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Lab News -- April 10, 2009

April 10, 2009

LabNews 04/10/2009PDF (900 kb)

Liquid sunshine: Sandia's Sunshine to Petrol team expects innovative prototype to be working soon

Team figured out way to transform carbon dioxide into carbon-neutral liquid fuels

By Chris Burroughs

Sandia researchers working on the Sunshine to Petrol project believe they are only weeks away from having a working device that can recycle carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, a key building block in making combustible fuels such as methanol, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Initially the invention will split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and later it will be tested to split carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen.

“We have proven the concept in the laboratory in batch mode, but soon expect to do it in our prototype,” says researcher Jim Miller (1815), who is working with a large multidisciplinary team to come up with an efficient and affordable way to recycle carbon dioxide and turn it back into liquid transportation fuels.

The prototype device that is on the verge of making history is the Counter Rotating Ring Receiver Reactor Recuperator (CR5, for short), invented by Rich Diver (6337) as a way to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Jim, working with Rich and Nate Siegel (6337), saw the possibility of using the CR5 to break down carbon dioxide, just as it would water, but into carbon monoxide and oxygen.

The CR5 breaks a carbon-oxygen bond in the carbon dioxide to form carbon monoxide and oxygen in two distinct steps. Energy to break down the carbon dioxide comes from sunlight.

“People have known for a long time that theoretically it should be possible to recycle carbon dioxide, but most still think it cannot be made practical, either technically or economically,” says Ellen Stechel (6339), the program manager for the Sandia team.

Hence, only a handful of companies and scientists have pursued the process with much vigor.

Ellen named the Sandia process of effectively reversing combustion by capturing and then converting carbon dioxide and water with concentrated solar energy into liquid hydrocarbon fuels Sunshine to Petrol (S2P). She notes the invention and S2P, which is probably 15 to 20 years away from being market-ready, hold real promise of being able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while preserving options for the domestic production of liquid fuels. The invention will result in fossil fuels being used at least twice.

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

The prospect of a liquid hydrocarbon fuel is significant because it fits in with the current gasoline and oil infrastructure. After a liquid synthetic 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 or, if necessary, to a refinery for further processing. Plus the final fuel product would work in ordinary gasoline and diesel engine vehicles, including vehicles already on the road.

Nate says that while the first step would be to capture the carbon dioxide from sources where it is concentrated, the ultimate goal would be to snatch it out of the air. An S2P system that includes atmospheric carbon dioxide capture could produce carbon-neutral liquid hydrocarbon fuels.

Rich says he hand-built the precision prototype CR5 in a shop at Sandia’s National Solar Thermal Test Facility and is now doing final calibration to get a working device.

While Rich begins tests on this first-generation prototype, other members of the team are experimenting with the reactive materials that make the device work. They aim to better understand the chemistry of the process and to find materials that will work better and longer.

Other team members, using data from ongoing experiments, are developing models to guide future experiments. Their goal is to predict the performance and recommend changes to make improvements to the CR5 as well as the full S2P system

“It’s a very exciting team,” Ellen says. “We have enough talent and diversity to substantially increase the odds for success in what is a very challenging endeavor.”

The team is deliberately assembled from many organizations across Sandia in both New Mexico and California and includes collaborators in a number of universities across the country. The team also incorporates a board of external advisors.

Success, says Ellen, will consist of continuously improved generations of prototypes and S2P systems, a new generation every three years with significant improvements in performance (measured as the amount of solar energy converted into the fuel), greater durability, and reduced cost. With that schedule of improvements, the technology should be market-ready in less than two decades.

“For a concept as new as the CR5 and Sunshine to Petrol, that would be an aggressive schedule,” Ellen says. “Indeed, developing a sunshine-driven process that can efficiently, cost-effectively, and sustainably take the products of combustion, carbon dioxide and water, and recreate liquid fuels would be an unparalleled achievement. Surmounting this challenge would go a long way toward solving the intertwined problems of finding domestic substitutes for petroleum and mitigating the risk of climate change.” -- Chris Burroughs

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Neutron scatter camera hits the road

By Patti Koning

Faster, more accurate, portable, and safer — that’s been the evolution of the neutron scatter camera. In the year and a half since Nick Mascarenhas (8132) began testing his neutron scatter camera to detect special nuclear material in a variety of real-world scenarios, the instrument has met every challenge and its potential continues to grow (Lab News, Sept. 28, 2007).

