OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of engineering

OSU receives $20 million in private support for engineering research facility

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Peter and Rosalie Johnson have committed $7 million to create a new educational and research facility in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University.

Leveraging an earlier $10 million gift from an anonymous donor, $3 million in additional private funds, and possible matching state funds, the planned $40 million building will address space needs for engineering faculty, lab space for interdisciplinary research, and a center focused on improved recruitment and retention of engineering students. Construction will rely on legislative approval of state bonds during this legislative session.

The facility could be in the design phase as early as this spring.

Over the past three years, student enrollment in the OSU College of Engineering has increased nearly 34 percent, and contract and grant awards for its faculty have increased nearly 30 percent. Home primarily to the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering, the new facility will house interdisciplinary groups of students and faculty working to address important global problems that affect human health, energy and the environment. It will contribute significantly to economic growth in Oregon and the region, said Sandra Woods, dean of the college.

“Oregon State was instrumental in setting me on the right path,” said Peter Johnson, a 1955 engineering alumnus whose Tekmax, Inc., company revolutionized battery manufacturing equipment. The Tangent, Ore., company was acquired in 2004.

“Oregon has a pressing need for innovation, and facilities like this new building can support collaborative research and hands-on learning for generations of OSU faculty and students,” Johnson said.

Longtime supporters of the university, the Johnsons have made leadership gifts to all three priority areas of The Campaign for OSU: student scholarships, faculty support and facilities. Their contributions aided in the construction of the CH2M HILL Alumni Center and the Joe Schulein Computer Laboratory, created the endowed Linus Pauling Chair in Chemical Engineering, and established a scholarship-internship program for students in engineering.

“This new building will help to revolutionize how Oregon State approaches collaborative projects involving scientists and students in engineering and other colleges in essential areas of study and discovery,” said OSU President Edward Ray.

Ray, a noted economist, explained that Oregon’s financial health relies heavily on the success of strong collaborative research initiatives. Last year, OSU’s engineering faculty secured research grants and contracts totaling nearly $37 million. Companies spun off from college research earned more than half of the venture funding attracted by all Oregon businesses in the first half of 2010 – more than $57 million in all.

“Our college has gained tremendous momentum over the last decade,” said Sandra Woods, who was appointed engineering dean in July, 2012. “We are building critical mass in terms of faculty, students and external funding to the point where truly groundbreaking multi-disciplinary work becomes possible, and one step forward leads rapidly to the next. The high-quality space provided by a new facility will spark the growth that brings the college to the next level.”

Together with these gifts, donors to The Campaign for OSU have committed more than $200 million in support of facilities and equipment including engineering’s Kearney Hall and the Kelley Engineering Center. The campaign provided donor support for 24 facility projects. Total campaign gifts crossed the $900 million mark toward the $1 billion goal, Ray said today at the State of the University address in Portland.

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Sandra Woods, 541-737-3601

Newport selected as home of Pacific Marine Energy Center

CORVALLIS, Ore.  – The Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, or NNMREC, which is based at Oregon State University, has chosen Newport, Ore., as the future site of the first utility-scale, grid-connected wave energy test site in the United States – the Pacific Marine Energy Center.

The Pacific Marine Energy Center, or PMEC, will test energy generation potential and the environmental impacts of wave energy devices, at an ocean site about five miles from shore. Subsea cables will transmit energy from the wave energy devices to the local power grid, and data to scientists and engineers at on-shore facilities.

The first installment of funding for PMEC was received in September, 2012, consisting of $4 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, along with a non-federal cost match.

“PMEC represents a major step toward the development of energy from Oregon’s ocean waters,” said Jason Busch of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust. “I’m certain that Oregon will reap benefits from PMEC for many years to come, and the research and development performed at PMEC will help usher in this new form of reliable electricity from the sea.”

PMEC design and specific site characterization will begin soon, along with the permitting and regulatory process. NNMREC will continue to work with a variety of partners to develop additional funding sources. The exact ocean location for the PMEC site will be finalized in the next few months in a zone that has been selected in collaboration with ocean stakeholders – an area that will not impede shipping lanes and takes environmental impacts into consideration.

