News

July 13, 2012

NNSA honors Sandian for helping with new data tool roll-out

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY HONOREE Sean Lee Hendrickson is Sandia's NNSA Defense Programs Employee of the Quarter. Sean (9517) led the deployment of the first production implementation of Oracle Data Integrator in Sandia's Science and Engineering Information Systems and produced a map for future migrations from Sandia's current tool. The conversion required setting up new servers, training people, and figuring out how to test and release the new tool. (Photo by Randy Montoya) View large image.

by Sue Major Holmes

In the 1980s Tim Leonard was busy programming computers at Sandia, unaware that just down the hall work was going on that would change his life.

Tim was in the wind energy group, steps away from the people in solar energy. One of them was Alex Maish, starting his pet project, a low-cost, high-precision tracking technology to continuously move solar panels into the best possible position to catch sunlight and generate energy.

“I met Alex, but I didn’t really know what he was working on,” Tim says. “I would visit, say hi, and go back.”

Years later, after leaving the Labs, Tim ran into Alex at a local nursery. He filled Alex in on his business - programming and electronic upgrading of gaming machines - and confided that it wasn’t challenging.

Alex mentioned his solar-tracking technology. “He said it was being licensed but that none of the interested companies had been able to commercialize it. He needed someone to make some prototype [circuit] boards for an industry client,” Tim says. “I told him I’d take a look.”

Tim helped Alex with electronics and programming, and liked the technology so much he licensed it himself in the mid-1990s. He built a business, Precision Solar Technologies Corp., and placed trackers around the world. Among Tim’s customers is Sandia, where the technology was developed and where many solar devices are fitted with his trackers, including at the National Solar Thermal Test Facility.

“We’re now into 16 years of commercial use and thousands of unit-hours of performance,” Tim says.

Celestial equations

Alex’s goal was to develop affordable precision tracking for solar energy research, development, and production. His technology - trademarked SolarTrak by Sandia, which holds the patent - is a software program in a computer chip that sits on an electronic circuit board that controls the tracker.

Unlike sensor-based controllers, SolarTrak uses celestial equations to calculate the exact position of the sun at any time, anywhere on the planet, regardless of cloud cover. “This can be critical in partly cloudy situations where the bright edge of a cloud can fool a sensor,” Tim says.

SolarTrak determines the sun’s location, makes decisions based on its angle, and turns on machinery that moves solar equipment into position. It factors wind speed and other external information into performance.

“The computer uses electronic feedback to monitor where the machinery is in its range of motion. With that information and the position of the sun, it makes the two coincide,” Tim says. “It’s a simple process. It’s prudent to hook up a PC every few months and check the clock, but mostly it runs and runs.”

SolarTrak technology has been used in commercial, industrial, residential, and research applications. Precision Solar Technologies has put controllers to work in heliostat projects, solar furnace applications, solar trough facilities, photovoltaics, and fiber optic daylighting research, bringing natural light deep into the interiors of buildings.

Hundreds of SolarTrak controllers are in commercial use in 18 countries and have been used in research projects at Sandia and Oak Ridge national laboratories, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, Walt Disney Imagineering, the University of Loughborough and the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, US universities, and private-sector entities including Emcore, Amonix, and Los Alamos Research Associates.

“I’ve put a SolarTrak controller on everything I know of that moves and has to point at the sun,” Tim says.

An offer from Sandia

Tim grew up in Washington, D.C., and moved to Albuquerque in 1973 to attend the University of New Mexico. He studied architecture and learned computer programming in engineering courses included in the curriculum. He continued to study mechanical engineering after earning a bachelor’s degree in 1977.

Tim went to work as a programmer for the Civil Engineering Research Facility, CERF, that was part of UNM’s engineering department. “One day a fellow from CERF came in, sat on my desk, asked a few questions about programming and engineering structures, and asked if I wanted to be a contractor at Sandia working on their mainframe computers and doing structural analysis on the vertical axis wind turbine,” he says. “Suffice it to say I said yes.”

Tim joined the Labs’ wind energy program as a contractor in 1977. He left nine years later and was quickly hired back as Labs staff by his supervisor Dick Braasch. “I went back to my old office and not a piece of paper or pencil had been moved since I left three months earlier,” Tim says. “Dick brought me back in, and it was a great feeling of belonging.”

