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Lab News -- June 6, 2008

June 6 , 2008

LabNews 06/06/2008PDF (518 kb)

Mercury manometer moves from Sandia to NIST

Labs has long relationship with NIST

By Michael Padilla

After more than three and a half years of discussion, paperwork, and careful planning, a manometer containing 200 pounds of mercury in a 500-pound vessel was recently moved from Sandia to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md.

The mercury manometer or ultrasonic interferometer manometer (UIM), created to make extremely accurate pressure measurements, had been housed at Sandia’s Primary Standards Laboratory since 1989 but had never been used.

NIST originally provided the instrument to Sandia, a near-twin of an instrument at NIST’s Gaithersburg facility, to have a redundant capability at a different site. Since it wasn’t being used at Sandia, NIST expressed an interest in getting it back.

Sandia’s decision to return the manometer to NIST is just the latest in a long history of cooperation between the two organizations. Over the years, Sandia and NIST have exchanged equipment to assist each other in their respective missions, and the two organizations have collaborated routinely on a wide range of calibration and standards-related issues (see “Sandia has close relationship with NIST” on page 4).

David Sanchez (2541) says the primary reasons why the manometer had not been in use are cost, lack of staff resources, and ES&H concerns. In particular, David says, the instrument’s 200 pounds of mercury — a toxic substance that requires special handling — pose a standing safety concern. Since Sandia had no plans to use the instrument, David says, it made sense to return it to NIST where it could be put to use.

“We attempted to bring the instrument on line several times over the years,” David says. “But the system was too labor-intensive for Sandia to absorb the cost.”

He notes that at NIST a full-time PhD staff member and technical assistants are needed to run and maintain the UIM. Sandia was never able to devote that level of resources to its instrument.

There were a couple of options in removing the manometer from Sandia’s inventory. One was to get the proper permission to dispose of it. This would have cost more than $90,000 in disposal costs, not including a $25,000 decontamination fee that Sandia would have had to pay. Another option was to return the device to NIST, which turned out to be economically the most beneficial option.

“We were able to avoid the costs of disposal by transferring ownership to NIST,” says Jim. “They will actually use the instrument to provide certification of standards on a national scale.”

Jay Hendricks, a physical chemist and low-pressure manometry project leader at NIST, was instrumental in moving the manometer from Sandia to NIST. He says NIST has one mercury manometer (160 kPa UIM) currently in service as the national pressure standard covering the pressure range of 1 Pa to 160 kPa (1.6 atmospheres of pressure).

“NIST will recondition, test, and eventually put the recovered Sandia UIM into service,” he says.

The Sandia UIM is slightly different from the NIST UIM. The transducer disks mounted at the bottom of the columns of mercury in the instrument are made of quartz instead of beryllium, Hendricks says.

“This difference may be important to the performance of the standard, because ultrasound diffracts differently in quartz than it does in beryllium,” he says. “Having the Sandia UIM will enable NIST to replace its beryllium transducer disk UIM with the improved quartz disk UIM.”

The UIM is a “primary standard” because it is based upon units that are regarded as dimensionally independent. The NIST UIM is essential to its customers because it is how the US realizes the International System of Units (SI) standard for pressure, the pascal (Pa).

Other national laboratories, including Sandia, government agencies such as NASA, and industrial customers send gauges to NIST to be calibrated against the NIST 160 kPa UIM. The 160 kPa UIM has the benefit of having the very lowest possible uncertainties for an important pressure range of 1 Pa to 160 kPa.

The NIST 160 kPa UIM is one of the lowest uncertainty pressure measurement devices in the world, Hendricks says.

“Having this capability means that NIST can ensure the highest quality calibration service for our customers,” he says.

David says that even though the entire process to move the manometer from Sandia to NIST took quite a while to complete, one thing he observed was that Sandians definitely know their jobs in the property, shipping/receiving, hazardous waste, ES&H, and industrial hygiene departments.

Labs has close relationship with NIST

Sandia has a long-standing working relationship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In the 1960s, Sandia developed the first primary leak standards in response to demands from the Atomic Energy Commission for precision measurement of leaks. This technology was transferred to NIST.

