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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 53, No. 25        Dec. 14, 2001
[Sandia National Laboratories]

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

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Hot electronics could boost geothermal industry, earth sciences Labs makes two new security tools available to dam and power transmission system owners Sandia team investigates use of Labs' technology to ensure 'farm-to-fork' safety of the nation's food supply


Hot electronics could boost geothermal industry, earth sciences

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By Bill Murphy

It's a hot technology. Not pre-2000 dot.com hot, but hot hot.

Sandia researchers Joe Henfling and Randy Normann of Geothermal Research Dept. 6211 have developed high-temperature electronics that function reliably in temperatures up to at least 250 C and probably up to 300 C. (That's about 480F to 570F.) Nobody else, says Randy, has developed electronics that work at that temperature for any extended period of time.

"This is stuff that's never been done, it's unique," says Randy. "We're even getting the attention of the scientists outside of geothermal in the earth sciences community."

Conventional modern electronics begin to fail at much lower temperatures, say in the 150C range.

Randy and Joe developed the electronics for geothermal energy research, but the technology clearly has major relevance for researchers in volcanology and seismology. It has potential application in the oil and deep natural gas drilling and exploration business. And there are more than a few high-temperature industrial processes that could be enhanced and made more efficient if better electronic-based monitoring tools were available.

The geothermal industry needed a tool -- an electronics instrument package -- that could be sent down a geothermal well to collect data without heat shielding. The current state of high-temp probe technology left more than a little to be desired, bearing a closer resemblance in some ways to 19th century plumbing than to 21st century electronics.

Randy explains the problem: "One of the probes that's commonly used to study volcanoes and earthquakes uses tubing to bring fluid from the bottom of the well to the surface. You've gotta bring the fluid to the surface to measure it, to analyze it, because it's too hot for your instruments down there. Obviously, this isn't very precise, because the fluid cools as it rises through the tube. You can compensate for that, but you can never be as precise as you want to be. Nobody has ever depended on deep-well electronics [in high-temperature research], because electronics drift, they fail. At that temperature, they're just not reliable." That is to say, conventional "bulk" silicon microelectronics aren't reliable.

Again, Randy explains why: "Silicon is by nature a semiconductor; for electronics applications, you dope silicon [treat it with other elements] to make it more of a conductor or less of a conductor. The problem is that high temperatures tend to excite the atoms, resulting in leakage currents in the bulk silicon. The silicon moves from being a semiconductor to being a conductor. And once that happens the electronic device no longer functions. A technology that sidesteps silicon's temperature-related limitations is silicon-on-insulator, or SOI."

Reducing leakage currents

"Silicon-on-insulator builds up the transistors on glass, which is a nonconductor," Randy says. "And, since you're building your transistors on nonconducting material, they're isolated and these leakage currents don't destroy the device. SOI reduces leakage currents by a factor of 100 at these higher temperatures."

These aren't theoretical projections. Randy and Joe have already built and demonstrated a tool, a complete telemetry data acquisition system, based on the SOI technology. It's been field-tested in a geothermal well at 240C, measuring real-time pressure and temperature. Researchers who've tried the tool can't wait to get their hands on one of their very own.

While the SOI technology is familiar, the application-specific integrated circuit, or ASIC, is the work of Randy and Joe. The proprietary ASIC is, in fact "the glue that holds the tool together," Randy says.

"We've applied for a copyright on the ASIC, and we're going to license that to Honeywell, which will sell to the high-temperature industry. By combining commercially available SOI components and our ASIC, we've developed a universal instrumentation system for any number of high-temperature applications."

Randy and Joe are working with a number of industry partners on this work, funded by DOE's Geo-thermal/Wind Energy Program Office. Randy says several industry partners are developing specialized components and sensors to work with the Sandia ASIC.

"For example," Randy says, "one of our partners is developing a tilt sensor -- that's a combination MEMS [microelectromechnical system] and SOI device."

Such an instrument could tell researchers a lot about movement deep within the Earth, Randy notes, an important data point in understanding earthquakes and volcanoes.

"MEMS has the capability of operating at very high temperatures; in Europe, they've been testing silicon-based MEMS devices up to 500C [980F]. It appears to be really quite viable to merge high-temperature electronics with a new family of specialized MEMS devices."

With MEMS devices like tilt sensors mated to magnetic sensors, Randy says, "we can do not just logging -- gathering information -- but guided drilling at depths greater than 20,000 feet. So we're building a steering tool to sense direction and movement." Such a drill would enable researchers -- and geothermal explorers -- the ability to follow the unpredictable branching of a geothermal upwelling.

Other potential applications:

Like all good technologies, end-users are discovering applications never envisioned by the developers. Japanese researchers at Unzen volcano, for example, were able to use a prototype tool to measure not just temperature and pressure, but detect formation of fluid-filled fractures as well. That turned out to be quite a useful capability, Randy says.

"While you're drilling, if you see your pressure fall off, that's because fluid is running into the formation," he says. "Well, that is a potential production place for geothermal energy, because that means fluid could come back out of the hot rock to drive a geothermal power plant. In other words, they were able to see production zones immediately using these electronics. That was pretty cool. We wrote up a report to DOE saying, 'All we did was loan them a tool and look at all this free research we're getting.' "

"We've just seen the tip of the iceberg, but the whole iceberg is beginning to appear. The fact that right now it's just the two of us [Joe and Randy] complicates things for us because we can't do all the things we'd like to do."< -- Bill Murphy

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Labs makes two new security tools available to dam and power transmission system owners

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By John German

Operators of US dams, hydroelectric facilities, and power transmission systems now can use two new step-by-step security risk assessment processes developed at Sandia to make their sites less attractive targets to terrorists.

