Harmful aldehydes found in treated wastewater can be transformed to carboxylic acids by using the existing oxygen found in water and platinum as a catalyst to speed up the reaction. Note: the reaction scheme shown appears not to be balanced. The illustration is used to simplify the presentation of the multiple reactions occurring and which are balanced. (Image: Daniel MCcurry)

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering (formerly the USC School of Engineering) is the engineering school of the University of Southern California. The school is among the nation’s highest in volume of research activity. Its research centers have played a major role in development of multiple technologies, including early development of the internet.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering is comprised of eight academic departments including Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering: Astronautical Engineering; Biomedical Engineering; Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science; Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Computer Science; Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering; Information Science Institute (ISI); and Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT).

It also offers five specialized graduate programs. These include Financial Engineering Program; Green Technologies Program; Informatics Program; Progressive Degree Program; and Systems Architecture and Engineering Program.

Research and Innovation

One of the legged robots measuring regolith strength in white sands. (Image: Feifei Qian/USC Viterbi)

There are several research centers at the school, where faculty and students extend the frontiers of engineering knowledge through their research as well as apply engineering and technology to address societal challenges.

For example, at the artificial intelligence (AI) for Social Good center, faculty work on numerous areas within the field of AI, with an over-arching theme of AI for Social Good. Many groups and centers are studying AI for health, energy, sustainability, and privacy and security, and developing novel machine learning, machine vision, robotics, and natural language understanding methods.

Airbus Institute for Engineering Research (AIER), made up of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Korea Aerospace University (KAU) and Inha University in Incheon, as well as global corporations Airbus and Korean Air, has embarked on three collaborative aerospace research projects that could benefit commercial aviation worldwide.

The Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) is an interdisciplinary in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, with participation from faculty and students specializing in aerospace engineering, computer science, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, and material science. CAM features latest computer-controlled machining, polymer processing, and additive manufacturing capabilities.

The Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center (RASC) is an interdisciplinary organized research unit in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering that focuses on the science and technology of effective, robust, human-centric, and scalable robotic systems, with broad and far-reaching applications. RASC projects span the areas of health, service, humanoid, distributed, haptics, and space robotics, as well as robot vision and learning, and impact a broad spectrum of applications, including health and wellness, assistance, training and rehabilitation, education, environmental monitoring, emergency response, homeland security, and entertainment.

The Space Engineering Research Center (SERC) is dedicated to disruptive space engineering, research and education for the second-generation workforce including hands-on build, test and flight demonstrations of spacecraft and satellites.

Technology Breakthroughs

Robots have long assisted scientists in space exploration. However, today’s rovers have generally had wheels that could get stuck in planets’ terrain, sometimes causing them to abort important exploration missions. Feifei Qian, a WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, is leading a $3-million research project funded by NASA to create legged robots that could more easily glide through icy surfaces, crusted sand, and other difficult-to-navigate environments.

The overarching goal of this project is to understand how to integrate robotics technology with both planetary science and cognitive science, to improve robot-aided exploration of planetary environments. Essentially, this project aims to create next-generation high-mobility robots and rovers that can easily move through planetary surfaces and flexibly support human scientists’ exploration goals.

The Zavaleta lab in USC Viterbi’s department of Biomedical Engineering is harnessing nanoparticles in 26 different shades. The image shows how a Raman laser imaging technique can illuminate these particles to show the detailed molecular properties of cancer tissue samples. (Image: Yekaterina Kadyshevskaya)

Qian’s research project, Legged Autonomous Surface Science in Analogue Environments (LASSIE), seeks to make it possible for robots to simultaneously move more effectively in various environments while gathering information about them. By understanding how human scientists interpret this information and adapt their exploration plans, roboticists and cognitive scientists on the LASSIE team will together create intelligent robots. The NASA project will fund Qian and her team to test these legged robots at locations such as Mount Hood, Oregon, and White Sands, New Mexico, which mimic the terrains of planets such as Mars and the Moon.

Another research team at USC Viterbi has identified a new treatment for harmful aldehydes in wastewater. As wastewater treatment for potable reuse becomes a more viable and popular option to address water shortages, it’s important to address harmful byproducts that might form in treatment. One group of these chemicals, aldehydes, are known to stubbornly persist through treatment.

USC Viterbi researchers introduced platinum to help clean even the most stubborn toxins from wastewater. Platinum, the same metal used in catalytic converters to clean up air pollutants in car exhaust, can serve as a catalyst, said Dan McCurry, Assistant Professor in civil and environmental engineering, speeding up oxidation to transform once-toxic aldehydes into harmless carboxylic acids.

The team did a preliminary experiment using platinum in batch reactors on a few gallons of water. The experiments were successful, but McCurry said for this to catch on at a mass production level, additional research would need to be done regarding how long the catalyst remains active. The process, for which the team has a patent pending, will look to be more sustainable than alternative methods which might require introduction of additional chemicals and energy, McCurry said.

Researchers in USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering have developed a new molecular imaging method that could change the game for detection and treatment of cancers and other diseases. They have developed a molecular imaging method harnessing nanoparticles with cores made from gold, that can illuminate 26 unique biomarkers — features that show the precise behavior of cells.

The research team, led by WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor Cristina Zavaleta has been able to localize and unmix 26 unique nanoparticles, or what they call “flavors,” from one imaging pixel, which has applications for diagnosis of cancers, as well as neurological disorders, viral infections, and even non-medical applications in areas such as agriculture.

The research aims to provide information that can aid precision medicine and personalized treatments such as targeted therapies and immunotherapy, including treatments like CAR T-cell therapy, which harnesses and repro-grams a patient’s immune system to effectively and directly target the unique features of cancer cells.

Two 16 × 16 cell patterns after deformation. Top row is nonauxetic (contracts when pulled) and hyperbolic or wave-like. Bottom row is auxetic (expands when pulled) and elliptic. (Image: Paul plucinsky)

USC researchers have also created new models to predict how new metamaterials behave, opening the door for applications in soft robotics and space. A cross-disciplinary team of researchers at USC, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Stony Brook University derived a new mathematical equation for categorizing the behavior of Kirigami-inspired materials to better predict how they will move when pushed or pulled.

According to USC Assistant Professor Paul Plucinsky, “The geometry of these materials is tuned somewhat arbitrarily. So we need rules about how you might choose the architectures that you’re going to fabricate.

Once you have those rules, you also need to be able to model the system so you make some reasonable prediction of how it will deform when pushed or pulled.”

When a material is cut, it produces “cells” or contained spaces that repeat in a pattern, Plucinsky said. In the case of Kiri-gami materials, these cells can be categorized to behave in one of two ways: wavelike or decaying along elliptical arcs and this depends only on whether the pattern compresses or expands perpendicular to the pulling direction.

A mathematical equation governs the geometric behavior of things like water flow, Plucinsky said, but for solids like these, it is harder to derive. A partial differential equation (PDE) is what Plucinsky and his team were able to develop and set forth as the first piece of a bigger puzzle required to make Kirigami materials practically applicable.

Technology Transfer

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering has multiple technology transfer centers for commercialization. For more information visit here .