Civil and Construction Engineering

Building bike lanes and communities

Portrait of Aaron Mendez

From the moment he joined Oregon State University’s College of Engineering in 2019, Aaron Mendez has pursued opportunities that promote leadership and community, including serving as president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers student chapter and a statewide transportation committee.

“I think that’ll be helpful as I move into the professional world,” said Mendez, now a senior wrapping up his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. “It’s also important to me to get out in the community, showing students that engineering is a strong career path.”

During his first year, Mendez took the civil and construction engineering orientation course to explore different subdisciplines. Each unique component of that course ― from testing the survivability of scale-model structures against simulated tsunamis to learning in-depth information about the architectural design of Kearney Hall ― reinforced his interest. He specifically gravitated toward infrastructure, appreciating the fundamental importance of the buildings, roads, sidewalks, and underground pipes all around us.

Portrait of Aaron Mendez in front of Waldo Hall
Aaron Mendez

“I really love the infrastructure part of civil engineering, being able to build giant projects and
seeing your designs come to life for everyone in a community to use daily,” Mendez said.

Mendez gained first-year research experience in the lab of David Hurwitz, professor of transportation engineering and director of the Kiewit Center, as part of the STEM Leaders Program. During this time, Mendez networked with a graduate student researcher who offered him a seat on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Oregon Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. Mendez, a cyclist himself who fervently advocates for bike/ped safety and eco- friendly transportation, saw this as an ideal leadership and community service opportunity.

“Young people need opportunities to be on statewide committees,” he said. “With OBPAC, we help ODOT look at issues directly relevant to bike and ped users in Oregon — deciding on bike lane widths, revising parts of the highway design manual, allocating funds to the Oregon Community Paths Program, and more. Serving on this committee has helped me understand more about how transportation in Oregon works and how a state agency runs overall.”

Mendez has brought the same spirit of service to SHPE, which he also joined during his first year. After the pandemic struck in 2020 and sent everyone to Zoom, SHPE continued to meet virtually. Mendez was elected as club outreach coordinator during his second year, and he served as president during his third. This year, he stood down to allow younger SHPE members the chance to build their own leadership experience.

At the end of November 2022, Mendez went with other Oregon State SHPE members to the national SHPE convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Besides opportunities to network and learn about engineering projects and career prospects, this trip held personal meaning for them; roughly 6,000-9,000 Hispanic STEM professionals had gathered to engage with colleagues from across the country.

“It was great seeing people who look like you all around and hearing them speak Spanish,” Mendez said. “We’re all in STEM and going through similar situations, so it’s great to be in that environment to show you’re not alone; you’re one piece of a bigger puzzle.”

In addition to OBPAC and SHPE, Mendez has been involved with the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program since his first year. He is now serving as the head mentor within LSAMP, where he supervises a bridge program of 60 students and 20 mentors. He credits his own mentor, Sonia Camacho, for helping him throughout his time at Oregon State and instilling in him a commitment to the program.

“Sonia has been really impactful in laying the groundwork for what I’ve done at Oregon State,” Mendez said. “These are the types of connections that you make in LSAMP. I strive to be a resource for my mentees as well.”

Mendez, who graduates in June, recently accepted a full-time position as a transportation engineer with design-oriented engineering firm HDR in Bellevue, Washington. While moving means he must relinquish his OBPAC seat in May, he is excited to engage in community outreach in the Seattle area, elevating aspiring Hispanic and Latino engineers.

“Being in engineering classes can be daunting, so I’m glad I found my own groups to support me and make Oregon State feel like a second home,” Mendez reflected. “Leading communities and doing outreach is something I want to continue, being a role model for future generations.”

Feb. 16, 2023

Portrait of Keshav Bharadwaj.

Keshav Bharadwaj

Civil and Construction Engineering

Corvallis, OR 97331
United States

Wave Power: The Other Sustainable Energy

Graduate student Courtney Beringer makes adjustments to LUPA, a prototype wave energy converter tested at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab.

Graduate student Courtney Beringer makes adjustments to LUPA, a prototype wave energy converter tested at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab.

Photos by Johanna Carson and Chance Saechao.

What images pop up when you hear someone mention wind power and solar power? It’s a safe bet you’ll picture towering three bladed turbines, photovoltaic panels, or perhaps vast mirror arrays. But what do you see when you imagine the machinery used to harvest wave energy?