RAM-DSM for "Risk Assessment Methodology for Dams" is now available to owners of the nation's 75,000 dams. The methodology provides a formal, scientifically validated process for evaluating and improving the security of any dam.

Sandia developed RAM-D in cooperation with the Interagency Forum on Infrastructure Protection (IFIP), a team of dam owners, transmission system operators, and antiterrorism experts. IFIP accepted the methodology late last year following a two-year development and validation process that included trial security assessments of four actual dams (Lab News, Aug. 11, 2000).

The RAM-TSM "Risk Assessment Methodology for Transmission" is currently being finalized and is expected to be released in January to electricity transmission system owners. To develop RAM-T Sandia and IFIP also conducted a trial assessment on a major regional transmission system.

Both methodologies take owners, operators, and security managers of dams and transmission systems through a magnifying-glass examination of each facility's unique risk situation -- its potential adversaries, vulnerabilities, consequences of attack, and existing security measures -- then provides cost-benefit analyses of possible security upgrades.

"This is much more than a checklist," says Rudy Matalucci (5862), Sandia RAM-D and RAM-T project leader. "It begins with the events you don't want to happen, identifies who might want to do it and what their resources are, and quantifies how much risk reduction you get with each given upgrade. It is a way to help facility owners make decisions about how to balance the need for security with other considerations."

Rudy has spent the last few weeks conducting RAM-D training workshops for US Army Corps of Engineers dam operations personnel.

Each methodology is contained on a compact disk and in two inch-thick manuals.

IFIP includes the FBI, US Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, US Bureau of Reclamation, Sandia National Laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Southwestern Power Administration, Western Area Power Administration, and others. -- John German

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Sandia team investigates use of Labs' technology to ensure 'farm-to-fork' safety of the nation's food supply

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By Chris Burroughs

When farm-to-fork systems fail, billions of dollars can be lost and people can die.

That's the reason a Sandia team is working with several agriculture universities and agencies to search for ways to apply Labs-developed technology to agricultural and food-safety issues.

"The agricultural infrastructure is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States," says Darryl Drayer (6804), who heads up Sandia's agricultural security and food safety initiative. "We think it's important to take technologies that have already been developed at taxpayer expense and apply them to this industry."

He is talking about such Sandia-developed technologies as:

Regina Hunter (6804), one of the researchers working with Darryl on the effort, says that while there are probably other Sandia-developed technologies that can be applied to making sure food supplies are safe, it's best to start with those that have the most likelihood of being used immediately.

"Everyone eats," she says. "We depend on the safe production and processing of agriculture products. That's why it's important to move ahead as rapidly as possible on this initiative."

Cecelia Williams (6245) is already exploring the possibility with Kansas State University of using the decontamination formulation -- known for its ability to kill anthrax -- to eradicate E. coli, salmonella, and spoilage organisms that may exist on food processing equipment. When used as a foam, the formulation -- which is nontoxic, noncorrosive, and looks like shaving cream -- may also have the potential for sanitizing meat cutters' equipment and sanitizing cattle trucks and poultry houses.

One Kansas State food scientist doing research with the foam found a complete kill ("10-log") of unattached cells of common food-born pathogens. The real test will come when the foam is used on cells that have actually attached themselves to hard surfaces, such as stainless steel within a processing plant.

"One of the things that we will be looking at with the foam product is its effect when used in the presence of organic materials," says Randy Phebus, the lead Kansas State researcher in the project. "For example, if there is organic material left on a [conveyor] belt or floor, does that inactivate the Sandia formulation in the same way it inactivates other sanitizers, such as bleach?"

Sandia and Kansas State are also investigating other forms of the formulation, like using the solution as a mist in the air.

Before the decontamination foam can be actually used in the food sector, it must receive regulatory approval.

Another Sandia technology that might play a role in making sure food supplies are safe is RSVP -- a robust, simple, and rapid syndrome-reporting system for US health care professionals. The algorithm-based software, which takes advantage of Sandia's rapid modeling and computing capabilities, is intended to help public health authorities manage common outbreaks of disease, enabling them to recognize an unusual pattern of syndromes that could warrant special concern or intervention.

Sandia and Kansas State are exploring the possibility of expanding RSVP to stock animals, looking to use it as a way to monitor disease outbreaks in feedlots, for example.

Sandia senior scientist Al Zelicoff (5320) and Greg Mann (5327) have also been working with Kansas State on the project, looking at syndromes in animal populations.

"In Kansas alone, several million head of cattle are routed through feedlots annually," Regina says. "Diseases can spread through the feed lots, at a great cost to the cattle owners. Having the ability to predict potential outbreaks would provide economic value to the cattle industry and improve food safety for customers."

Environmental monitoring

Sandia has many technologies -- like sensors -- that could be used to detect contamination of food coming across the border or to monitor the use of pesticides in the fields to make sure they are not over-applied.

The agriculture industry is one of the biggest users of water. For that reason it is important to ensure the safety, security, and sustainability of water supplies. Sandia has sensor technologies to monitor the quality of water and has developed systems to detect and correct the vulnerabilities of water supplies. Darryl and Regina are working closely with Mike Hightower (6251), who heads up Sandia's water initiative.

In the future, Darryl anticipates that other Sandia technologies will be transferred to agriculture. Already, for example, Ren Salerno (5324) is applying Sandia's physical protection expertise to sensitive biological research facilities.

"The field is wide open for opportunities to use our technologies," Darryl says. "We have to explore all the options to see which technologies are applicable."< -- Chris Burroughs

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Last modified: Dec. 17, 2001


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