Oak Ridge National Laboratory

 

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ORNL's telepresence connects researcher with remote microscope

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., June 27, 1996 — Larry Allard sits in front of the Hitachi HF-2000 electron microscope at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), a Department of Energy (DOE) facility. On Allard's computer screen is an image of the atomic lattice structure of fullerene carbon nanotubes, magnified about 4 million times. As Allard watches, the image shifts to a different position.

Allard is the only one in the room who knows how to operate the microscope, but he isn't at the controls.

Edgar Voelkl, one of Allard's Metals and Ceramics Division colleagues, is operating the microscope from a computer in San Diego, far away from ORNL's High Temperature Materials Laboratory (HTML) in Tennessee. The two sites are linked through tiny video camera systems that allow each operator to see the other and to converse directly in a "telepresence" mode of operation, using speakerphones for voice contact. Operators can also send messages instantaneously via keyboard using "flash" mail. Allard conveys his excitement about the demonstration as he taps out messages to Voelkl in California: "I just love this," he says.

Allard is excited about this demonstration for two reasons. One is the prospect of being able to operate such an unusually powerful and sophisticated piece of equipment from thousands of miles away. Voelkl wrote the software that allows the $1.6 million field-emission gun transmission electron microscope to be operated from a computer located at the microscope. The commercial software package Timbuktu Pro then mirrors the screen, mouse, and keyboard functionality of the local computer to a personal computer of average power outside the laboratory. Thus, after purchasing the Timbuktu software and a CCD camera and obtaining the proper type of computer line, a researcher will be able to send a sample of a material to ORNL and analyze the material using the microscope over the Internet without leaving the office. The cost of the camera and program is about $300.

"The potential for a live-time telepresence interaction between the off-site researcher and his local colleague means that we can communicate more effectively about the sample during the microscopy session," Allard said.

Secondly, Allard knows what the capability for remote operation could mean for ORNL's user facilities' state-of-the-art equipment that is available to industries and educational institutions that couldn't otherwise afford that kind of equipment. It can virtually bring the user facility to the researcher.

"Edgar is running the digital imaging program as if he were in this room; he can control with his keyboard from San Diego what I can do here by turning knobs on the microscope. Because the microsope's images are completely digital, they can be transmitted back to the user. We do it with a keyboard now. In the future we'll have a much more sophisticated graphical interface and mouse control."

A group of Russian visitors is on hand to watch the demonstration.

"Someone somewhere else, maybe even a Russian scientist in his or her office in Moscow, can for very little cost control the HF-2000 remotely," Allard tells them. "With the Internet, we can immediately communicate about these beautiful, sharp nanoscale digital images."

Ed Oliver, ORNL associate director for Computing, Robotics and Education, said that the HTML demonstration is part of an overall effort related to the DOE 2000 program called "collaboratories," which would allow researchers to collaborate and even conduct experiments remotely. "The idea is that a researcher, with a limited amount of training, can send us a sample and set up experiment time," Oliver said. "In a collaboratory setting, the researcher is at the controls.

"Collaboratories would make expensive facilities like the electron microscopes in HTML much more usable and much more productive," Oliver said. "Our massively parallel computers run 24 hours a day. We would like for the tools in the user facilities to be that busy, too. That's why we have this laboratory-directed R&D project for remote operation software development. By making it possible for a researcher located far away to use some of these tools remotely, we can greatly enhance their practicality and affordability and possibly have these working around the clock, too. It's more bang for the buck."

Oliver went on to say that even a nuclear research facility like ORNL's High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) could be operated in this way. Users who come to HFIR must undergo fairly rigorous safety training. If they could operate a neutron scattering beam line remotely, with HFIR technicians supporting, "everything would be more efficient," he said.

"ORNL's many user facilities, its multidisciplinary strengths and its collaborations make it unique," Oliver said. "The ability to operate in a collaboratory setting, especially in an era of restricted funding, opens our doors wider and makes the laboratory much more affordable and accessible for scientists and educators on the outside."

Funding for this project is being provided by DOE's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram national research and development facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.