OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

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Running robots of future may learn from world’s best two-legged runners: birds

CORVALLIS, Ore. – With an eye toward making better running robots, researchers have made surprising new findings about some of nature’s most energy-efficient bipeds – running birds.

Although birds are designed primarily for flight, scientists have learned that species that predominately live on land and scurry around on the ground are also some of the most sophisticated runners of any two-legged land animals. These characteristics may have been evolving since the time of the dinosaurs and, some would say, now transcend the ability of other bipedal runners, including humans.

In a study published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers from Oregon State University, the Royal Veterinary College and other institutions outline how running birds have achieved an impressive ability to run while minimizing energy cost, avoiding falls or injury, and maintaining speed and direction.

“Birds appear to be the best of bipedal terrestrial runners, with a speed and agility that may trace back 230 million years to their dinosaur ancestors,” said Jonathan Hurst, an associate professor and robotics expert in the OSU College of Engineering.

Running birds come in an enormous range of sizes, from tiny quails to an ostrich that has 500 times as much body mass. Most, but not all, can fly, but spend most of their lives on the ground, and they don’t always look the most graceful when they run. But researchers found that they maximize the results while keeping their priorities straight – save energy and don’t break a leg.

In the wild, an injury could lead to predation and death; and in like fashion, when food resources are limited, economy of motion is essential.

“These animals don’t care that they appear a little unstable or have a waver in their gait,” Hurst said. “Their real goal is to limit peak forces, avoid falling, be safe and be as efficient as possible. If their upper body seems to lurch around a little as a result, that’s okay. What they are accomplishing is really quite elegant.”

Even more surprisingly, a wide variety of ground-running bird species with very different body sizes use essentially the same strategy to accomplish these sometimes conflicting tasks. In order to hop over obstacles on uneven ground, they use a motion that’s about 70 percent a “vaulting” movement as they approach the obstacle, and 30 percent a more-crouched posture while on top of the obstacle.

“Evolution has shaped running birds into all different sizes and skeletal structures,” said Christian Hubicki, a doctoral student at Oregon State who co-authored the study. “But we found their behavior in how they run is essentially the same.”

In collaboration with Monica Daley at the Royal Veterinary College in London, the researchers studied five species of birds and developed a computer model in OSU’s Dynamic Robotics Laboratory that closely matches that behavior.

“We should ultimately be able to encode this understanding into legged robots so the robots can run with more speed and agility in rugged terrain,” Hubicki said. “These insights may also help us understand the walking and running behaviors of all the common ancestors involved, including theropod dinosaurs such as the velociraptor.”

The researchers began the study with a hypothesis that body stability would be a priority, since it might help avoid falls and leg injuries. That’s not what they found, however.

Instead, running birds have a different definition of stability – they do avoid falls, but also allow their upper bodies to bounce around some, just so long as they don’t fall. Like a scrambling football runner, their leg motion may sometimes speed up or slow down, in the interest of staying upright, dealing with obstacles and generally staying on course to where they are going. The process isn’t always pretty, but it’s functional.

Large animals are limited by the strength of their legs because peak loads increase with body mass, and they run with somewhat straighter legs to compensate. But the basic approach large birds use to run is similar to much smaller birds, and remains highly efficient.

Modern robots, by contrast, are usually built with an emphasis on total stability, which often includes maintaining a steady gait. This can be energy-intensive and sometimes limits their mobility.

What robots could learn from running birds, the scientists said, is that it’s okay to deviate from normal steady motions, because it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to fall or break something. Robotic control approaches “must embrace a more relaxed notion of stability, optimizing dynamics based on key task-level priorities without encoding an explicit preference for a steady gait,” the researchers said in their conclusion.

Collaborators on the research were from the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom. The work was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in the United Kingdom and the Human Frontier Science Program.

“The running robots of the future are going to look a lot less robotic,” Hurst said. “They will be more fluid, like the biological systems in nature. We’re not necessarily trying to copy animals, but we do want to match their capabilities.”