He stayed another five years, working in a variety of areas as his old friends in the wind group moved on to other projects.

Using the programming, assembly, and structural skills he developed at Sandia, Tim was hired by companies in the early 1990s to work on video gaming machines. That work taught Tim electronics. “I started designing digital boards and creating more elaborate games,” he says.

Tim ran into Alex in early 1995 and licensed the solar tracking technology about a year later. Alex was still working on the project at

Sandia, and he and Tim fine-tuned the technology to get it commercialized. “Alex was eight years into it when we started working together,” he says. “It became a joint venture.”

Tim built the business through word of mouth and a website. His first customer was a researcher at the University of Australia in Canberra. Other early customers included Arizona Public Service and Amonix, where Tim installed his first high-powered, large piece of tracking equipment, on a 30- by 40-foot, 19,000-pound array.

Tim’s signature product is the Prospector, a stand-alone solar weather station to measure solar and atmospheric environments.

In addition to the station, Precision Solar produces other full systems that include motors, gear drives, mechanical arms, and frames that hold and move the solar arrays for power production or research. The company does new systems and retrofits older ones. Tim works from a home base in Tijeras with an electronics and assembly workshop, forklift, and loading dock to send trackers to far-off places.

Energy savings

Tim says doing work for Sandia helped him develop the business. “Sandia wanted a lower-cost tracker for their sun sensors, and that led to the Prospector,” he says. “I also did a solar data acquisition system for another person at Sandia as well as other ancillary projects.  Each time they approached me with a niche project it became a potential product line.”

Rich Diver, a retired Sandian and solar engineering consultant, says Tim’s trackers are cost-effective and “very robust.” “The Prospector is a really nice product,” he says. “It works well.”

Santa Fe resident Ricardo Sanchez remembers going to Sandia, where his dad worked, and looking up at the solar tower. “I was amazed at what it could do,” he says. “I was really psyched to have that type of technology on my home.”

About five years ago, Sanchez installed 13 fixed solar thermal panels on his roof, but they didn’t generate enough heat. “I met Tim and went with his mirror heliostat tracker that reflects sunlight onto the panels. It took my system from something that didn’t work to something that worked,” he says. “I used to have a $500 a month heating bill in the winter. Now it’s $700 for the whole season. The tracker is perfect. I don’t do a thing. It just works.”

Tim says he’s never regretted taking on the business. “I grew up with Erector sets and Lincoln Logs and was making things that moved since I was very young. Then I learned computers and electronics,” he says. “This business has brought together every single aspect of everything I have learned either in school or on my own.”

Alex died in 2005 after a lifelong struggle with cystic fibrosis. He lived to see the beginnings of a business founded on his technology. Tim says he and Alex became best of friends and that he believes Alex would have been proud of the growth of the business and that it accomplished his goal of bringing down the once-astronomical cost of precision solar tracking.

“To this day, every (circuit) board I make says ‘Originally developed at Sandia Labs’,” Tim says. “Alex gets the credit. I’m still looking for my first opportunity to dedicate a precision solar field in his name.”

-- Sue Major Holmes

Back to top of page

Turning teacher in retirement offers a ‘purposeful and enjoyable way’ to help others

JOANNE AND MARK PERRA look on as Ta’Jir Golden keeps a foil loop aloft with the mini Van de Graaff generator. In retirement, the couple has become very involved in science education in Oakland public schools. (Photo by Dino Vournas) View large image.

by Patti Koning

While Mark and Joanne Perra spent their professional careers in laboratories and offices — he was a materials science program manager and research manager at Sandia and she was a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — in retirement, they find themselves back at school. Not as students, but as part of a team of volunteer science educators.

Most Tuesday afternoons you can find them teaching fifth graders about science at the Preparatory Literacy Academy of Cultural Excellence (PLACE) @ Prescott, a West Oakland elementary school in a highly impoverished community. “We never would have envisioned ourselves here,” says Mark. “But it’s truly wonderful to have found a purposeful and enjoyable way to help others using our gifts.”

