OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of engineering

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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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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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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John Turner, 541-368-5204

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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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NSF awards $200,000 to develop technology to treat sepsis, a global killer

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The National Science Foundation has just awarded $200,000 to engineers at Oregon State University who have developed a new technology that they believe could revolutionize the treatment and prevention of sepsis.

Sepsis is a “hidden killer” that in the United States actually kills more people every year than AIDS, prostate cancer and breast cancer combined.

More commonly called “blood poisoning,” sepsis can quickly turn a modest infection into a whole-body inflammation, based on a dysfunctional immune response to endotoxins that are released from the cell walls of bacteria. When severe, this can lead to multiple organ failure and death.

When treatment is begun early enough, sepsis can sometimes be successfully treated with antibiotics. But they are not always effective and the mortality rate for the condition is still 28-50 percent. About one in every four people in a hospital emergency room is there because of sepsis, and millions of people die from it around the world every year, according to reports in the New England Journal of Medicine and other studies.

In pioneering research, OSU experts have used microchannel technology and special coatings to create a small device through which blood could be processed, removing the problematic endotoxins and preventing sepsis. Several recent professional publications have reported on their progress.

“More work remains to be done, and the support from the National Science Foundation will be instrumental in that,” said Adam Higgins, principal investigator on the grant and an assistant professor in the OSU School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. “When complete, we believe this technology will treat sepsis effectively at low cost, or even prevent it when used as a prophylactic treatment.”

This technology may finally offer a way to tackle sepsis other than antibiotics, the researchers said.

“This doesn’t just kill bacteria and leave floating fragments behind, it sticks to and removes the circulating bacteria and endotoxin particles that might help trigger a sepsis reaction,” said Karl Schilke, the OSU Callahan Faculty Scholar in Chemical Engineering.

“We hope to emboss the device out of low-cost polymers, so it should be inexpensive enough that it can be used once and then discarded,” Schilke said. “The low cost would also allow treatment even before sepsis is apparent. Anytime there’s a concern about sepsis developing – due to an injury, a wound, an operation, or an infection – you could get ahead of the problem.”

“A big part of the problem with sepsis is that it moves so rapidly,” said Joe McGuire, professor and head of the OSU Department of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. “By the time it’s apparent what the problem is, it’s often too late to treat it.

“If given early enough, antibiotics and other treatments can sometimes, but not always, stop this process,” McGuire said. “Once these bacterial fragments are in the blood stream the antibiotics won’t always work. You can have successfully eradicated the living bacteria even as you’re dying.”

The approach being developed at the OSU College of Engineering is to move blood through a very small processor, about the size of a coffee mug, and literally grab the endotoxins and remove them.

Microchannels make this possible. They can provide accelerated heat and mass transfer as fluids move through tiny tubes the width of a human hair. Applications are already being studied in everything from heat exchangers to solar energy. They can be produced in mass quantity at low cost, stamped onto a range of metals or plastics, and used to process a large volume of liquid in a comparatively short time.

In the system developed at Oregon State, blood can be pumped through thousands of microchannels that are coated with what researchers call “pendant polymer brushes,” with repeating chains of carbon and oxygen atoms anchored on the surface. This helps prevent blood proteins and cells from sticking or coagulating. On the end of each pendant chain is a peptide – or bioactive agent – that binds tightly to the endotoxin and removes it from the blood, which then goes directly back to the patient.

Sepsis is fairly common. It can develop after an injury from an automobile accident, a dirty wound, an extended operation in a hospital that carries a risk of infection, or infectious illnesses in people with weak or compromised immune systems.

In the U.S., more than $20 billion was spent on this problem in 2011. It’s the single most expensive cause of health problems that require hospitalization.

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Adam Higgins, 541-737-6245

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Ron Adams named interim research VP at OSU

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has named Ron Adams as interim vice president for Research, effective July 1.

Adams, former dean of the College of Engineering at OSU, has spent the past three years as executive associate vice president for research at Oregon State – a new position designed to boost the university’s partnerships with industry and spin out more companies based on Oregon State’s research discoveries.

He succeeds Rick Spinrad, who accepted a position as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C.

“This is an important leadership position for Oregon State at a time of exceptional research growth for the university,” said OSU President Edward J. Ray. “I look forward to working with Ron as we advance OSU’s research activities and begin a national search for a new vice president.”

Adams leads the OSU Advantage program, which helps commercialize innovations, launch new companies, connect existing business with faculty expertise and student talent, and provide Oregon with the work-ready graduates needed for economic progress.

“This Advantage effort remains important to OSU's mission and strategy and we will expand its impact in the coming year,” Adams said. “In a broader sense, the collaborative culture of OSU will continue to create opportunities to increase the university's impact through discoveries from major research programs like the National Science Foundation Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry.”

