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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 54, No. 5        March 8, 2002
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

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Prototype anthrax detector Nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer Labs, Kurchatov Institute issue nuclear energy paper

Prototype detector could I.D. anthrax

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By Neal Singer

Some deadly things don't deserve 15 minutes of FAME, let alone a few hours.

A prototype handheld detector under development at Sandia can recognize the fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) of anthrax in less than five


Identification of the bacillus in minutes, rather than the hours currently necessary, is a crucial step in alerting a building's occupants to flee the deadly bacteria, as well as in activating defenses such as anti-anthrax foam dispersal systems. The patent-applied-for detector, in which commercial interest has been expressed, would also aid security people making their rounds to locate point sources of the disease.

The technique works by preconcentrating airborne particles on a tiny hotplate that acts like a skillet on a stove. The hotplate immediately vaporizes the fatty acids in anthrax's cell walls to create the FAME that form a unique fingerprint of the bacteria.

"The process is a little like burning bacon," says lead researcher Curtis Mowry (1764) of the microchemlab. "The wafted gases are distinctive to a detector."

A small computer program correlates the amount of mass of each ester emitted in the analyzed gases at particular times -- a process called elution -- with already categorized elution peaks indicative of anthrax or other diseases.

The extremely low-power technique shrinks prototype suitcase-sized detectors to the size of a handheld device by using microdevices fabricated at Sandia. Pyrolization requires considerably less power -- 150 milliwatts instead of 130 watts.

Components of the device have been individually tested, though not yet linked with a commercially available aerosol collector.

"The focus of the project is on increasing the speed of analysis in the microfabricated system while retaining enough information to distinguish between microorganisms," says Curtis.

Standard techniques require a lengthy extraction/derivatization step followed by FAME chromatography. Sandia's chemographic and surface acoustic wave analysis of gases driven from the bacteria enables far faster identification of anthrax and other diseases.

Fatty acids are found in all living organisms with cell membranes. Analyses of gases driven from the bacteria have been used to identify bacteria and other pathogens at the genus level, and often at the species level.

Other researchers include Catherine Morgan (1738), Quentin Baca, Ronald Manginell, Richard Kottenstette, Patrick Lewis (all 1764), and Gregory Frye-Mason, a former Sandian, now an outside contractor.

Sandia's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program supported the work. Initial results were reported at the SPIE conference in Boston in November. -- Neal Singer

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New nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer allows researchers to better understand how materials age

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By Chris Burroughs

A new nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer is allowing researchers in Organic Materials Dept. 1811 to better characterize the molecular structure of materials and to gain a greater understanding about how they age and what gives them their properties.

Since the instrument was purchased and installed in a specially designed room in the Processing and Environmental Technology Laboratory (PETL) last year, Dept. 1811 has been characterizing materials from throughout the Labs, including polymers, glasses, and ceramics -- almost anything but metals. They've also done some characterization work for industrial partners.

The NMR spectrometer at PETL is the third spectrometer at Sandia. New, with state-of-the-art technology, it is more powerful than its predecessors.

"Because of the power and capabilities of this new spectrometer, we can characterize materials with greater resolution and can determine chemical and physical properties of some materials not readily accessible before, like thin films for MEMS [microelectromechanical systems]," Roger Assink (1811) says.

Todd Alam (1811), who works closely with the instrument, cites some examples:

Recent insights from Sandia's NMR work on the mechanisms underlying the aging of polymeric materials have led to cover stories in two separate issues of the technical magazine Polymer News.

In the future, Todd sees even more uses for the NMR spectrometer at Sandia. "I hope we will soon be able to do three-dimensional mapping inside an intact sample of rubber or plastic, possibly at a resolution of 100 microns," he says. " In addition to mapping the chemistry, we will also be able to map processes such as reaction kinetics and water diffusion."

Making up the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer team are Todd Alam, Roger Assink, post doc Brian Cherry, and contractor Sean Winters (all 1811). Roger Clough is the department manager. -- Chris Burroughs

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Sandia, Kurchatov Institute to prepare joint paper on global future of nuclear energy

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By Will Keener

Scientists at Sandia and at the Kurchatov Institute, in Moscow, have launched an effort to prepare a joint paper on the global future of nuclear energy as a point of departure for policy makers in Russia and the United States.

Discussing a variety of nuclear power issues on a video link in mid-February, a group of Sandia executives, including Labs President C. Paul Robinson, fashioned the agreement with their Kurchatov Institute counterparts. Joining Sandia executives in Albuquerque for the occasion was Kurchatov Institute President Evgeny P. Velikhov.

"We have survived 10 years of dark times and it is now appropriate that we have a revival that addresses energy, economy, ecology connected with straight thinking in the US and Russia about counterproliferation and nonproliferation," Velikhov said. He said Sandia and the world-class Kurchatov Institute are well matched, because both have worked historically to move from scientific discovery to solutions useful to society.

The two institutions agreed to develop an "executive summary" as a first step, including proposals for development of nuclear power based on points of agreement. A more detailed effort -- making use of the strengths of the two research facilities -- would follow.

"I think it's important that we look more holistically at the problem of power generation," Paul told his Russian counterparts during the link-up. "Working together, can lead to a solution."

Bob Eagan, Sandia VP for Energy and Critical Infrastructure, believes there are a number of areas where cooperation with the Kurchatov Institute can be beneficial. These include economic modeling and inertial confinement fusion research, he said. "We see a lot of similarities between the vision of a global nuclear future that [Senior VPs] Roger Hagengruber and Tom Hunter and I have developed and where Dr. Velikhov wants to go," Bob said.

Velikhov, who has advised Mikhail Gorbachev and now President Vladimir Putin, spent two days at Sandia, where he was briefed on a variety of technologies relevant to the future of nuclear energy. On his second day, he spoke for about an hour with a group of high-ranking Sandia executives on issues of nuclear power and the future. The video-link discussion followed his talk.

In Russia, demand for electricity is expanding, while the country's fossil fuel infrastructure is aging and in disrepair. A natural gas infrastructure is nearly nonexistent, forcing energy experts there to look toward the possibility of a "California-type, energy crisis." Elsewhere, the developing world is also beginning to demand more and more power. In addition to global warming, health issues are more directly linked to power development. "In China, cancer from micro particles of coal is a major problem," Velikhov noted.

"Nuclear power is important for these situations. I think this is an opportune time for us to work in parallel to understand the energy field. We have good agreement in our economic models, although there are some differences." Russia would like to make use of its materials, manpower, and experience to become a leader in developing global nuclear power. Velikhov said his government is taking important steps that will aid joint-nation collaboration. These include:

Velikhov also spoke at length about developments in fusion energy research, his own field. He called for the US to rejoin the international consortium for plasma fusion research, while continuing its promising research in inertial confinement fusion. "Controlled fusion is the long-term, inherently safe, ecologically attractive energy source of the future," he said. -- Will Keener

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Last modified: March 12, 2002

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