From “The Chronicle” At Cornell University: “Students design robot to collect microplastics from beaches” 

From “The Chronicle”


Cornell University

Linda Copman

When Angela Loh ’23 was 10 years old, she and her family moved to Shanghai from Michigan. She was immediately struck by how much more pollution she saw in Shanghai.

“When I stepped outside my home, the skies were grey and I could smell the stench of PM2.5 particles hanging in the air. I would walk on certain local streets and see litter everywhere,” she says. She noticed that most residents seemed complacent. “Nobody seemed to care.”

But Loh did care, deeply, about environmental sustainability.

As a freshman, Loh and Alan Hsiao ’21 founded Cornell Nexus, a group of students from diverse colleges and majors who are designing and building an autonomous robot that will remove microplastics from the sand on beaches. The team hopes to have a working land-based prototype built by spring 2023, when they will turn their attention to creating a submersible robot that will remove microplastics from sea water.

“We are a team of individuals who want to step outside the boundaries of university competitions to make a difference on our planet,” Loh says.

Angela Loh ’23 wires a component of the autonomous robot prototype. Provided.

Microplastics, tiny bits of plastic the size of a sesame seed or smaller, are proliferating and pose a significant risk to ecosystems and to human and animal health. “There are 50 trillion pieces of microplastics embedded in our sand, our marine life, our oceans and even in our drinking water,” Loh says. A recent survey of the sea floor in the Mediterranean west of Italy found 1.9 million microplastics in one square meter. “This is just one layer of sand in a single square meter of the Mediterranean,” she says. “Imagine how much microplastic has accumulated in all of our bodies, our water and our land.”

Beach cleaning operations focus on removing the waste we can see, such as plastic water bottles and trash, often using gas-powered tractors that bury microplastics beneath the top layer of sand. In contrast, the Cornell Nexus robot will use renewable solar energy to collect and remove microplastic waste. “We believe that Nexus’ focus on autonomy and microplastics will revolutionize the technology for waste removal from beaches and bodies of water,” Loh says.
Planting the seed

Loh recalls making hand-drawn posters promoting recycling and distributing them to her neighbors when she was in elementary school. Moving to Shanghai – a city she loves – was a wake-up call. “I realized what big issues plastics, and pollution and waste in general, are on our planet,” she says, “and I really wanted to do something about them.”

In the summer after graduating from high school, Loh read a biography of Elon Musk and the founding of Tesla. “Reading this allowed me to realize the boundless possibilities there are in the field of engineering,” she says. Loh spent the next few months binge-reading biographies about inventors, entrepreneurs and engineers, from Steve Jobs to Leonardo da Vinci and Nike founder Phil Knight. She realized that engineering would be her springboard for creating change.

After perusing the College of Engineering website, Loh switched her major from environmental science to electrical and computer engineering and computer science. “Reading about the engineering project teams before I arrived at Cornell planted a seed in my brain that maybe one day it wouldn’t be impossible to start my own,” Loh says.

Alan Hsiao was a junior and one of the first people Loh met as a freshman at Cornell. “When we first started Nexus, I didn’t know anything – not even basic knowledge about programming or wiring circuit boards – let alone building an entire vehicle that was going to traverse beaches and charge itself,” Loh says. “Alan would spend hours and hours mentoring me and teaching me concepts that I hadn’t even heard of. … Through his kindness, wisdom and compassion, he has definitely left his impact on me, our Nexus team, the Cornell campus and our planet.”

Unleashing creativity, with help from alumni

Nexus team members are now building a prototype with a multilayered filtering system to catch a range of different sizes of microplastics. When full, the robot will return to its docking station to offload the collected plastics and recharge.

“Creating our robot requires knowledge about concepts and implementation mechanisms that are usually taught in graduate-level courses,” Loh says. Team members conduct their own in-depth research and seek out faculty who can guide their work. Joseph Skovira, Ph.D. ’90, senior lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the group’s faculty adviser, is helping them refine their product.Greg Whelan ’83 of Greywale Advisors and part of the McCarthy’s Venture Mentoring Network has been helping them navigate business outreach and fundraising.

Alan Hsiao ’21 solders a component of the autonomous robot prototype. Provided.

To ensure they have funding to purchase specialized hardware and software components, Nexus members have been developing relationships with companies that might sponsor the project once they have a prototype. In spring 2021, Nexus won first prize in the Cornell Engineering Innovation Competition. The Yunni and Maxine Pao Social Innovation Award, funded by Carolyn Wang ’00 and Jeff Pao ’00, allowed them to buy better wheels, a more robust material for the robot’s frame, filtration nets and more accurate sensors.
Doing the greatest good

Nexus is testing and refining their prototype in the 2022-2023 academic year, using a sand bed to test the robot’s moving, digging and filtering mechanisms. Then they will place their robot at several beaches, including some recommended by alumni from the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration.