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Running forces
Model of motion


Running turkey
Running turkey

Rivers recover natural conditions quickly following dam removal

 

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1rdQ4wL

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study of the removal of two dams in Oregon suggests that rivers can return surprisingly fast to a condition close to their natural state, both physically and biologically, and that the biological recovery might outpace the physical recovery.

The analysis, published by researchers from Oregon State University in the journal PLOS One, examined portions of two rivers – the Calapooia River and Rogue River. It illustrated how rapidly rivers can recover, both from the long-term impact of the dam and from the short-term impact of releasing stored sediment when the dam is removed.

Most dams have decades of accumulated sediment behind them, and a primary concern has been whether the sudden release of all that sediment could cause significant damage to river ecology or infrastructure.

However, this study concluded that the continued presence of a dam on the river constituted more of a sustained and significant alteration of river status than did the sediment pulse caused by dam removal.

“The processes of ecological and physical recovery of river systems following dam removal are important, because thousands of dams are being removed all over the world,” said Desirée Tullos, an associate professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering.

“Dams are a significant element in our nation’s aging infrastructure,” she said. “In many cases, the dams haven’t been adequately maintained and they are literally falling apart. Depending on the benefits provided by the dam, it’s often cheaper to remove them than to repair them.”

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the United States has 84,000 dams with an average age of 52 years. Almost 2,000 are now considered both deficient and “high hazard,” and it would take $21 billion to repair them. Rehabilitating all dams would cost $57 billion. Thus, the removal of older dams that generate only modest benefits is happening at an increasing rate.

In this study, the scientists examined the two rivers both before and after removal of the Brownsville Dam on the Calapooia River and the Savage Rapids Dam on the Rogue River. Within about one year after dam removal, the river ecology at both sites, as assessed by aquatic insect populations, was similar to the conditions upstream where there had been no dam impact.

Recovery of the physical structure of the river took a little longer. Following dam removal, some river pools downstream weren’t as deep as they used to be, some bars became thicker and larger, and the grain size of river beds changed. But those geomorphic changes diminished quickly as periodic floods flushed the river system, scientists said.

Within about two years, surveys indicated that the river was returning to the pre-removal structure, indicating that the impacts of the sediment released with dam removal were temporary and didn’t appear to do any long-term damage.

Instead, it was the presence of the dam that appeared to have the most persistent impact on the river biology and structure – what scientists call a “press” disturbance that will remain in place so long as the dam is there.

This press disturbance of dams can increase water temperatures, change sediment flow, and alter the types of fish, plants and insects that live in portions of rivers.  But the river also recovered rapidly from those impacts once the dam was gone.

It’s likely, the researchers said, that the rapid recovery found at these sites will mirror recovery on rivers with much larger dams, but more studies are needed.

For example, large scale and rapid changes are now taking place on the Elwha River in Washington state, following the largest dam removal project in the world. The ecological recovery there appears to be occurring rapidly as well. In 2014, Chinook salmon were observed in the area formerly occupied by one of the reservoirs, the first salmon to see that spot in 102 years.

“Disturbance is a natural river process,” Tullos said. “In the end, most of these large pulses of sediment aren’t that big of a deal, and there’s often no need to panic. The most surprising finding to us was that indicators of the biological recovery appeared to happen faster than our indicators of the physical recovery.”

The rates of recovery will vary across sites, though. Rivers with steeper gradients, more energetic flow patterns, and non-cohesive sediments will recover more quickly than flatter rivers with cohesive sediments, researchers said.

This research was supported by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the National Marine Fisheries Service. It was a collaboration of researchers from the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences, College of Engineering, and College of Science.

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Dam removal

Removing Savage Rapids Dam

Task force outlines major initiatives to prepare for Pacific Northwest earthquake, tsunami

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A task force that studied implementation of the Oregon Resilience Plan today submitted to the Oregon legislature an ambitious program to save lives, mitigate damage and prepare for a massive subduction zone earthquake and tsunami looming in the future of the Pacific Northwest.

The recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on Resilience Plan Implementation, if enacted, would result in spending more than $200 million every biennium in a long-term initiative.

