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Lab News -- December 7, 2007

December 7 , 2007

LabNews 12/07/2007PDF (450 kb)

Sandia’s Sunshine to Petrol project seeks fuels from thin air

By Chris Burroughs

Using concentrated solar energy to reverse combustion, a Sandia research team is building a prototype device that is intended to chemically “reenergize” carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide using concentrated solar power. The carbon monoxide could then be used to make hydrogen or serve as a building block to synthesize a liquid combustible fuel, such as methanol or even gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

The prototype device, called the Counter Rotating Ring Receiver Reactor Recuperator (CR5, for short), is expected to break a carbon-oxygen bond in the carbon dioxide to form carbon monoxide and oxygen in two distinct steps. It is a major piece of an approach to converting carbon dioxide into fuel from sunlight.

The Sandia research team calls this approach “Sunshine to Petrol” (S2P). “Liquid Solar Fuel” is the end product — the methanol, gasoline, or other liquid fuel made from water and the carbon monoxide produced using solar energy.

CR5 inventor Rich Diver says the original idea for the device was to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen could then fuel a potential hydrogen economy (Lab News, Feb. 3, 2006).

The Sandia research team came up with the idea to use the CR5 to break down carbon dioxide, just as it would water. Over the past year the researchers have shown proof of concept and are completing a prototype device that will use concentrated solar energy to reenergize carbon dioxide or water, the products of combustion. This will form carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and oxygen, which ultimately could be used to synthesize liquid fuels in an integrated S2P system.

Co-researchers on the project are Jim E. Miller (1815) and Nathan Siegel (6337). Project champion is Ellen B. Stechel, manager of Sandia’s Fuels and Energy Transitions Dept. 6338.

Ellen says that researchers have known for a long time that theoretically it might be possible to recycle carbon dioxide, but many thought it could not be made practical, either technically or economically.

“Hence, it has not been pursued with much vigor,” she says. “Not only did we think it was possible, the team has developed a prototype that they fully anticipate will successfully break down carbon dioxide in a clever and viable two-step process.”

Ellen notes that one driver for the invention is the need to reduce greenhouse gases.

“This invention, though probably a good 15 to 20 years away from being on the market, holds a real promise of being able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while preserving options to keep using fuels we know and love,” she says. “Recycling carbon dioxide into fuels provides an attractive alternative to burying it.”

Funding for Sunshine to Petrol comes from the internal Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The research has attracted interest and also some funding from DoD/DARPA.

“What’s exciting about this invention is that it should result in fossil fuels being used at least twice, meaning less carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere and a reduction of the rate that fossil fuels are pulled out of the ground,” Rich says.

As an example, he says, coal would be burned at a clean coal power plant. The carbon dioxide from the burning of the coal would be captured and reduced to carbon monoxide in the CR5. The carbon monoxide would then be the starting point for making gasoline, jet fuel, methanol, or almost any type of liquid fuel.

The prospect of a liquid fuel is significant because it fits in with the current gasoline and oil infrastructure. After the synthesized fuel is made from the carbon monoxide, it could be transported through a pipeline or put in a truck and hauled to a gas station, just like gasoline refined from petroleum is now. Plus it would work in ordinary gasoline and diesel engine vehicles.

Jim says that while the first step would be to capture the carbon dioxide from sources where it is concentrated — e.g. power plants, smokestacks, and breweries — the ultimate goal would be to snatch it out of the air. A S2P system that includes atmospheric carbon dioxide capture could produce carbon-neutral liquid fuels.

“Our overall objective with this prototype is to demonstrate the practicality of the CR5 concept and to determine how test results from small-scale testing can be expanded to work in real devices,” Jim says. “The design is conservative compared to what might eventually be developed.”

Rich says the prototype should be completed by early next year. He hand-built the precision device in a shop at Sandia’s National Solar Thermal Test Facility and is now waiting on a few parts to finalize it.

Initial tests will break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. That will be followed by tests that similarly break down carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide and oxygen.

Besides having a nearly completed prototype, the research team has already proven that the chemistry works repeatedly through multiple cycles without losing performance and on a short enough cycle time for a practical device.

“We just now have to do it all in one continuous working device,” Nathan says. -- Chris Burroughs

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Joint Sandia/NASA inspection system successfully helps complete shuttle mission to space stationSandia's Combustion Research Facility


By Michael Padilla

A Sandia team of engineers was instrumental in the success of the most recent space shuttle mission. Sandia has played an important role in every shuttle flight since the return-to-flight mission following the Columbia accident.

The joint Sandia/NASA Laser Dynamic Range Imager Orbiter Inspection System (LOIS) team successfully completed all Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS) inspection activities on NASA space shuttle mission STS-120 last month.

STS-120 was the 23rd shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The mission delivered the Harmony node to the space station and made a critical repair to the torn P6-truss solar panel.

Bob Habbit (5718) says the mission marked many firsts for the joint Sandia/NASA team. These included the inaugural flight of LDRI Flight Unit 3, the first operational use of the new data processing software/hardware suite, and transfer of the bulk of the data processing workload to local NASA operators.

The tear in the P6 solar panel of the space station resulted in another first, says Bob. OBSS was developed post-Columbia to enable on-orbit inspection of the shuttle’s thermal protection systems (TPS). The OBSS in conjunction with the ISS robotic manipulator enabled the astronauts to implement the repair of the P6 solar panel.