“We all know what wind and solar technologies look like, but there are five or six leading concepts for wave energy converters, and individual WEC designs vary dramatically,” said Bryson Robertson, associate professor of coastal and ocean engineering at Oregon State University and director of the Pacific Marine Energy Center, a consortium of universities dedicated to exploring the potential of marine energy.

Compared with wind and solar — by far the leading sustainable energy sources — wave energy barely registers, but it’s well positioned to become an important factor in the green energy equation. “Wave energy is very young, and wind and solar will continue to dominate future renewable energy systems,” Robertson said. “But at a certain point, adding more doesn’t provide additional value. We need new sources that are reliable at different times of the year; that’s where wave energy comes in.”

In western Oregon, for instance, energy demand peaks in winter when solar power is at its low ebb, while winds at land-based wind farms are fickle throughout the year. But the surging waves and currents of the North Pacific embody inexhaustible and immense coils of power that offer energy densities significantly greater than any form of green energy on the planet. And it’s there for the taking.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the wave energy within 10 nautical miles of Oregon’s coastline that can be practicably recovered annually totals 68 terawatt-hours — enough to power 6.4 million homes, far more than even exist in the state.

Among the WEC archetypes vying for attention and funding in the budding industry are floating circular buoys that rise and fall with ocean swells; enormous, hinged flaps mounted on the sea floor like giant horizontal swinging doors; and barges whose oscillations compress air that turns turbines. “Because the range is so wide, it makes things really interesting as a researcher,” Robertson said.

Robertson and his team are currently testing a lab-scale WEC prototype called LUPA, for Laboratory Upgrade Point Absorber. The work, funded by the Water Power Technologies Office of the DOE, is being conducted at Oregon State’s O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory wave flume, the largest such testing facility in North America. The LUPA prototype, which uses a two-body point absorber design, consists of a 1-meterwide floating ring that houses the motor/ generator assembly and electronics. A stationary heave plate is suspended a couple meters below the surface by a metal spar. The entire unit weighs more than 400 kilograms. LUPA produces electricity when the ring’s up and-down motion relative to the heave plate turns the generator. The prototype can produce 40 watts of power in 0.16-meter waves that pass every 2 seconds.

Bryson Robertson is developing LUPA as an opensource tool meant to spur progress in the marine energy sector.
Bryson Robertson is developing LUPA as an
​​​​​​opensource tool meant to spur progress in the marine
energy sector.

A full-scale LUPA would measure 20 meters across and weigh a little over 2,000 kg. Deployed in about 50 meters of water and moored to the seabed, its potential output is estimated at 350 kilowatts in 2-meter waves with a 9-second period. But the primary goal of the project isn’t to build a scaled-up LUPA; it’s to develop a completely open-source, fully validated, numerical and physical WEC model. All LUPA data will be available to any group that wants it — commercial or educational — to use any way they like. The intent is to help the entire marine energy sector progress faster, according to Robertson.

Wave lab testing is crucial for understanding the nuances of WEC designs before building full- size versions. “It may cost tens of thousands of dollars in the lab, but once you build a full-scale unit and deploy it, you’re at tens of millions of dollars, so you have to get it right,” Robertson said. “Lab testing allows us to fail quickly and cheaply and move on to the next iteration before scaling up.”

Adding to the myriad challenges inherent in building commercially viable WECs has been a dearth of open-ocean test facilities. That will soon change when Oregon State’s PacWave South becomes fully operational in 2024. PacWave South, located a few miles off Newport, Oregon, will be the first grid-connected, commercial-scale, open-ocean wave energy test facility in the continental U.S. Covering more than 2.5 square miles, it will accommodate up to 20 WECs. The DOE recently announced $25 million in funding for eight groups planning to deploy and test WECs at the site.

Robertson expects the first full-size WECs to start operating at PacWave South in just a few years, and he predicts that a handful of units will be generating power commercially along the West Coast in about a decade.

“Wave energy will add to the diversity of options for weaning ourselves from fossil fuels,” Robertson said. “This is an opportunity for the U.S. to become a global leader in the technology. Everything is looking pretty bright for significant progress in the coming years.”

