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Lab News -- January 28, 2011

January 28, 2011

LabNews - January 28, 2011PDF (2.5 Mb)

Sandia security experts help Kazakhstan safely transport, store Soviet-era bomb materials

By Heather Clark

Subzero temperatures, curious intoxicated onlookers, and the logistics involved in providing security to transport nuclear materials 1,860 miles by train across the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan were just some of the challenges a

Sandia team overcame to complete the removal of spent fuel containing 11 tons of highly enriched uranium and 3.3 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from a Soviet-era nuclear breeder reactor.


MASSIVE CASKS containing spent nuclear fuel from the Soviet-era reactor at the Caspian Sea port city of Aktau. The casks were shipped from the reactor site to a location in northeast Kazakhstan. (Photo courtesy NNSA)

The successful removal of the materials — enough to make an estimated 775 nuclear weapons — stored in the reactor in the Caspian Sea port of Aktau in western Kazakhstan was a major milestone in Sandia’s and the nation’s nuclear nonproliferation efforts, says Dave Barber, who worked at the time for the Global Physical Security Program (6811), part of the International Homeland and Nuclear Security Strategic Management Unit.

The last concrete and steel cask was transferred to a long-term storage facility in northeast Kazakhstan on Nov. 18. The trip to transport the casks to their long-term storage facility would be like traveling from Washington, D.C., to Albuquerque through a sparsely populated, moonscape-like steppe.

The removal of the weapons-grade materials marks the completion of 14 years of work that began in 1996 under then-Sandian Roger Case, now retired. Dave took over the project at the start of its second phase in 2003, making about 45 trips to Kazakhstan to complete the work.

Making things safer in the world

“We’re making things safer in the world,” Dave says. “Before it was protected, the materials were vulnerable to theft by those who would steal them to build nuclear weapons. This project has secured enough material to make 775 nuclear weapons. That gives us a great feeling and should make people feel much better.”

NNSA oversaw the project as part of its Global Threat Reduction Initiative. In addition to Sandia, NNSA’s team also included Idaho, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Pacific Northwest national laboratories, the US Defense and State departments, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the International Atomic Energy Agency, several contractors, and the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

Sandia protected the fuel while it was stored at the BN-350 reactor and at a temporary, outdoor concrete storage pad in Aktau; along a journey by train across Kazakhstan to Kurchatov; while it was at another interim storage pad there; and along a truck route to a long-term concrete storage pad in northeast Kazakhstan.

Sandia also conducted vulnerability studies that Dave used to brief Congress, the Pentagon, and members of the National Security Council. Sandia, in conjunction with Albuquerque-based Technology Management Co., also provided extensive travel and international field logistics for the project, Dave says.

“The United States was very worried about this material not being protected well enough and that it could be stolen, so the United States offered to protect it,” Dave says. “In the interior, it would be much more difficult for adversaries to try to steal it.”

Reactor produced plutonium for Soviet weapons program

The BN-350 reactor at the Manigstau Atomic Energy Complex, which started operations in 1973, was a Soviet-era fast-breeder reactor used to produce plutonium for the former Soviet Union’s weapons program. It also generated steam for electricity, heat, and water desalination to provide drinking water. It was shut down by the Kazakh government in 1999.

The reactor sits on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. The busy port is a point of departure for ships carrying oil from Kazakhstan to Baku, Azerbaijan, where the oil then enters pipelines that take it to Europe.

The fuel rods were placed into canisters and then into 60 100-ton concrete and stainless steel casks. The casks were stored on a pad outside the reactor before being loaded into shipping containers to make the four-day train journey to Kurchatov, where they would be unloaded and placed onto trucks for the trip to their long-term storage facility.

Sandia worked with Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Interior troops, providing them with technical advice, communications equipment, and other support, Dave says.

“We talked to them a lot about how they would do a response to any incident that occurred and agreed on how this would be done,” Dave says.

To make sure all would go smoothly, Dave was one of three Americans who traveled on the train during a dry run of the journey in December 2009 before they began transferring the spent fuel rods. The trip was to ensure that the security plan worked, that the loading and unloading of the casks went off without a hitch, and that communications were reliable.

“The physical protection during the transportation was the most difficult part of the project,” Dave says.

John Franklin of National Security Studies Dept. 0545 researched options for procuring two rail cars that carried guards on the train, one serving as a backup in case the other was hit. Before the train left, rail crews checked the thousands of miles of tracks for explosives. The trains were given top priority as they crossed the country, Dave says.

At a late-night stop during the dry run, two intoxicated people approached guards and started asking questions about the train. Dave says Kazakh troops were called to the scene, where they arrested the two people.

The incident gave Dave reassurance that the systems Sandia and Kazakhstan had put in place would work.

'We could count the trees'

“It gave us a good feeling that indeed people were actually there, even though we didn’t always see them and they didn’t want to be seen and attract too much attention,” he says. “But it did emphasize that the plan was good and we felt much better about it.”

During that four-day train ride, Dave says he looked for changes in the terrain that adversaries could use to attack the trains along the route. He needn’t have worried.

