Standing Tall

There’s a small space in Clemson’s Experimental Forest where a few tall trees tower towards the sky. Covered in long pine needles, the wooded area is open and bright compared to the rest of the forest. A Creative Inquiry team, led by Dr. G. Geoff Wang and Dr. Arvind Bhuta in the School of Agricultural, Forest, and Environmental Sciences, is studying three species of southern-yellow or heart pines (Pinus taeda, Pinus palustris and Pinus elliotti).

These pines are of interest because of the unusual occurrence they have in this region; these longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) are outside of their natural range, which ends sixty miles south of Clemson in southern McCormick and Greenwood Counties, South Carolina. According to historical records, the plot being studied was planted in the 1940s as a source of labor in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Wang, professor of silviculture and ecology, says that there is quite a history of these trees in the South as far back as the 1930s.

“At that time, people didn’t actually study a lot about it,” Wang said. “It was more like, ‘Hey! We got seedlings here! Go plant them!’ It could be they had excessive labor, and they just had seedlings and went planting everywhere.”

One significant characteristic of longleaf pines is that they depend on fire. Without periodic burning, the plant cannot naturally regenerate. Natural and human-caused fire used to occur frequently, but human efforts to suppress fire and the overharvesting of longleaf pine forests in the southeast have caused populations to decline.

Junior forest research management major Carson Barefoot is concerned about this change. “It’s weird because longleaf pines used to be really dominant. They were the most abundant species but then, we stopped putting fire on the ground, and then they started declining,” he said. “And now, we’ve reintroduced fire. And that’s what we’re trying to see—how the reintroduction of fire is impacting these trees.”

Bhuta describes the magnitude of the decline of this species: “Due to the overharvesting of longleaf pine forest and the practice of preventing fires, the longleaf pine declined, going from over 91 million acres to only over 2.7 million acres,” he said.

The team is also studying how climate affects the growth of loblolly, longleaf and slash pines in different regions of South Carolina. They are starting by studying young longleaf seedlings.

Students measure the height and diameter of the tree, and the canopy. Students also “core,” or retrieve samples from the inside of the trees. Using a core sample, the team can identify the age of the tree and how both climate and disturbance have affected its growth. They can also recognize scars from burning.

“We just want to have some simple metrics to calculate how many trees per acre are here and go from there to kind of give us an estimate of what’s going on with the life history of the tree,” Bhuta said.

This Creative Inquiry engages forestry students in meaningful research in Clemson’s Experimental Forest.
“It’s real world stuff that we would do in a job. So, we get to practice. I like to see how the environment impacts the growth directly in the rings,” junior resource management major Michael Griffo said.

Barefoot enjoys the outdoors aspect and research rewards of this project.

”I want to keep doing research,” he said. “I want to keep coming out here and helping the trees other than exploiting them for their resources. I absolutely enjoy it.”

Building Haiti on Bamboo

Nearly four years have passed since the earthquake in Haiti. The country of Haiti, though progressing forward in reconstruction, is nowhere near operating at the same speed it was before the 2010 destruction. A group of civil engineering students at Clemson University are developing a way to help restore Haiti. By researching the use of bamboo reinforced concrete, they hope to provide an economical and efficient way for Haitians to rebuild and recover.

Bamboo is about one-third the strength of steel Although not quite as strong, it is far less expensive and much easier to produce.

“We look into bamboo reinforced concrete because we know that bamboo can be grown in Haiti—it can be grown in just a couple months to get to its full height. It’s basically free and grows almost like weeds,” Dr. Weichiang Pang, assistant professor of Civil Engineering, explained.

Pang holds up a piece of bamboo about a foot long and around a half-inch thick. “This can hold around 1000 pounds of force.”

Assessments to test the strength of bamboo include putting a small sliver of bamboo in a machine that continuously pulls at the specimen.

“We test it in the frame there for tension capacity,” Pang said. “So, basically you will pull it apart and we see how much load it will take to break it. Based on that we can see the cross-section and calculate how much pressure it takes to break it. That’s how we’ve found that it is one-third of steel.”

Graduate student Nathan Schneider, pursuing his degree in Civil Engineering, points out the major breaking point of a bamboo.

“Most likely it’s going to break at the node. The bamboo is divided by the diaphragms so, that’s kind of where you can see the fibers are a lot more chaotic, the way they form. That’s generally the weaker part of the bamboo,” Schneider said. At around 1600 pounds of pressure, the bamboo will finally break.

“Well, if you’re falling off a cliff and you see if a piece of bamboo, it’s a safe move to grab it,” Pang said. Because of bamboo’s impressive strength, this Creative Inquiry team is experimenting with how to successfully strengthen concrete structures with the bamboo as that reinforcement.

“The other task we are doing right now is looking at the bonding between concrete and bamboo,” Pang said. “Bamboo is like wood, so it will absorb moisture. So, one thing we need to address is how to prevent it from absorbing moisture when we cast concrete.”

The team is also testing different lengths of bamboo in conjunction with different waterproofing techniques to ensure that the bamboo will be adhesive when cast to concrete. In working with bamboo-reinforced columns, students have created a new technique to bend bamboo.

“We just have a big PVC pipe that we hook up to a steam box and hook it up with a hose,” senior civil engineering major Austin Chalker explained. “It’s almost like a sauna that we can put up to fifteen pieces of bamboo into. It becomes flexible enough where you can bend and touch it side-to-side and turn into a complete circle. Then, we have a form that we just put up to nine at a time in and let it dry for thirty minutes, and it stays in that shape we formed.”

