News

January 13, 2012

Anthrax-killing foam proves effective in meth lab cleanup

Researcher Mark Tucker (6632) demonstrates application of Sandia-developed decontamination foam. The foam, used 10 years ago in the cleanup effort following the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks, is now being used to decontaminate environmentally devastating meth labs. (Photo by Randy Montoya) View large image.

by Stephanie Holinka

Sandia’s decontamination foam, developed more than a decade ago for remediation of chemical and biological agents and used to decontaminate federal office buildings and mailrooms during the anthrax attacks in 2001, is now being used to decontaminate illegal methamphetamine labs.

Mark Tucker (6632), a chemical engineer in Sandia’s Chemical & Biological Systems Dept. and co-creator of the original decontamination formulas, DF100 and DF200, says the decontamination formulation renders all types of typical chemical and biological agents harmless.

“For structures contaminated with meth, owners have two choices: demolish it or reclaim it,” says Kevin Irvine, vice president and general manager at EFT Holdings, which licenses the Sandia formulation and sells it under two names, EasyDecon® DF200, certified against chemical and biological agents, and Crystal Clean, intended for meth cleanup.

The meth cleanup problem is a big one. The US Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Clandestine Meth Lab registry lists thousands of locations in the US where law enforcement agencies have reportedly found chemicals or paraphernalia indicating the presence of either clandestine drug laboratories or dumpsites.

In 2007, EFT released Crystal Clean, a chemically identical formula to EasyDecon® DF200, but packaged and marketed specifically for meth cleanup. Sites contaminated with meth are considered crime scenes, but the contamination is chemical rather than biological, so the approximately 700 remediation companies that clean up meth lab contamination also do other types of crime scene cleanup because they are accustomed to the sampling and documentation process.

Holding the bag

 “Property owners are often liable for expensive cleanup costs since most insurance companies won’t pay for cleanup related to methamphetamine, viewing damage resulting from meth labs as arising from a criminal act,” Irvine says. That means that property owners and landlords are often left holding the bag for the cost of remediating a residence or business contaminated as a result of meth cooking.”

According to the Department of Justice, the chemicals used to cook meth, and the toxic compounds and byproducts resulting from its manufacture, produce toxic fumes, vapors, and residues. The report says anyone, but especially children, spending time in or near a meth lab could be exposed to toxic substances, which could produce short- and long-term problems. Chronic exposure to substances typically used in meth manufacture may cause cancer; damage the brain, liver, kidney, spleen, and immunologic system; and result in birth defects.

Mark says many cleaning methods don’t remove methamphetamine and the chemicals used to produce it. Incompletely or improperly cleaned surfaces, such as floors, countertops, and drywall, can remain contaminated, even after being cleaned many times. Methamphetamine can remain in a structure for months to years.

Mild, nontoxic, noncorrosive

The decontamination formulation includes a collection of mild, nontoxic, and noncorrosive chemicals found in common household products, such as hair conditioner and toothpaste. It contains both surfactants, which lift agents off a surface, and mild oxidizers, which break down the agent’s molecules into nontoxic pieces that can be washed down a household drain like detergent or dish soap.

In experiments from a few years ago, John Martyny, associate professor and industrial hygienist at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center’s Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and a national expert on the effects of meth exposure on children, compared the effectiveness of common cleaners, such as detergent and bleach, on methamphetamine cleanup. Martyny included Sandia’s decontamination formula in the testing. His experiments showed that, after cleaning with EasyDecon, the methamphetamine present on tested surfaces was likely oxidized to another compound and was nondetectable.

Irvine says even if a meth site is known, it doesn’t always mean it gets cleaned up, due to the expense. Some states don’t have cleanup guidelines and don’t require homeowners to disclose if a structure is contaminated with meth. There have been instances where families have discovered they were living in a house contaminated with meth only after family members were hospitalized for respiratory problems characteristic of chronic meth exposure.

