Sunday, November 22, 2009
By Emma Gallegos, Staff Writer
Whittier Daily News
Posted: 11/22/2009 06:02:20 AM PST
PASADENA - Researchers at Caltech who study earthquakes want to enlist Southern Californians with cell phones or computers to help them measure strong jolts in the region.
A couple of years ago, the researchers noticed that accelerators - small devices that measure motion - were becoming common, and now they're practically a standard part of Macintosh laptops and touch-screen cell phones.
That's when it clicked that the accelerometers might help them with their research.
"Lightbulbs went on in people's heads - there's seismometers all over the place," said Tom Heaton, director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at Caltech.
This summer the group of professors and students received a grant from the National Science Foundation to create a program that could use the data from thousands - if not millions - of accelerometers to give seismic experts a better picture of earthquakes and the faults that cause them.
Right now there are about 200 high-quality seismic stations throughout Southern California. There's one at the U.S. Geological Survey on the Caltech campus, but the next one is in Glendale.
That doesn't cut it for researchers, who would like to be able to get a block-by-block portrait of what happens when an earthquake strikes but can't afford to pay the $15,000 it costs to pay for and maintain these seismic stations.
"Instead of a small number of high-quality instruments, we'd rather (have) a
larger number of lesser-quality instruments, trading quality for quantity," said Robert Clayton, a Caltech professor in the seismological lab.
The accelerometers could not only help measure quakes block by block but also floor by floor, said civil engineering Professor Monica Kohler. She's interested in the way the data could help civil engineers understand how buildings move and sway when a quake hits.
There are a couple buildings that have seismometers installed, but they tend to be costly and intrusive, she said.
"It's become obvious that this is a very easy way to start putting sensors and getting building motions up potentially every floor of a high-rise building," Kohler said.
The accelerometers aren't as sensitive as pricey seismic stations, but industry demands have brought the costs of some down to $50 to $100.
The researchers already have a working model that transforms the same technology that deploys air bags in cars and makes the Nintendo Wii remote possible to measure strong quakes.
The test accelerometers aren't much larger than a quarter, and they can attach to laptops via a USB port. When you bang on the table where these laptops are sitting, a red spot appears on a Google map showing the "epicenter" of the quake centered on the Caltech campus.
Of course, once thousands or millions of these devices are hooked up to a ShakeOut map, researchers say that this everyday jostling and knocking on a table won't register as an earthquake.
It's the simultaneous motion of these accelerometers that will signal that an earthquake has occurred. The group is working to make sure that this information moves quickly - transmitted via a wireless signal and then out of the system where it will be safe.
"What we'd like to do is to be able to take the earliest motions and get the information out of the region as fast as possible," Clayton said.
He calls this the "Indiana Jones effect." After the first wave of a major earthquake, the infrastructure of the city and electrical systems will begin to fail in a wave. That information needs to be able to move ahead of the first wave of the earthquake, like Indiana Jones in the "Temple of Doom."
The group is planning to slowly release distribute the devices to the community, beginning in 2010, Clayton said.
Caltech community members will be the first to test the accelerometers. By spring, the group plans to release the accelerometers into the local school system, tapping into science teachers, who could use them as teaching tools. Next summer, the group will distribute them to other school systems in Los Angeles and to fire stations.
And if all goes well on this project in Southern California, Clayton said that the research could be applied to other earthquake-prone areas - especially developing countries that suffer from strong earthquakes but have a weak system for sensing them. It would be as simple as distributing the sensors to local Internet cafes.
"If you could put one of these in every Internet cafe, you'd have an instant seismic network," Clayton said.