Virtual laboratory for better quakeproofing

August 27, 2001

ANN ARBOR---A team that includes University of Michigan School of Information researchers will receive $10 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build a virtual laboratory, or "collaboratory," through which engineers can design and test earthquake-safe structures. The team received $300,000 from NSF last year to produce a detailed design for the project. The current award is for full development of an integrated network called NEESgrid.

The National Science Foundation announced the award, which is part of its George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) project. NEESgrid will link earthquake engineering research sites across the country, provide data storage facilities and offer remote access to cutting-edge research tools. Through NEESgrid, researchers will be able to conduct experiments using shake tables, centrifuges and tsunami wave tanks from their desktop workstations. They will also be able to use computer simulation software and high-performance computing clusters and to share research data stored in online repositories. By connecting researchers and research facilities in different geographic areas and encouraging the exchange of data and ideas, the network is expected to foster collaboration and quicken the pace of earthquake engineering.

"The goal is to create a collaborative research network by linking researchers and engineering testing facilities across the United States and providing them with the latest computational tools," says Priscilla Nelson, NSF division director for civil and mechanical systems. "We expect this network to speed the simulations, experiments, and data analysis that lead to better seismic design and hazard mitigation."

The U-M part of the team, led by Tom Finholt, director of the Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work, has extensive experience with similar projects. Most notably, Finholt and other researchers in the U-M School of Information played a key role in developing the NSF-funded Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC), one of the Internet's premier collaborative research efforts.

Through SPARC, space physics researchers around the world control and gather data from more than a dozen instruments across---and above---the globe. The scientists have access to live data, advanced supercomputer models of upper atmospheric phenomena and state-of-the-art communication tools.

"NEESgrid represents a dramatic change in the scale and intensity of research collaboration that can be supported via a collaboratory," says Finholt. "While this project will incorporate experience from existing collaboratories, successful completion of NEESgrid will require significant advances in both collaboratory capabilities and in our fundamental understanding of scientific collaboration via the Internet."

The U-M group will work on the project with researchers from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Argonne National Laboratory, the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California (USC), and the civil engineering departments at USC and UIUC. Argonne's material science division and the National Laboratory for Applied Network Research will also contribute to the NEESgrid effort.

NEESgrid will take advantage of tools and technologies developed over the last five years through the NSF's Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (PACI) program. Proven grid technologies---such as the Globus toolkit for distributed computing, developed by Argonne and ISI---will be incorporated into the NEESgrid. Globus will allow researchers to seamlessly share experimental equipment, computational resources, and research data.

In addition, NEESgrid will include collaboration and teleoperation tools developed through NSF's Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (KDI) and Information Technology Research (ITR) initiatives and through the Department of Energy's DOE2000 effort.

The NEESgrid will serve three communities of earthquake engineers: structural engineers, who study the impact of seismic activity on buildings, bridges and other structures; geotechnical engineers, who study how seismic activity affects subsurface soil and rock and the foundations of buildings; tsunami researchers, who are concerned with the formation and effects of tsunamis (huge sea waves caused by underwater disturbances such as strong earthquakes or volcanic eruptions).

"NEESgrid will be an environment not only for research engineers but for practicing engineers who are involved in the actual design and development of roads, bridges, dams and buildings," says Tom Prudhomme, principal investigator for NEESgrid. "Practicing engineers don't usually use research data and complex simulation models in their work because they don't have easy access to them or effective ways to validate the results. That is about to change."

Development of NEES will continue through Sept. 30, 2004. A community-based NEES Consortium will operate the NEES collaboratory beginning in October 2004.
Additional Contact Info:
Jay Jackson, 734-763-0074

University of Michigan

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