Got a problem to solve? Chances are good that an Oregon State University graduate engineering student is working on it.

At least that’s the way it felt Friday while taking a whirlwind tour of the sixth annual College of Engineering Graduate Research Showcase at the CH2M Hill Alumni Center. More than 100 student-led projects were mounted on poster boards in the main ballroom of the building, with a steady stream of students, faculty and other interested parties crowding around to ask questions.

We started with Steven Czyz of Sterling Heights, Michigan,, who is seeking his third degree in nuclear engineering. His project aims to develop highly sophisticated yet lower-cost detectors that could be used to determine where an underground nuclear test has occurred.

State-of-the-art detectors usually cost about $500,000, Czyz said, but the model he worked on with his adviser, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering Abi Farsoni and fellow student Harish Gadey, would cost perhaps just a fifth or a tenth of that figure.

The machine the team is constructing is designed to detect isotopes of xenon because they know certain isotopes of the gas only exist in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

“These are very sensitive detectors,” Czyz said, “and by analyzing the air currents we can tell when and where the test might have occurred.”

The main market for such a system is the Comprehensive Nuclear-Ban Treaty Organization, an international agency based in Vienna, Austria, but Czyz said the design "could be adjusted and modified to fit other applications.”

Amalesh Jana, a native of India who is seeking his Ph.D. in civil and construction engineering, also took on a big challenge.

Knowing the possible damage from a major quake in the Cascadia subduction zone and knowing the importance Portland International Airport would play in relief efforts, Jana aimed to examine soil conditions to find the best way to keep the runways from failing.

“Those runways are a lifeline and we need to stabilize them.” Jana said.

Jana pulled out an aerial map of the airport and pointed out land west of the runway system that was used to drill cores of varying depths. Explosives were inserted explosives and detonated, with the project team measuring the amount of soil liquefaction that followed. The goal, Jana said, is to be able to use the data to help design a runway that can withstand a 9.0 magnitude quake.

How much better could a robot perform if it had soft arms that would bend and twist? That was the challenge undertaken by Gina Olson, a doctoral student in robotics, who moved on to OSU after taking degrees from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Cal Tech.

Olson used the model of the octopus in her project, aiming for underwater uses such as working around coral reefs.

“That’s delicate work,” Olson said. “You don’t want to destroy your samples. We’re trying to mimic the softness and bendability of an octopus arm.”

Kyle Proctor, a Ph.D. candidate in water resources engineering from San Diego, took on an agricultural assignment. Using alfalfa fields in the highly productive farmland of central California, Proctor tried to find the right mix of water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“We were trying to determine where is the best spot for the alfalfa to grow,” Proctor said, noting the variables of yield, environmental impact and economic impact.

“And it’s not always about using less. It’s about making the right decisions,” he said, adding that the next steps are to try the analysis tool on tomatoes and other crops.

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Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.