, PS2, will be installed about fifty feet north of PS1 on Haleakalā. The PS2 telescope and its camera are very close in design to PS1, with a few improvements based on IfA’s experience with PS1. Its features will allow astronomers to survey the entire visible sky in four nights to detect “killer asteroids,” supernovae and other transient objects. Data collected from PS2 will open up a new dimension in studies of the solar system, the galaxy, and the most-distant objects in the Universe.

The ultimate goal of the Pan-STARRS project is to build the PS4 observatory, which is expected to replace the 40-year-old UH 2.2-m telescope on Mauna Kea, the first large telescope built in Hawai‘i. PS4 will employ four optical systems and will help detect billions of star and galaxies, and millions of asteroids.

Solar scientists are always trying to predict how the sun will influence global changes here on Earth. “Our best models of what the sun is doing don’t work,” said IfA astronomer Jeff Kuhn, while explaining why we need the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) about to be built on Haleakala on Maui. The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a collaborative effort involving researchers from IfA and scientists from 22 other institutions around the world. The ATST will be the largest solar telescope ever built, and the largest single advance in solar research capabilities since the days of Galileo.

Climate changes, on timescales ranging from a few years up to the times over which cultures and civilizations grow and perish, are affected by the sun’s variability. As researchers have found in the past, there is no doubt that the sun has caused climate changes that make current trends in global warming look mild. “Unfortunately, we do not understand and cannot predict these effects even over the next decade,” said Kuhn, who serves as co-investigator on the project. “The ATST will allow us to see how magnetic fields affect the sun and the solar system environment between Earth and the sun.” The ATST is expected to have its “first light” in 2018.

Also scheduled for completion later this decade, at a location atop Mauna Kea, is the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Building on the success of the 10-meter twin Keck telescopes—now the world’s largest—the 30-meter primary mirror will be composed of 492 segments, giving the TMT nine times the collecting area of today’s largest optical telescopes. The TMT will enable astronomers to detect and study light from the earliest stars and galaxies and test many of the fundamental laws of physics.

“Thanks to its large mirror and advanced adaptive optics system, TMT will provide the sharpest images ever obtained of planets around the stars,” said IfA astronomer Mike Liu. “This will allow us to observe them in the process of forming and to measure their temperatures and compositions. Such measurements will tell us how our own solar system formed and if similar systems are common throughout the Galaxy.”

The TMT is a joint partnership involving the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Department of Science and Technology of India, and National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are also participating in the project.

Pardon the puns, but the ongoing observation at the IfA is that things are definitely looking up.  For more information about the Institute for Astronomy, visit

Top photo: The Pan-STARRS PS1 telescope atop Haleakalā captures celestial objects above Hawai‘i with its unique Gigapixel Camera and sophisticated computerized system. Photo by Rob Ratkowski © 2010 PS1 Science Consortium.

Turning waste into resource

Michael Cooney
Michael Cooney
The sustainability movement is pushing forward in new directions, with innovative concepts being developed by researchers around the globe.  Among them is Michael Cooney, an associate researcher with the Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, who is leading a group of researchers to develop a simple and a relatively cost-effective way to convert solid and liquid waste into energy and useful products, such as soil amendments. Their efforts—literally a million-dollar idea—will help enrich our soils and conserve our natural resources over the next 10 years.

A recent campus-wide $1 million sustainability competition administered by the Office of Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, won by Cooney and faculty from various departments, will advance a two-fold venture that he hopes will create pathways for local companies through incorporation of UH developed technologies that produce energy and soil enhancers.

The winning two-year project, titled “Water, Energy and Soil Sustainability,” will help support research to evaluate the treatment of liquid waste streams through application of high-rate anaerobic digestion and solid waste through the application of flash carbonization.  The two processes will also be integrated to produce treated biochar, or agricultural waste turned into a soil enhancer that holds promise to aid soils for growth of energy crops and food crops.

In one component of this project, field soils on Maui are currently supporting high yields from Jatropha curcas, an energy crop that is receiving serious consideration among researchers and farmers in Hawai‘i.  The fast-growing, drought-resistant, tropical oil-bearing plant is rich in fatty oils that can be converted to biodiesel.

