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Lab News -- November 18, 2011

November 18, 2011

LabNews - November 18, 2011PDF (1.8 Mb)

Shock therapy: With renovations, Sandia’s workhorse Mechanical Shock Facility ready to take on more jobs

By Sue Major Holmes

Sandia’s newly renovated Mechanical Shock Facility in Tech Area 3 looks much as it always did from the outside, a tall metal building bumped up against a concrete bunker. But after a year of construction, the facility reopened with two actuators that can take on tests it couldn’t do before.


TEST PREPARATION — Neil Davie (left) and Adam Slavin (both 1534) demonstrate putting a component into a test fixture in front of the Mechanical Shock Facility’s new 20-inch actuator, which was part of a yearlong renovation project on the facility. (Photo by Randy Montoya)


The actuators feature new design principles, largely internal, developed by Mechanical Shock test director Neil Davie (1534). This design produces higher speed shock tests with improved quality for Sandia’s shock-testing mission, most of which concern weapons components or subsystems, Neil says.

Senior manager Dennis Miller (1530) says the facility fills a critical gap between tests that can be conducted in small laboratory-scale facilities and those that require the high speeds and energy levels of the Rocket Sled Test Facility.

“The Mechanical Shock Facility can accommodate sizeable test packages and achieve impressive test velocities,” Dennis says.

Mechanical Shock went back into operation in mid-September, and Neil and Adam Slavin (1534) say its test schedule is filling up. The facility is part of the Validation and Qualification Sciences Experimental Complex, where components are subjected to abnormal environments to make sure they will perform safely and reliably under all kinds of conditions.

The actuators are similar to a large hydraulic cylinder with a piston and piston rod. Mechanical Shock’s two actuators are operated pneumatically, however.

Here’s how it works: You pressurize the chamber behind the piston with nitrogen gas held in equilibrium by means of a special seal. You park a 750-pound ram sled — a large block of gold-colored aluminum — up against the actuator on a sled track and park the target sled about 15 feet down the same track. A valve is opened, breaking the seal and sending high pressure rushing into a chamber. That propels the piston out at hundreds of miles an hour, shooting the ram sled into the target sled, which has the test item bolted to the side opposite the collision.

The shot occurs in mere milliseconds. You’d miss it if you blinked while watching the closed-circuit television housed in a horseshoe-shaped bank of controls in an adjoining room.

A different operating principle

Mechanical Shock’s new 20-inch actuator — the measurement refers to the internal piston size — uses a fundamentally different operating principle than the aging 18-inch actuator it replaced, Neil says.

 “Because of the design changes, we are able to get significantly higher speeds,” which he says was a key reason behind renovating the nearly 50-year-old facility that was last refurbished in the 1980s. 

“The higher speeds provide an expanded mission space to do tests we couldn’t do on an actuator before.  Overall, the shock pulses that we can produce are more repeatable and higher quality,” Neil says.

The new actuator can accelerate sleds at up to 350 feet per second, although in the first weeks after reopening it ran tests at about 200 feet per second along the 120-foot track that replaced the previous

90-foot track.

Speed, the weight on the sleds, and the felt, rubber, or plastic cushioning mounted between the sleds determine the shock pulse exerted on the test item, Neil says. Impacts simulate shock ranging from tens of G’s to several thousand G’s. A recent test used 10 inches of felt, taped into a stack, to produce a 4,000 G shock.

“We go through lots of yellow tape (securing felt pads to sleds),” jokes Adam, who will take over when Neil retires Dec. 23.

A 12-inch actuator built in 2005 served as a prototype for evaluating the new design. The prototype replaced an older 12-inch actuator and is used for testing smaller components.

“The new actuators are more reliable and the new sleds are more reliable, so we spend more time on working on the true mission of shock testing and not so much on the care and feeding of the hardware,” says Adam.

The renovation eliminated a twin-rail track, which Neil says was difficult to align and prevented sleds from gliding smoothly. Now the sleds travel on a precision-machined and aligned monorail, a sophisticated version of a design used at Sandia decades ago, he says.

The actuators are operated at pressures up to 5,000 psi using nitrogen gas converted from liquid nitrogen stored on-site. Neil says the nitrogen supply system has the advantage of being clean and more rapidly replenished, lessening the turn-around time between tests compared to the high-pressure air compressor it replaced.

It was “a risky leap of technology” to turn to the new actuator design because the machine alone cost more than $1 million and the pneumatic seals are being used well beyond speeds approved by the seal manufacturer, Neil says.

The rest of the work included such things as the nitrogen system, fire suppression, safety systems, and general renovation, says Paul Schlavin (4822), Test Capability Revitalization (TCR) project manager. TCR is aimed at revitalizing large-scale test capabilities to allow the Labs to continue to lead in stockpile stewardship, weapon design and modeling, and simulation science.

Rod May (1505), program manager on the Mechanical Shock renovation, says TCR work will bring many of Sandia’s large-scale test facilities up to current standards and allow them to operate for the next 10 to 15 years.