“We will increase our efforts to help foster these opportunities by working with faculty across disciplines in order to address major challenges such as of health and wellness, food/water safety and security, impacts of climate change on forests and other natural resources, and the availability of clean energy.”

Prior to his appointment as executive associate vice president, Adams was the engineering dean for 13 years, leading the college through a period of remarkable growth. The College of Engineering doubled the size of its Ph.D. program, tripled its research funding and helped spin off more than a dozen companies.

Before returning to OSU as dean after a previous stint on the faculty, Adams worked at Tektronix for more than 14 years, including serving as vice president of technology and as a senior Tektronix fellow.

Adams earned his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees from OSU and his M.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served in the U.S. Air Force and worked at MIT Lincoln Labs before joining the OSU faculty as an assistant, and then associate professor of mechanical engineering. He took a leave from OSU to lead a team at Tektronix working on developing color printing technologies.

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Ed Ray, 541-737-4133; ed.ray@oregonstate.edu

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Ron Adams

Technology using microwave heating may impact electronics manufacture

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

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have successfully shown that a continuous flow reactor can produce high-quality nanoparticles by using microwave-assisted heating – essentially the same forces that heat up leftover food with such efficiency.

Instead of warming up yesterday’s pizza, however, this concept may provide a technological revolution.

It could change everything from the production of cell phones and televisions to counterfeit-proof money, improved solar energy systems or quick identification of troops in combat.

The findings, recently published in Materials Letters, are essentially a “proof of concept” that a new type of nanoparticle production system should actually work at a commercial level.

“This might be the big step that takes continuous flow reactors to large-scale manufacturing,” said Greg Herman, an associate professor and chemical engineer in the OSU College of Engineering. “We’re all pretty excited about the opportunities that this new technology will enable.”

Nanoparticles are extraordinarily small particles at the forefront of advances in many biomedical, optical and electronic fields, but precise control of their formation is needed and “hot injection” or other existing synthetic approaches are slow, costly, sometimes toxic and often wasteful.

A “continuous flow” system, by contrast, is like a chemical reactor that moves constantly along. It can be fast, cheap, more energy-efficient, and offer lower manufacturing cost. However, heating is necessary in one part of the process, and in the past that was best done only in small reactors.

The new research has proven that microwave heating can be done in larger systems at high speeds. And by varying the microwave power, it can precisely control nucleation temperature and the resulting size and shape of particles.

“For the applications we have in mind, the control of particle uniformity and size is crucial, and we are also able to reduce material waste,” Herman said. “Combining continuous flow with microwave heating could give us the best of both worlds – large, fast reactors with perfectly controlled particle size.”

The researchers said this should both save money and create technologies that work better. Improved LED lighting is one possibility, as well as better TVs with more accurate colors. Wider use of solid state lighting might cut power use for lighting by nearly 50 percent nationally. Cell phones and other portable electronic devices could use less power and last longer on a charge.

The technology also lends itself well to creation of better “taggants,” or compounds with specific infrared emissions that can be used for precise, instant identification – whether of a counterfeit $20 bill or an enemy tank in combat that lacks the proper coding.

In this study, researchers worked with lead selenide nanoparticles, which are particularly good for the taggant technologies. Other materials can be synthesized using this reactor for different applications, including copper zinc tin sulfide and copper indium diselenide for solar cells.

New Oregon jobs and businesses are already evolving from this work.

OSU researchers have applied for a patent on aspects of this technology, and are working with private industry on various applications. Shoei Electronic Materials, one of the collaborators, is pursuing “quantum dot” systems based on this approach, and recently opened new manufacturing facilities in Eugene, Ore., to use this synthetic approach for quantum dot enabled televisions, smartphones and other devices.

The research has been supported by the Air Force Research Laboratory, OSU Venture Funds, and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, or ONAMI.

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Greg Herman, 541-737-2496

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Computer science student beats odds, hopes to expand computer usability

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The odds were stacked against Charles Hill ever receiving a computer science degree from Oregon State University.

Hill spent 17 years in foster care, from which only a small fraction of people obtain college degrees. He experienced abuse, neglect and hunger during his childhood; had no family support to attend college; and copes with ADHD and depression.

But with the help of an OSU professor and others who believed in him, Hill will participate in commencement ceremonies in June and graduate this summer with a degree in computer science. He will also go on to pursue a doctoral degree, as one of only 13 Google Lime Scholars in the nation – $10,000 awards made to students with mental or physical disadvantages to encourage them to stay in the field of engineering.

