May 2000

News about Science, Technology and Engineering at Iowa State University

Virtual reality grows up
Virtual reality is about to make a major technological step forward. The opening of C6, a total immersion virtual reality theater at Iowa State University, will be held on June 19. C6 will provide researchers with an advanced way to interact with complex data and simulations, says Carolina Cruz-Neira, Litton assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State and associate director of ISU's Virtual Reality Applications Center.

In C6, researchers will be able to walk inside buildings that no longer exist, get close-up views of severe weather phenomena like tornadoes and inspect the interior of operating industrial furnaces to make them more efficient. A number of technological advances will boost the capabilities of C6. For example, C6 will have images on all six of its sides (four walls, ceiling and floor). The tether lines for gloves and headsets, common in many virtual reality rooms today, will be gone, replaced by wireless systems. In addition, the latest computers and graphics will provide crisp, bright and realistic images that respond to human interaction.

"C6 will open new venues for research on the applications of virtual reality to science and engineering challenges," says Cruz-Neira.

A preview of C6 for the media is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on June 19. The formal unveiling will be held at 7 p.m. C6's unveiling is being held in accordance with the IPT 2000 conference, a leading international conference on virtual reality and immersion technologies. For more information contact Cruz-Neira, (515) 294-3092, or Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917.

Extreme measures
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory are learning more about the properties of complex materials by observing how they behave under temperature, pressure and magnetic field extremes. What they learn may help determine the suitability of these materials for uses in computers, communications, medicine and the automotive industry.

"If you want to analyze and understand the behavior of a new material, ideally you would like to know as much as possible about how it reacts under these extremes," says Robert Modler, an Ames Laboratory associate scientist and Iowa State assistant professor of physics and astronomy. Modler designed and built Ames Lab's new extreme environments facility with the help of ISU graduate student Andrew Thomas. The facility houses a low-temperature refrigerator, a high-pressure cell and a high-field superconducting solenoid to create the severe conditions required to get a "good look" at the materials under investigation.

The new facility can achieve temperatures as low as 0.05 K (-273 C), and allows Modler to further alter the environment of a material by applying pressures of up to 20,000 atmospheres (294,000 psi), approximately equal to the weight of a Toyota Camry on the tip of a medium-sized Phillips-head screwdriver. In addition, the high magnetic fields, up to three times that of the Earth's, completes the environment for studying such complex materials as quasicrystals, semi-metals and new magnetic superconductors.

"While a large number of researchers use one or two of these parameters to investigate materials, only a few really put low temperature, high pressure and high magnetic fields together in one facility," says Modler. "There are probably only five comparable facilities in the world." For more information, contact Modler, (515) 294-6353, or Saren Johnston, Ames Lab Public Affairs, (515) 294-3474.

Hot stove league
The quest for fire has taken Kenneth "Mark" Bryden, an Iowa State University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, from a Buddhist monastery in Oregon to a barrio in Nicaragua. But he's not after just any fire. Bryden is an expert on stoves.

In Third World countries, wood stoves play a critical role in everyday life. They provide heat and are used to boil water and cook meals. Yet they are also notoriously inefficient and sometimes dangerous. Bryden's specialty is analyzing stoves to create mathematical models of how well they work. He then suggests improvements.

"If you look at the number of people who use stoves to meet daily energy needs, you're talking about 2 billion to 3 billion people," Bryden said. Many Third World stoves are 20 percent efficient, Bryden said. Through tests in the field and at his lab, Bryden is trying to bring that efficiency up to 30 percent or more.

Last September, Bryden traveled to Cottage Grove, Oregon, to conduct research at the Aprovecho Research Center. Staff at Aprovecho study and teach elements of eco-centered lifestyles, and one of the group’s missions is to improve life in the Third World. While at Aprovecho, Bryden analyzed stoves collected by the group, spending his nights in a nearby monastery.

Back at his biomass laboratory at Iowa State, Bryden studied stoves ranging from configurations of tin cans to one made out of clay and donkey dung. Then, in March, Bryden and his 16-year-old son, Ben, traveled to Nicaragua in conjunction with Aprovecho. There, they lived in a barrio, Bryden studying stoves and his son serving as translator.

"About 83 percent of Nicaraguans in urban areas use wood for energy, and the number is 97 percent in rural areas, so wood is a very important commodity," said Bryden. "Any increase in efficiency will not only save money but also reduce pollution and ill-effects on health." Bryden and Aprovecho hope to obtain funding to manufacture and distribute fuel-efficient stoves in Nicaragua and elsewhere. For more information, contact Bryden, (515) 294-3891, or Eric Dieterle, Engineering Communications, (515) 294-0260.

Midwestern crime labs could benefit from ISU research
Scientists at Iowa State University's Institute for Physical Research and Technology (IPRT) are investigating equipment and new techniques to help crime labs assess evidence more quickly and reliably. Scientists at IPRT centers have collaborated with the FBI Laboratories, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation to develop new methods of analyzing crime-scene evidence. In addition, IPRT representatives are meeting with Midwestern crime-lab officials with the goal of establishing a regional forensics support and research facility at ISU.

Shelley Coldiron, one of three IPRT researchers spearheading the regional facility, said the proposed forensics center would benefit from the multidisciplinary expertise within IPRT and ISU. Two IPRT centers -- the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory and the Microanalytical Instrumentation Center -- already are involved in the work.

In addition to developing new equipment and techniques, Coldiron said the proposed forensics center would provide hands-on training for students. By the time the students graduate from ISU, they would possess highly prized laboratory and investigation skills, she said. For more information, contact Coldiron, (515) 294-4902, or Susan Dieterle, IPRT Public Affairs, (515) 294-1405.

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