Natural Sciences

Timothy Kral

Timothy Kral, Professor

Department of Biological Sciences, Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences

Rebecca Mickol

Rebecca Mickol, Doctoral Student

Department of Biological Sciences, Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences

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New research suggests that methanogens — among the simplest and oldest organisms on Earth — could survive on Mars.

Methanogens use hydrogen as their energy source and carbon dioxide as their carbon source to metabolize and produce methane, also known as natural gas. Methanogens live in swamps and marshes, but can also be found in the gut of cattle, termites and other herbivores as well as in dead and decaying matter.

Since methanogens are anaerobic, they don’t require oxygen. They don’t require organic nutrients and are non-photosynthetic, indicating they could exist in sub-surface environments. Therefore, methanogens are ideal candidates for life on Mars.

Since the 1990s, Timothy Kral has been studying methanogens and examining their ability to survive on Mars. In 2004, scientists discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere, and immediately the question of the source became an important one.

Working with Kral in the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences, graduate student Rebecca Mickol subjected two species of methanogens to conditions found on Mars, where the surface temperature varies widely in a single day, often ranging between minus 90 degrees Celsius and 27 degrees Celsius.

“If any life were to exist on Mars right now, it would at least have to survive that temperature range,” Mickol said. “The low temperature on Mars inhibited their growth, but they survived. Once they got back to a warm temperature, they were able to grow and metabolize again.”

Jak Chakhalian

Jak Chakhalian,

Charles E. and Clydene Scharlau Endowed Professorship and Director, Laboratory for Artificial Quantum Materials
Department of Physics, Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences

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Jak Chakhalian has been selected as an investigator by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which is now developing a $1.8 million grant to support Chakhalian’s research.

The five-year grant will allow Chakhalian to create and investigate novel quantum materials and the relationships at the interface between those materials on the nanoscale. It will fund a state-of-the-art facility to grow artificial quantum materials at the atomic scale, with the ultimate goal of controlling their properties.

His findings could represent a breakthrough in the field of exotic magnetism and high temperature superconductivity. New discoveries in this field could eventually lead to revolutionary applications in electronics, computing, catalysis and energy technology.

Chakhalian was among those who were invited to enter an intense national competition conducted by the foundation, based in Palo Alto, California. The Moore Experimental Investigators in Quantum Materials program awarded a total of $34.2 million to 19 scientists at 11 universities across the United States, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I’m very excited,” Chakhalian said. “This is amazing. It was a strong competition. Most importantly, any award is like an allowance given to a scientist. Money enables the science but it doesn’t do the science, so there is exciting, hard work ahead and a lot of responsibility that comes with this award.”

Yurong Yang

Yurong Yang, Research Assistant

Department of Physics, Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences

Laurent Bellaiche

Laurent Bellaiche,

Distinguished Professor and Twenty-First Century Endowed Professorship in Optics/Nanoscience/Science Education
Department of Physics, Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences

Publication: Nature Communications, May 28, 2014

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Theoretical research by an international team of physicists, including Yurong Yang and Laurent Bellaiche, has revealed rare materials that possess both controllable magnetic and electric polarization properties at near-room temperatures.

The discovery, which was published in Nature Communications, could lead to longer battery life and increased memory storage for electronic devices, Yang said.

A rare class of materials known as multiferroics can change their electrical polarization when under a magnetic field or can change magnetic properties when under an electric field. But multiferroics usually exhibit these properties at temperatures far colder than room temperature, which makes them useless for everyday applications. Thus, today’s memory devices are powered through electricity or magnetism, but not both.

Yang used computer modeling to perform extremely accurate calculations on a specific class of materials to find combinations that would display these properties.

The researchers found that a class of multiferroics, when periodically alternating along a specific direction to make what is called a superlattice of nanometer-thick layers, should exhibit both controllable magnetic and electrical polarization properties at near-room temperature, Yang said.

Jackson Cothren

Jackson Cothren, Associate Professor

Department of Geosciences, Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and Director, Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST)

Malcolm Williamson

Malcolm Williamson,

Geospatial Applications and Education Manager, CAST

Katie Simon

Katie Simon,

Archeological Remote-Sensing Specialist, CAST

Adam Barnes

Adam Barnes,

Geomatics Specialist, CAST

Malcolm Williamson gingerly fastens the Leica ScanStation C10 to the top of a 5 ½ foot yellow tripod. He’s working in a computer lab down the hall from his office in the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas.

“This is a survey-grade instrument and has to be handled as such,” says Williamson, one of the researchers at the center who use the laser scanner and other advanced remote sensing technology to collect and analyze millions — and sometimes billions — of measurements to help document historic or archaeological sites. They use the data collected by the device to produce what is known as a 3-D point cloud.

Williamson presses a button and the laser scanner begins humming. It is a sound that is reminiscent of those Apple Macintosh Classic II desktop computers that began appearing in offices in the early 1990s. With an oblong shape and hard plastic shell, it is also about the same size and weight as those Macs. A small grayish screen on the scanner comes to life and Williamson begins poking at it with a stylus, inputting specifications for the area of the lab to be scanned.

A few minutes later, the scanner begins a slow sweep from left to right as a rapidly spinning mirror reflects the green laser beam on to every surface — most prominently the walls, chairs, desks and computer equipment. About thirty seconds later the scanning is finished and Williamson begins poking the screen again to see the resulting images.

The whole setup, which took about 15 minutes, has become routine for Williamson, who has been at CAST for 21 years and has used this particular scanner for the past four years. But prior to last year, he had never been asked do it in front of a camera in front of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

That’s because in January 2013, a London-based television producer cold-called CAST. She was interested in hiring a technical expert for a new documentary series on ancient structures.

