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Lab News -- July 17, 2009

July 17, 2009

LabNews 07/17/2009PDF (900 kb)

Purer water made possible by Sandia advance

A single atom makes a big difference

By Neal Singer

A single atom substituted in a molecule widely used to purify water has created a far more effective decontaminant with a shelf life superior to products currently on the market.

Sandia has applied for a patent on the material, which can remove bacterial, viral, and other organic and inorganic contaminants from river water destined for human consumption, and from wastewater treatment plants prior to returning water to the environment.

The Labs is working with the international Kemira corporation, a major producer of water treatment chemicals, to explore the commercial potential of the compound.

“Human consumption of ‘challenged’ water is increasing worldwide as preferred supplies become more scarce,” says principal investigator May Nyman (6316). “Better technologies like this may help solve problems faced by water treatment facilities in both developed and developing countries.”

The water treatment reagent, known as a coagulant, is made by substituting an atom of gallium in the center of an aluminum oxide cluster — itself a commonly used coagulant in water purification, says May.

The atomic substitution doesn’t require tweezers but rather a simple chemical process of dissolving aluminum salts in water, gallium salts into a sodium hydroxide solution, and then slowly adding the sodium hydroxide solution to the aluminum solution while heating.

“The substitution of a single gallium atom in that compound makes a big difference,” says May. “It greatly improves the stability and effectiveness of the reagent. We’ve done side-by-side tests with a variety of commercially available products. For almost every case, ours performs best under a wide range of conditions.”

Wide-ranging conditions are inevitable, she says, when dealing with a natural water source such as a river. “You get seasonal and even daily fluctuations in pH, temperature, turbidity, and water chemistry. And a river in central New Mexico has very different conditions from, say, a river in Ohio.”

The Sandia coagulant attracts and binds contaminants so well because it maintains its inherent electrostatic charge more reliably than conventional coagulants made without gallium, itself a harmless addition. The material also resists converting to larger, less-reactive aggregates before it is used. This means the material maintains a longer shelf life, avoiding the problem faced by related commercially available products that aggregate over time.

“The chemical substitution [of a gallium atom for an aluminum atom] has been studied by Sandia’s collaborators at the University of California at Davis, but nobody has ever put this knowledge to use in an application such as removing water contaminants like microorganisms,” says May.

The idea for the project and all the water treatment studies were conceived and performed at Sandia, says May, who worked with microbiologist Tom Stewart (6316). Transmission electron microscope images of bacteriophages binding to the altered material were achieved at the University of New Mexico. Mass spectroscopy of the alumina clusters in solution was performed at UC Davis.

The study was published in June 2009 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (a publication of the American Chemical Society) and highlighted in the June 22 edition of Chemical & Engineering News. The work was sponsored by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research Development office. -- Neal Singer

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Sandia to sponsor system dynamics conference July 26-31

By Chris Burroughs

High-impact applications and research on the difficult issues at the cutting edge of the field of system dynamics will be the focus of the 27th annual conference of the System Dynamics Society to be held July 26-31 in Albuquerque.

Hosted by Sandia, the conference is expected to draw about 450 scientists, educators, professionals, and students.

“This will be a very stimulating six days of discussions that will reach across such disparate fields as business applications, economic dynamics, energy and resources, health, methodology, military applications, organizational dynamics, psychology/social dynamics, public policy, climate change, emergency preparedness/response, challenges of terrorism, and security,” says Sandia system dynamics researcher Len Malczynski (6313), conference chair. “We at Sandia are honored to host a symposium of this importance.”

System dynamics is a powerful methodology and computer simulation modeling technique for framing, understanding, and discussing complex issues and problems. The System Dynamics Society is an international, nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the development and use of system dynamics and systems thinking around the world.

Primary conference speakers include:

Les Shephard, VP of Sandia’s Energy, Security, and Defense Technologies Div. 6000, will open the conference. Nearly 200 scientists will present papers at the six-day event that includes a PhD colloquium, and more than 20 workshops.

Meadows is coauthor of The Limits to Growth, a report first published in 1972 that sparked a great debate worldwide about the value of the zero growth theory that it proposed. The report was significant because it sounded an alarm about global society’s urgent need for sustainable development. Since its publication, Meadows has continued to study the causes and consequences of physical growth on a finite planet. Meadows will also give a presentation on climate change July 21 at Sandia’s Earth, Wind and Sun symposium.

Sterman, author of Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World, is considered the current leader of the system dynamics school of thought. His research focuses on improving managerial decision-making in complex systems. In addition to giving a plenary presentation, Sterman will run a simulation-based negotiation exercise dealing with the challenge of curbing greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. This tool and approach is being exercised worldwide and is also considered as an aid to the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Copenhagen later this year.

Senge emerged in the 1990s as a major figure in organizational development. In 1997, Harvard Business Review identified The Fifth Discipline as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years. For this work, he was named by Journal of Business Strategy as the “Strategist of the Century.” They further said that he was one of a very few people who “had the greatest impact on the way we conduct business today.” At the conference, Senge will reflect on his experience fostering genuine systems awareness and wiser actions within education, civil society, and business.

The work of the Labs will be featured in several presentations, including two plenary sessions. George Backus (1433) will present “A History of Making Energy Policy,” a 30-year overview of the contribution of system dynamics in the making of energy policy in the US and abroad. Bob Glass (6326) will present the story of the Labs’ involvement in the formulation of US policy for mitigating pandemic influenza.

New to this year’s conference will be a “bonus day,” July 31 — an extra free day of workshops focusing on models of energy and climate, economic crisis, corporate environments, and system dynamics in K-12 education. In addition, on July 29, as part of the K-12 education segment, children will present posters dealing with system dynamics.

The conference will be held at the Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town and is open to the public. Registrations are accepted at the conference website..

Conference cohosts are Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and Paul Scherrer Institut of Switzerland. The Boeing Company is the conference partner, and major sponsors include Lockheed Martin, and the US Department of Homeland Security.

For more information about the System Dynamics Society, see the society website at or contact Len, conference chair, at 505-844-7219,, or Aldo Zagonel (6322), organization chair, at 505-284-6773,

-- Chris Burroughs

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