Category Archives: Story of the Week

2011-ct-maunakea

Mauna Kea, IfA played a role in Nobel physics prize

Louise Good, Institute for Astronomy publications editor

John Tonry headshot

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Astronomer John Tonry, a camera designed and built at the Institute for Astronomy and an observatory on Mauna Kea all played a role in the work awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics this month.

Tonry was a member of one of the two large groups of astronomers whose leaders received the prize for discovering that the Universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate and will therefore last forever.

The discovery, first announced in 1998, grew out of scientists’ efforts to compare how fast the Universe is expanding now compared with its expansion billions of years ago. They expected to find that the expansion was slowing down, suggesting the possibility that the Universe would eventually stop expanding and then collapse in a “big crunch.”

To study the problem, astronomers searched for exploding stars called type 1a supernovae in very distant galaxies, which could be used to measure how far away other galaxies are.

In 1996, when the project began, the most sensitive system for doing this kind of research was a giant digital camera designed and built at IfA and mounted on the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope. The telescope had superb optics and was located on Mauna Kea, where the skies are uniquely clear and dark, an improvement over conditions in Chile, where the work had begun.

Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope against pink-tinged sky

Tonry spent his nights observing on the telescope and his days analyzing the data. There was no time to waste because supernovae explode brightly and fade fast. He needed to relay the locations of such explosions quickly so other members of his team could observe them using a spectrometer mounted on one of the two 10-meter-diameter telescopes of the neighboring W. M. Keck Observatory. Their job was to measure the speed at which the galaxies were moving away from us as well as to confirm the nature of the exploding stars.

Because these faint, distant galaxies are so far away, their light must travel for billions of years to reach Earth, thus providing a glimpse of our Universe at a time when it was much younger than it is now.

What they discovered was considered surprising, even shocking: the distant galaxies were moving apart from each other more slowly than were the nearby galaxies. In other words, the Universe must be expanding faster now than it did in the past.

Team members were amazed. Their reaction was: “It couldn’t be. We had better recheck our calculations.” But it was, and it has since been confirmed by other observations.

What could cause the expansion to speed up? It couldn’t be gravity because gravity always pulls things together. It had to be a new kind of pressure, since named “dark energy.”

Interestingly, when Albert Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity in 1915, one of his equations hinted at the existence of such a pressure, but it took nearly 100 years for its significance to be realized.

What is dark energy? No one knows. But UH scientists are involved in the search for the answer—both through particle physics experiments at giant collider laboratories abroad, and ongoing observations at large telescopes like as those on Mauna Kea.

A similar version of this article was published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Oct. 16, 2011, and on the IfA website.

2011-ct-rain3

Who will chart the rain?

Raingage in Haleakalā, Maui. Photo credit: John DeLay

Anyone who lives in Hawai‘i knows that weather—or, more specifically, the likelihood of rain—is a very important part of everyday life, as evidenced by the sheer number of meteorologists and weather forecasters employed by local TV news stations. 

So it’s no surprise that one of the most frequently cited and referred to publications is the Rainfall Atlas of Hawai‘i, which was first published in 1986 by UH Mānoa Geography Professor Tom Giambelluca, Meteorology Professor Tom Schroeder and Michael Nullet, currently a Geography Research Assistant. The printed publication provided a set of maps of the spatial patterns of rainfall for the major Hawaiian Islands. 

Digital maps called rasters or grids were created based on the team’s analysis.
Fast forward 25 years, and Giambelluca is at it again. He, along with UH Mānoa Geography Assistant Professor Qi Chen and Masters’ student Abby Frazier, recently led a team of UH Mānoa researchers to create a new, interactive online website housing updated rainfall patterns. Giambelluca specializes in climate, climate change, and ecohydrology.

Developed to make rainfall maps, data and related information easily accessible, the website features high resolution downloadable digital maps for mean monthly and annual rainfall and uncertainty for each station used in the analysis, as well as files with information on each rain gage station. 

Mean Annual Rainfall for the State of Hawai‘i

Another unique component of the website is that it allows users to view the patterns of mean monthly and annual rainfall and corresponding uncertainty, zoom in on areas of particular interest, navigate to specific locations with the help of a choice of different base maps, and click on any location to get the mean annual rainfall and a graph and table of mean monthly rainfall. 

Over the course of the two-year project, rainfall measurements taken at over 1,000 stations were used as the principal source of information in the development of the rainfall maps. The maps represent the best estimates of the mean rainfall for the 30-year base period 1978-2007. However, for many reasons, it is not possible to determine the exact value of mean rainfall for any location. Therefore, for every map of mean rainfall, corresponding map of uncertainty is provided.

Knowledge of the mean rainfall patterns is critically important for a variety of meteorological, agricultural and resource management issues, including ground water and surface water development and protection, controlling and eradicating invasive species, protecting and restoring native ecosystems, and planning for the effects of global warming.  And, when you live in Hawai‘i and want to enjoy the outdoors as many days as possible, it’s simply invaluable.