During their professional careers, the couple financially supported a number of nonprofit organizations and became more directly involved after they retired in 2002. Mark served on the board of directors of the Scientific Technology and Language Institute (STLI), which facilitates the training of medical doctors, nurses, community development leaders, and university students in the country of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia.

This effort was an eye-opening experience for the Perras, enabling them to explore exotic cultures that for more than two millenia had been part of the Silk Road network of trade routes. About three years ago, Joanne began searching for a more family friendly, local opportunity for service and came across Faith Network of the East Bay (http://www.faithnetwork. com/index.html).

A dream realized

She was drawn to Faith Network’s Science Horizons, which partners with schools and informal science centers to provide science enrichment programs to low income, predominantly minority students in grades K-12. “It held the potential for simultaneously engaging our mutual love for science, the outdoors, and children. I did some tutoring in a high poverty area as a college student and had long dreamed of returning to this,” explains Joanne.

The couple initially saw themselves working one-on-one with students or in more of a background role, but as they learned more about the vast need for science enrichment, they saw that with their professional and personal experience, they could offer their skills to larger groups of students.

“What we found most compelling was that we could leverage our interests and experience in science and outdoor education to make a significant difference in the lives of children in great need,” Mark says. “Even a small contribution of time and attention to the children can help turn the tide in the face of a huge and seemingly intractable problem.”

Elementary school science has fallen victim to standardized testing pressure. Because science doesn’t appear on standardized tests in California until the fifth grade, many public schools have de-emphasized teaching the subject to allow more time for language arts and math.

On top of that, science can be a challenge for classroom elementary school teachers as most don’t have backgrounds in science and carrying out hands-on activities essential to teaching the subject takes precious time. In inner-city Oakland, these problems are compounded.

“As a newly designated ‘science focus school,’ and one that is working hard at improving the quality and quantity of our science instruction, we greatly appreciate the support of Mark and Joanne and our other volunteer scientists, who bring their deep understanding of and enthusiasm for science to our students,” says Lorraine Mann, a science specialist at PLACE.

Projects kids can relate to

Using Full Option Science System (FOSS) materials, a research-based science curriculum developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science and UC Berkeley, the Perras usually spend several sessions of the weekly afterschool science club teaching basic scientific concepts like electricity and magnetism through simple experiments. Last spring, the students made their own loudspeakers using wire, magnets, and a bowl.

“They were astounded that they could make an object that could produce beautiful music and intelligible speech,” says Mark. “They could really relate to this project — every kid loves music. We played their favorite musical groups from iTunes, experimented with changing variables on the speakers themselves, and used a “tone generator” to study the relationship between vibrations and sound.” In addition to feeling the vibrations and hearing the sound, the students could see and measure the relationships between ampli amplitude and frequency for various musical notes by using a spectrum analyzer app on an iPad.

The Perras have sought opportunities for connecting Oakland schoolchildren with the vast science resources available in the Bay Area. They’ve started networking with Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, UC-Berkeley Engineering, and Sandia/California.

When Mark and Joanne heard about Sandia’s Family Science Night (FSN) program through Joel Lipkin, another Sandia retiree who volunteers his time with FSN, they saw a perfect fit. As Sandia/California’s signature community outreach program, FSN brings handson science and math activities to more than 6,000 local elementary school students and their families each year. Each activity uses everyday household materials like coffee filters, baking soda, straws, and glue to explore basic scientific concepts like aerodynamics, magnetism, and chemical reactions.

Program reaches more than 50 schools

Sandia/New Mexico began its FSN program in 2001 and now reaches more than 50 schools each year. Sandia/ California piloted FSN at two schools in the spring of 2005 and now reaches about 30 schools each year. Because of limited resources, Sandia/California offers FSN only in Livermore and the neighboring cities of Pleasanton, Dublin, Tracy, Discovery Bay, and Brentwood.

“Because of Mark and Joanne’s dedication to PLACE @ Prescott, we agreed to hold a special demonstration Family Science Night at the school to enable the Science Horizons volunteers to incorporate some of our activities and ideas into their program,” explains Sandia/California community relations officer Stephanie Beasly.

Four local elementary schools were invited to participate. The event, says Mark, was a huge success, drawing a larger turnout of parents and children than any similar school event in memory.

