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Cool Images, Big Potential: Startup Uses Lasers to Create 3D Imagery

16 Oct

A laser that creates a three-dimensional picture of a bee’s head may sound like an experiment being conducted in Dr. Evil’s super-secret volcano base, but this technology is blossoming right here at Penn State — and it has real-world applications for research in agriculture and horticulture.

The head of a yellow jacket

The head of a yellow jacket

At a recent talk at the Millennium Science Complex, Benjamin Hall, an undergraduate student in energy engineering working part-time in the laser lab of the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State, discussed the technique — and showed images and videos that rival most Hollywood special effects. By placing an object, such as a plant root, on a moveable platform that passes under a laser, researchers can vaporize the sample section by section. The technique creates a series of surface images, which Hall then processes with a software program to create three-dimensional interior and exterior — and unbelievably cool — images of the sample.

Besides the cool effect, Hall said the imagery has real value. Researchers will be able to use the enhanced, high-contrast images to examine slight differences in samples. The process works faster, and is less labor intensive and possibly less expensive than current solutions on the market.

The root system of a Maize plant.

The root system of a Maize plant.

In a release sent out by Penn State’s Materials Research Institute, Hall said:

“This is a tomography technique, and there are others out there.  But x-ray tomography basically works by mapping the density of a substance, which is great unless the specimen has different materials of similar density. That can make it hard to differentiate structures, so it can be difficult to quantify measurements. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) we’re not even competing with. Those machines are so big and complex, and so expensive to operate compared to our system.”

Penn State has applied for a patent on the process. Meanwhile, Hall and his business partner Brian Reinhardt, a former Penn State graduate student, have created a startup, Lasers for Innovative Solutions (L4IS), to help companies, particularly agribusinesses, with high throughput phenotyping of their new products.

This is also a great example of a total team effort in preparing Penn State technology for market.

From the release:

“Included on the patent are Hall and his Penn State advisers, Jonathan Lynch and Ted Reutzel. Hall is currently working with Lynch on a paper describing their method. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania provided funding and business assistance to start the company, and the Ben Franklin TechCelerator @ State College provided valuable entrepreneurial training.”

Check out this technology in action with some of the videos at the L4IS Youtube site.


A Science Communications Challenge

26 Jul
Winner of the ten-hundred and one word challenge.

Winner of the ten-hundred and one word challenge.

Here’s your challenge: create a poster about highly technical research. So far, so good. You can use images, photos, or cartoons, but — here comes the kicker — you can only use 1,000 of the most common English words.

Speaking as a guy who has to write about science and research and is typically up to my elbows in research papers, I do not accept this challenge! But, luckily, there are Penn Staters who are much more creative and courageous than I am.

A Penn State group from the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation not only took this challenge, they won it. They beat out 45 other Energy Frontier Research Centers. The contest was inspired by a cartoon in the popular XKCD cartoon that uses the most common English words to describe the blueprints of NASA’s Saturn V rocket, or an Up Goer 5. It’s pretty funny. Check it out.

If you have a second, you can read some of there other winners at the challenge website, too.

Daniel Cosgrove, who leads the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, said that the contest emphasizes the importance of science and research communications and was a good exercise for the group. The center is investigating the use of plant material as a possible source of sustainable energy and communicating their goals to the general audience is necessary.

Science is a knowledge system. It’s how we find out things. But knowledge that isn’t disseminated — or should I just say, “spread” — isn’t really knowledge at all, it’s only data. Information may not be free, as anyone who has paid a cable television bill knows, but it definitely wants to be shared.

Using common language to explain complex subjects is difficult, but the payoff is tremendous. The more we learn, the bigger our knowledge net becomes and the farther we can cast it for even greater discoveries.

I’m glad other people at Penn State are committed to sharing the wealth of knowledge that this University produces.

I know you are all dying to know. About 78 percent of the words I used in this post are from the list of  1,000 most common English words. I used this web calculator to figure it out. Hey, C+! That appears to be slightly better than the normal deviation. I mean, it’s a little better than average.