The Pacific Marine Energy Center will have four “test berths,” open spaces of water dedicated to testing individual devices or small arrays of devices, each of which will be connected to the community’s electrical grid. It will also collect data associated with environmental and human dimension impacts. Completion will take several years.

“This site selection builds on the global reputation of Oregon State University in both renewable energy research and marine science,” said Rick Spinrad, OSU vice president for research. “Future research results from this site will help ensure our state’s leadership in these critical areas.”

The development and operation of this facility will provide jobs and other economic development as it attracts researchers and device developers to the Oregon coast from around the world, officials said. While under development, the Ocean Sentinel, NNMREC’s mobile ocean test buoy platform operating out of Toledo, will continue its work testing energy devices at its ocean test site north of Yaquina Head.

Advances in wave power technology are also one example of the growing partnerships between OSU and private industry. The university just announced a major new initiative, the Oregon State University Advantage, which includes such programs as the OSU Venture Accelerator and the Industry Partnering Program. It’s expected to help create 20 new businesses within the next five years while enhancing student education and Oregon’s economic growth.

In an extensive site selection process, NNMREC worked with four coastal communities to consider both technical criteria and community resources.  The options were narrowed last fall to Reedsport and Newport, the two communities that best matched the needed criteria for PMEC. Site selection teams from those communities submitted proposals in December.

The selection was ultimately based on ocean site characteristics, marine and on-shore cable routes, port and industry capabilities, impacts to existing ocean users, permitting challenges, stakeholder participation in the proposal process, and support of the local fishing communities.

“Both communities were committed to finding a home for PMEC,” said Kaety Hildenbrand of Oregon Sea Grant, coordinator of the site team process. “They spoke to their own strengths and demonstrated their unique assets.”

Belinda Batten, director of NNMREC, said the communities were similar in their capacities and capabilities, and the final choice focused on making PMEC a global competitor among international test facilities. All coastal communities will benefit from the growth of this industry on the Oregon coast, she said.

The Oregon Wave Energy Trust has supported PMEC and helped create a wave energy development regulatory process that meshes the needs of ocean stakeholders and the state. The agency has also helped address key points in Gov. Kitzhaber’s 10-year energy plan, including how wave energy is integrated into Oregon’s power grid while maintaining high environmental standards.

NNMREC is a partnership between OSU and University of Washington, focused on wave and tidal energy respectively, and receives a substantial part of its funding from U.S. Department of Energy. NNMREC operates a non-grid connected wave energy testing facility in Newport north of Yaquina Head and supports intermediate scale device testing in Puget Sound and Lake Washington. PMEC will complete the wave energy device test facilities.

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Belinda Batten, 541-737-9492

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Pacific Marine Energy Center

Pacific Marine Energy Center

Oregon State University Advantage to spur education, economic growth

CORVALLIS, Ore. – OSU officials today launched a new initiative called Oregon State University Advantage, designed to boost the university’s impact on job creation and economic progress in Oregon and the nation.

“Oregon State University Advantage should foster increased bottom-line success for business,” said Rick Spinrad, OSU vice president for research.

“It will dramatically increase private industry access to talented OSU faculty and researchers, take better advantage of OSU’s unique capabilities, increase the number of spin-out companies, and expand education and job opportunities for students and other Oregonians,” Spinrad said.

Within the next five years, the program also is expected to increase industry investment in OSU research by 50 percent and lead to the creation of 20 new businesses. Hundreds more OSU students will work not only with existing companies, but become involved in every stage from fundamental science to business plans and running start-up companies.

Two key parts of Oregon State University Advantage will be the OSU Venture Accelerator and the Industry Partnering Program.

The Venture Accelerator will begin immediately with $380,000 in support from the OSU College of Business, Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development, and the University Venture Development Fund. It’s designed to identify innovation or research findings that might form the basis for profitable companies, and streamline their development with the legal, marketing, financial and mentoring needs that turn good ideas into real-world businesses.

The Industry Partnering Program will be co-directed by the OSU Foundation and the OSU Research Office. Officials say it will become a “one-stop shop” to help industry access talent; do research and development to aid business success; bring in millions of dollars in private investment in research; and ultimately produce the type of experienced graduates wanted by global industry.

