Clean-Energy Research Accelerates

Caltech clean-energy research is accelerating thanks to the renovation of the Earle M. Jorgensen Laboratory. Transformed into a cutting-edge facility for energy science, the lab unites two powerhouse programs: the Resnick Sustainability Institute and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP).

At the lab's dedication on Friday, October 19, the public and the campus community toured the building and learned about the research happening there. "It is easy to grow cynical in the face of the challenges that humanity faces when we think about transitioning towards a sustainable energy future," said Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau at the event. "Caltech is uniquely positioned to address such a global challenge."

Inside the newly renovated lab, teams of students, postdoctoral scholars, staff researchers, and faculty are working to invent revolutionary, clean, inexpensive methods for the generation of fuels and power. Through the Jorgensen renovation, researchers have gained new prototyping facilities for turning lab breakthroughs into market-ready inventions and experimental systems that are helping speed work on some of the toughest problems in energy science. These facilities include an advanced and customized ink-jet printer with which researchers can fabricate more than 100,000 sample materials per day. Each day, thousands of these materials can be tested for their ability to absorb light or to serve as catalysts for water-splitting—crucial steps in generating fuel from sunlight.

The Jorgensen Laboratory brings together researchers from Caltech's nationally top-ranked divisions of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS) and Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE).

"Our researchers are working with Caltech's chemists and chemical engineers to challenge the status quo and translate scientific discovery into clean-energy innovations that will directly benefit society for generations to come," says Ares Rosakis, EAS division chair and the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and professor of mechanical engineering.

"This facility capitalizes on Caltech's extraordinarily collaborative culture. It equips our students and faculty to come together across fields to develop novel and viable approaches to renewable energy technologies," adds Jackie Barton, CCE division chair and the Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor and professor of chemistry.

JCAP, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Innovation Hub, is the nation's largest research effort focused on artificial photosynthesis. Its researchers aim to create a low-cost generator that uses sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to make fuels—after which they hope to hand that prototype off to private-sector companies to launch a new solar-fuels industry.

"We would think about our energy problem so differently if we could get this card on the table," says Nate Lewis, JCAP director and Caltech's George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry.

The Resnick Institute, for its part, is set up to foster Caltech-based research collaborations that have the potential to develop renewable-energy technologies that can be scaled up to power the planet.

Research supported by the Resnick Institute will yield tangible benefits even faster thanks to the new facilities, says Harry Atwater, the institute's director and Caltech's Howard Hughes Professor and professor of applied physics and materials science. He predicts, "Caltech will do for energy in the twenty-first century what it did for physics in the twentieth: reinvent it."

"We are passionately committed to finding alternative and sustainable energy solutions, and developing the breakthrough technologies we need to address the daunting challenges of energy security, rapidly accelerating energy demand, and climate change," said founding donors Lynda and Stewart Resnick in a statement. "We can think of no better partner in these efforts than Caltech."

The renovation walks its sustainability talk, even beyond its reuse of a midcentury laboratory. Project managers used sustainable materials, kept 82 percent of construction waste out of landfills, and donated the lab's old furniture. The lab now has high-efficiency lighting and HVAC systems, a living roof featuring evergreen and drought-tolerant grasses, and water-saving plumbing and landscaping. "The goal is LEED Platinum certification," says Ken Hargreaves, Caltech's senior director of facilities design and construction.

Support from the Resnicks, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Moores themselves, the Department of Energy, The Ahmanson Foundation, and others made this renovation—and its corresponding acceleration of science—possible.

"To move from petroleum and fossil-fuel dependence to a renewable, sustainable energy economy will require new discoveries across a wide range of disciplines," said W. F. Brinkman, director of the Department of Energy Office of Science, in a letter shared at the building dedication. "There is no doubt that the California Institute of Technology is in the very forefront of this research effort, mobilizing a formidable array of talent and resources in the quest for the energy technologies of the future."