Not the Heat but the Humidity

12 Jul
Cloudy sky

Cloudy sky over Penn State University Park campus. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Today it is overcast, but not raining.  At least not yet.  It’s Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts time, and in my experience it is either blisteringly hot or we experience torrential downpours during this week in summer, but the weather forecast for the weekend looks good.

Not so the past three weeks.  We’ve been hit with rain nearly every day.  One day it hailed.  The ground is saturated and people who have never had water in their basements do now.  On some days I’ve been soaked from head to foot up to three times.  And it hasn’t been just the rain.  Even when it is not raining the temperatures have been on the high side for State College and the humidity has been very high, sometimes in the 80 and 90 percent range without rain.  It’s not unusual to start down a road only to find it closed due to temporary flooding.

July is usually one of our rainiest months, but this year has been unusual.  The normal range of jokes is circulating.  Checking for webbing between ones feet and mold just about everywhere.  But clothes dry; unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, humans don’t melt in the rain; and better weather is on the way.  No harm no foul, right?

Two students with backpacks from the back with umbrellas walking together in the rain

Two students walk in the rain on the University Park campus of Penn State. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Not true. Certainly farmers are complaining because they can’t get into their fields and home owners have soggy lawns to mow with weeds that grow a mile a minute.  However, other aspects of the humid, hot weather are not always considered.

I was interviewing a researcher the other day about a materials formation process.  A method that will make perfectly spherical micron sized balls.  During the interview I asked lots of questions about the material, its uses and production.  We were just about finished with the interview when the researcher said, “Well, you know, with this weather, my graduate students have not been able to produce any material in the past two weeks.”

Even in a brand new, fully air-conditioned building, the systems could not keep up with the humidity.  This particular method needs dry air in order to produce the uniformly sized spheres.  During this past rainy period, the humidity was just too high to produce them.  Inside, in a laboratory, the weather was retarding the progress of  research.

This certainly isn’t the only research being done on campus suffering from the extremely high moisture content in our air.  A vast majority of things won’t dry in this humidity, even inside.  Some chemical reactions are affected.  Anything that is supposed to be anhydrous — without water — is going to have too much moisture and anything that is hydroscopic — water loving or water attracting — is also going to have too much moisture.

However, not only is science and technology research impaired by the humidity, but other areas of scholarship also suffered.  Paint won’t dry, ceramics retain water and paper becomes damp and unusable.  Baking a cake or doing anything with sugar or honey becomes difficult because sugar and honey are hydroscopic and draw more moisture into the food than required.  So, at least some food science research must be put on hold.

Two to three weeks does not seem like a very long time, but if you are a graduate student trying to finish research to defend your dissertation by a certain date, those three weeks could mean the difference between graduating in August or graduating in December.

Besides, while everyone is uncomfortable in the weather we have just had, the researchers suffering from too much moisture in the air have the additional inconvenience of not being able to do what they do best — move the frontier of science and technology just that much further along.

Lights Out III: Student Update on Exercise

3 Apr

Penn State researchers work closely with students. The Lights Out game scenario is one example of this interaction between researchers and students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology. Here’s the idea: What would you do if you were a community leader and your town was knocked off the grid? This is the third edition in a series of student-written posts about their participation in this capstone course. In the future, we’ll feature more posts from the students as they progress through the Lights Out scenario. To learn more, check out some background information about the course in this post.


As far as sandwiches go, this one was pretty bad.

I sat on a rock by the side of the road.  I was only about a half-mile from town, but didn’t feel like answering any questions from passersby while I lunched on a beef jerky, mustard, and celery sandwich.  It was what I’d had in the fridge when this whole thing started.  This damned power outage.

It’s been two days since everything died.  On the whole, I couldn’t complain about the response from the town.  We had good leadership who could make difficult decisions quickly.  They first set up support for the elderly and people in the hospital.  That course of action alone saved a lot of lives.  They also began to immediately try to get a head-count of everyone in town.  The town Police and the Fire Company were keeping track of any reports of missing people and organizing searches.  As for myself, I was a messenger.

Messengers were among the first groups to be set up.  The Municipal Manager wanted to establish the extent of the power outage, and to see how the Amish and people in different parts of the village were reacting.  Messengers were given bicycles and sent to different parts of town to deliver messages and to take messages from one part of town to the other.  A good idea, I thought.  It wasn’t as good as a phone, but it at least gave people some form of communication.

