Student Awarded EPA Fellowship to Develop Sensors to Prevent Oil Spill Disasters

Kevin Chen wants to prevent future environmental disasters caused by oil spills, and thanks to the EPA, the Polytechnic Institute of New York University sophomore is one step closer. Chen is one of just 40 undergraduate students nationwide selected to receive the EPA's prestigious Greater Research Opportunity Fellowship, which provides stipend and tuition funding for students' junior and senior years of study as well as a paid summer internship at an EPA facility.

Chen's fellowship will allow him to continue his research on fiber optic sensors that have the potential to provide data critical to detecting dangerous conditions within an oil rig.

Working under the tutelage of Associate Professor Nikhil Gupta in NYU-Poly's Composite Materials and Mechanics Laboratory, Chen is conducting research on intensity-modulated optical fiber-loop sensors, a type of sensor that offers numerous benefits over traditional electrical sensors used in rigs.

Chen's experiments aim to show how fiber optic sensors, which can be calibrated to monitor vibration, temperature and pressure, may be used to prevent oil spills and blowouts. By deploying these sensors along the length of oil pipes, Chen proposes to test their ability to monitor structural health and flow rates within the pipelines — metrics that could provide an early alert in the event of potentially dangerous changes. And because only laser light will enter the pipeline and conduct the sensing, optic sensors would eliminate the possibility of electrical spark.

"Kevin has been working on the concept of these fiber-optic sensors since his freshman year, and the EPA fellowship will provide him with a great opportunity to develop and deploy these sensors in the field," Gupta said.

"Kevin is focusing on a critical engineering and environmental challenge: preventing future disasters in the energy industry," said NYU-Poly Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department Head George Vradis. "We expect that his experiments will yield valuable insights both for his fellow students and collaborators here at NYU-Poly, as well as for the field at large."

Despite its relatively small size — fewer than 300 undergraduate students and just 66 graduate students—NYU-Poly's Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department is home to several students whose work earned them national recognition. Last month, doctoral candidate Dustyn Roberts became the second student in the department to be awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellowship. In 2010, Vladislav Kopman was chosen for that award. This year, doctoral student Ronald Poveda was awarded an honorable mention for the same prestigious fellowship.

Chen, from Brooklyn, New York, is a mechanical engineering major pursuing joint bachelor's and master's degrees. His previous research projects include experiments to develop a technique that uses circularly polarized light to enhance biomedical imaging and remote sensing.