college of engineering

Storage advance may boost solar thermal energy potential

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have identified a new approach for the storage of concentrated solar thermal energy, to reduce its cost and make it more practical for wider use.

The advance is based on a new innovation with thermochemical storage, in which chemical transformation is used in repeated cycles to hold heat, use it to drive turbines, and then be re-heated to continue the cycle. Most commonly this might be done over a 24-hour period, with variable levels of solar-powered electricity available at any time of day, as dictated by demand.

The findings have been published in ChemSusChem, a professional journal covering sustainable chemistry. The work was supported by the SunShot Initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy, and done in collaboration with researchers at the University of Florida.

Conceptually, all of the energy produced could be stored indefinitely and used later when the electricity is most needed. Alternatively, some energy could be used immediately and the rest stored for later use.

Storage of this type helps to solve one of the key factors limiting the wider use of solar energy – by eliminating the need to use the electricity immediately. The underlying power source is based on production that varies enormously, not just night and day, but some days, or times of day, that solar intensity is more or less powerful. Many alternative energy systems are constrained by this lack of dependability and consistent energy flow.

Solar thermal electricity has been of considerable interest because of its potential to lower costs. In contrast to conventional solar photovoltaic cells that produce electricity directly from sunlight, solar thermal generation of energy is developed as a large power plant in which acres of mirrors precisely reflect sunlight onto a solar receiver. That energy has been used to heat a fluid that in turn drives a turbine to produce electricity.

Such technology is appealing because it’s safe, long-lasting, friendly to the environment and produces no greenhouse gas emissions. Cost, dependability and efficiency have been the primary constraints.

“With the compounds we’re studying, there’s significant potential to lower costs and increase efficiency,” said Nick AuYeung, an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the OSU College of Engineering, corresponding author on this study, and an expert in novel applications and use of sustainable energy.

“In these types of systems, energy efficiency is closely related to use of the highest temperatures possible,” AuYeung said. “The molten salts now being used to store solar thermal energy can only work at about 600 degrees centigrade, and also require large containers and corrosive materials. The compound we’re studying can be used at up to 1,200 degrees, and might be twice as efficient as existing systems.

“This has the potential for a real breakthrough in energy storage,” he said.

According to AuYeung, thermochemical storage resembles a battery, in which chemical bonds are used to store and release energy – but in this case, the transfer is based on heat, not electricity.

The system hinges on the reversible decomposition of strontium carbonate into strontium oxide and carbon dioxide, which consumes thermal energy. During discharge, the recombination of strontium oxide and carbon dioxide releases the stored heat. These materials are nonflammable, readily available and environmentally safe.

In comparison to existing approaches, the new system could also allow a 10-fold increase in energy density – it’s physically much smaller and would be cheaper to build.

The proposed system would work at such high temperatures that it could first be used to directly heat air which would drive a turbine to produce electricity, and then residual heat could be used to make steam to drive yet another turbine.

In laboratory tests, one concern arose when the energy storage capacity of the process declined after 45 heating and cooling cycles, due to some changes in the underlying materials. Further research will be needed to identify ways to reprocess the materials or significantly extend the number of cycles that could be performed before any reprocessing was needed, AuYeung said.

Other refinements may also be necessary to test the system at larger scales and resolve issues such as thermal shocks, he said, before a prototype could be ready for testing at a national laboratory.

Media Contact: 

Nick AuYeung, 541-737-4600

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Thermochemical energy
Thermal energy storage

“Spring-mass” technology heralds the future of walking robots

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study by engineers at Oregon State University suggests that they have achieved the most realistic robotic implementation of human walking dynamics that has ever been done, which may ultimately allow human-like versatility and performance.

The system is based on a concept called “spring-mass” walking that was theorized less than a decade ago, and combines passive dynamics of a mechanical system with computer control. It provides the ability to blindly react to rough terrain, maintain balance, retain an efficiency of motion and essentially walk like humans do.

As such, this approach to robots that can walk and run like humans opens the door to entire new industries, jobs and mechanized systems that do not today exist.

The findings on spring-mass walking have been reported for the first time in IEEE Transactions on Robotics, by engineers from OSU and Germany. The work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Human Frontier Science Program.

