June 27, 2014

‘Shake, rattle, and roll’ gets an update after 60 years

ON THE RIGHT TRACK — Sandia engineer and project manager Michael J. Vigil (1533) is part of a team that oversees tests done at the 10,000-foot rocket sled track. The wiring systems on the track were completely rebuilt during the Test Capabilities Revitalization. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Stephanie Hobby

It sits in the heart of the New Mexico desert, windswept and quiet until a sudden, earth-shattering boom interrupts the tranquility. Sandia’s remote areas have long been known for their exciting test capabilities, and with a decade-long, $100 million renovation wrapped up this spring, the area will often be shaking, rattling, and rolling.

 Some of Sandia’s most well-known tests have been conducted in this remote space, with its powerful and soaring structures. Wired magazine once said that if Sandia is the nation’s science playground, Tech Area 3 is its sandbox.

While the tests conducted there are admittedly fun to watch — and it’s hard not to get excited about the “shake, rattle, and roll” aspects — the mission couldn’t be more serious. The Tech Area 3 facilities are critical to supporting Sandia’s ongoing nuclear stockpile modernization work on the B61-12 and W88 Alt, assessments of current stockpile systems, and test and analysis for broad national security customers. But the test sites were aging. Many were built in the height of the Cold War and needed to be updated. A 2000 study indicated that to maintain Sandia’s test capabilities, new facilities and upgrades were needed. That study prompted the massive Test Capabilities Revitalization (TCR). Below is the first in a series of stories in the Lab News that will take a closer look at the recent upgrades.

* * *

Arguably one of the most famous of Sandia’s test facilities, the iconic 10,000-foot rocket sled track is known for its bright flashes, sonic booms, and sending large objects careening down the track at roughly the speed of sound.

The Rocket Sled Track offers a controlled environment for high-velocity impacts, aerodynamic and acceleration testing, and other conditions. Over the years, it has tested parachutes, aircraft, and space vehicles, and can also be used to support open-air burns.

More operational flexibility

 “The TCR updates have given us a more robust and reliable facility. All the test control and instrumentation wiring  systems and trackside boxes were replaced,” says engineer and Rocket Sled Track Facility Director Michael J. Vigil (1533), who is part of a team that oversees tests at the Sled Track. He adds that the new trackside boxes provide more operational flexibility and more robust data. “It gives us increased confidence that we understand all our electronic signals and where they’re going.”

Paul Schlavin, who oversaw the TCR updates, estimates his team put in 120 miles of new wire up and down the track, with 25,000 connection points. “We completely rewired the power and data acquisition,” he says. “It’s a whole new system, and it’s now a really robust system with fiber optics, camera stations, and blast-resistant walls to ensure that the system is protected.”

In addition to new wiring, controls, and electronics, TCR provided funding to renovate existing buildings and tear down those that were aging. The result is a more streamlined system for conducting tests. With new wiring and trackside boxes located at regular intervals down the track, the operations can all be controlled from the Rocket Sled Track Control building. In the past, Sandia engineers relied on temporary wiring to a mobile trailer or other building in closer proximity to the tests.

Sandia’s Rocket Sled Track is unique to the DOE complex and plays an important role in the overall weapons qualification process by validating many of the weapon systems’ models. “We serve an important function in verifying and validating that those models are accurate or can be changed to be more accurate based on the real data that we provide,” Michael says.

In the weeks and months to come, the team will rerun previous tests to ensure the life extension programs of some previously tested weapons are still valid. Upcoming tests also include shipping containers that hold radioactive materials to make sure they’ll meet requirements.

“We’re looking forward to moving ahead with more effective and robust testing,” Michael says. “I think success will breed success, and we’ll be able to do more tests at a higher level of quality with the recent upgrades.”


-- Stephanie Hobby

Back to top of page

Sandia Cyber Technologies Academy offers free classes to high school students

Cyber Technologies Academy teacher Craig Shannon (8966), a Sandia cybersecurity researcher, checks a student’s progress on an exercise. Academy classes offer a mix of lectures and hands-on learning.

by Patti Koning

In the rapidly changing world of cybersecurity, who better to learn from than the professionals who live in that world every day? High school students are getting just that opportunity through Sandia’s Cyber Technologies Academy, free classes for high school students interested in computer science and cybersecurity.

“The Cyber Technologies Academy is a critical piece of our talent pipeline strategy for cyber professionals,” says Navid Jam (8965), manager of the information assurance group. “The sooner we can engage with students and shape their thinking about computer security and the hard problems we and the nation face, the sooner they can be part of the solution. These students will amplify our national security impact and develop a desperately needed national cyber capacity.”

Jeremy Erickson (8965) and Steve Hurd (8958) started the academy after running the Center for Cyber Defenders (CCD) at Sandia/California, a summer internship for students from high school through doctoral studies.

