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Lab News --May 7, 2010

May 7, 2010

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Federal Laboratory Consortium recognizes Sandia's tech transfer work

FLC: National forum for Sandia’s tech transfer professionals

By Heather Clark

Look at the results and it’s easy to see why Sandia has received two national awards from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer for its partnerships with Cray Inc. and Stirling Energy Systems, Inc.

Look at the results and it’s easy to see why Sandia has received two national awards from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer for its partnerships with Cray Inc. and Stirling Energy Systems, Inc. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Sandia and Cray joined forces in 2001 to build the Red Storm supercomputer, the predecessor of the Seattle, Wash.-based company’s line of Cray XT supercomputers. In 2009, Jaguar, a Cray XT5 supercomputer housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, won the prestigious Gordon Bell Prize for parallel computing performance. And, Franklin, a 350-teraflop Cray XT4 system at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was ranked 11th fastest in the world, according to the award nomination.

Since starting its collaboration with Sandia, Stirling Energy Systems (SES) has signed contracts to provide 1.85 gigawatts of solar power from its concentrating solar power system, the SunCatcher™. The company also is planning to build the world’s largest solar energy generating system on about 6,500 acres in southern California. The 750-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar plant will power 562,500 homes in the San Diego area by 2014.

The Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) presented Sandians with the awards April 29 at its national meeting in Albuquerque.
“Sandia has always done well in these recognition awards and it’s an indication of our ability to transfer technology to industry,” says Hal Morgan, senior manager for Industrial Partnerships and Strategy Dept. 1930.

SunCatcher at Sandia

The SunCatcher™ technology makes it possible for large power facilities to provide clean, reliable, cost-effective, and sustainable solar-electric power to communities, address renewable energy-portfolio targets, and tackle global climate change by reducing carbon emissions, according to a nomination submitted for a Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) awards program.
Sandia was recognized recently by the FLC for its tech transfer work with Stirling Energy Systems (SES) and the SunCatcher technology.

Steve Cowman, SES chief executive officer, says Sandia’s relationship with the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company was essential for attracting investments of about $200 million over the past two years from a firm with which he was previously associated.

“The product has been significantly enhanced and improved by virtue of the collaboration and partnership that we have with Sandia,” Cowman says.

The close-knit collaboration started in 2003, when SES sent a prototype solar dish and two part-time engineers to Sandia’s state-of-the-art National Solar Thermal Test Facility (NSTTF), says Chuck Andraka (6337), Sandia’s lead project engineer. Sandia made space and equipment available, and provided access to technical personnel to help SES develop, test, and refine their dish engine system, he says.

“That was so successful and they learned so much about their own dish from our work that it quickly blossomed into a proposal for a mini-power plant of six dishes,” Chuck says.
In 2006, DOE approved a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with SES.

The openness demonstrated by representatives from both partners allowed technology transfer to flow in two directions, enhancing the skills of Sandia’s researchers while contributing to the development of a commercial product for SES, the partners say.

Sandia’s technical expertise helped SES drop 4,000-6,000 pounds of steel from what was a 16,000-pound structure and halved the number of mirrors from 80 to 40, which reduced construction and maintenance costs.

The Sandians also convinced SES to use a radial design with pie-shaped mirrors, the design the company is producing today, Chuck says.

“It’s much more efficient structurally, it’s quicker to assemble and it’s better optically,” Chuck says. “That was one of the big payoffs of our interaction with them.”

Eventually, 20 full-time SES engineers and technical staff worked at NSTTF. The engineers learned from each other, building and troubleshooting together. Sandia contributed its expertise in solar engineering, particularly in the area of solar optics, but Stirling gave Sandians the opportunity to work directly on real hardware owned by SES, fine-tuning their ideas so they would work in real-world applications.

“It’s a closer collaboration than we’ve ever had before,” Chuck says. “We’re actually sitting in on the design process, working with their engineers and mentoring people.”

In 2008, one of the original SunCatchers set an efficiency record for converting solar energy to electricity by achieving a 31.25 percent net efficiency rate that toppled a 1984 record of 29.4 percent.
The collaboration is ongoing.Gaining a better understanding of optics and speeding up the automatic alignment of the dish’s mirrors so they will work for rapid deployment of large-scale generating plants are areas for further research, Chuck says.