The program would touch everyone from energy providers and utility companies to their customers, parents and school children, businesses, builders, land use regulators, transportation planners and fire responders. It would become one of the most aggressive efforts in the nation to prepare for a costly, life-threatening disaster that’s seen as both catastrophic and inevitable.

“We have a clear plan for what needs to be done, and now is the time to take our first significant steps forward,” said Scott Ashford, dean of the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, chair of the Governor’s Task Force, and an expert on liquefaction and earthquake engineering who has studied disasters all over the world, similar to those that Oregon will face.

“The scope of the disaster that the Pacific Northwest faces is daunting,” Ashford said. “And we won’t be able to accomplish everything we need to do in one or two years, but hopefully we won’t have to. What’s important is to get started, and the time for that is now.”

The task force making these recommendations included members of the Oregon legislature; advisers to Gov. Kitzhaber; private companies; the Oregon Office of Emergency Management; Oregon Department of Transportation; the Oregon Health Authority; city, county  and business leaders; the Red Cross and others.

The Oregon Resilience Plan, which was completed in early 2013, outlines more than 140 recommendations to reduce risk and improve recovery from a massive earthquake and tsunami that’s anticipated on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, similar to the one that hit Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

The newest analysis identified specific steps that are recommended for the 2015-17 biennium. They address not only earthquake damage, but also the special risks facing coastal residents from what is expected to be a major tsunami.

One of the largest single steps would be biennial funding of $200 million or more for the OBDD/IFA Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program, with similar or higher levels of funding in the future. Funds could be used to rehabilitate existing public structures such as schools to improve their seismic safety; demolish unsafe structures; or replace facilities that must be moved out of a tsunami inundation zone.

It was recommended that additional revenue be identified to complete work within a decade on the most critical roads and bridges that form “backbone” transportation routes; that the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries receive $20 million to update inventory and evaluate critical facilities; and that $5 million be made available through existing programs for tsunami resilience planning by coastal communities.

Utility companies regulated by the Oregon Public Utility Commission would also be required to conduct seismic assessments of their facilities, and be allowed through rate increases to recover their costs if they make prudent investments to mitigate vulnerabilities.

When I studied areas that had been hard-hit by earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand and Japan, it became apparent that money spent to prepare for and minimize damage from the earthquake was hugely cost-effective,” Ashford said.

“One utility company in New Zealand said they saved about $10 for every $1 they had spent in retrofitting and rebuilding their infrastructure,” he said. “There’s a lot we can do right now that will make a difference and save money in the long run.”

Other key recommendations included:

  • Establish a resilience policy adviser to the governor;
  • Use the most recent tsunami hazard maps to redefine the inundation zone for construction;
  • Provide $1 million annually for scientific research by Oregon universities, to provide matching funds for earthquake research supported by the state, federal government or private industry;
  • Provide $500,000 to the Office of Emergency Management for educational programs and training aimed at managers, agencies, businesses and the general public;
  • Provide $500,000 to the Department of Education to lead a K-12 educational program;
  • Require water providers and wastewater agencies to complete a seismic risk assessment and mitigation plan, as part of periodic updates to master plans;
  • Require firefighting agencies, water providers and emergency management officials to create joint standards to use in a firefighting response to a large seismic event.

“Our next steps will include a lot of discussion, with the legislature, with business and community leaders, with the general public all over the state,” Ashford said. “The challenges we face are enormous but I really believe Oregonians are ready to take an important step toward resilience. This is our chance.”

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Sinking structures

Japan liquefaction

YouTube video of damage done in the Japanese earthquake is available online: http://bit.ly/ZYH35d

Mechanized human hands: System designed to improve hand function lost to nerve damage

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have developed and successfully demonstrated the value of a simple pulley mechanism to improve hand function after surgery.

The device, tested in cadaver hands, is one of the first instruments ever created that could improve the transmission of mechanical forces and movement while implanted inside the body.

After continued research, technology such as this may offer new options to people who have lost the use of their hands due to nerve trauma, and ultimately be expanded to improve function of a wide range of damaged joints in the human body.

