college of engineering

Public wave energy test facility begins operation in Oregon

NEWPORT, Ore. – One of the first public wave energy testing systems in the United States began operation this week off the Oregon coast near Newport, and will allow private industry or academic researchers to test new technology that may help advance this promising form of sustainable energy.

The Ocean Sentinel is a $1.5 million device developed by the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, or NNMREC, at Oregon State University. It’s a major step forward for the future of wave energy, and should do its first testing within days – a “WetNZ” device developed by private industry.

The creation of this mobile wave energy test facility has been needed for years, experts say, and it will be used by many companies and academic researchers in the quest to develop wave energy technology, measure and understand the wave resource, and study the energy output and other important issues.

“The Ocean Sentinel will provide a standardized, accurate system to compare various wave energy technologies, including systems that may be better for one type of wave situation or another,” said Sean Moran, ocean test facilities manager with NNMREC.

“We have to find out more about which technologies work best, in what conditions, and what environmental impacts there may be,” Moran said. “We’re not assuming anything. We’re first trying to answer the question, ‘Is this a good idea or not?’ And if some technology doesn’t work as well, we want to find that out quickly, and cheaply, and the Ocean Sentinel will help us do that.”

Experts say that, unlike some alternative energy forms such as wind energy, it’s probable that no one technology will dominate the wave energy field. Some systems may work better in low wave settings, others with a more powerful resource. The Ocean Sentinel will be able to measure wave amplitude, device energy output, ocean currents, wind speeds, extremes of wave height and other data.

This initiative was made possible by support from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Oregon Department of Energy, and the Oregon Wave Energy Trust.

The challenges at hand, Moran said, are enormous.

“We’re still trying to figure out what will happen when some of these devices have to stand up to 50-foot waves,” Moran said. “The ocean environment is very challenging, especially off Oregon where we have such a powerful wave energy resource.”

The one-square-mile site where the Ocean Sentinel will operate, about two miles northwest of Yaquina Head, has been carefully studied, both for its physical and biological characteristics. A large part of the NNMREC program is studying potential environmental impacts, whether they might come from electromagnetic fields, changes in acoustics, or other factors. Any changes in sediments, invertebrates or fish will be monitored closely.

And a third part of the program is human dimensions research and public outreach, engagement and education. Toward that goal, three public hearings are being planned in August to discuss the possibility of siting a different test facility – the Pacific Marine Energy Center – in one of four possible locations: Newport, Reedsport, Coos Bay, or Camp Rilea near Warrenton. That $8 million grid-connected center would be a continuation and expansion of the work made possible today by the Ocean Sentinel.

Wave energy is a technology still in its infancy. It can use large buoys that move up and down in ocean swells, or other technologies, to produce large and sustainable supplies of electricity.

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Sean Moran, 541-404-3729

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Ocean Sentinel

Ocean Sentinel

Major advance made in generating electricity from wastewater

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have made a breakthrough in the performance of microbial fuel cells that can produce electricity directly from wastewater, opening the door to a future in which waste treatment plants not only will power themselves, but will sell excess electricity.

The new technology developed at OSU can now produce 10 to 50 more times the electricity, per volume, than most other approaches using microbial fuel cells, and 100 times more electricity than some.

Researchers say this could eventually change the way that wastewater is treated all over the world, replacing the widely used “activated sludge” process that has been in use for almost a century. The new approach would produce significant amounts of electricity while effectively cleaning the wastewater.

The findings have just been published in Energy and Environmental Science, a professional journal, in work funded by the National Science Foundation.

“If this technology works on a commercial scale the way we believe it will, the treatment of wastewater could be a huge energy producer, not a huge energy cost,” said Hong Liu, an associate professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering. “This could have an impact around the world, save a great deal of money, provide better water treatment and promote energy sustainability.”