“We’re learning at Sandia whether these techniques are even going to work and we’re developing intellectual property that we’ll be able to market to other companies,” Chuck says.
Cowman and Chuck agree that without the partnership, there would be no SunCatcher.

“If it hadn’t been for Sandia, we would have had a technological curiosity rather than a commercial project,” Cowman says.

Cray and Sandia: Partnering to create Red Storm and successor systems

When Cray and Sandia joined forces in 2001 to build the Red Storm supercomputer, there were no commercial supercomputers that targeted complex simulations, says Sudip Dosanjh (1420), senior manager of Computer & Software Systems.

Sandia was recognized recently by the Federal Laboratory Consortium for its tech transfer work with Cray.

Initially, the customer-supplier relationship between Sandia and Cray was switched. Sandia was unable to find a provider for the supercomputer architecture, so the Labs supplied the architecture and several fundamental technologies and Cray’s engineers jointly created the system with the Labs and built the hardware to Sandia’s specifications, says Ron Brightwell (1423), manager of Scalable System Software.

In spite of that initial role reversal, the two partners built what later became one of the best massively parallel processing systems in history: the Cray XT series, according to the award nomination. These systems have had significant national impact.

“The NNSA’s partnership with Cray has been important to both the nation’s nuclear security and to national supercomputing competitiveness. The government’s investment in Red Storm and the XT line of supercomputers has afforded scientists unprecedented capabilities for exploring long-standing problems,” says Robert Meisner, head of NNSA’s Advanced Simulation and Computing program.
Red Storm’s development took about two and a half years, about a year less than the typical vendor schedule.

Peter Ungaro, Cray’s president and chief executive, credits Sandia for the speed of the development. “We would have gotten there, but we definitely wouldn’t have done it in the timeframe that we got there with Sandia, and we wouldn’t have built as good of a product, if we had done it ourselves,” he says.

The partnership included a Work for Others (WFO) agreement, licenses, and jointly held patents.

Sandia developed several technologies that have been or still are being used in the Cray XT computers, including a Portals networking layer that enables processors to communicate; the Catamount Lightweight Kernel to improve processing and data access performance; and the Compute Processor Allocator that optimizes how processors are assigned to computing jobs.

Red Storm enabled Sandia and the DOE to meet its computing needs by using tens of thousands of processors working in parallel for several weeks on a single problem.

The Cray XT technology has proven effective at solving a wide range of science and engineering problems related to climate change, fusion, material science, nanomaterials, biology, and astrophysics, according to the nomination.

There also have been economic benefits from the partnership. Before collaborating with Sandia, Cray was striving to stay competitive in the volatile supercomputing market, according to the nomination. Since introducing the Cray XT, company statistics show it has sold more than 1,200 XT cabinets to more than 80 customers worldwide.

 “The international success of Cray’s XT line demonstrates that there is a strong commercial and government demand for highly scalable systems,” Sudip says.
Hal says the partnership with Cray has provided a much-needed supplier in the high-performance computing market.

Meisner says the DOE partnership with Cray will continue through the purchase of the Cielo platform, which will be jointly managed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia.
And, the two partners view the Cray-Sandia partnership on Red Storm as a potential model for the next supercomputing challenge: exascale computing, where systems can handle a million trillion operations per second.

FLC: National forum for Sandia’s tech transfer professionals

Sandia’s technology transfer professionals discussed how they are bringing the Labs’ ideas to the marketplace with peers from across the country at the Federal Laboratory Consortium’s recent national meeting in Albuquerque.

The Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) — a nationwide network of more than 250 federal laboratories and centers and their parent departments and agencies — provides a forum for its members to develop strategies for technology transfer. The national meeting was April 26-29.

Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Technology & Economic Development Dept. 1933, is Sandia’s representative to the FLC. About 55 to 60 Sandians work to directly support technology transfer at the Labs.

Jackie says the FLC convenes meetings for technology transfer professionals, recognizes their best practices and provides training. “I think that’s where their strengths are,” she says.