Upcoming TCR projects include more work on Mechanical Shock, plus work on the 10,000-foot Rocket Sled Track, Large Centrifuge, and Vibration facilities, all in  Tech Area 3, and the wind tunnel in Tech Area 1’s Experimental Aerosciences facility, Paul says. He breaks it down this way: Phase 1 (2001-2005) completed projects on the Aerial Cable and Thermal Test Complex, while Phase 2 (2005-2013) has plans to upgrade facilities and equipment in both Tech Area 1 and Tech Area 3.

Some years, Mechanical Shock might do 10 to 15 projects, each needing five to 10 tests, Neil says. Each program also might require calibration shots to adjust test parameters to its particular needs.

Neil and Adam estimate the renovated facility can do up to five shots a day. They predict a busy future with upcoming programs.

That makes Neil’s upcoming retirement after 33 years at Sandia bittersweet.

“My previous manager said, ‘Neil, you can’t retire. You have all these new toys to bring up to speed and use to develop new techniques with,’” he says. - Sue Major Holmes

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Anthony Wingate honored as NNSA Defense Programs Employee of Quarter

By Sue Major Holmes

NNSA’s Defense Programs has chosen manager J. Anthony Wingate (422) as Sandia’s Employee of the Quarter, an award given to people for going beyond the call of duty in supporting NNSA missions.


NNSA Defense Programs has chosen J. Anthony Wingate (422) as Sandia’s Employee of the Quarter, an award given to people for going beyond the call of duty in supporting NNSA missions. Anthony, seen here in front of a W76 display at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, was chosen for his role in creating a streamlined process that organizations can follow to gain ISO 9001:2008 registration. (Photo by Randy Montoya)


Anthony was chosen in August for his role in creating a streamlined process that organizations can follow to gain ISO 9001:2008 registration, a process that Center 400 recently used in obtaining its registration in less than half the time and cost of typical registrations. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) program is a worldwide industry standard that emphasizes customer satisfaction through quality management practices, focusing on following the best processes for every step.

 “It’s a way of measuring that you’re doing what you say you’re going to do and that you have confidence or evidence in place to support it,” says Anthony, head of subsystem and component quality in Surety Assessment and Engineering Center 400.

He and manager Dennis Owens (424), co-leader on the project commissioned by Center 400 Director Rick Fellerhoff, believe any Sandia center can improve engineering management practices by following the approach created for Surety Assessment and Engineering’s successful ISO process. Anthony and Dennis say they wanted to address affordability and cut implementation time.

Dennis, who nominated Anthony, says the process can’t be done by one person alone. He says it starts by forming a team, and “Anthony was a great partner to make this happen.”

He also says the recognition given Anthony demonstrates to others at Sandia that ISO registration can be done faster and with fewer resources. The key, he says, is keeping in mind the idea of preventing and reducing defects when designing a quality management system.

ISO registration varies by such factors as the size and mission of an organization, but can take more than two years and run hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, Dennis says.

The center’s template narrowed the team to a few key people and stressed that designing a quality assurance process is as important as engineering a product. Dennis says the final focus is on managing better.

“This process has opened our eyes to where we are today and where we want to be in our future and what that looks like,” he says.

Anthony says streamlining takes on added importance in this era of tighter budgets.

The more efficient process was planned and carried out in three events. The first, lasting two days in July 2010, developed a centerwide quality management manual — integral to the ISO process. While some manuals run 50 to 60 pages, Dennis interpreted ISO’s standard to mean manuals should be no more than 10, Anthony says.

Advance planning brought together a team to study good and not-so-good manuals, which ultimately allowed team members to develop a 10-page quality manual, he says.

 “The intent is to have every resource on a team, whether it’s facilities, management, someone from budget, and whatever you need, to achieve the planned output,” Anthony says. The newly created manual was tweaked and finalized over another week, and a second two-day event the following month worked out procedures to implement it.

The third meeting in late fall 2010 focused on department-level procedures — in essence, individual department plans.

Anthony and Dennis say those procedures are critical, and that the system must balance what’s common to the whole organization with the autonomy of each department. To accomplish their goal, they also used Lean Six Sigma principles, which can help solve challenges in NW missions or mission support, such as HR or ES&H in nuclear weapons and Work for Others programs. 

“Organizations are dynamic. People are changing, the work is changing,” Dennis says. “We are a center of various technical capabilities and as customer requirements change, each department can respond appropriately without having to change the whole quality management system design.”

An independent auditor litmus-tested the results, then ISO’s formal British Standards Institution (BSI) auditing process began. BSI did its audit early this year, making what Anthony describes as “minor adjustments.” Registration came through in March.

The NNSA award was “an amazing honor for me,” says Anthony, who has been with Sandia 16 years. “I generally do what I do because I like to do it, I see the value in doing it, and if it can help a greater cause, I give my full support.” -- Sue Major Holmes

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Seeing microbes as individuals

By Patti Koning

Microbes, the most abundant life form on earth, live everywhere — in air and water, in extreme heat and freezing cold, in soil and rocks, and inside our bodies, where they outnumber human cells by a factor of 10:1. Despite this ubiquity, we know very little about microbes because the vast majority, 90 percent to 99 percent, cannot be cultured and characterized using traditional laboratory techniques.