Experts estimate that about 3 percent of the electrical energy consumed in the United States and other developed countries is used to treat wastewater, and a majority of that electricity is produced by fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

But the biodegradable characteristics of wastewater, if tapped to their full potential, could theoretically provide many times the energy that is now being used to process them, with no additional greenhouse emissions.

OSU researchers reported several years ago on the promise of this technology, but at that time the systems in use produced far less electrical power. With new concepts – reduced anode-cathode spacing, evolved microbes and new separator materials – the technology can now produce more than two kilowatts per cubic meter of liquid reactor volume. This amount of power density far exceeds anything else done with microbial fuel cells.

The system also works better than an alternative approach to creating electricity from wastewater, based on anaerobic digestion that produces methane. It treats the wastewater more effectively, and doesn’t have any of the environmental drawbacks of that technology, such as production of unwanted hydrogen sulfide or possible release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The OSU system has now been proven at a substantial scale in the laboratory, Liu said, and the next step would be a pilot study. Funding is now being sought for such a test. A good candidate, she said, might initially be a food processing plant, which is a contained system that produces a steady supply of certain types of wastewater that would provide significant amounts of electricity.

Continued research should also find even more optimal use of necessary microbes, reduced material costs and improved function of the technology at commercial scales, OSU scientists said.

Once advances are made to reduce high initial costs, researchers estimate that the capital construction costs of this new technology should be comparable to that of the activated sludge systems now in widespread use today – and even less expensive when future sales of excess electricity are factored in.

This technology cleans sewage by a very different approach than the aerobic bacteria used in the past. Bacteria oxidize the organic matter and, in the process, produce electrons that run from the anode to the cathode within the fuel cell, creating an electrical current. Almost any type of organic waste material can be used to produce electricity – not only wastewater, but also grass straw, animal waste, and byproducts from such operations as the wine, beer or dairy industries.

The approach may also have special value in developing nations, where access to electricity is limited and sewage treatment at remote sites is difficult or impossible as a result.

The ability of microbes to produce electricity has been known for decades, but only recently have technological advances made their production of electricity high enough to be of commercial use.

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Hong Liu, 541-737-6309

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Electricity from sewage

Electricity from sewage

Hong Liu

Alumni pledge $3.5 million to OSU engineering faculty

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University alumni Mike and Judy Gaulke have committed $3.5 million to create the Michael and Judith Gaulke Chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at OSU.

This endowed faculty fund will be the largest to date for the College of Engineering and the first in its School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“Life has been kind to us, and when Judy and I were reflecting on how we should share our resources, we thought about the institutions that have been meaningful in our lives. OSU is one,” said Mike Gaulke, a recently retired Silicon Valley CEO. “We hope this gift will establish a foundation for future gifts from other alumni, helping the school to continue building its international reputation.”

The inaugural holder of the chair will be OSU electrical engineering professor John Wager, an award-winning teacher and researcher. Wager is internationally recognized for his leading role in the development of transparent electronics, a technology that is being incorporated into the iPad3™.

The Gaulkes’ gift leverages the OSU Provost’s Faculty Match Program, which provides an additional $450,000 over five years for the College of Engineering. With this gift and matching funds, the school plans to add an additional faculty position focused on sensor technology research and teaching.

“This leadership gift from Michael and Judith Gaulke gives OSU a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining outstanding faculty,” said OSU President Ed Ray.

“Universities compete not only with one another, but also with business and industry to attract the best and brightest educators and researchers,” Ray said. “With their generosity and vision, the Gaulkes will benefit Oregon State’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and its students for generations.” 

The Gaulkes live in Atherton, Calif., but both grew up in Hood River, Ore. They graduated from OSU, Mike from the College of Engineering in 1968 and Judy, formerly Judy Mellenthin, from the home economics program in 1965. Judy worked as a Pan American international flight attendant, a Sunset Magazine cookbook editor, and as a food stylist before becoming a fulltime artist.