The technologies developed at OSU have evolved from intense studies of both human and animal walking and running, to learn how animals achieve a fluidity of motion with a high degree of energy efficiency. Animals combine a sensory input from nerves, vision, muscles and tendons to create locomotion that researchers have now translated into a working robotic system.

The system is also efficient. Studies done with their ATRIAS robot model, which incorporates the spring-mass theory, showed that it’s three times more energy-efficient than any other human-sized bipedal robots.

“I’m confident that this is the future of legged robotic locomotion,” said Jonathan Hurst, an OSU professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory in the OSU College of Engineering.

“We’ve basically demonstrated the fundamental science of how humans walk,” he said.

“Other robotic approaches may have legs and motion, but don’t really capture the underlying physics,” he said. “We’re convinced this is the approach on which the most successful legged robots will work. It retains the substance and science of legged animal locomotion, and animals demonstrate performance that far exceeds any other approach we’ve seen. This is the way to go.”

The current technology, Hurst said, is still a crude illustration of what the future may hold. When further refined and perfected, walking and running robots may work in the armed forces. As fire fighters they may charge upstairs in burning buildings to save lives. They could play new roles in factories or do ordinary household chores.

Aspects of the locomotion technology may also assist people with disabilities, the researchers said.

“Robots are already used for gait training, and we see the first commercial exoskeletons on the market,” said Daniel Renjewski, the lead author on the study with the Technische Universitat Munchen. “However, only now do we have an idea how human-like walking works in a robot. This enables us to build an entirely new class of wearable robots and prostheses that could allow the user to regain a natural walking gait.” 

There are few limits to this technology, the researchers said.

“It will be some time, but we think legged robots will enable integration of robots into our daily lives,” Hurst said. “We know it is possible, based on the example of animals. So it’s inevitable that we will solve the problem with robots. This could become as big as the automotive industry.”

And much of this, the scientists said, will be based on the “spring-mass” concept, which animals have been perfecting through millions of years of evolution. 

The robots being constructed at OSU were designed to mimic this “spring-legged” action of bipedal animals. With minor variations, muscles, tendons and bones form a structure that exhibits most of the required behavior, and conscious control just nudges things a little to keep it going in the right direction. The effort is smooth and elastic, and once understood, can be simulated in walking robots by springs and other technology.

ATRIAS, the human-sized robot most recently created at OSU, has six electric motors powered by a lithium polymer battery about the size of a half-gallon of milk, which is substantially smaller than the power packs of some other mobile robots. It can take impacts and retain its balance. It can walk over rough and bumpy terrain.

Researchers said in their new study that this technology “has the potential to enhance legged robots to ultimately match the efficiency, agility and robustness of animals over a wide variety of terrain.”

In continued research, work will be done to improve steering, efficiency, leg configuration, inertial actuation, robust operation, external sensing, transmissions and actuators, and other technologies.

Other collaborators in the development of this technology have included Jessy Grizzle at the University of Michigan and Hartmut Geyer at Carnegie Mellon University. Scientific work on the motion of animals was done with Monica Daley at the Royal Veterinary College, which guided the robot’s development.

Media Contact: 

Jonathan Hurst, 541-737-7010

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A YouTube video is available of the walking robot: http://bit.ly/1HQKqOZ

Walking robot
Walking robot

Methodology could lead to more sustainable manufacturing systems

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have developed a new “sustainable development methodology” to help address a social and regulatory demand for manufacturing processes that more effectively consider their economic, environmental and social impacts.

The work was recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production. It outlines a way to help designers and manufacturing engineers carefully consider all the ramifications of their design decisions, and to evaluate the possible different ways that a product could be built – before it ever hits the assembly line.

“There’s a lot of demand by consumers, workers and companies who want to make progress on the sustainability of products and manufacturing processes,” said Karl Haapala, an associate professor in the OSU College of Engineering.

“There’s usually more than one way to build a part or product,” he said. “With careful analysis we can identify ways to determine which approach may have the least environmental impact, lowest cost, least waste, or other advantages that make it preferable to a different approach.”

This movement, researchers say, evolved more than 20 years ago from an international discussion at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which raised concerns about the growing scarcity of water, depletion of non-renewable sources of energy, human health problems in the workplace, and other issues that can be linked to unsustainable production patterns in industry.

The challenge, experts say, is how to consider the well-being of employees, customers, and the community, all while producing a quality product and staying economically competitive. It isn’t easy, and comprehensive models that assess all aspects of sustainability are almost nonexistent.

