UD inventors develop diagnostic tool for trees
LaserBark inventor John VanStan, right, with mechanical engineering consultant Matthew Jarvis, second from right, and academic adviser Delphis Levia, left.
The LaserBark device measures bark microrelief.
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12:04 p.m., Sept. 15, 2009----An invention by a University of Delaware doctoral student can provide information about the biological and physiological characteristics of trees that will yield valuable information for forest scientists and ecologists.

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The LaserBarkTM, an automated instrument for the measurement of bark microrelief, was developed by John Van Stan, a Ph.D. candidate in geography, in conjunction with his adviser, associate professor Delphis Levia, and a mechanical engineering consultant, Matthew Jarvis.

The work grew out of Van Stan's master's thesis on the effects of bark microrelief on stemflow production. At the time, no instrument existed that could yield a high-resolution profile of bark microrelief, but Levia was aware of an earlier instrument developed by a botanist and lichenologist in the late 1960s that could be adapted and improved upon for Van Stan's work.

“I suggested to John that he develop a prototype instrument,” Levia says. “In typical fashion, John took the lead and developed the LaserBark. His thesis applied the newly developed technology to conduct pioneering work on stemflow production in relation to bark microrelief.”

The results of the thesis have been published in Ecohydrology, and a manuscript on the LaserBark will appear in IEEE Transactions on Instrumentation and Measurement later this year. Van Stan received an Outstanding Student Paper Award for the work at the 2009 American and Canadian Geophysical Unions' Joint Assembly in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He will receive the award at the December 2009 AGU conference in San Francisco.

“The device can supply high-resolution measurements of bark microstructure, which can be used to examine lichen and bryophyte distribution and relate changes in bark microrelief to disease, for example, beech bark disease, or stem dehydration,” Van Stan says. “We hope that this international award will help employ the instrument more broadly, thereby providing the global scientific community an opportunity to further our understanding of the functional ecology of forest ecosystems.”

A provisional patent application claiming the device has been filed and is pending at the U.S. Patent Office, and the UD Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships is seeking to commercialize it through patent licensing and associated collaborative research and development.

Right now, the LaserBark has only surface characterization capacity, so further work is needed to broaden its capabilities as well as its potential applications, which include nondestructive assessment of corrosion in pipes and other similar objects.

Although he is still a student, Van Stan has a good understanding of real-world scientific problems and solutions. As an undergraduate, he worked full-time at Tetratech NUS, Inc. in Newark, Del., to help pay for his education.

“John is a highly motivated self-disciplined scholar with a special interest in instrumentation and field methods,” says Levia. “I am confident that he will 'push the envelope' in developing new technologies to improve our understanding of water flux in wooded ecosystems.”

Van Stan plans to pursue a career in academia after he completes his Ph.D. in 2011.

For more information about the LaserBark, contact Brad Yops at (302) 831-0147 or [byops@udel.edu].

Article by Diane Kukich

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