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Lab News -- March 25, 2011

March 25, 2011

LabNews - March 25, 2011PDF (4.3 Mb)

Soldier, meet chemist: Sandia offers top-rate training for bomb experts heading to Afghanistan

By Heather Clark

The classroom chatter fell silent as 17 bomb technicians remembered four soldiers killed in Afghanistan while doing the same job they were being trained for during a weeklong training course at Sandia on how to spot, safely remove, and disable improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Two EOD techs make their own homemade explosives so they can learn what chemicals are used in IEDs and be able to recognize them once they're sent overseas. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

 “Be safe out there,” said Pete Terrill (5436), a retired Navy warrant officer, who knows first-hand the perils these Explosive, Ordnance & Disposal (EOD) technicians will face in the field. He served as a Navy bomb expert during the first Gulf War.

Pete oversees the training program at Sandia that aims to teach these young soldiers not only how to survive, but how to dispose of the chemicals and bombs that are the biggest threat to soldiers overseas and have killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. The program is executed by centers 5400, 5900, 6600, and 4200 for the International Homeland and Nuclear Security Strategic Management Unit.

“I know what they’re going through because I did it,” Pete says. “But we never went to the national labs to train. I wish I had this kind of first-rate, top-of-the-line training available to me when I was on active duty.”

Others see the value of hiring scientists to help soldiers navigate the hazards they will face in Afghanistan. Since 2007, interest in the training program has grown from about 40 students to more than 400 students annually, says Dave Minster, manager of Energetic Threats and Training Dept. 5436 and a retired Air Force colonel. Funding has grown from about $2 million in fiscal year 2007 to about $7 million for fiscal year 2011.

The soldiers learn through hands-on chemistry courses and by winding their way through  a Middle Eastern-style adobe complex, a four-story tower that simulates an office building and a simulated underground clandestine explosives laboratory similar to what they might find in a warzone.

Most of those taking the courses are EOD techs from all four military branches — soldiers portrayed in the Oscar award-winning 2008 film The Hurt Locker. Increasingly, local law enforcement and security personnel want the courses, which can be customized for a wide variety of personnel, Dave says.

‘Fire in the Hole!’

In a recent training session for EOD techs, shouts of “Fire in the hole!” rang out across a firing range as fatigue-clad soldiers disabled simulated IEDs with PAN disruptors, tools developed at Sandia and used to disable bombs before they detonate. Sandia scientists monitor the activity from a nearby trailer containing a 46-inch computer screen that shows the soldiers colorful graphs indicating exactly what happened inside the explosive during the shot. The display tells them whether the IED was effectively disabled, whether it would have detonated, and how much time they had to spare.

During the firing, Pete moved among the EOD techs — a tight-knit community who train together — joining in their jokes and building rapport between them and Sandia.

Two days later, in a course that was designed after 9/11 and is taught by two Sandia researchers, the soldiers explored material chemistry to learn what substances are used in homemade explosives.

As the IED threat grew in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military sought out information about how these weapons and improvised explosives were made. Sandia, along with other national laboratories and companies, responded by developing its coursework, says Brian Melof (5434), one of the teachers and a national expert in homemade explosives.

Brian says the goal of the class is to help the soldiers recognize certain chemicals, processes, and equipment used to make explosives.
 “It’s to get them to realize that a laboratory or a truck full of materials may have explosives implications. By going through the classroom and doing the hands-on processing, they now say, ‘Hey, if I see these chemicals in a certain context, I need to raise my awareness because an explosives operation either is in progress or could be in progress,” Brian says.

Another goal is to make the soldiers aware of the hazards of explosive materials and precursor chemicals, which are the chemicals and compounds typically used to make homemade explosives, so that they can safely handle them overseas, Brian says.

The Sandia instructors have the soldiers mix chemicals to teach them what ingredients insurgents might use to foil bomb sniffer dogs or what seemingly innocuous household devices may be used to process ingredients to make bombs.

By mixing the chemicals, soldiers can touch and smell the materials, the trainers say. Stimulating their olfactory senses in the lab might mean they’ll remember what they learned when they smell the same substance in an Afghani village, just as the smell of pumpkin pie might bring up dormant memories of grandma’s kitchen.

The soldiers also use various fluids to desensitize milligram quantities of explosive materials and then test them to see if they’re less sensitive to impact.