“Many programs and people will be involved in all of these initiatives, but the broad theme is to increase the societal and economic impact of OSU,” said OSU President Ed Ray.

“This is a mission that’s critical to the future of Oregon and the nation,” Ray said. “Producing high-achieving graduates ready to work and create new businesses and jobs is the most important part. But we also see more that can be done in meeting the needs of existing industry, expanding existing business, creating new businesses and jobs, and getting students much more involved in their real working careers while they are still undergraduates.”

To serve as a base for the program, it’s anticipated that a 2,000-square-foot facility will be identified and occupied between OSU and downtown Corvallis later this year.

Various features of Oregon State University Advantage, the Venture Accelerator and the Industry Partnering Program include:

  • Expanded university research will be directed toward industry business needs, while providing opportunities for students, economic growth, patenting and licensing of new discoveries and inventions, and new companies.
  • Outside entrepreneurs and executives will work with faculty and students to evaluate new ideas, and the best ideas will be considered for proof-of-concept grants and equity investments.
  • At least 300 OSU students each year will work with Venture Accelerator projects, and more in the Industry Partnering Program, doing research, identifying markets, and creating business plans.
  • The end result should be improved educational programs and a major increase in the societal and economic impact of OSU’s research, already the largest in the state at $281 million a year.

“It’s a massive job to translate research into a profitable company,” said Ron Adams, executive associate vice president for research. “Students can help us analyze ideas, study market potential and do the legwork on so many tasks. There’s plenty of work to go around.”

Work of this type will greatly enhance educational opportunities, officials said.

“The students will have the opportunity to get practical experience working with the business community while helping drive the economy,” ” said Ilene Kleinsorge, dean of the OSU College of Business. “This experiential learning will prepare them to have an immediate impact to their employers when they graduate from the College of Business.”

OSU has been working in initiatives related to this for a decade or more, and has many success stories in commercialization, industry investment in research, and student internship programs. About 1,200 students are already involved in its entrepreneurship programs and more than two dozen companies have evolved from OSU research.

The Oregon State Venture Accelerator Program is a component of the South Willamette Valley Technology Business Accelerator, featured by the governor’s South Willamette Valley Solutions Group at the Oregon Business Plan Summit last December. The South Willamette Valley Regional Solutions Center will seek funding for the regional accelerator initiative during the 2013 Legislative session. At this stage, details remain to be determined.

More information on Oregon State University Advantage is available online, at http://oregonstate.edu/advantage/

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Ron Adams, 541-737-7722

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Solar cell research

Solar cell studies


Surface chemistry research

Surface chemistry research

Young surgeons face special concerns with operating room distractions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study has found that young, less-experienced surgeons made major surgical mistakes almost half the time during a “simulated” gall bladder removal when they were distracted by noises, questions, conversation or other commotion in the operating room.

In this analysis, eight out of 18, or 44 percent of surgical residents made serious errors, particularly when they were being tested in the afternoon. By comparison, only one surgeon made a mistake when there were no distractions.

Exercises such as this in what scientists call “human factors engineering” show not just that humans are fallible – we already know that - but work to identify why they make mistakes, what approaches or systems can contribute to the errors, and hopefully find ways to improve performance.

The analysis is especially important when the major mistake can be fatal.

This study, published in Archives of Surgery, was done by researchers from Oregon State University and the Oregon Health and Science University, in the first collaboration between their respective industrial engineering and general surgery faculty.

“This research clearly shows that at least with younger surgeons, distractions in the operating room can hurt you,” said Robin Feuerbacher, an assistant professor in Energy Systems Engineering at OSU-Cascades and lead author on the study. “The problem appears significant, but it may be that we can develop better ways to address the concern and help train surgeons how to deal with distractions.”

The findings do not necessarily apply to older surgeons, Feuerbacher said, and human factors research suggests that more experienced people can better perform tasks despite interruptions. But if surgery is similar to other fields of human performance, he said, older and more experienced surgeons are probably not immune to distractions and interruptions, especially under conditions of high workload or fatigue. Some of those issues will be analyzed in continued research, he said.