“With current tools you can analyze various aspects of an operation one at a time, like the advantages of different materials, transportation modes, energy used, or other factors,” Haapala said. “It’s much more difficult to consider all of them simultaneously and come out with a reasonable conclusion about which approach is best.”

To aid that effort, OSU researchers created a new methodology that incorporates unit process modeling and an existing technique called life-cycle inventory. This allowed them to quantify a selected set of sustainability metrics, and ask real-world questions. Should the product use a different material? Would running the production line faster be worth the extra energy used or impact on worker health and safety? Which approach might lead to injuries and more lost work? How can scrap and waste be minimized? Which design alternative will generate the least greenhouse gas emissions?

To illustrate this approach in the study, the researchers used three hypothetical “bevel gear” alternatives, a common part produced in the aircraft and automotive industry. Their six-step system considered energy consumption, water use, effluent discharge, occupational health and safety, operating cost, and other factors to evaluate the use of different materials and manufacturing processes  – and ultimately concluded through mathematical modeling which of three possible designs was the most sustainable.

"When you make decisions about what is best, you may make value judgements about what aspect of sustainability is most important to you,” Haapala said. “But the modeling results have the potential to assist designers in performing those evaluations and in understanding the tradeoffs alongside other aspects of the manufacturing process.”

This work was supported by the Boeing Company and the Oregon Metals Initiative.

This assessment approach, when further researched and tested, should be applicable to a wide range of products during the design decision-making process, researchers said in the study.

Media Contact: 

Karl Haapala, 541-737-3122

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Solid steel bevel gear

Different gear types
Mechanically joined bevel gear

Microchannel systems could boost future of solar thermal electricity

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Microchannel technology pioneered at Oregon State University has demonstrated in laboratory experiments that it can significantly improve the efficiency of solar thermal generation of electricity, which could lower costs and lead to a wider deployment of solar energy.

Based on this, and to help bring the technology to a practical test in the field, the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative today announced a $2.5 million award to OSU and five collaborating partners.

The recent findings are important, researchers say, because they could help make solar thermal electricity more cost-competitive with other forms of electricity generation and expand the number of locations able to host a solar thermal plant. The technology is also safe, long-lasting, friendly to the environment and produces no greenhouse gas emissions.

In contrast to conventional solar photovoltaic cells that produce electricity directly from sunlight, solar thermal generation of energy is developed as a large power plant in which acres of mirrors precisely reflect sunlight onto a solar receiver. At the solar receiver a fluid such as supercritical carbon dioxide is heated to a high temperature, which in turn is used as a heat source for an electricity generating facility.

Existing plants so far have been built in areas with the most consistent solar resource, such as the American Southwest. But if costs are lowered and efficiency improved, usage in general should expand, and other sunny areas in temperate or tropical zones around the world could develop such systems.

“Our advances could open the door to a significant, 15 percent higher efficiency for solar thermal technology,” said Kevin Drost, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, now retired, at Oregon State University, which is leading the research consortium working to develop these systems.

“We’re confident that this work will meet the goals being set by the Department of Energy,” Drost said. “With their support we’ll now move it beyond the laboratory toward a technology that could be commercialized."

A key to the advances is microchannel technology that has been developed at OSU in recent years, and is already finding applications in systems such as blood dialysis or advanced heat exchangers.

These microchannel systems use extremely small channels and a branching distribution system that speed the transfer process and improve efficiency. A microchannel lamination technology developed at OSU helps control cost, and short channels help control pressure.

“Solar thermal technology has to work at very high temperatures and very high pressures, which present special challenges,” Drost said. “We are demonstrating that microchannel systems, as well as the use of supercritical carbon dioxide as a heat transfer fluid, should meet those challenges.”

The use of supercritical carbon dioxide, the researchers said, is an important component of their system, in contrast to the molten salts now used for heat transfer. It can operate at 650-720 degrees centigrade, compared to 500 degrees for molten salt. The use of supercritical carbon dioxide will improve efficiency, use a much smaller turbine, and will help to eliminate the need for water cooling towers, a special concern in some of the sunny, dry locations where such energy plants are likely to be located.

The microchannel receiving panels using the supercritical carbon dioxide are also about four times smaller than existing technology, which reduces cost, loss of thermal energy and weight.

