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Lab News -- May 9, 2008

May 9, 2008

LabNews 05/09/2008PDF (518 kb)

Engineer Steve Yearout marks 25th anniversary sending sensors into space

By Neal Singer

Imagine you’re a collection of sensors, flying in formation in one of 31 US Air Force satellites in medium earth orbit above the Earth.

The satellite itself is part of the Air Force’s global positioning system (GPS) that lets truckers, hunters, and lost city drivers know exactly where they are.

But from your point of view, as a collection of sensors, the satellites are perfect platforms to detect and triangulate in on airborne or space-based nuclear explosions anywhere they may occur.

On the one hand, of course, detection has been no problem: There haven’t been any air-based explosions for decades.

On the other hand, there could be one anytime. And the country that did it might deny doing it if its leaders didn’t believe the US could track it.

So sensors have to be ready to detect a real explosion and do so through a jungle of potential false positives: Lightning bolts that occur more frequently than one per second (as well as unpredictably occurring super-lightning bolts), energetic particles from the Van Allen radiation belt that collide with electronics on the satellite, the welter of cell phone communication “noise,” and bolides entering Earth’s atmosphere at terrific speeds, flaring and sometimes exploding.

“What was tricky,” says project chief engineer Steve Yearout (5733) of the early

sensor placements, “is that we did not have a good idea what our observations of the environment would look like from the standpoint of space. Looking at Earth with sensors was new and not well understood — the background noise, the clutter.”

Steve should know. No matter which GPS satellite the sensors fly on, Steve has been there to turn them on and test their responses in the sky.

“We started launching our part of the payloads in 1983,” he says. “We’ve done 50 payloads so far. I’ve been involved in turning on all 50.”

That would be an average of two payload launches a year for the past 25 years, the most recent in March. His team packages them in what resemble several small suitcases.

The sensors include X-ray and particle detectors from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Sandia provides optical and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) sensors, radio frequency equipment, and the main processors that coordinate all commands from the ground, as well as return sensor output back to ground.

“We also have a state-of-health telemetry system that allows us to see how our system is functioning,” says Steve.

The sensors are delivered to an Air Force contractor (in the past, either Boeing or Lockheed Martin), which integrates the boxes into the satellite package. The satellite is launched from Cape Canaveral (the Air Force side of Kennedy Space Center), and then, once in orbit, switched on remotely by Steve and his teammates from Sandia, LANL, and the USAF.

Perfectly synchronized atomic clocks on all satellites mean that telemetry, geometry, and computer programs working together can accurately define the position of any point of interest.

Difficult as it is to test equipment in advance of the environment in which it will be used, the Sandia group’s sensor packages have performed exceptionally well over the years.

This includes surviving one faulty rocket that exploded on takeoff in the 1980s. A number of the boxed Sandia boards survived and were still operable. “We build pretty good stuff,” says Steve. He doesn’t count this launch as one of his 50.

Steve, ready for new career challenges, envisions “way down the road” moving into an arena just slightly downstream: analyzing data produced by the sensors he helped design, oversaw in production, watched launch, and keyed into action.

But for now, Steve is looking forward to turning on many more space-based sensor systems. -- Neal Singer

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Wind farm may be on the way for Sandia, Kirtland Air Force Base

By Chris Burroughs

Sandia and Kirtland Air Force Base may soon share a wind farm that will provide as much as one-third of the electricity used by the two entities.

The Labs’ Wind Energy Technology Dept. 6333 and the DOE Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program have embarked on a project to determine if such a plant is viable and to build a roughly 30-megawatt (MW) farm on the air base. A private company would design, build, and operate the farm, and DOE/NNSA, Sandia, and Kirtland would buy the electricity.

Dept. 6333 Manager Jose Zayas says the project — called Sandia Wind Farm Feasibility Project — is part of the DOE Transformational Energy Action Management (TEAM) initiative. According to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, the TEAM initiative goal is to “maximize installation of secure, on-site renewable energy projects at all DOE sites.” In addition to installing renewable energy, other DOE goals are to reduce energy use by 30 percent and use third parties to finance the projects. The project would also be a way to reduce energy intensity and greenhouse gas emissions, increase use and efficiency of renewable energy technologies, and adopt sustainable design practices as called for in President Bush’s January 2007 Executive Order 13423.

A Request For Information (RFI) was recently placed on a Sandia procurement website in an effort to make commercial, utility-scale wind farm developers, owners, operators, energy service companies, and financiers aware of the potential opportunity to build a wind farm on the base. Deadline to respond to the RFI and be eligible to compete for the partnership is July 3.