“The FSN volunteers and coordinators came well equipped to foster ties among parents, schools, and children, and to spur a broader and deeper interest in science,” he adds. “It is vital to make inner-city schools a welcoming place for family members, to engage families in supporting their children’s academic success, and to strengthen connections to local institutions. On all counts, this is what FSN does.”

Overwhelmed by the excitement

Mann says that FSN was better than she had imagined it could be. “I was overwhelmed at the excitement and the intense focus of students at the stations. The most surprising part of the evening was seeing how involved the parents, and even the grandparents, became in the experiments. It was truly a family event,” she says. “The focus and perseverance I witnessed even among young students was remarkable. And I will never forget the incredulous joy my kindergartners expressed when they pushed a skewer through a balloon and it didn't pop!”

Mark and Joanne also organized several extra exhibits, including a rocket launch, mini Van de Graaff generator for levitating and repelling lightweight conductive objects, reversible thermoelectric generator, vortex tube, balloon helicopter, and atmospheric mat. To encourage attendance, they donated a one-year family membership to the Chabot Space and Science Center as a raffle prize.

The point of it all — both FSN and Mark and Joanne’s efforts — is to spark a lasting curiosity in science.

“It has been our delight to cultivate academic and life skills in at-risk kids: to speak words of confidence and possibility into their lives, to ascribe high value to them, and to hold up high expectations for them. We also work hard to plant aspirations that could be held for years to come, to help kids envision a different future for themselves and to encourage them to pursue their goals relentlessly,” says Mark.

“It is our hope and dream that, ultimately, we could help a girl see that she could become a computer scientist, writing computer code when she grows up — rather than conforming to the ‘code of the street.’ Likewise, we would be thrilled if we could help a boy grow up knowing that he can earn respect because of his social, scientific, or artistic contributions — rather than demand respect because he possesses the most powerful firearms on the street.”

-- Patti Koning

Back to top of page

MIT climate skeptic speaks at Sandia

Lindzen is Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

by Bill Murphy

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Lindzen, a global warming skeptic, told about 70 Sandia researchers in the 2nd floor lecture room of 858EL in early June that too much was being made out of climate change by researchers seeking government funding. He said their data and their methods were insufficient to support their claims.

“Despite [these researchers'] concerns over the last decades with the greenhouse process, they oversimplify the effect,” he said of scientists who act as though global warming is already in process and the result of carbon dioxide emissions. “Simply cranking up CO2 [as the explanation] is not the answer.” 

Lindzen, the ninth speaker in Sandia’s Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series, is Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. He has published more than 200 scientific papers and is the lead author of Chapter 7 (”Physical Climate Processes and Feedbacks”) of the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Third Assessment Report. Among other  honors, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorology Society.

Speaking slowly and methodically with flashes of humor - “I always feel that when the conversation turns to weather, people are bored”- he said that a basic problem with current computer climate models that show disastrous increases in temperature is that “relatively small variations in positive feedback [from atmospheric gases] lead to large changes in [model temperature] response. For negative or small positive feedbacks, change is small. It’s the positive feedbacks in the models that lead to large [predicted] results.”

How believable are the large positive feedbacks showing dramatic climate change? Lindzen said, “Predictions based on high [climate] sensitivity ran well ahead of observations.”

Modeling greenhouse gasses

All IPCC models display large positive changes, which imply feedback from gasses is increasing, but real-world observations do not support this, he said. “We’ve already seen a doubling of CO2 that has produced very little warming.”

He disparaged proving the worth of models by successfully applying their criteria to the prediction of past climatic events. He said, “The models [in those uses] are no more valuable than answering a test when you have the questions in advance.” Modelers, he said, merely have used aerosols as a kind of fudge factor to make their models come out right.

For 30 years, he said, climate scientists have been “locked into a simple-minded identification of climate with greenhouse gas level…. That climate should be the function of a single parameter [like CO2] has always seemed implausible. Yet an obsessive focus on such an obvious oversimplification has likely set back progress by decades.”

More likely the greater effect on climate than CO2, he said, is the amount of polar ice that survives any given summer.

He felt that there is little evidence that changes in climate are producing extreme weather events. “Even the IPCC says there is little if any evidence of this. In fact, there are important physical reasons for doubting such anticipations.”

