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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 53, No. 7        April 6, 2001
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

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Compressed air as energy source; Bi-national laboratory; Ultra-precise timekeeper


Solution to some of country's energy woes might be little more than hot air

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By Chris Burroughs

The solution to some of the country's energy woes might be little more than hot air.

That's a route Sandia researchers are helping explore in an inactive limestone mine in northeastern Ohio.

A Sandia team led by Steve Bauer (6113) has been working with Houston-based Haddington Ventures and its subsidiary Norton Energy Storage LLC to determine the feasibility of using a 2,200-foot-deep inactive mine near Norton, Ohio, as the storage vessel for a compressed air energy storage (CAES) power plant.

"The intent is to cycle air pressure into the mine using compressors during off-peak electrical power times like evening and weekends to increase air pressure in the mine," Steve says. "During the daily peak needs for electricity, air pressure will be bled off through modified combustion turbines to generate electricity. The energy is stored as pressure, but the mine must hold air to store the pressure." Working pressures in the mine will range between about 1,600 and 800 psi.

Sound impossible? Not to Haddington and Norton Energy. The goal is to have the plant on line in two years. In October 1999 Norton Energy purchased the site and the limestone mine, and in July 2000 Norton Energy signed an agreement with the City of Norton to cooperate to build the plant. The appropriate permits are currently being sought through the state's regulatory agencies. Norton Energy will build and operate the plant. On March 20, the Ohio Power Siting Board issued a staff report recommending approval of authorization to build the plant.

While the technological concept of compressed air energy storage is more than 30 years old, only two such plants exist in the world -- a ten-year-old-facility in McIntosh, Ala., about 40 miles north of Mobile, and a 23-year-old plant in Germany, both in caverns created in salt deposits. The Norton mine will be the first in a limestone mine.

Sandia's role has been to characterize the rock mechanics and air-flow properties of the limestone and overlying shale in response to pressure cycling. The characterization included

in situ and laboratory testing and analyses to assess the existing geologic, hydrologic, and rock physics data. Without clear understanding of the behavior of the rock in the pressurized state, and the behavior of fluids in the rock, regulatory and funding agencies would have been reluctant to support the project. Sandia teamed with Hydrodynamics, a consulting group, in completing the characterization.

Steve and other members of the Sandia team spent six months -- November 1999 through April 2000 -- in Norton studying the mine's geology.

"Most of that time we were underground taking core samples, completing a number of

in situ measurements, and studying the physical nature of the exposed rock."

Dense rock, few fractures

The Sandia team working on the project found that the mine consisted of a very dense rock with low permeability. It was stiff and strong and had few, if any, natural fractures. The absence of open natural fractures is uncommon in rock. The flow analyses indicated that pressurized air will move less than 100 feet in 50 years away from the mine -- which will have almost no effect on the air compression and decompression cycling and, more important, on the economics of the project.

"This all led to the conclusion that the mine would likely hold air at the required storage pressures and would work well as an air storage vessel for a compressed air energy storage power plant," Steve says.

The team documented its findings in a series of six technical reports, which are being used to support permitting, licensing, and operation of the facility.

The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company operated the mine between 1943 and 1976 for the production of synthetic soda ash used in the manufacture of glass. It covers an area about 7,000 feet by 4,000 feet (643 acres) and is built in a room and pillar mine configuration -- rooms separated by pillars, leaving 338 million cubic feet of space. Despite being well below the water table, the mine is virtually dry.

The power plant will be built in continuous construction units brought on line in increments of 300 megawatts as units are completed. Ultimately up to about 2,700 megawatts will be built, which will be enough generating capacity for about one million homes.

The power from the plant will not be sold directly to consumers. It will generate wholesale electric power for sale to utilities and marketing companies for use during peak energy usage times.

In addition to providing more power during peak times -- and possibly helping Ohio and the surrounding region avert blackouts and brownouts -- the compressed air energy storage power plant has the advantage of being environmentally friendly.

"During electric generation, some gas will be burned to super-expand the compressed air," Steve says. "When it is at its full production stage of 2,700 megawatts it will be producing the same amount of emissions as a 600-megawatt gas-powered combustion turbine power plant."

Steve says Sandia has worked with Larry Bickle, a former Sandian and now a principal of Haddington Ventures, on several efforts that helped create new markets in the energy sector, especially for gas and storage services. Success in those projects has drawn on Sandia's unique ability to apply a wide breadth of technical capabilities to commercially viable ventures.

-- Chris Burroughs

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US-Mexico border lab would address problems, eliminate barriers between countries

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By Howard Kercheval

Members of Sandia's Advanced Concepts Group (ACG), whose job is "thinking outside the box," have come up with a concept well beyond their own parameters: It's halfway "outside the country."

They visualize creation of a Bi-National Sustainability Laboratory (BNSL) to be built literally on the border near Santa Teresa, N.M., and the Juarez municipality of San Jeronimo, Chihuahua. The BNSL would be staffed with specialists from the US, Mexico, and elsewhere and committed to fostering economic development as the means of eliminating barriers between the two countries.

Their concept is based on the conviction that open borders come from a sustainable economy that creates wealth through the application of advanced technologies to industries and manufacturing processes.

The US-Mexican border is one of the longest in the world separating one country of extreme wealth from another with an emerging economy. It has a long history of depressed economics and infrastructure stress on both sides.

The BNSL will be an applied technology laboratory that will spawn new industries to grapple with energy, water, air quality, infrastructure, and economic development issues. The resultant prospering industries will generate new technologies that, in turn, will create new industries to export products worldwide.