“What we found was that one end of Kazakhstan looks much like the other end. It was very flat, no real hills, few trees,” he says. “We could count the number of trees.”

The real runs started in February, which brought on the next challenge: the weather.  Temperatures dropped to minus 42 Celsius, which was too cold for the cranes that unload casks from train to operate.

“The last thing we would want to do was to have those things drop,” he says.

Luckily, the temperature “warmed up” to minus 20 Celsius when the train arrived at its destination, so things could proceed as planned.

The 12 trips from Aktau to Kurchatov and then to the final location went smoothly, Dave says.

“There were no incidents during the hot runs when we had the fuel in there. We count that as a success,” he says.

In addition to Dave and John, the Sandia team also included Bruce Varnado (6833), who served as backup for Dave in Kazakhstan, Janine Donnelly and Carrie Wood (both 10668), and Linda Holle (10667). -- Heather Clark

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Tailoring biofuels to work with vehicles of today, tomorrow

By Mike Janes

At a Sandia-led workshop late last year, transportation industry experts concluded that research into advanced biofuels and combustion engines needs to be much more closely coupled in order to accelerate the transition to biofuels for the transportation sector.

With a Laboratories Directed Research and Development-funded project titled “Tailoring Next-Generation Biofuels and their Combustion in Next-Generation Engines” that assimilates the engine and combustion-chemistry expertise of Craig Taatjes (8353) and John Dec (8300) with that of biochemist Masood Hadi (8634), Sandia is putting its money where its mouth is.


COMBUSTION RESEARCHER Craig Taatjes (8353) adjusts a multiplexed chemical kinetics reactor at the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Sandia's unique machine (which is housed at LBNL) probes individual chemical reactions with isomeric resolution. Experiments on this machine will help examine the fundamental autoignition chemistry of potential new biofuels. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

“Everyone knows about the gap that has existed between biofuel developers and producers and engine combustion researchers, but it’s been a hard gap to bridge,” Craig says. “Sandia, however, is a unique institution, which affords us the opportunity to work side-by-side on this issue.”

The issue Craig refers to is the development of a biofuel that will work well in an internal combustion engine.

The biofuels being investigated for this project, Masood says, are produced by a class of fungi known as endophytes that live between plant cell walls. Professor Gary Strobel from Montana State University, a collaborator on the project, is an expert in such fungi, some of which have already been used to make chemicals such as Taxol (an anti-cancer drug). The cellular material in plant walls contains molecules that can be converted into hydrocarbon compounds that work well as fuels for internal combustion engines. Some of these are similar to the hydrocarbon compounds found in petroleum-derived fuels.

The beauty of the endophytic fungi, Masood says, is that there is no need for the cost-intensive industrial processes typically required to break down biomass. “These things can turn crystalline cellulosic material directly into fuel-type hydrocarbons without any mechanical breakdown,” he points out.

These fungi, in other words, are designed by nature to grow on cellulose and to digest it, forming fuel-type hydrocarbons as a by product of their metabolic processes. Through genetic manipulation, the Sandia team — which includes Eiza Yu (8632) and Mary Tran-Gyamfi (8634) — hopes first to identify these pathways, and then to improve the yield and tailor the molecular structure of the hydrocarbons it produces.

“This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances," says Strobel in a Society for General Microbiology press release, referring to Ascocoryne sarcoides, an example of the type of endophytic fungi used in this project. “The fungus can even make diesel compounds from cellulose.”

Finding a fuel-friendly mix

The bioresearch team is using genetic sequencing to catalog the pathways and other molecular biology techniques to understand how changes in feedstock determine the type and amount of hydrocarbons the fungi make, with a long-term goal of engineering greater quantities of the desirable fuel species. Craig and John, meanwhile, are able to experiment with the main compounds produced in the molecular “soup” and give feedback to Masood’s team on their ignition chemistry and engine performance. The ideal outcome, John says, is to “dial in” the right feedstocks combined with the right set of genes to produce the preferred blend of compounds to go into an engine.

The first step has been to learn what kinds of compounds the fungus makes naturally on its own. “There is a large spectrum of compounds present, but many of them — octane, for example — are already well understood with regards to their combustion chemistry,” Craig says. “Others, we just don’t know much about, so we need to do research on their ignition chemistry and how they behave in an engine.” He adds that “before the biologists start modifying the fungus, the natural products will already give us specific targets to investigate from a fundamental chemistry point of view.”

The team, Craig says, is working with professor William H. Green at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop an ignition chemistry model that can predict the performance of the classes of compounds made by the fungi.

John says the fungus offers good versatility with respect to the variety of fuel-like molecules it provides for possible engine experimentation.

Masood and his colleagues are doing their part to build up the understanding of the distribution of molecules produced by the various fungi, at which point they can genetically tailor them to produce more of the “right” kinds of compounds that suit the needs of engine combustion. Initially, the team will purchase (from commercial sources) the main compounds produced by the fungus so that chemistry and engine testing can proceed simultaneously with development of the fungus and production techniques.