Sandia also teamed with NIST to develop leak comparison calibration methods. More recently, Sandia transferred ownership of a highly accurate coordinate measuring machine (CMM) to NIST. This CMM was nearly identical to one NIST owns, providing redundancy. In exchange, NIST provided funding for Sandia to procure a new state-of-the-art CMM to replace it. Also, NIST recently transferred its pulse high-voltage standard to Sandia. There is very little demand for these calibrations outside the nuclear weapons complex.

Sandia has had a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the NIST lab in Boulder, Colo. While the lab is the primary standard bearer for the US, Sandia has primary responsibility for implementing traceable calibration programs for the NNSA lab complex. The two organizations have worked together over the years on methods of establishing new standards, new ways of verifying measurement accuracy, and other such collaborations. One other major area of collaboration is in maintaining the ability to cross-calibrate measurements many times, meaning that both organizations retain such capabilities. Each organization also works with the other to keep old equipment operational because of the unique function the equipment performs.

Sandia sends items to NIST to be calibrated. From time to time Sandia sends unneeded items to NIST. In turn, NIST has sent items to Sandia to meet current Sandia needs.

Collaborations include:

-- Michael Padilla

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Hydrogen workshop highlights growth, diversity of projects, future opportunities in transportation arena

By Mike Janes

“Our robust hydrogen program is a classic example of how Sandia has taken an expertise grown over the years for the nuclear weapons program and used that capability to serve the nation in the transportation arena. That new work has, in turn, further strengthened our expertise for all our mission areas, including nuclear weapons.”

* * *

Spoken by Rion Causey (8758) near the close of the two-day gathering, those words succinctly captured the essence of the Hydrogen Energy Research Workshop at Sandia/California May 8-9.

Some 75 researchers from Sandia/New Mexico and Sandia/California came together for the workshop, which included a series of panel discussions and presentations on topics such as hydrogen storage, polymer electrolyte membrane (or PEM) fuel cells, safety, production, nuclear hydrogen, and utilization in combustion engines.

In his opening overview, Sandia hydrogen program manager Jay Keller (8367) paid tribute to the researchers over the years who helped establish the Labs’ expertise in hydrogen through its defense and nuclear programs.

Jay also made clear that the Labs’ current, transportation-focused hydrogen portfolio is diverse and growing. The program will bring in roughly $20 million in FY08, more than half of which comes from DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). In 1994, Sandia’s hydrogen work was funded by EERE to the tune of just $200,000.

DOE’s Offices of Science, Fossil Energy, and Nuclear Energy currently fund about $4.5 million of work, while industry-funded projects (mostly led by US automotive companies, particularly General Motors) total around $2.5 million.

Regarding the hydrogen program’s diversity of work, Jay cites the breadth of Sandia’s engagement and partnerships with the external hydrogen community, which includes international collaborators, industry partners, and various funding agencies and government offices. Sandia’s work, he says, supports DOE’s goal of promoting global collaboration and expansion of hydrogen energy R&D worldwide.

EERE-funded projects at Sandia include those in hydrogen embrittlement, storage, production, systems modeling, and safety, codes, and standards. Programs in hydrogen production via coal gasification and nuclear hydrogen production are housed in non-EERE programs, while industry partners such as General Motors are actively partnering with Sandia on hydrogen storage projects and other programs.

Though Sandia’s Laboratories Directed Research and Development investments in hydrogen have decreased in recent years, Jay says that’s perfectly understandable since it illustrates how earlier investments by the Labs’ Energy, Resources, and Nonproliferation (ERN) Strategic Management Unit (SMU) paid off and led to funded work.

Avoiding stovepipes

John Kelly, senior manager of Advanced Nuclear Energy Programs (6770), says hydrogen is an area of interest for himself and managers such as Don Hardesty (8360) and Art Pontau (8750).

“It’s good to expose both sites to what’s going on and come up with new ideas and better ways to do things,” says John. “That’s what happens when you get the right people together. Just like at DOE, our programs can get stovepiped. This is an opportunity to break down those barriers and get the big picture. By sharing what we are doing, we also learn about activities at other labs and by other partners.”

