Product Design project by UO undergrad is an Oregon winner

Thinking he was just one in a crowd, University of Oregon undergraduate student Alexander "Zander" Eckblad figured his chances were slim when he submitted his product-design project into the inaugural Oregon BEST Red List Design Challenge.

On Sept. 12 Eckblad, a senior from San Francisco, received the second-place award for his prototype of non-toxic, plant-based cellulose nanofiber insulation. The prize comes with $5,000 and help from Oregon BEST (Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center) to potentially move Eckblad's product into the marketplace.

"I'm honored. I did not expect this at all," said Eckblad, who graduated from The Urban School of San Francisco, a private high school located near Golden Gate Park. "When I entered my first submission, I thought, well I'm just one in many — a kid from the UO. It has turned out to be a great experience, from learning in general to how to connect with people."

Oregon BEST and the International Living Future Institute announced the winners in a news release issued during Oregon BEST FEST, a regional cleantech innovation conference that brings together university researchers, entrepreneurs and business leaders to foster collaborations that lead to environmentally clean technology solutions.

The $10,000 first-place award went to Sukita Reay Crimmel of Claylin LLC for her Ready-Mix Earthen Flooring, which is made from a blend of Oregon clay soil, sand, pigment and chopped straw that is hand-troweled smooth and sealed with a blend of beeswax and oils. Crimmel graduated in 1999 from the UO with a bachelor's degree in environmental sciences and a minor in architecture.

UO's Product Design makes for great fit

Eckblad said that just out of high school he participated in a two-week trial admission program at a California art school because of his interest in product design, but it wasn't a good fit. He'd heard of the UO's strengths in materials science and product design, so he came north on I-5.

When he learned about Product Design, an undergraduate degree program in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, during his orientation in IntroDUCKtion, he said, he knew he'd found the right place to study. The open collaboration and support in Product Design, he said, is fabulous.

"I am still learning in the Product Design program — how to connect with people and how to convey my ideas. All the professors have been really helpful," he said, giving particular thanks to Kiersten Muenchinger, associate professor and director of the program, and Wonhee Jeong Arndt, associate professor and a Product Design  faculty member.

Finding inspiration in Oregon

While in an experimental materials course taught by Jeong Arndt, Eckblad said, he was reminded of an article he had read while in high school about the potential uses of nano-crystalline cellulose. In doing his homework, he learned that Oregon State University researcher John Simonson, a professor of wood science and engineering, was experimenting with that very material.

A meeting with Simonson led to some time in his lab, working with OSU graduate student Jenna Schardt, a lab technician. Also helping along the way, Eckblad noted, was the UO's Carl A. Stiefbold, a senior instructor of science laboratory education in the biology department.

Muenchinger, who holds the Tim and Mary Boyle Chair in Materials Studies and Product Studies at the UO, Jeong Arndt and Simonson all hold faculty memberships in Oregon BEST. The UO has 49 faculty members participating in Oregon BEST, an independent, nonprofit established by the Oregon Legislature that partners with the Oregon Institute of Technology, OSU, Portland State University and the UO.

Natural, affordable, and sustainable insulation

Eckblad's insulation uses nano-crystalline fibers, a material, he says, that is inexpensive and readily available in Oregon. Potentially, he says, logging and paper manufacturing plants that now sit idle could be repurposed to produce nano-crystalline fiber and cellulose products, which could be used for a variety of products, from insulation to biomedical devices.

"It's all natural," he said. "The crystalline is harder than steel. The fibers have a stronger tensile strength than Kevlar. It is a crazy strong and cheap material."

The insulation prototype that Eckblad created, noted Oregon BEST, has the potential to be three times as effective as fiberglass insulation at one-eighth the cost.

Jim Barlow, Director of Science and Research Communications