Collaborators on this project include Sandia National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Lab, the National Energy Technology Lab, University of California, Davis, and ECOKAP Technologies.

The U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade.

Through SunShot, the Energy Department supports efforts by private companies, universities, and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06, or six cents per kilowatt-hour.

Media Contact: 

Brian Paul, 541-737-7320

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Solar thermal plant
Solar thermal power plant

“Quantum dot” technology may help light the future

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Advances at Oregon State University in manufacturing technology for “quantum dots” may soon lead to a new generation of LED lighting that produces a more user-friendly white light, while using less toxic materials and low-cost manufacturing processes that take advantage of simple microwave heating.

The cost, environmental, and performance improvements could finally produce solid state lighting systems that consumers really like and help the nation cut its lighting bill almost in half, researchers say, compared to the cost of incandescent and fluorescent lighting.

The same technology may also be widely incorporated into improved lighting displays, computer screens, smart phones, televisions and other systems.

A key to the advances, which have been published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, is use of both a “continuous flow” chemical reactor, and microwave heating technology that’s conceptually similar to the ovens that are part of almost every modern kitchen.

The continuous flow system is fast, cheap, energy efficient and will cut manufacturing costs. And the microwave heating technology will address a problem that so far has held back wider use of these systems, which is precise control of heat needed during the process. The microwave approach will translate into development of nanoparticles that are exactly the right size, shape and composition.

“There are a variety of products and technologies that quantum dots can be applied to, but for mass consumer use, possibly the most important is improved LED lighting,” said Greg Herman, an associate professor and chemical engineer in the OSU College of Engineering.

“We may finally be able to produce low cost, energy efficient LED lighting with the soft quality of white light that people really want,” Herman said. “At the same time, this technology will use nontoxic materials and dramatically reduce the waste of the materials that are used, which translates to lower cost and environmental protection.”

Some of the best existing LED lighting now being produced at industrial levels, Herman said, uses cadmium, which is highly toxic. The system currently being tested and developed at OSU is based on copper indium diselenide, a much more benign material with high energy conversion efficiency.

Quantum dots are nanoparticles that can be used to emit light, and by precisely controlling the size of the particle, the color of the light can be controlled. They’ve been used for some time but can be expensive and lack optimal color control. The manufacturing techniques being developed at OSU, which should be able to scale up to large volumes for low-cost commercial applications, will provide new ways to offer the precision needed for better color control.

By comparison, some past systems to create these nanoparticles for uses in optics, electronics or even biomedicine have been slow, expensive, sometimes toxic and often wasteful.

Oher applications of these systems are also possible. Cell phones and portable electronic devices might use less power and last much longer on a charge. “Taggants,” or compounds with specific infrared or visible light emissions, could be used for precise and instant identification, including control of counterfeit bills or products.

OSU is already working with the private sector to help develop some uses of this technology, and more may evolve. The research has been supported by Oregon BEST and the National Science Foundation Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry.


Media Contact: 

Greg Herman, 541-737-2496

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Quantum dots
Quantum dot technology

Northwest residents should channel fear of earthquake into pragmatic action

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A national news article suggesting that everything in Oregon west of Interstate-5 “would be toast” in a major Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake certainly drew attention to the seismic reality facing the Pacific Northwest.

The concern, though, is that people are focusing on the most draconian or extreme scenarios, experts say, which can lead to a sense of fatalism. The reaction illustrates the state of earthquake and tsunami preparedness – or lack thereof – in the United States, said Patrick Corcoran, a Sea Grant education and outreach specialist at Oregon State University who works with coastal communities on disaster preparedness.

It’s a matter of feast or famine.

“The Cascadia Subduction Zone has shifted from a science project to a social studies project,” Corcoran said. “We need to find a sweet spot between fear and action. What I try to do is temper the tendency of people to toggle between the poles of ‘it won’t happen here’ and ‘it will be so bad that there’s no use worrying about it.’”

Oregon has been taking some of the first serious steps toward earthquake mitigation, said Scott Ashford, dean of OSU’s College of Engineering and chair of governor-appointed task force on preparation. Recent legislation has resulted in a large increase in funding for K-12 and emergency facility seismic retro-fitting, as well as the creation of a new position – the state’s first Chief Resilience Officer.

Oregon is also working on some of the first tsunami building codes, which likely will be implemented over the next few years.

