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The lab the nation turned to . . .

An hour-and-a-half after the first plane hit, Paul Robinson recalls, NNSA Administrator Gen. John Gordon called to ask for Sandia's help, saying, "'Get some guys back here to help me handle all the requests we're getting, and the communications with all the other labs and sites.'" Click the image above to launch a PDF file version of this story detailing Sandia National Laboratories' response to the nation's call in the first frantic days after 9/11.






Lab News -- May 26, 2006

May 26 , 2006

LabNews 05/26/2006PDF (650KB)

US Strategic Petroleum Reserve expansion project gets technical assist from Sandia researchers

By Will Keener

The clock ticks toward a deadline in June as a group of Sandia scientists and engineers are hard at work on an important project to help the DOE make the right choices at the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The multidisciplinary group, centered around David Borns’ Geotechnology and Engineering Dept. 6113, is helping DOE meet its goal of adding 273 million barrels in capacity to the reserve, which is contained in natural salt domes deep in the earth along the US Gulf Coast. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 directed the Secretary of Energy to fill the SPR to its authorized one billion barrel capacity.

At a typical 10 million barrels per salt cavern, this means another 27 caverns need to be added to the 62 existing ones, explains project lead Brian Ehgartner (6113). Some of these will be created within existing domes used by SPR (see “SPR makes use of natural geologic features” on page 5), and some will be created at a new location along the coast. Five new sites are under technical review, following an environmental impact process. The new site candidates are Stratton Ridge, Texas, Chacahoula and Clovelly, La., and Richton and Bruinsburg, Miss.

Selection input

Working with a $2.5 million budget, about a dozen Sandia researchers and a few consultants are providing input on a number of issues connected with site selection, says David. These include the geomechanics and engineering integrity, access to petroleum infrastructure, existing or historical problems that would make expansion difficult, the geometry of additional salt caverns in presently used domes, and other factors. Major pipelines from the region head northwest into the Midwest, north to the Great Lakes Seaway area and Chicago, and northeast to the Atlantic states, creating the ability to move SPR inventory to most US refineries.

With Sandia consultation, DOE is choosing to add additional storage capacity to its Big Hill, Texas, and its Bayou Choctaw and West Hackberry, La., storage sites, Brian says. This capitalizes on existing infrastructure and operations, shortens development time, and minimizes costs.

Late last year Clovelly, La., was selected as a candidate site for new SPR caverns. “Our work load kept growing. All this happened . . . with a realization that we needed to finish by May or June,” says Brian. The Clovelly site is a part of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) system, a deepwater port in the Gulf of Mexico providing tanker offloading for crude oil transported on some of the largest tankers in the world. LOOP handles 13 percent of the nation’s imported oil — about 1.2 million barrels a day — and connects by pipeline to 35 percent of US refining capacity.

At Clovelly, the team turned to Lupe Arguello (1525), Jonathan Rath, and Jim Beam (both 1524) to look at the idea of putting up to 16 SPR caverns deeper in the salt dome, below nine existing caverns used by LOOP. “Salt is notorious for creeping,” explains David. “So there are questions about the integrity of the existing caverns and subsidence [sinking] at the site. It’s really an interesting challenge.

“If the concept proves feasible, it can be applied at existing sites throughout the Gulf Coast for storage of natural gas and other products,” says David.

Subsidence is critical at most of the SPR sites. Some of the domes are only five or six feet above sea level and researchers must know how they will behave with increased drilling and cavern excavation. This is especially important for the double-tiered cavern concept being considered at Clovelly. Chris Clutz (6141) is providing subsidence modeling input for the project.

Among the things that will have to be worked out are the optimal shapes and separation distances between caverns in the salt domes. Byoung Yoon (6821), an experienced WIPP researcher, is looking at issues related to salt creep and placing new caverns in particularly tight locations at Bayou Choctaw. Steve Sobolik (6117) is studying novel cavern shapes, while anticipated changes of shapes during operations are being simulated by Bruce Levin (6113).