Field tests

The last day of the training ties everything together. The EOD techs enter a simulated Middle Eastern-style village where their guide, Vicki Chavez (6633), tells them there are reports of a nearby clandestine laboratory. Their job is to find the mock hazardous materials, figure out what the adversary was up to, and make the location safe, Vicki says.

The labs are hidden in a labyrinth of two-story adobe buildings, connected by rooftop walkways. They contain furnished living quarters and various shops stocked with goods. The goal is authenticity. The trainers want the EOD techs to encounter here what they will likely see in Afghanistan. They want them to recognize that things may not be what they seem, such as sacks of fertilizer that are not being used to grow crops, Christmas tree light bulbs may be improvised detonators, and cooking pots and steel coils may be an acid manufacturing operation.

“You can make some stuff with that,” one soldier, who asked not to be identified, says, looking at what appears to be an apartment, but has one room filled with laboratory equipment and substances in unmarked jars.

They discuss what’s there, then Vicki prompts: “There’s one thing you didn’t get,” and a soldier identifies another substance. Later, Vicki says the group was the only one among that week’s trainees to identify the last substance.

The EOD techs also enter a simulated underground clandestine laboratory where burlap sacks containing powdered chemicals, marked “Made in Jihad,” line the walls and jars of unidentified substances and equipment sit on a table next to a framed photograph of Osama bin Laden.

The EOD techs use a spectrometer to identify chemicals, while an instructor fires questions at them asking how sensitive certain powders are or how they would dispose of a caked material lying on black plastic garbage bags on the floor.

Diversified training

One soldier recalled the smells of the chemical labs two days before and instantly realized where the hazards lay.

Charles Price of Barksdale Air Force Base says Sandia’s training program is just one nationwide that he’s checking out to provide to the troops.

Price says Sandia’s training is diversified, with soldiers learning about firing devices to disable bombs, learning about homemade explosives, and working in a simulated environment based on the experiences of those who have gone before them from all four services.
“Just the way it’s designed, it’s very fluid and they can change the curriculum,” Price says. “We share information and this is a good avenue to get it out to all the guys doing this.”

That exchange of information between scientists at Sandia and soldiers in the field helps Sandia’s training provide EOD techs with the latest information from the field.

“As people told us about it, we incorporated it into the training. This is something you may see and then a few months from now when they’re doing something different and we find out about it, we’ll put that in the class,” Brian says.

While it’s impossible to prove the class is keeping soldiers safer, Dave says they occasionally get emails from soldiers thanking them for the course and explaining how it helped them deal with what they encountered overseas.

“There’s no question in my mind that it’s helped soldiers,” Dave says. “We’re not doing this to make a buck; we’re doing it to save lives.”
Pete says the training program is a team effort involving many organizations, including departments 5434, 5436, 5437, 5943, 5944, 6631, 6633, and 4218.
He sees Sandia as a resource for the EOD techs long after they leave New Mexico.

“We’ve got plenty of smart people at the Labs, so we’ll get the answers for you,” Pete says. “These are their national labs; they can call back and get the information they need to stay alive and save lives.” -- Heather Clark

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World's smallest atomic clock hits marketplace

By Neal Singer

You could have bought a Rolex, but now you learn about a new, matchbook-sized atomic clock. It’s portable, only about 1.5 inches on a side and less than a half-inch in depth and heck, it costs less, only about $1,500.

ABOUT TIME Labs researcher Darwin Serkland in his lab at Sandia's MESA center. Darwin is part of a Sandia research team that is working with researchers from the Massachusetts division of Symmetricom Inc. and MIT's Draper Lab to create the new Chip Scale Atomic Clock, which is 100 times smaller than its commercial predecessors and requires a hundred times less power: instead of 10 watts, it uses only 100 millliwatts. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Created in a joint effort by the Massachusetts division of Symmetricom Inc., MIT’s Draper Lab, and researchers at Sandia’s MESA center, the new “Chip Scale Atomic Clock” (CSAC) is 100 times smaller than its commercial predecessors and requires a hundred times less power: instead of 10 watts, it uses only 100 millliwatts.

“It’s the difference between lugging around a device powered by a car battery and one powered by two AA batteries,” says Sandia lead investigator
Darwin Serkland (1742).

Despite common implications of the word “atomic,” the watch does not use radioactivity as an energy source. Instead, where an ordinary watch uses a spring-powered series of gears to tick off seconds, a CSAC counts the frequency of electromagnetic waves emitted by cesium atoms struck by a tiny laser beam to determine the passage of time. (There’s a more complete description of this process below.)