Schneider believes that this part of their research has been very distinctive. “Nobody’s done that before. So, that’s something that we haven’t found any other information about other people ever using,” said Schnider. “That’s been really kind of unique part to this research.”
Pang’s team is also excited to transfer their research into hands-on activities. “Last semester was more research based while this semester’s been cool transitioning into actually putting it together,” Corey Crowder, a civil engineer senior, said. “It’s definitely been a lot of fun. Especially seeing it all come together,” Schneider added.

Once the bamboo-reinforced concrete structures have been tested, the team hopes to travel to Haiti to introduce this idea to the population. Teaching Haitians how to rebuild their structures with bamboo reinforced concrete is now a feasible goal, and this team of students is determined to get there.

Fungus as a Fuel

When someone first thinks about bacteria and fungi, they don’t often consider them as resources to produce fuels from things such as plants. Dr. Michael Henson in the Department of Biological Sciences and his Creative Inquiry students are conducting research in order to one day build bio-refineries that can produce fuel from bacteria and fungi. These refineries employ a series of chemical and physical reactions to convert plant material to produce various products, including fuels. Biofuels are fuels that originate from living organisms.

“We would want to do that as a bio-refinery by taking those biological products, bringing those biological products into a bio-refinery, and converting those biological products of biomass into a variety of end-products that have value as a fuel or other sectors of the economy,” Henson said.

Henson began this project when he was in graduate school by converting biomass materials into methane, a component of natural gas. Years later, Henson put together a Creative Inquiry, called Biofuels to Biomass, that involves undergraduate and graduate students working on a project that combines basic and applied science. Students in this CI learn more about their chosen field through first-hand experiences and research opportunities. Henson knows that this experience is valuable.
“It is no longer just studying a textbook or copying a lab procedure,” he said. “The student begins to build on these methods and goes into a lab and can see their project and do the work and see their own results.”

The students are now studying the roles of specific bacteria and fungi in the conversion of biomass
materials, such as cellulose, into biofuels.

“One part of this research project is to optimize the conditions in the way we mix bacteria, which include temperature, different pH and different nutrient requirements,” Abhiney Jain, a microbioogy graduate student, said. “The second part of this project is to understand the relationship between bacteria and fungi as they deconstruct these plant polymers.”

One of the biggest things sophomore biological sciences major Tabitha Banks has gained from the project is the ability to problem-solve.

“I’ve gotten a new outlook on problem solving. When something goes wrong, you don’t necessarily know why it has gone wrong, so it’s looking at here’s what we did, here are the options we can do and it really makes you think,” Banks said. “You may not know what’s going wrong, so it requires you to think outside the box, which will definitely be helpful in future endeavors.”

Banks also reiterated the benefits of working in a lab outside of her regular lab classes.

“I really enjoyed being able to work in a lab because it gives you an insight into many things that you don’t get to do in labs for classes,” she said. “When you go into labs for classes, it’s generally all laid out for you there, step by step, but in here you have the large scale goal for the lab and for the project, but then it’s left up to you.”

Overall, Henson is pleased with the progress made by his students and the time they spend in the lab, learning valuable skills that will inevitably help them further down the road in their careers.

“It is seeing the undergraduate student who has little to no experience in the lab have that discovery moment when they see something they’re discovered for the first time,” Henson said.

Carbon Dioxide Flux

A group of Clemson students is collecting information on the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) from natural and human/artificial sources, and some might consider them trailblazers in this new field.

Geologic Indicators of Climate Change is a Creative Inquiry in the Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences. A team of geology major seniors is exploring and analyzing CO2 fluxes from soils, rocks and bodies of water. Using their own individual experiments and observations, these seniors are developing and collecting a new information baseline for the southeastern region.

“There’s not much research in this geologic, climatic, biome. Most of the research is being done in other places. So, we’re right now creating baselines for the southeast,” research assistant professor of Geology, Scott Brame said. Brame, the leader of the team, has narrowed the focus of the Creative Inquiry to a particular region. “We’re focused on a temperate deciduous forest ecosystem found in the southern Appalachians. It’s a narrow scope,” he said.

The main focus is to understand how much CO2 is produced by humans as opposed to the CO2 that is emitted by decaying matter and other natural processes. In order to enhance this understanding, Katie Hickok is performing a lab experiment that measures differences in CO2 emissions from store-bought and natural soil. She manually changes the temperature, moisture and other factors to determine which conditions produce the most CO2. Hickok said that she likes the hands-on experience of working in the field, but for this particular experiment it was best for her to be in a lab setting.

“I thought for me that it would be easier to understand in a lab setting where I can physically change it. Where I am boss, I am God of this experiment,” said Hickok.

Ashley Coffin also believes that her experiment will be of use to farmers in the future. Her research on till versus no-till farming could lead farmers to change the way they manage their crops. Coffin studies the amount of CO2 emitted from tilled soil versus the amount emitted from soil that is not tilled. In “no-till” farming, crops are planted without plowing the soil. This practice is believed to add organic matter to the soil as well as to decrease erosion. She suspects that no-till farming will reduce CO2 emissions the most.

“It would be trying to prove that and then make recommendations to the organic farms saying ‘You should switch and change to no-till,’ in order to reduce CO2 emissions. So (my research) has a real world application built into it,” Coffin said.

The Creative Inquiry group is also conducting experiments on CO2 levels in the water from nearby Lake Hartwell. Lacy has started a data collection project that he hopes will be continued by other students and professionals.

“I’m doing one arm that goes into Lake Hartwell and seeing how much carbon actually comes in through waters and soil samples, leaves falling off trees and how much is actually moving through the water,” Lacy said. Lacy also explains that a lot of the carbon in such a system is from natural sources, such as dead fish and decaying leaves and trees.

As for the continuation of this project, the students and their faculty leaders have high hopes that the information they are collecting will encourage corrective actions towards reducing carbon emissions.

“Not many people are aware that the carbon flux is of issue,” Brame said. “We’re just trying to measure this natural phenomenon.”