Scientist creates waves in water research

Oregon scientist creates waves in water research

Austin company SensorTran joins in with stream research

By Kirk Ladendorf
Saturday, March 15, 2008

For a scientist like John Selker at Oregon State University, finding a new way to take precise measurements in the natural world opens up a new level of understanding — and a shift in the way some earth science is conducted.

Selker, who teaches ecological engineering, created some waves in the world of water research in late 2006 when he and his research collaborators deployed a technology that used fiber-optic cable as a tool for making thousands of continuous temperature measurements in streams. The first work was done in Europe while Selker was on sabbatical in Switzerland. He continued the work when he returned to Oregon.

Now, Austin company SensorTran Inc. has reached out to Selker and become a collaborator.

Selker's publication on his new method of stream research set off a flurry of similar plans by other researchers for their studies of streams, lakes, glaciers, mines, snow and even irrigated farmland.

The Austin company developed its temperature-sensing technology to be used to monitor oil wells, oil pipelines and electric power transmission lines.

It's based on the fact that small changes in temperature alter the communications capabilities of optical fiber. With a lot of signal-processing know-how, a person can test for temperature changes over many miles of fiber-optic cable. It's pretty geeky stuff, but it works, delivering measurements that are accurate to 1/100th of a degree centigrade.

Selker took that advanced measurement technology and started putting down fiber in streams.

What he got was a wave of accurate, water temperature data that can cover as much as several miles of a stream's length. From that new data, he could build better computer model's of various streams.

And with that more detailed understanding, he expects to be able to predict the best time to divert stream water for farmland irrigation without causing serious harm to fish.

"In science, you don't often run into something that fundamentally changes your ability to measure things," Selker said. "When an entire (research) community found it could get 10,000 times more data, it turned into a fundamentally different playing field."

About 100 other researchers in the field have called Selker in the past year seeking advice on how to use the measurement technology.

"We can't say exactly what the impact will be, but there is a lot of excitement," he said.

At a time of concern over possible climate change, Selker said in-depth data of a stream, a glacier or a lake system can come in handy.

For SensorTran, supporting natural science research is a compelling way to show off the usefulness of its systems while learning how to make them better.

Chief executive Kent Kalar said that his company already has developed lower-power systems that will be useful to field scientists and that it is working with Selker to make systems that take more measurements faster and at a lower cost.

"We learn a lot from them," Kalar said. "There are techniques that they have investigated that we are applying in our work in down-hole oil and gas exploration," Kalar said.

SensorTran, which employs about 30 people, spun off in 2006 from Austin's Systems & Processes Engineering Corp., which developed a new temperature sensing technology for NASA in the 1990s.

It has raised $13.5 million in venture capital investment since the spinoff. The first commercial applications have been developed for the oil and gas industry and for enabling electric power transmission and distribution lines to operate more efficiently.

The company, which claims to deliver more accurate, high-performance systems than its competitors, had more than $2 million in sales last year and shipped its systems — which cost $20,000 and up — all over the world.

Kalar expects the company's sales will triple this year.

"This company is going to continue to grow rapidly," he said.; 445-3622