“One of my major goals in becoming a professor is to rectify some of the inequalities in our education system for those who are less fortunate,” Hill said.

For his graduate work, Hill plans to investigate differences in the problem-solving strategies of people in lower socioeconomic groups, and how to improve software tools to better match their problem-solving needs.

From the age of 10 months to 18 years, Hill remained in foster care. Of the 27,000 children each year who reach the age of 18 in foster care, only 6 percent successfully complete a two-year or four-year degree.

At OSU, Hill met Margaret Burnett, a professor of computer science who does research in how to improve human and computer interaction. She selected Hill as an undergraduate research assistant in her lab – and, further impressed with his capabilities, accepted him as a graduate student, and encouraged him to apply for the Google Lime scholarship.

“I've never met anyone more intellectually curious than he is,” Burnett said. “He just drinks in knowledge.”

Hill’s interest in computer science sparked when, as a middle-schooler, he picked up a computer at a thrift store for $25 and on his own figured out how to fix it. Although his initial goal was to get it to play video games, he soon became the go-to guy for computer problems among his friends and family.

Hill’s dual interests in psychology and computer science matched well with Burnett’s work, the study of how software design can better support the humans who use it. For example, she has studied gender differences in problem solving, to help design tools that serve female and male users equally.

Due to his disabilities, Hill’s first two years of college were a struggle and he lost access to financial aid because of low grades. Rather than give up, Hill sought therapy for ADHD, turned around his grades, and worked as many as three jobs while going to school.

Hill is committed not just to his research and a desire to teach, but also in his personal life. He and his wife became foster care providers while they were both working and going to school. His wife’s grandmother had been caring for an elderly man with intellectual disabilities when she passed away. Rather than see him moved into a group home or with people he didn’t know, they stepped up to take over his care.

Hill credits key people throughout his life to help him stay on a path to success — from a good friend in middle school, to a teacher who motivated him to graduate from high school, his wife who kept after him to not give up on college, and finally Burnett who encouraged him to continue on to graduate school.

“Having someone so accomplished as Professor Burnett believe in my abilities has helped me embrace my potential,” Hill said.

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Rachel Robertson, 541-737-7098

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Margaret Burnett, 541-737-2539

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Energy breakthrough uses sun to create solar energy materials

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In a recent advance in solar energy, researchers have discovered a way to tap the sun not only as a source of power, but also to directly produce the solar energy materials that make this possible.

This breakthrough by chemical engineers at Oregon State University could soon reduce the cost of solar energy, speed production processes, use environmentally benign materials, and make the sun almost a “one-stop shop” that produces both the materials for solar devices and the eternal energy to power them.

The findings were just published in RSC Advances, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, in work supported by the National Science Foundation.

“This approach should work and is very environmentally conscious,” said Chih-Hung Chang, a professor of chemical engineering at Oregon State University, and lead author on the study.

“Several aspects of this system should continue to reduce the cost of solar energy, and when widely used, our carbon footprint,” Chang said. “It could produce solar energy materials anywhere there’s an adequate solar resource, and in this chemical manufacturing process, there would be zero energy impact.”

The work is based on the use of a “continuous flow” microreactor to produce nanoparticle inks that make solar cells by printing. Existing approaches based mostly on batch operations are more time-consuming and costly.

In this process, simulated sunlight is focused on the solar microreactor to rapidly heat it, while allowing precise control of temperature to aid the quality of the finished product. The light in these experiments was produced artificially, but the process could be done with direct sunlight, and at a fraction of the cost of current approaches.

“Our system can synthesize solar energy materials in minutes compared to other processes that might take 30 minutes to two hours,” Chang said. “This gain in operation speed can lower cost.”

In these experiments, the solar materials were made with copper indium diselenide, but to lower material costs it might also be possible to use a compound such as copper zinc tin sulfide, Chang said. And to make the process something that could work 24 hours a day, sunlight might initially be used to create molten salts that could later be used as an energy source for the manufacturing. This could provide more precise control of the processing temperature needed to create the solar energy materials.

State-of-the-art chalcogenide-based, thin film solar cells have already reached a fairly high solar energy conversion efficiency of about 20 percent in the laboratory, researchers said, while costing less than silicon technology. Further improvements in efficiency should be possible, they said.

Another advantage of these thin-film approaches to solar energy is that the solar absorbing layers are, in fact, very thin - about 1-2 microns, instead of the 50-100 microns of more conventional silicon cells. This could ease the incorporation of solar energy into structures, by coating thin films onto windows, roof shingles or other possibilities.

Additional support for this work was provided by the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, or ONAMI, and the Oregon Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies Center, or Oregon BEST.

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Chih-hung Chang, 541-737-8548

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