Oregon State University scientists have been warning Pacific Northwest citizens for more than a quarter of a century about the potential of a major earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The subduction of a tectonic plate beneath North America has the potential to trigger an earthquake ranging from  magnitude 8.0, as happened in Chile in 2010, to 9.0 (or greater), which took place in Japan in 2011.

Scientists believe that a magnitude 9.0-plus earthquake, which Corcoran calls “the largest of the large,” would likely trigger a tsunami that could devastate coastal communities, while the earthquake could destroy infrastructure throughout western Oregon and Washington, including roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, and the power grid.

However, he added, the more probable scenario is an earthquake on “the average side of large,” where the damage is less. The best response isn’t necessarily to flee the region, Corcoran said, but to become pro-active in preparing for a disaster.

As residents in Japan, Nepal, Chile and other countries have done, Northwesterners need to learn to live with the realistic threat of an earthquake and tsunami – not ignore the threat and hope they don’t happen.

The best approach, Corcoran says, is to prepare for the “most likely next event” – and that doesn’t necessarily mean the destruction of western Oregon as we know it.

“We don’t insist on the worst-case scenario with driving vehicles,” Corcoran said. “We don’t have a zero-tolerance for car fatalities. We try to do our best to identify and mitigate the risks, but we assume a great deal of risk. We don’t require that all cars be able to hit a brick wall at 100 miles per hour and have passengers unharmed. That’s impractical. We need to consider a similar approach with earthquakes.”

Chris Goldfinger, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a leading expert on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, estimates that the chances of a major earthquake off the coast from northern California to just south of Astoria are about 24 percent in the next 50 years. “South of Cape Blanco, Ore., the chances increase to about 37 percent,” he added.

Goldfinger said the furor in news reports and on social media about western Oregon becoming “toast” have been misconstrued. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has to prepare for a worst-case scenario as the starting point for its planning, he said, but that doesn’t mean that experts think western Oregon will be destroyed.

So, how big will the next Northwest earthquake be? No one knows. Thus outreach specialists like Corcoran say the prudent thing to do is plan for a range of events. “Discussing the range and likelihood of the next event can bring some air into the room.”

Corcoran said preparation helped save 90 percent of the 200,000 people in the inundation zone during Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Northwest has a much smaller coastal population, he added. On the other hand, Japan was much more prepared for disaster.

“We have to prepare commensurate with the risk,” Corcoran said. “Our society tends to be dismissive of preparation, especially evacuation drills. They are silly, they are embarrassing and it’s usually raining. The only people who actually do drills are high schools and hospitals because they are required to. But drills save lives, as they learned in Japan.”

Communities and individuals can prepare for natural disasters by understanding that they eventually will happen. Once you accept that and actually expect it, Corcoran said, preparation becomes second nature. Strap down water heaters, learn where the shutoff valve for natural gas may be in your house, and have several days of food and water available, he added.

People on the coast living in inundation zones should identify areas of high ground near their homes, work and recreation areas. “Work locally to make them accessible,” Corcoran said, “then conduct practice drills on how to get to them.”

OSU engineering dean Ashford is spearheading an initiative called the Cascadia Lifeline Project that is organizing public utilities, transportation agencies, and others to begin work on how to prepare for life after a major earthquake. Communities need to think about restoring vital services after an earthquake, including power, water, sewer and others.

Ashford testified to Congress in May about the need for public agencies, private businesses and individuals to develop the resilience to withstand an earthquake. He urged Congress to support three federal initiatives:

  • Invest in more resilient transportation networks that will be critical to rescue, relief and recovery efforts following a natural disaster;
  • Partner with states to require seismic resilience of federally regulated utilities that transport liquid fuel through pipelines and supply the majority of a state’s population, such as in Oregon;
  • Invest in applied research to improve earthquake resilience.

“It will take 50 years for us to fully prepare for this impending earthquake,” Ashford said. “We can’t simply go out and replace all of our existing infrastructure. But we can start now, and we can begin to find ways to better retro-fit, replace or repair things after an earthquake.”

Corcoran said most people are not tuned into long-term threats like300-year earthquake cycles. Since people in the Pacific Northwest only recently learned about this major recurring natural disaster, it is natural for some to feel blindsided by the knowledge and not fully embrace it, he added.