Dick Fairbanks (1933), who runs the Entrepreneurial Separation to Transfer Technology program, says FLC’s panel discussions, like one Hal Morgan (1930), senior manager for Industrial Partnerships and Strategy, is moderating about public-private partnerships, help the audience understand what is possible.

“If there are barriers or people have perceived barriers about transferring technology, FLC’s service to them is putting on a national meeting that shows how it can be done,” Dick says.
During the national meeting, Sandia employees also attended the Department of Energy’s Technology Transfer Working Group, which covered issues related specifically to DOE labs. -- Heather Clark

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Sandia Tiger Teams ‘brave sleet and snow’ to educate cities on solar energy options

Pittsburgh honors Sandia solar team

By Neal Singer

If you think of solar as a photovoltaic panel or hot water heater on a residential rooftop, forget it. Or at least, expand it. 

The third annual Solar America Cities meeting in Salt Lake City in mid-April gave the impression of a solar industry, like Gulliver, beginning to free itself from Lilliputian tie-downs.

There were panel discussions, and even reports of deployment, of solar for defense against terrorism, armed attack, and natural disaster.

NOW I GET IT — Marissa Reno instructs at one of the many workshops at the third annual Solar America Cities meeting in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Neal Singer)

There were reports on removal of restrictive legislation — one requiring million-dollar insurance policies for homeowners choosing photovoltaics  — and of more utility companies providing solar-use data.

There was White House emissary Cyrus Wadia, with a PhD in energy resources from University of California, Berkeley, and “happy to take a break from [his research field of] aqueous nanoparticles,” delivering a keynote speech in which he said in part, “I’m here to listen to you. I’m trying to understand if there’s something we can do from the White House.”

And through it all, like yeast in bread or superheroes without capes, the Sandia solar Tiger Team members (along with peers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, CH2M Hill-Critigen, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, New Mexico State University, and the Florida Solar Energy Center) led discussion groups and circulated through the 175 invitation-only attendees from government, industry, and nonprofits. The researchers urged more extensive and frequent communications among industries, cities, counties, states, retailers, and inventors. They questioned results possibly too good to be true and were available in general to assist the spread of solar options in 25 US cities selected through a DOE competition. 

Nitty-gritty challenges of solar deployment

The discussion was about down-home, nitty-gritty problems of solar deployment, though technical advances were also reported. (Particularly imaginative was the moonlight sensor: an idea to smarten LED streetlights so that they dimmed and brightened with the waxing and waning of the moon. For perspective, there are 30,626 streetlights using energy every night in metropolitan Albuquerque, according to a Public Service Company of New Mexico representative contacted by the Lab News.)

The mayor of Pittsburgh issued a proclamation praising Sandia solar researchers for work in jumpstarting solar projects in the three-river city (see below).

Sandia teams worked several projects with host Salt Lake City. 

One was a study to see whether photovoltaics could reduce the need to handle peak-time electrical loads by building a bigger substation and installing thicker overhead electric lines to carry the increased current through a suburban neighborhood. To date, the studies conducted by Abe Ellis (6335), Mark Ralph (6324), and Garth Corey (1655) indicate that residential home solar could not provide enough additional electricity, but larger collectors on nearby commercial buildings might.

In another Utah effort with national implications, a Sandia team is responding to the desire of a large-scale commercial home builder for a simple standard method to compute the added value of solar to the sale price of a house. Lack of such standards make the sale of houses with solar equipment problematic, because the value of the energy provided by the systems is not understood or captured in the sale price.

Other solar problems call upon Sandia’s role as trusted technical advisor. Sometimes solar homebuilders present figures of unusual solar efficiency to homebuyers. On the one hand, Tiger Team members like the idea of large-scale homebuilders making solar equipment standard, rather than optional, on their homes. It means solar would be considered a mass-market player in housing, rather than the occasional entry from an energy rebel. But the Sandia team — Beth Richards (6733), Dick Fate (6473), Howard Passell (6733), Marlene Brown (5737), and Jeff Zirzow (6339) — at the SAC meeting want to see data on such claims. One simple tool against overstating efficiencies, says Marlene, is ‘we’ll look at the utility bills over a number of months and see how much is actually saved, compared with comparable non-solar houses.”

