Environmental engineering researchers at Oregon State University have received a $1.4 million grant to develop a promising technology for removing toxic pollutants from groundwater sources that supply drinking water to much of the United States.

Leading the effort is Lewis Semprini, university distinguished professor of environmental engineering, an internationally recognized expert with more than three decades of experience. His research focuses on various strategies for bioremediation, using microorganisms to break down dangerous environmental contaminants into smaller, more benign molecules. Funding for the project comes from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, through its Superfund Research Program.

Lewis Semprini

Of chief concern is a class of synthetic chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Of nearly 3,500 samples collected from 98 major drinking water supply aquifers between 1985 and 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey determined that more than half contained at least one human-introduced contaminant, with VOCs detected most frequently.

Among the top 15 VOCs detected, eight were chlorinated aliphatic hydrocarbons listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as likely human carcinogens. These include common industrial solvents and degreasers, such as chloroform, perchloroethylene, and trichloroethylene. Increasingly problematic are emerging co-contaminants, such as 1,4-dioxane, also a likely human carcinogen.

VOCs are literally everywhere in the United States, and in other countries around the world. For decades, these compounds were widely used, poorly regulated, and carelessly disposed of. One of the biggest challenges in cleaning up the mess is the fact that VOCs are continuously leaking into groundwater from these past improper disposal practices, Semprini said.

“Common remediation techniques, such as pump-and-treat, are not sustainable for treating contaminant mixtures that slowly diffuse from low permeability zones in the subsurface,” Semprini said. “These issues highlight the need for long-term, passive, and more economical remediation techniques.”

One of the goals of the project is to determine how to make stronger hydrogel beads that will last for long periods in the subsurface remediation environment. Skip Rochefort, associate professor of chemical engineering and Kaitlin Fogg, assistant professor in bioengineering, and Michael Hyman, professor of microbiology at North Carolina State University, are members of the project team providing the needed expertise in the polymer, biological, and microbial science for the development of hydrogel beads.

The team will also investigate how to produce the beads in large quantities, so they can be added into aquifers as a passive remediation mechanism. As the substrate inside the beads is made available to the bacteria, gradually over time, they produce enzymes called monooxygenases, which metabolize the substrate along with any VOCs that diffuse into the bead from the surrounding water. Eventually, the beads themselves break down into harmless constituents.

Christian Horton

Christian Horton, a senior in construction engineering management at Oregon State University, was honored with an outstanding student achievement award at the 2021 ASC Open Mechanical competition hosted by the Associated Schools of Construction in February.

The Oregon State Mechanical team placed second overall. Other team members were Evan Lehman, Connor Splitstoser, Amin Tuffa, Keven Estupinian, and Thomas Robinson. Joe Fradella, senior instructor in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering, served as the team’s faculty coach.

Popularly known as the Reno competition, this year’s event was conducted online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Horton and his teammates’ preparations began last fall, including a two-term “Reno class” course sequence. While they spent a lot of time getting ready for the competition, when the big day came, nobody knew quite what to expect.

“You have 14 hours to work on a problem from a real-world project that has already been completed, and then you have an hour to present your solution,” Horton explained. “The judges include people who worked on the original project, so they know all the ins and outs. There’s not too much wiggle room.”

The day began at 6 a.m., when Horton jumped onto a Zoom video conference with his teammates. By 7 a.m., the team sponsor had released a folder containing about 5 gigabytes of documents: construction plans, drawings, various specifications, and customer communications.

Horton’s project involved installing some large, complex air handler units and chillers in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, a 2-million-square-foot concrete convention facility in a busy downtown area adjacent to the Bay Bridge. Assuming the role of project manager, Horton was tasked with finding a way to complete the installation with minimal disruption to building operations and surrounding traffic.

“These are massive units, basically the size of a small shipping container,” Horton said. “There are no doors in the building large enough to fit a unit through, and with multiple units to install, it requires extensive pre-planning.”

The Moscone Center presented Horton a very big box to think outside of. Part of the challenge lay in sorting through the thousands of pages of information, with no indication where to begin or how to find anything he might be looking for. Then there was the difficulty of trying to conceive of complex interactions in three dimensions and recognize potential clashes, relying exclusively on two-dimensional reference materials.

“I worked for a good 10 hours analyzing drawings and layouts with nothing to show on paper,” Horton said. “It was a bit nerve-racking as the clock was ticking and my team was counting on me.”

Then, he hit upon an idea.

First, he’d identify the best point of access that would cause the least disruption or destruction, and reroute traffic around the site. Then, he’d excavate the area outside the convention center and open up a hole in the wall roughly the size of an air handler unit. Finally, with a mobile crane oriented just right, he could stack the units on top of each other inside the building by hoisting through an existing cooling tower chimney stack.

The idea of working with massive equipment doesn’t intimidate Horton. Before going to college, the 28-year-old spent several years working overseas as a roughneck in the offshore oil and gas industry, a job that took him to Italy and Romania, and into the Black Sea. He had originally intended to jump into the construction trades straight after high school, but he found the allure of black gold too strong to resist. (“It’s kind of a family tradition,” he said.)

Working on a six-month construction project on an oil rig in 2014, with people from about 20 other countries, gave Horton unique perspective and experience.

“You’ve got people coming and going from all directions. You’re trying to communicate with people who speak zero English, and you don’t speak their language either. Meanwhile there’s 100,000 pounds of equipment hanging over your head,” he explained. “Nothing compares to the oil and gas industry; however, construction has its own unique demands and challenges, which I am eager to learn and master.”

At 9 p.m. the night of the competition, the team members had to submit their final reports, then rest up for their presentation the following morning. The judges were impressed with the work, but they still managed to throw Horton a curveball or two.

