Virtual Lab Allows Global Collaboration

Students can take classes, shoppers can buy groceries?the Internet contains tools for just about every task.

But while online courses proliferate, research?which goes hand-in-hand with education at the U?has yet to make forceful use of Web based tools.

But Thanh Truong, a University of Utah associate professor of chemistry, hopes to change that. His online chemistry lab is not only up and running, but also serving researchers from China to Germany.

Researchers and teachers from around the globe can perform virtual experiments for free?an especially useful tool for difficult or dangerous chemistry.

“This is among one of the first of its kind that’s available in chemistry research,” Truong said.

He officially announced the site’s creation in August. In September, he received funding from the National Science Foundation.

Any scientist, regardless of location, can calculate the properties of a reaction. It’s a set-up that Troung hopes will foster international collaboration.

A student in one country can perform reactions and get results. A student in another country can apply those results to his or her own research, he said.

On his site, Truong is developing a system to collect data from virtual experiments. Users will be able to browse through and share that information.

But while sharing may be the key to solving complex problems, it is not part of the traditional mindset of researchers.

“Research is very competitive. There is no prize for being second in research. Being second is re-inventing the wheel,” Truong said. “Because of that, people are less likely to share.”

As a result, research tools available in the public arena of the Internet are scarce. But so far, the Truong’s tool is freely available to anyone. Although as the site and its capabilities grow, the U may choose to change its status.

Truong expects the trend to continue?over the next several years, more Web based developments that make sharing and collaboration easier will appear, he said.

On top of its NSF funding, the laboratory has received initial support from the U’s Center for the Simulation of Accidental Fires and Explosions, which uses the site’s software to examine the molecular nature of fires and explosions

Thousands of reactions are involved, and the software behind the virtual laboratory works through these reactions, one by one. It yields basic information, describing the physical and chemical properties of a reaction?information needed to simulate actual fires and explosions, but difficult to measure from an experiment.

Truong is currently building the tools to run thousands of reactions simultaneously.

When a researcher enters a chemical reaction, the software calculates its properties.

With this information, researchers can improve the efficiency of a chemical process by better separating products, reducing or even recycling by-products.

The accuracy of the predictions increases along with the computing power available.

Previously, few chemists had access to the tools to perform virtual experiments.

But with the online lab, any student with a solid knowledge of chemistry can make use of computation.

Truong did not initially intended to put his software on the Web, but researchers who used the software encountered technical problems installing and running it. The solution: Post a working version where everyone could access it.

The lab is located at http://vklab.hec.utah.edu.

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