These results are currently being used in greenhouse trials on corn to evaluate how best to apply biochar to less productive soils as a means to duplicate the field trials. Though more assessments are necessary, positive results have been found for soils amended with treated biochar.  “Preliminary characterizations of the soil supporting this productivity are suggesting that the attractive yields are due to water and nutrient retention capacity of the soil,” said Cooney. “It is our hope we can show that treated biochar added to poor soils can actually support growth leasing to yields that compete with those currently achieved on Maui with the Jatropha crop.”

Other projects in the works include making biochar out of dried anaerobic sludge and evaluating its value as an energy source or soil amendment/fertilizer. “If that proves successful, there is the potential to carbonize a solid waste—that is currently sent to landfill—and turn it into a product that produces revenue,” said Cooney.

Cooney’s project team includes researchers and students from UH Mānoa’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Science Program, the Shidler College of Business, Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute and the Department of Oceanography.  He is also working with Shidler’s Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship and E-Business, which is funding business, law and science graduate students to develop business plans evaluating the Jatropha crop growth as a commercial business in Hawai‘i.

Green companies in Hawaii have also taken note of Cooney’s research and collaborated with him on various projects. “One key output of about our program is an effort to develop research agreements with local companies that permit the evaluation of UH technology around commercial processes that have in place,” said Cooney, “with the hope of adding value to their existing production processes through the energy efficient treatment of liquid and solid waste streams, and in a manner that potentially helps them develop new product streams.”

For more information, visit the Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute website at

Top photo: Artist rendering of high-rate anaerobic digesters being put in place at the Hawaii Kai Wastewater Treatment facility.

Breaking down plastics

Image of microbial cells and biopolymer granules (bar 500 nm).
Image of microbial cells and biopolymer granules (bar 500 nm).
In a world where plastic bags and plastic bottles are consumed in the millions annually, the fight to reduce such waste seems a daunting battle. Consumers are doing their part by becoming more socially aware about these environmental issues and making a conscientious effort to buy products and technology that are sustainable and eco-friendly. In response, Jian Yu, an associate researcher with UH Mānoa’s Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, and his team, are creating new technology to meet the increasing demands in the marketplace.

Yu’s research has led to the creation of thermoplastic materials from renewable feedstocks, such as agricultural wastes and food processing byproducts. The bio-based plastics, called PHA (polyhydroxyalkonoate) bioplastics, are completely biodegradable and biocompatible, whereas their petroleum-based counterparts are not. Petroleum-based plastics are not biodegradable and eventually find their way to the open seas, killing hundreds of thousands of birds, fish and other marine animals every year. “Compared to the conventional plastics, bioplastics consume less fossil energy and release much less greenhouse gases as indicated by numerous life-cycle analysis,” said Yu.

Biodegradable plastics were introduced about 20 years ago when a biochemical company had a successful pilot production of the biopolyesters from glucose and propionic acid. The bioplastics were used to make various goods such as shampoo bottles, credit cards, syringes and containers.  While its ecofriendly properties were groundbreaking at the time, the high costs associated with producing the product prevented it from being widely marketed.

A chemical/biochemical engineer by training, Yu was excited by the research that could lead to new technologies to bring down the high cost of production.  “I first investigated if cheap but complicated raw materials such as food scraps could be used for biopolymer production by microbial organisms,” said Yu.

His research was successful and gained recognition from his peers, including a published paper in Environmental Science and Technology in 2002. “Now, the technology has been used for other cheap feedstocks, such as sugar molasses, a residue from sugar manufacturers, and crude glycerol waste discharged from biodiesel production,” shared Yu. “We are able to achieve a very high special productivity rate for commercial production.”

Yu’s PHA bioplastics technology consists of three parts, including (1) pretreatment of feedstocks into suitable substrates for a special type of microbial organism, (2) high cell density fermentation for biosynthesis of biopolyesters, and (3) solvent-free recovery and purification of biopolyesters to make the final product of bioplastics.

At the end of fermentation process, their cells can accumulate 60-70 percent biopolyester of their mass.  In order to purify the biopolymer for bioplastics, the rest of the 30-40 percent of residual cell mass must be removed in a cost effective way. One conventional technology relies on organic solvent extraction, which is not only expensive, but also environmentally unfriendly. “We developed a new technology in which no organic solvent is needed, and at the same time, the cell debris generated from recovery process can be reused in biopolymer production,” added Yu.