Mike became a successful engineering executive. He spent 18 years at Exponent, Inc., a leading engineering and consulting firm that performs in-depth investigations in more than 90 technical disciplines to analyze accidents and failures, and determine their causes. He retired in 2009 as CEO of Exponent but still serves as chairman of the board. He also serves on the board of directors of Cymer, a semiconductor equipment manufacturer; on the boards of California healthcare providers Sutter Health and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation; and in 2008 was inducted into OSU’s Engineering Hall of Fame.

“We are so fortunate to have Judy and Mike as alumni, friends and supporters,” said Terri Fiez, professor and head of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “This type of support is what helps us transform our educational and research opportunities for faculty and students.”

The Michael and Judith Gaulke Chair in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is the 61st endowed position fund created during The Campaign for OSU, and the 108th at OSU.

Guided by OSU’s strategic plan, the campaign has raised more than $840 million of its $1 billion goal, including nearly $90 million in faculty support, to provide opportunities for students, strengthen Oregon communities and conduct research that changes the world.

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Terri Fiez, 541-737-3118

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Michael and Judith Gaulke

Judith and Michael Gaulke

Research could improve oil recovery, aid environmental cleanup

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers have taken a new look at an old, but seldom-used technique developed by the petroleum industry to recover oil, and learned more about why it works, how it could be improved, and how it might be able to make a comeback not only in oil recovery but also environmental cleanup.

The technology, called “microbial enhanced oil recovery,” was first developed decades ago, but oil drillers largely lost interest in it due to its cost, inconsistent results and a poor understanding of what was actually happening underground.

The new findings by engineers at Oregon State University, published in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering, could help change that. This may allow the oil industry not only to produce more oil from their existing wells, but also find applications in cleaning up petroleum spills and contaminants.

“This approach of using microbes to increase oil recovery was used somewhat in the 1980s when oil prices were very high, but the field results weren’t very consistent and it was expensive,” said Dorthe Wildenschild, an associate professor in the OSU School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. “It’s seldom used now as a result.”

Oil drilling has always been difficult – it’s not as simple as drilling a hole and watching the petroleum gush out of the ground.

That may happen for a while, but as a secondary step, water is often injected into the well to help flush out more oil. Such production techniques generally recover only one-third to one-half  of the oil originally present in a reservoir.

A third approach sometimes used after water injection is to inject microbes into the well and “feed” them with sugars such as molasses to encourage their growth. This can clog some pores and in others has a “surfactant” effect, loosening the oil from the surface it clings to, much as a dishwasher detergent loosens grease from a pan.

“By clogging up some pores and helping oil move more easily through others, these approaches can in theory be used with water flushing to help recover quite a bit more oil,” Wildenschild said.

The surfactant can be man-made, or microbes can be used to produce it at a lower cost. However, getting a particular culture of microbes to produce the biosurfactant under harsh field conditions is tricky.

“It’s complicated, you have to use just the right microbes, and feed them just the right foods, to accomplish what you want to do,” Wildenschild said.

In OSU laboratory experiments, Ryan Armstrong, a recent doctoral graduate at OSU, found that the clogging mechanism is the simplest and most effective approach to use, although combining it with the biosurfactant technology achieved optimal oil recovery.

A better fundamental understanding of this process – along with higher oil prices that better reward efforts to recover more oil – could lead to renewed interest in the technology on a commercial basis, the OSU researchers said, and make oil recovery more productive. As an extra benefit, the concepts might also work well to help remove or clean up underground contaminants, they said.

This work was supported by the Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society.

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Dorthe Wildenschild, 541-737-8050

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Oil and biofilm

Oil in pores

OSU-Cascades grant to study natural gas for vehicle fuel

BEND, Ore. – A researcher at Oregon State University – Cascades will lead a major new research initiative on a vehicle-based natural gas refueling system, a $700,000 project to create technology that would use the vehicle engine itself to compress natural gas.

The project will be led by energy engineering management professor Chris Hagen, with support from Colorado State University, and is one of the largest research awards yet received by OSU’s branch campus in Bend.

