May 17, 2013

Sandia Wounded Warriors discover they were united in battle years ago

BROTHERS IN ARMS — Jason Shelton (2998), left, and John Bailon (5627) reminisce while walking in terrain at Sandia Labs that reminds them of Iraq. They both fought for the US military in Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Nancy Salem

Jason Shelton and John Bailon left a recent Sandia Military Support Committee meeting side by side, sharing stories of combat in Iraq. John (5627) talked about a day in the summer of 2005 when his Marine unit was called to help a small Joint Special Operations team holed up and taking mortar and gunfire in a house next to a school booby-trapped with explosives.

The hair stood up on Jason’s neck.

“It sounded really familiar,” Jason (2998) says. “I asked if the mission involved bombing the building. He said it did. It was crazy. There could not have been two missions involving a Marine unit supporting a Special Operations team at a school at that exact time in Iraq. I was on the team that John’s unit came to help.”

John says it became clear as he and Jason talked that they were within 100 yards of each other during the tense conflict. “It was a weird, strange coincidence,” Jason says. “For the next few days we both kept saying, ‘I can’t believe it.’”

Both John and Jason are in Sandia’s Wounded Warrior Career Development Program, which opens specific jobs at the Labs to military veterans injured in combat. The program offers training and education, allowing combat-injured veterans to catch up to their peers who entered the civilian workforce instead of the military.

Dog sensed trouble

Jason was an Air Force Combat Controller and part of an elite counterterrorism team that tracked prominent members of al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other militant groups. On that day in Iraq, they were alerted to the possibility of a school being used to hide weapons and fighters. “They use schools, hospitals, and mosques, thinking we won’t go there,” Jason says. “We were dropped off in the desert and walked into this school.”

A K-9 team led the way in the dark of night, testing special equipment intended to make dog-handling in a combat environment more effective.

“That dog ended up saving everybody’s lives,” Jason says. “He alerted, and the handler could see that they had booby-trapped the school with trip wires and explosives and built fighting positions in stairwells with extra ammunition. We didn’t know how many people were in there waiting for us. It was bad.”

The team retreated to a small house next door and called for help. “It was too dangerous to send guys into a situation like that,” Jason says. “When things happen at that scale we request a kinetic strike in which the Air Force comes in and destroys the building. It was the middle of the night, so there were no kids around.”

The sun started rising as a decision was being made on the strike, not a good sign for Jason and his team, who, for the safety of support aircraft, did not go out in daylight. “We knew if we stayed there much longer we’d have to stay all day and into the next night, and we didn’t have provisions,” he says. “We couldn’t leave because there were enemy troops in the building, and someone had to keep ‘eyes-on’ the school until a decision could be made whether or not to destroy it.”

Marines take control

John’s nearby Marine unit had a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) on standby to help whoever was in trouble in the area. “They had assets we didn’t have,” Jason says. “With their numbers and tanks they could secure the area better than we could.”

Jason’s team asked the QRF for help and at the same time began taking mortar and machine gun fire from near the school. “They knew we were there because our team had discovered and destroyed a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device near the school,” he says.

The team held on while Marine tanks rolled in and secured the area. “They surrounded the school for us,” Jason says. “We were taking fire, we were getting mortared. John and his guys got there and took control. It’s nice when people bring tanks. With the Marines there our helicopters could come and get us out.”

John says his unit had attached assets, such as jets, choppers, tanks, and plenty of Marines, while Jason worked in a small team. “They needed our help and we all got down there,” John says. “It was a dangerous situation.”

Jason says the house that sheltered his team didn’t provide much protection, especially against mortars. “Having those guys show up was huge,” he says. “Our small group was limited on what we could do.”

John says the Marines received permission to destroy the building. “It was obviously being used for something other than a school,” he says.