In the 22 states that have guidelines, structures contaminated with meth are seized by police, and the structure is quarantined by a local or state agency (depending on the state) until it can be demonstrated that the structure is cleared of methamphetamine to a certain level.

During structure remediation with Crystal Clean, a remediation crew removes everything from the structure, including carpets and drapes, until the house is stripped bare except for the fixtures.

The crew mixes the Crystal Clean solution on site and sprays the foam on walls, ceilings, and floors. The foam expands to about 15 times its liquid volume through a special nozzle that draws air into the spray, allowing it to reach contamination in crevices and in the air. In an hour, it collapses back to a liquid. Using only fresh water, rags, and sponges, the crew then removes the benign residue from all surfaces.

After the site is cleaned, an independent industrial hygienist tapes off a sample area in the cleaned structure and takes a number of swipe samples appropriate for the location size. The samples are treated as evidence, so a formal chain of custody is established for the samples, and they are taken to an independent lab. The lab runs the samples through a mass spectrometer to determine the level of contamination.

Foam deployed as a preventive measure

In most instances, Crystal Clean reduces the levels from a pre-test state, to .02 μg/100 square cm (microgram/sq. cm) or less, which is considered nondetectable.

Irvine says the Crystal Clean formula is more expensive than other cleaners, but that the product saves greatly on labor costs and lab costs because other cleaning solutions usually require more than one cleaning, with a larger crew doing the cleaning, and with costly sampling taking place in between cleanings.

Another advantage of this cleanup method, Irvine says, is that some other methods are destructive or use more corrosive substances, and the resulting chemical residues are themselves toxic. Crystal Clean is rendered nonhazardous and nontoxic, requiring only a surface wipe when finished.

Sandia’s decontamination formula was developed through funding provided by the DOE and NNSA Chemical and Biological National Security Program (CBNP).

Sandia has also licensed the DF200 formula to other firms, which have developed it for use in a wide-ranging variety of applications, such as commercial and residential mold remediation, disinfection of hospitals and schools, pesticide removal for farm equipment, and military applications, including counterterrorism preparedness. The foam has also been deployed as a preventive measure at presidential debates and a political convention.

-- Stephanie Holinka

Back to top of page

Sandia cyber project looks to help IT professionals with complex Domain Name System vulnerabilities

Researcher Casey Deccio (8966) has developed a visualization tool, now known as DNSViz, to help network administrators better understand Domain Name System Security (DNSSEC) and to help them troubleshoot problems. (Photo by Dino Vournas) View large image.

by Mike Janes

In 2008, Karen Evans, administrator of the Office of Government and Information Technology at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), wrote a memo to all government chief information officers that read, in part: “The Government’s reliance on the Internet to disseminate and provide access to information has increased significantly over the years, as have the risks associated with potential unauthorized use, compromise, and loss of the .gov domain space.”

Consequently, the OMB soon issued a mandate to all federal information systems, including those at Sandia and others with a .gov domain name, to deploy a new security feature, Domain Name System Security (DNSSEC). That new policy required that “the top level .gov domain will be DNSSEC-signed, and processes to enable secure delegated sub-domains will be developed.”

The mandate made perfect sense, says Sandia computer scientist Casey Deccio (8966), but there soon emerged a problem when .gov organizations actually began deploying DNSSEC.

“It (DNSSEC) is hard to configure correctly and has to undergo regular maintenance,” says Casey. “It adds a great deal of complexity to IT systems, and if configured improperly or deployed onto servers that aren’t fully compatible with it, it keeps users from accessing .gov sites. They just get error responses.”

When Sandia started to experience such problems due to other sites’ DNSSEC misconfigurations, Casey decided to take matters into his own hands. Using internal funding, he began to develop a visualization tool, now known as DNSViz, to help network administrators in the federal government and global community better understand DNSSEC and to help them troubleshoot problems.