“They asked how the building would operate while the air handlers were being replaced,” Horton said. “I had zero time to look up an answer. Thinking from the top of my head, I explained that the work was going to take place during a time when the temperatures would be moderate, so the system would not experience any heavy loads, and the secondary units would still be functioning.”

Horton credits his fast thinking for the award he received.

In addition to his previous work experience, Horton says industry coaches Reggie McShane, Garret Eisenbrandt, and Grant Smith of TCM Mechanical were instrumental in helping the team prepare for success in the competition.

“Christian is a focused, hardworking student who has some real-world experience that has definitely helped him,” said McShane, who has coached teams from Oregon State in Reno competitions for the past five years. “He was a leader within the group, and the students who enter this competition are already top performers who want to excel. They have to put in a lot of extra time and effort.”

After graduation in June, Horton will begin work as an assistant project manager for Rosendin Electric in Prineville, where the firm is currently building data centers for Facebook.

The National Science Foundation has selected two graduate students in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, as well as two recent alumni, as fellows in the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support, including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost-of-education allowance of $12,000 to the institution. The program recognizes and supports outstanding students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based masters and doctoral degrees. Only 10% of applicants receive fellowships.

Damon George, who graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Gonzaga University, is currently pursuing a doctorate in computer science at Oregon State. As part of the Information Processing Group, George works under the direction of V John Mathews, professor of electrical and computer engineering, focusing on how machine learning and AI can be used to help people with disabilities.

Left to right: Kyle Chin, Alyssa Ekdahl, Damon George, and Leni Halaapiapi.

“I am creating advanced prostheses that interpret people’s movement intent from their biological signals, with the goal of creating artificial limbs that operate and feel like natural limbs and are controlled by thought,” George said. “Modern prostheses tend to deteriorate in performance over time, often rendering them unusable, so I am developing adaptive prostheses that can learn from the user over time.”

Leni Halaapiapi, a 2019 graduate of Central Washington University, is also pursuing a doctorate in computer science. Working in the lab of Rakesh Bobba, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, his research is in cybersecurity with a focus on swarm intelligence.

“Some projects I am currently working on are unmanned aerial systems (drone) security and nuclear power plant cyber vulnerability analysis,” Halaapiapi said. “I have an interest in swarm intelligence and swarm intelligence algorithms, so I hope to use the NSF funding to help further my knowledge in this domain and produce new and exciting research.”

Alyssa Ekdahl (’15 B.S., Chemical Engineering) is pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. Her research integrates synthetic biology and engineering to study the structure and function of regulatory RNAs for therapeutic applications.

Kyle Chin (’19 B.S., Chemical Engineering) is currently pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His research interests lie in developing chemical systems and 3D printing methods to allow better control of material structure and chemical composition across multiple length scales.

“It’s great that so many Beavers were awarded the fellowship,” Chin said.

Camille Palmer (left), associate professor of nuclear science and engineering, is a co-principle investigator, along with two cybersecurity experts at Oregon State, on a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission grant to develop methods for ensuring nuclear reactors are safe from hackers.
Photographer: Hannah O’Leary

Engineering researchers at Oregon State University are collaborating on a new project to help protect the nation’s nuclear power plants from a possible cyberattack.

The three-year project, funded with a $500,000 grant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will develop tools and frameworks for assessing the cybersecurity of nuclear plant control systems, enabling nuclear specialists to predict, via computer simulation, the impact of a potential cyberattack on a nuclear plant.

“The unlikely, but plausible, event of a cyberattack on a nuclear facility could be disastrous,” said Camille Palmer, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering, who is principal investigator on the project. “It is imperative that the nuclear industry understand and have a methodology to quantify this risk, so as to best protect critical assets at the plant and ensure safety.”

Palmer, whose professional interests emphasize international nuclear security and nonproliferation, is joined on the project by two cybersecurity experts as co-PIs. Rakesh Bobba, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, specializes in the design of secure and trustworthy networked and distributed computer systems, with an emphasis in cyber-physical critical infrastructures. Yeongjin Jang, assistant professor of computer science, focuses on computer systems security, especially for identifying and analyzing emerging attacks.

In recent years, cyberattacks involving malicious software — such as the Stuxnet worm thought to have crippled Iranian nuclear facilities in 2009 — have demonstrated the ability to target industrial control systems, even where facilities are protected by multiple layers of security and are on an isolated network. Those control systems are similar in nature to those used in nuclear facilities.

“With the increasing adoption of digital instrumentation, control and communication systems, it is vital to understand the interdependencies between the cyber infrastructure in nuclear control systems and the underlying physical plant operations,” Bobba said. “Critically, we need to establish a risk-based methodology to assess the impact of vulnerabilities and cyberattacks on such control systems.” 

The Oregon State research will employ what is known as dynamic probabilistic risk assessment — an established methodology for simulating a physical scenario that develops over time – in this case a cyber-attack. To this end, the team will analyze the dependencies between the cyber and physical systems, as well as identify potential attack paths. The research will link cybersecurity threat models with RELAP5-3D, a nuclear power plant simulator developed at Idaho National Laboratory for reactor safety analysis. 

This grant is the first externally funded collaboration at Oregon State spanning the two engineering disciplines in the emerging field of nuclear cybersecurity. Palmer says the collaborative aspect of the work is particularly appealing to her.

“The NRC is working to quantify a risk-informed approach to regulating the nuclear industry to prevent and protect against cyberattacks,” Palmer said. “This project integrates expertise across the College of Engineering to link cybersecurity threat models with state-of-the-art simulation tools. The research will provide risk-informed security metrics through understanding of cyber risks and vulnerabilities associated with nuclear plant instrumentation and control.”