Solar for emergencies

Then there was discussion of solar techniques to handle disruptions of ordinary life. Andrew Beldon, speaking for the organization Solar Boston, discussed the installation in his city of solar-powered evacuation routes. In a disaster that disrupted normal utility operations, solar photovoltaics could power electrical message boards displaying the most up-to-date information from city managers. The information would reach the signs through dedicated fiber optic lines. Solar-powered cameras at intersections could provide city managers real-time information about the condition of traffic. Solar-powered traffic lights could prevent traffic snarls — a potentially life-or-death problem in an evacuation — and solar streetlights with battery storage could provide light at night. 

Andrew McAllister of the California Center for Sustainable Energy, described the role solar could play in providing lighted, powered shelter for San Diego residents during any of the area’s many fires. Bill Young from the Florida Solar Energy Center talked about the role of solar in providing a dry, secure place with lights and refrigeration for food in the event of hurricanes or other utility-disrupting disasters.

What’s next?

But what happens when the initial three-year funding for the Solar America Cities runs out this year?

The idea, according to DOE SAC program lead Hannah Muller, is to transition to a solar-sophisticated outreach group that will take the lessons from the original 25 cities and apply them to cities nationwide.

Meanwhile, DOE has granted additional funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to many of the original cities to implement a variety of special projects aimed at further facilitating wide-scale commercial deployment of solar technologies.

DOE’s umbrella Solar Market Transformation Program will also continue using national laboratory expertise to solve solar implementation problems in cities across the country.

Sandia team lead Vipin Gupta (6338) in closing urged attendees to stay involved by frequently visiting the DOE Solar America Cities online website ( and interacting via the social networking site known as SAmCIN (Solar America Cities Information Network) that was set up just for them.

 Vipin, who will spend more time with Sandia’s solar “glitter” project (see Lab News, Dec. 18, 2009), also passed the baton to Beth Richards, who will lead Sandia’s upcoming Tiger Team efforts.
Has the tipping point passed, where solar can continue to rise on its own without sinking back into the swamp when unsupported by tax breaks and DOE grants?

“If we knew that,” says Marissa, “we’d be rich and famous.”

Pittsburgh honors Sandia solar team

The city of Pittsburgh has honored Sandia solar researchers for training city staff to install and maintain solar thermal and photovoltaic panels on city facilities.

The formal proclamation, signed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, recognizes the Sandia researchers “who braved sleet, snow, ice, and frigid temperatures to assess buildings and provide solar energy education.”

Marissa Reno and Howard Passell (both 6733) accepted the document on behalf of their team from Jim Sloss, Pittsburgh energy utilities manager, at the third annual Solar America Cities meeting in Salt Lake City on April 13.  Other Sandians honored by Pittsburgh are Geoff Klise (6733), Jeff Zirzow (6339), Jeannette Moore (2734), and Chuck Marken (6734).

“The Sandia researchers were assigned to us by the Department of Energy to provide us with technical assistance, and we wanted to honor them with a little gift,” Sloss told the Lab News.
Pittsburgh is one of 25 cities selected by DOE for its Solar America Cities (SAC) program, which aims to remove the barriers to the growth of solar energy technologies across the US.

The Sandia researchers are part of DOE’s so-called solar Tiger Teams that arrive upon request to solve specific problems, and then return to their respective research institutions.

“The entire Solar America Cities program has been an extremely effective collaboration between the federal government and cities,” says Howard, “intended to quickly and dramatically increase the market penetration of solar technologies.”

“There had not been much solar development in Pittsburgh,” says Marissa, “but as a result of the work the city has done in the SAC program, the list of solar projects and initiatives in Pittsburgh has grown considerably. We hope that Pittsburgh will continue down the path it has started on and continue to grow its solar program.”

Early in the project, city of Pittsburgh staff and the Sandia Tiger Team staff collaborated on a regional conference titled “Solar in Cold, Cloudy Climates” that educated city planners and engineers from cities in the Pittsburgh area on solar approaches appropriate for that region. Later in the project, Pittsburgh facilities staff were trained in installation techniques for solar hot water technologies. They installed one solar hot water system on a Pittsburgh fire station and have plans to install three more on other stations.