This rendering illustrates what the Cornell Nexus robot will look like when completed. Provided.

Once the land-based robot is completed, the team hopes to launch their robot into the water, where the vast majority of microplastics are. “Our vision is to expand our technology to address the heart of the microplastics problem, which is underwater,” Loh says. “Very few commercial robots are tackling this issue, on a macro and micro scale.”

There are multiple design possibilities for a seafaring robot, including a water-based recharging and waste removal station, which could be more efficient than returning the robot to land.

The Nexus team plans to make their design freely available to the public. “This includes all of our software code, mechanical CAD files, electrical circuit board designs, and so forth,” Loh says. “Our goal is to make an impact and do our part to save our planet.”

See the full article here .

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Once called “the first American university” by educational historian Frederick Rudolph, Cornell University represents a distinctive mix of eminent scholarship and democratic ideals. Adding practical subjects to the classics and admitting qualified students regardless of nationality, race, social circumstance, gender, or religion was quite a departure when Cornell was founded in 1865.

Today’s Cornell reflects this heritage of egalitarian excellence. It is home to the nation’s first colleges devoted to hotel administration, industrial and labor relations, and veterinary medicine. Both a private university and the land-grant institution of New York State, Cornell University is the most educationally diverse member of the Ivy League.

On the Ithaca campus alone nearly 20,000 students representing every state and 120 countries choose from among 4,000 courses in 11 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. Many undergraduates participate in a wide range of interdisciplinary programs, play meaningful roles in original research, and study in Cornell programs in Washington, New York City, and the world over.

Cornell University is a private, statutory, Ivy League and land-grant research university in Ithaca, New York. Founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, the university was intended to teach and make contributions in all fields of knowledge—from the classics to the sciences, and from the theoretical to the applied. These ideals, unconventional for the time, are captured in Cornell’s founding principle, a popular 1868 quotation from founder Ezra Cornell: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

The university is broadly organized into seven undergraduate colleges and seven graduate divisions at its main Ithaca campus, with each college and division defining its specific admission standards and academic programs in near autonomy. The university also administers two satellite medical campuses, one in New York City and one in Education City, Qatar, and Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute in New York City, a graduate program that incorporates technology, business, and creative thinking. The program moved from Google’s Chelsea Building in New York City to its permanent campus on Roosevelt Island in September 2017.

Cornell is one of the few private land grant universities in the United States. Of its seven undergraduate colleges, three are state-supported statutory or contract colleges through the SUNY – The State University of New York system, including its Agricultural and Human Ecology colleges as well as its Industrial Labor Relations school. Of Cornell’s graduate schools, only the veterinary college is state-supported. As a land grant college, Cornell operates a cooperative extension outreach program in every county of New York and receives annual funding from the State of New York for certain educational missions. The Cornell University Ithaca Campus comprises 745 acres, but is much larger when the Cornell Botanic Gardens (more than 4,300 acres) and the numerous university-owned lands in New York City are considered.

Alumni and affiliates of Cornell have reached many notable and influential positions in politics, media, and science. As of January 2021, 61 Nobel laureates, four Turing Award winners and one Fields Medalist have been affiliated with Cornell. Cornell counts more than 250,000 living alumni, and its former and present faculty and alumni include 34 Marshall Scholars, 33 Rhodes Scholars, 29 Truman Scholars, 7 Gates Scholars, 55 Olympic Medalists, 10 current Fortune 500 CEOs, and 35 billionaire alumni. Since its founding, Cornell has been a co-educational, non-sectarian institution where admission has not been restricted by religion or race. The student body consists of more than 15,000 undergraduate and 9,000 graduate students from all 50 American states and 119 countries.


Cornell University was founded on April 27, 1865; the New York State (NYS) Senate authorized the university as the state’s land grant institution. Senator Ezra Cornell offered his farm in Ithaca, New York, as a site and $500,000 of his personal fortune as an initial endowment. Fellow senator and educator Andrew Dickson White agreed to be the first president. During the next three years, White oversaw the construction of the first two buildings and traveled to attract students and faculty. The university was inaugurated on October 7, 1868, and 412 men were enrolled the next day.

Cornell developed as a technologically innovative institution, applying its research to its own campus and to outreach efforts. For example, in 1883 it was one of the first university campuses to use electricity from a water-powered dynamo to light the grounds. Since 1894, Cornell has included colleges that are state funded and fulfill statutory requirements; it has also administered research and extension activities that have been jointly funded by state and federal matching programs.

