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.”

“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.

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.”

Three high school students received awards for their computer science research at Oregon State University. Audrey Au, Caroline Gao, and Geraldine Noa-Guerva were winners of the 2021 Aspirations in Computing award for the Oregon and Washington chapter of National Center for Women & Information Technology. Au and Gao also received honorable mention for the national NCWIT AiC award.

All three worked in the area of human-computer interaction, specifically how well problem-solving software supports different genders in problem-solving activities. The students worked with Margaret Burnett, distinguished professor of computer science, and Anita Sarma, associate professor of computer science, who co-direct The GenderMag Project.

“Working in Dr. Burnett’s lab was a genuinely life-changing experience for me,” Gao said. “I realized the full potential of technology to drive equity and social good. The intersectional approach we took to every issue reframed my perception of many societal issues.”

After her research experience, Gao launched a cultural awareness project, called The World in Us, with other students, including Au. The two taught classes through Oregon State’s Talented and Gifted Programs for elementary school students. The project was highlighted by the Albany Democrat Herald.

Au is co-author on an article that won a best paper award at the 2021 International Conference of Software Engineering. She wants to continue tostudy human-computer interaction to facilitate the inclusion of groups often marginalized and underrepresented in tech.

Noa-Guerva also plans to use the knowledge she gained through her research experience about inequities in computing when she pursues a career in technology. She is currently giving virtual English and programming lessons to children in Peru.

“Having these bright, passionate young women in our research group over summer was a privilege. Through their hard work they helped further our research. We look forward to mentoring them as they progress through their careers,” Sarma said.

In April 2016, Oregon State University engineering doctoral students Dylan Jones and Seth McCammon deploy a Seabotix remotely operated vehicle to perform an autonomous underwater survey at the North Energy Test Site off the coast of Newport, OR.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office recently announced support of up to $22 million for 10 marine energy research projects, including three represented by researchers from Oregon State University’s College of Engineering. (The award amounts for each project are under negotiation.) 

“For industry to move toward commercialization, we need to utilize all of our available resources,” said  Daniel R. Simmons, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, in a Dec. 22 article on the DOE website. “With this funding opportunity, we addressed several critical gaps in the marine energy industry to advance early-stage R&D and build testing infrastructure, as well as foster collaboration among non-federal research entities.”

One of the proposed projects, led by Oregon State, will consider the co-design of marine energy converters for autonomous underwater vehicle docking and recharging. Two partner institutions, the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, will play supporting roles. 

“No one has been able to design a system to reliably dock an autonomous underwater vehicle with a marine energy converter in energetic ocean conditions,” said Geoff Hollinger, associate professor of mechanical engineering and robotics and Oregon State’s principal investigator for the energy converter project. “We would be the first to do that. It would open up a huge new market for inspection, monitoring, and repairs in marine energy systems without relying on expensive ship support.” 

Testing will be conducted in the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Lab at Oregon State. 

In a second project, researchers will test models for integrating marine energy into microgrids. Oregon State will support the work, which will be led by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

Microgrids are local energy grids that can be connected to the main energy grid or operated independently. 

“Over the past few years, there’s been agreement on what are good models for wind generation and other renewable energy sources, but models for marine hydrokinetic converters need further validation and benchmarking,” said Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and Oregon State’s principal investigator for the microgrid project. “I’m most excited about bringing together the marine microgrid environment and the expertise of on-shore power engineers to leverage their historical knowledge of how to run power systems efficiently and safely, while advancing new forms of clean energy that the ocean provides.”

For the third project involving the College of Engineering, researchers will pursue the development of modeling methods that facilitate the design of wave energy converters. The venture will be led by the University of Washington and supported by Oregon State and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Members of the Energy Systems Group inspect microgrid electrical equipment in at the Wallace Energy Systems & Renewables facility at Oregon State, February 2019. From left: College of Engineering graduate Marissa Kwon; Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez; Yue Cao, assistant professor of electrical & computer engineering; Ted Brekken; and doctoral student Ali Haider.

Wave energy converters transform the kinetic and potential energy of ocean waves into mechanical or electrical energy.

“Our objective is to develop models for wave energy converters that bring electrical, hydrodynamic, and mechanical domains under one framework and that lead to improved simulation speed, flexibility, and design,” said Ted Brekken, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oregon State and one of the researchers representing the team focused on the model’s electrical components.

Bryson Robertson, associate professor of coastal and ocean engineering at Oregon State and principal investigator for the wave energy modeling project, offered a broader context about the potential impact of all three endeavors: “The work will help to fill fundamental gaps in our knowledge of marine energy sources and to overcome barriers to the development of emerging technologies,” he said. “Ultimately we hope it leads to reduced costs and improved performance of renewable marine energy.” The projects will also offer cross-disciplinary research experiences for College of Engineering students. 

— By Steve Frandzel

Robotics researchers in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University are working with colleagues at the University of Washington through a partnership with the Pacific Marine Energy Center to help the Navy develop new technology to expand the abilities of robotic arms mounted on remotely operated vehicles beneath the ocean surface. 

The Office of Naval Research earlier this year awarded a three-year, $3.3 million grant to the University of Washington Applied Physics Lab, of which $2.2 million will go to Oregon State. Geoff Hollinger, associate professor of mechanical engineering and robotics, heads up the Oregon State team. 

ROVs are “unoccupied, highly maneuverable underwater machines that can be used to explore ocean depths while being operated by someone at the water surface,” according to the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Think of them as remote-controlled submarines. ROV operations eliminate human presence underwater and are thus safer and easier to conduct than operations employing divers or occupied submersibles. 

Initially developed for industrial tasks like pipeline inspection, ROVs have been adapted for a variety of other tasks, many of them scientific and educational. A typical ROV is equipped with cameras and lights at minimum, but they often come loaded with additional instruments, such as probes or robotic arms. ROVs can be as small as a toaster oven or as large as a truck. Whatever their size, they’re controlled remotely by an operator in a surface vessel with a joystick, similar to a video game controller. 

“Our project focuses on moving the role of the operator from one of low-level control to that of providing high-level, explainable goals for subsequent execution by the robotic arm,” Hollinger said. “We’re doing fundamental research on algorithms for robotic control, perception, planning, and decision-support, as well as hardware design, to improve the efficiency and reliability of subsea manipulation of the robotic arm.” 

The researchers, including Oregon State engineers Julie Adams, Joe Davidson, Heather Knight, Fuxin Li, and Kagan Tumer, will work with a robotic arm mounted on a test stand, with the future goal of mounting the arm on remotely operated vehicles while maintaining human-in-the-loop control authority, Hollinger said.

 Keith Hautala