Feb. 1, 2023

History by the barrel

Image of a barrel in a basement

In the fall of 2019, during the recently completed Merryfield Hall renovations, a plumber descended into a crawl space beneath the building to tap a water line for a new drinking fountain. He also found an odd bit of construction: a dozen concrete-filled barrels, aligned in two parallel rows, supporting a significant chunk of the building. The barrels, it turns out, had also been observed during a 2014 remodel of one of Merryfield’s labs. Who knows when anyone had seen them before that?

Using barrels as concrete forms doesn’t seem to have ever been a common practice, but it sure demonstrates an imaginative solution in a pinch. And though it’s uncertain whether the barrels were part of the building’s initial construction in 1909, there’s some pretty convincing evidence that they were added later.

“I can’t say for sure without inspecting them, but based on photos, the footings used underneath the barrels do not look like original construction,” said Chris Higgins, Cecil and Sally Drinkward Professor of Structural Engineering. “They’re not well excavated and the concrete is poorly placed. These would have been easy to make before the building was completed but hard to do in a crawl space.”

Another clue is the wooden shims wedged between the barrels and the support beams, which ensure contact between the two. “That also suggests they aren’t original, as the construction would have been cleaner if it had been done new,” Higgins said.

The provenance of the barrels is clear enough: Each is marked with the name J.B. [John Bazley] White & Bros., (originally J.B. White & Sons), once one of England’s leading manufacturers of Portland cement. Its enormous plant in Swanscombe, southeast of London, was the country’s largest cement production facility for more than 80 years, mostly during the 19th century.

A compelling reason the columns were needed can be seen in old photographs of the Mechanical Arts Building (Merryfield’s original name). The area above the barrels used to be a machine shop filled with heavy, vibrating equipment. “I think the barrels were added to suppress floor vibration and deflections,” Higgins said. “It’s common to add additional supports to carry heavier loads, reduce vibrations, or stop floors from sagging under load.”

Though no one knows when the barrels were installed, it’s certain that there are no plans to remove or replace them.


Dec. 6, 2022

Spanning the globe

Panama Canal expansion

Photos courtesy of Rick Robertson.

Rick Robertson was barely a teenager when he started his first construction job. He dug catch basins, pushed concrete, and hauled materials through the long summer days. The hard work was nothing new.

“We all worked when we were kids,” said Robertson, B.S. civil engineering ’85, M.S. ’87. “School let out in June, you’d get a few days of vacation, then you went to work. I was picking strawberries in fourth grade.” But it was the construction sites, where he worked every summer through high school, that fascinated him — the precision of surveying, the machines that created perfectly aligned concrete curbs, the lasting contribution to something bigger than himself. “It opened my eyes to the possibilities of civil engineering; I could imagine a future doing that.”

In the meantime, Robertson indulged his more immediate passion: basketball. In 1979, his junior year at McMinnville High School, the team won 27 consecutive games and the state championship. The following season, the Grizzlies extended their unbeaten streak to 39, at the time the longest in Oregon history. The team overflowed with talent, including Robertson’s childhood friend, Charlie Sitton, a future All-American at Oregon State University. Pulling it all together was their coach, Nick Robertson, who would win 699 games over a 41-year career and earn a spot in the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.

“More than anyone else, my father taught me about communication, teamwork, and caring for others. So much of what I learned to prepare me for life I learned from him,” Robertson said. His father, now 81, still helps out young players.

Robertson’s first year at Oregon State was a rough one, marked by the death of his younger brother, Greg. After transferring to Willamette University for a couple of years to regroup, he played for the school’s basketball team, which helped him to clear his mind after the devastating loss.

Back at Oregon State for his final two years, he dove into his coursework, energized by an atmosphere of collaborative problem-solving that he carried into his career. He capped off his time as a Beaver with a master’s program that focused on geotechnical engineering. “I figured that would keep me from getting stuck behind a desk,” Robertson said. He figured right.

Robertson with his wife, Renee (left), and daughters Rylee and Raegan, at the Cocoli locks before flooding. The rolling steel gate behind them stands more than 100 feet tall and 30 feet wide and weighs about 3,500 metric tons. e looking for our next adventure.”

Robertson with his wife, Renee (left), and daughters Rylee and Raegan, at the Cocoli locks before flooding. The rolling steel gate behind them stands more than 100 feet tall and 30 feet wide and weighs about 3,500 metric tons. e looking for our next adventure.”

