22 April 2015
CLEO Media Relations
Two New Technologies Bring a Science Laboratory to the Ocean Floor, Transforming Ocean Exploration
Researchers exploring an undersea volcano in the Caribbean created a new sensor to gather chemical data with unprecedented capabilities — and shared the experience in real-time with remote colleagues
A group of researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Harvard University, and the Ocean Exploration Trust recently put two new technologies to the test while exploring an undersea volcano in the Caribbean.
The first technology -- a deep-sea stable isotope analyzer -- could help scientists determine the origin and ultimate fate of compounds like methane and carbon dioxide in the ocean by quantifying the abundances of different carbon isotopes. (Isotopes of the same element have the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons. The ratio of isotopes in a chemical sample can help determine its origin.) The new knowledge could ultimately improve climate science.
The second technology -- a suite of cameras, satellites, and data links -- allowed remote researchers to have a "telepresence" on board the research ship in the Caribbean.
At CLEO:2015, held May 10-15 in San Jose, Calif., the group will describe how they were able to adapt laser-based spectrometers for in situ deep-sea use as chemical sensors, as well as how the use of telepresence technologies allowed team members working remotely to participate with an enhanced “like being there” collaborative experience.
Few in situ oceanographic chemical sensors exist for deep-sea science and exploration. But by adapting technology developed by Los Gatos Research for atmospheric science, Scott Wankel, currently an assistant scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, along with colleagues at Harvard University, was able to create the first known deep-sea stable isotope analyzer in operation.
Laser-based spectrometers were originally developed for use primarily in atmospheric environments. These sensors typically operate in the infrared region and target gases of key importance for atmospheric science.
“Infrared laser-based sensors require gas samples for analyses,” explains Anna Michel, an oceanographic engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Adapting this technology to deep sea use requires using a membrane inlet to bring the dissolved gas species into the sensor.”
Wankel and Peter Girguis, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University Biological Laboratories, previously demonstrated the use of their laser-based sensor for deep-sea measurements of carbon isotopes of methane. In 2014, Wankel and Michel further enhanced the sensor to measure carbon isotopes of carbon dioxide.
This was accomplished by adding a seawater acidification module and a second laser to target carbon dioxide. While they were at it, the researchers also improved the sensor’s capability to measure the carbon isotopes of methane and carbon dioxide in bubbles while underwater.
To put the sensor’s new capabilities to the test, in 2014, the group deployed the laser spectrometer at an undersea volcano known as “Kick ‘Em Jenny,” off the Island of Grenada, through funding from NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. This work was made possible thanks to the use of Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus and her associated remotely operated vehicles, owned and operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust (www.oceanexplorationtrust.org).
“We were able to measure both fluids and bubbles emanating from the volcano,” says Michel. “This was also the first time we simultaneously measured carbon isotopes of both methane and carbon dioxide with the sensor.”
Ocean science can “greatly benefit from highly sensitive, high-precision chemical sensors,” notes Michel. “We’re bringing the laboratory to the ocean floor for in situ analysis. The ability to measure isotopes in situ is critical for biogeochemical studies because we can ‘fingerprint’ sources and sinks of important compounds like methane and carbon dioxide.”
In the future, “laser-based spectrometers can be used for measuring other ocean-relevant species in situ,” she adds. “We also look forward to sensors that can be deployed for long-term studies.”
The other key aspect of this project involved exploring the use of telepresence technologies and human-robotic interactions for ocean science—funded through the National Science Foundation.
While Wankel worked aboard the ship, Michel and Girguis participated remotely, stationed at the University of Rhode Island’s Inner Space Center. Telepresence technologies enabled them to watch all of the explorations in real-time, interact directly with Wankel, and make joint scientific decisions.
The group is next set to deploy the laser spectrometer at a brine pool site within the Gulf of Mexico from aboard the E/V Nautilus in May. “During this cruise, we’ll investigate the carbon biogeochemistry of the brine pool,” says Michel. The public, scientists, educators, and students can watch the real-time action via www.nautiluslive.org, a 24-hour portal that will bring Nautilus expeditions from the field to future explorers on shore via telepresence technology.
The researchers are also working on the development of a new in situ oceanographic laser spectrometer that will use a quantum cascade laser as its source. Beyond this, they’re adapting and developing laser-based systems to help advance ocean science in environments ranging from the Arctic to coastal communities to the deep sea.