Washington, Oct 28 : In a new project, scientists have used laptops to detect several earthquakes, taking the help of small accelerometer chips inside the machines.
The project is known as the project Quake Catcher Network (QCN).
Scientists have found out that the tiny accelerometer chip is a pretty good earthquake sensor as well, especially if the signals from lots of them are compared, in order to filter out more mundane sources of laptop vibrations, such as typing.
The project has about 1500 laptops connected in a network that has detected several tremors, including a magnitude 5.4 quake in Los Angeles in July this year.
Led by Elizabeth Cochran at the University of California, Riverside, and Jesse Lawrence at Stanford University, QCN uses the same BOINC platform for volunteer computing that projects like SETI@home rely on.
One of the benefits of this new technology is price.
Research-grade earthquake sensors typically cost between 10,000 dollars and 100,000 dollars. Though they are much more sensitive, and can detect the subtle signals of far-away quakes that laptops will never pick up, but they are expensive.
According to Lawrence, "With many more cheap sensors, instead of guessing where strong motions were felt by interpolating between sensors, we should be able to know where strong motions were felt immediately, because we have sensors there."
Another advantage is that QCN sensors can record the maximum ground shaking.
Many high-sensitivity sensors cut short the full extent of the oscillations they are measuring even for moderate earthquakes.
Lawrence said that with enough sensors, eventually "we should have the ability to triangulate earthquakes for earthquake early warning, providing several seconds of warning before the earthquake hits neighboring populated regions."
Carl Christensen, a distributed computing expert, is working on integrating stand-alone sensors that attach to desktop machines with USB connections.
These USB sensors can be as cheap as 30 dollars, and the idea is to have large numbers of them sponsored as educational tools for schools.
"The USB accelerometers will provide a stable backbone, without which the ever-changing configuration of laptops would not be quite as reliable," said Lawrence.
"The USB accelerometers can also mount directly to the floor, which means they will have better sensitivity to ground motions," he added.