The technology shows real potential. He already has a commercialization plan in place and has filed two patents on the technology, which is being used in a pilot plant in Europe. “The pilot plant has been built up according to our specifications and has been running successfully, providing data for scaling up to a commercial production,” said Yu. The company that operates the plant has invested $2 million to establish a central testing center in Honolulu, Hawaii, that will provide characterization and analysis service to its global manufacturing and markets.

In terms of waste reduction, Hawaii will see the benefits of Yu’s research. With large quantities of biomass generated by the state every year, the “green garbage” can be used as renewable feedstocks to make the bioplastics using their biorefining technologies.  “We have no oil resource for a petrochemical industry, but it is highly possible to have a manufacturing industry based on its plentiful renewable resources,” added Yu.

Although the price to make bioplastics is still higher than those of oil-based plastics, Yu believes his research will lead to technologies that can reduce the high production cost and bring the bioplastics to the consumers at a competitive price, in hopes of averting a mass environmental disaster. “The product exhibits good properties and can compete with similar products if the production cost can be reduced to a level widely accepted in the markets,” said Yu. Until then, consumers can count on more green products to hit the marketplace for years to come.

For more information, visit the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute website at

For more about the exciting research now being conducted at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa read Inspiration to Innovation – the Chancellorʻs Report 2011-2012 (pdf).

Top photo: Yu sits in front of a bench top bioreactor in which microbial cells are cultivated for biopolymer production.

Charting new space frontiers

Using an ion microprobe, HIGP scientists seek to understand the earliest events in our Solar System by studying the isotopic composition of meteorites.

Although NASA’s space shuttle program may have come to an end, the excitement has not dwindled for researchers and faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who have been actively involved in the exploration of the Solar System for more than 30 years.  The planetary and remote sensing programs within the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology’s Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP) have had a long history in working with NASA to send robotic spacecraft to explore the planets, including missions to Mercury, Moon and Mars.

Seven HIGP faculty members are currently members of the science teams of spacecraft in orbit around Mercury, the Moon and Mars.  For example, Jeffrey Gillis-Davis is a member of the MESSENGER Team exploring Mercury as well as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter radar team investigating the Moon.  Jeffrey Taylor, an expert on the geochemistry of planets, compares compositional differences of Mars and the Moon in order to see how these worlds differ from the Earth.  Paul Lucey studies the Moon using thermal infrared data to not only search for differences in rock compositions but also studies the temperature differences of the surface between the day- and night-sides of the Moon. Computer models and laboratory experiments involving lava flows are the particular interests of Sarah Fagents.


“The researchers search for signs of former water on the surface of the Red Planet, investigate the geologic processes in the earliest parts of the history of the planet Mercury, and map impact craters and volcanic rocks on the Moon,” said HIGP Director Peter Mouginis-Mark.  “HIGP is actively involved in designing new instruments that might fly to the Moon within the next decade, as well as fly instruments in Earth orbit to study analog terrains.”  Venus is another planetary target of great interest to HIGP, with faculty members conducting research that would bring new measurement techniques for spacecraft that might one day land on the surface, as well as map the surface from orbit in unprecedented detail.

One of HIGP's star planetary scientists, G. Jeffrey Taylor, recently won the prestigious Shoemaker Award from NASA for his outstanding contributions to lunar petrology and geochemistry.

Graduate students of the HIGP program have also made a mark for themselves in planetary research. “Former HIGP students are now in charge of instruments in orbit around Saturn, an ultra-high-resolution camera in orbit around the Moon, and the cameras on the robotic vehicles driving over the surface of Mars,” shared Mouginis-Mark.  “Our former graduate students have been instrumental in studying asteroids from the NEAR and Dawn missions, and they are targeting cameras on lunar spacecraft to identify the most interesting volcanic features and impact craters!”


The planetary program at HIGP offers a wide range of courses, ranging from an introduction to the Solar System for freshmen undergraduates to specific courses on the geochemistry and physics of the planets.  Field analysis of analog sites for the Moon and Mars is particularly popular with the students.  Because the active Kilauea volcano is one of the most similar volcanoes on Earth to the ones that are found on Mars, HIGP routinely runs workshops on the Big Island to introduce students to the ways that lava flows and craters form, and how they appear in satellite data that are comparable to the measurements made from spacecraft in orbit around Mars, the Moon and the moon of Jupiter called Io.