The goal of the Cyber Technologies Academy is to take motivated students — even those with no computer experience — to a high level of cyber proficiency during high school. The classes combine instruction with hands-on learning, giving students an actual cyber environment in which to network and program.

Academy fills critical education gap

“We noticed that high school students entering the CCD had vastly different levels of skills and experience,” Jeremy explains. “High schools are not well-equipped to teach cybersecurity. Most schools only offer basic computer science classes. It’s rare to find a high school teacher with a computer science background, and high school computer labs typically aren’t set up to run multiple operating systems and allow students to experience networking.”

Drawing on their experience with the CCD, Jeremy and Steve realized Sandia already had the essential elements to teach cybersecurity to high school students — instructors, technology, and space. Jeremy, Steve, and Craig Shannon (8966) taught the first session of classes using Corporate Sponsored Community Service time off for K-12 education activities; computers and networking equipment are available through reapplication; and the Cybersecurity Technologies Research Laboratory (CTRL), which houses the CCD in the summer and had available space.

The academy was an immediate success. For the first session, which ran from March to May, the organizers planned for 54 students in three classes of 18, but quickly added a fourth session after 69 applied. The summer session also had more applicants than space available.

“I wanted to learn networking, which wasn’t taught in my high school computer science classes,” says Kimberli Zhong, a senior at Dublin High School. “The class is interesting, especially the hands-on exercises. We can put the concepts we learn into practice immediately.”

Nikhil Singh, a sophomore at Foothill High School in Pleasanton, Calif., signed up for the academy because he’s interested in a career in cyberintelligence.

“I’m taking computer science classes at my high school, but here we get to program in a ‘real deal’ environment,” he says. “It’s been a real eye opener to learn about other career paths in computer science.”

Extending the academy’s reach to teachers

The academy’s summer session is underway — five weeks of classes that meet for four hours a week for students and a weeklong intensive session for teachers.  Among the participants are students from 23 local high schools and nine students and teachers from several South Carolina schools.

“Clearly, there is a limit to the number of students we can reach directly,” says Jeremy. “So we are offering teacher training and developing curriculum so those teachers can bring this instruction back to their schools.”

That includes building the classroom exercises into a live CD, essentially an operating system on a disk. Once complete, the system will be available free of charge to schools. “This gets schools over the technology hurdle, because with live CD there is no need to install anything on a school computer, but students can still do cyber exercises in an authentic environment,” he says.

The academy is seeking federal and private grants and partnerships to support further curriculum development. Sandians or retirees interested in sharing their experience and expertise through the academy can email to find out about getting involved. Steve and Jeremy will be teaching summer session classes, along with Elisha Choe (8965), John Floren (8961), Kevin Hulin (8136), Thomas Kroeger (8965), Mike Kurtzer (89451), Gabe Nunez (8949), Greg Tubbs (LLNL), Kina Winoto (8965), and CCD interns Steven Barker and Nick Ward (both 8965).

In mid-August, the academy will begin taking applications for the fall program, which will run from September through November. The application and other details can be found at the academy website ( Selection is based on student motivation.

“We don’t require any experience or prior knowledge in cyber,” Jeremy explains. “We are looking for students with a passion for this subject, who have the potential to become the best and brightest in the field.”

Cyber Technologies Academy graduates first class

On May 12, the Cyber Technologies Academy recognized its first set of graduates. There are no tests or grades in the program — rather, it offers innovative, hands-on learning opportunities that most students had never before experienced.

“This is an amazing day for all of us,” said Jeremy Erickson (8965). “You all have inspired us to think well beyond the three courses we offered this spring. We would like to expand beyond Tri-Valley and bring this program into high schools across the country.”

Jordan Robertson, a technology writer with Bloomberg News, shared with the students his experiences reporting on the cyber world for the last 10 years.

“Cyber is one of those rare fields where you can have independence and impact,” he said. “Creativity, initiative, and even challenging authority are rewarded in this field. You can create your own opportunities and potentially have national, even international, impact.”

He told the students about three researchers he has written about who exemplify this potential: Jay Radcliffe, who hacked the insulin pump that enables him to control his diabetes and ultimately forced medical device makers and the FDA to address vulnerabilities with wireless devices; Kristin Paget, now at Apple, who demonstrated how easily radio-frequency identification (RFID)-enabled cards can be hacked; and Barnaby Jack, best known for a 2010 demonstration of “Jackpotting” in which he remotely hacked into several different ATMs and caused them to spit out cash. (He died in 2013). 

Robertson closed with some advice for the students — keep studying computer science. “A college degree in computer science, even if you don’t go into that field, demonstrates competency in thinking and analysis that employers really like,” said Robertson. “If you pursue computer science of any kind, you will have lots of options.”



