Franz engages students with new cosmic-ray sensor

· 3 min read

Franz engages students with new cosmic-ray sensor

Trenton Franz (far right) and his two student workers, William Avery and Catie Finkenbiner, with the new cosmic-ray sensor.

Trenton Franz is using a cosmic-ray sensor to gather data on soil moisture and develop more efficient irrigation systems.

Franz, an assistant professor and hydrogeologist in UNL’s School of Natural Resources, is one of 13 UNL faculty selected for the 2013-2014 Research Development Fellows Program. The initiative helps pre-tenure faculty successfully compete for grants.

The cosmic-ray sensor project builds upon Franz’s post-doctoral work at the University of Arizona in Tucson. While there in 2011, Franz was a part of COSMOS, a National Science Foundation-supported project that used cosmic-ray neutrons to measure soil moisture on the horizontal scale of hectometers and depths of decimeters

When SNR hired him in 2013, Franz said he was excited about the research possibilities that the new position presented.

“I was looking forward to being able to buy all the cool research toys that I got to dream up while being a postdoc,” he said. “I was also really looking forward to being a mentor to students, as I had some great ones along the way.”

Both of those aspirations have already come to fruition with the arrival of a new cosmic-ray sensor housed in Franz’s lab.

The sensor measures soil moisture every minute with a horizontal footprint of a 300-meter radius circle and a penetration depth of 30 centimeters. Two students working in Franz’s lab will conduct a majority of the hands-on data collection, Franz said.

“This research excites me for two reasons,” said William Avery, an environmental studies major who graduated in December and will begin his master’s degree program in the fall. “First, when applied to questions of water use efficiency, this technology has the potential to improve precision agriculture and ultimately grow food with less water. Second, the novelty of this project means that there may be other as of yet undiscovered applications that could be significant.”

Catie Finkenbiner, a senior water science major from Omaha, said that she hopes working with the sensor and alongside Franz will complement her postgraduate plans.

“I am really interested in grad school, so I hope the experience I gain this summer working with (Franz) and on this project will enhance my grad school application,” she said. “I am excited about the new equipment because it means I will get to go out in the field a lot this summer, and I love field work.”

Franz, Avery and Finkenbiner collected their first data set in early May, and will continue through the summer.

“We are exploring ways to use the sensor data to help manage hundreds of center pivots simultaneously,” Franz said. “This data, combined with remote sensing products, will be very beneficial for helping trigger irrigation at optimal times and in optimal amounts.”

Franz, who played football as an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming, earned master’s and doctoral degrees at Princeton University. His dissertation, “Characterizing Dryland Surface Hydrological Dynamics Using Ecohydrological Modeling and Geophysical Observations,” was completed through six trips to central Kenya.

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