Central to HIGP’s planetary mission is the ability to study rocks from space.  Using world-class facilities in the W.M. Keck Foundation’s Cosmochemistry Laboratory, faculty and students study the isotopic composition of meteorites from the asteroids and Mars.  “They search for minerals found during the very first few million years of Solar System history, not only to understand how the planets formed, but also to search for materials that originated from other stars and that were then included within the rocks that we now study on Earth,” explained Mouginis-Mark.  Particles from the Sun are also investigated by HIGP faculty and students through their detailed analysis of particles returned to Earth by the Stardust spacecraft.


Finding meteorites is another aspect of HIGP’s planetary research.  Over the years, more than a dozen faculty members, post-docs and graduate students have traveled to Antarctica, camping for up to six weeks on the frozen continent so that they can search for rocks from space.  HIGP members have found hundreds of meteorites over the last two decades, adding not only to our own research, but also contributing significantly to the national collection of samples from space.

Mouginis-Mark is excited for the future of planetary exploration. “NASA has just put the Dawn spacecraft into orbit around the asteroid Vesta, the Mars rover ‘Opportunity’ is perched on the rim of a big meteorite crater, and amazing things are being found on the Moon with the high resolution camera,” said Mouginis-Mark.  “All of these opportunities will significantly help further build HIGP’s planetary research.”

Looking to the future, HIGP is working with colleagues in Canada and England to get a new mission to the Moon funded.  HIGP would play a major role in the science goals of this mission, as well as instrument development and the landing of the spacecraft.

For more information on planetary space missions and the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, visit

Top photo: Kilauea volcano provides an outstanding opportunity for students to learn about volcanic processes that have also shaped the Moon, Mars and Venus.



Fueled by a cell

Rick E. Rocheleau, HNEI Director
Imagine powering your car with a fuel that doesn’t pollute and will never be depleted.  In a state-of-the-art test lab in downtown Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researchers are turning such a dream into a revved-up reality.

The Hawai‘i Fuel Cell Test Facility (HFCTF), operated by the Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) on the Mānoa campus, opened its doors in 2003 to help turn the 50th State into a world leader in hydrogen power. Today, the secure 4,000-square-foot facility ranks among the best academic laboratories in the nation—concentrating on the testing of fuel cells for commercial and military applications, in keeping with its mission to accelerate their acceptance and deployment.

A fuel cell, according to HNEI Director Rick Rocheleau, is an electrochemical energy conversion device that directly converts chemical energy into electricity without the need for combustion.  “Fuel cells are similar in many ways to a battery,” explains Rocheleau.  “In both, electrons generated at one electrode, circulate in an external circuit to the other producing electrical power which can drive, for example, an electric motor.  However, while battery electrodes are consumed in the process, the fuel and oxidant for fuel cells are supplied from an external source.”

HFCTF primarily focuses its efforts on the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which operates on hydrogen and air or oxygen.  PEM fuel cells can be used for automobiles, for small stationary applications such as back-up power, and defense applications that include unmanned aerial and undersea vehicles.

HFCTF has continued to expand its facilities and capabilities with funding support from its partners, including the Office of Naval Research, the US Department of Energy, and a variety of industry partners..  The test facility started with two test stands in 2003 and now houses a dozen test stands including several for testing of small stacks (ca 5kW).  It also boasts a host of supporting equipment including on-site hydrogen generation, on-line high resolution gas analysis, and sophisticated spatial performance measurements. These advanced capabilities allow for long-term life testing and cell performance characterization over a wide range of operating conditions.

Researchers at HNEI have just completed a large project to understand the impact of fuel contaminants on fuel cell performance, and another to detect and understand the impact of localized non-uniformities in membrane electrode assemblies originating from manufacturing variations. They are now currently working on the effects of contaminants from different sources (in atmospheric air or released from fuel cell system materials) on fuel cell performance and degradation.  Other projects in the works include an evaluation to understand the performance of PEM fuel cell power plants for unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles fed with oxygen/nitrogen mixtures, as well as exploring the use of fuel cell technology to separate helium from helium/hydrogen mixtures, in partnership with NASA and Sierra Lobo.