Still, given that the CSAC does not actually display the time of day — measured in millionths of a second, its passage would defy our ability to read it — why would anyone want this atomic clock?

Its uses are, indeed, specialized. Miners far underground or divers engaged in deep-sea explorations, blocked by natural barriers from GPS signals, could still plan precise operations with remotely placed comrades who also had atomic clocks, because their timing would deviate from each other less than one millionth of a second in a day.

Functions during GPS outages

If you were in the land of improvised explosive devices — IEDs — that could be detonated by a telephone signal, and your military deliberately set up electromagnetic interference to block those signals, even though GPS signals would also be blocked, your CSAC watch would still function.

If you were in charge of relay stations for cross-country phone and computer lines, which routinely break up messages into packets of information sent by a variety of routes but which must be reconstituted correctly at the end of their voyages, you might sleep better knowing that atomic clocks continue functioning during GPS outages.

The clock’s many uses, both military and commercial, are why the work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from 2001 until its market arrival in January 2011.

 “Because few DARPA technologies make it to full industrial commercialization for dual-use applications, this is a very big deal,” says Gil Herrera (1700), director of Sandia’s MESA center. “CSAC now has a data sheet and a price.”

Cesium atoms are housed in a thimble-sized container developed by Draper Lab. The cesium atoms are interrogated by a light beam from a laser called a VCSEL (vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser), contributed by Sandia. And Symmetricom, a leading atomic clock manufacturer, designed the electronic circuits and assembled the components into a complete functioning clock.

 “The work between the three organizations was never ‘thrown over the wall,’” says Sandia manager Charles Sullivan (1742), using an expression that has come to mean complete separation of effort. “There was tight integration.”

A completely new architecture

Nevertheless, reduced power consumption was key to creating the smaller unit, says Darwin. That required, in addition to a completely new architecture, a VCSEL rather than the previous tool of choice, an atomic vapor lamp.

 “It took a few watts to excite the rubidium lamp into a plasma-like state,” Darwin says. “Use of the VCSEL reduced that power consumption over a thousand times to 2 milliwatts.” (For obvious reasons, Darwin’s success in attaining this huge power reduction caused some in the clock business to refer to him as “the VCSEL wizard.”)

The way the clock keeps time may best be imagined by considering two tuning forks. If the forks vary only slightly in size, a series of regular beats are produced at the difference frequency when both forks vibrate. The same principle works in the new clock.

 The VCSEL — in addition to being efficient, inexpensive, stable, and low-power — is able to produce a very fine, single-frequency beam. The beam, at 335 terahertz (894.6 nanometers), is midway between two hyperfine emission levels of the cesium atom, separated in terms of energy like the two differently sized tuning forks. One level is 4.6 gigahertz above and the other 4.6 gigahertz below the laser frequency. (Hyperfine lines are the energy signatures of atoms.) A tiny microwave generator sends an oscillating frequency that adds and then subtracts energy from the incoming laser carrier frequency. Thus, the laser’s single beam produces two waves at both hyperfine emission energies. The emitted waves, interacting, produce (like two tuning forks of different sizes) a series of ‘beats’ through a process known as interference.

One of three DARPA Phase IV projects

A photodiode monitors the slight increase in light transmission through the cesium vapor cell when the microwave oscillator is tuned to resonance. According to the international definition of the second (since 1967) the clock indicates that one second has elapsed after counting exactly 4,596,315,885 cycles (about 4.6 gigacycles) of the microwave oscillator signal.

Because magnetism has an influence on cesium atoms, atomic clocks are shielded from Earth’s magnetic field by a thin steel sheath.

While this sounds cumbersome, atomic clocks “beat” the difficulties that existed a century ago, when a pendulum clock in Paris was the source of the world’s exact time. Kept in a room that was temperature- and humidity-controlled, not only would a change of one degree affect the pendulum’s swing but the difficulty of bringing accurate time to the US was extreme: one synchronized a portable clock in Paris and then had to transport it across the ocean by ship, during which time the mechanical clock would inevitably drift from the frequency of the Paris pendulum.

The CSAC project is one of three DARPA Phase IV projects in the history of Sandia, says Gil. “The other two are the Micro Gas Analyzer (led by Sandia in Phase IV) and the Navigation Grade Integrated Microgyro led by Northrop Grumman with no present Sandia Phase IV participation.”