To access the website, visit: http://rainfall.geography.hawaii.edu/.  Contact Giambelluca at thomas@hawaii.edu.

Top photo by Adam Levine/cogdog

The Pallada. Image courtesy Pallada.

Right on track

Hoisting up to Pallada the Japanese boat registered to Fukushima Prefecture and, presumably, washsed into the ocean during the March 11 tsunami. Image courtesy Pallada.
Ever since the devastating Japan tsunami on March 11, 2011, washed millions of tons of debris into the Pacific, scientists at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s International Pacific Research Center have been trying to track the trajectory of this debris that can threaten small ships and coastlines.

For nearly half a year, senior researcher Nikolai Maximenko and scientific coSmputer programmer Jan Hafner had only their state-of-the-art – but still untested – computer model of currents to speculate where the debris might end up. Now valuable sightings of the debris are reported from places where the model predicted.

On its homeward voyage from Honolulu to Vladivostok, the Russian sail training ship, the STS Pallada, warned by maps of the scientists’ model, found an array of unmistakable tsunami debris. Soon after passing Midway Islands, Pallada spotted surprising number of floating items. “On September 22, in position 31042,21 N and 174045,21 E, we picked up on board the Japanese fishing boat. Radioactivity level – normal, we’ve measured it with the Geiger counter,” wrote Natalia Borodina, information and education mate of the Pallada. “At the approaches to the mentioned position (maybe 10 – 15 minutes before) we also sighted a TV set, fridge and a couple of other home appliances.”

Borodina adds on September 27 that “we keep sighting everyday things like wooden boards, plastic bottles, buoys from fishing nets (small and big ones), an object resembling wash basin, drums, boots, other wastes. All these objects are floating by the ship.”

Map of Pallada's route

The map shows the stretch of Pallada’s route where debris was sighted between September 21 and 28, 2011. The red rhombus marks the location where the Japanese boat was found, and the red circle denotes maximum debris density experienced. Purple color shows the distribution of the tsunami debris in the SCUD model on September 25.

On October 8, the Pallada entered the port of Vladivostok. The most remarkable photo taken of the voyage is of a small fishing vessel about 20 feet long, which they were able to hoist up on to the Pallada. The markings on the wheel house of the boat show its home port to be in the Fukushima Prefecture, the area hardest hit by the tsunami.

With the exact locations of some of the by now widely scattered debris, scientists can make more accurate projections about when the debris might arrive at the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The first landfall on Midway Islands is anticipated this winter. The debris that misses Midway will continue toward the main Hawaiian Islands and the North American West Coast.

Nursing students gain practical experience working on Sim Man, a high-fidelity manikin.

Saving lives through simulation

Lorrie Wong, Director, University of Hawai'i Health Science Simulation Center
Lorrie Wong, Director, University of Hawai'i Health Science Simulation Center
On entering the patient’s room to check on Mr. Kahui’s vital signs, a student nurse notices that he is having trouble breathing—then goes unconscious. The student immediately activates the rapid response team, the inter-professional
group that determines treatment and begins administering to Mr. Kahui, who is clinging to life.

A day at the hospital, trauma center or emergency room? Actually, it’s a day in class for these nursing students, who are working on Mr. Kahui, a high-fidelity manikin aka Sim Man. The School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene is home to several
such tools to enhance practical learning. The new $8 million UH Translational Health Science Simulation Center, opening in January 2012 in Webster Hall, will serve as a campus hub for interdisciplinary translational health science research, simulation and research education.

The Center provides a venue for students to learn in a range of care delivery settings, including a simulated operating room, intensive care unit, labor and delivery suite, ambulatory, and day home setting. “This is very important to our nursing students,” says Lorrie Wong, director of the Sim Center. “Our students will have real-life experiences that
cover all aspects of healthcare.” The 7,000-squarefoot, state-of-the-art facility will be used for clinical
simulation for students, educators, practicing healthcare providers and researchers.

Through this initiative, the existing simulation labs among the UH Nursing Programs on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawai‘i will be linked. Embraced by Hawai’i’s healthcare community as a shared resource, founding partners of the Center
are UH Mānoa, HMSA Foundation, Hawai‘i Pacific Health, The Queen’s Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente Hawai‘i.

Contact Dr. Wong at lorriew@hawaii.edu or see the website at http://www.nursing.hawaii.edu.

Top photo: Nursing students gain practical experience working on Sim Man, a high-fidelity manikin.

2011-09-infection

No small threat

Viruses causing epidemic vector-borne diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes.
Viruses causing epidemic vector-borne diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes.
How’s this for an unnerving statistic? Infectious diseases kill more people worldwide than any other single cause – that’s according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. A dengue outbreak in Hawai‘i in 2001 and a global resurgence of vector-borne and zoonotic infectious diseases, nearly all originating in Asia, led to the establishment of the Pacific Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research in 2003. The Center and its activities are generously supported by institutional funds and a grant from the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Program, of the National Center for Research Resources, of the National Institutes of Health.

