Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Adam Schultz: Getting to Answers

Adapted from the article 'Getting to Answers' by Kevin Miller, in Oregon Stater, Winter 2012.

December 14, 2012

In bright sun not far from the giant Newberry Caldera about 20 miles south of Bend, Professor Adam Schultz and research assistants Valerie Adair and Tristan Peery will spend the morning navigating by memory to several unmarked sensing sites scattered throughout the forest. At each they will download data, mouse-proof cables and troubleshoot solar arrays that power sophisticated data-gathering equipment they've placed to record precise magnetic and electrical readings. Back in the lab they'll use the data to produce astonishingly vivid, three-dimensional images of what's happening deep in the Earth.

A top geophysicist in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS), Schultz is a busy guy. Like many of his colleagues he is something of a renaissance man, with usable expertise in many fields. His specialty is creating accurate images of what's happening in the Earth using magnetotelluric and electromagnetic sensing devices, which rely on precise measurements of electrical and magnetic fields from just below the Earth's surface down to hundreds of miles below. It's an exploding field because of breakthroughs in the ability to gather vast amounts of precise data, and it's changing the way scientists think about the subsurface Earth.

Barely a week earlier in the Pacific Ocean off Newport, Schultz had been at sea, lowering a sensing device he and his associates designed and built to sense and record electromagnetic fields that might be created during OSU's testing of wave-energy systems. In another week he would head off to Saudi to use electromagnetic fields to look for water deep beneath the desert.

Back at the vast Newberry site, Schultz and his crew's goal is to monitor what happens as a commercial energy exploration company searches for a renewable energy source using a two-mile-deep well drilled under the ancient volcano. First cold water will open up existing cracks and microfractures in the hot, dry rock deep beneath the volcano's outer rim, and then millions of gallons of water will be pumped down to where it will be heated by the volcano's energy. Some of the fluids will be piped back to the surface and analyzed for heat and chemical content and maybe — if everything goes right — this work could show that hot but dry geothermal energy could be used to run steam turbines. These so-called "enhanced geothermal systems" are a promising future resource for green energy.

The monitoring sites feature probes set on the four major compass points 50 meters out from the center, where other probes, the sensing and recording devices and a solar panel to power it all are gathered.

At each site Peery, who earned an MS in physical oceanography from OSU in 2008 and works as a faculty research assistant in CEOAS, pulls chips from a recording device and downloads data onto a laptop computer.

Although he can't interpret the one-to-two weeks' worth of information right away — there is so much of it that Schultz and his colleagues are constantly working on new ways to analyze it back on campus — Peery can tell how the data-gathering has gone, and whether the power supply from the solar array and its attached battery have been sufficient to run the equipment.

When there are gaps, he and Schultz work to troubleshoot the problems.

Meanwhile, Adair, weeks away from completing her undergraduate degree in geology, checks cables for breaks and then inserts them into lengths of new, high-quality garden hose. Animals ranging from small mice to black bears can get curious and gnaw on the cables, interrupting the data. (Schultz packs along a rifle in case the team interrupts a curious bear or cougar at one of the sites.)

Because the sensing instruments pick up tiny changes in electrical and magnetic fields ranging from the surface down to hundreds of miles into the Earth, almost no metal can be used in any of Schultz's sensing devices. PVC pipe and various types of tape are key to his success.

In Central Oregon on the side of the volcano, Schultz and Peery note that data is missing because of an unreliable power supply. They need to fix the problem right now. They go back and forth with theories, wondering if the solar array is getting enough sun or if they've selected the right charging algorithm for the battery. Finally, the world-class geophysicist digs into a bag for a manual.

"When in doubt," he says with a smile, "read the directions."

Tristan Peery and Adam Schultz

Research assistant Tristan Peery and Professor Adam Schultz puzzle over electrical problems at a monitoring site near the Newberry Caldera. (Photo: Dennis Wolverton)

Adam Schultz

Joking that he only does it as a last resort, Schultz, a world-renowned geo¬physicist, consults the manual for his solar array. (Photo: Dennis Wolverton)

Adam Schultz (right) with Captain Bob Pedro

Adam Schultz (right) with Captain Bob Pedro aboard the boat, Miss Linda, chartered for a research trip off the Oregon coast. (Photo: Dennis Wolverton)

Adam Schultz

Geophysicist Adam Schultz preparing a sensing device for deployment at a wave energy testing site in the Pacific Ocean near Newport, Oregon. (Photo: Dennis Wolverton)

See more Feature Stories