The neutron scatter camera detects fast neutrons that emanate from special nuclear material to localize the source. Field tests have shown the instrument rejects naturally occurring background radiation that can obscure results from gamma ray detectors. Further simulation and testing have demonstrated the camera’s ability to cut through kitty litter, bananas, ceramics, and other sources of natural radiation that might be used to mask a source. Even steel is no match.

Last year, at the request of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), Nick tested the camera’s ability to detect from the shore a source inside the hold of a docked oil tanker. The neutron scatter camera measured neutrons at 20 times higher than background and detected a characteristic fission neutron energy spectrum through the ship’s hull. “It was surprising — in less than five minutes we had a beautiful image of the source in the ship,” he says. “It was a spectacular result.”

Nick and his team, Peter Marleau, Charles Greenberg, and Stan Mrowka (all 8132), and Jim Brennan (8621), have gotten better at analyzing the data the neutron scatter camera generates. The analysis tools can now reduce the size of the image, which is the position of the neutrons emanating from a source. In a sense, the analysis tool gives the neutron scatter camera a better resolution. “A smaller spot size means I can localize the source better,” he explains.

Recently, DTRA funded work to increase the number of scintillator-filled cell elements to a 12 by 12 array. The original configuration of the neutron scatter camera consisted of four by seven scintillator-filled cells to record interactions with the fast neutrons.

The scalability of the neutron scatter camera design — which Nick describes as like Lego blocks — makes these modifications simple. By increasing their number and size, the cells have more opportunities to react with the fast neutrons, resulting in shorter dwell times and longer stand-off distances.

In fact, the current configuration of the neutron scatter camera is 10 times more efficient than the version fielded last year. In a recent test conducted at

Livermore, the instrument was able to detect a source from a distance of more than 60 meters. “That’s huge,” says Nick. “At 60 to 100 meters, you go to something that could be put to use in a variety of scenarios.”

The camera was also able to resolve two sources simultaneously and a source that was being masked by naturally occurring radiation (in this case, a simulated truckload of 1,000 kilograms of kitty litter). This test demonstrates one of the neutron scatter camera’s advantages — it can cut through noise that would overwhelm gamma ray detectors and some neutron detectors.

In addition to field tests, Nick’s team has been simulating different camera configurations with more cells and increased volume. “We have not seen the end of this technology’s capability,” he says. “The predictions of what we could do with future incarnations are pretty impressive. We haven’t reached the end of the camera’s potential. I think imaging within seconds is feasible.”

With faster detection and a longer range, the potential uses for the camera begin to multiply. One of the first field tests for the camera was in-transit radiation detection on cargo ships traveling between Oakland, Calif., and Honolulu as part of George Lasche’s (6418) Experimental Limits for In-Transit Detection of Radiological Materials project (Lab News, Aug. 17, 2007).

Now, the camera could be suitable for point-of-entry detection and even at unmanned border crossings.

“One of my dreams is to see the camera deployed at a choke point such as the Panama Canal,” says Nick.

Another upgrade for the neutron scatter camera was portability, which in this case means it can be moved easily. The original version of the device, housed in a 40-foot sea-land container, was heavy, difficult to transport, and required an external AC power source. It also used a hazardous liquid scintillator that severely limited camera deployment.

Field testing is underway on the “portable” version housed in an 18-foot trailer with an AC generator that can provide power for up to eight hours and uses a safer liquid scintillator. It can be pulled by a pickup truck, versus a tractor trailer in the old configuration.

“The possibility of taking it anywhere you can drive a pickup truck really increases the potential audience for this device,” says Nick.

