People who visited the Engineering Expo 2013 at Oregon State University on Friday might have learned it is not that easy for a small country with research nuclear reactors to create plutonium for a nuclear bomb. They could have smelled coffee that had been brewed using solar power or observed an artificial intelligence software program win a strategy game.
Exhibits such as those were among more than 150 student-created projects on display at the university’s Kelley Engineering Center during the 14th annual engineering expo, which showcased engineering students’ senior projects.
Thomas Holschuh, a senior in nuclear engineering, displayed a project that he and several other students developed that analyzed whether a hypothetical country — similar to North Korea — could use research reactors like the one at OSU to generate enough plutonium to make weapons.
Holschuh, who will begin a master’s degree in nuclear engineering at OSU next year, said he and his partners calculated that nine reactors the size of the one at OSU would take hundred of years to generate enough plutonium to make a bomb if used for legitimate purposes. They concluded that trying to accelerate the process leaves signs that regulators easily could detect. He said their project’s determination was that it would be nearly impossible to create enough plutonium for a bomb without inspectors noticing, which is why it is a warning sign when countries try to ban inspectors.
He said the expo gave him a chance to share that a part of what nuclear engineers do is to try to keep people from building weapons.
“In general, the populace of Corvallis is pretty accepting (of the reactor at OSU), so it’s nice to further that,” he said.
Jared Fitzpatrick, a senior in chemical engineering, displayed a solar energy system that — in strong sunlight — can brew a cup of coffee in about eight minutes. Fitzpatrick said that he and his partners will next work on making an umbrella that can be used to focus light for backpackers to use for cooking.
Fitzpatrick, who will have an internship through an OSU program next year, said a lot of people were interested in the project because it is very applicable.
“It feels great to take what I’ve learned in the past few years and apply it to something that is useful,” he said.
Jonah Brooks and Savannah Van Beek, seniors in computer science, worked together to build an artificial intelligence that could play the video game StarCraft.
Van Beek said they both worked on the system for about five hours a week for nearly a year. It is modular, so future students can modify and adapt what they have built. There are competitions where teams develop artificial intelligences to play the game against each other, and Brooks said the school’s artificial intelligence club can use the framework they developed as a foundation for future systems to play the game.
Brooks, who will finish his minor next year, said he spent most of a year building an artificial intelligence program to play the game.
Van Beek, who already started a full-time job with ATI Wah Chang in Albany, said she is proud to be showing the code and documentation for their project.
“It’s fun to have a project a lot of people are interested in,” she said.