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Drop, Cover, and Hold On!

Caltech to participate in the Great California ShakeOut

Get ready to drop, cover, and hold on! On Thursday, October 18, Caltech will once again participate in the Great California ShakeOut, the annual statewide earthquake-preparedness drill. Caltech students, faculty, staff, and visitors are encouraged to join the more than 8 million Californians who will have the opportunity to practice how to protect themselves during an earthquake.

At 10:18 a.m., an alert will be sent via Caltech's emergency notification system to signify the start of the one-minute drill. The Institute will join businesses, nonprofits, government organizations, schools, neighborhoods, families, and others throughout the state in performing three vital action steps: drop, cover, and hold on. The recommended protocol is as follows:

  • DROP to the ground
  • Take COVER by getting underneath a sturdy desk or table
  • HOLD ON until the shaking stops

Additionally, throughout the day, the campus will be engaged in emergency-response and recovery activities as the Institute activates its Emergency Response Plan.

"Building a disaster-resilient institute begins with everyone taking the time to learn what to do in emergency situations," says Jim Cowell, Caltech's associate vice president for facilities. "Participating in the annual ShakeOut exercise is a great opportunity for everyone on campus to practice their earthquake procedures and review their personal and departmental emergency plans."

Here are additional ways you can participate in this year's ShakeOut:

  • Take a photo of your colleagues or students participating in the ShakeOut drill and submit it to www.emergencypreparedness.caltech.edu by 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 18, 2012, for the chance to win a prize.
  • Send a test communication to an out-of-state emergency contact via amateur radio. From 9:00 a.m. until noon on Thursday, October 18, on the second floor of Winnett Student Center, members of Caltech's Amateur Radio Club will send a test message on your behalf to a friend or family member located in the United States or Canada.
  • Bookmark Caltech's Emergency Management webpage in your browser to learn about upcoming events and trainings and to stay informed of the latest campus emergency-preparedness news.

For earthquake safety tips and additional information on the Great California ShakeOut, visit www.shakeout.org.

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Andrew Allan
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Houses that Build People

Around this time next year, several students from Caltech and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) will be having what seems to be an average day in their shared house: they'll be doing laundry, inviting neighbors over for dinner, watching TV, playing video games, doing homework. But monitors will stop by to weigh the towels the students launder. The neighbors will judge the dinner party. Every kilowatt that passes through the TV and computers will be noted. And all of this will happen in a house that has yet to exist.

For the second time, a SCI-Arc–Caltech­ team has won a spot in the Solar Decathlon, a biennial Department of Energy–sponsored competition to design and build a solar-powered house with the ideal blend of affordability, market appeal, design excellence, energy production, and efficiency. Twenty student teams from around the United States and the world will open the doors of 20 new houses in the Orange County Great Park, in Irvine, California, on October 3, 2013. During the 10-day competition, each team will put its house through the paces of normal life to simulate a real homeowner's experience—although most homeowners don't have hundreds of visitors tromping through daily. (All Decathlon homes will welcome visitors from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday both weeks of the event.)

After the Decathlon, the SCI-Arc–Caltech house will make an encore appearance at the California Science Center, which exhibited the team's inaugural entry, nicknamed CHIP for Compact Hyper-Insulated Prototype. CHIP actually produced more energy than it consumed, sharing first place in the contest for both energy balance and water heating, winning second in both engineering and home entertainment, and—though its architecture and advanced features suggested a luxury home—garnering third place for affordability.

Melany Hunt, an advisor for the 2013 project and Caltech's William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Mechanical Engineering, uses the Solar Decathlon project as teaching lab. She mentored several students this spring and summer as they brainstormed engineering concepts for the 2013 house's solar panels, the HVAC system, the radiant floor heating, and a unique phase-changing insulation. The insulation—something like bubble wrap filled with a wax-like material instead of air—will help keep heat in or out, as needed, as its filling melts and solidifies. The SCI-Arc architects are being equally innovative, envisioning a house that opens up in fine weather and actually moves so that its solar cells can catch more rays. Their Caltech counterparts—for their part—are engineering ways for the house to sense whether the cat is asleep in the path of the living room.