Recent media attention has wakened some people to the idea of an earthquake, but it is critical to channel that awareness into positive action, he said.

“As good as our local emergency officials are, they will be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the circumstances when a major earthquake takes place,” Corcoran said. “Preparation must begin with the individual, then focus on mutual aid among neighbors, and finally on public aid and assistance. Businesses, too, must support the safety of their employees and customers.”

Media Contact: 

Pat Corcoran, 503-325- 8573, Patrick.corcoran@oregonstate.edu;

Chris Goldfinger, 541-737-5214, gold@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Scott Ashford, 541-737-5232, scott.ashford@oregonstate.edu

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Scott Ashford measures ground upheaval in Japan.


Toppled building in Concepcion

An earthquake-toppled building in Chile.



Patrick Corcoran works with coastal communities.



Gift establishes professorship in “humanitarian engineering” at Oregon State

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University’s humanitarian engineering program has received a major boost with a $1.5 million gift creating one of the nation’s only endowed professorships in this emerging field.

OSU alumni Richard and Gretchen Evans, of Northern California, made prior gifts that helped to launch OSU’s program two years ago, responding to growing interest among engineering students in making a lasting, positive impact on the world.

Humanitarian engineering seeks science- and engineering-based solutions to improve the human condition by increasing access to basic human needs such clean water or renewable energy, enhancing quality of life, and improving community resilience, whether in face of natural disasters or economic turmoil. Although the greatest needs often lie in developing countries, needs also exist locally.

Oregon State’s program is focused on disadvantaged communities in the Pacific Northwest as well as around the world.

“The technical skills of engineering are essential, but so are abilities we might call human skills – such as communication, problem-solving, leadership and the ability to work across cultures,” said Richard Evans, an OSU College of Engineering alumnus who was president and CEO of Alcan, a Fortune-100 mining company and aluminum manufacturer based in Montreal. “The humanitarian engineering curriculum is a structured way for engineers to practice those human skills in challenging, real world settings.”

Drawing on the humanities also encourages creative solutions by “thinking outside the box,” added Gretchen Evans, an artist and interior designer who graduated from OSU’s College of Education and subsequently completed master’s courses at Legon University in Ghana, West Africa. “Listening is so important – not just believing that we know all of the answers going into every situation.”

The first Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor in Humanitarian Engineering is mechanical engineering professor Kendra Sharp, who directs the program.

“One of the things that’s most exciting about humanitarian engineering is that it captures the interest of a more diverse group of prospective students than we typically see in engineering, including a significant number of women,” Sharp said. “We are thrilled that the Evans’ gift will help us channel students’ passion for making a better world. The stability provided by this endowment will make a huge difference as we move forward.”

Oregon State’s humanitarian engineering program is grounded in a campus-wide emphasis on engaged service that springs from the university’s historic land grant mission. Multiple student organizations, including OSU’s award-winning Engineers Without Borders chapter and the American Society of Civil Engineering student chapter, have been working on water, energy and other projects in under-served Oregon communities and the developing world.

Yet in contrast to humanitarian engineering programs that are primarily an extracurricular activity, Oregon State’s is one of a handful nationwide rooted in an academic curriculum. Exemplifying OSU’s commitment to collaborative, transdisciplinary research and education, the curriculum was put together by a diverse group of faculty led by the College of Engineering but also involving the humanities, public health and education. A new undergraduate minor in humanitarian engineering will be open for enrollment in the coming year.

OSU’s humanitarian engineering program is further differentiated by residing in a university that also offers a Peace Corps Master’s International program in engineering. OSU was the first university in Oregon to join this program, which allows a graduate student to get a master’s degree while doing a full 27-month term of service in the Peace Corps. In addition to PCMI degrees in other fields, Oregon State remains one of just 10 universities nationwide to offer this degree in engineering.

College of Engineering Dean and Kearney Professor of Engineering Scott Ashford said that the humanitarian engineering professorship positions Oregon State for national leadership in this area while supporting one the college’s highest goals.

“We are dedicated to purposefully and thoughtfully increasing the diversity of our students and faculty, building a community that is inclusive, collaborative and centered on student success,” Ashford said. “This is the community that will produce locally conscious, globally aware engineers equipped to solve seemingly intractable problems and contribute to a better world. That’s the Oregon State engineer.”

