Within the Department of Energy complex of national laboratories, the Geosciences Measurement Facility (GMF) at Berkeley Lab is distinguished by its ability to build, test, and deploy customized instrumentation and innovative data acquisition and telemetry solutions, which are enabling scientists to address some of the most critical Earth, energy and environmental challenges that we face.
GMF crews often deploy with field instruments designed and built at the Berkeley Lab facility to harsh environments and remote locations for weeks at a time, acquiring data, ensuring quality control and adapting instrumentation to meet specific research needs driven by scientific questions. Michelle Robertson, Geosciences Measurement Facility director, explains, “Summer is usually a very busy field season for our GMF team and for our scientific research partners.”
In fact, by month’s end the core team of engineers and technologists at GMF – made up of Paul Cook, Todd Wood, Alex Morales, and Ed Nichols – will have traveled more than 25,000 miles for fieldwork this summer alone, to destinations as near as Lost Hills, California, and as far as Narita, Japan. Robertson says that the unique facility contributes to about 65 percent of all Earth and Environmental Sciences Area (EESA) research projects.
GMF engineers and technicians work side-by-side with scientists using a design-to-deploy strategy. “GMF staff usually start with the researcher’s concept idea or rough drawing,” Robertson says. “We work closely with the scientists all the way through to set-up in the lab or to installation in the field, and sometimes continue on to lead the acquisition and initial data analysis aspects of a project.”
The GMF design team is often called upon to develop a solution when an off-the-shelf tool, laboratory set up or power/telemetry set-up doesn’t exist or is not optimal for the science question at hand. The design-to-deploy strategy has underpinned a number of important scientific discoveries, and has also led to an impressive number of patents and technology awards, including R&D 100 Awards.
On August 6th, GMF staff hosted Berkeley Lab Director Mike Witherell, Deputy Lab Director Horst Simon and COO Michael Brandt for a special tour of GMF that included previews of a number of custom solutions used to address key scientific questions across all compartments of our Earth system, including the deep subsurface, oceans, ecosystems, watersheds and atmospheric systems.
They previewed developing subsurface seismic sensors, oceanographic instruments; drones; networked flux towers that measure water, carbon and energy across the Americas; and fabricated root imaging laboratory set-ups that are currently in development or in the process of being made ready for deployment in laboratories and field sites across the planet. During the tour, Witherell, Simon and Brandt got an insider’s look at the GMF’s High-Bay, prototyping machine shop, electronics and fabrication labs, and sensor incubation areas where GMF engineers and technologists work side-by-side with PIs to design and build tools and instrumentation before they are ready for deployment.
The summer deployment season has become increasingly exciting as scientists recognize that the telemetry of laboratory and field experiments and real-time analysis of associated streaming data offers significant potential for improving our understanding of complex natural system phenomena across relevant nano-to-kilometer scales. This spring Senior Instrumentation Design Engineer Cook worked onsite alongside EESA scientist Yves Guglielmi to ready the one-of-a-kind Step-Rate Injection Method for Fracture In-Situ Properties (SIMFIP) tool for summer deployment nearly a mile underground at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), an enhanced geothermal research site in South Dakota.
Mechanical Engineering Technologist Morales is currently busy working with EESA scientist Yuxin Wu’s research group to finalize their instrumented laboratory set-up for a next-generation root imaging and phenotyping project related to the EcoSense effort. Senior Electronics and Software Engineer Wood is currently partnering with EESA researcher Pierpaolo Marchesini to upgrade and develop the CASSM wireline deployment system for subsurface imaging at Lost Hills, California. And while Systems Design Engineer Nichols is designing and developing a new electromagnetic transmitter with researcher Mike Wilt, GMF director Robertson is collaborating with EESA scientists on a plan for deploying new optical interferometry sensors deep within sedimentary rock to monitor CO2.
Known for taking an innovative approach to atmospheric and terrestrial monitoring, GMF staff work with research partners to design and deploy a variety of networked measurement systems across key terrestrial testbeds: some of these instruments have just been deployed by researchers in Alaska for the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE), in Colorado for the Watershed Function project, and across various sites across the continent for the Ameriflux project. Many are designed to operate year-round, sending data back to Berkeley Lab via automated telemetry for real-time analysis.
Come September when GMF’s 45th summer field season winds down, the team will turn to new laboratory, field and data designs and to preparing for next summer’s deployments. Their work developing custom solutions for Earth and environmental science discovery represents a singular capability in the national laboratory complex and is a hallmark of Berkeley Lab’s multidisciplinary team science that has enabled numerous scientific discoveries since the Lab’s founding.