STUDYING MICROBES ONE AT A TIME — µFlowFISH, shown here with researchers Peng Liu and Robert Meagher, is an integrated microfluidics device that combines fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) and flow cytometry, enabling single-cell analysis. The device, currently being used to analyze samples from the Hanford Superfund site, could become a powerful tool in understanding bacteria from the human microbiome. (Photo by Randy Wong)

One solution to this problem is to take culturing in the laboratory, in the traditional sense, out of the picture.

“Our idea is to develop culture-independent techniques for the microbial communities that are hard to access using existing technologies, whether it’s because the sample is too small or the environment is too complex to replicate in a lab,” says Anup Singh (8621).

One of the harshest environments is at the Hanford Superfund Site in southeastern Washington state, where cleanup, described as one of the largest and most complex projects in the country, has been ongoing since plutonium production ceased in 1987. A multitude of cleanup strategies are being employed at Hanford, including bioremediation.

 “There is evidence to suggest that naturally occurring bacteria in harsh environments like Hanford may be cleaning up some of the contamination,” says Robert Meagher (8621). “If we could somehow harness and leverage the bacteria’s capability to assist in cleanup, that would be huge. But first, you have to understand the bacteria, what they are doing, and what we can do to encourage that natural process.”

There has been a lot of research over the years using traditional microbiology techniques, including culture-independent techniques like PCR and micro arrays, to understand the dynamics of that microbial community. While that work has yielded some good information, Robert says a complementary approach is needed, one that looks at the bacteria on a single-cell basis.

 “When you work with a large sample from a place like Hanford, you have radionuclides from the uranium that was processed there and many different heavy metals,” Anup says. “On a broad level, you can see what is there and what is happening, but you can’t connect any particular function back to specific bacteria. This shotgun approach can give you a lot of information quickly, but not much detail.”

Over the past year, the Sandia team adapted fluorescence in situ hybridization and flow cytometry onto an integrated microfluidics device, called µFlowFISH, that can analyze small samples, one cell at a time. “With our device, once you insert the cell sample, the whole process is contained, so the chance of introducing

contamination is very low,” says Peng Liu (8621). “It’s also very efficient because all of the operations are automated and can work with such small sample volumes.”

The team analyzed two samples of less than 100 microliters each, taken from the Hanford site at different times of the year (October and February), and looked for changes in population of Pseudomonas, which is believed to play an important role in the microbial community. As a proof-of-concept, they compared those results with analysis of the same samples performed by traditional benchtop methods and found them to be in excellent agreement. These results were published in a paper titled “Microfluidic fluorescence in situ hybridization and flow cytometry (µFlowFISH)” that appeared in Lab on a Chip in August.

While the paper focuses on the ability to analyze very small samples, the ability to study cells one at a time has other advantages. “With population-level measurements, subtle differences between bacteria can get averaged out,” says Anup. “Bacteria can react differently to the same thing, just like people. There is a lot of value in determining the common mechanisms that bacteria use to cope with a common stressor and the things that change from cell to cell. The only way to get this information is to look at each cell individually.”

In addition to environmental samples, the researchers are also analyzing microbes found in the human body.

“In recent years, there is a growing awareness that microbes within our body do much more than was previously thought,” says Robert. “For a long time we only studied the bacteria that made us sick, but the vast majority of microbes in our bodies are not pathogens. They are supposed to be there, and some of them are helpful to us, but we’re just beginning to understand how.” 

Just like microbes from harsh environments, many of these microbes are difficult to culture and analyze. The Sandia team is collaborating with the New York University College of Dentistry on an oral cancer study. Evidence suggests that bacteria normally present in the mouth may have an indirect role in the onset or progression of the disease.

The link is not as simple as the presence of a particular bacterium causing oral cancer. Rather, it’s likely a very complex chain of events.

“For example, some small change in the mouth allows a certain type of bacteria to colonize, which changes the environment of the mouth, and causes the body to respond in a particular way,” explains Robert.

Conventional microbiology methods focus on the most abundant bacteria found in a sample. “If there are 15 bacteria, for example, current techniques might allow you to look at only five that make up 99 percent of the population,” says Anup. “The other 1 percent are just noise in your experiment. But if you look at those five and cannot correlate them with what is happening, it begs the question, who are those other 10 bacteria and what are they doing? This is where we come in.”

The device could be a powerful tool in fighting foodborne illnesses. It took health officials in Germany more than a month to characterize the source of the recent E. coli outbreak, which killed at least 50 people.

“They were able to culture the bacteria, which was very lucky,” Anup says. “But if you can’t culture the bacteria — which could happen — then you could be treating people in ways that cause more harm than good.”

Anup says he expects that the team will complete a device that can take a single cell all the way to sequencing within the next two years.

“That would yield biological information that you can’t find anywhere else,” he says. “We don’t know where it will lead, but we can begin to pose different, more specific questions.” -- Patti Koning

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