Geochemical processes go high-tech in 3-D, interactive project

University Park, Pa. — They occur constantly, are largely invisible but affect everything from energy supplies and soil erosion to water pollution.

Now the Center for Environmental Kinetics Analysis (CEKA) at Penn State has made visible many of those fundamental geochemical processes through a 3-D, interactive educational “movie.” The project, called “Slices of Time,” allows viewers to “see” examples of geochemical processes that occur at 14 different time scales from years and hours to seconds and even smaller.

With a running time of 13 minutes, “Slices of Time” shows how coal beds form over millions of years through the complex interplay between water and land as sea levels rise and recede. Another segment depicts how a small plume of toxic pollution can grow and expand into an area of several football fields in a matter of years.

“This has potential for helping the general public understand the processes going on in the environment and is clearly a very creative way to communicate science,” said Katharine Covert, program director at the National Science Foundation, who was at the project’s recent premiere. “Helping our citizens understand science is vitally important because of the unprecedented challenges facing the Earth system.”

Creation of a visual representation of the Earth’s geochemical cycles was a key outreach initiative in the proposal that CEKA researchers put together when seeking funding from NSF. The goal was to produce a teaching tool that could be a permanent part of the GeoWall in the EMS Museum and that also could be used in schools and museums around the state, said Susan Brantley, CEKA director and co-PI.

“We wanted something that would be immersive, interactive, educational and fun,” said Brantley, who also directs the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI) and is a distinguished professor of geosciences. “And we wanted something that could convey the immense complexity of time scales that operate at the Earth’s surface.”

It was up to Chuck Anderson, visualization and outreach specialist with the center, to make it happen. That took about three years and involved technical help from the University’s GEaRS (Graduate Education and Research Services) Visualization Group as well as from more than a dozen CEKA faculty and graduate students.

Students played a big role. Tim Fischer and Andy Wall, graduate students in geosciences, co-wrote the script with Wall also serving as narrator. And a CEKA-supported undergraduate got in the act: Andy Greenwood, who was on campus in summer 2005 as part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, wrote the music.

Deciding to use time steps was perhaps the easiest part, Anderson said.

“Then we had to figure out how to do that and learn the software that would allow us to do what we wanted,” Anderson said. “The technical challenges were significant — in one segment, for instance, we had to find a way to show in minutes the chemical processes that result in the formation of river valleys that take millions of years.”

At the other end of the time scale, the group had to slow down electron movement measured in attoseconds — or quintillionths of a single second. For comparison, in the time it took to read this sentence, billions and billions of attoseconds have passed.

One of the advantages of creating this interactive computer application is flexibility. Because the audio is separate from the video, making a Spanish or other language version is simplified, Anderson said.

Likewise, any of the 14 time slices can be updated to reflect new data or expanded to fit the needs of individual instructors or museums. Even new time periods can be added fairly easily. One possibility: Including milliseconds, for instance.

“We designed ‘Slices of Time’ to be useful for teachers — to supplement lesson plans or enhance curriculum,” said Anderson, who envisions another project, “Time Scales of Climate Change.”

NSF’s Covert was so impressed with the project and its potential for communicating complex science a special showing at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., was scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 2.

“This shows one of the advantages of funding a center,” Covert said. “Centers can tackle the large projects that an individual can’t do.”

The Center for Environmental Kinetics Analysis, a joint project of NSF, the U.S. Department of Energy and Penn State, is engaged in interdisciplinary research on the biogeochemical reactions and feedbacks in environmental systems. Understanding geochemical kinetics is fundamental to improving soil fertility, disposing of nuclear waste and containing contaminants in water and soil. Almost three dozen Penn State faculty members and graduate students from departments including geosciences, civil and environmental engineering and crop science are involved in CEKA. The Penn State Institute of Energy and the Environment (PSIEE) also has provided support to the center.

Watch the segment about coal bed formation, which occurs over millions of years, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZS2Klye00A.

The segment about pollution expansion, covering a span of years, can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeXHytEogAw.
 

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Last Updated November 18, 2010