-- Patti Koning

Back to top of page

Power to the people: Next era of semiconductors

Jeff Tsao (1120) looks over a set-up used to test diode lasers as an aternative to LED lighting.      (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Nancy Salem

Semiconductors are sneaky. Little by little they permeate your life, unnoticed until you stop and think. Remember mammoth cell phones and boxy computers? Remember being lost?  “Our lives become more convenient, flexible, dynamic, and agile every day,” says Sandia Fellow and materials scientist Jerry Simmons (7000). “Semiconductors are the reason why.”

All modern electronics need semiconductors, which at the most elemental level simply switch electricity on and off. At opposite ends of the electrical spectrum are conducting materials, such as copper and aluminum, used in wires through which electricity is sent, and insulators that keep electricity from flowing out of the wires, causing shocks. “In between are semiconductors that can switch back and forth from conducting to insulating,” Jerry says. “When hooked together in complex ways, you get high performance computing.  But semiconductors serve other functions like optical communications, imaging, and switching electrical power — also known as power electronics. As the semiconductors get more efficient, so do entire systems.”

 Silicon, as in Silicon Valley, has long been the go-to semiconductor material for computing and power electronics. But a new generation of materials is taking hold that could lead to smaller, lighter, more powerful, and versatile devices. The rising stars are III-Vs, graphene, wide bandgaps, and metamaterials, each of which will push electronics, and modern life, to new places.

III-V: See the light

Jerry says one area in which silicon falls short is the handling of optical processes. “There are a lot of applications where you want something to absorb a particle of light or emit a particle of light,” he says. “People have used various non-silicon semiconductors to do that.”

 Those innovations helped revolutionize telecommunications because optical fibers use light to carry computer signals. “The Internet is based on semiconductor devices that absorb a photon on the receiving end or emit a photon on the transmitting end,” Jerry says. “It was a generation of semiconductors worked on in the 1970s and ’80s that allowed optical internet communication to take place.”

Sandia is developing optical materials that will do even more. One innovation is solid state lighting powered by a new class of III-V semiconductors, so called because they combine elements from groups III and V of the periodic table. Using indium gallium nitride and aluminum gallium nitride, Sandia engineers have made some of the first high-intensity blue and ultraviolet light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

 “We had to learn how to grow the material thick enough to make an LED inside a growth chamber,” Jerry says. “You have different layers in the LED structure. The thickness of the quantum wells has to be well defined and controlled to within a single atomic layer.”

 Sandia was a pioneer in that material system and helped make possible the white LEDs that are penetrating the market, replacing incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. Also developed were LEDs in ultraviolet wavelengths used in military applications and to purify water.

  Researchers are extending the same gallium nitride-based materials into power electronics. “Instead of an information signal in your computer — tiny little currents of micro- or nano-amps — we’re looking at switching hundreds of amps to supply electricity from the grid to entire neighborhoods,” Jerry says.  “The materials will make everything smaller, lighter, more efficient, and more reliable.”

Graphene: Strength in layers

Graphene is a one-atom-thick layer of the mineral graphite in which carbon atoms are arranged in a hexagonal pattern. It’s strong, light, and nearly transparent, an excellent conductor of heat and electricity with the potential to create ultra-small and fast components in electronics. Wafer-scale graphene can be engineered and integrated to other semiconductors, producing tailor-made components for applications in such areas as spintronics, biosensing, and bioanalytics.

 “Graphene is just in its infancy, but the potential number of applications is mind-blowing.  Because it is only one atom thick, it is easy to modify the surface or the edges of a strip of graphene and control its properties. So this can make very tiny, low-power switches,” Jerry says.  “Or you can put two layers of graphene on top of each other and make a photon detector.”

Metamaterials: Second nature

Metamaterials are engineered to have properties not found in nature. Atoms and their arrangement in a material determine its properties. “It turns out you can make artificial atoms by shaping the material on a nanoscale, and as long as the shaping is significantly smaller than the wavelength of the energy it’s interacting with, it looks homogenous,” says Rick McCormick, senior manager in Radiation, Nano and Optical Sciences Dept. 1110.  “You can’t tell the difference between the atomic response and the response of the shaping.”

By changing geometry at the nanoscale, materials can be artificially engineered to create a response that doesn’t exist in nature. “It opens the door to making artificial atoms at artificial frequencies,” Rick says. “Theoretically, that gives you a big knob to turn on material properties. We’re not stuck with what nature gave us.”

An example of such a property is the way a material responds to light.  “Normally, when light passes through glass, like a prism, the light gets bent in a certain direction,” Rick says. “By using metamaterials, we can make the light bend in an opposite direction to what occurs in nature. This allows us to do new things with light including non-visible light, like infrared and radio waves, that were never imagined before.”

