Check out this great article in Scientific American by Larry Greenemeier, illustrating Willowstick’s AquaTrack technology and how it’s changing the way we see underground.
Extreme Tech – May 8, 2009
New technology maps water underground by following the flow of electrical current
By Larry Greenemeier
Sri Lanka’s Samanalawewa dam on the country’s Walawe River has been leaking since the day it was completed in 1992. In the interim, the country has spent more than $65 million to plug the leaks in its second-largest dam, built to power the 120-million-watt Samanalawewa Hydroelectric Project. A 2005 study found that the reservoir—located near the town of Balangoda about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of the capital Colombo—was leaking continuously at a rate of 475 gallons (1,800 liters) per second. And shotgun-type methods to solve the Samanalawewa dam problem—including the use of 13,640 tons of cement to reinforce the dam and the dumping of 1.8 million cubic feet (50,000 cubic meters) of clay to plug the holes—have failed.
The problem is that geologists and engineers do not know where all of the leaks are. So they turned to U.K. engineering consultant firm Atkins Global. Atkins performed a preliminary inspection of the dam and surrounding area for three weeks in February using AquaTrack technology developed by Draper, Utah–based Willowstick Technologies. The roughly $3-million project calls for Atkins Global to do additional survey work using AquaTrack this summer to pinpoint the sources of the leakage and spend the subsequent wet season planning precisely where to inject grout to plug those holes, work that Andy Hughes, the company’s director of dams and reservoirs, anticipates will begin early next year.
Here’s how AquaTrack works: Two electrodes—each three feet (one meter) long—are lowered down, one into the reservoir and the other someplace on the opposite side of the dam (typically in a sinkhole or other standing water downstream of the dam). The top of each electrode is connected with a wire. Once they switch on the electricity, “We’ve basically created a large circuit,” says Paul Rollins, Willowstick’s vice president of business development. Because groundwater is a conductor, the electrical current follows it between the electrodes, creating a magnetic field that can be detected on the surface using a sensitive magnetic receiver.
Once the magnetic field is generated, Willowstick’s scientists walk the ground between the probes in a gridlike pattern with an instrument that collects data about the frequencies it detects underground. (The researchers are most interested specifically in the 380 hertz signals that AquaTrack’s electrodes emit). The instrument is contained in a box that is three feet (one meter) tall and six inches (15 centimeters) square and held upright by a tripod and can collect thousands of readings in just five minutes, according to Rollins. (The technology has already been used successfully at a number of dams, including River Reservoir Dam No. 3 on the Little Colorado River in Arizona and Wolf Creek Dam on the Cumberland River in southern Kentucky.)
The circuit emits a magnetic field at 380 hertz that follows any groundwater it finds, Rollins says, “because water’s really the best conductive [material] under the ground.” The greater the amount of saturation, the greater the magnetic field, which emanates upward where it is recorded by Willowstick’s surface sensing instruments. The gathered information is uploaded to computers at Willowstick’s facilities, where researchers follow the thread of any 380 hertz readings to map the flow of underground water sources.
This will help determine the source of the leak, even if the leak is under the dam, Hughes says. “All dams leak to some extent,” he adds, “but we don’t want them to get out of hand.”
U.S. companies have used AquaTrack to map dam seepage as well as determine the extent and location of groundwater those companies may have contaminated. Once a company that owns a plant or mine, for example, discovers it has polluted the local groundwater (or has been ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the possibility that it has), the only real way to understand the problem to this point has been to dig a series of wells—generally six inches in diameter—to sample soil and underground water for contaminants, Rollins says.
Companies generally pay up to $120,000 to drill each well, so “they’re not going to want to put 100 holes in the ground,” Rollins says. “By creating theoretical flows in a modeling environment, the scientists can create theoretical magnetic fields,” he adds. “They will then model these flows until the theoretical fields match [the data] collected in the field. Once they get the shape of the theoretical anomaly to match the actual data, then they can accurately determine depth of the dam seepage or groundwater.” The goal here, as when the technology is used to find dam leaks, is to inform engineers as precisely as possible where they should drill to either pour concrete (in the case of a leaky dam) or take water samples to find the route of the contaminated water.
AquaTrack is designed to function much the way an MRI or X-ray is used locate a health problems within the body prior to surgery. “You wouldn’t walk into a doctor’s office and tell them to cut you open to find out what’s wrong,” Rollins says. “You’d first want to get an X-ray or MRI.”
Of course, AquaTrack is not the only technology that allows scientists and business prospectors to better understand what lies beneath. Oil and gas companies for years have used the techniques of blasting or pounding into the ground and measuring the resulting shock waves to determine a site’s crustal composition and, more importantly, where they might want to drill. “The acoustic signal travels through the Earth, and at each rock layer interface some of the signal bounces back up to the surface to be recorded by the sensor array,” says Alex Krueger, vice president of research, development and marketing for Headwave, Inc., a Houston-based maker of software that can make maps out of raw data. “Thus, an image of the subsurface layers can be created.”