As I sat eating, I was distinctly aware of the weight of the .38 in my pocket.  When I was younger, it was important to me that I got a pistol and conceal-carry permit.  Upon settling down in McCracken it didn’t matter as much.  The crime rate in a village such as McCracken was next to nothing.  Now, though, I was glad to have it.  Rumor was that shortly after the power went out there were scared citizens trying to force their way into the gun shop.  In a time of crisis, it isn’t evil people that we must fear most.  It’s the scared ones that’ll kill you.

I finished my sandwich and stood.  My bicycle, a 21-speed Diamondback, was leaning against a nearby tree.  I had a few messages for the town leaders from the Amish community.  That had been my assignment that morning: to deliver and collect messages from the Amish.  They didn’t seem to have too much to say regarding the power outage.  Not to me, at least.  I got on the bike and pedaled toward town.  They wanted me to be back before 1:00.  They’d have another task for me then.

I delivered my notes to the Sheriff.  At the moment, the Municipal Manager and Town Leadership Committee were behind closed doors discussing courses of action.  Word was they’d soon open volunteer positions for local leadership positions regarding things like providing shelter and rationing.  When the positions opened, I’d try to get one.  For now, though, I’ll stick with my job as a messenger.

After making my delivery, I rode to the firehouse.  The Fire Chief had just returned from a search for a local kindergartener.  The boy had gotten lost south of the school. “How’d it go, Chief?” I asked.  We hadn’t been close friends before this crisis, but he ran the messengers as part of his duties and seemed to trust me with some of the more important tasks.  The first message collection trip he’d given me had been to the hospital.

“He’s with his family now.  Found him in a tree.  We gave him some crackers and got him home fine.  You finish that Amish run?”

I nodded.  “All letters were delivered to the Sheriff.”

The Chief grunted approvingly.  “I said I’d have another run for you when you got back, but Ben got back from WECO Fairgrounds early so I sent him instead.  The Amish run is a long one, anyway.  There are no more runs for you today.  Head home if you want.  That’d be helpful, actually.  I want someone I trust to be in your part of town.  We had to handle a grassfire at a house two doors away from you earlier, and some of your neighbors got a bit worked up about it.  They might benefit from a visit from you.”

I shrugged.  “I’ll go home then.  You’ll know where to find me.  I’ll come by tomorrow morning for another run.”

“I’ll be here,” he said.

As I rode home I kept glancing up at the sky.  I didn’t mention it to anyone yet, but I haven’t seen either a plane or contrails in the sky for two days.  It had been sunny and clear ever since the power outage, but there was no evidence of aircraft.  The planes at our local airport wouldn’t start, just like nobody’s vehicle worked.  Surely, though, the power couldn’t be out everywhere.  That was unthinkable.

It has been a week since the lights went out, I’m still not entirely sure what happened or when they’re going to come back on. I’ve been trying to balance taking care of my family with increasing demands as a result of the power outage, but this is proving to be very challenging. My kids spent the first night stuck at the school, thankfully their teachers and principal kept them occupied and looked after everyone. The morning after and the next day a couple of community members were able to bring a bunch of the kids into town from the school in horse drawn wagons. Thankfully, my kids were in one of these wagons and are now home with their father.

As if the lights going out weren’t enough of a problem, we the community leaders, have also had to deal with a number of reports of safety and security problems around town. The first night reports kept coming in that several of the industrial facilities were at critical levels and might explode. Thankfully, technicians were able to deal with these problems, and things seem to be stable for now. We’ve also had to deal with reports that groups of people have been wondering through town looting abandoned cars. I’m not really sure what we should do. We don’t have the manpower right now to stop this.

Given the multitude of problems facing Longview, the Mayor tasked me and the four other community leaders with developing an action plan. We needed to figure out what’s most critical and how to address it. The major wanted to know who our most at risk people are and what were going to do to help them. He also wanted us to start thinking about what the community needs to survive since the power doesn’t seem like its going to come back on soon.

