Oregon’s three largest universities have each received $1 million grants from the National Science Foundation to explore ways to improve a variety of industries, ecosystems and technologies in the Pacific Northwest.
The University of Oregon will use its grant to focus on the mass timber industry. The school is partnering with Oregon State University, Washington State University and more than 25 other organizations and agencies to research innovations in mass timber architecture, engineering and construction in the region.
Oregon State University will use a separate grant to work on a project to advance technology related to semiconductors, which are critical to the production of a variety of electronics. The university will be working with the University of Washington, Boise State University, the Oregon Business Council and more than 20 other partners on the semiconductors project.
Portland State plans to use its grant to look into what it would take to create a “smart electrical grid” for the region. PSU is also working with a number of partners, including national laboratories, private companies and government institutions.
The National Science Foundation awarded the $1 million grants as part of its “Regional Innovation Engines program” — a program created out of the CHIPS and Science Act under the Biden Administration aimed at kickstarting partnerships to benefit local economies and foster technological advancements in fields as varied as seismic safety and robotic fabrication.
“These NSF Engines Development Awards lay the foundation for emerging hubs of innovation and potential future NSF Engines,” Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the agency, said in a statement. “These awardees are part of the fabric of the NSF’s vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere.”
With its project on mass timber, researchers with the University of Oregon said they’re hoping to address some of the region’s biggest issues.
“We’re trying to address, holistically, a number of those big climate change and economic challenges,” said UO architecture professor and principal investigator for the university’s mass timber project, Judith Sheine.
Sheine said the team is working on a strategic plan to figure out the big gaps and challenges in the region’s mass timber industry and how to address them.
Mass timber is a term to describe engineered wood products that are bound together to create timber panels or beams. According to UO officials, it’s a sustainable alternative to materials like concrete and steel and can reduce the carbon footprint of the U.S. building industry.
Related: Oregon’s mass timber industry gets boost from federal government
The new partnership hopes to look into how to grow the region’s mass timber ecosystem and explore how it can be used to increase the mass timber workforce, start and expand new businesses and create affordable housing.
Andre Barbosa, professor of structural engineering at Oregon State and the project’s co-director, said the team’s work hopes to spur technological advances in a number of other areas.
“This regional engine will drive advances in fundamental and applied knowledge to enable new technologies and products in mass timber across several thrust areas, including innovations encompassing seismic and fire safety, durability, and acoustics; net zero-carbon footprint, energy efficient designs; air quality, bacterial and viral load mitigation; and advanced building systems innovations in modular mass timber systems for affordable housing, energy and seismic retrofits, design for disassembly, and robotic/digital fabrication and construction,” Barbosa said in a statement.
The NSF’s $1 million awards are two-year grants, and in that time the groups hope to complete their strategic planning work. If that’s successful, the teams would be able to apply to a “Type-2 Engine” through the National Science Foundation, which could award up to $160 million in federal investments over the course of 10 years.
University of Oregon’s team said a lot of their work now will revolve around community engagement.
“We’ll be convening focus groups in all these areas — workforce and civic groups and industry, the tribes who in the Pacific Northwest, both in Washington and Oregon, own a lot of the forest land, and various nonprofit groups — trying to get everybody involved in figuring out the best way to really develop this ecosystem in some really equitable way that benefits everybody,” Sheine told OPB.
Sheine said this opportunity is “a very long-term ecosystem development process,” and it will be a group effort.
“We hope to be able to involve community members from rural communities and urban communities, all kinds who have a stake in this, to work collectively with us, and with them to begin to develop solutions to these crises in all these different areas,” she said.
Greg Herman, a chemical engineering professor at OSU who is leading the university’s grant project, said these NSF grants are the first of their kind.
“To our knowledge this is the first time in our region’s history that major research universities have partnered with industry, government, national laboratories and nonprofits to develop a more cohesive semiconductor technology environment for economic development,” Herman said in a statement.
Editor’s note: This story, which was originally focused on the University of Oregon, has been updated to include announcements made this morning about National Science Foundation grant awards to several additional regional universities.