The findings were just reported in Hand, a professional journal, by researchers from OSU and the School of Medicine at the University of Washington. The research was supported by OSU.

“This technology is definitely going to work, and it will merge artificial mechanisms with biological hand function,” said Ravi Balasubramanian, an expert in robotics, biomechanics and human control systems, and assistant professor in the OSU College of Engineering.

“We’ll still need a few years to develop biocompatible materials, coatings to prevent fibrosis, make other needed advances and then test the systems in animals and humans,” Balasubramanian said. “But working at first with hands – and then later with other damaged joints such as knees or ankles – we will help people recover the function they’ve lost due to illness or injury.”

Initially, the OSU research will offer a significant improvement on surgery now used to help restore the gripping capability of hands following nerve damage. That procedure, called tendon-transfer surgery for high median-ulnar palsy, essentially reattaches finger tendons to a muscle that still works. But the hand function remains significantly impaired, requiring a large amount of force, the stretching of tendons, and fingers that all move at the same time, instead of separately as is often needed to grasp an object.

The new mechanism developed at OSU is not really robotic since it has no sensory, electronic or motor capabilities, Balasubramanian said. Rather, it’s a passive technology using a basic pulley that will be implanted within a person’s hand to allow more natural grasping function with less use of muscle energy.

“Many people have lost the functional use of their hands due to nerve damage, sometimes from traumatic injury and at other times from stroke, paralysis or other disorders,” Balasubramanian said. “The impact can be devastating, since grasping is a fundamental aspect of our daily life. The surgery we’re focusing on, for instance, is commonly performed in the military on people who have been injured in combat.”

The new research showed, in cadavers, how the mechanism developed for this problem can produce more natural and adaptive flexion of the fingers in grasping. The needed force to close all four fingers around an object was reduced by 45 percent, and the grasp improvement on an object reduced slippage by 52 percent.

Such progress can be an important step to improve function beyond the existing surgical procedure, by providing an alternative to the suture which has been the previous mainstay. The hand, experts say, is amazingly complex, with 35-38 muscles and 22 joints all working together, innervated by three nerves between the elbow and fingertip.

The long-term potential of such mechanized assistance is profound. In some cases, Balasubramanian said, it may indeed be possible to create joints or limbs that mechanically function as well or better than they did originally.

“There’s a lot we may be able to do,” he said. “Thousands of people now have knee replacements, for instance, but the knee is weaker after surgery. With mechanical assistance we may be able to strengthen and improve that joint.”

This work is part of a rapidly expanding robotics research and education program at OSU, in fields ranging from robotic underwater vehicles to prosthetic limbs, search and rescue missions and advanced manufacturing. New graduate degrees in robotics were just recently added at the university, one of the few institutions in the nation to have such graduate programs.

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Mechanical hand

Pulley mechanism

Program expansion to continue progress with wave energy development

CORVALLIS, Ore. – With the support of new funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC) will expand its technological research and environmental monitoring efforts, and add a new partner – the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The center was previously a partnership of Oregon State University and the University of Washington, but will now collaborate with experts in Alaska, a state with some of the greatest wave and tidal energy resources in the nation. The partnership will also enable researchers to learn more about the energy potential of large, flowing rivers.

The DOE announced last week that it will contribute up to $4 million for continued NNMREC research programs, and that NNMREC faculty will also share in another $3.25 million grant to improve “water power” technologies that convert the energy of waves, tides, rivers and ocean currents into electricity.

“We’re extremely excited about the opportunity to add Alaska Fairbanks to our program,” said Belinda Batten, director of NNMREC and a professor in the OSU College of Engineering.

“Alaska has an enormous energy resource, both in its coastal waves, tidal currents and powerful rivers,” she said. “Partnering with Alaska Fairbanks will allow us to expand the scope of our energy research and tap into additional expertise, to more quickly move wave, tidal, and river energy closer to commercial use.”

