Editorial: University contributions go beyond the classroom

Universities bring more to communities than students and automobiles, and Oregon State University-Cascades already is going beyond the classroom in its contribution to Central Oregon.

That was clear the other day in the announcement that Onboard Dynamics Inc. likely will receive a $3.6 million federal grant to help it go commercial with a new natural-gas refueling system aimed at pickup trucks.

The system is the creation of Chris Hagen, an assistant professor at OSU-Cascades. Hagen found a way to modify cylinders of a vehicle’s engine so they can convert low-pressure natural gas into a compressed fuel and send it to the tank and also power the vehicle. Vehicles that burn natural gas are cheaper to fill and cleaner to operate than their standard counterparts. But compressed natural gas is not as readily available as gasoline is, making its use limited to areas in which the fuel can be found.

Enter Hagen.

His engine-modification design allows the natural gas found in many homes for heating and cooking to be pumped into a vehicle, compressed and burned. The system would greatly expand the range for natural-gas-fueled vehicles.

Central Oregonians are the immediate, if largely indirect, beneficiaries of Hagen’s creation. The company being developed to commercialize his design will rent space and hire people as it moves forward, adding local jobs in the process.

And while Onboard Dynamics may be a first in Central Oregon, it’s just one of more than 30 such spinoffs powered by OSU research in recent years.

New businesses are not the only way a university enriches a community, of course — think free lunchtime lectures and after-hours science pubs, among opportunities available to the public — but they’re an important one with implications far beyond the immediate benefits. They help create the sort of vibrant atmosphere that makes the region attractive to similar, nonuniversity efforts, resulting in a stronger economy for all.