The initiative is one of 13 projects in a $30 million program to develop new ways of harnessing U.S. natural gas supplies. The projects are part of a new program called Methane Opportunities for Vehicular Energy - or “MOVE”. The goal is lightweight, affordable natural gas tanks for vehicles and natural gas compressors that can efficiently fuel a natural gas vehicle at home.

“These innovative projects will leverage the ingenuity of U.S. scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to develop breakthrough technologies to fuel cars with natural gas,” said Daniel Poneman, U.S. deputy secretary of energy. “These projects could transform America’s energy infrastructure and economy by utilizing domestic energy sources to power our vehicles, reducing our reliance on imported oil, and increasing American energy security.”

Existing natural gas vehicle technologies require tanks that can withstand high pressures, are often cumbersome, and are either too large or too expensive to be suitable for smaller passenger vehicles. The new projects are trying to remove these barriers and encourage the widespread use of natural gas cars and trucks.

With the approach being studied at OSU–Cascades, the engine will have the ability to both power the vehicle as well as compress natural gas for storage. Drivers will be able to connect their vehicle to any natural gas line for fast, convenient refueling. 

“This award demonstrates the innovation of our faculty and lays the groundwork for OSU-Cascades to continue to attract top faculty and research funding,” said OSU-Cascades Vice President Becky Johnson. 

Hagen, an assistant professor in the energy engineering management program at OSU – Cascades, does research on energy systems, advanced internal combustion engines, unconventional fuels, applied thermodynamics and fluid mechanics.  OSU-Cascades will lease space in an auto bay in Central Oregon Community College’s automotive technology program  for this research.


Sara Freedman 541-322-2034

OSU names Sandra Woods dean of College of Engineering

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Sandra Woods, a former Oregon State University environmental engineer who has led the engineering program at Colorado State University for the past seven years, was today named dean of the OSU College of Engineering.

Woods replaces Ron Adams, who stepped down as dean to lead a new initiative at OSU on industry relations as executive associate vice president for research. She will begin her new duties as dean of OSU’s College of Engineering on July 30.

Woods has been dean of Colorado State’s College of Engineering since July 1, 2006, after a one-year appointment as interim dean. She previously was on the engineering faculty at Oregon State, where she also helped launch the university’s distance and continuing education programs. Woods was on the OSU faculty from 1984 to 2001.

“Sandra Woods is an experienced and visionary leader, who directed Colorado State’s engineering program through an impressive period of growth in enrollment, research and impact,” said Sabah Randhawa, OSU’s provost and executive vice president. “She also has led numerous initiatives with distance learning and graduate education and she has been an advocate for women pursuing engineering as a career. We’re delighted to bring her back to our campus.”

After graduating from Michigan State University, Woods earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in civil engineering from the University of Washington and joined the OSU faculty in 1984. She is an environmental engineer who specializes in the bioremediation and biotransformation of environmental contaminants, for which she received a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1985.

While at OSU, Woods was honored for her teaching and also served in a variety of administrative roles, both in the College of Engineering and throughout the university. She helped launch Oregon State’s distance and continuing education programs and served as interim dean of the program in 1998-99.

In 2001, Woods was appointed head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University. She served as department head until her appointment as interim dean in 2005.

As dean, she led a college with more than 2,500 students and annual research expenditures of about $63 million. Under her leadership, the college is building a $71 million interdisciplinary teaching and research facility. Other key projects have included construction of a new residence hall to house an engineering living/learning community, a new co-op program, new interdisciplinary majors, options and minors, and a novel freshman retention program.

The college received the Women in Engineering Program Advocates Network “Women in Engineering Initiative Award” for its success in improving gender diversity within the engineering program. In 2010, the Colorado section of the American Council of Engineering Companies awarded Woods the General Palmer Award as the “Outstanding Engineer in Industry” for her leadership and contributions.

As dean of OSU’s College of Engineering, Woods will take over the leadership of a college with an annual budget of $73 million, a total of 253 faculty and staff, and more than 5,200 students.