This summer, electrical engineering sophomores Brynan Qiu and Do Hee Kim optimized concepts for the house's solar panels. As part of their project, they looked at how dirt reduces power production for panels mounted at different angles. They used solar panels that had been exposed to L.A.'s dusty air for seven months on CHIP's roof, retrieving the panels from both flat and angled parts of the roof. "They were really disgusting," says Qiu. "We measured energy production and then cleaned the panels and measured again." They found that the dirty flat-mounted panels lost 20 percent of their power production—more than twice as much as those mounted at a 15-degree angle. With data in hand, they went to the architects . . . and the debate began.

"It's interesting working with the architects," Qiu says. "Engineers and architects have different modes of thought and tastes. While we might want to have our array tilted at the optimal angle for energy production, a large tilted roof may not be part of their vision." So Qiu and Kim are working to see through their partners' eyes, designing novel solar-panel configurations that will produce plenty of power while permitting a graceful and striking roofline. "Interacting with the architects helps me think more creatively and generate more ideas," Qiu says.

This academic year, Qiu and some 20 other students in Introduction to Multidisciplinary Systems Engineering will take the solar house from concept through construction with their SCI-Arc partners, while earning computer science, mechanical engineering, or electrical engineering credits. Hunt, who is leading the class, says the project itself is entirely student led. "I see my role as a supporter," she says. "I love the ideas the students come up with, and want to put them in the position of making all the decisions, thinking about things that are clever and unusual and inexpensive that we can put into this house."

The Decathlon gives Caltech's engineering students an opportunity to extend themselves as they learn to interact with their architect partners and with the media, corporate partners, and the public, says Elisabeth Neigert, a 2010 SCI-Arc graduate and a project manager for the 2011 team. (Neigert is the external relations program manager for the 2013 team, supported by Caltech's Resnick Sustainability Institute.) One key asset helps Caltech students stretch, she says: "They are incredible at collaboration. They're selfless. They are used to thinking about what's best for the team. It's always about the vision."

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Princeton Review Recognizes Caltech's Commitment to Sustainability

The Princeton Review has named Caltech to its "2013 Green Honor Roll." Caltech is among 21 schools that received the highest possible score—99—in an analysis that looked at 806 institutions and rated them on environmentally related practices, policies, and academic offerings. These "Green Rating" scores will be published on each school's profile in the new 2013 Princeton Review guidebooks.

Citing Caltech as "a giant in sustainability," a write-up on the review's website noted the pioneering use of self-managed green revolving funds, energy-efficiency projects, and contributions to cleaner air as highlights of the Institute's devotion to the green movement. The commendation also called attention to the campus's environmentally friendly buildings—such as the Annenberg Center and the Schlinger Laboratory—and the sustainability-focused classes and research opportunities available through the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, the Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, and the Resnick Sustainability Institute.

"This honor is exciting because it's not only a recognition of everyone's hard work across the campus, but also—and perhaps most importantly—it's encouragement to keep striving, each in our own individual ways, to be more effective stewards of Caltech," says John Onderdonk, director of sustainability programs at Caltech.

The Princeton Review's Green Rating measures a school's performance as an environmentally aware and responsible institution using criteria and questions developed in conjunction with ecoAmerica, a research- and partnership-based environmental nonprofit organization. The ratings consider, among other things, whether students have a healthy and sustainable campus quality of life; how well students are prepared for employment and citizenship in a world now defined by environmental challenges; and a school's environmental policies. More information can be found in the Princeton Review's press release

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Katie Neith
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Caltech Recognized for Commitment to Sustainability
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Caltech Wins Toilet Challenge

Caltech's solar-powered toilet has won the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge issued by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Caltech engineer Michael Hoffmann and his colleagues were awarded $100,000 for their design, which they demonstrated at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair, a two-day event held August 14–15 in Seattle.