The story has a tragic postscript. The Marines left six snipers to watch the school site after the mission ended. They were later ambushed and killed. Five of the bodies were recovered by the Marines, but the sixth was missing. Jason’s team went into a nearby city and recovered the body. “We leveraged all our assets to find him and we did. We brought him back to the Marines,” Jason says.

Different paths to Sandia

Jason, who joined the Air Force after graduating from high school in Indiana in 1995, left the service in 2007 after doing four combat tours in Iraq and three in Afghanistan. His first deployment was 10 days after 9/11.

He moved to Wyoming with his wife, whom he met in the Air Force, and in 2011 relocated to New Mexico, where he heard about Sandia’s Wounded Warrior hiring program from the Veteran’s Administration. He went to work in January as a mechanical designer.

“I love it,” Jason says. “I do miss the guys I was with in the Air Force, but I wanted to further my education and do something different with my life.”

John, a native of Shiprock, enlisted in the Marines in 2001 with his brother Cheston Bailon (5635), who served with him in Iraq and who also is in Sandia’s Wounded Warrior program. The brothers studied business at Arizona State University and were deployed to Iraq in March 2005. They returned in October and went on reserve status through 2008. John completed a bachelor’s degree in sustainability economics from ASU and in 2010 went to work for Oracle.

He learned about the Wounded Warrior program when Cheston was hired. John started at Sandia in 2012 and works in cybersecurity.

“It was pretty shocking,” Jason says of learning that he and John were in the same battle in Iraq. “It’s a very small world to know we were that close over there and now we’re both working at Sandia and in the Wounded Warrior program.”

John says it’s amazing that he and Jason were yards apart “in a country thousands of miles away eight years ago.”

“To randomly stumble upon it is very interesting and awesome,” he says.

The shared experience has brought John and Jason closer. “Things like that always do,” Jason says. “It doesn’t matter who you were with in the military or how long ago, having the same experience is powerful. You might not see someone for 10 years but run into them again and remember that one night, and you’re best friends again.”


-- Nancy Salem

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Assessing the economic potential of advanced biofuels

DEAN DIBBLE (8237) prepares samples of switchgrass for analysis. (Photo by Randy Wong)

by Patti Koning

Biofuels hold great promise for the future of transportation energy, but the day that biofuel completely replaces gasoline at the pump is still a long way off. How far off is, at best, an educated guess with many variables at play.

A new study led by Scott Paap (8114) takes a close look at the biochemical production of fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEE), one of several candidate biofuel molecules, and how it measures up against the biochemical production of ethanol. The study is detailed in a paper, “Biochemical production of ethanol and fatty acid ethyl esters from switchgrass: A comparative analysis of environmental and economic performance,” published in Biomass and Bioenergy in February 2013.

The study found that the biochemical production of ethanol outperforms the biochemical production of FAEE under the current state of technology development in terms of both economic and environmental metrics. However, the study also identified pathways for improving the FAEE process and evaluated the prospects for it matching or exceeding the performance of the ethanol process in the long term.

“This is a great example of techno-economic modeling helping to inform and guide research,” says Blake Simmons (8630), vice president of the Deconstruction Division at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) and a Sandia senior manager. “This is really powerful insight into where we are relative to existing technology and where we need to be in order to fulfill our mission of replacing petroleum as a transportation fuel. Now we have a base scenario and guidelines for what the process needs to be competitive in terms of price and carbon emissions.”

The study was part of an Early Career LDRD project, in which Scott developed a process model representing the biochemical production of ethanol and an FAEE from acid- and alkaline-pretreated switchgrass.

“We implemented a flexible, modular process model, and incorporated Monte Carlo analysis to account for the inherent uncertainty in parameter values,” he says. “This allowed us to identify the parameters and process steps that drive performance, which in turn provided insight into potential areas for future research. The model is designed to enable comparisons of early stage technologies on a consistent basis within a single framework.”

Fermentation efficiency is key

Ethanol has a long history as a transportation fuel. The Ford Model T, one of America’s first mass-produced cars, ran on ethanol in addition to gasoline and kerosene. Despite the decades of usage, ethanol still has several significant drawbacks — low energy density, miscibility with water, and corrosivity.