Scott Ashford has served as interim dean of OSU’s College of Engineering since Adams’ left the position.

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Sabah Randhawa, 541-737-2111

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Sandra Woods

Ocean wave energy to be explored at Corvallis Science Pub

CORVALLIS, Ore. – These are the formative years of a West Coast wave energy industry, and scientists are working with businesses, communities and policymakers to gather environmental data, test new technologies and consider options — all of which will be explored June 11 at the Corvallis Science Pub.

Belinda Batten, director of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, will describe projects under way, including one that will be visible from Newport this summer.

The presentation will begin at 6 p.m. at the Old World Deli, 341 S.W. Second St., in Corvallis. It is free and open to the public.

“We’ve got the technical side, the environmental side and the outreach to communities through Oregon Sea Grant,” Batten said. “You don’t have that everywhere.”

Wave-energy systems, she said, will need to survive extreme ocean conditions and minimize impact on the environment and traditional ocean uses.

OSU engineers are testing wave-energy devices and working with AXYS Technologies, Inc., of Vancouver, B.C., to deploy a new offshore moored test buoy this summer. Developers will be able to attach their prototypes to the buoy and monitor power production and other functions. A search is also under way for an additional ocean test site that can be connected to the nation’s power grid.

Companies such as Columbia Power Technologies of Corvallis, Neptune Wave Power and Northwest Wave Energy Innovations have been discussing plans for testing prototypes. A fourth company, Ocean Power Technologies, has already received permits for a small commercial-scale device near Reedsport, Ore.

To add a new wrinkle to ocean energy, scientists are also investigating the potential to capture energy from sea winds. With a U.S. Department of Energy grant, Rob Suryan, a sea bird expert at OSU, will lead a team to develop remote monitoring technologies that can assess potential wind turbine impacts on sea birds and bats.

Since its establishment in 2008, NNMREC has attracted nearly $20 million in private, state and federal support. It’s a collaboration between Oregon State University and the University of Washington.

Sponsors of Science Pub include Terra magazine at OSU, the Downtown Corvallis Association and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

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Belinda Batten, 541-737-3441

OSU wins third consecutive national championship in Formula SAE

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Global Formula Racing team at Oregon State University recently won for the third consecutive year at Michigan International Speedway, considered the national championship of Formula SAE racing – the only time this has ever happened.

OSU’s racing team, which is a collaboration of OSU and Duale Hochschule Baden-Wurttemberg-Ravensburg in Germany, received the first place overall award as well as three first place titles in engineering design, endurance, and the SAE Spirit of Excellence.

There were 120 teams from around the world at this competition, entering 106 vehicles. Participants came from the United States, Canada, Austria, Germany, Finland, Singapore, South Korea, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

“This is the first time in the history of the Michigan race that a university has won for three consecutive years,” said Robert Stone, professor and interim head of the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at OSU. “It’s a great accomplishment.”

OSU’s team, composed mostly of students from the College of Engineering, has been extraordinarily successful in Formula SAE racing in recent years. This sport is extremely popular in Europe, where almost every university sponsors a team, and OSU has also dominated many universities with strong teams in the Midwest, the historic home of the nation’s automotive industry.

Cars in Formula SAE racing are judged on such factors as cost, innovation, acceleration, design and other aspects. Students spend thousands of hours working on the vehicles and in the process learn skills in aerodynamics, chassis construction and mechanical engineering as well as business development and fund raising.

Formula SAE racing is organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

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Three-time winner

Three-time winner

Technology to monitor bird sounds, impacts of environmental change

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have created a new computer technology to listen to multiple bird sounds at one time, to identify which species are present and how they may be changing as a result of habitat loss or climate change.

The system, one of the first of its type, should provide an automated approach to ecological monitoring of bird species that is much more practical than a human sitting in the field, hours on end.