This study was done with second-, third- and research-year surgical residents, who are still working to perfect their surgical skills. Months were spent observing real operating room conditions so that the nature of interruptions would be realistic, although in this study the distractions were a little more frequent than usually found.

Based on these real-life scenarios, the researchers used a virtual reality simulator of a laparoscopic cholecystectomy – removing a gall bladder with minimally invasive instruments and techniques. It’s not easy, and takes significant skill and concentration.

While the young surgeons, ages 27 to 35, were trying to perform this delicate task, a cell phone would ring, followed later by a metal tray clanging to the floor. Questions would be posed about problems developing with a previous surgical patient – a necessary conversation – and someone off to the side would decide this was a great time to talk about politics, a not-so-necessary, but fairly realistic distraction.

When all this happened, the results weren’t good. Major errors, defined as things like damage to internal organs, ducts and arteries, some of which could lead to fatality, happened with regularity.

Interrupting questions caused the most problems, followed by sidebar conversations. And for some reason, participants facing disruptions did much worse in the afternoons, even though conventional fatigue did not appear to be an issue.

“We’ve presented these findings at a surgical conference and many experienced surgeons didn’t seem too surprised by the results,” Feuerbacher said. “It appears working through interruptions is something you learn how to deal with, and in the beginning you might not deal with them very well.”

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Robin Feuerbacher, 541-322-3181

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Simulated surgery

Simulated surgery

New computer approach could revolutionize design, manufacturing

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University and other leading institutions have made important advances that may dramatically change how machines get built, with a concept that could turn the approaches used by modern industry into a historic relic.

They will essentially throw out the old “design it, build a prototype and test it, then fix the mistakes and test it some more” method that’s been in place since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Approaches that worked for Robert Fulton or Henry Ford are now considered too expensive, wasteful, unpredictable and time-consuming.

Instead, virtually all of the design, testing, error identification and revisions will be done on a computer up to the point of commercial production. In theory, a new machine should work right the first time, and perform exactly as the computer said it would.

“If this works, and we believe it will, then it will revolutionize the way that machines get built,” said Irem Tumer, an associate professor in OSU’s School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering.

“The field holds great promise to design and test completed machines on a computer before they are ever built,” she said. “We’ll see what works, identify and solve problems, make any changes desired, and then go straight to commercial production.”

There’s some use of such approaches in the technology industry, which is a major reason it has boomed in recent decades. But this has never really been done before in mechanical engineering. The potential, experts say, is to radically change how almost any complex machine gets built, ranging from military vehicles to automobiles, aircraft, space vehicles, consumer products or machines used in industry.

The concept is called “model based design and verification,” and is getting initial impetus from a design challenge sponsored by the U.S. military, which wants a new amphibious vehicle in about one-fifth of the time it would ordinarily take to build it. They also want lower cost and excellent performance.

The technology behind this process, experts say, is translating virtually every aspect of a mechanical system into data that can be mixed and matched in sophisticated computer systems – what a part will do, how it will perform, what materials it is made of, how much stress those materials can take before they fail, what will happen at the intersection where one component interacts with another, where failures might occur, and how those failures can be prevented.

OSU is joining with some of the nation’s leading universities and agencies on this problem, in work supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Collaborators include Vanderbilt University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Tech University, Palo Alto Research Center, Carnegie Mellon University, and SRI International.

Advances already made at OSU, which have been published in professional journals, include work on failure propagation analysis, led by Tumer; a model repository, led by Robert Stone, a professor of mechanical engineering; and verification tools that will ensure the model should work, led by Christopher Hoyle, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Some of Tumer’s continued studies will look more closely at fault behavior, to determine what will happen if a part fails.

“We’ve done a lot of work like this in the past with individual parts, small groups of components,” Tumer said. “Now we’re taking that complexity to the level of a finished and completed machine, sometimes thousands of parts working together.

“That’s a much more difficult challenge,” she said. “But by the time we actually build it, we should know exactly what it will do and have already solved any problems. The testing will have already been done. There should not be any surprises.”

OSU has already received more than $1 million in support from DARPA on this META-II and C2M2L work, in part to support the “Adaptive Vehicle Make,” or AVM Program, which is trying to create a new amphibious vehicle. Engineers, even students, around the nation will be invited next year to take part in that initiative, using the tools being developed by OSU and its collaborators. This particular vehicle is called FANG, for Fast, Adaptive, Next-Generation Ground vehicle.