The successful operation of Flight Unit 3 after its exposure to unusual temperature extremes during this unplanned use of OBSS made it possible for a nominal pre-reentry inspection of the orbiter’s TPS, assuring the safe return of the crew and Discovery.

“The tear had to be fixed in order to complete the extension of the solar array,” Bob says. “The repair was a high priority.”

Failure of the repair attempt would have required jettisoning the P6-truss assembly. This unplanned repair required around-the-clock mission planning and analysis by NASA Engineering with support from the Sandia engineering team.

“Several NASA senior staff remarked that this effort was akin to Apollo 13,” says Bob. “While the crew was not in immediate jeopardy, implementing the repair required the crew to operate in a very hazardous environment.”

Sandia will continue to maintain ownership for operational execution and supply onsite expert support in Mission Control Center in Houston through the life of the Shuttle program.

Mission execution requires 24/7 support, and the Sandia team adjusts their schedules to meet the needs of the NASA and the astronauts, Bob says.

“When situations arise the team works around the clock until the problem is solved,” he says. “This project execution would not be possible without extensive

teaming across the Laboratories. I have been particularly impressed and proud of how Sandia mobilizes to meet national needs.

“The Sandia LOIS development team greatly exceeded our sponsors’ expectations. All team members took personal responsibility and ownership for the deliverables, working many extra hours on their own accord.”

Sandia’s Laser Dynamic Range Imager Orbiter Inspection System team

John Sandusky (5718, project manager), Dennis Clingan (2618), Larry Dalton (2622), Erik Fosshage (12343), Steve Gradoville (2661), Simon Hathaway (2623), Brenna Hautzenroeder (2623), Bob Habbit (5718), Mark Heying (2664), David Karelitz (9326), Bob Nellums (5718), Eric Ollila (2623) Dave Peercy (12341), Todd Pitts (5718), Gus Rodriguez (5715), Jose Rodriguez (2664), Megan Resor (2622), and Daniel Talbert (5718).

-- Michael Padilla

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Lowering the rate of bioaerosol detection false alarms the focus of fluorescence-based bioaerosol sensing project

By Mike Janes

Commercially available, fast-response bioaerosol detectors that can help guard against bioterrorist strikes in large public spaces face a significant hurdle: false alarms. Simply put, facility managers responsible for airports, train stations, sports arenas, and other venues will be loathe to install biodetection systems until they can be fairly certain that the hardware won’t alarm without cause and force unnecessary evacuations.

But a Sandia project, led by Tom Kulp (8368) and funded by the Department of Homeland Security, promises to answer the question of why false alarms occur and how to reduce them. The project, currently called Enhanced Bioaerosol Detection System (EBADS), aims to do just that — enhance the performance of bioaerosol detectors, specifically those based on laser-induced fluorescence (LIF).

EBADS literally takes a second look at what is in the air when an LIF sensor signals an alarm and determines if there is sufficient bioaerosol present for concern. If successful, EBADS could be paired with existing sensors for a more refined and commercially deployable detector system.

The project is a multilab effort involving Sandia, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Work began in 2005 as a follow-on to Sandia’s PROACT (Protective and Responsive Options for Airport Counter-Terrorism) program. (See May 2, 2003, and Nov. 25, 2005, Lab News.)

Initially, various sensors were deployed in the PROACT testbed to understand the false-alarm rate. The testbed included the LLNL Bioaerosol Mass Spectrometer and a selective particle collector that Sandia and Yale University assembled.

“The first phase focused on understanding the problem,” says Tom. The multilab EBADS team collected particles present in the air when a false alarm occurred and analyzed them in the field and in the lab.

The researchers came to the conclusion that existing sensors don’t discriminate well between biological and nonbiological particles. If that capability could be enhanced, the result might be a sensor system with significantly fewer false alarms.

The goal, says Tom, is not to identify particles, but to determine within one to two minutes if there is an unusual amount of biological aerosol in the air — sufficient information to know you’ve got something to worry about.

This project is unique in that it seeks to develop a method, not produce a physical tool. “We are proving a methodology, which would then be implemented with the assistance of industry,” he explains.

At the end of the study phase last year, Sandia and Oak Ridge researchers determined that a staining process could be used to double-check false alarms. Tom explains that there are two ways to do this — either by impacting and measuring the particles on a surface, or by measuring the particles in a flowing mode.

Sandia went with the flowing mode, in part because of the availability of commercial equipment. The method uses a flow cytometer, a tool widely used in lab analyses in a number of fields including molecular biology, pathology, immunology, plant biology, and marine biology.

The method is fairly simple. The cytometer pulls in aerosols, which swirl through a cyclone while being immersed in a solution containing a fast-reacting stain that couples to the particles. The liquid then flows through a very fast laser zone at a rate of 5,000 particles per second where the proteins are measured. Particles with proteins light up. The system will determine whether there is cause for alarm, based on the distribution of fluorescence.

In the second phase of the program, the Sandia and Oak Ridge groups tested 18 blind samples from the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. The method correctly determined with each sample whether there was cause for alarm.

In February, the method will get a real-world road test. Aerosol-into-liquid collectors will be deployed alongside the existing sensor system and take in samples with each alarm, which are expected to occur about once a week. The collectors will be deployed for one month each in an office building and major US subway station and airport.

The samples will be sent back to Sandia, where they will be run through the method to distinguish false alarms from true alarms. If successful, the group anticipates working with an outside partner later next year to develop a tool that employs Sandia’s methodology. -- Mike Janes

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