At the workshop, “there was some real value in learning the overall landscape of Sandia activities in hydrogen research and gaining an understanding of where the opportunities might lie,” says Jerry Simmons (1120). As manager of the Semiconductor and Optical Sciences group, much of his work is funded by DOE’s Office of Science.

Jerry says that, like the hydrogen program, he shares the common goal of trying to bring the Office of Science together with EERE.

“EERE tends to be focused on work that is short-term, more milestone-focused,” he says. “The Office of Science looks at a much longer range, 10 years out or more. We need to focus on both.”

“This workshop has given us the impetus to consider application space we might not have thought of before,” says Tony McDaniel (8367). “I didn’t know anything about the nuclear work on hydrogen. It’s really a fascinating challenge, especially in terms of materials.”

Sandia, industry forge ahead

Though Sandia’s hydrogen program remains healthy and should get healthier, Jay says its immediate future will depend somewhat on the direction the next administration and Congress take on climate change policy.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that government leaders will continue to focus on the ways we power our society, and will work with Sandia and others on making hydrogen part of the answer,” he says.

Industry support appears to be strong. At a keynote address at the National Hydrogen Association’s annual conference in April, GM executive Larry Burns — a previous visitor to Sandia — called on the energy industry and governments to step up and help automakers make volume production of fuel cell-electric vehicles a reality by opening more hydrogen fueling stations.

“The automobile industry has reached a critical juncture in our journey to realize the full potential of hydrogen fuel cell-electric vehicles,” said Burns. “While we have made impressive progress, we have now reached a point where the energy industry and governments must pick up their pace so we can continue to advance in a timely manner.”

Federal spending on hydrogen research has grown steadily over the past five years, and Sandia’s program has grown in lockstep with the government. Currently, Sandia continues to actively respond to federal calls, both lab-only requests-for-proposals as well as opportunities that involve industry partnerships.

Regardless of the political winds, Sandia’s hydrogen activities are aligned perfectly with the Labs’ future, says Don, particularly the transportation and energy “big idea” that is emerging out of the ERN SMU, (Lab News, April 11, 2008). Given Sandia’s existing partnerships in industry, academia, and government, hydrogen could be a key piece of a national energy initiative, with the Labs playing an important role. — Mike Janes

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Sandia-led University Alliance Design Competition announces this year’s winners for innovative MEMS designs

By Neal Singer

Another major student contest in the microworld ended with microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) designs from the University of Oklahoma and University of Illinois chosen as winners in Sandia’s fourth annual University Alliance Design Competition.

The University of Oklahoma, under the leadership of faculty advisor Harold Stalford, won the “Novel Design” category for a mechanical micromuscle powered by thermal actuators that allow a mechanical arm to operate with nanoscale functionality above, to the side of, and in the plane of its operating chip.

The potential applications of the microrobotic arm include microsurgical operations and assembly of 3-D MEMS devices.

The device’s thermal actuators require less voltage than similar devices (usually not capable of such precise movement) that rely upon electrostatic actuators.

To demonstrate their functionality, the newly designed components were placed as a tool on the operating platform designed last year at the university.

The student team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, under the leadership of Professor Ioannis Chasiotis, won in the “Characterization, Reliability, and Nanoscale Phenomenon” category by creating a design for the first MEMS platform able to perform creep and stress relaxation tests on polymeric, metallic, and biological nanofibers.

The components are designed to test time-dependent behavior at even submicroNewton force levels on polymeric and biological nanofibers, and to report in “real time”— that is, as the changes occur.

Thermal grips mounted on a comb-drive actuator generate a predetermined amount of sample deformation, adding to the device’s accuracy.

First-place winners (student lead and sponsoring professor) in both categories were invited to visit

Sandia to present their design to Sandia’s review team, meet with MEMS experts, and tour Sandia’s MEMS facilities. All other participants were welcome to attend the awards ceremony and present their design, pending Sandia technical approval.