He posited that in a warmer climate, there would be reduced temperature difference between the poles. Since it’s believed to be differences in temperature that cause extratropical storms and other extreme weather events, there would seem to be less reason for extreme events, not more. “Thus, on physical grounds, most of us should expect reduced intensity of storms and variability. However, this apparently is not ‘alarming,’ so the opposite is asserted.”

Then there is the question of what, practically speaking, can be done about temperature increases if indeed they are occurring, he said. “China, India, Korea are not going to go along with IPCC recommendations, so [nothing effective can be done] and the only countries punished will be those who go along with the recommendations.”

National security implications

In terms of national security, he said that “historically there is little evidence of natural disasters leading to war, but economic conditions have proven much more serious. [Yet] almost all proposed mitigation policies lead to reduced energy availability and higher energy costs. All studies of human benefit and national security perspectives show that increased energy is important.”

He showed a PowerPoint graph from a study that showed that more energy consumption leads to higher literacy rate, lower infant mortality, and a lower number of children per woman.

Given, he said, that proposed policies are unlikely to significantly influence climate and that lower energy availability could be considered a significant threat to national security, to continue with a mitigation policy that lowers available energy “would, at the least, appear to be irresponsible.”

In answer to audience questions about rising temperatures, he said, “0.8 [of a degree C] change in temperature in 150 years - nothing changes the basic fact that you’re looking at small change.”

Questioned by his audience about five, seven, and 17-year averages that seem to show that Earth’s surface temperature is rising, he said, “I can understand if a baseball fan obsesses with averages that vary by one decimal point, .356 or .354, but with temperature, tenths of a degree, it’s always fluctuating that much.”

Future uncertainty

As for the future, “Uncertainty plays a huge role in this issue.  It’s not that we expect disaster, it’s that the uncertainty is said to offer the possibility of disaster: Implausible, but high consequence. Somewhere it has to be like the possible asteroid impact: Live with it.”

To a sympathetic questioner who said, “You are like a voice crying in the wilderness. It must be hard to get published,” Lindzen said that billions of dollars go into funding climate studies and that “The reward for solving problems is that your funding gets cut. It’s not a good incentive structure.”

That Lindzen may feel scientifically isolated is understandable because almost all major professional societies have come out counter to his position. But he doesn’t feel they are necessarily right. “Why did the American Physical Society take a position?” he asked his audience rhetorically. ["The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring," said the APS statement on Nov. 18, 2007 in part.] Why did they find it compelling? They never answered.”

Europe’s attachment to espousing climate change is more cynical, he believes. “They’ll drop it on a dime once it has no advantage. Science latched on to this as a shooting star, but it is a losing, losing operation. This is a tiny field with a meager record of accomplishment but in the US alone it has gotten $80 billion in funding. If you’re studying butterflies, it must say butterflies and global warming [to increase your chance of funding]. Biology survived the war on cancer by figuring out how to do biology and cancer [but] it’s harder to adjust high-energy physics to climate change.”

Responding to global warming

It may be that science has “entered a silly season” with global warming, he said, which it would regret later.

To later questions as to whether the prudent approach to possible climate change would be to prepare a gradated series of responses, much as insurance companies do when they insure cars or houses against wrecks or fires, Lindzen did not shift from his position that nothing needs doing until more data is gathered.

To another Sandian who pointed out the large number of models by researchers around the world that suggest increases in world temperature, Lindzen responded he was doubtful that the models were independently derived but instead might produce common results because of their common origins.

Asked by Center 1400 director and speaker series host Rob Leland, “What is the most constructive thing we could do at this point?” Lindzen responded that maybe the best thing would be to take science funding back to the time between post-WWII and the mid-60s, with longer grant times and fewer and shorter applications. “We’d see a gush of productivity, not about CO2 but how does climate work?

“Because we knew so little, we were vulnerable.”

The Climate Security lecture series is funded by Sandia’s Energy, Climate and Infrastructure Security division. Rob Leland is director of Sandia’s Climate Security Program.

-- Bill Murphy

Back to top of page

Download Lab News July 13, 2012 (PDF, 2MB)