machine shop

posted March 6, 2019

Decades-old facility builds instruments that set the stage for Earth science research

Behind a chain-link fence, in a cluster of corrugated metal buildings, sits the CEOAS Machine and Technical Development Facility (CMTDF). Constructed by faculty in the late 60s, the facility still bears the hallmarks of its rustic beginnings: A faded tan façade, a crosshatch of pipes, slapdash walls. Rusted buoys are scattered around the building like beached whales alongside a row of shipping containers. And yet, it’s here that arguably the most innovative work occurs in support of the Earth sciences at Oregon State.

Pull back the curtain, and the CMTDF shines. Facility employees serve as science stage-hands, rigging and devising near-magic systems in service of a dazzling show. They imagine scientific instruments that operate at the top of a mountain or bottom of the ocean. They dream up levers, pullies and other mechanical marvels to transport and affix instruments to a ship, then to drop and retrieve them at just the right moment.

If you ask Ben Russell, manager of the CMTDF, what his facility does, you’ll get a tidy answer: “We provide prototype development and support for scientific equipment and device deployment.”

Russell’s colleague, Jay Simpkins, who ran the shop before Russell and has been with CEOAS since 1977, offers a grittier depiction. “Our specialty really is, a PI (principal investigator) can come in with something scribbled on the back of a Beanery napkin, and we can turn it into a reality,” he says.

However you describe it, the work is a little of everything, an alloy of art, engineering and material science, carried out by a team of MacGyvers. Russell, Simpkins and the shop’s newest recruit, Tige Kurth, make a stunning array of creations — pressure cases, heat flow probes, custom tripods, whale tag components, lab fixtures, coring equipment and carrying cases that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and keep instruments protected during transport. Projects range from larger-than- life buoys packed with instruments, to tiny sensor caps with intricate threading.

This variety means never-ending challenges: How do you plant an instrument in the energetic surf zone? How do you secure an ocean profiler on a ship and make sure it doesn’t roll off (until you want it to)? How do you anticipate pressure, wear, corrosion, ice and the hundred other variables that could interfere with measuring and understanding the environment?

Fortunately, Russell has some clever tools to help him anticipate points of failure. His team uses the software SolidWorks to model a design in 3D, allowing them to discover what Jay Simpkins calls “gotchas,” or flaws that could spell disaster.

Once an instrument is ready for prototyping, employees take great care to select the right material. Some plastics, for example, are surprisingly durable and inherently corrosion proof. But plastics have limited impact resistance and strength, making them unsuitable for pressure cases at full ocean depth. Exotic metals like titanium and stainless steel are strong, durable and resistant to corrosion but are expensive and difficult to machine. Aluminum is lightweight and relatively cheap but subject to corrosion under some circumstances. Even stainless steel can succumb to crevice corrosion in low-oxygen conditions.


Russell holding a thermistor tube
end plug that he machined.

The range of projects brought to the shop’s gurus is incredible. In one project, the CMTDF worked with nearshore ocean scientist Greg Wilson to build a robust housing for a multi-frequency Doppler profiler, or MFDop for short. Similar to how a Doppler radar uses radio energy to record the scattering off rain drops and measure precipitation in the atmosphere, the MFDop uses sound waves to measure ocean sediment particles.

“You could almost look at the MFDop as a turbulence microscope. We’re looking at little areas of the ocean that are literally the size of a milk cap. What this instrument allows us to do is see how many particles are being stirred up in the water,” Wilson says.

Observing that fine-scale movement will give Wilson an understanding of how entire shorelines are created and maintained. Wilson says that there are only a few such instruments in the world. “I was basically able to come to Ben with a ‘kid sketch’ of my concept, and he came back to me with something they can build efficiently,” he says.

Faculty Research Assistant June Marion approached the CMTDF to devise a cooling system for her autonomous kayak used to measure glacier melt. Because it is dangerous to get close to calving glaciers to study them, the remote-controlled kayak enables her and lead scientist Jonathan Nash to observe how local tide water dynamics affect glacial melt rates and stability, which could contribute to sea-level rise or impact local marine life. When the kayak engine was overheating, Russell developed a snorkel exhaust system to keep the engine cool.

Russell has future plans to enhance the CMTDF to include a full-service electronics shop and expanded machining, fabrication and testing capabilities. “I want to make a world-class research support facility, right here. And so far, I think we’ve come a long way toward accomplishing that,” he says.

Until then, CMTDF creations continue to go out into the world and observe our planet, serving as sentinels for science.

When the data come back, scientists scurry to publish scholarly papers. Careers are made. Promotions are granted. Awards and accolades pour in. And throughout it all, this top-notch support facility carries on backstage.

The CMTDF facility may not get the standing ovation, but the show could not go on without it.

The SuperSucker

Machined by Jay Simpkins for chemical oceanographer Burke Hales, the SuperSucker may be the only CEOAS instrument with a moniker inspired by a cowpunk rock band. “When I was playing their music in the shared lab in the ship, it really struck a chord, or three chords, really,” Hales says. The name is also fitting because the towed instrument sucks seawater up to a shipboard lab, where Hales can measure ocean chemistry in near real-time. In particular, he measures CO2 cycling and its effect on ocean acidification.

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