Original design life for the caverns was defined as five complete drawdowns (full-empty cycles) of all the oil inside. But future usage may be different, with partial drawdowns at a more frequent rate. “The question becomes can we design caverns to be less vulnerable to these changes,” says Brian.

Chris Rautman and Anna Snider Lord (both 6113) are looking at seismic and well logs to delineate actual boundaries of the salt domes and existing caverns. They are using modeling software to construct images of the caverns and better define the real estate, where there is currently a lot of uncertainty.

Allan Sattler (6113) is studying the drilling history of the domes to gauge what events may impact future operations. In one case, for example, an oilfield logging tool was lost in a cavern. This kind of information also will be folded into the final decision-making.

Tight schedule

Sandia’s work at SPR will be far from finished with the current effort. Once the sites are selected, DOE will look to Sandia to be involved in site characterization, drill holes, and the actual leaching and operations of the caverns. But getting to that point has meant a tough, tight schedule.

“All this would normally take a year, but we need answers by mid-June,” Brian says. “We have already provided input for a draft Environmental Impact Statement. Secretary Bodman has already written the president recommending we go ahead. Now we must provide analysis to back that up and help guide the expansion plan, starting with site selection.”

“We had a short turnaround and a lot of people had to step to the plate in a nearly impossible time frame,” says David. “People have stepped up and accepted this challenge.”

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SPR: Do we really need it?

Why is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve expanding? Is it worth a $30 billion investment that includes $3 billion in infrastructure and $27 billion in oil? At 5.5 million barrels a day, can SPR production really help the US in a crisis?

Economic and strategic experts say it can help and it’s worth the effort.

Brian Ehgartner, one of the Sandia project leads, notes that an economic study from Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently showed that there is a greater than 90 percent chance over the next decade that an event will occur somewhere in the world that will cost the US up to 5 million barrels per day of production. “The reserve is now being sized to make up that difference,” he says.

Although the US daily consumption of 20.7 million barrels a day is much higher, the critical difference is typically in product at risk, Brian explains. About 12 million barrels a day are imported to the US, with about five million of that coming from relatively stable resources in Canada and Mexico.

The SPR is designed to cover the balance of higher-risk sources, says David Borns. “The probabalistic situation is that you will lose production from the Persian Gulf, or Venezuela, or some other area for a certain amount of time. SPR is designed to absorb the difference.” As recently as Hurricane Katrina, this concept was illustrated when SPR production allowed a number of critical refineries to stay in normal operation until supply disruptions could be repaired.

Given the potential for terrorist disruption, increased global competition for oil, and dwindling supplies, reserves are much more valuable today, says Daniel Yergin, American author and economic researcher. While the standard way of thinking about economic security has been in terms of diversity of supply, Yergin now suggests the concept of “resilience of supply” as a new factor. This includes adequate storage.

In the future, the integration of infrastructure will play an increasing role, says David. Researchers in Sandia organizations 6200 and 5000 are examining these issues.

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SPR uses natural geologic features

America’s emergency crude oil is stored in salt caverns, created deep within the massive salt domes that underlie much of the Texas and Louisiana coastline. These caverns offer a secure and affordable means of storage, costing up to 10 times less than aboveground tanks and 20 times less than hard rock mines.

Storage locations along the Gulf Coast were selected because they provide a flexible means for connecting to the nation’s commercial oil transport network. SPR oil can be distributed through interstate pipelines to nearly half of the US oil refineries or loaded into ships or barges for transport to other refineries.

A typical SPR cavern holds 10 million barrels and is cylindrical in shape with a diameter of 200 feet and a height of 2,000 feet. One storage cavern is large enough for Chicago's Sears Tower to fit inside with room to spare. The Reserve contains 62 huge underground caverns, ranging from 6 to 35 million barrels capacity.

