A high school student in Southern California built a low-cost seismometer that issues early earthquake warnings for homes and businesses. Costing less than $ 100 to manufacture today, the seismometer could one day be an ordinary home security device similar to a smart smoke detector, says its inventor Vivien He.
About the size of a Rubik’s cube and covered in clear acrylic, the seismometer has a sleek, consumer-ready look. The device’s geophone detects incoming ground movements, while on-board hardware and software translates the geophone’s electrical signals into a digital waveform. The device has detected all magnitude 3.0 earthquakes around Los Angeles since September 2020.
When the earthquakes are stronger than the user-defined alert threshold, the device can trigger the on-board alarm for on-site warning, send a text message to local subscribers of the regional alert service and can be controlled from a smartphone.
He presented his research on the device at the 2021 annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America (SSA) and also won a student travel grant from SSA, the only high school student among all grantees to attend the free conference. She is a student at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School at Rolling Hills Estates. He thanks his scientific research professor, Melissa Klose, for her advice on scientific research methods and her support in finding research opportunities.
He researched, designed, built and tested the entire device over a summer and fall spent at home under COVID-19 restrictions. His home lab occupies a corner of a bedroom with “bedside drawers full of little wires and geophones and extra components.” she said.
There was also the bathroom she borrowed where the bright light was good for soldering. For the acrylic laser cutting, her father helped her drag a table out of the garage into the yard as a safety measure.
“I did – don’t tell my mom – but I had a little fire once,” she admitted.
The seismometer device fills a gap in current earthquake early warning systems, he said, by providing a user-friendly, inexpensive but purpose-built alternative to more expensive, science-grade systems like the West Coast ShakeAlert system. Its device allows people living in earthquake areas to get a few to tens of seconds of warning to act and automatically shut down utilities and machines at work.
He set up a non-profit organization, Melior Earth, to help him deliver the device to those in need of an inexpensive earthquake early warning system. “I hope I will be able to provide this to low-income families and neighborhoods with less earthquake-resistant infrastructure,” she said.
Calm in quarantine
He got the idea for the seismometer after reading an article about the unusual seismic “calm” that descended on earth when lockdowns from COVID-19 put a halt to much of human activity. “I was wondering if I would be able to measure this from my own home,” she recalls, “and then it quickly evolved into, I wonder if I can measure at home and apply it to early warning in the event of an earthquake? “
She started reading about earthquake early warning and building a giant three-ring binder with highlighted articles, many from SSA newspapers. One of his favorite researchers in the field was Richard M. Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismology Laboratory.
“I really enjoyed the way he explained the earthquake early warning systems and the limitations of the current systems,” he said.
The research gave He confidence that she could build a low-cost device for early warning of earthquakes, taking a consumer-based approach over the conventional approach based on public stations. After that, it was time to understand the components, programming and design. However, she did not have much expertise for the project, as much of the necessary skills and knowledge was not part of the school curriculum.
“I went to an MIT hackathon the other day, and what they said is the secret to hackers is that they just google everything, right?” she said. “And it’s kind of like what I did for this project, like, oh, I don’t know how that works, just google it!” “
As he will discuss in his SSA presentation, the device has evolved over time as its skills improve and it fixes design issues along the way. In addition to its alert and notification functions, the final design contains a data card that can hold up to four years of standard seismic waveform files that can also be used for seismological studies.
“Hey, do you hear that?”
He plugged in his first seismometer one night after midnight last September. “And then I fell asleep, then the next day I woke up and there had been an earthquake in Los Angeles and I was like, oh, that’s fate!”
She compared the seismic signal captured by her device to that produced by a US Geological Survey station near her home, “and the waveform was the same,” she recalls.
One of the first hits of her testing period came when “my family was all in the living room and we were all talking and the device started beeping and I said,” Hey, do you hear that? “And they were like, ‘Is this an earthquake?’ And then the suspensions started shaking,” she said.
The seismometer has since successfully detected several recent earthquakes in southern California, and he has participated in science fairs in his school district and in Los Angeles County. There, she won the finalist award at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which drives her to compete internationally afterwards. In addition, she won the Association of Women Geoscientists Award, the Cheryl Saban Self-Worth Foundation for Women & Girls 1st Place Award and Scholarship, and the Professional Engineers in California Government’s Marylin Jorgenson-Reece Award of Excellence and Scholarship .
He, who turned 17 in February, is working on obtaining a utility patent for the device. She plans to use her non-profit organization to encourage consumer adoption of the device, especially to make earthquake early warning accessible to low-income countries, regions and people.
“The bottom line is that it would be a consumer product, but I’m not focused on monetary gain,” she explained. “My focus is more on science and fair on the impact in general on people and on preventing earthquake disasters.”