Utah Business Honors Award Recipients, Innovation at 2009 iQ Awards
Utah Business and Wasatch Digital iQ magazines honored 30 outstanding companies in the Beehive State for their achievements in innovation at the second annual iQ Awards Wednesday in Salt Lake City. Out of the 30 finalists in the competition, 10 companies were selected as award recipients, which were determined by a panel of seasoned professionals in the technology industry.
The awards recipients for the 2009 iQ Awards are:
Software – Omniture
Consumer Products/Gadgets – Control4
Hardware – ATK
Green Business – Willowstick Technologies
Human Resources/Business Training – EnticeLabs
Business Services – ProPay
Online – Interbank FX
Product Marketing - Rain (formerly MediaRAIN)
IT Security – Spearstone
Data Management – Cemaphore Systems
Chris Harrington, president of worldwide sales and client services at Omniture, which was one of the awards recipients, said the award recognizes the company for its global achievements as the largest provider of software for online business marketing and optimization.
“Innovation has been the lifeblood of Omniture since our inception,” Harrington said.
Paul Rollins, vice president of business development for Willowstick Technologies, which was the award recipient for Green Business, said his company’s recent achievement is due to the creative minds of his employees that have created innovative subsurface water mapping services. This unique technology has helped a variety of clients around the nation, including the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
“We have really been able to take a technology that helps the environment,” Rollins said.
Even though only 10 companies received awards, Utah Business publisher and editor-in-chief, Martin Lewis, said all of the finalists in the competition represent excellence in innovation and deserve recognition.
“The 2009 iQ Awards finalists have fully demonstrated how progressive thinking, hard work and innovation have helped solidify
Q Therapeutics’ unique methodology was featured in the October issue of BioWorld Today. The article noted Q’s unique approach to using Q cells to repair rather than replace damaged neural cells. We can’t post the article, but here is a link to the page (registration required).
Science of Hope
Dr. Deborah Eppstein, Business honoree
By Tammera Orr
Deborah Eppstein grew up believing that nothing could stop her from fulfilling her dreams. She had a love for science and an admiration for her father, a research biologist. She also thought it was "normal for your mother to have been a pilot in World War II." Deborah chuckles as she tells of her mother’s involvement with the Woman’s Airforce Service Pilots, "There were very few women who did that."
Very few people have accomplished what Deborah has — reaching the highest levels of success in the fields of both science and business. Never deterred, Deborah worked harder to prove herself in two male-dominated fields. "When you’re doing something that is off the beaten path, it’s much more challenging," she says with confidence. "I do love a challenge."
After earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Arkansas, Deborah quickly climbed the professional ladder. It was not her brilliance in medical research, however, that made her stand out from her competitive peers. She was outgoing and eager to interact with people outside the lab. Her superiors noticed, and offered Deborah a position at Syntex Pharmaceuticals. The offer came after 10 years in research, and just before the birth of her daughter, Alyssa. "That was probably the hardest decision I’ve made in my life," Deborah remembers about the move to the business side, but she has "never regretted it for a second."
In 1992, Deborah brought her unique mix of business and science skills to Utah, where she has enjoyed several successful entrepreneurial roles. With over 28 years of experience in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, Deborah is now one of the most respected and influential figures in Salt Lake City’s science and business communities.
Most recently, Deborah was recruited to serve as the president and CEO of Q Therapeutics, a biotech company working to address the medical challenges of treating diseases of the central nervous system. Scientists at Q Therapeutics were making remarkable progress in their research, but the group struggled to agree on the direction their technology should take. Deborah accepted the position; certain she could have a positive impact.
"I get the job done, but I don’t oppress people. I ask their opinions, because I respect their judgment." Deborah was able to unite the group behind her ideas for a new direction. Steve Borst, Q Therapeutics vice president of finance and corporate development, feels that Deborah’s vision was "absolutely necessary for the company to survive."
Under Deborah’s leadership, Q Therapeutics has focused on such debilitating ailments as spinal cord injuries, MS and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). These afflictions strike thousands of new patients every year in the U.S. and none has a cure. In the case of ALS, patients usually die within three to five years of diagnosis. Deborah is confident the work being done at Q Therapeutics will change that.
"Of everything I’ve done in my career, this is by far the most beneficial. It will change the way medicine is being practiced."
Deborah’s tireless work has secured $8 million in investments for Q Therapeutics. She has also been successful in forming collaborative efforts with institutions like Johns Hopkins University. Of these achievements, Borst says, "Debbie is confident, persistent and incredibly optimistic. The optimism, when combined with her persistent nature, really inspires people around her."
Deborah’s positive every day. "I wake up in the morning and I say, ‘It’s a beautiful sunshiny day.’ Every day is an exciting day. I enjoy life." Deborah also enjoys staying active and healthy. At the age of 52, she began competing in triathlons. Her determination to master this grueling sport has propelled her into becoming a world-class triathlete who often finishes at the top of her age group.
Deborah attributes her business and personal successes to a simple philosophy: "Go one step at a time. When you reach that step, go up to the next one." Her next step in physical competition is to complete an Ironman event.
The next step Deborah has for Q Therapeutics is "nothing too ambitious" — she’s hoping to change the world by commercializing Q’s technology and making life better for thousands.