“That’s really just the beginning of the concept’s potential,” Tumer said.

“You can understand why our armed forces are interested in this,” she said. “They want to speed production of needed military vehicles by five times over the conventional approach, which is a pretty aggressive goal. For them, it’s about saving money, saving time, and ultimately producing technology that helps to save lives.”

After that, Tumer said, the systems could be used anywhere. There’s little downside to producing cars, aircraft, or new industrial machines that work right the first time, cost less and get produced more quickly.

 

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Irem Tumer, 541-737-6627

Medical vital-sign monitoring reduced to the size of a postage stamp

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Electrical engineers at Oregon State University have developed new technology to monitor medical vital signs, with sophisticated sensors so small and cheap they could fit onto a bandage, be manufactured in high volumes and cost less than a quarter.

A patent is being processed for the monitoring system and it’s now ready for clinical trials, researchers say. When commercialized, it could be used as a disposable electronic sensor, with many potential applications due to its powerful performance, small size, and low cost.

Heart monitoring is one obvious candidate, since the system could gather data on some components of an EKG, such as pulse rate and atrial fibrillation. Its ability to measure EEG brain signals could find use in nursing care for patients with dementia, and recordings of physical activity could improve weight loss programs. Measurements of perspiration and temperature could provide data on infection or disease onset.

And of course, if you can measure pulse rate and skin responses, why not a lie detector?

“Current technology allows you to measure these body signals using bulky, power-consuming, costly instruments,” said Patrick Chiang, an associate professor in the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“What we’ve enabled is the integration of these large components onto a single microchip, achieving significant improvements in power consumption,” Chiang said. “We can now make important biomedical measurements more portable, routine, convenient and affordable than ever before.”

The much higher cost and larger size of conventional body data monitoring precludes many possible uses, Chiang said. Compared to other technologies, the new system-on-a-chip cuts the size, weight, power consumption and cost by about 10 times.

Some of the existing technologies that would compete with this system, such as pedometers currently in use to measure physical activity, cost $100 or more. The new electronics developed at OSU, by comparison, are about the size and thickness of a postage stamp, and could easily just be taped over the heart or at other body locations to measure vital signs.

Part of what enables this small size, Chiang said, is that the system doesn’t have a battery. It harvests the sparse radio-frequency energy from a nearby device – in this case, a cell phone. The small smart phone carried by hundreds of millions of people around the world can now provide the energy for important biomedical monitoring at the same time.

“The entire field of wearable body monitors is pretty exciting,” Chiang said. “By being able to dramatically reduce the size, weight and cost of these devices, it opens new possibilities in medical treatment, health care, disease prevention, weight management and other fields.”

The new technology could be used in conjunction with cell phones or other radio-frequency devices within about 15 feet, but the underlying micropowered system-on-a-chip technology can be run by other energy-harvested power sources, such as body heat or physical movement.

OSU will work to develop this technology in collaboration with private industry, an increasing area of emphasis for the university. In the past two years, private financing of OSU research has increased by 42 percent, and the university has signed 108 research-based licenses of OSU technology.

This research was recently reported at the Custom Integrated Circuits Conference in San Jose, Calif. It has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Catalyst Foundation.

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Patrick Chiang, 541-737-5551

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Body monitoring chip


Body-monitoring chip

Engineers win national award for running robots, see vast potential

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An era of walking robots that can help people with physical disabilities, take on dangerous missions or aid in disaster response is about to begin, experts say, as recognized today by Popular Mechanics in honoring researchers with one of its “Breakthrough Innovator” awards of 2012.

The science in this field is rapidly expanding, said Jonathan Hurst, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, who received the award along with his colleague, Jessy Grizzle, at the University of Michigan. Ten awards were made to scientists and engineers around the nation.

The researchers have built two walking robots, MABEL and the next generation model, ATRIAS. In each case, the technology is based on a fundamental understanding of how animals walk and run, using minimal energy to accomplish a maximum of locomotion and sensory response.