Participation in the alliance now stands at 20 schools, up from 17 a year ago. This year, five schools entered seven designs in the contest. An incentive for universities to join the Alliance is that all contest participants can actually see their workable designs made flesh (or at least, silicon) in Sandia’s MEMS production facilities, where “a special design competition reticle is set aside for just this purpose,” says Mark Platzbecker, technical team lead in Sandia’s MEMS Core Technologies Dept. 1749-1.

Fabrication of the student designs is expected to start by June 15, with parts emerging from the fab by Sept. 15, he says.

Another plus this year included utilization of the new MESA facilities in Bldg. 858EL, says Mark. “This greatly increased the collaborative nature of the Sandia and university interactions. We were able for the first time to create high-end interactive digital discussions and reviews.”

View downloadable images of the winning designs from this website.

For more information regarding the contest, or to learn how an educational institution can become a member of the University Alliance, contact Stephanie Johnson at

Further information can be found here. -- Neal Singer

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Visit by USCAR delegation exemplifies auto industry’s ongoing confidence in, reliance on CRF research

By Mike Janes

As longtime partners with Sandia’s Combustion Research Facility (CRF), the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR) should, by now, be well familiar with the Labs’ capabilities in a wide variety of transportation-related research and development activities. But a recent visit by USCAR directors — the first such visit to Sandia/California by top-level USCAR executives in its 16-year relationship with the Labs — was still an eye-opening experience and spoke volumes about Sandia’s commitment to ongoing partnerships with key transportation industry groups.

USCAR Executive Director Don Walkowicz and nearly a dozen USCAR directors and executives visited the CRF on April 24, spending a full day on lab tours and engaged in research presentations. Participating guests included representatives from each of the Big Three US automakers, including William Peirce (director, Technology Collaboration, General Motors), John Sakioka (director, Technical and Business Strategy Office, Ford Motor Company), and Scott Freeman (manager, Business and Policy Strategy, Chrysler LLC).

Patrick Davis, DOE’s director of the FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership, was also in attendance and helped to arrange the visit.

“As Sandia continues to develop innovative constructs for a larger and more expanded effort in energy — especially as it relates to transportation and the complex mix of alternative, nonpetroleum fuels — visits like this are extremely valuable,” says Don Hardesty (8360), senior manager for combustion and industrial technologies. “They give us the opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of our program, and at the same time lay out the forward-looking component of our vision.”

Don says the purpose of the visit was to review, at a deep technical and programmatic level, all the work taking place at the California site in support of DOE’s Vehicle Technologies and Hydrogen programs and the USCAR partnership. Those activities primarily involve the advanced engine combustion program based in Dept. 8362, and the hydrogen research work conducted in support of DOE’s Hydrogen Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies program (within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, or EERE). Sandia’s funds-in work in support of the automotive industry and fuel companies, including current projects with General Motors, was also touched on.

In addition to broader overviews, the USCAR directors toured the CRF engines labs that feature research on homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI), large-eddy simulation modeling, low-temperature diesel combustion, and hydrogen combustion. The group also visited other Center 8300 and 8700 facilities. The USCAR delegation learned about the Sandia-led Metal Hydrides Center of Excellence and the Hydrogen Safety, Codes, and Standards research activities while also visiting the 8300 and 8700 labs devoted to this work.

Sandia’s vision with transportation and alternative energy, Don notes, is not simply to continue to do good work for current customers, but involves complementing what goes on in industry.

“The USCAR visitors now have a good appreciation for how we work in tandem with industry, which by design is a key piece of the DOE and USCAR plan for moving forward in advanced transportation systems and fuels.”

The visitors, Don says, were highly complimentary of the work going on in the engines and hydrogen labs. “More than one of them called Sandia ‘the best of the labs we’ve visited thus far,’” he says. “We were also very pleased to hear several comments on the tidiness and the cleanliness of the laboratories, and on our obvious attention to safety.”

USCAR, says Don, is committed this year and next to visiting all the national laboratories that partner with the council and with DOE on its Vehicle Technologies and Hydrogen programs. Later this year or early in 2009, the group is expected to visit Sandia/New Mexico’s battery abuse testing program, another key piece of the USCAR/DOE partnership. -- Mike Janes

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