Richard Evans is a senior international business adviser and director of companies including non-executive chairman of both Constellium, producer of advanced aluminum engineered products, and Noranda Aluminum Holdings, a U.S. regional aluminum producer. He is an independent director of CGI, Canada’s largest IT consulting and outsourcing company. In addition to her art, primarily in acrylics and mixed media, Gretchen Evans volunteers as an art teacher in a low-income Oakland, California, school.

Over the last decade, donors have established 81 endowed faculty positions at Oregon State, an increase of 170 percent, through gifts to the OSU Foundation. These prestigious positions help the university recruit and retain world-class leaders in teaching and research, with earnings from the endowments providing support for the faculty and creating opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in the programs as well.

Media Contact: 
Media Contact: 

Molly Brown, 541-737-3602


Kendra Sharp, 541-737-5246

Multimedia Downloads


Sharp with the Evanses


Sharp in India

Tough tail of a seahorse may provide robotic solutions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the ocean’s oddest little creatures, the seahorse, is providing inspiration for robotics researchers as they learn from nature how to build robots that have capabilities sometimes at odds with one another – flexible, but also tough and strong.

Their findings, published today in the journal Science, outline the virtues of the seahorse’s unusual skeletal structure, including a tail in which a vertebral column is surrounded by square bony plates. These systems may soon help create technology that offers new approaches to surgery, search and rescue missions or industrial applications.

Although technically a fish, the seahorse has a tail that through millions of years of evolution has largely lost the ability to assist the animal in swimming. Instead, it provides a strong, energy-efficient grasping mechanism to cling to things such as seaweed or coral reefs, waiting for food to float by that it can suck into its mouth.

At the same time, the square structure of its tail provides flexibility; it can bend and twist, and naturally returns to its former shape better than animals with cylindrical tails. This helps the seahorse hide, easily bide its time while food floats to it, and it provides excellent crushing resistance - making the animal difficult for predators to eat.

“Human engineers tend to build things that are stiff so they can be controlled easily,” said Ross Hatton, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, and a co-author on the study. “But nature makes things just strong enough not to break, and then flexible enough to do a wide range of tasks. That’s why we can learn a lot from animals that will inspire the next generations of robotics.”

Hatton said biological systems can combine both control and flexibility, and researchers gravitated to the seahorse simply because it was so unusual. They theorized that the square structure of its tail, so rare in nature, must serve a purpose.

“We found that this square architecture provides adequate dexterity and a tough resistance to predators, but also that it tends to snap naturally back into place once it’s been twisted and deformed,” Hatton said. “This could be very useful for robotics applications that need to be strong, but also energy-efficient and able to bend and twist in tight spaces.”

Such applications, he said, might include laparoscopic surgery, in which a robotic device could offer enhanced control and flexibility as it enters a body, moves around organs and bones, and then has the strength to accomplish a surgical task. It could find uses in industrial system, search and rescue robots, or anything that needs to be both resilient and flexible.

The researchers were able to study the comparative merits of cylindrical and square structures by using computer models and three-dimensional printed prototypes. They found that when a seahorse tail is crushed, the bony plates tend to slide past one another, act as an energy absorbing mechanism, and resist fracture of the vertebral column. They can then snap back to their normal position with little use of energy.

The square system also proved to be stiffer, stronger and more resilient than circular ones.

“Understanding the role of mechanics in these biologically inspired designs may help engineers to develop seahorse-inspired technologies for a wide variety of applications in robotics, defense systems or biomedicine,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.

Collaborators on this study included corresponding author Michael Porter from Clemson University; Ghent University in Belgium; and the University of California at San Diego. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Agency for Innovation by Science and Technology.

Media Contact: 
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Seahorse skeleton
Seahorse skeleton

Square structure
Square tail structure

Clinging to grass

New technology using silver may hold key to electronics advances

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have invented a way to fabricate silver, a highly conductive metal, for printed electronics that are produced at room temperature.

There may be broad applications in microelectronics, sensors, energy devices, low emissivity coatings and even transparent displays.

A patent has been applied for on the technology, which is now available for further commercial development. The findings were reported in Journal of Materials Chemistry C.

Silver has long been considered for the advantages it offers in electronic devices. Because of its conductive properties, it is efficient and also stays cool. But manufacturers have often needed high temperatures in the processes they use to make the devices, adding to their cost and complexity, and making them unsuitable for use on some substrates, such as plastics that might melt or papers that might burn.