Business creation key to success

Teams of experts in technology development and deployment, business development, marketing, and finance -- all working together -- will concentrate on business creation in several fields. The targeted areas include:

VP and Principal Scientist Gerry Yonas (16000), who leads the ACG, and other members of the project group -- Maher Tadros, Vipin Gupta (both 16000), and Gary Jones (1313) -- are already at work seeking support and funding for the project. Vipin has moved to the Paso del Norte area -- El Paso, Juarez, Las Cruces -- to work with the border universities and local organizations in establishing the BNSL.

"Through the Cooperative Monitoring Center and other groups, Sandia has been studying the application of technology to prevent or resolve conflict for some time," says Gerry. "The BNSL will pull together much of what we've learned and put it into practice, and that will yield results that we can apply worldwide."

Already attending conferences and other meetings focused on border issues, he says efforts of the next few months will be concentrated on developing a series of projects and forums in both countries to bring together members of federal, state, and local organizations who can play key roles in establishing and funding the BNSL.

"It's important that this not be perceived as just a Sandia project, or even just a US project," he says. "Success hinges on both Washington and Mexico City thinking of the BNSL from its establishment as a 50-50 partnership, with equally shared participation. Both sides of the border will benefit, but the key is that we need solid commitment from both sides if we are to succeed.

"I'm going to Mexico this month, and while I'll be looking for help from any responsible quarter, I'll be looking mostly for a sort of 'soul-mate' -- someone who will be as ardent a supporter of the lab in Mexico as I am here," he adds.

Senators support concept

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., ranking minority member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Sandia and other DOE facilities, praises the notion behind the project.

"The Bi-National Sustainability Lab is a truly innovative idea, and one I would expect from a world-class institution such as Sandia," Bingaman says. "Through its focus on key scientific, economic, and social issues, this lab has the potential to spur economic development and create a better life for people on both sides of the border.

"But moving this effort forward is going to take support from government and other organizations on both sides of the border," he adds. "I look forward to working with Sandia and others to get this bi-national initiative off the ground."

That support is echoed by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., also a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

"I give credit to the Labs and the others involved in organizing this collaboration to further economic development in the border region, an issue that is of great interest to me," says Domenici.

Labs Director C. Paul Robinson touched on the problems the BNSL is aimed at addressing during his recent State of the Labs assessment to state and city leaders.

"We want to become the laboratory that the US turns to first for technology solutions to the most challenging problems that threaten peace and freedom for our nation and the globe," he said. And, he added, "This year the Lab's executive team spent considerable time defining our core vision. . . . We defined our core purpose as 'Helping Our Nation Secure a Peaceful and Free World Through Technology.'"

Paul said of the BNSL, "This is exactly the kind of initiative that will give witness to Sandia's commitment."

Skeen lauds possibilities

Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chairs its subcommittee on Interior, and whose Second Congressional District includes the area that will be home to the BNSL, also sees the Labs' technological expertise as key to the project.

"Development along the US-Mexico border is vital to the economic success of both nations," Skeen says. "Utilizing our resources and maximizing the technologies available will support our efforts to develop this area in the most efficient and environmentally acceptable manner possible."

And, he adds, "The effort by Sandia National Laboratories to develop and implement a comprehensive approach for the border certainly merits consideration."

Gerry points out that one of the urgent problems is public health along the border area. The federal government has designated 28 of Texas' 32 border counties -- and all six New Mexico border counties -- Health Professional Shortage Areas.

Of even greater concern is water supply. Almost 90 percent of the fresh water available in the US-Mexican border region is currently used for agriculture; the remaining 10 percent is allocated to municipal and industrial use.

But with the growth of urban areas along the border, municipal and industrial water needs are expected to double over the next 50 years, and in Juarez -- just across the border from El Paso, Texas, and Mexico's eighth-largest city -- water demand is expected to triple over the next 15 years.

"As long as we have these problems in the US and Mexico, we'll have a troublesome border," Gerry says. "A successful BNSL would solve many problems. We have an unprecedented opportunity to enable people in both countries to improve the quality of their lives." -- Howard Kercheval

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Novel chip counts time intervals to the trillionths

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By Nancy Garcia

Ken Condreva (8416) has built a better stopwatch. It's smaller than a dime, accurate to 125 picoseconds, and can be produced far more inexpensively than comparable devices.

The inspiration for his invention was the need to accurately record critical timing signals in weapon test flights, beginning 10 years ago. New telemetry systems required a compact, lightweight, and low-power device for this purpose.

"The only things I could find that had this resolution were table-top instruments packaged in a box," Ken said. "They were way too big, and used way too much power."

His invention became the FALCON, an integrated circuit that uses his patented "Pulse Stretcher" technique to increase resolution up to 200 times for a low-power electronic clock (using 300 mW at 40 MHz). The circuitry provides greater resolution by lengthening duration of the output signal, making it last from 64 to 200 times longer than the input signal. Although the input pulse is "stretched" in real time, the technique can be compared to recording a sporting event with fast-action film and replaying it at slow speed to clearly see what happened.

Reasoning that a compact way to count time intervals at high resolution with low power would be useful commercially, Ken obtained a patent in 1994.

Applications are in areas that rely on measuring distances accurately, such as land surveying; construction; testing, assembly, and manufacturing; liquid level measurements in chemical or petrochemical plants; and collision warning and avoidance in vehicles, says business developer Scott Vaupen (8709).

This timing device accurately operates not only in "normal" working conditions, but also in extremely rugged and harsh environments -- high and low temperatures, high vibration and shock, as well as high and low humidity. Small and inexpensive battery-operated monitors could also be devised for future innovative uses.

The integrated circuit uses standard commercially available CMOS technology and could be inexpensively manufactured by most semiconductor businesses, Scott says.

Sandia is currently seeking commercialization partners with imagination to exploit what it considers to be a robust and innovative technology. -- Nancy Garcia

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Last modified: April 9, 2001


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