Soon, researchers from CAST were traveling to historic locations around the world, including the pyramids in Egypt, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the ancient desert city of Petra in Jordan. They were filmed doing what they do best, using their advanced remote sensing technology to collect and analyze billions of measurements to form point clouds, which provided 3-D perspectives of these sites. The series, Time Scanners, aired overseas on National Geographic International this past spring and in the United States on PBS during the summer.

Williamson was one of six current or former CAST researchers who appeared in the series. Jackson Cothren, director of CAST since 2008, described the center’s participation in Time Scanners as “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“We were recognized as one of the preeminent organizations that could do this,” Cothren said. “We were pleased with the approach that the producers took; they didn’t hype the technology or the findings behind the technology, but presented a very realistic result of what we do. We also learned a lot about what we are capable of doing, and how quickly we could capture — to the accuracy that we expect — very large and complex structures.”

In Egypt, the scanning technology was used to show the evolution of the engineering behind the ancient pyramids. At St. Paul’s, the scans confirmed that a German bomb during the blitz of London detonated on the main floor of the cathedral and not in the crypt as was previously believed. In Petra, a 3-D point cloud of the structure known as the Monastery uncovered markings that led experts to believe that more than 2,000 years ago, Nabatean stonemasons used a staircase to carve the building out of a mountainside.

Steve Burrows, executive vice president of WSP, a global engineering and design consulting firm, was the featured expert in Time Scanners. He said, “The laser scanning technology meant that we could analyze the ancient structures in a way that no one ever has before, and some of the things we found were incredible.”

Cothren said, “We have received numerous contacts from this. We do a lot of outreach locally and internationally and we are pretty good at it, but we could never create a marketing tool as good as Time Scanners. We now can say, if you want to know more about what we do, go watch the series.”

Eileen Ernenwein (left) uses ground-penetrating radar to image the subsurface in front of the Monastery at Petra, Jordan. Caitlin StevensDiversity of Experience

Time Scanners capped a long period of growth for CAST, which was established in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences in 1991. The center began in a single room in the basement of Ozark Hall and now encompasses 11,000 square feet of office space and computer labs in the J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. Center for Academic Excellence.

Now employing nearly 20 full-time staff members, CAST is dedicated to research and applications in geospatial analysis and modeling, remote sensing and digital photogrammetry. Remote sensing is the measurement or acquisition of information about an object without direct contact, such as by satellite imaging, radar or aerial photography. Photogrammetry is the science of recording, measuring and interpreting photographic images or other two-dimensional, remotely sensed data.

“Just as photography became a standard as soon as it was introduced in archaeology and architecture, 3-D imaging is simply the next step forward in recordation and measurement,” Williamson said. “With a photograph you frequently don’t realize what you can’t see. When you start working with a 3-D model, you very quickly become aware of just how complex most locations and structures are.”

Cothren is the only faculty member in the center, but two-dozen professors from the University of Arkansas frequently collaborate with CAST, in disciplines ranging from anthropology to geosciences to wildlife ecology. The center also partners with faculty at other universities and scientists at NASA and the U.S. Army, among others.

CAST researchers, working with collaborators, are involved in the application of remote sensing technologies in current projects around Arkansas, the United States and abroad, including Machu Picchu in Peru,the ruins of the ancient port city Ostia in Italy and Tiwanaku, a pre-Columbian archaeological site in Bolivia.

One of CAST’s defining qualities — perhaps its most notable feature — is its variety of researchers. There are anthropologists, archaeologists, computer engineers and landscape architects.

“We can speak to an archaeologist or a classicist but we can also speak to a scientist,” said Adam Barnes, a geomatics specialist at CAST. “There is a marriage between disciplines. We speak all of those languages."

Indeed, Cothren credits the assortment of specialists at CAST for pulling off the technical expertise needed for Time Scanners. In each of the six episodes that were filmed, the researchers had to produce intricate 3-D point clouds in only a few days — a process that usually takes several weeks.

The work was extremely challenging, said CAST’s Katie Simon, who specializes in 3-D scanning applications in archaeology. Not only were the researchers asked to perform at 10 times the normal speed, they were constantly interrupted by the film crew with requests to start over with another angle for the camera.

a CAST researcher, prepares to scan the burial chamber at the Pyramid of Meidum in Egypt. Courtesy Atlantic Productions.Prepared for Precision

CAST has a reputation for its methodical preparation, Simon said.

“We’re constantly trying to do everything we can to minimize the errors that might occur,” she said. “A lot of people whom I’ve been working with notice that we are very particular about getting our geo-referencing properly done, or that our data collection stations are precise. It is really time-consuming and some people think it’s not worth the time.

“Sometimes they will be correct when they say it doesn’t need to be that precise for their current application, but what we constantly keep in mind is that all of this data is archived and we like to make it available as much as possible,” she said. “So if you make a research argument in the future for some conclusion you’ve come to, based on this data, it is important to know the level of precision and accuracy. We’ve been trained that error accumulates at every link in this process, and at the end all that error accumulates in your final product.”

The attention to detail starts with Cothren, who holds a doctorate and a master’s degree in geodetic science and surveying — a branch of mathematics and earth sciences that deals with the measurement and representation of the Earth. What lies behind the science of geodesy, Cothren notes, is the ability to track down errors and to apply statistics so one can understand how one can better deploy instruments in order to capture errors and mitigate them.

“We use the same procedures that an engineering team would use in order to get very accurate measurements,” he said. “Your instrument set-ups, the way you take your measurements, the redundancy that you build into the scans, is all there to contribute to minimizing error and identifying error when you have it and correct it. A lot of scans that are done for visualization purposes, they don’t care about error accumulation. It just has to look good from a distance. A lot of geospatial groups get all the colors right and the scan looks beautiful, but it is not an engineering-quality survey. We like to think ours are. We are confident that they really mean something.”