Hurst said walking robots are about where the automotive industry was 150 years ago – full of promise, with a number of new inventions and about ready to take off.

“In the next 20 years you are going to see legged robots all over the place, doing all kinds of jobs,” Hurst said. “The sky is the limit.”

Beginning with funding from the National Science Foundation for MABEL, and continuing with $4.7 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the OSU and Michigan experts worked from principles of animal locomotion. The mechanical system closely interacts with the software control system, such as fiberglass springs working together with computer control to create efficient and stable walking and running gaits.

“So far much of what we’ve done has been with computer simulations, as we spent the past three years designing and building ATRIAS,” Hurst said.

“Simulations are useful as a tool for us, but not very convincing to others that the control ideas really work,” he said. “The simulations are working, and our robot was walking three days after it was built. Now we’re going to demonstrate the control ideas on the real machines.”

Robots that ultimately can walk and maneuver over uneven terrain have a range of possibilities, the scientists say. One would be helping to power prosthetic limbs for people, or use an exo-skeleton to assist people with muscular weakness. But there could also be applications in the military, in disaster response, or any type of dangerous situation.

For something that humans usually learn to do by the time they are a year old, walking is still a mystery to most scientists. The complexity of sensory and mechanical input from nerves, vision, muscles and tendons has challenged the most sophisticated concepts in robotics.

MABEL, however, is able to run a nine-minute mile and step off a ledge. ATRIAS is even lighter, faster, and has three-dimensional motion capabilities. Some of these advances have been possible, Hurst said, because the OSU and Michigan researchers took a step back to better understand the fundamental forces at work before even trying to build something.

Most robots today work in a very static or highly controlled environment. But humans live in a mobile, unpredictable world, and with further advances robots may soon be able to join it.

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Jonathan Hurst, 541-737-7010

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Walking robot

Running robot

Ancient diatoms could make biofuels, electronics and health food

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Diatoms, tiny marine life forms that have been around since the dinosaurs, could finally make biofuel production from algae truly cost-effective – because they can simultaneously produce other valuable products such as semiconductors, biomedical products and even health foods.

Engineers at Oregon State University concede that such technology is pushing the envelope a bit. But it’s not science fiction – many of the needed advances have already been made, and the National Science Foundation just provided a four-year, $2 million grant to help make it a working reality.

In theory, and possibly soon in practice, these amazing microscopic algae will be able to take some of the cheapest, most abundant materials on Earth - like silicon and nitrates - and add nothing much more than sunshine, almost any type of water, and carbon dioxide to produce a steady stream of affordable products.

The concept is called a “photosynthetic biorefinery.” Sand, fertilizer, a little sun and saltwater, in other words, might some day power the world’s automobiles and provide materials for electronics, with the help of a tiny, single-celled microstructure that already helps form the basis for much of the marine food chain and cycles carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere.

“This NSF program is intended to support long-range concepts for a sustainable future, but in fact we’re demonstrating much of the science behind these technologies right now,” said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor and head of the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. Rorrer has studied the remarkable power of diatoms for more than a decade.

“We have shown how diatoms can be used to produce semiconductor materials, chitin fibers for biomedical applications, or the lipids needed to make biofuels,” he said. “We believe that we can produce all of these products in one facility at the same time and move easily from one product to the other.”

Biofuels can be made from algae, scientists have shown, but the fuels are a comparatively low-value product and existing technologies have so far been held back by cost. If this program can help produce products with much higher value at the same time – like glucosamine, a food product commonly sold as a health food supplement – then the entire process could make more economic sense.

Much of the cost in this approach, in fact, is not the raw materials involved but the facilities needed for production. As part of the work at OSU, researchers plan to develop mathematical models so that various options can be tested and computers used to perfect the technology before actually building it.

The key to all of this is the diatom itself, a natural nanotechnology factory that has been found in the fossil record for more than 100 million years. Diatoms evolved sometime around the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs flourished. A major component of phytoplankton, diatoms have rigid microscopic shell walls made out of silica, and the capability to biosynthesize various compounds of commercial value.

“Regular algae don’t make everything that diatoms can make,” Rorrer said. “This is the only organism we know of that can create organized structures at the nano-level and naturally produce such high-value products. With the right components, they will make what you want them to make.”