We spent most of the past few days trying to track down old reports and maps of Longview to complete this plan, but the real help has been volunteers coming into the office with reports about what’s going on. We all soon realized that information was the most valuable thing right now. We talked about ways of sharing information with the community and decided that putting information out was the best way to relieve some of the fear people are experiencing. We’ve had volunteers go around town and let everyone know to check the Tavern’s for information as we plan on either posting information or having someone keep everyone informed.

We’ve still got a lot of problems to address. Most of the kids are back, but we need to get them to their parents, many of which are out of town. Our large elderly population in the community and residing at the elderly care facility is also concern. Without power those that require substantial medical care are not going to get help. Thankfully, families have been visiting and attempting to take care of their relatives, but we still have a large number of elderly with not relations. We need to find a way to help as many as we’re able.

Food and supplies seem to be okay at the moment, but all the community leaders agree, this is going to be significant problem very soon. A lot of us thought the power was going to come back on in a day or so, but ‘this event’ is proving to be bigger and more widespread than we expected. We’ve came up with an action list for the Mayor but now it’s up to him to decide what we do next. I’m glad that my family is at home and safe for the moment, but I’m starting to get really worried about what’s going to come next.

Smithville Blog

“It’s been nearly a week since the lights went out. In the first 24 hours people were in denial, some even looked at the “event” as we’re come to call it as a break from the monotony of everyday life. Lots of folks went to bars to party, others pulled out their grills and had impromptu BBQs inviting people off the street (many times they were the strangers who had wondered in from the road). It was one big party in downtown Smithville. The reverie lasted about two days before people began to realize this was not just a transient thing; that things would get much worse before they got better.

For me and a small group of planners, we didn’t even have two days…as members of the Mayor’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Task Force we were given our marching orders. The mayor told us to get our own houses in order then come back to work to address the city’s issues. A few members of the EOC never made it home that first night. Without transportation, if you lived outside town, you simply had no way of getting there. I was more fortunate and for me it was only may cat that I had to worry about. I jogged the three mile home to my apartment and knowing I might not be back for several days, turned kitty loose. She was a barn cat to begin with; I knew she would survive.

I didn’t stay long in my apartment. I grabbed a few personal items, packed some clothes and packed as many water bottles as I could carry, then turned around and headed back toward city hall. I decide to walk back, taking a circuitous route through a maze of stalled vehicles. I wanted to survey the streets all while contemplating the list of issues we were going to face. With everything I had on my mind, I just couldn’t help thinking, “What are these people going to do, when the party stops…”

I was not the first person back. Those who never left (either they had no one to go home to or no way of getting there) were already at work. The Mayor left us with a set of things to address, but the first we needed to do was to get organized by: defining the chain of command, devising a communication plan and assigning roles within the team (so to not duplicate effort).

And then the real work began. We were told to “take stock” – of the big things first and the most critical; saving lives first; then preservation of assets, and only then look toward recovery. We were to approach this as a crisis.

To begin with, we knew we had folks out there in a bad way, some would not make it through the night let alone a week. We needed to identify those in most need. BUT we also needed to triage our problems. Some could not be saved – the critically ill, non-ambulatory and those dependent on medical devices to live. There are many others, however that could and should be saved, the very young, especially those whose parents were caught out of town.

Someone found a paper copy (rare but true) of a SWOT Analysis that was conducted on Weaver County in 2024. This turned out to be a good framework to view our situation. We started to look at our situation from four points of view:  Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Risk.

We’ve been at it now for several days and we still have a LOT of work to do to figure out how to deal with this crisis. But we are making small strides. For my part, I was tasked with dealing with the young and very old. I gathered volunteers to survey the hospitals, elderly care facilities and all of the schools and all of the day care centers in town. Getting kids home or cared for was priority number one for me…dealing with folks on the other end of the continuum was second.

We had better luck with the kids than we did the elderly and sick. We lost some 200 folks in the first two days alone (probably more). By day two, critical care staffs were few and far between. Many of the dead were simply left in place, Since then we have established up a mortuary service (actually several location have been established since transportation continues to be an issue).