The federal government acquired previously created salt caverns to store the first 250 million barrels of crude oil in the mid-1970s. This was the most rapid way to secure an emergency supply of crude oil following the oil shocks of the 1970s. To stockpile oil beyond the first 250 million barrels, DOE created additional caverns, with scientific and engineering assistance from Sandia.

Salt caverns are dissolved out of underground salt domes by drilling a well into a salt formation, then injecting fresh water. The water dissolves the salt and creates the SPR caverns. The dissolved salt is removed and re-injected into disposal wells or piped several miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico. Through careful control of the freshwater injection process, salt caverns of specific dimensions can be created.

The nature of the salt, a material Sandia engineers are very familiar with thanks to the Labs long-standing work at WIPP, makes the caverns mechanically and environmentally secure. At depths ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 feet, the salt walls of the storage caverns are somewhat plastic and self-healing. Should any cracks develop in the walls, they would be almost instantly closed under normal conditions.

A natural temperature difference between the top of the caverns and the bottom keeps the crude oil continuously circulating in the caverns, maintaining the oil at a consistent quality. As the caverns have aged, the thermal gradient has decreased, resulting in less circulation and in some cases stratification of oil, another topic of research at Sandia. The fact that oil floats on water is the underlying mechanism used to move oil in and out of the SPR. To withdraw the crude, water is pumped into the bottom of a cavern. The water displaces the crude oil to the surface. Each withdrawal affects the geometry and size of the caverns, enlarging and changing them slightly.

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SPR timeline

Here’s a brief history of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, world's largest emergency supply of crude oil.

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SPR by the numbers

Past emergency sales

-- Will Keener

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Albuquerque’s TVI and Texas Tech earn top honors in MEMS design contest

By Neal Singer

An exceedingly small monorail and a chain with links approximately 1/10 the diameter of a human hair were among the remarkable devices created by the imaginative yet detail-oriented winners of Sandia’s 2006 MEMS University Alliance (UA) Design Competition.

Texas Tech's winning design team, directed by professor Tim Dallas and student Jay Friend, won the Characterization/Reliability/Material and Surface Science category. Their design consisted of a MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) monorail, mechanical characterization of bio-cells, and more.

“The Sandia Design Competition is the centerpiece of our MEMS curriculum. We believe the educational benefits are excellent,” said Dallas. He praised the Sandia-originated SUMMiT design process, said it allowed students to participate in interesting research, and hoped that “testing and characterization of the fabricated devices will lead to publishable results.”

Professor Matt Pleil and student Paul Tafoya from Albuquerque TVI — the only two-year school in the competition — won the Novel Design category with help from students Eric Steinmaus and Eddie Letellier. (TVI will soon be renamed Central New Mexico Community College.)

The group built what it believes is the world’s smallest chain (11 microns per link), complete with tensioner, as well as a microbelt able to transfer energy from one point to another. They built orthogonal gears necessary to transfer power from one plane to another (as in transferring power from transmission to wheels) and a trapped-oxide actuator that uses internal stresses to cause the structure to lift out-of-plane.

Said Pleil, “Not only did students learn details but also how important design is to the final fabrication of the product. They worked hours on their own time to fine-tune their work. They also had a lot of fun and turned into a tremendously cohesive team. We greatly appreciate the outstanding support we have received from Sandia.”

A model for other community colleges

The project has been a model for other community colleges, says Pleil, and has been presented at a local high school to stimulate interest in science. It’s also been presented at a number of technical meetings and conferences.

“The ingenious designs submitted by all the participants in this competition are evidence of our success,” says Sandia manager and contest lead Harold Stewart (1749).

TVI and Texas Tech team representatives were informed of their victory on April 18. They visited Sandia in mid-May to present their designs for review and to tour Sandia’s microsystem facilities. In addition, the two schools will receive organizational memberships to MANCEF (Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation). The winning designs will be fabricated on Sandia's SUMMiT V™ reticle set and Sandia-fabricated parts will be shared with all University Alliance members to use in their curricula regardless of participation in the 2006 contest.