That potential audience has begun taking notice. Working with the business development office, he’s begun demonstrating the camera to potential industry partners to a very positive response. -- Patti Koning

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Giggling Springs turns up the heat: Project utilizes geothermal spring for space heating

Sandia assists 224 small businesses in 2008

By Michael Padilla


Saving 60 percent on monthly utility bills is no laughing matter for Giggling Springs, a natural hot springs pool in Jemez Springs.

That savings is part of the outcome of a New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA) Program project conducted by Rich Jepsen (1534), a specialist in fluid and thermodynamics.

Rich was contacted by Tanya Struble, co-owner of Giggling Springs, after hearing about the NMSBA program from members of a spa association. The association had met to discuss cost-savings opportunities, plumbing challenges, environment department standards, and new technologies.

Since Giggling Springs’ water is rich in soluble minerals, heating buildings at the spa using conventional plumbing hardware had been troublesome. Mineral deposits can build up in plumbing, leading to high maintenance costs.

After discussing the project with owners, Rich proposed a heating exchange system that transferred heat without transferring spring water. He measured flow rates and temperatures from the hot spring to strike a balance between heating the outdoor pool and providing heat to cabins at the spa.

While Giggling Springs’ geothermal water maintains a temperature of 130 degrees, most existing heat exchange systems operate efficiently at much higher water temperatures, typically above 180 degrees. An additional difficulty was being able to capture enough heat for both the therapeutic pool and the cabins.

The new heating system allowed Giggling Springs to use its 130-degree water to heat both the outdoor pool and the buildings on the site.

“This project was a great example of using Sandia expertise to help a New Mexico small business design

a system that is not ‘off-the-shelf,’” says Rich.

Struble says the project cost about $18,000, a sum she expects to see recovered in five to six years.

Check out Rich’s work by visiting Giggling Springs in Jemez Springs and check out For more information on Jemez Springs, see

Sandia assists 224 small businesses in 2008

Sandia assisted 224 small businesses in 2008 with projects ranging from helping an environmental company to assisting Nambe Pueblo create a water model.

This was Sandia’s eighth year of helping small businesses through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance program, thanks to a tax credit act passed by the New Mexico Legislature.

The program allows Sandia to receive a credit against the gross receipts taxes it pays each year in exchange for providing technical advice and assistance to New Mexico small businesses. During 2008, Sandia submitted nearly $2.4 million in tax credits.

There are few requirements for small-business participation — mainly that assisted companies must be for-profit New Mexico small businesses, and that the help is otherwise not available for a reasonable cost through private sources.

In addition to highlighting its Giggling Springs project at a recent event at the Albuquerque Aquarium, Sandia also featured the Rio Nambe Leverage Project and the Four Corners Leverage Project.

Rio Nambe Leverage Project

Mirabal Farms with Povi Ovei Farms, Rose Trujillo, Gloria Trujillo

As the governor of Nambe Pueblo and a farmer, Ed Mirabal understands the water management challenges that farmers face, including controlling costs and using their water share without wasting or under-using natural resources. Pueblo farmers approached NMSBA seeking a method that would calculate the amount of water farms divert from surface sources to support crops. Jim Brainard (6311) worked with the pueblo to calculate water usage rates and develop a model for a system-wide water management. The new model includes all agricultural, residential, and commercial uses and calculates the amount of water used and the amount returned to the ground.

Four Corners Leverage Project

Biosphere Environmental Science and Technologies with McDonald Enterprises, Inc., Hands on Safety Service, Intermountain Painting

Biosphere Environmental Science and Technologies (B.E.S.T.) operates several projects related to water supply and water use systems. While designing a reverse osmosis system to desalinate water produced from oil and gas production operations, B.E.S.T. found that chemicals and minerals in water from a natural gas well could reduce the effectiveness of the filtration membranes in the reverse osmosis system. The company needed a pretreatment system to increase the life of these membranes. Sandia employees Allan Sattler (6312) and Malynda Cappelle (6721) teamed with B.E.S.T and other companies to test the performance of a new pretreatment and reverse osmosis system for untreated produced water. -- Michael Padilla

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