OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New equipment increases capability of fiber optic environmental monitoring

09/29/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has just acquired a new fiber optic instrument for remote sensing of temperature – one of just five of its type in the world – which is 15 times faster than previous systems and will boost development of a technology that is revolutionizing environmental monitoring.

“The growth potential of this field is simply huge,” said John Selker, a professor in the Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering at OSU and leading developer of this emerging science.

“I have never seen a technology that has generated more deep insight and excitement in such a short time,” Selker said. “We just got the best tool ever made to better understand our environment, and we’re still learning new ways to use it. This provides thousands of times more data than we used to have. It’s like we have 20-400 vision and just got our first pair of glasses.”

Every second, the new system can make up to 40,000 measurements of temperature along every 10 inches or so of fiber optic cable that is six miles long – accurate to within a tiny fraction of a degree. The ability to monitor such enormous amounts of data is now being studied for many uses, among them the ability to literally “see” air in real time as it moves past a fiber optic curtain.

Applications of the technology, which OSU took from the oil industry and pioneered into applications in environmental monitoring, are exploding. Researchers say it provides new ways to study streams, lakes, glaciers, snowpacks, mines, soil moisture, aquifers and other areas.

The newest system was acquired with support from the National Science Foundation Division of Earth Sciences and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, establishing the Center for Transformative Environmental Monitoring Programs that OSU operates in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno. This and a host of similar instruments are available to researchers across the nation.

It’s now being used in Eastern Oregon to study stream temperatures on the John Day River in salmon restoration projects. With a precise understanding of temperatures, it should be possible to predict the best time to divert stream water for farmland irrigation without causing harm to fish.

The data on temperature can also be used as an indicator for moisture, opening enormous potential in crop agriculture for precise irrigation and optimal water use. Some groups from the arid Middle East have expressed significant interest in such applications.

The expansion of the technology into new commercial and environmental fields offers the potential for significant job growth, experts say.

“This could also really change the way we do some of our climate and atmospheric modeling,” Selker said. “A lot of our existing models work on the assumption that air is being very well mixed, but that really isn’t true. The atmosphere exists in various layers and varying temperatures, moving in ways that are not fully understood. The ability to better measure those temperatures and movements could be important.”

Dozens of scientists have contacted OSU for more information on the technology, and the university has helped sponsor six workshops that brought hundreds of researchers together with instrument makers, and resulted in development of the new instrument and many other advancements. One drew participants from five countries and 12 states to study applications in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River, Ore.

Research is continuing on new ways to interpret the data it can provide and improve the systems.

“This technology will soon be 10 to 100 times more powerful than it is today, opening even more revealing windows on the world around us,” Selker said.