Last summer, Hoffmann, the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science at Caltech, and his team were awarded a $400,000 grant to create a toilet that can safely dispose of human waste for just five cents per user per day. The lavatory can't use a septic system or an outside water source, or produce pollutants.

The challenge is part of a $40 million program initiated by the Gates Foundation to tackle the problems of water, sanitation, and hygiene throughout the developing world. According to the World Health Organization, 2.5 billion people around the globe are without access to sanitary toilets, which results in the spread of deadly diseases. Every year, 1.5 million people—mostly those under the age of five—die from diarrhea.

Hoffmann's proposal—which won one of the eight grants given—was to build a toilet that uses the sun to power an electrochemical reactor. The reactor breaks down water and human waste into fertilizer and hydrogen, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells as energy. The treated water can then be reused to flush the toilet or for irrigation.

The team built a prototype inside the solar dome on the roof of Caltech's Linde + Robinson Laboratory, and after a year of designing and testing, they—along with the other grantees—showed off their creation. The Gates Foundation brought in 50 gallons of fake feces made from soybeans and rice for the demonstrations.

The $60,000 second-place prize went to Loughborough University in the United Kingdom—whose toilet produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water—and the $40,000 third-place award went to the University of Toronto's design, which sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water. Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) and EOOS won $40,000 as a special recognition for their toilet interface design.

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Marcus Woo
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Anchors Aweigh

At Caltech, hydrophilic researchers in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences take to the salty seas to gather data, explore the deep, and get a firsthand view of the beasts at the bottom. The briny treasures they collect along the way are helping them learn more about past, present, and future environmental conditions and hazards. Read about their ocean adventures in a feature-length story in the Summer 2012 issue of E&S magazine.

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Katie Neith
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Ocean-based Researchers Take to the Sea
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Caltech Researchers Use Stalagmites to Study Past Climate Change

PASADENA, Calif.—There is an old trick for remembering the difference between stalactites and stalagmites in a cave: Stalactites hold tight to the ceiling while stalagmites might one day grow to reach the ceiling. Now, it seems, stalagmites might also fill a hole in our understanding of Earth's climate system and how that system is likely to respond to the rapid increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since preindustrial times.

Many existing historical climate records are biased to the high latitudes— coming from polar ice cores and North Atlantic deep ocean sediments. Yet a main driver of climate variability today is El Niño, which is a completely tropical phenomenon. All of this begs the question: How do we study such tropical climate influences? The answer: stalagmites.

"Stalagmites are the ice cores of the tropics," says Jess Adkins, professor of geochemistry and global environmental science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He and geochemist Kim Cobb of the Georgia Institute of Technology led a team that collected samples from stalagmites in caves in northern Borneo and measured their levels of oxygen isotopes to reconstruct a history of the tropical West Pacific's climate over four glacial cycles during the late Pleistocene era (from 570,000 to 210,000 years ago).

The results appear in the May 3 issue of Science Express. The lead author of the paper, Nele Meckler, completed most of the work as a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and is now at the Geological Institute of ETH Zürich.

Throughout Earth's history, global climate has shifted between periods of glacial cooling that led to ice ages, and interglacial periods of relative warmth, such as the present. Past studies from high latitudes have indicated that about 430,000 years ago—at a point known as the Mid-Brunhes Event (MBE)—peak temperatures and levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in interglacial cycles were suddenly bumped up by about a third. But no one has known whether this was also the case closer to the equator.

 

By studying the records from tropical stalagmites, Adkins and his team found no evidence of such a bump. Instead, precipitation levels remained the same across the glacial cycles, indicating that the tropics did not experience a major shift in peak interglacial conditions following the MBE. "The stalagmite records have glacial cycles in them, but the warm times—the interglacials—don't change in the same way as they do at high latitudes," Adkins says. "We don't know what that tells us yet, but this is the first time the difference has been recorded."