Drop-in biofuels (hydrocarbon fuels substantially similar to petroleum-derived fuels) made from plant-derived sugars have the potential to overcome all three of these drawbacks. However, their immiscibility with water is most relevant to the production process. In simple terms, the water-immiscibility of drop-in biofuels results in a spontaneous separation from water in the production process, whereas the separation of ethanol from water requires an extra distillation step.

“This has been touted as an advantage of drop-in biofuels — the potential reduction in the energy requirement of the fuel production process,” explains Scott Paap. “However, when I searched the literature, I found that no one had done a direct comparison of the efficiency of the fuel production processes. Our analysis began as an attempt to quantify the potential cost and energy savings of producing water-immiscible biofuels.”

The process model showed that miscibility with water doesn’t matter all that much within the biorefinery context. “In the overall conversion process, miscibility with water is a small factor. The fermentation of sugars to fuel is so much more efficient with ethanol that any cost or energy penalties associated with distillation are more than offset. You’d expect this, given how much experience we have with ethanol and the relative immaturity of the FAEE fermentation technology,” says Scott.

This difference in fermentation efficiency is the primary driver of ethanol’s current advantage over FAEE. The study found that ethanol production per metric ton of dry biomass, the yield, is about 2.5 times higher than that of FAEE. The minimum fuel selling price of ethanol is approximately ½ that of FAEE. The amount of electricity and water used in the production of FAEE are significantly higher than in the production of ethanol. Ethanol production greenhouse gas emissions are also substantially lower than those from FAEE production.

The study identified two primary areas for potential FAEE process improvements: increasing the fermentation yield and switching from aerobic to anaerobic fermentation. By improving the fermentation parameters to match ethanol’s, the FAEE processes can make up most cost, fuel production, GHG emissions, and water use differences and produce a fuel with a higher energy density than ethanol. Switching to anaerobic fermentation will significantly decrease electricity consumption. However, even if these improvements in the FAEE process can be achieved, the processing advantages from immiscibility with water are at least partially offset by a lower maximum fermentation yield when compared to ethanol.

Results broadly applicable

The comparison between the processes to produce ethanol and FAEE is imperfect, says Scott, because ethanol is a gasoline additive/replacement and FAEE is intended for diesel engines. However, the results are broadly applicable to other water-immiscible biofuels, most of which suffer from similarly low maximum theoretical fermentation yields when compared to ethanol.

This point also underscores the need to extend the scope of such comparisons beyond the biorefinery to distributing fuel to end users, and ultimately to combustion in engines. Further study is needed to explore the question of whether potential advantages in infrastructure compatibility and combustion efficiency for advanced biofuels will be sufficient to overcome the apparent process limitations of producing FAEE for fuel via biochemical pathways.

“The process model allows you to take a step back and analyze how a specific technology fits into the bigger picture. When a process is in the early stages of development, any estimates of energy use or greenhouse gas emissions, for example, will have a large degree of uncertainty. So, the model is useful for comparing different options and their relative performance rather than arriving at absolute numbers,” says Scott.

Scott applied the same modeling approach to a follow-up project for Lockheed Martin to compare processes to produce biomass-based aviation fuels, completed in October 2012. He is currently conducting cost and energy analyses for an LDRD Grand Challenge on affordable photovoltaics and an LDRD on metal organic frameworks for oxygen purification. His modeling approach is also part of a proposed LDRD analyzing a natural-gas-based process to produce liquid fuels.

“I would like to do this kind of study on all major research projects relative to bioenergy,” says Blake. “Economic analysis and experimental work must be considered together. In a research environment, you can’t target the right things on a topic with as broad an impact as commercial-scale production of biofuels if you don’t have the economic focus.”