In addition, Sandia is holding an “Industry Day” on June 10 in Albuquerque where interested developers can obtain information and ask questions. At the meeting Brian Connor of DOE’s Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program will address the federal goals and objectives of the TEAM initiative and how they will apply to other DOE sites, including Sandia.

Project engineer Roger Hill (6333) says this project is highly unusual for a variety of reasons.

“Usually, private companies build wind farms to sell power to utilities or utilities install wind turbines for their own system use,” Roger says. “Here we are looking for a private company to build a wind plant on federal land for federal [Sandia and Kirtland] consumption.”

The initial stage of the project will involve investigating the feasibility of building the farm on federal lands and/or the adjacent Isleta Pueblo. In the next couple of months Sandia will install a meteorological station on a ridgeline in the Manzano mountains near Albuquerque to measure wind speed and direction. A second will follow.

Roger says that the Manzano mountain site is believed to be one of the best locations of all DOE facilities for a wind farm. Its wind yield is in an indicated wind power class 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 7, falling just short of superb.

As part of the feasibility effort, the study team will spend a year assessing the wind characteristics, as well as looking at accessibility to transmission lines, base substations, and PNM’s Sandia switching station. Roger anticipates that as the feasibility study moves along, issues will be identified that will need to be addressed. For instance, the wind turbine installation or operation might conflict with current or planned base operations. Also, an environmental assessment must be performed to ascertain and perhaps mitigate impacts on wildlife.

Together Sandia and KAFB use 72 MW during peak loads and about 40-50 MW at any given time. Sandia’s share of the electricity usage is about 60 percent and Kirtland’s is 40 percent. If a wind farm is built, the two may split the electricity produced in the same 60-40 equation. Construction time from inception to finish could be as little as two years.

Wind farms in New Mexico are located in Guadalupe County (Aragonne Mesa), Quay County (Caprock Wind Ranch, Phases I and II), Roosevelt County (San Juan Mesa), and Quay and DeBaca counties (New Mexico Wind Energy Center).

Jose says the idea of a Sandia/Kirtland wind farm “is as exciting as it gets” because it provides the opportunity to showcase Sandia and be one of the first DOE sites to have a utility-scale wind farm where power is being consumed.

“This is a pioneering effort that meets the national initiative for renewable energy deployment,” he says. “Plus it contributes to our self-sufficiency and sustainability. We are using a natural indigenous resource to meet our own needs. And it can be replicated elsewhere. It’s a big deal.” — Chris Burroughs

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Biofuels work gets another adrenaline shot

By Mike Janes

Another seed was planted in support of Sandia’s blossoming biofuels program recently when the Labs snagged $600,000 in funding ($300,000 a year for two years) for “Development of Saccharifying Enzymes for Commercial Use.” The award, in response to a call from DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, is part of a joint proposal led by industry partner DSM. Other partners are Abengoa Bioenergy Technologies and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Rajat Sapra (8321) will serve as principal investigator; other team members are Ken Sale (8321) and Seema Singh (8755). The work, says Rajat, will focus on the use of enzymes from fungi (organisms that grow on plant biomass in communities like rainforest environments) that can break down cellulose for conversion to ethanol. It’s a natural extension of Sandia’s current work with “extreme” enzymes that break down cellulose in plant biomass to sugars for fermentation or biofuels production (Lab News, June 22, 2007), Rajat says.

“DSM already has a well-established understanding of enzymes from fungi and how to produce these enzymes for commercial purposes,” says Rajat, who adds that the company possesses a successful industrial fermentation process for non-biofuel applications that involve fungi.

“We intend to take our expertise in structural and biophysical analysis, apply it to this particular type of fungal enzymes, and help improve the enzyme engineering process,” he says. Sandia will use various spectroscopic and molecular modeling techniques to help scientists better understand how these enzymes break down biomass. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is make better, more effective enzymes,” says Rajat.

Grant Heffelfinger (8330) notes that the project is unrelated to the high-profile Joint Bio-Energy Institute (JBEI) endeavor (Lab News, July 6, 2007). “It’s an important step in further establishing our growing presence in the biofuels arena,” says Grant.

The project is one of four DOE-funded initiatives announced recently. Covering a four-year period, nearly $34 million has been committed by DOE for the projects, each of which will focus on developing improved enzyme systems to convert cellulosic material into sugars suitable for production of biofuels. -- Mike Janes

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