At the same time, some changes did appear in the climate records from both the high latitudes and the tropics. The researchers found that extreme drying in the tropics coincided with abrupt climate changes in the North Atlantic, at the tail end of glacial periods. It is thought that these rapid climate changes, known as Heinrich events, are triggered by large ice sheets suddenly plunging into the ocean.

"In the tropics, we see these events as very sharp periods of drying in the stalagmite record," Adkins says. "We think that these droughts indicate that the tropics experienced a more El Niño–like climate at those times, causing them to dry out." During El Niño events, warm waters from the tropics, near Borneo, shift toward the center of the Pacific Ocean, often delivering heavier rainfall than usual to the western United States while leaving Indonesia and its neighbors extremely dry and prone to forest fires. 

The fact that the tropics responded to Heinrich events, but not to the shift that affected the high latitudes following the MBE, suggests that the climate system has two modes of responding to significant changes. "It makes you wonder if maybe the climate system cares about what sort of hammer you hit it with," Adkins says. "If you nudge the system consistently over long timescales, the tropics seem to be able to continue independently of the high latitudes. But if you suddenly whack the climate system with a big hammer, the impact spreads out and shows up in the tropics."

This work raises questions about the future in light of recent increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide: Is this increase more like a constant push? Or is it a whack with a big hammer? A case could be made for either one of these scenarios, says Adkins, but he adds that it would be easiest to argue that the forcing is more like a sudden whack, since the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased at such an unprecedented rate.

In addition to Adkins, Cobb, and Meckler, other coauthors on the paper, "Interglacial hydroclimate in the tropical West Pacific through the late Pleistocene," are Matthew Clarkson of the University of Edinburgh and Harald Sodemann of ETH Zürich. Cobb is also a former postdoctoral scholar in Adkins's group and has been collaborating on this project since her time at Caltech. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the German Research Foundation, and by an Edinburgh University Principal's Career Development PhD Scholarship.

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Caltech Celebrates Earth Week

To help educate the community on living greener, Caltech's Office of Sustainability is sponsoring a series of events starting Tuesday in honor of Earth Week.

Four lunchtime lectures offer participants the opportunity to learn where Caltech's water comes from, how power is generated on campus, what happens to the waste generated on campus, and how to buy locally and sustainably grown produce. These informational sessions will be held Tuesday through Friday at noon in Winnett Lounge, and lunch will be provided to the first 25 guests in attendance at each event.

Anyone with a green thumb can pick up free vegetable seeds and compost from Chandler Café's composting program and find out how to get involved in sustainability organizations on campus at the student club fair on Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on San Pasqual Walk. Then on Thursday, there is a screening of Living Downstream, a documentary about cancer and its connection to our environment, at 5 p.m. in Hameetman Auditorium.

The week wraps up with an e-waste roundup on Friday from 8 a.m. to noon at the Recycling Center, where you can properly dispose of your old computers, cell phones, batteries, DVDs, fax machines, stereos, monitors, scanners, and printers.

All events are open to the public. For more information on the full spectrum of Caltech's sustainability efforts, visit http://sustainability.caltech.edu/.

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Andrew Allan
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Linde + Robinson Lab Recognized by Los Angeles Conservancy

One of Caltech's oldest buildings, the Linde + Robinson Laboratory for Global Environmental Science, is the recipient of a 2012 Los Angeles Conservancy Preservation Award. The building, an astronomy lab built in 1932 that has undergone extensive renovations over the past two years, is the nation's first lab constructed in an existing historic building to earn LEED Platinum rating.

The Los Angeles Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that works to recognize, preserve, and revitalize the historic architectural and cultural resources of Los Angeles County. According to the organization's website, award recipients "range widely, from sensitive restoration, rehabilitation, and adaptive reuse projects, to groundbreaking advocacy and education efforts by individuals and groups."