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Greg Rorrer, 541-737-3370

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Diatoms

Diatoms

“Memristors” based on transparent electronics offer technology of the future

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The transparent electronics that were pioneered at Oregon State University may find one of their newest applications as a next-generation replacement for some uses of non-volatile flash memory, a multi-billion dollar technology nearing its limit of small size and information storage capacity.

Researchers at OSU have confirmed that zinc tin oxide, an inexpensive and environmentally benign compound, has significant potential for use in this field, and could provide a new, transparent technology where computer memory is based on resistance, instead of an electron charge.

The findings were recently published in Solid-State Electronics, a professional journal.

This resistive random access memory, or RRAM, is referred to by some researchers as a “memristor.” Products using this approach could become even smaller, faster and cheaper than the silicon transistors that have revolutionized modern electronics – and transparent as well.

Transparent electronics offer potential for innovative products that don’t yet exist, like information displayed on an automobile windshield, or surfing the web on the glass top of a coffee table.

“Flash memory has taken us a long way with its very small size and low price,” said John Conley, a professor in the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “But it’s nearing the end of its potential, and memristors are a leading candidate to continue performance improvements.”

Memristors have a simple structure, are able to program and erase information rapidly, and consume little power. They accomplish a function similar to transistor-based flash memory, but with a different approach. Whereas traditional flash memory stores information with an electrical charge, RRAM accomplishes this with electrical resistance. Like flash, it can store information as long as it’s needed.

Flash memory computer chips are ubiquitous in almost all modern electronic products, ranging from cell phones and computers to video games and flat panel televisions.

Some of the best opportunities for these new amorphous oxide semiconductors are not so much for memory chips, but with thin-film, flat panel displays, researchers say. Private industry has already shown considerable interest in using them for the thin-film transistors that control liquid crystal displays, and one compound approaching commercialization is indium gallium zinc oxide.

But indium and gallium are getting increasingly expensive, and zinc tin oxide – also a transparent compound – appears to offer good performance with lower cost materials. The new research also shows that zinc tin oxide can be used not only for thin-film transistors, but also for memristive memory, Conley said, an important factor in its commercial application.

More work is needed to understand the basic physics and electrical properties of the new compounds, researchers said.

This research was supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute.

 

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John Conley, 541-737-9874

Microwave ovens may help produce lower cost solar energy technology

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The same type of microwave oven technology that most people use to heat up leftover food has found an important application in the solar energy industry, providing a new way to make thin-film photovoltaic products with less energy, expense and environmental concerns.

Engineers at Oregon State University have for the first time developed a way to use microwave heating in the synthesis of copper zinc tin sulfide, a promising solar cell compound that is less costly and toxic than some solar energy alternatives.

The findings were published in Physica Status Solidi A, a professional journal.

“All of the elements used in this new compound are benign and inexpensive, and should have good solar cell performance,” said Greg Herman, an associate professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at OSU.

“Several companies are already moving in this direction as prices continue to rise for some alternative compounds that contain more expensive elements like indium,” he said. “With some improvements in its solar efficiency this new compound should become very commercially attractive.”

These thin-film photovoltaic technologies offer a low cost, high volume approach to manufacturing solar cells. A new approach is to create them as an ink composed of nanoparticles, which could be rolled or sprayed – by approaches such as old-fashioned inkjet printing – to create solar cells.

To further streamline that process, researchers have now succeeded in using microwave heating, instead of conventional heating, to reduce reaction times to minutes or seconds, and allow for great control over the production process. This “one-pot” synthesis is fast, cheap and uses less energy, researchers say, and has been utilized to successfully create nanoparticle inks that were used to fabricate a photovoltaic device.

“This approach should save money, work well and be easier to scale up at commercial levels, compared to traditional synthetic methods,” Herman said. “Microwave technology offers more precise control over heat and energy to achieve the desired reactions.”

Funding and support for this research was provided by Sharp Laboratories of America, the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, and the Oregon Process Innovation Center for Sustainable Solar Cell Manufacturing, an Oregon BEST signature research facility.

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Greg Herman, 541-737-2496

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