The new funding will allow NNMREC to develop an improved system for real-time wave forecasting; create robotic devices to support operations and maintenance; design arrays that improve the performance of marine energy conversion devices; improve subsea power transmission systems; and standardize approaches for wildlife monitoring. Federal officials said the overall goal is to reduce the technical, economic and environmental barriers to deployment of new marine energy conversion devices.

“Oregon State University has been a world leader in developing wave energy technology and it’s great that the Department of Energy has recognized this fact in awarding this grant,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who helped obtain the new federal support for these programs.

“Along with its university partners in Washington and Alaska, this funding will help ensure that the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center remains an important national center for ocean energy development not just for the Northwest, but for the entire country.”

Other steps have been taken recently by NNMREC to advance wave energy. They include:

  • The North Energy Test Site, located just north of Newport, Ore., is operational, and a mobile instrumentation buoy, the Ocean Sentinel, can be used to monitor and test wave energy conversion devices.
  • A $750,000 grant from the Department of Energy is helping the center continue its engineering design and planning for the South Energy Test Site, located just south of Newport. This will be a grid-connected, wave energy test facility that will use the power generated by conversion devices while assisting in their testing and development.
  • The two test sites together will function as the offshore wave energy facilities for the Pacific Marine Energy Center, and will be the leading facilities of this type in the United States.
  • Significant progress has been made in how to process, permit and monitor wave energy technology as it emerges from the laboratory to ocean test sites, and ultimately to commercial use.
  • Experts are working to anticipate some of the various types of wave energy devices that may be created and determine what types of environmental monitoring may be required when they are deployed.
  • As part of the regulatory process for the South Energy Test Site, NNMREC is collaborating closely with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the National Marine Fisheries Services and more than a dozen other state and federal agencies.
  • Work is also continuing on environmental monitoring, characterization of the wave resource in this area, improved control systems for wave energy devices, testing of a mooring system, and other initiatives.
  • Studies are examining the sociological, biological and ecosystem effects of wave energy systems.

The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that the potential total recoverable wave energy resource along the U.S. continental shelf edge is almost one third of the total electricity used in the U.S. each year.

Wave energy’s sustainable generating potential equates to about 10 percent of global energy needs.

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Ocean Sentinel

Energy testing

New degrees place OSU at forefront of robotics research and education

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University this fall will begin both a master’s and doctoral degree program in robotics, one of only a few universities in the nation to offer such graduate level programs, and a recognition of the changing face of global industry.

OSU has rapidly expanded its robotics faculty, research programs and course offerings in recent years, making the new degrees possible. But this is also a reflection of the changing nature of traditional job roles in American industry and the enormous new educational opportunities it opens for students.

“With robotics, we’re in the middle of something analogous to the Industrial Revolution,” said Jonathan Hurst, an OSU associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of its Dynamic Robotics Laboratory. “The introduction of robots to our lives and the workplace will continue to present both challenges and opportunities, just like the growth of the Internet did.

“But it also creates a huge demand for people with the education and training to build, create, repair and operate those robots,” he added.

Recent advances in robotics now extend them far beyond the factory floor, and robots are poised to significantly enhance human society, OSU experts say.

“We’re talking about driverless cars, improved care for the elderly and disabled, robotic surgery, and robotic limbs,” said Kagan Tumer, an OSU professor of mechanical engineering. “The impact of robotics is extending beyond factories and labs, into the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, and we envision OSU graduates as becoming leaders of these changes.”

Students with both an interest and ability in this emerging field of engineering should easily find employment, university officials say.

"OSU students with robotics training are already being hired into the jobs of their choice, with a 100 per cent hiring rate,” Hurst said. “We hope and expect that the new graduate program will only enhance and extend that record."  

As part of the growth of the program at OSU, the robotics faculty will be moving into and plan a significant renovation of Graf Hall, Hurst said. There are now about 10 “dedicated robotics” faculty at OSU, and more than 30 other faculty from related disciplines who will participate in the new degree offerings. Robotics provides a new platform for collaboration among successful OSU programs in mechanical engineering, artificial intelligence and oceanography, among others.