The awards are selected by an independent jury of leading experts in architecture, historic preservation, and community development. Linde + Robinson was noted for "an exceptionally creative and sensitive approach" that "transformed a historic astrophysics laboratory into a highly advanced and sustainable scientific facility—the first-ever LEED Platinum renovation of a historic lab building," according to a press release issued by the conservancy. The "massive project," notes the conservancy on its website, "not only preserved the building 's unique historic features, it found brilliant new uses for them—particularly the solar telescope, built as the centerpiece of the original building but functionally obsolete. Now it tracks the sun and uses the light it captures for both illumination and exploration."

The transformation of Linde + Robinson into a state-of-the-art model of sustainability began in early 2010. It now stands as one of the nation's most energy-efficient laboratories—fitting for a building that houses the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, a group of researchers dedicated to developing solutions to the world's complex environmental problems.

In selecting Linde + Robinson for an award, the jury highlighted the "exceptional combination of preservation, technology, and sustainability; Caltech's stewardship of its historic resources; the high quality of the work; and just how incredibly cool it is," notes Cindy Olnick, the director of communications for the conservancy.

The Preservation Awards will be presented at a luncheon on Thursday, May 10, at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

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Katie Neith
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Caltech Oceanographer Tests New Technology at the Bottom of the Earth

The field of study of Andrew Thompson, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech, presents not only theoretical challenges but logistical ones as well. That's because he is interested in the circulation and ecology of the Southern Ocean—a cold, remote region near Antarctica—and the role it plays in global climate.  

In particular, he studies a marine area at the eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, part of the Weddell Sea. The hostile environment of the Weddell Sea makes long-term research difficult, so he's part of a team that is seeking to monitor the region with autonomous underwater vehicles called gliders. Last month, Thompson set off on a research cruise to deploy three of these new gliders, as well as some surface drifters that follow the currents and can be tracked with global positioning system (GPS) receivers.

"The currents and fronts in this region are important because they determine the transport and dispersal of krill—an important part of the ocean food chain—and also interact and modify the outflow of dense Antarctic Bottom Water, which eventually sinks to become the densest water in the ocean," says Thompson. "This part of the Weddell Sea is the injection point for krill and these dense water masses into the greater Southern Ocean, " 

The team, which included researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, the British Antarctic Survey, and from the University of East Anglia in the U.K., collected hydrographic data from the ship—such as the temperature, salinity, and density of the water—when they weren't busy with the gliders.

"We captured the signature of dense Antarctic Bottom Water at the shelf break cascading off the continental shelf," says Thompson, who says the group spent a lot of time keeping the gliders out of the way of iceberg C-19, formed in 2002 on the opposite side of Antarctica. "It originally had a surface area of 5500 square km, but is now about 800 square km. We have some great measurements right in the lee of the berg and see evidence of it significantly disrupting the currents in the region."

The team also successfully tested an echo sounder that they attached to the gliders to measure krill biomass. The echo sounder uses sonar to detect krill swarms in the water column.

"A major purpose of the cruise was to demonstrate the capability of ocean gliders to play a key role in future polar ocean observing systems," he says. And so far, the instruments have shown favorable results. The gliders were deployed on January 23; since then, they've been collecting samples and reporting data back to Thompson via satellite when they come to the surface every few hours. At press time, the Caltech glider had just completed its 200th dive. It, along with the other two gliders, will be recovered at the end of the experiment in mid-March.

In addition to research success, the crew, which returned to land in early February, had the chance to experience some marine wildlife in their natural habitat. The boat was visited by a number of friendly humpbacks and, while taking measurements from the sea, researchers found a pod of feeding orcas.

For more pictures and details from the trip, visit Thompson's website. The "journals" section gives personal accounts and images from the voyage.

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Katie Neith
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