Eventually, the team anticipates that enough hydrocarbons will be extracted from those produced by the fungus to test in the lab, or even in an engine. “We hope, in the end, to have a biofuel that was developed in conjunction with the development of the combustion model for that biofuel,” Craig says.

John, who runs the homogeneous-charge compression ignition (HCCI) lab at Sandia’s Combustion Research Facility (CRF), says experiments on the HCCI platform offer good fundamental information on fuel auto-ignition behavior that can be related to performance in other engine types such as spark-ignition or diesel, as well as to performance in HCCI engines. Advanced HCCI engines are being considered by industry as a more efficient alternative for future automobiles. These engines can operate using a variety of fuels, making HCCI a good starting point for the experimentation and chemical measurements necessary for a project of this type.

Engine, biofuels collaboration a no-brainer

Craig, John, and Masood all say that it makes perfect sense for Sandia to invest in a project that focuses on an engine’s interaction with a new biofuel.

“Any fuel that’s going to make it in the marketplace is going to have to blend with gasoline,” John says. “A new biofuel, whether it comes from the Ascocoryne fungus or another source, will be more useful commercially if we have first learned how it will affect combustion processes,” Masood adds.

While Craig and John both note that there are a broad range of other technical issues that engine manufacturers must test and worry about in addition to ignition chemistry, the success of this project will prove important as the industry works toward developing biofuels that can displace petroleum in the long term.

Masood says the project is unique to this team for a couple of reasons.

“This is completely out of our comfort zone, but in a good way,” he says with a smile. “Although we know how to grow things in the lab and can manipulate DNA, we’ve never worked with an endophytic fungus before. Plus, working with the combustion experts is new to us.”

On the fuel-utilization side, Craig says the usual model would be for Sandia’s combustion researchers to learn of a potential new fuel to work with and then to “figure out” whether it was viable for a combustion engine. With this project, he says, the combustion experts are working directly with the biofuels researchers to understand from the start just what will work best as fuel for internal combustion engines, accelerating the pace of alternative fuel development and the associated engine optimization. “We have a rare opportunity to decide for ourselves what the fuel is going to look like and can build our own optimization loop.”

“There is a whole new range of potential fuels now with biomass,” John says. “These biofuels are going to have to be compatible with existing engines, since you’re just not going to get something into the marketplace that requires both a completely new fuel and a new engine. So the new fuels will have to work well with both existing engines and advanced engines like HCCI or low-temperature diesel combustion. Only then will you be able to sell the fuel at the pump and get your new high-efficiency, low-emissions engine into the marketplace.” -- Mike Janes

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Richard Murphy a ‘person to watch’ in supercomputing world

By Neal Singer

Richard (Rich) Murphy (1422) has been identified as a “person to watch,” not by the CIA but by the relatively venerable online computing magazine HPCwire, which each year names a handful of researchers its editors believe to be doing the world’s most interesting work in supercomputing.

Rich is principle investigator for Sandia’s X-caliber project, a DARPA-funded high-performance computing effort to radically lower the power usage of computer systems at all scales by 2018.

“If we don't solve the power problem,” Rich says, “we'll have to stop building bigger, faster supercomputers, or they'll become resources that cost as much to use as superconducting supercolliders, which will really limit their impact.”

 Rich also led the launch this year of the newly created Graph500 test, an internationally used benchmark tool that offers an alternative to the Linpack500 in measuring the ability of computers to manipulate large-scale data sets (Lab News, Nov. 3, 2010, and Dec. 6, 2010).

“In the past, we designed supercomputers to do physics — that's why FLOPS are so important — but this new kind of test measures memory access and the ability to marshal huge data sets efficiently,” he says. “Graph500 is a test for a totally new area.” Such areas can be found, for example, in following the huge number of barrels of oil in transit around the world today in ships, or keeping track of the medical records of every patient in the US.

In a sense, Rich says, the goal is to go from using supercomputers to simulate a hypothesis to building supercomputers capable of generating a hypothesis.

“In the example of medical informatics, we know that genetics plays a role in how certain drugs or courses of treatment work. When moving these things from clinical trials to much larger populations, these techniques could be used to figure out how to personalize courses of treatment based on genetic or environmental factors. We could use knowledge discovery to figure out in very specific populations how effective a new medicine is, and actually recommend courses of action.”

The transition to exascale will be challenging, Rich says. “Unlike the tera-to-petascale transition, we know we can't just scale commodity architectures: the barriers have to do with fundamental physics. Perhaps even more significantly, the tasks we want the computer to achieve are changing. It’s not just 3-D physics anymore. This changes the computer’s architectural requirements and how we design the system.

 “But I think we have to have this capability to maintain our national competitiveness.”

            To come up with such thoughts, it helps to have had a nerdish childhood. Rich built his first network protocol and programming language in high school, and had an early idea of building a three-dimensional online world with the goal of selling stuff on it — “think Second Life crossed with Amazon before Second Life existed”— but that bubble burst before he could implement it, he says.

He’s one of the few people in the 168-year history of Notre Dame to hold four degrees from that institution — a Bachelor of Science in computer science, a Bachelor of Arts in government, and a master’s and doctorate, both in computer science and engineering. - Neal Singer

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