More information about the robotics and autonomous systems research program at OSU is available online, at http://bit.ly/1nFgl6o

The new graduate degrees will also facilitate expansion of scientific research in robotics, a field that’s still in its infancy. OSU research programs are already active in autonomous robots, multi-robot coordination, legged locomotion, human-robot interactions, robotic prosthetics, and other fields.

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Jonathan Hurst, 541-737-7010

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Walking robot

Jonathan Hurst

Scientists discover the miracle of how geckos move, cling to ceilings

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have developed a model that explains how geckos, as well as spiders and some insects, can run up and down walls, cling to ceilings, and seemingly defy gravity with such effortless grace.

This ability, outlined today in the Journal of Applied Physics, is a remarkable mechanism in the toes of geckos that uses tiny, branched hairs called “seta” that can instantly turn their stickiness on and off, and even “unstick” their feet without using any energy.

These extraordinary hairs contribute to the ability of geckos to run, evade predators, and protect their very lives and survival. In essence, a gecko never has a bad hair day.

“These are really fascinating nanoscale systems and forces at work,” said Alex Greaney, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Engineering. “It’s based not just on the nature of the seta but the canted angles and flexibility they have, and ability to work under a wide range of loading conditions.”

Even more compelling, Greaney said, is the minimal amount of energy expended in the whole process, as a gecko can race across a ceiling with millions of little hairy contact points on its feet turning sticky and non-sticky in a precisely integrated process. This “smart” adhesion system allows them to run at 20 body-lengths per second and, hanging from a ceiling, the forces provided by the seta could actually support 50 times the body weight of the gecko.

In continued research the scientists want to find out more about this mechanism to recover stored energy, to see if more practical uses could be made of it – better adhesives, for instance, or robots that can use some of these principles for improved performance or use in extreme environments.

The adhesion system used by geckos and insects has literally been studied for thousands of years, Greaney said, and it was only in 2000 that experts proved they are taking advantage of a concept in physics called van der Waals forces, a type of weak intermolecular force.

Geckos’ feet are, by default, non-sticky, but the stickiness can be activated by a small shear force to produce this surprisingly tough form of adhesion.

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Sticky feet

Gecko foot



Gecko adhesion

Seta nanostructure

Advantage Accelerator “graduates” moving toward successful new businesses, jobs

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Four promising startup companies in fields ranging from social media to chemical manufacturing are among the first “graduating class” of the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator, upon completion of a program designed to help lead them toward commercial success.

Organizers of the new program say it’s off to a promising start in efforts to bring more university research and community ideas to the commercial marketplace. This and other elements of the OSU Advantage form partnerships with industry and work to boost the Oregon economy, while providing invaluable experiences for OSU students involved in many aspects of the program.

“Our program has unfolded as well or better than we had hoped, and we now plan to increase the output,” said John Turner, co-director of the Advantage Accelerator. “Completion of this program means that companies have an increased chance to succeed and have a step-by-step plan to approach the future.”

“Based on our experience in the first year of this program, we’ve decided to conduct two cohort groups each year rather than one,” Turner said. “The coming year will result in about 15-20 new startup companies.”

Success in a tough and competitive commercial marketplace is not automatic, however, and not all companies have the will and strength to complete the rigorous program.

The first graduates have completed a “portfolio” of accomplishments, Turner said, that included training to attract investors, a validated business model, a schedule for future steps, and an initial product to show prospective customers, investors or manufacturers. A few clients are already attracting attention through the sale of products and generating profit.

The OSU Advantage Accelerator provides mentoring with industry and entrepreneurial experts, consulting sessions, access to seed grants and the OSU Venture Fund, meetings with active investors, workshops on various topics, networking events and many other activities.

One of the early participants in the program, Onboard Dynamics of Bend, Ore., plans to market technology that could ultimately revolutionize the way America drives. It has developed systems that compress natural gas right in the vehicle and take advantage of the enormous current supplies of low-cost natural gas. The innovation is able to cut automobile fuel costs to the gasoline-equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.

“An intern working with the Advantage Accelerator performed a lot of tasks relating to market analysis and startup activities that were incredibly helpful to the company,” said CEO Rita Hansen.

