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Lab News -- March 14, 2008

March 14 , 2008

LabNews 02/14/2008PDF (500 kb)

Sandia leads three-year alliance with companies interested in nanoparticle coatings, films

By John German

At the truly tiny scale of nanoparticles, attractions and repulsions among atoms and molecules often overwhelm the more ordinary forces at play in the larger-scale world.

Such nanoscale forces, driven in some cases by the momentary orientations of electrons, become a problem when the goal is to keep particles evenly dispersed in liquid — a challenge for manufacturers who want to make products featuring nanoparticle-enhanced films or coatings. Nanoparticles suspended in solvents at high densities tend to clump while the coating is drying, negating the benefits of their nanosized ingredients.

Improving the processing and manufacturability of such coatings and thin films is the primary goal of a research collaboration that began last spring among Sandia and a half dozen major companies.

The Nanoparticle Flow Consortium includes 3M, BASF, and Corning, among others. Sandia serves as the hub for the three-year, $2 million cooperative research and development agreement.

From lab to plant

Currently most nanoscience takes place in labs where very small amounts of matter are manipulated using specialized equipment. To manufacture consumer products, companies will need to master high-throughput, large-scale nanomaterial processing techniques, says Randy Schunk of Nanoscale & Reactive Processes Dept. 1516, who leads Sandia’s portion of the work.

“Manufacturable implies practical,” he says. “Companies need to disperse these particles in liquid, then cast them, coat them, layer them, or paint them on something, often over large areas. Such problems aren’t necessarily going to be addressed in a research lab.”

The potential benefits are enormous, he says. The National Science Foundation estimates that by 2015 the worldwide nanotechnology market could reach a trillion dollars annually. “The amount of money involved is staggering,” says Randy.

Already today’s flat-screen TVs incorporate nanofilms in their display screens. On the horizon are stronger and more transparent glues, lightweight composites, sealants for microelectronics devices, and new materials for sensing and medical devices.

Possible future products include coatings that react to the environment, paint or glass that color-shifts like a chameleon, self-lubricating or self-healing surfaces, or antimicrobial coatings for hospital ventilation systems, for example.

Toward a predictive capability

The consortium’s work will address two main technical challenges: stable dispersal of nanoparticles in solution during processing, and improved understanding of particles dispersed in materials under stress or flow and how these states are affected by nanoscale forces. Both were viewed by participants as limiting factors in bulk manufacturing of nanomaterials and thin films.

Sandia is developing the modeling and simulation tools needed to understand liquid flow chemistry, nanoparticle dispersal stability, and particle control. Together with Sandia’s high-performance computers, says Randy, the tools are expected to result in a predictive capability for nanoparticle processing — meaning materials and techniques with the highest chances of success can be designed on computers before they are ever tried in a laboratory. The modeling tools will be available to all consortium partners.

Resolution of these technical barriers may open doors not only to advanced coatings, but to layered bulk materials as well, he says.

Within Sandia the work is a Labs-wide collaboration, with contributing scientists and engineers from four centers, says Randy. They include Steve Plimpton (1416), Mike Brown (1412), Gary Grest, Matt Lane, Matt Petersen (all 1114), Nelson Bell (1816), Jeremy Lechman (1516), and Anne Grillet (1513).

Work benefits NINE

Nanoparticle dispersal in liquid is a key issue for the companies involved in the National Institute for Nano Engineering (NINE), a national hub for nanoscale engineering and education. NINE funds Sandia’s portion of the consortium’s work, and NINE collaborators and students will benefit, he says.

The Nanoparticle Flow Consortium is modeled after a similar cooperative research effort that began at Sandia in 1996, the Coating Related Manufacturing Processing Consortium (CRMPC). The CRMPC included many of the same partners and resulted in a software package, GOMA 5.0, which far exceeded existing modeling capabilities for coating processes, Randy says. -- John German

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Refurbished Z continues its march into the future

By Neal Singer


Despite the recent grim weather, the sun was shining on Sandia’s modernized Z facility at a rededication ceremony held in Area 4 late last month.

Sandia President and Labs Director Tom Hunter, Executive VP Joan Woodard, and VP Rick Stulen welcomed Sen. Pete Domenici and Robert Smolen, deputy administrator for defense programs at NNSA, to the celebration. Also present were DOE SSO personnel, members of other national labs, and speakers representing New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Reps. Heather Wilson, Steve Pearce, and Tom Udall. The point was to celebrate the nearly on-time, on-budget renovation of the one-of-a-kind facility.

Among the many recognized for praise was Ed Weinbrecht (1630) for managing the refurbishment project; Sandia staff photographer Randy Montoya (3651) (“for making the ugly look good,” quipped Domenici); those administrators, researchers, and technicians — “heroes,” they were termed several times — who had made the refurbishment possible; and its succession of directors, beginning with VP Gerry Yonas, who was instrumental in growing Sandia’s pulsed power programs beginning in the 1970s.

The facility’s upgrade was completed late last year after a six-year effort that cost $90 million. It will take several more months to complete system testing at gradually increasing energies and to optimize experimental conditions for the research areas explored at the facility.

Z’s original and still major purpose is to provide fundamental physics data and experimental tests of supercomputer models used to certify the US nuclear weapons stockpile. Inputs from its firings to date have helped avoid the need for underground nuclear tests. The more powerful version of Z is expected to provide still more precise data.

Additionally, the 107-foot-diameter machine’s output advances the study of creating and controlling nuclear fusion in the laboratory. The so-called “dark-horse” entry in the fusion race has successfully squeezed a capsule containing heavy water to produce low-energy fusion neutrons. The big prize here, still decades distant, would be a method that uses similar pulses of power to produce electricity from (essentially) sea water, the most widely available substance on Earth.

