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UW’s Shell 3-D Visualization Lab Enables Detailed Imaging of Land Surfaces and Molecules

The person who coined the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” probably wasn’t seeing the view in multiple dimensions.

For academics, students, engineers, oil and gas drillers, geologists and other scientists, the new Shell 3-D Visualization Lab in the University of Wyoming’s Energy Innovation Center (EIC) has the ability to image detailed 3-D models of land surfaces, the subsurface, molecules and more -- a view that allows these entities to share the same frame of reference.

“They (3-D visualization labs) have been found to be quite useful in the energy industry on many different scales,” says Mathematics Professor Bryan Shader, a special assistant to UW’s vice president for research and economic development.

Just a few institutions in the United States -- including Idaho National Laboratory, Iowa State University, the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, Colo., and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. -- house 3-D visualization labs or “CAVES™ (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment),” as they are called, according to Shader.

“The increasing demand for energy throughout the world calls for innovative technology, training and problem solving to responsibly develop these important resources for the future. The Shell 3-D Visualization Lab at the University of Wyoming is an exciting opportunity that provides a unique problem-solving venue for industry, researchers and higher education in a collaborative environment,” says Paul Goodfellow, Shell VP US Unconventionals. “We are proud to support the university’s vision of bringing technology to the region and potentially other parts of the world, and look forward to continuing our successful, long-term partnership with UW.”

Shell contributed $2 million for construction of the EIC. That amount was matched by the state of Wyoming.

In a real-life example of the usefulness of 3-D visualization, Shader says an energy company decided to build a platform for an offshore oil rig. The company wants to “string” as many pipes as possible into the water and ocean crust below, but faces a dilemma. The company needs to direct a pipe from the platform to the surface below through a “whole lot of spaghetti” or piping that is already in place, Shader says. And, using the most economic path, the new pipe has to avoid contacting and rupturing the existing pipe.

“This was an instance when the company couldn’t decide where to string the pipe,” Shader says. “When interested parties from a variety of backgrounds went into the CAVE, they were done within a matter of hours. They made a decision. The CAVE gives you a common reality.

“Every discipline has its own language. If one person can point to a certain spot, it gives everyone a common point,” Shader says. “The visualization center lets many people communicate even though they speak different jargon.”

Ye Zhang, a UW professor of hydrogeology in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, says she plans to use the 3-D CAVE to help tackle some of her real-world research, including acid gas disposal studies in western Wyoming; carbon dioxide sequestration modeling at the Teapot Dome oil field in central Wyoming; and coal-bed modeling of the Powder River Basin to investigate aquifer dewatering effects.

Acid gas disposal is a process that injects acid gas deep into the subsurface. The process reduces carbon dioxide and sulfur emissions into the atmosphere and reduces flaring, which is the burning of waste gas that cannot be processed or sold. When acid gas is injected to maintain reservoir pressure, it may increase oil or gas recovery, Zhang says.

“I will use the CAVE to visualize three-dimensional, time-dependent (i.e., many snapshots of fluid migration over time) results from our ongoing research projects,” Zhang says.

Different dimensions

Mechdyne Corporation, a Marshalltown, Iowa-based company, designed, engineered, integrated and installed the CAVE, which is composed of three 10-foot square, vertical walls and a 10-foot square floor that act as projection screens for the images.

The CAVE can accommodate four to five people simultaneously to provide the feeling of full immersion in the simulation as opposed to just viewing a 3-D effect on a single wall, says School of Energy Resources (SER) Director Mark Northam. In essence, it’s the difference between taking a thrill ride at Universal Studios and sitting in a movie theater with 3-D glasses.

The 3-D CAVE allows researchers to do anything from projecting LIDAR (the acronym for Light Detection and Ranging) data of a certain geographic region in three dimensions for a visiting class to providing technicians simulation opportunities to perform basic maintenance on a nuclear reactor. LIDAR is an optic remote sensing technology that can measure the distance to, or other properties of, targets by illuminating the target with laser light. The technology has applications in seismology, geology and other geographic sciences.

“It’s a modern-day microscope that allows you to use more of your senses in understanding things,” Shader says of the multidimensional view that is created from millions of bytes of computer data that have been modeled. “We’re pretty good at training ourselves by visualizing 3-D from two-dimension representations. These CAVES allow you full immersion in 3-D. If you’re trying to teach geology to students, you can have them experience a wide range of phenomena without leaving the classroom.”

The visualization center also includes an IQ-Station, which is essentially a portable, immersive environment that contains a desk with a computer and three moveable display panels. Researchers can sit at the station and don 3-D glasses to review models on a smaller scale. The visualization center also contains a six-panel, two-dimensional video wall that can be used to view any images at high resolution, including 3-D images generated in the CAVE. Both can be used for many interdisciplinary projects, Shader says.

“With the ability to see pores (in reservoir rock), the 3-D Visualization Center becomes extremely important,” says Mohammad Piri, a UW SER associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering.

Piri has used an array of 3-D X-ray scanners to view flow through porous media at varying resolutions to determine the best methods to extract oil and gas from unconventional and conventional reservoirs. The 3-D CAVE can help determine properties of the rock that affect the ability to recover oil from a particular reservoir, Piri says.

In Super 3-D

The 3-D Visualization Lab is connected, via separate 10-gigabyte lines, to UW’s Advanced Research Computing Center (ARCC) and the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) in Cheyenne. This allows academics and their students, as well as industry researchers, to enter their raw data and model simulations of reservoirs. For the energy industry, such models can provide information ranging from geophysical data of the subsurface to determining the most efficient drill path in porous media.

“The idea is to make it easy for faculty -- either using Mount Moran or Yellowstone -- to conduct their computational research on these resources, send their findings to the Energy Innovation Center, and be able to visualize their results at the 3-D Visualization Center,” Shader says.

The computing cluster, nicknamed “Mount Moran” after a mountain peak in western Wyoming’s Tetons, and a large-scale storage system make up the ARCC. Yellowstone is the nickname for the Cheyenne-based supercomputer.

“We’re inundated with so much data that we’re finding it difficult to understand,” Shader says. “Pictures help … I think almost every researcher is confronted with, ‘How do I explain my research? How do I make this meaningful to others?’ Having this 3-D visualization center on campus gives us a new tool.”

Northam agrees.

“This is becoming an important tool as our computing power increases,” he says. “The output information is so complex that, without visualizing it, it is difficult to understand.”

An innovative spark

While the 3-D Visualization Center provides many opportunities to conduct more detailed research in various energy sectors, the new asset also provides a chance for innovation -- for both faculty and students. Just as the iPhone now allows consumers to watch movies on their phone screens, Shader is optimistic this 3-D technology in a large-scale CAVE eventually can be reduced for use on a desktop computer for the masses.

“We want to enable research, but we also want to enable innovation. We want this technology around students and researchers who can improve this,” Shader says. “How can we transfer this to a larger audience and make it easier to use?”

Shader points to the recent example of then-UW graduate student Ashish Dhital who, last year, worked with Amy Banic, an assistant professor in the UW Computer Science Department, on a research project with the Idaho National Laboratory. Dhital and other UW computer science graduate students helped researchers there develop a menu control panel in Android tablet form, which is easier to handle than a Wii remote control during 3-D computer imaging.

“These 3-D labs enable energy research; enable innovation by transferring technology to more people; and play a large educational role,” Shader says. “You can use them as a tool for students to better understand the environment and science, and to explore.”

Zhang says she expects to use the 3-D CAVE as a future teaching aid. With this resource, students in her graduate-level course, Groundwater Flow & Transport Modeling, will be able to visualize fluid flow and contaminant transport simulation results.

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