Gertrude Villaverde ’19 knew she wanted to be an engineer and chose OSU-Cascades for its signature program in energy systems engineering. The multidisciplinary program fit her interest in sustainability and addressing climate change. She joined the first freshman class when the Bend campus expanded to a four-year university in 2015.
Two years later, when the Honors College was added, Gertrude joined its initial cohort and is one of the first OSU-Cascades admitted students to graduate with the Honors Baccalaureate.
The main attraction for Gertrude was the honors thesis. It provided opportunity to complete in-depth research, write and present at a level that’s more typical for graduate school. “The thesis alone made it worth it,” she says, “just the whole process of research, taking different stakeholders into account and finding solutions.”
But her Honors College experience sent Gertrude in unexpected directions as well. She took a variety of classes outside her major, studying the traditional ecological knowledge of Native Americans and learning about the chemistry of pharmaceuticals in a medicinal molecules class. There were also courses to explore her creative side outside the STEM fields, like an Honors College field trip course with students from Corvallis writing about the plays she saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
“Not only did I learn a lot more, I think it made my degree program more satisfying,” she says.
Gertrude had already earned a job as a research assistant in Associate Professor Chris Hagen’s lab, soldering components on a hybrid powertrain for an unmanned aerial vehicle, when she asked him to be her thesis mentor. And he had a project for her: an international student design contest to develop hydrogen-based energy systems.
Gertrude and her team came up with an ingenious solution that takes advantage of excess renewable energy, meets high-energy demand periods and reduces carbon dioxide emissions.
During the spring in Oregon, snowmelt increases the flow through hydropower dams, generating more electricity than there is demand, an issue known in the utility industry as curtailment. Her thesis proposes using that curtailed electricity to power an electrolyzer, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen gases. The hydrogen can then be directly injected into the natural gas infrastructure and stored in underground reservoirs until the hydrogen/natural gas blend is needed, such as for heating during the winter months.
Such blends are compatible with existing natural gas equipment and can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 9.3 metric tons for every metric ton of hydrogen blended into natural gas. The team worked with NW Natural to identify and evaluate potential sites for the project, as well as a pricing option for ratepayers to make it economically feasible. Their proposal won third place against 34 teams from around the world.
As Gertrude’s mentor, Hagen guided her through the thesis process, checked in regularly and provided support where needed, including bringing a Ph.D. student and another undergraduate research assistant to the design team. In addition, Hagen says his lab continues to work with NW Natural on a multimillion-dollar proposal to change how energy is managed in the Pacific Northwest, based on Gertrude’s research.
“This is a really impactful project,” Hagen says. “I think it’s spectacular to see this work grow.”
The honors thesis was not Gertrude’s only opportunity to apply energy systems engineering in the real world. Like many College of Engineering students, she completed a full-time, six-month internship through the Multiple Engineering Cooperative Program (MECOP). At A-dec, a dental equipment manufacturer in Newberg, Oregon, Gertrude worked on lean manufacturing methods. One project on the plant’s compressed air system saved the company 84,000 kilowatt-hours in electricity use per year, while another saved $24,000 in waste hauling fees.
And like many internships, Gertrude’s led to a full-time job offer, at Energy 350 in Portland. She worked with the company on data logging and analysis for the compressed air project at A-dec. Her internship and thesis experience — conducting extensive research and reporting on it effectively in a short amount of time — helped her land this job and will be a major portion of her work.
“They liked the way we worked with each other and how quickly the project was implemented,” Gertrude says. “They’ve been in touch since, and now I’m going to work for them.”
Both the Oregon State Honors College and OSU-Cascades are known for being close and supportive communities, and Gertrude found they more than lived up to their reputations.
“You know every single one of your professors, and every single one of your professors knows you,” she says. “You get to talk to them, walk into their office, ask questions, get advice and share accomplishments. Everyone is very supportive here, from the professors to the students. I don’t know if I would have gotten this far without my colleagues.”
The Honors College and the honors thesis “may seem daunting, but if you’re aiming for excellence, this is the way to go,” Gertrude says. “You will get more than you imagined out of this.”
By: Gidlha Cumming