The partying has not stopped for some folks and lawlessness is becoming more of an issue as folks run out of essentials. The first flash mobs emerged at dawn on day three. I think everyone had the same idea – get to the supermarket, gas station, food bank, convenient store or any other place than held significant food and water. The partyers went for the booze and several shooting incidents at downtown bars resulted. Families are being preyed upon and several incidents of robbery have been reported. We are just seeing the opening salvo…the Mayor has already started a new checklist of things to address. Law and Order at the top of that list.

In the meantime, we are continuing our SWOT analysis and will brief the Mayor in the morning…no one will sleep tonight.”

Lights Out II: More Students Blog About Situation

14 Mar

What would you do if you were a community leader and your town was knocked off the grid? This is the focus of an IST Security and Risk Analysis Capstone course. This is the second edition in a series of student-written posts about their participation in this capstone course. In the future, we’ll feature more posts from the students as they progress through the Lights Out scenario. You can read the other student blog post, or check out some background information about the course in this post.

Here’s the situation:

The country has received a direct hit of a solar event called a coronal mass ejection. It’s bad news. There are three communities — Smithville, McCracken, and Longview — that the students are attempting to lead back into the 21st century in this Analytic Decision Game.


Day 1:
The power went out in McCracken.  At first I thought it was just my block, but I found that it was the entire town.  The weird thing though is this: nothing works.  My phone was at half battery, but it appears dead now.  My laptop was charging in my bedroom when the power cut out.  It’s dead, too.  I even dug up two two-way radios from the mess on the floor of my closet. Dead.
I was one of the last of the neighborhood to go outside.  Everyone who was home was out talking with the neighbors.  Their power was out, too.  Many were clutching their cell phones, holding them higher as if a slight change in altitude would yield some sign of life.  My own phone stayed in my pocket.
Will, from next door, opened the door to his van.  He would take a group to the town hall and see what was going on.  That mission was quickly abandoned.  The van wouldn’t start.  I went to my own Audi and tried the key.  Nothing.  I popped the hood and looked at the engine.  Nothing seemed out-of-place, but I’ll be the first to admit I know nothing about engines.
All along the street people were checking their cars.  Wendy was the first to cry.  Her car, a Subaru, had been bought a week prior.  Once we determined the cars wouldn’t start we began to migrate towards town hall.  I was among the first to leave, but soon there was a fairly large procession of confused and upset citizens.
We picked up several people on our way.  The offices and shops had emptied out.  Some farmers were beginning to trickle in from their fields.  There was already quite a crowd around town hall. I tried to push my way to the front, but ended up squeezed between the local librarian and another man I didn’t know.
After a short while, the Municipal Manager came out and stood on a stack of pallets and held his arms up for silence.
“Ladies and gentlemen, settle down,” he shouted.  “The power in town has gone out, but we’re working to get it back on and we can continue our workday soon.”  This comment blatantly ignored the fact any battery-operated devices were out as well, but he pressed on anyway.
“We’re working now to ensure the safety of those in the hospital and the retirement home.  If you all could please disperse.  Go to a neighbor’s house and wait there.  We’ll let you know if there are any changes.  What we need right now are level heads, clear streets, and willing volunteers.”
I didn’t care to hear the rest.  I turned away and pushed back through the crowd.  Matt would be around here somewhere, and he kept a few cold ones in his basement for when he had company.  I’d find him and wait this out.
As for the rest of the crowd, they were shouting about various things- mostly about their cars.  They were demanding answers that the Municipal Manager clearly didn’t have.  Others were leaving as well, seeing the same futility of asking questions that I saw.  The fire chief was off to one side of the crowd, standing next to a bike rack.  He was talking to a circle of people.  They were all looking down at a single sheet of paper.  I guessed it was some sort of crudely-drawn map of McCracken.  They’d probably send cyclists out to see what was going on all across town and if anyone knew anything.
Let them do whatever they want to.  I’ll wait this out.  A power outage was nothing new, even if all electronics were out.  A sun flare or solar storm, perhaps?  I hadn’t heard anyone mention “terrorism” or “war” yet.  Nobody wanted to consider either of those possibilities.
As I moved down the street I shrugged to myself.  If this was a terrorist attack or a first-strike of the next war, I’d better get some rest.  Soon, things would get worse.

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