Cornell has had active alumni since its earliest classes. It was one of the first universities to include alumni-elected representatives on its Board of Trustees. Cornell was also among the Ivies that had heightened student activism during the 1960s related to cultural issues; civil rights; and opposition to the Vietnam War, with protests and occupations resulting in the resignation of Cornell’s president and the restructuring of university governance. Today the university has more than 4,000 courses. Cornell is also known for the Residential Club Fire of 1967, a fire in the Residential Club building that killed eight students and one professor.

Since 2000, Cornell has been expanding its international programs. In 2004, the university opened the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. It has partnerships with institutions in India, Singapore, and the People’s Republic of China. Former president Jeffrey S. Lehman described the university, with its high international profile, a “transnational university”. On March 9, 2004, Cornell and Stanford University laid the cornerstone for a new ‘Bridging the Rift Center’ to be built and jointly operated for education on the Israel–Jordan border.


Cornell, a research university, is ranked fourth in the world in producing the largest number of graduates who go on to pursue PhDs in engineering or the natural sciences at American institutions, and fifth in the world in producing graduates who pursue PhDs at American institutions in any field. Research is a central element of the university’s mission; in 2009 Cornell spent $671 million on science and engineering research and development, the 16th highest in the United States. Cornell is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”.

For the 2016–17 fiscal year, the university spent $984.5 million on research. Federal sources constitute the largest source of research funding, with total federal investment of $438.2 million. The agencies contributing the largest share of that investment are The Department of Health and Human Services and the National Science Foundation, accounting for 49.6% and 24.4% of all federal investment, respectively. Cornell was on the top-ten list of U.S. universities receiving the most patents in 2003, and was one of the nation’s top five institutions in forming start-up companies. In 2004–05, Cornell received 200 invention disclosures; filed 203 U.S. patent applications; completed 77 commercial license agreements; and distributed royalties of more than $4.1 million to Cornell units and inventors.

Since 1962, Cornell has been involved in unmanned missions to Mars. In the 21st century, Cornell had a hand in the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. Cornell’s Steve Squyres, Principal Investigator for the Athena Science Payload, led the selection of the landing zones and requested data collection features for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. NASA-JPL/Caltech engineers took those requests and designed the rovers to meet them. The rovers, both of which have operated long past their original life expectancies, are responsible for the discoveries that were awarded 2004 Breakthrough of the Year honors by Science. Control of the Mars rovers has shifted between National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s JPL-Caltech and Cornell’s Space Sciences Building.

Further, Cornell researchers discovered the rings around the planet Uranus, and Cornell built and operated the telescope at Arecibo Observatory located in Arecibo, Puerto Rico until 2011, when they transferred the operations to SRI International, the Universities Space Research Association and the Metropolitan University of Puerto Rico [Universidad Metropolitana de Puerto Rico].

The Automotive Crash Injury Research Project was begun in 1952. It pioneered the use of crash testing, originally using corpses rather than dummies. The project discovered that improved door locks; energy-absorbing steering wheels; padded dashboards; and seat belts could prevent an extraordinary percentage of injuries.

In the early 1980s, Cornell deployed the first IBM 3090-400VF and coupled two IBM 3090-600E systems to investigate coarse-grained parallel computing. In 1984, the National Science Foundation began work on establishing five new supercomputer centers, including the Cornell Center for Advanced Computing, to provide high-speed computing resources for research within the United States. As a National Science Foundation center, Cornell deployed the first IBM Scalable Parallel supercomputer.

In the 1990s, Cornell developed scheduling software and deployed the first supercomputer built by Dell. Most recently, Cornell deployed Red Cloud, one of the first cloud computing services designed specifically for research. Today, the center is a partner on the National Science Foundation XSEDE-Extreme Science Engineering Discovery Environment supercomputing program, providing coordination for XSEDE architecture and design, systems reliability testing, and online training using the Cornell Virtual Workshop learning platform.

Cornell scientists have researched the fundamental particles of nature for more than 70 years. Cornell physicists, such as Hans Bethe, contributed not only to the foundations of nuclear physics but also participated in the Manhattan Project. In the 1930s, Cornell built the second cyclotron in the United States. In the 1950s, Cornell physicists became the first to study synchrotron radiation.

During the 1990s, the Cornell Electron Storage Ring, located beneath Alumni Field, was the world’s highest-luminosity electron-positron collider. After building the synchrotron at Cornell, Robert R. Wilson took a leave of absence to become the founding director of DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which involved designing and building the largest accelerator in the United States.

Cornell’s accelerator and high-energy physics groups are involved in the design of the proposed ILC-International Linear Collider(JP) and plan to participate in its construction and operation. The International Linear Collider(JP), to be completed in the late 2010s, will complement the CERN Large Hadron Collider(CH) and shed light on questions such as the identity of dark matter and the existence of extra dimensions.

As part of its research work, Cornell has established several research collaborations with universities around the globe. For example, a partnership with the University of Sussex(UK) (including the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex) allows research and teaching collaboration between the two institutions.