“We’re in an excellent position right now, having been formally selected by the Department of Energy for a $2.88 million award, and our initial target markets are the underserved, small, light-duty commercial fleets,” Hansen said. “We’re very bullish about widespread adoption by these fleets of our products.”

A few other companies that have completed the program include:

  • Pikli, a student-based company based on social media that allows individuals to involve their friends and family in their shopping experiences;
  • Waste2Watergy, which is commercializing a microbial fuel cell technology to reduce or eliminate significant wastewater costs and produce electricity from the resultant effluence; and
  • Valliscor, a chemical manufacturing company that licensed technology developed at OSU to produce high-value chemicals for the pharmaceutical, agricultural, polymer and electronics industries.

“The OSU Advantage Accelerator program was very helpful and their mentorship was really first-rate,” said Rich Carter, professor and chair of the OSU Department of Chemistry, and CEO of Valliscor. “They helped us develop the necessary tools to become a functioning company, and whenever you needed advice all you had to do was pick up the phone.”

Carter said he’s “very optimistic” about the company going forward, which is already producing and selling its first products.

The OSU Advantage Accelerator is one component of the Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, or Oregon RAIN. With support from the Oregon legislature, collaborators on the initiative include OSU, the University of Oregon, the cities of Eugene, Springfield, Corvallis and Albany, and other economic development organizations. All the participants are focused on creating new business, expanding existing business, creating jobs and helping to build the Oregon and national economy.

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New company

Valliscor research

New assay to spot fake malaria drugs could save thousands of lives

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Chemists and students in science and engineering at Oregon State University have created a new type of chemical test, or assay, that’s inexpensive, simple, and can tell whether or not one of the primary drugs being used to treat malaria is genuine – an enormous and deadly problem in the developing world.

The World Health Organization has estimated that about 200,000 lives a year may be lost due to the use of counterfeit anti-malarial drugs. When commercialized, the new OSU technology may be able to help address that problem by testing drugs for efficacy at a cost of a few cents.

When broadly implemented, this might save thousands of lives every year around the world, and similar technology could also be developed for other types of medications and diseases, experts say.

Findings on the new technology were just published in Talanta, a professional journal.

“There are laboratory methods to analyze medications such as this, but they often are not available or widely used in the developing world where malaria kills thousands of people every year,” said Vincent Remcho, a professor of chemistry and Patricia Valian Reser Faculty Scholar in the OSU College of Science, a position which helped support this work.

“What we need are inexpensive, accurate assays that can detect adulterated pharmaceuticals in the field, simple enough that anyone can use them,” Remcho said. “Our technology should provide that.”

The system created at OSU looks about as simple, and is almost as cheap, as a sheet of paper. But it’s actually a highly sophisticated “colorimetric” assay that consumers could use to tell whether or not they are getting the medication they paid for – artesunate - which is by far the most important drug used to treat serious cases of malaria. The assay also verifies that an adequate level of the drug is present.

In some places in the developing world, more than 80 percent of outlets are selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals, researchers have found. One survey found that 38-53 percent of outlets in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam had no active drug in the product that was being sold. Artesunate, which can cost $1 to $2 per adult treatment, is considered an expensive drug by the standards of the developing world, making counterfeit drugs profitable since the disease is so prevalent.

Besides allowing thousands of needless deaths, the spread of counterfeit drugs with sub-therapeutic levels of artesunate can promote the development of new strains of multi-drug resistant malaria, with global impacts. Government officials could also use the new system as a rapid screening tool to help combat the larger problem of drug counterfeiting.

The new technology is an application of microfluidics, in this instance paper microfluidics, in which a film is impressed onto paper that can then detect the presence and level of the artesunate drug. A single pill can be crushed, dissolved in water, and when a drop of the solution is placed on the paper, it turns yellow if the drug is present. The intensity of the color indicates the level of the drug, which can be compared to a simple color chart.

OSU undergraduate and graduate students in chemistry and computer science working on this project in the Remcho lab took the system a step further, and created an app for an iPhone that could be used to measure the color, and tell with an even higher degree of accuracy both the presence and level of the drug.

