University researchers head creation of virtual laboratory

Cati Vanden Breul

The University is leading an international group of universities in developing a virtual laboratory for Earth and planetary studies with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The laboratory will help researchers study planetary materials, such as rocks, ice, iron and gases, under conditions difficult to

reproduce without a computer, principal investigator and University chemical engineering and materials science professor Renata Wentzcovitch said.

Ten universities, including two from the United Kingdom and one from Italy, will set up the infrastructure for an Internet-based portal that will allow scientists to share data and conduct experiments simulating extreme temperatures and pressures.

After completing simulations, researchers will be able to calculate the properties of materials from other planets as well as from inside the Earth’s core.

Wentzcovitch said the calculations help scientists understand the formation and evolution of planets.

“It’s really about discovering the mysteries of the universe,” she said.

Bijaya Karki, project investigator from Louisiana State University, said Earth and planetary simulations have been run locally until now, with the computer system located in one place.

The new virtual laboratory, to be centered at the University of Minnesota’s Supercomputing Institute, will be a Web site that researchers can log in to and use, Karki said.

Because the study of Earth and planetary phenomona requires a wide variety of complex expertise, the virtual laboratory will give international researchers access to the same data and a larger resource base, Karki said.

While the system is being developed, it will only be open to researchers, Wentzcovitch said. With the help of more funding from the National Science Foundation, the laboratory will be accessible to the public after four years.

Wentzcovitch said Earth and planetary studies is “not a very common research area,” but it is an expanding field.

She said hundreds of new planets have been discovered since the early 1990s.

The capability to do simulations such as this will help advance the planetary science field, Wentzcovitch said.

The laboratory will be an ongoing project that will grow and develop over time, Wentzcovitch said.

“It’s like giving birth,” she said. “It’s something you take care of the rest of your life.”