Institutions must be members of Sandia’s MEMS University Alliance for their students to participate. Membership is available to any US institution of higher learning.

Members receive course materials structured to help start or further develop their own MEMS program. They also receive licenses for Sandia’s cutting-edge MEMS design software, MEMS parts, and other benefits. Twelve schools are members of the Alliance with a number of agreements pending.

The contest attempts to help attract, inspire, and train US students to become the engineers and scientists of the next generation of the MEMS workforce, according to literature published by the program. Cost-effective programs that build relationships with US students and professors help foster US leadership and competitiveness in a globalized world, the literature states.

This is the second year of the design competition. Greater detail can be found here.

For more information about the contest, contact Natasha Bridge at

For more information about becoming a member of the University Alliance, contact Kathryn Hanselmann at -- Neal Singer

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Diana’s Homegrown rids the world of soggy sandwiches

By Stephanie Holinka


Your next box lunch may come with more than that tuna fish sandwich. That sandwich may come with a ripcord to open it, and a patent behind it.

Diana’s Homegrown, a small business based north of Socorro in Lemitar, N.M., has patented a pull-out pouch system that is designed to transform food from an easily spoiled, soggy mess into a fresh and long-lasting meal. The intent of the system is to extend the lifespan of an unrefrigerated sandwich by as much as a month, even longer if it is stored in a refrigerator.

Through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program (NMSBA), Sandia provided technical and business assistance to 283 New Mexico small businesses in 2005, including Diana’s Homegrown. Funding for the program comes from a tax credit passed by the New Mexico legislature.

This was Sandia’s fifth year of helping small businesses through the NMSBA. The program allows Sandia to use a portion of its gross receipts taxes paid each year to provide technical advice and assistance to New Mexico small businesses.

In 2005, Sandia received $1.8 million in tax credits, which were put to work for small businesses such as Diana’s Homegrown. Eight success stories from the 2005 NMSBA program year, including Diana’s, were highlighted at a recent event at the Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.

Reggie Alsbrook, the founder of Diana’s Homegrown, entered the food business to fulfill a promise to his father, William Noel Alsbrook, who spent 10 years developing and patenting a packaging system that extends the fresh life of sandwiches. He passed away before the patent was granted. Reggie decided to develop his father’s packaging system and move his father’s dream forward.

The packaging system is essentially a plastic-wrapped bread roll that has a hole in the middle. In that hole is a sealed pouch of sandwich filling such as green chile chicken salad, tuna salad, or peanut butter and jelly. To get the filling into the sandwich, the hungry person pulls a tab at the end of the sandwich and the filling spreads itself evenly inside the sandwich. Because the bread and filling are kept separate until the last minute, the sandwich can remain fresh and unsoggy far longer than most pre-prepared sandwiches, all without preservatives.

Sandia’s assistance allowed Diana’s Homegrown to think differently about the way they delivered sandwiches, says

Jennifer Sinsabaugh of Supply Chain Management Center (10200).

“When Diana’s came to us,” says Jennifer. “they thought they had a packaging problem. What they really had was a polymer problem.”

The technical assistance Sandia provided allowed Diana’s to ramp up their production, secure some key contracts, and move their business into competition with much larger businesses.

Diana’s is now a licensed caterer to Sandia and also has contracts to provide emergency provisions to programs for the elderly at many New Mexico pueblos.

Currently Diana’s packaging system is used to deliver sandwiches and burritos, but Diana’s plans to use the system to hermetically seal many different types of food to help extend shelf lives even further. The company thinks its packaging system is perfect for providing emergency fresh food during disasters and as part of international emergency food inititives.

Diana’s is investigating providing food to secure facilities by developing a “secure food environment,” in areas where the food supply is in danger of tampering. “Everybody, even people in classified environments, has to eat,” says Reggie.

-- Stephanie Holinka

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