If that’s not enough, future projects for HFCTF researchers also include more fundamental research on catalyst development to increase the expensive platinum catalyst utilization and new techniques to understand the transport of reactants within the porous electrodes of the fuel cell.  In support of this work, HFCTF is acquiring additional testing equipment, including a rotating ring/disc electrode system that precisely controls hydrodynamic conditions and allows the extraction of the intrinsic catalyst performance, and a unique tracer system to precisely measure the amount of product liquid water in flow field channels and gas diffusion electrodes.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye is credited for helping to jump-start the facility as part of his position with the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Over the years, he has continued to back the program along with U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, both of whom are instrumental in supporting the U.S. Department of Energy and the Office of Naval Research to allow funding of these valuable research efforts.

The facility continues to seek new projects to advance fuel cell technology for commercial applications and support integration of these technologies in Hawai‘i and beyond. “Commercial interest worldwide for transportation applications and U.S. Department of Defense interest appears very strong,” says Rocheleau.  “In the U.S., General Motors and others in the industry remain very positive about the opportunity for fuel cells to contribute in the energy and transportation sectors.”

For more information on the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and the Hawaii Fuel Cell Test Facility, visit

Top photo:The Hawaii Fuel Cell Test Facility in downtown Honolulu, where fuel cells for military and commercial applications are tested.

The HFCTF testing area.

Feature: Our aging planet

Andrew Mason

Can we afford to grow old?  And will society be bankrupted by the high cost of supporting our rapidly growing elderly population?  In Japan, for example, the proportion of the population ages 60 and older has nearly doubled over the past 20 years—jumping from 17 percent in 1990 to an incredible 31 percent in 2010.  Comparable statistics in other countries show similar trends, with the worldwide population expected to hit the seven million mark by the end of 2011.

This matter of maturity has led international economists to ponder questions ranging from the fiscal viability of public pension payouts to the continued sustainability of healthcare services and programs. The answers may be found in a new book by authors Andrew Mason, a Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and his counterpart at the University of California at Berkeley, Ron Lee.  Their new release published by Edward Elgar, titled “Population Aging and the Generational Economy: A Global Perspective,” culminates a seven-year research project involving more than 50 economists and demographers from the U.S., Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.

The book may be particularly timely because shifts in the population age structure are occurring more quickly today than at any other time in human history, posing both challenges and opportunities for policymakers, believes Mason.

Half of the countries of the world—concentrated in South Asia, Latin America and Africa—are experiencing lower fertility rates, leading to fewer children and a working-age population growing faster than other age groups.  Countries in this stage should be encouraged to invest their “demographic dividends” in educating and caring for the health of young people, who will become tomorrow’s workers, says Mason.  On the other hand, countries in North America, East Asia and Europe have already completed this phase of demographic transition of low child-birth rates, a shrinking working population and an explosion of elderly.

Will the growth of the gray-haired sector lead to a society with a preponderance of poverty?  Not necessarily, Mason answers.  “It is true that generous pension programs, typical of many high-income countries in Europe, will be difficult to sustain as populations grow older.  Similar concerns face policymakers in the United States in the form of rapidly escalating healthcare costs,” he says.  “Yet today, the elderly in some countries support themselves largely from assets they accumulated earlier in life.  The widely held view that population aging will lead to a decline in wealth, or a financial burden on families, is not supported by the evidence.”

To help policymakers worldwide understand the likely consequences of demographic changes, Mason, Lee and colleagues have established the National Transfer Accounts (NTA) network, a collaborative research effort that analyzes economic aspects of population aging around the world.  By estimating income and consumption of goods by age, together with economic flows across age groups, NTA can provide vital information to policymakers responsible for developing sustainable programs in healthcare, education and pensions, and formulating policies that foster generational equity and economic growth.

There will be budget challenges associated with our aging population, but taking note of these issues today will help avoid catastrophic consequences in the future.  For more information on the book and the NTA network, contact Andrew Mason at or visit the NTA website at

Top photo: A new book by UH Mānoa Professor Andrew Mason and UC Berkeley Professor Robert Lee reveal insights behind the world’s aging population.