“It’s difficult to hear and identify even one or two bird species at a time, and when you have many of them singing at once it’s even more difficult,” said Forrest Briggs, a doctoral student in computer science at OSU.

“Birds are important in themselves, but also an early warning system of larger changes taking place in the environment,” Briggs said. “Now we can tell down to the second when a bird arrives, leaves, when and where it’s choosing to nest, that type of information. It’s just not practical to do that with human monitoring.”

The “multi-instance multi-label” machine learning system developed at OSU, researchers said, could ultimately be used to identify not just bird sounds but many other forest noises – everything from wind to rain drops or a falling tree. It could also be used with other animal species, including grasshoppers, crickets, frogs, and marine mammals. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the OSU College of Engineering.

“It would not be reasonable for a person to count birds once per minute, 24 hours a day, for three months, but we aim to obtain similar results with acoustic surveys,” the researchers wrote in a recent study published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

The error rate of this technology is already similar to that achieved by human experts, Briggs said. In one day of testing, for instance, it produced 548 10-second recordings of sounds from 13 different bird species. It is also omni-directional, meaning the microphones do not have to be pointed right at the sound in question to function accurately, one of the limitations of some previous technology.

Researchers are still working out some issues, including interference caused by rain, not to mention people heard partying in the woods, and what appeared to be the bite mark of a bear on the microphone.

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Forest monitoring

Bird monitoring

Program announced to advance nuclear energy, new reactor technology

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Department of Energy today announced recipients of $47 million in a major initiative under the Nuclear Energy University Program, an effort to support education, research and facilities that will lead toward a “re-invigorated” nuclear energy industry in the U.S.

Awards were made to 46 universities, including $1.1 million to Oregon State University, which has been a pioneer in the development and testing of “passive safety” nuclear energy concepts and new types of small “modular” reactors that hold great promise in the future of nuclear power.

Daniel Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy, said that President Obama has cited nuclear energy as “a part of his blueprint to build the economy.” He also pointed to the programs at OSU as being a key part of future systems of nuclear energy.

“Small modular reactors are exciting for a number of reasons,” Poneman said. “They have safety and non-proliferation advantages, could be used in smaller communities, and you could punch them out in a standardized manner.

“Only time will tell, but their flexibility in cost and deployment is very promising,” he said.

OSU has one of the nation’s leading programs in education and research in nuclear energy and radiation health physics. Some of the large “next-generation” reactors being built in the world today were developed in part by testing of passive safety concepts in OSU laboratories in the 1990s, in which the reactor is designed to shut down automatically, if necessary, using natural forces including gravity and convection.

Those same features were incorporated into even more innovative technology researched at OSU – small modular reactors. These reactors are designed to be built in a factory, standardized, and shipped via rail car or other means to a location where they could be used individually or in groups. They provide different and attractive options to “the business model developed over decades of reactors getting larger and larger, built as one-of-a-kind reactors,” Poneman said.

"This is a continuation of the Department of Energy’s support for our research and educational programs, and it’s very important to what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Kathryn Higley, professor and head of the OSU Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics. “It supports our students, our infrastructure and the research that leads to commercialization of new technologies.”

One of the commercial leaders in the development of small modular reactors is a spinoff company that evolved from OSU research, NuScale Power.

Other features of the new program announced today include $5 million for undergraduate student scholarships, including several at OSU. OSU’s educational programs and enrollment in nuclear engineering and radiation health physics have expanded rapidly in recent years, and programs such as this will be important “to create the next generation experts, fresh thinking to jump start America’s nuclear energy industry,” Poneman said.

The four priorities outlined today included fuel cycle research and development; reactor concepts and designs; advanced modeling and simulation; and transformative research. Federal officials said today that significant progress is needed on three fronts for nuclear power to move forward – economic efficiency, non-proliferation issues and waste disposal. A panel has been appointed to explore the waste disposal issue and work towards a national consensus, they said.

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Kathryn Higley, 541-737-0675

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NuScale module in pool

Modular reactor