Hawai‘i’s strategic location as a prominent international port and its geographic proximity and strong ties to institutions within Asia and the Pacific provide a unique setting from which to monitor the emergence and spread of newly recognized infectious diseases and to investigate outbreaks of well-known microbial infections of regional concern and global importance. The Pacific Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research is among a handful of research facilities in the world exploring this resurgence.

Richard Yanagihara, Director of the Pacific Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research.
Richard Yanagihara, Director of the Pacific Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research.
Said Richard Yanagihara, Director of the Pacific Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, “Infectious diseases are among the most urgent public health and economic problems facing the Asia-Pacific region in the new millennium. In recent years, microbes newly emerging in Asia have caused major epidemics, resulting in significant loss of human lives and devastating economic consequences worldwide.”

Although the myriad factors responsible for the alarming global resurgence of infectious diseases are not fully understood, demographic and societal changes are likely contributors. That is, the unprecedented population growth since World War II has been one of the principal driving forces behind uncontrolled urbanization. Also, the rapid movements of people, animals (and their endo- and ecto-parasites) and commodities via jumbo jets and high-speed trains, along with the insidious breakdown of the public health infrastructure and the misplaced emphasis on curative rather than preventive medicine, have all contributed to the regional and worldwide resurgence of infectious diseases.

The NIH-funded center is a pillar program that draws on the complementary strengths and multidisciplinary expertise within the John A. Burns School of Medicine and the College of Natural Sciences. Because the prevention and control of infectious diseases demand expertise from more than a single discipline, the new center is anchored by the tenets of multi- and trans-disciplinary research, comprising elements of epidemiology and public health, community and family medicine, biobehavioral health, bioinformatics and biostatistics, and microbiology and immunology.

The Center’s overall vision is to become a regional translational science center of research excellence for new, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. And its mission is to develop and deploy improved rapid diagnostics, effective low-cost treatments and affordable vaccines for tropical infectious diseases, which disproportionately affect underserved ethnic minority and disadvantaged communities in the Asia-Pacific region.

For more information, visit: http://pceidr.jabsom.hawaii.edu/.

Biocontainment suite for research on vector-borne and zoonotic viruses.
Biocontainment suite for research on vector-borne and zoonotic viruses.
Blind_Luck_05

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 http://www.hawaii.edu/acm/ or contact ACM Assistant Professor Anne Misawa at 956-0752 or amisawa@hawaii.edu.

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.

CityCapital_Exchange Prog

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 http://www.hawaii.edu/publichealth/index.html.

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

ratkowski_PS1haleakala

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 www.ifa.hawaii.edu.

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.

MEC

Leading diverse cancer research

Since cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, the research undertaken by the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center is even more critical and compelling.  One of the Center’s largest and most ethnically diverse research projects is the Multiethnic Cohort Study (MEC), which follows more than 215,000 men and women primarily of African-American, Japanese, Latino, Native Hawaiian and Caucasian origin, including more than 70,000 Asians and Pacific Islanders living in Hawai‘i.

Funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 1993, the MEC is being conducted at the Center and the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. The ethnic diversity of Hawai‘i and California has made it possible to develop this large study with its unique representation of minority populations.

Established to examine lifestyle risk factors, especially diet and nutrition, as well as genetic susceptibility (an inherited tendency to react more strongly to particular exposures) in relation to the causation of cancer, every cohort member completed a specially designed, self-administered, 26-page baseline questionnaire on entry to the MEC Study (between 1993-1996). The questionnaire included an extensive quantitative diet history as well as background information and medical, medication, physical activity and female reproductive histories.

In addition to the baseline questionnaire, a four-page questionnaire was sent in 1999-2001 and another 26-page questionnaire was sent in 2003-2008 to gather additional information. Biological specimens (mainly blood and urine samples) were collected from selected members of the cohort, starting in 1996, but the main collection took place from 2001-2006. These specimens enable the research team to study dietary components measured in blood and urine in relation to cancer risk, and also the interaction between genetic susceptibility and diet.  Biological specimens on more than 70,000 cohort participants are being stored in special low temperature freezers in Hawai‘i and California.

The study will test many different hypotheses related to diet and other factors in order to determine why different ethnic groups have different risks of developing cancer and other chronic diseases. Some of the study’s goals are to improve understanding of ethnic/racial differences in cancer occurrence and bring important benefits to Hawai‘i and the Asia Pacific region, with the hopes of preventing cancer and other chronic diseases in the populations of the U.S. and rest of the world.

Dr. Larry Kolonel

Said principal investigator Dr. Larry Kolonel, “No other study of this type encompasses such diverse ethnic populations.  As a result, we are an essential participant in many national and international scientific collaborations that seek to understand how diet and genetics contribute to cancer causation, and how the knowledge we are gaining will help reduce the burden of cancer in Hawaii and globally.”

For more information on the MEC study, visit  http://www.crch.org/multiethniccohort/.

Rendering of Anaerobic Digester_Cooney

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 http://www.hnei.hawaii.edu.

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