Examples include ultra-thin lenses, ultra-efficient cell phone antennas, and ways to keep satellites cool and photovoltaics more efficient. A recent Sandia Grand Challenge research project headed by Rick and funded through the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program advanced the state of the art in metamaterials from two-dimensional metafilms to three-dimensional materials, research that won an R&D 100 award.

The work led researchers to look at optics in new ways, including using metamaterials in an invisibility cloak to shield something from view by controlling electromagnetic radiation.

“Metamaterials have given us a bunch of new theoretical, computational, and experimental tools to explore the way light interacts with matter at a very small scale,” Rick says. “Now we can play with that in a new way.”

Wide bandgap: Hot topic

Electronic bandgap is a fundamental materials property. Wide-bandgap (WBG) materials such as silicon carbide and gallium nitride are semiconductors with bandgaps significantly greater than that of silicon. Wide bandgaps have already revolutionized lighting.  But as transistors, or switches, in modern power electronics they also have the potential to vastly improve the performance of electrical power grids, electric vehicles, motors in buildings for elevators and HVAC systems, and even computer power supplies.

WBG materials can handle high temperatures and voltages, properties that could lead to simpler, less costly power conversion systems. WBG has the potential to substantially reduce the estimated 10 percent energy loss between generating electricity and transmitting it into a home or business. A wide bandgap allows faster switching.

“In a decade or two the giant transformers in your neighborhood distributing power from the electric grid to homes, that now weigh 10,000 pounds, will be replaced by things the size of a suitcase that weigh 100 pounds,” Jerry says.

And if electric vehicles could tap the potential for WBG power electronics to withstand higher temperatures, they might not need a liquid cooling system, reducing the system’s complexity and improving vehicle range because the car would weigh less.

Modern family

Jerry says Sandia is looking ahead to new classes of semiconductor materials that could help meet the Labs’ national security mission. Photon detectors are an example. “New photon detectors can image battlefields or landscapes in frequencies that we haven’t looked at before,” he says. “It’s a new generation of materials that gives us that capability.”

Where is the next generation of semiconductors leading? Jerry says to dramatic changes in the way people live. Some revolutions transform life in a striking way, as in buying an LED light bulb that uses less energy and saves money. Others sneak up, such as the realization over time that cell phones do much more in a much smaller package.

“Semiconductors have progressed over time to the point that the density of transistors and computing chips is mind-boggling,” Jerry says. “They are embedded in systems like cars and cell phones and home appliances. They allow us to have our modern-day lifestyle.

“But we always have to be out on the frontier looking for the newest discoveries and picking things to develop further. So if we talk about semiconductors again in two or three years, the topics will likely be dramatically different but equally exciting.”


-- Nancy Salem

Back to top of page

Sandia, city of Albuquerque renew partnership pact

Sandia Labs Director Paul Hommert and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry shake on a new Memorandum of Understanding between the Labs and the city. “We have a lot of things to work on, a broad scope of issues,” Berry said at the MOU signing.     (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Nancy Salem

Sandia has renewed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that sets out a variety of ways the Labs can work with the city of Albuquerque. “This MOU is a well-defined vehicle to maximize our impact on the local economy,” Labs Director Paul Hommert said at the MOU signing earlier this month.

The new three-year MOU will allow the city and Sandia to formally collaborate on projects such as energy infrastructure, advanced manufacturing, technology development, entrepreneurial growth, business assistance, telecommunications, cybersecurity, and computer modeling and simulation.

“This is an opportunity to strengthen an already strong relationship,” Mayor Richard Berry said at the signing. “Sandia National Labs and the city of Albuquerque share a number of interests. This is good news for the community.”

The MOU says Sandia and the city share goals including public safety and regional economic development, and that collaborative efforts on specific projects and technical issues will advance their respective interests.

“The city will benefit from Sandia’s technical expertise and Sandia will benefit from access to the local community as a resource and problem-solving model,” the MOU states.

Berry said he has enjoyed working with Paul as a friend and mentor. He said the city has used Sandia expertise on its information technology systems, engineering challenges, and in other areas.

“We have a lot of things to work on, a broad scope of issues,” Berry said. “An important area is commercialization of research. We want to make Albuquerque a center of expertise in tech transfer. We are really, really fortunate to have Sandia as a partner.”

Paul said tech transfer and commercialization are key missions of the Labs. “We are putting a lot of thought and effort into this,” he said.

He said the MOU will make the city a better place for Sandians to live. “The city is home to a vast majority of Sandia employees and we want to help it succeed,” he said. “We look forward to bringing our expertise to the issues.”




-- Nancy Salem

Back to top of page

Download Lab News June 27, 2014 (PDF, 2MB)