After an extensive makeover that involved (among other improvements) new triggering lasers, larger electrical storage capacitors, and more durable parts, the facility can now deliver up to 26 million amperes to experiments, up from its previous incarnation’s level of 18 million amperes. The question now to researchers is: What new insights will the machine produce with its additional energy?

Rebuilding Z

No one will ever compare Sandia Labs to a peacock. Showy, we’re not. Some might call us understated. One famous Albuquerque remark has it that “Sandia Labs — no one really knows what goes on out there.”

Even Sandia’s Z machine — which regularly reaches the temperature of the sun only a few miles from downtown Albuquerque — is not only hidden behind protective fencing but is housed in a nondescript building about as glamorous as an old-time high school basketball gym.

So we thought we’d partially lift the veil to show some of the grit and glamour of the refurbishment of Sandia’s Z accelerator that has taken place during the past two years. The sparks and arcs of a welder’s torch, casings that resemble a Roman aqueduct in size, metal shapes that resemble someone’s idea of flying saucers, and men protected against harmful dust in white total-body cover seen by ordinary citizens only in science fiction films.

The majestic construction effort shows the powerful underside of a mighty project that provides data to simulate the effects of nuclear weapons. A project that just may hold the key to eventually unlock the secrets of controlled nuclear fusion that could provide unlimited electricity from sea water.

Then we’ll drop the curtain again. — Neal Singer

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Sandia teams with Russian researchers to develop way to determine work readiness for critical operations

By Chris Burroughs

Russian researchers, wanting to reduce the number of accidents at nuclear materials facilities in their country, have teamed up with several Sandia human factors and cognition experts to figure out ways to determine on any given day if workers are ready to perform critical operations.

“The Russians came to us seeking help in developing some kind of protocol for assessing human readiness for duty,” says Elaine Hinman-Sweeney (6723), who manages Sandia’s US-Russian collaborations for the Nuclear Weapons Science and Technology Program. “They want to know what factors might cause a person not to do well at his or her job.”

The reason for their concern is that between 1945 and 1999 a total of 22 accidents occurred in nuclear process facilities in the US, Russia, and the United Kingdom, resulting in nine fatalities and amputations in three survivors. One of the most serious was at a nuclear power reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. Nuclear process facilities include both nuclear weapons laboratories and nuclear power plants where operations involve fissile materials that require physical and administrative controls to prevent critical or near-critical events from occurring.

Human error looms large

Causes for the serious accidents were due primarily to human error and included failure to follow procedures, failure to notice abnormal conditions, communication errors, and inadequate supervisory monitoring of operations. Also causing the accidents were deficiencies in training, equipment, and processes.

Promoting the joint research were representatives of VNIIEF — a Russian experimental physics laboratory. Russian researchers at St. Petersburg State University have invented a technology that evaluates readiness in people employed in that country’s railroad system, looking at immediate skill levels and physiological indicators of emotion and stress resilience. The skill portion is specific to the ability to operate trains.

The Russian researchers want to adapt the same technology to the nuclear materials arena — hence the reason they turned to Sandia human factors and cognition experts for assistance.

Sandia psychologist Courtney Dornburg (12335) says one of the first activities she and Elaine engaged in was to develop a glossary of common neuroscience, cognition, and human factors terms.

“The Russians use some of the same vocabulary as we do, but in our initial conversations, we found that our words really had different meanings,” Courtney says. “The glossary put us on the same page so that when we talked through an interpreter we understood each other.”

Courtney and Elaine also reviewed a survey of all the accidents that occurred in the Russian nuclear weapons complex to better understand their seriousness and which could be attributed to human error and stress.

In October they spent a week in St. Petersburg, meeting with Russian professors and researchers, giving all the team members the opportunity to talk face to face. This was the third meeting between the Russians and Americans in Russia. Two other meetings were held earlier at Sandia.

As part of the October visit, the Sandians — Courtney, Elaine, Chris Forsythe (6341), and Conrad James (1744) — attended a conference on cognitive psychology and neuroscience technology. The conference emphasized a sharing of research and ideas concerning technology application of cognitive and neuroscience research. Other Americans attending the conference were representatives of the Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and the University of Memphis.

The goal of the conference, Chris says, was to open doors for US and Russian collaborations in the area of cognition and neurotechnologies.

Courtney says the conference and other meetings made both the Americans and Russians even more aware of their different approaches.

Follow-on activity would be for the Russians to continue to develop the readiness for work detection tool and convert it to critical facilities that contain nuclear materials. Sandia would then validate their efforts.

Chris notes that Sandia’s cognition work with the Russian laboratory and university will have benefits in this country.

“Concern for personnel readiness for duty exists throughout US critical nuclear weapons operations, just as it does in Russia,” he says. “The project provides an avenue for the US nuclear facilities, and other government agencies, to learn about and potentially benefit from the research and development of the Russian scientists.”

Fitness for duty measurements developed for evaluation protocol

How do you measure fitness for duty? Louise Weston (12335) answered that problem for the work with the Russian researchers by developing an evaluation protocol for proposed measures of fitness for work.

Last year Louise, together with Sandia psychologist Courtney Dornburg (12335) and Kathleen Diegert, manager of Reliability Assessment and Human Factors Dept. 12335, participated in a conference at Sandia with VNIIEF staff interested in developing readiness-for-duty measures. Using information gained from that conference and additional research, Louise wrote a SAND report that examined experimental methods of validating measures of emotional state and readiness for duty in critical operations.

The methods outlined in the report are how Sandia would go about validating work readiness measures for Russians working in critical operations. -- Chris Burroughs

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