The still-new DNSSEC security feature, in an ideal world, will allow user applications like web browsers to ensure that the IP addresses they have received from the DNS have not been “spoofed” by anyone with ill intent. As such, Internet-connected systems within the government can verify that the responses are authoritative and have not been altered. Still, the hiccups with implementing DNSSEC have been enough for Casey to develop DNSViz.

The trouble with DNS

When you type in a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) into a web browser on your workstation, magic seems to happen.

Essentially, you might notice a few commands that appear at the bottom of your screen, then just sit back momentarily while the Internet gremlins do their thing and miraculously find and display the web page you’re seeking.

But in reality, for every URL your browser accesses — including web pages, embedded images, and other content — your computer has to first translate the hostname of the URL into an Internet Protocol (IP) address. The entity doing much of that work is known as a Domain Name System (DNS) server. A DNS “lookup” — whereby the server is asked for the IP address that corresponds to the hostname of the URL you’ve typed — is a prerequisite for doing almost anything on the Internet, including web browsing, emailing, or videoconferencing.

The DNS functions in many ways like a telephone book, translating hostnames (like www.sandia.gov) into numerical addresses that your computer can subsequently identify and “dial up” to access the remote servers.

There is a natural hierarchy within the DNS, each domain name identifying its own ancestry. For example, sandia.gov is a “child” of .gov, which is a child of the DNS root. Each parent refers clients to other servers that can give answers for their “children.” This ancestral line is the backbone for building a chain of trust that must exist for authenticating a DNS lookup with DNSSEC. Each link in the chain vouches for the link below it.

In this way the DNS might be described as a sort of referral-based system analogous to meeting someone through a mutual friend. A user trusts a DNS answer because he or she trusts the source it came from, trust gained first through another referral source. This process continues for each “link” in the chain up to the DNS root.

DNSViz — helping the IT professional ‘see’ the problems

Without DNSSEC, the “trust” of referrals and answers is superficial, and tampering by third-party attackers could go undetected, thus redirecting online communications to unwanted destinations. This represents a particularly troublesome vulnerability for .gov addresses owned by government organizations guarding national security information and other vital data. But DNSSEC is of little use if network administrators don’t know how to configure or use it.

Casey describes DNSViz as a “tool for visualizing the status of a DNS zone.” It provides a visual analysis of the DNSSEC authentication chain for a domain name and its resolution path in the DNS namespace, made available via a web browser to any Internet user (http://dnsviz.net/). It visually highlights and describes configuration errors detected by the tool to assist administrators in identifying and fixing DNSSEC-related configuration problems.

The primary contribution provided by DNSViz is the ability to bring together all the components that work together for DNSSEC to function properly into a single graphical representation. The resulting visualization is a collection of configuration data and relationships that are otherwise difficult to assemble, assess, and understand.

Tool functions in two primary ways

To help network administrators in their DNSSEC deployment, Casey’s DNSViz tool functions in two primary ways: it actively analyzes a domain name by performing pertinent DNS lookups, and it makes the analysis available via the web interface. The active analysis occurs periodically to build a history of DNSSEC deployment over time and provide a historical reference for DNS administrators.

The means for making the data available to users is currently the web interface, though Casey intends to expand DNSViz functionality to allow access via other means. For example, alert mechanisms might be used to inform affected parties, and application programming interfaces (API) can be designed to allow administrators to programmatically access the information instead of manually browsing to the DNSViz web site.

Currently, Casey has the tool running in the background on Sandia/California’s servers, monitoring a list of some 100,000 DNS names. It performs an analysis a couple of times each day and offers a situational awareness of what the DNS configuration for each name looks like from top to bottom. He has demonstrated the challenges of DNSSEC deployment, as measured by his tool, in international DNS forums and workshops. He hopes to use these results to identify practices contributing to DNSSEC mishaps and suggest changes to improve DNSSEC deployment in practice.

