Ottawa firm part of scientific breakthrough

The detection on Feb. 11 of gravitational waves was a “big day” for Ottawa’s Nanometrics, the firm’s vice-president of products told OBJ recently.

That’s because the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) used Nanometrics’ seismometers to make the scientific breakthrough.

“How cool is that? Our seismometers are (usually) used to detect events that are generally no more than a couple hours old,” Bruce Townsend says. “Now we’re part of something that is measuring something that is three billion years old and that seems a little out of this world.”

No kidding.

Albert Einstein predicted gravitational waves in 1916. Their detection 100 years later confirms what had been an unproven part of his theory of relativity and will allow scientists to learn much more about the outer portions of the universe.

The gravitational waves, confirmed last month at LIGO’s detectors in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington, came from a pair of black holes that merged 1.3 billion light years away from Earth. By the time they reached Earth, they required the most sensitive of instruments to detect them.

That’s where Nanometrics comes in.

Mr. Townsend says LIGO first approached the company in 2008 because it was interested in its flagship product, the Trillium 240 seismometer used to measure seismic waves generated by earthquakes.

“They needed something that would do the job very reliably, because this thing was going to be embedded deep within the innards of kilometres of vacuum tunnels,” Mr. Townsend says, adding that any repair job could take months to complete.

“So they needed to be assured that they were going to put something in that was going to just work.”

It soon became a custom engineering project for Nanometrics, Mr. Townsend says, as the company adjusted the Trillium 240 for LIGO’s needs, walked them through the technology and helped with the testing.

Final delivery of the product came in 2010, Mr.Townsend says, followed by a lot of waiting.

“They would occasionally have a question or two and we were there to support them, so we had periodic discussions, and the instruments proved their reliability,” he says. “We never had the discussions you don’t want to have: ‘Your instruments aren’t working. What’s wrong?’”

Nanometrics’ senior manager of corporate marketing, Mairi Miller, says the firm’s seismometers already measure nine out of 10 of the world’s earthquakes.

But this latest project takes the company to a whole new level, says Mr. Townsend.

“To be part of that raises our profile and reinforces to us and to others, our customers, employees, those who are considering Nanometrics as a career, just the breadth of applications to which our technology can be put.”

Mr. Townsend concedes that from a fundamental science point of view, it will likely be hard to top Nanometrics’ work with LIGO. From an applied science perspective, though, there is much work to do.

“We are making great strides in a number of areas,” he says, adding there is “significant interest” in induced seismicity – small- to medium-sized earthquakes due to manmade activities such as hydrofracking, where pressurized water gets injected into rock, creating cracks that allow natural gas and oil to flow more freely.

“All of the science that goes into everything from volcano monitoring, earthquake early warning, civil defence, all of those scientific areas are (where) we are collaborating both with research institutions and developing our understanding for our own science department.”

Nanometrics’ science department is part of the evolution of the company, says Ms. Miller.

Started in the early 1980s to develop communications equipment and electronic digitizing equipment for the seismic community, Nanometrics started developing its own seismometers in the early 2000s.

Since then it has become even more science-focused, she says, and has almost 150 people working in offices in Ottawa, Calgary, Beijing and a newly opened location in England.

“We have manufacturing, software engineering, hardware engineering and what underpins that, is the science,” she says. “Our customers are scientists, so we’re helping to enable science around the world.”