LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Caves are some of the last places on the planet left to explore. Though caving is relatively safe, if something goes wrong deep inside the earth, a rescue can take days in part because cell phones and walkie-talkies don't work underground. But now a remarkable teenager in New Mexico has invented a device that may significantly speed the rescue process by allowing cavers to text from deep underground.
As Brad Horn reports from Carlsbad, New Mexico, the young man's invention may have other applications as well.
BRAD HORN: The kid is smart - so smart, he says stuff like this...
Mr. ALEXANDER KENDRICK (Winner, 2009 International Science Fair): I rewrote my receive program (unintelligible) noise projection system that can throw out Navy beacon pulses that could intermix with my signal. And so that way...
HORN: Sixteen-year-old Alexander Kendrick won the 2009 International Science Fair for inventing this cave texting device. The award got the teen from Los Alamos, New Mexico a new computer, a trip to Switzerland and $12,000 in checks.
I wanted to find out why this thing was such a big deal. And the next thing I knew, I was hanging from a rope in the bowels of the earth and groaning under my breath.
God help me.
I was with a team of cavers in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico heading 1,000 feet underground to test Kendrick's invention, which is something like a computer attached to a ham radio. It transmits data using low-frequency radio waves that can penetrate rock more easily than high-frequency transmissions like those in FM broadcasts.
If this test succeeded, it would be the deepest known underground digital communication ever to take place in the United States. Why would anyone want to text from nearly 1,000 feet underground? Here's why: In a 1991 New Mexico cave rescue, it took 170 people four days to save a woman with a broken leg. The rescue team had to lay miles of telephone line in order to stay in touch with the surface. If they'd had Alex's radio, the rescue time may have been cut in half. That could make the difference between life or death.
The other reason this thing's a pretty big deal.
Dr. DIANA NORTHUP (Microbiologist, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque): Come on, I'll show you the lab.
HORN: Science. This is Diana Northup, a microbiologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Dr. NORTHUP: There are some nasty chemicals here in the lab, so don't touch stuff.
HORN: Her research lab is full of cave bacteria in Petri dishes. Northup tells me that scientists find microorganisms in these deep caves that might have the potential to kill superbugs.
Dr. NORTHUP: Microorganisms that live in such a low-nutrient environment actually put out antibiotics, they produce them.
HORN: But scientists think one of the biggest threats to this emerging source of antibiotics is actually the scientists themselves. People contaminate the sensitive cave environment just by being there. In fact, researchers believe the more they visit the cave, the less likely they are to find antibiotics there. Northup thinks that by connecting data recorders to Alex's radio, scientists could remotely transmit information about the cave environment.
Dr. NORTHUP: So a cave radio that allows you to beam data to the surface rather than visiting it in person can be extremely valuable. It could save the cave.
(Soundbite of cave)
HORN: Back in the cave, we arrived at the test spot exactly 946 feet underground. The radio is being set up on the edge of a big pool of blue-green water pocked with stalagmite islands. It was 68 degrees, but incredibly humid.
Alex and the team pulled pieces of white PVC tubing from their backpacks and assembled the radio's antenna, which looks like a six-foot-wide tick-tack-toe frame with wire wrapped around it. His dad, Brian, was about to hike to an identical unit sitting directly above us on the surface.
Mr. BRIAN KENDRICK: So, now we have two hours to get it in place.
Mr. A. KENDRICK: One hour and 59 minutes, actually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. A. KENDRICK: Are you getting nervous?
Mr. B. KENDRICK: No. You're making me nervous.
HORN: They synchronize their watches, and Brian and another caver climb the steep, dusty slope above us. And then we waited. Two hours later, after calibrating the devices, Alex typed the word happy on a rubber keyboard and pushed send. Up above on the surface, his father stared at a small screen hoping to see the word.
Mr. B. KENDRICK: Four, three, two, one. Here it comes, let's hope. Any second now he should send us something. Let's hope. So, we missed the H, but I got appy. That's excellent. We got it. That's digital data coming through at 950 feet, roughly.
HORN: Now, Alex has to fine tune the radio to make it smaller and tougher and easier for rescue crews to get down into caves. That will have to wait, though, because he's busy working on his 2010 science fair project a device that finds underground rivers by measuring their electromagnetic currents. I don't know what problem he'll solve next, but I hear there's this thing called global warming.
For NPR News, I'm Brad Horn.
HANSEN: And if you want to see photos of Alexander Kendrick's cave radio test, go to npr.org.
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