Though the functionality provided by DNSViz could potentially be included in a marketable software product that’s sold by a for-profit company, Casey says he envisions it as an open-source tool available to anyone who needs it. With further funding, he hopes to expand the tool so that it can analyze DNS health and security on a continuous basis, essentially creating a full-blown monitoring system that is scalable, versatile, and more informational.

-- Mike Janes

Back to top of page

Developing power-over-fiber communications cable: When total isolation is a good thing

CABLE GUYS — Titus Appel and Steve Sanderson (both 6623) with a first-generation power-over-fiber cable that converts a signal from electrical-to-optical-to-electrical, thus emulating an electrical cable with total isolation.  View large file.

by Sue Major Holmes

Sometimes total electrical isolation is a good thing — and that’s the idea behind a power-over-fiber (PoF) communications cable being developed by Sandia engineers.

“It’s common to isolate communications between systems or devices by using fiber optic cables, but if power is required, then sending power down a copper wire can at times be a safety-critical issue, and substituting it with battery power may not be suitable or practical,” says Steve Sanderson (6623). 

He, Titus Appel (6623), and Walter Wrye, a former intern, are co-inventors of a patent-pending hybrid cable design that uses fiber to send and regulate optical power to the communications electronics integral to the cable. 

The cable ends resemble a typical copper electrical cable with pin and socket connectors. However, optical interface circuits integrated into the connector housing, or backshell, provide fiber optic transmission of both data communications and optical power. To conserve energy, optical power is delivered only on demand, Steve says.

“The key issue here is to maintain total electrical isolation from any stray electrical energy and high-voltage electrical surges caused by such things as lightning strikes,” he says.  

The developers envision the PoF cable replacing existing copper cables in areas related to safety, such as security, explosives, explosion-proof environments, aviation, and medical devices.

“The first-generation PoF cable just delivers optical power to the cable’s internal electronics for data communication between devices. We are now adding the capability to deliver electrical power externally to a connected low-power device,” Steve says.

In the PoF cable’s current version, the backshell encapsulates circular stacked circuit boards with LEDs coupled to plastic optical fibers for communications, and a laser diode and miniaturized photovoltaic-type cell coupled to the ends of a single glass fiber for optical power delivery. The backshell is then filled with thermally conductive material to keep the laser diode cool during peak demands for power.

Working on Gen-2 version

In the next version, the team plans to use only glass fibers. “Although plastic fiber requires less preparation time than glass, it takes up more room,” Steve says. The team also is working with next-generation microcontrollers, new packaging layouts, and new optical devices to reduce the size.

The team recently tested a PoF low-energy detonator firing cable with fireset electronics built into the backshell. The optically powered fireset embeds a microcontroller that reports such things as detonator resistance, temperature, and charging voltages, and receives command messages to fire the detonator. When it’s idle or powered down, the circuitry is designed to short the detonator input leads to prevent unwanted electrical energy from reaching it.

Steve came up with the concept about three years ago after being given the challenge by a project needing total electrical isolation between communication devices to meet safety requirements.

The effort currently is being funded to develop a rugged PoF cable 3 to 4 meters long and production ready.

“Our customer requested this length and a data rate greater than 20 kbit per second, but you could go much greater distances at lower data rates without increasing power levels,” Steve says. “Or, by increasing the power levels, data rates could be the same or higher.”

The team built a prototype, fine-tuned the packaging, and began figuring out the process for mass production.

Now, they’re working to reduce the backshell’s length from 4 inches to 2.5 inches, as well as decrease the weight and lower costs.

“One of our ongoing objectives is to reduce the physical size so that it’s more widely used,” says Steve, who has seen technology packaging shrink dramatically in the 35 years he’s been with Sandia.

“The PoF cable has power limitations,” Steve says. “It’s not to be construed as a means to power your house, for example, or handle the high speeds of a computer network.