A follow-on technology MESA is working for DARPA is a trapped-ion-based clock. It will improve timing accuracy at similar size/weight/power to the CSAC. It was just approved for Phase II development, with the goal to produce the first compact prototype unit.

At this rapid rate of development, the sales outlook may darken for high-status watches that don’t evolve over time. -- Neal Singer

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Novel magnetic mechanism for early cancer detection under development at CINT

By Neal Singer

To materials chemist Dale Huber (1132), most people remain unaware they have cancer precisely when the knowledge could help them most: when the number of harmfully mutating cells are treatably small.

IRON?MAN - Dale Huber, working with retired Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher Ed Flynn and his company, Senior Scientific LLC, is using the tools of nanotechnology to grow nanoscopic iron oxide particles as part of an approach to provide early detection of cancer cells. The blue material here is a solution of cobalt chloride, a salt that can be used as a precursor to magnetic nanoparticles. (Photo by Lloyd Wilson)

But in a kind of catch-22, Dale says, when the number of mutant cells are still trivial, they fall below the detection threshold of current sensors. So when preventive action would be easiest, nothing is done.

“For example, mammography has a long history of not working well enough for early cancer detection,” Dale says. “The tumor has to be big and obvious. The radiologist has to be able to read it in the image.”

Improving early detection of cancerous cells is a particularly poignant problem when it comes to children, Dale says. “Leukemia is the number one childhood cancer. Even successfully treating it can knock as many as 20 IQ points off a developing child, according to some published studies.”

‘Left the comfort zone’

To help improve early detection capabilities, Dale has left his comfort zone of (as he puts it) “squishy soft polymers” and instead is working with iron oxide nanoparticles in the Sandia/Los Alamos national laboratories joint Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, where he is a principal member of the technical staff. (CINT is sponsored by DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences office.)

  Providing technical backup in an approved “user” project to retired LANL researcher Ed Flynn and his company Senior Scientific LLC, Dale uses CINT technologies to help grow iron oxide nanoparticles 20 to 30 nanometers in diameter that ride antigens designed to home in on the cells of a particular cancer.

Antigens that locate cancerous cells bind to those cells’ receptors, stabilizing their magnetic riders. Those antigens which locate no cancers go whirling off harmlessly, essentially lost in space (or rather, the bloodstream), iron oxide nanoparticles destabilized.

By subjecting the patient to a magnetic field that lasts three-tenths of a second, a clear signal is yielded by those nanoparticles attached to a stable base. Those unattached to a cancerous cell are rotated by random motion in a way that cancels any response. Thus, a signal is provided only from those iron oxide particles attached to cancerous cells.

 The beauty of the system is that even cancer distributed throughout the body can be detected. The new system shows their location clearly.

“Death comes when the number of cancer cells in the body reach, roughly, 10 to the 12th power,” Dale says. “At 10 to the 9th power, the cancer is palpable. X-rays can detect cancers in amounts 10 to the 8th power.  Our method, with its unambiguous signal, can detect it at 10 to the 4th power, literally doubling the time to treat the cancer.” Additional treatments, he says, should greatly improve survival rates from microtumors.

Could locate Alzheimers sites in brain

The interesting technique also could work to locate Alzheimers sites in the brain, he says. The antigen would be designed to attach to protein plaque called amyloids that haven’t folded properly — a key indication of the presence of the disease. The same iron oxide particles in a similar magnetic field should reveal pools of disease, no matter how small.

“We haven’t done it because we lack the patience to wait till laboratory mice get Alzheimer’s,” he gently jokes.

The ability to achieve iron nanoparticles of narrow size distribution, so that all particles have the same magnetic response, is one reason for the work’s success to date, says Dale.  “If the iron particles nucleate slowly and then grow, there’s no catching up for the ones that nucleate later: they’ll always be smaller than the ones that nucleated earlier. So we want, and have achieved in this system, rapid nucleation and slow growth.”

The science is an interesting change for a polymer chemist used to working with materials that grow like microscopic snakes, forming slowly yet growing to the same size.

“I do a lot of different work I wouldn’t have done without outside suggestion,” says Dale. “Anyone can write a proposal to work with me; I welcome the chance to use CINT’s capabilities to complete the technical cores of outside projects that matter deeply.” 

A formal process is available for interested researchers to apply to work with CINT personnel and available CINT equipment.

Federal agency approval will be required before testing the magnetic sensing technique in humans. - Neal Singer

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