-- Patti Koning

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Rad detection to go: Mobile technology deployed at international ports

DRIVER’S ED — Driving MRDIS is no piece of cake; the driver is sideways, 15 feet up, and each front wheel operates independently.

by Stephanie Holinka

In late March, a Sandia team traveled to the Port of Salah, Oman, to conclude the acceptance testing of the Mobile Radiation Detection and Identification System (MRDIS), a technology intended to make it more difficult to sneak illicit radiological materials into a country.

Typical radiation detectors are fixed-in-place at port entrances and exits, so they aren’t able to scan transshipment containers, says Greg Stihel of Systems & Mission Assurance Dept. 6813. This makes transshipment an enticing option for those who might want to bring radioactive substances into a country for terrorist activities like making dirty bombs, he says.

“In 2006 or so, NNSA recognized the need to also scan cargo that is taken off a ship and, in a short period of time, put on a second ship,” Greg says.

Greg says port security is a huge international concern, but that port operators and shippers are also concerned about time delays, because they negatively impact their bottom line.

“If the system creates time delays, that costs shippers and port operators money, and the detectors won’t get used,” Greg says.

Based on the need to scan transshipped containers quickly, Sandia engineers developed the idea for MRDIS. Under direction by the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Second Line of Defense Program they set about making it happen.

Two MRDIS prototypes were developed around 2006, and were field tested in Oman. Engineers worked with port operators to refine the MRDIS based on its performance.

After the prototypes proved their worth, 12 MRDIS devices were ordered, which represents a tremendous investment in the idea, Greg says. Two years later, the first production unit of the second-generation MRDIS was complete.

Engineers then created a detailed set of requirements for subsequent production models, allowing the project to move forward quickly.

The work was done in partnership with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and with Cincinnati firm DRS Technologies.

Not like driving a tractor trailer

To date, eight MRDIS units have been deployed worldwide. The first set of four went to Panama in November 2012. The four in Oman arrived last summer and, after some delays, completed the final acceptance testing in late March.

Greg says driving MRDIS “feels strange because it’s so big, and because the operator sits sideways, facing the trucks going through the center. The MRDIS is big enough for a truck carrying shipping containers to pass through, so it’s not like driving just a tractor trailer truck.”

Nonproliferation and Cooperative Threat Reduction Center 6800 Director Rodney Wilson was able to observe field testing and drive the MRDIS during an SLD visit to Oman in late March. 

“It is not as intuitive as you think. Imagine being in the back seat of your car, on passenger side, facing in, and trying to drive the car using joy sticks to turn and go forward and back, all while staring at a computer screen. Oh, and you are also 15 feet off the ground,” Rodney says.

James Schol of Global Security Systems & Technology Dept. 6814 says MRDIS can be moved to active quays, and then containers can pass through the MRDIS on the way to another vessel in the port.

Greg says each MRDIS can work independently or as part of a team, depending on the port’s needs. Each MRDIS can also feed data into a central system, or collect data on its own. The ports in Oman and Panama are using three MRDIS units as primary scanners, with a fourth MRDIS including more detailed detection equipment serving as a secondary scanner.

Use at ‘pinch points’

In addition to port facilities, the team says that MRDIS could also be used at airports and will be next year. MRDIS-like platforms could be used at any location with “pinch points” that traffic passes through.

The work was funded by NNSA’s International Material Protection & Cooperation Office under the Second Line of Defense Program, which installs radiation detection equipment at land border crossings, airports, seaports, and international checkpoints all over the world.

Team members estimated that cumulatively they spent almost a full year in Oman.

Greg says working in Oman for long period of time wasn’t a hardship. “Oman is interesting. It’s traditional but also it’s pretty and friendly and comfortable.”

Nearly 90 percent of imported and exported goods worldwide travel by shipping container. Approximately 500 million 20-foot-equivalent units (a maritime shipping unit of measure) transit the globe annually through the maritime system.

Two more MRDIS’ are slated to be deployed at international airport sometime next year.


-- Stephanie Holinka

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