 Upcoming training in photovoltaic installation technologies will include an actual installation, with two more planned after that.

A 3-megawatt solar farm is in the planning stage.

 The city is also using SAC funding to construct an interactive solar mapping website that will highlight their solar achievements and share solar information.

And the city is hiring a “solar ambassador” whose work will be dedicated to advancing solar in Pittsburgh. The three-year program, in which approximately $550,000 was shared between the city of Pittsburgh and Sandia, ends in May. -- Neal Singer

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Sandia leads reliability workshop for the growing field of photovoltaic systems integration

By Stephanie Hobby

If you build a car using the finest automotive parts but don’t connect the engine’s energy to the wheels, you won’t get very far. Similarly, installing state-of-the-art photovoltaic (PV) panels is an exercise in futility unless the power sources are expertly connected to the grid.

Jennifer Granata and Michael Quintana, seen here at Sandia’s National Solar Thermal Test Facility, recently led a workshop on photovoltaic systems integration to encourage the use of PV power. (Photo by Randy Montoya).

As the nation increasingly turns to solar power, utility companies turn to photovoltaic integrators to reliably and safely transmit that power from the panels to the grid, and, ultimately, the customer. While PV has been used for decades nationwide, integrating such an unprecedented amount of PV-generated power is relatively uncharted territory.

Sandia’s PV team and DOE recently hosted a workshop specifically for PV systems integrators in San Jose, Calif., to encourage the adoption of reliability tools in the growing area of photovoltaics in the US energy portfolio. The program focused on mitigating risk, reducing the levelized cost of energy, and improving the appeal of PV systems by calculating the relationships between initial cost and performance, long-term reliability, and lifetime costs.

“Sandia’s program focuses on systems-level work, and we are reaching into Sandia’s historical knowledge of applying reliability methods to complex systems,” says Sandia researcher Jennifer Granata (6335). “Providing reliability tools and leadership in this area is really needed within the industry, and it was a natural fit for us to lead this workshop.”

The two-day workshop included representatives from 15 integrator companies. “I was pleased with how much the national laboratories are doing, how interested they are in integrator input, their willingness to employ resources, and their desire to ensure their work has relevance to real-world construction issues,” says Peter Molloy, senior estimator with Stellar Energy, a California-based solar energy integrator. Ensuring that Sandia’s tools and research are relevant to construction issues has been one of the researchers’ goals for years.

“Open discussion with stakeholders was very useful,” says Sandia researcher Michael Quintana (6338). “We have been building and adapting tools that we would like the industry to adopt, and this workshop provided us with valuable feedback about what is helpful and how we can continue to advance the state of the art in PV systems reliability.”

Jennifer and Michael are compiling the feedback and will distill it into specific program areas to help meet some of the industry’s current needs.

Determining expected energy production and related costs over the life of a system is one such need that Sandia is addressing. Over the past two years, Sandia’s PV team has developed a suite of reliability tools specific to PV systems, including models, failure assessment tools, and databases of field performance and reliability.

During the workshop, integrators showed particular interest in the model currently under development, which will provide integrators with a design tool to determine what to expect in terms of energy production and related costs over the life of a system installed in a given location, considering weather, performance, and reliability of each component type. That information will provide integrators with a range and an idea of how many kilowatt-hours will be generated over the systems lifetime, which companies seeking funding from bankers and investors can use.

“The reliability tool suite will help investors understand what the return on their investment will be,” Jennifer says. “In turn, we expect to see increased
funding for photovoltaic power sources.”

  The team is looking forward to hosting another workshop within the next year; the last time Sandia was involved in bringing integrators together in a forum was in the late 1990s.

“This was long overdue,” Michael says. “The US research and development strategy has long focused on developing new PV module technologies and improving efficiencies. However, the technology does not get deployed until the system does, so it’s imperative that the system functions well as a whole. We’re pleased to provide our systems R&D expertise to help advance this industry.” -- Stephanie Hobby

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