The technology is similar to what can be accomplished with computers and expensive laboratory equipment, but is much simpler and less expensive. As a result, use of this approach may significantly expand in medicine, scientists said.

“This is conceptually similar to what we do with integrated circuit chips in computers, but we’re pushing fluids around instead of electrons, to reveal chemical information that’s useful to us,” Remcho said.  “Chemical communication is how Mother Nature does it, and the long term applications of this approach really are mind-blowing.”

Colorimetric assays have already been developed for measurement of many biomarker targets of interest, Remcho said, and could be expanded for a wide range of other medical conditions, pharmaceutical and diagnostic tests, pathogen detection, environmental analysis and other uses.

With a proof of concept of the new technology complete, the researchers may work with the OSU Advantage to commercialize the technology, ultimately with global application. As an incubator for startup and early stage organizations, OSU Advantage connects business with faculty expertise and student talent to bring technology such as this to market.

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Vincent Remcho, 541-737-8181

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Sophisticated radiation detector designed for broad public use

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Nuclear engineers at Oregon State University have developed a small, portable and  inexpensive radiation detection device that should help people all over the world better understand the radiation around them, its type and intensity, and whether or not it poses a health risk.

The device was developed in part due to public demand following the nuclear incident in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, when many regional residents were unsure what level of radiation they were being exposed to and whether their homes, food, environment and drinking water were safe.

Devices that could provide that type of information were costly and not readily available to the general public, and experts realized there was a demand for improved systems that could provide convenient, accurate information at a low cost. The new system should eventually be available for less than $150.

Findings on the new technology were just published in Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research, a professional journal. The systems are not yet available for commercial sale.

Beyond the extremely rare occasion of a radiological or nuclear incident, the new technology may also help interested consumers learn more about the world of radiation surrounding us, the constant exposure they receive – everything from a concrete wall to the air we breathe, soils around us or a granite kitchen counter top – and how to understand routine radiation exposure as a part of normal life.

“With a device such as this, people will be better able to understand and examine the environment in which they live,” said Abi Farsoni, an associate professor of nuclear engineering in the OSU College of Engineering. “Radiation is a natural part of our lives that many people don’t understand, but in some cases there’s also a need to measure it accurately in case something could be a health concern. This technology will accomplish both those goals.”

Of some interest, the researchers said, is that the technology being used in the new device provides measurements of radiation that are not only less expensive but also more efficient and accurate than many existing technologies that cost far more. Because of that, the system may find use not just by consumers but in laboratories and industries around the world that deal with radioactive material. This could include scientific research, medical treatments, emergency response, nuclear power plants or industrial needs.

The system is a miniaturized gamma ray spectrometer, which means it can measure not only the intensity of radiation but also identify the type of radionuclide that is creating it. Such a system is far more sophisticated than old-fashioned “Geiger counters” that provide only minimal information about the presence and level of radioactivity.

“The incident at Fukushima made us realize that many people wanted, but were not able to afford, a simple technology to tell them if their environment, food or water was safe,” Farsoni said. “This portable system, smaller than a golf ball, can do that, and it will also have wireless connectivity so it could be used remotely, or connected to the Internet.”

The system combines digital electronics with a fairly new type of “scintillation detector” that gives it the virtues of small size, durability, operation at room temperature, good energy resolution, low power consumption and light weight, while being able to measure radiation levels and identify the radionuclides producing them.

Various models may be developed for different needs, researchers said, one of which might be the ability to measure radon gas and check homes with possible concerns for that type of radiation exposure, which can sometimes come from soils, rocks, concrete walls or foundations.

“There are a lot of misconceptions by many people about radioactivity and natural background radiation, and technology of this type may help address some of those issues,” Farsoni said. “Sometimes, there are also real concerns, and the device will be able to identify them. And of some importance to us, we want the technology to be very simple and affordable so anyone can obtain and use it.”

The new device will ultimately be commercialized after final development is completed, researchers said.

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Abi Farsoni, 541-737-9645

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