Robertson went to work for CH2M Hill (now Jacobs), where he’s been ever since. In one of his first assignments, he conducted an on-site geotechnical stability analysis at a Southern California Superfund landfill to determine its susceptibility to earthquakes. For protection, he donned a protective suit and self-contained breathing apparatus. “When I took my gear off at the end of each day, I had to pour the sweat out of my boots,” he said.

The first of many international assignments came in 1989, fulfilling Robertson’s dream of living overseas. “Greg’s stories about his adventures in Guatemala as an exchange student were a huge driver for wanting to experience the wider world,” said Robertson, who has spent 24 years of his 35-year career abroad.

In Egypt, he built Alexandria’s first wastewater treatment plant and installed an extensive water supply system in Cairo. After returning to the U.S. in 1996, he met his wife during a two-day whitewater rafting trip on the Deschutes River. “I told Renee I was probably going to work overseas again, but I’m not sure she knew what she was getting into,” Robertson said.

In 1998, they set out for Israel, where Robertson was appointed deputy manager of a $400 million port expansion. Their daughter, Rylee, was born near Tel Aviv in 1999. The family returned to Corvallis the following year and celebrated the arrival in 2001 of their second daughter, Raegan, who now attends Oregon State.

Next up for the alliterative family was Sri Lanka in 2005, where Robertson played a major role in rebuilding infrastructure that was damaged or destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The 16 geographically scattered projects included bridges, roads, and harbors; a new water treatment and distribution system for 40,000 people who never had running water before; and nine vocational schools — all on a budget of only $52 million.

“The engineering wasn’t the hardest part, it was satisfying so many stakeholders: fishing communities, the entity that controls the harbors, tourism officials, other government bodies, and USAID, which controlled the funding,” he said. “We couldn’t just go in and build things, we had to listen carefully to everyone’s concerns, make adjustments, and solve problems holistically. It was one of the biggest challenges of my career.”

After a stint in the United Arab Emirates, it was on to Panama in 2010 for Robertson’s largest and longest assignment: the $5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion project, for which he would eventually serve as program manager. The work included the addition of two new locks, one each on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, which can accommodate the world’s largest cargo ships. Existing channels were widened and deepened. Because of the new configuration, the canal’s capacity doubled. The scale of the project is mind-boggling: More than 5 million cubic meters of concrete were poured to form the locks. During peak construction, that meant 1,000 concrete trucks delivered their loads every day.

“It all worked out because I was surrounded by very talented people, and success always comes down to teamwork,” said Robertson. “I’ve relied on that principle for every project I’ve worked on. And I’ve also been very lucky that my family has been so supportive and tolerant. Without them, I could not have devoted so much energy to my work.”

The new locks opened in June 2016, but Robertson has stayed on to support post-construction activities. He hopes to return to Oregon in time for a Beavers football game this fall. “I really miss that scene,” he said. “After that, I guess we’ll be looking for our next adventure.”

Dec. 6, 2022

Bryson Robertson

Bryson Robertson

Associate Professor / Director, Pacific Marine Energy Center
Civil and Construction Engineering

Room 338
Owen Hall
Corvallis, OR 97331
United States

Ph.D., University of Guelph, Canada, 2013
MASc, Queens University, Canada, 2009
BEng, University of Victoria, Canada, 2005

Dr. Robertson's research and teaching interests include the wave mechanics, hydrodynamics of floating bodies and mooring systems, and renewable energy. Working with partners in industry and the US National Laboratories, he focusses on wave, tidal and offshore wind energy resource characteristics; the co-design and modelling of hydrodynamically active offshore wind and wave renewable technologies; and numerically integrating marine power within the emerging Blue Economy. His research utilizes field measurements, hydrodynamic multi-body numerical models, and physical prototype build/test. Prior to coming to OSU, he spent five years working at the University of Victoria and consulting for marine energy companies. In complimentary research, Dr. Robertson also looks at the future of our global energy systems; the nexus of technology, climate change, policy, economics and society on the decarbonization of electrical systems; and the public trust requirements to transition power system. His research has been funded by the DOE, Navy, the State of Oregon and National Science and Engineering Council of Canada.

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