“But because there are growing needs of low-power sensor/control applications related to safety, having convenient optically generated power available is a tremendous benefit.” -- Sue Major Holmes

Back to top of page

Young Sandians say Martin Luther King paved their way

LIVING LEGACY— Sandians, left to right, Melvin Bennett (10626), Patrice Gregory (0422), and Lydia Coleman (10694) recall the impact Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had on their lives and the lives of their families. (Photo by Randy Montoya) View large file.

by Nancy Salem

Patrice Gregory was born in 1980, 12 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Last year, she earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University Maryland and was hired at Sandia.

The Pine Bluff, Ark., native says that throughout her career journey, she felt King at her side. “His impact on my life is too enormous to verbalize,” Patrice (422) says. “I know every day that he is why I’m here right now.”

King is an iconic figure in the African-American civil rights movement. He was a clergyman, activist, and leader who used nonviolent methods to bring about social change. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He led the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his legendary I Have a Dream speech envisioning a color-blind society. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end racial segregation and racial discrimination. He fought poverty and promoted education. King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. He was 39.

The federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday was signed into law in 1983. It is celebrated yearly on the third Monday of January to mark King’s Jan. 15 birthday. While some states at first resisted acknowledging the holiday, it was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

'Can't imagine what life would have been like'

Patrice’s family went to the newly opened Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., at Thanksgiving. “It was kind of surreal,” she says. “My grandmother who just turned 90 was there, and so was my youngest cousin who’s 17. Everyone understood what Dr. King meant. Age isn’t a factor in the impact he had on your life. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had he not sacrificed.”

Patrice’s sentiments are shared by other young Sandians born after King’s passing.

Sean Harris (9533), a graduate of La Cueva High School and the University of New Mexico, has worked as a Sandia software engineer for seven-and-a-half years. Harris, 29, received two Martin Luther King Jr. scholarships at UNM and went on to earn a master’s degree in management information systems from the University of Illinois. He was a member of the same fraternity as King, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., and went to Washington, D.C., in August for the opening of the King memorial.

“I’ve done a lot of research on Dr. King,” Sean says. “He was so involved in education and making sure African-Americans had opportunities to get an education. Even though he’s not still around, his dream is being moved forward by giving people those opportunities.”

Sean says he connected to King’s message and participated in MLK marches and commemorative events. “When I think about him, I think about the sacrifices he made so that we could have the opportunities we have today,” he says. “If not for him, I wouldn’t be a Sandia employee, I wouldn’t have graduated from La Cueva and UNM. He paved the way for the younger generation.”

Lydia Coleman (10694), a financial analyst with a degree in business administration from Prairie View A&M in Texas, says the King message she holds closest is that all people are created equal. “I think about the I Have a Dream speech. We won’t be judged by the color of our skin,” she says. “The color of my skin doesn’t define who I am. I define it.”

Lydia, 23, a Kansas native, says she doesn’t think of King as a figure from the past. “To me, he’s not history,” she says. “He’s a part of how I see the world daily. I see his dream still coming to pass.”

People come together and share cultures

Melvin Bennett (10626), a finance graduate of Prairie View A&M, says he feels most impacted by King’s efforts to end segregation. “I was able to go to school with students of different backgrounds and befriend them because of the work he did,” says Melvin, 22, a project administrator. “I was able to come to a place like Sandia and not have to worry about not getting a job because of my race.”

Melvin says the holiday in his hometown of Livingston, Texas, that honors King is a multicultural festival celebrating Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans, and Anglos. “People come together and share cultures,” he says. “I like that because it enables me to associate with people of different backgrounds, and share and learn from each other. I am able to do that now because of Dr. King’s work.”

Patrice, Sean, Lydia, and Melvin say they learned about King as children — in church, at school, at home — and will continue to keep King’s memory alive by spreading the message of nonviolent activism against racial discrimination.

Patrice has watched the I Have a Dream speech many times. “It makes you wonder when his dream will really come true, when all men are equal,” she says. “It’s a lot better now. But there is still work to be done.”

-- Nancy Salem

Back to top of page

Download Lab News January 13, 2012 (PDF, 1MB)