This advance may open the door to much wider use of silver and other conductors in electronics applications, researchers said.

“There’s a great deal of interest in printed electronics, because they’re fast, cheap, can be done in small volumes and changed easily,” said Chih-hung Chang, a professor in the OSU College of Engineering. “But the heat needed for most applications of silver nanoparticles has limited their use.”

OSU scientists have solved that problem by using a microreactor to create silver nanoparticles at room temperatures without any protective coating, and then immediately printing them onto almost any substrate with a continuous flow process.

“Because we could now use different substrates such as plastics, glass or even paper, these electronics could be flexible, very inexpensive and stable,” Chang said. “This could be quite important and allow us to use silver in many more types of electronic applications.”

Among those, he said, could be solar cells, printed circuit boards, low-emissivity coatings, or transparent electronics. A microchannel applicator used in the system will allow the creation of smaller, more complex electronics features.

This research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and Oregon Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies Center, or Oregon BEST.

Media Contact: 

Chih-hung Chang, 541-737-8548

Inspired by humans, a robot takes a walk in the grass

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In a rolling, outdoor field, full of lumps, bumps and uneven terrain, researchers at Oregon State University last week successfully field-tested for the first time the locomotion abilities of a two-legged robot with technology that they believe heralds the running robots of the future.

The test demonstrated how their “ATRIAS” robot can move quite nicely, keep its balance and withstand mild blows from a bouncing rubber ball, while taking a walk in the grass, up and down hill, and over varying terrain at a normal walking speed of a little more than three miles per hour.

A video demonstration is available at http://bit.ly/1HQKqOZ

As a bipedal robot that was biologically inspired to mimic the spring-legged action of animals, the researchers said this is the closest a machine has yet come to resembling human locomotion.

The human-sized robot had six electric motors powered by a lithium polymer battery about the size of a half-gallon of milk, which is substantially smaller than the power packs of some other mobile robots. This is made possible by the energy efficiency of its elastic leg design and the energy retention that’s natural to animal movement.

“Animals with legs sort of flow in the energy used, in which retained kinetic energy is just nudged by very efficient muscles and tendons to continue the movement once it has begun,” said Jonathan Hurst, an Oregon State associate professor of mechanical engineering, and director of the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory in the OSU College of Engineering.

“That’s part of what’s unique about ATRIAS – not just that it can walk, and will eventually run – but that it’s doing so with animal-inspired fluidity of motion that is so efficient,” Hurst said. “This will ultimately allow a much wider range of robotic uses and potential than something which requires larger amounts of energy.”

In these tests, the robot was tethered to a safety harness on a supporting frame that rolled along with it – not to supply energy or aid in walking, but just to help catch it if it fell, which it did a couple times due to sensor glitches. The goal was to prevent costly damage during the research and development.

“It already appears that ATRIAS is three times more energy-efficient than any other human-sized bipedal robots,” said Christian Hubicki, an OSU postdoctoral scholar working with Hurst. “And this was the first time we’ve been able to show its abilities outside, in a far more challenging environment than anything in a laboratory.

“This is part of a continuous march toward running robots that are going to be useful and practical in the real world.”

This work has been supported by an original $4.7 million, four-year grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. military. It has been done in collaboration with Jessy Grizzle at the University of Michigan and Hartmut Geyer at Carnegie Mellon University, and scientific work on the motion of animals was done with Monica Daley at the Royal Veterinary College, which guided the robot’s development.

A key to progress with this new technology has been fundamental research on how animals move so effectively.

A one-year-old baby, or for that matter a strutting bird, can combine sensory input from nerves, vision, muscles and tendons to allow a level of locomotion that scientists are still working to emulate. Worth noting, however, is that the theoretical concept of “spring mass walking” developed less than a decade ago was on display last week in a working robot.

Near term goals, the researchers said, might be prosthetic limbs for people, or use of an exo-skeleton to assist people with muscular weakness. But robots that can move effectively over uneven terrain also open applications in the military, in disaster response, or any type of dangerous situation.

New videos are being posted regularly on the research group’s social media web site and are available for public viewing, via YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/OregonStateDRL; or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ATRIASrobot

Media Contact: 

Jonathan Hurst, 541-737-7010

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Walking robot
Walking robot